Tales from Valles Caldera
Carson Hogge and Kody Kohlman traveled to New Mexico to explore the Valles Caldera Supervolcano Explorer route, where they encountered unforgettable characters, soaked in picturesque hot springs, and pedaled along meandering dirt roads. Read on for their story of a weekend adventure in a pristine little pocket of the American Southwest…
Gusts of wind rattled my truck. From the front seats, Kody and I watched the red sand on the land around us blow this way, then that way, then back this way again.
There we sat, outside of the Santa Domingo Pueblo train station. Despite being just 30 miles from Santa Fe, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. All of my preconceived notions of what was to come seemed to be picked up by the wind, too, and blown away with the sand. Ahead of us was a journey into the unknown.
We were hesitant to open the truck’s doors. But with a train to catch and gear still to pack, we both knew it was inevitable. This is where our trip would start. It was time to get moving. Out we went.
“Hell-o ‘dere. Were you taking picture?”
I looked up from inflating my rear tire. A man, about five and a half feet tall, stood above me. His muscular physique made up for his height. Long arms, big hands, and a pair of work boots kept him stable – he looked sturdy. Short, but imposing.
“I am War Chief,” he said, pointing to a black band on his arm. “We see you take picture in camera.” He signaled to the security camera perched on a telephone pole nearby. “Governor send me down here to address problem. No pictures. No cameras. This is our land.”
He had appeared out of nowhere. Standing there, he rocked back and forth rhythmically, almost as if he was doing a subtle dance in the wind. His long, dark hair flowed with each sway.
Before whatever was about to happen next, Kody and I lock eyes for a quick second. What. The hell.
“Uhhh, yeah, I… take pictures for a living,” Kody stammered. “We’re about to start a bikepacking trip, and I’m documenting it.”
Before Kody even finished speaking, War Chief shook his head from side to side in disagreement, as if doing so would prevent our words from entering his ears. “Nooo, no. No. You can’t do that here. This is our land,” he said, adding emphasis with a clenched fist. “You can’t take picture away from our land. You get fine… or… give me camera.”
“I’ll delete the picture,” Kody told him while stuffing the camera into his backpack. A smart move, I thought, to get the camera out of sight. Who knows what this stranger’s next move might be.
“O-kay then. No camera? Then we give you fine. I have license plate… we will send you fine… $1,000.”It was about this time that I started to question the War Chief’s motives. No matter how we tried to appease him, he insisted on negotiating some sort of payment, to see what he could get out of it. Very suspect. The train was bound to arrive soon, and we still had more gear to pack. We didn’t have time for this. And besides, there’s no harm in taking pictures.
“We have nothing but respect for your land,” I told him. “We’re about to go on a bikepacking trip through this land with the sole purpose of admiring its beauty. We stand right there with you in preserving it.”
He accepted the words of mutual respect, and Kody followed it up by getting out his wallet. Fishing through it, he pulled out what little cash he had and gave it to War Chief. Three dollars. Three dollars? I tried to hold my laughter inside. Chump change, I thought. At least, though, it might get the guy away from us, and we could get back to packing our bikes.
Somehow, it worked. The War Chief took the crumpled one dollar bills, stuffed them in his breast pocket, and walked back over to his car. As he drove past us on his way out of the parking lot, he honked, rolled down his window, and waved us over. Enough already! Kody walked over to his beat-up Lincoln Town Car.
“I’m a jolly man,” he said chuckling. “I just wanted to see what I could get out of you.” He handed the cash back to Kody, laughing, and drove off with a wave.
All just to mess with us. That bastard.
Not even an hour into the trip, and we knew we were in for a wild ride.
Catching the train from Santa Domingo Pueblo, the plan was to take it to a bus station down the line, where we’d catch a Greyhound that would drive us northwest to Los Alamos. From there, we’d hop on our bikes and scout out the Quemazon Trailhead. Ultimately, this trail would lead us to our route: Valles Caldera Supervolcano Explorer. Just getting to the bike portion of our bikepacking excursion would be a hustle in itself.
After leaving our friend the War Chief, we caught the 5:43 p.m. train out of Santa Domingo Pueblo. We grabbed our seats and the train pushed forward, moving us closer to our destination.
