Friday, February 26, 2010

...Brought to you by the Eagle Hand laundry

Total distance: 5568.3 km (Unchanged since previous post)

By Sundance:

We are back from our little motorised side trip loop throughout New Mexico, hooray!

Where to begin? Well, last Friday our hosts Charley and Kamala were heading out of town for an extended weekend, so they dropped us off at El Paso airport to rent a car, which turned out to be a nifty little red number. We hopped in, made our way out of El Paso and into New Mexico. Stopping for lunch in Las Cruces we eventually made it to Silver City and the road to the Gila cliff dwellings and hot springs. It was a slow drive through snowy but scenic hills to the park where the cliff dwellings were to be found.  By the time we got there the park was closed, but we found a campsite a little further back on the road, and Yana made a fire while I cooked up some pasta. When we awoke the following morning the tent was covered in a substantial layer of frost, and we spent some time brushing it off before it had a chance to melt, in an effort to keep the tent reasonably dry before packing it up.

The Gila cliff dwellings are a series of stone structures built into a cliff side by the Mogollon people who migrated down through this area around 1276. The dwellings were only occupied for about 24 years, but it's believed they were used during a drought that made it difficult to sustain a farming lifestyle further north. We got to the visitor's centre, looked at some exhibits, then drove up to the start of the walk to the cliffs. There was a bridge that was out, and was only open to pedestrians an bicycles (the one time we have a car! Oh, the irony!), and a short walk beyond that got us to the cliffs which were spectacular. We met up with a ranger who was giving a guided walk through the dwellings so we got to hear all about what they think the various rooms were used for.

We also met another pair of cross-country cyclists, Adam and Dwight, who are heading east along the Southern Tier bicycle route. Their adventures are being blogged here. After looking at the cliff dwellings we walked back to our car, drove out past Adam and Dwight pedalling eagerly up a hill, and eventually stopped for lunch in Hillsboro. And then onwards, to a place I've wanted to visit for ages, on account of its totally messed-up name. Truth or Consequences.

T or C actually turned out to be a really nice little town, where we found a little organic cafe, had a delicious Italian meal for dinner, and then stayed in a hotel with hot mineral spring baths. We also got to see some episodes of Man vs Wild on the TV in our room, which was highly entertaining, and since one of the episodes was about survival techniques in Copper Canyon, Mexico we now feel all enthused about finding a dry yucca flower stalk and making a fire by rubbing sticks together, just to see if we can! After a good soak on Sunday morning, we drove out north through Socorro to the Very Large Array radio telescope facility.

This is an array of 27 radio telescopes that are linked together to work as a single collector about 20 kilometres in diameter. The dishes can be repositioned to create a larger or smaller array, for greater resolution or sensitivity. It was also the site where significant parts of several movies including 2010 and Contact. Like most Hollywood stars, it looks smaller in real life... But I grew up watching Carl Sagan's wonderful TV series Cosmos, and seeing the VLA as a source of some incredible insights into the Universe we live in, and I thought it was pretty neat to see it with my own eyes, and see that it's not just a special effect, and it made me pretty proud of how clever humans can be that we can build such things.

"Look at me, I'm a radio telescope!"

Following our trip to the VLA we drove back through the evening, past the site where the world's first atomic bomb was detonated, to Alamagordo.

The following morning we headed out to the White Sands National Monument, with a short detour to the Museum of Space History. White Sands lived up to its name - an expanse of gypsum sand in a huge basin that used to be a lake bed during the last ice age, and now sand dunes stretching for miles in each direction, ringed by mountains.

We did a nature walk along the edge of the dunes, where there were various plants, then drove a bit further in and did a walk to the alkali flats, where the gypsum sand blows from to form the dunes themselves (and also a backup landing site for the Space Shuttle). It was scenic, but windy, but awe-inspiring.


As the weather was looking unpleasant, we decided to drive onwards towards Carlsbad and the Carlsbad Caverns. As we headed up through the mountains east of Alamogordo it began to snow, which made the town of Cloudcroft quite pretty, but also slowed us down. Contrary to my expectations it didn't stop snowing as we descended on the other side of the mountains, but snowed all the way to the next big town, Artesia. Yana did a fantastic job of driving on the slippery white fluffy stuff, although it did take us five hours to get to Artesia, whereupon we found a moderately-cheap hotel, and collapsed into bed. The next day we got up and chipped the pack-ice from the wheel hubs of the car, and drove to Carlsbad, and then to the caverns. The caverns turned out to be very spacious and impressive.

The various stalagtites and stalagmites and things are formed from limestone deposits created by a reef that existed in south-east New Mexico and western Texas when the whole area was the edge of a shallow inland sea during the Mesozoic era. Unfortunately, the limestone is dissolved (and hence redeposits itself into interesting shapes) by sulfuric acid that percolates through the rock, so the whole area from Artesia to the caverns smells of rotten eggs.

The caverns were nifty, and impressive for the size of both the caverns and formations in them, although we've both seen stalagtites and stalagmites before.

It would be great to see some more unusual formations like those in Lechugilla. And we didn't get to look around the whole cavern because they were closing off part of the walk, since it was getting close to closing time.

Afterwards we decided to find a place to camp, but the local campground charged $22.25 just to put up a tent, which we considered absurd, and the public land off the side of the backroads was a bit too rocky and rough to comfortably put up our tent.  We also encountered a longhorn in the public land, and decided we didn't feel like having our tent potentially stepped on.

So we headed back to Carlsbad. We ducked into a Mexican-Chinese restaurant (which we initially thought was two restaurants side-by-side) for dinner. We dubbed this style of food con-fusion cuisine. After a bit of chatting with the staff about our journey the owners offered to let us pitch our tent behind their restaurant, so we got to turf-surf even without the bicycles!

Come Wednesday morning we awoke, got a free Mexican breakfast at the restaurant, and then drove to Guadalupe peak, the highest point in Texas. We considered going for a bushwalk, but decided we'd be doing this amazing place short shrift if we didn't stay overnight, so instead we headed onwards, through the outskirts of El Paso, and back to White Sands to view the sunset Sunsets at White Sands are supposed to be very beautiful, and since it had been overcast (with impending snow) the first day we went there, we took the chance to see a better sunset as the weather had improved. It didn't disappoint.


