Road to the Southwest - OK, TX, NM and AZ
Hola! When I started this post I was in Albuquerque, using a computer at a local library with which I am struggling beyond belief just to try and upload some of my photos, but to no avail. I'm now in Chambers AZ, and despite being in the middle of nowhere - Chambers is literally about 10 houses, a gast station and a Days Inn - I've got access to a computer that actually works. It's been quite nice, finally passing my halfway point, and with exactly 2,150.1 miles on the clock I have just - 'just'! ha! - about another 700 miles to go. I'm only just inside Arizona but it's a good milestone to reach my 7th state, so I'll just get on with it.
Friday 29th August - Warner OK to Prague OK - 88.26m, av. 15.4, 1343.4 total
The first 25 miles from Warner to Henryetta were a bit of a drag, as the road quality was far from brilliant and the scenery not particularly interesting, but I made good time as I passed north of Lake Eufala, and I was lucky not to be caught up in the predicted thunderstorms and heavy rain forecast to hit Warner later in the morning. Reaching Henryetta, I stopped for a quick break and popped into a local law firm office just to check how far it was to Okemah. Or rather, I wanted to amuse myself with the almost inevitably drastic difference between their estimations of the distance and reality itself: it seems that the vast majority of people I've met here, cyclists aside, are pretty poor judges of distance, a fact that I would volunteer is because the majority of those people drive these great distances, paying attention to the time it takes rather than the distance itself. The women inside the office were fascinated by my trip, although one half-jokingly admitted to me that when I had pulled up outside the window, she had been a little fearful that I was (and I quote) "some king of bicycle bomber". Part-amused and part-shocked, I continued on towards Okemah on Highway 62, where I experienced some of the most fantastic road I have cycled on since leaving Wilmington. A large section paid for by the Creek Nation, the road swept over gently rolling hills, with long climbs but beautiful descents, the landscape becoming less crowded with trees and yet covered with lush, waving grasses. Stopping in Okemah (the birthplace of Woody Guthrie for all you folk fans out there), I was warned by a local gas station attendant that Boley, a town I would be passing through a few miles down the road, was apparently the state (or national, he didn't specify which) capitol of unsolved murders. Slightly peturbed, I headed on along 62, my exploited fears powering me through Boley without a glance back, and stopped afew miles further on in Paden at a gas station, where I phoned my contact in Prague, Pastor Derek Belase, to confirm the time of my arrival. As I was about to set off I was warned by a local "You'd better hurry up if you don't want to get wet", and sure enough, as I reached the outskirts of Prague, a town founded at the turn of the 20th century by Czech immigrants, I caught the edge of some short-lived but torrential rain. Luckily I made it to the United Methodist Church in time to miss the worst of it, and met up with Derek, who had arranged forme to stay with Sharon and Reese Capron, two senior pastors who lived on a farm on the edge of town. The rain stopping, I briefly had time to have my picture taken for the local paper, and then headed out on a dirt road to the farm, where I was greeted by the Caprons at the door of their underground house, designed and built in part by them into the side of a rolling slope of a small hill.
Did I mention the goats? I don't think I mentioned the goats.
In all honesty, I'd expected them to be living on a farm owned and worked by somebody else, but Sharon and Reese, both over 70, worked their own land, growing pecans and raising birds and horses, both whilst working full-time jobs for the UMC. I will count myself extremely lucky if I have the amount of vigour and enthusiasm that that couple do at their age. They took me out in their John Deere Gator to show me their land and what was done with it, arriving back at the house just as their grandaughter Alexis arrived to help with the feeding of the animals and other chores. I had never seen a 17-year-old girl with such practical abilities and a passion for animals, and even more impressed when it came to light that we both shared a love of Napoleon Dynamite: a very Marmite film back home. After Alexis headed back home into town, Sharon and Reese drove me back to the church to show me Reese's recumbent tricycle. Despite both of them having serious medical conditions, the Caprons' agility and ability had been maintained in part by the fact that both of them cycled several times a week, and Sharon had taken part several times in a 2-day, 150-mile ride event (whose name I can't remember). After trying out the trike - a comfortable but incredibly odd experience, being so low-down and stable - we received an impromptu invitation to the house of one of the Caprons' sons, Alex, where I was overwhelmed with an incredibly generous and warm reception by his wife, DeeAnn, and their children; Alexis, Cassey, Cannon, Reese, and a couple of friends of the family. It was great to meet such kind and cool people, and I ended up staying until almost 2:00 am watching a DVD of comedian Tim Hawkins, when Cannon drove me back to the farm. It had been a long day, but I was very happy to have had the opportunity to meet such wonderful people.
