I ♥ New Mexico: Silver City to the Very Large Array
February 17, 2012
As much as I try and savour each and every moment, it’s inevitable that over this long journey, individual sights, sounds and experiences are sometimes lost in the blur of daily motion and change. They queue up in days so jam packed with stimuli it can be hard to retain all the details. Memories clump together. The brain buffer’s full.
But then, generally when I least expect it, I stumble across a nook of the world that really stands out. Something seems to resonate. Perhaps it’s a sense of connection, a deeper appreciation of the lanscape. The people I meet. Shared interests and ideas. Or maybe it’s just the right time, when I’m looking to pause, rest and lay down some roots, as short term as they may be.
Silver City, set at the foot of the vast, unspoilt, impregnable wilderness of the Gila in southern New Mexico, feels like such a place. When I was last travelling through – as part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 2009 – I managed to while away almost a week here, and it was with a definite reluctance that I continued on my way.
In fact, I’d barely arrived in Silver before I was pointed towards the residence known in local circles as the Bike House. Which is exactly what it was: a house crammed with all manner of bicycles. Leant against gates. Scratching wall paint. Hanging from rafters. Old and new, fancy and plain. All well used.
Of course, the Bike House was made up of a rich tapestry of other occupants too; a tide of people to-ing and fro-ing through unlocked doors, a larger-than-life collection of giant puppets, raucus chickens, as well as various other animals that came and went as they pleased… Its owner, Jamie, is well known for scooping up nomadic, long distance tourers and offering them a place to rest and recharge in his eclectic, rabbit’s warren of a houseshare. Coupled with a mellow downtown, all-year riding potential and an earthy, unpretentious New Mexican hipness, the whole Silver City experience earned it a spot amongst my favourite spots of the South West, and a highlight of the Great Divide.
So I was pleased that our long drive back back to Santa Fe from Big Bend State Park Ranch offered the chance to spend another night in the esoteric Bike House. True to its reputation, bikes were still sprawled out across the yard with well-practised abandon; old mtbs, a singlespeed 29er, an Extracycle, rusty Schwinns, a BMX or two… The door was still unlocked and the place as much as a shambles as I so warmly recalled. As we stood in the doorway and surveyed the scene, a cocophonic thump shook the house. Overhead, marching band practise was in full swing, with children and adults alike squeezed in amongst gaudy paper mache figurines. It was the genuine Bike House Experience.
It didn’t take more than a birthday ride around the sweet trails of Little Walnut and Gomez Peak to remind myself why I had felt such a connection here and what had brought me back. And although I didn’t have time to linger as long this time, I’d soon hatched a plan to abandon the car, and relive some of the Gila Wilderness…
Silver City is surrounded by prime riding, even in the midst of winter. I stripped down the Ogre of its bikepacking gear and set off with Nancy to explore the singletrack around Little Walnut. This was followed up with a ride around Boston Hill with tireless Jamie, and a dirt and gravel road outing with Andrew, Chris and Martin. There is little to beat local rides with enthusiastic bikers, and as a visitor, I always feel honoured to be invited into the fold to share these experiences.
My bed in the Bike (and Giant Puppet) House.
Gila Hike and Bike is surely one of my favourite bike shops, with its laid back, down to earth vibe. A demo Pugsley fatbike was available for a spin, which fit Nancy perfectly. I've always hankered after an 'Omniterra'. I just need to live in the kind of terrain that warrants one... Or maybe everywhere does...
My father's love of Westerns and frontier history must have rubbed off, for I find myself fascinated by Silver City and the surrounding area. Its past abounds with colourful characters. Like Lottie Deno - short for dinero, the Spanish for money - who owned a gambling hall in nearby Georgetown. Said to be well educated and impeccably dressed, she earned a fortune gambling in the rough, cash-flush pioneer towns of New Mexico. Billy the Kid's stepfather also had a restaurant there, and his early midsadventures are part of local legend.
The classic New Mexican backyard, complete with discarded junk, reinvented school bus and sawn-off trailer.
