Can't say there's anything distinctive about the highway running East from the Petrified forest and starting up into the Apache National forest, but I can say that the open spaces and infinite horizons of desert brush kissing the cotton clouds suspended in the sticky blue sky… calmed my soul.
Twisting into the mountains, I felt the scorching temperature drop rapidly. The winding roads through the Apache Forest and continuing into the Gila forest of New Mexico are gloriously rich with pine and meadows. Was hoping to make it near Silver City to find a cheap room by sundown.
All the free National forest camping under the pines was calling me, but I was getting some fatigue and didn't want to have to set up a tent. The gas station attendant in Alpine, Arizona told me the night time lows were about 40F. I can do that in a hammock, but it's a little rough, so I pushed on through the mountains until I dropped from an altitude of 9000 feet to around 5000. I'd found that around 4k-5k of altitude in this region, consistently gave me comfy temps for hammock sleeping.
When I had to slam on my brakes at dusk to let either a herd of fat deer or possibly elk cross the road, I knew I wouldn't be sleeping in a bed tonight. Time to pull off the highway and find a tree to sling my hammock. Too many riders have fallen from slamming into deer crossings, and I didn't want to join their ranks. The very next sign I saw that implied camping was permitted, I looked for a tree.
The place I found didn't have that many signs of humans, but there was a stone fire circle, so I figured it was ok for camping. The light was falling quickly, so I slung my hammock and opened a can of beans while I could still see. While resting and waiting in my hammock for the first star to appear, I noticed a den of sorts in the dirt between my hammock and the tree trunk. Next to the dirt den there were the front legs of a deer primitively severed or torn at the knee. Couldn't figure out why there were there and why no other parts of the animal were left. Figured a coyote must've drug them there for a late night snack.
The next day, after I packed up and road out of the woods and on toward Silver City, New Mexico. I noticed a sign where the highway met the dirt road that I hadn't seen the night before. It was warning of bears and cougars. Suddenly, the cougar-size of the den and the deer leg snacks made more sense.
On the way to Silver City, I stopped off at some "Catwalks" that had been recommended, only to find after hiking in that they were closed off due to falling rock damage. Then, stopped off in a ghost town called Mogollon. It was a good bit off the highway, around some twisted mountain roads and a steep climb then descent into a small canyon to get to. Looked like a ghost town alright, but one that had been commandeered by some folks trying to turn it into a tourist destination. It was still early, so I was the only one walking around at that hour, but it looked like the folks living there were either in the process of making it a tourist destination, or had started years ago and finally given up before finishing. Something about the place gave me the creeps, or perhaps I was just thinking of how close I'd slept to a likely cougar's den the night before. Either way, it was time to keep moving.
After loading up on enough camp food for a few days in Silver City, I started the 2 hours winding road that takes you through the mountains to the Gila Cliff Dwellings national monument. For you drivers out there, this road is easily one of the top 5 roads I've ever ridden. It's narrow, so you have to keep your speed down because folks in trucks, SUVs, campers, etc. tend to hog the middle of the road coming at you in the opposite direction. Highly recommended if you dig exciting, twisted mountain roads. I'd almost return there some time just to ride that road again.
Another giant wild fire in the distance was producing a mushroom cloud that looked like an apocalyptic doomsday warning. From the cliff dwellings area where I camped, it looked even more ominous. The park rangers told me, though it was really bad and only 5% contained, it was far enough away to not be a concern. I didn't smell any smoke, so I took them at their word.
The camp sites at Gila Cliff Dwellings are free, mostly I think because the electric wires had been burned away in the last area wild fires so there was no electricity or water. There are spigots for water, but I suppose they need pumps and pumps need electric. You can fill up at the ranger's station about a mile away though.
I can definitely recommend Gila as a destination if you're into cliff dwellings. The rangers are very informative and it's only $3 to enter. There are rangers stationed in the dwellings to answer any question you might have, and you can get right up to the dwellings unlike most of the other's that keep tourists back several yards. If you just hang around a little, you can often have them all to yourself.
My first night in the campground nearest the cliff dwellings, I was alone except for one family who arrived late and took a spot at the opposite end. I was a little put off that they were making a campfire considering the mushroom cloud of wild fires over the ridge and the area being still fragile and recovering from the last wild fires. They were quiet and kept the fire small, so I let it go.
The next afternoon, an older fellow showed up. He stared at me a good while and just sat at his SUV waiting. When the family arrived back from the dwellings, their kids were a little excited and loud. I watched the old man move more toward the middle of the camp ground to be as far as he could be from either me or the family. He finally dragged out all his gear and made camp, including full stove and a nice large tent. Seemed very fit for an old-timer considering the incredible Summer heat.
After the old man finished, he slowly and hesitantly meandered over to my camp where I was sipping a little warm red wine that I'd somehow miraculously managed to keep from turning in the scorching heat. He didn't even introduce himself, just sat down at my picnic table and asked how I was doing.
