Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This Is Why They Said Don't Camp Near The Border

The weather cleared up and we got in a healthy 60 miles after Luann
dropped us off in downtown El Paso. It has been colder the past few
days than anything we have yet experienced on this trip. Even though
it's dry, it is very windy, and the temperatures are staying in the
forties.

It was really cold last night when we found a spot to camp. Just
outside of McNary Texas, within shouting distance of the Mexican
border, we found an apparently uninhabited stretch of knolly
scrubland, perfect for finding concealment not far from the road.

Within minutes of stopping, I had on every bit of cold weather gear I
had with me, and the temperature continued to drop. We had a quick
dinner of peanut butter sandwiches, and got in our warm sleeping bags
shortly after dark.

We have heard coyotes howling in the dark many nights in the desert.
Last night, when they spoke up in protest of a passing train right
after we laid down, we were a bit unnerved with how close they
sounded. They could not have been more than 100 yards away. Indeed,
when morning came, we found frozen scat within fifty feet of our
campsite.

Sometime later in the night, I was awoken by a persistent sound. It
seemed some sort of off-road vehicle was driving back and forth, the
rough sound of the engine growing and fading, then growing again, over
and over. As I laid there, the realization slowly dawned on me that a
helicopter was circling nearby.

With each pass, the sound grew louder and louder. I had been cacooned
in my sleeping bag, shut off from all outside light. I drew back the
drawstring and pulled my head out as the sound became a roar and the
helicopter passed directly over us, not 100' off the ground. To my
horror, the inside of my bivy sack lit up like Monday night football.
We were directly in the beam of a searchlight.

Dwight - uh, Adam, are you awake?

Adam - of course.

Dwight - so, they see us, huh?

Adam - obviously.

Dwight - so, what do we do?

Adam - what CAN we do?

Dwight - hmm...

Adam - yeah

I pulled back the cover of the bivy sack, watching the helicopter as
it circled, keepig it's light trained on us. Presently, a second light
floated into sight, and a disembodied voice call out "¡bueños nochés,
Señors!"

Dwight - uh

Adam - good evening!

The speaker continued in English, "What are you guys doing here?".
From there, a suprisingly friendly Border Patrol Agent proceeded to
quiz us on our names, where we we coming from, our destination, and
our homes. He decided the two guys wrapped up like mummies laying
beside two bicycles loaded with gear were not, in fact, border jumpers
who had decided to stop for a nap, 500 yards across the Rio Grande, in
17 degree weather.

He concluded with, "well, we're looking for two guys out here, but
you're obviouly not them. You guys go back to sleep."

Yeah, right.

17 degrees showed on the thermometer when we woke this morning. My
fingers hurt trying to stuff all of our gear, wet with melting frost,
into their respective bags  Cold to start, and it stayed cold the
whole day. All day long we rode in jackets and gloves, and still our
fingers and toes never warmed up. Tonight's not supposed to be as bad,
we look forward to a low of 35.

We have gone around 75 miles today, putting our total at 950. We
should (knock on wood - a precious commoditty around here) pass 1000
miles tomorrow on our way to shelter at the famous McDonald
Observatory, right outside of Fort Davis!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Cavalry Drives a Mini-Van

It has been an eventful few days.  We have climbed some tall mountains and seen some great sights.  We had our best campsite so far in the Gila National Forest outside of Silver City, and our best ride, from Silver City to Gila Hot Springs on near deserted high mountain roads.

No matter how spectacular the natural wonders, equally memorable are the interesting and incredible people we have been meeting along the way.  All along our route we have found friendly faces and helpful attitudes.

In Bisbee, our host (who saved us from a cold night searching for a campsite in the dark) took us down this tunnel, which was not on the published walking tour:

It was an underground (literally and figuratively) art gallery.  There was some beautiful and colorful graffiti down there, far past the reach of any outside light:

The Warm Showers list hooked us up with Patrick and Elieen in Silver City.  Patrick is a former cross-continent cyclist, and his wife is an accomplished fiddle player.  She put on a short show for us our second evening there, playing Irish jigs, marches, and aires. 

While in Silver City, my map geek side surfaced.  Elieen works at the public library, and Patrick took us by to visit.  I found the map chest, and we spent the next hour going over USGS topo maps of the terrain we planned on crossing the next few days:

Here are Patrick and Adam inspecting Adam's swollen toe in the middle of the library. A spider bite seems to be the consensus diagnosis.


Also, in answer to Mom's question - the wound from the loss of the unimportant part of Adam's knee is doing great - as I said it was an unimportant part.

In Silver City, we had our first encounter with other cross-country cyclists. Tony and Brendan are on the same route we are, and caught up to us in Silver City. We spoke for a while and exchanged website information and said our goodbyes, reasonably confident that we would run into them on the road again.  Check out their blog at http://justanotherbikerideacrossamerica.org/ .


