Thursday, 19 November 2009

Day 909 - Alamogordo, New Mexico

I sat outside the library in Safford waiting for it to open, it should have opened 15 minutes earlier according to it’s opening times. But it was never going to open, it was 11th November, Veterans Day and a National Holiday. I left on the same road as I entered, route 70. It climbed very gently for most of the 30 miles to Duncan, then when it came into view the road dropped back down. I stopped at the visitor centre, they had free internet access so I ordered a large coffee and settled down. They were a friendly bunch and even refused payment for the coffee as I left. Another few miles bought me to New Mexico, ‘The Land of Enchantment’ and also the land of fenced in roads. I spotted a barbed wire gate, undid it and found a secluded spot to camp for the night.

Morning brought another bash into the headwind. I was still on route 70, though New Mexico had no sponsorship for litter clearing, in fact they had no litter clearing of any description, there were bottles for the whole of the 46km to Lordsburg. How come discarded bottles can be so evenly spread? There was hardly a 10m stretch that didn’t have bottles littering the road. The wind wasn’t too bad, but it did keep my maximum speed down to a frustratingly low 18kph. Lordsburg was the only town of any size that I would pass through in the next few days so I would have to stock up there with food there, but arriving at 11:30am I had just missed closing time on all the shops… about 10 years. Everything was boarded up, there was nothing, it looked like a ghost town. It did have motels though, the cheapest motels I have seen anywhere at $26, but if they had offered me a room for free I still would have stayed in the tent. I have seen some pretty run down towns in the USA, but this was the ‘run-est’ down of them all. The only place that was doing business was Flying J, a truck stop. They stocked a little food so I wasn’t going to starve, but they had nothing I wanted. Things were so bad that I had to buy bread and peanut butter, I hate peanut butter! I ate some before I set off, it was yuk. I had some with strawberry jam to help disguise the taste. I really wasn’t looking forward to the afternoon’s ride, into that headwind but this time on Interstate 10, a freeway, and being a busy road compared with route 70 would probably mean it would be knee deep in bottles. I set off and to my surprise I was soon motoring, flying along never going slower than the mornings maximum speed, I had a big smile of my face, that peanut butter was good stuff, I love peanut butter. May be I have had a peanut butter deficiency for the last couple of years. It is so good it even made the wind change directions. I covered the 40km in no time and reached my exit. I stopped to contemplate carrying on along the freeway I had enjoyed it that much, there were hardly any bottles either. But sense prevailed and I went south on the 146 for the 19 miles in a side wind to Hachita, crossing the continental divide along the way. I arrived there with an hour of daylight to spare. I couldn’t find the post office so asked a couple working on a fence, I also asked them if they knew where Sam Hughes lives “He lives there, next door”. Ok, so not much of a coincidence, it’s not exactly a huge place, but it is another shabby place, every building looks as though it as about to fall down, including Sam‘s house and the churches (photo). I stopped outside the post office to see if Wizard Dave or the Jaguar King would show up….nothing, nada, not a sausage! I am sure that if Dave was a real wizard the he would have known I was there. I went back to call on Sam. The door was wide open but he was out though his little dog was in, a cute little thing no bigger than a loaf of bread. The woman across the road called me over, “Just camp in Sam’s yard, he wont mind, people camp in his yard all the time.” The Continental Divide Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada starts/finishes nearby and Sam is a ‘trail angel’ who helps people out with lifts and drops water off etc. He arrived back as I was swinging in his garden chair “I have just been shopping” he said, “Where do you get your food?” I asked, “Deming, 52 Miles away”. I told him I came through Lordsburg “There are no shops there. That place is too dumb to die” he told me. “Here, give me a hand with my groceries. I only went to Deming to buy these and I came back with a new pickup as well”, a recurring problem by the look of the 4 other vehicles in the yard “I need a 4 wheel drive to ferry the walkers and the cyclists around” he told me. “I take it you have met the dog, his name is Bear, come on Bear dog”. We went inside and chatted over a cold beer. I looked through his visitors book and saw that Christine had been there on 9th November 2007, 2 years ago almost to the day. Sam told me about his gold prospecting, “Every time I go I find gold, the only problem is that I never find enough to cover the cost of the petrol to get me there”. He showed me where to camp “I don’t want you to camp there, I have been watering it for you campers and I don’t want you waking up with a wet arse!”
Sam was up before me, had been out and returned with a wolf skin, you can never have enough wolf skins! I had sought out Sam for some advice of getting a new 6 month visitor permit from the Antelope Wells border crossing 45 miles south. He suggested I head 45 miles east to Columbus. I was glad he said that, I wasn’t looking forward to the 90 mile round trip south, so I said farewell and set off into another side wind. His instructions to get there were spot on “Go to the end of the road, turn right and when you reach the stop sign in 45 miles, that is Columbus, there is nothing in between, not even a junction“. The road was very quiet, most of the vehicles were Border Control vehicles complete with little ’mobile prisons’ on the back. The road runs along, and about 3 miles north of the Mexican border. As I rode along the wind swung around again and I cruised the last few miles at 35kph, then turned south and made very slow progress over the last 3 miles to the border. It turned out to be a waste of time, they wouldn’t renew my permit, even if I left and came back I would still only have until March 15th to be out of the USA. The guy I spoke to was pretty thick mind, despite telling I wasn’t going to Mexico and hadn’t come from there he kept asking how long I would be in Mexico and when I said I wasn‘t going there he then kept asking how long I had spent there. Still, it was worth a try. I stopped for a coffee in Columbus, it felt more Mexican than American that’s for sure. I set off east again through 60 miles of nothingness towards El Paso, still running just north of the border. As dusk was on its way a Border Control guy stopped me. “You know this road is very dangerous, there are lots of problems with drug smugglers and people trafficking. Where are you staying tonight?”, “In a tent, beside the road” I told him. “We have a post 40 miles ahead if that is any good for you” he told me, but there was no way I wanted to ride another 40 miles, so I told him roughly where I would camp. A few miles further on he was parked up beside the road “If you head up this track you can camp near the hill on the left and I will let the nightshift know you are there”. That was pretty good of him, but I felt pretty sure that if I tucked myself away as usual I would be pretty unlucky to be stumbled upon be anybody, other than the fact that my tyre tracks through the sand would lead directly to my tent. I found a suitable spot and set up the tent distracted by a wonderful sunset. The wind picked up and gave the tent a bit of a shaking, then suddenly it dropped completely. There was total silence, I could here every little movement outside which just made me listen even harder. I have seen so many hares in the desert, I suspected there was some nearby. I think I preferred it with the wind, it didn’t play tricks on the mind. I could hear howling coyotes nearby too, I presumed that meant there weren’t too many people in the area. There was no moon light, it was very dark, so long as I didn’t use any light I would surely be fine.

