Monday, September 26, 2011

Days 55-60: Days in Denver and the Ride Into the Sky


9/17 Day 55 Ordway, CO to Pueblo, CO 52 miles (2735 miles)
         
            It took us a long time to get on the road today. We slept in a touch, since we had stayed up late, and we had a hard time leaving the driveway as we got pulled in to interesting conversation with our hosts, distracted by picture taking, and I gave Sean one of our tires since his back tire was worn all the day down to the tread and wouldn't last him too long before it was totally useless. We set out around 11 or so, and found it tough going right away. The wind was strong, and blowing right in our faces. We gutted out 12 miles down the road to a small town next door where we stopped for hot dogs and fries to fuel us up for the rest of the day. As we ate, another cyclist, James Weitze, pulled up just to chat with us. He is a west to east cyclist and had been on the road about 6 weeks when we met him. We talked around our food as we traded stories and advice, but we were in a bit of a rush- since it was already around 1 in the afternoon- so we ended up having to cut our conference short. I had a feeling the next 38 miles we had between us and Pueblo would be very slow and miserable, judging by the speed of our progress to that point, and I was proved correct.
Getting ready to leave the tiny trailer village at
Gillian's house in Ordway.
         We crawled along into the 30mph headwind at nearly 10-11 mph in  a paceline for the next 20ish miles, until the paceline sort of fell apart. Erin's knees were hurting pretty badly, and the effort to keep that speed up in the driving wind demanded we slow down a bit. Then, Charlie basically flipped his bike after his front wheel somehow dislodged itself from his forks and he ostensibly ran his own wheel over; eating pavement in the process. His wheel was now out of true, his rear skewer was bent, and he was super pissed off, not to mention a bit bloodied up. Once we got ourselves back together, we stopped in Boone, a few miles down the road, where Mandi had just picked up a package of winter gear from her mom (thanks to Mom from Mandi!). When we all caught up with here, no one was in the mood to linger long; Charlie sped off, determined to reach Pueblo's bicycle shop before close, and Ben and Mandi followed a little behind. Erin and I trailed back a ways, slogging along at 7 mph. To make matters worse, we had to ride the last 14 miles of the day into town along a pretty big highway. Then, I got yet another flat. I nearly lost my mind. I was so frustrated that rather than just swap the tube right away, I decided that maybe the damn thing could hold air for another 7 miles and I just pumped the tube back up. About half a mile later, it was totally flat again and I was doubly annoyed with myself, the situation, and my tires- which have helped me get somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 flats this trip. I furiously fixed the flat in the howling wind as cars sped by doing 65, knowing the bike shop would be closed when we got to town, and that the short 7 miles to town would take an hour. It was the first day on the trip I've genuinely thought of stopping the bike, throwing it into a ditch, hailing a car, and getting on a plane home.
          We slowly made our way to town, where we found Ben and Mandi had somehow convinced the bike shop owner to keep the place open an hour later until we arrived. Also, the owner was going to let us store our bikes there for the next two days, and do a quick maintenance check, while we took some time off in Denver with my family. We deposited our things and then walked down the street to the bar where Charlie was waiting. We had some much needed beers while we waited for my cousin, Lauren, to drive down from Denver. She had agreed to drive the 140 miles south to Pueblo to pick us up, and even agreed to ferry us back in a couple days- thanks Lauren, you're the best. When she arrived we ate some things called "sloppers" which are basically open faced cheese-burgers put into a bowl and then covered with green chili, cheese, fries (if you want), and onions. They were delicious, and totally bizarre. Afterward we bid our last farewells to Charlie (Good Luck, Charlie!) and we sped off to Denver. Being in a car for the first time in many weeks was a bit strange, but we quickly got over it, and passed the time chatting with Lauren and looking out at the city lights as we zoomed by. Our first stop was Arvada, a small suburb outside of Denver, where we had a couple beers and snacks with my Aunt Karen and Uncle Wes. We didn't linger long, since we were fading fast, and it wasn't too long til we were at Lauren's house in Westminster having our first showers in days- after which we promptly passed out.

