After a bit of noodling around Santa Fe, it's time to get El Gordo back on the road for one last tour de New Mexico. The New Mexico Off-Road Runner is a route combining a series of collaborative inputs from Cass and Gary Blakely's initial work on the Conquistadores Loop, Georges Mally of Santa Fe Mountain Adventures, whose faint singletrack we followed out of Santa Fe, and Matt Mason whose work on the Monumental Loop provide some scratchy Ocotillo miles into Las Cruces.
Cass, buddy Jeremy, and I roll out of town on the bike path through Lamy and quickly trace some squiggles up onto the mesa.
Georges Mally's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of singletrack outside of Santa Fe made for some twisty fun as we ride his tire tracks in reverse for a while.
The following day after a surprisingly chilly night we head south under bright blue skies through more of the sublime vastness I have come to absolutely love about New Mexico.
A break in the fence line at the end of the day offers up a picture perfect campsite.
We roll into Moriarty the following morning to rendezvous with Gary Blakley. Unfortunately, Jeremy has to return to SF for that thing called a job.
First things first - bike line-up in Manzano - to christen Gary's shiny new rig.
New rig or not, 61 year old Gary can slay. Ex-ultra runner, thru-hiker, and long time mountain biker and bikepacker, I can only hope to ride half as well as he does when I'm his age.
We nudge up along the side of Gallo and Manzano peaks on quiet forest roads before dropping back down to the flat lands.
The other side of Abo Pass deposits us at the foot of this bolt straight stretch of pavement through one of Central New Mexico's desert grasslands, reminding me of northern Argentina's like minded straight shots.
I don't think I'll ever tire of these moments of horizontality and vastness.
Tough souls out here.
The RV park at the other end of the road is definitely big on packing heat.
Watered up for the night, we duck out onto the deserted stretch of old Highway 60 that swings us out toward the base of Pico Ladrón. Late afternoon skies start to do their thing
and set up a picture perfect sunset as we settle into a wash for the night.
Morning brings a near circumnavigation of Pico Ladrón, the high point in the larger Sierra Ladrones range. Sierra Ladrones or "Mountain of Thieves" was the preferred spot for Apache raiding parties and later for cattle rustlers who hid amongst its deeply folded contours.
On the other side of the Ladrones lies the ghost town of Riley, a late 1800's/early 1900's mining town.
Surprisingly, there is still an active church and fascinating cemetery reflecting the town's history and hardship.
Riley merges with the distant speckled hills as the afternoon swirling closes in.
A brief hailstorm catches us as the perfect lunch spot appears. After my Bolivian "tuna" lunch grimness on the Tres Cordilleras Route, my pack is now always stuffed with tomatoes and other produce. Gary on the other hand is flat-out hard core, especially, when it comes to food. What wouldn't even be a snack for most mortals, sustains Gary all day long. If you look closely, Gary can be seen digging into his 1/4 cup of quinoa with a piece of string cheese for a spoon.
"Gary you want to borrow my spoon?"
"No, I'm good. Mine's somewhere on my bike. I'll find it later."
"Gary, you want a tomato?"
"Naw, I'm good."
From this moment forward, Gary will forever be remembered in my mind as String Cheese Gary, or simply SCG.
Just as quickly as the dark skies roll in they part and give us a ripping tailwind down along the eastern edge of the Cibola National Forest into Magdalena.
The rail line in Magdalena made it a critical point along the "Magdelena Livestock Driveway," a historic 125 mile cattle and sheep corridor that extended west to the town of Datil before splitting off to the north and south. Five to ten miles wide, the "driveway" hit its peak numbers in 1919 with 150,000 sheep and 21,600 cattle.
Today Magdalena is a mix of wonderful old brick buildings, vintage signs, a library, a few burgeoning art studios, and a saloon serving up surprisingly good pizza.
