Troubles on the Road – Vanlife in New Mexico

After a long and wonderfull 3 months in the Colorado Mountains it was time to make my way back to Colorado Springs and visit my friends and family back home. I also needed to get some work done to my van. My check engine light turned on after I left Silverton and wanted to get that looked at by my mechanic. I also had plans to install a Chinese Diesel Heater to help me get through the cold winter ahead.

Before heading back to Colorado Springs I was meeting a new friend named Dace in Durango. We met through a minivan camper group on Facebook. Dace was also traveling through Colorado in his Grand Caravan camper and on his way from Breckenridge Colorado to Southern Arizona. We met in Durango to discuss vans and show him some of the things I did with my minivan build. It ended up being a really great time getting to know Dace and it was fun to hang out in Downtown Durango.  It’s not often I come across another minivan conversion so it was fun to talk shop and learn from each other.

Snow in mid September

After leaving Durango some bad weather was coming and snow was in the forecast for most of the high country. I decided to get supplied up and hunker down in a nice ponderosa forest outside of Pagosa Springs. Two days of constantly running my Mr. Buddy heater during this storm made me realize I need to install a Chinese Diesel Heater before winter comes. (you can read about that install HERE). I never feel safe when running my propane Mr. Buddy inside my van and don’t like the moist radiant heat it puts out. After the sun came out and it warmed up I had water dripping out of the vents in my headliner from the moisture the heater produces. This could lead to mold. Not cool!

Little did I know trouble was coming.

This day was very upsetting to say the least. Every vanlifer in the back of their mind knows a breakdown could happen. Well here was my time. After a wonderfull stay in Pagosa I was just getting onto I-25 heading north past Walsenburg. After reaching the spead limit my van died. I pulled it off the side of the road and thought it may be a fuel issue related to the check engine light that was on. When I was in Durango I stopped by an O’Reillys and used their diagnostic tool. It turned out to be and issue with he fuel system so when my van stopped running I thought I could be related to that. After several attempts, my van would not start and I needed to call a tow. I was very relieved to have AAA tow insurance. I literally called for a claim and within 45 minutes a tow truck arrived. Two hours later my van is dropped off at my mecanics shop and he has a chance to take a look at it. He turns over the motor and quickly realizes there is no compression and the timing belt is broken. When a timing belt breaks on a Honda motor there is a very high chance it’s damaged your valves and ruined your engine. A valve job would be more expensive than putting a new motor in.

Long story short I blew a timing belt and ruined my engine. It had nothing to do with the check engine light. I later had a good cry.

A little whiskey to ease the pain.

It felt good to be with friends and family and catch up with everybody back home. My dad was kind enough to let me stay with him for three weeks while my van was in the shop and I was working to install my new heater. It was great to stay with him and felt we were a little bit closer by the time I left town. One thing I really enjoy about this lifestyle is you may be away from the people I care about for an extended period of time but when I do get to spend time with my friends and family it is of higher quality.

It felt excellent to get back on the road and my van was running smooth as can be with its new engine. I also installed my diesel heater and that project kicked my ass. I had messed up on my first install and had to do a full reinstall. I got it working well and it is a game changer for vanlife. The 2kw heater I got works perfect for my small van.

I think back to what happened and it really came down to a miscommunication on when my timing belt needed to be changed. I was lucky with the tow insurance and being able to get my van in the hands of my best mechanic. Two weeks in the shop and $,3,500 later I had a refurbished engine installed and Odie (my vans name) was up and running again. This was great news.

Feels so good to be back on the road!

When I finally left Colorado Springs I headed due south to Southern New Mexico. The Land of Enchantment they say. Here is where my love affair with New Mexico began.

I had to wait out some bad weather when I got to Alamogordo and hunkered down on a nice piece of BLM land a few miles out of town. I stayed here for 2 days and got to use my new diesel heater for nearly 48 hours straight. It worked incredibly well and kept me toasty warm throughout the entire storm. I am so happy to have cut the cord with my Mr. Buddy Heater. Mr. Buddy got put into storage.

I wanted to see the White Sands National Park before I left the Alamagordo area.  The weather got better and I was excited to check it out before heading to Carlsbad.

I didn’t have a National Parks pass this year so I settled for a photo of the White Sands from the side of the highway. Maybe I will come back and visit here again as this was a pretty unsatisfying way to visit a National Park.

Carlsbad has mountain biking?

Before heading to Carlsbad Caverns I got resupplies in the town of Carlsbad then found a patch of BLM land to call home next to the La Cueva Trail System on the outskirts of the city. It’s a small system but was fun to ride and I was enjoying the desert scenery.  The camping was good to for being so close to town.

