Day 45, The Skeletal Day
The donut is stale. I eat it anyway. After last night’s too-lazy-to-schelp-out-for-food state, I can’t help but stuff it in my willing gob and masticate the shit out of it. My lips are no doubt dusted by its powdery spell. My brain, numbed by the action of blindly chewing.
Picking up a plastic spoon I shovel in, with slow, methodical patience, Cheerio payloads and ignore the milk dribbling down my chin. The bowl is made from foam. The table, laminate. I watch with half-baked interest, the weather report flashing on a TV, set heavy and high in the corner of the room.
It’s 6.35am and the day is ready to open its fluffy bathrobe to my merry band of idiocy. What I need. What I need right now is some thick and acidic, water-scaled coffee straight from that leaky percolator.
What I need right now is to dawdle a little. No rush. No hurry. Take my time.
I only have to do about 80 or so miles today. Only ten more than I intended. And all uphill. Good times. Idiot. You should’ve done them yesterday! You shouldn’t have packed it in early! Regrets?
I glance away from the screen and stealthily observe my early morning, Super 8 dining companions. Mostly men, sitting alone and eating in concentrated silence. Owners of the phalanx of SUVs and work trucks outside. I eavesdrop as one checks out.
“See you next time,” he says to the receptionist. The familiarity is obvious. This is a common stop. This is his life. His life on the road.
The wind will be a North Westerly today. This is why I dawdle. This is why my feet drag. I am heading North West, into the face of it. And again, not to belabor the point, uphill.
When I slip my key over the counter to her, the blonde receptionist tells me it’s not going to kick up for another hour or so. A second regret sidles up, cups its hand over my ear and whispers:
“You shouldn’t have dawdled. You’re gonna pay for that SO HARD!”
So that’s two regrets. I should’ve made it to Cañon City and I should’ve left earlier this morning.
I’m terrible at this.
Packed up and finally ready to turn out onto the highway, I pause. The stop sign sits red and enthusiastically hard against the blue sky. The morning is newborn and fresh. Fresh enough for knee warmers, but I’ve rejected the sleeves and am feeling comfortable with it. In the far-off distance, I spy with my little eye, hills washed with a sleepy yellow hue and acned with green trees. Right. Enough procrastination. Away!
Heaving off, I turn right and roll down the hill towards Florence proper. Squat buildings crouch in the morning light. At the first intersection I come to, I see the hamburger joint that my tired body decreed ‘too far away’ last night, and see now that it was easily within reach.
Never mind. Bygones and all that. I turn left and leave it behind. I will eat second breakfast in Cañon City, I think. In Cañon City, I will eat for real.
Down we go, through Main Street, with its nose-front parking and not-yet open storefronts. Through leafy streets, still and muted with the quiet of morning. On toward Cañon City.
Miles roll by.
It’s pleasant and smooth and rolling. There is no wind. Not yet. The road is beginning to cut into hillsides as it rises toward my future quad pain, but it’s not yet tough to me. The traffic holds that excited energy of morning. Of a page unwritten. A day not yet begun. Curves and corners. Dips and rises. It’s refreshing to not have boring straights. To spin my compass needle left to right and back again. It’s lovely and warm and I’m back in love with the adventure.
Today, today is going to be a good day.
I pause in Lincoln Park to admire a leafy cemetery. An ornate gate. Headstones spread out and given room to breathe. I’m not sure why it makes me smile, but think of NYC with its shoulder-to-shoulder gravestones and appreciate the real estate. Here, in this lush arena, skeletal souls are given room to breathe dirt freely. I think I would quite like to take my final rest in a place such as this. My eternal slumber uninterrupted by JFK flight paths and the chatter of overpopulated deadybones, cheek by jowl.
But let’s not dwell. These are morbid thoughts for another time. Procrastination seems to be pulling out all the stops this morning.
Before long, I’m on a bridge in town and peering down to a clear river below. The water is glassy and inviting. Big river rocks wink at me from under the surface, occasionally rippling for my pleasure. Thick trees line the far bank.
