Day 17 – Chama, NM to Cuba, NM

Waking up in the green glow of my tent, I had two immediate thoughts:

Number one; We are in New Mexico. Land of enchantment, missile ranges, and reputed horrible trails. Everyone from hikers to bicyclists carried a slightly exhausted look in their eyes while describing their experiences in this state.

Number two; “Gimme Shelter” is on repeat in my head, and I cannot turn it off. I would have much preferred something a little less foreboding; Maybe “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley. Rolling Stones it was though, no matter how hard I tried to change the channel.

The campground has great sun in the morning, and our dew-misted gear dried fairly quickly. Coffee went on, and we got busy packing up. Our GPS tracks for today have a number of exclamation points with progressive descriptions like “Steep Hill”, “Rocky Steep Hill” and “Rugged 4WD Steep Really Rocky”.  The lack of detail about the degree of rocky or steep, I found very disconcerting.

Packed up before Zina and Wayne again!  Zina audibly captions this photo while she takes it.  “The most annoying thing we see every morning”.  Was it Biggie-Smalls who said “Mo’ camping gear, mo’ problems”?  I can’t remember.

Checking into the bathroom to lose some digested weight, I found an interesting arrangement of furniture. Zina took the above shot in the women’s bathroom, which was identical to the mens. Some sort of waiting/fainting couch with ominous-looking stains and a desk chair?

I’m not a germaphobe, but I’d bet you a bottle of penicillin this couch has seen some skin, and probably some bodily fluids. Herpes lasts forever, which is why I remained standing while waiting for an open stall.

Not one of us is ever happy about having to do the “down and back”.  It seems a wasteful exercise, experiencing the same bit of road twice.  I didn’t mind it this morning though;  Coming over the pass last night in an lethargic, autopilot state didn’t leave me with any memories of this view.  Its gorgeous.

The Cumbres and Toltec scenic railroad operates out of Chama, and crosses the highway here. Construction crews were re-doing the railroad-to-road integration with a bunch of gravel.

Its a good excuse to give Lola a biscuit. I started walking over to the side of the road to dispose of the mornings coffee, only to stop myself and remember where I was.  This is civilization.  You don’t just get off your bike and take a piss in front of traffic and construction workers.  Only 17 days on the road, and I’d already lost my east-coast sensibilities.

There was to be no slow build-up to the rocky sections today.  Turning off Highway 17 onto our dirt tracks with “Gimmie Shelter” still playing in my head, Lola and I started to roll over some stones. Lots of stones.

I power my GPS from the accessory plug in the sidecar, and it had recently blown a fuse.  I suspected some wiring or ground might have come loose, so I replaced the fuse and went off battery power for a bit.

So far the road is just a really badly maintained cobblestone street.  A growing number of loose stones are strewn in the road though.  I hit a big one and heard a loud metallic *TWANG* ring out under the engine.  Bingo.  That skid plate just paid for itself.

Paul McCartney once said, “Things are getting better all the time”. He may be right, but not for us, and not today. The rocks grew bigger, the hills steeper, and my mood more apprehensive.

Right at this moment, I wished I had not researched this trip so obsessively.  When you run into a unknown section of rough trail or road, the hope that the nice portion comes back can keep you going all day long. Instead, I knew this was only going to get worse, which takes hope right out of the picture.

While the soft, weak, fleshy units atop the Ural had misgivings about the deteriorating terrain, the Ural itself didn’t seem to have any problems so far.  Some of the steeper terrain was strictly a first gear job, but it handled the rocky climbs easily.

The washes and the ruts started getting deeper, and more challenging to navigate through. The Duro 307’s are holding good grip up some of the loose rock and sand sections.  If I was still running the stock exhaust, I would have had to re-attach the mufflers at least twice here.

The trail conditions occasionally cleared up for a stretch, giving me hope for a morning of smooth sweeping bends and good speed…

… Only to lock up all three wheels, eyes as big as dinner plates with a dumb look on my face as I skidded to a stop just before these shock-busting suicide ruts.  Yikes.

