Day Thirty Two – Just Past Cuba to Desert Camp– 65 miles – 2,398 miles total
We were woken very early by the sound of several heavy lorries going past, but slept in for a little while extra until the alarm went off. We were eating breakfast when the lorries returned, each one brim full of gravel, brought from a storage site further in to the desert.
This was a day I had been nervous about for a long while. The desert roads are supposedly tricky to navigate through and are often too sandy to ride along. If it rains, then the tracks become impassable, but if it is too dry, then I knew that we were unlikely to come across a good source of water until we reached Grants, some 110 miles away.
I set off along the sandy road a little ahead of Marco, knowing that he would soon catch me anyway. I negotiated the first turn and started to feel a little more confident about the map reading; the roads looked OK too. That feeling soon disappeared as we approached a very sandy section. Marco powered through the first bit, but I was more cautious (probably my main problem) and the sand quickly gripped my front wheel and I battled to stay upright. Starting to ride whilst the bike is sand-logged is particularly hard work and so I had to get off and push. I began to think that we weren’t going to make it very far if the tracks were like this all the way to Grants.
It wasn’t long before I saw Marco riding back towards me – this was not good news. He’d reached a locked gate across the trail; something that wasn’t mentioned in the trail notes. We unhitched his trailer and lifted it over the gate and he went on ahead to investigate. As far as we could tell, we’d followed the route correctly this morning, but it had somehow led us to a dead end, and the gravel store that the lorries had been using this morning.
We pored over the map and tried to work out where we might have gone wrong, but just ended up riding back the way we’d come, trying to find the correct way. In the end, we found what we were looking for and got back on the right track. It looked like the road the lorries had been using had been recently built and as it was bigger and wider than the original tracks, we had been misled into following it. We’d done an extra six miles and spent a long time over them. I was now even more nervous about the road ahead.
Thankfully, the trail was pretty good and we started to make decent progress again. The views were stunning; we were truly in the desert now and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Huge volcanic plugs dotted the horizon, joined by vast swathes of desert sand. It was truly breathtaking.
After a short downhill section along a paved road, we turned off and headed towards one of the giant volcanic plugs. By now, the sun was getting high in the sky and the temperature was rising. We stopped for a bite to eat in the shade of a rare bush before setting off again. I was beginning to feel very hot and tired and was worried about drinking too much water as I knew that we would have to make our supplies last. Progress was very slow and as the temperature hit 43 degrees Celsius, we stopped for another break. I was feeling the effects of the sun and lay down to try and get some sleep. It didn’t work; even though I was so tired, I couldn’t get the sleep I needed. We checked the route description and saw that there may be a good source of water six miles ahead. That might not sound very far, but I knew that I would find it very hard work getting there.
The terrain was basically flat but every so often we would descend steeply into an arroyo and then have to climb just as steeply out the other side. Often the bottom of the arroyo would be pretty sandy, making the six mile ride more like an obstacle course.
Finally, up ahead I saw that Marco had stopped and climbed over a barbed wire fence next to a huge solar panel. As I came closer, he raised his arms in the air and I knew that we had found the water source. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) maintain this area as some kind of wildlife enclosure and the solar panel powers a water pump from a deep well, giving a constant supply of water. I don’t know how many litres of water we pumped, filtered and drank there, but it was like an oasis and spirits were lifted. I think we were carrying enough water to get us through, but this was like an extra bonus and gave us both more confidence that we were going to make it.
On we rode, until we reached the boundary of private lands, upon which we weren’t allowed to camp. As this land stretches for some twenty miles or so, we had to make camp before crossing into this area; we weren’t going to be able to ride another twenty miles that day as the sun was already beginning to set.
We found a great spot to camp, with a huge rock overhang under which we planned to sleep without our tents. We got some pasta on the go and everything seemed well with the world again. It was awesome to watch the sunset in the desert; the rocks that surrounded us constantly changed colour as the sunlight reduced.
