Wild Beasts

Jul 2nd, 2022

This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

Meghan, Taylor, and I passed the bright, wooden sign with a yellow Zia and “Land of Enchantment” as the road dipped down a fast descent and everything opened up, my heart pounding in recognition of arriving home to New Mexico. When we reached Chama, we hung out at the depot for a while, relaxing in the sun, delirious. In our minds, we were racoons. To every human who said hello, we responded with a private snicker that we’d tricked another one. There were lurchy guys outside the saloon, our only consistent predator on tour. Meghan treated us to lunch at the Boxcar. There we met a sweet high-school–aged kid named Aaron who offered for us to stay at his Catholic church where his family goes and his dad does Build-a-Bike. We were denied overnight access to the church by whatever priest authority determines who gets charity, but Aaron let us in the building to shower and eat their snacks.

We camped on a nearby deer trail that a woman who works at the saloon showed Taylor, right behind Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad train station and depot, in tall grass with the Rio Chama trickling by unseen. None of us felt particularly hungry since lunch, despite putting in so many miles, but we made some tacos and picked at them. In hindsight, the sick sweats were coming on. But we were always sweaty, and it was New Mexico in summer.

Bike touring is glamorous. I got up at 2:00 AM after farting myself sick and expelled in the thorny bramble by the train tracks, which was demoralizing except for the beautiful stars — they feel so much brighter after weeks of rain. There was no time to dig a hole, but I forgave myself for the mess, interpreting the scrapes on my legs and face as penance, and reminded myself that monsoons wash away all things eventually. I started puking mid-walk on my way back to the tent, and by the soft glow of Taylor’s headlight I could hear her retching and sighing too. Early in the morning, Meghan caught the inevitable. We tried to sleep in a little since we didn’t sleep at night, but the train started up and someone started walking on the trail Meg was blocking with her tarp and had to walk around us in the thorny high grass. Taylor, the youngest and most consistently task-driven of our group, headed down the road to a country store while Meghan and I slowly packed up, pausing often to let waves of nausea pass.

Thanks to compartmentalization and dissociation and good ole fresh air, I felt better after riding the two miles to the store. Taylor bought some B.R.A.T. snacks to share, and Meg ate a banana while I filled them in on our situation: our rest day destination, Lake Abiquiu, was another 60 miles away with few amenities along the way; Santa Fe, where I lived, was roughly 100 miles away; friends in Santa Fe were eager to pick us up and take us home, but it would be significantly off-route and we were trying to stay as true to the course as possible.

As we talked, Meghan expelled the banana — we were not as “better” as we’d told ourselves. My companions went to a nearby abandoned gas station and lay in their sleeping bags. A friend living on the Taos Mesa texted me, “Say no more, I’m on my way.” It took her a few hours to reach us. Meghan and Taylor rested in the slowly shifting shade of the gas station while I paced and swayed in the sun. If I stopped moving, I’d have to acknowledge everything was spinning. My friend eventually arrived to rescue us and took us to Lake Abiquiu, a guardian of my optimism, where the rest of my close friends showed up to care for us. I washed off my sick in the shower, sank my feet in the wet clay, jumped in the lake, and spent the night shivering and delirious, happy to be among my friends, my loves, my stars.

An excerpt from Split, a memoir about a Great Divide tour.
The living watercolor of Jicarilla Apache territory in northern New Mexico.
Carolyne Whelan

It looks, at first glance, like a place with two colors: brown and blue. But within those are infinite shades. The brown is actually pink and gray and white and burgundy and black and red and brown, ash and sky and rock and shadow and sand. The blue is green and cobalt and sapphire and gray and black and white and onyx, sky and water and cloud and shadow and stone. Sparkling everywhere, bright everywhere.

Outside Cuba on State Route 197, there was a bad smell on the road, the second of the day.

Me: There must be a lot of roadkill in the ditch or something.

Meghan: That was a dog in a box. I didn’t want to …

Me: Say it?

Meg: [silence]

Houses had tires holding the roof on, people just making do.

We got lunch at the Transportation Building. Meg got sick again. Lots of rolling hills even though it looks flat on the map, making us all feel sick and weak in the sharp sun.

It was about 55 miles to the Chaco Trade Center in Pueblo Pintado from Cuba. We rolled in around 5:00 PM, meaning we weren’t too much slower than average. We hung out there for a while, watching Nickelodeon on TV and basking in the air conditioning and cold drinks.

Little kids came in and hung out with us by the TV. Meghan gave them her popcorn and they climbed all over everything. We washed our laundry in the bathroom, and I bought a single-serving pizza, glued the holes in my rain fly, and laid it out to dry. The owner, Dennis, finally asked if we knew where we were staying for the night. We told him we were still trying to figure it out so he offered us to camp on his property by the store, behind a Santa Fe Railway boxcar.

I slept for a good part of the night with no rain tarp, watching the meteor shower overhead in the clear sky. My eyes had no choice but to relax, which is the best way to catch meteors. To not focus on any one space but allow yourself to encompass all of it, as if that’s possible, to soak in the universe in a vague, broad, incomplete way and allow the motion in the sky to find you. One after another, they shot past my delirious face. I started to fall asleep, but it was cold and getting colder in the desert, so I threw the rain fly on the tent for extra warmth, putting the sky to bed.

