I slept well and woke up ready to take on the Great Divide. I packed up and left the Toaster House, stopped at The Gatherin’ Place for one last breakfast meal, and then pushed into lands north of Pie Town. The route was washboarded, not overly. I was able to weave around and through the many ridges making up the road. In the distance, the peaks of the GIla receded away.
Distant peaks looked gorgeous, studded with juniper under the blue sky and red dirt road beneath me. I reached TLC Ranch by mid-morning. It’s a ranch with open access for CDT hikers and Great Divide riders to grab fresh water and even a place to camp. Under a canopy tent I stocked up on my water supplies and headed back out. The route led past distant ranches and abandoned buildings through an iconic view of western juniper-filled uplands. Slowly I descended into high desert grasslands. A wild burro ran ahead of me along the road for 10 minutes. Its speed matched my own, and I laughed as it ran forward while constantly looking back at me in bewilderment.
The vast plains opened up and the road spread into the distance. The juniper fell away to be replaced by bunch-grass and cattle. Distant mesa edged the horizon along with the occasional presence of blooms. A massive herd of cattle trotted next to me, attempting to beat my speed and then cross in front. They were successful, so I slowed and then gunned it through a gap. The washboard lessened and the wideness of the views was impressionable. I neared the highway leading to a fork in the route around El Malpais National Monument. The highway to the right took a rider on pavement around the perimeter of the monument. A left turn led to a short pavement section before veering right onto the rutted and rugged Chain of Craters Route. If rain was in the forecast, take a right so that your wheels don’t get rolled into peanut butter mud. But my skies were clear so I headed left. There hadn’t been a storm here since several days before.
A lone tree stood next to the highway. And a few minutes later, I left the pavement again and turned onto the Chain of Craters Route. The Backcountry Byway sign was flanked by a CDT trailhead sign and a warning about entering the area if any rain was forecast. I felt confident, so I pushed on.
The landscape began to change within a couple of miles of entering El Malpais National Monument. El Malpais is geologically interesting, born of many extinct cinder volcanoes that dot the land. Large black hardened lava flows flanked the road to my right. Small straggled junipers and ponderosa pines grew gnarled amongst the stone. The heat of the day wore on. Biting gnats and black flies went for my legs, pushing me to keep going. The road was washed out in areas. Deep tire ruts gouged sections. Although dry, I had to maneuver my bike around a rocky rut in many locations. I passed a cattle trough and windmill noted for water on my maps. The trough was bone dry. I was consequently grateful for fully filling up at the ranch. There was a slight upward climb most of the day. The dry expansive bunch-grass plains changed to juniper/pinion dotted mesas that slowly became mildly ponderosa-forested hills of ancient volcanic cones.
The views were awesome. I was hot, but not overly so. A herd of wild horses stood to my left. I stopped to gaze. The leading stallion walked forward, stamped his front feet and then came galloping my way defensively. I spirited away in response. The road by now was sandy/silt but mild and weaving amongst the southwest evergreens. A few remote ranches popped up here and there. Signs posted at property driveways warned of well-armed owners who loved the Second Amendment. Message received.
By late afternoon, I approached another cinder cone hill near the side-road to the Ice Caves. I had been scanning the terrain for an acceptable place to camp. Lots of the land paralleling the road was designated Wilderness, so no bikes allowed. Others were fenced off or private. And the remaining bits were chunky with volcanic pumice and rock. I found a notable flat area with a fire ring on public land. But I also knew a CDT trailhead was ahead that might be better. I biked up to the CDT trailhead which seemed more open and less sheltered. Back to the former to camp then. But first, I opened up my kit for dinner and sat in the silence of the craters. I noted a thin sliver of smoke rising distantly from the other side of the crater mountain. I had seen several ranches burning trash on their properties and assumed the same. The wind had really picked up by now. I pulled out my Garmin inReach Mini and used it to secure a satellite-retrieved weather report. It looked like the wind was going to get stronger all evening - 30 mph on average with stronger gusts before dying off into stillness in the middle of the night. The wind was blowing away from me, against the thin gray plume in the sky. After eating contently, I packed up my gear and biked back down to the former flat spot with the fire ring. I setup my tarp to block the prevailing wind. I stretched out, put my Ursack up, and enjoyed a quiet evening with beautiful colors.
