The familiar itch for another cycle tour had been starting to creep-up, so when a couple of friends extended an invitation to join their group campout, I jumped.  Not simply an invitation to join them, but included was the unimaginable offer to transport some of my gear: my faithful, old, Eureka dome tent, a comfy sleeping pad and a couple of sleeping covers.   In the world of cycle touring, weight equates to suffering and this kind gesture opened up the possibility of going the extra distance including several miles of washboarded and dusty dirt road.

Visible on Albuquerque’s far north western horizon, the Jemez Mountains are typically shrouded in growing, dark, cloud formations carrying the promise of daily afternoon thunderstorms.  Our plan was to include the packing of light rain gear as well as the intention of arriving at camp well before any anticipated rain.  We set off early, hoping to outrun the quickly warming temperatures to higher elevations only to find my Garmin cycle computer already reporting 75 warm degrees as the sun rose in the east above the north end of the Sandia Mountains.

I’ve not been a big fan of cycling on Highway 528 in the past, and yet lately the frenzy of traffic is much easier to ignore while enjoying the fresh layer of super smooth blacktop all the way to Bernalillo’s Highway 550.  As we rounded the corner onto 550 and looked uphill to the west, I knew that a couple of false summits lie in wait along the neverending 4% climb while being pulled along from time to time by large caravans of trucks pulling trailers marked: “Star Waggons”.  Luckily, the dreaded sound from behind of tires crossing the rumble-strip was never heard.

A small informational sign littered with tumbleweeds informed me that Mr. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado had travelled these parts back in the middle 1500s.  Apparently, he was on a quest to conquer the Seven Cities of Gold and return to Spain a very rich man.  By the time I saw this sign, I was just happy to be conquering the first 1000 feet of climbing toward our goal away from all the noisy traffic on highway 550!

Further down the road, I saw a large billboard claiming that the people of Zia Pueblo were responsible for the zia symbol used in the New Mexico state flag.  Of course, this makes sense when I think about it.  The pueblo is actually quite small with under a thousand residents in some of the most breathtaking scenery in the state.  The center of the pueblo is lightly scattered across a beautiful mesa rising in the foreground of Redondo Peak in the Jemez Mountains.

With 30 miles behind us, we stopped at the gas station/convenience store in San Ysidro for some snacks and to fill our water bottles.  It is common knowledge to cyclist who ride this part of the state that water must be purchased and is never freely given.   My common knowledge came the “hard way” one hot summer day when, penniless, I was directed to a wasp infested “spigot” outside the now abandoned Big Chief gas and convenience store.  70 miles in the full sun on a 95 degree day will pretty much seal an experience into anyone’s memory.

The recent monsoons coupled with the low, morning-angled sun made the ride from San Ysidro along highway 4 enjoyable and loaded with plenty of photo taking opportunities, the colors vivid and apparent even to my color-deficient eyes.  We made another stop on the north end of the Jemez pueblo at the Walatowa Visitors Center where, for the price of a guest book signature, we enjoyed sparkling clean, quiet, air-conditioned restrooms taking turns watching the bikes from the stucco bench along with an aging pueblo vendor as we watched the nearby convenience store’s fly-infested hot outhouse accommodate a huge line of uninformed travellers.

We went a couple of miles further out of our way to have lunch at the Trail House Grill, eating a green chile cheeseburger with fries and sharing a big 24 ounce bottle of Corona wrapped in the familiar brown paper bag while lounging at their outdoor table as a never ending stream of mountain locals filed by to restock their beer supplies for the weekend.

We found it refreshing to stop from time to time to submerge our shirts in the stream giving us a few more minutes reprieve from the 100 degree pavement along the way.

Finally, rounding a corner outside of Gilman and just before their well-known tunnels, the Star Waggon hive was spotted.  50 or so sparkling white trailers, trucks, and movie props including several train cars on flatbeds were being assembled in support of the ongoing filming of The Lone Ranger movie.

