After a series of small hills this morning, Silver City quickly disappeared and I was in the country again. This area is the beginning of the Gila River watershed that eventually feeds into the Colorado River. After an hour of riding, I crested a hill that marked the Continental Divide (6,230 ft.). From this point for the next 20 miles, the ride was an easy downhill with unobstructed views for miles, no wind and no traffic, just emptiness as far as I could see. Along with the ever present Buckhorn Cholla, dense mats of Mexican Gold Poppy and Desert Marigolds started to appear.
I was reluctant to emotionally embrace and fully enjoy this descent because I knew that it would eventually be balanced with a climb. To be candid, I’m not built for climbing. I have many friends who are and they all look like whippets. On the other hand, I am better characterized as a Clydesdale. Under the best of circumstances, even without panniers, my climbing cadence is most aptly described as “lumbering”. So, I don’t look forward to those ascents.
At about the 30 mile mark, I noticed a large number of horses standing together behind a natural windbreak. As they saw me approach, they moved out and lined the fence acting surprisingly friendly. Now, I don’t find animal photographs particularly compelling, especially those taken from a distance and of domesticated animals. However, these were beautiful animals running around in an inspired setting so I thought I’d get up close and try to get an interesting photograph. I approached this brown mare and stroked its head softly setting up a picture from less than a foot away. At that moment, the horse made a noise that sounded like “kha-dija” and forcefully sneezed coating my forearm, camera and chest with a nasty slime. I’m sure you will understand that in the future in all of my photographs the animals will appear very tiny.
After hundreds of miles of Texas and New Mexico, it wasn’t until I approached Buckhorn that I saw my first cowboy mounted on a horse. I had stopped by the side of the road for a drink of water when he trotted by. He was an older, weathered looking man, wearing the full western outfit: tan cowboy hat, denim shirt and neckerchief, jeans, chaps and spurs. In his hand he held a lasso that he flicked at an ambling black cow that was walking ahead of him. The cowboy era in American history was actually fairly short, only about 40 years or so. Most of how we think about the cowboy is a product of Madison Avenue and Hollywood, a depiction that is far different than reality. Yet, when he slowly raised his gloved hand and touched his hat to acknowledge me, I couldn’t help but feel like an awestruck little boy.
I had originally intended to stay in Buckhorn tonight at the RV campground. However, when I rode by I could see that it was little more than a dirt lot adjacent to the roadway. I stopped at Last Chance Pizza Parlor and Liquor, the only store in Buckhorn and ordered a pizza for lunch. While I waited for it I spoke to Amber, the clerk (and pizza chef), a young woman in her mid-20s with henna hair and tattoos on her arms. I asked her what life was like in a small town like Buckhorn and she replied that it was right for her. She explained that she had been wasting away in Odessa, Texas – “Slowdeatha” as she referred to it. While there, she had gotten into some bad things and realized that her life was going in the wrong direction, so she came to Buckhorn to live with her mother. Since then she has married and has two children. A place like Buckhorn, she said, was just what she needed.
I asked her about places to camp and she explained that there was a spot in the Apache National Forest about 20 miles away. I thanked her and headed out.
Ten miles past Buckhorn, the road turned west, which was into the face of another tough headwind made worse by the vortex created by the canyons surrounding me. I slowly climbed through the Gila National Forest noting the increasing number of pinyon pines and the rock formations that looked like rust colored vertebrae running along the hilltops. But, the wind was a brutal distraction. For long stretches, I could not pedal faster than 3-4 mph, which is walking speed. Also, I was getting low on water.
At about 60 miles, I passed over the border into Arizona. I should have been more excited as this means I have only two states left to cover, but the headwinds just took it out of me. After a few more rolling hills, I found my campground for the night and made dinner. I walked down a dry stream bed and found a few remaining pools of water and filled up my water bottles (later adding chlorine tabs and boiling them as well).
I thought I had the entire campground to myself, but as I was getting ready to turn in for the night a black sedan pulled in towing a trailer with an ATV. I walked over and introduced myself to Saul and helped him set up his tent. Saul is from Florida. He was dabbling in real estate to support his retirement when the market crashed. Now “my retirement is spent camping and prospecting, not what I expected”. We talked for a bit about the recession, real estate, prospecting and my trip, under the glow of his ancient Coleman lantern, then called it a night. Saul gave me a couple of bottles of water, so I should be in good shape to get into Safford, Arizona in the early afternoon.