Desert Solitaire Redux

By Merrill Callaway

My love of deserts began in 1971. I drove my fully loaded Toyota along the River Road across Big Bend National Park while moving to California from Georgia. The Road bent my shocks. It’s no place for a passenger car! But I have this episode in common with Edward Abbey, the world’s prickliest environmentalist. He famously totaled his girlfriend’s new Ford on this same River Road, writing about it in his 1977 autobiographical book, The Journey Home. Once I bought my first mountain bike in 1981, I went on to pedal thousands of miles in Mexican and American deserts. Last April I returned to bicycle River Road unsupported and solo, sort of a desert solitaire redux to coin a phrase from Abbey’s most famous work.

Big Bend National Park is strict about camping. I checked in with the helpful rangers at Castolon and purchased my permit for primitive camping at Johnson Ranch, Fresno, and La Clocha.

The River Road at times is the arroyo it often runs alongside.

The River Road is 56 miles of rocks, hardpan, sand, gravel, short —but brutally steep — hills, and, thankfully, not too many miles of washboards since most sections are slow going. The National Geographic map rates the western half 4WD; the eastern half "high clearance." I found all of it ridable with 26 x 2.2-inch tires. There are miles where the road actually is the arroyo, so you must maintain progress through soft stuff. You’ll need your lowest gear for the rocky hills. Loctite everything on your bike. I sealed my Continental downhill tubes with Flat Attack.

There is no drinking water along the Road. Mexico’s Rio Conchos, a major tributary containing agricultural and urban runoff pollutes the Rio Grande. Carry at least one gallon of water per person per day. Do not scrimp on water! I carried four gallons (including two quarts of Gatorade to replace electrolytes) for three nights out. Drink your daily ration even if it’s lukewarm. Once you get dehydrated, you're toast. Stove left behind, I carried hard-boiled eggs, jerky, Clif bars, candy, oranges, two Monster energy drinks, and peanut butter and crackers.

With no resupply options — or water — preparation is key.

Rest during the heat of the day, as the critters do. Ride your miles in the early morning when it’s cool. My camps averaged a conservative 18 miles apart so I could knock off around noon. Why hurry? Riding hard all day uses up too much water and risks heat stroke. There is no shade, so a tent fly or tarp and a sun hat are essential. At Fresno, I explored the Mariscal cinnabar (mercury ore) mine. At La Clocha, I soaked my T-shirt, hat, and neckerchief in the Rio Grande for the evaporation to cool me down. Nevertheless, 90 degree days cooled to 50 by dawn, requiring a sleeping bag. Cautions: snakes at dusk; scorpions in shoes; javelinas (small pigs) rooting for food. Never leave food in your tent!

A long-abandoned cinnabar mine along the route.

Flowers bloom brilliantly in April after rain. Let the impassible mud sections dry out first. Avoid May through summer, when it’s too hot. Finally, there is zero cellular phone service!

Merrill Callaway designed his custom touring bicycle and pedaled it 28,000 miles, visiting 28 countries in four years. He has been a bike-shop mechanic, a logistics engineer, and a web application software engineer. He is the author of two books on programming. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His wrote Logistics of a Successful Bike Tour in the April 2014 Adventure Cyclist.