Monday, November 14, 2016

~ Exploring the Badlands of New Mexico, Johnny Cash style ~

“Love is a burning thing.” - Johnny Cash.

The badlands of New Mexico.

Just two weeks earlier, I was returning from Mount Rainier National Park in Washington on my motorcycle after 8 days and 2,300 miles.  I did not expect so quickly to travel out to the badlands of New Mexico but the La Joya fiestas start in a few days.  

I was born in the adobe house built by my dad.  La Joya, like a magnet, is always pulling me home.  My bike does not complain, and I feel, it senses another adventure is before us.  It is such a dependable mount.

My alarm rings wildly at 5 a.m.  This is way too early for me, but I move toward the shower to wake up.  Denise is sound asleep, so I am quiet.  My bike is ready to go, everything in the best spot possible.  It looks good, but down deep inside, I know that the gear that packed so well in the garage will go stubbornly into new places in the days ahead.  

My bike fires up nicely and I’m off by 5:45 a.m.

Life on two wheels is exhilarating.

McDonald’s serves me breakfast in Lindsay on Highway 65.  My order arrives quickly and the coffee smells good.  This seems to be a gathering place for many men who are laughing and telling stories.  The three over there are older guys, and all have on baseball caps.  

There is another older gentleman sitting next to me who asks quietly, “Is that your motorcycle?”  I nod.  He speaks quietly and says that he owns a motorcycle too but doesn’t ride much anymore.  “I mostly take it to motorcycle shows these days,” and adds proudly, “I’ve won several first and second-place finishes.”  He looks surprised to hear that I’m heading off for New Mexico.  “How many miles?  Wow.  Ride safe,” he adds as he hears the miles and that I’m traveling alone.

Breakfast is good ~ sausage patties on biscuits, hash browns, orange juice, and coffee.  The three older gentlemen are leaving, and they are walking around my bike.  They are seriously looking it over, shaking their heads with big smiles.  One slaps the other on his back.  I can’t hear what they are saying but it obvious that they like it.  One looks over my American flag and again shakes his head.  They all are walking slowly and each gets into separate pickup trucks with farm equipment and bales of hay in the back.  Must be some tough ranchers.  

I suspect that they all rode horses in their younger days.  My iron horse sparked some vivid memories.

The first day will be a good 552 miles.  I know what lays ahead and camp number one is just south of Ash Fork, Arizona.  But up ahead and halfway to Ash Fork is Barstow, California.  This is a place where I grew up and my brother Leo is likely at his office at the Barstow Police Department.  I call him 50 miles from Barstow, “Leo, do you want to have lunch today with Ronan, maybe at Plata’s Restaurant?”  “I can’t, I have two prisoners in custody, good luck on your trip he adds quickly.” 

What do you do when 6 CHP patrol cars pull up behind you? Lunch.

I met Ronan, another detective, a few years ago on one of my trips out east.  He rides a cool Indian motorcycle and will meet me at Plata’s for lunch.  As I pull up to Plata’s, there is a CHP patrol car directly behind me.  Then, there are four more patrol cars that pull up within seconds.  It seems that they were there for a lunch celebration and I thought the worst.

Ronan's Indian Vintage.

Ronan buys me lunch and we talk about motorcycle trips.  I like him.  He is French and we have a good time over some great Mexican food.  “If you want, stop by my house and take the Indian out for a ride,” he says casually.  

I have been seriously looking at the Indian motorcycle and this opportunity is too good to pass up.  We go to his house and hands me his key, “Take it out on the freeway, open it up, and get a good feel for the bike.”  I did just that.  It accelerated to 80 mph easily and a 6th gear was a treat.  “Thanks, Ronan, that was a smooth ride on the freeway.  You have an awesome machine.”

Those memories would last a long time as I crossed the Colorado River from California into Arizona.  This first day is a long one.  I drink several Gatorades as I fill up my gas tank.  This is a hot spot; the thermometer reads 110 degrees.

Middle Satellite camp ~ south of Ash Fork, AZ.

