Pat and Nori who I stayed with in Alamogordo are badminton players. It would have been nice to have had a game with them but unfortunately the only courts in town were having their floor relayed and so were out of action. I discovered on the last night that they are New Mexico State veteran doubles champions and Pat has been state singles champion for the last 6 years, so on reflection it appears that the new floor saved my embarrassment.
Having stocked up on food I made my way out of town turning onto route 82. From the turning it was 16 miles to Cloudcroft, uphill all the way with an elevation gain of 4,300ft. After a couple of days rest I felt really good, I was even enjoying the climb and making good progress heading up. It made for some fine views looking back across the valley to White Sands in the distance. I was too hot, but it cooled as I climbed and headed into the tree line. Near the top I passed a parked car, the driver stood outside watching me “Well done, that’s impressive” he said as I passed which made me feel good and confirmed I was going well despite not having any breaks on the climb, then he called out “I have never seen anybody cycle that slow without falling off!” That rather wiped the smile off my face and put me firmly in my place. Another mile saw me at the pleasant little town of Cloudcroft at an elevation of 8,700ft. I had a look around the old wooden shops, very colourful and some of them were tempting looking cafes. Time was getting on, shadows were already long and I wanted to descend a little before I camped for the night, it was sure to be cold. The descent was very gradual, no chance of freewheeling but fast cycling never the less, though even slow cycling would have seemed fast after the long climb. There were plenty of camping opportunities near the top but as I dropped down there were houses and ranches all the way along. After another 16 miles I reached a free and empty campsite. Despite wanting to carry on further I was unlikely to find a better spot to camp, so I called it a day. It was already cold, I was glad to get in the tent and get a brew on the go.
I had been comfortable overnight so was surprised to find that it was -5 c outside. Camping in the cold is great so long as you don’t get out of your sleeping bag and as yet I haven’t perfected packing up and cycling whilst remaining nice and warm inside it, but I will no doubt have plenty of opportunities to perfect the operation in the coming months. At least it is a dry cold here, it doesn’t have the same impact as when it is damp. With a slow day yesterday I knew I wouldn’t make it to Artesia in one day. It was still -2 when I set off and after just 2km I even cycled passed a gas station with a sign saying ’Free Coffee’. The road was still heading downwards through attractive scenery, the sun was warming things up and all was right in the world. The decent continued where it had left off the previous day, gentle but making for fast riding. I was going well again and covered 80km without a stop. I was approaching Hope, I was hoping for a coffee, but it didn’t look good. I called in at the little wooden store and sure enough they served coffee, they even put a fresh brew on for me so I made myself comfy in the large soft chair right beside the fire. I got talking to the owner Fran (photo). He told me that there used to be 7000 people if Hope, but the water ran out, the orchard crops failed, ranches could no longer support their livestock and people left. That was a long time ago, but now the population is down to just 75. Water is still there, the loo flushed, I don’t see what the problem is! I am getting good at talking, it’s all to do with travelling alone, you have to talk to somebody. I have also noticed that the amount of free coffee I am given is directly proportional to the amount of talking I do, Fran refused payment. I tore myself away from the fire and carried on. I was still going well, I made it to Artesia in good time, I even made it to 20km beyond, so having covered 145km I had made much better progress than I had expected. It is still at around 3,000ft, but it is flat, for the first time in weeks I can look all around me and not even see a hill, let alone a mountain. There must surely be some more lurking around somewhere.
I made good time in reaching Carlsbad. My intention here was to use the internet for about an hour and then head of for the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a further 20 miles down the road. My plans rarely work out and today was no exception. Everybody seemed to be talking to me, I was getting nowhere fast, there were even another two cyclists at the library and what’s more we were all heading for Austin, Texas. Doug had been here a couple of weeks waiting for a part for his bike, Ari and his friend who I never saw were looking for work, so it looked as though I would still be leaving on my own. They approach was different to mine, they had spent the previous night sleeping outside a large Walmart store, so I told them all about Couch Surfing, Ari looked really pleased, I felt I had done my good deed for the day. As I was about to start riding a voice called out “I just heard you talking in there, are you from Scotland” a guy asked, “No, they talk funny up there, even I can’t understand them, I am from England”. He started talking about his friend “His name is Guy Lutman, have you met him, he is a lovely guy”. That always makes me laugh, people expect you to know everybody, of course I haven’t met him, this is a big place….but hang on a minute, I went rummaging around in my bar bag and came out with a business card “Yeah, I have met him, about two hours ago”, this must be a smaller place than I expected. I clearly wasn’t going to make it to the caverns by closing time, so sat and chatted to all and sundry, then wished Ari all the best and eventually left town with enough time to head out and find a place to camp. I found a good spot nobody would ever pass, but a couple of hours later to my surprise I heard nearby voices, though I don’t think they saw me.