Snug as a bug in a rug. I really enjoyed camping next to the La Cueva trail system but this patch of BLM land had a lot of fracking and mining going on so I could hear the machines and flames groaning and popping in the distance. I needed to get a good night’s sleep for for my big day at Carlsbad Caverns tomorrow and I did. This is how my interior looks when the bed is pulled out. I have been sleeping so incredible since I got my Exped Megamat. Most nights I get 8 hours of non stop sleep.

Time to get my cave on!

I was really excited to arrive at the entrance of this iconic cave. It has been on my bucket list for quite some time.

The Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns National Park

It was massive and was totally worth the $15 entrance fee. I dont know why this park is such a good deal. Normally a day pass is much more expensive for a National Park.

The Dolls Theatre was a favorite feature of mine. 

The National Park service did a great job with the lighting and building a foot path that was not to intrusive while guiding you through the best parts of the cave. There air is misty and everything was damp. This place really felt like an alien world.

Park Ranch Cave System

After visiting the National Park I found an amazing campsite on the other side of the highway. It turns out this was right next to a public cave system that you could explore.

Main entrance of the Park Ranch cave just down the road from my camp.

The Park Ranch cave system was very exciting for me to discover. The last time I explored a primitive cave like this I was 19 years old. The passage was smooth and full of gypsum. It was formed by water draining through these passages and its important that you stay out of the caves if there is any flooding in the area. The shapes in the passages reminded me more of slot canyons than a traditional cave. These caves are nothing like Carlsbad Caverns that are just a few miles away.

There was 4 miles of passage to explore and within 100 yards of my camp were 2 entrances to the cave. I took one day to explore the southern entrance. And on the next day I explored the northern entrance. I was so excited when I figured how to link the two together. My adreniline was pumping! I was very carefull to make sure I did not get lost and had 2 light sources in addition to my headlamp with me. I also wore my bike helmet and that did d a great job protecting my noggin.

The second entrance was much tighter and I had to belly crawl for a ways through some muck! I would love to come back here and explore more passage. It’s incredibly hard to find caves as nice as this one that are open to the public.

Strange moths arrive

My first hot springs and the Gila Cliff Dwellings

I had a interesting encounter with nature when dozens of large moths gatherd and clung to the side of my ARB Deluxe Room when I left my outdoor lights on one night. I am sure they were terrified by all the bats in the area.

After a great stay in Carlsbad it was time to head towards Silver City New Mexico to get resupplies and meet my friend Garrett at the Gila Hot Springs Campground. The campground was only $8 a night and offerd a level spot with a picnic table and all the soaking you wanted. There were 3 very clean pools to choose from and all were a very comfortable 103 degrees right along the West Fork of the Gila River.

Before leaving the hot springs we visited the 700 year old Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

The cliff dwelling were preserved well and fun to walk through. After taking some time to enjoy this beautiful location we quickly realized why it would be an incredible place to call home. We asked the Park Ranger on the way out how big the community was here and she said around 50 Mogollon’s lived here between 1270s – 1300s.

The Gila National Forest and wilderness were absolutly incredible. I could have stayed here forever but it was time to move on. I had a short job coming up in Telluride hanging window draperies in a fancy hotel.

Quick stop in Gallup for a bike ride!

High Desert Trail System.
Gallup, NM

I started to make my way closer to Telluride along the Airzona/New Mexico border and along the way I stopped at one of my previous camping and mountian biking destinations in Gallup New Mexico. I got in a great ride and checked off some trails that I did not get to ride in 2018. You can read about my camping and mountain biking in the Zuni National Forest outside of Gallup HERE.

New Mexico makes the best carins!

After a crappy nights stay in the High Desert Trail Head parking lot it was time to get back to Colorado. My job in Telluride was coming up in a couple of days so it was time to say goodbye to the Land of Enchantment. I am excited for my job in Telluride and I will get to see my friend Mike and take a shower!


New Mexico is a remarkable destination and the landscape and remoteness makes for an amazing road trip. The camping was excellent and not crowded compared to my Colorado camping this past summer. There is hardly anyone on the roads and I would recommend taking the back roads versus I-25. My time on Highway 56 and 180 were remarkable. I also liked that the rest stops in New Mexico allow overnight camping and were imaculate.

Carlsbad and the Gila National Forest were my favorite destinaitons. I also really enjoyed the town of Silver City. Silver City had a really cool vibe and is the gateway for the massive Gila Wilderness. I regret not going into White Sands National Park but am sure I will have another opportunity to visit those pretty white dunes again. Carlsbad Caverns blew my mind but it was exploring the undeveloped Park Ranch Cave system that was the highlight for me!

We all know that there is great cycling in Albuquerque and Northern New Mexico but it’s good to know there is excellent singletrack in the small towns of Gallup and Carlsbad.

My van is running great and I feel back in the game. I cant wait to go back and visit New Mexico and see more. As my nomad friend Garrett said, “You can land just about anywhere in the state and it will be beautiful.” Truly the Land of Enchantment.

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