Thursday, November 10, 2005

Columbus, NM

Friends: Another great day on the bike despite contrary winds that kept me on the bike for eight-and-a-half of the day's 11 hours of light. I made it to the innocuous border town of Columbus, New Mexico just as it was swallowed by the night, 20 after another gorgeous desert sunset.

The winds ought to be blowing from the west, but they prevailed from the east all day. They held me to nine mph for the 25 miles of the Interstate I had to ride. The winds were strong enough that not even the non-stop arsenal of 18-wheelers could blunt them. Ordinarily I am blessed by a wind tunnel adding three or four mph to my speed by the flow of the cursed semis on those rare occasions when I am forced to ride the Interstate.

The only thing distinctive about this stretch was all the grass-hoppers mating on the shoulder. I wasn't sure if they were a scourge or not. If they were, I would have been happy to run over them. If I were Mormon, I'm sure I wouldn't have resisted, as such critters threatened to devour all their crops in the early days of their settlement of Utah until a miracle battalion of sea gulls came to their rescue, devouring the insects. That is why the seagull is Utah's state bird. The grass hoppers must have liked the vibration of the road for their mating, as I didn't see a one after I turned off the Interstate.

When I exited the Interstate I headed south to Hachita, 19 miles away, turning away from the wind and upping my speed to 12 mph. But best of all, traffic volume plummeted from one vehicle passing me every ten seconds for two-and-a-half hours, to just one vehicle every ten minutes for the next 63 miles Most of the vehicles on the non-Interstate stretch were in the employ of the border patrol and were sparkling new. The majority of the rest were oversize vehicles transporting gigantic construction or mining equipment not allowed on the Interstate. With so little traffic on this route they didn't need preceding warning vehicles.

I asked a couple of border patrol officers at a mini-mart in Lordsburg, before embarking on the Interstate, if I would be able to find food and water in Hachita. One said he was here on a special detail and didn't know the area that well. Another told me there was a restaurant in the town, but he'd never seen it open. I was lucky to come upon a general store along the Interstate seven miles before I began the final 63 miles on roads that looked like doodles on the map. The store, called The Continental Divide, was the Southwest's version of Wall Drug. For miles there were
billboards advertising its many attractions (rattlesnakes, whips, Mexican imports, cactus, fireworks and, just like Wall Drug, free ice cold water).

When I turned off to this lone building it looked like it was closed, as its gas pumps had been removed. But it was open and I refreshed myself with a free 16-ounce bottle of cold water and a burrito. The man at the register told me that bicycles weren't allowed on the Interstate. There was a $500 fine and jail time. But right there at the Interstate entrance was a sign saying "pedestrians and motor-driven bikes prohibited, but bicycles permitted on the shoulder." He also told me that he hadn't been to Hachita, but he was sure there was a 7/11 there. He was as wrong about that as about the bicycles. It was another of those virtual ghost towns, with both the restaurant that advertised Home Cooking and the nearby mini-mart closed.

At least there was shade to eat, drink and rest in, though I could only allow myself 30 minutes as I had 44 miles to go to Columbus and less than five hours of light. The landscape had been flat and with a minimum of vegetation. With the border patrol out in force camping wild seemed out of the question. I crossed the continental divide 13 miles south of the Interstate. At that point it was running east-west, rather than north-south as it does for most of its route. I was hoping the winds might run the other way, just as the water does, once I crossed the divide, at the summit of a long, imperceptible climb to 4,520 feet, not even a 500 foot gain from the Interstate. It put me on a plateau with no immediate descent. The winds had diminished, but hadn't switched direction as I fantasized, when I resumed riding. The head winds were light enough that I could maintain a 12 mph average.

A historical marker said that even in its heyday in the late 1800s when silver and copper were mined in the area, Hachita, meaning little hatchet, had a population of just 300 people. There was no indication how many resided there now, though enough to justify a post office. If I were a photographer I could have spent the better part of a day photographing all the decrepit buildings in this town. Very rarely do these western towns admit their population. The signs on their outskirts prefer to only divulge their altitude and the year of their founding.

From Hachita I turned due east right along the Mexican border. Along with the border patrol the U.S. Army was on hand. Every few miles there was a tank or two pointed south with a soldier perched atop scanning the barren landscape. They also had radar screens to detect motion. Every once in a while a soldier would wave at me. At the lone checkpoint along this 45-mile
stretch the two lonely border guards kept me for five minutes. I was the first bicyclist they had ever encountered, despite the ideal cycling along this stretch.

With so much personnel patrolling the border I didn't see how anyone could get through. The guys said they still do. "Where there's a will, there's a way," one said. There was a dirt road alongside much of the paved road that the border patrol cars slowly drove along looking for footprints and checking the occasional culverts with human-sized pipes passing under the road. They seemed to be about the only hiding places for miles. The tanks would also rumble along these stretches. The driver of one also waved as he passed.

I was actually looking forward to a night in a town as the Poncho Villa State Park is here along with hot showers. To find the library open until 7:30 was an added bonus, as were the $1.50 home-made burritos at the Pancho Villa Cafe. Poncho Villa made this town famous by raiding it. And tomorrow 54 more miles along the border await me before I cross into Texas at El Paso. Now I don't have to worry about finding the library there and leaving my loaded bike outside to file this report on this exceptional day on the bike, just one mile short of 100, though I may hit
the century mark yet if I have to ride too deep into the campground to find a campsite.

Later, George

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