A storm was brewing in the distance and we watched as lightning bolts shot down and hit the horizon. It looked as though it was going to miss us, but as we were almost ready for bed, the rain started to fall. There followed a mass panic to get the tents up; I nearly lost mine thanks to a huge gust of wind, but we managed to get properly set up before the wind and rain got too bad.
Day Thirty Three – Desert Camp to Just Past Grants – 72 miles – 2,470 miles total
Waking up in the desert was an absolute delight. As the sun came up, we were treated to a light show similar to the sunset the night before.
After breakfast, we headed off once again under thankfully cloudy skies. The rain last night hadn’t amounted to much and so the tracks were still in good condition and even though we were climbing gently, the riding seemed a lot easier than the previous day.
We did however manage to make another wrong turn and ended up riding straight into a yard outside a farmstead. The farmer didn’t seem too impressed with us, but pointed us back in the right direction and we soon found the correct track without making too much of a detour.
We reached a paved section, Marco went on ahead and I plodded up the hill behind him. We had learned from Alan that this particular four mile section was supposed to have become private land and that we weren’t supposed to be riding along it. For that reason, the advice from the Adventure Cycling Association was to take the paved alternative route between Cuba and Grants. Well, as tough as it had been, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss my chance to ride that section through the desert. There were no signs along the road to suggest that we shouldn’t be there, and there seemed like a reasonable flow of traffic along there too.
Turning off the road, there was more climbing ahead as we crossed the foothills of the San Mateo mountain range. Part way up the hill, I realised that I was now carrying way too much water than I needed and so emptied a couple of my bottles by the side of the trail. The cloud cover meant that the temperature was much less of a problem than the previous day and with my reduced load, I made steady progress up the hill.
I stopped for a bite to eat near the top of the climb and began looking forward to the descent into Grants. I would have to wait a while though, as the downhill never seemed to get started. The course descriptions were slightly misleading and the track was particularly gravelly making for slow progress. When the downhill finally started though, it was well worth the wait.
I stopped to take a photo next to the Grants prison – a sign by the side of the road reminded drivers not to pick up hitch hikers there – brilliant! I was very happy to make it into the town of Grants; we had survived the desert, another major milestone reached on our journey to Mexico.
We spent the afternoon in Grants, getting our laundry done (very badly), eating some spicy Mexican food and getting online. For once we were in a town with a library during opening hours and so we looked forward to getting some blogging and email done. Unfortunately, the library’s computers were out of action that day as they were being upgraded! Any other day and we would have been fine! We found a place to get online close by and got back in touch with the world.
After a dinner in Pizza Hut, we set off again, this time along a short section of Route 66 – it was great to be riding a section of this famous road. Before long, we were off the road again and starting to climb up through a big canyon where there seemed to be more traffic than there had been on the highway! We stopped before the sunset and set up our camp for the night, leaving our still slightly damp clothes hanging on the bikes to dry.
Day Thirty Four – Just Past Grants to Las Lunas – 90 miles – 2,560 miles total
Neither of us could have guessed how today was to turn out when we set off before the sun was up. It was to be a day of fast riding, crushing disappointment, huge amounts of luck and international communication.
Our destination that day was Pie Town; a small settlement some 75 miles away. We’d heard from Ollie that although we could get food there, the shop closed early in the day, around 3pm. We would need to get some supplies for the following couple of days and so we decided to split up for the day’s ride. Marco went on ahead so that at least he would make it before the shop closed. I thought I could make it in time, but wasn’t sure how the terrain would affect my speed.
As he disappeared up the hill into the distance, I had a slightly funny feeling that something was going to happen that day. I couldn’t have guessed what though….
I was riding well and felt very comfortable as the track took us up and over the Continental Divide for the 19^th^ and then 20^th^ times on the trip. Around every corner I expected the trail to deteriorate, but it was in really great shape and I was making great time. I started to think ahead and realised that as long as I continued like this, I would easily make it to Pie Town before 3pm. And maybe it was that thinking ahead that got me in to trouble.
I had just crested a small rise when I suddenly felt something was wrong with the front wheel. It felt as though the tyre was stuck in the sand again, but when I looked down I saw that it was just a flat. Never mind, it was to be expected here in New Mexico as the thorns here are well known for stopping bikers in their tracks.