This is a mountain river. It feels different to all that have come before. Look at it. It’s as pure as pure and I can tell at a glance that the water is cool and fresh and just the kind of remedy for tired feet with socks shucked off in the heat of an afternoon.
The map informs me that it’s the Arkansas River.
Morning shadow reaches down to touch it with reverence. I look upstream and see pocked-faced mountains far off. I think that’s where I’m headed. I think that’s my destiny today.
A can of peaches, a chocolate milk, and an interested bystander conversation later, I suddenly realize that I’m actually already in Cañon City. That I somehow missed the subtle blending of towns and the city sign announcing it as such, simply because it faced the wrong way. As I look at it now, it cheerfully broadcasts news of Royal Gorge and that I can, if I so choose, drive right to the top of it. I admire the typography, the color, the style, without really absorbing what it’s saying.
Down on the Boulevard and the signage of the town is trumpeting its cowboy spirit. Shoot ‘em’ up attitudes and hunter pornography of giant buck-head paintings peering out from pawn shop stucco.
This road is ample and generous. I roll on. Signs, signs, signs. Royal Gorge, Royal Gorge, Royal Gorge. Perhaps I should’ve read up on that a bit. Since they’re hyping it so much, I’m guessing it’s probably a bit of alright to look at.
Enter stage left, regret number three.
But no time, no time. Out of Cañon City, past yet another Colorado correctional facility and I climb a curve then settle in. To my right, a craggy red, eroded rock face shades me from the sun. Its nakedness and rugged hue makes me feel like I’m walking into a western script. I look around as I pedal.
Lumps and bluffs and rocky hidey holes. Bushes glued on rocky faces. Reds and oranges and yellows. The sun must ache to splash on it in the afternoon. Visible sediments, and striations and layers. Dinosaurs out here, I HAVE NO DOUBT! (Plus, I saw on the map a shout-out for the Dinosaur Depot Museum, so there’s that.)
Signs continue to sprout up like mushrooms for Royal Gorge activities as the sun gets higher and stronger, and off to my left I admire the sharp rise of shrubbed crags and bonsai wanna-be escarpments.
The personality of traffic is changing with the land. Mile by mile. More and more RVs are groaning their way past now, some wide and clunky and unwieldy. When I see them in my mirror I blanche. Wide berth fella. Drive safe. See my flag. Value my life. Value your own.
Feet continue to drip off behind me, but the elevation increases slowly so the climbing is not too taxing. Not yet. I plod on in an easy gear, slowly. Sipping my Nuun and quietly breathing. Thankful for the wide shoulder so I can daydream a little, all the while counting roadkill. Do I count that one there? It’s a bit too Skeletorish. Too far gone. Don’t count it.
Cloudless. Dreamy. I am well and truly taking my time.
Although conscious of climbing, I’m still in a reasonably wide open space with hills to my left and right. Occasionally, they come in close in some kind of Strip the Willow dance, before stepping back again.
The grade changes. Not a lot, but I can tell it’s getting more intent on making me work for today. It banks up and I pull off to the side of the road to refill my bottle. There is no sense of urgency to me, though I know there should be with all the miles I need to eat today. But all in good time.
When I look behind me I realize all this going forward has in fact lifted me quite high already from the valley floor. It’s quietly dropped back below me. I am ABOVE things. Up up up! Here we go!
A throbbing in my head. An ache in my legs. The wind in my face. I climb. Looking at the map, I see that in about 25 miles I will be at 9,000 ft. Knowing that Hoosier Pass, the highest point of this trip is at 11,532ft makes the 9,000ft more exciting to me. But that’s another day. That’s tomorrow in fact. I giggle. Tomorrow I will be at the highest point!
But for now, here I am with my headache and sore legs and struggling up a sudden sharp incline. I deploy a ‘you can rest at the top’ mind bomb and breathe a massive sigh of relief when I get there. It’s a sort of natural plateau. An evening out of land for a breather. I take it, willingly.
To my left, I see mountains lined up like a choir. Tallest in back, then stepped down in size to the next row, then to the next smaller, closest peaks. I look back up to the back row of that choir. Stark naked and steep. Hope they’re not a feature in my playbill.
