Chiles, red and green

20111030-015131.jpg20111030-015628.jpgOut of the mountains and into New Mexico, it immediately looks as either new or old Mexico should: dusty expanses of sage with mountains beyond. Taos is a bit of a “has been”, with a broad economic divide, and a legacy greater than it’s current draw. The country is beautiful, but the town is a bit odd. Santa Fe is currently happening, and getting better by the minute.

Chilis, red and green, are in season and roasted in wire cylinders on the streets and at market.

Goodbye to Greg, who’s certainly off to smaller and better in the Virgin Islands. He describes an island in the Carribean, where everything is perfect:
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Like a sailor with a lifetime on the seas, Greg can almost see over the horizon. He squints, saying “rich with sun, it appears that money grows on trees where I am going”. Good luck, Old Greg.

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For us, a recent dusting of snow rests at elevation, but the route should again be clear and dry. Ten days of good weather are forecast. Maybe I’ll be a weatherman in New Mexico when I grow up. Sunny, with a chance of sun.

We charted a route through BLM lands into Taos, with a spectacular descent into the Rio Grande Canyon. Cass and Nancy passed a few days later, with mud up to their ankles. It’s good for building houses, but bad for bikes.20111030-020136.jpg20111030-020201.jpg20111030-020214.jpg20111030-020344.jpg20111030-020426.jpg20111030-020723.jpg20111030-020800.jpg20111030-020816.jpg

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Over the hill

20111024-103912.jpgAs we trekked deeper along the snowy road, the tracks of spinning truck tires gave way to ATV tracks, Danner boots, and finally, black bear paws. Eventually, only tiny trails tracing rodent superhighways marked the snowscape that clearly, and thus not completely, clouded our route. Clear, only because the graded, winding ribbon of snow was obviously our route. It’s hard to hide a Forest Service road with snow.

I must have mentioned Indiana Pass a few times. It is the highest point on the Great Divide Route, one of the greatest single climbs along the way, and is usually impassible this time of year.

With a bit of lifting, huffing, and grunting– we passed. There was no marker to indicate the height or name of the pass; rather, there was a massive Superfund site– an old mine– and several miles of snow covered roadway.

It’s really nothing to write home about, as we had a full day, full of sun, to get us through the snow. Climbing is always an effort, and rocky descents can be taxing in an unexpected way, making mountain passes such as Indiana anti-climactic; but for almost five miles, we labored like railroadmen and pioneering gold-seekers, carrying and pushing our loads through knee-deep snow. For a minute, we were living the high adventure that everyone suspects. And then we were back on solid ground, with wet feet. Life after high adventure is a bit dull.

Over the hill, a lucky thing happened. Upon reaching Platoro, the end of the fourth map section of the Divide, we noticed that we (I) had lost the next map section. Maddened, for but a moment; we all instantly began planning our futures. Greg is going to the Virgin Islands. Lael and I are going somewhere– all of us are “going” by way of Taos and Santa Fe. Full of adventure once again, we are no longer committed to the daily toil of the Great Divide.

Backroad BLM tracks whisk us toward Taos, in relative heat– a long way from snowdrifts.
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Sleeping in teepee(s)

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There is warmshowers.org, and strangers randomly arise to help or host; and then there are those that spend 14 hours a day cooking in a diner in Sargents (barely a town) and at the end of the day, manage to help a trio of weary, but well-fed cyclists.

“Where y’all camping?”

We point, “over there”, which means we know there is some legally habitable property– BLM land, we think– but nothing more to invite us away from the warm diner we are about to exit.

She thinks, remarking that the gully or gulch we must be referring to is real nice. “You’ll have to unlatch the barbed-wire gate. It’s for the cattle.”

She warns us of the expected temperatures in the night– colder than we expected, by a few degrees. A little colder than cold, sounds like.

Twelve degrees will be fine.

She follows us outside to lock the door, is surprised at our bikes (riding them, that is) and immediately offers us the teepee. “The teepee?”

By the creek. The diner is also a gas station and a gift shop and an RV park; and a single teepee, with a propane stove modeled like a campfire, with three cots.

