It feels good to be on the road again. There’s nothing on the calendar for a few days and am looking forward to wilderness serenity. But as I’ll find out, so much for best laid plans… The road west from Ojo Caliente passes by Abiquiu Reservoir, 5,000 acres of water in an otherwise arid landscape. It would be nice to spend the day here, hiking or mountain biking this afternoon and sleeping in a lakeside campground tonight. But instead am headed to Chaco Canyon. The goal is to arrive at dusk, then awaken with the sun tomorrow and explore ancient dwellings before the other tourists arrive.
Cerro Pedernal mountain was a favorite subject of Georgia O’Keefe – her ashes are scattered atop it.
Speeding down a smooth 4-lane road, I pass a lone cyclist working his way uphill, panniers loaded with gear. Reflecting on a similar ride of my own once, through Europe, including the hills of Switzerland, I feel his pain. Then I crest the current hill and see a much bigger one ahead. It’s a monster, and all the way up I wonder if he knows what he is in for. My mind also wanders to all the nice people who make my trip better and an idea hits me, I’ll stop at the top to wait for him and offer an icy soda. I bought coke and ice earlier at the famous Bode’s store in Abiquiu. This will be great. His face will light up!
At the crest is a rest area and a sign identifying this spot as part of the US continental divide, which explains the big hill. A trail heads south from here, sloping downhill gently, perhaps part of the Continental Divide Trail that runs between Canada and Mexico. The wind and view are impressive, but more impressive are the three bars of reception on my cellphone. Coverage has been spotty lately, so I get online during the wait.
I also reflect on the trip so far. Two weeks of travel include only one week of actual road living, for several nights in a row were spent at Palo Duro campground and several more in a friend’s driveway in Taos. This is still very much the shake-down phase of my journey. And, other than one night in downtown Santa Fe, the realm of urban camping is entirely unexplored. Wilderness has its appeal, but cities do too, and camping in both will be learned by trial and error. Here’s to it being more entertaining than frustrating.
As these thoughts run through my head, my cyclist friend appears. Unfortunately, there is only one rest area up here and it’s on the opposite side from him, which means crossing four lanes. And of course the previously empty lanes are now full of cars racing along at 75-mph. But if I don’t go now I’ll miss him. So, amid honking horns, I bolt across, waving my arms and yelling – hardly a reassuring way to introduce myself.
Turns out the guy is Asian, speaks very little English, and looks at me like I’m nuts when I tell him I want to share an icy drink – that I have ice and coke in my car. It’s probably not every day that people dash across the freeway to accost him, plus he probably does not grasp the nuance of what I offer, for he pulls out three water bottles to show me he is well stocked with liquids thankyouverymuch. Crazy American, like he’s going to cycle across the desert without water! So rather than belabor the matter, I take his pic and send him on his way, along with my phone number – just in case.
Hearing that the 30-mile stretch of road from the highway into Chaco Canyon is rough, I’m prepared for the worst. But the first part is great. As the miles pass, hills give way to mesa and houses to brush, but the road is still good. Then after a while I hear noises that sound like they are coming from under the hood, and of course presume the worst. Car issues again! Stranded in the wilderness! I slow down but the noise does not, because it’s actually static on the radio that I hear. Earlier, a sign told me to turn my Radio to AM 610 for park information. I did, but heard nothing and promptly forgot the radio was on – until now.
Some days my life is like an episode of James Bond, other days it’s Ace Ventura.
The road changes to gravel, but it’s gravel with a smooth base and good for 40-45 mph. Then it becomes dirt, but smooth dirt. Then it is deeply rutted corduroy dirt encouraging a max speed of 5-mph. (note: the pic below is good dirt).
The 30 miles took 90 mins and put me at Chaco Canyon around dusk, as planned. The campground was full, which I knew was likely as it is a weekend, and in fact a sign at the beginning of the 30-mile stretch confirmed it. But I was assured by an ex-friend who knows these things that I could sleep in the Welcome Center parking lot. Thanks Ricky Hall!
A surly Park Ranger, however, assured me my only alternatives were: a) get ticketed, b) get arrested, c) get lost. So I eased back down the bumpy road. What now? Drive back to the freeway? If so, then I probably won’t be back. Sleep along the dirt road just outside the park and return tomorrow? Sounds like a plan.
