Tag Archives: salida

Days 19 to 22: Salida to Del Norte

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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?
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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.

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Days 12 to 18: Climbing and biking in Sawatch Range

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Day 12: Mount Yale to Mount Princeton

On Tuesday I left my campsite at the base of Mount Yale, headed down Cottonwood Pass to Buena Vista, and then headed back into the Sawatch Range farther south to make another camp near Mount Princeton. The ride into town was a breeze–12 paved miles nearly all downhill. I stopped at Bongo Billy’s cafe for some food and an internet connection so I could do a little research on my route and post some photos. The day started out with some high clouds and that seemed to suppress the mountain convection for a while, but now that it’s mid-afternoon, thunder is starting to rumble in the mountains above me.

I’m camped along the Colorado Trail, a hiking path that runs from Denver to Durango, nearly 500 miles. I’ve mountain biked a good chunk of the trail near Denver and it’s one of the greatest rides I’ve ever experienced. Out here, some of the trail is in wilderness so bikes are verboten but from where I’m camped it looks like I can ride in either direction. A few people actually mountain bike the whole Colorado Trail every summer, taking established detours around the wilderness areas, but I think it would be really tough with a BOB trailer.

I once had visions of biking the Colorado Trail rather than the Great Divide Mountain Biking Route, but that all changed after I went to hear two guys talk about their mountain biking odyssey on the Colorado Trail at an REI event. They were using on-bike panniers and still spent a ton of time walking/pushing their bikes, which doesn’t sound like any fun at all. So tomorrow I’ll unhitch BOB and do a little exploring on the Colorado Trail, maybe staying here a second night to do some more riding, or moving farther down the range toward Salida.

While I was riding from Buena Vista to my campsite, along Chalk Creek, I came upon a guy with a bicycle who was pushing it down the middle of the road–right along the yellow line of the county highway. When I got closer I saw it was a young man, maybe in his early 20s. I never got his name, but he said he was biking from Denver to Phoenix. He’d left Denver that morning at 4:30am and hitchhiked a good part of the way, and with good reason: his bike was a total beater, looking like something you’d pick up at a yard sale for $50. He was wearing a big backpack and had a spare tire slung around his torso but he didn’t seem to really know where he was going. He was just following his iPhone and headed to Gunnison. We came to a hill and I left him in the dust because he’s unable to shift into lower gears, and then our paths diverged. i wished him good luck but he just rode away without saying anything.
. . .
Well now I’m the tent because those far off rumblings of thunder got louder and it started to rain. It’s been pouring, even a little hail, over the past 20 minutes but so far I’m keeping dry. I’m using my Sierra Designs backpacking tent, which I bought in 1992, right after graduating college. Twenty years and hundreds of nights spent inside this thing and it’s still doing great. I’ve sent it back to Sierra Designs a few times over the years to have zippers replaced and fabric patched, and they’ve always done it promptly and for free. Definitely got my money’s worth out of this thing.

As expected, yesterday’s hike has left me pretty sore, mostly in the upper thighs and hip area. But when I jumped on the bike this morning, I didn’t really feel it in my legs. The same thing happened to me on my 1994 cross-country bike trip, from Seattle to Washington, DC. After 2 months of riding around 75 miles a day, a bunch of us went for a short hike around Harper’s Ferry, up to where you could see the rivers and town below. Didn’t seem like much, but the next day or two my legs were aching.

Day 13: Mount Princeton to Mount Shavano

Today was tough. I wanted to make camp near the trailhead for Mount Shavano and Mount Tabaguache, which I’m planing to climb tomorrow, but in the late morning I was all the way down at the Arkansas River, pedaling on Highway 285, about 2,500 feet below where I was heading. I knew getting up here would be difficult and entail a long climb, but this one really kicked my butt. The last 7 miles were on a dirt/gravel road that was really loose, washboarded, and virtually all uphill.

