Day 44, The Gristle Grind Day
Meat tearing and re-tearing. The gnaw and groan of muscle and gristle as it fights against the protesting crank. The uphill. Actual uphill – not the slow, lazy yawn of Kansas to this very point – works against the motion like an irritating grain of sand in an oyster. No pearls in these legs. No hidden treasures to be ripped from femur bones.
And yet, and yet. Why? Why do my legs hurt? I’ve just had two glorious days of doing nothing but eating, and drinking, and lying around on the couch while pretending to be an aunt to three kids and two cats. Why this agony?
I grind on. I want to cry.
This savage wind. This brutal thug of a headwind is determined to break me down brick-by-brick. To remind me that I’ve slipped up. That my attitude needs adjusting. This journey is far from over.
This journey is only just beginning.
And to think, just a few scant hours ago I was sitting at a breakfast table watching three kids dig around in milk bowl pools for cheerios. Listening with a wistful grin to their chatter and banter and general getting-ready-for-school shenanigans. Just hours ago, I was singing my guts out in a rental car, excited to be getting back out there. Thrilled to be charging headlong at it yet again. Oh, what an adventurer you are, Janeen! Oh, you’re getting things done now! You’re really moving the needle!
And then the slow seep of reality. Of once again being in the deserted wasteland of Pueblo airport, slowly packing the trailer and rolling things into tight wads to fit into small spaces between camping gear and clothing. Jamming food into panniers and bodies into lycra.
With one last look at the rental car, I’d pulled back out into the flow of my story and felt pretty cheery with it. Slight breeze, but not too tough. Magical sun, but not too hot. Whimsical mood, but not too scatterbrained.
Out on the highway and in the periphery, I saw grey tennis ball-like objects popping up to watch me pottle by. Small, varmint heads on periscope necks that swiveled and followed my movement and what they hell were they? Prairie dogs? Gophers? Giant rats? They were everywhere. Appearing suddenly, then zipping stealthily from one mound of dirt to another, before finally choosing their earthen castle and crouching there. Cold stare. Glassy eyes. More creepy than cute.
It took a while, but I’d finally made it to the center of Pueblo and the final panel on Map 7. Another one crossed off. One small triumph in the arena of ticking boxes off lists. I folded it neatly and squirreled it away in my pack. Out with the new one, crisp and clean and unspoiled by sweaty hands.
Of course, I misread it immediately and got a smidge lost, but it fed me into a drive-through ATM. I enjoyed standing at the machine, taking up a full lane and smiling at the gawping driver next to me as he rolled his eyes over the Precious and Zimmerman rig. Howdy, pardner. Nice day for it.
Crossing a bridge we rose to higher ground and turned on the top side of town. Abriendo Avenue. Toward the end of it, I pulled into a Rite Aid for fuel, and stood squinting under the awning while chugging down a chocolate milk. It was hot, but peaceful. Even the traffic seemed to be on half mute in the clear air.
I was aware of the smudge of pain on my legs then. A tightness in the quads and a sensation I can only really describe as a restless fatigue. One that I assumed would go away the more I pedaled. The more I worked the ‘rest’ out of them. They’d groaned a little as I’d bent to secure two water bottles under the trailer net, and sighed in defeat as I swung my right leg over and clipped in. Again again. Here we go again.
Down the road and a curve, then another. I found myself in a city park. There was mention of a zoo, but I saw no evidence. Passing recreational joggers and noodling cyclists, we portaged along in a comfortable silence. A nod of hello here, and hand lifted off the bars in a mini-wave there. We must look weird, I think, this strange caravan of filth.
There was no real wind here, just a warm and wafty breeze and the companionship of thoughts. The park spat us back out and we began to negotiate a few small rollers. More climbing than we’d done in weeks and my brain began to click into rewind, searching for the muscle memory on how to do this kind of work.
We turned. A hard right onto the 96 and finally shuffling off the shackles of a township. Back on the open road and free free free! Now, we are restarting. This is it. We’re back to it. Picking up where we left off.
An hour. That’s how long it took to get through the town, from the airport out one side to highway 96 on the other. The nerves started then – will I make it to Canon City after my late start, 3 hour drive, and slow dawdle to here? It’s past noon already. And I’m basically only just starting for the day.
The wind picked up almost immediately. Almost the moment I turned onto that road. A determined wind that I’d call directionless, but for the fact it had a swing shift of head on with a right hook emphasis to head on with a left to the nose follow through. Never, not once, did it come from behind to give me a shove. Not once.
I started to climb a dry hill. It was open and clear and a little bitey to the legs, but I wasn’t unhappy. I was actually kind of grinning. To my left, the hillside was craggy and raw. The west, starting to flash its knickers at me. Eroded and dry, those rock faces reminded me of spaghetti westerns and I thought suddenly of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne and horses and saloons and spittoons. The blue of the sky pressed down and I rolled on up past yellow daubed hills and swishing grasses. Wildflowers and wildhearts. I stopped, not because I was tired, but wanted a photo. Things were changing, I could sense it. There was a shift. I could feel it radiating right up through the road.
