ADVENTURE BY BIKE®
Today Kurt concludes the story of he and Caroline's Tour Divide Race aboard the Salsa tandem prototype, Big Blue. -Kid
Click here to read Part One.
Click here to read Part Two.
Divided Together - Part Three
Giant, delicious breakfast burritos and big cups of Coke were the reward for making it to Abiqiui early on our second day in New Mexico. Caroline and I had slept well on the soft ground beneath scrubby oak trees, and fortunately, no critters had been attracted by the strong scent of the empty sardine tins. We enjoyed the breakfast, picked out the day’s provisions from the unique and tasty selection of food at Bode’s Store, and grabbed as much liquid as we could comfortably carry. It was already hot at 9AM, and we were worried about the exposed climb to come. As I cleaned and lubed the chains, a local woman struck up a conversation with Caroline and then gave us a few handfuls of apricots from the tree in her yard. Fresh fruit is an uncommon treat in the Divide, and Caroline was particularly excited since half of her normal diet consists of fruit!
The climb into the Jemez Mountains seems to go on for nearly 30 miles. I never believe it can be that long, but each time I’ve ridden it, the mountain confirms that it is indeed that large. Being the final substantial climb of New Mexico, reaching the top was quite gratifying. We unfortunately were unable to really enjoy our progress though, because we were nearly out of water by the end of the climb. I thought that we had carried enough from town, but the one reliable water source high up was more distant than I had remembered, and even up at 8,000 feet, the air was uncomfortably warm. We stopped to investigate several cattle tanks and troughs, but all were dry. I again felt guilty for not suggesting we bring more water.
Just a few turns after I sucked the last of the water out of my bladder, the nicest cattle pond I’ve encountered anywhere came into view. We rolled right up to the edge of it, and Caroline set to work filling bladders and bottles and treating the water. During the 2011 race, I had been sternly warned by several different groups or European northbound riders that there was no surface water anywhere in New Mexcio. Then I stumbled upon this same full cattle pond and kicked myself for hauling an extra gallon of water into the Jemez. This time around, we made use of that precious water. I washed off my sandy feet and took care of treating a few blisters and sores that had been bothering me. A dozen cattle wandered over, curious about who was visiting their pond. We stared at them, and they stared back. There wasn’t much to say, really.
The final miles of the Jemez are always agonizingly slow. Despite the net descent of several thousand feet, many small climbs punctuate the narrow road. These sucked out the last energy from my legs, and I whined incessantly to Caroline about how this road never ends, and how each year it gets longer. We were never going to reach Cuba, it seemed. But we did, arriving just before dark. We refueled and resupplied at McDonald’s and the adjoining gas station, and then rode across town to the motel next to the laundromat. Caroline desperately wanted a shower and clean clothes, but that motel was full. We rode back past McDonalds to another motel - also full. So we pedaled to the edge of town where we finally got a rather abysmal room (even by my standards!) at the one remaining motel. We showered, drank as much fluid as we could get down, and fell asleep on the ancient mattress. The morning would bring 140 miles of pavement.
The final days of New Mexico pass by at a painfully slow pace. I’m not sure how this is possible, but it is. You are so close to Mexico, and it seems like it should only take a couple days to get there, but in reality, there are still many hundreds of miles to cover. We departed Cuba before sunrise, and just outside of town, Caroline threw up her entire breakfast...and then some more. But she didn’t want to turn around, so we pushed on. She managed to somehow, with some encouragement, continue to eat enough throughout the day to keep her legs going even after vomiting a couple more times. The miles and miles of pavement across the Navajo Reservation came and went. The winds were mostly calm, thankfully, and the roads were deserted. I had my stomach set on the Dairy Queen in Grants for an early dinner, and that’s just what we got. After the heat of the day and so much pavement, we were pretty well fried. We shot across town to the post office to send our remaining warm clothes home so we’d have more room to carry food and water in the Gila, but as I walked in the post office I was immediately informed they were closing. The woman had no desire to let me quickly ship a box, so we rode away annoyed, still with our jackets in 90-degree heat. After a $90 food purchase at the last gas station in town, we happily left Grants behind.