I stopped and got the flat changed quickly and sat down for a quick bite to eat. I set off again but within ten minutes I was stopped by the side of the trail with the front wheel off again. Two more holes had appeared in the new tyre and so it had to be changed again. Luckily, I had two spares and so I didn’t need to fix the punctures each time, although I knew that if it happened again I would have to find and fix the holes.
It didn’t take long for the tyre to go again and this time I had to get the repair kit out and fix the holes. Again, I had two holes in this tyre, making five flats in as many miles. Things were not looking too good.
I had just reached the highway when my back tyre also gave out. This time it was really serious. My back wheel had not been completely straight for a few days and it badly needed a visit to a bike shop to get fixed or replaced. As soon as I took the wheel off, there was a loud “TWANG!” sound as the wheel buckled even more, pinging off three spokes in the process. I knew then that I was in big trouble.
I fixed the flat and tried to get the back wheel back on, but it was so bent out of shape that it wouldn’t go round properly without rubbing on the frame. I tried to ride on, but it was utterly hopeless. I must have looked like a clown on that bent wheel, but I wasn’t laughing. I sat at the side of the road thinking that this was a horrible way for the trip to end. I knew there wasn’t a bike shop for many, many miles and I had no hope of riding there anyway.
So, this was it for me. I’d come so far but it looked like this was it. In a way I was a bit relieved, but that relief didn’t last very long. There was no way I was going to quit now. I had to hope that someone would come and rescue me. And amazingly, they did.
Duran and Cindi are two waste management executives from Tuscon Arizona, who just happened to be on their way to Albuquerque, where I knew there would be at least a couple of bike shops. The problem was that Albuquerque was a long way away, and not in the direction I needed to travel.
As we drove on, it turned out that they often drove up to Albuquerque, but this was the first time they’d tried this way; they usually opted for the quicker interstate highways. I was very lucky indeed. They were very interested in my story and when they got mobile phone reception, I became the subject of their telephone calls too – hilarious!
They dropped me right outside the bike shop and I handed my battered bike (now with another flat tyre!) over to the guys in the shop. My next job was to try and get hold of Marco and let him know what was going on. I had mobile signal, but Marco was in the middle of nowhere and had no signal. I left a message anyway and then looked at my map to try and get a number for the shop in Pie Town, where I hoped to leave a message for him. No such luck; my map gave no useful numbers – what could I do? I did the only thing I could think of, and called my mum and dad!
It was almost midnight at home, but Dad accepted the challenge of finding some contact details for anyone in Pie Town. I’m not sure quite how he did it, but Marco ended up getting three separate messages telling him what had happened! He was the most famous person in Pie Town for a short while I think!!
I bought myself a map of New Mexico as I was way, way, way off of the route maps, and tried to figure out a way to ride myself back towards the route. I thought that I would have two days to make it to Silver City, some 230 miles away, but from the map it was clear that I was going to have to do a huge proportion of this on the interstate highway, which wasn’t too appealing.
Nevertheless, once the bike was fixed, complete with thorn-proof inner tubes, I hit the road and started heading south. The traffic was horrendous and it was a good while before it thinned out and I started to feel a little safer. There was no shoulder and the rush hour was in full swing, but I knew that I needed to get some more miles done before it got dark.
As darkness began to fall, I rode into Las Lunas, where I found myself a motel room for the night. It was here that I looked at myself in the mirror and was a little bit shocked at the state I was in. Not only had I lost quite a bit of weight, but I was filthy from head to toe and I looked exhausted.
I took a long shower and sat eating my food supplies whilst watching some Tour de France highlights. I also gave my bike a good clean; it too was in a pretty filthy state. I got another text message from Dad just before I fell asleep; Marco was planning to make it to Silver City the next day – that meant that I had the best part of 200 miles to ride if I was going to catch him. Even on the road, I knew this wasn’t going to be possible, so I readied myself for the prospect of some hitching.