Our stop, we thought, was South Capitol. Or wait, was it Santa Fe County/NM 599? The conductor convinced us it was the former. “That’s where you’ll catch the bus to Los Alamos,” he assured us. He was wearing a uniform; he must know what he’s talking about.As we sat back and compared stories about what just happened with the War Chief, we watched a man post up near our bikes and check them out. He had an ex-military look about him – an army surplus backpack on his shoulders and reflective aviators covering his eyes. The belly poking through his shirt told me that he was more into burgers than ab exercises these days, but looks can be deceiving. We watched over him with the eyes of a hawk.
“How much these bikes worth?” he asked. “This one here looks reallll expensive,” he said, pointing to my Yeti SB5.5.
Before even answering, I knew where this conversation is going. Nowhere.
“How much money do you make in a year?” I wanted to ask him, to counter his blunt question with one that was even more forward. But I knew if I asked that question, he’d give me an answer. And then he’d expect the same from me. I caught a break, though, when Kody took the reins of the conversation. Pheww. Even with lackluster responses – “Oh, that’s interesting” or “That’s neat” – he didn’t catch the memo of not wanting to converse.
His talk was rambling – covering the Parkland school shooter, homemade bombs, poverty in New Mexico, and how the TV show “Breaking Bad” brought more drugs and crime to Albuquerque.
“You know,” he said, “someone could easily steal these bikes of yours as the train doors are closing if you’re not looking…”
Seriously? Only someone who would steal a bike thinks like that, let alone says it aloud to the bike owners.
Our stop at South Capitol rescued us from the endless conversation. We exited the train and crossed the road to the bus stop. Desolation. Benches were empty. Litter blew in the wind. There wasn’t a soul waiting for the bus. It reminded me of a school playground in the middle of July.
Taking a look at the bus schedule, I think we both already know why no one else was around. There wasn’t a bus coming to get us. Damn it. This was the wrong stop. Our only option of making it to Los Alamos was backtracking 11 miles to the previous stop, Santa Fe County/NM 599. We should’ve gone with our gut!
With less than an hour to catch the last bus to Los Alamos, we started riding, pedaling hard and into the wind. The bus departure time played over and over in my head like a song that was stuck there. 7:02… 7:02… I reallllly hope we make it there by 7:02…
The wind was no help. It was relentless, and felt as though it was blowing us backwards. Kody pulled ahead of me and I let him take off. Meanwhile, I kept checking the time on my phone like a Facebook junkie. 6:21… 6:34…. 6:43… 6:52… Maybe Kody would catch the bus and stall it until I arrived.
With five minutes to spare, my eyes caught sight of the transit station. A lone Greyhound sat idly, as if it had been waiting there for our arrival the whole time. Woo-hooo!
But, where was Kody? I saw him across the way on the other side of an overpass where the train picks up and drops off. With all the rush of adrenaline to get there on time, he must have ridden past the bus and continued to the other side of the tracks. Noooo!
I followed Kody over the overpass, out of shouting distance, but knowing it was the wrong destination. I can’t leave him behind!As I descended the overpass, Kody snapped “victory” pictures. We made it!Not quite.
“That’s our bus over there, you dumbass!” I yelled at him, half smiling, half frantic. We hightailed it back the other way as the minutes ticked by in my head.
We pulled up next to the bus right as the clock struck 7:02 p.m. Not a minute to spare.
Getting comfortable in our seats, it was hard to fathom the fact that we were actually here. That we were sitting in the seats of a Greyhound bus with our bikes stowed away in the baggage space below us. Greyhound bus seats never felt so comfortable.
Despite all the obstacles leading up to that moment, we were finally on the correct route.
Hellooo Los Alamooos!
Adventure Begins When Things Go Wrong
For ten miles, we hiked and pushed uphill the entire time. It was close to midnight, and we were getting to the point of exhaustion. Step after step after step. After step.
Hike-a-bike can be a struggle, especially during the night time. The lack of visibility brings about an unsettling uncertainty. Are we going the right way? Where’s the proper footing with each step? I think the word is disoriented. That’s certainly how we felt.