I climbed into my bivy and went to sleep. Sometime, at a vague point in the night, I groggily awoke; I was annoyed by this persistent feeling that I couldn’t breathe. Have you ever been asleep and something is stimulating your body, not enough to wake you, but enough to generate an automatic response to lessen the stimulus? Like a feather tickling the nose of a sleeping person? For me, it was this feeling that my throat was burning. I was annoyed, woke sleepily, rolled over and felt relieved. Again, sometime later, the same stimulation. My throat was hot and I couldn’t breath. I slid my buff up over my mouth from my neck - it seemed to filter the air; I felt better and went back to sleep. Then, again. At some predawn hour in the morning I really woke up with a general feeling of suffocation, dryness of mouth, and burning throat. My weary eyes fluttered open and it seemed that, even in the black dark of the area, that a heavy layer of smog was above my face. I turned my head sleepily to the left and stared into the dark. Two spots of orange glowed. The first thought that came to my drowsy head was mountain lion eyes. My eyes flashed open. I felt revved. Awake fully, I sat up and scanned the area. What seemed like two orange spots began to blend into a line of orange spots (definitely not feline) stretched out in a line maybe 40 feet from me. Wildfire. Now I shot up to my feet.
My mind was gathering the subconscious stimuli from my night’s sleep. There was a wildfire line burning. The smoke was incredibly thick in the area. So thick, I was having trouble breathing. That’s what had been waking me up. And now, it was close.
Panic did a cold sweep over me. I began quickly dismantling my sleeping area. I started stuffing my quilt into a stuff sack but I was shaking and couldn’t do it well. I stopped. I needed to do a quick risk assessment and prioritize my actions. First, I assessed the flames. They were only a couple feet tall and didn’t seem to be advancing any closer. The wind that had blown hard all evening was dead gone, and if the former weather forecast was correct, wouldn’t return for days. Next, I used the InReach Mini to send a note of caution to my family to stay alert. Then, I thought about what was most important to grab: quilt for warmth, tarp for shelter, bike for movement. Everything else could be abandoned to the flames if they advanced. I packed up the quilt and tarp into my bike bags and pointed my bike into the dark.
Now, I needed to assess the wind in case it did start back up - I didn’t want to bike towards a firefront changing direction. I felt no wind, the flames were not advancing, the smoke was awful and thick, but it was lessening. I used my InReach Mini to check the weather again - the same forecast showed: 0 - 1 mph average for next 24 hours. I calmed myself. I litany of messages were returning on the Garmin. Everyone was asking questions about what was happening. I took a breath for confidence and observed the flames. The flames were stock-still in position, lessening, evening smoldering in areas. This calmed me more. I stood there , watching as the flames grew low to the ground and then just smoldered thick smoke. No more orange. And it stayed that way.
With time now passed and active flames gone (plus no wind present), I decided to pack up the rest of my gear properly and secure my belongings, plus make a plan. I was exhausted, covered in soot, reeking of smoke, but safe. I would ride to Grants and get a hotel room at the Motel 6 in town to wash up. Also, this fire was no fun and absolutely had freaked me out. I decided that Grants would be my endpoint to wrap up this trip.
I contemplated where the fire had arisen. It had to have come from that distant plume on the other side of the cinder cone mountain. After falling asleep, the wind may have shifted direction, fanned the flames, and brought the burn to me, only to stop when the wind died out. I considered how a storm had occurred days prior and maybe a lightning strike had started embers that smoldered for days until the wind inflamed it.
No matter, I pedaled on as dawn's light came wrapping over the land.