Mountain Biking With Cows
There’s an old dirt road I frequently rode my mountain bike on just north of Quemado, New Mexico where I lived for a year. It winds through dry grasslands and orange, rocky mesas on its way to what seems like nowhere. It’s a place where red-tail hawks, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, porcupines, and prairie dogs roam free but where the cruel grip of drought brings grief.
To the west as I rode is Arizona. To the east is the rest of New Mexico. It’s the land of El Malpais National Monument and the Gila National Forest. It’s a place right out of some southwestern movie where a band of Native Americans engage in a deadly battle with the U.S. Army and I was there to watch. Every time I pedaled that road, I felt like I was in that movie.
It’s the only good mountain biking road around the town of Quemado. A dusty, sleepy settlement of about 250, Quemado (Spanish for "burned") was named by Jose Antonio Padilla. When Padilla settled near a creek east of the present town, he found that Native Americans had burned the surrounding brush. The charred area he name Quemado.
This road passes an abandoned rodeo ground, active landfill, and eerie cemetery before heading straight north. It doesn’t go forever but it seems like it does as it skirts windmills and miles of barbed wire fence. This is cattle ranching country and nothing is more of a reminder of that than barbed wire fence.
The herds of cattle graze as if the dry grass actually tastes good. It doesn’t look very appetizing with its stiff brown stalks reaching up like a man without water in the Sahara. It’s the kind of grass that even a vegetarian like me would pass up for one bite of a steak. But, the cattle are committed vegetarians.
One day as I pedaled hard up a steep hill covered with deeper than normal gravel, my tires spun, my right foot slipped, and I fell like a cowboy thrown from a horse. I’m not hurt. There’s no blood and I spit with anger. "Damn the gravel!" I yell before mounting my mechanical horse and pedaling furiously as rocks and debris fly. Finally, I made it to the top of the hill. I’m out of breath but there. There are only five more hills like this to climb.
When I had ridden as far as I dared that day, I turned my bike around and gleefully began my descent. I gained speed and I felt like I was flying when I passed a huge dark shadow on my right. I fixed my eyes and turned my head to find a line of cattle stampeding along the fence behind me. They’re gaining on me as they’re chasing me. Or are they following me? I’m not sure. Seems they are mistaking my mechanical horse for the real thing.
I’m just glad they’re behind that fence. I pedaled faster as if to play with them and they ran faster as if to oblige. Some just run, some just jog, and some just give up. I felt there was no danger because they were behind that line of wire. Suddenly they either slowed down or I sped up because we’re no longer neck and neck. I paused for them to catch up and I pedaled at their pace. We were galloping for only a few yards when the fence ended and the herd was trapped. It was as far as they could go. They watched with big brown doughy eyes as I pedaled quickly away and out of sight.
"That was fun," I thought en route back to Quemado when I’m startled by a shape in the road. The closer I rode, the more familiar the shape. It was a calf perched smack dab in the middle of the road.
I threw on my brakes in an effort not to startle the poor thing but to no avail. The baby started running like a bat fleeing hell. "It’s cute," I thought to myself and followed at its pace but my fun was about to end. The next thing I knew, a larger version of the calf, its mother, lunged at me from out of nowhere and I swerved to avoid her head. The frightened calf was still running as if its tail was on fire, kicking and bucking with reckless abandon, I was dodging its mother, and she was hell bent on trampling me. We must have made a humorous sight. Her ear brushed my knee and I remember feeling grateful she didn’t have horns. I would have been impaled for sure that day. I could have even been killed.
Then the calf made a bold leap over a low section of fence and its mother swiftly followed. They were back where they should be, safe at last if in someone else’s pasture. I was no worse for the wear though I’d just been attacked by what seemed like a mad cow.
I rode every week with the cows until the cold days of winter. It was too cold and wet to ride that road in winter so I was sidelined by the hands of mother nature. But while I waited for improved weather and warmer days to be, I couldn’t help but remember my days of riding with cows and for the calf that had to flee.