In Gila Hot Springs, we ran into our most colorful crowd yet. This tiny campground was tucked in a bend in the river in a little valley near the end of a 14 mile long, one-way road mountain road. It had three little pools dug out, fed by a nearby natural hot spring.

The campground was inhabited by a crowd of RVers and campers, the likes of which I have never seen. There was a crazy/hyper man named Bill, his wheelchair bound wife, and her service dog Lightning in a pop-up pull behind, Josephine and her well lived in, dirty old van-sized RV,  (and not pictured below) two surfers from Florida bound for California (we had noted their car passing us earlier - who drives with a surf board in New Mexico?), and a grizzled old hippie whose name, conveyance and form of shelter remained a mystery.

And they all soak naked.
But hippies are wise in their ways, as we were to learn. Getting out of the 110 degree water into 25 degree air, then making it back to your campsite, drying and changing while staying reasonably warm is an impossible task. I was shivering and cold to the bone by the time I got in my sleeping bag, and it took quite a while to get warm enough to fall asleep. So our morning soak was done hippie-style. There is nothing better than taking a dip in hot water upon waking up and seeing the thermometer on your bike's computer display this: (if you can't see it says 20 degrees - 30 min and 4 degrees after waking up)
The cliff dwellings we visited that morning are a great segue from people to places. A series of caves between high mountains have made the perfect hiding place for many of the successive inhabitants of this land. The mix of natural grandeur and historic culture is incredible.


At the cliff dwellings we met our second group of touring cyclists - Sundance and Yana, two Aussies whose itinerary makes me feel like a wimp. They started in Ontario and are heading for the west coast, where they hope to find a yacht to crew en route back to Austrailia. They, too, are writing a blog about their adventures, check it out if you're interested: http://meanderingmarsupials.blogspot.com/
Wisely, they had paused in El Paso and rented a car to check out some of these more northerly areas. As we were to learn, it can get cold and wet quickly.


Since the cliff dwellings were at the end of the long mountain road, we had to turn around and head back out. Clouds were rolling in and the wind picked up as we approached the climb out, the longest, steepest stretch of road we had yet faced. A pack of javelinas charged across the pavement as we rode, not twenty yards in front of us. As I frantically tried to get out the camera, the little pork chops huffed and snorted and stomped out of sight. We had been hearing about these creatures for days, and it was a treat to get to see them.

The climb was long, slow and hard.  The beautiful vistas I remembered from the day before on the same stretch of road-

Had faded into snowy, fast moving clouds by the time I struggled through the pass:

By the time we reached the bottom on the other side, snow was falling steadily, and I was trying to convince Adam that we should look for paid accommodations for the night.  We lucked out with our place to stay, and ended up with a nice cozy cottage for 50$/night.  The owner was a retired NC State professor (!) who was a former long distance horse-riding camper, so she has a soft spot for people like us. 

By the time we were inside and settled in, the scene outside made us happy we had found shelter.

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, all the more so as we knew we had a warm den to retreat to.

In the morning, we found that more bad weather was predicted for the next three days.  I was of a mind to wait out the storm in the snug little cottage, but our food bag was getting light, and there was no store nearby that could provide us with and groceries, nor any restaurant. There was supposed to be a break in the weather for a while that morning, so we packed our things, said goodbye to Frances, and headed out in the snow.

It was very pleasant at first, with a light snow blanketing the trees, and rocks, leaving the canyon walls bare and stark in their contrast.  Before long, however, the snow had soaked through our gloves and jackets, and we began to freeze.  Snow began to accumulate on the bags on our bikes and Adam's beard.  My fingers started to burn.  The thermometer dropped from 35 to 34.  As we climbed numerous small hills, I began to sweat, threatening to soak through my hat and shirt.  Meanwhile my fingers ceased to burn and went numb instead.  They felt like frozen hotdogs stuck in gloves.  The thermometer dropped to 33.  I was worried that if it dropped below freezing, we would start to risk frostbite. 

You notice there are no pictures from this leg of our trip.  We only stopped once so I could add another layer of clothing, we were intent on making it the 20 miles to San Lorenzo, where there was supposed to be a store and cell service.  We were not in the mood for piddling around framing shots.

Clumps of snow were falling off my hat as the wind picked up and the icy snow stung harder against my face. I began to wonder how much more I could take.  If a pickup truck had passed our way, I would have flagged them down, but for once there was less traffic that could be desired. 

Nothing has been more welcome than the sight of the sun starting to push through the clouds, and the feel of the snow getting lighter against my face.  It continued to clear, but we did not get warm or begin to really dry out till we pulled into the only cafe in San Lorenzo.

