Good at Maps

Andrew Marshall

undefinedThe Organ Mountains at sunrise, as seen from the Sierra Vista Trail. All images provided by author

Hospitals seem to have strange geography. They are puzzling buildings, comprised of never-ending maze-like corridors and bland waiting rooms that nest inside one another.  If you are lucky, you will stumble across free coffee machines in your wanderings there. If you are unlucky, they will be out of order. If you are truly without luck, they will serve decaf only.

The real kicker is that hospital geography seems to have little to do with the maps that adorn the walls near the elevators. Often I stop and study these maps, decaf in hand, before setting off with confidence. Moments later I’m lost and must stop and ask directions from a harried-looking person in scrubs who most certainly has better things to do.

I’ve never been a good map reader. Despite years of experience on and off the trail, despite classes and research, despite loving and collecting maps, there’s a one in three chance I’m going to misplace myself in a moment of need. I go to great lengths to conceal this from my fellow outdoorsmen. The one person I’ve never had to hide it from is my father.

He is excellent at maps, perhaps even a trifle obsessive about them. He can read a topo like a master cellist reads music, with precision, with grace, with nuance. The man always knows where he is.

This skill comes in handy as we mountain bike the Sierra Vista Trail, a thirty-mile path that meanders along the base of the Organ Mountains outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. I spend a lot of time pulling out my phone and staring at an app which insists that we are on the right track despite the fact that we are wandering in a hellish wasteland of washes, arroyos, sand traps, and cactus. Riding in this catastrophe is out of the question, and we’ve been pushing our bikes for hours. I’m starting to lose my patience.

undefinedThe Sierra Vista Trail is aptly named. Views like this are the norm along the entire length of the trail.  

“I’m sorry Dad. It says we are on the path, but…,” I say, trailing off and indicating the fractured mess of jackrabbit trails and prickly pear.

“It’s okay!” he says, trying to cheer me up. Aggressive optimism is Dad’s go-to emotion.  He squints at the terrain, reading the convoluted layers of arroyos and sand humps. “Let’s just go this way,” he suggests, pointing at a path that has miraculously appeared under his expert gaze. 

My parents moved to El Paso when I was twenty-two, a few weeks after I graduated college. I stayed in central Georgia to begin my career, and in the decade since we’ve only seen each other a few times a year. Recently my wife and I relocated to West Texas, and Dad and I are taking full advantage of the new closeness to make up for lost time.

undefinedThe author’s father, mountain biking in El Paso, TX.

El Paso and the surrounding area is a first class mountain biking destination, and Dad enjoys introducing me to the sweet flow just minutes from his house. Soon enough we are daydreaming about something more challenging. The chance comes when Dad's barber Moses tips him to the Sierra Vista Trail. My wife drops us off at the northern trailhead deep in the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument just as the sun is rising.

undefinedSetting off from the northern terminus of the Sierra Vista Trail.  

The first seventeen miles of riding is smooth, flowy singletrack in the foothills of the low mountains, ocotillo and creosote flashing by on either side as we bomb south towards the valley separating the Organs of New Mexico and the Franklin Peaks of Texas. By nine o’clock and with thirteen miles to go, we are feeling jazzed and confident. Then we start sliding down into sandy washes that stop our narrow tires cold. Within a few minutes, the well-marked trail vanishes, and we are pushing our bikes through a maze of mesquite trees and arroyos. Hours slip by; sand fills our shoes. The sun, always a factor in the high Chihuahuan desert, blasts us with solar radiation.

undefinedBringing your own shade is essential in the high Chihuahuan Desert.  

By three o’clock and with only four hours of daylight left, we have a decision to make. Thanks to Dad, we know where we are, and we know exactly how many miles we have yet to ride (push) before reaching the trailhead.

We aren’t going to make it.

Pushing our bikes through deep sand for three hours has consumed our resources—we are down to a liter of water each. We know we still have to climb the pass to the other side of the Franklins. If the trail conditions improve, we are back to riding and can complete the trail in a few hours. If they remain the same, and we have every reason to believe they will, we are looking at another six or seven hours of hard labor.

