New Mexico Backcountry Discovery Route: The Desert Crucible

Text: Bill Dragoo • Photography: Bill Dragoo, Michael Bielecki

The purest art of creating Damascus steel, that extraordinary blade with the wavy design seen in antique knives and swords from the Middle East, is lost to mankind. Speculation suggests multiple layers of metals were forged, folded, and welded together to form a single blade of exceptional quality. Certain aspects of adventure travel have a similar effect on men and women.

I am one of a dozen men from three countries on a tour of the New Mexico Backcountry Discovery Route (NMBDR). Our staggered formation is led by Scott Lee and Michael Bielecki of Colorado Motorcycle Adventures (CMA). David Gibson rides sweep. It is 106 degrees as we approach Cloudcroft, NM. Even my Klim Induction mesh jacket is stuffed into a pannier on my BMW R 1200 GS, leaving only a thin jersey for protection. I gaze ahead at the mountains, hoping for cooler temperatures higher up. It’s mid-June and the route has been open only a few weeks as snow lingers long in the passes. 

The Best of the NMBDR

The NMBDR is a 1,290-mile amalgamation of mountain vistas, rocky stream crossings, long, dark canyons, quaint villages, and desert sands. For us, it is also a means to an end. CMA hosts riders from around the world who want to explore a chunk of the American West within a calculated timeline. Few folks have the luxury of an open-ended schedule, and Scott and his team have consolidated the sweet spots into a six-day tour. What happens once a tour begins is the part we all hope for, yet secretly fear. What challenges will we encounter in the unknown expanse ahead? 

Hurry Up and Wait

Despite the most diligent planning, off-pavement travel by motorcycle can be risky. Things will happen that may not be covered in the brochure, and the real adventure is in how we deal with the unexpected, how men and women stand up to the test. We are faced with our first delay as we attempt to leave Cloudcroft an hour early to get ahead of the heat. A flat on Rich’s Husqvarna 701 proves fussy to fix. The pinched tube sets us back an hour.

After Cloudcroft, the sometimes-graded dirt road twists and turns like an anaconda with an attitude, plunging some 3,000 feet before climbing again over multiple passes, finally topping out near 9,000 feet about 20 miles past Ruidoso. Before lunch, Malcolm’s GSA pulls up lame. Michael deploys a well-stocked repair kit, plugs the rear tire, and we are back on the road in a jiffy. 

We stop for lunch at Abuelita’s in Carrizozo and enjoy what will be one of many tasty green chili-laced Mexican dishes prevalent in New Mexico. 

Different Strokes 

A westward run down Highway 380 leads us to Broken Back Road, and dumps us onto ranchlands paralleling the highway. Narrow two-track and high desert vistas sprinkled with cattle and wild horses urge us to linger, but the blistering afternoon sun convinces us to keep moving. 

Here the differences in skill and categories of machines begin to show. Some race ahead, staying within sight of the leaders, and others fall back, calmly putting the miles behind them, not risking overriding their capabilities or that of their motorcycles. We ride a mix of big bikes ranging from BMW’s R 1200 GS to Honda’s new Africa Twin, a Triumph Tiger 800 XC, and a smattering of KTM 500s, a 690, and the Husky 701. Our ranch road rejoins Highway 380 at the Blanchard Rock Shop, a desert rat’s dream collection of crystals, petrified wood, and artifacts from the nearby Trinity Site, where the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Our attempted early start allows us to finish the day on schedule in Socorro without undue pressure to ride faster than we should. The gang relaxes over a cold one, watching Cleveland beat Golden State in the NBA championship, before turning in for the night. Michael’s lovely wife Tara pops in and graces our gathering with fresh pies from Pie Town, an iconic stop along the Continental Divide Trail. 

