It is funny how so very often when we leave the comforts of home, as we pass through the pain and uncertainty, that we find the hearth full of kindness where-ever the road may take us.
From the morning of December 28th, 2017 to mid-afternoon January 1st, 2018, I explored roads seldom travelled and gazed upon vistas rarely seen. Leaving the warmth of my little desert home I spent hour after hour pedalling across those rocky west Texas back-country ranch roads. Yet daily, I also found myself welcomed into the homes of friends, acquaintances and strangers.
Thursday morning at 9:15, accompanied by Kt and that most unfathomable frenchman, Manu, Isabelle[the Moots] rolled out of Desert Sports. Forty minutes later we arrived at Mark’s home, hot coffee and happy dogs waiting our arrival. While Kt turned around, Mark joined Manu and I for the ride through the Lajitas Trails and into Big Bend Ranch State Park. Mark peeled off at the Buena Suerte Mine, Manu at the Rincon/Epic split. After that, just me and my bike, riding trails so very familiar yet always remarkable.
Where Pila Montoya hits the Main Park Road, rather than turning left towards the Sauceda Ranger Station, I turned right continuing another few miles to Los Alamos. During last year’s new years eve trip I refilled my water at the vacant Los Alamos residence. This year, it is home to State Park employee Garrett.
Having been in touch with Garrett via e-mail before the trip, he had kindly offered a place to refill water and make camp. He wouldn’t be there those days anyhow. It helped get the trip off to good start. Thank you, Garrett.
All told Day 1 covered about one mile of pavement, 39 miles of trail and 3 miles of dirt roads. Click here for route info starting bout 2miles into the State Park to the Los Alamos residence. (First 15miles of the day not recorded)
Dinner included two packets of ramen noodles, two pre-hard-boiled eggs, several big slices of parmesan cheese and a few handfuls of dried cranberries for desert. And a tot of whiskey.
Friday morning I was again on the bike by 9:15am after consuming two cups of Starbucks Via instant coffee, two packets of instant oatmeal with a handful of dried cranberries and my last hard-boiled egg.
The route for the day was simple enough; head north a couple miles, heave my bike over the Park boundary gate and keep rolling northwest for about 60 miles to Marfa.
Last year, where Bandera Mesa Rd intersects Casa Piedra Rd, I turned left, heading southwest back into the Park. This year I took Casa Piedra Rd north, slowly climbing all the way to highway 67. From there, just an easy seven miles to Marfa. In total, about 32miles of dirt ranch roads and another 33 on pavement. Those final seven miles of highway notwithstanding, I don’t think I saw more than five vehicles all day.
Not knowing if there were any natural water resources along those 65 miles, I was relieved a few weeks earlier when my friend Tim mentioned he might know someone out that way. Tim contacted Zach and Zach put me in touch with his mother who lives in the La Plata area on Casa Piedra Rd.
Although we’d never met, although we’d only exchanged a couple of emails, Lisa invited me in to the house, gladly filled my bottles, offered me snacks and many genuine words of encouragement. All served with the friendliest smile. As we chatted, she even offered to put me in touch with a local landowner for possible future adventures. Bidding each-other a fine day and happy new year, I continued along that barren road, flat and straight for miles and miles. Thank you Lisa and Zach.
Just south of Marfa I hit the Border Patrol Check Point. Apart from asking how my ride was going, the only other comment from the Border Agent was in reference to my passport photograph: “Man, that is an EPIC moustache” he roared laughing as he handed back the document. I had forgotten that the picture in my passport is from when I had that most ridiculous moustache a few years ago. Whatever helps ease my passage through those damn Check Points, I guess.
In Marfa, as I did when I first cycle-toured through Texas eight years ago, I stayed with Joey and his family. Joey, Faith, all their teenage kids and several more welcomed me with huge smiles and open arms. Barely having a moment to relax, Joey was on me: “Come on man, let me show you the pump track I built, it’s just down the creek.”
Taking his son’s Rocky Mountain mountain-bike, I followed. What a treat! Joey has built a super flowey, fast and smooth, one kilometre long(0.6mile) pump track loop in the Alamito Creek. It was fantastic. While he stayed to rip around a few more laps, I returned to his house, cracked a beer and hopped in the shower. Oh the glory of a shower after two days riding bikes in the desert!
For dinner, a huge meal was prepared. Pork tenderloin, roasted root vegetables, spinach salad, apple pie and pound cake for desert. Yes, I ate a lot and it was grand. Joey’s father joined us as well as two lovely graduate students who happened to be visiting the area. Joey met them that day and just invited them for dinner. Truly, the love, kindness and generosity runs thick in this home.
The next morning, filling myself with pie, cake and coffee, Joey, Faith and I chatted away. All the while, I felt the comfort of being surrounded by the love of kin. I smiled.