A bit further down the road, I see that lined up there are whitewater rafting companies and RV parks. A small store with a cafe. The shout for second breakfast goes up. We’re close to the turnoff for Royal Gorge, I think, as I pull into the gravel parking lot. Inside the store, I decide I don’t want to commit to a sit down second breakfast, so buy two bottles of water and order a sandwich. Scan the guest book and see some familiar touring cyclist’s names. Those who have come before. One who was a day in front of me before my crash. He must be finished now.
Sitting on the bench outside, I peel back the greasy paper and inspect the butter drenched bread and thick bacon cuddling with the eggs in my sandwich. My fingers are oily and wet with it as I slowly devour this heart stopper in the stillness of a parking lot. It’s cool in the shade. No sound, bar the occasional roar of a motorcycle and the gentle laughter of the cooks in the kitchen. It wafts out through the open window, along with the sizzle of bacon on a skillet.
Zimmerman’s tire looks weird, I think, squinting out at the trailer. It’s streaked with a line at the bottom, as though I’ve been parked in a puddle somewhere. An RV rumbles by. I forget about the tire and am again focused on how utterly drippy with butter this sandwich is. To the point where I throw half of it away and wipe my greasy fingers on my knee warmers. I know I’m going to regret that loss of climbing calorie fuel later.
Pulling back out onto the road, I get about 30ft before realizing something is sluggishly wrong. There’s a very strange sound coming from behind me. A flump flump flump. I stop and get off. Pull into the dirt just off the shoulder and kick out Zimmerman’s stand to balance the train.
The tire. The tire is flat. But only on the bottom, Sir! *boom-tish*. What I thought from a distance was a streak of dirt on the tire was actually the crease of rubber made when a tire is sad and deflated. I sigh. Grunt. Ugh. The spare tube for Zimmerman is in the very bottom of the bag. I glare at it. I’ll need to unpack the entire thing.
So, there on the side of Highway 50, I begin the long and painful process of unloading the trailer. This will eat more precious time, but I don’t hurry. Once the weight is out of it, I slip the wheel off and go about the business of changing the tube.
I find a sharp sliver of wire in the tire, then inspect for other stabby hitchhikers. Nothing. Cars whizz by. Men on fat motorcycles with pillioned girlfriends enjoying the sun growl past. No one waves to the touring cyclist busily pumping up a small clown wheel.
Later, on Highway 9 now, and we’re crawling towards Fairplay, my intended destination for the day. Everyone in the party seems content now. Precious is quiet, Zimmerman groans his approval. I roll up and down. But mostly, up.
The mood is light but reflective, and I stop frequently to stare out and sip water. Listening to the sounds of the day.
“You need to remember these sounds,” I think. “The smell of the air.”
I will need to remember it all.
Climbing a bit further, I hit a nice downhill stretch but screech suddenly to a heavy and hard stop.
To my right, hulked in a paddock, is a stunning Airstream trailer.
I don’t think this is a major spoiler to anyone, but there’s a lot of Americana in my mind. From my childhood of gazing at comic book advertisements and devouring movies and television and books. My overstuffed suitcase head romanticized many things while lying on carpeted floors in a farmhouse in the hills of NSW, Australia.
It marveled over mystical things. Sea Monkeys, Dunkin Donuts and Drakes Coffee Cakes. What must a Twinkie taste like?! How must it be to pledge allegiance to a flag, to have show and tell, to see rollerskating waitresses at diners?! Oh, what a magical land it must be!
And nestled in that brain, amongst the cheap baubles of stereotypes, is a painting in an Art book I won once in a competition. A hyperreal painting, by Ralph Goings, called “Airstream.”
I appreciated it on two levels. The hyper-reality of it thrilled me to bits, but the chrome of the trailer, now that was something else. The metallic majesty of this object made me tingle. So different a life Americans must have. Down Under, pop-tops and Jayco Caravans littered my childhood (though we never had one). But in America, caravans were flashy and were extroverted in their stance. They were unashamed to be seen. They stood out and were pieces of artworks themselves. The Airstream is the caravan Apple would design.
