Revealing the secret spot

I reluctantly celebrated the arrival of spring last Sunday by dropping knee-deep into compost and cucumber starts. Reluctant, because as I spent a day off in the dirt, streams of cyclists and cars decked out with kayaks whizzed by. My own bikes and boats quietly hibernated in the garage. A midday phone call didn't offer much help.

It was a close friend of a close friend calling on a patchy cell phone connection. "You probably don't get too many calls like this on a Sunday," he said through static. "But we're down in northern New Mexico and we're pretty lost."

Realizing we had a bit of an emergency on our hands, I dropped my trowel, accidentally knocked over a Charentais cantaloupe seedling and ran up to the house for better reception. My hunch was right. He and a couple of others had gone south with visions of sweet singletrack and slickrock. But in their search for Aztec's mythic AlienTrail, they'd followed in the confused footprints of countless others. They were lost in a labyrinth of canyons, pump jacks, and oil and gas access roads.

For me, the Alien is the best shoulder season riding you can find close to Durango. Allegedly built by a couple of oil field workers with nasty cycling habits, it is also a great secret spot. Drawn by its combination of several types of great riding as well as wild sandstone hoodoos and the sideshow attraction of the Aztec UFO crash site, I've visited the trail every spring and fall for the last few years. And yes, I still occasionally get lost out there.

After a couple minutes and one break in reception, I think I talked my friend of a friend back onto target. I did it by mixing phrases like "I think the trail is up on that stunning sandstone crag" with "You'll want to backtrack to a big industrial complex that looks like a refinery." Let's just say that paradox comes with the territory down there.

I did, however, feel a pang of guilt after Ihung up, and it wasn't because I was returning to the garden. My advice had just betrayed another friend and the unwritten code he had set nearly a decade earlier. Back then, he would occasionally get on my case for violating "The Law of the Secret Spot." Telling people about great trails, special overlooks, hidden canyons or secret hot springs was strictly taboo for him. Publishing articles on the pristine quality or recreational value of any of the places was sacrilege and grounds for a life of internment as a veggie gardener. In his mind, more people meant more traffic and the eventual destruction of a sanctuary.

I took a different view.

I love and continue to visit nearly a dozen secret spots. Unfortunately several of them are threatened from sources other than fellow bikers, boaters and hikers. My favorite trail in Durango crosses a patchwork of public and private property and has done so for dozens of years. The Alien Trail also skips through some fences and parallels well sites, likely traversing different stratas of ownership.

Sadly, we live in a land where the noose is steadily tightening, and private vistas from redwood decks are given priority over the bicycle tire or the common hiking boot. This in mind, I've consistently seen the "Law of the Secret Spot" fail the secret spot over the last 10 years. I've watched as signs went up and trails were obliterated, often in remote locations and for no other reason than liability. The secret spots vanished not because of over-use, but because they were forgotten or voices were silent when the earth movers arrived.

In contrast, I've seen strength in numbers prevail in two separate mountain towns. In both cases, well-used corridors between towns and public land were kept open to the public and access was legitimized. The needs of the many prevailed, and the opportunity for people to easily escape into wild places remained.

That's one reason I gave that advice over the phone last Sunday and one reason I wrote these words. The other more important one is that the Alien is great ride worthy of being shared, and I hope to share in it and many other secret spots for many years to come.

In this spirit, I went ahead and laid plans for next spring. First, I'm getting the garden in a couple weeks earlier. Second, I'm heading down to northern New Mexico and paying back that close friend of a close friend with a phone call after I inevitably lose my way.

Will Sands




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