The first big thunderstorms of the entire trip blew up that evening over the mountains of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico just south of us. We spent the first hours of darkness riding toward them, nervously watching bolt after bolt of lightning. The only distraction from this was the periodic patches of deep sand and severe washboards on the Pie Town Road. Caroline dozed off behind me on the intervening smooth stretches. The storms gradually weakened and drifted off to our west, so we stopped in the junipers for the night. The scattered clouds dissipated, revealing a beautiful star-filled sky.
Sluggish legs and a ravenous hunger greeted both of us in the morning. We had had very few solid meals the entire ride, and we were looking forward to breakfast in Pie Town. We struggled through the remaining miles of sandy road, periodically singing out, “TEN MILES TO PIE!” Before too long, it became “THREE MILES TO PIE!”, and then just one mile, and soon we arrived at the café just after opening. Coffee, chocolate milk, orange juice, big plates of food, and of course pie, soon were before us. The chef also made a few breakfast burritos and grilled cheese sandwiches for us to take with. We departed smiling and ready to tackle the Gila.
Caroline seemed a bit nervous about the challenging section, but I was determined to enjoy it after what happened last year. A combination of dehydration, chafing, hallucinating from sleep deprivation, and then running out of food and water led to some very memorable suffering for me. This time around, we had ample food, full bellies, and hopefully sufficient fluid capacity to make it between water sources. Before long, the sun was already baking us. Then we sliced a sidewall on the rough climb up Mangus Pass. Luckily it was repaired with a simple plug, and we were back on the move in no time. By early afternoon, we were rolling around the edge of the Plains of San Augustine, watching the enormous dust devils twirl and dance across the dry lakebed. We almost successfully dodged all the storms that billowed up around us, getting rained on just a few brief times. These storms also brought the temperature down to something nearly comfortable.
Evening arrived as we descended down from the Continental Divide yet another time and into the rolling country below. The sun set under a stormy sky to the west, unleashing a fiery glow through gaps in the clouds. Groups of cow and young elk ran from us as we passed, and we dropped into Railroad Canyon in the last of the twilight. The soda machine at Beaverhead Work Center was our motivation, and I desperately hoped it would be working after missing out last year. To our delight, it was, and we were soon enjoying root beer and lemonade along with our breakfast burritos. Caroline showered at the water pump as I chuckled, drank another root beer, and marveled at the enormous beetles wandering around in the grass. Soon we were sound asleep under a nearby tree. Eric Schraufnagel rolled up shortly later; talking to himself about how great the soda machine was and that there was so much water at the water pump. He seemed to be a bit loopy after several hot, lonely days of New Mexico riding. I said a few words to him before falling back asleep. We expected to be passed by him early the following day, but he never caught us. He accidentally rode backwards on the course, not realizing his error for four hours before turning around and sleeping again for a few hours at Beaverhead the next afternoon!
A bit before 4AM, the tiresome alarm sounded. We packed up, ready to tackle the upcoming steep, loose, and difficult climbs before the air temperature heated up. Amazingly, we froze on many of the descents before the sun rose. Our progress was slow, and before long, the orange glow of dawn illuminated the oak and ponderosa forests; we crawled up each climb in our lowest gear, dripping sweat and breathing hard. But we made it out to the Mimbres river valley by late morning and then dove into the challenging singletrack of the Continental Divide Trail just beyond. Just like last year, we were treated to this section at the hottest time of the day. The heat soon got to Caroline, and I struggled to keep her moving. We were able to ride nearly all the singletrack after the steep hiking section, and once we got out of a burned area and into the shade of the Ponderosa pines, Caroline began to feel better. Silver City was not far away now, and the border was just beyond!
After a quick stop for a new front tire, a Mexican feast, and a resupply at a grocery store, we struck off toward Mexico just before sunset. The air was cooling down, and we were eager to finish. But with both of us quite exhausted, we were skeptical that an all-night push was in the cards. And as soon as darkness fell, Caroline again went to battle with the sleep monster. As we turned onto the sandy Separ Road, we looked for some trees to duck behind and take a quick nap. We reclined in the sand, and Caroline was out almost immediately. I ate some peanuts and a jumbo Slim Jim before setting the alarm for 20 minutes and dozing off.