The following morning I reached Whites City, hardly a city, more just a row of tourist’s shops. I asked somebody the way to the caves “Are you going up there on that?”, “Yes, I think so” I replied “Well you will able to coast the whole way back”, “Oh, I thought I was there, how far is it?”, “About another 7 miles”….oh poo! Today wasn’t going to go to plan either. The climb was gentle, I would rather not have had this bonus climb, but other than that I quite enjoyed it, the views across the plains from the top were well worth it. There were options for heading into the caverns, either an hour’s walk or an elevator, this is America after all. I chose to walk, not many people did. As I was about to enter I was given a briefing which included being told only to whisper as sound carry very well down there. I didn’t have to worry about that, I had a much bigger problem, my shoes. The metal cleats on the bottom ground into the rough surface, the noise echoing around the caverns, people stopped to see what on earth was going on. It acted as a good ice-breaker and got me chatting to the Rangers that were down there. I think my accent helps with talking to people, I become somebody of interest, but I also think I have become a real gas-bag, so watch out for when I return Cathy! The path twisted its way down through various caverns dropping to 750ft below the surface. On entering the Big Room, the biggest cavern in the US, I met up with all those that had come down via the elevator including bus loads of soldiers who seemed to be on a route march, I think they were afraid of the dark. The cavern was incredible, a massive space dripping with stalactites and other wonderful formations the names of which I can’t remember. At times there were views down into lower caves, the place was vast. One area was called the Fairyland, a very good description, full of all sort of goodies that sadly don’t come out of photographs, due to the lack of light. I made my way up in the elevator, the shaft being through solid rock that took 2000 tons on explosive and 9 months to complete. I had lunch with a view at the top, joined by a small army of wasps. Where did they come from, this country hasn’t had any bugs that have been a nuisance. Heading back was a coast, downhill all the way. I had to retrace right past where I had camped the previous night. A little before the turn-off I saw a cyclist coming the other way, surely it can’t be Ari already. I pulled over, it wasn’t Ari, it was Robin from Seattle, 10 weeks into a tour around the country. That is going some, everybody I meet seems to be travelling so much faster than me, they all make me feel so idle. She too was heading for Austin via Big Bend National Park. We talked at the roadside for a while, she wouldn’t reach the caverns by last entry time, so I suggested we go for a coffee and camp the night together. At the grocery the woman said she wasn’t allowed to make coffee after noon, but she still kindly put a pot on for us. She must have been able to tell that I am now an addict and would have caused trouble if he didn’t put any on.
Being as we were both heading for Austin I asked if Robin would like some company. She wanted to visit the cavern first. Now I am never fond of tracing my steps, but going up that climb again was beyond a joke. Robin is faster than me, I struggled to talk and keep up with the climbing at the same time. As we parked the bikes a passing woman said “Wow, I saw you at the bottom of the hill and you re here already, you are fast!”, odd that, I am told how slow I am when I am on my own. Robin walked down through the natural entrance to the caves and I met her an hour later by taking the elevator. Being a Monday it was much quieter down there and I was surprised at how much I saw that I hadn’t seen the previous day, so well worth a second look, especially as the ticket lasts for three days. We dropped back to Whites City and tried to stock up on food. The grocery we had been in yesterday was poorly stocked, most of the shelves were empty, so I just bought beans and a tin of pears. “How much are the pears?” I asked, they didn’t have a price on, “Oh, let’s call it $1.50” she replied, “That’s very reasonable” I said rather stupidly “Ok, $2 then” she answered. We set off south down route 180 into a headwind, it was hard going all the way, but we worked together sharing the load at the front which made it a little easier. We stopped at a rest area and filled up on water, it tasted terrible! The wind didn’t get any better, but a climb just made things worse. We were both tiring so called it a day and found a rocky area to camp in. Robin is clearly less fussy about where she camps. I walked around looking for a good spot, she was stood by the bikes and when I returned said “I really need a place to camp, I am getting cold, this will do”. It’s not a place I would have chosen, but it was perfectly comfortable, perhaps I worry too much about a perfect spot, not that it ever is.
The climb continued the following morning, all the way to Guadalupe National Park. Robin has an annual pass and could get me in for free. We did a walk of 4.5 miles up to a natural set of steps and beyond to a slot canyon. The National Parks here are all worth a visit. When we returned to the bikes there was a note from some other tourists who were on the campsite. We called in for a chat. Three ladies, Murchie and Nicole were just 2 days in to a year long tour, Murchie inspired into the ride because she was sick of baby sitting the grandchildren, she couldn’t get away quick enough. Nicole was also training for a marathon in January, and I thought just the cycling was tough enough. We set off after lunch and reached the pass immediately, a nice swift drop down, then turned on to the very quiet route 54 to Van Horn. It started off straight then turned into the mountains. After Robin had repaired a couple of punctures and had spent too much time chatting back at the National Park it was clear we would not reach Van Horn, we were a little low on water and food, but had enough to survive. Despite being totally remote all the roadside gates were locked, so as it was getting dark we lifted the bikes over a bit of broken fence and stopped for the night. Food was basic, I pinched some of Robin’s carrots and dipped them in peanut butter, I am even getting to like the stuff now. Peanut butter is very popular here, the supermarkets have shelves full of the sticky ’orrible stuff, the Americans have it with everything “Peanut Butter ice-cream would be nice” I joked “Hmm, that’s my favourite” Robin told me. I then found out she wasn’t joking either.
It was another 20km into Van Horn, just down the road is El Paso. Over a week ago I was looking at El Paso from the other side, so I seem to have come around in a big circle, perhaps that is why I seem to be taking so long to cross the United States.
I took the last photo on the way into town. Van Horn? It's a car horn!