90,000 Miles to Me

11,851 Miles • Cow Friends and Minor Floods

About 60 miles south east of Albuquerque, there is a small spit of the Cibola National Forest that is BLM land and available for public use. A couple ranchers have permits to graze their cattle there, but otherwise it doesn’t seem to get used much.

This was my first boondocking trip of the season. As I drove through the tiny country roads that loosely connect the scattered ranches in central New Mexico, it was a pretty barren scene. I recognize that there is a beauty in the desert, but it is not one that particularly appeals to me, but even that is better than this place. This is just acre upon acre of fenced in patches of pale, wiry grass, a handful of skinny cows huddled under the sole tree on the property or craning their necks between the lines of barbed wire to reach the slightly less pathetic grass on the other side.

As I rattled across the cow grid into Cibola National Forest, it didn’t get much better except that there was also some shrubbery and those Piñon Pines that all look like their growth has been stunted.

Was this what the guy at the BLM office described as “really beautiful”? Well, he does work in New Mexico, so maybe he actually likes this. Some people legitimately do, I’m just not one of them.

But I really needed some time in nature to process some thoughts and feelings, and this was going to be the place. I drove down the dusty, potholed, dirt road for about four miles that felt like 40, looking for a promising spot, not seeing anything that sparked my interest until I came to a narrow off-shoot that led back into the trees, and decided to see where it would go. It wound a narrow and tangled route through trees that grabbed at the sides of my van and did my best to straddle a few potholes that would be better described as ditches. After at least a mile, the road finally opened up and crested this hill…

…to reveal this beautiful caldera full of lush green like the hills of Ireland. Or so it seemed at that moment to my green-deprived eyes.

Yes, this is more green. You can stop laughing now.

I climbed half way up one of the surrounding ridges the next day to get some wide shots of the area. I was totally digging this place.

Those little black dots around my van are cows grazing.

And dusk was even better.

This is the ridge that I climbed up for the wide open spaces shots.

I woke up to these ladies in my front yard. Rather, I was in their back yard.

One of the advantages of being in the van, and staying in the van, is that many animals get used to the big white block in their territory that does not move or make noise or flash lights or do anything unexpected. I can still move around inside some, though I try to be quiet and not rock the van much, and when I’m next to windows I do have to keep fairly still for them to accept me and go about their business, but they do. They took a few hours to get this close, and sometimes eyed me suspiciously or mooed at me for a little while, but by and large they just got used to me and did their thing.

This is a closeup of the short, prickly grass they are eating. Some areas are a bit better than others, but this was fairly typical. Anyone know what those green balls are? They are too regularly spaced across the entire landscape to likely be droppings of any kind, though when I broke one apart, it appeared to be a tight mass of grass-like roughage, as if it were a dropping. Please comment below if you can fill me in; I’m very curious.

On my second day here, I noticed some water around my sink, and thought that maybe it had sloshed out of the sink on that anything-but-level-road (but no, the sink was empty for the drive) or that I had spilled something (I don’t remember that). With a little investigation it turned out to be not just around the sink, but soaking the carpet all around and under my tile floor, and coming from my water pump.

Okay, so there’s a leaky seal somewhere. Before leaving on my grand adventure, I repacked my dad’s old toolbox with the tools I’ve been using most (that were portable, not the table saw, sadly) during the conversion, so I have quite a bit to work with, even out here in the middle of the least densely populated state south of the 40th parallel.

Two different screw drivers let me access all the various screws holding the front and back halves of the pump together, I then screwed them all down tighter. That did seem to help for a few hours, but then it started up again. By the afternoon, it’s leaking like a sieve. I’m conserving water, but do need to drink, and that is enough to test how it is working.

Next I took out the sealant tube and caulking gun and tried sealing around the outside of every seal, letting it dry thoroughly before testing, but that doesn’t do a thing for the leak. What it does do, is help me narrow down where the leak is and is not coming from. Now I can finally rule out every seal but one. The one I cannot fix. The one where the pivoting handle attaches to the main unit. Since it, you know, moves, I can’t just smother it in sealant.

Well, the water pump is now leaking as much water as it’s pumping, and I’ve run out of ideas of how to fix it. It has served me well in daily use for seven months, and worked perfectly until now, then all of a sudden: RIP water pump.

Here’s the weird thing about this middle of nowhere spot in central New Mexico. It has great cell reception. Which means that if I turn on the personal hotspot feature on my iPhone, I can get internet through my data plan. So I go online to Amazon.com and look for the same pump that I got the first time. It got mixed reviews, but there weren’t a lot of options for a non-electric, foot operated, water pump.

