These past few days have featured a lot of tears and sweat, plus some blood for good measure. For all my friends who are green with envy about my trip, here’s a little taste of the dark side of the Great Divide.
I left Salida on Tuesday morning and knew I had a tough stretch ahead of me: 153 miles over four days, including crossing three mountain passes above 10,000 feet. Before leaving town, I decided to get my bike checked out at the shop since I was having trouble adjusting my brakes and stopping my wheels from wobbling. While riding over there, I noticed the side of my right hand was covered in blood, the result of a scab opening up (my hands, arms, and legs are full of scrapes and scabs). I wondered if it had also been bleeding in the pancake house where I’d had breakfast. I thought people were giving me looks because I was dressed in lycra or smelled like a homeless person.
I was able to get a full tune-up at Absolute Bikes for $45, which seemed like a pretty good deal, and that helped lessen my anxiety. There won’t be another bike shop on the route for the rest of my journey, so now I’m on my own as far as repairs.
Leaving Salida (“exit” or “departure” in Spanish), I rode 5 miles on a bike path and US 50 to Poncha Springs, straight into the wind, then started up Poncha Pass on US 285. The summit was 9 miles away, but I turned off a few miles short of that onto the dirt road that I’d descended during my ride of the Monarch Crest Trail. From there it would be another 15 miles uphill to Marshall Pass and the Continental Divide on a dirt road.
I’d been feeling pretty good during the climb on the highway since it was paved, the grade was fairly mellow, and there were some plateaus where I could recover. But the first part of Marshall Pass Road was steep, sandy, and so difficult that it really got me down. I knew I’d be churning in my granny gear for the next three hours and I was already drenched in sweat. To make things worse, I had four days of food and fuel with me, plus extra water since I wasn’t sure I could find any at the top of the hill due to the deep drought gripping the region.
And then I started to cry. Not really because of the grueling climb, although that had put me in a shitty mood, but because of memories of my mom and the looming anniversary of her death 3 years ago. I had spoken to my dad the night before, right after he had lit the memorial candle–it was the anniversary on the Hebrew calendar. Holding back his own tears, he told me he’d kissed her photo for me.
I decided that on this climb I’d allow myself to feel sad, mad, guilty, and whatever else about her death, that I’d let myself remember the terrible way in which she died from cancer and how I was completely and totally powerless to stop it, just as I was utterly helpless in the face of this hill and headwind. Anger soon dominated sadness and seemed to help me up the pass, as if I were transferring the rage I felt from every injustice I ever suffered into the brute power of pedal strokes.
Fortunately, the climb up Marshall Pass was worst at the start and I was able to cool off after clouds rolled in, so my mood lifted. A few miles short of the top, after hours of being totally alone, I came upon three bikepackers with BOB trailers, the first I’d seen on my entire trip.
“So this must be the meeting spot,” I said. There was male-female couple biking southbound like me, but they took off shortly after I arrived (do I really smell that bad?), plus a young guy who was heading northbound. We chatted briefly about the road ahead for each of us, empathized about our sore asses, and then parted ways.
By the time I got to the top of Marshall Pass I was wiped out, but the crying had been cathartic. I spent a few minutes talking to an elderly gentleman who was riding the entire Colorado Trail on horseback. I rode a few miles down the backside of the pass and found a decent campsite beside the road and a short walk from running water.
Although Tuesday was a hard one, I figured Wednesday would be easier since I’d start out descending the rest of Marshall Pass and then have a 13-mile stretch of pavement, also mostly downhill, before turning up again into the national forest. Sure enough, the first 20 minutes or so of the ride were fast and fun, but I soon noticed a strong headwind coming up the back side of Marshall Pass, slowing my progress, and killing it entirely on some flat stretches.
I got to Sargents, where there’s a gas station, general store, and cafe on Highway 50. I had visions of picking up a quick meal of real food, but the cafe was closed on this day. I had hopes of calling Ginette on either my cell phone or a pay phone, but there was no cell signal and the pay phone was broken. So I bought a big jug of Gatorade, a box of Fig Newtons, some M&Ms, and set off west on Highway 50, straight into a stiff headwind. I had expected these next 13 miles to go fast, being on pavement and mostly downhill, but the wind was coming right up the valley as if it were an air duct. The road would twist and turn, following Tomichi Creek, but the wind was always in my face. I had to pedal on the downhills to keep up my momentum and this really started to piss me off. I recalled that Blue Mesa Reservoir, just downstream, is a popular windsurfing spot.
I figured my suffering would be temporary, because after 13 miles on the highway going west, I’d make a sharp left and then curve around Cochetopa Dome until I was heading east, on my way up to Cochetopa Pass. The headwind should turn into a tailwind. But after I turned off the highway and headed southeast, I still had the wind blowing in my face. After an hour or two of that, climbing up through the rolling, semi-arid Cochetopa HIlls, I was finally heading east, but now the wind had died. It left me seething.