From San Lorenzo we took a good look at the weather and the road before us.  There was supposed to be a break in the weather for a while, but the snow was supposed to close back in on us before evening.  We had 2500 feet to climb, and it appeared that while we were in a dry spot, the pass before us still looked quite frosty. 

For once we decided to play it safe, and we called Adam's family friend Luann to come pick us up from El Paso.  It was torture sitting around for a couple of hours in perfect weather, thinking about the climb we were passing up.  At least it gave us a chance to check out the bakery run out of a trailer behind the house of a clan of "Not-Mennonite Mennonites", as described by the waitress at the cafe.  Not where you'd expect to find a gouremet bakery, but we keep our eyes open for good bread wherever we go.  We found this place on a tip from the Wise Hippies of Gila Hot Springs.

Luann arrived and put us in her minivan and took us to her home in El Paso.  So instead of hunkering down in the snow, we sit around drinking coffee in her sitting room,
watching the olympics on her 60" HDTV and mixing drinks at the wet bar,
and lounging and reading and writing on the computer in her library:
All while hanging out with Barney and Karen,
and eating Luann's delicious homemade chili.

We'll wait out the bad weather here, and probably head out Tuesday afternoon.  Our highest elevations are behind us, and we plan on taking our time exploring southern Texas, a place I have never been, and Adam's childhood home.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Snowbound!

The thermometer on the bike said 18 degrees when I woke up this
morning. We had been warm in our bags, but by the time coffee and
grits were put down, our fingers and toes were numb. What was there to
do but strip naked and jump in the water?
The day before we had climbed our highest pass yet, 7440'. It was a
great ride, starting in dry scrubland as we left Silver City, climbing
through dry juniper-pinyon forests.
There was very little traffic on this twisty and steep road, and every
time we rounded a corner, we were met with a completely different
grand vista.
Spruce and fir trees were just starting to show up as we crested out
final summit, and a stunning view of the Gila Wilderness opened up
beneath us. The last several miles of the day were a screaming drop
into the valley, where we found a campsite at the Gila Hot Springs
campground, populated by a unique mix of small rv campers, surfers
from Florida, and old hippies.
A nice long soak in the hot springs set us right up, but walking back
to the campsite with wet shorts in sub freezing weather was chilly
indeed.
So this morning we had learned the lesson of the wet shorts, and we
stripped to the skin and joined the naked hippie rv campers in the hot
spring, where we were offered a morning "toke" and favored with 9-11
truther theories.
Dry-shorted and toasty warm, we hopped on the bikes, bellies full of
grits and hippie tacos. Where might a stranger find grits, in a land
where people say "what's grits?" They hide grits with the Mexican
food, labeled as "yellow cornmeal polenta". Ha!
A few miles down the road, the only bridge to the Gila Cliff Dwellings
had been washed out, and only bike and pedestrian could cross. It was
the first time in our entire trip that we got such looks of envy,
passing the formerly car bound down the final 1.5 miles of road to the
cliff dwellings trailhead.
After our short hike at the site came decision time. We had thousands
of feet to climb, and bad weather was setting in. If we got caught in
the high pass, it would be a chilly night. We had met enough of th rv-
ers that we thought we could bum a ride over the next couple of passes
into the low land below, where the weather would present not a mortal
threat, but merely severe discomfort.
Of course we decided to push for it, and we began to climb up the hill
we decended yesterday, 1500 feet in five miles, with some slopes of
8%. There is a professional bike race called the Gila Monster that
makes this same out and back trip, and this is truly a monster! In my
lowest gear, I struggled to keep my feet moving, the road a never
ending ribbon stretching up and up in front of us.
A few miles in, the wind began to pick up, boxing the compass. Icy
gusts of 20 mph cut through my sweat-soaked shirt, checking my
miserable, strained 4 mph to a near standstill. Adam climbed on out of
sight, and the mountains and grand views we enjoyed the day before
disappeared in rain and snow.
The first snow began to fall on us as we summited the pass, so light
at first that Adam thought I was seeing things. We threw on our warm
gear after climbing in shorts and t-shirts. Adam busted out a set of
pushups to spit in the mountain's eye and we set off down the mountain
in thickening snow. By the time we reached bottom, snow was falling
steadily, sticking to our jackets and hats.
At a small "fine dining restaraunt and motel" the waitress called down
the road to see if she could find us a sheltered camping spot. That
put us in the care of Francis, a retired inn owner a few miles down
the road. She was worried about people camping in the worsening storm,
and offered us a 170$ cottage for 50$. This even though she's closed
for her birthday this weekend!
So tonight we sleep in warmth and watch tv, as the snow piles up
outside. I won't get to send this post untill tomorrow, we haven't had
cell service since we left Silver City. Tommorow we face Emmory Pass,
the highest point left on our route, and our biggest hill yet,
climbing past 8200 feet. If snow doesn't block the pass, after that
summit, it's downhill all the way to the Mississippi.