1,280 miles, 28,370 feet of climbing, 24 days. Route map
“Wait here while I get the spear I used to kill him!” he says, running off to his van.
It’s almost pitch black, its below zero, I’m at the otherwise deserted far-end of a campsite in a remote Colorado valley and John, half-Irish, half-Sioux has just gone to his ‘RV’ (a converted UPS truck in which he lives year-round) to get said weapon.
“And I put one end on the ground like this and the dagger-end up like this and then, HE RAN! He ran onto the blade and I twisted and I twisted and held him down until he stopped fighting. I had no choice.”
John is a Vietnam Vet, ex-Special Forces, a ‘tunnel-rat’, Mossad-trained in hand-to-hand combat. In the months following the war he, in his own words became dangerously unstable after so much, well, I think you get the picture. Again in his own words he was saved from the brink through taking a job from his father, as a cowboy spending months on end with a herd of cattle or flock of sheep, living wild up in the Colorado mountains.
The ‘he’ in the story above was a Mountain Lion (although a real one this time, not a dog / bird as per my previous experience!).
It was coming for his sheep.
(the spear was hand-made by him and carried in preference to a rifle)
I didn’t know whether to cry at how brave and protective he was of his flock or cause a distraction and run for the hills myself.
He turned out to be a lovely guy, really sweet and very paternal toward me – later in his ‘van’ we discover a mutual penchant for Clint Eastwood films and he makes me hot chocolate to warm up, we chat and laugh about life.
(he tells me how all those years ago he talked to his horse for months on end, venting all of the pain from his time in Asia – and I heard some horrific things about what went on which I won’t repeat here – and how the horse therefore saved his life, in a sense)
Continuing on this slightly (!) surreal tack I’ve since been through the one area in the world which has had more UFO sightings than any other, met those who are convinced they’ve been at some point abducted (I go to Roswell, New Mexico), had thoroughly enjoyable debates with a congressional adviser about the psychology of ‘modern government’, met someone wanting to further Einstein’s ‘Theory of Special Relativity’ who is challenging the status quo over the nature of the speed of light, slept in a spare bedroom covered on every square inch by NASCAR memorabilia, met the owner of one of the biggest ranches in Texas and almost been charged by a wild boar. Oh, and I crossed the border into Mexico.
(hi also to Joe and Toni and thank you again for dinner and to Stanley, and thanks for a great time at Carlsbad caverns which is amazing – do go there if you ever get the chance)
For much of this time I was chasing south out of the Rockies having really, really chanced my arm as much as I could with the weather – I felt a bit like this guy except I was on a bike, the wave was the weather and, er, I didn’t have a jet ski (sadly, for that would have been quite fun!).
As Sean, a resident of Vail, CO (whom I met and had the pleasure of cycling with in Texas for a day) said to me about climbing BACK UP to 10,000 feet from 5,000 ft Denver into the Colorado Rockies in MID OCTOBER, “Woah, that was bold man”. I knew it was a ‘bit risky’. Ice on the road was my biggest fear as that would have been carnage on the descents. Even in northern Alaska I wasn’t (generally) so worried since gravel roads allow (relative) tyre adhesion to much lower temperatures. Pavement / tarmac does not, much below zero, and you’re ‘toast’ without studded rubber, especially carrying the weight I am.
One day it was so cold that the fog was causing ‘ice rime’ on any surface it touched – that was and still is the only day I’ve not ridden due to the weather.
Thank you so much again to Rose, Miki and the dogs for letting me stay (I met the guys in Yellowstone, Wyoming). The next day I set off and it turned out to be a monumental 8 hours of two 10,000+ ft passes, 60 mph gusting side and head winds across South Park (that of the TV Cartoon, yes) and a night camping at 10,000 ft at -10°C, sleeping, spent as I was, for 13 hours! For 2 weeks it was consistently -5°C and lower in my tent at night, the winds were becoming dangerous, not to mention demoralising and exhausting and the heavy snow was coming. My luck was running out. If I wanted to carry on riding I had to crank up the pace and get south to lower elevation and quickly. I put in a few big big days, the hardest being over 100 miles, still in the mountains to make it to New Mexico.
(that day ended at ‘Ojo Caliente’ a very plush indeed ‘Hot Springs and Spa Resort’ where I camped and got a 50% discount to use the – wonderful wonderful wonderful – floodlit hot-pools perched beneath dramatic red cliffs, an unusually decadent evening!)
A few lovely days to rest in Santa Fe – having the day before for the first and so far only time run out of water, such was the ‘swing’ in weather from extreme cold to heat in this part of the world at this time of year – and I’m off, somewhat tentatively, south again. Should I go lower and head south-east to the desert through Texas and north-eastern Mexico? Or should I stay in the mountains, heading due south? After some research I decide to head for Monterrey, Mexico, taking the desert route, at least initially.
The Rockies however had a little bit more in store for me and even after Santa Fe I was caught in the worst storm of my trip so far with my tent leaking somewhat due to slightly rushed pitching and the phenomenally intense wind and rain as I camped at a freeway intersection next to a truck stop with fellow cyclist Robert (Bob) from Canada. The higher Rockies which I’d left just a week before had over 3 feet of snow as a result of the same storm. Eek!