9/18 and 9/19 Days 56 and 57: Sightseeing and Visiting my Awesome Family in Denver and Boulder

The view from a ridge in Boulder with Ben, Mandi, Me,
and Cousin Lauren.
         Sunday (the 18th) we slept in til almost noon, which our bodies demanded, and slowly got ourselves together for our first day off in a while. Our only real obligation for the day was a massive, traditional Italian meal with the Puchino family, my 2nd and 3rd cousins, sometime around 5, so we spent the first part of the day buying winter gear at the REI in Denver. Afterward, we headed to dinner and it was an amazing affair. My aunt, uncle, and Lauren were there, along with Rosemarie and Tom Puchino- the matriarch and patriarch of the family, respectively- and probably 20 other men, women, and children (most of whom were named Tom, Mike, or Pat). We gorged on pasta, sausage, meatballs, salad, ice cream, and cake and washed it down with a tidal wave of red wine and beers amid the chaos of a huge family interaction. It was an excellent meal and a very special occasion that brought my mother and father's families together along with us four cyclists thrown into the mix. Thanks so much, Ro and Tom, you're the best.
        On our second day, Lauren had a job interview to attend, so we took the bus to Boulder. Our first attraction in town was yet another REI, where Mandi picked out a jacket, and then we went to Best Buy (very scenic and exciting). Then we walked back down the Pearl Street mall and checked out the shops, people, and the view for a couple hours until the brewpub we wanted to eat at- Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery- opened up. Lauren caught up with us around then and we ate some extremely tasty burgers and drank some extremely tasty beers. We headed back to Arvada and went over to my Aunt and Uncle's house for a grill out and some quality time. My aunt, uncle, and cousin showed us a great time in town and it was great to see them, since they are such generous, fun people (who also spent a fair amount of our visit trying to convince us to move to Denver instead of Portland). Thanks so much guys, love you very much, and we will come visit again soon.


9/20 Day 58: Pueblo, CO to Starlite Campground, Canyon City, CO 50 miles (2785 miles)
           
             We woke up in Lauren's living room around 7 something, and shared the realization that today meant we had to get back on our bikes. We gathered our belongings reluctantly and boarded the car that would take us back to where our bikes awaited us. Lauren graciously ferried us all the way back to the bike shop and we said goodbye to her and hello again to our rides. The techs at the shop were a totally awesome pair of guys who addressed all our concerns from true-ing wheels to greasing cranks and swapping tires (I bought new tires for Erin and I since I hate mine, and they were very worn out). As we were putting the bags back on our fixed up rides, who should walk in but Charlie! We knew he had been having trouble leaving Pueblo because we'd heard that the day after we parted ways he broke his rear rack and was stranded for a day- since the bike shop is closed on Sundays- but we assumed he'd addressed the issue. However, there he was, with a brand new broken rack. He was pretty steamed and waited relatively impatiently as the shop guys handled all the work we were putting in front of them. While all this was going on, another cross-country cyclist, Mike Weaver rolled his bike in. Mike left Bar Harbor, Maine with Astoria as his goal the day before we left Sandwich (July 23rd) and had stopped in to true his own wheel with the shop's equipment.
          So, when everything was finally squared away, we said our farewells to Charlie, again, but acquired a new riding partner- Mike decided to join our group for a few days, until he wanted to go off route again. Mike has been cutting and adding distance the entire trip to be more efficient or see things that interest him; he's been doing things pretty much his own way, as far as I can tell, but seemed interested in having some company for a while. We finished up some errands in town and then there we were: staring down Highway 50 due west into the maw of the Rocky Mointains. We had ridden thousands of miles through uncertainty, injury, and pain,  climbed every  exhausting hill and beaten every element from driving rain to scorching heat to howling wind- and now here we stood at the doorstep of the gods. We stood before a place shaped long ago by primal, tectonic powers unfathomable whose heights were home to wintry forces we had no way of knowing- no prior experience with. We had a new challenge and what would be the final leg of our trip before us: the autumn and the mountains would do their best to keep us from the siren's song of the sea and the Westerly beaches we have been questing toward for so long. So, we rode.
Sunset leaving Canyon City.
        The highway was flat, fast, and unpleasant, but as we rode down its 30 something mile length toward Canyon City- home of the Colorado prison museum and four penitentiaries of its own- the mountains began to close in around us. By the time we hit Canyon City, we were already at around 6,000 feet- higher than the highest mountain in New England by a fair sight- and the sun was making its way down in the sky, but we were convinced we could make the next 11 miles to camp before dark. We were wrong. After spending a bit too much time in town buying food and beer, we set off what turned out to be only about 20 minutes before sunset. We found ourselves climbing the next few hundred vertical feet and 6 or 7 miles totally in the dark on a long, winding road up into the mountains. It was dangerous and not a lot of fun at all, considering the ribbon thin shoulder and the gravel strewn road. After a while, we finally pulled in to the Starlite Campground, just a few miles north of the Royal Gorge. Our frustration and trepidation were quickly melted by a few cold brews, the beautiful, starry night sky, and one of the cleanest and most interesting campgrounds we've seen the entire trip. The campground was populated by old, restored campers from the last 50 years and some of them had matching vintage cars paired with them to pull off a very retro effect. We savored the sights, the beer, and our evening meal, then hit the hay- glad to be rested and back in action.

