Thursday, 1 September 2016

Tour Divide 2016 - New Mexico

The feeling of crossing into New Mexico was great - I had tackled the big mountains of Colorado and now only had one state left to cross. This one would have different challenges, but still plenty of big mountains.
Into the final state.
The first part of the trail led over the Brazos ridge and past the Cruces Basin Wilderness. I got pretty close to some elk who were startled when they noticed me and ran away very quickly. I think I saw some old snow here under some trees left over from the winter, but I may have hallucinated this. The trail does go up to around 3,300m (11,000 feet) though, so it does seem possible.

I caught up with Jose who was pushing his bike up a steep section of trail. We stuck together through some technical descending and some more ups and downs and eventually came out onto some gravel road. Jose was keen to stop for the night and as I did not have any particular target in mind I decided to stop as well.

Next morning saw us up and away pretty early and soon we came to the Hopewell Lake campground. We had been told that there was water here, but neither of the taps we found were working, so we carried on. We hit Vallecitos where we did find a working tap and weirdly free WiFi at the community hall (but nothing else at all). Then carried on with dogs snapping at Jose's ankles. The dogs failed to draw any blood, so we shrugged them off and continued up the next climb. Which took us over to El Rito.

Evidently someone important or well liked had died, as the town was completely full of parked cars and people dressed for a funeral. Fortunately the guys running the shop were not at the funeral and were still serving.

The shop was a bit strange to say the least. As well as selling food and drink it had some hardware, most of which was in very dusty cardboard boxes. Display space was evidently not at a premium as some of the items on the shelves looked like they hadn't been touched for many years.

It wasn't far to Abiquiu, so in fact we probably didn't need to stop at the weird shop in El Rito at all. The gas station here has a pretty good restaurant inside, as well as a really good selection of cereal bars and all the usual stuff I needed to buy.

A bike that neither of us had seen before was propped up in front of the shop, but I recognised it from photos I had seen on the Singletrack forum as Rob Colliver's bike. Sure enough Rob himself was inside sporting his trademark bib-shorts-over-cycling-jersey look.

We sat down with Rob and had a good chat about how the trail had been treating all of us. It was good to chat to another Brit and get a different perspective on the Brexit referendum result that had just been announced. Rob was away up the trail first, but Jose and I were not too far behind after I had finished off my enormous chicken enchilada.

The next section climbs Polvadera Mesa, which is rightly notorious. Once we got in to the main part of the climb we found that it was alternately dry, deep sand and lumpy bedrock. The gradient was just steep enough to make this a serious challenge and Jose repeatedly fell off into the sand when his tyres went sideways. We caught and passed Rob on this climb and then rested for a moment at the top. I went slightly off route to try and have a look at the view, but frustratingly the trees were too thick to see out.

We descended for a while then the trail sent us up and down repeatedly. Jose was pretty knackered after the big climb and although I was tempted to push on to Cuba he convinced me to stop early as we were not going to make it there at a sensible time. As we were getting into our sleeping bags Rob passed us and shouted a cheery hello.

We were on the trail again by 5 am with Jose a few minutes ahead of me. Rob had slept a few minutes down the road from us and was packing up as I passed. Just before reaching the paved road I passed a party campsite with music still playing at 6 am and toilet paper directing party goers to join the fun. I was glad not to have passed here in the dark when the track would probably have been full of drunken revelers in massive trucks.

Dead straight for 40 miles.

I arrived at McDonalds in Cuba at about 6.30 am to find Jose already filling up with multiple cheeseburgers. Rob arrived soon after me, and as he was the only one of us who had been here before (albeit 4 years earlier) we quizzed him on the next section which was to be long, hot and dry and all on tarmac. He reassured us that there was a shop at Pueblo Pintado, which was where the road made a sudden turn to the south.

After eating and filling up all my water bottles I set off. This section crosses Indian reservations, which are not renowned for being particularly welcoming of travelers. I passed an open laundromat after about 40 miles, but didn't stop as I had my sights set on the shop Rob had mentioned. Unfortunately when I got there it was all boarded up and there was clearly no chance to get water, so I would have to keep going for another 70 miles to get to Grants.

