“How far ya all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh.
Day 58 – Wednesday, July 24
Chama, New Mexico to Durango, Colorado
89° Partially Sunny
Made decision to ride in mountains rather than desert, so headed north to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Crossed the unmarked Continental Divide before leaving New Mexico. The road through the tree lined hills to Pagosa Springs was smooth, cool, and ideal. It was a perfect morning ride.
Rain started to fall as I arrived in Pagosa Springs. I parked under a closed gas station overhang and went to find some coffee. The storm passed. I started riding through Pagosa Springs, which has an old town section and then stretches west into resorts and ranches. Ruby’s engine first quit in the old town section. It quit again about a mile up the road. I was able to work on it in the shadow of a gas station. Another mile up the road and the engine quit again. This time I pushed it to a small grove of trees by an old house. It stopped one more time several miles down the road.
The issue is electrical. It could be the oxygen sensor. It could be gremlins. I really don’t know. Uncertainty about Ruby’s reliability has reached a critical mass.
I made it to Durango, a small city in the southwest quadrant of Colorado. I may end the voyage here. I have no faith in Ruby. It’s impossible to ride a bike you have no faith in, especially in the arid deserts of the southwest US.Stay tuned…
I’ve been in New Mexico for 5 days. It’s hotter, higher, more colorful, and drier than the Plains. The daily afternoon temperatures are in the high 90s. You bake in the dry heat. It cools to the low 50s at night. My first night was even cooler. The lowest elevation in New Mexico is 2,842 feet, the highest 13,161. Lots of geologic uplift here over the eons. Ancient volcanoes dot the landscape.
Distances between towns is just as great or greater than the Plains. But here there is no reprieve, no safety, from the sun. It is desert and sage brush, rattlesnake country. Multicolored hills, mountains, and mesas keep the long days interesting.
Below is a compilation of notes I made over the last few days. A lack of electrical connections and low battery power kept me from writing at length and uploading. Today, I am in a motel in the town of Chama, just south of Pagaso Springs, Colorado. It is a day to recoup, recharge, write, and rest.
photo by Andre Durand
Day 53 – Friday, July 19
Clayton to Cimarron Canyon State Park, New Mexico
About 135 miles
85° Light Winds, Cloudy to Sunny, Rain at Camp
Freight Trains starting @ 1 a.m. – little sleep.
Two routes out of Clayton, took longer, nearer mountains. Windy, but not as bad as day before. On four-lane road for first 70 miles.
Visited Capulin Volcano National Park. Drove up to rim, 7,877 ft.
Turned southwest in Raton had wind at back for first time in days. Had to drive on Interstate for five miles then Highway 64 to Cimarron. Now on Santa Fe Trail.
Decided to push on into the first mountains I’ve seen in weeks. Beautiful, newly paved mountain road. Loved laying the bike over to make tight turns. That’s what bikes are made for.
Found Cimarron River Campground at the western end of Cimarron Canyon State Park. The campground was designed at a time when RVs were small. Now it is filled with 5th wheels and four door pickups. It was very cramped. Several sites had cancellations or I would not have been able to stay the night. Picked one about four feet above the river (more like a quiet stream.) The open areas were filled with large rocks. It was clear that few people actually tented here. The canyon is narrow with thick trees running along the river. The hills are steep, barren half way up. This is where the rocks come from I’m sure. I set up before the rain, but rain it did.
Lightning flashed along the top of the canyon. A moment later the valley floor shook with thunder. People disappeared into their RVs. I stood around until the rain came, then I too had to seek shelter.
The storm raged then passed. Thunderstorms here come and go. They are not lingering cold fronts. Children came out to ride their bicycles. The man next to me came over and apologized for the loudness of his generator. That was far down on my list of complaints.
The nearest food was 3 miles over a pass (the top of the canyon) in the town of Eagle Nest. I hustled up and over the pass and found a gas station with enough supplies. On the way back the engine gave out. I nearly panicked. A major storm was crossing Eagle Nest Lake. I got Ruby started and nearly made it back, when the engine conked out again. If dying and disappearing into the universe were an option, I would have taken it. Somehow, I got it started again and made it back to the campground.
A second storm arose and forced everyone inside. That was it for me that night. I conked out like Ruby’s engine. No restart.
Day 54 & 55 – Saturday & Sunday, July 20 & 21
Cimarron Canyon State Park to Bandelier National Monument
95° Sunny & Hot, Rain at Night evaporated by morning.
It rained most of the night and the temperature kept dropping. I ended up sleeping with my pants on, a jacket, and a wool cap. At dawn the rain stopped. I emerged from the tent to a very soggy world. I was glad I picked the highest site I could, because the little stream raged.
