Update: A Wild(fire) Time in NM

Facing off climate wildfires as our inaugural tour comes to an end

For the last two months of our trip we were planning on spending a few weeks on a farm in Las Vegas, NM before taking one last trip to explore the wilderness between Santa Fe and Taos. But as it turned out, nature had other plans for us.

Pecos River

Although we’d previously been living and working in Albuquerque, we decided to take a Santa Fe based route to get to our next destination farm. That way we got to ride past the beautiful Pecos Canyon wilderness for our trip. Pecos in the early spring is absolutely beautiful. The water was still running fast, and the weather was perfect in the sun. Since we were there three days and it was still a bit too snowy for backpacking, we took the opportunity to do some fun unloaded riding.

We rode up one day to overlook the Dalton Canyon, and the next day we rode way up Pecos Canyon along the river. The ride up was easy on the ebikes and the ride back down was crazy fun. The roads were pretty much deserted except for a few folks fishing so we bombed down the long hills.

At the campground we found a ton of trash though. We spent a good deal of time cleaning up, but realized we didn’t have enough space to carry much of it back out. Fortunately we were able to hand it off to an RVer who can get it somewhere out of these beautiful scenic waterways. This group of gracious campers also gave us a gallon of bottled water when we saw that the creek we were planning to filter from was a bit bubbly and had a strange sheen on the surface (apparently this is just due to erosion, so good lesson to learn). This was the second time, and not the last, that people in NM have shown such amazing kindness.

When we left, we also stopped by Pecos National Historic Park. The site is a former location of a huge settlement of the Pueblo Indians. The location has quite a remarkable 360 panorama of the entire valley, making it the perfect place to set up a defensive location and a trading post. On top of the mound city stood ruins of a domineering church placed there to coerce the native peoples into accepting a new religion, and the new domination by settling Europeans. It was a great historical perspective and included a lot of history on the displacement of the native Pueblo who used to live peacefully in that valley. We’d highly recommend a visit.

Gunfire on Rowe Mesa

Between Pecos and Las Vegas there is a small patch of National Forest that’s “easily” accessible from the frontage roads along the highway. At least, it looks easily accessible on a map. In reality, the ride up was by far the steepest road we’ve ridden in months. But again, it was so worth it. We had an amazing view from the edge of the mesa looking out across the whole valley.

As the sun went down, though the picturesque beauty made way for one of the scariest nights of our trip (somehow things just keep getting scarier as the trip goes). While we were cooking dinner, suddenly an incredibly loud gunshot echoed out from just above us. We were stunned. It was so close. To be honest, I think we panicked a little. On our ride in, we’d ridden past a trash pile and the full carcass of a dead goat. At the time, that was just trash left by unruly campers, but when a gunshot goes off that close, suddenly we were wondering, is this was someone trying to scare us off their turf?

A few seconds later, a barrage of gunfire started going off. We weren’t sure what to do, but I started calling out. The gunfire stopped, but proceeded again about 30 seconds later. Then we started hollering as loud as possible. The gunfire subsided. We weren’t sure whether it was smarter to stay or to go, but there was nowhere else within biking distance to stay and it was already getting dark, so we didn’t have much choice. Eventually, Will stood up waving our fluorescent jackets above his head. We wandered around, scoping the place out.

Claire had us move the tent, and we started to settle in for the night. Then after about an hour, suddenly gunfire erupted again. This time we distinctly heard the “buzzing” sound of ricocheted bullets flying overhead. This time we remembered that we had a whistle and gave a few loud blows. The gunfire abated immediately. We’re fairly certain that the second gunfire sounded different from the first.

We knew that National Forest and BLM land is often used for target shooting, but in most places target shooting is done in the back of some gorge, not on the top of a beautiful vista overlook where others have clearly camped before. Well, it turned out that the area where we were riding through is an extremely popular shooting destination. In fact, shooting was so popular in that area, that a nearby section of national forest was one of the few places in all of the US’s public lands that has had target shooting restricted because it’s been a danger to nearby populations. No kidding…

Still, knowing that it’s just (probably drunk) locals engaging in sport is little comfort when you’re trying to get to sleep. It’s really interesting because most of the time on National Forest or BLM land the best idea is to keep a low profile so you don’t attract any attention, but in this case we actually ran a flashing light on the top of our tent for a few hours just to make sure no other nighttime shooter wandered by. We still love camping on public lands, but this was a good reminder that the most dangerous thing in our country is still always human beings. Especially human beings with cars and/or guns.

We happily rode away from that campsite the next morning. We only had a short trip to the farm we’d be working at next. As we crossed over the ridge to head into the valley where the farm was we saw our first glimpse of a wildfire that had just broken out a few days prior.

smoke from a wildfire

Little did we know how significantly that fire would come to impact our trip.

Sheridan Farm project

We were a little on edge for our first days at Sheridan Farm, but in no time, we found a new joyfulness in the work there. Sandy and Dan were some of the most energetic, thoughtful, and efficient people we’ve worked with on this trip. Truthfully, for the first time, we felt like we could see ourselves taking on a farm project like theirs. We learned a ton about plant care. For the first time, we actually got to care for plants in the greenhouse and prepare garden beds for planting. We also got to put in many hardy native shrubs to grow in as wind breaks, and every single one seemed to take to its new home. Sandy is truly a wonderful and practical gardener and we were so happy to get to learn about her process.

Another project that Dan got involved with was building an impressive outhouse with a stained glass window. Dan has great construction skills and we learned a ton. One thing that made it the outhouse even more impressive was that probably 50% of the material came from an old broken down RV. This caused us to dub the project a Camping Crapper from a Crappy Camper.

