NEW MEXICO BDR: PART 2
BY: OLIVIER DE VAULX
Flat and consequences
The New Mexico Backcountry Discovery route is pretty unique in its shape, as it draws a gigantic “S” through the state. We started the trip on the bottom right of our Butler map near the border with Texas, crossed the whole state back to the border of Arizona, and then had to go up north, staying mostly on the western side. Needless to say, we expected changes of scenery and terrain, despite the first days on this ride already being pretty generous in terms of diversity.
Leaving the town of Truth or Consequences at dawn on our Tiger 900s, the heated grips welcomed in the biting cold, we started the day with another magnificent view of the lake and the surrounding purple-ish mountains. Soon, the perfectly paved road unveiled a splendid layout of high turns and deep dips, like a beautiful roller coaster for grownups. On this ribbon of pavement, the Triumphs shone, their confidence-inspiring chassis and smooth engines pushing their riders to lean a few degrees more in every corner.
After having rubbed the side of our boots in this exercice, we reached Winston General Store. The owner built a unique blend of gas station, grocery store, hunter supply and it even had showers! The hunting trophies on the wall made it clear that locals know what they’re doing with a rifle. It’s a family business in the backcountry, and we saw as many kids on this Sunday as we saw dads, all in the same fatigue gear. No doubt that ancestral traditions are well preserved in this area.
After these first days mostly spent on paved road, gravel roads and large fire roads, entering the narrow canyon past the ghost town of Chloride was exciting. Here, as the trail followed river beds, we forgot any idea of speed and our mind switched to rock crawling mode. Trying to avoid overheating in the exercice, we folded our jackets in the panniers, but we still had to stop in the shade of some huge trees, blazing with ever-lasting fall colors. As the trail slowly gained some elevation, the canyon revealed some magnificent geological sculptures. Feeling like tourists in a museum, we admired these natural wonders through the shields of our Arai helmets while trying to keep an eye on the rocks in front of us. With the heat rising in this deep bottleneck, we enjoyed the few river crossings, some deep enough to raise concern.
It was just after one of these forced foot-baths that we unexpectedly reached the famous Chloride switchback. Having ridden trials bikes helped us here, as balance was a key component for success on this treacherous turn: the loose dirt and the steep slope challenging our progression every second, we leaned the bikes to keep the momentum, staying on the outside line, our legs bent and our knees wide open. Making it on the first try was cause for a small celebration, with a high five followed by a feast of protein bars and trail mix. However, this climb was not the most technical one, and we had to tackle a few more steep steps, boulders, and other rolling rocks before reaching the plateau above the canyon.
Crossing the golden rolling hills on well graded gravel roads, we thought our day was almost done, with just a bit more than 60 miles of easy trails left before Reserve. Yet, in this western movie type of decor, we were soon to discover nothing was meant to be easy. As we cruised at generous speed, a warning on the dashboard of my Tiger caught my eye: low pressure on rear tire! Stopping to inspect the wheel, we couldn’t find any evidence of puncture. Assuming we only had a small one, we removed the valve core, opened a bottle of Slim and poured the green liquid into the rim. Plugging the small electric pump to the battery, we inflated the tire in no time and felt pretty satisfied with ourselves.
Alas, that’s when we saw the Slim starting to drip from the puncture, the hole caused by a nail perfectly highlighted by the fluorescent product. It was time for plan B. Luckily, our 35L panniers were full of tools and we quickly opened our tubeless repair kit. One minute later, a plug was inserted and the tire inflated again. Jumping on the seat, we had time to ride a few miles before the warning light came back. Stopping for the second time, we discovered that the rear of the Tiger 900 was now fully painted in fluorescent green; the plug didn’t last and most of the Slim went out on the rear fender and shock! Annoyed but not yet worried, we put two plugs at the same time, cut them at the height of the thread, inflated the tire, and realized with horror that the plugs were pushed away by the pressure! Problem solving becoming a second nature at this point, we wrapped the tire with duct tape to maintain these two loose plugs.
This solution seemed to work for a few more miles, and even if the sun was already low, we could still expect to make it to Reserve before the night. Our optimism vanished when the bothersome dashboard warning lit again. It was time to go big if we wanted to go home, and we decided to forget about this tubeless technology and to insert a tube in the wheel. Pulling the tool box out of our pannier bags, we felt pretty confident until we realized that, in our 15 pounds tool-roll, 1 ounce of steel was missing: the 17mm socket, making the rest of the tools completely useless. We tried different sets of pliers but the shape of the swing arm prevented a direct access to the nut, and the axle stayed resolutely in place.
Solidarity is key
At this point, the night was settling and we still had 45 miles to go to exit the forest and reach Reserve. Inserting 4 plugs at once and again wrapping the tire with duct tape, we managed to make the repair last. Riding at 45 mph on the winding gravel road, scanning constantly the pitch dark woods for any sign of suicidal deer, we finally got back to civilization. After having bought frozen pizza and burritos at the gas station next to the closed restaurant, we asked for a place to buy tools. “There’s nothing here, the owner of the store has Covid and closed for a few days” was all the news we could get. It was not enough of a step back to prevent us from eating all the junk food and getting a good five hours of sleep, knowing that night usually brings good inspiration. In the morning, even the vision of frost on our seats couldn’t damper our good mood.
We were on the hunt for a 17mm socket and it would probably be fun. Speaking with an old guy walking past our frozen bikes, we learned that the Catron garage was opening at 8am, just two hours from now. It was more than enough time to refuel the bikes, drink a great Colombian coffee and engage in a few more conversations at the Black Gold gas station. Almost feeling like locals, we parked in front of the garage and waited for the owner to arrive, warming up under the rising sun. Driving his red pickup truck, he finally arrived, lit a cigarette and started to talk with us like we were best buddies. It’s not like we were in a rush, but we also wanted to get it over with.
Nonetheless, learning some local history about the peculiar Catron County, the first to pass ordinances resisting federal control over federal land within its boundaries, was a great opportunity. Five hours from any real city, most folks in this rural and remote county traded income and career opportunities for a great life style, based on the frontier ethic of the pioneers. Finally back in the shop, our new friend gave us the socket we needed, as well as a wrench, declining to take any money for it. We still bought a bottle of Slim, said our goodbyes, and went on the trail, thinking that such generosity was a great lesson to meditate about.
Confident that our repair from last night would last, we managed to get 50 more miles out of it, before having to stop and this time do a proper tube install. It took us 20 minutes tops, and we got back on the road again, saved by this one ounce piece of steel and the big heart of a retired Air Force mechanic. The rest of the day was spent mostly on nice drama-free gravel roads, with an occasional patch of sand to help us stay focused. A halt in the Ramah Reservation was our first glimpse of Native Americans in this so far mostly white country. It was a refreshing sight and we chatted with a few Navajos while waiting in line at the store to buy an ice cream. With the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary being closed when we arrived, we kept heading north at a steady pace.
One hour before Grants, the gravel changed in a very nice and narrow double track entering the Cibola National Forest. More cat than Tiger, the heavy three-cylinder Triumphs managed to do a good job slaloming in between the trees, their performance enlightened by the last rays of the falling sun. The riding went wild, the two riders chasing each other with no more concern about “riding rights.” Back on pavement after this exhilarating 15-mile madness, the sky now pink and purple after sunset, we got to help a cyclist who needed an air pump. Being our turn to act as good samaritans, we felt that the loop had come full circle and we reached Grants, NM with a lightened heart.