This week presented me with a number of challenges in the form of dangerous roads, epic climbs, and high winds, but it also took me places I’d never been before. El Paso may be my new favorite Texas city, and I can’t wait to bring my kids to Guadalupe Mountains National Park—one of the nation’s least-visited national parks, and home to the four highest peaks in Texas—after spending one night there.

My brother-in-law, Javier, continued traveling with me as my coach, cheerleader, support crew, and cook. Late in the week we were joined by another family member from California. Don’t worry, fellow Texans—they aren’t staying for long.

Kermit to Orla

October 6, Distance: 69 Miles

I had originally planned to ride to Pecos from Kermit, but after doing a little Google Street View research, it seemed cutting across to U.S. 285 using Texas Highway 302 would save me a day that could be used later in my trek from Guadalupe Mountains National Park to El Paso. Plus, it meant I would be spending less time on 285, a.k.a. Death Highway. If you want to hear the horrors of this road, listen to the first episode of the Boomtown podcast. Highway 302 is no walk in the park either, though. There was plenty of oil field traffic along the route. Most of the way to Mentone, the traffic was not too heavy, since I’d left Kermit before sunrise. I took a break in Mentone at the only gas station in town. There, I had a demon and an angel on my shoulders scenario go down in real life. Representing the demon on one shoulder was a doppelgänger of Texas Monthly’s Eric Benson (sorry Eric), who told me, “You gotta have a death wish riding out here on a bike.” He said it nicely and with a laugh, but it didn’t exactly calm my nerves. As I was drinking a coffee outside, the angel on my other shoulder arrived in the form of an older gentleman, who asked where I was going. I sheepishly told him I was pretty anxious about 285. “Don’t worry, you’ll make it all right,” he said. “Just watch out for traffic—a lot of crazies out here.” Not fully reassuring, but I took it in the spirit he gave it. Once I reached 285, I took a deep breath and turned north into the sketchy shoulder. Luckily the shoulder widened and improved after a few miles, but there was still a lot of oil traffic. Honestly, it was not as bad as I’d imagined.

Javier met me halfway to Orla, and he was a welcome sight. When I reached Orla, we spent a good amount of time at a Pilot truck stop, checking emails and relaxing on the tailgate of Javier’s truck. I did about ten more miles on Ranch Road 652, which leads to the New Mexico border and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Then Javier picked me up and we headed back to Orla to camp at Red Bluff Dam Park, next to the Red Bluff Reservoir. The campsite was part The Hills Have Eyes, part Tremors. We enjoyed it, though, and Javier cooked a delicious pasta dinner.

Orla to Guadalupe Mountains National Park

October 7, Distance: 64 Miles

In the morning we drove out on RR 652 to the point where I had stopped the day before. There were still about ten more miles of heavy oil-field traffic before I hit the hills leading to the mountains. After 32 miles of RR 652, I made it to U.S. 62 and the New Mexico state line a few feet away. I met Javier in New Mexico for some snacks and a couple photos. Then he headed north to Whites City, New Mexico, for gas as there would not be another opportunity until we reached El Paso. I headed southwest, riding with the mountains toward the Pine Springs Campground at the park. It was a continuous slow climb for the next twenty miles. I had the weird sensation visually that I was descending, but my bicycle computer clearly showed a 2 percent uphill grade. Before I reached the campground, there were a few long, steep climbs, and I couldn’t imagine going much farther. But I knew once I passed the campground it was all downhill and I’d also be able to tick off a few miles from the next day’s ride.

I made it to the campground pretty beat, but a few hundred feet later I was flying down amazing descents. It felt great, just coasting, stopping only to take a few hundred photos of the picturesque El Capitan peak from all angles. Ten miles or so past the campground, I passed Javier and shouted, “Five more miles!” How could I stop this momentum? Once I was back in the truck, we made our way to the campground to set up camp. We ate the leftover pasta from the night before, drank beers, and gawked at the stars until we zonked out in our tents.

Photograph by Aaron Chamberlain

Guadalupe Mountains National Park to Somewhere Outside El Paso

October 8, Distance: 47 Miles

My alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. It was still dark outside and I was 41. What better way to celebrate my birthday than by riding through the desert toward El Paso?

Because I wisely skipped going to Pecos earlier in the week, I had two days to make the trip. My plan was to ride about 60 miles and have a really short ride the next day. At mile 41, I stopped for a quick birthday beer with Javier, then kept on pedaling. Everything was going well until mile 47. I was cresting a hill and my tire went flat. No big deal—a quick change and I’d be on my way. I’ve changed tons of tires over the years with no problem, but the new tires I bought in Odessa put up a hell of a fight. I finally got a new tube in, as Javier caught up with me in the truck. But the tube would not take air. I must have created a hole in the tire when I was fighting to get the tire back on the rim. It was hot, it was my birthday, and I was pissed off. Frustrated, I decided to give in for the day and fix the tire later once we were in a cooler climate. That night, Jason Brewer, a digital friend from Instagram, had kindly offered up one of his rental houses for the night in El Paso. I’d be back the next day to finish the ride into the city. Once at our lovely home for the night we struggled but finally got the bike in working order. We ended the night by eating burgers and nachos and watching Emily in Paris on Netflix. Forty-one was looking pretty good.

