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(May 19-26)



We rode out of the high plains of Kansas and into the high plains of Colorado. On our third day in the state and an hour or so past Pueblo, we entered the Rockies. From there we turned north and continued for four days in mountains west of Denver and Boulder, over the continental divide, through the resort town of Breckenridge, into North Park and beyond. We left the state just north of Walden.

Eastern Colorado is a bit more textured and varied than Kansas but not much. There's too little rain to make farming worthwhile, and so the land is open and untended. For two days we rode over broadly rolling terrain, through sagebrush and past abandoned farms, scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the mountains. There was no traffic, there were no cross streets, and the view didn't change for hours. I could literally put my head down and look at nothing but my pedals and the white shoulder line for eight or nine miles at a stretch. Towns -- indeed any kind of food or water stop -- were 30, sometimes 40, miles apart. We discovered whole new levels of emptiness and isolation.

We were eager to reach the Rockies, figuring that at the very least the views would improve and that the climbs would force us up out of our saddles from time to time. (Ten days in the flats takes its toll on the nether regions.) We were a little apprehensive, too -- the massive, jagged, snowy peaks in front of us seemed a lot more substantial than the assurances we'd heard from other cyclists that these mountains were easy compared to those in the east.

It turns out that the Rocky Mountains really are easier than the Appalachians, at least as far as pure climbing goes. The roads are nowhere as steep or as merciless, and it was not unusual to climb for six or seven miles and gain 2,500 feet without ever dropping into the smallest chainring. But the Rockies presented their own challenges. We'd anticipated shortness of breath or headaches in the higher altitudes (flatlanders begin to notice effects at 7,000 feet or so), but not the way in which the thin air would leech energy out of us. We covered only 47 miles on our first full day in the mountains but it may it have been the single most draining day on the trip -- from nearly the first pedal stroke we were listless and lethargic, and became tired all out of proportion to the long but otherwise unintimidating ascents. We rode that entire overcast day into a frigid, stiff north wind, and when we arrived for the night at our destination we were utterly spent. (In a fitting end to the day, a resident dog greeted me by peeing on one of my panniers.)

Every other day we seemed to ride into a new Colorado. We'd ridden out of vacant plains into Pueblo, which with a population of about 100,000, was the largest city I'd seen since leaving Washington, D.C. It was funny being in a place where people took no notice of us at all. Two days later we were in the mountains, nowhere again, getting ready to settle down for the night in a tiny solar-powered, stove-heated cabin offered by one Walter Schacter. Walter -- perhaps best described as a marginally reconstructed hippie -- treated us to beers in his kitchen and told stories. Before settling down in Colorado, Walter had hitchhiked around the world, working to support himself as he went. He'd been a stevedore in Thailand and had helped rebuild ships in Singapore; he'd even been to Woodstock. His exploits made our grand cross-country adventure seem a bit feeble by comparison, but we appreciated the beers.

From the simplicity of Schacter's we rode up over the continental divide and then down into toney Breckenridge. It was the first place we'd been that actually attracted tourists. Everyone there was beautiful and well dressed. Stores, selling sporting goods and souvenirs, ice cream and casualwear, sat three and four blocks deep. We ate at a restaurant featuring cloth napkins and a waiting list; I had two martinis!

Angel hair pasta was a nice change of pace but it took just an evening for the novelty of Breckenridge to wear off. We'd been living so simply -- sleeping in tents or cheap hotels, subsisting on diner food and fig newtons, rotating through the same three shirts day after day -- that the town felt cluttered and excessive. (It's kind of overdone anyhow and I suspect it would have seemed that way even if we'd arrived by plane.) By the next night, though, things were back to normal and in Kremmling I had dinner in the Quarter Circle Saloon, where the men wore black hats and string ties, and the women flared denim skirts and cowboy boots.

Continental Divide - 11,542 feetColorado provided some truly glorious moments. Bicycling up past 11,000 feet and into standing snow to cross the continental divide was exhilarating and unforgettable. In Colorado, long climbs might be rewarded by extended effortless descents -- on the way into Breckenridge down from Hoosier Pass, we coasted for half an hour beside a clear coursing mountain stream that gained volume and speed with every mile. The mountain and valley views could be breathtaking; nothing before on the trip had had such power and grandeur. And, as in every state, we met wonderful people.

But having said all that, Colorado was strangely disappointing. There was an unexpected monotony to the place, even -- indeed especially -- in the mountains. Days with particularly long stretches between towns (as much as 59 miles) just dragged. (I assign John Denver and "Rocky Mountain High" a significant share of the blame -- I couldn't get the damn song out of my head. Recalling Monty Python's nasty takeoff on him helped me through the hardest hours.) If there was ever a time on the trip when the riding just got to me, it was in Colorado; and I wasn't sure things were going to improve in Wyoming.

