Update: Winter in the Desert

Tucson to Albuquerque

The first 3 months of 2022 turned into a wild and eye-opening ride. With travel in the southwest, we learned it’s best to expect the unexpected and prepare for a harsh climate, even in winter. Below is our story from this time.

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Tucson.

In winter of 2022, we found ourself staying with Claire’s dad in Tucson Arizona. With a “home base” in the guest room at her dad’s house, we started experimenting with a different kind of tour - this led to a whole new vision for Solar Punk Travel that we are very excited about. We tried going out for smaller overnight trips just around the outskirts of Tucson. This gave us a lot more time to explore Tucson, to volunteer around town, and to schedule an amazing interview with one of the coolest co-ops we’ve ever seen.

Ironwood National Monument

Our first warmup trip was a fun exploration with three great destinations all nearby. First we visited the Silverbell ghost town, which used to be a mining town and now exits in the shadow of a currently active mine, which is also interesting to see. Then we visited the site of a decomissioned Titian II missile. There are great informational signs to explain the history and reflect on the cold war era. But there is no missile silo to see, as they were all destroyed and buried when they were decomissioned. We ended the day with a quick hike up Waterman peak to catch a beautiful sunset over the mountains. We camped on BLM land nearby.

Volunteering with AZ Trail association

The trails don’t maintain themselves! This was our first combination bike overnight plus trail maintenance day and it was a blast. We took the Huckleberry loop trail to the Rincon section of the Arizona trail. We camped out along the trail surrounded by cacti and the shadows of the nearby mountain ranges. Then we woke up and met up with the trail maintenance crew to get those prickly acacia and other plants off the trail.

The Arizona Trail Association, who hosted the event, provided lunch and cold drinks afterward. It was a great way to meet new people and gain an appreciation for the trails we’ve been using all year.

Technicians for Sustainability

When we discovered Technicians for Sustainability during our co-op research on Tucson, we almost couldn’t believe it. A solar power company that started out delivering panels on bicycle! And they’ve succesffully converted to a worker co-op! I don’t think we could have imagined a more perfect a company.

It was amazing to get to meet with Technicians fro Sustainability. They have such an inspiring story and we were so grateful that they let us join them for an awesome interview about the work they do and their transformation from small scale to a seriously impactful company. f

Volunteering with Watershed Management Group

During our previous visit with regen.coop in Santa Barbara, we learned about the Watershed Management Group in Tucson. We were thrilled to learn that they have many volunteering days and open classes around Tucson.

We learned so much from the classes and volunteering projects around Tucson. We had only experienced second-hand water shortages from neighbors living in northern California, but being in the desert has made us much more aware of just how scarce water is already. And with the situation only getting worse in the coming years due to global warming, the work WMG is doing to educate and conserve water is going to be crucial to the survival of the southwest.

Re-envisioning Solar Punk Travel

As we got to do bike overnights from a home base, we realized that this was a much more accessible yet still impactful and super fun way to get more folks bike camping. We started to envision bike camping hubs across the country, based in a city or town, where a local group of bike enthusiasts promotes and organizes local bike overnights. This is an easier way to introduce bike camping to new people and raises awareness of locally-focused travel. The places we saw were places some locals had never taken the time to visit but were so cool.

So, we tore apart the original map of our route and reorganized the routes into hubs. We realized that we’d traveled in a way similar to this in the Pacific Northwest so we designed our first hubs around Western Washington and Tucson. We’re excited to start more as we go. The website has also been revamped so anyone can add a route to one of the hubs, or start their own.

From Tucson to Albuquerque

Following our time in Tucson, we decided to try to brave a winter trip across the desert to Albuquerque. It turned out to be quite an intense experience, introducing us to cold and wind that we hadn’t ever experienced before. This segment also introduced us to a stretch of country where the only road is an interstate.

Las Cienegas to Bisbee

For the first part of this trip, we had a scheduled rendezvous with Claire’s dad who wanted to take a car trip in parallel with us to Bisbee.

For our bike ride, we left Tucson and headed southeast to Las Cienegas Nature Conservation Area. We were so lucky to see a herd of prong horned antelope leaping through the grasses that evening as we set up camp.

@solarpunktravel the high desert kicked our @$$, but it was beautiful. #bikepacking #highdesert #frozen #grassland #solarebike #tucson #blm #outdoors #antelope #rugged ♬ MAMBO OVER THE MOUNTAIN - Rick Hirsch

The next stop was the Fairbank ghost town. It used to be a hoppin’ railroad town back in the day and now has the remains of a schoolhouse, post office and a few other structures. There is also a trail here that goes south and looks like a fun alternate route to Bisebee, but it is very sandy and not easily rideable for us with our weight and medium sized tires. We learned the hard way after schlepping for an hour and a half and barely making any headway.

