No Country for Old Sealant: Ringing in a New Decade
To practise what he preaches, Cass heads out for solo overnighter to ring in the decade. Out in the Chihuahuan Desert, he ponders the way in which bikepacking reveals the underbelly of a land, how it serves to remind us that we inhabit a planet in crisis, and how it might just be the perfect catalyst for change…
I sometimes experience a certain inertia to escaping a city. There’s little doubt that I’ll savour every moment beyond its concrete confines. And I never regret riding my bike, no matter how short the experience, or what happens, planned or otherwise. Yet sometimes I feel trapped. Teaming up with like-minded souls, or making a commitment to friends, is a perfect antidote to procrastination. But solo adventures can be tougher to get rolling, at least for me.
Still, I’m determined to make the most of a holiday trip to visit family in El Paso, Texas, and to use it as a chance to ring in the New Year on my own steam. After all, the Chihuahuan Desert will be lying on my doorstep, so it seems almost sacrilegious not to enjoy its quiet, restorative powers. Inspired by the Monumental Loop, I set my sights on a trip to Kilbourne Hole, a vast and ancient maar volcanic crater that’s lies a 30-mile ride due west of the border city, on the edge of the Potrillos Mountains.
First though, I need a lesson in making the most of what lies around me, and not being dissuaded by initial impressions. Given the number of shoulder-high pickup trucks to be seen prowling its highways, exhausts gurgling and burbling at stoplights, El Paso may not strike two-wheeled visitors as a bike-friendly locale. But time on Google Earth reveals both a network of impressive, car-free bicycle paths tracing the worryingly sandy banks of the Rio Grande, as well as a web of unpaved ditch roads that would feed me through suburbs. In turn, these will plug neatly into a gravel county road that beelines straight for the crater.
I have a route. My bike is loaded. My framebag is filled with red chili tamales and the luxurious leftovers from an indulgent Christmas lunch. I’m ready.
Still, family commitments prevail, as they so often do, and it’s past lunchtime, on the very last day of the year – the decade, even – before I finally extract myself out of the front door and emerge into the eye-blinkingly bright light of the afternoon.
I hop onto bike paths and ditch roads on my race out of town, a touch frustrated with myself for my lethargy. Then all is forgiven, as my legs find their rhythm and my mind ‘unminds’. Given the short winter hours, the glowing ball of the sun threatens to plop behind the Potrillos, but not before it drops out of a bank of clouds, bathing my world in an ethereal glow, the kind that will stop anyone with a beating heart straight in their tracks. I’m filled with joy and hope. This is it! The essence of a trip (an existence, even?) distilled into a fleeting moment. I’m left wondering whether I should laugh or cry.
On a more practical level, this ethereal glow also means that daylight is rapidly dwindling. I’m a dozen miles from my destination. The desert is still and empty, so I could easily just pull over right here, make my home for the night, and call it good. But I press on, because goals are goals and sometimes a little discomfort is okay.
In fact, it’s well into darkness by the time I reach my destination. I delay putting on my headlamp, letting my eyes adapt to the subtle gradients in the last light of the year. I try and lose myself to the moment, savouring passing patches of warm and cold air, rather than reaching for my gloves. It may be dark, but it feels good to pay attention to the feel of the ground, trusting my peripheral vision to navigate the sandy patches on the road. I catch sight of a coyote running beside me for a split second; another beautiful and impermanent moment…
Eventually I do reach the crater, picking and sensing my way around the edge (for Kilbourne is more of an enormous Hole in the ground, as its name suggests, rather than a distinctive cone). I select a camping spot beside an ocotillo, enchanted by how its barbed, tentacle fingers are silhouetted against the night sky. Perhaps I’ve chosen this spot for a sense of company, this being an evening where half the world might be out partying.
Regardless, the New Year comes and goes, just early slumber for me, a blanket of stars, and in the pre-dawn hours, coyotes on the other side of the crater, yipping to each other first, then a chorus as they meet up.
The following morning, I wander around Kilbourne’s fringes as the sun clips first the top of the Potrillos Mountains, then creeps its way stealthily but relentlessly towards me, throwing ocotillos, volcanic magma, and empty shotgun shells into the clear, unapologetic light of 2020. I take a swig of coffee from my thermos, nibble on leftover tamales, and pull down my tarp. I’m still good on water, so I allow myself some gulps.
Soon, I’m back in the saddle, continuing my loop, when I see a jackrabbit ricochet from one side of the dirt road to the other. Then I listen to the scrunch of tyres on dirt. The sky is completely bereft of clouds and there’s no cell service, which avoids pervasive distractions of any kind. No ‘gramming either. Phew.
Solo trips lend themselves to reflection, whether it’s the past year, the past decade, or what lies ahead. With catastrophes dominating the news, I ponder a planet in crisis, feeling helpless, but also knowing it’s time I do something. I resolve to make the most of today’s symbolism – the dawn of a new decade – and get my act together.
The main gravel road is smooth and I make quick progress towards the Franklin Mountains, back from whence I’ve come. A vehicle passes and the driver waves. It’s the only car I’ve seen since my tyres hit gravel and the momentary connection feels good. Just like the coyote last night, or the rabbit this morning. Yes, connection is good! Let’s not close ourselves down to those around us. No man is an island and bridges are what we need.
Then, fifteen miles out of town, a thorn impales my front tyre. I decide to let it be, knowing that I’ve neglected to load them with fresh sealant before leaving. Instead, I pedal on as a train rumbles by—its pattern of colourful boxes stands out sharply against the brittle mountainscape—but there’s no denying they have a certain beauty of their own. I wave to the driver and imagine he nods back, grubby hands working the levers.
I admit to falling for North America’s iconic freight trains, not least because each time they blow their long and melancholic horns, I’m reminded of where I am in the South West. But a romantic view it likely is, because I do wonder where all these colourful boxes and cylindrical containers are headed. More junk to be buried into the bowels of the planet, or left floating on its waters? Oil to argue over and pollute? And, I know that laying down these railroads was hardly a peaceful process, with its history of strife and displacement.
Which brings to me to what I’m beginning to love most about bikepacking…
Climbing aboard our bikes and heading out for the night can be so much more than a simple escape, as much as we may all need this, right now. Instead, I see real potential in its ability to reveal the underbelly of a land, so often neatly edited out of day to day living. Perhaps it’s a route takes us past a landfill, which we can smell from a mile away. Or, it’s a ride that despite our best intentions, spits us out on a busy road where we’re fighting for our life, bullied by a ceaseless blur of traffic.
In doing so, bikepacking has the power to leave us both vulnerable and aware, especially to the fleeting moments that make our time on this planet so special. Instead of travelling through life like zombies, leaving light switches on, or letting taps run distractedly, it reminds us to engage our brains and activate our senses… dulled after generations of city conveniences. As important as the quiet places it can take us, these are the qualities to bikepacking I believe we should now embrace.
A realisation bobs to the surface of my mind.
My favourite routes are ones that celebrate this planet’s beauty, without sidestepping the intersection between man and nature… even if it’s unapologetically ugly. I suspect that it’s only when we see both, side by side, that we’ll really start to consider everything that lies in between.
And lastly, a visual footnote, once the offending thorn had been extricated from my tyre. Texas really is #nocountryforoldsealant… (credit to Blaze_Tolliver for the wonderful hashtag/title!)