Now that I’m past Kingman the temperature begins to drop, slowly, then quickly.  At Ash Fork, I’ll travel 9 miles south on Highway 89 to US Forest Service lands where I’ll camp tonight.  The Harvest Moon is bright and I quickly collect firewood and call this home.  

It is quiet here; I call this camp, middle satellite.  There are no others around.  The coyote in the distance is my companion. The fire is easy with an abundance of wood.  Dinner is easy too and my bed is just nearby.  The full moon provides all the light necessary for the night.  

My small transistor radio picks up Window Rock and the Navajo chants, and occasion country-western music carry me somewhere next to heaven.  I listen to the chants intently as I stir the fire.  I can see the Navajo dancers doing the same, if only in another time.

Normally, I heat up water for coffee and have my traditional cowboy breakfast.  Today will be different, as the Road House Cafe is just ten miles away.  “Two eggs over easy, corn beef hash, hash browns, sourdough toast, and coffee,” rolls offs automatically.  Actually, I’ve thought about this order for the last 10 miles.  The waitress records my order and the coffee is perfect.

Years ago, there was a local customer, who talked constantly.  We called him Gabby Hayes.  You did not want to sit next to him as he could easily talk the paint off a wall.  There are hunters having breakfast too and they are discussing plans.  They are hunting elk.  I like Ash Fork and breakfast is delicious.  My plan today is to camp at El Morro National Monument in New Mexico.

El Morro National Monument.

Juan Oñate ~ Pasó por Aqui.

El Morro National Monument is unique.  This campground has 9 sites and this will be home for tonight.  The fee is zero.  Just register and claim your spot.  It is quiet and peaceful.  The moon is still full and it brightly lights up the sandstone cliffs beckoning me to climb which I’ll do in the morning.  

History tells us that Juan Oñate traveled by here and inscribed his name on the sandstone walls.  In 1598, Oñate searched for gold but found little.  The precious water here at El Morro kept his expedition alive.  He had many members on his expedition, charted by Queen Isabella of Spain.  

Juan Griego and his wife Pascuala Bernal were among them.  So for me, this is a special place.  As I look over the immense landscape, I think they may have seen the very same views.  The Griegos were early Spanish pioneers to America.

My third leg of this trip is an easy one.  Belen is just ahead where I’ll visit my 1st cousin Tudie Romeo. There is a surprise.  Another cousin, James Garcia, is visiting as well and this is a special moment. Tudie’s wife Erlinda fixes us a nice New Mexico lunch, with freshly peeled hot green chili.  They hear about my adventures and know that I’m off for the La Joya fiestas.  James rides a Harley and has taken several trips to Sturgis.  He is a former resident of Barstow, a Vietnam Veteran, a biker, and my cousin.

The curve in the road descending down into La Joya has always been magical.  As a kid, the anticipation of this curve meant soon seeing our La Joya families.  The cemetery is on my left at the bottom of the hill, and with a quick glance, I say I will visit tomorrow.

Camp is simple.  Although I do not sleep inside the adobe house, I know full well that this is where I was born 67 years ago.  My fire is warm and bright.  The fiestas start in a few hours as I wash off as much as possible 1,200 miles of dust.  The lively music, old friends, green chili, beans, and sopapillas await.  I know that my mom and dad and all my uncles and aunts who did the very same thing long ago are happy that I’m here in La Joya.

Family friend, Stanley Esquibel in the adobe house where I was born.

As the music begins, I cross the pasture near the dance hall with my flashlight.  There are two horses grazing nearby.  I sure hope they leave my gear alone continuing towards the church, laughter, and the bright lights. 

“I have a special request,” as the lead musician leans over to hear what I say.  “Please dedicate the next song to Ernie Griego.  He is recovering from knee surgery in Barstow and could not come here this year.”  He shakes his head, and the announcement is made.  

The dancers go onto the dance floor and the beat of the Mexican song is lively.  Ernie would be out there dancing now if he could.  This song is for you!

The La Joya fiestas.