We also worked on so many fun projects on the side. We think that this was because our living situation was the closest to “normal” that we’ve had, and because we had a basically 0 drama time hanging out and working with Sandy and Dan. Sandy and Dan also have a contagious “manic work energy” (Dan’s phrase), which pushed us to build cool things like some furniture for our tiny house (aka the shed), and a prototype for a board game about walkable cities.

The Birth of Solarpunk Travel

With the “manic work energy,” that we caught on the farm we got super busy planning for the end of our trip and what comes next. It was during this period that we started to realize that the name “Trail Cooperative,” was a little too generic and ambiguous for us. After thinking for a little bit, we realized one of the things that had inspired us was the idea of solarpunk, a science fiction aesthetic and genre that had emerged as a positive hopeful vision for what society could become if we transitioned to a just, sustainable, and equitable future. Sustainable transit and travel, like cycling, is a big part of this vision not only because transit is responsible for a large proportion of GHG emissions, but also because there are safer, healthier, more affordable and more fun ways to get around that promote supporting the local community. This was the idea we want to cultivate in the world, an inspiring vision of what travel can be in a solarpunk future.

The Evacuation

Although we were always working in a good mood on the farm, our excitement to work and to prepare for the end of the trip was overshadowed by the threat of active wildfires, whose smoke was always looming in the background of the landscape. During our last days at Sheridan, it became obvious that the fires were not going to be contained for months. While it seemed at first that their farm was far enough from the danger, it became clear on our last day of work that the fire was too large and unpredictable to ignore. We spent that day performing large scale fire mitigation, trimming trees and moving wood away from the house and other structures.

On the morning we left, the rising sun was blood red through the smoke. As we headed west, 30 mph wind gusts started to blow us to a stop. It became obvious that we weren’t making the kind of time we needed, but we carried on.

Then, as we stopped at the Pecos River gas station, we learned from a passerby that parts of the town we’d left (Las Vegas, NM) had reached evacuation status and that a lot of cars would soon be headed our way. On top of that, we learned a new fire had broken out and the place we were supposed to be at that night had also been set to yellow alert. Needless to say, we realized our plans needed to change.

We found a regional bus that would take us out to the safety of Santa Fe, but due to the intermittent bus schedules we wouldn’t be able to get picked up until 6:30 at night. (Just another reminder of how sorry our regional bus systems are here in the US!)

Instead of waiting in the wind and smoke, we called Sandy and Dan at Sheridan Farm and asked if they knew anyone who would be headed our way. As it turned out they did have a friend from Santa Fe who had been helping a neighbor relocate and was about to head back.

@solarpunktravel this #climateemergency is kinda exhausting. #wildfire #climatechange #bicycle #cycletouring #evacuation #naturaldisaster #neveradullmoment ♬ original sound - Solarpunk Travel Co-op

So grateful, we tagged along back to Santa Fe. On the way we learned that our savior, Laura, had lived for years in the Lost Coast of California, one of our favorite places that we visited during our whole summer tour. Then, to our astonishment, we learned that they were good friends with the very first interviewee of our Summer 2021 trip - Uplift Cannabis Co-op in Petrolia, CA! Not only that, they had worked extensively in co-op development and had founded a successful carpentry co-op in the Bay Area.

Although we were blown away at what a small world it is, we also recognize that good people willing to help those in need form a distinct subset of people that we’ve learned percolates the US. We were so grateful and vowed to pay it forward yet again, just another act of kindness that has changed how we operate in this world.

We stayed again with our previous Warm Showers host Leah, and we tested out a board game that we’d developed about walkable cities. (more on that to come!)

(Fortunately, as of a few weeks after the time of writing this, Sandy and Dan’s place is still far from the fires edge, and the fire is mostly contained. They aren’t out of the woods yet, but things are looking better.)

Back to Our Desert Homestead

At this point we were worn out, mentally and physically, and not willing to continue our journey north to Taos, which would mean risking biking between two active massive wildfires. However,we had previously committed to staying near Santa Fe for a family gathering so we couldn’t leave the desert just yet. New Mexico really is the land of entrapment. So instead we opted to wait out our time in New Mexico back with our friends at Our Desert Homestead. It had heated up considerably since we had left a month prior, and we learned about planting and protecting young plants against a dry and scalding Albuquerque sun.

We are so grateful to the Raki’s for taking us in yet again. And so happy that we could help them out during their spring crunch time. It was fun to get to plant and set up irrigation for the garden beds we had built at our last visit. But our time on the farm also seemed slower, I think because every day was long and hot, and we were sad that we were missing our trip through the mountains of New Mexico. But we knew it was the right decision. Throughout our whole last segment of the trip it certainly felt like reality was telling us to take a break and regroup.

Then the last days of our trip kind of snuck up on us, and our time in the Southwest had drawn to a close. It felt like we came full circle, from the desolate winter winds and snows to seeing all the cottonwoods along the Rio Grande leafed out in full glory before we left. The cholla were almost starting to bloom and lizards and rabbits were making an appearance. Life really can thrive here, just not of the human type. Experiencing what a massive drought can do, NM is having the largest drought in 1200 years, made us anxious for all the folks living out here and atruly ppreciate every drop of fresh water we have.

Onward to a Summer of Solarpunk Travel

We’re writing this now from our motel in Albuquerque, getting ready to take the train back to Chicago for the last leg of our trip. It’s been an unbelievable year, and one that has changed our life completely. Once we reach Madison, WI, we’ll celebrate a rebirth of sorts. We expect to spend the summer still traveling locally, and getting to know the area, while we begin the slow process of reintegrating with society.

But the best part is getting set up to share this kind of travel with more and more people. We expect to run 4 trips this summer around Wisconsin. We’ve already scheduled our first trip for June 11th, and we’re planning a tour from Madison to Stevens Point for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Energy Fair where Will will give a talk on the solar charging ebike. We hope to see some of you there!

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