Some other notes from Colorado:

-- Trains. In Kansas we began riding next to the Southern Pacific line. The tracks stayed with us for a couple hundred miles, nearly all the way to Pueblo. Our first two days in Colorado the freight trains were about our only company, and in the emptiness of the plains we were grateful for even the modest distraction they provided. When we waved, they'd give us a blast or two on the air horn. These trains were long and slow, and with a tailwind and a little effort we could ride alongside them. And, when we weren't trying to keep up, the rhythmic clatter of their wheels helped us find a good mindless pedalling cadence. Madeleine, who runs the Hotel Ordway in -- well, Ordway -- says that Southern Pacific is going to abandon the line soon, which is a shame for future Transamerica Trail riders.
-- More on altitude. The FAQs talk a bit about physiological effect of altitude. (In short: moderate effort easy; simple effort hard, and strenuous effort not sustainable.) The thin air had another interesting effects. Everyone knows that higher is colder, but it's not as simple as that -- the high air simply didn't hold heat. Riding in sunshine we'd be perfectly comfortable but if the sun went behind the clouds the temperature would instantly drop 10 degrees and we'd get chilly. Altitude shortened our useful day by about an hour: When toward evening the sun fell behind the mountains and put us into shade, it became uncomfortably cold and we'd be inclined to quit even though there was still plenty of light to ride by.
-- Monte. We rode out of Breckenridge on a bike path that runs to the neighboring town of Frisco. It was refreshing to be away from auto traffic and to move at the more leisurely pace struck by casual bicyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians. As we rode, Rob struck up a conversation with a cyclist who had lots of questions for us.
Monte had been working as an accountant for one of the area ski resorts for more than 20 years. When his job evaporated in a merger he decided to use the unexpected freedom to pursue one or two longstanding daydreams, and so he intended on his 45th birthday (then about a year off) to set out on a year-long, all-lower-48-states Bike Ride for Peace. He wanted to know about equipment, diet, condtioning, planning -- the gamut. We knew a bit more than we could tell him in the brief time it took us to get to Frisco, so we stopped and to let him buy us a couple rounds of drinks while we talked.
Of course the conversation soon strayed from bike touring. I don't honestly remember what we talked about, but it was a blast and we spent a good two or three hours at the bar. And Monte gave Rob his mojo.
A mojo is a thing, usually a found object, that long-distance cyclists sometimes attach to their bikes as a good luck charm. (It seems to fill about the same niche as a mascot except that a mojo is not usually fuzzy.) I'd found an ersatz Gumby in Kansas and he'd been clinging to my front rack ever since.
Rob was, to say the least, not entirely sold on the mojo idea. He'd stopped short of outright ridicule when I found mine, but I think he was just being polite. Anyhow, the subject somehow came up in the bar in Frisco and it turned out that Monte had his own mojo, a delicate cloisonne mushroom that a close friend, now far away, had given him many years before. He carried it with him wherever he went. I revealed Rob's skepticism, and commented sharply on his sterile mechanistic view of the universe -- whereupon Monte gave him the mushroom.
The gesture was as generous as it was spontaneous. Rob probably never came to accept the supernatural powers of that or any mojo (I'm withholding judgment myself too) but he fully appreciated the meaning of the gift and before we left Frisco he'd lashed it fast to his handlebars with fishing line.
(Postscript -- in August 1998, back at home in Washington, D.C., I got a phone call from Monte. He was in Baltimore on his bike and would be passing through D.C. in a couple of days. He had indeed set out on his ride and, including Maryland, had ridden in something like 32 of the 48 states. When he arrived in town I put him up for the night, and this time over drinks he told the stories. He hit state number 48 a couple months later and returned home after nearly a full year on the road.)
-- Litter. I don't think you can go 200 yards on any road in the country without seeing a beer can. On this trip, Kentucky and Virginia were easily the worst. Kansas was pretty good but that makes sense seeing as there isn't anybody there in the first place, plus the folks who are there don't need to drink in their cars because there seem to be bars everywhere. I was surprised that in outdoorsy Colorado, even in middle of nowhere, I could ride no more than about a minute between used Budweisers.
-- Misplaced anger. A couple of times in Colorado I found myself becoming annoyed with Rob. He was riding too fast, too slow, too close -- whatever. Something. Of course he wasn't doing anything different than he had been for three weeks, which caused me to reflect. (We had plenty of time for reflection.) I remembered how on one or two trying days early in the ride, when I was still by myself, I had more than once become furious with "the road" when it turned uphill, yet again; or with "the wind" as it sprayed rain and road grit onto the glasses I'd just wiped clean. The Colorado mountains were frustrating too, only Rob was there too and I suppose with him handy it made more sense to my brain to get mad at him for no reason at all than it did to get mad at the terrain or the weather. This lesson is probably useful in life somehow --

More Colorado photos


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Page posted April 23, 1999