Days 0 to 4: Wyoming to Steamboat Springs

I survived my first 110 miles on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. As expected, this is a tough ride, especially those uphills on dirt roads, but so far I’m keeping pace with my plan and enjoying myself.

Here’s my first batch of journal entries:

Day 0: Denver to Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming

I was having  a pretty crappy day until right before sunset. Back in Denver, I’d spent the day scrambling to get ready for the trip, tie up loose ends at work, and buy some last-minute provisions and gear. But despite weeks of preparations, in which I turned my basement into a supply cache and covered the wall in maps, I still wasn’t ready to go when the zero hour arrived. We left at 4:30pm, 2.5 hours later than planned, then hit bad traffic on the way out of town. The whole process of packing, planning, and preparing to sign off from work for a month had left me stressed, exhausted . . . and definitely in need of a vacation!

About halfway between Laramie and Rawlins, we pulled off I-80 and started up a gravel road. Within a few minutes we escaped the din of the interstate and started climbing on a gravel road toward the Medicine Bow National Forest. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pronghorn running in parallel with the car, only about 25 feet away. Mistakenly called “antelope,” the pronghorn are second only to cheetahs in their running speed (and the cats can only sprint for a short while). My speedometer read 40 mph but the pronghorn was still outpacing us on my left. I could see its mouth was slightly open, sucking in air to fuel that incredible cardiovascular system. The pronghorn sped up, dashed across the road in front of us, and sped off into the sagebrush steppe.

I’d heard about the exact same display from John Morgart, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who led the recovery program for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn (and the Mexican gray wolf) before he died of cancer a few years ago. Pronghorn up here in Wyoming are relatively abundant, while the subspecies that lives along the U.S.-Mexico border is considered one of the most imperiled mammals  on the continent. It’s one of the species I wrote about in Endangered.

It was some treat to see  that animal  run. The legs were pumping so fast they were blurry to my eyes. Over the next few miles, we saw a big herd of pronghorn off to the right, then a bunch of mule deer, which seemed like real slow-pokes.

It only took us about 5 miles to reach the National Forest and find a nice campsite beside a rock outcropping with swallows darting into and out of the holes pockmarked in the formation.

Tomorrow, we’ll wake up relatively early and drive another hour or two to my starting point. I’ve decided to begin where the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route crosses the Emigrant Trail–the corridor in which the California, Mormon, and Oregon trails all pass through. Seems like a fitting crossroads from which to set off. I emigrated from the Northeast to the West in 1995, so I’ve been here about 17 of my 41 years, nearly half my life. I think I’m here to stay.

After Ginette drops me off tomorrow morning near Rawlins, I’ll start pedaling south–and uphill–into the Sierra Madre Mountains. It looks to be a challenging day, with one crossing of the Continental Divide at Middlewood Hill, but I’m only planning to do about 35 miles. On Saturday I’ll cross into Colorado, camp out again, then make my way to Steamboat Springs on Sunday. I’ll spend Monday in Steamboat, though it probably won’t be a total rest day. I’m planning to go downhilling at the ski resort. Should be pretty sweet putting my trailer-less bike on a chair lift and zooming up the hill.

Although the day ended well, I’m still feeling a bit nervous about the trip, mostly worrying about whether I’ve brought the right stuff with me. I spent many an evening over the past few weeks plotting my possessions, even going to far as to weigh pretty much everything. We’ll see how much survives the full trip.

Day 1: Middlewood Hill to Little Sandstone Creek, Medicine Bow, NF

Feeling tired but much relieved after getting the first day under my belt. I did 24 miles, the first half into a ferocious headwind that wouldn’t quit.

I had planned to start at the intersection of the GDMBR and the Emigrant Trail, but we discovered that juncture was in the middle of a construction zone. I was chomping at the bit, dying to get on the bike and start this thing already, but we came to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere that was on a 10-minute delay to allow vehicles coming the opposite direction to pass. A few miles later, we came to another one and had to wait 10 minutes. I was getting really cranky and impatient, but I didn’t want to start the ride with 18-wheelers barreling by and showing us in dust on the shoulder, and I knew it would take me a good half hour to pack my stuff before setting off. So we kept driving another 10 miles or so and finally exited the 17-mile construction zone. We passed a couple of bikers and I felt like such a cheater as we ascended toward Middlewood Hill. Ginette knew it would take me a while to get my shit together and wanted to find some shade, but there wasn’t much timber atop Middlewood. We pulled off on a sideroad, I repacked my bag, loaded up on water, and then said goodbye to Ginette and the pups. I apologized profusely for being so grumpy the past few days, but she knew it was because of the stress of starting such a big undertaking and me being super tired after weeks of burning the candle at both ends.