Afterwards we headed back to Charley and Kamala's place for a scrumptious dinner, and a good night's sleep.

Then on Thursday morning we returned the rental car, and our hosts drove us around to get a new quick-release axle for my bike, and some groceries so that we could cook dinner for them. Plus Charley provided me with a front panier rack for my bike, so Yana and I are both equipped to get some more of the weight out of our backpacks when next we travel by pedal power.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Van Horn to be w-i-i-i-i-i-l-d!

Total distance: 5568.3 km

By Sundance:

Tuesday was productive, and that's about all there is to say about it. While Yana wandered off to get groceries, post blog updates, and be useful in such fashion, I took care of my axle problems. It took all day, but I wound up buying a whole new rear wheel from the local hardware store, extracted the axle, extracted the old broken axle, sorted through the collection of old and new parts I now had, cleaned and quality-checked them, and built a new rear axle from the bits. In the midst of it all, I managed to discover that the store nearby where we'd had pizza for dinner the previous night also sold non-dairy, non-chocolate, carob-coated oatmeal cookie rice-milk icecream organic frozen sandwich thingies. Yummy. That night we made the rice and bean soup we'd had for lunch in Valentine again, and slept in Russ' motorbike shop once more.

The following day the new axle got a real workout. We headed out of Van Horn (after I sold the remains of the wheel I'd bought to the local second-hand dealer), looking for a road that would take us towards El Paso without following the Interstate. A border patrol officer, a worker at the local Ramada hotel, and a group of roadworkers all told us there was an access road beside the interstate, but they didn't agree about how far the entrance to the access road was. After about 8 km of riding on the shoulder of the I-10 we found the access road we wanted and leapt upon it. It proved to be an easy, flat, straight run almost all the way. In fact, we didn't really need to make any turns and could probably have ridden with our eyes closed for about 40 km. This would have meant missing the beautiful wide open scenery, though. We rode past the settlement of Allamore, which is basically a talc mine with a few residential buildings, and eventually stopped for lunch at a service station in Sierra Blanca. After stuffing sandwiches in our faces we pushed onwards, guided by advice from a local and the instructions from the Adventure Cycling Maps which Dani and Greg had let us photograph back in Brackettville. We came to a teepee-themed roadside picnic area, crossed under the I-10, and continued along the access road. After an abrupt uphill climb, we hit an extended downhill glide, and didn't really need to pedal for several kilometers. By the time we turned off onto a smaller road and ran through the arid countryside near the US-Mexican border we had given the new axle a thorough initiation. In fact, by the time the Sun sank behind the mountains, we were only about 1.5 km short of 100km for the day.
We pushed on in the dark, feeling accomplished but gradually more hungry. The local deputy sheriff pulled up to talk to us at one stage and said that we could camp at the Ft Hancock civic centre, so we pushed on into Ft Hancock. By this time I was really getting the hunger-grumps, and Yana was passing muesli bars to me in a bid to keep me from going psychotic with hunger. We found a Mexican grocery store, and eventually had dinner at the only restaurant in town, Angie's, where the service was slow but the orange juice was tasty. We even got to watch some of the Winter Olympics on the TV in the restaurant. Then we bedded down for the night in our tent.

This morning we set out, with a light tailwind. The sun was shining, the road was flat, but I was in a strangely upset mood. We rode along for about 30km, and met another pair of cyclists heading the other way from us. They are an older couple, Bruce and Dana, and this is also their first big bike tour. They'd started out in California, and had been going for almost three weeks. We talked for about an hour about what we'd seen where we were going, and what to expect on the way. Then we parted ways, and continued on to Tornillo where we made lunch. It was remarkable that Bruce and Dana had only been on the road for 19 days, as we'd been realising ourselves that we're getting very close to reaching the west coast. Depending on how much we dawdle and sight-see, we could be dipping our front wheels in the Pacific in under a month!

By the time we finished lunch the wind had swung around to a headwind, and we struggled into it the rest of the way to the outskirts of El Paso. We were only a few blocks from our warmshowers hosts' house when they found us, having come out to see if we had run into trouble (Nope, just conversation and headwinds). It did make a nice change to arrive at our intended destination before nightfall though, and after showering we were treated to a yummy dinner of Aloo Gobi.

Over the next few days we intend to rent a car and check out a few sights on our list that are a bit too far out of the way to access readily by bicycle.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Valentines in Valentine

Total Distance: 5372.4km

By Sundance:

On our last night (Friday night) with John and Debbie, we hoped to get a sound night's sleep, and awake bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to attack the ride through the Davis mountains. What actually happened was something like this;

We contacted Kevin, a mechanic at the observatory (and John and Debbie's next-door-neighbour) to see if - with his skills and access to the observatory machine shop - he would be able to find a way to fit an old rear panier rack that John gave to us onto the front forks of Yana's bike. Later, I cooked up some Moroccan chicken with green olives for dinner, after Debbie prepared an apple pie. We had a very pleasant dinner, followed by pie for dessert. I ate a subtantial quantity of pie. Then we visited Kevin to see how things were going (quite well as it turned out), and turned in for the night. Then the cats decided to cause trouble.

Yana and I are cat lovers. But we very nearly threw all the kitties out the front door to "sleep with the javelinas" (or rather, in the javelinas bellies). They found their way into the pantry and started rustling paper bags of catfood. They tried sitting on our heads while we tried to sleep. They broke into the pantry again. We threw them out of the pantry and tied the pantry door shut with a handkerchief. The cats started meowing. Loudly. We chased them around the house and herded them into spare rooms and locked them in. Then we discovered that one cat had hidden out in the pantry and was crying to be let out. And on it went. Partway through the night I also discovered that my digestive system had taken a disliking to something in dinner - either the chicken was a little bit old, or all the fructose in the huge serving of apple pie I'd had sent my intestinal flora into paroxisms of delight. In any case, it was clear that I'd be making regular toilet stops over the next day or two.

