Day Forty-Three

Capitan, NM to Carrizozo, NM

Since this was a short day, I thought there wouldn't be much to write about. I was wrong--I should have more days like this. There are " mileage junkies" out there who would scoff at a 20-mile day, but I think those people are missing the point of touring. It's not a race, it's a journey. Sure, sometimes it feels great to ride hard all day long, but if it was just about putting in the miles, I could do that back home.

I started the day with a visit to Smokey Bear State Historical Park. Smokey's story fascinated me. The museum had two halls of exhibits (one about Smokey and one about forest fires) plus a movie. One of my favorite parts was a video with Ray Bell telling Smokey's story as he remembered it (recorded just in time since Bell  died less than a year after the video was taped). He was one of the people most responsible for the badly burned 2-1/2 month old bear cub becoming the living symbol of forest fire prevention. After he was rescued from the fire, the bear was so sick that Bell wanted to keep his Smokey idea a secret until he made sure the bear would survive (of course, someone leaked it to a newspaper despite his wishes). Bell described how his five-year-old daughter, Judy, spoon-fed the cub every two hours day and night to nurse him back to health. An interesting story that Bell told was that the State of California wanted to have the bear to be a living symbol of their state flag. I thought it was funny that California wanted to take a bear from New Mexico to represent their state. After I looked at the exhibits, I walked outside and I paid my respects to Smokey. I was glad they brought him back home to Capitan for his final resting place.

I returned to the Smokey Bear Motel to retrieve my bike before check-out time, then rode over to the museum and gift shop  in a log cabin adjacent to the historical park. The museum was full of Smokey collectibles and memorabilia. There were also many one-of-a-kind paintings and drawings, including many originals by Rudolph Wendelin, the artist who started drawing Smokey posters in 1944, six years before the bear from Capitan became the living Smokey.

After I left Capitan, I assumed it would be more or less downhill all the way to Carrizozo since it was 1,000 feet lower. I was wrong. First I had to climb some more, and it was killing me. My legs were dead from the start after yesterday's climbing, but what concerned me more was my breathing. It had to be the altitude. Even on the hills that looked easy, I was panting like a dog after a run around the block.

Finally, I came to a sign: " Indian Divide Elev. 6940." I pulled over to celebrate with a Coke, although I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't quite 7,000 feet. I decided to pose for a picture next to the sign. As I was setting up my tripod, a white Ford pick-up truck came up behind me on the shoulder. We had a great conversation. He was 76 years old and told me that his family homesteaded the land in this area long ago--his Spanish ancestors came here in the 1600's. " I'm just an old cattle rancher," he said. He had just been down the hill to see his aunt, and he was headed up to see his daughter. She had planted some bushes recently, but a dozen elk were eating them. " I'm going to put in an electric fence to try and stop them," he said. " I don't know if it'll do any good, but I'll try it." He pointed at a barbed-wire fence by the side of the road. " That won't stop an elk. They jump right over it."

We talked about my trip and my specific route through New Mexico. I told him how much I liked the area. He nodded, " Right quiet and peaceful, isn't it?" He explained that Indian Divide was named because the Mescalero Apaches used to travel on top of that ridge, even for many years after the area had been homesteaded. He pointed out a place where pottery and arrowheads had been found and described how just around the next curve I would see a creek that the Indians used for water. He said that water to the east of Indian Divide  flowed into the Pecos, and water to the west went to the Rio Grande. He added that it was all downhill to Carrizozo. He said that once in his pick-up truck he coasted all the way there. He was going pretty slow for awhile, but he made it. With today's wind, he guessed that I wouldn't get a free ride all the way to town, though.

When I mentioned Smokey Bear, the conversation turned to a recent forest fire near Ruidoso. He said it's a Texan town--lots of wealthy Texans have vacation homes there. Those were the homes that burned, huge homes worth millions of dollars. I had seen numerous warnings about fire restrictions--no fires, no charcoal, but stoves were permitted. He said the Forest Service didn't mess around--they'd write a ticket to anyone who threw a cigarette butt out of a car window.

Then he asked, " You don't smoke, do you?" He said that his wife had smoked. She had emphysema and an oxygen tank, but she would still smoke. She tried to hide it, but he could always tell. She even smoked a cigarette the day she died last year. His biggest regret was that decades ago, he was the one who introduced her to smoking because he thought it was fun. He said he used to smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco, smoke cigars and smoke a pipe, too, but he quit many years ago. His story reminded me of my grandparents, except that my grandmother managed to quit smoking recently when she started needing an  oxygen tank.

I could have listened to him all day, but we both had a few things to do. I started down the hill and quickly reached 30 mph even with a strong headwind. I saw two cyclists stopped on the side of the road coming the other way, so I stopped to see if they needed anything. They were fine, just fixing a flat, but we talked for awhile. Doug and Leann were from Colorado. They were staying in a pop-up camper at the Valley of Fires just west of Carrizozo, and they were doing a day ride to Capitan and back to see Smokey.

The rest of the ride to Carrizozo was pretty much downhill as I'd been told, but I still had to work a little because of the wind. When I got to town, it seemed a shame to stop after only 20 miles, but it was already 2:00, so I couldn't have gone to the next town (75 miles away) even if I'd wanted to. Here, US 380 intersected with US 54, a route that once went all the way to Chicago but had been truncated to a point 25 miles into Illinois from Missouri. I scoped out the motel options. Two out of three looked decent, but I was leery of the badly peeled paint on the Crossroads Motel. I went to a Tastee-Freez for lunch, and the woman there confirmed my suspicions--anywhere but the Crossroads would be fine.

I figured I might as well ride around town a little. I saw the Outpost Bar & Grill, home of the famous green chile cheeseburger. A sign outside promised " the 'best' burger you'll ever eat." I decided to put them to the test later. Further south, I came to Roy's " old fashioned ice cream parlour." I knew there was a reason why I decided not to order dessert at Tastee-Freez! I had an awesome chocolate malt, the kind where you get a full glass along with a stainless steel  tumbler that contains a few more glassfuls. Delicious! They also gave me a souvenir Carrizozo refrigerator magnet in the shape of New Mexico. It was a perfect souvenir for a cyclotourist--small, flat and light.

Back at the north end of town, I picked the Rainbow Motel: " The pot of gold at the end of your day." It was $40, ten dollars more than the Crossroads, but probably much nicer. After checking my e-mail, relaxing and letting my malt digest, I walked a few blocks to the Outpost. When I walked in, I couldn't see any employees. There weren't many people there, either. I noticed a couple sitting at a table in the middle of the room in particular, then a few men sitting alone in booths. Because of the famous green chile cheeseburgers I expected the place to be packed, but I should have known better--it wasn't that big of a town, and it was a Wednesday night. With no waitress around, I seated myself. When she came out, I asked her what a green chile cheeseburger tasted like. She said she couldn't really describe it, but it was really good. I don't usually eat chile peppers, but after that mysterious endorsement,  I figured I ought to try the green chile cheeseburger. Not being an adventurous eater, I was a little nervous as I waited and read a book. Finally, the waitress set the burger on my table, and I tried it out. It was different. The green chile wasn't too hot at first, but it grew in intensity. By the time I was half finished, I needed some water. It was pretty good, though.

Totals for the day: 23.07 miles in 2:04:03 for an 11.1 mph average.

Click here to see today's photos.

Copyright 2002-2013 David Johnsen. All rights reserved.