Day Thirty Five – Las Lunas to Silver City – 110 miles – 2,670 miles total
I was exhausted but despite the comfy bed, I didn’t sleep very well at all. I was up way before it was light, packed all my stuff back up and filled up on cereal, bananas and pastries from the motel buffet breakfast.
It was just about light when I set out from the motel. I tried to check if there was a bus that could take me part of the way, but I had no luck and so I hit the highway, looking to ride as far as I could before it got too hot.
The shoulder along the highway was wide, but it was covered in rubbish from the road – bits of shredded tyres and broken glass littered the way ahead. I’d gone about fifty miles before I got really hot and tired and decided to try my hand at hitching a lift.
It didn’t go too well to start off with. The traffic seemed to have thinned out after the last intersection and nobody seemed interested in stopping to pick me up. I was just about to give up, when a pickup stopped just ahead of me. I ran up to it and the guys told me they could take me about fifty miles on to the town of Truth or Consequences. I was over the moon – fifty miles in a van would save me loads of time and so I packed myself and the bike into the back and off we went. The only down side of this ride was that the driver told me that the route from Truth or Consequences to Silver City would take me uphill for around 17 miles up over a mountain range, before dropping down into Silver City. I decided to not think about this – there would still be a long way to ride before I got there. I was still hoping that a magic bus would appear too; I would find out more in T or C.
The sun was beating down when the guys dropped me off a little way outside the town. I thanked them for their help and rode into town where I ate a couple of burgers (the only food available it seemed) and tried to find out about buses.
There is a bus, but it first goes to Deming and then there is a 10 hour wait for the connection to Silver City. This wasn’t really going to help me too much and so reluctantly I got back on the bike and carried on my way South.
I rode another fifty miles or so before the heat became unbearable. I was beginning to get dehydrated and I felt fairly wobbly on the bike. My speed had disappeared and each push of the pedals was becoming an effort. I stopped off in a little shop and drank a load of Gatorade and ate ice creams and chocolate bars before getting on again.
The next section was really tough and I knew that I needed to get a ride if I was going to make it to Silver City that day. I really wanted to finish the ride with Marco and knew that he would be trying his hardest to get there that day; I didn’t want to miss him. I also knew that the climbing section was approaching, and that was sure to sap all my remaining strength.
There wasn’t much traffic on the road (I was on a smaller road now) but every time I heard something coming behind me, I jumped off the bike and stuck my thumb out, hoping for a lift. There were very few suitable vehicles coming past and I began to feel sure that I wasn’t going to make it.
I was just approaching the tiny village of Hillsboro when another pickup went past my outstretched thumb. I silently cursed them for not stopping, climbed back on and started to pedal, only to see that they had stopped a short way ahead of me and their reverse lights were on. Was I rescued again?! Luckily for me, the answer was yes!
Kenny and Dominic were two cousins who had been working in Truth or Consequences and they drove me all the way to Silver City, and kept me entertained all the way. Nicer blokes I couldn’t have hoped to have met. That last fifty miles or so into Silver City would have killed me, I’m sure. The scenery was breathtaking though as we would our way up through the deep gorge up towards the top of the mountains. Even the twisty downhill section would have been hard work for tired legs too.
The boys dropped me just outside town and I rode down the hill to try and find the campsite. I was almost there, when I felt the all too familiar sinking feeling; a staple had found its way into my front tyre. I couldn’t believe it; this was New Mexico fighting back, just when I thought that maybe the worst was over.
I found the campground, but they hadn’t seen Marco that day. I got the tent up and showered the dust from the road out of my skin before wandering further into town to get some food. I found an internet café first though and so logged on to check the SPOT to see where Marco was. It looked as though he was about 30 miles away and it looked like we would be meeting up the next day – excellent news.
I ate some pasta and had a couple of beers before heading back to my tent, knowing that there were just 123 miles between me and the border. Surely we would be able to make that without too much trouble. After the events of the past couple of days, I wasn’t entirely sure!
Day Thirty Six – Silver City to Desert – 41 miles – 2,711 miles total
I slept really well, but still found myself waking up at 530am, even though the alarm wasn’t set. I phoned home to let everyone know that I was in Silver City and would meet up with Marco later that day.