The two of us eventually reached the point when sleeping anywhere would do. Cutting through the woods, we set up our bivy sacks in between some trees only a few steps off the trail.
The first night was cold. As in 17 degrees cold. And snowy. Peeking out of my bivy sack at first light, I saw snow covering the ground around us. That was all I needed to see. Zziiippp. I retreated back into my bivy like a hibernating bear who woke up before spring had sprung.
The entirety of our first full-day of riding brought us face to face with the same wind from the previous day. Wind can drive you crazy, and I mean crazy. It’s noisy. Whooshhhhh. It’s relentlessness. Even more persistent than that ex-military guy we met on the train yesterday. And it’s nonstop. Leave me alone! Even my head hurts!
But there was a silver lining: Valles Caldera. Located in the Jemez Mountains, this national preserve is a vast volcanic depression of meadows and streams for wildlife to graze and visitors to explore. And of course, for Kody and me to traverse on bikes.
We found ourselves taking frequent breaks throughout the day – putting layers on, taking layers off, and cursing the wind. There seemed to be a mismatched ebb and flow between the two of us. When Kody was down, my morale was up. When I was down, Kody’s spirits were high. But at about the time both of us were down, thinking ahead to our destination of San Antonio Hot Springs rallied us.
After pulling off the trail to escape the wind and catch a quick nap, we pushed on. The remaining ten miles into the wind took double the usual time. We were elated to finally reach our camping spot for the night – overcoming all the obstacles in between made it that much more rewarding. And now, as we pulled into the base of the hot springs, we were home at last.
There was no rush to get our campsite set up – we were where we wanted to be. But there was a sense of urgency in the air because of what would follow after getting camp set up. Remember? Hot. SPRINGS!
As we posted up our home for the night, two guys around our age stumbled into our campsite. They were the first people we’d seen since taking leave of our friend on the train the day before.
“Heyyy fellas!” the longer haired guy called out. “Do y’all know where the hot springs are?”
Isn’t the trail over there obvious?
“This is our first time here,” I responded. “But, I assume it’s right up that trail…” I pointed to the trail next to us. It was the only clear path running uphill to where I imagined the hot springs were only half a mile away.
We chatted with them about our long day of riding, and how grateful we were to be where we are now. Conversing with them felt good. It was as if we were releasing all the craziness from our heads that the wind had blown in there throughout the day. Finally, normality.
As we talked on with the two guys, I noticed something curious about their presence. As we told them about our bikepacking adventure, I saw the inspiration light up in their eyes. I sensed a true, genuine, interest from both of them, and their energy felt contagious.
“We’ll keep the hot springs warm for ya!” they jokingly called out to us as they started to make the hike up.
Once out of earshot, I turned to Kody. “They’re on acid.”
“Wait… what? Ha, how can you say that?”
It was an unsubstantiated declaration. Just another assumption. But there was something about their presence and demeanor.
With nothing more to go off of, we both laughed and gathered our packs for the hot springs. A few minutes later we set out, and followed their footprints up the trail.
Are You Experienced?
With each step, the rushing sounds of geothermal ground water became louder and louder. Shuhhhhhh. My body relaxed at just the sound of it, longing for a soak in the warm, mineral rich water.
San Antonio Hot Springs overlooks a valley of dense evergreen trees laced with green moss, neon flowers, and rust red earth. The valley runs right up to a cliff face, the type of cliff face you can see faces in if you stare at it long enough. It’s National Geographic beautiful with a New Mexico twist.
There are four rock pools at the San Antonio Hot Springs, and Kody and I took the top pool, the one the water flows directly into. It was heavenly. Soaking in hot springs is like taking a break from time itself. Ahhhhhh. Hot. Springs! The other two soaked below us, naked. It’s a hot-spring-thing.
We learned that our friends had just finished up a winter of working on the mountain in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It’s a small world, as Kody and I live not but three hours from there.
Our conversation dove deeper and deeper, and there seemed to be a mutual inspiration between our two groups. They told us about their winter experiences at The Boat, and in exchange, we told them about our bike adventure thus far.“Hey! Do y’all eat shrimp?!” the blonde-haired guy yelled out. At least that’s what I think he asks. It was hard to hear them over the rush of falling water.