We awoke (did we ever actually get to sleep?), had breakfast, collected the bikes from Kevin's workshop, and despite feeling rather zonked bid farewell to John and Debbie. On the way out the door I noticed that their daughters have a snakeboard which I decided to try riding - and discovered that it was a lot easier than I'd ever expected. After a little mucking around, we finally hit the road, stopping briefly at the visitor's centre to buy a couple of souvenirs, and then onto the open road.


By Yana:

Once again, it felt good to be back on the road, making some actual progress towards our eventual destination. Of course, we expected the whole thing to be rather gruelling and difficult, as we were right in the Davis Mountains. Still, it was a pretty cool feeling, knowing that we had started out in flat old Ontario, and were now riding through mountainous country right out in the middle of nowhere in far West Texas. John had predicted that we would probably see only about three cars until we hit the 90, so we made a bit of a game of counting just how many we encountered. Meanwhile, we rode through some gorgeous countryside, which was once again eerily reminiscent of the Adelaide Hills. If the road had been a freeway, I swear we might have expected to suddenly find ourselves riding around the old Devil's Elbow (which, for you non-Adelaideans out there, is a famous bend in what used to be the main route from the hills into Adelaide).

We made a little stop at a rather nice picnic area, reasonably pleased with the time we were making. It looked a little unlikely that we'd be making it into Valentine that night, but hey, we were kind of used to that kind of thing. The last stretch towards our first junction turned out to be a nice, long, downhill coast, which was bliss after all those climbs we'd had. We took our turn, and found ourselves on a somewhat flatter stretch, though we still had some hills to cover before the end of it.

We got to see some beautiful rock formations though, and had a bit of a snicker at the spy balloon in the distance. Apparently, the local government is sufficiently worried about illegal Mexican immigrants that they invested in a blimp with what is practically Star Wars technology in optics to patrol the border. Opinions are divided on just how effective and cost-efficient the thing is, to put it mildly.

Close to sunset, we came upon a ranch, and decided to see if they'd let us turf surf. The people at the door turned out to be extremely friendly, though they explained that there would be hunters on their ranch that night, so camping there would be a bad idea. They did refill our water for us though, which was nice of them, and informed us that the next picnic spot was only a quarter of a mile away, and was frequently used as a camping spot. So we took our leave, and found that it was all downhill to the picnic area, although it was a quarter of a country mile rather than a regular mile. Not that it matters when you're just coasting downhill.

We got ourselves set up, had ourselves some dinner, hung up our foodstuffs in a tree in a bid to not attract the javelinas, and turned in for the night. This time round, we certainly got the silence that the cats had deprived us of on the previous night - it was the kind of quiet that many city folk would probably describe as "eerie", as you could practically hear your own heart beat if you stood still for a moment. We slept very well, and didn't get pestered by any of the wildlife. We had also established that if you counted the two motorcycles we had seen, our total of car encounters for the day had been 25.

When we woke up in the morning, we discovered that the tent had kept us comfortably warm throughout an impressively cold night. Our tent had acquired a thick layer of frost, and our drinking water had frozen solid! Yow!

Still, it was a sunny morning, and as we had our breakfast, we managed to thaw and dry our tent quite effectively.

We managed to get going at a time that wasn't too embarrassingly late, and kept a blissful pace of about 25 km/h for a 30 km chunk of the day. We did make a few photo stops for the scenery, as well as a paddock full of strange critters which looked like some sort of antelope. Apparently, we're still in game ranch country.

Once we turned onto the 90, we found that the blissful mostly-tailwind was now a wretched headwind/crosswind. Of course, we had known this would happen, and made sure to enjoy the fair wind while it lasted. Still, our last 11km into the town of Valentine had us going at nearly half our previous speed. Lovely. Still, we managed to smile tiredly for the photo of ourselves with the sign telling us we were entering Valentine - it was after all very fitting, as it happened to be Valentine's Day. Not a holiday we really observe much, but good for a laugh in this case. Unfortunately, our hopes for a comfy bought lunch were dashed. While Valentine had a decent population of 217, we found out from a Spanish-speaking lady that there was absolutely nothing of the sort to be had before Van Horn, which was another 60 km away. Well, it was a nice irony, in a way. We sat ourselves down on the veranda of an apparently uninhabited house, and made ourselves some sandwiches and an impromptu bean and rice soup, which turned out to be quite satisfying.

By the time we got back on our bikes, it was well into the afternoon. The wind was still against us, and we had to accept that we were probably not going to make it to Van Horn that night. There was another town, Lobo, about 40 km from Valentine, but it was one of those many itsy-bitsy things that only barely qualify as a settlement.

A few kms out of Valentine, we were greeted by a very strange sight indeed: a Prada store in the middle of nowhere!

As we found out from a Dallas couple who pulled up in their car moments after we had stopped, it was actually an art piece of sorts. A pair of nordic artists had decided to build this little replica of a Prada boutique, complete with shoes and handbags from the 2005 collection on display, and then just leave it. Apparently the idea is to just let it decay as it will, although at the moment, it's still in pretty good nick. Might be interesting to come back in a few years' time, see how it's doing. I'm just mildly surprised that nobody has smashed the window to get at the merchandise - at least the handbags, as the shoes are all missing their counterparts. I suppose shoplifters with such expensive tastes wouldn't come all the way out there though, and I guess any fashionista would probably sneer at how out of style the 2005 collection is now.

We pushed into the wind for a bit longer, and stopped at the sight of a ranch on our left. Sundance suggested we try for a turf surf there, as it was still a reasonable distance to Lobo, and the sun was close to sinking behind the hills. It turned out to be a very good idea indeed, as the wind picked up like crazy once we reached the house, and we were in fact offered the use of a very comfortable little bunk house out the back. Brilliant! We even had a heater, stove, and shower at our disposal. So we had ourselves some stir fry for dinner, watched a movie on the laptop, and turned in for a reasonably comfortable night, though we ended up having to crank down that heater.