And then off she drove and I was alone. But only for about 5 minutes. I crested a small hill–actually, my first crossing of the Continental Divide–and at the summit I found the two bikers on the side of the road, fixing a flat. Joe and Rhea had started a month before, at the border of Canada, and they were headed all the way down to the border with Mexico. I was amazed at how little stuff they had. My bag weighed a whopping 54 pounds when I set off, plus another dozen or so pounds for my Camelbak backpack and bike bags, plus 16 pounds for the BOB trailer itself. These guys were doing the whole GDMBR with just a few on-bike panniers. It turned out that Joe actually made the bags himself. He works at REI in Madison, Wisconsin, where Rhea is a student, with a year to go before graduating. In previous summers, Joe had hiked the entire Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Appalachian Trail–the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking. He knows how to travel light and I felt like I was pulling a stagecoach behind me.

I was encouraged that I was able to keep up with them–this being my first day and around their 30th–but maybe they were just showing pity on me. The wind was brutal–sustained at 20 or 30 mph and we were riding square into it. I was suffering, but also felt some consolation when Joe described that 12 mile stretch as the worst they’d been through so far. For me it was a baptism by fire.

I felt OK on the bike. I was kind a dehydrated by the end and probably should have ate more. I’ve only peed a few times today so I really should be drinking more. The ride itself felt like it was mostly uphill, but I started at about eight thousand feet and have made camp here at about the same elevation. There were some pretty steep downhills, and the road surface was sort a gravelly and loose, so I took it pretty easy. Sometimes the wind was so strong it felt like I had to pedal to go downhill.

As we reached the forest boundary at about 15 miles the skies started to get darker and virga turned into some raindrops, but it never did dump. I left Joe and Rhea about 19 miles since they wanted to stop for lunch and I was planning to only go about four miles farther, to the next water source. I thought about getting water where they stopped, at Big Sandstone Creek, but I knew the next few miles would be mostly uphill, and they were.

Little Sandstone Creek wasn’t much, just a trickle going under a culvert. I found it easiest to get water in a little pool that had some fish in it–trout, I believe. Every so often, a tiny fish would jump out of the pool to snag an insect. Joe and Rhea caught up to me and then kept going, hoping to reach the Colorado border, another fifteen miles or so. I was feeling pretty zonked as I put up my tent and unpaked. I ate some Ramen, then mashed potatoes with prosciutto. As I was making dinner, a thunderstorm whipped up. Some really gusty outflows before the storm arrived with thunder, lighting, and a brief downpour. I dumped everything in my tent to wait it out. I’m glad I have this tent for times like that–I better if I’m gonna haul this thing a thousand miles. The storm cleared in time for a gorgeous sunset that put a smile on my face.

Day 2: Little Sandstone Creek, Wyo. to Summit Creek, Colo., Routt NF

I pushed myself today and did 44 miles, crossing from Wyoming into Colorado and trading the Medicine Bow NF for Rout NF. I woke up at about 7 am, still pretty tired, and took a couple of hours to repack my gear and think about what I can ditch. It was a pleasant morning, with lots of dew on the tall grass until the sun came out and dried everything out. I left my camp at about 9:30 a.m., passed through a local attraction known as Aspen Alley, and then climbed a couple of miles on decent dirt roads until I reached my first stretch of pavement. The next 13 miles were fun–mostly downhill on a smooth surface1 At times I was flying at 30 mph, eating up the miles like I haven’t before on this trip. There were a couple of flat stretches with a bit of a headwind, and a few uphill pitches to make things interesting, but overall it felt fucking great to be moving that fast!

I turned off the highway and started up the Little Snake River, along the Wyoming-Colorado border. I decided to take what’s called the Columbine Alternate since it’s 32 versus 36 miles to Steamboat Lake, it’s not as steep and it doesn’t go as high. It was still a pretty ride next to the river and nice to have a series of rollers that allowed me to gain some momentum on the downhills. The road was also in pretty good shape and I’m starting to realize that has a major effect on my speed. Ascending along the Little Snake, it started to get downright hot and I could see the perspiration shinning on my forearms. I took off my helmet for the long uphill stretches to cool off but that hour or two while the sun was baking took a lot out of me.

The route passed through hay farms along the river, flanked by some ridges and mountains with trees on their tops. At the Little Snake, my altimeter read 6,666′ and aside from stay in Steamboat, I think that’s gonna be the lowest elevation I’ll see until the very end. Over the next 20 miles or so, I gained about 1,500′ in elevation. I passed by the enormous and opulent Three Forks Ranch, which doubles as a luxury resort. I cooled off in the Lower Fork of the Little Snake by dunking my head while getting water. The last 10 miles or so of the ride were rough. The farther and higher I went, the steeper the road and the looser the surface. The road would climb gently, then hit a really steep pitch for a couple hundred yards that had me in my lowest gear and pushing with all my might. On a few of the hardest hills I had to stop multiple times because my legs would eventually fail. My heart was ticking at a pretty good clip, but it wasn’t super elevated–the limiting factor seemed to be my leg strength.

