It is a challenge to plan a weeklong overland trip across the country in the best of times, more so when the entire world is working to navigate a global pandemic. Since the pandemic hit in March of last year, my wife Rachael and I have experienced an extended suspension of our full-time travel lifestyle and an obvious reduction in how much traveling we are able to do. In the spirit of things getting back to normal, we began planning a trip for Oklahoma’s spring break that would allow us to get back in the woods and recharge a bit before an undoubtedly busy summer began.
A trip that has always lingered on my travel bucket list is the New Mexico Backcountry Discovery Route. The route covers an immense distance of some of the most diverse and varied backcountry regions in the Southwest, but it is a long slog from Northeast Oklahoma to the farthest reaches of New Mexico. Nevertheless, it became very clear that now was the time to explore this area and we would simply need to suck it up and endure the almost two days of interstate to get to either end of the NMBDR.
We had the opportunity to bring along the Off Road RV Sniper X9 camper trailer and challenge ourselves both with exploring in a near-stock vehicle and pulling a trailer to boot. As travelers that have spent several years exploring out of a van with a real mattress and hard sides, it has been a challenge to get excited about being in a tent again. The SniperX fills that void very effectively with features like a queen-size mattress and nearly 360-degree views from inside the cozy canvas pop top.
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We loaded the New Mexico BDR route into the iPad, packed up some gear, and hitched up the Sniper X9 for a week of exploring sand dunes, pine forests, and epic mountain views in southern New Mexico.
TOSS OUT THE PLAN
The plan for getting out of town was a simple one: drive to the start of the BDR route in Dell City, TX and follow it for as long as we could before we reached an altitude that was prohibitive due to cold, snowpack or both. New Mexico has had a decidedly terrible snowfall year and we felt confident, based on our planning, that the route would be mostly snow-free until we reached Interstate 40.
Per Dwight D. Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Our planning and execution on the New Mexico BDR exemplified the former president’s sentiment perfectly. On our approach to Dell City, we had planned a night stay near either Carlsbad Caverns National Park or Guadalupe Mountains National Park. As we approached Carlsbad, NM from the east we could see what looked like a rain cloud seemingly hovering over the highway. The closer we got to town, the higher the wind speed became and the more obvious it became that the cloud encompassing Carlsbad was in fact a sandstorm with wind gusts over fifty miles per hour.
From Carlsbad we traveled down Highway 62, a steady climb of nearly 2,400 feet (732 meters) in elevation, with visibility of only a few vehicle lengths in either direction. The public lands camping areas that we had once considered for our next stop were completely null as the entire area was being rampaged by this storm. We elected to continue on into the mountains, hoping for relief in the national park campground nestled in the foothills.
Although the highway is paved, the climb to the highest point in Texas was the first time that we really felt the trailer behind us. And although we certainly felt our engine working harder to combat the forty mile per hour headwinds, the SniperX never once felt noncompliant or difficult to pull. At right around 2,000 pounds (907 kg) fully loaded with water, food, and gear the trailer was a dream to pull behind our stock GX470. Our fuel mileage is normally 14 to16 miles per gallon, but driving nearly 200 miles into a sandstorm-yielding headwind with a trailer netted us a measly seven miles per gallon-ouch. When not traveling into a headwind, we averaged around 12 mpg while pulling the SniperX.
As we pulled into Guadalupe Mountains National Park, we donned our face mask not only for COVID compliance but to keep the dust out. We were quickly turned back to our vehicle as the campground was completely full and the wait line to speak to a ranger was more than twenty people deep. We continued toward Dell City, hoping to find a quiet home for the night. In search of a natural windbreak, we turned off of the sand-packed county road and followed a two-track path leading up an embankment that could potentially block the onslaught of wind that would likely continue into the evening. Sandy two-track quickly turned to silty sand six inches deep or more and we faced our first challenging segment of the trip.
Out of an abundance of caution, I engaged four wheel drive high and continued prodding our way along in search of relief from the sandstorm whipping around us. The trail abruptly began to climb up and out of view and before I knew it, the embankment on both sides of the path had risen around us and at that point we were committed to the line. I hiked the hill and despite looking quite tame from the vehicle, I was out of breath when I reached the top. The sand was windblown and deep, but I had little doubt that our vehicle and the trailer attached would make easy work of the hill climb. What lay beyond was a vast expanse of haze and dust covering what I could only guess was a beautiful view of the Guadalupe Mountains in the distance.
