Day 48. The Cow Poke Day
Cheerios right outside my door. The breakfast nook is there and people are quietly pottering about with their sticky mini-muffins and 2% milk. I sit and scoop the yellow wheels from the white pool and gaze into my coffee. Bagel. Jam from a silver-topped packet. Cream cheese. Orange juice.
“Where are you headed?”
The woman is sitting with her husband at the next table, eating her flakes and examining my curious attire. I tell her.
“Oh, that sounds wonderful.” She begins to share the story about her own bike tour. When she was in her twenties. Through Colorado.
“Though I didn’t do it by myself,” she said. With a slight nod to her husband, she adds: “We drive now.”
Sensing an opening, the husband begins firing off a long laundry list of all the places they’ve been in this last week. They seem happy. Excitable. Swimming lazy, velvety laps in my story as I tell it.
I like these morning rituals. The polite conversation that starts as a curious niggle from a stranger then collapses into an excited energy when they think of getting out there. Of travel and adventure and the road unknown.
It is a great thing. A proud thing. A shared thing.
Back in my room, I pack Zimmerman. Slowly. Methodically. Checked out and belly irritated by the selection at breakfast, I squeak across the road to the gas station to stock up on supplies for the day. Perhaps second breakfast down the road will be a more satisfying experience? The map indicates a town up ahead with a diner showing potential. I put the thought on the radar.
A giant bag of snickers in my hand, I stand out the front of the gas station and assess. There is a real snap in the air. A pinch of the cheeks. Balaclava day, come my way. Here comes Ninja Noodle.
Heading out into the cool, the road is being repaved and its unmarked surface and gravelly countenance fling themselves willingly at my wheels. Right into the face of the sun I go, thinking only of how I must evaporate into it in this early morning light. To to see me from behind will be a challenge to the weary morning driver. The not quite alert. The blinded-by-the-light crew.
I potter on, listening for the rearward approach. It’s blessedly quiet in the chill.
Out toward the horizon ahead hangs an airy cloud. The sun bangs against it then breaks through, opening up the valley’s dew to glisten its greeting to me. Early morning light is the best light. Until the afternoon, when that’s the best light. And then sometimes the midday light is the best light of all. But right now, it’s the morning.
Mainly on the plain we stay. Ripe with hay stacked for those with four stomachs. I stop by a giant haystack of round bales and marvel at their geometry. At how they’re piled up like legos and brown against a blue sky. I’m in no hurry. I can tell already that this will be a lazy lazy day. No records broken today. It’s chilly. No point in moving too fast. Not with my exposed nose out the front of this balaclava, tinged a bitter red and angry it has to be the one out there in the cold. My facial barometer of chill winds. The drippy sniff of too fast, too cold. Eyes protected by sunglasses, the sun licks against the tiny bits of exposed skin and does its best. But it’s a small warm.
I’ll take it.
Finally, a real shoulder to the road. Line markings and flat, solid tarmac set to rise and fall and roll me on. Gentle and encouraging, I am spirited away in the slowly warming rays of an easy bake earth lamp.
In and out it goes, a shy solar body peeking from behind a stubborn cloud. Sunlight and shade, in and out, while up ahead I see the golden sheets of fields soaking it up in readiness. Come here, we are warm and waiting.
Yes, sun. Burn those clouds, for they are witches. BURN THEM!
Off to my right, I see trees gently snaking across the plains together, starkly proud against the treeless hills behind them. Lush and green, they are a drum line along the Colorado River, which I guess I’ll be riding against at some point soon. But for now, it’s stalking me from far off.
For now, it’s just me and this road and this rugged-up body and chilly bum and moving on.
By 9am, we’ve met, the Colorado River and I. Swung up in a casual strip-the-willow way and glanced shyly at each other. I take it in. Wide and clear and dark and brooding. Trees on the bank are in shadow and shrink from the chill of having their toes dipped in it. The river flows strong and clear, rocks breaking the surface here and there, while smooth and glassy in others.
There. Two men. Standing. Up to their wader-covered groins in the slap of it. Fly fishing. Two men. Standing. Apart, yet obviously together. Friends fishing in the morning air and arcing their lines out, each seemingly oblivious to the other. Backs turned. Some kind of argument about lovin’ the same girl perhaps? A feud? An ancient grudge? Or just lost in the solitude of the flick of their wrists against the surface of the river.
I am watching their TV with the sound muted. I am making up my own story for them.
It’s cold. Man, it’s cold. How can they be standing in that river?
