Day Forty-Four

Carrizozo, NM to Socorro, NM

This was one of the hardest days I've ever spent on a bicycle. The combination of wind, hills and altitude tore me apart.

The day got off to an interesting start. I rode downtown to take a picture of an old  library I saw while walking to The Outpost last night. When I came back past the Rainbow Motel, I noticed the lighting was more favorable than it had been yesterday, so I stopped to retake a photo. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white pick-up pull over across the street. " I see you made it," said the man I met yesterday. That really caught me by surprise--what are the odds that our paths would cross again like that? Lucky timing. I told him that I was headed to Socorro, a little further than yesterday. " Quite a bit further than yesterday," he said. " You'll have a few hills today," he added (quite an understatement), followed by what turned out to be a pretty accurate description of the ups and downs to come. " There's some construction out there, too, so be careful."

After we parted again, I went to the mini-mart to stock up. There is a web page called, " You Know You're A Cyclist When...," and I think I came up with a new contribution: " ...you go into a mini-mart and buy a liter of water, a bottle of Coke, a bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of orange juice!"

I headed west on US 380, and just outside of town I saw an amusing ranch sign to photograph. As luck had it, my lens cap fell on the ground. As I reached down to pick it up, a vehicle came by going the other way and someone called out to me. When I looked down the road, I saw a pop-up camper with two bicycles on top. It must have been Doug and Leann from Colorado! I waved, but I'm not sure if they saw me in the rear view mirror. This was really incredible--was I going to see everyone that I saw yesterday?

As I approached the Valley of Fires, I had a Meat Puppets song, " Lake of Fire," in my head:

Where do bad folks go when they die?

They don't go to heaven where the angels fly

They go to the Lake of Fire and fry...

The Valley of Fires is an ancient lava flow, a huge mass of black rock totally unlike the surrounding terrain. I visited a similar area years ago in northwestern New Mexico called El Malpais. As I rode toward the scenic overlook, a guy next to an RV asked me how far I was going. He looked vaguely familiar, a little like a guy I used to work with.  We talked for awhile, and he said that  he and his wife quit their jobs, bought this motor home and were traveling the country for 18 months. Then he asked, " Hey, did you eat dinner in town last night?"

" Yeah, at the green chile cheeseburger place."

" I thought you looked familiar. You had a book, right?"

It dawned on me. " And you were sitting at a table in the middle of the room, right?" Considering that I had already seen the man in the pick-up and the cyclists from Colorado, this was amazing.

I spent about half an hour at the Valley of Fires, including a short hike on the nature trail. It occurred to me that this was an easy natural resource to preserve because igneous rock is pretty durable.

Beyond the Valley of Fires, I had to ride 60 miles to the next town, San Antonio. A few miles west on US 380, the road started heading upward. I was climbing into the Sierra Obscura range, and it was a lot tougher than my climb from Roswell to Capitan. Not only was it steeper, but I had to fight a 15-20 mph headwind as well. Every curve in the road brought another climb. The altitude was still bothering me, too, and I was gasping for air. My legs were mush. It was going to be a very long day.

The worst thing about a headwind is that it ruins the downhills. Going back down is supposed to be the reward for climbing up, and when that is spoiled, morale wanes. In fact, the wind almost brought me to a complete stop at one point. Some people may wonder if I ever ask myself why I'm doing this ride. Today I did.

Soon after the disappointing descent, I was going uphill again. I shifted all the way down to 2nd gear (out of 27), and I was still struggling. Every time I would get my speed up and prepare to shift, a gust of wind would cut me down to size. I watched the mile markers on US 380 count down very slowly. After two hours of riding, I was making such slow progress that I calculated that I wouldn't get to Socorro until 8:00, after sunset. And  at that point I wasn't even sure I could maintain that pace. To make matters worse, I didn't have enough liquids to get me through the extra hours that the wind and hills were adding to my trip. Ironically, someone asked me yesterday if I was able to carry enough water, and now for the first time I had grossly underestimated my needs. At least I had a nice road, including wide paved shoulders.

I pulled over to drink some water and noticed a few cows nearby. I figured I might as well take a picture and pulled out my camera. Immediately, the cows turned and walked away. " Fine," I said. " I don't want to take pictures of cows anyway. I want to take pictures of mini-marts. Coke machines. Dairy Queens. And Tastee Freezes!" I was already getting delirious.