I crested this opening act of uphill and laid my eyes upon the future rolls and leg aches ahead. We rolled on, past driveways that seemingly lead to nothing. Gates and broken down fences. The landscape held back. Didn’t reveal itself to me fully. Not yet.
Before me I saw a long, languid, cat-stretch of up. I could see where it disappeared between the logical dip of two hillocks on the rise, and calculated my effort between here and there. It didn’t look steep by any means, but long and slow and sloggy. And as if on queue, the dull ache turned up its volume a little higher. Hear me, hear me now!
There was a little thrill within me, because I knew that when I got to that point on the horizon, I’d be at 5,000ft for the first time on this trip. That’d be a milestone. Climbing since Kansas to get to that, and only up to go. The warmth of the day was seeping into my clothes as the wind toyed with us. It swept around like a broom, this way and that, but never from behind. I was growing a little tired of its upper cuts and cheek slaps.
Towards the top, the cacophony of grind whined in me like some kind of high pitched dog whistle. This ache should not be there. Not after two days of rest. Did my muscles seize up and atrophy simply because they thought they were done? What kind of cruel joke was this? And then there was that other thing. The lump of sobbing coal in my throat, wearing a coat of utter defeat, and doubt and helplessness. It rose like reflux, trying to get out and make me break down. The wind, the wind. The ice-bucket of reality thrown into my flinching face and I wanted to cry.
And here we are. At the cry zone. But I don’t.
I grind on.
There is no way but ahead.
With that elevation now tucked neatly into my belt, I stop and sip on a gatorade. The road curves down and off ahead of me. Following it with an invisible finger, I see it seep down and disappear behind a rise. Drawing an imaginary line across the obstruction, I project where the road leads. Scanning right, over a gentle yellow hill and far into the distance and there. There it is. It pops out, grey and skinny, to a plain that looks to flop its mattress down on the earth for miles and endless miles. Golden tussocks wave. That might be a nice downhill.
My eyes lift and scan the horizon.
This is new. This is hard to ignore. There, there before me is the ever-increasing vista of the mountains. They are still far from my reach, yet starting to crowd around me and loom. Poised to encircle me in a threatening embrace. Their color, their blue mood and stoic resilience as they half-ring the horizon: it both excites and fills me with dread.
So down, down I go. This should be super fast and fun – I can feel the slope and the weight of Zimmerman trying to urge us on – but the wind is pushing me back and I can’t really enjoy it.
Little groans of my spirit trail behind me. A few rolling climbs and then a more straightforward, no bones about it, no mixed messages slog through rough road and wind plains. Each descent followed by ascent up a slow rise reveals more of the same scene.
The wind is killing me softly with its song.
The mountains. The mountains look huge. Daunting. But this push-around wind and these sore legs seem to be doing their best to not let me get there. I stop. Deep breaths. There’s no point in having a cry about, you idiot. That won’t get you closer to Canon City. I record a voice note about how I’m feeling. It ends simply with Ughh. [pause] Ugh. [pause] Ugh. [long pause] Uuuuurgh.
These are quality moments between me and my mind. Talking into that stupid thing feels ridiculous. It’s so ‘dear diary, a boy looked at me today, giggle’ and childish. But I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget what it was like to be here. Right here, in this moment where I was in unexpected pain and filled with doubt and confused as to why my legs hurt.
Plod on. Time passes. Heave and haul and onward. Head hangs, back bows, shoulder slumps, and just keep turning. Canon City is slipping off the table, I can feel that. The turn of the earth is tipping the sun and the final destination with it. Best to just let it go. Best to just accept it.
Up ahead, I see a road carved into the side of a significant hill. I see no dots of traffic moving along it, so part of me is hoping it’s an old sheep track. And then, there. The slow crawl of a sedan coming down. I round a bend and scan the long uphill with dread.
A cyclist, flying down the very hill I’m about to attack, whizzes by. Envy rises up and shakes its fist at him, while I give a jaunty wave. My smile isn’t genuine. He’s really hauling ass, which means it’s steep. With a sigh and the dead weight of Zimmerman pulling at Precious’s skirt with mighty tugs, I begin to climb.
Unwilling. It is a word fitting for this occasion.
Steeper. Steeper. I stand and bully my legs to the task. But when the will has waned, impetus packs its little rucksack and runs away from home, too. I stop. Take a drink. Back to it. A little further, then stop again. It dawns on me that I am simply prolonging the pain here. First, it is for gummy bears and the sticky comfort they bring. Then for a morsel of Snickers and the chocolatey joy and distraction it brings. Then for a quick nip over the guard rail and down among the shrubbery for a pit stop.