Cycle-touring in the desert was a new experience for me. Water is the ‘thing’. Even in remote northern Canada and Alaska with stretches of 200+ miles with no shops or taps / faucets I could at least rely on there being a stream or river every few dozen miles at worst. In southern New Mexico and once in Texas and again in Mexico I had stretches of up to 100 miles with no guarantee of ‘fluids’ whatsoever – no streams (dried-up), no gas stations, shops or houses even. That meant carrying up to 10 litres of water versus the normal 3-5 i.e. an extra 5-7 kilos! Ouch! On one of those stretches I decided at lunch to push on to Roswell as I didn’t fancy a night out wild-camping with the rattlesnakes and with fading light (increasingly a factor); I made it, a little bit tired (!) but ok, after another 100+ mile day…
(for the first time I started on this ‘leg’ to have some days where I just felt like stopping, full-stop as it were – leaving Denver after such a lovely time was hard and the conditions and if I’m honest the prospect of crossing into Mexico – more on this below – almost became like a bit of an extra ‘load’; it was toward the Mexican border that I started to find motels as cheap as many campsites further north so I must admit where I’d camped for months on end previously, I did stay in quite a few super-budget motels to pamper myself somewhat – so much for the Explorer persona!)
Texas (south-west) welcomed me with some amazing hospitality – thanks to to the Putnams for letting me camp in the yard and for breakfast, dinner and the drinks and to Byron and Linda for taking me into your home and for the food after you insisted I come indoors as otherwise I’d “freeze my butt off”. Riding along the US-Mexican border (the Rio Grande river in that area) was a strange experience for I could have (easily?) walked across to Mexico at numerous points since the Rio Grande (until the Pecos river joins from the north) is only a couple of feet wide; as I worked my way toward New Mexico and certainly into Texas, the horror-stories about how (life-threateningly) dangerous the Mexican border areas were, began. Almost without fail US residents thought I was insane to try, solo, on a bike. The US-based Mexicans that I met meanwhile generally just said ‘be careful / sensible’. I’d later learn that something somewhere between the 2 was (at least my interpretation) the ‘reality’.
The border crossing was spookily quiet – I purposely chose a less-used crossing at Del Rio / Cuidad Acuna, but even so, there were just 2 cars and I in the ‘queue’. The Mexican customs officer asked what was in my bag: “A tent”. “Ok”. That was it. I was in Mexico! As mentioned in a previous tweet, I was stopped by the police just a mile or so into Mexico … expecting (which I now feel bad about) a “shake down” of my gear, the driver just wanted a chat and to see that I had some semblance of what I was doing and where I was going. This became a trend and I was stopped by the ‘Federales’ on a number of occasions in the following weeks, all of which were totally amicable encounters. I thought Texas was friendly but Mexico now takes the prize for so many people wave, shriek “Go go go!” (and I’m certain they’re implying “Good for you” rather than “Leave the country!”) and stop me for a chat, fascinated by what on earth I am doing. I’ve had meals bought for me, been given gifts (thanks to the guys at Canada Cabanas Resort in Mina, NL for a lovely stay in the otherwise empty high-class Butlins waterpark!), had offers to come to people’s homes, been introduced to friends of friends and gradually, in wading through the quagmire that is my rusty and never actually that brilliant Spanish, come to understand that Mexico is … wonderful 🙂
In the 2 weeks between the border and reaching Monterrey (the 3rd largest city in the country at 3.5 million people) I met no non-Mexicans. None. Nada.
And I’ve pretty much had to speak Spanish constantly. Tourism is hugely depressed. There are Federal Government TV ads telling the Mexican people “We’re busting the drug cartels, we’re arresting hundreds, raiding properties, seizing narcotics and rescuing ‘kidnapees’, we’re going to beat this” and there seems to be an unprecedented level of co-operation between the US and Mexican authorities to make that happen. I still need to be ‘careful / sensible’ though and am.
In getting to southern Texas the temperatures started to rise and when lower into Mexico the daytime temperature on the road pushed over 40°C on a few days (giving me a temperature range, since leaving Denver of 50°C!). Monterrey and the surrounding mountains (for I had to climb back up into the hills) are glorious, the city set as it is in an amphitheatre of soaring 6,000 ft peaks. Getting into a city of this size was a challenge and I found myself riding on sidewalks / pavements, across scrub land, beneath underpasses, down minute cobbled streets and for the first time on this trip using the street maps loaded onto my cellphone / GPS in order to avoid the tunnels along the ‘direct’ route shown on my larger scale paper maps.
Adding to Monterrey’s general greatness, last night I went out – with 3 gals living in Texas, 2 guys living in Vancouver and my (fantastic) Hostel’s owner & his brother – to (1) a great Mexican restaurant (2) a huge Woodstock-esque open-air private party with Mexican 60s & 70s rock cover-bands (3) a Salsa dance club and (4) a House night hosted at a club with a ‘luchador’ theme where the dance-floor was in a real wrestling ring, with costumes on the walls and hung from the ceilings and the staff wearing the associated masks! It was a ‘late one’, like 5 am. How old am I? 🙂 Thanks Jose Juan and Antonio for showing us a great time.
(this ‘leg’ of the trip, since Denver has covered almost 1,400 miles in a little over 5 weeks – I’ve not travelled so fast over such a prolonged period on the whole trip to this point, but, I really wanted to get to Mexico to have then covered the whole of the US and to Monterrey for various practical reasons…)
I fly home from Monterrey tomorrow, back to the UK – I’m Best Man at a wedding in the UK in early December with the all important prior Bachelor / Stag Party duties and I want to see family and friends for Xmas, having been away for over 6 months. We shall ‘see what happens’ as regards future plans so watch this space in the new year. Thanks again to everyone both at home and away who have supported and encouraged me so far – I couldn’t have done it without you 🙂
Happy Xmas all.
Have I actually ridden 5,150 miles all the way from the Arctic Ocean coast of Alaska, 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle down almost all of the 3,000 mile long Rockies to a Mexican city just 100 miles north of the Tropics? I have. How, never having done anything like this before, I do not quite know!
End of Stage 1.
… Charles – and Derek – have decided to stay in Monterrey over Xmas to see the sights … 😉