It was a dry day, with just a few fair weather clouds over the mountains, and that meant making the long haul into the Sawatch Range with the sun beating down on me at midday. At lower elevations, this is a pretty dry environment, almost a high desert, and it took me a long time to leave the stubby junipers and pinions and reach the taller pines and aspens. This would have been a challenging hill to climb if the road were paved, but the sandy, rocky nature of the route made it so much harder. I think I was getting dehydrated by the end, and also nearing 10,000 feet so I could feel the thin air. Probably didn’t eat enough either.

I finally reached the trailhead and then set about to find some water and a campsite. But the gulch I thought might have water was dry and it would be a mile or two down the Colorado Trail to Squaw Creek. I headed off down the trail, with the BOB trailer in tow, but the path quickly got steep and rocky. I thought about ditching the trailer, fetching water and bringing it back, but it looked like there might be a lot of hike-a-bike ahead of me. I was down to my last water bottle and decided to head back down the road I’d just climbed, about 2.5 miles, to where I’d seen a stream and a nice looking campsite. Maybe I’d bike to the trailhead in the morning to climb Shavano and Tabaguache. The ride down only took about 5 or 10 minutes, but I discovered a “No Camping” sign near the creek. So I drank a lot of water, filled up all my bottles and bladders, and then started climbing back to the trailhead, this time with about 15 pounds of water added to the load. Re-hydrating at the creek and eating some snacks gave me a little boost, but I was fried by the end.

In retrospect, I should have unhitched my trailer and either gone down the Colorado Trail or down the hill to get water, but in the end I’m glad I’m making camp up here, just a short walk to the trailhead.

I pitched my tent on the edge of a huge meadow, about the size of a football field, that’s flanked by aspens. To the south I have a great view of Mount Ouray and I’d like to come back to this area to car camp sometime.

I tried to take advantage of the clear skies and strong, high-altitude sun by laying out all of my clothing in the meadow and letting it bake for an hour or two in the ultraviolet radiation before the sun dipped below Shavano. That actually seems to have made them smell better! I haven’t showered since Friday, and won’t again until this Friday, so I’m feeling pretty dirty, but I have been able to bathe in some streams along the way.

I’m going to bed early, not only because I’m exhausted, but also becaus I need to wake up before dawn tomorrow to start the climb of nearly 5,000 feet to the top of Shavano, maybe also across to Tabaguache, time and weather permitting.

Days 14 and 15: Climbing Shavano/Tabaguache

Thursday began before sunrise as I woke at 5:30am to make the trek up to Shavano and Tabaguache, two 14ers at the south end of the Sawatch Range. Pulling myself out of the sleeping bag and getting out of the tent in the dark took a lot of effort, but I knew that the sooner I got started, the better the odds I would make it to both peaks.

I set off just as the sun was rising and casting the forest in a warm orange glow. It was totally cloudless, but I knew that wouldn’t last. After 5 minutes hiking along the Colorado Trail, you start up the Shavano Trail, which is straight up for the first couple miles through a pine and aspen forest where hundreds of trees had been knocked down recently (the pine needles were still green). I’m assuming it was a windstorm in the spring or winter and it must have been ferocious: there were pine trees two feet thick that had been completely uprooted or had snapped 10 or 15 feet up from the ground. Fortunately, a crew had already come in and cut the trucks laying across the trail.

Some 14er hikes are fairly mellow in the first few miles and then get progressively harder, but this one started out really hard, in part because of the steepness, but also due to the rocky, rooted nature of the trail. It was around 6:30am, in the 50s, and I was drenched in sweat after the first half hour on the trail. After reaching treeline, the trial proceeds up the side of a huge valley and you can see where you’re headed for the next mile or so. Although there were some steep sections, the grade of the trail up to the saddle wasn’t too bad. From there it’s a steep climb up a huge jumble of rocks and boulders.

