Santa Fe Green Chile Gravel Growler
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Despite his ever-deepening crow’s feet, Cass ponders the subtle yet persuasive appeal of New Mexico’s magical light and sacred earth. Hypnotised by its empty dirt roads, he shares photos of the as-yet-unfinished Santa Fe Green Chile Gravel Growler route…
Ahh, New Mexico. By some unexpected twist of fate and good fortune, it’s become my happy place. There’s a quality to this swathe of land, a kind of celestial vibration, that rarely fails to put my mind at rest. Every time I’m away, I ease myself back again via an 18-hour Amtrak ride from Los Angeles. There’s nothing like waking up to a desert sunrise as the train chugs across the open landscapes of the American Southwest.
And, when I do unfurl my body and step out onto the platform, my eyes invariably blink in the brightness of New Mexico’s bluebird sky. I breathe deep and fill my lungs with its clean air. I may not have been born here but my son was, so I allow myself to feel a deeper connection than a casual visitor – along with a sense of returning home.
As I wheel my bike past Zuni stalls and admire their beautiful textiles at the train station, I remember the importance of understanding its history, both pre-colonial and post, and recognising its pueblos, tribes, and sovereign nations, across whose lands I now ride.
Later, when I find myself squinting quizzically into a featureless distance, I celebrate the way New Mexico rewards those who use their imagination to bring its subtleties to life. And if succumb to impatience along its bolt-straight roads, I rummage around my own thoughts to create a shape to my rides.
Because once Northern New Mexico is experienced, I can promise you, it’s incredibly hard to draw yourself away. Simply put, it’s riding bliss for much of the year. Up at 2,000 metres or more, the air is so crisp and dry that I barely sweat outside of the middle of summer. There are few bugs to disturb a restful sleep, nor are there many critters to wiggle into your sleeping bag with you at night. As the years accrue, it’s only its uninterrupted UV rays that are cause for concern, being neither kind to body or bike parts. Indeed, New Mexico’s patina is legendary and I believe I have some of it to show for myself.
Thankfully, a magical light serves to make up for all my extra desert wrinkles.
And oh, how I’m obsessed with this light!
I joke that if ever I ride across the border into Arizona, the light changes, even though I’m just a few pedal strokes over the state line. It’s little wonder, perhaps, that Georgia O’Keeffe, the mother of American modernism, made Northern New Mexico her home, or that artists have long burrowed Gaudiesque homes – their wondrous Earth Ships – into this high plateau. Like the ethereal rays that dapple the highlands of Scotland on a cloudy day, the late afternoon light in New Mexico lifts the spirit and makes the heart soar. It lends a distinct quality to the high desert that rarely fails to impart anything but peace and wellbeing. Yes, whether you count yourself religious or not, there’s a little bit of heavenliness in New Mexico’s luminescence and I absorb it gratefully into my every pore whenever I can.
I must come clean, however, and admit that as a mountain biker from afar, it was neighbouring Colorado that initially drew my attention. Brought up envying its world-renowned trails, I was lured in by the immediate drama of its white-capped peaks and its picture-perfect mountain towns. Now I realise, of course, that New Mexico’s unassuming landscape works in the underdog’s favour because its roughly hewn backcountry trails work their way under the skin in a way unmatched by its more glamourous neighbour, and its dishevelled settlements are more my vibe. I suspect, too, that the high desert’s softer landscape creates less of a cerebral distraction than Colorado’s awesome fourteeners, steering the mind towards a different kind of contemplation. Certainly, I can remember – back when I was following the Great Divide over a decade prior – a meditative trait to cycling across this land.
But I believe it’s New Mexico’s sense of space that entrances me most. I put this down, in part at least, to an upbringing in what I consider its diametric opposite: jam-packed southern England. As diverse as my country may be, the roads so often teem with traffic and outside of a few remaining pockets – hidden valleys and coombes – it’s hard to go long without sight of a vehicle, let alone a day or two free of their rumble and whoosh. And, as a Brit, I must make a special mention to rain, or rather, its lack thereof. With over 300 blue skies days each year in New Mexico, every day can feel a little like a holiday to this sun-deprived islander.
There are other Anglo-centric tidbits I enjoy quoting. For start, the UK has some 67 million inhabitants residing across its 240,000 square kilometres of land. New Mexico has just over 2 million human beings to its name… yet is almost 30 percent larger! What’s more, almost half of NM’s population live in the city of Albuquerque, or its immediate surroundings, and whilst the state’s population density is on the rise, it’s still under seven people per square kilometre. Compare that with the UK – a shoulder-rubbing 275. Forget Strava stats, this is the data that excites me!
