I’ve experienced the arctic chill of a cold look. The pyroclastic shiver of cold, hard cash sliding between the seams of my jeans pockets. I’ve heard tell of folks with cold, dead hearts, frozen to all including the docile faces of puppies. But lemme tell you this. There ain’t nothin’ colder in this world than chamois cream applied to the nethers at 30 something degrees Fahrenheit.
Now that. That is too much information.
The little girly squeal in that moment. The face all clenched and wincey. But this is the mountains girl, and in the mountains you’ve to be all “Form of. Lioness!” Not all squeal and frosty flinch in the ice box of your woodland cabin.
But man alive. That chamois cream. Brrrr.
I peel back a hessian curtain and look out in the low light. A semi-fog specter of mountain air and I can just tell it’s a frigid beast of a morning out there. I don’t need to go callin’ on no pit toilet to know this neither, ma’am. Why am I talking like this? Did I trip into a Coen film in my dreams last night? True Git?
Poking my head out the wooden door, I examine the pile of ice cubes that had been dumped on the grass the afternoon before. They have not melted one little bit. Held their shapes as though still in the mold. Brain processes this information. Brain draws a sketch on its chalkboard.
“Better dress right,” it drawls. “Better wrap the girl up in swaddle and such.”
Creaking and groaning commences. Knees and neck. Stiff canvas bags and cargo nets. The trailer sounds like it’s about to snap in half as I stand to warm up the knees and pedal out of the still shadowed town. Fog breaths. Rugged up. All aboard the Noodle Stage and back to the route. Down the hill for a half a mile or so. Pony Expressions? Yeehaw.
Shaded by the trees in a punishing air, I fly downhill and back toward Highway 9. It’s a little too shady for sunglasses, so my eyeballs take the brunt. Naked and exposed to the cold air, they leak uncontrollably as I hit speed. Crying with it, stream-faced and brittle-teared, I finally break out of the shade and into the early light.
It’s like coming out of a tunnel. This is the mountains. These are mountain mornings.
There’s nothing out here on the road but me and my mind and the occasional early morning car. Wheel on. Breathe it in. Breathe it out. Happiness slaps me on the back and playfully shoves my mood. Go’on. Admit it. You’re in a jolly today. And you don’t even know why.
It’s true. I try not to pry though, lest I ruin it. Lest the jolly bolt. Best not to jab at moods. Pick apart their seams. Just wear the jolly jumper until it gets too hot.
A couple of miles down and I stop. Grinning. It’s gonna be one of those nature girl, grinning like a nutjob days. Ugh. Hick on the loose, lookit! Lookit stuffing that funsized Snickers in her ridiculous maw. Mountain lioness, meet mountain loon.
Breathe the day in. When the cars go away and the road is empty and it’s just me and the morning and I stand really still, like now, it’s DEAD QUIET. Not a peep from the world. But there. Occasional little twit of a bird coming home from night shift, but that’s all. The insects aren’t up. It’s just me and Precious and this road and these hills and this incredible air that’s taken on a different personality lately.
I can feel the fall coming. The autumnal breath of it. On my cheeks. It is coming in a vacuum-sealed packet of fresh. Serves to remind me that my clock is running out and I don’t have time for all these reflective bullshit thoughts. I best be moving on before some freak snow storm jams a stick through my spokes.
Two deer pause by the side of the road and watch my approach. I fumble with my winter gloves as I attempt to skillfully get out the Nikon. They skitter across the road. A gait of proud mathematical stride. Of triangular grace. In unison, they leap off the road and into the grass and up into the shelter of trees.
Couldn’t stand still for two seconds while I got out the big lens, could you? Why so camera shy? I’m only going to steal your damn souls! I glance at the screen on my camera. Another shit photo to bore people with. Look! Deer! You can just make them out here if you get out your magnifying glass.
Miles pass and I begin to peel off layers. A few, sharp, leg loosener climbs and gentle hill groans massage my legs. Today will be a gradual increase in elevation, and for now I’m still in a gentle divot between hills. A valley. It opens up to reveal grassy flats and eroded criks. I see the grey road clearly creeping steadily ahead of me. Up. The subtle incline, the open meander and twist. A few shy houses dotted up and away from the road.
