When it comes to travel and discovery, I’m a devout believer that cycling strikes a sublime and natural balance. It encourages an immersion within the planet around us, at a pace that’s in keeping with the evolution of our minds. A bicycle is like a magnifying glass, drawing us to the smallest of details in our surroundings. We can stop, lay down our steeds, and explore further. Travel by bus or car, and such minutiae are lost in a perpetual, mind-numbing blur. Our brains simply can’t keep up with the speed at which we propel ourselves. The best we can do is crane our necks round; but in a moment, it’s long gone.
For the last year, I’ve lived in New Mexico, a part of the world I previously knew nothing about. Somewhat at odds with its neighbours – Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Colorado – cycling has helped me to unfathom this cool, ramshackle and alternative state, overlooked even by the majority of Americans. Steeped in frontier history and folklore, it’s also cluttered with abandoned cars, derelict towns, disused mines… and a spiderweb of forest roads and primitive dirt tracks via which to discover them all. Under vast, cinematic blue skies, in the high desert amongst clumps of sagebrush and wizened junipers, I’ve shared my two-wheeled explorations with newfound friends: Jeremy, a tattooed train hopper from Texas, and Tim, a tarot reader from Santa Fe. Together, we’ve chased dotted lines on a map, traced old railroads, hopped coyote fences and hauled our bikes through overgrown trails. Every weekend campout has been a history lesson in the making. A chance to dig deeper into what lies on our doorstep, to appreciate more fully the land along which we roll.
Take Ruidoso, a New Mexican settlement that lies nestled in the crook of a deep and chiselled valley. It’s not a place you’d likely stumble upon by chance, unless you were seeking out the most southerly ski resort in America. Set in the subtle yet beautiful Lincoln National Forest, the Sierra Blanca peak erupts from the brittle dry plains of the Chihuahua Desert, towering as it does 12,000ft above sea level. Founded in 1885, Ruidoso’s name – ‘noisy’ in Spanish – harks back to days when the quiet river it flanks was known as roaring Rio Ruidoso. Indeed, the whole area is steeped in history from pages of the Old West, notably through its association with Sheriff Pat Garrett and the notorious frontier outlaw William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid. The old courthouse in neighbouring Lincoln is still pocked with gunshots from his escape. Nearby Fort Stanton claims an equally colourful past, with protagonists that include cavalries of Buffalo Soldiers and Kit Carson (trapper, scout, soldier and a dime novel favourite of the era), as well as the Mescalero Apaches, whose ancestral home this region is. In the local museums, old black and white photos depict moustachioed, banjo-playing soldiers, and Indian elders solemnly signing treaties.
Head further north in the state, and it’s a similar story. Speckled around the Carson National Forest like rough gems, I’ve uncovered forgotten, sun-faded hamlets; pockets of abandonment where time flows askew. Hispanic in character, these communities seem transplanted straight from the rugged and remote mountains of Mexico’s Sierra Madre. Amongst verdant pastures and corridors of red-tinged ponderosas, the houses there are downbeat and patched up. More often than not, collections of lifeless tyres and cars lie in open surgery cluttering their yards, guts removed, wires protruding. It’s a discordant aesthetic within this natural space and beauty, but one I’ve come to learn is as much an integral part of rural New Mexico as the forest and the sagebrush are.
And in the high desert of Taos, a vast and open plateau cut by the deep gash of the Rio Grande, I discovered its Earthships – planted in a desolate landscape that hides ancient petroglyphs, hot springs and crumbling ruins. There, a community of off-the-grid-dwellers, creative thinkers, artists and counter-culturalists share a new interpretation of the American Dream. Resembling fantastical sets from a post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie, their abodes work in synergy with the land, harnessing the forces of passive solar heating with traditional adobe building techniques, using foraged-for recycled materials like tyres, bottles and aluminium cans. At times, these dwellings are barely discernible above the desert sagebrush. Mole-like, their inhabitants have burrowed into the ground; escaping the summer heat, yet coddled by the warmth of the earth in the cold winter months.
Time and time again, cycling has offered me an opportunity to dig deeper, whether it be on travels that span a continent, or a simple day ride with my family. It’s provided a sense of connection with my newfound home; geographically, culturally and historically. It helps me understand. It keeps me connected. Come spring, I listen to the ancient sounds of water and wind. Come summer, I feel the heat of the New Mexican sun on my back. Come autumn, I watch storms barrel across the high plains. Come winter, I listen to the scrunch of tyres on snow. And, camping out amongst the silence of the sagebrush, refuelling on tortillas cooked over a twig fire, it provides the quiet moments I need to assimilate it all.
Words & photography Cass Gilbert (whileoutriding.com)