I returned to the vehicle, gently rocked the truck over the mound of sand that had formed around the tires, and accelerated up the hill. Despite not having aggressive tires on our GX, the all-seasons gripped well enough to climb the hill with ease. Midway up the hill, the front tire dipped into a fairly deep rut. Thankfully, the manageable length of the SniperX trailer, along with the ultra-flexible McHitch trailer coupling made the trailer a non-factor in off-road situations and the GX pulled to the top. Our stock vehicle was the limiting factor in what obstacles we could tackle off-road followed closely by my skills as a driver. After our time on the trail, I have no doubt that the Sniper X would have followed us anywhere we pointed it. Although the view of the now very serious sandstorm sweeping across the desert was like nothing I had ever seen, there was not, however, a suitable campsite in sight.
We performed what could only be explained as a twenty-six point turn around and returned back the way we had come, passing over our own tire tracks that were now partially filled with blowing sand. We continued back across the county road to ultimately settle on setting up camp adjacent to a dry lake bed, not an ideal spot, but sufficient.
As the sun began to set, the wind subsided and with its departure came the opportunity to be outside without a mask and glasses. The “clouds” dissipated and revealed a beautiful night sky. One of the main draws to this part of the country is the nearly unhindered view of the Milky Way galaxy. We were able to cook and eat dinner with the company of what seemed like a billion stars.
A peaceful and crisp morning of making coffee and breakfast quickly turned pear shaped, with conditions developing much like that of the day before. Winds picked up and the dust followed. We needed to get to the protection of a forest or this trip would likely not end up being the restful escape that we were searching for. We reviewed the forecast and because of several days of predicted high winds and sandstorms, we elected to skip the first couple of sections of the BDR and pick it up in Truth or Consequences, NM, north of El Paso.
FIND A CONNECTION
When we paused our nomadic lifestyle due to the pandemic, one of the first things that we missed was the interaction with the people that we continually met on a daily basis. Whether it was a kind camp host at a state park, a waitress that recommended a day trip to a scenic mountain town, or gracious library patrons that offered up their driveway as a campsite, the hospitality and energy that we received from strangers while traveling was undeniable and severely missed.
Arriving in Truth or Consequences, NM we were greeted once again by the kindness of strangers that we had grown so accustomed to while traveling full-time. Not only did we find some of the most delicious and amazingly spicy tamales but the eccentric and fun waitress recommended a few attractions along our route. The waitress then continued to exceed our expectations by sending us off with a large to-go cup of their green chilli sauce to keep us warm for the remainder of our trip.
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We turned our sights to the Black Range to secure a campsite for the night and were blown away by the overwhelmingly delightful scenery all around as we passed through the quaint village of Monticello. The road quickly turned to a chunky forest service road as it meandered along a line of roadside springs used for watering the free range cattle. Although the location was still very windy, it was nothing compared to the challenges of the previous couple of days and we nestled into the trailer for a warm and uneventful night’s sleep.
Throughout our time traveling we have noticed that we connect as a couple and with others much better when we aren’t connected to a cellular network. Herein lies a beautiful attribute of New Mexico —there is limited cell service once you leave the interstate. Departing Truth or Consequences we traveled over 150 miles of backroad bliss with not a single bar of service. New Mexico Highway 59, although listed as a highway is more of a partially maintained Forest Service road with patches of pavement, mushy snow, and gravel, offers access to some of the most beautiful areas that we have seen in many trips to New Mexico over the years.
In the heart of the Gila National Forest, our route went from reliable gravel to rocky off-road trails quickly. It seemed as if every mile traveled farther into the woods was resulting in the shedding of pounds of stress accumulated over the last year. As Rachael sat in her typical navigator posture-legs crossed in the seat with a large state map across her lap with an iPad in one hand — I couldn’t help but wish that it could stay like this. No emails, no notifications, and the only worry was fuel availability in the next two hundred miles. On top of the typical stressors the past year she has taken on numerous projects at work and home as well as dealing with the loss of a loved one and in this moment of exploring, her mind was free to simply exist and soak in the natural world around her. I would do my best over the rest of the trip and frankly, the rest of our lives, to facilitate that escape in any way that I could.
The road continued to transition between rough two-track and patchy asphalt nearly the entire distance into the sleepy town of Reserve, NM. We stopped for a much needed refuel and to bum some WiFi to check the weather outlook as we planned to climb to higher altitudes in the San Francisco Mountains and onto the Colorado Plateau over the next couple of days. The outlook appeared to be fine with a small chance of precipitation and low temperatures in the thirties, which is manageable.
We rejoined the BDR and wound our way through the pine forests that border the Blue Range Wilderness, home to the illustrious Mexican Grey Wolf. After a full day of off-roading and exploring, we found an out of the way Forest Service Campground and set up camp for the night.
