Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mountain Madness

Pueblo could be called the Bakersfield of Colorado, the coarse, often disrespected step child of the state. Everyone I'd talked to had warned me about the place. As I enjoyed cool riding and mild wind conditions on the way in from Ordway, I wondered what I would find. As I slipped onto Highway 50 and my final approach to the city, I observed another kind of town: prairie dog villages lining the road. The animals are basically like ground squirrels, squeaking and popping up and down out of their burrows. They've been known to create vast colonies and have often been poisoned by ranchers and used as target practice by varmint hunters. I found them quite amusing as they'd wiggle their stubby tails and dive headlong into holes in the ground. They would never let me get close enough for a picture, so you'll have to take my word for it.

On rolling into town, I found the descriptions I'd heard to be largely correct: rough, edgy, hoody. The downtown area was dead on this Sunday afternoon. I cut back and forth through the main district and enjoyed a couple of the sculptures on display, but it was not a place to linger. I headed for the park where I'd been told I could camp. After stocking up on food, I landed in the park and realized I had a problem: Sunday. No officials. I'd just have to stealth camp somewhere. On the far northern edge of the park, I found a dirt lot and baseball diamond. The other side of the field looked to be unregulated land. So I'd spend my night on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas river as it flooded over a dam. Not bad. I set up on the outside of the the fence enclosing the ball field. Mistake.

No tent, asleep under the dome of heaven, I was ripped into consciousness by the heavy machine gun splatter of large drops of water. Up, man! Quick! Go, go, GO! The sprinklers had come on, and, like an idiot, I had forgotten the camping axiom of cyclists in the West: If the grass is green, you are going to get hosed. Period. Fuming, sputtering, cursing, I grabbed my stuff and hurled it out of the soaking zone. Midnight. Thirty seven degrees and falling. Lovely. I reset my dampened pad and bag and crawled in. By morning, frost would cover all of my gear when I emerged into a 28 degree dawn. Hey, Mojo, let's get out of here.

The road to Canon City and my entrance to the Rockies was Highway 50 with wide shoulders and only moderate to light traffic. I was really hoping for a better night than Pueblo. I hit the lottery. After research and supplies, I headed out of town to gain access to a natural area and, the Holy Grail of wild campers, public land. I rode down a smooth double track, a bit steeply near the end, and pushed through a narrow gate--cyclists, equestrians, walkers only. In a moment, I was parked in a stand of bushy junipers surrounded by peaks, valleys, crags and views out over the town. Free at last! I did a happy dance and went about setting up camp. No tent, just bag out in the open--no sprinklers, cars, flood lights. Just me, the mountains and the stars. Blessed bivouac of the elite cyclo-tourist.

My freedom was at odds with much of the local population, however. Freemont county and the region around Canon City were home to thirteen state and federal penitentiaries, including a so-called SuperMax, a lock down for the worst of the worst. In one photograph I was able to include three prisons. This area had made the incarceration of criminals its financial foundation. I suspect crime is low in Canon City with so much evidence of where potential perps will land on every corner. The town even boasts of a prison museum, perhaps so would-be criminals can see how good convicts are treated today? I did not have time to view it as I needed to find a place to camp.

My long night passed quickly enough, spiced now and then by the yip yap howl of coyotes in the near distance. Sometime late, the wind picked up, and I burrowed more deeply into my bag. Out of the west. Hmmmm.... This didn't bode well for the next day's ride. I eventually crawled from my nylon cocoon into a blustery morning. I brewed up quickly and did a short hike into a nearby canyon, a cleft into the craggy walls to the west that led into a sandy arroyo decorated with large blocks of sandstone and flaming yellow cottonwoods. I so wanted to have Jodi and Django with me, the best of companions, to join me in exploration and exclamation. I took pictures and sauntered back to camp. I only had 45 miles to do--or did I?

I'd been too casual about reading the map. ANOTHER cyclist's axiom: Read the map. Read the map. Read the map--duh. On leaving Canon City, I found that I had almost 60 miles to do. Jeez. Oh, and the day began with an 1100 ft. climb to a pass not indicated on the map--even after I read it. A long, slow grind too late in the morning meant I had to make steady time to get to Salida before too long. I was staying at Trey's place, a Warmshowers host most excellent.