And now, here it is. The Airstream in the painting. Out in a lonely field, silver and shining and just THERE. I take a photo. The brushed metallic surface smiles at me.
America, I never thought I would ever be here. But here I am. In fact, I am all over you. Rolling tires and heavy feet. The moistness indicator in my eye blinks wetly to show my admiration for your vicious splendor.
And with one last longing glance at the silver bullet, I push on and leave it behind. It has cheered me up something chronic.
But now the climbing’s not messing around with me. The black tar scribbles on the road in front are mesmerizing and scatterbrained. Around me, hills are becoming mountains, I guess. Pine trees are beginning to dominate. After a while the climb becomes more gradual again, and I have plenty of opportunities to rest from the wind/climb combo while on natural plateaus.
A blinking light on my brain dash flashes. You are running out of time, girl. Time is seeping out of the hole in the corner of your plastic energy bag. Calculations ensue. With each mile, taken at the current speed, the goal is not moving closer, but ever further away. It is alarming.
I climb slowly and methodically, pondering all the while. Past elaborate ranch signs, and intriguing road names such as Hole in the Wall and Tallahassee Road. Horse Thief Gulch Road.
And then I pull the trigger. Make a decision. I’m going to stop at Guffey. There’s just no way I’m going to make it to Fairplay based on current progress. It’s 2.30pm and I still have 40 miles to go. Current speed, 5mph. Yeah, that’s not going to happen. The afternoons are coming in faster and colder and I still have 2,000ft of ascent to Fairplay. Pull the trigger.
A goal is shot in the chest.
Steady. Plod on. The swagger of the trailer creaks and cracks. My lungs wheeze and whine. Legs churn. I reach the top of what seems like a long kick uphill and pull over to make a voice note, pausing suspiciously as an oncoming car pulls over across from me.
Killing the engine, a man steps out and crosses over.
“I passed you a ways back,” he says. “But I couldn’t stop. I was late for a meeting. You were climbing. Looked like slow going.”
His name was Dale and we had quite the chat. I was glad I’d decided to pull the pin at Guffey, because we spoke for so long it would have well and truly torpedoed any grander plans. He asked if he could take my photo, and I obliged, though it’s still an occurrence I’m not comfortable with. Having my photo taken by other cyclists, sure. But random strangers driving by? Not so much. I give him my card and ask him to email me a copy. I think about what I must look like, and how, should I ever receive this evidence, I shall probably be colored amazed by it. Will I look at my tan, my unkempt hair, and think “you were the shit back then”? Or will I think, “You look beat. Wrecked. Scuppered.”
I guess we shall wait and see.
There are pretty yellow wildflowers everywhere. Sprinkled throughout, like errant wedding confetti, I spy tiny white and purple daisy-like flowers. I don’t know any of these plants. I feel like such a foreigner. An alien.
Tangled trees with pine pedigrees are thickening, not just in girth but in presence. They are short and squat, but most stately in their demeanor. Regal and discerning. I feel their gaze.
To my right, I see the top of a mountain, quite bare and stark. A few take a stand. I can see a distinct separation where the snow line must be, and I’m grateful that I’m still early enough to miss seeing even a glint of white stuff inside its borders.
Again, I’m reminded that I’m outside the ideal window of travel for this route. That my accident delay means I’ll need a fine combination of luck and timing to get me through the Rockies unscathed. Please let me be untouched by early snow and freezing temperatures. Much respect. Hat tip to you, Earth. See me seeing you. See me recognizing that I’m entering a landscape that might turn around and sock me right in the damn jaw if I don’t time this just right.
Up, up, up through this slow winding valley. Fast downs and ups again amongst the burgeoning trees and more wicked terrain. Rocky faces with small dangerous pines clinging. Wild greens and mysterious noises in thick brush.