“Do we eat shrimp?!” I responded, laughing. Kody heard the same question.
“Ha-ha-ha. No! Do you guys trip? You know, like drop acid!”
“Ooooohhh!” Kody and I looked at each other. There it is! I knew it!
“Y’all are tripping, aren’t you?!” I asked, already knowing the answer.
They looked at each other for a quick second and started cracking up. “Yyyyyep! And this is one helluva place to do it!”
The setting sun was a signal to start making our way back down the trail. On the descent, our two parties were one together. Reaching the base of the hot spring trail, we exchanged goodbyes and parted ways. Kody and I headed toward camp, and the other two left toward their car at the trailhead.
And just like that, it was back to the two of us.
We sat by the fire that night underneath what felt like every star in our galaxy. Not a single spot in the sky above us remained unlit. I was more engaged by gazing at the night sky than by any movie I’d ever watched.
Its vastness is always a humbling reminder of how small we truly are, and that happenstances within our lives might not just be happenstance, that it’s all connected. Meeting our new friends earlier was a prime example. They were now a part of our bike trip, and we were a part of their… trip trip.
The War Chief, the talker on the train, and now these two characters, all under the same canopy of stars. Who knew what tomorrow would bring?
“Are you cold?”
That was the extent of our conversation the following morning. Deep, huh? We both got the message, though.
Sleeping under the stars is one of my most favorite things to do. You’re able to fully soak in your surroundings by simply lying there. But temperatures reached down to 14 degrees that night, and that’s just too damn cold. Bone-chilling cold. Ice particles covered the interior of my bivy sack, and with the slightest of movements, they fell right onto my face. My body was turning into an icicle.
Trying to get out of our sleeping bags that morning felt a lot like trying to get out of bed after a night of one too many beers. It was a struggle. And it wasn’t until the sun shone bright on our camp that we were able to stir from our sleeping bags. I guess we’ll get up…
After some discussion, we agreed to make that day the last day of the ride. It’d be a big push, 60+ miles, but the thought of another night spent in an iceberg seemed tortuous.
For the better half of the morning we lounged around, ate oatmeal, and thawed out our gear and bodies in the sun. Without having to say when, we both knew we’d eventually hop back on our bikes. It was our only option. Two wheels to adventure.
The trip we had initially envisioned came to life that final day. The wind subsided, the sun shone above us, and the temperature was in the low 80s. It was fittingly climactic. The terrain we covered was strenuous, but with it also came ever-changing scenery. From wooded forests to mountain roads to single track burn area, we were slowly but surely closing the loop we’d set out on two days prior.
In the evening, we sat in front of a tattered gas station in Cochiti Pueblo, taking our last break while sipping on ginger beer. With less than ten miles to go, we soaked in the remnants of our time on the bike. The familiar, bittersweet feeling began to set within me.
Often, it’s during the last few miles of an excursion that my perspective begins to shift. It’s then that I start to see the trip as a whole – the strange people we met, the bizarre occurrences, the struggle with the elements, the comradery of two buddies setting out to explore the unknown. The experience is all parts of the trip, not just the riding.
The sun was setting in the most iconic Southwestern way as we pedaled up to my truck. Gradients of oranges, reds, and yellows filled the sky while it slowly sank towards the horizon. A Tequila Sunset.
There was no one in sight when we reached the truck, not even a train. We humbly celebrated our accomplishment and passed around a flask of whiskey. My jaw ached from smiling so much as we recounted the oddities over the past couple of days. I sprawled out on the asphalt like a corpse. The hard ground was warm like a heating pad, and my body melted into the cement. It was hard to get over the feeling of not moving, yet at the same time, it was all I could manage to do.
There’s a disconnect between the mindset of life on an adventure and life on a normal day-to-day basis. I’m certainly a victim to it. But with each adventure or trip I go on, I strive to take that experience and pepper it in to my everyday life. It gives me a sense of purpose and growth. Even the smallest amount can go a long way.
There, lying on the pavement, I saw it. In a plastic bag underneath my truck sat six empty Corona beer bottles neatly packed back into their case.
Kody and I looked at each other. “The War Chief,” we simultaneously said before bursting out in laughter.