Cycling Across America — Part 77

New Mexico: The San Agustin Pass

Excerpts from the journal of my 1996 cycle across the US. Read the entire story from the beginning starting with the introduction in Boston.
(This section is from the audio tape parts of the journal)

To take across the desert I stacked up with 2 breakfast burritos — one smoked ham, one sausage — and a bean burrito, as well as bits of chocolate and a lot of water. Then off I went.

I braved the 6-lane highway without the shoulder because I was running late, but most of the traffic had gone to work, so it was safe. It hasn’t happened since the east coast that I’ve been up at the same time as the traffic — or if I have been there hasn’t been any, like from Elsmore to Kansas City.

I had started the day in what was a Waffle House in all but name. With a waffle. And a double egg plate with overcooked hash browns. Just all scattered crunchy hard bits of potato.

There’s been three big storms in the past ten days. I seem to be lucky with them. The first one hit me and froze my arms so I stopped at Denver City, the second one was when I holed up at Ruidoso — but it dropped snow about 1,000 foot higher anyway — and the third one I seem to have dipped underneath to the south of it. Even the one that got me dropped snow ahead and behind me, and also over in Dallas it dropped baseball-size hail. So yeah, I’ve been lucky.

It was uneventful out to White Sands, because I’d done the journey twice the day before, there and back. So I looked up at the aeroplanes again. Planes seemed lower down. I could have a good look at them; I’m sure I could’ve waved to the pilot at times. The day before there were helicopters, and a huge big bomber, but yesterday there was just a few planes. Very noisy though.

I read the posters and stayed on the road. There’s one greeting people coming into Alamogordo — ‘Welcome, People’ and welcoming soldiers and their families. It was written in German. Another one had a great big picture of that stealth thing, to confirm I wasn’t going mad when I saw it overhead the day before.

At the White Sands National Monument I pulled in to get more water and a quick browse around the Visitors’ Center. I was there for 20 minutes and bumped into a relief map I hadn’t seen the day before. It was great because I could see exactly what I was doing today, and potential changes for the road ahead. I had planned a long road to Silver City in order to take in the City of Rocks, but looking at it in relief I scrapped that.

The girl has already tried to come into my room. I don’t understand this. They always knock on the door, you roar out, they knock again, you roar out again, and then they come in and say ‘sorry’ surprised to find you here. Luckily I’ve managed to throw on some clothes in all that roaring.

In White Sands I spoke to a chap who said he met two people from England in South Carolina and they were cycling around the world. He explained that they used to get a plane to fly across…, and he paused for ages trying to think of the phrase. I was going to say ‘water’ when he said ‘when they get to the sea’. So I’m not the only one who can’t cycle on water.

When I had about 30 miles done, yards in off the road is the edge of the big dunes, so you can’t see them. You’d need to get up about 50 to 100 feet to look at them. The rest of it is that kind of yellowy desert. There were lizards running along. They were visible when they came onto the tarmac, on the shoulder, because they were the colour of the the sand — a dirty yellow.

Behind me the Sacromento Mountains looked great. Close up the shadows are amazing. There’s great big roundness and round shadows. It’s like an overfilled bowl of fruit. Ahead in the distance I still had the blue jaggedy wall that is the San Andres Mountains.

About a mile away I could see a small building, a very small one, and a red blodge beside it. And I thought, that’s got to be a vending machine.

Though I had water, an ice cold drink was very tempting because for the first time in a long time it was warm. Even in the morning.

It was the entrance to the Missile Range, and on the far side of the fence was a vending machine. I went up to the guard and asked him if I could use it.

-Certainly sir. Sometimes it doesn’t work. You’re welcome to try. And if it doesn’t work I’ve got some cold water you’re very welcome to have sir.

Took a couple of cans out. Mountain Dew was the first. Drank it outside. I could hear him inside chatting with his friend. A bit like a waitress, talking to me he’s very formal, very civil, very polite, lots of ‘sir, this’ and ‘sir, that’. Talking with his friend however he’s as common as muck.