And whilst my own sense of place was as unexpected as it was welcome, I suspect the same goes for at least some of my friends. I know that more than a few were just passing through and stayed. No matter whether we were born there, moved with intention, or just appeared, we all share a real appreciation for riding the dirt roads of the high desert.
Which brings me onto this route. A group of us living in Santa Fe – the state’s petite and prim capital – have admired the gravel loops born from the hive mind of the bikepacking community, like Vermont’s incredibly popular Green Mountain Gravel Growler. We found ourselves pondering a route that would showcase some of what the desert around Santa Fe had to offer, especially in the colder months of the year. Of course, this would be New Mexico’s take on gravel. Think red dirt baked smooth and gleaming in the midday sun – along which bicycle tyres roll almost as fast as if they were on pavement – or rough two-track that chops across the high plateaux, rutted from the heavy monsoon rains or the winter snows, or unpaved ranch roads that cut across the broad valleys, often into headwind.
It should be noted that we lack the density of breweries to match the East Coast, especially given the standards set by Vermont – home as it is to “some of the world’s best and most coveted craft beers” to quote the Green Mountain Gravel Growler’s illustrious route creators.
But, reflection and research revealed sufficient watering holes to loosely connect Santa Fe’s finest with those of Albuquerque, with a stopover for thirsty riders in Moriarty’s Sierra Blanca Brewing Company en route. Besides, the state makes up for any liquid shortcomings with its delicious New Mexican cuisine; we’d simply make sure the route highlighted our favourite independent eateries, too. Yes, perhaps we could claim, instead, that New Mexico has “some of the world’s best and most coveted green chile”!
Then COVID-19 took hold and it’s now well over a year since our last Green Chile Gravel Growler scouting trip. Still, to keep me fired up for the potential of this project, and to share what this route will have to offer, this photo spread documents our December outing, one that involved a relay of bikepackers. Family duties meant that Rusty – one of the route’s primary creators – wasn’t able to attend. Fortunately, I found a welcome partner in Mehedi, who put his woodworking business on hold to spend a few wintry days on his Troll, a bike he’d ridden across the Americas. Jeremy was able to join us for a night on his singlespeed Jones before catching the bus home, then Ethan took over on his post-apocalyptic fat bike, for the stint beyond the Pecos River and Villa Nueva. In fact, this 260-kilometre stretch was just half of the intended route. The eastern portion, taking in the Caja del Rio, was tackled shortly after, in a post I shared here.
And the ride? As with most NM undertakings, it’s a little rough around the edges but glorious and memorable nonetheless. New Mexico’s trademark big skies – blue by day and star-filled by night – had us philosophizing about life as much as pedalling through it. Sometimes, we simply stopped and sprawled bodies and bikes across empty roads, soaking in the warmth of this sacred earth and feeling the sun on our faces.
Oh, for the Stop and Sprawl! Such precious times, when cars and trucks can be heard a mile off, long before they’re even seen. Bereft of thunderous traffic that drowns out all senses but those of survival, empty dirt roads provide access to a part of the brain that’s ever harder to reach in this modern era of cycling. As much as they take us to a physical destination, they lead us to a place of true relaxation. As if our inner proboscis, forever on high alert for the potential of negligent drivers, can finally take time out. And how good that feels! Empty dirt roads are my doorways to a multiverse where bikes roam the land and are no longer subservient to other road users.
But being New Mexico, there were battles to be waged into headwinds (note to self: it’s probably best run the route in the opposite direction). There were muddy drivetrains to be poked at with sticks (note to self: wait for a few more days after snowfall next time). And there were sub-freezing nights to be were endured (note self: pack an extra sleeping bag!). No matter, this is all part of the New Mexico Experience and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I look forward to riding the route once more and sharing it in full, in the belief that it’s a ride that will be enjoyed by gravel growler lovers of an adventurous persuasion. Hopefully, life will have resumed enough by fall to welcome visitors to New Mexico once more, to enjoy its light and learn about its place in the world today. Certainly, there’s enough space – and green chile – for everyone.
Thanks to Rusty Miller and Georges Mally – and their love of exploring and sharing both the dirt roads and the complex history of New Mexico. Thanks too to Jeremy for continued input and company, along with spoon master Mehedi. Check out our existing New Mexican bikepacking routes here. And don’t forget that at the other end of the state, Las Cruces’ bikepacking hub has been quietly creating their own repetoire of gravel grinders. I’ll wager they may well claim the green chile tastes better down south, too…