Saturday 30th August - Rest day
Surprisingly, I actually managed to get up for the 7:00 am breakfast I'd agreed with Sharon and Reese, but luckily got an extra half-hour lie-in. When it came, breakfast was amazing. I helped cut up the strawberries to go on top of the johnny cakes, effectively coarse Scotch pancakes made with cornmeal which I'd watched Sharon grinding the day before. The atmosphere of hard work and self-sufficiency permeated the place, and I felt a real respect for the Caprons and their lifestyle. After breakfast, we headed out to cut down some deadwood which had fallen onto the fence on the edge of their land. Unfortunately, neither of the petrol chainsaws would start, so we had to use Reese's grandfather's 2-person hand saw. I say 'unfortunately', but it was awesome: I actually felt as if, in some small way, I was earning my keep, and I loved being out on the farm being useful and really engaging with my surroundings. Heaving the last of the wood off of the fence, I managed to nick myself on one of the barbs, but I count the new scar on the inside of my arm one of my favourite souvenirs of my stay so far.
From the left: Ted, Reese and Sharon. Awesome food, awesome house, awesome people.
After lunching with Sharon, Reese, and Reese's brother Ted, the Caprons had to drive to Tulsa, so I was left to my own devices for a few hours before being picked up by Derek and taken to a gathering of church people to the north of town with his wife, Rebekah, and 6("-and-a-quarter")-year-old daughter Madison. The party was held at an expensive-looking house in an expensive-looking neighbourhood of town, and at first I felt a little uncomfortable compared to the homeliness of the Caprons' farm, but the people there were really nice, and the conversation was good, even when it turned to religion. Even then, when I admitted I was an atheist, I didn't get the frosty reception I had expected. One lady told me that she had never met an atheist before. Wow. To me that was a true testament (ho-ho) to how religious this country really is. It felt really good, though, to be engaging in a discussion, not an argument on the subject. After a while, however, I felt it was best that I went back to the farm and prepared for the following day's ride. Derek took me back to the farm, where we met DeeAnn waiting for me at the house. I bid Derek goodbye and went inside, where DeeAnn gave me the family's contact details and $50. I was really touched. After she had left, I prepared my things and headed to bed in the knowledge that I wouldn't see Sharon and Reese before the morning. They led a life I really respected, and I was sad that I couldn't stay and help out for longer, but it was the call of being on the road to my next destination which eventually lulled me to sleep.
Sunday 31st August - Prague OK to El Reno OK - 81.89m, av. 14.2, 1425.3 total
Today, by my calculations, I reached my halfway point. I think. Only totting up the final distances I actually travelled will give an accurate answer, but it's a nice mental marker to have made. The first miles from Prague to Oklahoma City went particularly quickly, the hills not being too bad and there being no really adverse weather. I also managed to lose my frist piece of kit (if you don't count the spork that I accidentally left in Wilmington) - my underside water bottle, whih was long gone by the time I realised it had either fallen off my bike or been left at Capron Farm. Oklahoma City was, despite it being a Sunday, a big, busy mess, sprawling massively across the centre of the state, and the only peace I got was sitting by the reflecing pool of the Oklahoma CIty National Memorial, staring around me at the tribute to those killed and affected by the largest incident of domestic terrorism prior to 9/11.
A simple but beautiful memorial to the victims of such horrendous violence.