After the summit, I enjoyed a long drop that I knew would be followed by more climbing: Canon City was at 5,200 ft., Salida at just over 7,000. I entered a wonderland--high, barren peaks over 14,000 ft. on the skyline, narrow, craggy canyons, the glittering Arkansas River cutting a meandering path down low. For mile upon mile, I drank in what I had so long desired. The fly in the ointment? For there is always the fly, no? Oh, yes, the winds kicked in, blowing steady and strong into my face. What would have merely been a strenuous day was turned into a real burn. I frequently faced the discouraging reality of shifting into my lowest gears for the slightest of grades. Traffic was light to moderate but comprised of too many trucks for my taste. In this area, at least, I was lucky. I passed river rafting company after company, all closed for the season. Each had a small fleet of buses for transporting riders up river. Consider the highway with dozens and dozens of buses running round trips, the usual truck and car traffic, and factor in what must be astronomical recreational traffic of trucks, fifth wheels and mega RV's, and cyclists would be well advised to stay away from June to September. In places, too, the shoulder is non-existent. I was blessed with a Tuesday afternoon in October--no skiing, no rafting, kids all back in school. Elite cyclo-tourist one, traffic zero. Well, almost. I was still annoyed and had to keep an eye out, but conditions on this road were far better than I had faced in some other places.

By noon I was needing a serious break and pulled over at a river access area and campground to make lunch. With a pained sigh, I realized I still had 40 miles to go. At least the beauty of the scenery took away much of my misery. If I were going to struggle, this was the place to do it. Each turn of the road revealed a new vista, a curve of the river, a new imposing crag breaking out of the steep juniper and pinyon pine covered sides of the canyon. As I progressed, I got closer and closer to the massive peaks I'd seen when first breaking the pass earlier. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen thousand feet, they heaved their mighty bulks into the clear October sky. Wind-scoured, barren-topped, the summits were only exposed stone, far above the region where trees could take hold. Even the hearty lichen would have trouble up there. I had troubles of my own down below. I'd have to come back some day and hike these majestic peaks.

I stopped for ice cream about twenty miles out of Salida. Treat yourself when you're feeling thrashed, I always say. I sat on a bench outside the store and looked up at an American flag snapping merrily in the breeze, such a happy, perky snap, snap, snap. Each snap a nail in the coffin of my energies. Gotta fight, Scotty boy. That's all there is to it. C'mon, Mojo, let's get that Mojo goin'. Back into wrestling mode, I headed out...only to find the winds stopped, a door shut on the west, and I was free, even, at times, getting a little assist. It must have been the ice cream. Whatever the cause, I was deeply grateful and cruised the remaining miles at a much faster, easier pace, realizing that the winds had been taking three to five miles per hour off my average speeds.

At Salida, the heart of the Rockies, I slipped into the old, classic part of town and found the bike shop Trey had recommended--Absolute Bikes. A fantastic staff greeted me like an old friend and I chatted some time with the crew until hunger overcame my convivial impulses. No worries. Sidle next door to the Bongo Cafe, order large mixed green salad with balsamic vinegar dressing, a large bison burger, an "adult malted beverage recovering drink," as one of the bike shop blokes put it, and dig in. Life was perfect: Fine people, good food, grotesque volumes of hard exercise, what more do you need? I cleaned every crumb and drop of food from my plates and stepped out into the chill of the early evening. I needed to find Trey's place. I pedaled through the deepening shadows as the last rays of the sun glowed on the Sawatch range seven thousand feet above.

The photos are out of order, so sue me!

Downtown Salida:

For Dean--fly fishing on the Arkansas:

Cottonwood in the canyon above Canon City:

Cranking hard for the mountains of mystery:

Lizzie, my mascot:

My camp in the junipers:

On the way to camp:

Downtown Canon City:

Fall color in Canon City:

Frosty gear in Pueblo:

Wall art in Pueblo:

Graffiti in Pueblo:

On the cusp between 2,000 and 3,000 miles:


Steve said...

Scott - Welcome back to the mountains of the West. I hope Kansas only persists as a faint, distant memory.

One word of caution. You haven't seen the last of the goatheads. After 10 years of riding our tandem regularly without one flat, Carol and I had four on our New Mexico Tour of the Nations trip. Even at elevations above 6000 feet. As a rule of thumb, if you're below the coniferous forest (junipers excepted) you're in goathead country in the Southwest. After a while, we carried our bike when off road whenever possible, but were still on edge nearly all the time. PSHSSshshshsss....she whispers in my ear.

"Is that Carol?" he wonders fleetingly. "No, it's Goathead Sally!"

The locals all run slime or some other puncture sealing goop in their tires.

Enjoy the spectacular West, oh elite One.

Steve W.

Scott Wayland said...

Hey, Steve! Nice to hear from you. I've got slime in the rear but couldn't get slime for my 20" presta front tire. Just gotta be careful. I'm in Taos now. Man it's great. Camping will be tough, however, so I may just have to head out today. I'm headed for some fine country, however, so no worries.