Throw in some loose cylinder-head sized rocks, a dash more erosion and presto!  Now we have a party.  Shaken, not stirred seems to be be an appropriate description of our experience on the trails so far this morning.

This hill got the best of us. A couple sharp-turns before this section robbed the Ural of precious momentum. I revved and slipped the clutch trying to coax the rig forward. The wheels spit rocks all over the place before stalling.

I eased out of the way as Wayne and Zina went zipping by me, making it look effortless. I tried to get things going again, running alongside as I had done in Wyoming. But this didn’t work so well with the large rocks. The Ural bounced around so much, I realized continuing this way would surely end with the whole rig running me over.

I pulled the timing plug from the right side of the engine to let the clutch cool down. Wisps of acrid clutch smoke rose from the hole. What’s more, the back-side of the timing plug was wet with oil. Uh-oh.

I waited 10-15 minutes for the clutch and engine to cool down a bit. While waiting, I decided that the slow and cautious route wasn’t going to work for this climb. Kicking Lola out of the sidecar, I started the engine and clicked it into gear.

Revving the motor and slipping the clutch, I gritted my teeth and coaxed the stubborn steel mule up the rocky slope.  Once I was in the middle of the range, I pinned the throttle, stood up slightly from the saddle, and held on for the ride.

Lola barked and ran after me while the sidecar bucked and banged around, jumping in the air as the wheel hammered over boulders. Despite her desperate cries for me to wait up, the sidecar would have catapulted her into the woods if she was on board.

When I made it to the top and parked, I had the distinct impression that I had just been mugged. Stiffly dismounting the Ural, I checked it over for any obvious damage. Lola came running up shortly after, very confused as to why the sidecar left without her in it.  A biscuit combined with some butt scratches, and all was forgiven.

I checked my engine and transmission oil at the top and found no discernible loss. Chalking the oiled timing plug up to a seep at high RPM’s, we sat back to enjoy this view.  Still and quiet, the only noise coming from the Ural in steady metallic plinking as the engine cooled.

Everything is relative.  Earlier today, this was not a welcome sight.  After climbing up the boulder field, this feels pretty good.

Thankfully, things transitioned into the smooth, fast gravel I had been dreaming of while we bounced around this morning.  As we left the forest, the terrain opened up for us.

Some of my favorite moments on this trip are as simple as riding to the top of a hill, and realizing where you are. I spent a good five minutes here munching on a Clif bar, reflecting on how far we had come from the busy, wet forests of Montana.

Wide, open land with no fences! Of all the national forests we’d passed through, Carson N.F. in New Mexico gave us mostly fenceless views.

The mild bouldering we did this morning took its toll though.  The fundamental need for sleep and rest had overpowered Lola’s pee-on-everything instinct.  I was worried we might have overdone it, until she jumped up and pranced around for a treat.

Blurry? You try taking a still photo while in a bouncy house.

Large clumps of sharp lava shelves spanning the width of the road kept us from really cruising in comfort.

All day, the trail had teased us with nice sections of hard-packed smooth road.  You’d get on a bit, and think “Here we go!”, and wind it on with a smile.  Mere minutes later, we are back in 2nd gear, getting knocked around by rocks, ruts or potholes.

More evidence of how badly the roads handle any moisture.  Anyone unlucky enough to find themselves here in a downpour, is likely going to stay here for awhile.

But when the roads are good, they are good.  Today has been a very bipolar experience.  One moment we’re being rolled down an endless flight of rocky stairs, and the next soaking up views at 40mph with broad grins.

“Lunch in Vallecitos!” Wayne exclaimed as we took off from the pavement.  I had visions of tamales and tacos, washed down with a bottle of sugar-cane Coca-Cola.  I secretly hoped we could find a real hole-in-the-wall Taqueria that serves tongue tacos.  Salivation town, population me.

The bulb of culinary anticipation dimmed a bit when we entered the main drag.  If the one gas station in this town can’t make a living here, the chances of a quality taco shop holding on, seemed remote.