Perhaps it was the mindset I entered, but I felt enveloped in a bubble of calm and sincerity, a bubble I soon had to leave as I was again caught up in the hectic traffic heading west out of the city, so much so that I nearly missed the fact that I had finally got onto Route 66, the Mother Road, the road I'd dreamed of riding for over a year and a half. Yet my romantic self-delusions were shattered as I reached the outskirts of the city and was immediately battered by a southwestern combined crosswind and headwind. For the next 35 miles, my attention and my energies were geared towards simply staying upright as my pace slowed to a crawl. Finally arriving in El Reno, I headed over to the RV park by Lake El Reno, where I'd been offered accommodation by the city council. However, being the Labour Day weekend, I had only been given the office number for my contact, and therefore had no other way to contact them. After phoning several times and receiving no answer, I gave up and headed back into town, finding a Budget Inn, out of the heat and wind against which I'd been struggling most of the afternoon. I was glad to be able to relax privately, packing early and spending the evening with nothing but some Sonic takeaway and the TV for company. Incredibly ignorant and small-minded, but I was fed up of riding for one day.
It's good to know I'm heading in the right directions.
Monday 1st September - El Reno OK to Elk City OK - 87.53m, av. 12.9, 1512.8 total
A truly hellish day. Though it was interesting to see the slow evolution of towns becoming more and more 'Old West' as I passed down their Main Streets, my body and mind were yet again focussed on battling the nearly 90 miles of head and crosswinds, and temperatures of 38 degrees. That said, when I was't staring at the road two metres in front of me, the landscapes I did see - the waving grasses, the increasingly red earth, the inverted blue bowl of the sky above me - were beautiful. The only aid to my progress was that, attempting to leave El Reno in the dark, I couldn't see the turning onto the Old Route 66, which ran roughly parallel to the interstate, and so in desperation headed onto I-40, nervous of the illegal status of my doing so and also of the threatening lightning storms whih gathered in the north. However, after several hours of unhassled and reasonably safe riding, I decided that riding the interstate would be a good way to make better progress as I headed towards Texas. I ended the day booking into a motel unplanned, unable to phone my contact at the Elk City UMC as I had been given a phone number, only the thought of finally getting to Texas acting as a pick-me-up before falling into a drowsy sleep.
Tuesday 2nd September - Elk City OK to McLean TX - 73.89m, av. 17.1, 1586.7 total
It was this day's ride which proved to me just how much the weather can determing how I feel on a day's ride. Though there was somewhat of a headwind as I headed out of Elk City, and more thunderstorms flaring huge forks of lightning to the north, as the light picked up and I became more aware of detritus on the shoulder of the interstate - broken glass, shredded tyres, bits of metal - the weather against me soon abated, and the headwinds and crosswinds of the previous two days became a tailwind which whisked me across the border into Texas and into the small town of Shamrock by 10:00 am, only 20 miles from my final stop for the day.
Yee-haws are in order, methinks.
I took a break at the U Drop Inn, a weird little place that was once bang on the main drag of the Mother Road, but is today a preserved monument to a now effectively dead highway. The fact that it used to be a motel and restaurant, but now is a bare little museum basically just selling Route 66 trinkets is evidence of Shamrock's sad, slow death following the implementation of the interstate system. That said, it was indeed a well-preserved model of quirky Route 66 Americana architecture, but its strange form was not enough to distract me for too long before I felt the need to head on to my final destination.
The U Drop Inn - a weird, wonderful little building. Apparently Shamrock does one of the best St. Patrick's Day parades in Texas.
The last 20 miles went a little slower as, paranoid that I would miss the turning to McLean, I reverted back to the frontage road: more bumpy and indirect, but I eventually reached McLean and headed straight to the town's weirdest attraction: The Devil's Rope Museum, a museum incorporating element of Route 66 and Dust Bowl history, but primarily devoted to one thing: barbed wire. Patented in 1874 by Joseph Glidden, barbed wire was one of the key resources responsible for bringing about the end of the open range of the true Old West, parcelling up land, preventing the passage o nomadic animals and peoples, and contributing to the rise of modern ranch-farming. The interest for me was in having studied the 'Wild West' for History GCSE, and it was interesting to see the local take on it. That and several thousand samples of different types of barbed wire.