Hills, smooth like thighs and plains still feathered with sagebrush and yellow flowers and thin grasses. Dirt erodes and slips from their dry faces. Grasses wave, the sun gets higher and the breeze sneaks through to dry the sweat on my partly-covered face. Getting warmer.
The striptease begins.
I spin my way through Parshall, out the other side, and find myself looking down upon a horse ranch near the river. Circular yards, worn by hooves. A barn. It’s beautiful and the colors are yellows and sage and blue-green clumps and even the dirt looks pretty. Subdued and mellow. Fall is creeping in, hard and determined now, and the great and treeless mountains behind form a backdrop that sets the whole thing off. Stark, yet sexy with it. West. I am going into the West. Soon, soon I will be in Hot Sulphur Springs and you know what I will do there, stomach?
There, I will eat second breakfast.
In the cave, stomach beats its approval drum mightily at the sound of this, growling and howling and urging me to push off and put that plan in motion.
The landscape is a conspiracy of making me wait, though. It is anti-stomach satisfaction. A deceitful beast, for although the road looks to be sloping gently downward, it’s every so slightly lazing its way up. The stomach’s confusion feeds the illusion. I look at the elevation and realize that I need to rise to over 9,000 feet today, so it’s only logical that at some point the road will slope upwards.
In fact, it’s all the way up from here.
The plain gets sucked away before I notice, and now the river is down below. I must have been daydreaming. On the far bank is now a sudden forrest. Pines and pines and pines with many grey and dead scattered in. Bright yellow flames of aspen thrown in for some kind of horticultural “Where’s Waldo” game. There, there he is. He’s bright yellow. Duh.
I stop to take it in. The river is also getting fat. More erratic as it curves and veers without discrimination, etching its way down from the mountains I have yet get an eye-full of. Trees rooted on eroding banks, rocks exposed on small impromptu river islands, a small dot of a man wading across down river. My best estimation is that we’re entering the Hot Sulphur Springs Wilderness area. Or to put it another way: About Time for Second Breakfast Area.
It sneaks up in a rush. I round a bend, cross a bridge and all of a sudden I’m in Byers Canyon. The advantage of not really looking at what’s in store for the day is getting caught off-guard by something like this. There was an unassuming sign, a quick ride over the bridged river, which left it babbling below on my other hand, and then rocks and rocks and the road carving its way through. The further I go, the more it reveals, the bigger and broader and craggier. Reds leap out, oranges and yellows. Sharps and shifts.
Exciting. It hides each unfolding scene behind curves and shadows. I’m smiling like a loon again, and not just because I see a sign indicating Bighorn Sheep.
Road chisels its way through rock. Lets the river hug it to its body. Trees cling precariously. The light is not quite right for photos, but I do my best. I can’t stop pulling off the road to look at the drama. Fissures in the rock, crags and trees and nooks and crannies. It arcs up above us as we crawl on through. Everything must go through here it seems. Road, river, railroad. Me.
On the upside of the cliff face above me, trees are slowly being shoved off the edge by their buddies behind. Their roots hang out and cling to boulders and try look defiant and proud. But they’re doomed. They know it.
A bit further still and I stop to cross to the other side of the road to shoot back from where I came. This is not one of those ‘best light’ times. It must be fantastic to come through here and shoot in the golden hour. But you take your moment and revel in it, right? And this is my moment. The occasional roar of a big rig coming up the canyon and past me is the only noise to spoil the scene. The river is thinner here, more timid. Polite.
“Don’t mind me,” it babbles. “Just passing through.”
Aren’t we all?
I look across at the rail line and the familiarity of the rock face and suddenly feel de ja vu punch me in my dial. Is it possible I came through here on the California Zephyr a few years back? It looks so familiar…
Looking back across the road, I see Precious and Zimmerman looking small-set and insignificant against the rock face. It feels good to be alive. That’s all I can say really. I’m kind of wasting time, since I have miles to go today, but also not really spurred on by this fact. Time will move on and so will I and we will get there when we get there and another day will be done. The wheel keeps turning with me in it.
As I crawl into Hot Sulphur Springs, I look around and see a sign. The Glory Hole. There is no way in hell I am passing up a sign like this, and park the rig out the front. Swing the door open. Enter.
It’s packed with locals, which is a good sign at any time. The awesome heart attack on a plate is recommended to me, though you might know it by its other name: Blueberry Cream Cheese Stuffed French Toast. This is without a doubt the best second breakfast I’ve had on the trip so far and worth any pain to get to. Not that I’ve had a lot of that today. Yet.
