Twenty miles from Hatch, New Mexico and halfway to nowhere marked the first place I questioned my decision to go bikepacking. Rain fell sideways. Semi-trucks swayed like bird feeders in a blizzard, nearly side-swiping me off the shoulder of New Mexico Highway 26.
“Should we keep going?” my girlfriend shouted.
“Should we keep going?”
“I don’t see anywhere to stop.”
By morning on Christmas Eve, the town of Hatch was begging to close its doors. Dust swirled people inside. At the lone open store, women ducked out of cars and returned minutes later with bags of tamales. Chile fields lay bare. Even the crows seemed content with what they’d gleaned.
Bikepacking is a new word and a new concept to me. The sport combines elements of backpacking and bike touring to create a sleeker, off-road, and more expensive way to carry shit.
In reality, bikepacking feels more like hiking with a lawn mower. You load your bike with a sleeping bag, tent, food, water and repair equipment, only to push, drag, carry and occasionally ride it on dirt roads, single-track trails and everything in between. Much the same way I had looked forward to the smooth relief of pavement riding on New Mexico 26, I had eagerly awaited this trip.
My journey to Las Cruces and to bikepacking started as a romantic vision fueled by internet fantasies. Much the same way political extremists find company in the dark-recesses of internet chat rooms, I found inspiration on bikepacking.com. Gorgeous photos and humorous trip reports reel in adventure lovers. While a bike cult seems relatively harmless, there’s always the pitch. Ride your souped-up bike far enough — outfitted, of course, with expensive products that site reviewers conveniently recommend — and you will achieve enlightenment.
Biking 250 miles in desert borderlands on a single-speed Craigslist clunker seemed to meet the arbitrary qualifications for a noteworthy trip: long enough and remote enough that others might take notice. I would head into the wild, carrying nothing but the bare necessities (and a satellite communication device) to find myself. Or was I running from some part of me?
My trip formally began three days before Christmas when my girlfriend/potential rescuer and I stuffed our gear into her Toyota Corolla. The frenzy of anxiety-driven purchases was over. No more Flat Attack tire sealant or Fiber-Fix spoke repair kits to buy. Whatever we had with us, or managed to bungee cord to bikes, would have to suffice. As a novice bikepacker, I had no sense of which fears were legitimate and which were overblown.
We drove south, jumping between outposts that conveniently sell both fossils and fuel. Toxic colored energy drinks propped our eyelids open for the 10-hour drive from Colorado Springs. We arrived at the outskirts of Las Cruces at 1 a.m. and pitched a tent next to three snoring Mercedes Sprinter vans.
The next morning, sunlight splashed over the Organ Mountains — a wall of crocodilian armor guarding the valley below.
In December, the Rio Grande outside of Las Cruces shrinks to a mere trickle. The riverbed becomes a sandy playground for rogue ATVs and dune buggies. I expected to see a lush valley, but in the desert, life grows outwards from wells and Walmarts. Various shades of brown, tan, auburn, sage and gray form the palette of overgrazed shrub lands and high desert peaks.
We pedaled out of Las Cruces, learning to balance our fully-loaded bikes. Locals gave us strange looks as they passed in diesel trucks or California-plated sedans. We returned the stares with the curiosity of newly-arrived travelers.
Agricultural ditches form the arteries of the Rio Grande valley. With a little creative ignorance and disregard of private property signs, it’s possible to traverse between towns on the quiet dirt paths that run along each ditch. I quickly encountered my first taste of desert thorns. Goatheads seemed to hear my tires coming, jumping on at the last moment to hitch a ride. On narrow paths, tall, ocotillo plants greeted us with their thorny tentacles
We passed recently-harvested pecan groves, fallow cotton fields, and fresh-plowed dirt. Pecan trees grew in neatly planted rows. The symmetry and order seemed out of place in the otherwise chaotic desert ecosystem. Workers raked leaves from trees and some used three wheeled machines, called ShockWaves, to harvest nuts. Each ShockWave would wrap its arms around the trunk and send a massive vibration, shaking nuts from the tree into the machine’s tray below.
