When I spent time in El Cosmico’s office yesterday, there was a steady stream of people coming in to check out. The office doesn’t open for an hour, though, and I’m ready to leave now, 7 a.m. It’s not like I have to return keys for my tent so I decide to take off, I have a busy day. I take a picture of the number on the office door and can call when I stop for gas to let them know I’m gone.
I head northwest on Hwy 90. Just a few miles out of town, I see signs for road construction for the next 20 miles and the speed reduces from 75 mph to 55. The slower speeds allow me to relax and enjoy the great weather and beautiful scenery along a road I’ve come to love over three days of riding it. Construction workers laying asphalt come into view and I start to notice them staring as I pass. At first I assume it’s because I’m on a badass motorcycle, but after the fifth one, I realize “Rihanna - Love on the Brain” is playing on the radio. I can barely hear it at 55 mph with earplugs in, but it’s clearly loud. Oh, brother.
I turn down the radio and the stares lessen as I pass Prada Marfa, an art sculpture/fake Prada store meant as a criticism to consumerism. There are actual Prada items in the store provided by Miuccia Prada herself. It opened in 2005 and was robbed six days later. They have since restocked it and increased security. I’m the only vehicle in sight so I park on the highway.
Back on the bike, I ride the last 40 miles of Hwy 90 into Van Horn. I-10 passes through town so I stop for gas at a large truck stop. I’m surprised to already be in Moutain Time and have gained an hour. I stock up on protein bars I’ve been eating for breakfast and loiter to call El Cosmico and check out. The phone app on my phone isn’t working. I restart my phone, make the call, let them know which tent I was in, and then it freezes again mid-conversation. So now my headphone jack, Bluetooth, and the phone part of my phone don’t work. Memorizing the directions is working, though, and I could always text someone to call for help if I need it so I’m okay.
I bid farewell to Hwy 90 only to take the even more desolate Hwy 54 north out of Van Horn. Occasionally, I pass a sign indicating who owns the massive ranch I’m riding through. For a 20-mile stretch, I see only five vehicles. Over the following 30 miles, I see none. Even the telephone poles stop. It’s me, my motorcycle, and the open road. At 85°, I have goose bumps as the euphoria of the moment washes over me. It’s an unforgettable ride.
As I near Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the intersection of Hwy 62 northeast to Carlsbad, the traffic increases and so does the wind. I haven’t ridden through many crosswinds on a bike, but like most things on this trip, the quickest way to learn is to do.
Turning a motorcycle at speed is counterintuitive. To go left, you gently push the left handlebar forward and vice versa to turn right. This causes the bike to lean and travel in the direction of the turn. When dealing with strong crosswinds, you have to be ready to lean into the wind to avoid getting blown off the road or into oncoming traffic. The winds aren’t too strong and traffic is light through the mountains so I take the opportunity to practice. The countersteering, as it’s called, is easy since I do it all the time while turning. The trick is learning which land features or vehicles effect the wind so I can prepare. When passing a semi in a crosswind, for example, you have to be ready to quickly get out of your lean as it blocks the wind and then back in after it passes.
I’m concentrating on dealing with the wind and enjoying the scenery and before I know it, I’m in Carlsbad, NM. That’s not good because it means I missed my turn. I pull into a parking lot, pull out my phone, and check the damage. It’s 25 minutes back the other direction, 50 minutes roundtrip. Damn it. The UFO Museum in Roswell closes at 5 p.m. I gained an hour due to the time zone change and already pissed it away by missing my turn. I curse myself for a bit but know I’m going to go to Carlsbad Caverns National Park no matter what so shut up and head back the way I came.
The 25 minutes of backtracking seem to crawl by as I roll my eyes at the many signs to the park I clearly missed from the other direction. The hills through the park on the way to the famous cave are beautiful but worried I’m running behind, I don’t enjoy them. Nearing the visitor’s center, I see signs for motorcycle parking right in front and my smile partially returns.
There’s no line as I make my way to the ticket counter at 11 a.m. The lady explains that the elevator is down for maintenance but they say it should be working by 1 p.m. It takes you straight to the main attraction, the Big Room. Instead, I can take the Natural Entrance trail down and either catch the elevator if it’s working or hike back up. I ask her for time estimates to places I want to see and, having no idea what I’m getting myself into, buy the ticket.
Walking down into the cave via the 1.5-mile Natural Entrance is incredible. The cave is enormous, a bit bigger than the largest I’ve seen up to now in Iowa’s Maquoketa Caves State Park. The trails are steep and I see a steady stream of exhausted people hiking out after giving up on the elevator. I’m hustling to make up time but stop often to snap pictures. There is no natural light so the National Park Service added lighting for both safety and to bring attention to particularly amazing aspects of this foreign environment. This is where my nicer camera starts to come in handy. The pictures are still a bit fuzzy from the low light, but you can’t make anything out in the pictures from my phone.
I elected to leave most of my riding gear on since the cave is 55°. By the time I reach the Big Room, this is already turning out to be a bad idea. I take my jacket off and carrying it with me as I stare in awe. From the park’s website, “at about 8.2 acres in size, roughly 6.2 football fields would fit into the Big Room”. It’s another 1.5 miles around the Big Room perimeter and along the way, I see signs for the Bottomless Pit. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t not see it now. I take a ton of pictures, but as with many other things on this trip, they don’t do it justice. It’s impossible to capture the scale of my surroundings, the smell of the cavern walls, the echo of whispered voices, the welcomed chill as water droplets fall from above.