I packed the campsite up and was on the road at 7:00 a.m. Ruby started and kept running up over the pass and down into the town of Eagle Nest where I hoped to find breakfast. I found an open place who’s owner had moved there a year before from Vermont. The little place filled fast. I had a table for four so offered up some seats to two locals. We had an amusing time talking about dredging the lake for bodies (Eagle Nest has a checkered history), 5th wheels versus scooters, and the best way to attach a pickup truck to the back of an RV. We didn’t solve any world problems, but I felt better for the encounter.
Back on the road I continued to follow Highway 64 west, now dubbed “The Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway”. It goes to Taos. The highway rolled up and into the mountains. The highest elevation I could verify was 9,100 feet. Ruby preformed well, not fast, but well. Traffic was light. On the downhill side I did the speed limit all the way swooping (safely) through all the wonderful turns.
The town of Taos was very busy. A festival was underway. The free parking area was not free. I rode around for a bit and then decided to ride on. I visited Taos before many years ago. The charming old downtown looks the same. No photos this day.
I planned to drive to Los Alamos. South of town I refilled the gas tank. It was now very hot. A mile or two from the gas station on secondary road number 518, the motor cut out. I pulled into a lovely ranch’s entrance. I let time pass, I played with wires, nothing worked. I decided to open Ruby up. I hadn’t done this since Louisville. Off came the bags, off came the seat. Sweat poured out. Everything looked fine. What gizmo was out of whack? In time the engine started and I moved on. This uncertainty is driving me crazy.
I followed secondary roads 518, 75, 76 called “The High Road to Taos” to the city of Española. From there I drove to Los Alamos, home of the nuclear bomb. South of Los Alamos is the former home of Ancestral Pueblo people, Bandelier. Today, it’s a national monument. The campground has three sections. I hoped I wasn’t too late to get a site. No worries. Section C was nearly filled with RVs, but sections A & B were virtually empty. I picked my site and set up. The landscape is rolling and sandy with stubby Juniper trees. It feels like rattlesnake heaven, but none appeared.
You have to take a shuttle bus to get to the actual Bandelier settlement. It is deep in a canyon with little parking. It’s worth the trip. The high cliff dwellings and common stores are fascinating to see. Walking through places where another culture at another time lived and thrived is a heady meditation.
I camped two nights at Bandelier. It was incredibly peaceful.
Day 56 – Monday, July 22
Bandelier National Monument to Carson National Forest
98° Low Humidity, Mostly Sunny until late afternoon
Left Bandelier at 7:40 heading back to Española then north for Heron Lake State Park. Changed oil at an O’Riley’s Auto Store with two KTM riders doing the same thing. Mapped out a route first on Highway 84 then looping into the Ortega Mountains for a picturesque time among the Ponderosa.
The vast areas along Highway 84 have names like Chama Wilderness, Kit Carson, and Santa Fe National Forests. But is 95% sage brush. There is only sage brush. It was hot. For the first time Ruby began to overheat.
That picturesque time in the mountains? Didn’t happen. The road turned to gravel 18 miles in. I had to backtrack. Had lunch at Bode’s in the town of Abiquiu. Bode’s is the Dan & Whits of New Mexico, except Bode’s has a restaurant (my Upper Valley friends will get the reference, all others will have to wonder.) It is THE place to stop. Many serious off-road motorcyclists stop here as do all the RVer’s going down the highway.
My good deed for the day was helping rescue a horse that had gotten loose and was wandering the highway. I was a cowboy for 30 minutes.
Ruby has developed a new problem from the heat. Turning the ignition key on causes the starter to go without touching the start switch. I’ve developed a new starting technique, but wonder if this portents greater problems anon.
Short of the state park massive thunderstorms popped up in all directions. I pulled into a real forrest of trees and made camp before the deluge. Just made it. Long evening & night in tent, but I am worn out from the heat, so it’s relaxing.
Day 57 – Tuesday, July 23
Chama, New Mexico
95° Sunny, Light Breeze
A peaceful night in the Carson National Forest. It rained early, but by morning everything was bone dry. I woke at dawn and broke camp. Ruby’s starting issue continued. It was cool, about 50°. I wore a wind breaker. The town of Tierra Amarallia was 15 miles ahead. All indications pointed to a place for breakfast. However, there were just two gas stations, both closed when I passed through. I pushed on to Chama, another 10 miles. It was supposedly bigger.
I get my information from two sources, my primary mapping program, Apple Maps and the official New Mexico highway map. Both have limitations and are open to interpretation.
From Chama, New Mexico to Page, Arizona is about 300 miles of desert driving. I’m not sure Ruby or I are up to the task. So today I took a break to evaluate my situation.Y Motel, Chama, New Mexico. Amenities: Pay telephone in the last telephone booth.
