It happened the summer before my sophomore year in high school. We were living in Hobbs, New Mexico. It was 1972.
My friend Doug and I spent the summer riding our 10-speed bicycles all over town, and somehow along the way we decided to take an epic bike trip across the state. After discussing all our options, we determined to ride our bikes to Cloudcroft, 168 miles from Hobbs with a 5,000’ increase in elevation. Doug’s uncle worked at a hotel in Cloudcroft, and we figured we could spend the night with him, then ride back home.
Looking back, I realize this is the sort of over-the-top challenge that usually results from the combination of bragging and alcohol, but there was no alcohol involved in any of this. Rather, it was just the youthful yearning for epic adventure.
My bike was a Volkscycle, purchased at Mack’s Sharp Shop down the street from our house. I have no idea what Doug rode, but both bikes were standard-issue 1970-era 10-speeds. Heavy, in today’s terms.
We didn’t have any cool cycling gear. I wore Levi cut-offs and a tank top, the official summer uniform of 1972. We certainly didn’t have any performance cycling clothing, and probably didn’t know it existed. We didn’t have helmets since it was safer back then. I had a hippy-style floppy hat. I don’t remember gloves, either. I’m also sure we wore our Stan Smith tennis shoes.
We traveled with sleeping bags, one change of clothes, food, water, and tools for roadside repairs. All of that was tied onto our bikes. I’m sure we also took money, but I don’t remember how much … probably not near enough since teenagers always underestimate how much money it takes to do anything. I only have one photo of the trip. Before digital cameras people didn’t take as many photos as they do now.
We left Hobbs one Friday morning at 6:00 AM and took Highway 62/180 west toward an intersection of roads called Arkansas Junction. Then, we joined NM Highway 529 and rode and rode and rode. We stayed on the narrow shoulder of the two-lane highway, hanging onto our bikes as oil field trucks whizzed past.
It was a long, lonely highway and we didn’t come to our first town until we reached Loco Hills, NM, 52 miles from Hobbs. In the small café there was a chalkboard that said, “Today’s menu: Bowl of chili or Hamburger.” We had hamburgers. It was too hot for chili.
We rolled out of Loco Hills after lunch and headed west on US Highway 82 toward Artesia, another 20 miles away. Our original plan was to ride through Artesia and on to Hope, a tiny town with population less than 100, where we would camp on the ground for the night. There was an abandoned gas station beside the highway, and we figured we could set up under the awning.
Remarkably, we had no flat tires and only one minor roadside repair. I don’t even remember what broke, but I do remember repairing it with a piece of bailing wire I found alongside the road.
We rode together all the way into Artesia until Doug got sick. I think he’d been suffering for a long time but wouldn’t talk about it. Once we crossed the city limits, however, he got off his bike and threw up into the bushes. It wasn’t a good sign for the rest of our adventure.
It was clear to both of us by now that we were in no shape to continue, but being guys, we’d have kept going to the point of collapse, neither of us wanting to be the one to quit. However, now that Doug was obviously sick, it was over. He said, “This is it for me. I can’t go any further.” He had been recovering from a case of mononucleosis and thought it was all behind him, but 78 miles of bike riding brought it all back. It was a gift for both of us. It was better to stop in a town than alongside a deserted New Mexico highway, and by this time we both knew there was a zero chance we’d complete the trip.
Doug knew a family friend on the Artesia police force; we phoned him, and he took us in for the afternoon. We slept for a long time in the air conditioning at his house. Doug phoned his parents who agreed to drive to Artesia and bring us back to Hobbs.
As it turned out, a huge thunderstorm rolled off the mountains that night and dumped 2” of rain on Hope. We would’ve been soaked in our sleeping bags had we spent the night there. It was one more confirmation we made the best decision.
The call of adventure is a mighty thing. The urge to do something bigger than ourselves, to live our lives in the big story can be irresistible. Doug and I had ridden all the roads in Hobbs that summer and we needed something bigger to do. The fact we were unable to complete our trip was surely a blessing since we weren’t fit enough or equipped enough for what we were trying to do, but it is still one of my happiest memories. It was a time when my friend and I were brave and reckless and bulletproof and willing to try the impossible.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32