He’s discussing Hilary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole. Like pretty much everybody here he doesn’t like Clinton at all but he’s certainly not going to vote for Dole. The other fellow said that if Elizabeth Dole was running he’d vote for her. The guys did not like Hilary.

I wanted to eat but didn’t think it a good idea to eat in front of them, so I drank my drink and cycled on another mile or so. Then I pulled off the edge of the road, lay the bike down on the edge of the sands and walked into it eating my burrito.

I was surrounded by yuccas and other plants, and hundreds of very large ants. One of them was dragging a fly. Lots of them were dragging very small things. One of them was dragging a small grasshopper. I didn’t stand in the one place too long in case they started to drag me around.

Drank my water, it was cold in the bag, and I cycled on. I could eat my other burrito a bit further up the road. Small snacks were the order of the day.

I was going into a headwind. I had thanked the guard on the Missile Range for the drinks and asked if he could arrange to quieten the winds down. He told me when I get to the foothills of the mountains to be very careful; that the crosswinds are very strong. He said that a couple of years ago they lost a cyclist there, a young woman on her own. A side wind took her under the traffic and there was nothing anybody could do.

-So be very careful sir.

First though was like a picnic area, and an historic marker. On the far side of the road. A bit dangerous going across this road; it’s very straight but nothing is going less than 70. The marker is for a Colonel Fountain and his son. Big figure in this part of the world in the civil war. He was a lawyer, statesman. They were murdered. A couple of people were tried for the murder but acquitted. This was the site.

Came back over and a guy by a pickup roared out at me:

-Have you got a phone?

It would be nice to have a phone on the road. I said no and off he started walking away from his vehicle to the edge of the picnic area, and stuck his thumb out at the road. The sixth vehicle stopped for him. I was thinking, I’d like to do that.

I was looking out for tarantulas because I’d seen one the previous evening on that road, trotting across the road. They don’t look as intimidating as other spiders, perhaps because they’re so big and furry.

Mostly though I’m just looking at the mountains ahead and turning around looking at the mountains behind. The further I got away from the Sacramento the less impressive they looked, and less fearsome, though they definitely looked bigger than the San Andres. And the nearer I got to the San Andres the less frightening they looked — as I could see pretty much where the pass was going to be.

As I got near the foothills, which is where the bend is, I was thinking of that cyclist and wondering what her story was. Where she was from, if she gave double rings home every evening. And then a few yards on was a little white cross with some flowers.

At this point the road had a shoulder to the shoulder. Wonderful surface on the shoulder proper but I wasn’t on it in case a side wind did decide to take me.

I saw a hawk going somewhat sideways and against the wind, and yet managing very little in terms of flapping the wings. I was wishing I could do that on the bike. Just a little pedal and then use the wind even though I’m going against it. No, I didn’t try.

The girl’s going to be upset with me. Checkout is at eleven o’clock. I’m cutting this so late I’m in danger of not making it to Old Mesilla, which is six miles away, and then it’s 36 miles north to Hatch along the Rio Grande. Throw in another, call it 10 miles for incidental stuff and — oh I’ll think about that later. I’ll wait until I get on the bike.

Anyway, so then the climb. You go up in various stages of straightness. The road goes straight for a few miles up, then it turns then it goes straight, then it turns, then you’ve got a horseshoe over the pass. It was tough in the wind. Like the other recent climbs the slope was not a problem; I was battling the wind.

At times there was barriers to stop you falling off the road, because there was now a drop. They put them right in the middle of the shoulder, and I always cycled on the wrong side of the barriers, rather than risk going too close to the traffic. Which meant I did risk falling 12 feet down into a big hole, but I reckoned I’d fare off better down a big hole than if I fell into the traffic.

Nearer the top when unprotected by a barrier it became six lanes, or there was an extra lane for climbing. It annoyed me when cars went through it at 80 miles an hour. There’s two other lanes for them and no other traffic around but they take the slow climbing lane.