It’s so large and fat and buxom I can’t eat it all and I don’t have a zip lock to stuff the rest in. Gotta get zip locks. This cannot happen ever again!
After I’d finished and was sitting there staring at my plate, wondering if I just needed to wait a while so I could fit more in, the guy who served me sat down and started talking. We chatted about Byers Canyon and he mentioned he was a bit of an amateur photographer and had taken many photos over the years. Never gets tired of it. A woman at the next table next began to pepper me with questions about what I was doing and where I was going today.
“Walden!” she said. “You’ll never make that, that’s too far!”
She wouldn’t believe me when I said it wasn’t. Then she told me how many hours it takes IN A CAR and about the mountain pass. Her genuine negativity about my ability to get there started to get a bit tiresome to tell the truth, and she wouldn’t be talked out of it. Wouldn’t believe. I cracked.
“Honestly,” I said. “People do it all the time. It’s the ROUTE!”
It sunk in. Finally. Her brain absorbed the facts, and it became obvious I wasn’t going to be talked out of it, so she calmed down a bit. Changed her tone.
Told me where to eat in Walden.
“If you get there.”
As I left, she wished me luck, like I was heading out into the frozen tundra or something.
Fat and happy, I push on. After seven-and-a-half miles, I make a hard left onto the 125 and begin what will be the first real climbing of the day. Up towards the Continental Divide at 9,621ft. I’m hoping after that I’ll have a glorious freewheel all the way down into Walden, but you can never tell with these things.
It’s an instant sharp climb after the turn, before it eases into a steady grind. I see my first moose sign and want to stop to photograph it but can’t stop. Or don’t want to stop on this incline. There’ll be more and perhaps I’ll even see a moose in all its moosey flesh! I pencil in ‘moose sighting’ right under ‘bighorn sheep sighting’ in the ‘Things I Want to See’ column. There is only one word in the ‘Things I don’t Want to See’ column.
That word is Bear.
The initial climbing is quite irritating and repetitive. Fortunately, there are lots of pretty things to take my mind off it. The aspens shimmer, the pines shine green. A few wooden cottages peek out amongst the trees. Slow climbing makes me alert and very aware of blind corners. Listening, always listening for the approach of a car or an RV from behind. I use my mirror as a preemptive strike in these situations. An early warning system which gives me time to stop and LOOK as they pass to make sure they’ve seen me. There’s no real shoulder, so no real need to startle a motorist in this deserted scene with my presence. I keep my eyes peeled. I scan hillsides and fence lines for signs of moose. Let me see a moose!
The sky is impossibly blue. It’s not natural, yet is. I try to find the best things to photograph against it, to show off its stark depths. Options are limited. Mountains, trees, roads, or powerlines.
After the initial climb in the open, I find myself flanked by aspens and going through more rolling terrain. Climb then roll, climb then roll. Through a section of roadwork I am cheered along by a man in a hard hat and giggle at him. On and on.
I see my first covered wagon on the side of the road. It’s a billboard of sorts, advertising customized rides: ‘Basic to the Extreme!’ That sounds like a delightful day.
Cammo-clad mountains. The grey and rust tones of the dead pines, the green of the still living, the light green of yet-to-turn aspens, and the yellow of the ones who’ve already committed fully to the cause. Harlequin hills.
I’m at about 8,300ft now, but winding through. I climb for a bit, then down I go, then climb again, then down I go. I feel it’s a constant grind of give and take and am I really getting anywhere? Am I gaining any altitude? Will there be progress at all today? Was that lady right? Will I NEVER make it to Walden?
Willow Creek is on the flats. Snaking through. It’s very scrubby around it, like the edges of it are probably wider than it looks, but it’s overgrown. There could be a moose right in there and I’d never know it.
The further I go, the worse the beetle devastation seems to get and I try to imagine what it must have looked like before they invaded. To have all these majestic trees in their full glory just there and green and on fire with life.
But now, they droop their rusty needles and their cones litter the ground and every now and then there’ll be one standing there thinking ‘please don’t notice me beetle, please ignore me. I am a nerd tree. No need to bully.’ But I guess it will come. They will all succumb. It’s heartbreaking.
But I’m in the woods proper now, at least. Trees are choking the scene, and the creek is still present and minding its own business. There are rocky outcrops rearing up from time to time, with straight-backed pines on their faces. It’s dense, though made less dense thanks to the beetles. Occasional thick sections of beauty. Not a lot of traffic, which is just as well as there is no real shoulder and the corners are quite blind.
