Day 18 – Cuba, NM to Pie Town, NM

I’m jolted awake in grey morning light when something hits me in the face.  As focus and comprehension start to set in, I get hit in the face again, in a rapid staccato. As I recoil my head and look over, paws are flying through the air as if running through an imaginary meadow.  Lola’s having puppy dreams again, and letting out occasional muffled barks.  Welcome to life traveling with a dog.

It’s surprisingly chilly in the morning, and I find myself yet again in my sleeping bag with my skivvies on.  Why do I keep doing this?  Several minutes pass before I work up the determination to leave the down warmth for the morning air.

The stove went on, water was boiled, and coffee distributed.  A 10-foot walk from the camp to this rock, we got a beautiful view of the sun rising over the valleys below.  Visibility?  Endless.

These canyons certainly give irish canyon in Colorado a run for its money.

Camp packed up, fluids and spark plugs checked; Down the short gravel forest road onto highway 126 into Cuba.

Culinary options in Cuba at 8:00am on a Friday were few.  Floppy gas-station pastries, or a McDonalds breakfast.  We settled on McMuffins after gassing up.

Lola watches me go in to place my order, hoping in earnest I bring back a hash brown for her. (I did, and she got some of it).

While I was waiting for my breakfast, Wayne struck up some conversation with a Jeep enthusiast.  While I forget his name, he gave us some great info on the roads, and what to expect.  With the exception of some major sandy washouts and a few rocky areas, he used the word “super-highway” quite often.

Lucky, lucky, lucky is all I could think to myself.  Somehow, even with blue skies and a steadily climbing sun, the temperatures are still very enjoyable.  This is New Mexico, in mid-July.  I expected the kind of melt-your-face-off temperatures that would reduce Lola and I into puddles of sweat and drool.

After our short stint on the pavement, we turned into BLM lands. Things are really starting to feel like the desert.

Good hard-packed roads, smoother than asphalt for most of this stretch, lead to much head-swiveling.

Lush green areas in the desert mean trouble.  You might look at this and think about roosting through it in 2WD with a rebel yell.  Don’t.  You will get stuck, and your compatriots will curse your name over campfires for years to come.

Scout for a route around.  Usually its as simple as going around the bright green area.

Notice how all the truck tracks go around it too?  Don’t be a hero.

Zina and Wayne make it no problem.  The Ural handles the bypass without issue, though I am left picking bits of sagebrush out of the sidecar undercarriage.  Everything sure smells nice now though.

There is natural erosion, vehicle and shod erosion, and then there is cattle erosion.  Its real nice of them to all walk right in the middle though, and leave the sides smooth for us.

Over time, the roads speak to you;  Or rather you finally comprehend what they’ve been trying to tell you all along.  A wide wash on either side of the road will almost certainly cross the road at some point.  Hitting this at 40mph would probably send you right into a Yucca tree.

The road also gives you a good show, changing colors and textures as wheels roll.

Wind and water sculpted rocks abound here, reminding me of the rivers and arroyos that transform the earth each season.  Like gaps on piston rings, or wear on valve guides;  Everything in this world is in a state of change, all the time.

The rains from a few days ago here are still keeping the dust down.  Its not often we can ride this close together without chewing spoonfuls of each others dirt.

The road curves on, the wheels roll and the Ural hums.  Blue skies on my motorcycle through the desert with my best friend.  It doesn’t get much better than this.

Even the dotted thickets of sagebrush start to fade as we push further southwest…

… and the dust returns with a vengeance.  We stretch out pretty far from each other to save our lungs and air filters.

What the desert lacks in greenery, it repays in rocky diversity.  Seems around every corner you pass a thousand year old element-carved statue.

How many other travelers laid their eyes on these formations?  How many people used them as landmarks while traveling through this open country for weeks on end?

If you want to be reminded how small and insignificant you are in this world, spend some time in the desert.

We followed our track off the “main” county road, onto this secondary road which winds through a lot of ranching property.

Complete with loose rocks, and some deeper deposits of sand in areas, conditions got a bit more exacting.

Sun transforms the impassable mud into rock-hard road hazards.  While it may look soft, Lola and I can assure you it is not.

Stopping to check the engine oil, I’m transfixed by my surroundings.  While we are not so far away from civilization (50-60 miles), I felt complete isolation.  When the engine dipstick informed me that I hadn’t lost any oil since yesterday, I felt better about our location.  Hiking out of here would be a long, sweaty endeavor.