9/21 Day 59: Canyon City, CO to The Currant Creek Hostel, Guffey, CO 37 miles (2822 miles)
         
A cool, classic Dodge parked next to a matching trailer.
              We got up a little while after the sun had gotten a chance to warm things up a bit, and then tucked in on some oatmeal to start the day off. We had heard quite a bit about the sights at Royal Gorge, and decided to spend the first part of our morning checking it out. We found out, however, that to gain admission to the Royal Gorge Bridge and the little theme park type area that surrounds it one must pay a $25 admission. This did not appeal to us, despite the fact that your $25 bucks gets you a ride on the tram that goes over the 1,000+ foot gorge, access to the zip-line over the gorge, a ride on the Royal Gorge train, and as many trips over the bridge as you can stand. We instead opted to climb the four miles up the ridge overlooking the bridge (for free) and take some pictures of the stunning scenery that surrounds the area. The Royal Gorge Bridge has a pretty interesting history, too, as we learned. Apparently this suspension bridge was built in the 1920's solely for the purpose of attracting tourists- the bridge doesn't actually go anywhere- and it is still the state of Colorado's thrid most visited tourist attraction. Once we saw the view, we understood why, but we certainly weren't going to pay $125 bucks for the five of us to go ride a dinky tram and rail-car.
           After we made the ride back from the gorge it was nearly noon, and we had set our goal for the day pretty high. We had hoped to make it the 70 something miles to Fairplay, CO that day, but we shortly discovered that it wasn't going to happen. The views for the day only got better and better as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. We chugged up some steep grades and ran through some stunningly picturesque valleys as we worked our way up about 3,300 feet total vertical gain for the day over about 30 miles (not counting the 8 for our Royal Gorge side trip) to a small town called Guffey. It was already about 3 or 4 in the afternoon when we arrived in Guffey and we were a bit discouraged about our 5 and 6 mph progress up these first Rockies. We decided to just settle for a stay in one of the nearby hostels recommended in a guidebook I've been carrying, and take a nice long lunch at Rita's Place- a really wonderful little restaurant in town. Rita was an incredibly sweet lady who chatted with us as she made our sandwiches in the open kitchen about 7 feet from our table.
The beautiful view from Old Man Crazy's yard/campground.
        I had some of the morning's leftover frittata with some roasted potatoes and a big peanut butter and chocolate milkshake- the food here was absolutely amazing, easily one of the best meals we've had on the whole trip. Erin had some amazing sausage, red grape, and bleu cheese panini and Rita's menu was extensive, eclectic, authentic, and fantastic. We spent probably around 2 and a half hours holding the chairs down in the restaurant just talking with Rita and her partner, Carl. If ever you find yourself in Guffey, go to Rita's. From Rita's we made our way to the Currant Creek Hostel, run by the Schechter family. We were very much looking forward to it because of my guidebook's positive mention and Rita's endorsement, but when we arrived we were a bit put out. Mr. Schechter turned out to be a cranky old hermit and he was charging $5 per person to put tents in his yard and use his spigot. There wasn't a shower, electricity, or even a trash can for our money, but we did get plenty of the crotchety old fella's attitude. He wouldn't let us start a fire in the firepit ("Sorry, bud, too windy") despite the fact that the night was still, there was a mountain of fire wood for use, and it was already getting damn cold.
         We were bummed, and freezing, so most of us skipped even eating dinner since we'd had a big lunch not long ago at Rita's and just got right into our tents. The night was a rude welcome to the climate; the temperature plunged down to somewhere around 30 degrees and we were lucky enough to get rain... make that freezing rain. We slept a little fitfully in the chill and none of us were sorry at all for the winter gear we'd purchased.
           