I started out the day doing a pretty good job of staying hydrated, but toward the end I stopped peeing and started flagging. If I can keep my piss clear and copious, I’ll have a much better time this summer!

I had thoughts about making the climb all the way up to Columbine, to aroudn 8,700′, but I found a choice campsite fairly close to a water source and decided to call it quits when I heard some thunder around 5pm. I thought it was going to dump like it did yesterday evening, but the rain never came–only a rainbow. At sunset, there was a warm pink light bathing Hahns Peak and now it looks to be clearing up for the night. I’m beat but overall I’m feeling pretty good about today. I was able to do nearly double as many miles as yesterday and I’m starting to get the hang of this. I still feel like I’m carrying way too much weight and will arrive in Steamboat with a bunch of uneaten food, an extra gas cannister, etc. But this was all by design–I wanted to make sure I  could pack away enough provisions for a longer trip in the backcountry. Between Steamboat and Silverthorne, I’ll be out for four days and three nights, but I will be able to resupply in Kremmling. Tomorrow I have a tough start, with at least 500 feet of climbing over the next few miles to get to Columbine, but from there it’s downhill for a while and not too far to pavement, where I hope to cruise at a pretty good clip.

I’m looking forward to Steamboat and a day off. My legs are tired and my butt is sore. I’m already starting to envision the comforts of civilization: showering, slepeing in a  bed, eating yummy food, drinking beer.

Days 3 and 4: Summit Creek to Steamboat Springs

Sunday dawned overcast and it started to sprinkle as I was breaking camp. Some monsoon moisture has been making its way north into Colorado over the past few days–I think this is why I keep hitting winds from the south and southwest. Right off the bat, I faced a fairly brutal climb of a few miles to reach the high point of Columbine. The dirt road got kinda loose near the top and really slowed me down. The day before, right before I made camp, a passing motorist told me it was only a quarter mile until the road turned to pavement. Well, it was actually 2.5 miles, so I guess he forgot to carry the decimal or something. The downhill from Columbine to Steamboat Lake took no time at all, but the skies kept getting darker. I opted to stop for some lunch at the Clark general store and enjoyed a tasty ham and cheese sanwhich with fig spread and local greens. But lounging on the porch would have its price. As I mounted my bike for the last 20 miles to Steamboat it started to drizzle and then started to really pour. But riding in the rain wasn’t bad at all–it helped keep me cool and I was already drenched in sweat. There was a fair amount of traffic on the road, and sometimes not a great shoulder, but it’s a route heavily used by recreational cyclists, so motorists seemed to be extra generous in giving me space.

Getting around Steamboat Springs was really easy thanks to the city’s great bike trail system. Most of my ride to my motel was along the Yampa River, which had a surprising amount of water flowing. I checked in to the generic Steamboat Hotel, which is nothing special but seemed like the Grand Hyatt compared to my accomodations over the past few days.

I’d covered 110 miles in my first three days and boy was my ass sore1 My butt, rather than my legs, lungs, or other body parts, seems to be my limiting factor for bicycling, whether I’m on my road or mountain bike. I got clean, did some laundry, talked to Ginette, and walked across the street for dinner, a bison burger that really hit the spot.

That was yesterday, and this evening I’m still in Steamboat after spending a great day downhilling at the ski resort. I got there pretty early, thinking it would be stormy in the afternoon and they’d shut down the lifts. It’s $35 to ride the gonodola up the hill all day, which isn’t cheap but around a third of the price for a lift ticket during ski season.

Downhilling at Steamboat was awesome! I’ve only done this twice before–once at Winter Park, once at Crested Butte–but I’m starting to get a little addicted. I mean, what’s not to like about having a gondola or chair lift whisk you and your bike thousands of feet up a mountain so you can fly down singletrack trails for a half hour without hardly pedaling. It was a Monday, so there was hardly anyone on the mountain and the thunderstorms held off for the three hours I was there. Downhilling is actually more tiring than you’d think because you tend to stand on your pedals, rather than sit, and it’s like being in a tuck position while skiing for a long time. Eventually your thighs start burning. But compared to bikepacking along the Great Divide, it’s nothing!

Tomorrow morning I’m setting off again, hoping to do around 35 miles. I’ll be staying in a motel in Silverthorne on Friday night and camping out until then. I’ll pass by the tiny town of Kremmling, probably Wednesday, but otherwise it’ll be pretty remote country before reaching the I-70 corridor.