Riding the Rio Grande, Days Seven and Eight: Rattlesnake Flats

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 trip.

NM: 9/29, 9:00 AM
We've got two days of nothing but riding ahead of us. Going to be our longest stretch to date. Grueling heat, bright sun, not much room in the schedule for rest. Have to reach Big Bend National Park, near the southernmost point along the Texas border, by tomorrow evening. We plan to do another two-day float there in our canoe, and I want to camp close to the put-in so we have time to complete it safely. Don't want to run any rapids in the dark.

BM: 9/29, 2:00 PM
Stayed last night in a motel in Albuquerque. Much needed rest in a bed. Long day planned. I start out feeling good, but there's tough traffic on I-25 out of town. Windy, drafty from other vehicles. Red semi on my tail. I admit to flipping him off. The speed limit is 75 and we hit 80 a lot. Passed a big sign earlier, read "Dust Storms Exist."

My bike skills kind of suck. Hard to work that friction zone to keep from stalling. Need to trust that the bike will follow my head and to look up. It's the slow speed stuff that's the killer.

NM: 9/29, 3:30 PM
Dad rides too slowly when entering the highway off the on ramps. When we first hit I-25 in Albuquerque he cut right in front of a massive red semi doing 80 in the slow lane. Driver goes nuts, starts tailgating him. Dad's oblivious, has no idea why. Flips him off. Yikes. His bike looks really small in front of that rig. I have to remind myself regularly to look at the road ahead. Spending too much time watching him in my mirrors.

BM: 9/29, 4:30 PM_
On Route 1, paralleling the highway north of Truth or Consequences. We're taking a break from the monotony of the Interstate. Nice road. Lots of curves. More stuff to see. Including this huge, 6-plus foot rattlesnake stretched out in the middle of the road. Nate was in front of me, blew by it without slowing down. It struck at him as he went by, but of course he was doing 80 and it missed him by a mile. Which left me with a thoroughly pissed rattler right in my path. I swerved and missed him, somehow. Nate said later he'd thought it was a piece of truck tire._

NM: 9/29, 9:45 PM
We left the highway for good at the town of Hatch. Unusual town. Full of weird statuary, red chiles drying on rooftops, and tons of agriculture - chile farms, pecan groves - fed by irrigation from the river. After riding all day through the high, dry central New Mexico desert the water rising from the fields made the evening air smell and feel wonderful. Wanted to ride with the faceshield open to enjoy it but there were too many bugs hatching from the river and the irrigation canals along the road, stinging my eyes and getting into my teeth.

We pushed southeast out of Hatch through the Rincon Valley as the sun set, hoping to camp in the town of Radium Springs, but by the time we arrived at the campground we'd planned to stay at it was closed for the night. Only other place in town was an RV park nearby, but the old lady who answered the office door took one look at our bikes and told us to take a hike, then let her dog out to reinforce the point. Guess we looked pretty shady after a long day on the highway. We're crashing now at a hotel in Las Cruces instead. Early start tomorrow - still have a long way to go to get to Big Bend.

BM: 9/30, 9:00 AM
Up at 5:30, on the road by 6:00 at first dawn glow. Launched into heavy traffic which lasted until I-10 split and we headed east toward El Paso and the rising sun. Almost immediately we hit construction. Down to one lane. Still going 60. Suddenly my bike gets squirrely. At first I think it's the road but almost immediately know that's not it. I start to ease to the right to get on the shoulder and all hell breaks loose. Rear end skidding one way, then back. I realize the tire is going flat, fast. Still going 40 - I was sure I was about to get crunched. But, somehow, I made it upright to the shoulder, got the bike stopped, and sat there a minute with my hands on my head, just breathing, and being grateful it was breathing I could do.

Tim was right behind me, filming me ride into the sunrise. Thankfully he looked up in time to see the bike kick out and was able to slow and stop. He later said that when he saw me upright he wanted to hug me. I wished he had. Nate asked later how I managed to control the bike and get it stopped after a blowing a tire at 60. I told him it wasn't me. He asked what I meant and I looked upward. He understood.

NM: 9/30, 9:00 PM
We get Dad's bike fixed in El Paso at a Kawasaki dealership, then speed off again, riding east and south at 80 mph under a hot, midday Texas sun. Not much room in the schedule for breaks after the lost time, but we take as many as we can to stave off fatigue and to make sure the bikes are fueled up. West Texas is desolation incarnate. Towns are few, and tiny, or abandoned altogether. We stopped in one, Valentine (pop. 217) to wait for Tim, who was photographing some kind of radar blimp the border patrol uses to look for drug smugglers. Only person we saw was an old man in a cowboy shirt wearing a 10-gallon Stetson. He was riding to the post office on his motorized wheel chair.

The border patrol is a massive presence down here. Every third vehicle we pass on the road is full of agents, and we've already been stopped at three check stations, where they have dogs sniff your stuff before they let you through. With all the drug cartel craziness going on across the border it's good to know they're around.

The closer we get to Big Bend, the more the terrain changes, and by the time we reach Presidio, a border town west of the park, mountains have erupted from the desert sand, like broken molars in an old jaw bone. The sun is setting, but we ride on through the late evening before finally calling it quits 30 miles from the park boundary. We set up our tents just off the road on a sandy flat next to the river. Mexico is 100 yards away.

In the morning we'll have a 70-mile ride through the park, then another 30 miles on a 4-wheel-drive trail to reach where we're dropping the boats in the water. I'd hoped to camp closer to that spot tonight, but Dad's flat put us too far behind schedule, so it's going to be another long day tomorrow.

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