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June 2002: Starting the Great Divide Ride - New Mexico



Overview: What is the Great Divide Ride?

On our last update (Re: Saying Goodbye to New Zealand), we didn't mention our next step. Many of you asked, "What's next?"

We originally thought we'd do some more cycling in Europe, but have now decided to ride our mountain bikes along the Continental Divide from Mexico to Canada. The route is described (with a nice map overview) at

The route is the longest mountain bike route in America, spanning 2470 miles (3952 km) from the Mexican border in New Mexico, through Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, up to the Canadian border. The route generally follows the Continental Divide, crossing it no fewer than 27 times. Yes, there's some climbing - over 200,000 ft total (61,000 m). About 90% of the route is on dirt roads or singletrack trails - only 10% of the route is paved. There are multiple days between water sources, no less towns - in fact, the ride is closer to a backpacking expedition in many respects.

We will be going against the grain on this one. Nearly all riders start in the north at the Canadian border, and head south for Mexico. We are going in the reverse direction, starting earlier than the southbound riders. The snow is already starting to melt at the passes in Colorado (a few up at 11k ft), so we should be able to make it through the higher altitudes without snow problems.

We plan to take about 3 months to complete the ride, including lots of time to relax in nice spots in the wilderness (and the odd town that we might hit).

Why did we decide to do this, rather than visiting Europe? A few reasons. First, we figured that we're in fairly good shape after 14 months of cycling. It's a tough ride, and requires a good amount of time to complete in one shot. No "job" stuff to get in the way here! Europe is easier to do in shorter spurts, and in many ways, we've "been there, done that". We've lived in Europe for 18 months, and spent 2 months cycling there last Nov-Dec. We figure we can do more of Europe later, too - when we're "older". <ahem>

Starting in New Mexico

We started at Antelope Wells, New Mexico, a border crossing in the middle of nowhere. The desert riding will be quite a change from the lush, often wet riding in New Zealand! For now, the biggest concern will be (in no particular order), bears, rattlesnakes, bears, tarantulas, scorpions, forest fires, thorns giving us flats, and bears.

The terrain started as relatively flat, very barren land of the Chihuahuan Desert. Although the desert seems completely arid and often lifeless, in the first couple of days we saw wild pigs, elk, deer, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, a bobcat, and heard a pack of coyotes howling in the early morning.

Our first couple of days were easier than most: we had Shelley's parents, Sue and Ray, along for the ride (although they were in the Hugemobile). This meant we didn't have to carry water or camp until Silver City, some 125 miles from the border. From that point on, however, we would load up with several gallons of water, food for up to 7 days, and all of our camping gear.

Testing the water supplies

Our first fully-loaded day tested our (inadequate) water supplies. Expecting a couple of water bottles to last us the last 25 miles of the day, we met some of the toughest terrain we've ever faced on a bike. The water ran out just at the end! The hills of the southern Gila National Forest, combined with deep sand and gravel, brought us to our first tadpole-filled stream as the sun was low in the sky. We learned our lesson that day - we now carry a full load of water, and top off the jugs when we are lucky enough to see a stream or stock tank along the road.

Our next day included more very tough climbs - making us think that maybe we didn't have the mettle to tackle this ride all the way to Canada! Fortunately, we found that we had done the worst of the area, and the next few days brought better trail conditions. Our second campsite, in fact, was at the Beaverhead Work Center (where firefighters and forest service workers live for the summer). Imagine our excitement when we found running water and - get this - a cold Coke machine! Mike, a summer worker at the center (and high-school teacher during the school year), was a stand-up guy, treating us to a couple of ice-cold bottles of Gatorade, some ice (!), and allowing us to set up camp at the center. We also got to play with a few of the dogs hanging out there - including Pecos Bill, the friendly (if often lethargic) basset hound.

We found that the water supply for the next day would be tough, so when we saw a small settlement of trailers at Elk Springs, we hopefully rode in looking for a water source. We met some nice people there, who gave us a gallon of bottled water. The "Spring" part of "Elk Springs" hasn't run for 6 years! They also told us about the "problem" bear that had brought havoc to their trailer the previous day. The bear, previously tagged and relocated for getting into human food, crawled into the trailer through the ceiling vents, and proceeded to eat (or try to eat) just about everything in the place, including hand lotion, shampoo, vitamins and medicines, and of course all the "real" food. When they returned to find the mayhem, the bear had climbed into a tree, where it stayed until the animal control officer had it put down for good. (Two strikes and you're out)! At least that's one bear we won't have to be worrying about at our campsites.