When I am cycling I need a sugar fix and getting that has been pretty easy in the USA. In Phoenix I bought some jelly beans, they are normally pretty good, but I think I ate too many and they did some weird things to me. Me vision went a bit funny and the following day my legs felt as though they were about to cramp up, nothing to do with cycling, no, no, no! I gave the second packet I had to Julie to take to work with her and gave her a health warning. Since then I bought some Spice Drops going cheap. They look like fruit pastels, but unlike the jelly beans you can’t eat too many as they taste disgusting. They are flavoured with spearmint, cloves etc, but the worst ones are the Deep Heat flavour. They taste so bad that I cover them in peanut butter to improve the flavour.

So what can I tell you about New Mexico? Here are a few useless facts: It’s the only state to include ’USA’ on vehicle license plates: Lakes and rivers make up only .002% of the states total surface, the lowest ratio of all 50 states. With that in mind the weather forecast for the next two days stating there was 10% chance of precipitation didn’t scare me: The City of Truth or Consequences was once called Hot Springs and changed it’s name to the title of a popular radio quiz program. (Oxford could change it’s name to “I’m Sorry, I haven’t a clue” ideal for a University City! People could then say “I graduated at….I‘m sorry, I haven‘t a clue“: The state constitution officially states that New Mexico is bilingual and one in three families speak Spanish at home, and Spanish must be used in all truck stops (Actually I added that last bit based on a survey I did on the one truck stop I have been in).

