I was looking for any sign of spring. There were some to be found, and signs of other things too. My first dual sport ride in New Mexico for this season seemed to take forever to get here. Leaving home, it was snowing, but surely there were flowers somewhere in April, I thought.
It was also snowing in Las Vegas, where the plan was to look for these illusive flowers, so instead I headed further south. Finally turning off of North NM-14 just south of Golden onto the Puertocito Road, there were suddenly a lot of signs, but slightly different in nature than I had thought to look for. What followed was a good refresher on the rules of backcountry motorcycle touring.
Rule 1- Stay on the road. While there are many roads in rural New Mexico that are open to the public, they usually all go through some stretches of private land, or Pueblo lands. A “No Trespassing” sign usually means just that; Stay on the Road! Private property notices should remind everyone to resist all temptation to wander off the designated route.
Rule 2 – Give all cattle and wildlife the right-of-way. They are usually bigger than you, and way faster. Signs of livestock on the road are pretty noticeable, including hoof prints and poop. Slow down when animals, or their signs, are spotted, and wait for them to move off the path of travel. Keep an eye on them as you pass by too, because they can change their minds and direction quickly.
Rule 3 – Never go through a closed gate. A gate is not only to keep the animals inside a fence. It also screams “Keep Out” to everyone else. Most gates will be locked, but even if not, don’t go there. Signs saying you will be prosecuted for trespassing are True.
Rule 4 – Obey “Road Closed” signs. Even if you can find a way around the barriers, don’t. Most public roads are managed by a public agency, like a County, the State, BLM, or the USFS. Therefore, the jurisdictional body usually has the right to close the access. Most of the time, there is a good reason, like the Elk calving season. No question, there are more and more of these “signs of the times”, but disobedience can lead to permanent closures.
Rule 5 – Watch for signs of bad weather. They say: “If you don’t like the weather in New Mexico, just wait a little while, it will change”. That is never more true than when it is clear, warm, and sunny. Things can turn bad quickly, and catch a rider by surprise. A rain storm ten miles away can suddenly cause a flash flood to come by right in front of you, or the road to turn to mush.
Crossing a wide dry arroyo when you can see dark skies around you is never a great idea. If there is no other way, then at least look well upstream for signs of water approaching before riding off across the dry sand. Get across quickly! If the water is already running past, don’t even try to get across. It is always deeper than it looks from the bank.
Rule 6 – Watch for changing road surfaces and soil types. In the backcountry, things can change fast, and so being able to stop quickly is helpful. Learn the techniques for riding in soft or wet conditions, and practice before heading off into the unknown. While crossing arroyos, the soil can turn from hard clay to deep soft sand. Keeping a good eye ahead can save you from being surprised.
Rule 7 – Take maps, and/or a GPS receiver. Getting lost may be adventuresome, but can also be very scary, especially after it gets dark. Having a well thought out plan will almost always save you trouble.
Rule 8 – Give yourself plenty of time. You should have a good idea how long a route will take you, so use your common sense. Don’t start off into unfamiliar country in the middle of the afternoon, unless you are ready to camp wherever you find yourself when darkness comes along.
Rule 9 – Take someone else with you, and tell people where you are planning to go. Having an emergency locator transponder (ELT) on board, such as SPOT, can get you out of trouble but it might not be soon enough. By the time emergency help responds, you might be dead. Having a good medical kit, and someone along to use it on you could save your life. Preparation prevents pain!
Rule 10 – Be prepared! Think of everything, make a list and take it all. Even with a riding companion, you are responsible for having everything you need. Can you fix a flat in the middle of the road? Do you have a chain repair kit? Got plenty of layers to stay warm, or a way to take layers off to cool down?
A sign of age confronted me at one bend in the road, not my own age mind you, but that of the ghost town of Hagan. cityofdust.blogspot.com/2011/05/hagan-new-mexico.html is a good place to learn more, and also www.ghosttowns.com/states/nm/hagan.html . This once booming coal town had a thriving economy and the railroad coming through in the early 1900s, but like so many towns in New Mexico, was abandoned when the ore played out.
It always makes me feel wistfully distant from the modern world when gazing upon the remains of some bygone era. Never mind that (in this case) if I had listened closely enough, I might actually have been able to hear the sounds of the modern world passing by on I-25. A little further up the road northward are the even more degraded remains of Coyote, also from the coal mining days. Both these sites are on private property, and the signs say: “Stay Out”, so, take your look at history from the roadway.
After crossing under I-25, riding north from San Felipe Pueblo on BIA-85, the road peeled off to the left toward Tent Rocks National Monument, so the bike headed that way. These volcanic rocks are formed into stone tipis, and have been shaped by weather based erosion for centuries. There is a very nice picnic area at the trailhead, with tables and trees. Park the bike and take a hike for a closer look.
In Cochiti Lake (the village) gas and food can be found at the RAM convenience store from 6am to 10pm. Gas is typically less expensive in this remote outlet than elsewhere, a bonus of riding across Pueblo lands. Casual dining is also available at the Stone Kiva restaurant, by the golf course north of the village, from 8am to 5pm, and they open earlier in the summer as golfing days lengthen. Covered camping spots with services are available for a small fee, by the reservoir near the dam.
Travelling further north from Cochiti Lake on Route 298, the burn areas from the recent Las Conchas Fire were distinctive, as well as from the slightly older Cerro Grande Fire. The landscape is now almost completely brown, with almost no ground cover, from what has been named the second largest forest fire on record in New Mexico. Erosion is already taking its heavy toll, as the soil is mostly sand with loose rock, therefore highly erodible. Stay on the roadway! Landslides can occur during heavy rainfall.
Evidence says these fires spread so quickly and so far, due to decades of extreme fire suppression practices within the National Parks Service and the lack of active forest thinning, creating dense thickets of undergrowth and ladder fuels. These results have greatly influenced fire containment and forest management policies around the country.
At one point on this road just north of Cochiti, the route goes right down into the sandy river bottom of the Rio Chiquito. Riding in the running water is kind of peaceful in a way, until you see the trashy evidence along the high banks of the furiously destructive torrents of rushing water that are created with heavy rains. Flash floods are no small consideration anywhere in this canyon fill landscape.
When the day was about over, I finally found some flowers, on the budding fruit trees near Espanola. Spring really is upon us. The beautifully vivid colors poking out from the gray of winter will brighten any trip. Soon the wildflowers will be adding to the “huescape” along the ride, in remote pockets of moisture, and summer riding season will be well underway.