If I stopped moving, I’d have to acknowledge everything was spinning.

The next day, after passing a llama and cliff dwellings (“ruins,” the Navajo man at the market had told us to look for, in a soft New Mexican accent that had us on the lookout for runes), the landscape changing yet again, this time to the red rock of canyons, Taylor realized she’d lost her GPS charging cable. We went to a few gas stations in Milan and Grants, and a flea market in Milan, but ultimately rode to the far edge of Grants to the Walmart.

I pointed out a field behind the nearby Dollar Store to camp but was out-voted. We passed abandoned resorts and motels that seemed recently squatted and ultimately went back to City Center to camp in the park. I didn’t vocalize my concerns about the park being noisy and too public, but they were realized when a bunch of children chased geese, teens skateboarded in the pavilion, and a mariachi band played well into the night (until almost 10:00 PM, which is late for us). We made dinner at a picnic table, still feeling sick from food poisoning, and waited for the crowds to clear. A kid ran up to us and asked if we play Pokémon Go. He asked us: Water, Fire, Wind. We answered and he freaked out, cheering and running around the park. “Yes! They all said Water!”

Eventually, we were able to set up our campsite in the bushes once people had mainly left. We didn’t pitch tents, just rolled out our pads and sleeping bags so we wouldn’t be seen, but were concerned that if we were exposed like that then people would see we were girls, whereas if we had our tents up then maybe they wouldn’t bother us. A group of guys stayed up for a long time, talking loudly, playing “Marco Polo” and whistling after a woman named Angela who yelled at them in response. Headphones eventually drowned out most of the noise, but I heard what sounded like arguing. It turned out to be a teenager practicing his rap lyrics. It was pretty cute, but he wasn’t very good.

Also, a train and ducks and a very loud bullfrog.

An excerpt from Split, a memoir about a Great Divide tour.
If the lava rocks don’t getcha, the goatheads will.
Carolyne Whelan

There were many signs that told us not to ride through Malpais, from the GPS directing us to take the road to literal signs on the street saying not to continue during wet weather. CR-41 was clear and a gorgeous ride through canyons, and it felt great being on dirt roads again after a few days on pavement due to weather and illness. So we figured it probably couldn’t be so bad. It had rained very hard a few nights ago, but that was a few nights ago and it was so dry out here. We deliberated. We would never have the chance to ride out here again, to know how bad it is, how beautiful. What is the risk, and was it worth more days on the pavement? We couldn’t bring ourselves to continue on the paved road, though we all had a feeling we were deliberately choosing the poorest option.

CR-42, unlike its friendly cousin CR-41, was a series of small lakes on the road made of cement-like mud. One of Taylor’s shift cables snapped and she rigged up an impressive fix. Goatheads everywhere shredded our tubes (especially in my front tire, which got it the worst). I fell in the mud.

It was so challenging, it was comical. We couldn’t be mad because we did it to ourselves.

In addition to the lakes and goatheads and cement, we also got to ride through huge deposits of lava, with lush spooky forests on flat terrain with black trunks, and the black lava rocks against the greens, yellows, and blues of the fields, and the smoky sky so velvety and foreboding.

CR-42, unlike its friendly cousin CR-41, was a series of small lakes on the road made of cement-like mud.

After pedaling for 11 hours, the sun set like a miracle. This place was a wilderness that felt as wild and remote as Wyoming, but only lasted a day — albeit a very long, exhausting day. We camped at the turn for Homestead Canyon. By that time, it was dark and the road was too muddy to traverse. There were cows in the field across the street (Pie Town Road) who came to look at us one-by-one until eventually there were over 30 of them lining the street, staring at us. Meg went over and talked to them. She has a way with animals: when she moves, they move. If she were to walk down the street, those cows would have followed her. It was beautiful and lonely feeling in this deep way I couldn’t put my finger on.

This place was truly different, unearthly, and yet so of this wild planet and untouched by humans, except for this “road” no one with any sense would have traversed. I was lonesome for my then-husband and my friends I had to say goodbye to once again. I was lonesome for the idea of a life that could find some stability. But I was lonelier for the adventure that was about to end, even though in my stubbornness I was only now settling into it and allowing it to Wow me. I was lonesome for the feeling of awe I’d denied myself, and for its impending doom once we crossed the border into Mexico.

The cows’ eyes glowed in our headlamps and they sang their lonesome cowsong, the monks’ chant in reverse. Eventually a car approached and drove down toward the Canyon. The cows stampeded away into the darkness.

An excerpt from Split, a memoir about a Great Divide tour.
Mud so cunning it brought a drivetrain to its knees, but not the mechanic who outsmarted it.
Carolyne Whelan

Then we got to Pie Town. We went to the Pie Town Cafe. Our waitress, Betty, was very nice. This place loves hikers and cyclists; we are possibly the reason a town can really sustain itself out here, with little industry and not enough residents to support the handful of diners and bars. I got a perfect green chile breakfast burrito. Meghan got two plates of French fries and homefries. A seasoned potato eater, she said these were the best homefries she’d ever had. The cook came out after the second order and said, “You like our fries, eh?”