Before long, we were just chatting it up and telling travel stories. His name is Travis Terry and he asked what I did. I told him that I was a photographer, but had to make ends meet by doing some design work and occasional video stuff. "Been trying to make a go of supporting myself with my artistic endeavors and though it's been getting better, I still have to do other commercial stuff to keep the bills paid." He answered, "I make pictures too… well, I try to paint a little. Wanna see some of my pictures?" I told him I'd love to see his pictures, so he went back to his SUV and came back with an envelope with 4 or 5 snapshots in it. Thinking these might not be top notch, I braced myself to respond without offending.
To my surprise, the snapshots of his paintings were beautiful! Mostly nature scenes with himself in his fedora hat either fishing or hiking. The technique and style was very good and really made you feel like you were spending a moment with him in those quiet, sacred places he hiked too. One of my favorites had a cougar looking over a cliff into a canyon valley ringed with frost, but the one that moved me the most was a scene of him and his little dog by a campfire with a simple lean-to tent in the forest. Something about it just struck to my core and I hesitated before asking about the little dog. "Do you have a dog with you this time?" "Oh him, that's my little dog. He's 10 years old now and gets too tired with the long hikes. I like to hike…" He stopped and seemed a little sad thinking about his little road dog hiking companion, so I quickly changed the subject.
I was amazed at how fit he seemed to be considering he told me he's 71 years old. Setting up camp by yourself with intense heat, carrying all your gear and hiking out into the wilderness alone for several miles takes a lot out of you. Made me wonder how he lives to stay so healthy, so I asked him if he was doing anything special or had a special diet. "Oh no… nothing special." "Most people I know around your age either have trouble getting around or on a bunch of pills to keep going. What do you eat normally? My parents didn't have long lives and I'd like to at least try to live longer than they did."
He thought about it a couple seconds and said, "Popcorn. I like popcorn. Or, just whatever is left over. Nothing special. I think the secret is just to eat whatever you want, but don't eat too much. I weigh myself without any clothes on at home every few days. If my weight goes up, I know I ate too much and have to eat less. That's all I do."
I really enjoyed hanging out with Travis and thought maybe I'd visit him where he lives in the Ozarks some time. I asked if he had an email address or Facebook, etc. He said he doesn't do any of that stuff and gave me his phone number. He said "My wife does that stuff with her phone and computer. She'll get home, sit in the chair with her phone and start doing that Facebook stuff… and, before you know it… we haven't spoken for 3 days." He paused quiet a moment and seemed sad, until I broke the silence asking when the best time of the year to visit the Ozarks was and he told me October was best, and to just call him if I wanted to visit the area.
About that time 3 large SUVs wildly pulled into the campground, spilling out a bunch of teenage boys, a couple teenage girls, and some beer-drinking adults. The boys ran around screaming until one of the adults tossed them a soccer ball which inspired an impromptu match in the parking lot. With all the gravel, and yelling, our peaceful campground oasis was fading away.
Travis said, "Uh-oh." I replied, "Yeah, I'm not a religious man but I'll gladly thank Jesus, Buddha and the Great Spirit, etc. if they can make this development go away." At that moment, the mother of the group got out of one of the SUVs clutching a pillow. She looked around, looked over at Travis and myself. Stared at my motorcycle for a few moments, then said out loud, "I don't like this. I don't like this at all." And, then got back into the SUV. Just like that, everyone piled back into the SUVs and they took off just as wildly as they arrived to move to one of the other campgrounds in the area. I couldn't believe it, but honored my promise and gave thanks to all the powers that be.
The ride out of the Gila forest required a detour through the dusty desert plains and more time due to the wild fire highway closures. The high winds didn't help were a challenge as well and I was starting to get fatigue in the heat. Going on a few days without a shower, primitive camping, etc. a hotel room was starting to sound good.
I'd heard good things about a place called La Mesilla near Las Cruces, New Mexico. I was told this place was like a miniature Santa Fe, with vineyards, nut orchards, art galleries, etc. Sounded spectacular, until I actually got there and found a budget room at Motel 6, got price-gouged with extra bogus fees, couldn't relax at the pool due to a gang of local teens who'd taken it over, and had a waiter try to rip me off on my dinner bill. Even the area called "La Mesilla, was really not much to write home about. I rode around the few blocks of "miniature Santa Fe" 3 times and didn't see anything worth stopping to make an image of. Even parked and walked around looking for something to inspire and came up empty handed.
Hind sight, I should have kept on moving on to my next destination of White Sands. I noticed the town near the surreal White Sands National Monument, called Alamogordo was more what I was looking for, ie. kinda funky, with lots of old highway 66 artifact, and loads of cheap motel rooms. Next time I pass this way, I think I'll explore that town a bit more. Doesn't look to be a great tourist destination, but has a weird desert outpost/military town vibe with likely a remnants of ghosts and, or alien sitings. After spending most of the day blinded by the white-hot sunlight reflecting of the white sands… so intense that many of my shots I couldn't even see well enough to compose the frame and had to just guess point my camera and hope of the best, it would have been cool to wander around Alamogordo in late afternoon looking for some of those ghost alien vibrations.
For now, the aliens and ghosts would have to wait. Crossing the mountains through Cloudcroft and onward toward the caverns of Carlsbad kept me moving onward and upward with the wind.
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