Dirt Roads and a Straw Bale Casita; A Mini New Mexican Adventure
Sometimes the shortest bikepacking trips are the sweetest… especially if your four-year-old son is involved. Cass heads off with his tribe for a family bikepacking overnighter before winter sets in across the New Mexican desert, and offers advice for those thinking of trying something similar.
Oh, the beauty of the simple overnighter. So manageable. So easy to plan. So disproportionately fulfilling. And such a sublime way to spend time with your family.
In this case, our mini adventure took the form of a night out in the New Mexican Desert. Yet as simple as it was, and despite the compact nature of the trip, I’ll admit that I pondered and deliberated over our gear options. Like any bike-obsessed, car-free living father, I’ve slowly built up a small arsenal of transportation solutions for my son Sage, now almost 5 years old.
Oh, the choices… There was the tag along Weehoo (big thumbs up from Sage), a Yepp seat (great for around town), a Thule Chariot trailer (which we used on our Bolivia expedition), and the Xtracycle Leap (bolted onto my Surly ECR). Most recently, we’ve added his own bicycle to the fleet, a green Isla Bike Cnoc 16 (to which I’ve fitted fatter tires and a feed bag, of course) that Sage cherishes.
Seeing as this trip was on the brief side, I finally settled on the Surly ECR/Leap combo, a rig I’ve dubbed the F150, on account of its pickup truck-like profile. As our Swift Campout had shown, it had already proved its capability for riding dirt roads. Most importantly, it’s a setup that Sage really enjoys, its greatest boon being cargo carrying potential (both animate and inanimate), along with its stout, protective hoops for him to hang onto. And no buckles! Let me assure you that this taste of freedom is a big deal to a 4-year-old, as I realized when he triumphantly reported the news to his friends at preschool.
Since Sage has learned to ride, I’ve taken attaching his bike to the side of the ‘F150’, so he can cycle when the roads are quiet, or for the sections of bike path that we use to connect our route to school. But recently, motivated by the Olympic exploits of Usain Bolt and Mo Farra, Sage has developed a passion for running, sprinting as hard as his little legs can propel him, or until his ‘heart hurts’, as he puts it. So on this occasion, I figured he’d likely enjoy burning some energy by running alongside us as we rode slowly, or while we pushed up some of the steeper hills along our route.
Given the imminent approach of winter and the cooler temperatures that come with it, we also decided to treat ourselves to an Air B&B for the night, in the interests of keeping all members of the party happy, cold sleepers especially. But in harmony with the simplicity that we seek when camping, we chose a humble locale to lay down our heads; an off-grid casita at the Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center, a collection of low impact housing down a rough and washed out dirt road. No running water. No electricity. Just a wood burning stove, solar-powered lamps, a jug of rainwater… and an outdoor dry compost loo. I figured it would be a great opportunity for Sage to learn about the value of finite resources; no tap to leave running, no lights to leave on, no flushing toilet. Perhaps best of all, the cell phone service was weak… so a chance for a digital detox for parents too.
I’ve learnt that with such journeys, it’s best to keep things simple. Which is what we did. We rode to the train station for the 15-minute ride to the edge of town, bracing ourselves against a headwind that blasted down the frontage road. Then we turned off onto a 8-mile gravel road that wended its way to the old mining settlement of Cerrillos, once considered the capital of New Mexico, and now a well-preserved echo of the Old West. From there, it was just a few miles to our simple but homely casita, where there was just time to make dinner before stories and a cuddle in the bunk bed.
Given that time off the bike is as important as time on it when you’re bikepacking with a munchkin, come morning we hiked around the nearby rockscape, climbing boulders and soaking up the desert views. Then it was just a short ride back to Cerillos, lunching in the atmospheric Black Bird Saloon, tracking down the settlement’s playground and playing football amongst its dastardly goatheads.
Soon it was time to retrace our steps, riding the rolling hills that pepper Waldo Canyon Road in reverse, stopping to scout for rocks and turquoise en route, snack on a bag of tortilla chips, and just scrabble around. After all, through the eyes of a four-year-old, the South West must seem like one magnificently rich and vast sand pit. What’s more, we even savoured a strong tailwind along the frontage road home.
With the end of our mini adventure came the sense of satisfaction enjoyed after a successfully completed journey. And with it came a promise: we’d set our sights on tackling a similar endeavour on a regular basis. It didn’t have to be big. It didn’t have to be grand. Because in one way or another, it would always reveal something new. Maybe next time we’d stay in a yurt. Or a renovated school bus. Or a sandstone cave. Or an Earthship… New Mexico abounds with both the wonderful and the bizarre. These family bikepacking trips would be our excuse to discover them all.
Quick Tips for a family overnighter
Work in some off the bike activities. A museum, a state park, rock climbing, fruit picking…
Take breaks! The more, the better. Scout for cool rocks. Run around. Explore side streets. Never ride past up playground. Always stop to pet a llama.
Pack good food! Picnics are the best, whether by the roadside or on the curb of a street. The world is your dining room!
Bring fun stuff! Your kid’s favourite storybook from home. Paper and pens. A hand-me-down headlamp is sure to be a winner. Sage loves his kid-sized CB radio.
Bring music or an audio book! Both help to pass the time if the riding takes longer than expected. The Outdoor Tech Buckshot is a great little speaker.
Bring layers! Kids get chilly. And chilly kids are unhappy kids.
Do it! It doesn’t have to be big, or epic. Just get out, have experiences, and spend time together.
Surly ECR Extra Large, with an Xtracycle Leap: I ran a front Wald 137 basket zip tied to a Rivendell Mark’s Rack, with an Outer Shell 137 Basket Bag to store my camera. Oveja Negra’s Super Wedgie is a great place for spares, while the Xtracycle Leap – designed for 3in tire clearances – carries communal gear, toys, and a football. We use its Hooptie Bars to hang various bikepacking bags for Sage to store his snacks/sunglasses/gloves/CB radio.
Surly ECR Small: Given that we didn’t need to take our camping gear, we kept the bike light. Just a Carsick Designs Handee Randee handlebar bag specially designed for the comfortable Jones H-Bar Loop, packed with warm clothes, sun cream, and snacks. A Randy Joe Big M.U.T. fork bag took care of a dizzying array of toiletries.
Our gameplan + other options
To shortcut the journey across Santa Fe’s city fringes, we cycled to the train station and took a 15-minute ride on the Rail Runner Express, which travels between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It was a tight squeeze with the ECR/Xtracycle, but we made it work. From there, we followed the frontage road, before getting to the fun part: Waldo Canyon Road, which is best ridden midweek to minimise traffic. This runs into the petite, old mining settlement of Cerillos, connecting briefly to the high, before a dirt road leads to the Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center, which can be booked through Air B&B. We retraced our steps the following day. Foodwise, we carried ingredients to cook dinner and breakfast, had lunch in Cerillos, and carried plenty of snacks to tied us through the riding. Note that Madrid is the only place to get supplies (and it’s a climb on the highway to get there), so bring food from Santa Fe or Albuquerque.
If you want to ride all the way back into downtown Santa Fe (thus avoiding the need to connect with a train), shortly after 599, you can hop onto the Dinosaur Trail, which offers a traffic-free paved route much of the way into the city.
For family trips, I’d recommend staying two nights at the Ampersand Center if possible. There’s plenty of exploring to do in the area, including the 45-minute hike to Madrid, a quirky and artsy settlement that’s also great to visit. The nearby Cerillos Hills State Park also has various short trails and nature-related activities. The Casa Grande Trading Post and Museum has a few chickens, some friendly goats, and an enormous llama.