It’s getting too much, and I half-heartedly push the bike for a few steps. Stop myself. I haven’t walked the bike up a hill since the Ozarks. I mean, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!
Pep talk. Where did badass Janeen go? It’s as though by taking two days off where I was not alone has wiped my mind of the memory of this thing. As though this sudden disillusionment has stripped the linen off my confidence bed. A bed I spent the last month making. I swore never again to walk that bike, and yet here I was, doing just that.
Pep talk. Buck up. Time out and sit the brain on the naughty chair. Looking at the map, I could see that up ahead, there was a hard turn at Wetmore. A turn that would put this arrogant can’t-make-up-its-mind wind at my back. At my back for eleven miles. Eleven miles and I’d be in the town of Florence. And that would be where the victory parade was. The bunting and the confetti and the ‘oh, fiddlesticks to this’. Swing into the first hotel I see and take the loss and get back on the horse tomorrow. New day, new me.
Nine miles short of Canon City.
I walked the bike to the opposite side of the road so I could get a flatter run up for the remount. It can be hard to start back on a steep incline with all the weight, so it’s just common sense not to have embarrassing ‘drop the rig’ accidents because you’re too stubborn to use your brain. With a new grit and quite a tight and determined expression, I bent my back into it and got moving again. And before long, I was up and over. And hurtling on. And making that turn through the town of Wetmore and onto that eleven miles.
Oh glorious road. Straight and fast and kind of fun. For the first time all day, I was flying. Enjoying it. Eleven miles of an almost tailwind (it was still a bit off and non-committal), and a slight downhill all the way. I let out a bit of a yell. A whoop, which for some reason I’ve started doing in the lonely times and when the spirit of flight squeezes my heart, and I actually throw myself into the task. I feel happy. To the point where I start ignoring the fast fading light and entertain the idea of still striking out to the original and true planned destination.
But I’m toast. I know it. Absolute crispy rye held too close to the toasting wires and waiting to have the black bits scraped off with the back edge of a knife. The golden glow of a Super 8 sign high and to my right in the distance. My heart skips. Sanctuary! Sanctuary! (Rings bell)
No heart to continue on to Canon City though. Not enough heart to even make it all the way into Florence either, as the Super 8 siphoned me off the road and into its parking lot. I am done. So done and ready to worship the pattern right off what is bound to be an ugly bedspread. Ready to cuddle with the terrible decor and make peace with scratchy sad sheets. This was my oasis in the desert of ouch. My lighthouse in the storm of ‘let this day shut its piehole’.
Time to take a moment. I propped the bike up under the awning and had a little sit down on the curb, appreciating instantly the warm comfort of the concrete in the golden glow of a dying afternoon. Slowly pulling my gloves off, finger by finger, I sigh heavily and just… sit. Exhale, slow and long and puffing out my cheeks to release a mega sigh. What a frickin’ day.
Rising tiredly, I wander in and up to the counter. The woman behind smiles. The lobby smells of smoke.
“I need a room,” I say. “It’s too windy to keep going.”
A floodgate opens. I’m suddenly chatty and happy and laughing and oversharing. I ask her about food options and she tells me that everything is down the hill and in town. I can’t bear the thought of getting on the bike again in this wind, so I spend a short while lugging bits and pieces in and out through an awkward door and vestibule, and rummage around in my bag for some peaches and an old pasty. Coke from the machine. A snickers. Some pretzels. It’s not much of a dinner. I know that. Don’t judge.
Later, after a life-affirming shower, I wander outside to send a SPOT checkin. The sun is alka-seltzering out. The wind is fresh on my still damp hair and I squint down in the direction of the town below. There’s a hint of it there, but I can’t really see it. It’s that quiet dusk time. The parking lot is now filled with the pickups of wandering types and road crews. Sucking in a lungful of air, I go back inside to officially die.
I kick back on a bedspread that’s green and speckled with the vomit of a pattern that would probably be ok if they just got the colors right. Switch on the tele and numb my mind. Writing lasts for as long as it lasts and I find myself waking suddenly with the laptop burning my bare leg and my body half slumped over the maps. That settles it.
Don’t be a hero. Go to sleep. So I do. I do. It’s early and I fail even at writing anything of substance. What a fail of a day all ‘round. But also a win. For I am now officially 48 miles further than I was yesterday. Which is 48 miles I won’t have to ever do again. Not even in my nightmares. And I say that with confidence, because a side effect of such great tiredness and fatigue is that I’ve stopped dreaming completely on this trip.
When I conk out, I sleep like a corpse. A wonderfully toasty, content, brain dead, in love with pain corpse.
Date: September 09, 2010
From: Pueblo Airport, CO
To: Florence, CO
Distance: 48.12 miles
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NEXT DAY > Day 45, The Skeletal Day