On a rocketing downhill, a deer sticks its head out of the grass and scares the daydream right out of me. A very different breed of deer from back east. Solid and stocky build. A ‘mess you up’ demeanor. A gang member of a non-white tail herd. With a dark-eyed look of death, he bounds off, startling a rabble of others into flight. I didn’t even know they were there. They are huge and sinewy. Bet they’d be good climbers…
For a mile or so, an airborne beetle follows me. At least I think it’s a beetle. Its machine gun ratatat is unending and I stop a few times to try catch a glimpse of it as it spirals up and around and behind me. Not sure what its beef is with me, but I catch a glance at the body. It’s fat and serious. Another strange creature in a strange landscape.
It’s not incredibly late, but I can tell the days are getting shorter. The shadows are encroaching on the day, trying to sneak in and steal the afternoon. They throw their chilled wet blanket thoughts closer and closer to me. You can’t have me yet, I think. There is no rush anymore so you may as well back off.
I turn off the main highway and begin a short climb up to Guffey. A steep kick and I flake out, walking a short half hill until I can roll on into the town with a mountainous chill at my back. I think it’s the first time I’ve been conscious of the approach of fall. That the season is on the turn. The air has a crispness and nostril chill aroma to it that suggests a sharp fall in temperatures tonight.
Not for the first time I think: “I’m in it. I’m in the wild.”
Turning down a street, I see a small bar. Inside, I speak to a woman named Joanne while I chug down a large glass of icy coke. She tells me to head down the road until I get to a stop sign. To go straight. She tells me I’ll see a lot of… And then she pauses while choosing her word carefully.
“Well, some people would call it junk, but don’t call it that in front of Bill,” she says.
Bill is the guy I’m looking for. He’ll rent me a small cabin for the night, but I’m to come back to the bar later for dinner and a beer. Joanne will be expecting me. I greedily finish my drink and head off.
Now, I’ve seen glorious things before. Real natural beauty that takes your breath away, and spectacles of extraordinary wowness. Things that you’re supposed to ooooh and ahhhh at. Things that are constantly surrounded by the whir of camera motors snapping and an air of ohhlala. But here’s a confession: my brain is equally seduced by the allure of a mighty collection of old, ratty-ass junk.
And I hit paydirt at the end of the street.
Old and dead car carcasses litter the grass. Ancient advertising signs smile at me. Animal skulls and pelts hang shyly from the facade of the most tricked out garage of knick-knacks ever. Motorcycles, hubcaps, hay rakes, and a prehistoric Pepsi machine. A fake (I assume) human skeleton ‘hangs’ from a light fixture out the front. An old hot rod (or rat rod as I find out is the correct terminology) hulks out the front with a skeletal passenger inside.
I am in hoarder heaven.
As I roll up, a guy with a large white beard (Bill, I presume), pauses his conversation with a local and says to my tired face:
“Well, you’re the latest one I’ve seen yet!”
“What do you mean?” I ask, pulling up but not dismounting. Not yet.
Turns out that I’m a late cyclist. That they haven’t seen one stop by in quite some time, seeing as how it’s so late in the season. So, I tell my dumb story, about the crash and the arm and the helicopter, at which point Bill says:
“You sound like you need a beer. Would you like a beer?”
Minutes later in the cool afternoon sun, in front of a shambles of a garage that I’m quite tickled by, I find myself drinking a can of beer camouflaged inside an empty tin of whole baby potatoes.
“Sheriff don’t like us drinking openly on the street,” says Bill, and I laugh. This beer cozy of a can looks vintage in itself. The potatoes in the picture look ancient and from the 50s, but I quite like the image is cuts of me in the scene. Of a touring cyclist, sweaty and beat down from the day, enjoying a crisp cold one hidden inside the shell of a Baby Whole Potato tin. Actually, I feel kind of like I’m in an episode of Northern Exposure. In the notes for this movie, Bill will be described as ‘a real character.’
We chat for a while, pulling on our beers and laughing in the fading light. The other guy waves off after a while, and I stand and listen as Bill explains a little about the history of how all this stuff ended up here. In this place. Across the road, I am struck by a set of rearing skeletal horses pulling a prison wagon with a poor mannequin soul trapped inside. One horse skull is wearing sunglasses.