The first likely spot (a side trail that allows me to get well off the main road and hide the car) was sandy and my four-wheel-drive is not working since the Villanueva debacle. The next road looks better. It’s now dark outside, but not especially so for the moon is almost full. I pull down several hundred yards to a washed out place, turn around, get off to one side behind some piñon trees and go to sleep. I’d like to double check what is down the road but my cell coverage won’t cooperate. This is the middle of nowhere, surely there will be peace until my 5 am alarm.
BAM BAM BAM. Someone is beating on my car window. I bolt upright, let out a loud “OY” and peer out the front passenger window. A face on the other side backs up, startled by my face inches from his. I lie back down for a sec and numerous thoughts go through my sleepy brain. In order, they are; this dude will never be a matinee idol, he’s not happy to see me, there are two other shadowy figures next to him, his stumble backward and listing stance indicate he is hammered, it’s 1:30 Sunday morning, they’re probably headed home from a big night at the roadhouse. Maybe I’ll just mosey along.
It’s dark in my car, so they can’t see inside well. In five seconds I’m behind the wheel, cranking the motor, and leaving. But apparently they don’t want the party to end, for soon I see headlights about a mile or two behind me. They obviously felt bad, turned around, and now want to invite me over for coffee. But now I’m off the dirt onto smooth gravel, and bump my speed up to 55-60 mph, sliding around a few turns. Can’t say it was fun, but it was certainly exciting. James Bond is back! An hour later am camped at a casino/truck stop, and twenty minutes after that am asleep.
Nowhere was it posted private property/no trespassing, otherwise I would not have ventured in. But at the same time, I’m likely not the first knucklehead to leave the park and make that road my crash pad.
My truck stop/casino camp. The big tent to the left is an old casino, no longer used which makes this slab of concrete peaceful. Behind me is another big slab, housing a new casino, convenience store, showers and self-serve car wash. Nice place.
Cuba, NM. My next intended destination is Valles Caldera National Preserve, east of Cuba. The road above is the shorter route (distance-wise, if not time-wise) to my campsite tonight. Normally it would be right up my alley, but after the bumpy Chaco Canyon road I opt for a more civilized path today – south on Hwy 550 to Jemez, then back up Hwy 4 through dusty Jemez Pueblo and the resort town of Jemez Springs. The latter is touristy, but quaint – located in a narrow canyon and with many restaurants, shops, hot spring spas and archaeological sites to visit. It would be a fun place to spend time. If you’d like to see a simple map of this area with the interesting sites identified and described then go here.
Stopped for lunch at this roadside stand in Jemez Pueblo. It’s a husband/wife team plus one mother-in-law. Nice people, great food.
Enjoyed sharing the table with Mr & Mrs M. from Houston, TX. Just that week they closed on a property near Mora, NM, where they intend to retire and raise horses – having recently sold the home where they raised a family (and horses) in Cypress, TX. It’s beautiful country where they are going, north of Las Vegas, NM – here’s wishing them the best.
Replica of a Jemez field house. These were seasonal homes used during warmer weather. Hundreds were built in strategic locations near fields, springs and hunting areas. Winter was spent in the nearby giant Pueblo. Below are sights along Hwy 4.
My campsite in Jemez Falls campground, at 8000-ft. The campground was only about 15% full that night. I met a few neighbors, but they were not within eyesight. That fact, plus this being the night of the blood moon, plus me being alive after the prior night’s antics, called for a celebration. So I built a huge fire, cooked a tasty meal, broke out the glow lamps and a wee bit of whisky, danced around the campfire and howled at the full moon. It was a good night.
The next morning called for a hike to Jemez Falls and Jemez Hot Springs. Info on them here
Met the guys above at the hot spring. The water temp felt to be around 90 degrees. There were four guys camping, these two are a father son duo, traveling together for six months. The son is 14 years old. Dad was at a place in his life when he had the time to get away, so took Jr out of school for this trip – bringing classwork along for the ride. Great idea! Met the attractive couple below at the trailhead after my hike. They decided a year ago that they were destroying their bodies with the lifestyle they were leading, so they changed their habits and diets and now feel much better.
Every day is a gift. On to Valles Caldera.