After having spent a sufficient time staring at historic farm eqipment and rusty bits of metal, I headed down to the local UMC, where I had been offered accommodation by the local pastor. I was welcomed in by secretary Mikki Jackson (her first name is Michael. As in Michael Jackson. I know.), who informed me that the church could put me up at a local motel instead of actually inside the church, a generous offer I quickly accepted. Checking in to the Cactus Motel, I showered and then walked down to the local gas station, where I filled up on the usual questionable-side-of-healthy food, and then slobbed out in my room for a few hours. I decided to actually venture outside again to take some photos and video, and was just headign back inside when I saw the slow shadow of a cyclist pulling in to the steakhouse next to the motel. I ran over to meet them. His name was Rudi. He had cycled over 13,000 miles from his home in northern Germany, through Russia, Mongolia, Alaska, Canada, and the West Coast, before (hopefully) heading to Washington, Miami, Peru, Australia, and then back to Europe. He cycled on average 1,000km (621 miles) a week. He was 60 years old. 60 years old. 60 years old. As I headed back to my room, his energy and accomplishments despite his age echoed around my head, making my trip look like a cake-ride. Utterly astounded, and still in awe of this incredible man who had been on the road for 5 months, I headed to my room to prepare for the next day.
I wish that I could find the words to describe how inspired this man made me feel. As a student of English I think it appropriate for me to lament the irony of the situation.
Wednesday 3rd September - McLean TX to Amarillo TX - 78.92m, av. 14.2, 1665.6 total
The ride into Amarillo felt a significant deal longer than the previous day's ride, again because of strong headwinds. The landscape, increasingly empty, I still found sadly punctuated with the bright lights of distant windfarms in the dark, and grey power lines and radio towers in the day. It was interesting, though, to see the land's being increasingly distinguishable by it's increasing lack of distinguishing features: even the hills became hard to detect (aided in part by the wind), and I would find myself staring at the horizon for several seconds simply to determine whether I was on an incline, flat or decline.
It was, however, rather obvious that the water tower of Groom TX was on somewhat of an incline.
The most challenging part of the day, however, was navigating the hot, crowded centre of Amarillo. After cycling down miles of frontage road past seemingly endless law firms, auto shops, fast food places and gas stations, I finally turned away from the interstate in order to pass under its gargantuan four-way intersection, hoping that I would experience something a little more Main-Street-like away from the huge roads. But no, the 'centre' of town was exactly the same as the frontage roads, except the businesses were packed tighter together, the roads narrower and the traffic more intense. After finally managing to reach the Super 8 I was supposed to be staying at, I was informed that, having arrived several hours before check-in, I would have to wait a while, and so got some food and bought a new GoPro mount for my handlebars - my second one had been shaken to pieces on the awful-quality frontage road coming into the city - before heading back to find that I was trying to book myself into the wrong motel: the one I wanted was actually a block back. Finally checking in to the correct motel, I spent another evening sprawled in my room in front of the TV, oppressed by the heat and the roar of the interstate traffic outside the room. I've found increasingly that, however dead, I enjoy staying in little towns like McLean, Prague, Mulberry and Black Mountain: there feels a more definite sense of both privacy and community which I preferred infinitely to the soulless hive of cities like Amarillo. I was glad to finally fall asleep and dream of reaching my 6th state.
Thursday 4th September - Amarillo TX to San Jon NM - 87.35m, av. 12.9, 1753.0 total
Rising at 5:00 am was made incredibly easy considering my intense desire to be out of Amarillo, even if a non-stop headwind resulted in my second slowest average speed so far. The land growing increasingly barren, I stopped for a cooked breakfast in Vega, and then again in Adrian for ice-cream and a drink.
Ah, the archetypal western cliche of the solitary windpump. Squealing, toneless music to my ears.
Adrian, although seemingly practically deserted, stands as an important marker for travellers as the halfway point of Route 66 and the Midway Cafe, an establishment providing inspiration for the movie Cars, but it was primarily nice to be able to take on water for the last time before Endee, New Mexico. Just over 10 miles west of Adrian, the landscape evolved in the most dramatic change I've seen so far: the land fell away as the road descended from the Texan mesa highgrounds, dropping away into an enormous red valley as far as the eye could see. The descent into the valley was exhilerating, but the bottom of the valley was punctuated by several significant hills which I knew would become more numerous over the following few days. I had, however, developed a technique for mentally dealing with this increasingly challenging landscape. I wouldn't look at my milometer at all, barely even looking at my map as I was cycling the only viable road for miles around. I've reached a stage where I figure that, despite the wind, despite the heat, the hills, and whatever the land throws at me, that however slowly I'm going, I'll get there eventually. Whilst I'm still scared of punctures and snakes and strangers and thunderstorms and being run over, I'm feeling a little more confident in my ability to make it to California. That said, it is still important to compartmentalise each day and focus on what's around me.