The next morning, we got ourselves going at a reasonably decent hour. The people who owned the place were nowhere to be seen, which was a pity, as it would have been nice to thank them again. Oh well. The wind was more in our favour now, and we headed towards Van Horn at a fairly reasonable pace. It was still a bit tiring though, as the road surface was in fact that strange knobbly glued-together gravel that tries to pass for tarmac. Still, can't really complain. We also got to see our very first substantial tumbleweed, sitting right in the middle of the road.

In fact, there was a whole lot of the stuff caught in the fence to our right, which was a bit of a sight to behold. We also encountered a new critter to add to our roadkill catalogue: an owl! Poor thing looked like it had died only quite recently, too. As there weren't a whole lot of trees around, we had to wonder if it was perhaps one of those burrowing owls which supposedly live in the area.

The last few kms into Van Horn proved to be quite taxing, but we got there without further incident, although Sundance's bike was making unhappy noises. After establishing that the closest thing to a bike shop in town was a motorbike shop, we stopped for some lunch at a Tex Mex place. I also took this opportunity to get a map of New Mexico, as we are getting very close to there indeed. Over lunch, we had a look at the new map, and had to wonder whether our original plan to head to New Mexico via Guadalupe Peak was such a good idea after all. Apart from it being a very desolate area, with water availability being quite questionable, it also meant that we would either have to go over some very steep mountains, or make some huge detours. As time is slowly becoming an issue again, we had to wonder whether it wouldn't be a better idea to head towards El Paso after all, and then just hire a car to look at the various sights of New Mexico for a few days which would otherwise be too much out of our way and possibly take up several extra weeks. We left this question up in the air while we got stuck into figuring out what to do about Sundance's unhappy bike.

We ended up asking the nice fellow who runs the motorbike place if we could hang out in there while making our repairs. He was nice enough to grant us some space and some tools to use, and Sundance established that his rear axle had in fact snapped. Wow. Thing is, that has happened once before - we had discovered a broken rear axle on his bike way back at the beginning of this trip, when we went into Recycled Cycles in Kitchener to get our bikes road-ready. It shows that not all our repair jobs are in sync.

This turned out to be a problem, due to limited availability of parts in this town. Sundance went for a walk along the main street looking for second-hand shops that might have bike parts, and incidentally got waylaid by a local fellwo who insisted on telling him in drawn-out, tedious detail about a mountain lion that attacked and killed a jogger back in 1986. Eventually he escaped and ascertained that the local hardware store had bike wheels, but only the old fashioned sort, rather than the whizz-bang quick-release types we are used to. As it was, we had to accept that we were going to have to stay the night in Van Horn, and as it was getting late, we decided to figure out what to do the next day. Fortunately, Russ the bikeshop owner consented to let us stay the night in his shop, which we were very grateful for.

This morning, we got stuck into finding some appropriate parts for the bike. There were a few people in town who might have the parts to help us out with. After some wild goose chases and the acceptance that there was only the old-fashioned sort of axle to be had in town, we established that we may be able to cannibalise one of the old rusty bikes owned by the lady who runs the hardware store. She was nice enough to drive us to her place and showed us a selection of bikes we could get stuck into taking parts from. Apparently, two of the three had been standing outside for ten years. Judging by the rusted-stiff chains, stuck-fast gear clusters, and thoroughly degraded rubber, I can believe that.

Still, we found some decent candidates, and the nice lady also drove us to the place of another fellow with scrappable bikes, just in case we could find the quick-release type. However, looking through a large box of old wheels yielded nothing useful. The guy actually offered to sell us one of his complete bikes for $40, though it was obvious that those bikes would have been a recreational mode of transport at best, and certainly not up for the rest of the journey to California. Still, the whole thing made us think of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's adventures on their first huge motorbike trip, going through the desolate areas, and having to improvise. It actually explains why so many people have been commenting lately on how nice our bikes are, even though they are really quite comparatively cheap models. In the end, though, the brand-new wheels for sale at the hardware store proved to be the only viable option.

While Sundance got stuck into his repairs, I headed off to the grocery store. Foolishly, I didn't think that the mile it was said to be away was in fact a country mile. I guess even in a decent-sized place like Van Horn, these things still apply. Well, it made for a decent walk, and we have established that the repairs will keep us in town for another day and night, which has pretty much convinced us to head to El Paso rather than Guadalupe. The old-fashioned axle will do the trick, but it'd be nice to get something more modern to replace it with as soon as we can. That way, we can keep the other one as a spare, for whenever the next rear axle decides to snap.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Dome on the Range

Total distance 5220.1 km

By Yana

Since our last post, Sundance and I have been doing the slow meandering thing, mostly.  Before leaving Sue and Matt's place, we put some work into replacing our normal tubes with the uber tubes that are hopefully everything proof.


As you can see, the box they came in is about twice the size of your normal tube box, because the things are just that thick.  Of course, this also means that they were significantly harder to wrestle into our tyres.  Let's just say that I hope they are everything they're cracked up to be, because fixing a puncture on one of these puppies would be an absolute bitch, just because they're so difficult to get in and out.  Well, time will tell.  As it is, I do carry some minor injuries from the process, but nothing a band-aid couldn't fix.
It was about 4 in the afternoon by the time we were done, what with the laundry we also decided to do at that juncture in the narrative.  A recurring theme for us, to be starting so late?  Yes, we know.  In fact, we thought we might just compound the whole thing by stopping into the local wholefoods-type shop for some sandwiches and soup, which were delicious.  It was actually 5:20pm by the time we actually got going, which was of course embarrassing, but hey, we were only heading for the McDonald Observatory, which was about 25 km away.  We were doing our best not to think about the fact that we were riding up a mountain, because hey, we trekked through Southern Indiana, right?  Those hills were obnoxious, and we still haven't seen their like again.
We actually chewed up the first part of the way reasonably easily, as things were surprisingly flat.  The remaining distance was well into the single digits by the time the sun set, and we were treated to another very pretty one.


