Dodging Bullets Beneath the Mesa
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
Even in 2021, New Mexico remains the wild west, despite modernization.
During one of my days off on a Saturday, I felt like getting out of town for a bit to see a landscape other than Santa Fe. I have been trying to stay in Santa Fe because gas has been so expensive. The trails have been good here but I tend to get burnt out if I'm riding the same places too often. I need constant changes of scenery or I tend to go crazy.
I loaded up my bike and ventured off to San Luis, New Mexico. This little town is located just North of the Cabezon Peak Wilderness Study Area, and directly East of the Empedrado and La Lena WSA. Describing this landscape to someone who has never been can be tricky. There are big volcanic plugs jutting out of the valley floor, all in close vicinity to each other. To the North of these big volcanic towers lays canyon land and pristine mesas pulled right from a Spaghetti Western. This valley has been occupied for thousands of years continuously and some of the mesas have hundreds of thousands of ancient rock art. The area is filled with classic New Mexican landscapes that only the locals seemingly know about. Also Continental Divide hikers passing through this wilderness. And also GDMBR riders riding through this place. I guess people know about it but it's still awesome.
In the past, I have ridden South of San Luis towards the Guadalupe Ruins. When traveling this direction, you ride right past these volcanic necks to a mesa with a Chaco Canyon Outlier ruin still existing at the top. This is a classic ride for people living in Albuquerque wanting to leave the hustle and bustle for a day. Upon starting this route, directly to the North is a perimeter of looming mesas overlooking you as you take off. These mesas are slightly less dramatic than the volcanic plugs to the South, albeit only from first glance. The benefit of looking less impressive at first glance means the canyonlands remain remote and desolate.
I decided it was time to venture into the canyons and see a place most people don't think of exploring. This wilderness was stunning and had lots of small surprises around every corner. There was even some wild west gunfire in the remoteness. Follow along on this photographic journey into the mesas:
Good ol' Cabezon Peak. Not a bad view to start out the ride with.
One of several signs seen along the way. This one is much more legit than most signs I end up coming across on my travels.
This mesa side is the first taste of the rugged wilderness that lays here. Those boulders are about the size of a Honda Civic.
Just a classic New Mexico landscape. The mesas here have a unique and understated beauty to them. They aren't the biggest nor most dramatic mesas in the world, however their serenity speaks to me deeply. This isn't a land of over stimulation, but rather a stark simplicity.
It's always kind of strange when remote signs don't have bullet holes in them.
My gorgeous Salsa Timberjack Ti. She carries me steadfast across wide expanses.
Break time on the powdery dirt.
The mesa lands of the Empedrado Wilderness.
Across the vastness we go.
There are a couple of abandoned busses found along the way. Kind of strange seeing them far into the desert and away from the roads.
This is one of those No Trespassing signs that really irritate me. There is no way of knowing if this is a legal sign or just something that has been kicking around since 8-17-1989. This type of signage can be found everywhere in New Mexico, causing issues with public land usage and access. They're also not legal, so keep that in mind when out and about.
Water can be found out here. The cows definitely know where it is.
These kind of gravel roads are what I dream about.
The rig next to a boulder. Thanks David Bell and Mellow Velo for help with building it up!
I saw some mountain goats traversing up a mesa side. They saw me taking pictures of them and ran off quickly. I assumed they thought my camera was a gun and weren't risking it!
The landscape along this route is full of powdery gravel roads and surreal rock formations.
On the North end of the wilderness lays a big arroyo with rugged plants living inside of it. I can only imagine how much this scene would change if there was a thunderstorm around.
This white horse and me had a moment. We locked eyes for a moment and it allowed me to take it's picture. The white horse was definitely a model in another life.
It's at this bus where I started to hear gunshots in the vicinity. The gunshots were rapid in how I heard them, firing in a regular interval with about a two second break between shots. This kind of caught me off guard, naturally.