Not a real moose, but a giant statue of one next to a very fancy wooden entrance to Moose Run. I say a giant, but I’ve heard they’re actually that big in real life, and I stop to take its photo. It might be the only one I see. It’s dark and ominous looking as it stares out at me from its rocky perch at the side of the gateway.
Further on, in what I think is the Arapaho Forrest, sportscars begin to whizz past me. Engines revving, and growling past this little speck of bicycle on the barely-there shoulder. Corvettes and Ferraris and Porsches. They come in waves of two or three, then one larger group of five. Porsche, Porsche, Porsche, Maserati, Porsche.
They are burning up the road, and the solitude. I stop each time I hear them coming.
As worrying as they are with their Need for Speed ways, I’m getting more concerned about time now. There’s still eleven miles to go to the top of Willow Creek Pass and if I stick to my current 6mph (which I’m not sure I can, because I still have to gain another 1,000 ft yet) it’s going to take me two hours. That’ll be about 3.30pm. And I’ll still have 30 miles to fly to get to Walden after that. This will need to be my Kessel Run.
Keep going kid. Just keep going.
A rock formation, like a slice of layer cake cut straight and tall, stands out amongst the trees. It reaches high and blocky. I realize now that trees hide more than animals. They’re hiding the earth, squished out and broken. The hard truths of geological shift. A bit further on and I come across a small pond to my right, reflecting the mountains. The surface still and dark.
The sound of water has been a constant on today’s ride. It doesn’t help my bladder at all to be hearing the endless trickle of the earth leaking. I scan the map for toilet or campsite icons. Will be a bathroom there? Or there? Oh, I hope so. Right now, this constant pressure is greater than the one to make it to my destination.
There is a bathroom. You can rest your minds, just as I do. I breathe a giant sign of relief, then swing out of the campsite and continue on my trudging way toward Willow Creek Pass.
The scene opens up a little on either side of the road. A rusty beard of a plant hugs the ground on either side as it stretches over to touch the tree line. The creek, no longer visible, seems to be a soak under grass. I can’t see where it is, but imagine it secretly flowing in a marshy glee of invisibility.
Off to my left now is an impressive sight. The coloring of the mountain, the slope of its left thigh curving while the right leg of it curls around on the other side to form a faux crater, broad and open. The sun hits it in a very specific manner, as though to say ‘look at me, look at me!’
It should know it’s very hard not to look. It’s the most dominating thing in the landscape.
Glancing at the map, I posit that it’s probably part of the Rabbit Ears Range, which no doubt forms part of the mountain pass I will cross today. I see no rabbit ears though. Nor moose. But there is always hope.
And now, another rock sliver, this one with the top outline like a jagged elevation chart. It’s face red-mossed and grey with age. Edges shuffled off and scattered on the ground below. Such contrasts.
I kick on through this lower mini-plain, curving and rolling in and out and back into trees. I can feel it. The start of the real climb is a just on the edge of my page, but for now, there is the gradual sneaking up motion of it.
It’s 3.20pm by the time I reach the top of Willow Creek Pass and I meet the Continental Divide again. It’s not a tough climb, just slow, and I spend my time watching the elevation number on my Garmin get higher and higher. I’m tired now, and time is flowing way out behind me faster than I like. It’s hot on the climb, but there’s an amazing aroma of pine needles and wood, a bit like when a chainsaw first cuts into it, though I’m hoping that’s not why. A sweet smell. It’s a joy to climb, but a climb nonetheless. I’m fairly exhausted when I get to the top.
I pull in front of the Continental Divide sign to get a photo and notice a car sitting there. It reverses back to where I’m standing and the window rolls down. I’m buggered and puffing like mad. They don’t seem to mind.
“Do you know where the trail head is here?” asks the driver.
What must I look like? A local? I tell him no, that this is the first time I’ve ever been here, and we begin the usual ‘what are you doing?’ chat. The are stealing my time from me, but I don’t rush the conversation. As tired as I am, I know there’s a nice descent coming up. It’ll revive me. It’ll bring me back.
It only lasts two miles, but it’s a joy. I fly and freewheel and soak it up. Please never end! It does. Too quickly. We’re back to up downs and then open land and there’s a new development: wind. In my mind, I decide that I will make it to Walden by 6.30pm. That will be my goal. No dilly. No dally. Rally rally rally. A less than 12 parsecs effort.
The town of Rand comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Nowhere to stop for food and I’m all nibbly with it. In fact the only thing of note is the Scout FWD with Rand Police written on the side and a creepy figure within, sucking on a cigar. Nice to take a photo of something that’s not a tree or a mountain, but still a bit disturbing.