Like all 14ers, this one was barren above 11 or 12 thousand feet, but it seemed especially desolate up there. I got to the peak of Shavano at about 10am and by then I could see little cumulus clouds forming over the surrounding peaks. I knew it wouldn’t be long until the thunderstorms started, so I hurried over to Tabaguache, which requires going down 600 or 700 feet, then up another 500 feet. And then you have to retrace your steps and reclimb the last part of Shavano before descending. It only adds about 2 miles to the hike, but it’s all above 13,000 feet.

The views from up there were magnificent–is there a 14er with a bad view?–and it gave me a vantage of some country I haven’t really explored. I have to say it was gratifying to look down on the Arkansas River, around 7,000 feet below me, and know that I’d made it up there all under my own power. By the time I returned to Shavano, the skies were mostly cloudy and getting darker above me. I descended quickly, wishing two guys good luck as they headed up into the burgeoning thunderstorm.

Not long after I was below treeline it started to rain, then thunder, then hail at a pretty good clip. I got fairly well soaked while it poured for about 20 minutes but felt safe in the shelter of the forest. I had to stop at a creek a few miles up from the trailhead to get all the water I would need for the rest of the day and Friday morning, so that subjected me to some more rain and I got chilled after having spent most of the day sweating bullets. But then the skies began clearing and I started drying out and warming up.

I only met 10 people on the entire hike, which is unusual for a 14er, even midweek. I was totally alone for virtually the entire 8.5 hours it took me to do the dozen or so miles. Being at the top of both peaks while alone was fairly intense and something I’ve never experienced on a 14er.

Even on a mid-summer day with relatively benign weather, that high-altitude environment is harsh and desolate, though I’m always amazed to see tiny plants, birds, and other forms of life up there. At that altitude, I find that my brain really slows down due to the hypoxia, which is actually kinda nice for someone whose mind is always running on and on.

Spending so many hours up so high up left me exhausted by the time I got back to my camp around 3pm. I wolfed down some food, guzzled some water, and dozed off for a few hours as the rain pattered on the fly of my tent. I woke up, ate some more, and then got back in my sleeping bag to read before falling asleep.

I slept about 10 hours but still felt tired when I woke up. I’d subjected myself to two tough days in a row. But today all that lay in front of me was a downhill ride to Salida, about 15 miles away, where I’m staying in a motel tonight. The 7-mile climb up the dirt road that took me about 2.5 hours on Wednesday only lasted about 25 minutes this morning and it was sheer bliss flying down that mountain without having to pedal except for two tiny climbs out of drainages. Once I got down to pavement, it was also mostly downhill to Salida, and with the wind at my back.

I arrived at my hotel at 11:30am and was hoping they might let me check-in early, but that didn’t work, so I had 3.5 hours to kill. My motel is on U.S. 50, along with the predictable parade of chain restaurants and establishments, so I pedaled 10 blocks over to the historic district, which is really cool. Lots of bars and funky stores. Seems like everyone working here in town is off-duty from their second careers as paddlers, bikers, and climbers. At the bike store, I got some advice on doing the Monarch Crest Trail tomorrow and a map. Then I went to a local pizza joint and scarfed down an individual pizza and house-made root beer. I was tempted to get a real beer, made on the premises, but decided to hold off since it was only noon.

The guy in the bike store recommended some singletrack trails just outside of town, in the Arkansas Hills, so I headed over there to give it a whirl since my trip to Salida had required almost no effort. Looks like a fun place, but I had to turn around after 20 minutes when the rain and thunder started. So now I’m in dark bar, watching a torrential downpour, and getting ready to head back the hotel. They say Salida is in the “banana belt” because it’s unusually warm and dry here, compared to the surrounding mountains that cast this valley in a rain shadow, but not this afternoon.

I really need a shower (it’s been a week) and I really need to do some laundry (ditto). I’m definitely feeling bedraggled after the past week camping out, braving the elements. Tomorrow morning I’m going to hitch a ride on a shuttle to the top of the Monarch Crest Trail and then ride back to town–about 40 miles, but generally downhill. It’s supposedly one of the greatest singletrack rides in the West and I’m looking forward to doing it without hauling all that crap behind me!