This was the worst wind I had faced in New Mexico. Unfortunately, a bail-out option like Sweetwater or Seminole didn't exist today. There was a B& B in San Antonio, but that was only ten miles from Socorro anyway. I would have to tough it out.

Finally, I was going downhill again. This was labeled as a five percent grade, but I only managed 20 mph for a short time. I was also starting to get desperate about my water situation. My only hope was Bingham, just a dot on the map. However, from what I had seen in Texas, a lot of times those dots represented one or two houses and no businesses. A sign for a " rest area" gave me hope, but it was just several roadside tables together--no vending machines or water. A few miles later, there was a sign that did not make me happy: " Road Narrows." That almost always means that the shoulders are going away. Sure enough, now the white line marked the edge of the pavement and I would have to defend my piece of the road from all the truck traffic that had been passing a comfortable five to ten feet away from me for the previous 30 miles.

Soon after, I came upon the road construction that the man with the white pick-up had mentioned.  I waited a few minutes in line, then the flagger waved us through. I asked her if there was a store in Bingham where I could get something to drink. Much to my relief, she said there was. Midway through the construction zone, I saw a rock shop on the left with... a Coke machine in front! Sheesh, it was a whole dollar for a 12-ounce can. I drank one and bought another for the road. That was a mistake--I still had 27 hot miles to ride to San Antonio, and one can to go along with a half-empty water bottle wasn't nearly enough. The rock shop advertised " trinitite," a rock created by the intense heat of the first atomic bomb blast at the Trinity Site south of Bingham in White Sands Missile Range.

The Coke revitalized me, and in the short term I felt great. I rode strongly through the rest of the construction zone. The construction helped me because it bunched up the traffic. So even though the road was narrow, I could just take the lane until a car came up behind, then pull over and let a dozen vehicles pass, then get back in the lane. Apparently US 380 is being gradually upgraded to a wide-shouldered highway, and I was riding on the last section of the old road. A few miles later, I was back on smooth, wide road like I had been on before the " Road Narrows" sign. Actually, it was a smooth, wide, straight, boring road. While I was relieved to be riding on long, gentle grades instead of climbing big hills, it was hard mentally to see  the road stretching out forever. It felt like I wasn't getting anywhere. Oddly enough, even though my cyclometer said I was going faster than I had earlier in the day, the mile markers didn't seem to pass more quickly. I drank my last Coke 18 miles from San Antonio. My biggest concern was the mountain range looming in the distance. I hoped and prayed that it was on the other side of the Rio Grande  valley so I wouldn't have to climb it today.

With 12 miles to go, I drank the last of my water. The psychological effects of running out of water were worse than the physical effects. I was just an hour or so away from a store, but just knowing that I didn't have water if I needed it made me nervous, especially since I was already fatigued from the past six hours of fighting hills and winds.

When I finally crossed the Rio Grande and entered San Antonio, I spotted a restaurant and a gas station on the right. The restaurant was The Owl, and their claim to fame was... green chile cheeseburgers. I wondered whether The Outpost in Carrizozo or The Owl in San Antonio was first, and which was better. I had no time for dinner, though, as I had about 90 minutes till sunset and another ten miles to ride. Besides, while my burger at The Outpost was interesting, I probably wouldn't want to make a habit of it. The gas station mini-mart was more appealing at the moment. I bought a liter of water and a bottle of apple juice. A man wearing a New Mexico police T-shirt approached me. He was really excited about my trip--he even brought his kids over and told them  what I was doing. His son  said, " Gosh, I thought ten miles was far!"

The west wind was supposed to start blowing from the south in the afternoon, but that never happened. That was too bad because I had been looking forward to having a little push for my last ten miles north to Socorro. I had water now, but I was pretty tired. SR 1 was kind of rough pavement, and  bouncing over cracks in the road didn't help my mood any. The road paralleled I-25, the first interstate I had seen since Sweetwater. I am pretty sure that  SR 1 used to be US 85 before the interstate was built. It was a little frustrating as I was climbing the last few steep hills toward Socorro to look over and see the mild grade of I-25 just a few hundred feet away. At the top of the final hill, I drank the last of the water I'd bought in San Antonio. All I had to do was coast down the hill, turn left and go a couple blocks to the Motel 6, the southernmost motel in town. After I checked in, I drank a two-liter bottle of Coke and more than half a gallon of water.

Totals for the day: 77.81 miles in 7:22:09 for a 10.5 mph average.

Click here to see today's photos.

Copyright 2002-2013 David Johnsen. All rights reserved.