I was expecting some sort of magical portal, but I think that perhaps I'd misinterpreted the word 'enchantment'.
The edge of the mesas and the grassy plains which toped them had reminded me of the Serengeti, but the descent into New Mexico was truly other-worldly. The landscape was so harsh and beatuiful, and I felt like, just as I had in the Cataloochee, that I had worked hard and deserved to see this landscape. San Jon (apparently pronounced 'san hone') was, in comparison to the natural beauty surrounding it, a little disappointing as a town, but by this point I was so desperate to use a shower and a toilet that I cared little. It was a suprise, however, to find that the owner of the motel ws far from the weather-hardened New Mexican I expected, but rather a northerner from Cheadle Hulme, a few miles from where I had lived in Wilmslow until the age of 10. Small world, eh? I had plans to take a walk, but the howling wind and glowering clouds made me reconsider as I retreated back into my room before falling into a sleep troubled by the thunderstorms which began to gather to the southwest.
Friday 5th September - San Jon NM to Santa Rosa NM - 80.59m, av.18.1, 1833.6 total
I had expected a brutal headwind for the day's ride, but what I got was far beyond what I had exected. A reasonable tailwind allowed me the blast the first 20 miles from San Jon to Tucumcari, arriving shortly after sunrise. The sun, however, was short-lived, and as I stopped for a break on the edge of Tucumcari I noticed more clouds swelling over the horizon into which I was to cycle. A few miles further, and the most horrendous rain I have ever cycled in broke over me, accompanied by claps of thunder and lightning strikes all around me. The stinging rain fell with such ferocity as I pedaled into an increasing mist that my visibility was reduced to less than 20 metres, and despite the low light levels, I had to wear my sunglasses simply in order to see the road, which felt like a river as I struggled slowly up some increasingly steep hills. These hills, however, grew less steep as the rain abated slightly, and by the time I stopped in Newkirk, I was flying. What depressed me a little was not the rain itself, but rather the fac that the clouds and mist that came with the rain reduced my visibility so much that I was largely unable to view the scenery around me, which I told myself must be magnificent when it wasn't raining. As the morning wore on, however, and I climbed my last big hill just past Cuerva, the clouds lifted as I descended for the next few miles, getting into Santa Rosa just before 11:00 am with my highest average speed. Whilst the rain had been harsh on me, the wind certainly hadn't. As I pushed my bike through the door of my Motel 6 room, I did notice something significant - my first puncture. Taking the rear wheel off I inspected the tyre until I found the culprit: wire from a shredded truck or car tyre. I was lucky to have got the puncture just as I pulled into the motel, and even luckier that I had cycled more than twice the length of the UK without getting a puncture so far. After the necessary repairs, I headed to a local gas station, where the girl seemed to have no reasonable ability for discerning accents ("What's that, German or something? Or Australian?" "No, it's English." "Is that like France or something? Like Paris?" (She actually said 'pah-ree') "No, as in from England.") AS I walked back to the motel, I noticed that the clouds were beginning to regroup, and checking the surprisingly unhelpful Weather Channel, I was informed that flash flood warnings had been given for New Mexico and Arizona. I was saddened, not because of the rain, but because the clouds so far had prevented me from even seeing most of the countryside along my route. By this point, I wasn't really interested in seeing Santa Rosa - being far more concerned with getting ready for the following day's ride - so I ate and tried to fall asleep as quickly as possible.
The highlight of my stay in Santa Rosa. Damn straight those are my crisps. Or chips. I'm not sure where my linguistic loyalties lie at this point.