It was of course once it was dark that the road got tough.  Well, actually, it wasn't even that bad a slope.  The climb out of Leakey was much steeper and more constantly up.  However, that altitude thing turned out to be a problem again.  Actually, Sundance seemed to be doing alright - naturally high iron levels, extra red blood cells, all that.  I, however, found myself only spurred on by the fact that there was no other choice but to keep going - no cars passing by, out of mobile range, nothing to do but get there on my own steam.  This has probably been my hardest stretch on this trip so far, and it very nearly set off the crybaby reflex.  Still, with Sundance making sure not to scoot too far ahead of me, I managed to push through the pain barrier, and we kept heading up that hill, which wasn't even that steep.  It was really just the thin air.

At some point, where it was already well and truly dark, I had moved ahead while Sundance had stopped to put on his jacket.  A car coming from the other direction stopped, and it turned out to be our observatory host, John.  He offered to take us the rest of the way up, but I declined, explaining that Sundance and I want to go the whole way ourselves.  Luckily, it turned out we only had about a mile to go, and John turned around, to, as he put it, pretend he hadn't come looking for us.  I rode on until I hit the spur we had to ride up in order to get to John's place, waited for Sundance to catch up, and we rode the last few hundred metres together.  It was getting pretty chilly by then, but at least the snow that the weather forecast had threatened us with wasn't showing itself.

We got to the place before too much longer, leaned our bikes against whatever leaning post we could find, and knocked on the door.  We were greeted by John, his wife Deb, and various small cuddly critters.  Deb set us up bed-wise, and we got stuck into preparing a quick noodle stir-fry for dinner, before turning in for the night.

The next morning dawned quite misty, and we crawled out of bed for some cereal while John and Deb got ready for work.  We indulged in our usual morning inefficiency, and then decided to go for a walk down to the Visitor Centre of the Observatory.  Just before we headed out of the door, Sundance spotted a doe standing pretty much right outside the door.

Amazingly, although she twitched a little, the doe actually didn't run away when we opened the door and stepped out.  Obviously, she was rather more acclimatised to humans than any wild animal should be.  She actually let Sundance come amazingly close, and cuted at us most effectively.  She almost let Sundance pet her before ascertaining that we were not going to feed her, and wandering off.

It was pretty bloody chilly as we headed down to the Visitor Centre, and we found ourselves thinking that we should have bundled up a bit more.  As it was, the walk was fairly short, and we had a bit of a look around the various nifty exhibits before deciding it was time to head up to the actual telescope to find John.  However, he found us down at the Visitor Center, and ended up taking us down to Fort Davis, for the sake of dinner groceries, general supplies, and more lunch sandwiches.  Afterwards, John drove us to a pretty bit of scenery known as Wild Rose Pass.

That being said, apparently all the wild roses have been picked.  Still, it was a pretty sight, and there were plenty of rocky cliffs that many a rock climber would have killed to scale, I'd wager.  Afterwards, we headed back to the observatory, deposited our groceries, and I got stuck into our various culinary exploits.  Sundance dug up those stupid green split peas we had acquired in desperation for food back in Mississippi, and turned them into a pretty passable dal, while I made the various things that go into the Power House rice bowl from the Fresh cookbook.  Thank you, Ruth Tal Brown.  Sundance also spent some time tweaking my front derailleur, as the fact that the rear one works now obviously means that something else needs work.  At some point, a few javelinas wandered past, rearing their cute little piggy heads.

A little before sunset, John spirited us off to the 107 catwalk on the Harlan J Smith telescope.  Apparently, by the standards of up there, it wasn't actually that windy, but it was windy enough to be cold and uncomfortable.

Still, after a few minutes of braving the wind, we were treated to quite a pretty sunset.

We also got to look at some of the nifty telescope-type stuff, and take the obligatory photo of ourselves in front of a small wedge of it, because the thing is just so darn large.  That being said, as John noted, nothing at the McDonald Observatory was ever number one, there was always something bigger out there.  Still, this is nothing to be sneezed at, in my humble opinion.


We then headed back down to finish cooking dinner, and ate very well indeed.


Deb prefers to take photos, rather than being in them, so it's three people and four yummy meals.

After dinner, Sundance and John headed back up to the actual observatory, in the name of checking out the awesomeness of people actually observing.  I decided to stay behind, as I felt I'd had enough of being reminded of what a tiny insignificant speck we are in all of eternity for the next little while.  I'll leave it up to Sundance to elaborate on the coolness of the observatory, as I'm sure I absorbed nowhere near as much as he did during the times that I was actually up there. 

Physics interlude by Sundance:

When John and I arrived, we firstly popped into the 82-inch telescope and I was introduced to a graduate student working on observations of variable white dwarfs (who was also excited that I'm an Aussie, because he's a huge Silverchair fan!). These stars are nifty, because they oscillate in brightness with an extremely precise period. By looking at the pattern of variations, you can see that there are often multiple overlapping variations - so you can clearly see beating between the periods of different oscillation cycles, for instance. In fact, the oscillations are so precise that variations in them can be used for astroseismology (studying the internal structure of the stars by looking at how vibrations and shockwaves propogate through them) and - possibly even more cool - to find planets orbiting them. Long-period planets. Not these weird things that whizz around their star in mere hours. Planets that take years to orbit their parent stars, like the ones in our solar system.

Afterwards we went across to the 107-inch telescope, where I met another couple of fellows testing out a spectroscopic system to be installed on the huge, fancy Hobby Eberly Telescope. They have a nifty system of fibre optic cables that spread the image coming into the telescope into a line (rather than across an area) which is then treated like an artificial slit and the light fed through a spectroscope, to look for high-redshift galaxies. And that means they can do dark energy studies. This led into discussions about sensitivity of the instrument, dark matter, the bullet cluster, and quantum gravity. And it turned out that one of these fellows was from Bill Bryson's home town, which led to a discussion of the Appalachian trail, Australia, and cross-country bicycle journeys. Eventually I started to get sleepy and we returned to John's place to turn in for the night.  