Only a couple of miles from the top I was looking ahead, and maybe 30 yards ahead there was bits of grass and some plants up in the air whizzing in the wind from left to right. And there was other bits near it going from right to left, which I thought was very strange. Then I could see that it was coming towards me!

So I held on tight to the bike and the wind hit me and grabbed me, throwing me sideways, me and the bike, towards the road. As this is happening I took my foot out of the pedal clip, dropped it to the ground, held the bike steady facing sideways with my front wheel sticking straight out onto the road proper. At the same time a semi-truck was going past with its horn blaring and I turned the wheel so it wouldn’t get hit, and waited ’til that crazy gust had gone. I was so close to being thrown under that truck.

It’s easy to understand the winds because although I’d been going into a headwind from the southwest, the mountains are so jagged and rugged and rise up from nothing that the wind comes through gaps, bounces off them, and goes every which way. I remember the grain elevators, how the wind used to bounce of their cylinders, but those winds were close to constant. These mountain winds were all over the place.

Going up this climb I kept stopping to look behind because the view was great. Although I’d now gone around a bit of a mountain so I could no longer see the White Sands, you were looking at this amazing desert, and I could still see the peak of Sierra Blanca, where I’d been in the snow. It was now nearly 100 miles away. You could see just desert. It takes on a sea appearance probably because it’s got mountains on the far side, like land on the far side of sea.

You were also looking down on the White Sands Missile Range. There were lots of little buildings down there, or structures. I don’t know if they’re buildings.

There were three stags just beside me on the other side of the barbed wire fence which marked off the missile range all the way from Alamogordo. They were picking their footsteps as they walked through the desert — but right at the top. It’s not so much desert up there, but it’s still barren. They were only a few hundred feet from the top of that mountain. And they looked at me a lot, rather than the cars.

I stopped every so often to drink some water, to look at the view, to do my calculations if I would make it before sunset, and to take out a cinnamon flavoured piece of chewing gum. I tried to think of all the people I know who chew chewing gum; in adulthood they’re all women for some reason.

Aguire Springs was across the road but it’s fee-paying. And that’s where the photographs were takeable from, on the far side of the road. You couldn’t take them from the side I was on.

Once I passed the entrance to the Missile Range at the end of the San Agustin Pass traffic was streaming out and there was no way I was able to get across 5 lanes of traffic. So I couldn’t get over there. I couldn’t take a photograph. You had this great big highway in the way of the view and I couldn’t take a photograph. And the wind was crazy so I kept on going.

At the top of course you lose the shoulder. Well you’ve 18 inches but there’s a barrier there so if you go too close you bounce off it into the traffic. At the top they cut a bit out of the mountain for the pass, 5,715 feet high. You come through the pass in a horseshoe bend. The bottom of the ‘U’ is the top of the mountain. And the wind coming through that gap is wild.

And then you get a fantastic view on the other side, which of course you can’t take a photograph of either, because of the traffic and the wind and it’s all so dangerous. You just hold onto the bike and down you go.

You lose that extra lane going down, and then a barrier appears. I stopped at the barrier, put on my jacket for wind resistance, put on my visibility vest because I knew before long I’m going to need it. The sun goes down very quickly these days. It’s very blinding for about 45 minutes and then it’s gone.

I’d come to realise that the town of Organ is called after the Organ Mountains, not the other way around, because the Organ Mountains are those few mountains which are part of the San Andres range immediately to the south of the San Agustin Pass. And as I was going up the climb looking at them — these were the ones I said looked liked fingers almost, they were so jagged — it dawned on me that they actually look like an organ. And I felt pleased with myself for recognising something so obvious.

As I whizzed down through the town of Organ I was looking out for a mural I’d read about. I couldn’t see it in the town — it’s a tiny town. I couldn’t see the mural from the street but I was whizzing by at about 22 miles an hour. Not very fast though I was still going into that wind, remember. And then I saw a mural on a big round cylindrical thing, a space centre thing. There was models of a Space Shuttle outside. The Organ mountains were behind it with the sun shining on them.