Another chilly night deposits a dusting on the peaks as we cut across the eastern edge of the Plains of San Agustin in the morning. The Plains are home to the radio astronomy observatory known as the Very Large Array and prominently featured in the movie Contact. Unfortunately the VLA is on the western edge so we don't ride amongst them - something on the table for the next trip.
Long time compadres.
A beat up Ford dump truck in the middle of the Plains is simply too good to pass up.
The desert floor slowly thaws as we continue up towards the snowy base of Mt. Withington.
Suns out, Guns out kind of day.
We top out as Gary enjoys fresh tracks.
The backside dries out as we descend through Bear Trap Canyon's flowy tracks before they deposit us
into a spectacular valley readying itself for an impending hailstorm, while awe inspiring New Mexican light pours down from above.
Cass heads out to convene with a lone Pinon Pine at the end of the day while golden hour erupts.
The following day we head into the Black Range in the Gila National Forest, a stone's throw east from where the GDMBR passes. Buttery smooth forest roads give way to a fun little singletrack connector along the CDT.
The Gila is hard to beat.
A rocky, fun descent drops us into the heart of little traveled Chloride Canyon amongst towering rock walls.
A wall of Petroglyphs marks time gone by.
Multiple shallow stream crossings keep the feet cool and mark the end of my second Gates Carbon Belt Drive (La Paz, Bolivia - Chloride Canyon, New Mexico), as a bit too much torque shears off about 3" of tired teeth.
While Chloride still has a few residents, it is mostly a ghost town showcasing its silver mining glory days.
We roll into the hard luck town of Winston towards the end of the day. The local's table gets awfully quiet in the General Store when I inquire whether that assault rifle for sale is considered cheap or expensive.
Not far out of town we tuck in for the evening amongst yet another stellar sunset and the longest shooting star flameout I have ever seen. We're taking a few full seconds here. Cass and I have enough time to look at each other wide-eyed, half expecting a Roswellian tractor beam to lock-in on Gary.
We muscle through a stiff morning headwind into Truth or Consequences where Cass is mistaken as a movie star by a young child inquisitively wondering why he has one leg in the sink, as we "bird bath" off a few days of dirt in the Visitor's Center.
Later afternoon powerline riding and long shadows. Magic.
Morning brings more mellow squiggles
amongst flowering Yucca
and mini-super bloom swaths of yellow at the base of the Caballo Mountain Range.
Hitting the rail track, the prospect of a savory meal at the end of the fence in Hatch takes over.
No line length will deter three hungry bikepackers. Sparky's is Hatch, New Mexico's must stop for mouth watering BBQ and epic shakes. As we enter the door, it becomes apparent that SCG's meager quinoa intake has been a calculated appetite saving strategy all along.
Hatch is also perhaps more importantly the "Green Chile Capital of the World." No small moniker. They shouldn't even ask you if you want green or red.
Properly stuffed, we head back out along mellow levee roads bounded by Pecan trees on either side. Tucked amongst the desert greens and browns, we stumble upon a stash of claretcup cacti in full bloom.
That half pound plate of brisket and oreo shake combo takes its toll as we hit an end of day push along the eastern section of the Monumental Loop. Requisite route hike-a-bike. Check.
Morning light makes the Doña Anas and the distant Organ Mountains look like a grade school theater set.
The last handful of miles have us squiggling along a faint scratching of trail on the outskirts of Las Cruces. Gary and Cass clean every lose rocky climb while El Gordo and I bobble along behind.
Prickly Ocotillo gives way to one last washy climb before we follow the power line road in into Las Cruces.
Here's the link to the New Mexico Off Road Runner on Bikepacking.com.
I can only hope I can ride as strong as Gary in the not too distant future; a true inspiration.
And, Cass, well, no words are sufficient. It has been a fantastic journey tracing your tracks and riding with you has been a true highlight of my life. Thanks compadre
Thanks Matt for all your help. Here's to more bobcat's wondering through your front yard.