EL PASO — Not the ocotillo. Anything but the ocotillo.
As I flew over the handlebars of my mountain bike on a rocky trail outside El Paso, I knew my landing would be hard. I just prayed I would not land on those nasty ocotillo plants that bordered the bike trail like roadside land mines.
Even a prickly pear cactus or an agave plant would be a better landing alternative to the ocotillo, whose quills extend like hypodermic needles.
But I lucked out. I landed on a patch of hard gravel -- a feather-soft landing, compared with the cactus thorn beds I missed by just a couple of feet.
After two days of mountain biking in the Redd Road mountain trails northeast of El Paso, I understood why folks in the Lone Star State say "Don't mess with Texas." Here in the Chihuahuan desert, within a stone's throw of the Rio Grande, the salsa is fiery hot, the cactus thorns deadly sharp and the bike trails -- at least based on my experience -- are downright punishing.
(Most of the Redd Road mountain trails are on undeveloped desert property owned by the city of El Paso but some paths extend into adjacent Franklin Mountains State Park, where riders must purchase a state recreation pass.)
I'm not an avid mountain biker but I've left blood and skin shavings in some of the toughest trails in the West, including Downieville and Mt. Tamalpais in California and Blue Diamond in Nevada. But the Redd Road mountain trails may be the most brutal I've faced, a road to ruin for greenhorn riders and their bikes.
The trails beat my first rental bike into submission after only three miles or so of riding. The back tire gave up the ghost and went flat on the way to a summit. Then as I was trying to coast downhill, a rock threw the front forks out of alignment with the handlebars. I had to carry the bike -- a Specialized Hardrock -- down the hill like some wounded soldier.
I expected to take a physical beating, but I didn't think the trail would KO my bike. I should have expected hard times when I read a review of Redd Road trail on an online mountain biking site that said, "If you want to suffer, ride here."
But I wasn't going to give up. I returned two days later with another bike. This time I packed a patch kit and a multi-tool, in case I needed to make repairs along the way. I started early, before sunrise, and followed Lechugilla Trail uphill for a couple of miles. The long arms of those spiny ocotillo branches reached out from the trail's edges, clawing at my pant legs.
The trails, alternatively rocky and sandy, spread across the desert like a spider web. The trails range from technically challenging to moderately nasty. Sure, there are a few gentle paths, good for beginners, but even these are lined with sharp cactus thorns full of bad intentions.
Just as the sun crested the Franklin Mountains to the east, I saw movement on the trail ahead of me. Three bushy-tailed coyotes sauntered along the dirt path. I pumped hard to catch up, but the canines veered off the trail and disappeared among a forest of agave and shrubs. I stopped and looked into the shrubs. One of the coyotes walked out into a clearing, took a step forward and eyed me, as if to remind me that I was outnumbered. I took the hint and pedaled away.
Out of breath, my leg muscles burning, I reached the highest point of these rocky desert badlands near a place known as the "Altar."
Now for the payoff: a fast ride downhill for two or three miles. And this time, my bike was intact and operational.
In mountain biking lingo, "baby heads" describes rocks the size of, well, baby heads. This particular size causes a world of havoc for bikers because you can't shoot over them like gravel, but they are often too plentiful and too small to avoid.
My teeth chattered and the bike's bearings rattled as I sped down the baby head trails, a cloud of dust in my wake. Any deviation from the trail and spiny clusters of ocotillo, prickly pear and agave plants threatened to skewer me like a voodoo doll.
I remember picking up speed on a gravel trail, feeling the wind howling in my ears. Ahead of me, the trail turned left over a dozen protruding baby heads. I slowed and tried to ride the gravely edge to avoid the bigger rocks. But my front tire sank in the gravel and I felt my weight heave forward.
That's when I catapulted over the handlebars, saw the green of the agave, the paddle-shaped stems of the prickly pears and the vicious thorns of the ocotillo. Luckily for me, I face-planted on a bed of gravel at the bottom of the turn that I had failed to navigate.
The bike survived. My knees and my gloved hands caught most of the impact. The damage: a scraped knee, ripped pants and a mouth full of dirt. It could have been much worse. I could have come out of the crash looking like a human pin cushion.
When I returned the bike to the rental shop in El Paso later that morning, I advised the shop manager that I had taken a fall on the bike. Maybe he should check the tires and the frame for damage, I suggested.
"Where did you ride?" he asked.
"Redd Road mountain," I answered.
"Oh," he said, without a hint of surprise. "That happens."
Bike rentals: Crazy Cat Cyclery, 5650 N. Desert Blvd., El Paso; (915) 585-9666. Daily rental $40.