SNIPERX OFF-ROAD TRAILER
Light winds blew through our campsite steadily throughout the evening, but the absolutely cavernous side awning of the Sniper X maintained comfortable temperatures around the slide out kitchen. When fully deployed and staked out, the awnings on the SniperX more than double the area that is protected from the elements.
Rachael whipped up a glorious meal on the slide out stove and I made quick work of the dishes in the adjacent sink. Having hot water on demand is a huge luxury that makes all the difference when the weather isn’t great. No one, myself included, enjoys washing dishes when the water is nearly as cold as the outside air. Retreating to the rear awning room with our dinner, we sat in warmth as the wind howled around us outside. The awning and attached room were as simple and easy to set up as any of the other awnings we have used. One of us could easily open up and rig the awning in a matter of minutes.
The interior of the SniperX really saved our bacon on this trip. The winds that we experienced over the course of our trip would have made setting up a tent a challenge. With the trailer we were able to stay out of the wind and have many of the comforts of a hard-sided trailer like a traditional mattress and plenty of LED interior lighting-creating a very homey spot to spend the night. Subjecting a tent to winds above thirty or forty miles per hour leaves the fate of said tent mostly up to chance, a reality that we were happy to avoid. When the winds reached the point of potentially causing damage to the canvas pop top on the SniperX, I simply closed the roof and climbed inside.
The twelve volt system in the SniperX came in very handy as well. Since we haven’t had our vehicle long, we haven’t had the chance to outfit a proper electrical system. Being fed daily doses of New Mexico sunlight via the 200-Watt solar panel on the roof, the Redarc Manager30 kept the lithium battery topped off and ready for charging our camera batteries and reading lights in the evening. The Redarc Redvision display kept us apprised of the state of the battery and let us know how much use we could expect out of the system in the following days.
After dinner, we hiked a short trail nearby and returned just as darkness was setting in around our camp. Rachael went in to warm up but I remained outside to get a glimpse of the night sky. While gathering my camera and putting away odds and ends, the exterior LED lights on the trailer became indispensable. With the exterior lights activated, the downward-facing light strips illuminated the ground around camp without putting my night vision in jeopardy. I captured a few shots of the stars and called it a night.
Waking up this close to a pristine wilderness area with a growing wolf population meant that a morning hike was simply assumed. We traversed a nearby trail for a couple of hours as the sun started to warm up the canyons and ravines of the Blue Range. Although we did not get a chance to see a wolf in the wild, we did see several tracks that suggested a thriving population in the area. We will be back in the future to dive more deeply into this diverse and beautiful wilderness.
DID SOMEONE MENTION A PLAN?
As we ate breakfast in the shelter of the trailer we heard the unmistakable noise of snow falling on the roof. Although temperatures in New Mexico can swing wildly, especially in the spring, our mostly stock vehicle was simply not outfitted for extensive slogs in the snow and mud that was forthcoming. Before we had departed we discussed the amount of risk that we were comfortable exposing ourselves to in a new-to-us vehicle towing a borrowed trailer. We simply weren’t going to risk injury or damage to our rig in an effort to follow a pre planned route and reach an arbitrary destination. We sped up our breakfast and packed a bit faster than normal. In the fifteen minutes that it took to pack up camp, nearly an inch of snow had accumulated. We continued on the trail in hopes that as we moved out of the area the storm would dissipate, we were not so lucky.
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As we continued, snow began to fall harder turning an otherwise pleasant dirt road into a mess of mud. Although the 33-inch all-terrain tires on the SniperX were more than up to the task, the all-seasons on the GX were not. Mud began to cake on the tires and only a few miles from our campsite, we made the decision to turn back. Being only thirteen feet long, the SniperX is easy enough to turn around on a Forest Service road and we made quick work of the seven or eight miles back to pavement. Upon reaching the road, our 32-inch tires looked like smooth 35’s and we were happy to be back on pavement for once.
After consulting with a nearby ranger, we determined that this storm system was not one to play around with and that our best course of action was to redirect to lower elevations and come back to finish this section another day. Giving up on a plan or route is never easy or fun, but sometimes it is necessary. Since this redirect back South would add another day of travel to our itinerary, this trip was coming to end with a huge chunk of the BDR left to complete and thousands of square miles left of New Mexico to explore.
Despite our failed plans and last minute changes, we both returned home rested and restored from our time on the trail. We met incredible people along the way and had the opportunity to explore a beautiful area of New Mexico. Thanks to the SniperX trailer, we were able to explore these remote areas with no worries about build quality or toughness of the trailer and have most of the comforts of home along for the ride.
Header image: Zach Elseman @okienomads