Through the Gilman Tunnels and onto dirt while continuing to be confused about the remaining distance to our final destination.  At this point we were nothing more than a little black arrow on a one inch square LCD screen taunting us to keep pedaling while I created various ways to say that the end was “just around the next corner”.  I didn’t want to stop and pull out the text message from Lissa and Ian just to have to admit to myself that it wasn’t “just around the next corner”.

By the time we arrive at the bridge crossing indicating a final turn onto the last leg of the journey, we were down to our last remnants of water and I was running out of ways to cover my own uncertainty about the remaining distance let alone the steepness of the terrain.  I dumped all but a single gulp of my remaining water into Christa’s bottle and we prepared to continue just as Ian’s huge white Dodge diesel appeared out of nowhere, Lissa dangling a fresh cold bottle of water out the window in our direction.

We set up camp, had a cool dip in the stream and relaxed the rest of the evening, enjoying the company, especially Logan and Ella, kids of Lissa’s friends.  Unfortunately, our long day had me comatose by 8:30 for a much needed night of pure sleep!

“This morning, the life boats on our huge cruise ship were serving double duty as tenders, shuttling 75 of us at a time to the shore, navigating the shallow, clear, blue waters of yet another unnamed tropical island for a day of exploration.  For some reason, the captain of our particular tender abruptly veered off course away from the beach and accelerated as a strange looking, larger ship matching our movements started to get extremely close.  Coming clearly into view, several of the men on its deck produced automatic weapons and levelled them at the windows of our tender.  Our captain, now dressed in full military gear, yelled to us to get down as he cranked the wheel wildly away from the attacker.  Military men dressed similarly of various ranks appeared from our crowd of cowering passengers just as the fiberglass walls began to erupt with bullet holes from the outside.  Gunfire flew from both ships, tearing huge chunks of fiberglass and metal away, exposing many of us to the open sea while we scrambled between rows of bench seats looking for places of protection.

In a moment between exchanges, I lifted my head only to see that our tender was now careening recklessly between colorful beach umbrellas and up through the village streets, dodging small grass-roofed huts and scurrying people.  The militia leader piloting our craft shouted orders to his men while attempting to avoid the mounting attack.  His wild eyes revealed a kind of craziness that immediately eroded my confidence while having no choice but to trust his driving skills.

I jerked my head to the left and looked out a large jagged hole in the rear of our tender, surprised to see that our attackers were now approaching in highly modified black 4×4 long-bed pickup trucks.  As each truck wheeled along side in preparation for an attack, hydraulic lifts raised the cab and bed placing armed men level with our windows while they opened fire.  Their attempts did little to slow our land-crossing tender and their frustrations soon resulted in a new approach.

From the jaws of a broken starboard window, a small, white, arrow-shaped, heavily laden styrofoam-looking block entered and bounced off the bench seat just in front of me, its explosion ripping the entire side of the tender off and hobbling our forward progress…”

After a fitful night of sleep, interrupted from time to time by rain, I arose early, making a strong mixture of steeped coffee bags, flavored Starbucks instant, and  powdered creamer topped with sugar, while our Papa Nachos burritos warmed over the campfire.

I’d like to say that our return trip was uneventful, but after 12 miles of heavily washboarded dirt road finally reward by the presence of pure pavement, Christa hit a pothole and promptly dumped it just before the Gilman Tunnels.  Luckily, she was able to continue with a few scrapes and bruises and a re-straightened front wheel.

The remainder of the trip could be characterized as follows:  A procession of weekend warriors returning to their obligations with us dodging intense sun pedalling from cloud shadow to cloud shadow.

Our final stop to satisfy whatever craving had been plodding us forward was the gas station cornering highway 528 and 550.  Strawberry milk, it was for me, but the substance that slid down the back of my throat was more like 10 minutes new chalky oily Jello.  Apparently my brain wasn’t convinced of its alien nature just yet as I happily took another gulp before I finally began searching the label for some sort of smart marketing slogan celebrating a new union between vegetable oil, Jello and Strawberry milk.  None was found except for a long gone expiration date.  Oh well, calories are calories and I hoped it would stay down long enough to get me the few remaining miles home.