Soon after this I passed Jose who had left Cuba a few minutes before me, but I wasn't in the mood for chatting, so I kept my head down and powered on towards Grants.

As I approached Milan there was a big thunderstorm passing through the town and the roads were soaking wet, but I was fortunately just behind it, so didn't get wet. The rain started again as I rode into Grants a couple of miles later, so I quickly dived into a Pizza Hut for a late lunch. By the time I had stuffed my belly with pizza the rain had stopped and I carried on for a few miles to a shop at the interstate crossing.

There were still a few hours of riding time left, so I carried on past the spectacular cliffs of the El Malpais National Monument with another great sunset. It had become quite noticeable that the the sun was now setting much earlier than it had further north.

I reached the turnoff for Pie Town and started looking for a place to stop for the night. The wind was blowing strongly and I was worried that the big thunderstorms I had seen earlier would come back in the night. I couldn't find any shelter beside the road, and explored a couple of dead-end side roads hoping to find a spot to sleep, but with no luck. Finally I settled for sleeping in the lee of a bushy tree which at least gave some shelter from the wind.

I was excited to get going the next morning as I knew that Pie Town should be reachable for breakfast time. I found the Pie-O-Neer closed, but was very happy to be welcomed in to the Gathering Place for a hearty breakfast. Salsa Cycles had generously paid for a pie for each Tour Divide rider reaching Pie Town, so I claimed an apricot pie on them and paid for a cherry pie with my own money. I then had to improvise a pie harness using my waterproof to attach them to my seat-pack as they wouldn't fit inside any of my bags!

Here I also managed to call Sarah for a chat, as it was our first wedding anniversary!

As I was leaving Pie Town I passed the Toaster House, which I had never heard of before, where Pavel was pumping up his tyres. This seems to be a kind of hostel/open house where the owner allows bikers and hikers to stay and pay on an honesty basis with no warden in residence. If I had known about it I might have pushed on to get to it the night before.

I continued, laden with pies over Mangas mountain, where I saw a few northbound riders. One of these gave me a great tip that there was water to be had from a garden hose at the church on the highway crossing. I also stopped there and ate some pie in the shade of the porch - a very welcome break from the heat.

The next target was the Beaverhead work station, and after a few hot and arduous hours I made it there. As promised there was a coke machine, a tap and a loo - it felt like heaven to me!

From here I carried on into the Gila wilderness in the evening, enjoying the fantastic views from the top of the hills. The track drops into deep valleys and climbs out of them again and again. Finally I decided to stop and rest for the night. As I was looking for a suitable spot I saw some flashing LEDs a few metres off the trail. I realised it must be Jose who had been ahead of me since the morning having started a bit earlier. Another couple of hundred metres up the trail I stopped and ate the last of my Pie Town pie before bedding down for my final night on the Tour Divide.

Starry sky in the Gila on the last night.

It felt very special getting up and knowing that this would be the last day on the trail. I was more organised than normal, and was on the move at about 4:15 am.

The ride started with a descent into a canyon and a climb up the other side. As I reached the top I looked back and saw a light behind me - presumably Jose who had started slightly later than me. What felt like a lot more ups and downs finally brought me to a bit of tarmac which gave a brief rest and then the famous CDT alternate began from Sapillo Campground. It was tricky to find the correct way out of the campground with just the GPS, so I got the paper map out and read the description which set me going the right way.

A steep push up through scrub and cacti led to the ridge and great views back into the Gila. I kept following the ATV track down a steep and technical descent until I glanced down at my GPS and realised I was off route! A ten minute push back onto the trail to find the singletrack turn off followed.

I then made a really stupid mistake. A particularly impressive cactus had caught my attention and I decided I needed a photo of it with my bike propped beside. Unfortunately my weary brain didn't register the danger posed by a spiky cactus to bike tyres and I managed to put a hole in my rear tyre. The tubeless sealant didn't do any good at sealing it, so I had to get the tubeless repair plugs out and block the hole up. A stupid mistake which must have cost me another 20 minutes on top of the 10 I had just lost from going off route.