It seemed like the gunshots were coming from above me, echoing in the distance. After hearing multiple shots, I went by the bus to figure out what was going on. There were no vehicles out where I was, and I surely would have heard a car approaching in this open and echoey area. I hadn't crossed any noticeable private property. The road I was on had an unmarked gate without any signage I had crossed. This entrance was also near a big BLM sign maybe 50 feet away, so I had no hesitation crossing this gate. The only somewhat habitated place, at this point in the ride, was where the white horse was when I took its picture. This didn't stand out as strange because there is usually some kind of structures on public roads. Within sight of the bus was an abandoned looking settlement right next to the road. Once again, no private property signage anywhere.
These are the thought I had while I was hearing the nonstop gunfire. I knew the shots weren't close to me so I decided to keep moving with trepidation. I felt the best thing I could do is leave the area.
Not too far after this happened, I had to cross yet another gate. This gate was also without lock and had no signage. Of course, I think nothing of it.
Maybe a quarter of a mile past the gate I came across this amazing sign. Here's the New Mexico statute describing No Tresspassing signs if you're curious:
30-14-6. No trespassing notice; sign contents; posting; requirement; prescribing a penalty for wrongful posting of public lands.
A. The owner, lessee or person lawfully in possession of real property in New Mexico, except property owned by the state or federal government, desiring to prevent trespass or entry onto the real property shall post notices parallel to and along the exterior boundaries of the property to be posted, at each roadway or other way of access in conspicuous places, and if the property is not fenced, such notices shall be posted every five hundred feet along the exterior boundaries of such land.
B. The notices posted shall prohibit all persons from trespassing or entering upon the property, without permission of the owner, lessee, person in lawful possession or his agent. The notices shall:
(1) be printed legibly in English;
(2) be at least one hundred forty-four square inches in size;
(3) contain the name and address of the person under whose authority the property is posted or the name and address of the person who is authorized to grant permission to enter the property;
(4) be placed at each roadway or apparent way of access onto the property, in addition to the posting of the boundaries; and
(5) where applicable, state any specific prohibition that the posting is directed against, such as "no trespassing," "no hunting," "no fishing," "no digging" or any other specific prohibition.
C. Any person who posts public lands contrary to state or federal law or regualtion [regulation] is guilty of a petty misdemeanor.
I'm not sure if the gunshots I heard was from this "property owner" or just someone testing out a new rifle. The extremely vague signage didn't help me figure out the answer.
Just a cow running across the dry desert. Damn near every bike ride I set off on I come across at least a couple of cows.
At one point in the ride the mesa wall hand crumbled off and fell onto the road. Nature has a way of reclaiming the land.
Close up of an arroyo and their unique sand formations.
Restie Sandoval of Cabezon NM had carved his name here in 8-7-1945.
The rock formations in this area would make for some excellent rock climbing.
Here's a high up view of this rugged and hard landscape. Nearly everything in this image is sandstone.
I'm not sure what kind of plant this is, but it's bonzai aesthetic caught my eye.
The road starts to widen and the mesa becomes further away. It's these longer vistas that I fell in love with most during this ride.
Dark sky with golden temples of sand. This is the kind of landscape people had mistaken for El Dorado.
These are the types of places I am always in search of. I love when I stumble across some weird relics of history in drop dead beautiful places.
I wonder what year it was when this place was last inhabited.
They even had a kickass truck!
Looking back towards where I had just came from, I was greeted with these amazing colors.
This is Cerro Cuate, buddy of Cabezon Peak. These sharp volcanic plugs stand proud inside the Rio Puerco Valley.
The mesas and the volcanic plugs are the defining features of this wonderful landscape.
This is the La Lena Wilderness. It resided essentially inside the Empedrado Wilderness. Why there are two separate wildernesses in the same place I don't know. However I certainly do appreciate it.
Once I had finished my ride, I was presented with this extraordinary sunset. This isn't the most dramatic sunset in the world, yet the textures are world class.