Day 16: Monarch Crest Trail

They say the Monarch Crest Trail is one of the greatest mountain biking rides in the country so I went into today with pretty high expectations, and I’m happy to report I was not disappointed! I’d put this trail right up there with Slickrock in Moab as one of the greatest rides of my life.

Most people do this ride as a one-way shuttle and I paid around $25 to have a van take me and my bike from Poncha Springs up to the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass, elevation 11,898. About 4,000 feet of elevation gain for $25 seems like a bargain to me these days. Once at the top of the pass, you set out in a southerly direction on the Continental Divide and Colorado trails, which are one in the same here. The next 10 miles or so, to Marshall Pass, definitely have some climbing and technical sections, and you’re above treeline and 11,000 feet for most of it, so this is no beginner ride. But the scenery is outrageous: you’re riding along on a narrow singletrack trail with sweeping views of the Divide and surrounding mountains, through terrain that you can usually only access by hiking.

There were about 20 people in two shuttle vans–virtually all white guys in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who looked like pretty serious riders. I made a smart move by allowing nearly all of them to pass me on the trail early on. Last thing I wanted up there was to be in a traffic jam. I’m glad I’ve spent the past 2 weeks hauling my BOB trailer at elevation because it got me in shape to tackle this ride, which has a few heart-pounding climbs in the beginning. Most of the trail is really smooth, which makes it easier on the uphills and a helluva lot of fun on the downhills, but there are enough rocks and roots to keep you on your toes.

You have lots of options for coming down off the Divide and I chose the standard route, down Silver Creek, which requires a couple more tough miles on the Colorado Trail before plunging down the drainage on a pretty rough trail that includes some wild rides over talus slopes. To save some time, I jumped on a Forest Service road that the shuttle driver recommended and I was bombing down that thing faster than a car.

After the ride, I met up with Ginette and the pups in Salida. My face and body were splattered with mud, and my beard is getting longer, so Ginette described me as “looking pretty scary.” I went over to the Salida mineral springs to take a shower and then we got some ice cream in downtown before heading out to camp for the night.

We found a great spot, up Pass Creek, with a breathtaking view of Shavano and Tabaguache. It’s amazing how dry it is around these parts: walking around we found a bunch of tiny cactus and we’re at around 9,000 feet. Tomorrow we’re planning to do a day hike up to Pass Creek Lake and then camp here again Sunday night. I need to head down to Salida on Monday to pick up a new back tire–my knobby is almost a slick–and then I’ll bid farewell to Ginette until she and her mom pick me up in 2 weeks in Northern New Mexico. From Salida to Del Norte, my next stop in civilization, it’s 4 days and 153 miles. Before leaving Salida, my guidebook advises travelers to “stock your larder” because provisions will only be available if you take a detour from the route.

Days 17 and 18: Pass Creek

I hit my first major snafu today. Ginette and I camped for two nights in the San Isabel National Forest, about 10 miles southwest of Salida, and when we got in the car this morning to drive back to town, it wouldn’t start.

It looked to be a dead battery. I keep a portable jump starter in the car for exactly this type of contingency, but it didn’t have enough juice to get the engine to turn over. Fortunately, we had cell phone service if we walked a little ways to the top of a hill, so I called Better World Club, a green alternative to AAA that also offers to rescue you on your bike. But I’m now not such a big fan of this service because the towing company eventually called us back to say Better World wouldn’t cover a repair call that required going on unimproved dirt roads, even though we were only about 4 miles up a decent dirt road from US 50, a major highway. So then we had to call all of the towing companies in the Arkansas River Valley to try to get them to come jump start the car. One wouldn’t do it. Another wanted to charge $500. But finally we found a really nice lady with Gunsmoke Towing who was willing to drive up in her Suburban and jump start us for $150. She was in Buena Vista, so we had to wait for about 90 minutes, but eventually she arrived and the engine started in a snap as soon as the jumper cables were connected.

