Bike Camping New Mexico: A Highway Standoff, Hot Springs and the Very Large Array

Nothing goes the way I think it will. For starters, I have no idea I’m pregnant. I think my period disappeared because we’re biking 50 miles a day. Fast forward to a public park in Deming, New Mexico. Homeless men sprouting up around us like flowers. I hear diesel trucks going by and I know from when I was upright that they’re full of chiles. I can smell some roasting. My bike is sprawled with me in the fluffy grass, my sleeping bag has slipped off, church bells chime whatever hour it is and I can’t. Get. Up. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m finally doing a two week bike camping trip with my eccentric aunt Lali, who hasn’t owned a car since like the 1800’s and who’s life is basically a bike camping trip: she doesn’t have running water, cooks on camp stove and sleeps on a thermarest.

Aunt Lali owns two bicycles, three pairs of socks, lives in a town with a population of 62 and has perfect pitch. She built her underground house with hand sawed trees she loaded onto her extracycle, pedaled to her sage and juniper studded parcel, de-barked and laid into a Native American hogan style before covering it all with local adobe. When she looks up sometimes she sees coyote feet on her skylight. You can book a night in a tipi on her property if you’re ever headed through eastern Nevada https://www.hipcamp.com/nevada/great-basin/great-basin-tipi-camp#arrive=2020-04-29&depart=2020-04-30

Anyway. Aunt Lali attracts strange things. She found a human foot (severed and in a shoe) at Stinson Beach and later, a whole person— a Native American man in the earth that she excavated for her house.

So at last, Aunt Lali are I are setting out on an adventure together. The longest bike trip I’ve done before was San Francisco to Santa Cruz when I was 21. Now I’m 35 (and pregnant) so what could possibly go wrong?

My new folding Tern and Lali’s foldable Bike Friday, (we call it the clown bike because of its tiny wheels) leave Albuquerque and her art, empty streets and big blue skies.

I’ve trained a little in the last few weeks, and got up to 25 miles in one ride, but the desert is different. Aunt Lali, her pace and her way of doing things is different too. We take our folding bikes onto the Roadrunner and get off in Santa Fe to stock up at REI and pedal through the flatlands of the pueblos. As we enter one reservation a sign screams, if a sign can scream, no photography! So I  watch the plots of corn, adobe and abandoned cars with my head down and a fold-up solar panel bungeed into place over my saddle bags trickle feeding my iPhone. Over dry arroyos and into orange sandstone, across a willowy creek and under honey locusts. My nose starts to dry out. The Tesuque pueblo backroads are beautiful and I feel like a tourist, trying to not stare. We cross the Rio Grande and I gulp at the road up to Los Alamos. It’s 20 miles uphill, alongside four- is it eight? lanes, cars going 70 under a cloudless sky. Hours pass, my thighs burn and the Rio Grande becomes a dark squiggle below. We stop talking. We pass occasional clusters of plastic flowers and laminated photos of smiling teenagers. Afternoon deep, still chugging uphill, something other than pain and grit and sun happens: a white minivan pulls over. Lali bristles. She’s stopped, straddling her bike and not advancing. “Let’s approach together,” she says through tight lips.

The driver door opens. 

Lali looks like she wants to beat them up.

Instead middle aged woman with short hair pops out, making happy sounds and opens her arms and something about cyclists and I know how it is, and would you both like to stay with us tonight?

I love this woman!

Then the minivan gets tiny and disappears but I have a little piece of paper with an address on it for when we finally get to Los Alamos. But we don’t. We’re still going up. The sun sets. My Tern has a wheel-generated headlight that shines as long as I pedal, and it illuminates signs with threats and red letters. I think to myself, we are being filmed.

The pavement is suddenly new, soundless under our hybrid tires the REI filled with “slime,” to combat spiky desert things. The steep grade slacks as darkness sets in and cliffs rise up around us. A circle of dark sky bleaches where the full moon will rise. I have to stop to pant in the dark, headlights streaking by every ten minutes or so. Other than that, it’s quiet and echo-y between the cliffs, and I ride in the middle of the highway for fun, and then wobble back to the side when I hear the echo of a motor, delirious. We level out and close in on the town of Los Alamos long after dinnertime. I map the address and stop to stare at a steep black road into a hilly neighborhood. It looks like another mountain and I just want to lay down and cry. This is my first real day of riding, more than 40 miles and I’m so done. But hot food…I suck it up. Fast forward and there are hot showers and beer and laughter, cornbread and salads on bright plates.

“We’ve been all over the world on our bikes,” the husband is saying.