I survived the night close to the Mexican border, but you guessed that by the fact that I am writing this. Before I left I stood and looked across the wonderful landscape in front of me. It made me look at it through different eyes. Somewhere out there, unseen to the naked eye, there were probably people walking north, heading in this direction, heading for the ‘promised land’. In front of me was a man made border and the people living on either side live very different lives. Sure, some of those people heading in this direction would have bad intentions, but the majority would probably just be seeking a better life for themselves and their families. I could relate to them a little bit, my request to stay longer had been rejected, but unlike them I am sure I can eventually have my request accepted. I made my way back to the dirt track that would take me to the road. Somehow part of a cactus with thick spikes had become embedded in my leg. I pulled it out and blood started to flow down my leg and soon my foot was covered in blood too. Still a puncture of the leg is easier to repair than a puncture of a tyre. About 5 miles further along the road I heard a couple of gun shots, thankfully not aimed at me, probably just another wildlife lover out for the day. I reached the end of the road and back to civilisation. I turned north and made my way along a valley, now I was riding amongst farms and trees, such a stark contrast to just a few minutes ago. I had already covered 80km and was in need of food, but there is never anything when you really need it. I found a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and had a late Mexican breakfast. Just a few miles further on a woman stopped her car and took some photographs of me and called out as I passed. I stopped and we chatted, she was a professional photographer and gave me one of her card. I instantly recognised the photo as the one hanging next to me on the wall in the restaurant. She, like me, had worked in IT before turning to photography and had no qualifications or training but was making a living from her work and was even looking at opening a museum. I liked her saying that “you have to live your passion”. I found her inspirational. It seemed to take an age to get to Las Cruses, though it was pleasant passing through orchards of Pecan nut trees with their last throws of autumn colours. Once I starting heading into the city it meant that I was committed to getting out the other side and time was against me. Signposting was typically useless. I was looking for route 70 again, it left the city as a freeway, yet nobody seemed to know how to get to it. I asked another couple the way “Can you tell me how to get to route 70 to Alamagordo?”, “Yes Sir, head down that road, past Madrid then right on Main Sir”. It’s all very polite around here “Yes Sir”, “No Sir” though it sounds very strange to me. I thankfully didn’t have to go too far, it was getting dark, I spotted some scrub and camped amongst it, about 200m from a large gas station with a Subway.

That Subway proved to be too tempting by the following morning so I wasn’t really on the move until I had consumed a bucket of coffee. Straight away a climb was looming ahead of me, strange, it hadn’t been there the previous night. Perhaps coffee was having the same effect on my eyes as the Jelly Beans, but my altimeter soon confirmed that it wasn’t just the coffee. The good thing is that I was climbing without any effort, the wind was giving me a good push. I passed the last town/suburb of Organ and before long was heading over the pass of San Agustin at 5719ft. The descent the other side was nice, but the wind a little unnerving. Once on the level again the wind was coming the other way, progress now seemed mighty slow again. To both sides of the roads were military areas with White Sands Missile Test Centre to my left. This is a sensitive area, I even had to have my passport checked, but by late afternoon I had arrived at White Sands National Monument. Let me give you a brief description of the place: It’s a National Park full of White Sand, there, that didn’t take long did it. With a strong wind still blowing and only a couple of hours daylight still remaining I decided to go into the park the following day so passed my time in the visitor centre and the gift shop where I managed to talk my way into a couple of cups of free coffee. I carried on a couple of miles, left the missile testing area and found a wildlife area where camping was permitted. There were signs showing binoculars pointing to the viewing areas, but they were also for hunting, so this wildlife/hunting thing was raising its head again. I guess you can spot stuff with your binoculars and say “Oh look, isn’t that wonderful, I have never seen one of those before….aaah and look, there are its babies, that is s-o-o cute”, then you can blow its brains out! This place was catering fully for the wildlife enthusiast, so if you didn’t want to take the wildlife home and hang it on the wall, you could camp and cook it over a fire, instant gratification. I had some time to spare before it got dark, I had a little snoop around for any wildlife….I saw nothing, diddly squat. I guess some bastard had been there before me and shot the lot! I don’t know if it shows, but I am still struggling a bit with this American wildlife issue. Since Phoenix where it was hot every day, the weather has been really nice for cycling, sunny but not too hot, I have been able to cycle in shorts, t-shirt and sandals from morning until evening. It’s been pretty flat too, though still at about 4,000ft elevation. I was camped right beside a lake and for the first time the temperature was dropping rapidly, it was obviously going to be a cold night, so it was timely that the third and final zip on my tent should jam and lock solid. It looks as though it is time for a new tent.

By morning the water bottles were frozen, I hadn’t expected it to be that cold. I made my way back to White Sands National Monument, and well worth a visit it was too. The road through it was only about 8 miles long to a dead end, but an incredible sight (photo). The roads were packed gypsum and the sand was stacked at the side. With it being a cold morning it felt as though I was cycling through ploughed snow, the picnic area at the end being a surreal sight indeed, they looked like barbecue fires in the snow. The further into the park the less vegetation there was until at the end it was just pure sand. I climbed up some of the dunes to look at the views across to the mountains and promptly broke the park rules by taking some of the sand out in my shoes, tut, tut. I rode the 15 miles or so into Alamogordo, I could see it as soon as I left the park, it looked downhill all the way, which it definitely wasn’t, and seemed to take an age to get there. I was Couch Surfing with Pat and Nori. When I arrived they were just about to have dinner with a couple of family members, Florie from California and Joe from Miami, so I was made very welcome by them all and had a really enjoyable evening.

