Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Angie’s cafe

December 29th, 2011

Angie’s cafe. Early morning in Fort Hancock, forty or so miles east of El Paso, Texas. Faded cutting on the wall suggested it had gotten a brief mention in National Geographic a couple of decades earlier. And it was a decent breakfast. Strong coffee. Initially the only customer, I found myself reflecting on the previous day. Doodling in my small pocket book.

Could I lend him two bucks? I’d smiled. Alas, I said, I had just the same problem. Never seemed to have any money on me. An obvious lie. Tornillo, little more than a gas station and convenience store. I’d been approached by a man in his early fifties, of Mexican descent, whilst stowing the few provisions I’d bought in the shop. Friendly enough on the face of it, but he was getting a little too close. And I disliked his mirror sunglasses.

A curious encounter. He reminded me a little of a chap I’d met back in Central Asia who’d made a living – of sorts – pilfering from passing travellers. Obliged to curtail his operations for a while. It was the offer to come and take a nap at his supposedly nearby home that had struck a chord of similarity. I’d politely declined, explaining I’d already arranged to stay with someone else. Fumbling in the panniers as I spoke, making quite sure he saw the canister of bear spray. Adding it was something I still carried. Just in case I ran into the odd miscreant. Grinning as I said it. Said he knew Tiquando. Doubted he could even spell it.

I’d left El Paso earlier that day. Pleasant northern suburbs soon replaced by industrial sprawl and tatty shops and cafes catering for the steady influx of Mexican day-trippers. The border crossing point resembling a maximum security prison. Tucked amongst the concrete fly-overs Border Patrol vehicles. Overhead the odd helicopter. I’d pressed on, eager to leave.

I’d eventually found a small cafe for lunch with a vacant window seat. Clientele all looked Mexican to me, a presumption reinforced by the Spanish news channel on the large TV screen. The Andre or Diego burger didn’t sound appealing, so I chose the chicken sandwich. The forlorn presumption that white meat would be the healthier option. Served in a bun rather more generous than the filling. Fortunately it was mostly downhill to Fort Hancock.

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Downtown El Paso

December 28th, 2011

Downtown El Paso. Major border crossing into Mexico…

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Early morning in El Paso

December 28th, 2011

A chill Sunday morning in El Paso…

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Goat hairs and white elephants

December 28th, 2011

Almost tasteful. Artistic perhaps. Even if in colour rather than the more acceptable black and white. Framed photograph of a group of scantily clad female cyclists astride their steeds. The leg warmers suggested late Seventies, maybe early Eighties. The picture one of the gifts being vied for in the White Elephant lottery, ably compared by Patty, my host for the night. I’d explained I was more familiar with the term being used to describe a stall of unwanted bric-a-brac, of the sorts you’d find in a village fete.

I’d joined up with a local cycling club for their Christmas bash in a small El Paso restaurant. Owned and run by Zino. He explained he was originally from Greece and had been an Executive Chef at the Four Seasons hotel in Las Vegas. This got lots of nodding approvals everyone. I’d heard of the Bellgaio, but only because I’d seen Oceans Eleven. Presumed they must be similar. And thought there was also an MGM Grand. Gambling cities didn’t really appeal. Especially those in the middle of yet more desert.

The lottery had rules. Which Patty enforced with great charm. Only those who’d provided gifts could participate, which meant that they all won with something. When your number was called you could either chose an unwrapped present, or pinch someone else’s. Provided this hadn’t been done more than three times. Alcoholic beverages were popular. And I suspected there was more interest in the busty cycling photograph than the male participants cared to show.

I explained that a few years ago I’d run the book stall at the village fete. Seemed innocuous enough. Until yet more boxes of books started to appear, dropped off by unseen individuals amidst the crowds. For, often tucked amongst innocent children’s novels, some rather more anatomically correct coffee table publications. Struggling to find them before others did, for the fete was strictly a family affair. Soon amassing a sizeable collection of adult material. Artistic for the most part. Seemed pen and ink was popular in the 70s. No cycling photos mind.

Next morning Patty headed out early to rejoin the cycle club for their Sunday ride. Dedication. Especially as it appeared flats – punctures – were a frequent feature of this part of Texas, explained husband Roy. Small seed pods with tiny twin thorns – known as goat hairs – invariably the culprit. Explained I’d heard of them, something Lewis back in Anchorage, Alaska, had mentioned to me. To be wary of in the southern States, especially if you rode off-road. Added I’d not succumbed. Yet…

[Much to his regret, the author never did work out who in the village had provided some of the more racy publications for the book stall, despite carefully checking for clues in the boxes. And those he impounded? After a brief spell as after dinner curiosities, now back doing the rounds amongst his neighbours… Probably]

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Roads to El Paso

December 21st, 2011

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Snowbound in Silver City at a little over six thousand feet. Fighting the white quite fruitless. Instead, refreshing the plan for the journey east to El Paso, Texas. Studying ten day forecasts, looking for a suitable weather window to traverse the 8,230 feet Emory Pass – twice the height of Ben Nevis. And the elevation profiles on my maps, making sure daily targets are challenging, but remain art-of-the-possible.

Careful balance required. Conditions at eight thousand feet can be very fickle. Best to be cautious, as flexible as possible. Draw on experience of the earlier passes. Expect the unexpected. But need to commit to a plan as I’ve already made arrangements to stay with fellow cyclists in El Paso and beyond. People generally don’t mind change, so long as you let them know in good time. And don’t do it too often.

And the plan. Wait for expected daytime temperatures to rise above freezing. Tyres never good on ice. Reposition thirty or so miles east of Silver City at a US Forestry Service campground at the base of Emory Pass. Complete the traverse the next day – about twenty five miles so if conditions are less than ideal, plenty of time to be cautious. Then downhill for a couple of days to El Paso.

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Heading for El Paso

December 5th, 2011

Close by the Mexican border might be, but crossing close to San Diego leads to pretty much a dead end. The Baja California peninsular. So east towards El Paso. Following the US Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route.

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Over a thousand miles, it’s a journey through coastal mountains, across scrubby desert, sand dunes and past endless cacti. A series of mountain passes to cross, climbing up to over 8,000 feet. Over the Continental Divide, the backbone of North America.

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Challenges ahead. Desert winds strong enough to bring progress to an abrupt halt. Terrain affording little cover. Warm days bitter nights. At altitude, always a risk of winter snows.

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