After two hard days riding into strong (about 20 mph with gusts up to 40mph) east headwinds and wasting a lot of energy on that fruitless sandy trail ride, Claire was too tired to take the trip from Tombstone to Bisbee. Since her dad was just in Bisbee, he rode back to bail us out.

We had a fantastic time in Bisbee. It’s a picturesque and very funky town with a lot of charm. In addition to eating some great food and getting to explore the fantastically walkable town with all it’s nooks and crannies, we also really enjoyed getting to stay with Dave in an old-timey train car.

Bisbee to Chiricahua National Monument

This was a beautiful ride, you feel like you’re in the wild west and don’t see any cars, houses, or people for miles.

On the way, we stopped to see the Sandhill Cranes flocking like crazy. Apparently they feed out in the farmland, and then come back to hang out in wide open marshes all along the valley. Once we reached Chiricahua we camped in Bonita Canyon. We stayed for 2 nights in the Chiricahuas so that we had time to do an awesome hike among all the rock formations. Getting out to Heart of the Rocks is worth it.

The Desert in Winter

Even on our first segment of this trip, traveling in January meant we soon learned that it got quite cold at night. It was much colder as we rose in elevation away from Tucson. In the mornings, all our water bottles would freeze and there was frozen condensation on the inside of our tent that looked like snow. Most days it quickly warmed up. If going in winter, be sure to keep electronics close to your body so the battery doesn’t drain and water inside your sleeping bag so you have something non-frozen to drink at breakfast.

The night before we were scheduled to leave Chiricahua, we found out that it was going to get very very cold (in the teens) with the possibility of a snowstorm on our route over the mountain. So instead, we changed our plans to stay indoors for two nights and then head north around the mountain at the lower elevation of Apache pass.

We headed for a roundabout route through two small desert towns, Wilcox and Sunsites, a calm and pretty ride. Sunsites has a good food truck, coffee shop and local library. Riding the playa to Wilcox was a challenge, but so fun! To get to Wilcox without taking the interstate, we took a shortcut across a playa and an old dirt road that ran along the rail line. The actual sand part is only about 5 miles, after which the route turns back into solid packed dirt. In Wilcox we grabbed an airbnb because the cold front was still pretty bad.

Apache pass and the Butterfield Mail Trail

For a bit of history and archeology, visiting Apache Pass and Fort Bowie is worth a stop (plus the visitors center has the only water you’ll find!). The ride to Fort Bowie went through Apache Pass, a historic pass between the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahua Mountains. We camped at the closest BLM land, which turned out to be along the old Butterfield Overland Mail route. This was our coldest camping night and Claire in a moment of desperation made a hot water bottle at 2 am, which burned almost all of our fuel. Again, be careful if traveling in the desert in winter!

Backcountry Byways of the Wild Wild West

TLDR; Google will try to tell you that there are side roads that you can take instead of I-10 here, but they are private and end in fences or washes. Even the satellite images are outdated due to rapid development of pecan orchards in the area. Some of the fences appear easy to get through, and there are tracks from others, but you will probably get stuck somewhere like we did!

Long story: To head to New Mexico, we knew we would need to get on I-10 eventually, but wanted to avoid it as much as possible so we took a chance on an alternate route Google maps suggested. They were named roads, but our first warning should have been when they started to go through pecan groves and were clearly private ag roads. We might have driven past a few signs that said to stop, but the gates were open, so it seemed like this was something people did. A few trucks passed and didn’t bother us so we kept at it. This is when we learned that there are still parts of the country that Google hasn’t mapped.

The roads on Google did not match those in real life, and the satellite images were outdated too. The roads were a grid but kept dead ending, so we backtracked a mile or so until we found a track that matched the satellite, only to be blocked by a barbed wire fence. But we saw tracks on the other side, so people clearly had gone through. Eventually we realized that we could pull back the barbed wire which was just tied up as a sort of gate.

At some point on the trip we headed down a stretch of road with a few cows on it. Now this isn’t that surprising and has happened before. But Claire didn’t notice that the closest cow was a steer with massive horns. Will eventually got her to stop, and we had a brief staredown with the cow before it shuffled off. This might have been the most scared Will was on this entire trip, but Claire seemed to be completely fine with this particular flavor of danger.