The following day Pat decided to take half a day off work and came back to pick me up and take me on a little tour. Pat is ex-military and now works as a civilian and the Holloman Air Force Base, so that is where the tour started. It’s a large base with about 10,000 personnel. The base had everything from churches to a shopping mall and bowling alley, a complete self contained community. The whole site is purely for testing and I saw various aircraft both in flight and on the ground including a little remote controlled aircraft that was circling above. From there we went via a cycle shop to the Space Museum, aptly here as much of the space technology is also tested here at White Sands. Incidentally, the world’s first atom bomb was tested on the sight on 16th July 1945 and less than 3 weeks later the real thing was used on Hiroshima in Japan. At the Space museum was Sonic Wind No.1. Dr John Stapp used this to test the effects g-forces had on the human body, tested at White Sands. The guy was a nutter, he strapped himself to the thing and a bunch of little rockets on the back took him pretty quickly along a track to a speed of 632mph. That was the easy bit, the deceleration was back to standstill in 1.4 seconds and I still can’t understand why it didn’t kill him. I guess if you are doing the test yourself you carry out your research beforehand pretty thoroughly. The museum was fascinating, but I am no rocket scientist, so most of it was way above me, but I found the simplest thing the most incredible. It was outside and called the whispering dish. There were two small satellite dish type things 20m apart and with one of us at each dish you could face the dishes and whisper into the centre of them I could hear as clearly as if Pat was right beside me whispering in my, amazing.

Since my failure at the border to get a visitor permit renewal I have slowly been accepting that things are not looking so good for an extended stay here. Christine, with her extensive knowledge of the US and love of searching out information has today just about put the final nail in the coffin with the information she has provided me. My only chance left has been to get a permit extension, but it will cost $300 and you need a very good reason to stay any longer than 6 months and if they refuse your request you get no refund and your existing visa which lasts 10 years will be made void. I suspect that if I apply and say “I don’t want to cycle north in February as it makes my poor little tootsies a bit cold” that I might well get rejected, and as I may want to return in the next 10 years it is a big gamble. So I am slowly but surely beginning to realise that this trip is finally coming to an end and that I have to be in New York by the middle of March. It then looks as though I will have to return home and face the music. I have enjoyed this trip immensely, I still am and I don’t want it to end.


caff said...

Great bunch of photos. I was surprised by the white sands of the Arizona but Kevin put me right about the location of them. I look forward to reading about it later :-)

caff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr Larrington said...

I went to Alamogordo in 2005.

It was shut :-(

JCH said...

John, your blog had me laughing this morning. I loved your change of heart about peanut butter, and your comments about viewing wildlife and then hunting it. Guess I didn't persuade you to the "Western" view of wildlife as a resource, huh?
Your progress on this journey is amazing. I can't believe how far you've traveled from Phoenix in such a short period of time. I would still be somewhere in Mesa.
Take care and remember that things will always work out fine, visa extension or no visa extension. It's going to work out for you.

Harpo said...


Are you likely to be travelling to, through or near Austin TX?

If so, I may be able to arrange a reception party for you!

And it just might pull a few string with a visa extension.

Just give me the nod. :)

Maria said...

Know well the feeling of sinking that comes with the realisation that all good things come to an end. We are back in Oz and nearing home.
But ecstatic that we made the journey we did.

aoiffe said...

I was going to sugggest that you try the peanut butter that is just peanuts and a pinch of salt, lovely with sliced apples in a sandwich. But then I remembered who I was talking to so take a slice of toast, spread cheap peanut butter with loads of salt, sugar and oil added and then (carefully) melt marshmallows onto it and then top with raspberry jam - I think you will like it.

dad said...

Harpo Has surfaced again,this time with a suggestion that you stay away even longer!! Just when I was looking forward to seeing you again.

John Harwood said...

Harpo, I am indeed heading towards Austin, in fact I have to go there. My cash card has expired and my new one has been sent to Austin, so I have to great there on the small amount of cash I am carrying.

I am intrigued by your reception party, do tell me more!


Tico Torres said...

Hey John,

Thanks! It was such a great feeling to see the ocean appear in the horizon and realize that we actually made it across on these old bicycles! How did you like NM? Did you get the smells of burning sage and cedar upon entering the state? Everyday we rode through there the air smelled so amazing. I love that state. I don't suppose you made it up to silver city?

Love reading the blog and getting to see what Jerry and I missed along the southern tier. You have some excellent photos on there too!!

Good luck on getting an extension!

talk to you soon

Basher Barlow said...

Beastie... This posting from the USA is a fake, even I know the yanks call Jam 'Jelly' so surely you had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which is almost a national dish, in fact could be consider cordon bleu compared to their other fast food offerings. You are talking about coming home, ARE YOU MAD, BROWN IS STILL IN OFFICE !

Les, Jessie and Mollie say Hi !