“They are the best I ever had.”

“Russett #2s,” he said, as if giving away an industry secret.

Another waitress came out and had the same conversation, but this time added: “The trick is to fry them a bit, refrigerate them overnight to let them relax, and then fry ’em up again as they’re ordered.” She went on about the relaxing, how you can tell when a potato is stressed out.

After lunch, Meghan and Taylor went exploring Pie Town and I went to the Toaster House where we were spending the night. A devout introvert, even on a bike tour with two people I need a good amount of alone time to collect my thoughts and recharge. Eventually I went out wandering myself and found Taylor and Meghan on the edge of town at a midday karaoke event at the local watering hole. Googie was the drummer in the Bobby Fuller Four, who popularized the song, “I Fought the Law (and the Law Won).” He sang “Folsom Prison Blues” in a duet with Meghan. Another older man sang a very good and sweet “Sweet Caroline” to me and it was very touching.

Jake was a guy who was staying with us at Toaster House, even though it was a house strictly for people who were traveling on foot or by bike, and he wasn’t traveling or on foot. He had a truck and worked the next town over but had had problems with housing so the kind owners of Toaster House said he could stay there (according to him). He had his gun on him at all times and flashed it around and talked about how everyone should have a gun because you never know who is going to come after you, which only made us worry that he would come after us. He sang and played guitar well into the night, songs from the ’60s and ’70s like “Eve of Destruction.” I wrote my own song:

The locals warn us, watch out for wolves

But it’s men we hear howling at night

Who rub their necks against our tents

Leave their scents

We sing to ourselves descending mountains

What harm could the fast road do

But skin us alive

We sleep with knives

Dream of barren red clay rivers

Sleep ourselves awake with the

Fear of closing our eyes

After a day of potatoes and pie, singing and patching tubes, we were in good spirits headed into the Gila National Forest. I felt like I was finally bonding with my friends, 45 days since we flew into Calgary. Meghan and Taylor had developed their own weird language, and I was a little envious. I’ve never had that sort of relationship with anyone, especially female friends. My best friend was a woman, I had lived in a house with 10 other women, and yet that hyper-intimate level of friendship was always lost on me, and here I was seeing it develop among people having the otherwise-same experience I was. But if it had taken me a month and a half to finally feel wild, it would certainly take me longer to tap into the feral nature of my femininity.

A fox, then a coyote, crossed our path.

I don’t think a cat, still far wilder than a dog, realizes it’s domesticated until it’s let outside.

People were camped outside the forest boundary in a little cabin compound, New Mexicans who summer in this spot but live in California. They waved us down to give us water. When the older guy heard I lived in Santa Fe, he joked, “Really? And you went all the way to Canada to ride your bike? I oughta throw a rock at you!”

Everyone we met on this trip was worried about the wolves. Even the woman at this compound couldn’t believe we camped outside with “the wolves,” and I told her people are scarier. She agreed. For the most part, truthfully, people were some of the best parts of this trip. But when you meet so few, it’s the ones who corner you when you enter civilization, who insist on riding with you when you’ve made it clear you don’t want their company, who pull up next to you in their pickup truck on a desolate mudroad in the rain and say nothing but just stare as you try to not wonder what they’re thinking, who strip naked and remind you there’s no one around for a hundred miles, who make you remember it’s not the wolves that make you sleep with your knife.

The landscape so far is much different than expected. Heavily forested with juniper and alligator juniper, firs, and shrubs, then rolling pastures and fields for miles, a little house with a horse. Then a canyon of aspen and pine trees, and hoodoo rock formations.

We pitched our tents and set up camp in the middle of the woods, a section of nice pine trees in a canyon of grass and rock. Red, green, gray.

After the Divide, I often told people that the bike ride was the easy part — you just tell your legs to go. Sure, my knee hurt, and for a day or two I thought I might not make it; one of my companions got excruciating saddle sores; our bikes broke at varying times and our tires were shredded with goatheads toward the end; we got food poisoning or drank contaminated water; we crashed (well, I crashed). The hard part, for me, was abandoning myself. I don’t think a cat, still far wilder than a dog, realizes it’s domesticated until it’s let outside.

Spending six weeks on a bike, largely in the wilderness, with two other people really highlights a spectrum. I wasn’t the one who posed naked in the Wyoming Basin. I wasn’t the one who developed a secret language with my riding partner. I was the one apologizing to her then-husband for having left yet again, who spent time alone in her tent writing and reading memoirs of other travelers, still detached from her own experience. The one who didn’t plan for anything, not out of fluidity but merely a knowledge of my own rigidity, that if I had a plan it would fail and I would not adapt well. It was probably the expulsion of my entirety onto the brush by the railyard, but I like to think it was this homecoming back to the state that has always held up the best and freest version of me that finally cracked me open. After riding for 2,000 miles, it was in this last stretch that I finally started my tour.

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