When we had the chance to camp at another work center, we had visions of more running water and ice-cold Cokes. Unfortunately, the Mangas Work Center turned out to be just a small metal shed, with nobody staying there! Fortunately, there was a nice spring there, and we could fill up with water. Other animals also liked the place - we saw lots of Elk running through the early evening, and heard the sound of coyotes in the early morning.

Finally, we hit our first settlement in 5 days - Pie Town, New Mexico, famous for (you guessed it) - it's pies. The settlement was formed as a service for a nearby mining claim, and the name of the town stuck. Now the town has two cafes, a post office, and a place for free camping, but not much else. We were able to eat 3 meals, drink huge quantities of iced tea, and eat 5 pieces of pie between the two of us before heading north the next day.

New Friends

We met some more interesting people some 20 miles outside Pie Town. While riding down the road, a big dump truck approached us and stopped. John Thomas told us to stop by his place just down the road - his wife, Anzie, would give us water, and ask us to sign their guest book. Their holiday place on some 300 acres is on the trails for the mountain bikers as well as the hikers along the continental divide. When we arrived, Anzie welcomed us with open arms, giving us water and fresh home-grown peaches. We played with their blue heeler, Maggie, and talked about the trip, the wildlife, and even how Wal-Mart seems so wonderful after living outside North America for many years. (Trust us, having such a huge array of goods under one roof, with low prices, is not the norm in many places in the world - and the Thomas' know this as well, as they have children living overseas).

When we finally had to leave John and Anzie, we held hands, and they offered a prayer for our trip. It was very touching - one of the shining moments that help to define why we are on this adventure.

A couple of days later, we were in Grants, New Mexico, and our first real town in about 8 days. Staying at a modest hotel, eating at restaurants, and (perhaps most importantly) having our first real shower in over a week made it a great place!

We were fortunate to meet up with our friends Marni and Doug Hutter, riding their Harley Davidson motorcycles from Phoenix up to North Dakota and back in a big loop. Marni and Doug are old friends from our very first bicycle tour to England back in 1993. It was cool that our schedules happened to coincide some 80 miles west of Albuquerque!

We also met up again with Sue and Ray, who are passing through on their way back home to Kansas after a trip to visit Shelley's brother Scott in Yuma, Arizona.

Showers, Weather, and Repairs

(I should explain the shower bit above. Although you can't get a shower in the desert, when we have access to water, we use a couple of water bottles to try to get most of the dirt and dust off of us before we climb into the tent for the evening. Another option is using "Wet-Ones" - those travel wipes that are so handy in the absence of good water. Good thing it's usually just the two of us out here!)

The weather has been hot during the day, usually reaching 100F (38C) during the day, and (at upper altitudes) dropping to about 40F (5C) at night. This astounding temperature swing, due in part to the altitude of some 8000ft (2400m), means that we start the evening trying to sleep in a hot tent, and put on more layers as the night goes on. We try to wake before dawn to take advantage of the cool morning temperatures, and then try to find some shade for the hot afternoons.

A problem with riding through the forests of the southwest in the middle of summer - especially this dry year - is that many of the forests and wilderness areas are being closed due to the threat (or presence) of fires. Although it hasn't yet caused us to take a detour, the fires and closures up near the Colorado border may mean that we might have to take a few paved roads around the 'hot spots'. Hopefully, some cool, rainy weather will help the firefighters in their difficult jobs.

We had our first mechanical problem of the divide trip just outside Grants, where we found a crack halfway through one of the tubes in Steve's BOB trailer. Fortunately, it was only one of 4 supporting tubes at this point, and (even more fortunately) BOB Trailers offered to replace the trailer under warranty. A quick drive to a bike shop in Albuquerque later, we had a new trailer. The BOB trailers are considered the hot set-up for the continental divide ride, but the route is so rough that failures inevitably occur. We were fortunate to avoid any downtime because of the break.

Start in Antelope Wells, NM
At the start in Antelope Wells, NM:
2470 miles to Canada

On the road near Antelope Wells, NM
Cruising down the road

Pumping water from a stock tank
Sharing water with the livestock
New Mexico hasn't seen rain since 2001

Gila Cliff Dwellings
Gila Cliff Dwellings

Loaded for the desert
Loaded with water for the desert

PieLoading in Pie Town

La Ventana natural arch
La Ventana natural arch

Marni and Doug Hutter
Meeting old friends Doug and Marni:
They have motors on their bikes!


June 2002: Starting the Great Divide Ride - New Mexico