I hadn’t passed any water for 15 miles, so I felt obligated to fill up in a little creek that was just a trickle and had turbid, lousy-tasting water. After another 10 miles or so, I finally found a decent water source, Cochetopa Creek, where a couple was trout fishing. It was a hot, dry day, so I dunked my head in the water and literally got my second wind as the gusts finally started to blow again out of the west. That only lasted a half hour or so, but it helped push me up the hill for a little while.
I thought about making it all the way over Cochetopa Pass, but by 6:30 pm I’d done around 55 miles and I knew that the last few miles up to the pass would be especially steep and slow. My butt was also getting really tender. So I pulled off on a side road that turned into a rutted two-track, searched for a flat spot without cow patties, and made a dry camp beneath a willow.
Exhausted from two difficult days of riding, I slept 10.5 hours and awoke to a dew-laden morning on Thursday. All those shifting winds from the day before had heralded a weather shift and I could tell the air was much more humid and likely to spawn thunderstorms in the afternoon.
And then my stuff started falling apart. While moving my tent to a sunny spot so it could dry, one of the poles snapped. I discovered that one of the earpieces on my sunglasses had also broken overnight–how I don’t know. Both of those I could try to fix with duct tape.
But then I made a discovery that was not so fixable. I was missing one of my hiking shoes. I searched and searched, but couldn’t find it anywhere. It must have fallen out of my bag somewhere, or maybe I’d left it behind at my previous campsite. Ginette has been bugging me to get rid of these things for months since they’re totally trashed and she’s embarrassed to be seen with me in them, but now I have no other footwear than my mountain biking cleats. I tossed the one hiking shoe I still had into the bushes–at least my load is now a little lighter.
I had already woken up on the wrong side of the Thermarest mattress on Thursday after some nightmares. It was also the anniversary of my mom’s death. I ate my oatmeal and drank my coffee while sitting in the dirt in the middle of the road, waiting for my stuff to dry out. An elderly cowboy on horseback started riding toward me, pushing his cattle up the valley with cries of “Get the hell up there!” He’s been ranching that allotment since 1963, seven years before I was born, and the drought has hit him hard. “Not much grass,” he said, “and there’s just no water out here.”
Thursday’s ride began with about five miles of climbing to reach the top of Cochetopa Pass, where the Ute once passed through on their way to hunt buffalo on the Plains and where Fremont, Gunnison, and other explorers scouted for a possible route for the transcontinental railroad. Once again, tears of rage were mixing with sweat on my face as I did more grieving for my mom, more complaining about the persistent headwind, and more bitching about anything I could think of.
I just couldn’t believe the wind. This part of the route snakes east and west, north and south, and yet every direction I pointed I was greeted with a breeze in my face. At times I would repeatedly scream “Fuck you!” into the sky, not because I thought there was a god or higher being or anything up there that could make the wind stop. I had no reason: it just felt like the right thing to do. I almost felt a bond with the settlers, ranchers, farmers, and others who sought to eke out a living in this forbidding place before it was domesticated only to see curtains of virga evaporate before hitting the soil and watch their crops and cattle wither.
“Life is good” and “No bad days” say the bumperstickers on the SUVs blasting by me on the highways, but from my vantage over the past few days that seems like total bullshit. If I had to choose an adjective to describe life, it wouldn’t be “good” or “nice” or any other platitude. Life is hard. It’s about death, suffering, change, chaos, and disorder. No bad days? How about 9/11? How about the day your mother is diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer? Those aren’t bad days?
Thursday was sucking as much as the previous two days, so I decided to suck it up and ride over Carnero Pass so I could at least have a reasonable ride on Friday before Saturday’s epic climb from Del Norte to Indiana Pass, a gain of more than 4,000 elevation. I literally had a dark cloud hanging over me for the last hour of the climb and the outflows from the burgeoning thunderstorm were making it twice as hard to pedal. It drizzled, but didn’t start pour until after I’d crested the pass and was on my way down to a campground. I normally prefer to stay outside of developed campgrounds, but the weather forced me into this one. I got a little soaked rushing to put up my tent–gingerly with the wounded pole–but managed to get me and all of my possession inside without getting hypothermic. Ten minutes later, the sun came out and started baking my tent, so I was forced to get out.
Finally, I thought, some peace and quiet, a chance to write in my journal, read, and decompress in isolation. If only. Just as I took a seat at the picnic table, a bikepacker rolled up. He was a young guy from Israel, also heading south, but doing 2 to 3 times as many miles a day as me, as in 95 on this day. He asked me if he could pitch his tent in my site.
“You mean right here?” I asked. I was the only person in the campground and there were a dozen unoccupied sites all around us, but he wanted to stay in my site. I tried to gently explain that there wasn’t much room, but he said his tent was freestanding and he could set it up on some grass near mine. Before I could really strenuously object, he was making himself at home.
