We had an earlier departure than normal from our State Park campground that had provided Cathy with the Gila Woodpecker, another life-list bird. The prospect of a long, difficult ride over Emory Pass (The highest point of the entire Southern Tier Route) was enough to want me to get an early start. The morning temperature was a little daunting on the cold side, so I reverted to the layering routine. Looking west from the first road junction revealed the snow-capped mountain range on the horizon. Uh, OH! I thought, that’s got to be where I’m headed.
It was the chilliest morning start in a long time, and though I could warm up my core body temp by riding hard, my feet and hands didn’t benefit. I fell back on the knowledge that as bright as the sun was shining, every minute that passed would be warmer than the last. We had planned several intermediary stops today just so Cathy could see how I was getting along. It’s rare that there are miles-long stretches of either all up or all down, but today was one of those, with the route from the bottom of the Rio Grande valley to the pass at the top of the Black Range. At least the wind wasn’t blowing directly at me today!
I settled into what I hoped would be a sustainable steady pace. As always out here, I’m astounded at how quickly the vegetation changes relative to the altitude. It’s almost like a line is drawn on the ground, and on one side of that line it’s all mesquite and creosote and bunch grass and on the other side slightly higher up, it quickly becomes scrub cedar and cactus.
The first scheduled stop was at Hillsboro, as that was where the terrain went from “up” to “steep”. No more “cruising” along at 10 mph. It was little chain ring to big back sproket and crank. 5 mph, and deep breaths. The scenery became rugged and beautiful as the miles (slowly) passed.
It was neat when we got high enough that the creeks beside the road from the melting snow added a pleasant sound to the day. We both also appreciated the fact that there was hardly any vehicular traffic on this road at all. I did meet two east bound ST riders from Vermont, and we stopped for a pleasant recounting of adventures thus far. Later, I hailed another of those stalwart “self-supported” from New York, also east bound. I say again, I have total respect for these intrepid travelers, but zero envy. 🙂
Even going uphill, I try to stop and take a picture of anything that really catches my eye. This is the first of the “jumping cholla” cactus that we have seen that is in bloom. So pretty, but so nasty if you get run into it.
The next “check point” was at Kingston, an almost ghost town that had flourished briefly as a silver mining boom town. From here on, it was head down and grunt, as the grade went from steep to “what-the-hell-is-this?”
Cathy stopped more often in this stretch to give me an off the bike breather, and we cooled off along a beautiful stretch of icy cold creek.
I eventually reached the snow line, and the snow was still several inches deep right along side the roadway. I didn’t stop to touch it, but Cathy did.
Cathy had parked in the overlook at the very peak of the pass, and I saw STella from several miles off. Ironically, the sight gave me instant hope, since I could now actually see the end of the climb, and nearly as quickly despair, as it was evident there was at least another 1000 feet of climb to get to that spot!
This exact area was totally burned in the “Silver Fire” forest fire outbreak of 2014. I could keep my mind occupied on that and how the forest was reviving while I ground out those last miles and grudging feet of elevation.
I’m not sure how I would have handled another mile or two, but I was very happy to make that last tight hair-pin turn and see the turn off to the Pass Overlook.
I enjoyed a celebratory bottle of cold beer, and we had a picnic lunch at the conveniently located picnic table in the viewing area. Now that this “highest of the high peaks” was checked off, we could plan the rest of the day. It had been recommended by several that if we’re this close to the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument, we MUST go visit them. Good idea. Riding down the other side of the mountain was a screamer and didn’t take a fraction of the time it took to ride up the other side. Our planned meeting spot was at the junction of the ST route and the road that would take us to the Cliff Dwellings.
Bike loaded onto STella, and headed north on the only road that leads to this place. It was nearly a two hour drive of amazing beauty and uncounted twists and turns and breath-taking vistas of real wilderness. We were in the “low gear braking” mode for a good while saving STella’s brakes for the hairiest, hair pin curves.
We were happy and relieved to find a pleasant campground at Gila Hot Springs and will be only a half hour drive from the Monument in the morning. It doesn’t open until 9am, so it should be a very relaxed start to the day.
Thanks for helping me over the mountain.