Plus, Dad isn’t looking good. He seems physically undone in a way I haven’t seen before. I voice my concerns about water and daylight, Dad agrees, and we pull the plug. We follow an arroyo west (pushing our bikes through sand the whole way, of course) until we reach I-10, where my wife picks us up.

undefinedBailing on attempt number one. As the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument is open to ranching, we have to cross several fence lines to reach our pick up point.

It’s the right call, but I hate leaving things undone.  Within a few months, I’m talking Dad into giving the Sierra Vista Trail the second shot. I’ve recently bought a fat bike: a monstrous contraption with twice the weight of my standard 26” mountain bike but also twice the tire width. I dub it The Beast.

undefinedThe author’s father is tuning up The Beast in preparation for a second attempt on the Sierra Vista Trail.

Fat bikes are for deep sand and snow, and I’m convinced that if Dad rents one for himself, we can add the Sierra Vista trail to our list of accomplishments. Dad agrees but wants to lose a few pounds first. Privately, I think this is a good idea. His physical struggles on our first ride worry me.



Before we can tackle the Sierra Vista Trail again, my father has what’s called a “widowmaker” heart attack. That’s where the main artery providing the heart with blood becomes completely blocked.  It’s called “the widowmaker” because that kind of blockage in that specific artery kills fifty percent of people before they even get to the hospital.  Dad’s only symptoms are some light nausea and clamminess. Apparently he both lost and won the cardiovascular genetic lottery.

At the hospital, my wife and I navigate the strange geography and eventually end up in his room in the ICU. He’s pale and small looking, somehow shrunken by the hospital gown, the IV, the featureless room.  The catheter used to stent his clogged arteries is lodged painfully in his thigh. Hospitals are places of diminished dignity.  They shrink us all, but perhaps especially our fathers. The two stent procedures leave him drowsy and unable to sit up and feed himself because doing so would disturb the catheter. While my mother is at home grabbing a shower and a change of clothes, I feed my father lunch, one bite at a time. When he’s asleep again, I sit in the chair across from him and try to cry as silently as possible.

Within three days Dad is home.  He’s having trouble sleeping, doesn’t have an appetite.

“I don’t understand why my mind keeps racing,” he says a few days later. “It’s not like anything happened!” 

Optimism, useful in so many ways, is failing him here. He can’t see that he is traumatized, that we all are.

I’m feeling lost and need some space to process.  I take The Beast out for another crack at the Sierra Vista Trail.

undefinedOcotillo frame the sunrise over the Organ Mountains as seen from the Sierra Vista Trail. 




In a perfect narrative world, my father would come with me; this doesn’t happen. He still wants to lose a few pounds, still wants to feel stronger before tackling something that defeated him. I think about this as The Beast floats over the sand traps that plagued us last time. It calls to mind a story Dad tells about his father. They are backpacking in Tennessee and run into a group coming down the trail in the opposite direction. Stopping to chat, the strangers ask my grandfather how old he is. His answer, mid-fifties, shocks my father. Something about hearing it spoken aloud brings it sharply into reality. 

“What is he doing out here?” my father remembers asking himself.

Now older than his father was at that moment, I wonder if Dad is waiting for me to ask that same question.

undefinedThe four-inch-wide tires of The Beast make it an ideal machine for navigating the sandy washes of the valley floor.

This time I don’t pay any attention to the digital map. When the trail vanishes into the desert, I cut across country, picking out a path through arroyos until I reach a sandy road running parallel to where the trail should be. I bypass the maze and eventually rejoin the track, soon entering the area where Dad and I gave up. Stopping here for lunch, I consider what might have been.  Somewhere there is a version of me that is doing this ride because my father is dead. I can't seem to let this go. I circle the thought again and again as I ride. 

undefinedFat tires are only inflated to 20 psi, meaning they puncture easily by the wide variety of sharp vegetation the Chihauhaun desert has to offer.

As I re-mount The Beast and enter the unknown section of trail,  I’m shocked to discover that it immediately becomes much more rideable and well marked. It feels like I’m coming out of the wilderness. It turns out we probably could have completed the Sierra Vista Trail had we pushed on just a little further.

I haul The Beast up over the pass and ride down to the valley floor on the other side of the Franklin Mountains, making good time towards Anthony Gap. With the wind in my ears, I can let my thoughts go, at least for now. I think I know where I am.

undefinedThe southern terminus of the Sierra Vista trail.