Back to Yana:

This made for a late night, and a somewhat late morning for everyone.  I actually had a moment of confusion at the fact that I had not heard anyone pottering around when I woke up, only to find the pottering around taking place after I had gotten up.  Strangely comforting, that.  In response to Sundance's suggestion, I made some apple and walnut pancakes for breakfast (well, I did most of the work, though he did sautee the apples for me first), and he had a preliminary look at our options when it comes to finding a cheap/free water vessel to take us across the Pacific.  It seems like there are some possibilities.

I actually spent the better part of the day on this blog post, which seems strange, but I guess things take longer when you multi-task.  Sundance did some more tweaking on my bike, and got it to a pretty satisfactory state.  We then hopped on our bikes and rode up to the HET, which sits on one of the other peaks, and it a crazy dome with mirrors and stuff.  Very nifty.  Again, I realise I am being somewhat crude in my description here, but it is late, and I am hung up on dinner and webcomics right now.  Have a picture though.

It was actually all very nifty, as we very much got the VIP tour, partly by virtue of being cross country cyclists.  We appear to hold a semi-celebrity status around here, as the population of this county is rather small, and many people here seem to be avid cyclists themselves.  It was certainly gratifying to see the actual tourists on the other side of the glass, unable to access the area we were wandering around.

And now, Sundance is making Moroccan chicken and olives, while John sits on the floor in the corner and talks science to him.  The hideously ugly, yet adorably cute little dog sits at Sundance's feet, seeking protection.  For some reason, the little mutt has taken a liking to us.  Weird.

Perhaps it's actually an alien, secretly studying Earthling astronomers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Nibblers With Altitude

Total distance: 5194.0 km

By Yana

We ended up leaving the town of Marathon at about 4pm, after some delicious vegetable burritos to fuel us on our way.  Good thing we were only heading for Alpine, otherwise the late start would have been frustrating as hell.  In any case, the road was reasonably nice and flat, and we were going at a reasonably decent pace, although my derailleur was still making a nuisance of itself.  We basically came to the conclusion that it needed to be replaced, as every time we adjust it, it deteriorates back into its previous state within 10-20km.  Annoying, but bearable for the relatively short trip we had into Alpine.

By the time Alpine came into sight, it was well and truly dark.  We weren't entirely sure of our accommodation for the night, as our potential host, Chris, had not returned our calls, although he had given us directions to his place.  We rode downhill into the actual town itself, passing a cop car and two cops apparently conversing with an open-mouthed apparently handcuffed fellow on his knees - our guess was a drug test.  We stopped at the nearest petrol station to try calling our host again, didn't get through, and decided to head to his place in hopes that he was there.  The house was dark when we arrived, and after a brief chat to the neighbour, we established that he was indeed not around.  So we turned around to find some other option, but as luck had it, the next car we crossed paths with turned out to be driven by Chris, the man himself.  Close call!  As it turned out, he doesn't have access to his phone at work, hence our inability to contact him.

We stowed our bikes in his shed, and Chris set up some indoor sleeping arrangements for us in the adjoining house, which he also owns.  He then called over his girlfriend, Phyllis, who came with a potroast in tow.  For the sake of some non-beefy sustenance, Chris also got a massive slab of frozen fish out of the freezer.  In the name of quickly separating it into smaller pieces for easier thawing, he actually took the slab into the toolshed and cut it into four pieces with a circular saw, which was a very entertaining sight.  Phyllis also did very delicious things with that fish, and we went to bed extremely satisfied, intending to return the favour and cook them dinner the following night, if our derailleur problems were to keep us in Alpine for an extra day.

The next day, we headed to the local bikeshop.  As we knew it would be, it was closed, as many businesses in Alpine are on Mondays.  Sundance had e-mailed and called the owner in hopes of asking if he might briefly open the shop for us - apparently he had done so for Dani and Greg, the cyclists we had bumped into in Brackettville - but we didn't get through to him.  So we rode around town a little bit, had a look at the eclectic little art galleries and cafes, had ourselves some Tex Mex for lunch, and decided to go say hi to our next potential host, Sue, who lives in Fort Davis.  As she works in Alpine, we called to announce ourselves, and then dropped by to meet her.  She turned out to be absolutely lovely, and showed us around the place, with the interesting red stonework walls and marble floors which actually seemed to contain a few seashell fossils.  She also introduced us to some of her colleagues, who were also avid cyclists, and we had a very pleasant time chatting before getting stuck into our next problem: on our way to Sue's work, both Sundance and I had somehow acquired a puncture in our rear tyres!  Sue was nice enough to call another one of her cyclist friends, who arrived with a pump in tow, so we could at least ride the short distance to the hardware store in order to get some more tubes to replace the old ones with.  Of course, whenever we ride somewhere without replacement tubes or a patch kit, we get a puncture!  Murphy's law strikes again, I suppose.

We actually stopped for some groceries, and upon our return, discovered that while Sundance's tyre seemed fine, mine had deflated completely.  As we were only a very short distance from Chris's place, we accepted the hardware store staff's offer to let us use their bike pump so we could pump it up again, and then quickly rode back.  It was certainly preferable to sitting around in the cold to fix it.  We got back without too much trouble, and I got stuck into the fixing process.  As it turned out, my puncture had not in fact been caused by a goat's head (the Texan version of three-corner jacks, those horrible pricklies that are the bane of bike tyres), but by the tyreliner, which had pinched the tube open!  This was the third time that had happened, which made us wonder whether those liners are actually worth it.  Thing is, we don't know how many punctures they have or haven't prevented.  In any case, I replaced the tube, patched the puncture, and Sundance and I made ourselves some dinner before turning in for bed - there had been no sign of Chris, so we figured that work had been keeping him.

The next morning, Sundance discovered that his rear tyre had gone down again after all, and after some fiddling, I established that his puncture had also been caused by the liners.  Hmmmm.  In any case, we did a quick replacement job, had our breakfast, got packed up, and headed off to the bikeshop.  I happened to be in the toolshed when Chris and Phyllis left for work, so I got to say goodbye and thank them again for having us.