Turning off onto FR150 for some sublime riding through the Gila, designated a protected wilderness area as early as 1924. It was early in the season to be riding at this high altitude, so I flagged down a weatherbeaten pickup truck to check road conditions ahead. The pony-tailed old timer who pulled over had clearly been enjoying a few beers after a hot afternoon's wood chopping. Lifting his dusty wraparound shades to reveal bloodshot eyes, he enthused about the Gila, suggesting a few good camping spots. 'Listen to the spirits, that's what I always too', he said, chuckling a thick, husky smoker's laugh.
Camping out in Geronimo's stomping ground, amongst skeletal cottonwoods. My soundtrack was the warbly call of coyotes, and a dozen wild horses snuffled their way over in the night, gathering inquisitively as I cooked up my dinner. Just that day before I'd seen a group of wild, snorting havelinas. Or rather smelt them first - they're also known as skunk pigs, for good reason.
Tree trunk, elephant hoof, or simply a good spot to lean a bike...
Chilly! That night, my water bottles froze solid, even inside the tarp. The downside of the palatial Megalite is that it's size doesn't encourage trapped air to stay warm. I sat and toasted myself in the first rays of sunlight, as they slipped across the plains towards the tent.
Technically, it's a little early in the season for this ride... A storm the month before had closed off a portion of the road to all but the hardiest vehicles, though a bicycle could still slither its way through.
I took an impressive tumble on this particularly icy stretch, bike and body sliding some ways down the hill with little grace but thankfully few bruises.
Once beyond Beaverhead Works station, conditions dried out once more. From this point, I detoured off the Great Divide Route, heading north east towards Albuquerque through Railroad Canyon.
Although I planned to tackled this 150 mile dirt road ride in a couple of days, I carried extra provisions and layers as I was unsure as to where I might end up. With my laptop on board too, it was a good chance to try out the Ogre with a set of borrowed panniers, and see how it handled with a more traditional touring setup.
Country Road 163. Or to put it more romantically, a ribbon of dirt, disappearing into the quintessential, soft haze of the New Mexican horizon.
Chicaning amongst ponderosa pines.
A forlorn post box marks a dirt track to who knows where...
The plains of San Angustin. Luckily, a tailwind helped propel along 60 miles of dirt road.
This herd of antellope ran alongside me for some time. A curious group, they slowed down and ambled around when I stopped down to take a photo, running with me once more when I started to ride again. Despite moments of loneliness and hardship on solo rides, it's during these fleeting moments that the penny really drops: these experiences are exactly why I'm here.
Happy to be on the road, loping across the desert.
Conditions were mainly good, with a few rough stretches of washboard and sand to contend with. 29er wheels seem to help with both of these, and I didn't begrudge the lack of suspension on my bike.
There are many wonderful names in this part of the world, harking back to mining days and the pioneer towns of yesteryear.
My destination was the equally wondrous Very Large Array. And very large it was. Built from 1975-1980, the VLA is a radio astronomy observatory that's been probing the deeper reaches of space for the last thirty years. The centre is at almost 7000ft in altitude and set in an empty patch of high desert far, far from any sizeable settlement.
It's made up of a collection of 27 enormous antennas. I stood in awe as the dishes all begun to rotate in unison, in a slow, elegant ballet, pointing up inquisitively into the sky. A series of railway tracks form a Y shape - each arm reaching 13 miles into the desert - that allows them to be positioned in various configurations. An accompanying film explained how the centre has been instrumental in our understanding of black holes, pointing out that our own galaxy lies within a whole sea of other galaxies. Amplified by the solitude of the empty, windswept plains of San Angustin, and it's enough to make you feel pretty small...
The free self-guided tour allows you to wander right up to one of the dishes. The stats: 25 metres in diameter and 209 metric tonnes in weight. If they look familiar, it might be because the VLA's been used in the movie Contact, with Jodie Foster.
Is there anyone out there? After sunset, I pushed on to Datil, clocking almost a 100 miles that day - far more than I'd usually accrue on dirt roads. With a storm scheduled to barrel in the following morning, I pitched my tent for the night, before hitching hiking north the next day. Thanks kindly to Art and Phyllis for breakfast and the ride!
Gila Hike and Bike – most excellent bikes, and most excellent service.
Very Large Array – be wide-eyed like Jodie Foster.
This article was written by a cyclist riding the Contenental Divide Trail in my part of New Mexico. I am placing the article here to show all what the area I live in looks like and to show people that it is possible to ride a bike just about anywhere you can imagine going. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.