“You wouldn’t believe how many homes we’ve stayed in! How many people have shared their food! So, you don’t see many people, well, any really, riding up to Los Alamos. I know Althena couldn’t help but stop and offer you guys a place,” he winks at his wife.

“I can only imagine how you feel after that ride-”

“-and it’s Marina’s first day! I hope she still wants to keep going tomorrow!”

I almost laugh but my eyes are starting to close, and I feel my muscles starting to seize up in protest, now that they’re clear what has just happened.

In the morning, they ride with us to the Los Alamos grocery and send us off with little rear view mirrors that clip onto our sunglasses so we can see the cars approaching that are about to kill us. 

We ride up into the Valles Caldera, I pop Ibuprofens, and then shiver at the magnitude of quiet. When we dip into the actual blown out top of the volcano, I see it’s flush in neon grasses, nibbling elk and rimmed with dead trees. We cross the continental divide at 7300′ and the land springs green. We pass mineral rich rivers and steaming cracks in the hillside, hot springs we pass up to my chagrin, and ride so long and steep down that I get cold and swerve patterns over the empty rode, yelling at the sky when I get a good bank into a turn. I feel like I’m on a silent motorcycle.

We coast into Jemez Springs just before sunset and stop infant of the sign that says Saloon. We shrug, set our kickstands next to giant shining Harley’s and grin at each other. Inside there are bear skins tacked to the wall, rifles in the dining room arranged like art I guess, and a line of cowboy hats over the windows. I slap down my twenty when we’ve had our fill of beer but the bartender, after asking what we’re doing here, won’t let me pay. She lives up in the mountains above Jemez with her daughter and her dogs, and can’t believe what we’re doing. She laughs when Lali comments on the bugling outside.

“Yeah, the elk are looking for mates! You can hear em real good from my place too,” she smiles. “It’s just that time of year.”

We fill up on green chile burgers and find the only place in town not booked- it must be a weekend- a one room cabin in a trailer park that has a single vacancy in an otherwise booked-out Native American family reunion party weekend.

As the morning sun edges out the cold valley air, I try toasting breakfast tortillas on our camp stove in the parking lot, watching a few stragglers wobbling back inside one of the cabins where a pile of empty glass bottles is starting to mound up. Someone’s car door is open and the bass is going waaaa, waaaaa… My tortillas keep falling off the little flame with black circles burned into the center and landing on the concrete so I give up and we set off walking to find some proper breakfast. Lali isn’t fussy, so while I google, Yelp and Tripadvisor restaurants, she points, nods and grunts. Just kidding. She talks sometimes too. We’re a strange pair, me and my phone and her and her eagle eyes, noticing everything. Like this afternoon, she squeaked to a stop in front of me. When I pedaled up, she nodded at the asphalt. A dead rattler. 

Tiny Jemez Springs has a Buddhist Center, with a creek-side hot spring, but they’re doing a retreat so it’s closed this weekend. I make my way up the river path and marvel at pockets of steam until I find the Buddhist pool and peer into their world. Satisfied, I sit down on a boulder and dig in the river sand until I get a seep of hot, soaking my feet and waiting for the the moon.

In the morning, we take the plunge in the (cheapest) soak, the municipal bathhouse instead. We ride slow afterwards, oiled and warmed and dulled with pleasure.

Lali has been getting arrhythmia. I don’t often see her freaked out, and she’s freaked. She fell off her bike last year, broke her arm, elbow and hip, couldn’t walk for months and this is the first trip back on her bike. I think her heart is having a hard time keeping up with our enthusiasm. To top it off, today we have to tackle the one stretch Lali warned me about before we started: the dreaded thirty miles or so of highway we just can’t avoid. And not just any highway. An interstate. Lali wants this part over, so it’s one of those rare times she speeds into a black dot and then the clown bike disappears.

I’m huffing away, swerving around broken beer bottles and kangaroo rats, and stopping to peel red and yellow butterflies off the asphalt and dropping them deep into the pages of my book. I’m adjusting my glasses because sweat is lubricating their descent down my nose, when I see two cars pulling over up ahead. Ugh, I think. I’m gonna have to go around these guys stopped in the emergency lane and veer into the highway lane to pass them.

I’m on a slight grade so I have just a few seconds of warning before the next car flashes by at 70mph, knocking my bike rig with wind. I’m focused on timing this debacle, looking over my shoulder as cars whiz by and being ready to judge when I’ll be able to pedal my ass off around these guys.