The Ural continually exceeds my expectations.  While I’m quite aware its inadequacies, I’ve been surprised at how well you can ride it in across a wide variety of surfaces without trouble.  Once you take speed out of the equation, it just keeps on chugging up and over just about anything.

This road crosses many arroyos, and as a result has different characteristics at each one.  Some are rocky, sandy and washed out, with sharp edges you have to descend into, and then out of.

Entering more civilized areas, means we had to start doing the gate-rodeo.  I ride up and open the gate for Wayne and Zina to ride through.  I ride off, and they close it behind us.

Ranch budgets are communicated by the gate and latching devices.  Some well-worn bailing wire and a fishing hook?  Scraping by.  A fancy, painted and hinged ordeal complete with an actual latch?  Folks must be rolling.

The only shade for miles, I grabbed a large handful of brake, and ducked in with Lola to cool down and take a snack break.

Our bovine friends clearly come here for social hour, as fossilized cow pies littered the shaded area.  Didn’t bother us any, as we sat right down in it for a ‘trail-lunch’ of smuggled super-8 cinnamon rolls, and cliff bars.

The direct sunlight had slowly-steam cooked me inside my riding jacket, while only broiling Lola.  Still sore from yesterdays rough ride, I thought long and hard about laying down on top of those cow pies for a siesta.  Lola as usual, was way ahead of me.

Ultimately, my wanderlust trumped our desire to nap.  The thought of waking up with a face full of fecal matter didn’t make the choice too difficult.

This culvert had been recently replaced.  The pile of bent, twisted and broken culverts in the background tells the story here.  Weather re-shapes this land with every season, giving no quarter to man-made roads or drainage systems.

One bad rain storm through here could really throw a wrench in our plans.  Copious rainfall means not only impassable road conditions, but washed out roads and arroyos, and the danger of flash flooding.  Its beautiful here, and yet subtly very dangerous. (I think the danger enhances the beauty).  Riding into an angry storm cloud while traveling here isn’t heroic.  It’s stupid.

Some well built haciendas lay baking in the sun.  Many of these lay in “No Trespassing” ranch areas, which essentially mean you can use the road, but not wander around.  If you decide to go poke around in there, don’t be surprised if a rancher sticks a shotgun in your face. Respect their property.

The seldom-maintained access roads gave way to beautiful gravel.  As we passed through our last ranch gate, Wayne gave me a big thumbs up, and I let off a fist pump.  Higher speeds mean more air-conditioning for everyone.

Gravel to pavement, and back to gravel as we cross into Cibola National Forest.  I stopped to fill-up from my last jerry can while Zina and Wayne rolled on.

Climbing 4,000 feet into the mountains cooled things off considerably.  Hard-packed gravel winding through the forest made all the hard work in the desert this morning worthwhile.

“It’s a goddamn christmas miracle!” I shouted to Lola over the wind noise.  Wide and fast gravel, without back-breaking washboards?  Unheard of.

Lola stands alert for squirrels starting their kamikaze runs across the road, barking loudly while they gather courage at the side of the road.

I stop again to check the engine oil.  I lost a bit through the desert, but only around 1/4 of a quart.  Despite the tears of oil slicking down the side of the bell housing from the timing plug, the clutch is still gripping great and everything is working fine.

We caught up with Zina and Wayne at the end of the nice gravel, and followed them into Grants on the asphalt.

I would have loved to visit Grants during its peak in the 1980’s along US-66.  I really do feel I missed out on a significant Route-66 experience.  America’s most popular highway, transformed into a set of bleak, mindless interstates bypassing entire townships for the sake of efficiency.  The real history of the road, lay rusting and crumbling all along the original route.

Gassed up and ready for more, we headed south out of Grants on highway 117.  The road sits at the bottom of some really extraordinary rock formations.

These are The Narrows, just south of Grants, New Mexico.  Nestled in there is a natural arch and some really impressive views.  After 30 minutes through here, I vowed to return one day with Kait, both dogs and the truck for some camping and hiking.

Lola wasn’t interested in any sights, and curled up for a nap.  The 30 mile jaunt on smooth pavement offered her some quality sleep without bouncing around chaotically, like an unsecured refrigerator in a pickup truck.

Where are we headed?  Pie Town, my own personal Mecca.  Growing up, my mom always made pies for my dad’s birthday, and the rest of us got birthday cakes.  Now, I have nothing against cake, but pie has always been the highest form of dessert in my eyes.  Ever since my mom presented me with the option of pie for my birthday, it has been so.

