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Exploring New Mexico’s Continental Divide Trail

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Photos: Syd Schulz and Macky Franklin
Words: Syd Schulz

A few weeks ago I had a startling revelation -- I couldn’t remember the last time I had gone on a bike ride "just for fun." Both my boyfriend, Macky, and I have been racing enduro seriously for the past two years, and this means lots of training talk, hyper-analysis of cornering form and deep discussions of suspension settings. Of course, this isn't to say we don't have fun riding. We do, heaps of it, in fact. But, especially this past summer, we have been very purpose driven. This past August we found ourselves back in New Mexico for the first time since June, and the trails were running perfect, but we were tired of training. We needed to do something different.

The solution soon jumped out at us -- we needed to ride those local trails that we had never had a chance to ride because they "never made sense." You know those trails…the ones you never get around to riding because the logistics are somewhat complicated, or the climbs are brutal, or you’re just a little bit afraid of wasting your day off on the unknown when you could be riding the stuff you know is awesome. I get that. I've been there. In fact, despite calling Taos, NM my home for the past three years, there is an appalling amount of terrain that I've never seen.

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One of the trails on our "to do" had been nagging at us for months -- the Continental Divide trail starting from Hopewell Lake near Chama, New Mexico. Now, I know what you're thinking. The CDT has a reputation as a grueling, mainly gravel road route that a few crazies do on rigid mountain bikes with loaded panniers and under the pains of severe sleep deprivation. But that's not our style. In fact, bike-packing isn't really our jam at all. Panniers and heavy backpacks tend to take the fun out of shredding new descents, no matter what all those dramatic Matt Hunter videos suggest. If we were going to ride the CDT, we would do so from Hopewell Lake, because we could drive our van to the lake and ride south one day and north the next, enjoying the relative comforts of van life in between.

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And if we were going to rediscover joy in riding by riding for "no reason," we first needed to establish some ground rules. We would take ample snack breaks. We wouldn't get flustered if (when) we got lost. We would get up early and watch the sun rise. We would go slow, like, seriously slow, on the climbs. We would smash the descents with wild abandon, but we would not, under any circumstances, utter the phrases "rebound" or "high speed compression." Our standard recovery drinks would be eschewed in favor of Happy Camper IPA and cookies. It would be kind of like a date, only we would eat food out of a bag (because we had had enough of camp cooking this year. Bring on the freeze dries). This weekend would be an escape, an adventure and a lesson in “chilling the f$^* out.” We both agreed to the terms.

Day 1 (southbound)

We headed out of camp at the crack of dawn, which is to say, before 9 am, although we did make good on our promise to watch the sun rise (we just got lazy after that). After a few false starts, we found the southbound trail out of Hopewell Lake, and started descending gradually on beautiful, aspen-lined singletrack. The friend who recommended this ride had called it a “credit card ride” and we soon realized why – you get your fun first and pay for it on the way back.

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The first hour and a half is pure, blissful descent, rocketing through open meadows and squealing the brakes around surprise switchbacks. The trail then levels out and a short, gradual climb brings you to the top of the next descent, which is much slower and rockier. At points it’s difficult to see where exactly the trail is going, as you seem to just be smashing your way through a rocky drainage, threading your way through a series of derailleur nomming rocks. We had a few mishaps and indulged in some impromptu free-riding through boulder fields, but for the most part we had a blast. The rocky drainage dropped us abruptly at a creek, but the trail builders had thought this through and crafted a log bridge, which I wasn’t quite brave enough to ride.

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On rides like this it is important to find the perfect lunch spot, preferably with an epic view or a carpet of wild flowers. Because of this we continued for a few miles after the singletrack ended, until we found the perfect alpine meadow. It didn’t have a view but the sun was warm and the wildflower criterion was fulfilled. We spent arguably a little bit too much time lounging in our sunny meadow, eating sandwiches and banana bread, taking photos and enjoying the afternoon.

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Turning around and immediately being faced with a two mile gravel climb back to the singletrack was a bit daunting, but ultimately not too bad. The way back was, as a whole, slower and more grueling but it opened up opportunities for lively discussions, like, where would we buy property if we had all the money in the world, and how many cookies would we eat the moment we got back to the van, The climb was hard, but it was never miserable, and after a summer of hauling, dragging, and carrying our bikes up some of America’s steepest mountains, this was completely okay.

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That evening reminded me of why I love trips like this – we drank beer and watched the light fade from our aspen grove. We made a smoothie with the hand crank blender we’ve owned for years but have rarely used, because who has time for a hand crank blender in their real life? We ate food out of a bag, but it still kind of felt like a date. And then we went to bed extremely early and got up to do it again.

Day 2 (northbound)

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Friends had warned us that going north from Hopewell was mainly dirt roads, so we were grateful for the single track we did find, which while not technical, held some challenges of its own, like dodging cow pies and the old "is this a cow trail or THE trail" conundrum. This northern segment gave us a feel for the vast expanses of beautiful, empty land that make up this part of the world. This was true wild west country, which meant we were never entirely sure if we were in ranch land or deep backcountry. 

The truth, of course, was a little bit of both. Tunnels of impenetrable lodgepole pines gave way seamlessly to golden grass valleys that rippled with the wind. We spotted the telltale white flash of an antelope’s rear end flying away from us, surfing through the waves of grass. Long stretches of barbwire fencing split the landscape in a glaring manifestation of human property boundaries, which seemed strangely out of place in the middle of these vast expanses. The antelope, for example, was unfazed by such demarcations, soaring over the fence with ease.

DSC01022.But even if we had never found the trail, that would have been okay, too, because for once in our lives we weren't trying to go anywhere at all.

The weather was uncharacteristically cloudy for New Mexico and we began the day with light jackets and some shivering as we had left our shoes outside of the van overnight for a midnight soaking. The clouds held for most of the day, parting only around mid-afternoon, which, since this was New Mexico at 10,000 feet, was ample time for us both to acquire sunburns before we reached our turn around point. 

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By two hours in, we weren’t even sure we were on the Continental Divide trail any more. We had followed a series of cow trails that had dissipated into nothing, backtracked, found another suspect path and then ended up backtracking again. We went miles without seeing a sign, and then, finally, we saw one on a fence post in the middle of a field with no discernible path. But even if we had never found the trail, that would have been okay, too, because for once in our lives we weren't trying to go anywhere at all.

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And that really is the crux of what this weekend trip was about -- sometimes you need to ride for no reason at all besides the joy of it, and we needed that desperately. Sometimes you need to be going nowhere, no where at all. You just need to be going. That, in and of itself, is enough. Happiness and fulfillment often feel so complicated in real life, but on the trail, on the bike, in the woods -- those things are simple enough. Just ride. Just go.

Follow more of Syd's Adventures on Facebook. 

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From The Column: Women in the Mountains

Nice write up, sounds like a great time!

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