Great moments of stillness. An occasional and slight breeze. Gentle nudges forward. Keep going, kid. Keep going.
At the top of a climb, my head becomes a radiating mushroom of fireball heat and I shuck my helmet off and stomp out that fire. Stuff my beanie back in my pocket and let the air ruffle my unkempt hair. It’s a slow striptease of a morning. Knee warmers off. Jacket unzipped for climbs. Descend with it zipped to the choke of my throat.
Roll on. Grind up.
I guess this is grazing land. Of sorts. But I see no cattle. Just deer. Some fences and overgrown goat tracks carved into hills. Yellows and aquamarines. Fences hitch and strain. They tense to keep something in. Or maybe me out?
There’s a weird kind of barren feel here. Even though the hills are dappled with trees, down here it is rocky and dry. Grass is thrown around like grated cheese on a nacho bed, and closer examination shows the dirt thinly disguised. The occasional tree in a rocky outcrop hangs on all thorny and thug-like.
More deer. These ladies have white chests and underbellies and bums. A few white neckties on their throats. Short antlers and innocent faces. These ones are super models. The ladies auxiliary out for a trot. Two bucks are further off.
They bolt when I clear my throat.
When they think they’ve escaped my weirdness, they stop and turn and stare back at me. I gaze beyond their position to the treeless mountain-side behind them. The tawny grass is laid out like a blanket right up to the treeline. It reminds me strangely of home.
Apart from the deer. And the pine trees. And the grass. And the snakes I don’t recognize. And the flowers and the air and the land and the…everything.
Glancing down as I pedal, I check the elevation readout on my Garmin. I am 200 ft below Currant Creek Pass. 2.5 miles away. Two eagles circle above. At least I hope they’re eagles. Cranks turn. I rejoice as feet rise and so do I. It settles my mind, this elevation readout. Soothes it like a mother smoothing the blanket on a child’s bed.
We crest the pass. 9,404ft. I stop and eat a mutated snickers which, due to last night’s cold, has hardened into a very strange shape. Sigh and sip water. Unroll the scene and think on it. There, the far off grey daub of the Rockies as they crowd around the horizon. Hairless. Treeless. Naked and calling. It’s a sight that’s both intimidating and thrilling.
Lower, I see the road twisting up on closer climbs and I know these legs will have to tackle a few more before reaching Hartsel. The road goes that way. So that’s the way I go.
Although I’m averaging 5mph on the climbs, descents like the one after the pass bring the jolly back. Ramp it up and tossle its hair. There is no foul mood that cannot be tempered by a good fly on high with wind in the neck hair and a grin on the dial.
The road tries to set a rhythm to my song. It does this via large cracks across the surface. A ca-clunk ca-clunk ca-clunk beat of black squiggle fill and butt jarring irritation. I wonder if the cracks are caused by the road expanding and contracting in the cold. Even road’s gotta breathe, I guess. Clear their lungs and suck in the mountain air.
Another climb and a downhill later, a magnificent valley floor opens its kimono to me. The serious mountains – the ones with actual height and might – ring around my horizon. My constant forward progress means that they’re starting to plot to outflank me. Sneaking up to my right and left. A smoke plume wisps its way into the sky and the farm girl in me thinks someone is burning a funeral pyre of rubber tires. Another part of me is all ‘smoke signals on the horizon. What can it mean?’
Now that I’m out in the open for a while, the chilly breeze is giving me a squeeze. It’s a beautiful day though. I’m glad to be in it and gazing out at these open plains and yellow clumps of I don’t know what flowers. This feels like a new chapter. One of those moments where a flip is switched, or a page turned in the playbill. New Act. It’s ok. I will chew the scenery right up.
Glance back at the rolling hills retreating behind me. This way I shall not come again.
The fences are straight and tight and serious. Steel posts, threaded with barbed wire and netting flank me. I am in the channel. The delivery chute to the Rockies. Rider up!
One-by-one, I knock down the hills separating me from the larger landscape. From the mountains ahead.