Day 52 – Thursday, July 18
Beaver Dunes State Park, Oklahoma to Clayton, New Mexico
90° Windy, Sunny with High Cumulus Clouds
Did I say in the last post that the Great Plains aren’t flat? Silly me. Not only are they flat, they are dominated by the atmosphere. Specifically, the wind. Moisture, in the form of clouds, comes and goes. Electricity congeals and strikes, but the wind is master.The short 7 mile drive north from the park was idyllic. I floated along as Ruby accelerated to 55 miles per hour without making her engine purr. The wind was at our backs and I knew it. At the stop sign to Highway 64 we turned left—West—into a day of struggle and labor.
That beautiful floating wind now bashed us from the left side. I could not go faster than 35 mph and retain control. We heeled to port. My shoulder muscles tightened. It was 8:45 a.m. If central Oklahoma undulates, western Oklahoma does not. It is a pancake with no baking soda. The roads are endlessly straight. Electric poles run down the right side or the left and in the endless straightaway, you never see when they shift from one side to the other. They carry four wires. Farm fields in varying states of production stretch to the horizon in all directions.As the wind batters me I must share the road with other vehicles. For the trucks coming head on I reduce my profile by lowering my head until it almost touches the handlebars. And I must reduce speed. Their wind concussion can knock me four feet to the outside. To close to the edge and with one forgetful moment I am down. That never happened. When trucks pass me (there is endless passing opportunities in the Plains) there is a 1 to 3 second period of weightlessness—no buffeting wind. After that I get sucked to the middle of the road, into a small vacuum behind the truck, and a moment later buffeted by its wake. I am always looking in my mirrors for passing vehicles, slowing, bracing. Arduous, but happily, uneventful.
I drove through this part of the country to experience the landscape of the Dust Bowl. The land is flat, the sky is endless, and the wind ferocious. It’s one thing to know that from a documentary, it’s another to be in the center of it looking to the endless horizon, feeling the wind rasp across your skin. How families in the 1930s lived through the dust storms I do not know.
The most common sign you see driving on any of these east/west roads points to the next turn off. It has one word: Cemetery.
Day 51 – Wednesday, July 17
Blackwell to Beaver Dunes Park, Oklahoma
90° Mostly Sunny, Some Thunder Clouds In Distance
What happened to day 50?
There are two state highways running west here, 11 and 64. One just changes into the other. This is the prairie, the Great Plains. It’s flat, but not pancake flat. The terrain undulates. There are streams to cross and rise above. There are farm fields and grazing land. Tucked away here and there are oil pumps. Some moving, some not. Oil company trucks patrol the landscape. I get the feeling oil brings in more money than all the farming. I jumped on Ruby and headed west down Highway 11. We were at the intersection of I-35, which is considered the midpoint in America. I was passing fail safe now. Interestingly, I did a calculation on total miles driven the night before. As of last night, reaching mid-America, I traveled 2,999.3 miles. Does this mean the United States is 6,000 miles across and the Earth is becoming fatter? Global warming? Political gerrymandering? No, scamping. I drove to the little farming/oil community of Medford. Please understand, there is nothing but farm land between small towns and the towns are at least 50 miles apart. Medford was big enough to have a place to eat breakfast I reckoned. Nothing suggested this to be the case on Highway 11 through town. I turned up a street with two story buildings. On a cross street were parked pickup trucks and a store front with “Margie’s Lunchbox” painted on the window. I went in.
First you go in one door from the street, turn 90 degrees and go in a second door. There is no glass. I opened the second door to a sea of hard-scrabble farming faces. Each head adorned with a ball cap, not a cowboy hat. These were farmers, not ranchers. They stared at me. All were male, white, and over 50, probably all over 60. They were dirty as morning chores just finished. This group brought a smile to my face, there was nothing hostile in their demeanor. I said, “Hey! Good morning everyone.” A chorus of ‘Good mornings’ and ‘How ya doin’?’ rang out. I wasn’t one of them, but I was accepted. I have to admit, I love moments like this.
Three elder women sat at a table in the back. As I picked a place to sit one woman said, “You order there,” tipping her head toward the cash register in the center of the room. This system is far more common in America than I am accustomed to, ordering at a counter, grabbing your silverware and condiments, then sitting down. I’ll adapt.
I enjoyed listening to farmers talk about the substantial rain they received over the last two days. They needed it was the consensus . An elderly police officer talking about retirement and Social Security, and I learned donuts are half price on Wednesdays.