For my birthday, Kait bakes me a pie for every week of October.  Where others may grow tired of pie over time (or continued consumption), I do not.  I even find delight in the mushy, undercooked diner pies you find in lighted glass coolers.  To this day, I’ve never had a truly bad slice of pie.

Turning off onto the access road to pie-town, I wound the throttle to the stop and pointed forward confidently, like a Colonel in a cavalry charge.  Look to the north, fair Pie-Town;  For a bottomless stomach rides a camouflaged horse on the winds of the Ural mountains forthwith, to devour and digest all that makes your town holy. 

Fifty-five miles per hour in a plume of dust and rattles, we bore down with great intensity for our destination.  The time was 4:00pm, and the last open pie shop in town, closed at 5:00pm.

The hour is late, and I spurred the Ural along the road at highway speeds.  I rested my hand on the right-hand cylinder to feel if it was overheating.  It took only 5 seconds to cook through my thin ranch gloves, informing me that temperatures were right on the edge.

The Pie-o-Neer cafe.  At long last, we had arrived at the epicenter of good pie in the southwest.

Still open, with only two pies left after the day, I immediately ordered two large slices of both and a coffee from Megan.

While hopeful dogs look on, I started devouring my slices of oat-pecan and green-chili-chocolate pie in-between slurps of hot coffee.  The exuberant owner (Kathy) came out, taking photos of all of us and asking about our story.  In terms of GDR/CDT friendly towns, I do believe this is the best we had encountered so far.

We made sure to make appropriate entries into our guest book while enjoying the pie.  I inquired about a known hostel-house that GDR/CDT hikers and bicyclists stay at when in town.  Megan grinned and gave us directions to the house, adding that while there was no hot water for showers, the next door RV park offered showers.

This house is human trust and generosity at its greatest.  Dedicated for trail weary travelers, nearly every hiker or biker spends anywhere from a night to a week here, preparing for the next leg of the journey.

“Nita” owns the house, and raised her whole family here, before buying property further outside of town.  Rather than sell the house, she kept it, and opens it for everyone.  It runs on a donation basis (food or currency), the only request being that you write an entry in the guest log.

Its a wonderful house, filled with trinkets left by travelers on their way north or south.  Each room opens up like a novel, and the walls read like pages;  Stories and tales of those who’ve come before us.

Oh and what’s this?  A fresh baked pie?  For us?  This is now officially the best town ever.

We settled in quite quickly, and made a communal grab-bag meal.

Some soup over rice, ramen noodles, a microwave pizza (from the freezer out back) and my FIRST beer of the entire trip. Its been awhile since I’ve had a Rolling Rock.

For all those beer snobs out there; Beer gets better with mileage, not age. The cold and frothy lager made a nice punctuation mark on a beautiful day of motorcycling with friends, new and old.

Days Mileage: 198 miles
Total Mileage: 3,304 miles


  1. Indeed!
    Great report.
    Loved ones and friends … old and new, really is what it is al about!

  2. I’ve always wanted a Ural and reading your story has cemented into my mind. Can’t wait to read the next days journey!

  3. I have spent the last two days indulging in your ride. My husband and I honeymooned on his KTM 990 in Utah, with a follow up trip the next year. The past two summers, we took the Jeep to Colorado so the dogs could come along for the fun. Now I’m inspired to someday own a pair of Ural’s so we can bring them on a bike trip.

    Love your writing style, photos, and spirit. I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of your journey.

  4. Anymore updates, or is the ride over?

  5. Sorry everybody! I’m working on the next installment; I was away for a number of days on a 2,000 mile camping trip with some friends in MT/WY/ID. Getting things back in gear. There are four more days of sidecar fun, plus epilogue. Sorry for the wait!

  6. What do you do for a living, that you have this much time off to “live the dream?” I also love your writting style. I am in the Air Force serving in South Korea & you and the pictures have giveng me a taste of home. I ride with you in spirit. Last November I bought my first motorcycle: A 2012 Ural Yamal. Almost have it paid off. Thank you sincerly, Alex, for sharing your trip. i have to wait until next May (2014) to ride. I am from the Chicago area, but my rig in in New Richmond, WI. Peace

  7. How dare you take a real vacation from our vicarious vacation through your blog! Glad to know there is more to come.

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