Day 26: Pie Town, NM to near Magdalena, NM - American Redemption - CycleBlaze

March 20, 2013

Day 26: Pie Town, NM to near Magdalena, NM

Yesterday's formula of a late start, a short and easy ride, hours of laying around, and packing away a platter's worth of enchiladas and pulled pork sandwiches and triple berry pie turns out to be the answer my body was looking for. After a long sleep I pack up and head out into a brisk, kind of overcast morning. My legs feel rested and strong and ready to take on whatever goodness New Mexico has in store.

It's a great morning to ride. The air wraps cold around me, but with a jacket and gloves it's no big deal. Once again the highway is all but mine alone, and the hills come with wide spacing and easy grades. I cruise east with a smile on my face and the satisfaction of knowing that there's nothing else I'd rather be doing right now.

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Something like ten miles east of Pie Town I cross the Continental Divide. This seems important; it's a significant accomplishment for me, that's for sure. But New Mexico can't be bothered to post even the most modest sign to mark a major feature of the continent's geography. So at the spot that looks like the Divide I do what it is I do best: say something offensive and then keep on pedaling.

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On the way down, out in what seems like the center of nothing, I do a double-take when I see ahead of me a sign with a left-facing arrow that reads Library. As I get closer I notice a couple of cars out front. It turns out the place is open three hours a day, three days a week, and I've hit the nine-hour sweet spot. My hands are half frozen, so I head inside to warm up and check out my stupid-looking helmet hair in the reflection of a window.

The librarian, who has a huge laugh and a Midwestern bend to her voice, sits with two other women — one of whom used to be a man — and they talk about the news of this very big and very rural county. It starts with the guy who molested young girls, shifts to the guy who shot at a couple of people who came by his property to pick up a load of hay, and moves on to the group of unknown assholes who have broken in and robbed the library not one but three times.

"I don't know how much you know about this county," the librarian says to me later after the two women leave, "But this place was ready to secede from the United States some years back. It's true! When I moved here they were trying to set up this requirement where the head of household had to have a gun, so that everyone would be able to stand up and protect themselves when we had to become a militia. The Sheriff actually came to my house. I told him, 'There's no way I'm getting a gun! What are you, nuts?!'"

Her name is Linn. She's a 50-something ball of energy and character with a head of long, thick, silver hair. She tells me she's an unabashed champion of President Obama, which surprises me because I wasn't sure people like that existed so deep into ranching country. She's also the reason this library exists.

"This is federal land we're on here," she says as her big, black, mix-of-half-a-dozen-breeds dog licks my knee and then shoves his head into my side. "It used to be an office for the Datil National Forest before they merged with the Cibola National Forest and then moved the headquarters to Albuquerque. Then the property sat unused for a long, long time. Well, except for an outhouse, which of course cost like $90,000 a year to maintain! But anyway, back in the 90s I wanted to turn the building into a library. Everyone said I was crazy, said it wouldn't work, said that it was the federal government, said there's no way I'd be able to deal with bureaucracy. Well guess what? We went back and forth and worked together and now we have a 99-year lease on the building for ten dollars a year. If those assholes would stop breaking in we'd be all set!"

Linn also tells me about the fight the surrounding communities are engaged in to try and save their most important resource: their water supply. A company owned by an Italian millionaire with a history of launching controversial projects has come into the area and, over a number of years, bought up huge tracts of land. But it's not what's above the ground that they care about.

"They want to dig 37 wells, 2,000 feet down into the ground, and start pumping like 15 billion gallons a year onto Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Texas, all over," she explains. "They say it won't affect us out here. Bullshit it won't affect us. So there's this group that formed to stand up against all of this. It brought the ranchers and the liberals together. But then what did they do? They started arguing among each other. Not about the water project, but about everything else they don't agree on! They can't get past their differences to make this work! So they brought me in to try and bring the two sides together and get them to work with each other. So that's what I'm doing now."

There's an optimism and a passion in Linn's voice and in her actions. It's easy to bitch and moan and complain about the ways of your community, of America, of the world. It hear it almost every day in the gas stations and restaurants and bars I stop at out here. It's much harder to turn that frustration or anger or disillusionment into action — and then to sustain that action over the long period of time it takes to effect change. But that's what Linn has done — continues to do — out here, with the library, with the underground aquifer, and I'm sure with whatever important problem presents itself next.

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In the span of five miles, tall trees give way to stubby little half-tree-half-bush things, which soon disappear and leave behind only yellow grass, patches of dirt, and some yellow-green shrubs that stand about shin height. The hills are gone. In their place I look out on a wide, flat, empty expanse of plains.

Looking back.
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Looking ahead.
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A few miles farther on I cross out of Catron County for the first time in four days. It's one of the largest counties in America; I'll spend less time in three or four states during this ride. I'll never forget the beauty, the challenge, and the helpful and kind-hearted people I met during my stay there. When I most needed a boost, Catron County delivered. If I had to pack up my wife and dog and everything we own and set up shop in a modest cabin on some land in the woods out here, I'd be just fine with that. It's spectacular country.

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There aren't any towns or gas stations or anything beyond barbed wire fencing out on the plains. The view doesn't do much to inspire, either. So there's nothing else to do but pedal and try to ignore the mile markers that remind me how many miles I have left to reach Magdalena. For a couple of hours I do fine; I cruise down into the basin with willing legs and a gentle wind at the side. With little traffic and a horizon that doesn't change much, I take on more of life's most challenging questions, like how the hell Zooey Deschanel became so popular.

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But the winds pick up farther on, which turns the last 20 miles into a battle. At first the gusts pound me in the face. Later they shift to the side and pinball me between the edges of a rutted shoulder. I'm fraying at the seams by the time I reach Magdalena.

Now that the bears and wolves and cougars are gone I can worry about rattlesnakes.
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It's a strange town. With around 1,000 people it's one of the larger places I've passed through in four or five days. It has a decent group of restaurants and gas stations and stores. And yet it's also full of run-down homes and closed businesses and a feeling of poverty hangs over everything. The high school baseball team shows up at the restaurant as I'm leaving, and half of them look like they're willing and able to beat the shit out of anyone who looks at them the wrong way. It's a big change from friendly little towns like Glenwood, Reserve, and Pie Town.

There's also nowhere to camp in Magdalena, so with a cold tailwind and light fading from the clouded sky I push east. I'm on a U.S. Highway, but traffic dies in the evening and reminds me that this is wide open New Mexico. For an hour it's just me, the road, and zaps of power running up and down the lines that parallel the highway.

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But there's still the occasional car and I know it's dangerous to push too far. The problem is that every square foot of land beyond the 25 feet of dirt at the road's edge is hemmed in by barbed wire. And even if it wasn't, there aren't any trees or buildings or stacks of hay to give cover. The only option is to ride until just before dark, find a gate that's unlocked, and then, when no passing cars or trucks are around, haul off into the dirt and shrubs and set up the tent using only the light of the moon.

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I make it 15 miles from town before all of those things fall into place. With a small group of cows mooing in concern a quarter of a mile behind me, I pound in the last of the eight stakes and dive inside the tent. The stakes matter, because the forecast calls for gusts up to 35 miles per hour. The rain fly already bounces around and makes loud crinkling noises as I settle in for what could be a long and restless night.

Today's ride: 72 miles (116 km)
Total: 1,184 miles (1,905 km)

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