In Hartsel, I turn onto the 24 briefly, and stop to eat lunch at the H.O.B Cafe and Saloon. Which is also breakfast. I find myself strangely tickled by the word saloon, and am once again amazed at how touristy I can be. Will the piano player stop when I strut in with my helmet hair and raccoon eyes?
There is no piano.
The chicken burger with swiss cheese reminds me that swiss cheese seems to have a different definition out here. But never mind. The thing is hot, the fries are golden and buxom. It’s a tolerable meal, made great by virtue of it being hot and fresh. I inhale the burger and ignore how the pickles have molested it. Push them to the side of my plate and try keep the fries out of their repugnant juice.
My chocolate malt shake arrives. It sits there all globby in a sexy bluish retro glass that I oohhh and ahhh over, then nerdily tweet a triumphant photo of. The shake is thick and cold. The taste divine and I squint with mini-icecream headache stabs as I survey the joint. Strange mix of people in here. Locals and sunday bikers, but I keep to myself and just watch. The laughter. The jokes. The patient waitress who’s seen this show a billion times before.
Outside, fat and happy with the encounter, I glance toward the Hartsel Jail, a white building with hand-written letters announcing its purpose to the world. The Sheriff’s office at one end. Anyone looking to get deputized to go chase the Whatchmacallit Gang will be sorely disappointed. The screen door hangs off its hinges and the building is obviously derelict. The west. Sure ain’t what it used to be.
Before long, I’m back on highway 9 and headed toward Fairplay. The traffic has been steadily picking up all day, due in no small part to the amazingness of this sunday. Motor homes and fisherman’s pickups. Lots of motorcycles. They roar past and not for the first time on this trip I think ‘that’s the way to do it. That would be way faster.’
The day is bright and clear. In the reedy grass to my right, I spy a lone fly fisherman stepping through a stream and searching for a spot. He’s a lone soul in a big scene, just like me.
And it is big. To my left and running parallel to me is a licorice allsorts kind of view. Stacked up, row-on-row of color and form to define each type of player in this landscape. Closest, the rippling grass on lower plains, flat and alluring. Adjust the scope and step back to the reddish balding and tree-free slopes slightly beyond. Further, much further I squinty-eye go and there’s a fine layer of thick tree darkness on far-away hills. And then. The very last player on this horizon. Grey jagged mountains with scarred faces and rough-hewn muscles to flex elevation at me.
Above us, only sky.
My happy state is beginning to annoy even me. How strange it is, the human mind. The highs and lows of it. From day to day, there is no rhyme or reason to its functions. Mine is a kite soaring wildly in the breeze. Some days it tricks and turns and whoops the joy holler in mid-air. Other days, it flaps wildly before arcing straight into a power line. Fried. That is all.
But today, we are joy-hollering and beating chests and drawing out the word ‘maaarrrvehous’ in our mouths.
More motorbikes pass. A few motor homes. Sunday travelers, all.
I creak on. A long straightway before me. Up ahead, the sun catches on the chrome of two motorcycles parked by the side of the road, riders beside. They are in the throat of a dirt driveway, chatting.
When you’re approaching something slowly in a wide-open space, you have a lot of thinking time. You plan, you posit. You sketch things in your mind.
How will I react as I draw closer to their position? Will I politely lift a hand from my bars and wave? Give the time-honored ‘how-yeh’ nod? Say hello and keep on down the road?
Closer. Silence. Awkward glance. Will there be eye contact? Of course there will. I am a jaunty so-and-so and I don’t get a chance to look at many people in my day-to-day.
I spin toward them and wave as I approach, my mouth held in a tight but sincere grin.
From their direction, a sentence takes flight. It flaps its little wings up to my ears as I mosey.
“How was the milkshake?”
You know when you hear something but it doesn’t really register? Like there’s some kind of transmission interpretation delay. And then your mind bluffs and pretends that it comprehended the thing, so you smile and chuckle as if to say ‘ah, good one’ to buy more time. Just so the old noggin can fully process the situation.
Mine does that. And then it processes the sentence, at which point it goes:
I slow and turn and stop just past the driveway. Woah. How do they know about the milkshake? Brain bells, alarms and spook detectors going off. Brain whispers, ‘That was weird. Creepy.’