At the bikeshop, we met the owner, John, as well as another touring cyclist, Rob, who was also having derailleur problems.  As John was almost done with Rob's bike, it didn't take too long for my bike to be put in the stand, and John established that apart from my derailleur needing replacement, my chain was also stretched beyond belief - a thing that Sundance had suspected, even though it had been brand new when we got it in Austin.  I guess it's proof of our strenuous riding, how quickly stuff wears out.  We spent some time in the shop, in interesting conversation, and John made pretty quick work of my bike.  I took it out for a test ride, and it felt pretty good, which was a nice change.  The mysterious ticking noise was gone too, which Sundance guessed to have been due to the chain.

We left our gear at the shop in order to go get some lunch, as well as some cash to pay John with, as the shop doesn't accept card payments.  As most places had already closed for lunch, we ended up going for a Chinese buffet.  On our way to get money, we actually also got talking with a fellow who runs a local martial arts academy, and who has a pommel horse, but none of us had time for Sundance to have a whirl on it.  Pity.  So we got our money, wandered back to the bike shop and spotted a lime green firetruck on the way, paid John, and also decided to get some more patches for our patch kit, and some thorn-resistant tyre tubes.  They are absolutely enormous.  I practically dare anything to give us a flat now! 

As the day was getting on, we basically had to accept that we weren't going to get to the Observatory, which had been our optimistic goal, but we were still going to go for Fort Davis, where Sue lives.  As her work was on the way, we popped in on her to get directions, and then got on the road.  Riding felt surprisingly hard, and we spent quite some time wondering why it was tiring us out so badly.  Sundance finally clicked with a plausible hypothesis: altitude.  We are over 1.5km above sea level!  In fact, we came to realise that yes, taking a deep breath wasn't really doing as much as we felt it was supposed to.  Well, it's just one of those things we'll have to adapt to, and we kept riding through the extremely pretty scenery.  To a certain extent, the mountains start to look the same after a while, but they were closer and more clustered around us now, and there were large boulders strewn on either side of the road, which was a pretty sight.  Apparently the countryside around here was largely produced by volcanic activity, as opposed to the stuff further east which formed as sediment on a sea floor back in the days of teh dinosaurs. But one of the best things that happened was that once we left Brewster County and entered Jeff Davis County, the road went from pebbly bitumen to the proper smooth stuff!  Aaaaah, bliss!

It still got dark and really quite cold by the time we got to Fort Davis - the ride had taken us two-and-a-half hours, even though it had only been 40km - but at the end of the day, it hadn't been so bad, just really tiring, what with the altitude.  We found Sue's place without too much trouble, and were greeted with warm beds and smoked chicken with vegetables, which was an absolute delight.  We also got to meet Sue's astrophysicist husband, Matt, who works at the observatory.

We had a reasonably late night, but went to bed reasonably satisfied, although the weather forecast for the next few days is a bit icky for cycling, which was a frustrating thought to bear in mind.  For now, we are taking care of mundane things, such as laundry, blog posts, and putting those uber tubes into our tyres.  It would be nice to go up to the observatory tonight, although the skies are inconveniently cloudy.  A fellow named John, who works and lives at the observatory, has also offered us his hospitality, as he is very interested in touring cyclists such as ourselves.  It'll be a hard slog up the mountain, but no doubt worth it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thinking of Pheidippides

Total distance: 5098.4 km

By Sundance:

As mentioned in our last post, the town of Langtry turned out to be a surprisingly interesting little place. After looking around the visitor's centre we hopped on our trusty steeds and headed down the hill to look at the view across the Rio Grande. We couldn't actually see the river itself, but the cliffs on the Mexican side of the river were scenic and spectacular. We took some happy-snaps and headed back up to the main highway. It was getting late so we scoffed down a large packet of corn chips and diced tomatoes as lunch (the only other options at the corner store being too beef-based for our tastes), and hit the road.

The countryside was arid and gently rolling, and unlike the previous day the wind was in our favour. The numerous cuttings on the road exposed layers of orange clay and white limestone, laid down 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, when this part of the world was a shallow sea. It's funny to think of Mosasaurs and Icthyosaurs swimming in the vicinity of where we hairless big-brained monkeys now ride our bicycles. The countryside was cut with numerous small canyons, which broke up the rolling hills and general flatness of the scenery. It's definitely looking like the countryside from a Road Runner cartoon. And in fact we even caught sight of a road-runner by the roadside, flapping its way up a small embankment as we startled it.
I said "meep meep" to it, but it didn't reply.

Having made a late start, we were still on the road when the sun set. That sure is a beautiful sight in this part of the world. There was an interesting cloud formation to the right of the sunset which I thought looked like a grey dragon. A few minutes after sunset I noticed the sky become suddenly brighter in the space of a few seconds - the dragon was no longer grey, it was lit up red and orange by the sunlight from the sunset that was happening further west beyond our horizon. The sight was almost magical, and I stopped, dumbstruck, to take a number of photos as the colours gradually changed. Shortly afterwards we noticed the bright orange moon creeping over the eastern horizon. Who needs TV?

As we were getting tired and sugar-crashy, we were glad to pull into Dryden to find the grocery store still open. We bought a few supplies for making dinner, asked the owners if there was anywhere in town to put up a tent, and discovered promptly that the owners of that particular store are probably the least helpful, friendly people we've met in the whole USA. They seemed genuinely annoyed to have customers in their store. We rode back down the road to a house which had a light on, and met a lovely woamn named Tammy (who was visiting that house) who said we could pitch a tent in her yard. She led us up there, introduced us to her dog, and chatted while we prepared dinner. After a day of cycling it's funny how good a pot of chicken noodle soup, rice, diced tomatoes, cous-cous, and mushrooms can taste. We crawled into our bed, under the extra blankets that Tammy provided us with, and snuggled up to keep warm.