We roll south the next morning on Highway 1 along the Rio Grande River, toward Elephant Butte. Rejoining the NMBDR at Truth or Consequences, we slither over high-speed gravel and through canyons, ending up in the once-rowdy town of Winston where a small trading post with 86-octane fuel is a welcome sight. We top off there before tackling the infamous Chloride Canyon, one of the most beautiful and technical sections of the NMBDR. Winding through the canyon on a narrow dirt road between high rock walls, we cross cottonwood-shaded Chloride Creek multiple times before emerging into the near-ghost town of Chloride. There we visit the Pioneer Store and Monte Cristo Saloon, both now museums but hardly changed since their closings when silver mining declined around the turn of the 20th century. Old whiskey bottles, clothing, and mining implements still line the shelves, much as they did when James Dalglish first opened the doors in 1880. Don and Dona Edmund have owned the store since 1988. Dona and her daughter take pride in presenting lessons on the town’s history. 

Chloride Poisoning

Too soon we leave this living artifact and roll back into the depths of Chloride Canyon. My shoulder screams “Stop!” as I crunch through rocky creek crossings on my GS. Calcific tendinitis reared its ugly head just as I was about to leave home and this is the place it chose to pitch a fit. My left hand drapes over the clutch and every shock feels like being stabbed with a ragged knife. Chloride Canyon has a few rough spots and I could use both arms … if I had them. I round a bend and find Scott helping heave heavy bikes over a bypass where a deadfall has blocked the main trail. I scramble past, trying to maintain momentum and steer with my one good arm. I want to get far enough ahead to grab some decent photos, but the pain makes riding difficult. 

I pick a spot at the bottom of a series of switchbacks where the trail begins to climb out of the canyon. Several riders struggle up the slope as their pals stand by to help them through this tough section. Scott coaches those who need it and everybody seems to enjoy the challenge as we leave the canyon. I witness a metamorphosis of men as they are emboldened by the encouragement of fellow riders. 

We stop for lunch among the pines. It’s a peaceful place and several take well-deserved naps. Voices murmur as new acquaintances become comrades after the trial they have just faced together. An easier route was available, but no one said a word about taking it. 

You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

We hole up at the unlikely-looking but surprisingly comfortable Hidden Springs Inn a few miles west of Reserve on Highway 180. This old motel hasn’t changed in decades but inside it’s clean and just what we need. Jennifer, the colorful and energetic proprietress at the adjacent Adobe Cafe & Bakery, serves us an exclusive dinner of tender roast beef, barbecue chicken, and baked beans, followed by hand-scooped ice cream and peach cobbler. After a hard day of riding, crisp sheets and this feast make a welcome finale. 

The Africa Twin Rescue

On day three we hit twisty asphalt southbound before looping back on dirt into the Apache National Forest. Carlos’ Africa Twin spits the bit here, refusing to go another mile without electrical power. Tom, one of our engineer types from Colorado, conjures up a voltmeter. Scott, Dave, and Michael rig a temporary battery from Scott’s portable Micro-Start, which keeps the bike running long enough to get us even deeper into the woods, but fails some 25 miles from the gas station in Luna. Scott tows the Africa Twin until his GS risks overheating, then leaves Dave and Carlos to contemplate dust devils by the roadside while he makes his way to the Luna fuel stop where Dave’s wife Liz waits with the Sprinter and a spare bike. I limp back to Albuquerque to fetch my Tacoma GS truck so I can finish the “ride” with my ailing shoulder. 

I meet the group a few hours later in Grants where everyone turns in early. I learn the next day that Carlos crashed Scott’s GS at speed in the sand. He had ridden it in place of his defunct Africa Twin while Scott rode the spare bike. The GS’ subframe and aluminum pannier took the brunt of the damage and Carlos is sore but suffered no serious injuries. Scott and Michael cheerfully picked up the pieces and our adventure continues. 

Cicadas, Gates, and Endless Vistas

The route north of Interstate 40 is sandy in places, and dirt sections can be impassible when wet. We make our way through gates, respectfully closing them behind us, and through a magical canyonland of undulating roads, high desert scrub, and flowering Ocotillo. Buzzing cicadas create an eerie din, heard even above our engines. 