Click here for route info for Day 2.
With leftovers packed, bottles filled and further provisions purchased, I was again on the road by about 9:15am. The day’s route was simple: Pinto Canyon Rd for 55miles from Marfa to Ruidosa. For years I have heard about this road, have been told just how spectacular is Pinto Canyon as you ride through the Chinati Mountains.
Joey told me the ride would start with a gradual 22mile climb, punctuated with several steep pitches. He was half right. It did punch up a few times but the summit came another five miles later. Thanks Joey! The sun was shining but the cool headwind made it feel less than its low 70deg temps.
From the summit the road descends a few miles, passing the turn-around point from October’s Marfa 100 road race. Incidentally, Manu, the very same frenchman who joined me on Day 1, won the 100km race while setting a course record. “Tabernacle!”
After a final mile or two climbing on the dirt, I stopped to look at the road before me, snaking its way into the Canyon. I tightened my helmet and my shoes straps, took a sip of water and started down hill. “This is going to be fun”
The steep, twisting, loose gravel road sent me plummeting while canyon walls and mountain ridges soared. Suddenly I’d lost about a thousand feet of elevation and was riding the criss-crossing the creek-bed. For the next 12 miles I rode with my mouth agape, both in awe of the view and in effort as I pedalled down and up all those rolling climbs.
At the southern boundary of Pinto Canyon Ranch I stopped to have a bite to eat. The final ten miles to Ruidosa were all down hill on smooth dirt roads, not the rough ones I’d been riding the past couple hours.
Eventually, the dusty Volkswagon Jetta station-wagon with trailer I’d been watching from my perch stopped in front of me. The driver rolled down his window to ask what the road was like up ahead. I described the twelve miles of rough dirt/sand/gravel/rock and the really steep, loose final mile he’d encounter up a head. I was looking at his vehicle and shaking my head. He had no chance in that set-up, I thought to myself. “You sure you want to try this in that?” I asked
“First gear and a turbo-diesel and I’ll be fine.” He replied. “Okay, good luck with that.” I muttered under my breath as they drove away. Four miles later I heard him driving up behind me. Turns out he didn’t get all that far and decided he and his car were outmatched. Good call. We laughed over it all, waved farewell and off they drove, now taking the long way to Marfa.
My day ended in the tiny, near completely abandoned town of Ruidosa, only a few hundred yards from the Mexico border. I found Charlie’s place easily enough where I refilled my bottles. Thanks Charlie!
Camp for the night would be the adobe brick Sacred Heart Mission next door. But first I found the little store about a 1/4 mile away, purchased a couple cans of beer, checked-in with their wifi and basically just chilled out, joined by four guys from Presidio on motorbikes.
After a while I found myself sitting inside chatting to the owner of the little shop. Turns out Jennifer and her partner also own the nearby Hot Springs Airport. For the next hour or so we discussed current affairs, history, travel, race and border politics. At some point a hot bowl of tasty stew was put in front of me, part of their dinner for later. Though it may be folly to depend upon the kindness of strangers, I continued to benefit from such selfless generosity. I smiled, again.
Camp was quickly made under the church’s roof, as were more noodles with pork tenderloin leftovers. At just 55 miles and only 20 of those on dirt, Saturday’s ride left me with plenty of time to relax and recover. Good thing as Sunday would be hardest day of the trip.
Click here for the route info from Day 3.
Knowing that Sunday the 31st would be the longest at nearly 90miles, I was on the bike by 8:15am, an hour earlier than the previous three days. The first 37miles from Ruidosa to Presidio along the pavement were really quite uneventful. Just mellow rollers mile after mile as the temperature slowly rose into the mid 60’s and the sun crept over the mountains in Mexico.
Passing through Presidio I stopped at the grocery store for a burrito and some provisions to get me through the day. Eating lunch a few miles away at Fort Leaton State Historic Site, by mile 43 I finally hit the dirt roads of Big Bend Ranch State Park. The easy miles were behind me and I’d been warned the temperature would be dropping to about 20deg.f. The next forty miles would be the toughest of the trip. I had no idea just how true that would be.
For the the next 30miles I pedalled down dirt roads that reached to the horizon. There were miles of washboard, sections of soft gravel and several punchy climbs where my legs pushed me along at barely 5mph.
12miles from the Sauceda Ranger Station the wind suddenly kicked up as the temperature started to drop. The climbing continued as clouds formed, blocking the sun. I still felt fine physically, though obviously a bit tired. Crossing paths with Park LE Ranger Dotter, we chatted and I told him I felt good but wasn’t yet sure my plan for the night. He wished me well and I continued on.