One last observation. All the farmers were crippled in some way. Bent over at the waist, hunched at the shoulders, limping from stiff hips. They looked and acted like men who had picked up and moved heavy things all their lives and as soon as they left Margie’s Lunchbox would get back to it.Outside of Medford, as I was cruising down the highway, the engine cut out. I pulled over in the grass. There was a pullout about a hundred yards ahead. I pushed Ruby there. Dread set in. I waited. I tried the starter. Not firing. I tried again. I waited. I removed the front plate to look at the spark plug. No start. Just then a large white pickup truck pulled in. The driver leaned out his window and asked if I had a problem. His name was Mike. He works for an oil company and was driving between rigs. We agreed it would be good to be in the town “Just down the road.” I knew it to be 40 miles away. Just then the bike’s engine started. Magic.
I stopped at the Great Salt Plains State Park. After four days and six inches of rain, it was a lake. Back on the road I reached the town of Alva and refilled the gas tank. I rolled on. In the tiny village of Buffalo with Old West murals on every building was a restaurant – its name unknown to me – the cook made fresh mac & cheese for me. I continued on to the town of Beaver and Beaver Dunes State Park. Some ancient ocean put a huge sand dune here. Over time dune buggy riders discovered it. From the trails you can see it is heavily traveled. However, the only other campers there were two oil rig workers in their RV. The place was completely empty.The evening went from pleasant to heavy wind and thunderstorm potential to pleasant again. Welcome to the Great Plains.
Days 48 & 49
Roaring River State Park, Missouri to Nowata, Oklahoma to Blackwell, Oklahoma
75°-80° Overcast & Variable, Thunderstorms, Partial Sun
168.1 & 126.5 miles
Left the fishing family fun of Roaring Brook for the rolling hills of eastern Oklahoma and then prairie. Discovered Oklahoma county roads may not be paved. Decided to travel on Highways 60 and 11 across northern Oklahoma. A truck with “Storm Chaser” written in large letters across its top passed me heading into the darkening distance. I wondered what I would do if the weather turned suddenly bad. I crossed several large man-made lakes and finally into large rain drops. I put on my rain gear. Then a mile down the road I turned north into blazing sun. Sweat filled my rain suit.
On Monday I vacillated between continuing west into dark skies or staying in a horrid roach infested room another night. I opted for tornadoes. It turned out well. The ride was cool and traffic light. Not until I reached the town of Blackwell and Interstate 35 did I have to wear my rain coat.
Along the way I passed through the tiny ranching & oil community of Shidler. Most of the few buildings on Main Street were empty and boarded up. The highway turns 90 degrees here from north to west. At the turn I spotted a low red building with the word Café written on its side. There were cars & trucks parked in front. I pulled in and parked under the porch overhang in case it rained.Long thick plank tables with mismatched chairs filled the dining area. The walls were covered in stuffed animal heads, sculptures, and rodeo photographs. Many of the photos were of someone or something called “The One Arm Bandit.”
This is cattle country. Mandy’s Cafe is for carnivores. No worries. The Australian accented waitress brought me a grilled cheese and hand-cut steak fries. As I sat eating a tall man with a white cowboy hat walked up and began talking. He sat down across from me. We talked about traveling, oil wealth, native peoples, cattle, flint mines, and the One Arm Bandit.The man’s name is Holton Payne, Shidler High School class of 1945. He is patriarch of the Payne clan. The One Arm Bandit is his son, John, a rodeo entertainer. Mandy is John’s wife, also a rodeo entertainer, and owner of the café. Holton and his wife have a slew of children, I couldn’t keep them straight. They have 16 great-grandchildren. When I said I had not yet seen any long horn steers, Holton said he’d drive me to see some. We piled into his minivan and he gave me a tour of Shidler on our way to the farm. The farm began only a few blocks from the café. In one large fenced area were long horn cattle, in other areas, were lamas, horses, zebras, and dogs. The One Arm Bandit trained each to do something special in a rodeo ring.Holton drove his minivan across fields like it was a jeep. We followed a Zebroid, a cross between a horse and a zebra, hoping to get a closeup shot. It wasn’t interested. We drove through the business section of John’s farm. Large farm machinery is everywhere. He has a warehouse in an old railroad depot. The tracks are long gone. We drove back to the café.About a dozen children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren arrived while we were gone. It was high energy, very inviting, but time for me to move on. We said goodbye. Holton invited me back. There is more he wants me to see.
Days 46 & 47 – Friday & Saturday, July 12 & 13
Roaring River State Park
95° Sunny, Hot & Humid, Cool Nights
The Roaring River is a trout fisher-persons heaven. In the 1930s the CCC didn’t just build a nice park here, they built a fish hatchery just outside the natural spring feeding the waterway. Here are some photos.