We gas up in Cuba, then ride about six miles to the Sueños Encantados y Casa Vieja Bed & Breakfast. David and Liz dive in with Michael to prepare a fabulous outdoor dining experience on the veranda. A brief thunderstorm cools the air, driving us together in clumps of banter—discussions of riding, politics, and grandkids under the overhanging shelter. Another fold in the steel takes place here as bonds are formed from dissimilar lives. 

Sleeping arrangements are a relaxing blend of south-of-the-border boarding house and deer camp with a sprinkling of comfortable beds and a shower. Vi, our Mexican host, arrives the next morning with a breakfast worthy of royalty. 

It is a short, 110-mile day through the San Pedro Mountains and Santa Fe National Forest to Ojo Caliente, one of several hot springs resulting from the area’s massive geothermal activity. Progress halts again as Malcolm’s GSA has another flat. Dave comes to the rescue, pressing a mushroom plug into the hole before re-inflating the rear tire with his mini-pump. 

Warm Hands and Hot Water

Accommodations are more private at the hot springs than our previous night. We find ourselves either in separate cabin-like dwellings or a corner of the Adobe House, an expansive abode offering sunset views, and simple dining is just a leisurely walk away. Some take advantage of the therapeutic waters or the healing hands of a resident masseuse, all well deserved after days of dust and exertion. 

Our last day begins with a spirited asphalt and gravel shortcut to the route’s official end in Antonito, CO, before backtracking to pick up the final segment south toward Albuquerque, where we will say our goodbyes. Lunch at El Farolito Restaurant in the quaint village of El Rito is honey on the sopapilla to our tour of New Mexico … much like Old Mexico in its hospitality, good food, and landscape. 

The Final Test

We tackle one last dank and winding section of dirt roads, mountain passes, and twisty asphalt, delayed again by another flat on the Husky 701. As luck would have it, Rich’s bike falls victim to an errant washer eating its way into the inner tube and making alien crop circle-like patterns, letting the air escape. There beside the road, men pitch in, hands busy together until the task is complete and our friend is rolling again. 

At our final dinner, complaints are nonexistent as the intense crucible of hard travel that has forged us cools, tinking like the exhausts on our machines. Sitting at the restaurant in Albuquerque, our hosts from CMA hand out trophies, dubious accolades for skills, spills, and other antics displayed over the past week. We hear only laughs and the clink of toasts as plans are made for the next adventure. 

Colorado Motorcycle Adventures

Colorado Motorcycle Adventures is a full service tour company based in Denver, CO, offering reasonably priced packaged, custom, or self-guided tours throughout the American West and beyond. 

Owner Scott Lee is a lifelong motorcyclist and BMW certified tour guide and instructor trained in Hechlingen, Germany. His dedication to earning such lofty credentials is borne out in the quality of his tours. Each full service package comes with a Medjet membership for the duration of the trip at no extra charge. CMA’s Mercedes Sprinter van totes your gear and a spare bike, keeping you rolling fast and light, come what may.

Scott’s philosophy of “Find a way to say yes” permeates his tours and rental business and his preparation, as evidenced by our experience on the New Mexico BDR. He takes the worry out of the inevitable surprises so common in backcountry adventure travel. As a certified adventure riding coach, Scott is not only equipped to lead, but his suggestions for tackling a particularly challenging section of trail are priceless when the going gets tough.

Tours can range from challenging single track to scenic asphalt with a heavy emphasis on adventure touring. Available for rent are late model motorcycles, from the KTM 500 EXC and 690 to Husqvarna’s 701, up to the BMW F 800 and R 1200 GS or GS Adventure, plus the new Honda Africa Twin. Also available are street machines like the R 1200 RT and K 1600 GT.

Training, post-ride servicing, and storage are also on the menu for out-of-town folks who wish to keep a bike ready and waiting in Denver, www.coloradomotorcycleadventures.com.