In the morning we got to enjoy the luxury of a warm shower and clean clothes! Tammy even introduced us to her cat who has two extra toes on each front foot. We hit the road and pushed on to Sanderson, feeling quite weary as a result of not having eaten properly the previous day. Just short of Sanderson we crossed the 5000 km mark of our journey. In fact, Yana almost missed it! We were coming down off a plateau into Sanderson Canyon and Yana had gone ahead while I stopped to take photos. I had to pedal like crazy to catch up to her, and yell at her to stop or else she would have just kept riding. But as it was I managed to call her back to the appropriate spot and we got our souvenir photo of ourselves with my odometer showing 5000.0 km. That's quite a long way we've come. To put it in context, it's one eighth of the circumference of the Earth. Wowie!

Since we were hungry, in Sanderson we asked around and found a wonderful restaurant called the Roundhouse cafe where we gorged ourselves on chicken tacos and fajitas, the best french fries I've eaten in years (they were actually crisp and crunchy, and had a small amount of parsley flakes on them which really worked well), and slices of key lime pie - which I decided is like a limey version of my Mum's lemon cheesecake, cherry pie, and coconut creme pie. We stuffed ourselves until we could barely move, and would have kept going if the kitchen hadn't closed post-lunchtime, then headed out further west, aiming for Marathon. Along the way we added a new species to the roadkill we've encountered, a javelina (wild pig), which made me think of Asterix and Obelix hunting wild boars.

A little before sunset we were around halfway between Sanderson and Marathon. We tried door-knocking one ranch to see if we could pitch a tent, but there was nobody home. The next place we found, a little after dark, had a light on, and the elderly couple and their son Michael who lived there said we were welcome to pitch our tent. The gentleman of the house was clearly the kind who didn't say much, unless he had something important to say. He stayed mostly silent while his wife and son discussed the best place for us to pitch our tent, then led me out to a bunkhouse they had beside the main building, and together we fiddled with a gas heater and got it working, and swept up the dust on the floor, turning it into a very comfy little place for Yana and I to curl up for the night.

In the morning, after feeding their horses, our hosts drove off to town to buy groceries while we ate brekkie in their backyard, and then set off westward again. A little before lunch we saw a buffalo hanging out on a ranch to our left, looking quite bored and a bit scrawny, but still, it was a buffalo! The first one we've seen up close. This put both of us in mind of doing a movie adaptation of the World of Tiers series of novels (for reasons which will only make sense if you've read the books).

We stopped for lunch at a picnic area, and got chatting with a couple of folks who'd paused on the way back from Big Bend park. Yana's chain and derailleurs were still playing up, so I fiddled with them some more and got them to be useable, though still not perfect. We're both beginning to suspect that her rear derailleur is just worn out and needs replacing. Also, while stopped at the picnic/rest area we heard a very impressive-sounding plane fly past in the distance. We caught a glimpse of it, and though I didn't get my binoculars out in time to get a good look, it was moving fast (clearly sub-sonic but I'd guess it was ging close to Mach 1), was sleek and black, and to my untrained eye looked like an SR-71. We pushed on, and eventually made it to Marathon - feeling that the name of the town was appropriate - just before 5pm. On the recommendation of Dani and Greg, we found the French Grocer (which turned out to be stocked with an amazing assortment of good food), asked for the bike hostel place, and made our way through town to our accommodations. The bike hostel is a block of land that's being converted into an organic farm, and has a number of cool little buildings on it where touring cyclists and people who WOOF (Work On Organic Farms) as volunteers can stay for free. We met the other folks staying here (including a Serbian-born Aussie WOOFer called Norbert), headed back to the grocery to buy supplies, and cooked up some turkey paella for dinner, followed by peach crumble cooked in an iron skillet in hot coals.

On Tuesday Norbert and I fiddled with Yana's derailleur some more, and then I got stuck into making bread. I decided it'd be fun to bake by putting the pot (improvised breadpan) into the coals of the fireplace used to heat the kitchen area here. It worked pretty well, although the bottom of the loaf got a bit blackened, so I think I need to have some sort of rack or stand to keep the bread-vessel out of direct contact with the coals.

Wednesday was rainy and yucky, which means pancakes (Yana made some really good banana and pecan ones for brekkie), blog updates, and laundry instead of cycling. A couple of other Aussies showed up, who have been hitching and riding trains across North America. Their visas in the US were almost expired, so a plan eventuated to ride down to Big Bend, look around, and drop off said Aussies near the border where they could head out to Mexico. And so on Thursday morning we piled seven people plus backpacks into a car and drove down to Big Bend National Park. The whole lot of us went for a walk down a closed road (closed due to mud) to bathe in hot springs by a stream that fed into the Rio Grande, and in the evening Yana and I split from the group to pitch our tent and stay overnight in the park. At one point we heard an amazing squeal from an animal that bumped into the tent - halfway between a bird shriek and a pig squeal. I shoved my head out of the tent to discover that it was a skunk (which was apparently not paying attention and had bumped straight into the tent in the dark) but fortunately it didn't spray us!

The next morning we awoke, had brekkie, left our tent and other unnecessary items at the visitor's centre/lodge registration, and went for a day walk to the south rim of the Chisos Basin. The view from the rim, where we had lunch, was gorgeous, and well worth the 24 km round-trip (including 4 km round-trip side trail to the top of the highest peak in the park). The trail up Emory Peak doesn't actually go right to the top, but to a gorge between to stone spires, one of which I climbed up (it turned out by chance to be the taller of the two, which made me glad). The sun was setting and turning all the peaks a gorgeous orange by the time we got back to the visitor's centre. Jarrett and Norbert  from the bike hostel had come to collect us, and we drove back to Marathon feeling tired but satisfied with our side-trip. The following day (Saturday) was a relaxation and repacking day, and we'll head out further west today.

Some photos of our recent exploits:


Part of the pretty cactus garden in Langtry.


5000 km mark!  Hooray!


Breakfast time!


Hanging out in the hot springs with the folks from La Loma Del Chivo - once again, we're just finding winter in Texas unbearable. :-)


The view from the South Rim at Big Bend.


A lone column of rock sticking out of the mountain side... we did get to see some nifty formations on this walk.

The sun sets over the basin.