Spiky cactus.

I concentrated especially hard through the next section to make sure I didn't ride off the narrow and overgrown singletrack into any more cacti, and was very relieved to finally make it out onto the tarmac road. From here I had assumed it would be an easy freewheel down into Silver City, but was proved very much wrong as there was a stiff climb up to Pinos Altos to deal with first.

I hit McDonalds in Silver City for a late breakfast and was served by a very polite elderly lady - not exactly the usual age range for McDonalds staff. A few minutes later I was horrified to see that a man was berating her about the price he was being charged for his meal - essentially because he had misunderstood the pricing on the menu. This was an unwelcome reminder that the real world was beckoning as the wilderness adventure was coming to an end. I would soon have to deal with other people, some of them angry and rude.

McDonalds breakfast didn't seem to have quite done the trick, so I went into the centre of Silver City for a second breakfast at a nice laid back cafe, and then on to the co-op for my final resupply.
Leaving Silver City up a big hill on the highway my legs were feeling strong and I was in good spirits, so I was highly amused to pass a driveway which was lined with what must have been 50 toilets. Bizzare!

Why not line your driveway with old toilets?

Dirt roads led on through the desert, sandy and washboarded. I didn't really care too much as I knew that the number of miles remaining was steadily ticking down.

The final shop on the route is a trading post at Separ on the interstate which sells tacky souvenirs, fireworks, ice cream, coffee and microwaved burritos. I bought some food and sat in the shade for a while before getting out into the howling headwind along the final stretch of dirt road of the route. This was a horrible frontage road parallel with the interstate that the route follows west for about 5 miles before turning southwards for the last section.

It was a massive relief to turn south and on to tarmac - from here it should all be easy! To get to Hachita it was mostly pretty easy, and I refilled my water from the tap beside the community centre. There can't be too much community left in Hachita as it is something of a ghost town with no shops, lots of boarded up houses an abandoned looking church.

The final section of road had lots of big black tarantulas and giant millipedes about 20 cm long. I tried not to run these over, and was a bit wary of them when I stopped to sit on the side of the road and enjoy the last sunset of the ride. One of the many border patrol cars (pretty much the only vehicles on the road) stopped to check that I was ok.

Last sunset - storm cloud with lightening in the distance.

As darkness set in I was feeling pretty sleepy and was actually in danger of falling asleep. Then, with 26 miles to go I looked over my shoulder and saw a single light following me. It looked like a bike light, so I figured that either Pavel or Jose must be close behind me. I rode hard for the next 10 miles and checked again. The light still seemed about the same distance behind me, maybe half a mile. This meant I had to keep riding hard. I ate and drank while trying to keep the power down and kept checking over my shoulder every few minutes. The road side has mile markers which count down all the way to the border, and I was trying to keep my mind busy working out how much faster the rider behind would need to go to close a half mile gap in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 miles. Once I got to 5 miles and was still feeling pretty strong I was confident that I had enough of a gap that I wouldn't be caught. My knees were burning with pain from riding too hard for so long, but I knew that another few minutes was all it would take.

Finally the bright lights of the Antelope Wells border checkpoint came into view. I rode up to the sign on the fence and painfully unclipped from my pedals then leaned the bike up. It was over.

Finishers - Me, Jose and Pavel.

4 minutes later Pavel rolled in with me cheering. He was delighted to have made it, and though he knew he had been close behind he wasn't too disappointed that he hadn't caught me at the end. We hugged and talked about the race. I couldn't believe that after almost 19 days we had finished so close together. Pavel thought that Jose was close behind, and pretty soon Juan, who Jose had booked to pick him up from the finish, rolled in and handed us cans of coke. Then Jose arrived and the party was complete. After posing for a few photos we threw our bikes into the back of Juan's car and headed off, glad not to have to spend a night with the tarantulas at Antelope Wells.