I’ve now crossed the Navajo Reservation and have arrived in Gallup, New Mexico. From here a forest road should lead me be back onto the Great Divide mountain bike route for the last few hundred miles to Mexico. I’m looking forward to the solitude of dirt tracks again, to crossing the high desert of New Mexico, and stopping over in the intriguingly-named Pie Town…
The Navajo Reservation was a quietly beautiful stretch, completely different in vibe to anything so far. In some ways, it had more of a ‘developing world’ feel, which sits incongruously within the context of the States. As I approached the area, people seemed reticent to say too much, just that it was ‘different’. In fact, the reservation almost felt like an introduction to Mexico: small, remote settlements, glass strewn roads, tyre repair shops and stray, barking dogs.
Leaving the Alajo mountains behind.
The San Juan theatre, a little gem in the settlement of Blanding, Utah.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints - this is Mormon country.
My second solo night in a motel since the beginning of the trip! The lovely, family run Recapture Lodge in Bluff. They even gave me a end-of-season cyclist's discount. It's good to treat yourself once in a while...
Empty roads and nothing but rock. Red rock.
As I crossed into the Najavo Reservation, I noticed a string of homemade information panels prompting people to recycle, or collect their litter. Hopefully they will work - there was way more rubbish alongside the roads here than elsewhere.
Times are a changing. Thin Bear now takes Visa.
The Round Rock Trading Post, established 1887. As a people, the Navajos were reserved but always friendly. A few elders, with cowboy hats, braded ponytails and bedecked in globs of turquoise, asked me what I was up to, and wished me luck for the road ahead. One man leant out of his truck and asked: aren't you a bit far away for the Tour de France?! At least a dozen people honked their horns or waved hello.
I managed to keep to quiet backroads for the most part, just the occasional beaten up Cadillac or new, shiny pickup whooshed by.
Time for a quick wash.
Putting in the miles in the open desert of Arizona, amongst the canyons and the mesas. At night, xylaphone-ribbed dogs barked across the valley. By day they took chase, kicking up dust and sometimes snapping at my heels; others watched me sullenly as they picked away at their roadkills.
Watch out for all the glass. No flats thanks to the liquid sealant and my trusty Schwalbe Marathon XR/Extreme tyres, but more broken bottles by the road than I've seen in a long time.
At times, I rode alongside the polished bulges of slickrock mountains; at other times, they were were more like shards of split red rock piercing the sky. It was indeed a dramatic landscape, lost in a haze of scrub and vegetation.
Bike v Truck. Thankfully, not a scene from Steven Spielberg's Duel.
More surreal scenery, catching the glow of the evening light as I headed into Window Rock, Arizona, a handful of miles from the New Mexican border.
Yahtahey: hello in Navajo. The guys at this store, who were from the Zuni tribe, handed me a couple of Snickers to keep me fueled for the last climb to Gallop.
Gallup, my introduction to New Mexico, has a mix of white, Navajo and Mexican inhabitants, though the area is largely Navajo. It had a wild west feel to it, far less manicured than the mountain towns; dusty and rough round the edges.
I passed by this ridiculous truck on the way in, and stopped to take a picture. It's for sale, said the owner. I have a bike, I said. You can put it in the back, he said. At the time I thought it was a funny, snappy exchange. But it's also systematic of a belief: a bike can't replace a car.
I was lucky enough to meet Bryan, a photojournalist for the local paper, who I spotted and accosted in the street thanks to his telltale mountain bike helmet. Luckily for me, we ended up going for a spin in the High Desert trails with his friend Chuck. It was a beautiful ride; a fast, flowy 14 mile loop. Chuck and Bryan rode fast, working me hard on the endless short burst climbs.
In fact, Gallup has over a 100 miles of singletrack, much of which is reachable on a bike from the city itself. There's a really active, grassroots riding scene there, with everything from technical singletrack and high desert riding to slickrock in the forest. There aren't any bike shops at the moment but a new one, Smoking Handlebars, is due to open soon.
That evening, we went for a forest walk in a nearby canyon. Sometimes travel can seem like a series of brief exchanges - in a grocery store, or by the roadside. Fleeting words that can underline the loneliness of a solo traveller.
So it feels good to tap into a community like this; Bryan and Chuck welcomed me in, with food, a place to stay and great company. Another example of the all-encompassing arms of bike culture.
As well as running a community newspaper, Chuck and his wife also own a funky little coffee van, finished in polished aluminium. Very cool. I had my first lesson in expresso making and the morning I set off, I necked three coffees and chomped down a platter of maple syrup swamped waffles. I was jacked up for the rest of the day...
Leaving Gallup. Once you work your way through the strip mall blight of the new part of town, Route 66 leads you past classic-looking motels like this. I love the typography of these places, pure Americana. Various oddball shops bedecked with murals of eagles and mountains sold Indian medicine, art, moccasins and tourist trinkets. Gallup is definitely up there with my Favourite Towns So Far.