The Space Murals Museum in Organ, New Mexico, 1996.

Then I stayed on this big wide shoulder all the way into town on this great big highway. There was a housing estate in off the road a few hundred yards. It was the most European looking I’d seen. Very odd, all these little houses. Like home. Well like a very posh part of Dublin. And beside it next door was a housing estate not a million miles from a poorer part of Dublin. And all around was desert with distant mountain ranges dotted around.

A mile from I-25, a few miles inside the city limits of Las Cruces but quite away from the downtown, not really in a built up area, I saw a Super-8 motel and said play it safe, go in and be done with it. Which is where I am.

Looking back at the Organ Mountains from my motel at Las Cruces, having crossed them from Alamogordo and White Sands on the far side.

I’ll read from the motel gunk:

‘Bordered by the rugged Organ Mountains on the east and the legendary Rio Grande river on the west, Las Cruces lies in the heart of the fertile Mesilla Valley. A southern New Mexico city on the rise, Las Cruces has retained the flavour of the Old West community. The archaeological history of Las Cruces dates from 200 BC Traces of what are considered to be the oldest structures in the United States have been found in the valley. Pueblo Indian villages were established by 300 AD but by 1450 the Puebloan people disappeared, perhaps due to drought, internal political strife, or attacks by nomadic tribes.
One of the first Europeans that visited the area was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca who survived a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico and then lived amongst the Gulf Coast Indian tribes. In 1535 he made his way to the Mesilla Valley in search of Spanish settlements. Five years later de Vaca was followed by the renowned Coronado who led the first recognized Spanish expedition through the Mesilla Valley. In 1598 Don Juan de Oñate led hundreds of colonists along the El Camino Real — the King’s Highway. This route passed through Las Cruces and Mesilla and extended through Ciudad Chihuahua all the way to Santa Fé across the dreaded Jornado del Muerto, the Journey of Death. Many settlers who crossed the 90 mile stretch of barren desert never made it to the their destination.
Along this trail an even occurred in 1830 which led to the naming of Las Cruces. A caravan of travellers from Taos was ambushed bu the fierce Apache. The dead were buried, their graves marked with crosses. Subsequent travellers dubbed the site La Placita de Las Cruces — the Place of the Crosses. Later it was shortened to Las Cruces.
With the ratification of the Gadsden Purchase, which was signed in Mesilla in 1854, the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico was established. Las Cruces became the major supply centre for miners staking their claims in the Organ Mountains, and for soldiers stationed at Fort Selden. The town was a major stopover for passengers on the Butterfield Overland Stage Route which extended from St. Louis to San Francisco. It’s said that the only place one could find a bed between San Antonio and Los Angeles, was at the Mesilla stage stop.
Wild West heroes and outlaws were also a part of Mesilla Valley history. William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, was tried for murder in Mesilla, sentenced to hang, but escaped before his sentence was carried out. He was eventually tracked down and shot by Pat Garrett who later wore the badge of Sheriff of Doña Ana County. Garrett himself was mysteriously shot just outside of Las Cruces.
Today fields of cotton, chilies, groves of pecan trees and acres of vineyards stand on what was once dangerous and wild land. The meandering Rio Grande river cuts a path through this agricultural community nourishing year-round crops.’

After making my double-ring signal home last night I spoke to the girl on the desk for a while. She asked me to tell her about Ireland. She wants to go there. Her grandfather is Irish, and she loves the advert. I hadn’t seen the advert. She said it tells you all about the Vikings, the English, and the Normans, and then it says, ‘But if you guys come, you’ll be the first ones that are invited’.

I picked up a couple of postcards from her. She pointed out they’re doing a deal and if I got five of them they’d be cheaper. So I told her I’d been doing deals all the way and I’ve got too many postcards.

Read the next segment: Part 78