Here is another model that looks almost identical in the photos, and got much more consistent good reviews, but costs twice as much, at $90 instead of $46. Is it worth it? Will it last twice as long and end up being the same price for the amount of use? Will it leak just as quickly and I end up regretting spending more? Or is it just a price gouge; the photos look like they are practically the same. I want to believe that price is a function of quality, but experience tells me that that is true far less than I expect. The reviews are generally better, but there aren’t a whole lot on either product, and some of the complaints are the same for both.

So I sleep on it and in the morning decide that I can either agonize over this for days, getting no new information that would help me make a better decision, ruining my time in this beautiful locale, or I can just make a decision and be done with it. So I check in with the facts, my fears and my feelings, and take the chance. Get the expensive one with the better reviews and hope it is worth it. If you’re curious, it looks like this.

Sooo…shipping. Um. Not here. What would that address even look like?

TO: The White Ford Van
c/o The Herd of Cows
123 Unnamed Dirt Lane
Off the Bigger Unnamed Dirt Road
Cibola National Forrest, NM

I’ll also be on the road for the next week and a half, heading toward friends in the Houston area, so gave Amazon their address. Which means that I’ll have to wait. But delayed gratification is a good thing. And developed through practice.

In the mean time, since I don’t have water that comes out of a faucet anymore, I’m making do by pouring a gallon at a time from the five gallon tank into a one gallon plastic jug via a funnel. After the first attempts made new mini floods, I got the bright idea to put the gallon jug in the entrance step of the side door, which lowered it by several inches, making pouring more accurate. Also, towels are a good thing.

Right. About that mini flood.

My carpet was soaked around the sink area, and I’m thrilled to be in New Mexico where the relative humidity is often 30 to 40%, only a little better than the Sahara Desert’s average of 25%. I’m also very glad that I spent the extra time and money on rust- and mildew- and mold-coating my metal floors against just this sort of eventuality.

The tile floor got picked up (and scrubbed) and everything in the van (it felt like) got rearranged to let the floor dry out, with the doors wide open as much as possible for airflow. It took about two days to dry to the touch and I gave it another two days to fully dry out.

Well, I had done my best to prevent a flood, yet planned for what to do in case one happened anyway. That planning paid off and when I had a minor flood, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Or maybe I’m just feeling less stressed and more resourced to be able to deal with these sorts of trials when they arrive. Probably some of both. Anyway, it allowed me to deal with the situation with a minimum of fluster and spend the majority of my time here enjoying this place.

All told, I spent five days and four nights here, getting to know this small piece of land and the creatures who live here. I got to know this herd of about 14 to 16 cows and calves, depending on the day, and could pick out several individuals after a couple of days, and by the end some of them felt like friends. They came and went as they pleased and very graciously accepted me for a time in their home.

I especially enjoyed watching the calves playing with each other, or nudging their mothers for attention or a little milk. Overhead, there were often between two and four turkey vultures riding on the thermals, and a whole flight of swallows were swooping and diving all day long, catching tiny insects on the wind. On my last evening, I caught a brief sighting of a coyote in the distance.

I kept looking at this tree stump partway up the nearest ridge. I was imagining it was some wizened old woman who had been turned into a tree and frozen in time. She is the kind of sharp-tongued hag that doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but whom you always go to when you are at your wit’s end because she can help when no one else can.

Up close, she looks much more friendly.

A group of (white tailed?) deer came around one afternoon. The four deer and two cows stared each other down over grazing rights to a particularly good area of grass. The deer moved a short ways off at first, but didn’t leave, then after a while the cows wandered away.

Sorry for the bad picture, this was through my windshield as I was trying not to disturb anyone.

Another view of the area, from farther up the ridge. I hiked back up here the morning I left to say goodbye and thank you to the place and all her inhabitants.

This was a lovely and restorative nature getaway, and turned out much better than I was at first anticipating. I made some cow friends, got out and hiked up the ridge a few times, and explored a bit of New Mexico that I had no idea was here. And it was my first time boondocking on BLM land, which went very well. The bummed water pump wasn’t fun, but wasn’t terrible, either, and I can make do without for a while.

Heading out, I’m leaving this bit of heaven on Earth for the bit of Earth that has attracted more attention from beyond the heavens than any other: Roswell, NM.


Trivia: Least densely populated states in order, according to the US Census Bureau

Rank State People Per Square Mile
1 Alaska 1.3
2 Wyoming 6.0
3 Montana 7.1
4 North Dakota 11.0
5 South Dakota 11.3
6 New Mexico 17.2