Saturday 6th September - Santa Rosa NM to Edgewood NM - 91.45m, av. 17.0, 1925.0 total
The day started pretty grim - although the first miles out of Santa Rosa were dry, it was climbing into the low-hanging cloud and mist which slowly began to soak me and prevented me from seeing anything more than 300 metres away. That said, I was glad that I had a decent tailwind: I figured that as long as I had that, it could rain as much as it wanted. As the morning wore on the clouds began to lift a little, and I was even able to spot a couple of patches of blue sky before pulling into Clines Corners. For a place that bills itself as 'the meanest, windiest place in New Mexico', I was incredibly lucky to have been spared a potentially horrendous morning's cycling. After a well-needed second breakfast - a little hobbity, but I had only eaten gummy worms all morning - I hit the road again. The sweeping descents allowed me to rip through the next 22 miles into Moriarty, where I phoned my host for the night, Tari Thiery, before heading the last 12 miles into Edgewood, where I faced a rather embarrassing failure. Taking the wrong turning into the road, I faced a dirt road far steeper than any I'd ridden before; so steep, in fact, that for the first time I had to get off of my bike and push it the last few yards up the hill. I was welcomed at the back door by an extremely large but perfectly harmless German shepherd, then by Tari, her husband Tim, and one of her sons, Daniel. I was instantly struck by the design of the house; the adobe-pueblo style of many New Mexican houses, open-plan, light and airy. After showering and being treated to some delicious chicken soup (apparently the secret is parsnips), Tari and Tim drove me northeast to Santa Fe, the Sandia Ridge, Cinder Cone and the Santa Fe Mountains framing the scenes we drove through reminding me of southern Spain, of Orgiva and Grenada: I was half-expecting to see the Alhambra jutting from the hillside over the city.
Tari and Tim in front of the Cathedral of St. Francis. Apologies for my complete inability to notice shadows when taking photos
Santa Fe itself was a cool and crazy mix of Native American, white American and Hispanic culture, and the pueblo-style buildings and Indian craft shops were offset by the upbeat music of the annual Zozobra Festival, a local festival which starts with the burning of a 50-foot human effigy covered in people's problems written down on pieces of paper. The burning had occured the day before my arrival, but the plaza was packed with stalls selling Mexican and New Mexican food, with a live band and traditional dancers performing to a massive crowd. Unlike a lot of the areas I'd been through so far, this area felt like it possessed a distinctive culture and unique culture and history, a reminder that the history of this country extends far beyond the annals of the white man, and that white culture by no means holds precedence over any other culture here. Getting a little peckish, we decided to try some food, and I must admut I was rather nervous, being particlarly pathetic specimen in my aversion to spice. I tried three dishes: a chilli-filled burrito (which burned), a tamale (which burned even more), and a chicken taco (which was absolutely delicious and coincidentally didn't burn at all). After a while we headed back to Edgewood, the evening clouds once more rolling in and presenting a glowering sky as the sun set behind the Sandia Ridge. In the car on the way back I discussed my moral, ethical, religious and philosophical viewpoint in comparison to Tim, a religious, inredibly eloquent and erudite teacher of maths and philosophy. It was one of the most interesting car journeys I've ever taken, both intellectually and visually. Though here is not really the place to recall the entire discussion, one question that Tim posed really stuck with me: how do you make decisions? This question pinned in my mind, I treated myself to a 'late' bedtime of 10:00pm.
Sunday 7th September - Edgewood NM to Albuquerque NM - 39.15m, av. 17.1, 1964.2 total
I allowed myself a lie-in until 6:00 before setting off toward Albuquerque. Although the Thierys had warned me that the first four miles of my day would be solid climb, my reward at the top was totally worth it. The clouds that gathered to the east of the Sandia Ridge broke over the mountains as I rode into the sunlight with the joyous feeling of 15 miles of downhill. I headed north a little before birefly turning east to make the short, sharp climb to my first tourist stop of the day: the house inhabited by Breaking Bad's Hank and Marie Schraeder.
With that sweaty visage it's like I'm photbombing my own photo...
Scrambling up onto some rocks on a trailhead a little further uphill, the view that I got was stunning. The city of Albuquerque, sprawling down toward the Rio Grande, gave way to the slow incline as the land rose into the high desert on the horizon. The sun was getting hotter, so I headed into town, stopping briefly on the corner of Piedmont and Orlando (a.k.a 308 Negra Arroyo Lane) to get a quick snap of the White family house.
