The desert between Carlsbad and El Paso is more desolate and unpeopled than Death Valley as you ride through.
Snyder, TX to Las Cruces, NM
It's Like Being in a Movie!
A Long, Straight, Boring Movie
I take goofy chances to keep myself awake.
El Paso gives me carte blanche to use the word hellscape.
His left leg showed an impressive field of scar tissue and missing muscle. The mangled limb display is a subspecies of the motorcycle trip story, and while it doesn’t come up often, it’s usually a showstopper, as I have no horrific injuries of my own to show in comparison.
Hike deep into the cavern, then stop and let everyone pass by. Drink in that amazing natural silence, as quiet as it will ever get on this planet. Enjoy it as long as you can. That is the unheralded beauty of Carlsbad Caverns.
Lamesa, Texas has a drive-in movie theater. I hope they realize how lucky they are. I like how the "In Color" sign can be switched on or off, in case they're showing a black-and-white movie.
The beauty of the 1959 Chevrolet shall not be questioned. The Desert Southwest is an open-air car museum full of well-preserved specimens. Rosco Timberlake, I know you're out there!
It’s amazing to me. These people are walking around with a 30-year-old memory almost bursting out of their bodies Alien-style, needing only the sight of my Bonneville to loose the torrent.
Blake's Lotaburger is a New Mexico institution which you should visit. Try their signature sandwich, the green chile cheeseburger.
The characters on AMC's Breaking Bad, which is set in New Mexico, are often shown scarfing down Lotaburgers.
For those who don’t know, Blake’s Lotaburger is a New Mexico institution. Their green chile cheeseburger is often the first thing New Mexicans want to eat when they come home after a long absence. If you watch the AMC show Breaking Bad, which takes place in Albuquerque, you will see characters scarfing down Lotaburgers. I know more than the average non-resident about Blake’s Lotaburger because a distant relative of mine bought the chain awhile back. However, this was to be my first taste, and I was anxious to give it a shot.
It was kind of late for dinner and four or five people sat in booths munching their burgers. I wasn’t sure what to order but the older woman at the counter was very nice, guiding me through the process. I paid, noted my number, took my cup over to the soda fountain and filled it. On my way to my booth a wiry, energetic, sixtyish guy came up to me and began his Triumph story. It’s amazing to me, these people are walking around with a 30-year-old memory almost bursting out of their bodies Alien-style, needing only the sight of my Bonneville to loose the torrent.
He told me about his bike in college, yada yada yada, how he had decided on the Triumph instead of a Honda because it was much cooler, all the usual stuff. I began to tell him how I had decided on a Triumph, but the second I paused he cut me off, re-telling his story with no indication that he heard a word I said. I tried to reply again, and he said “Hey, I gotta go. Have a great trip.” He had gotten his story out, which apparently meant talking time was over. Well, OK dude, have a nice life.
The Green Chile Cheeseburger
I sat down and sipped my soda. Where was my food? I was the only person in the damn place who wasn’t eating. Then I remembered: Lotaburger is not fast food. They cook every burger to order. Knowing this made the wait bearable. And anyway, I thought, I’m not exactly in a hurry to go sit in my hotel room and watch TV.
The food was worth the wait, and more. First, it was all piping hot, obviously right off the grill. Blake’s serves its burgers with the lettuce, tomato and onion under the patty rather than on top, ensuring that they stay crispy and fresh, not steamed into oblivion like they would have been by sitting on the rack at McDonald’s.
Once I bit into the green chile I knew I was eating something special. I was expecting the chile part to be wet like salsa, but it did not run off the burger and make a mess. If you want to try all the regional hamburger variants, this is one you must not miss. I want one right now.
The fries looked a little bit thinner than McD’s. Piping hot, crunchy on the outside and melty-soft on the inside – they went fast. Another home run. Do not miss eating at Blake’s Lotaburger when you’re in New Mexico.
Awhile later I was flopped on the bed, flipping through the channels. Jesus, did I really start off that morning in Snyder, Texas? It seemed like days ago that I had done my 50-mile no-hander and marveled at the old drive-in theater. I was happy that I had a place right across the street to check my front brake in the morning, but not so happy that my next stop would be Tucson, where my mother was recovering from back surgery. This was not going to be fun.
I left Snyder around daybreak, with only two worries: Deer, and the oil company trucks that blasted past. The deer would bed down as it got warmer, but the oil trucks only multiplied – four-door pickups full of oilfield workers and larger trucks with drilling equipment, all headed out to the many gas wells in the area, which thanks to new drilling techniques is having another petroleum boom. Every small town had a well servicing or oil tool company, some more than one, all of them busy. The trucks blew past at high speed, time being money. The speed limit signs said 65, but compliance was minimal and enforcement outside the small towns was non-existent.
I hit Lamesa, Texas, about an hour out. Lamesa offers an example of how isolation and a moribund real estate market can result in juicy finds for anyone interested in the America of Bygone Days. On the eastern edge of town stands a still-in-operation drive-in movie theater. I hit the brakes and made a quick u-turn to check it out.
Drive-In Movies Explained for the Kiddies
I pity today’s teens, nearly all of whom will never experience the drive-in. Smuggling your friends (and a case of beer) in the trunk of your parents’ Chevy Impala, bouncing from spot to spot looking for girls from school. Drunk and lost coming back from the snack bar, you have to shout for your friends, who then honk the horn to guide you back. One of your friends drinks too much vodka and vomits an entire family size bag of Fritos, prompting the car behind you to pack up and leave. Actually, that only happened once. And of course it was hands down the best place to take a date.
So the citizens of Lamesa can count themselves lucky in that regard. There’s nothing sadder than a rotting, closed-down drive-in movie, and it’s just as invariably cheering to see one still in operation.
