Road Miles: 182
Trail Miles: 0.5
We did not get an early start on the day. I spent most of the night coughing, or trying to suppress eruptions of coughing, alarmed and panicked by that telltale sensation in the back of my throat: I was getting sick.
Dammit! This can’t be happening. I was planning to start the AT in less than a week, and I have a history of chronic pharyngitis that would last weeks, causing me to cough until unable to get any air in, I would start to gag and choke. I hadn’t been sick since last year in Ecuador, so apparently I was due.
Carol made us a delicious breakfast of pancakes and bacon (mmmm bacon) and then we had long goodbyes. By long, I mean we had a beer, shot the shit some more, celebrated them getting their wifi back online (they don’t have reliable cell service), basically malingered. I left Carol my Instant Pot which I now doubted I’d actually be using, and it would free up a little more space in the van, now crowded with the worldly belongings of two people instead of just one. I miss it, though. I love you, Instant Pot, the godsend to crappy meal planners who can’t afford convenience food! I mean, that thing cooks DRY beans in less than an hour. What kind of sorcery is this?
We finally hit the road and headed south on NM 337 toward Mountainair. I’d never been that way before, but RC said he used to go there for work a lot back in the day, setting mobile homes. We slowly passed a bunch of little dots on the map, most of which contained little more than a few forlorn-looking houses and the obligatory Catholic church, places with fun names to say: Escabosa, Tajique, Chilili… CHILILI! That is one of the most fun town names to say ever. I was cruising along at my optimal average of 45-50 mph.
“This is how you do this?” asked RC, referring to my leisurely pace.
“Yup. Whenever I can.”
“I could get used to this.”
You can see so much more when you’re only going 45mph. Not as much as you see when you’re hiking 3mph, but on the plus side, you don’t have to watch your feet so much when you’re driving.
As we approached Mountainair, we saw signs for Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Neither of us had ever heard of it. It wasn’t far off-route at all, so we went to check it out.
The Monument is actually composed of three separate sites: Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira. Each had been a thriving Ancestral Puebloan community for at least hundreds of years, then later targets for first colonization then conversion by the Spaniards in the early 17th century. This is why each site features both churches and the traditional kivas of the original inhabitants.
Because it was already kind of late and we’d only by this point made it 50 or so miles, we were only able to visit Quarai, the closest to our route. The Quarai site is fairly complete for being one part of a composite, especially since the Monument’s main Visitor Center is in Mountainair. There’s a small visitor center staffed by a very friendly and helpful ranger ( I got the feeling he doesn’t see a lot of visitors), an interpretation room, a picnic area, and incredibly clean bathrooms (guess the ranger has to make his own fun, and he does it with Lysol!). There’s a flat 1/2-mile loop around the site which also has several interpretive signs that we walked, and we were also able to wander around in the remnants of the church and through the rooms of the original pueblo. It was a cool stop, and I’d like to go back and explore the other two sites, especially Gran Quivira, which is the largest and most excavated of the three.
Back on the road, we turned east on US 60 toward Clovis, starting through the endless flat plains that characterize most of eastern New Mexico. Flat flat flat. But all I could think was how great it was! Freya had made it over the Continental Divide, through the big mountains of the West, and it was ( I thought) going to be smooth mostly-flat sailing from here on out!
As we got closer to Fort Sumner, we started seeing Billy the Kid signs: Museum! His grave! PALS! Of course I wanted to see that, but it wasn’t happening today; it was too late. So, I found Bosque Redondo Lake Park, just south of Fort Sumner through freecampsites.net.
The lake in this quirky little park is more of a large pond. The shores on three sides are dotted with with semi-covered picnic tables and grills. We didn’t see any signage prohibiting camping, so we picked one of the few open sites there were on this Friday night, near the toilet, which was almost as clean as the one at the Monument. Strangely, while cell service in Fort Sumner itself is practically nil, I had 3 dots of LTE at the park. Most of the visitors vacated by around sunset, so apparently this is a popular spot for local families to come to barbecue and picnic. It’s also a popular spot for local teenagers to come party after dark, and apparently draws its fair share of sketchy types too: some dude offered me $50 for my cruise control. Wtf? Nooo… nothing sketchy at all about a complete stranger wrenching on my van in the middle of what may or may not be a campground for $50. I politely declined.
But, the park is most popular with BIRDS. Thousands of them. All chirping, warbling, trilling, squawking. They crowded the still mostly-bare tree branches, chattering and flapping at each other. They filled the skies over the water, hid in the reeds of the lake, glided along its surface in pairs. BIRDS. They were glorious! And you know what else they are? Polite! As soon as the sun was fully set, it was quiet. Barely a peep. Which was perfect – I was still hoping to ward off this cold with a solid night’s sleep.
RC got to practice pitching his tent and using his AT gear for the first time, so he was excited about that. Until, that is, the aforementioned teenagers roared out the gravel driveway next to him around midnight, yelling, “wake up!” Frankly, with some of the stranger danger characters of the human variety I saw about, I was glad he was there. If I was solo, I would probably either skip docking there, or wait until it was almost dark, pick a more out-of-the-way spot, and get that Reflectix up in the windows quick, making it impossible to tell who was inside. At least that way I’d still get to listen to the birds, and see the almost always incredible New Mexico sunset as I rolled in.