The morning came quickly after a night of quiet rest. I rose early again to beat the heat. This time, I awoke at 4 in the dark and was packed up and on the bike by the first rays of light. The morning was once again cold and crisp. I began pedaling through the ponderosa pine forest. Light filtered through the branches of the pines bringing streaks of gorgeous golden rays onto the dusty dirt track. The road rolled up and down hills and at the crest of one, a massive herd of 18 elk began running across the road as I approached. It was amazing to see the females and young stampede across.
I left the shelter of the trees and entered the high and hot alpine plain of Collin’s Park. Immediately, I could hear the screaming bugle of male elk. I pedaled excitedly and came across the largest herd of elk I had ever seen - something like 40+ individuals running in unison, bugling, and kicking up dirt across the parkland plains as my bike approached. The sun crested the horizon directly on my right. It cast that rich golden color over everything. Gone were the feelings of heat and desiccation. They were replaced with crisp and temperate feelings of life. I turned right at an intersection and coursed parallel to the massive herd still running. Suddenly, a large canine seemed to rush out of nowhere towards the herd. I kept pedaling and stared intently at what I thought was the largest coyote I had seen in my life. It chased the herd directly. I sped up to keep up. We were all running in tandem, all in parallel. The elk far out, the canine ahead of me, and me sandwiching from the outside. The chase continued for a solid minute, and I couldn’t shake the fact that this coyote was the LARGEST with the longest and thickest fur I had ever seen on one in my life. It then dawned on me that this might be a Mexican gray wolf. With that knowledge primed, I pedaled faster to get a better view. The size, the speed, the fur length, the general movement all seemed entirely un-coyote and more likely wolf. I was elated. The wolf turned, saw me, and broke away from its chase into a run that continued for several hundred feet before veering into the woods. Incredible.
Another Continental Divide crest and sign appeared. And then I started down a long and drawn out ride through canyons out of these mountains. I wound down and down, cold in the shade without sun. I ran into another cyclist ahead who was pulled off getting water from a cattle tank. He had started in Leadville, CO before heading south. We spoke about the terrain ahead and behind before I continued on. The woods receded to Juniper, which further receded to silt dust and dried ankle grass on the Plains of Augustin. Again, these plains seemed incredibly barren, exposed, waterless, and surreal looking. Another fire with smoke curdled in the distance away from my route. A few distant ranches appeared. As I passed by the half-mile gravel driveway of one, a sign at the edge caught my eye. It said “GDMBR Water.” I skidded to a halt and walked over to a plywood manhole cover over a sunken barrel. I removed it to find incredible trail magic.
Inside were like 50 plastic bags. Each contained an applesauce packet, Oreos, peanuts, and peanut butter crackers. Several jugs of crisp and pure water gallons had also been stashed. I sat down and gorged myself on the treats and read from the trail register. This trail angel setup was provided by parents of a son who had ridden the route years before and then died after a mission with the military in the Middle East. He had always wanted to come back and ride again. In his memory, his parents kept this stocked as trail magic to fuel the riders on this remote and barren section. It was the sort of meaning and unforeseen beauty I loved being enriched by out here.
I pushed on as the heat began to rise. I wanted to climb up in the last high forested peaks of the Gila National Forest. The route up was rugged with lots of washboard. I sat in my lowest gear and sweated all the salt and water out of my body. The second cyclist of the day came down the climb. We spoke for a few minutes and it turned out he was the companion of the guy I saw this morning. I continued up and he continued down. After a couple of hours, I made the top which dipped into a series of long and relatively level meadow/grasslands surrounded by woods. I spoke to a Continental Divide Trail thru-hiker. He was absolutely burnt out and demoralized - in fact, he told me as soon as he got to Pie Town tomorrow, he was going to quit. The rugged Gila and its waterless/exposed sections had wrung him out. I empathized deeply.
My original itinerary had me camping up here at the Valle Tio Vinces Campground. It was cool and shaded in the aspen when I pulled into the almost completely deserted campground. There was a single van parked there. I got an uneasy feeling as the entire van was curtained, except for a door that was open with a PVC pipe poking through the curtains where a chemically smoke exited. I ate lunch on the other side at some picnic tables. I looked at my maps and realized I was only 20-30 miles from Pie Town and it was only noon. I looked at the van with residents that seemed to be cooking meth and decided I didn’t want to camp here. I pushed on and dropped out of the last of the Gila National Forest onto a series of expansive juniper highlands with cattle and ranches on my way to Pie Town. The road was in much better condition and despite incessant up and downs, I pulled an 80 mile day.
I pulled into Pie Town around 3:30 pm and headed straight for the Pie-O-Neer Cafe. Fortuitously, it didn’t close until 4 pm so I walked in and got two delicious pies with some ice cream. The owners were super nice and told me all about the Tour Divide racers who stop here. They also indicated I could indeed stay at the Toaster House for free in town. I made my way over to the Toaster House, locked my bike up, and enjoyed the full spread of the place. The Toaster House is owned by someone who doesn’t really live there ever. Instead, they graciously keep it unlocked and usable 24/7 for any thru-hikers and thru-bikers out on the Continental Divide. There are obligatory rules of respect and maintenance. And lucky for me, I had it all to myself. I turned on the fans, grabbed some water from the sink, and read all the interesting notes left everywhere. I also brought in several packages dropped off by USPS as mail drops for CDT hikers and left them by the door. After a long dinner at the Pie Town Cafe (with endless parmesan-garlic fries for cyclists), I returned to the Toaster House and slept on the living room couch under the fan in the absolute darkness. I slept like a baby.