Here’s the thing. Before I started this trip, I’d gone back and forth in my brain box about just how much to share in terms of location. As a loner she-wolf at the gates of dawn and taking no prisoners, you’ve got to be careful ‘bout how to guard the wolf den at night and just who’s untangling your fur with a sable haired brush.
My parents know where I am, sure. My friends. too. I gave them access to the SPOT tracker URL which shows my location every 10 minutes. I am practically micro-chipped like a city cat. I hadn’t not shared this URL with the unwashed masses, but honestly, anyone with half a brain could look at the TransAmerica route and probably work it out. Where I am. Where I’m going to be.
Add to that an excitable girl who tweets photos of milkshakes they’ve had for lunch, and that triangulates things quite nicely.
So in that moment, my choice. Gotta think. Gotta think, fast. Grab the HALT! dog spray and nab these leather-clad puppies in the face OR say ‘g’day and have a yarn. Dare I ignore the many years of the fear-mongering media conditioning?
Chant it. Mostly harmless. People. They mostly be.
So I start to jawing with these strangers. As I look into the open and genuinely tickled faces of Grey and his brother Will, I wonder if they realize just how narrowly they have avoided a dose of US Postal Service endorsed capsaicin to the dial? Of course, I say narrowly, but truth be told, they would’ve had to patiently wait while I dug it out of the cavernous depths of Zimmerman’s bag.
Just, hold it there, fellas. ‘Scuse me. It’s in here somewhere.
I’m no rube. It’s a fair bet that most strangers who turn up at your door have got something to sell. Most times you’re right to treat them with suspicion and a healthy dose of ‘get the hell off my porch’. But sometimes, you should put your misgivings to one side. All it takes to set things to right is a glint of recognition. A shared spark of an ideal or dream in the eyes. In this case, find a common touch point of being on the road and open to experience and sunshine and air.
I look at these blokes with their denim and leather and chrome and exhaust and see them for what they are: good eggs. As a retired egg collector (for that was my chore as a child), I know a good egg when I sees it. They aren’t cracked. They aren’t green. (Though here’s a tip: when you pelt a green egg way up high in the air, it will will explode on impact when it hits the earth. Or your brother. These lessons are free.)
These good eggs are out for a sunday ride. They figured they might get lucky and stumble upon my caravan of incompetence in their travels, and they did. Lucky day. I show them where Precious keeps his brain and we chat for a while. They give me a memento of Colorado, a fridge magnet with a snowcapped mountain scene, and I put it in my handlebar bag before hustling on my way.
Strange. Chance encounters. This particular road on this particular day at this particular time and there we three were. A bubble blown in life. We glisten in the sun briefly then drift away and are gone.
Man, that was a good milkshake.
More fly fisherman standing in clear water streams. Sunshine catches a line arcing out and into the air, and there’s a certain grace to it. The wind has picked up slightly, but I’m nearly at my destination so it doesn’t really bother me too much. There is no anger to it. No malice.
I can make out the shape of a town ahead and I know it’s Fairplay. Somewhere behind it is a dip in the rough peaks of the mountains. A pass. Safe passage. Am I ready for tomorrow? On I go. Soaking up some sunshine. It’s a pleasant balm on my reddening face.
Just as I turn on to the 285, I notice for the first time the yellowing leaves of Aspens. It reminds me, yet again, of how late in the season I am. That leaves are turning, that fall is closing in on my position. I should be concerned I guess, since I’m about to head into the Rockies for real and will spend quite some time making my way up their knotted spine. But all I think as I see the bright contrast of the Aspen’s yellow leaves against the green pines and reddish earth is “pretty”.
A gust of wind sweeps up the leaves and I find myself showered by golden foliage in the afternoon sun. They flutter around me like autumnal butterflies as I roll past the edge of town and toward the closest hotel.
It feels like ticker tape.
I have arrived and finally, finally here’s my parade.
Date: September 11, 2010
From: Guffey, CO
To: Fairplay, CO
Distance: 45.14 miles
View Garmin Data >