I broke my own rule and ate at McDonalds, which has breakfast burritos in this part of the world. Just as I finished, a lanky older guy walked up and asked if that was my bike outside. I said yes, and he proceeded to tell me his motorcycle trip stories, which were many. Finally he told his “big crash” story, which culminated in his pulling up his left pants leg to display an impressive field of scar tissue and missing muscle. “The docs said I wouldn’t walk, but I showed ‘em,” he said. The mangled limb display is a subspecies of the motorcycle trip story, and while it doesn’t come up often, it’s usually a showstopper, as I have no horrific injuries of my own to show in comparison.
The winds that made the trip to Dallas-to-Snyder trip so miserable had died, leaving me with nothing but beautiful, still, buttery-smooth air to glide through from Lamesa to the New Mexico state line. But it was then that another dangerous phenom reared its head: Boredom.
US 180 between Lamesa and Hobbs runs flat, straight and empty. You can imagine yourself in a movie, the very picture of American freedom, a close-up that widens into a helicopter shot, just you and the road, and it is really cool – for about 15 minutes.
Even Riding No-Hands Gets Boring
After that, my brain rebelled. First I cruised at 95-100 for awhile, but then I remembered I was sucking down gas at an epic rate in the middle of nowhere and went back to 70. Rocketing along in a straight line with no possible obstacles gets old fast anyway. Hmm, what else? I locked the throttle at 65 mph and left the handlebars on their own. Hey, cool, I can steer just by leaning, like a bicycle, only it takes a lot longer to respond. After awhile I didn’t even bother putting my hands on the bars when someone passed me. I even passed a motorhome on a long sweeping curve with my hands straight out from my shoulders the whole time. In the next 50 miles I touched the handlebars maybe twice. After that I got bored again and stopped counting.
I gassed up in Hobbes, New Mexico and headed south toward Carlsbad, with an idea of seeing the caverns. I’d heard about it my whole life, and now I was going to see it!
Let me save you the trouble.
The Dark Humor of Carlsbad Caverns
The road out to Carlsbad Caverns is fun, so if you’re on a motorcycle you will enjoy the curves and hills. It’s not technically demanding but you must still pay attention. Oh, also it will be the last fun you have until you leave.
All right, that’s probably a little harsh. The desert hiking trails are great. The entrance where all the bats flit and wheel through the air is pretty cool. But once you get inside, it gets…dark.
Yes, I know, it’s a cave. But come on. Hiking endlessly in the dark, surrounded by chattering students and foreign tourists, I felt like I was in Penn Station during a power outage. I understand that artificial lights screw up the ecosystem of the cave, but I also get a little nervous when I’m tramping down steep hills, turning this way and that and I can’t even see my feet.
Your best bet for a memorable Carlsbad Caverns experience has nothing to do with the sights. Hike deep into the cavern, then stop and let everyone pass by, and hope for a five-to-eight minute gap in the crowd. Then drink in that amazing natural silence, as quiet as it will ever get on this planet. Think how long it has been that quiet in that cave. Enjoy it as long as you can. That is the unheralded beauty of Carlsbad Caverns.
Make sure you get gas at the intersection of US 180 and the cavern turn-off, because it’s the last gas before El Paso, if I remember correctly. If I had to do it over again I would have skipped Carlsbad and instead ridden wildly through Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The mountains and the roads through them look very inviting.
Deader Than Death Valley
The road from Carlsbad to El Paso runs through forbidding country. No stores, no houses, no nothing, just an occasional ranch entrance or sign pointing to a gas well out in the desert. I felt more isolated and worried here than I did in Death Valley, which is heavily traveled by tourists and patrolled by park rangers. I stopped occasionally to take a closer look, but I never cut the engine. I had a bad experience once where I did that and could not restart it, and I didn’t want that to happen out here in the desert. On the other side of the divided highway, I saw something I thought was a disabled motorcycle. But it was too small, and the movement was wrong. It was a guy on a bicycle – panniers front and rear, a French Foreign Legion hat and some kind of sun-shelter rigged up over his head. I honked and waved, but if he acknowledged me I didn’t see it. He was on his own trip of a lifetime, and I gotta say I envied him a little.
Why, El Paso? Why?
The quickest route from Philadelphia International Airport to downtown is 291/Penrose Avenue, which bisects a hellscape of flame-belching refineries, industrial untouchables, and the city impound lot. At the corner of Penrose and 26th squats a giant, stinking Everest of scrap metal, flanked by a large crane that, depending on the day, endlessly picks away at the pile or adds to it. The Penrose Avenue junk pile is downtown Philadelphia’s un-official greeter.
Riding into El Paso on US 180 made Penrose Avenue look like the Champs-Elysees.
El Paso’s ragged northeast edge tastes like the hard-luck side of a soulless boom town. Junkyard after junkyard piled high with wrecks, strip joints (nude dancing! free buffet!), hubcap-and-used-tire places, pawn shops, payday loans, more strip joints – all the dealers in economic detritus and misfortune gathered along one stretch of road, for your convenience. At first I wanted to find a hotel, but after taking in this dispiriting mess I decided to use the last daylight to make for Las Cruces, NM. Sorry El Paso, but this is what I saw. I’ll give you a better look next time.
The Wonders of Lotaburger
Las Cruces had a much lighter vibe than El Paso. I exited onto the local hotel row and started my hunt. My front brake still felt kind of mushy, and by a great stroke of luck I found a Quality Inn right across from Motorsports of New Mexico. I offloaded my luggage and rode over to explain my problem. I made an appointment for the next morning and rode off in search of dinner, which I found at Blake’s Lotaburger.