We woke up early the next day. Lately, I’d noticed that our energy and mileage had started waning with the shortened days. We were now in the practice of waking up with the sun, biking with everything we had until 5:00 o’clock then collapsing into thoughtlessness. The clear weather held the promise of a seventy mile day, but as soon as we crossed into New Mexico, a full force wind smashed right into us.
Some tough miles put us in the town of Animas. I stopped once to wait for Jeana, resting on a pile of sunbathed tires that were attached to an iron bar with chains. I couldn’t divine the purpose of such a contraption but they sure made for a cozy napping spot.
While eating an early, discouraged lunch in Animas, we watched an endless caravan of Boarder Patrol cars cruising through the town.
Some of the vehicles were paddy wagons, some towed ATV’s with rifle mounts. We started rethinking our route in terms of safety and practicality. Even if we continued to bike through New Mexico and our luck held out, we wouldn’t stand a chance of camping by the roadside with the boarder monitoring. Hitch hiking seemed like a favorable option.
In addition, we had a deadline to meet. Jeana had gotten in touch with a friend who lived in El Paso, TX, a sister of one of her older neighbors back in New Jersey. She had offered to put us up for a few nights, but prior engagements limited the window of hospitality to that night and the next. We were still 150 miles from El Paso and desperate for a bed.
Weighing these realities, we soon found ourselves on the roadside with our thumbs out. After an hour of no results, Jeana, woman of action, decided to take matters into her own hands. She walked into a roadside tavern and exchanged life stories with some ranchers, who had started their weekend a little early. Before long, she secured us a ride with a rancher who was heading to El Paso that afternoon to see his family.
The guy had a rustic charisma, dirt on his hands and the flavor of horses and livestock in his mouth. Before leaving Animas, we stopped at a gas station to fill up on gas and “provisions.” Our ride returned to the truck carrying three brown paper bags, each holding a tall boy.
–It’s a long drive, he said.
Making our way down highway 9, we could see into Mexico, a head-high chain-link fence demarcating the boarder. On the roadside, I saw some more of the tire contraptions. Our driver explained that Border Patrol used the tires to comb the road shoulders in order to detect foot traffic. Every ten minutes or so, a BP vehicle passed us, and each time we saw the approaching white and green our driver let out an oath.
Border Patrol presented a constant annoyance in his life. Since he made the trip from Animas to El Paso frequently, he had been flagged as a suspicious vehicle and could usually expect to be pulled over and questioned at least once a week. Things weren’t always this way, he said. When he was a kid, the town had only two Border Patrol agents who knew the people and area well.
–Now, we got all these young, jack-wagon hotshots. They stay for maybe six months, question everybody in town, then get replaced by some more green BP boys. And they do the same thing all over again. Jack-wagons, all of them.
Even with BP’s heavy presence, our driver said that only about 30% of the people trying to make it across the border were ever caught.
–There’s no way they can ever make a real dent. Just look at how wide this place is!
And it was wide, just one big pan of dirt and sage brush for miles, beautiful in its austerity and also incredibly boring in its immensity.
We made it to El Paso by nightfall and the rancher dropped us off at Jeana’s friend’s place. Over the next two days, we enjoyed the sights and foods of El Paso with Ellen and Robert.
One night, they drove us up to a vantage overlooking all of El Paso and the adjacent Juarez. The lights from the cities looked like a continuous length of panned gold. Our hosts informed us, though, of the stark differences between the two cities. El Paso is one of the safest cities in America while Juarez is the murder capital of the world. They believed one reason for the disparity was that the cartel higher-ups living in El Paso with their families pay for the city’s protection.
They reminisced about times when they would go back and forth across the border for weekend trips and nights on the town. Though you can still easily walk into Mexico across a bridge over the Rio Grande, it is not a commonly advised thing to do.
We left El Paso, TX heading for New Mexico again. A generous interpretation for our New Mexico reentry would be that we were feeling guilty about crossing most the state in a car and were compelled to give the “Land of Enchantment” a few honest days on the bike. In reality, though, our path to Abilene, TX, Jeana’s endpoint, lost a few hundred miles if we went back up through NM. We also wanted to see Carlsbad Caverns.
Passing outside the city limits, we biked through a boarder check point. The BP guy had an amused look when we pedaled up to the guard house. He looked at my trailer.
–You hauling any guns, bombs or drugs in there?
We ended the day at Coranudas, a fourteen person township. For dinner, we ate at the town’s lone café, which featured a pleasant middle-of-nowhere décor. The café tables, whose legs were fitted with jeans and cowboy boots, had an eerie personification which gave the general impression of eating on the back of very square cowboy. The menus were handwritten on brown paper bags and offered a flavorful medley of beef dishes. We got some great hamburgers, and our cook, also the town mayor, gave us permission to pitch our tent in a vacant field behind the trailer park.
While fixing up our tent, some kids came along pushing a cement wheel with a stick. They swarmed around our bikes asking us questions and wanting to help put up the tent. I have some reservations with kids and large, parentless groups of them, often give me an uneasy, Children-of-the-Corn feeling. Thankfully, Jeana is a natural and soon had them all busy threading the tent poles through the canvas and hammering the stakes into the ground.
They told us we had missed a great birthday party that afternoon, but invited us to a town pot luck that night. They pointed to where the meeting was going to be held, a collection of run down, scuzzy buildings that looked like they had once acted as the back drop for a Western show shoot out.
–It’s a religious revival! One little girl said.
We thanked them for the invitation but gave our regrets.
Going to sleep that night, we discovered we’d encamped in a goat head minefield. We tossed and turned the whole night on a bed of thorns. In the morning, we both had flat tires to mend.
The morning bike was flat and easy, thirty miles by noon. We kept biking with the Guadeloupe Mtns in front of us and pretty soon were headed up into them on Guadulaope pass, our last pass for the foreseeable future.
At the top, we stopped at the Guadalupe National Park visitor center to fill up our water bottles. We walked past two dirty dudes playing the ukulele and banjo. They were leaning up against bikes which held the tell-tale signs of a tour, filthy panniers packed with lashed sleeping bags and tents.
We listened to them finish up a folksy rendition of “Long Black Veil” then talked about our trips.
Ben and Alex, and one other friend still biking up the other side of the pass, were on a tour from Portland to New Orleans. They had all met at Oberlin College and had been touring as traveling minstrels, playing impromptu gigs in town bars and even cutting a record in a bathroom recording studio. Their third member, Free, arrived presently riding up in a skateboard helmet and sundress. She unpacked her fiddle and the trio played the afternoon away while Jeana and I ate lunch.
Check ’em out:
We camped together in the park that night, fixing up a dinner of rice, corn and beans. To the mix, I added some venison sausage that I’d gotten from an ex-Marine I’d met in the parking lot. The guy had seen my bike and wanted some travel stories. I shared mine and then he started in on some pretty interesting stories of his own. When he was no more than nineteen, he had been a body guard for Nixon’s vice-president, Sperew Agnew. He showed me an autographed picture of the VP that he always traveled with.
After dinner, the band took out their instruments for some post-prandial strumming. They played “Man of Constant Sorrow”, Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and pretty soon a crowd had gathered. Hulla hoops appeared, whiskey materialized and a small campground festival was underway.
The troubadours played until the wee hours of the night, probably no later than 10:00 o’clock then we packed it in.