At about 5pm I rolled into Sauceda at mile 72. The wind was still coming out of the northwest driving the temperature towards freezing. Filling my water bottles at the outdoor spigot, I considered my three options.
Option 1: I simply call it a day and go sleep in the Sauceda bunk-house. It would be warm, there would be a fire, I could cook food easily. I could pay up later and it was right there. Sounds great.
Option 2: Ride the 8miles of dirt road to Pila Montoya. I had stashed some reserves there and could erect my bivy protected from the wind by the concrete water tank. It would still be pretty exposed and cold but I’d be done in 45mins. Not ideal.
Option 3: Continue past Pila Montoya, riding the full 16miles to the Solitario Bar as I had originally planned. It would involve a bunch of climbing into the wind with the road pretty rough at times. The temperature would continue to drop as I rode for a solid 90 minutes, the sun quickly setting. It would suck. On the plus side, I knew that Chris Childs & his wife, April, their children and friends were there. They would have a fire, there would be food and water and I would be out of the wind. Again, I thought, the ride would be tough going. “You knew this would be a long, tough day, Bowling. Go get it.” I told myself. Drinking some water, I pushed off for the last 16 miles.
As expected, it was pretty tough going. Worst, I caught a bad chill as I pushed hard to get it over with. The wind continued to rip and I got cold, fast. Once I started the final few miles of descending to the Solitario Bar, I was frigid. I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. My entire body felt cold and damp. The light was fading. “Don’t crash here, Bowling, stay alert.”
At 6:30 and after 88 miles I rolled into camp. Big smiles and hearty welcomes greeted me from Chris and his family and friends. I could barely speak. I needed help from the children I’d just met to unbutton the cuffs and collar on my shirt. I struggled to undo my cycling shoes. I quickly put on my long-sleeve base layer and puffy jacket. Huddled over the fire and rocked back and forth trying to regain my composure.
People were talking to me, asking me if I needed this or that. I was trying really hard to be polite but I’m sure my exhaustion belied my efforts. I was in no position to think or talk or interact with people. All I needed was to get warm. I was falling apart, getting hypothermic.
Over the next hour or so I slowly got warmer, but not warm. When dinner was served, sitting hunched over my plate, I barely picked at the food. I stood up, excused myself, walked behind the bunk-house and vomited. Wiping my mouth, I sat back down at the table, drank some water and devoured that plate of food. By 8:30 or so, I was warm, feeling human again, chatting away with my generous hosts.
Chris and I didn’t know each other. I reached out to him via email asking if he would mind me joining his annual new year’s eve party. I explained who I was and what I was doing. An old friend of Desert Sports, Chris happily welcomed me to join his family for the night.
I am pretty sure they never imagined I would roll in hypothermic, barely able to speak and utterly exhausted. Rather than being a good guest, I knew I was being a burden and that there was nothing I could do about it. Yet, they continued to offer me whatever I might need to put myself back together again. They gave me space, time, compassion and kindness. They opened their home to me when I was at my worst. I can never thank them enough.
By 9 o’clock everyone was in bed. Wearing every piece of clothing, wrapped in my sleeping bag within my bivy-sack and next to the fire, I soon fell asleep as ice pellets fell to the ground. Keeping that fire stoked all night, I was so lovely and warm. It was wonderful. I slept for a good 10hrs. Happy New Year…
Click here for route info for Day 4.
The first one up at about 7:30, all the water had partially freezen. Lighting the fires and finally starting the kettle, I made coffee with my Jetboil as folks started to rise. It was still well below freezing, around 20deg.f.
By 10:15 I was fed, packed and ready to roll with toes already frozen. I bid my humble thanks and started out of the Solitario by way of the Lefthand Shutup.
At this point I was wearing all my clothing but warmed up nicely as I started to pedal. Although, negotiating my way down the Shutup included quite a bit of walking. By the time I got onto Blue Ridge Road, I was feeling good and the temperature had risen to about freezing.
Heading south is a series of dirt ranch roads to Desert Sports in the Terlingua Ghosttown. I debated taking the Sawmill Rd option, quickly opting for the easier and faster South County Rd option. Just 26miles but about 4hrs.
Back home and eating all day long, it was wonderfully reassuring to be back among my desert family. Though really, I feel as though I was among them the entire trip.
All along the way, over five days and 277 miles, I was welcomed at the homes of everyone I encountered. Garrett in the State Park; Lisa in La Plata; Joey, Faith and family in Marfa; Jennifer in Ruidosa; Chris, April, their family and friends in the Solitario.
While not calling it a new years resolution, perhaps I’ll try to keep this in mind. That where ever we find ourselves, the warmth of home can be found, if we are open to it. Equally, just how important it is to open ones home and heart to a stranger.
Happy new year to all my friends and family, near, far and yet to be found.
Click here for route info for Day 5.