I found a great little place for breakfast and then went to check out the bike shop; I’d got a few little problems with the bike and they fixed them for me in no time. That done, I headed back to the internet café and checked on Marco’s progress. He was riding well and when I saw that he was close, I rode out to meet him.
It was great to be reunited and we caught up on the last couple of day’s events over a big lunch. We got onto the internet in the library and bought enough supplies to last us to the border before arranging transport back from the border for the following afternoon. It was hard to imagine that in less than 24 hours this would all be over….
We set out from Silver City in the heat of the day along the highway. We had some long, steep hills to get over and I was feeling very tired indeed, despite having not ridden that morning. After 18 miles we turned off the highway and onto our last section of gravel road. Actually, this was a sand road and it was supposed to be steadily downhill. I think that I’d started to relax or something, because I couldn’t ride very quickly that afternoon. My legs felt very heavy and even the smallest of hills had me struggling. Once again though, the scenery was spectacular – we were surrounded by huge amounts of nothing, just amazing desert.
We rode over our penultimate Continental Divide crossing as the sun was going down. It was a perfect evening for riding; I just wished that I was feeling a little bit stronger. We pulled to a halt by the side of the trail and set up our camp in the last moments of light of the day. I was hot and had my shirt off, trying to cool down a little bit as we tucked in to pasta and tomato sauce in the middle of nowhere. We could see the glow of lights from one of the larger towns miles and miles away, but apart from that, there was no other sign of life.
That night we slept under the stars, without bothering with tents and the night sky was fantastic, full of stars, reminding me of my night under the stars in New Zealand – there was no chance of a frosty sleeping bag this time though!
Day Thirty Seven – Desert to Antelope Wells – 83 miles – 2,794 miles total
And then, all of a sudden, it was the final day and there were just over 80 miles to go to the border. But still I wouldn’t let myself think that it was going to be easy. The punctures of the days before were still fresh in my mind and I knew that we needed to ride pretty quickly to be in time for our shuttle to pick us up at the border. The heat was going to be a factor too.
We were up and packed before it was light, and we hit the trail just as the sun was rising. It was a truly magical way to start the final day of the ride. After about ten miles, we crossed over the railroad tracks and arrived at Separ. I decided to stop at the local store and get some drinks. Marco was worried about his front tyre as it was full of thorns and he wanted to just get to the border as soon as he could. The lady in the store had obviously seen it all before and told me that it was easy from here on in. She also sold me some “5 Hour Energy” drink, saying that it was just what I needed. It certainly didn’t do me any harm and I felt great as I set out alongside the highway to the start of the long paved section, marking 65 miles to the border.
This was it. Five weeks of riding had come down to just this. I filmed a little video of myself at the start of the so-called Lonely Highway. I wasn’t worried about the distance; 65 miles on the road should be fairly easy. No, this was more of a mental challenge.
I crossed over the Continental Divide for the final time, but it was a little bit disappointing being little more than a bump in the road. I rode quickly to the small town of Hachita where I stopped for a little break with a couple of locals, who were sat inside a small shop, selling used bits and pieces of junk and giving away free coffee (for a small donation of course!)
Refreshed, I turned past the little church and began the last 45 miles. If I had been feeling tired, this road would have been a killer. All the way, mile markers were counting down to the border and so I always knew how far I had left to go. I stopped a few times to drink more Gatorade and water but apart from that it was all about just getting to the end.
I remember stopping at mile marker 4 and having a little tear in my eye. I knew now that I was going to make it, but part of me wanted it to carry on. The last mile was a real blast. I decided to ride it as quickly as I could, amusing to try and sprint after the best part of three thousand miles, but I had to give it a go.
Marco was there waiting as I rode into the border area, punching the air in delight. I’d been thinking about this moment for the best part of a year but once I was there, I couldn’t quite believe it.
The border guards were awesome and they gave us free drinks from the vending machine and came outside to take our picture at the border. A wonderful way to end the trip.