Maybe it’s the heat, I don’t know, but as I’m approaching I suddenly realize this isn’t what I thought it was. The first car is a cop and the second car is an older red pickup and the cop has one hand on a black gun resting on the open window ledge, aiming at the pickup, and with the other hand he’s yelling into his radio, “I repeat, step OUT of the vehicle!” 

My brain is going wait, wait, stop! But I can’t afford to stop, there’s a break in traffic and I’m committed. But the last thing this cop is going to expect on an interstate is a blonde girl pedaling by his holdup on a folding bicycle with camping gear. He’s going to spook and shoot me, I think. I’m sneaking up on him without a sound. 

But I’m mid-pedal power and I’m almost even with this cop’s car and if I falter, I’m could be a squished flat blonde girl on a bicycle. I don’t have time to think. He drops the radio and it cracks onto the asphalt. He puts both hands on the gun, one eye squinted and then…I ride by. I don’t breath. Half expect a bullet in my back. I glance to my right at a Native American man, a woman and a kid in the cab looking grim. I keep going and no one shoots me. What an idiot! Why didn’t I just stop behind the cop car and wait? I pedal the last 15 miles of this stupid highway, replaying the whole scene, and counting the law enforcement vehicles flashing lights heading back the way I came. One highway patrol, two, one sherriff, one more reservation cop. I look for something on the news but I can’t find anything. Fourth cat life, poof. (The first was near drowning in Santa Cruz, another jumping off a freight train in a bad spot, and the third was hitchhiking in Colombia.)

Ever since Contact, which was filmed at the VLA, ever since Zachariah Sitchen, since Lali saw strange things in the sky, aliens and space have been fascinating. Out in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico (this has new meaning to me now) sits the Very Large Array. They pivot. Dance along their rails. The sole purpose of the VLA is to turn their giant ears to whatever messages are coming from the beyond. I pictured Lali and I as ants amidst the monolith receivers, alone at sunset or some beautiful hour, the array suddenly going vrrrrr… all turning to the whispers of space and us flapping our arms and shrieking and getting chills. Instead, it takes a grueling 8 hours of riding to get even close and by this time we’re not very happy. We’ve ridden through the biggest Nothing yet, where the most exciting things are roadside weeds flowering and the occasional herd of some animal. Through the town with no one in it. Then up, summitting something unnamed, then down and flat. Forever. We are low on water. There is nary a cloud or a tree. I have no idea where we’re going to camp. We didn’t think it would take this long. 

We pedal into the town of Magdalena, with one place open. When our order comes, I dip my spoon in the bowl. “This is…canned soup,” I manage.

“Well. Look where we are.”

Point taken.

Once we can see the Plains of Augustin and the array, it taunts us. Then we run out of water. The antennas as 82 feet across, I’ll later learn at the Visitor’s Center. Right now they’re so far away I can pinch them between my fingers.

“Keep encouraging me however you can. I’m losing my sanity.”

Pant, pant.

Aunt Lali? Is that you?

Without water to drink, we carry on at half mast. This is some of the loneliest country we’ve seen yet. And there is a strange thing happening: on the side of the road there are not many, but endless, grasshoppers. For miles and miles and miles. Some of them are humping in such slow motion they appear still, and they show a fleck of orange. We call it Cricket Burning Man because every bug has showed up for this event, and if I squint the side of the road looks like it’s sprouting green grass.

Anyway. No water. No campsites. And no VLA glory yet. I have fantasies of making ramen under the antennas, maybe sleeping under the antennas, and then I picture a night security guard taking pity on us and driving us and all our junk back to his house, wherever that could be.

In front of the VLA sign at last, no town or tree in sight, we stare: Visitor’s Center: 2 miles. 

“What choice do we have? Maybe they have water.”

We press on. The sun lowers.

I find the Visitor’s Center closed but the door open, and voila, a bathroom! With a sink! 
I greedily fill my bottles.

We wander. I learn that the 27 antennas are combined electronically to encompass the resolution of an antenna 22 freaking square miles across.

I buy postcards of a lightening filled sky illuminating the receivers. We are kind of taking a break, avoiding each other maybe, avoiding the inevitable, pausing to consider what’s going on here. We are absolutely nowhere, we have some sink water, we are too exhausted to make much of a “dinner” and it looks like we will be camping on the low carpet of the visitor’s center until whoever opens this place up in the morning finds us .

At some point, I become aware of another person. Not an Aunt Lali person. But then I hear her voice and she’s laughing and nervous and serious at the same time and before I know it we are in the parking lot taking everything off our bikes, stuffing our backpacks, and look like a hot mess.