I’m Jewish by birth, so I get a free pass at saying that Israelis are notoriously pushy and this guy fit the stereotype. Americans, especially Westerners, like our elbow room and tend to go camping, backpacking, or bikepacking specifically so we can get the fuck away from strangers. But I guess Israel is a small country and people there are used to living on top of one another, so this guy had no shame about moving into my campsite. Other cultures just don’t have the same respect for personal space. I didn’t feel like talking to him, smelling him, hearing him slurp his food, or interacting in any other way with him, but I was stuck, so I made small talk for a while and then retreated into my tent as soon as it got dark. At least I didn’t have to worry about catching up to him on the trail.
By the time I woke on Friday, the Israeli had left and I was glad to be in solitude again. I only had about 30 miles to go until Del Norte, where I’d be staying in a hotel, but now I’d come to expect an “easy day” would be anything but. And sure enough, as I set off down the backside of Carnero Pass, the wind was right in my face, streaming up the drainage from the San Luis Valley. There were some cool rock formations on the descent, but I was still in a foul mood. After 18 miles, it was time to make a sharp right and head south to Del Norte and, you guessed it, the wind was now coming out of the south. By now, I had descended to the edge of the San Luis Valley, which gets something like 8 inches of rain a year, so it’s basically a high desert and the road was sandy, washboarded, and terribly dusty. Every 15 minutes or so, a vehicle–usually a big pickup truck–would speed past me and lift up a huge curtain of dust that would hover in the air for miles. I had to keep stopping until the wind pushed the particulates out of my path. I could feel my asthma acting up.
I arrived in Del Norte at about 1 pm and was thankful to be able to check in to my hotel early. It took ages in the shower to wash off the dust, sweat, sunscreen, and general funk that had been covering me for four days. The hotel didn’t have any laundry facilities, so I headed down Main Street to a laundromat, but then I had to hop back on my bike and go to the grocery because the detergent dispenser was broken. I left the rest of the bottle of detergent on top of the broken dispense. Good karma = tailwinds?
I was famished, so while my clothes were washing I went across the street to a cafe. I was excited to learn they were still serving breakfast, but then devastated when they brought out the worst huevos rancheros I’ve ever tasted. Who the hell puts hamburger meat in huevos rancheros? Maybe people who live in Del Norte but who refuse to pronounce the Spanish name correctly and call it “Del Nort.” Same thing up in “Bew-na Vista” to the north, or “Casa Grand” in Arizona.
With the huevos ranchers untouchable, I was still starving and went to the Subway in the gas station across the street so I could partake in some corporate-approved, standardized fare that I knew wouldn’t disappoint. I figured I could also pick up some beers at the convenience store, but they don’t sell booze in such places here in Del Norte, so I had to pedal to the other side of town to the liquor store, where business was hopping. I went in expecting I’d have to buy a tall boy of Coors Light or some other such swill, but I was pleasantly surprised that they had some bombers of Colorado microbrews. I waited in line behind a Vietnam vet with no legs in a wheelchair who bought a fifth of vodka for $7 and had a little dog in his lap.
I headed back to my hotel to figure out my next moves. There isn’t so much as a flip-flop for sale in Del Norte and this is the biggest town I’ll hit until the end of my ride in 8 days. I’m not gonna bike 30 miles on a US Highway to go to the Walmart in Alamosa to buy new shoes or sandals, so I guess I’m stuck with my mountain biking cleats for the rest of the trip. The studly, lightweight bikepackers carry nothing else, so I guess I’m in good company.
I studied my maps for a long while in my hotel room, half-watching the censored version of Scarface on A&E, which is kinda funny because every other word out of Pacino’s mouth is the F-bomb. The plan now is to stay in a hotel in Abiquiu, NM on Wednesday night and camp the rest of the time, until Ginette and her mom pick me up in Cuba, NM a week from Sunday. That means I’ll need to be self-sufficient for the next five days and four nights while riding around 195 miles through some of the toughest country on the entire route. Right now I’m at about 7,900 feet elevation, but by tomorrow afternoon I hope to be pedaling across Indiana Pass, 11,910 feet elevation and the highest point of the entire Great Divide Mountain Biking Route. Uh oh.
I went out to dinner to fuel up for tomorrow’s ride and had another unpleasant experience. I think because of my beard (I showered and I’m in clean clothes!) they stuck me in a back room all alone and then, for the first time in my life, I had a waitress stand over me to ensure that I signed the credit card, as if I were some vagrant ready to dine and dash. “Is it the beard? Is that why you stuck me in Siberia and are standing over me like this?” I asked. “No, I do it for everyone,” she said nervously. Yeah, right.
Looking back over the past four days, I’ve been mostly unhappy and suffering. This Great Divide route is hard enough under the best of circumstances, but pure hell if the rewards you expect from enduring these ridiculous climbs are erased by winds that suck out all the joy. The rash of mechanical failures and losing my hiking shoes are major annoyances, but not show stoppers, so tomorrow I’ll get back in the saddle and ride off, hoping for a brighter day.