In Search Of Enchantment
Sunday, August 7th, 2011
A Solo Bike Tour In New Mexico Is Just The Ticket For Losing The Blahs
Article and photos by Jeff M. Sambur
One could say I had become disenchanted with my life.
A work shift at the fire station had become similar to Chinese water torture, sans water. My girlfriend, Jane, and I had been see-sawing between love and tolerance. Many of my acquaintances had lost that new-car smell. I was in need of a bicycle road trip. New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, beckoned me. I loaded my bike into my SUV after securing a payday loan for the fuel bill. I turned south on Interstate 25 and six hours later parked my car at the Cimarron Police Station. I assured the police chief there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction in the car, just a few pairs of dirty socks.
I turned west up Cimarron Canyon, watching the river meander to and fro adjacent to the road. I grinned as my nose sensed the earthy smells of the pine forest. While passing by the Philmont Boy Scout Camp, I wondered about their slogan, “Be prepared!” Was I? Later on, I paid my respects at the Vietnam Veteran Memorial while gazing at Wheeler Peak (New Mexico’s highest mountain).
After climbing up Palo Flechado pass, I descended into 20 miles of fierce headwinds, toward Taos. I checked into a no-tell motel and rinsed the salt stains off of my tired body. It was time to mosey around this old town. In the historic plaza, I read the local newspaper with its ads for “naturopic services, acupuncture, rapid eye technology” and best of all, “past/present life clearings.” I figured if I needed one of those, I’d know about it by now.
At the Alley Cantina, I enjoyed cocktails while overhearing a self-proclaimed “peyote shaman” offer his services to a few tourists. For a mere $75, this Jerry Garcia look alike was all-too-willing to show these folks “the way of the peyote.” He did mention that there would be a lot of hugging involved. They politely declined his generous offer.
As I admired the pink-purple sunset, I knew it was time for bed. I was feeling a little less disenchanted.
Next morning, I inhaled a breakfast burrito and a creek-full of coffee. I’d be riding the High Road to Taos Scenic Byway and I didn’t want to run out of gas. The late spring sun warmed me as the road curved up and down and around. The traffic was light, with a few friendly New Mexicans waving at me. I passed the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them communities of Talpa, Penasco and Las Trampas before taking a break in Truchas.
The village of Truchas (trout in Spanish) was the filming location of the “Milagro Beanfield War.” I asked a local what it was like to have Robert Redford (the director) and company in this town of 500 people. He gave me an all-too-honest reply.
“They were here for two summers. Redford stayed down the road. When they showed up for the second summer, we were tired of having them around.”
I guess the locals would rather look at the nearby Truchas Mountains than a few Hollywood stars.
I regained my bike and dropped down to Chimayo and its famous El Santuario de Chimayo. I parked the bike and walked into this holy shrine of miraculous healings. There were discarded crutches and braces adorning the walls. I saw pilgrims silently praying. A few were busy lighting candles. I kept quiet while admiring the scene. On my way out I sneezed and an elderly parishioner whispered, “God bless you!” I think she meant it.
I finished my descent into Española. This city of 10,000 sits along the banks of the Rio Grande River. It’s a newish, non-descript town, where the local teenagers make a lot of noise while cruising up and down Main Street in their “low riders.” I managed a few hours of fitful sleep and adjourned to the Big Dawg Café for another breakfast burrito. I overheard the locals conversing in Spanish. Yes, I was feeling a tad less disenchanted.
In Española, I had strange dreams of desert-bleached bones and sexually suggestive flowers. This might have been my subconscious telling me I’d be riding by Abiquiu, former home and source of inspiration for the artist Georgia O’Keefe. I stopped long enough at her museum to realize that an overnight in Abiquiu would have been far superior to an evening in Española. Oh, well, maybe next time.
I began to measure my ascent up the Chama River Valley by the changing vegetation: sagebrush and cholla cactus yielding to pinon pine and juniper, and finally making way to park-like stands of ponderosa pine.
In the village of Tierra Amarilla, I refreshed myself with an orange juice and fruit pie. The place seemed quiet enough. Later on, I learned about its near-revolution moments that occurred in 1967. It was then that Mr. Reies Lopez Tijerina and a few cohorts attempted an armed takeover of the local courthouse. Bullets flew and people were injured. Mr. Tijerina was making a strong point to correct a perceived injustice concerning a Spanish Land Grant treaty from 1806. The people of northern New Mexico have long memories. Peace was restored with the help of 350 National Guardsmen. Mr. Tijerina spent a few years in prison for his actions.
I completed my ride to Chama and wandered down to the venerable Foster Hotel. I had a few happy hour “Dos Equis” beers while chomping down on a bean burrito dinner. All the while, the locals fed coins into the jukebox, which serenaded us with love songs in Spanish . Later at my cabin, I watched the sunset over the mighty Chama River. It wasn’t quite like watching that event over the Pacific Ocean, but I wasn’t complaining.
I was definitely edging over to the realm of enchantment.
I woke and began my quest for Questa. The only thing keeping me from attaining my goal was an unnamed 10,000 foot and change mountain pass and 111 miles. Oh yeah, the forecast was for “fear-of-God” winds, too. I ventured back to Tierra Amarilla and turned hard left on Highway 64. Lucky for me, the steady, 20-30 mph winds were at my back. I was pushed past verdant green meadows and up to the Brazos Cliffs. From my vantage point, they seemed close enough to climb. Cliff swallows swirled around me as I began my chilly descent toward Tres Piedras.
After a quick grilled-cheese sandwich in the only diner in town, I continued on. In the stark Rio Grande Valley, I spotted abodes stuck into the ground and buses serving as homes. At the Rio Grande Gorge, I played tourist and took a few commemorative photos.
I was still a long way from my quest for Questa. I persevered and finally made it. This was cause to celebrate in the El Monte Carlo Lounge. I lucked out and a recently transplanted, just-retired Questaian even bought a round for the gang, including me. This philanthropist later told me how molybdenum mining was once king. Mining went bust and now farming and tourists like me keep this mountainside town going. It was a most pleasant evening.
I now crossed over to the feeling of muy bueno.
On the final morning of my ride, I was the first customer of the Questa Café. I asked for another breakfast burrito and sat down with coffee and newspaper in hand. After awhile, my breakfast arrived. The waitress apologized for the delay. I laughed it off and said, “The good things in life take time.” At that moment, I truly believed that.
I began my ride up the Red River Valley with a shameless tailwind urging me on. I passed the scarred hillside of the Molycorp Molybdenum Mine. I tried to divert my eyes to the Red River’s surging waters. That was much better. I cruised through the resort town of Red River, marveling at all the hotels, pubs and restaurants. This was surely not the blue collar town that Questa is. I left the river valley and began my climb up 9800 foot Bobcat Pass. The views were beyond borderline spectacular. At this point, I recall having a gleeful smile pasted on my face. I continued downhill and saw whitecaps foaming on Eagle Nest Lake. I turned back into the Cimarron River Canyon for a repeat performance. For the second time, the scenery did not disappoint.
In Cimarron, I was happy to see that the police chief did not have my vehicle towed away. After pitching my bike into the SUV, I set off for northern Colorado and home.
My brain did a rewind of my mini-trip to New Mexico. I have to say that I was feeling a lot more enchanted with life.
Tucson author Jeff Sambur’s book, “Destroying Demons on the Diagonal: A Firefighter’s San Diego to Maine bicycle ride into retirement” can be purchased online at createspace.com/3714895.