@solarpunktravel on the backcountry byways #bikepacking #cows #moo #happycows #horns #backcountry ♬ Jaws style suspense jingle(1111319) - moshimo sound design

Continuing on, the sand was hard packed - at first. Then it became a wash and we were pushing our bikes through deep sand. Then it became a path again for awhile. With another barbed wire fence, same deal. Then after what felt like forever we had gone only one 1 mile of 6. But going back meant adding at least 10-15 miles because of all the pecan orchards we would need to recross. So onwards we went, and that’s when we hit an abandoned horse corral with fences and gates!

Claire was ready to turn around and give up the day as a loss, when Will ran around the place and found the single open gate. So relieved, we continued, figuring our luck would hold. The trail led up back into another huge pecan orchard and the going was smooth and we were almost out when we hit the final gate - which was locked. We just stood staring at the road on the other side. Then a truck pulled up from the farmers, surprised to see us there. They wanted to know how we had gotten on the property, they thought all their fences were locked and they were worried about the competition that they said, “wanted to destroy them”.

We wondered if they were talking about the first pecan groves we went through that morning… But they were nice enough to lead us around to the main gate and let us out- it was a key code exit! If they hadn’t been there we would have had to take everything off our bikes and somehow hoist them over the 5 ft tall fence. What a day.

Adventures are everywhere if you go looking (we had cell service and could see the interstate the whole time, but what fun is taking the easy way!).

The I-10 Ride

After the fiasco on the back roads, we decided to stick to I-10 and frontage road. In many parts of New Mexico, I-10 is traversable by bike since there isn’t really any alternative. The shoulder here is wide and well-paved though strewn with trash and debris from car wrecks and flat tires. Be careful traveling this section in high winds as there are some dust storm warning areas along the way (the signs on the interstate don’t let you forget it).

There are a few frontage roads you can take for short distances, but they dead end and do not connect. This was honestly the most dreary section of the country we’ve ever ridden. There are some places that we’d abstain from recommending, but this is a place that we’d absolutely recommend you avoid. Sadly, for traveling at this time of year, there really aren’t any other routes that wouldn’t be far too cold.

For our ride, the headwind was insane for this whole segment due to a cold front that had recently come in. We were feeling very discouraged from our incredibly slow progress, but then in the evening we met another touring couple! They were on a tandem with a huge trailer for their 2 huge dogs. They were also taking a bike year, starting in Canada and coming down via Minnesota, on IG under Mocha Dick. As we met them they had come through Texas and were headed west to CA. It really raised our spirits to see other cyclists and we got a tailwind the next day all the way to Deming!

Northward along the Rio Grande

At Deming we were finally able to get away from interstate for a while. Before getting to Elephant Butte State Park, we stopped in the town of Truth or Consequences to resupply. While we happened to be in Truth or Consequences, Claire got some extremely exciting news. She had written a letter to the editor about promoting local, sustainable travel over air travel, and she learned that it was accepted for publication in… The New York Times!

It made it extra fitting that this reprimand of the hypocrisy from the “paper of record” on the subject of the impending climate disaster was addressed from a town called Truth or Consequences.

We stayed several days at elephant Butte just to enjoy the fact that there was water. In hindsight, the water was dirty and the levels were eerily down from the high water mark, but after a frightening dry desert trip any water will do.

Heading north from here, we mostly could stay off the interstate, but found ourself needing to pick it up here and there as the frontage roads disappeared.

The next day we headed toward the Fort Craig rest area, and as we approached the stop, in the distance we could see a massive monolith in the middle of the desert on our right. There was a path from the rest stop leading towards it, so we followed and found the Camino Real Art Sculpture. It definitely feels like a portal to another dimension.

@solarpunktravel I think I opened a portal #newmexico #sculpture #parallel #dimension ♬ original sound - Solarpunk Travel Co-op

That night we stopped at the most Scooby Doo campground we’ve ever seen at the Escondida Lake campground. It’s a county park that has a campground attached to it and you have to make reservations online, but can do it when you arrive. The bathrooms are clean but the place felt quite spooky when we were there. We were the only ones there, not even a camp host or ranger or anyone. The lights started to turn on and off randomly at dusk, a car pulled in slowly and then left. We got in the tent and then heard rustling outside our tent, I poked my head out to see 2 off leash dogs or maybe they were coyotes, trotting off. About 5 minutes later, we heard a single gunshot and more cars slowly driving by. We didn’t sleep much. This is when we started googling and found Socorro has a reputation as a haunted town. After a few hours of shut eye, we woke to find the lake buzzing with people ready to fish. It seemed like a fine place during the day.

From Socorrow we ended up on I-25 for a bit so we could stop at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. It has nice views and some trails, but the visitor center was closed so no water and not really worth the stop.