We headed down to Salida, where I was planning to spend the night anyway, and got the battery checked at a NAPA store. They said it was time for a new one, so we had to fork over another $111. Ouch.

Up until the car troubles, the weekend was going well. This campsite where Ginette and I are now stuck is one of the best we’ve ever found. Yesterday we took a 10-mile hike up to Pass Creek Lake, which was a little more exercise than I was hoping for, but the destination was pretty scenic and the dogs seemed to enjoy themselves. I think our puppy Phoebe probably covered 30 miles during the day, running up and down the trails.

I was already planning to make this a rest day and sitting around waiting for the jump start didn’t require much physical exertion. But it was a stressful, annoying, and expensive experience I’d care not to repeat. The glass-half-empty side of me thinks it was really lousy timing for the battery to die, but the glass-half-full side thinks we got off pretty lucky, given that we weren’t too far from civilization and were able to make calls on our cell phone.

Before Ginette took off for Denver, she stocked up on a great discovery we made here in Salida: green chile ale from Amicas, a local brewery. I also stopped at the bike store to pick up a new back tire and the guy who helped me said this next stretch of the Great Divide is going to be tough. In my motel room, I installed the new tire, fixed my brakes, and trued my wheels, sort of. So far, my bike has been holding up quite well, but after today I’m a little paranoid about mechanical issues.

Yesterday, during our hike, I was thinking about how the trip has gone so far since I had just crossed the halfway point. I’ll be home in 2 weeks. Aside from this dead battery and my butt being sore for a few days in the beginning, everything has gone really smoothly: no big problems with my bike, my body, the weather, or anything else. Here’s hoping that the next 2 weeks don’t break that mold.

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First test ride: signs of drought

My campsite
My home away from home

You’d think someone preparing to bikepack more than 1,000 miles along the Continental Divide would have some experience with this form of travel, but I’m a total newbie. So this weekend I decided to take a test trip to see what I’m getting myself into.

The good news is that I’m still psyched to tackle the Great Divide Mountain Biking Route, starting in about six weeks, and I’m feeling more confident now that I have at least one night under my belt. The bad news is that I’m gonna suffer this summer. There’s just no quick or easy way to bike up a steep dirt road while hauling 40+ pounds behind you. Much of my time in the saddle will be spent cranking slowly and steadily until gravity takes over and I can fly down the backside of a hill or mountain pass, only to repeat again and again.

This weekend’s trip was in a part of central Colorado that I’ve never visited: the mountains between South Park and Salida. On Saturday, I drove 2.5 hours from Denver, parked my car, and set off into the San Isabel National Forest with the goal of camping at the top of a 1,000-foot climb. I only rode about 10 miles, but it took two hours. Near the summit, at 10,000 feet elevation, the road was so steep I was barely able to turn the cranks in my lowest gear.

There was a reward at the top: a pretty campsite amid aspens and conifers that offered views of the Collegiate Peaks. At night, the Milky Way twinkled in the rarefied air and the next morning dawned without a hint of a cloud. It looked like it hadn’t rained or snowed in these parts in ages and that lack of moisture will pose one of my biggest challenges. Had I done this trip last summer, the record snowpack from the previous winter would have forced me to take detours, but this year I’ll face the opposite problem: a deep drought has dried up water sources and primed the high country for wildfires that could also force me off the route.

Mountain biking with a trailer can be grueling, but there’s a major benefit to the punishment: after reaching your destination, you can unhitch your possessions, hop back on your bike, and feel like you’re Lance Armstrong. On Sunday morning, I did just that and explored a network of dirt roads around my campsite before heading down the hill (the descent took me only 20 minutes).

All in all, a successful maiden voyage that allowed me to test out a bunch of new gear and better envision myself on the route. The parched vegetation, shriveled creeks, and smoke rising from nearby wildfires offered sobering reminders of the drought’s impact and how my journey this summer will encapsulate the fundamental dilemma of the American West: how to find enough water to survive.