Before long, we were rolling again, but Caroline was still weary. I struggled to find a decent line through the soft sand with my lights, swerving around drunkenly at times. A big moon was rising overhead, casting a welcome glow across the desert landscape. As we climbed the last little rise along the northern part of the road, we were treated to a wondrous panorama of silhouetted buttes and distant mountains. I stopped to eat a bit and enjoy our surroundings, but Caroline was too sleepy to see much to be excited about. So we pressed on, beginning the long, gradual descent to Separ. A strange nocturnal tailwind kicked up, and we were soon flying. I love that section of road, and between the wind, the slight downhill, and the moon’s glow, I was wide awake and grinning. Caroline, on the other hand, was shifting back and forth as she periodically dozed off. Before long, the lights of the tractor trailer parade on the interstate at Separ came into view, and Caroline perked up.
We decided to stop and sleep for a couple hours. Doing so meant that we wouldn’t finish up in the morning before it began to heat up, but with 70 miles of rather boring pavement just a few miles ahead, there was no way Caroline would have been able to keep herself awake. We found some bushes to sleep behind near some idling trucks whose drivers were doing the same.
Two hours later, we were back up and cruising south. We were both far more awake. The first light of day was still an hour or two off, but we had good company with all the Border Patrol trucks speeding to get wherever it is they go. Tarantulas wandered about on the road, and owls flew overhead and sat atop the tallest yuccas. The soft pink glow of the sunrise gradually appeared over the low mountains to the east as we pedaled on. Past the seemingly dying town of Hachita, the mile markers begin to count down from somewhere around 46, agonizing reminders of precisely how much pedaling remains. The road was deserted. As the sun rose, nearly all signs of life vanished. I sucked down Gatorade from my bladder knowing how much I would soon be sweating, and I made it a game to eat 300 calories every ten miles. It provided something to do.
By milepost 30 I had to pee. I decided to wait until 20. The miles slowly counted down. A headwind kicked up as we passed through Hatchet Gap, but fortunately, it calmed as we moved beyond the low hills. We began standing for a mile at a time, in part to break up the miles and in part to simply take weight off our sore butts. Mile 20 came and went. I ate a pack of ShotBloks, content to have put off peeing for a few more miles. Anything to entertain the mind is much appreciated on this last section of the route. Caroline and I both were listening to music. At this point in the ride, there was little left to say to one another. We just wanted to be done.
We’d stand for a mile, sit for one, and then repeat. By mile 12, all my tasty food was gone. By mile 10, a strong crosswind suddenly began buffeting us. I’m sure we were both cursing this under our breaths, but I knew that in a few miles, the road turned just enough that we’d have a bit of a tailwind. I ate another Slim Jim, and before long, the road indeed turned. And then we were flying. Miles 5 and 4 came and went, and the little border-crossing outpost of Antelope Wells came into view in the distance. Then miles 3 and 2 were gone. Caroline and I both turned our music off and began celebrating a bit. Then mile 1 was gone. We coasted toward the border, hugely relieved to be finished.
The three guys in the station seemed completely uninterested in the fact that we were there. Caroline and I snapped a few photos at the border itself, grabbed a few bottles of cold soda out of the machine, and collapsed in the shade. It was just after 10AM and already we were roasting in the heat. We sipped our soda and wondered how the heck we were going to get out of there. A friend’s truck was parked back in Hachita waiting for us, but we were in no shape to ride 45 miles back into that headwind. And there was very little traffic on the road that morning, or any morning for that matter.
Caroline fell asleep, so I sat and pondered our options. Then I noticed a couple workmen at some of the trailers behind the station. I wandered back and asked if they were heading back north later. Luckily for us, they were about to leave. Not only that, but they had room for our enormous tandem in the back of their truck! I ran back, awakened Caroline, and within minutes, we were whisked away at warp speed (65 mph), heading back up the road we had just ridden down.
With that, our adventure had come to an end. Compared with my past races on the Divide, it had many more low points. The tandem was simply a struggle to power over all those climbs. Caroline’s illness, whatever it was, added another challenge to the ordeal. But it was also delightful to be able to spend that time seeing a huge part of the country with my partner, pedaling together, laughing together, and being broken down together. Neither of us have any desire to ride this a second time on a tandem, but we’re both happy (I think…) to have done it once. Hopefully we won’t forget how much of a struggle it was as the memories of all the suffering fade.
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After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous West. Now a professor at Prescott College, I teach students about the geologic wonders that surround us. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country and enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. And when driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity, quietly spinning the cranks, staring out over the handlebars, and watching the scenery evolve while wondering where I’ll next be able to fill up on water. Kurt's Going Nuts: http://www.krefs.blogspot.com