We made it to Belen by evening and got a motel. We had planned to try to get to Plateau Hame de Colquhoun to camp (a hipcamp place but on airbnb), but underestimated the amount of backtracking along dirt that would be needed. We thought that we could get in from the south on back roads, but they were way too sandy so we had to bail. The final segment from Belen to Albuquerque isn’t great, there is lots of traffic and they clearly don’t like sharing their roads. But once in the city, we were pleasantly surprised to find lots of nice bike paths to Claire’s mom’s place near downtown.

Albuquerque

We spent nearly a month in the city of Albuquerque with Claire’s mom. During that time we experimented again with the short trip system. This time we also involved regional mass transit by taking the Rail Runner, light rail to also check out camping outside nearby Santa Fe.

North Sandia Foothills

Getting to dispersed camping from Albuquerque turned out to be really easy. We found a great route that headed up to the north side of Sandia Mountain to a huge system of mountain bike trails there. We dispersed camped for a few nights, using the mountain snow as our source for drinking water. We’d highly recommend this as an easy bike trip from ABQ.

This also took place during the start of a major gas price spike. We tried to make a PSA to promote bike2hike, explaining how to do it and how easy it really is if you have an ebike.

@solarpunktravel higher than #gasprices #biketohike #bikepacking #ditchthecar #fuckcars #bikepackinglife #climatechange ♬ Quirkle - Joss Peach

Volunteering with the NMVFO

During our time in Albuquerque, we volunteered with a really amazing trail maintenance volunteerism society called the New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors. We even took a highly informative workshop where we learned just what it takes to build sustainable trails.

Bandelier National monument

The highlight of our time exploring wilderness in New Mexico would almost certainly be our trip to Bandelier National Monument.

@solarpunktravel Santa Fe to Bandelier National Monument. 100 miles and 3 nights #backpacking #biketohike #heaven #outdoors #sustainability #greentravel #santafe #bandalier #zerocarbon #carfree ♬ Sunroof - Nicky Youre & dazy

We took the Rail Runner train and started riding north from Santa Fe. (Bikes roll on for free and it takes 1.5 hours). This is a gorgeous ride with views of the Sangre de Christo mountains on the right and the Jemez mountains on the left with an awesome steep canyon ride that finishes with sweeping views along the Pajarito Mesa. Bandelier is known for having ruins of cliff dwellings that you can explore. It also has campgrounds, hiking, and backpacking opportunities through canyons and over mess to more hidden ruins. It is the best bike to hike we have found in New Mexico so far!

We camped at Juniper campground our first night. There is a fee for entry to the park. It’s $15 for a single person on a bike, but just $20 for a motorcycle with up to 2 people, and $25 for a car with up to who knows how many! If anything bikes should be free since we put so little impact on the roads! Just another example of the BS that cyclists have to endure.

We started our backpacking trip from the trailhead at the Ponderosa group campground because it is more remote for locking up bikes. We called ahead about bike parking and got in touch with a friendly Ranger who suggested locking them behind the woodshed at this campground. After covering them with our camp tarp, our stuff looked just like a stash of forest service equipment!

@solarpunktravel

how we go from bikes to backpacks

♬ Polka Dance - Benet Walsh/John Hymas

Our hike was awesome, but having come so early in the season there was still considerable snow, which left Claire feeling quite nervous of her footing on the steep canyon descents. Nevertheless it was truly worth it for this picturesque landscape of stunning mountains and sleeping under some beautiful ponderosa and pinyon pines.

Our Desert Homestead.

Immediately after finishing our hike in Bandelier, we did a long, long, day to come back to Santa Fe, ride the Rail Runner, and then bike another 15 miles out of Albuquerque to Our Desert Homestead. As their name suggests, this is really a homestead out in the desert, completely off-grid.

Our time at Our Desert Homestead was wonderful and highly educational. It was also the first WWOOF we had where we were given largely free reign to carry out some complex tasks. This truly gave us a sense of empowerment to believe that we were capable of something like this someday.

It was also a rather harsh wakeup call about the extremes of living an off-grid desert lifestyle. It was amazing that they run almost entirely on solar power, but the need to haul in water truly astonished us. Not to mention this was our first time working with such a degree of livestock.

The First Tour

While we were working at Our Desert Homestead, we had the idea to run our first guided tour to bring people out to the farm. We rode into town to take part in critical mass Albuquerque, and spread the word.

In the end, we made two friends who came out with us on a very fun trip. We learned a lot about running trips, and had a really great time. We’re inspired to do this more over the summer.

After our time in Albuquerque we plan to head toward Santa Fe to do more and work on yet another farm. It’s exciting to get to a different place, but after all the time we’ve spent here it’s sad to have to go. And at the same time we know our time on this trip is almost coming to an end.

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