I am well and truly out of the mountains now. Just high plains I guess. They stretch for miles on either side. Some display hay, some just scrubby grazing land. Pretty much treeless.
The clouds are kind of rolling in behind me as I look back towards the mountain range. Not sure if the weather is going to turn: they don’t look ominous, just puffy and bored. The ride itself today is becoming a bit of a drag and there is a slight afternoon chill entering this act.
I start to fixate on dumb things.
“My face needs a windshield.”
I stop to make this voice note after being struck at speed by a giant bug, which is happening very regularly now in the droning afternoon air. They hurt like crazy and each time one strikes my cheek or neck, I swear loudly into the wind. It’s pointless. The words blow straight back into my mouth.
If that’s not irritating enough, the road with its constant kerkunk, kerkunk, kerkunk due to grooves running from one non-existent shoulder to the other, is slipping my hands slowly toward the end of my rope. Every 12 to 15 feet apart. Kerkunk. It’s a constant rhythm that jars my hands and ass. Annoying.
Traffic is rare, so I try riding in the middle of the lane to alleviate the problem. Then the middle of the road, straight down the line. Now the other side of the road. Law breaker! Nothing helps. With 15 miles to go there’s a fair chance I will be insane by the time I get to Walden.
These are the flat times. The pancake country times. I’m out on the flats for real, and the mountains are but a semi-distant memory. Well, not that distant. They crouch on the edge of this view, like biscuits on a saucer while I sip the tea of my ride.
Round bales in regimented lines patrol the fields in dotted and synchronized beats. Unlike me. I go across the beats of these grooves both in time and syncopated rhythm.
Sadly, my ass is the kick drum.
We are nearing the golden hour. It’s the only positive thought I have. That the sun is ready for the show, and about to lick the ground all over. In this light, even I will look good.
As farmland disappears and we morph into the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, the afternoon drops its gaze. The road is incredibly straight and determined now, but not as determined as me. Straight maybe, but it’s no longer flat as it ducks and dives and rears in slow motion. The climbs look fine until you’re on them, and then it’s just struggle and sigh. Very tired now. Tired and sick of it all. Kerkunk.
At the top of a roller I stop and look at the road behind me. It is the same in both directions. Squint. Look ahead. Walden is nowhere in sight. The only thing more empty than this road is my mind. Empty to a point. Unfortunately Brain has taken it upon itself to take the kerkunks as the beat for a song I have composed in my mind. It goes like this:
I’ve had enough.
Enough of today.
[Repeat endlessley. Throw in a tuneless whistle every now and then]
I wait for a car to pass. Watch it approach for a very long time. A speck. A glint in the sun. It jets by in a whoosh and I envy its speed as I watch it stretch out away from me.
Walden sneaks onto the edge of the page, off to my right, and I’m grateful. The afternoon is getting long in the tooth and my gears are skipping a bit. But part of my mind knows this is a classic cycling illusion. That just because you can see it on the flats, doesn’t mean it’s close.
Plug on. Kerkunk. Kerkunk. I’ve had enough. Enough of today. *tuneless whistling*
The light drops, the afternoon creeps away from the approaching dark and finally I am there. I pull into the first hotel I see. That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.
No vacancy. Hunters everywhere. Down the street I roll, beat and wrecked and slump-shouldered. Cowboys! I pull into the The Round Up hotel and pay with cash. A plastic tag, a metal key, a flimsy door, dark tiny shower, and a tired, sad room. What a pair we make.
I shower and flop down on the bed wrapped only in a towel. Holy Bible on the side table. A depressed lounge chair. Wood paneled walls, thin and cheap. I hear the guy next door speaking on his phone. My eyes shutter. It is Heaven.
Later, I order Chicken Fried Steak for dinner, a beer and giant glass of water. The waitress takes for ever to bring me the water and I can’t help myself: I drain the beer in one go. One unstoppable go. It’s frosty and cold and tickles my nostrils and waters my eyes and as much as I like beer, I need water. Badly. But the waitress isn’t interested in me, and tends to hunters with their tired and grubby faces. Their fat wallets. The checkered shirts and cammo hats and drunken laughter.
Need more liquid.
I demolish everything as it arrives. Bread. Steak. Mash. Water. More water. Then more. The steak is not as good as that one in Virginia, but it fills a hole. I walk back to my sad cow poke room with a spinning head, a full belly, and air sucked in through my nostrils.
The chill is really setting in.
Date: September 13, 2010
From: Kremmling, CO
To: Walden, CO
Distance: 78.41 miles
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NEXT DAY > Day 49 – Walden to Saratoga