Cycling the Great Divide, Day Nineteen: Abiquiu, New Mexico to Canon Plaza, New Mexico
June 19th, 2016: 37 miles. Total so far: 628 miles.
We were on the road at 6:45, and at Bode’s store a few minutes before they opened. After breakfast there we got back on the route. It was hot. Very hot.
The first several miles today were on pavement, and the busy traffic, combined with the unexceptional scenery and lack of trees (and a large amount of trash strewn alongside the road) did not make for especially pleasant riding.
Joy was more annoyed than I was: “What kind of national forest is this?!”
Her day continued to go badly, as a couple of cars passed too close, and then, as she reported, upon catching up with me: “Something bit me on the butt!”
She declared that it was the worst paved road of the trip.
We had been climbing steadily all morning, and by the time we got to the small village of El Rito, and the end of the busy road, we had already gained 1000 feet.
El Rito was a little weird, but kind of charming. There were a couple of enormous, puzzling art installations, an interesting-looking restaurant (in a ramshackle building) that unfortunately was not open at 11:00, and a long-closed general store.
People in El Rito apparently like to park their cars jutting far out into the street, and also like to slowly ride their horses down the middle of the main drag. I’m cool with that.
We were standing around (in the middle of the street, in accordance with the local customs) when Joy said “Hey, here comes a strange cyclist.”
It was an old man dressed in what I would describe as western formal wear. As he slowly rode past us, he solemnly intoned “Happy Father’s Day.”
Just outside of El Rito we got off pavement. Joy, who wasn’t feeling well, and hates the heat at all times (the other day she announced, apropos of nothing, that “We’re moving to northern Minnesota”, to which I responded “Uh, OK”) proclaimed “Sandy, shadeless washboard! My favorite!”
We rode for a while, climbing enough that we eventually reached an elevation where some shade trees appeared by the side of the road. We were having lunch under a tree when Joy said “Listen — a cyclist!” I couldn’t hear anything, because I’m old and listened to too much loud music when I was younger, but sure enough, a few moments later a cyclist appeared.
It was the Finnish former cycling companion of “Coyote”, the fast biking dude we briefly met the other day.
We had a nice chat with him, heard his side of the story of parting with Coyote, and also heard about how he had accidentally sprayed himself with a canister of bear spray a few days ago, when he hit a rock, causing the can, which was attached to his handlebars, to discharge in his face.
I was appalled by this story, because the Finnish dude appeared to be fine a few days later, and in fact implied that, while the spray stung, it was no big deal really.
How effective is the stuff (which we’re carrying) going to be against enormous bears, if it can’t even disable a skinny Finnish bicyclist?!
The talk turned to black bears, and Joy told the Finnish biker they were no big deal — “like big raccoons really.” I had to resist a strong impulse to roll my eyes at this. I’ve heard this black bear / raccoon comparison before, and don’t buy it. I’ve never heard of a raccoon eating a person.
After a while we said our goodbyes, and the Finnish cyclist quickly rode away. We, of course, rode away much more slowly.
At about 32 miles for the day we reached the small village of Vallecitos. I had an immediate, visceral, negative reaction to the place. It just had a bad vibe, and was absolutely decrepit. Our map said that cyclists could camp in the village, and also that some limited services were available at the community center. The community center was an old building, the front door of which was adorned with signs warning that the water in Vallecitos was unsafe to drink. We’d been counting on resupplying with water there, so that was a big disappointment.
We collected water from a spigot into our “dirty” bottles for later filtering, and I poked around the community center, which was closed today, but which, it turned out, had an unlocked back door. I tentatively opened it, and startled a young guy working at a computer inside. I apologized, and later he came out and talked to us for a while. He told us he was a college student from Idaho, visiting the area, and while I never quite figured out what his role was at the community center, he apparently had enough authority to collect a couple of dollars from us in exchange for two Diet Cokes.
Our Adventure Cycling map listed the names of a married couple as contacts for camping in Vallecitos, and when I mentioned their names to the young guy, he alluded to some “drama” with the couple (who he described as “hippies”), and some conflict with the rest of the community. Joy and I glanced at each other: Uh-oh.
I called the number listed on the map and spoke to the woman, who informed me that she was sorry, but the “locals” in Vallecitos were now “unwelcoming”, and didn’t want cyclists staying in their town anymore. I was actually relieved, since Vallecitos was one of the worst places I’ve ever seen while bike touring (and that includes a town in Montana whose nickname is “Stab City”), but I felt bad for Joy, who was ready to stop for the day.
There was nothing to do but get back on the road. After six miles on very quiet pavement we reached Canon Plaza, a small settlement that is known, among Great Divide riders, for one thing: The Summer Store, a tiny snack shack that a couple operates near their home. It’s the only place to get cold drinks, ice cream, and other snacks for many miles in both directions on this part of the Great Divide.
It was Sunday, so Joy was sure the Summer Store would be closed, but I felt a what was for me a very rare optimism, and excitedly rode ahead of her when I saw the tiny building near the road.
IT. WAS. OPEN!
As soon as we pulled up to the little metal building, a woman rode down from a nearby house on an ATV, warmly greeted us, had us come inside and sit in front of a fan, and peppered us with questions as we chose $11 worth of cold drinks and ice cream.
The proprietor, Sylvia Gurule, seemed genuinely curious about us, asking not just the usual questions (where we were from, etc.), but also how we met, what we liked to cook in camp, and lots of other things. (Upon hearing how we met, the abbreviated form of which is that I was a 40-year-old man who, after becoming an avid follower of the 28-year-old-Joy’s cycling touring blog, decided to try to catch up with her as she rode across the USA), Sylvia said: Oh! So you were a little bit creepy, eh?)
After we’d consumed some soda pop and Gatorade, the Sylvia’s husband, Joe, came down from their house, joined the conversation, and upon hearing that we were carrying the bad, yet-to-be-filtered water from Vallecitos, insisted that we come up to their home and replace it with some of their good water. We rode our bikes up the little hill to their yard, replaced the water, and as we talked I got the feeling that Joe’s disdain for the water in Vallecitos might extend to the rest of the town as well, although he was too polite to say that.
While we were engaged in the pleasant conversation with the couple, and delaying riding up the mountain and finding a place to camp, Joe mentioned that he was thinking of turning the unoccupied home just across the road, which had belonged to his late mother, into a hostel of sorts of Divide riders.
Joy, who had been ready to stop riding at least six miles earlier, immediately suggested that we try it out, even if it wasn’t ready.
The four of us walked across the road to check it out, and Joy and I immediately determined that the house, which appeared to be unchanged since Joe’s mom died four years before, would be an excellent alternative to dry camping four miles up the mountain. The water heater was turned off, so there would be no hot shower, and there was no bed, so we would need to use our sleeping bags on the floor and couch, but we were pretty excited nevertheless.
We got cleaned up (I braved the ice cold shower, while Joy, who later said she was dissuaded by my yelping during the shower, skipped it), had dinner, and then I turned on the television, which received two channels: An ABC affiliate, and PBS.
I watched the PBS channel for a half hour or so, enjoying its middlebrow pleasures (a cooking show in which the host demonstrated how to prepare super-simple meatloaf, of all things), and then, during a promo for what is apparently an actual show called “Cheese Nun”, I looked over to Joy to make a joke about it and discovered that she was already asleep on the couch, at 8:30.
So I turned off the television and went to sleep on the carpeted floor.