The next few miles into the centre of the city were strange - I agreed with the Thierys' appraisal that Albuquerque was not quite as much of a centre of 'culture' as Santa Fe, or at least not as concentrated. I arrived at the Route 66 Hostel on Central a proactive six and a half hourse before the official check-in time, but perhaps the pathetic sight of a hairy, sunburnt student was enough to let me in to the dorm early. Funnily enough, there were two other English guests in the hostel, both from within 50 miles of me (Southend and Bishops Stortford). I was glad enough to be in Albuquerque to go out exploring, so I was happy enough to sit in the worn, eccentric but earthy communal space of the hostel reading Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. By the end of the evening I was beginning to feel strange; sick, but not quite sure of my symptoms. The squeaky bunks and plastic mattress didn't really help my attempts to sleep in the hot dorm, but then again, I found myself thinking as I drifted to sleep, I had got what I paid for.
Ok, so it wasn't a concrete picnic bench in Tennessee, but it certainly wasn't the best night's sleep I've had.
Monday 8th September - Rest day in ABQ
The extent to which my body had become acclimatised to my routine was made clear to me by my waking up at 5:30 desperately in need of the toilet. I had a couple of things I needed to do (post a souvenir home, update the blog, visit a bike shop), so I figured I had better get them done so I could explore the city in the afternoon. I spent the majority of the morning being misdirected by various members of the public whilst trying to find a post office. Turns out it was in the federal building I'd walked past in the first five minutes of my walk, hidden behind an airport-security-like scanning system. After that, it was several infuriating hours in the local library, signing up for a library card to use the computer, signing up to the computer waiting list, logging in to find out that I only had three one-hour sessions on the computer, and then being locked out of the computer whilst still logged in to my blog. I headed back to the hostel, but on the way was stopped in the street by a man I'd seen earlier crossing a street, but whom now confronted me with the words "Are you Albanian?" He introduced himself as Richard, an ex-pilot and ex-resident of Michigan; a wonderfully friendly and conversational guy, with an uncanny knack for accents, most impressive of which was his English accent, which just so happened to sound exactly like Ricky Gervais. I mean exactly like Ricky Gervais. It was nice to spend almost a full hour chatting to him, but I was feeling increasingly ill and needed to pack so, I made my goodbyes and headed back to the hostel. I had a brief walk out a few blocks to take a peek at Jesse Pinkman's house, but a churning stomach forced me to turn back before I could explore any more, so I decided to try and get some sleep.
I think that by this point I'd gained some sense and stopped ruining Breaking Bad shots for myself by being in them.
Tuesday 9th September - Albuquerque NM to Grants NM - 75.21m, av. 12.0, 2039.4 total
My preparations for the day's ride were somewhat hampered by being unable to get more than a couple of hours' sleep at a time. I don't know what it was that I had eaten, but I was sure that it was some sort of allergic reaction to something I'd ingested. Though my insides were screaming 'Damn you, you detestable gluten allergy!', there was nothing I could do but deal with the diarrhoea, put a brave face on it and get riding. Surprisingly, I felt more comfortable riding than walking, and for the first few hours I made good progress as I climbed out of the city and into northwestern New Mexico.
A couple of miles into the day's long climb, looking back over Albuquerque. A nice place to stop, but ultimately not a heartbreaker to leave.
The ride itself was stunning: increasingly barren land, with the appearance of some stunning sandstone mesas and small Native American settlements. I still feel strange about saying 'Indians', as I'm wary of its misinterpretative and misrepresentative connotations, so, in the light of my lack of knowledge of the exact name of each of the tribes in the areas I pass through, I shall continue to use the term 'Native Americans', until I am corrected by somebody who knows better than I (and I know practically nothing).
For something that's supposed to give solid practical instruction, this sign seemed worryingly cynical.
But I am getting sidetracked. The land was truly beautiful, but I hardly stopped at all to take pictures or footage due to a worsening stomach and the desire to be still and just lie in bed. Which is virtually all I did when I finally reached Grants after the slowest-paced day of my trip thus far, and looking back at my logbook, it seems that I was rather more concerned at the time with my illness than appreciating the land around me. The highlight of the day's entry? "I literally shat myself just a little".