Somewhere Outside El Paso to El Paso

October 9, Distance: 36 Miles

After a later start than we had planned, we loaded the truck and drove out to the point where I had finished riding the day before. I had a short ride into El Paso—only thirty-six miles on U.S. 62. There was a bit of climbing the first hour, but once I passed the Border Patrol checkpoint in Butterfield, I knew it was basically downhill all the way into the city. I soared through the mountain pass before El Paso. It was stunning. If I had not been through Guadalupe Mountains National Park a couple days before, it would top the list of best descents of the trip. After that, I found myself in some nasty city traffic for a few miles until I turned off 62. A few miles later, I met up with Javier, and we celebrated making it to El Paso with—what else?—a beer. From there we headed to Crazy Cat Cyclery for a quick bike check. I wanted to make sure my bike was running as smoothly as possible before taking on the final, long leg of my journey. They did a fine job but did not have the tubes I needed, so we hit up another bike shop, Podium Finish Sport Boutique and Cafe. They had the tubes and what looked to be a very tasty cafe menu. The cafe didn’t have any outdoor seating, though, so we decided to grab some beer from El Paso Brewing instead and find food near our hotel. We didn’t find much, so we opted for Whataburger. I ordered the new spicy chicken sandwich. After eating it, I proclaimed, “This will not be the last Whataburger spicy chicken sandwich I eat on this trip!” So stay tuned for that.

Photograph by Aaron Chamberlain

El Paso to Fort Hancock/Sierra Blanca

October 10, Distance: 60 Miles

We slept in, because the day was meant to be relatively short—only 45 miles. I took my time gearing up and getting on the road. Winding out of El Paso was a bit hairy with the morning traffic, even though it was a Saturday. Once out of town, I was moving fast. Before I knew it I was 25 miles toward Fort Hancock, with a strong tailwind blowing me along. I’d had a slow leak on my front tire for the previous three days, but it would usually last all day with one pump-up. On this day, it had gotten worse. I set a thirty-minute timer and whenever it went off, I would pull over and give it a few pumps. This system was a bit ridiculous, but I’d rather fix the tire at my destination than on the side of the road, if I could help it. The tailwind was rocking so hard, I decided to pass Fort Hancock and keep riding for another fifteen miles to a truck stop outside Sierra Blanca. Javier swept me up and we drove back to Fort Hancock.

That night we were grateful to stay at the Fort Hancock Community Church, a familiar spot for any cyclists who have ridden the Southern Tier Bicycle Route. It allows cyclists to set up their tents in the churchyard or sleep inside the fellowship hall. When we arrived, I called Jerry, who works at the church, and he arranged for someone to open up the church for us. After we were inside, we did some tire maintenance on the bike and Javier whipped up a couple plates of veggie quesadillas. We said our prayers and hit the hay.

Fort Hancock to Van Horn

October 11, Distance: 55 Miles

Most people don’t wake up in the morning and think to themselves, “Let’s go for a ride on Interstate 10.” But that’s what I did, for a few miles at least.

It really was no worse than my days on U.S. 287, considering traffic and road conditions. A few miles in, the frontage road began, and I was able to switch over to that. But the road surface was atrocious—the chunkiest asphalt I had ever experienced. Also, it was uphill, but the mountain and desert views were incredible. Ten miles later, the hills smoothed out and the general direction from there was down. Just before Sierra Blanca I took an underpass to continue on the frontage road of I-10. Eight miles out of Van Horn the frontage road came to a dead end. The only options were to jump a fence and ride on a private dirt road or get back on the interstate. I chose the interstate, but I had to find a way to get to the south side of the highway, which heads east. I found a culvert, or more accurately a tunnel, that led all the way to the other side. This was one of the high points of the ride, imbuing the day with a true sense of adventure. I was happy not to come across any rattlesnakes. Back on the interstate with my trucker friends, I was sailing into Van Horn. The descent was magical; I must’ve turned my pedals five times in eight miles. We made camp at the Van Horn RV Park and chatted with the locals about the Marfa lights, global warming, and antelopes.

biking-texas-marfa

Photograph by Aaron Chamberlain

Van Horn to Marfa

October 12, Distance: 74 Miles

I got an early start, before the birds started chirping. The roosters at the RV park, however, were already sounding off in the predawn darkness. I had a feeling I might get some wind, so I wanted to get a jump start on the day. I’d long ago stopped checking wind reports, since it doesn’t really matter. I have to ride in a very particular direction, wind or no wind.

The first hour was dark and fast. Then the sun started peeking over the mountains to my left. There was a lot of dust in the air, making for a dramatic sunrise. I made good time all the way to the Prada Marfa “store,” but I was annoyed, not because it took forever to get my simple photo as I waited out an influencer doing a full-on photo shoot, but because the art installation is called Prada Marfa, and yet I was still so far from Marfa. I breezed through Valentine and then the crosswinds started blowing me around U.S. 90. They kept up like this for fifteen miles. Then they turned to headwinds. Cool.

Thankfully the wind died for a while, until I reached the Giant mural. I personally enjoyed this installation much more than the Prada store. But guess what, the winds came back and persisted until I reached Marfa. I was whupped pulling into town. I grabbed a sack of food from Dairy Queen on the way to our house rental. There I met three other cyclists; two of them had ridden most of the way across Texas last year, and the other was currently riding from Los Angeles to North Carolina. I got to our rental and devoured my meal. I had not rented the house, and I didn’t know who had. Javier refused to tell me, saying only that the renter would be arriving soon. About twenty minutes later, my benefactor pulled up outside. It was Anthony Galloway, my wife’s cousin, who had driven all the way from San Diego to meet us. This was a hell of a surprise. Unfortunately, I was too beat to show my true gratitude. Luckily, I had the next day off to hang out with Javier and Anthony. Then I would be turning south into Big Bend country.