“I like your horses,” I say, and he laughs. These are real skeletons. The farm girl in me is pleased I know my animals based on their insides as well as their outs.
Finally, we get to talking about a cabin. There’s a long, drawn out “Weeeeelllllllll…” followed by “do you have a sleeping bag?”
I nod, though I’m not sure where this is going.
“I had a friend staying in one cabin and he left today. I haven’t had a chance to make the bed yet. If you don’t mind sleepin’ on top of the bed in your sleeping bag, you can stay there for free and I won’t need to clean it up too much.”
The cheapo in me likes the sound of that.
As we wander over to the cabin, he points out the rustic wooden outhouse and washhouse. I AM in a western! The cabins are smashing. Wooden and cliched. I am in the Hogbarn Cabin, which I find out later is actually supposed to be the romantic one. A giant pelt looms on the outside wall. Snaggle-toothed animal skulls warn away evil spirits (at least, that’s what I’m telling myself).
In we go.
I frickin’ love it.
Bill picks up a few random pieces of rubbish and stacks some newspaper into a neat pile by the pot bellied stove.
“I don’t think it’ll be cold enough for this,” he says, indicating to the stove. He pokes around a bit. “And he’s used all the kindling anyway. But I’ll grab you a few sticks of wood”.
My eyes don’t know what to absorb first. The curtains made from burlap sacks? The welded horseshoes used as hooks? A classic white enamel dish to wash my hands in?
Bill eyes my water bottles.
“Where’d you get that water?” he asks, and I say the hotel. Very swiftly, they are removed from my possession.
“Don’t listen to what anyone else tells you,” he says. “Guffey has the best, purest water in the world. I’ll fill these up for you.” And off he goes, taking my water bottles with him.
When he comes back, he makes me taste it, watching my face for signs that I am flipping out over it.
“Mmmm,” I say, not sure exactly how to respond. I mean, it is pretty smashing, but I’ve been sucking water out of plastic bike bottles for weeks now. I could suck water from a wet sock and think it was quite thirst quenchy. As long as the sock was clean.
I sip again. Actually, it is pretty nice. What I like most about it is that it’s cold. I mean totally frigid. The bite of the mountain air keeps it at a totally chill-pill temp and the action of that as it hits my throat makes it feel all the more clean. All the more pure. It makes me smile.
After a short tour of the facilities, I’m left alone, though Bill says if I’d like to look through the town museum to just let him know and he’ll unlock it. I’m tempted, but all I really really want to do is eat.
I shower with a hand held hose in a drafty wooden room. Magic.
Joanne shows me outside to a table so I can catch the last of the afternoon’s rays on my freshly washed skin. She brings me a beer and a steak with a baked potato and I sit and scribble notes into my book. A large group of people – hunters, hikers, or regulars, I can’t really tell – laugh and skylark about, forming a larger circle with more chairs and more laughter as time passes.
Heavy legged and tired, I catch a chill as the sun finally dips behind the ridge-line, but these people recline in their short sleeves and don’t seem bothered at all. Shiver. Suck in free wifi. Then leave.
The fire won’t start, though it tries valiantly for a while. A thin trail of smoke eeks out of the chimney before finally dying. It’s probably not cold enough for it anyway, I think, not willing to admit that I don’t really understand all the draw latches and secret compartments that no doubt get the oxygen moving through it in a certain way to guarantee a flame. I blame the lack of kindling, rather than my incompetence.
Moving across the room, my finger wanders over the stacked VHS tapes on the bench before settling on one. I jam it into the player and fire up the tiny bubble screened TV. Raiders of the Lost Ark springs to life. I follow it with Dave. I’m tempted to watch The Man From Snowy River, but my eyes are heavy and I’m hoping to start early in the morning, so I lay my skeleton heavily down, deep in my sleeping bag, and kill the lights.
Fairplay. Tomorrow I will make it to Fairplay. And then? Then Hoosier. I will kill Hoosier Pass. I will bury its boney body in my cemetery of the conquered.
Date: September 10, 2010
From: Florence, CO
To: Guffey, CO
Distance: 41.69 miles
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