Riding the Rio Grande, Day Three: Enter the Desert

Last fall, Field & Stream Online Editor Nate Matthews and his father, Bruce, spent 15 days fishing the Rio Grande … Continued

Last fall, Field & Stream Online Editor Nate Matthews and his father, Bruce, spent 15 days fishing the Rio Grande River from its headwaters in Colorado to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. These excerpts from their journals tell the story of their 2500-mile motorcycle ride along the historic river. Photographer Tim Romano documented the excursion. You can see more photos from Day Three of this expedition (and find new journal updates as they are posted) by clicking here. **
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NM: 9/26, 9:00 PM
We’re camped at a beautiful spot on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Upper Rio Grande Canyon, just northeast of Taos. The place is called Cebolla Mesa. Tomorrow we plan to hike down the mile-long trail that leads from where we’ve pitched our tents to where I can hear the river roaring faintly. It’s pitch dark right now – we had to ride at night again to get here, so I can’t see the bottom, but it sounds like excellent pocket water. I’m excited. Tomorrow will be one of the few days on this trip where we’ll have the luxury of doing nothing but fish.

This is a good thing, because today we did nothing but ride. And ride. And ride some more. There are too many miles for us to cover on this trip. We woke up early in our headwater camp below the Continental Divide, but had to wait to leave until the sun rose high enough to melt the frost off the rain flies of our tents. Dad and I sat in the truck while we waited, drinking coffee, writing in our journals, and enjoying how the 4Runner’s heated seats worked the kinks out of our lower backs.

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We finally hit the road around 9:30 and followed the river south and east out of the highlands and into the San Luis Valley. The Rio turns due south at the town of Alamosa, and the terrain there was totally different than it was in the headwaters. High desert. Dry, wide, and empty. We stayed on poorly marked roads, keeping as close to the river as we could, past abandoned homesteads and through vast plains of sagebrush full of pronghorn and wild horses. By the time we crossed the New Mexico border near Costilla, below the Valle Vidal, the sun was dropping below the peaks on the west side of the Rio Grande Valley.

Sitting on a bike for such a long time is hard on your body. Your tailbone creaks when you shift in your seat, so you do it slowly, millimeter by millimeter. When you stop for breaks you can still feel your arms vibrating, even when the bike is off, the way you can feel waves beneath your feet when you first walk on land after spending some time at sea. It takes a toll on you. I can see it in my dad’s face. His eyes are normally hazel, but when he took off his helmet during one break today I noticed that they looked more blue than normal, faded and wet from the wind, the color of worn, grass-stained jeans held under a river. His hair, mostly gray, with streaks of white and a few black locks fighting rear-guard, was twisted and greasy beneath the bandanna he’s taken to wearing (he calls it his “do-rag”). His face was more lined than I remember. It looked haggard, but content. I could tell he was having fun despite the discomfort. Or maybe because of it. After all, he’s the one that taught me how everything takes on more meaning when you’re pushing the limits of what you think you can handle.

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BM: 9/26, 9:30 PM
_Another frosty morning. Cloudless sunrise. Elk calling in the night, coyotes howling at moonrise. 360 degrees of break-out-crying beautiful. I just wish there’d been an adipose fin or two.
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_Riding south of Alamosa. Nothing but broken down trailers and blown out windows. The only nice house we saw for miles was a stone house that is now nothing but a burnt-out hulk. Then there was the Baptist Church, with what looked like the preacher unlocking the door – all dressed in black, hat, coat, pants, plus his two kids.
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_There’s not a lot to work with in this harsh, unyielding, unforgiving place. What living there is seems etched on the faces of the people. We stopped for gas in Costillo and the fresh face of the young girl behind the counter popped out in contrast to the leathery, deeply-wrinkled men and women filling up outside.
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We arrived in camp as the last glow of the sunset disappeared. The campground we’re at now is a truly magnificent setting. Long hike ahead tomorrow into the canyon to fish for trout.

NM: 9/26, 9:45 PM
Yikes. I just looked down at my feet and saw a black widow take out a cricket the size of my thumb not eight inches from my bare ankle. Tim comes over to check it out and then nearly jumps out of his Chacos when I touch a blade of grass to the back of his leg. “I love the desert,” he says (once he stops cursing me out), “but man there’s a lot of stuff here that can kill you.” Then he tells me it’s tarantula migration season. Great. I doublecheck my tent to make sure the door is zipped up. “Sweet dreams,” he says. Paybacks are a b*tch.

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You can see more photos from Day Three of this expedition (and find new journal updates as they are posted) by clicking here. ****