Would the pastor and his wife would he help us if he wasn’t a pastor? They take everything out of their car. There’s just no way to fit two adults and all our camping gear into an already full car. We pause.

Lali suddenly touches her heart and looks at me, wide eyed.

I pantomime breathing.

The pastor glances at his wife and you could almost call it a sigh.

When a thought comes to me out of the uncomfortable silence: let’s see if our bikes fit on our laps!

Stuffed to the brim, cradling our folded bikes, we breeze down the highway at 60mph,  grinning,  and the priest and his wife drop us off at the next “town,” of Datil, which has one little motel, a restaurant/convenience store/gas station all in one place and nothing else, and that is perfect for us. The convenience store sports this rattlesnake skin that’s at least twice as long as I am tall. So this isn’t a place that gets, uh, tourists. Let’s just say the skin isn’t for flash appeal, it’s like antlers or hides in a bar. It’s just kinda how ya do around here.

Meanwhile, we’re headed to Faywood Hot Springs and I keep having to screech to a stop. See, I collect things. I pocket three teeth from a stiff baby coyote on the side of the road, then I bungee a bent license plate over my saddlebags and later slip a turtle foot in my backpack. Taking the whole shell off seems gruesome, even dead, but the foot detaches easy. Dry desert air makes things brittle.

We pedal through a “Warning- Low Visibility Dust Area” before arriving at Faywood Hot Springs, an oasis of steaming pools, laundry facilities and junk food for sale, thank god, in the middle of yet another nowhere https://faywoodhotsprings.com

After dark I explore the pools, some clothing optional, some huge some small, some surround by concrete, some set amongst the vegetation, all scattered over a hill like a hot springs buffet. I walk up the hill to get a better view of the passing thunderstorms and sit on the bench near the giant water storage tanks that make the place look like a silhouette of a nuclear facility. The hippie receptionist had told me about “Stonehenge” and the Star Chair to the east, on another hill above the springs, and I set out to explore at sunset. Ten minutes from Faywood, which is itself in the middle of nowhere, is a wooden loveseat for two that reclines to a hilarious horizontal for prime star viewing and I’m tickled by the rock formations and want to know the story…I never get it.

Our last hot spring https://sundialsprings.com is owned by a spunky retired corporate pilot named Shelley. After a full day of riding I realize I don’t have the directions down too well and we’ve turned off on a dirt road and I’m not sure if it is the correct dirt road and the sun is going down. Classic. Lali’s not smiling, thinking I don’t know where I’m going. She’s right. We follow dusty roads. I think I see looming cottonwoods in the distance, so that’s a good sign, and then a group of bats scream out of darkening cliffs and the message seems more mixed. This would be simpler in a car. It’s the end of the day and we don’t have energy to burn to figure it out. Lali grunts, unclips her cycling shoes, dons her mary janes and starting walking her bike- not a good sign- when we hear a low drone from around the bend and there’s the the pilot cruising up in her golf cart.

“Hey! I was worried bout you guys!”

“So were we!” We chirp, relieved and wobbly.

Lali looks Shelley up and down, grins, and plops her mary janes next to the pilot’s identical ones on the cart. They start hugging and laughing, instant sisters and the tension drains. We stay in a petite adobe cabin and soak in a private pool. Of course I still don’t know I’m pregnant and you’re supposed to avoid hottubs, hot springs and baths in particular in the first trimester. Eek.

Shelley lives in a large open air, I don’t even know what to call it, area, on the edge of the cliffs. Beautiful oriental rugs cover a hard packed earth, chunky wood furniture and art right up to the open kitchen that looks out over the cliffs and the river below. She tells us, “ever since I started collecting social security I can be more discerning about my guests,” and we nod solemnly because we’re glad she chose us. There’s one couple that lives in a motor home here part of the year and other than that…it’s just us tonight. I’m flattered. I had left a message for the Sundial Hot Springs number not expecting much but Shelley called me right back and I took her directions down on a napkin.

“I liked your voice,” she said, but I think she’s lying and I smile. Maybe she took pity on my aunt and I “coming in by bike.” Or we seemed benign, or at least low risk. Whatever the reason, she likes us now! The cabin is equipped with fragrant French roast for the morning and she hands me a bouquet of greens from one of her planters to spruce up our Tasty Bites. What kind of person lives out here, alone with the hot springs? Lali nods at Sundial. “I could live here. Get a job for the season.” This is what she says when she really likes a place.

When the sun rises we’re off again, to our last stop of Silver City. But instead of one more place, I hope these last shots give you a feel of the wide open country we experienced more of than any of the towns. Because mostly, New Mexico was road and sky.

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