Passing the last broken down, likely vacant home on the road, my hopes and dreams of a taco lunch evaporated. We stopped outside Vallecitos for a break. I stiffly dismounted the Ural, and collapsed in a heap against a pine tree. Lunch would have to be a collection of granola bars.

My enthusiasm for riding the Ural through another extensive rock garden was nonexistent. Lola laid down next to me, and promptly fell asleep while still in a steady pant.

The worst of the rocky terrain is still ahead of us.  Opinions from everyone we asked did not paint a pleasant picture of this particular portion of the trails.  Sensing my despair, Zina and Wayne offered an out.  If I wasn’t feeling up to it, why not just bypass the entire section on pavement?

I agreed immediately.  Instead of hitting pavement the whole way though, we’d find a route through as much dirt as we could.  Out came the maps and the laptop.

I repeatedly asked Wayne and Zina if they wouldn’t regret riding that portion of the trail. After all, they handled far worse on the TAT, on a daily basis. Each time I asked them, they said they’d rather bypass it.

I knew deep down, both Wayne and Zina would have been perfectly happy to go rally up some rocks. I’m eternally grateful they were willing to accommodate Lola and I.

Wayne and I built a route off the Gazetteer maps, and created a track right there in the middle of the woods.  After transferring the route to everyone’s GPS units (it sure helps that we all use the same 60CSx), it was time to hit it.

The original route is in magenta, while the route we came up with is in red.  Our tracks are based off BigDog’s GDR tracks, which use the cyclists tracks wherever possible.  Where it was not possible, he created his own routes through.

Needless to say, BigDog was not riding with his dog, or on a Ural when he created this track.  If he was, he might have chosen a different route.

We hit the pavement to Abiquiu, to get gas and provisions.  The lower elevations, and the burning sun turned the mesa into a toaster oven.  Guess who’s the hot-pockets in this equation?

Signs of our transition into a desert landscape cropped up everywhere.  Crusty brown earth and randomly placed Yuccas dotted the view eroded, red rocky cliffs.

The Frosty Cow just inside Abiquiu is a required stop for folks on the Great Divide.  Quite literally a shaded lactose oasis in the desert.  By now, the ice-cream stop was a standing order for every day.

Simon got some nice licks of Zina’s coffee flavored ice-cream to power him through the rest of the day.  The eldest of our group, I’m continually amazed how much energy he has every time he jumps out of his backpack.  I suspected she was slipping some coffee into his food in the morning to keep him chipper.

Per our re-route, we took the pavement out of Abiquiu on US-84, before turning on the highway 96.

On the subject of oases, the blue-green water of the Abiquiu dam sure gives off that vibe in this desert scenery.

Nice curves and bright red canyons made the highway detour much more tolerable.  Just an hour without having my spinal column jackhammered over rocks and ruts has done wondrous things for my spirits.

After 17 miles of pavement, we started the dirt portion of the bypass Wayne and I created.  Some of these forest service roads can be a real grab-bag of conditions, and  I was elated to find ourselves on fast gravel once again.  No sign of shock-busting potholes, or teeth rattling rocks means good speed and relaxation.

The roads had completely flipped my attitude, cruising along with a huge smile on my face. Gravel bounced off the metal fenders in a crescendo as we throttled up around corners.  These are the roads the Ural is built for, and I could sense the harmony of machine and terrain.  

We came across this very unique rock, in the middle of this open, forested meadow.  Quite a strange sight, given the lack of rocks in this area.  A nice little surprise in the middle of the forest.

Plenty of bovine friends here with us, munching away at the meadows.  Most paid us no attention as we zoomed by.

“If mom doesn’t’ care about the camouflaged streak that just zipped by, I guess I don’t need to either”.  Its usually the wee-toddy cows that loose their mind when we go by, and try to bust through a fence, or make sudden direction changes.  The bigger bovines know better.

While the rocky, rugged trail would have definitely been a more challenging route, I found our re-route to be the most fun.  Short of the few pavement sections, this was the best dirt road we had been on all day.  Without a tangled mess of rocks and roots to ride over, the Ural just hummed effortlessly through the forest.