I reach the Bottomless Pit and am disappointed because it’s exactly that, a pit of darkness with nothing interesting to see. I circle around the rest of the Big Room and spot amazing formations I take bad pictures of. I wish I wasn’t in a rush and could enjoy this longer. I probably can, I probably have time. But I’m worried and plow forward. Finishing the Big Room loop, I’m near the elevators and swing by to see if they’re working. They’re not. I know the climb won’t be easy, but with the number of burritos I’m eating on this trip I could use the exercise.
The lady at the ticket counter said it’d take an hour to walk back up. I make it in 30 minutes. I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention that I’ve been wearing the same shirt on my rides each day. I didn’t plan on it, but I immediately stunk up my shirt in Orlando when I forgot deodorant and only have five. I need relatively clean ones to change into at night so people I meet during the day tend to keep their distance. Now add a 1.5-mile hike up 1000 feet while wearing motorcycle over pants into the mix. I see children walking down with their parents and they each hold their breath as they pass me. I’m the smelly kid.
When I reach the top, I’m exhaused. I see bats flying overhead I didn’t notice on my way down. There’s a guided “Bat Flight” program at sunset where you can watch hundreds exit the cave to hunt, but that’s eight hours away so I head to the parking lot. I reluctantly slide my jacket over my sweating skin and swing by a gas station to fill up. When I try to start the bike afterwards, I have the ignition problem I last saw three days ago on my way to Del Rio. Now a certified Harley mechanic, however, I perform my ritual and it starts right up. What the hell is going on? I don’t care.
With no need to stop in the city of Carlsbad, I bounce around the outskirts. Jamming to the radio as I crest a hill, I notice a stop sign much closer than expected with traffic in every direction. I step on the brakes too hard and get my first anti-lock brake engagement of the trip. I consider this a failure. A big part of being safe on a motorcycle is avoiding panic decisions but I let my mind wander. The bike stops much slower with ABS but there’s enough distance to stop in time. I wave a car on like this was all part of my plan and get the hell out of town.
The last 100 miles is pleasantly uneventful. I make a detour to swing by Bottomless Lakes State Park just east of Roswell because it’s a Butler Motorcycle Maps G1, their highest rating. It’s here I see the first red rocks and clay New Mexico is known for. I enjoy the winding roads through the park and surrounding countryside. Though they are a bit narrow for comfort as pickup trucks fly by in the opposite direction.
I get to Roswell at 3 p.m. and find a parking spot right in front of The International UFO Museum and Research Center. The name is great, but I have low expectations as I walk in and pay the \$5 entrance fee. The small museum focuses on the 1947 UFO incident where allegedly an extraterrestrial spacecraft crashed nearby with aliens aboard and the US military covered it up. The Earth is flat and we never landed on the moon so this is right up my alley. No. Not really.
They’re showing an interview with a man that saw parts of the spacecraft in his father’s field as a child. The material “didn’t feel like it weighed anything” and the words written on the side of it “couldn’t have been human”. I don’t doubt he believes he saw pices of an alien spacecraft. I simply doubt his qualifications at ten years old to make that call. I watch it for about ten minutes while I use their Wi-Fi and then make a loop around the museum reading every fifth newspaper clipping.
The gift shop is nearly as big as the museum. If you need a trinket with an alien on it, I have the place for you. My favorite bumper sticker says, “UFOs are REAL. The Air Force doesn’t exist”. From the UFO on the “Welcome to Roswell” sign to the flying saucer-shaped McDonald’s, it’s clear the city caters to tourists interested in UFOs and science fiction. That’s not a bad thing, I had fun in the museum. But I leave 25 minutes after arrival and wish I’d spent more time in the caverns.
My next stop is my motel and I cannot wait to take a shower. The recently renovated Budget Inn in Roswell is cheap and honestly nice. Or maybe I’m used to much worse. I park right in front of my room, unload my junk, and habitually flop onto the bed and stare at the ceiling. The room has outlets everywhere and they’re the ones with USBs in them. There are wood floors and the AC is so cold I have to turn it down. There’s a flat screen TV with channels that aren’t static. There’s a mini fridge and the microwave’s interior isn’t crusted with the last guest’s gas station dinner. I love it.
I take a shower, transfer my pictures to my computer, and edit my favorites. Nearing dinner, I find, you guessed it, a Mexican place nearby and wander over. I switch up my burrito order and get a chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito. I exercised today. The waiter asks if I want it fried. This confuses me, wouldn’t it be a burrito if it wasn’t? Now doesn’t seem like the time to find out the answer, I say yes. I get a beer too.
After dinner, I head back to the luxury of my room and settle into some writing. Around 9 p.m. I hear what sounds like a helicopter right outside. I run out in my underwear and sure enough, the motel shares a parking lot with a hospital and the helipad is 50 feet from my door. I watch it land but go inside after getting pelted with sand kicked up by the rotors. I fall asleep excited for Santa Fe where I’ll visit my friend Brian tomorrow. I don’t know it yet, but the ride won’t be pleasant.