The transition from town to country was slow and imperceptible. Houses grew further apart and roosters crowed on beat. Unlike hiking, which often lures adventure seekers into designated wilderness areas or traditionally scenic locations, traveling by bike reveals the good, the bad and the ugly. Nature peaked out through unfinished housing developments, power lines and dirt paths. Traveling along the edge of the Organ Mountains Wilderness Area, plants began to reclaim historic roads. The boundary between protected and exploitable land was thin. Cattle ignored any distinctions.
Signs of history and human influence emerged revealing the dynamic relationship between people and land. Litter told stories about drivers. Bud Light cans rusting in the dirt did little to assuage my fears of a drunk driver ramming us off the road. Other items, like a collection of cutlery, evenly spaced along the road created more questions than answers. I imagined a silverware truck with a hole in the rear or a family on a road trip, trying to hit a cactus with a spoon. Someday, archeologists will roam the countryside collecting fossilized litter. They will marvel at our footprint or laugh at our stupidity.
I found perhaps the most striking example of the fusion between nature and technology in the various types of roadkill we passed. Excluding birds, we saw more dead animals than live ones. Dogs, cats, skunks and raccoons melded with asphalt, hair sticking out of the tar. Each rubber tire stamped their pancaked bodies deeper into the hot tarmac. Carcasses transitioned from organism to infrastructure.
Guard dogs posed the most serious animal threat. Dogs left free to roam gave chase when they heard our bikes coming. With a boost of speed, a dose of adrenaline, and gravel bullets at the ready in one hand, we sped by most of the small, yapping Chihuahuas. Several times, pit-bulls and German shepherds blocked our paths, eager to protect their turf. We walked our bikes, taking long detours, only to arouse a chorus of criticism from other neighborhood sentries.
Signs of the vibrant history of Southern New Mexico began to show themselves. We passed a cave Geronimo used to escape U.S. Cavalry invaders. At grocery store resupply stops, locals jumped between Spanish and English with remarkable dexterity. Border patrol checkpoints reminded us of the political power wielded to control this remarkably inhospitable desert landscape. We passed a crater Apollo astronauts used for training, presumably because of its otherworldliness. I wondered whether to trust the government’s claims about the harmlessness of fallout from the nearby Trinity bomb site.
As we neared the end of our trip, I finally loosened up, happy to have avoided injuries, fatal thorn attacks and mechanical issues. We had pushed our bikes up heinous climbs, but the road treated us to screaming descents. Hot days gave way to cool nights. We camped above little towns like Vinton, Texas and reveled in a holiday light display of sorts as evening lights flickered on. We discussed the merits of various dollar stores and on hot afternoons, took refuge in the refrigerated aisles of gas stations. For Christmas dinner, we ate outside a Conoco, thankful for the limitless water, ice and cans of Pringles.
I had come for the ‘nature,’ but my favorite moments were those shared with other people. On our last day, we came across two women whose car had run out of gas. I helped push the woman’s 56’ Chevrolet to her house.
“I’m four houses down,” she told me.
I soon learned four houses on a county road is a creative way to measure a mile. I smiled and pushed with her friend who was in town for the weekend. Other cars pulled over. Their passengers squeezed along the bumper and joined us. The woman invited us to camp in her yard, insisting we stay for dinner. We sadly declined and carried on, eager to make it back to our own beds sooner.
Bikepacking, on the one hand, serves as a vacation, an escape from real life. On the other hand, it’s a physically taxing way to see our country. The satisfaction comes in short bursts. Bodily effort seems to imprint memories and landmarks deeper. Getting off the couch and into the bike saddle, slows everything down and allows landscapes to jump out and surprise you. I was amazed by the variety of roads we traveled on and felt motivated to find similar wildness in my backyard. Encounters with hospitable people and bean burritos made the challenging journey worthwhile. Bikes can become time machines to other worlds.