Lola was doing better too, though her weary eyes spoke the truth.  “Hey dude.  We’ve been at this for awhile.  When can I poop and go to sleep for 12-14 hours?”.  Soon little girl.  Soon.

Stopping at a pay-to-camp area in the national forest, we pulled out maps to evaluate our options for sleeping. While bears are not very prevalent in these parts, after the dogs discovered some scrap bones from previous campers in this area, we chose to press on and find somewhere less…. used.

While stopped, I checked the oil levels in the Ural. I was more than a little alarmed to find the engine oil was down by about 1/2 a quart. A freshly oiled patch of grime smeared on the “shelf” under the transmission confirmed my fears. The rear main seal, isn’t seeping.  Its leaking.

It was my turn to find a campsite, and after a quick study of the topographical features on my GPS, I followed some two-track up a steep hill to an idyllic setting for our first wild camp in New Mexico.

Situated at 9,000 feet, right on the edge of a ridge a small stand of trees shaded us slightly from the setting sun, while still letting plenty through to brighten our campsite.

And beyond that stand of trees, a profound view of the land we’d be riding in tomorrow.  “I bet we can see all the way into Grants!” I exclaimed to Wayne.  The tone in his response permeated doubts that our line of sight was that far.

Zina whipped up a dinner of chicken-a-la-king over rice, with some slowly-defrosted vegetables we picked up in Abiquiu earlier on.  More delicious healthy eating on the trail.

We spent the remainder of fading light watching the sun slowly disappear over the horizon from atop our high perch.

I tried to bring Lola to the edge of the cliff for a nice Kodak moment together. She was having none of it and trotted back to the campsite in indignation. No treats or promise of more sidecar rides could get her anywhere near the ledge.

As a small puppy, she got stuck in a storm drain (both her front legs fell through the gaps in the grate). Ever since that moment, cliffs, ledges, cattle guards and storm drains are just a few of the things she wants nothing to do with. Riding in a sidecar all day long at 45mph eating june-bugs? No problem.

The last colors of the clouded sunset slowly faded to an even dark blue, and we turned in for the night. A long day for Lola and I, stockpiled with highs and lows. I still wrestled with the choice to bypass the rough-n-rocky section outside Abiquiu.

In my heart, I know we could have gotten the Ural through the rocky bits, and I know it would have made for some impressive photos and stories. I simply wasn’t willing to risk dog or machine to make it happen. The bypass offered up the scenery and fun, without the struggle.

Easy way out? For sure. I’m not sponsored by Ural, and there is no truck at a campsite 30 miles away to come collect us in the event things go pear-shaped out here. The point of this trip is to have fun, and after a morning on the rough stuff, the bypass route offered up plenty of fun.

Days Mileage: 180 miles
Total Mileage: 3,106 miles


  1. These photos are amazing! Sounds like you made the right decision. A little bit of jackhammer riding goes a long way. Enjoying every word, and don’t want your trip to end.

  2. You made the right decisions Alex….I’ve been down rough trails and prolonged exposure to such rocky conditions aren’t good for the rig. As you know, its not so much the big rocks, but the steep slopes and smoking the clutch if you lose momentum… easy to do.

    Good ride report!


  3. Great report … I completely burnt the clutch on my 2012 Gear-Up … cost a packet to replace! That is the most fragile component on Urals … But hey, we live and we learn. Have fun man! Stay safe!!

  4. I did replace the stock clutch with the new 2013 “MR Cob” style clutch plates before I left. A mechanical gamble, but I figured we’d be going through some stuff like this, and didn’t want to smoke the whole thing in one day.

    Big rocks, even submerged on the road really do a number on you day in and day out. The 3.5″ of suspension on the Ural handles most of it, and the space between spinal column discs handles the rest. I probably shrunk 2″ since the start of the trip.

  5. Yup, smoked my clutch on a 2012 Patrol. Worse part was the friction plate exploding and locking the clutch ‘engaged’. You can nurse a slipping clutch…locked in gear makes it tough to get off the mountain.

    Fantastic ride report, everyday I log on hoping you’ve uploaded another day’s stories!

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