The cemetery is there.  I see that Marcello has been busy planting flowers with a water drip system to keep them growing.  My respects are paid quietly to all our families as I hum the words of Roberto Griego’s, Arriba Nuevo Mexico ~ “…los Griegos, Romeros, y los Moyas…”

Sofia’s Kitchen in Socorro is perhaps the best Mexican restaurant in the state.  The food is exceptional and they sometimes have live music.  Decision time.  “Sir, red or green on your huevos rancheros?”  The pause tells her that my decision is difficult. “Today it will be red.  Please add some sopapillas too.” 

"Huevos rancheros with red chili please!"

Three musicians enter the restaurant with their guitars.  They wear cowboy hats and I remember the lead cowboy from a few years ago. 

Doug Figgs sings ~ A Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash.

His name is Doug Figgs.  

I pass him a note letting him know how much I love his cowboy lyrics and music.  His wife comes to my table and asks if there is a song I’d like to hear.  Honored, I reply “Anything by Johnny Cash.”  “The next song will be by Johnny Cash,” she says as she walks back to the stage where she whispers in his ear.  There are two additional musicians and with the next song, they strum the cords to Johnny Cash’s song ~ A Ring of Fire.  I loved it! 

My route home is along the slower scenic highway 60.  At Springerville, Arizona I’ll go north on 180 and 91 to Chinle.  The campground run by the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation is perfect for the night.  I normally lay down my camping tarp and sleep on the ground.  Not tonight.  

There are millions of small red ants everywhere.  Most of the other campers around are in RV trailers.  There are several cottonwood trees and I rig up my hammock and think about tomorrow.

Canyon De Chelly National Monument campground.

I have seen Canyon De Chelly National Monument before from the high canyon walls and hiked down into the canyon.  Tomorrow, I’ll hire a Navajo guide and travel horseback into the canyon.  This is such an inspiring and sacred place.  I've ridden extensively in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and I'm looking forward to this particular horse ride.

Canyon De Chelly National Monument.

Stanley, of the Tso’s Horse Tours, greets me warmly at 9:30 a.m. as promised.  “It looks like it will be only the two of us,” he says finishing up his breakfast.  Then he gets a call that a second person will join us.  John is from Alabama and the three of us trot off into the canyon's quiet and the past.  

Stanley, our Navajo guide ~ Canyon De Chelly National Monument.

Having a Navajo guide adds so much history to the ride and Stanley seems to love what he does.  In a quiet moment, Stanley’s horse bolts left, then right.  After controlling his steed, Stanley leads him back to where it got spooked.  “Look,” Stanley says to his horse in Navajo.  “It is just a stick.”  Laughing, he says that they ride up here thousands of times and his horse still thinks that the stick is a snake. 

The Navajo reservation is huge and I am on small roads.  Approaching Leupp, I spot a van selling tamales. "They are freshly made and hot," the Navajo man tells me.  "We have green and red chili tamales," he adds.  I find a little shade and enjoy three delicious tamales ~ 1 red and 2 green.

A welcomed sight in Leupp, AZ.

In Barstow, Leo is getting off work and we head off to his house for some tamales, green chili, and beans.  I’m impressed.  Irma is not home and Leo prepares dinner by himself.  Something unheard of by many of us.  It will be dark traveling home but the cool air feels good. 

It has been a great 7-day trip out to the fiestas of La Joya and having a Johnny Cash song played for me was special.  

I arrive home in Three Rivers near midnight after 2,171 incredible miles.


  1. Hello Robert, I recently discovered your site and the sharing of your many adventures,great stuff.A close longtime family friend and much more ,was also a "iron cowboy" a member of the LAFD fire hogs and very much a "Lone Ranger" on many solo rides. His name is Danny Cypert, someday when your travels take you on route 66,about 20 something miles east of Kingman, take the time to stop a round mile marker 88; Danny's memorial is located there, can be challenging to locate but well worth the effort. The memorial was erected by LAFD,Kingman FD,as well as Highway Patrol and others.After reading your many adventures, I thought of Danny and how much you two were very much like.Yes Robert, as you often refer to your NPS former life; our lives did cross paths at SEKI,regrettably I never knew Robert Greigo,the person.

  2. I will see this memorial for your friend one day. I don't know when, but it will happen.