Wednesday 10th September - Grants NM to Gallup NM - 67.09m, av. 14.6, 2106.5 total
The truly Red Dead Redemption nature of the day's scenery managed largely to distract me from the bodily discomfort I was experiencing. Leaving Grants, I realised for the first time the truly great thing about getting up at 5:00 every day, to be riding before sunrise: it's getting to see the sun rise every day over new and incredible scenery, over bare, scrub-like land cross-cut by gigantic mesas and monolithic red sandstone cliffs and promontories.
To me, this is just some exotic animals short of the opening of The Lion King.
The road between Grants and Gallup was, with the exception of a 1.5-mile stretch of interstate shoulder (think loose gravel filled with bits of glass, metal and rubber), very smooth and a great ride. Another geographic highlight was reaching Continental Divide, which (as all you rainfall fans out there know already) is the point dividing rainfall in the USA: the 700 miles west drains into the Pacific, and the 2100 miles east into the Atlantic. But I wasn't going to stick around for precipitational oddities: I still had some miles to cover. After another 26 miles I reached Gallup, the last big town in New Mexico before the border with Arizona.
Abandoned railway heading out into dead country just east of Gallup.
After getting some lunch and much-needed hygeine provisions from the quality establishments of McDonalds, Dollar General and Walgreens, I cycled out toward the west of town to my motel for the night. Like many towns along I-40, Gallup has developed into a linear frontage town, so whilst from north to south it's only a 2-mile ride, it was a long 8-mile cycle until I finally reached the Budget Inn, where I was let into my room by the maintenance guy. Although the room itself was nothing to write home about - almost everything was screwed down, even the plastic tray for the toiletries was screwed down to the bathroom counter and the lamps to the bedside tables, and there was a weird red light in the toilet so you could tan as you go about your business - the views from the windows were pretty good. However, I was still feeling pretty weak, having attempted to limit my fluid intake in order to lessen the likelihood of repeating the previous day's embarrassment, so I lay with the curtains open, nursing my aching stomach until the time came to turn in for the night.
Thursday 11th September - Gallup NM to Chambers AZ - 43.63m, av. 19.4, 2150.1 total
Though the morning in Grants had been a little nippy, the morning I awoke to in Gallup was positively freezing, a fact that I didn't really realise until I was practically back on the interstate. Unable to find my warm full-finger gloves, I rummaged desperately in my panniers to find something to stop the cold from seizing my fingers up entirely, but my solution had me quickly back on the bike and blasting past Lupton into Arizona.
State number seven. And yes, that is a sock on my hand.
Despite having given myself another lie-in in order to avoid arriving impolitely early at my next motel, it was all I could do to try and slow myself down, a very difficult thing to do when the day's ride was practically all downhill and smoother than a baby's bottom. The scenery, however, did help: the canyon-like landscapes of northwestern New Mexico became even more exaggerated for the first 10 or so miles into Arizona, before melting away into small hills and more barren scrub through which I managed to get the fastest average speed on a day's ride so far at 19.4 mph.
Lupton AZ. Rising before dawn means you almost always get a great opportunity to see the moon setting over simply incredible scenery.
I reached Chambers after just over 2 hours' riding, and treated myself to a cooked second breakfast before actually managing to check in long before midday. Chambers itself consists of little more than a couple of houses, a gas station and a motel, but it was cool to explore the railway down behind the motel running parallel to the interstate, and to watch the multiple-mile-long BNSF and CSX cars rumble through with roaring horns that make windows in towns like Grants rattle in their frames.
And so here I am, finally up to date. I am, if all things go to plan, exactly two weeks away from flying home, but I'm trying not to think about that now. Despite some horrible winds and infuriating illness (which is finally starting to wear off, I think), the riding I've done since getting into New Mexico has been the most beautiful and most rewarding riding I've done of this whole trip. Whilst I do miss the people I met further east, the landscapes here are the ones I've been waiting for for so long, and to finally experience them is literally a dream come true. I'm experiencing very little discomfort from riding, and I hope that the rest of my ride will go well, however far I get. I'm still not entirely sure I'll make it, but getting this far has helped my confidence, and the motivation to work through all the hardships to come is growing stronger by the day as I get closer to my goal. But for now, it's compartmentalisation, living mentally day-by-day to get there. Until then. Thanks for reading, and thanks for waiting. I'll hopefully write next from the Land of Opportunity.