9/22 Day 60: Guffey, CO to Alma, CO 49 miles (2871 miles)
     
Ice on the picnic table makes an
impression.
            It's never fun to wake up and have to get out of bed when it's cold outside. It's even worse when you wake up and there is ice on your tent AND in your tent. Thankfully, the morning sun was warm and didn't take long to melt the ice that covered our gear and the campsite, and we slowly got our things together as we thawed. Once everything dried, we rolled out and up- the hostel was at around 8,000 feet and our goal was to get to a small town called Alma at a little under 10,500 feet; they say it's the country's highest incorporated town, and we later found that to be true in more ways than one. The Hoosier Pass, our highest elevation on the entire trip at 11, 540, lay just 6 miles past Alma, so we wanted to make sure we could get there and have a good jumping-off point. The ride on this segment was easily the most scenic, and gorgeous, we've seen the entire trip. The going certainly wasn't easy or fast, but with so much to look at, it flew by.
           The first segment was punctuated by the Currant Creek Pass, a 9, 400-ish ft. ridge through the mountains that offered up some very pretty views of the high valley that stretched out below us and Mandi even saw a little black bear. From Currant Creek Pass, it was mostly downhill with a goodly section of flat and slowly rising terrain until we arrived at Hartsel. This tiny little town is one of the only depots on the southern approach to Hoosier Pass and Breckenridge, which lays just beyond it. We stopped at their only restaurant in town and all ate ravenously. I had a double buffalo burger with onions, mushrooms, and bacon right after another peanut butter and chocolate milkshake. Neither Rita, nor the staff at this restaurant had ever heard of my strange request to add a few spoonfuls of peanut butter to a chocolate shake, and they wanted me to name it so they could put it on special sometime. I told them to call it the 4200 Mile Shake, because you need to eat a bunch of them to ride all that way. After we ate our huge lunch, we rolled onward and skyward to Fairplay.
A sample of the epic scenery in the mountains.
          It was between Hartsel and Fairplay that we were most amazed by our surroundings. The brown-green plains stretched out around us, but were abutted on all sides by soaring, granite crags, some of which already had white caps from early snow. Small rivers and creeks, mostly forks of the Platte River, subdivided the plain with sparkling varicolored waters that seemed to reflect hues I'd never seen before. It was a majestic ride, and when we arrived at Fairplay, we still had a small 6 mile jaunt up the bike path to Alma. The bike path there is a bit bumpy, and not in the best shape, but it got us to where we were going and we pulled into town around 6 or so. Our plan was to camp by the town hall and maybe do some laundry at a guesthouse we'd been directed to by the woman at town hall. The guesthouse, it turned out, was our last stop. When we mentioned that we were headed up that way to one of the locals, they said, "Well, you won't get a whole lot of sleep, but you'll probably do a bunch of partying." This wasn't really what we were looking for, but we needed to get some laundry done, so we climbed up the hill to the big yellow house called "The Yellow Elephant" town-wide and knocked.
We arrange our bikes in front of the unassuming looking
"Yellow Elephant."
         The man who answered was in his late forties with long graying hair and a youthful face, wearing overalls over a T-shirt. He was accompanied by a huge whiff of marijuana smoke and the gaze of several of his housemates as he and I conversed outside. I asked about laundry and he threw his arms open and said, (I paraphrase), " You're here, man! You and your biker buddies can take a shower, throw some laundry in- I gotta charge for the drier, and propane isn't free either, but you can stay here in my basement, I'll show you my 100 year-old house, man, and if you want, we can drive around tomorrow and bag some 14'ers.  We can do dinner, breakfast, I'll throw you some ganja in the morning and you can be on your way. Whatta ya say?" This man was named Andrew, but had nicknamed himself Hector, and is the owner of the Yellow Elephant. He leases rooms to his good-natured, eclectic stoner tenants and we still weren't intending to stay, until he offered to let us sleep there for $10 and a little bit of work.
        Ben, Mike, and I ended up loading wood into a pickup truck, moving a shed, and cementing an ornamental peeled aspen into the ground of Hector's girlfriend's yard in exchange for our meals and lodging. We showered off, ate a huge pasta dinner, and hung out with the crazy crew that live in the big yellow house while we drank beers and they, plus a rotating cast of townsfolk who walked freely in and out, got baked. ("They call it Almsterdam here, man.") We finished up the laundry and found our way to our rooms just as the tenants were making their way out the door to the bar. These guys were super friendly and very interesting, and way too wild to describe entirely here. We slept well and warm inside- a nice change from the night before- and dreamed dreams of high passes and long descents.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, sounds like Colorado is hard work. I would have thought it would be the best part of the trip! I expect to hear stories about the Yellow Elephant when I come visit you next year too, sounds like great stuff.

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