We’ve experiencing a string of hospitality, aside from the teepee, in La Garita and Del Norte. Gary and Patti Blakely are those platinum-level hosts that welcome dozens of cyclists a season; remembering names and bike models, culminating in a panoramic landscape of Divide riders for the season, year after year. This year: the race, without Matthew; Jay’s solo TT, Greg and Sadie from Duluth and homemade bags, lots of Trolls, three Fargos (or more); and our crew, the last of the season.

Probably only one High Sierra. Trivial, but proud.

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Any bike, anywhere; Lael’s Big Day

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From Monarch Pass to Marshall Pass, the Monarch Crest Trail (MCT) winds its way atop the Continental Divide. The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route glimpses the actual watershed divide on many ocassions; the MCT, and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail which follows these same twelve miles, actually walk that line. For two hours, we were on either side of a ridge– up and over 12,000 ft– channelled through beautifully maintained singletrack, passing even more beautiful high alpine scenery. For two hours: we pushed our bikes through recent snowfall, hidden from the sun; crested the CD ridge to views over fifty miles in yet another direction; and for a few moments, enjoyed some quite rideable, “flowy” singletrack atop mountains. This, finally, is mountain biking.

From Marshall Pass, several more miles of the Continental Divide/Colorado Trail continue along the ridge before dropping into the Silver Creek Drainage at a rapid rate; descending switchbacks and talus fields, through streambeds and over deadfall. A few smooth sections of trail balance the technical rocky descents, which heat the rims enough to make you wonder, “what’s on fire?”. It’s dried mud and brake compound, with trail detritus, all served on overheated rims. Mmmm.

Yesterday was Lael’s first singletrack experience– loaded. Monarch Crest marks a second day of singletrack– this time unloaded– in which she proved her prowess in technical terrain, on a fat-tired touring bike, technically. There isn’t much traffic on the Crest this time of year, but we still turned a few heads with a pair of each: Rohloffs, full-sized Porcelain Rocket framebags, Tubus racks and drop bars. Much like the freewheeling, early history of mountain biking; enjoying the mountains on a bike is not limited to an industry standard full-suspension rig, but is open to anything your legs can pedal.

“Any bike, anywhere”, is the call of the American Rough Riders association, whose ideals are classically delineated, in Chris Kostman’s essay by the same name. Rather, Chris sets the cyclist and the bike, free.

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Three Trolls

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At last count there were two, but now, there are three Surly Trolls in our Divide caravan. The Troll, especially for American riders, is quickly becoming the dirt touring bike of choice for rides like the Divide, and travel abroad. No need to squeeze mountain bike tires into an LHT, or import Thorn frames from the UK; for $400+ dollars Surly gives you (almost) everything you could want.

Lael’s back, on a whim– another wild hair (or hare). We are: an LHT, three Trolls, and a high-performance High Sierra. Keep laughing– we are.

Salida is a haven of good living and a mecca of mountain biking– there’s nothing not to like about this place. Mid-October days in the mid-seventies, unpretentious town bikes of all shapes and sizes, singletrack that begins a few blocks from Main Street; and real nice people– there’s nothing not to like.

Greg, Lael and I loaded up yesterday, fully intending to leave town and resume our Divide adventures. We selected to ride several miles of singletrack toward town– the Backbone Trail. Two hours later we were exhausted and elated as we descended from the hills into the heart of Salida, panting beneath the willows that shade both the boulevard and the Arkansas River. It was late afternoon by that time, and we were– quite naturally– tired, and staying another day.

We depart this morning for the Monarch Crest Trail, a locally famous bit of singletrack that crests the Continental Divide– following the CDT and the Colorado Trail along it’s length– above treeline for 12 glorious miles, before descending over three thousand feet on one of several return routes to Salida. This should be, in unconventional terms, “epic”. At least, I have a good reason to eat a big breakfast

It’s been a while: Ute Pass, Breckenridge, Boreas Pass at 11,482 ft, and some beautiful riding weather to Salida. We are all thrilled to have company– Lael, Nancy, Greg, Cass, and myself. 20111016-105245.jpg20111016-105305.jpg20111016-105329.jpg20111016-105600.jpg20111016-105817.jpg20111016-105947.jpg20111016-110113.jpg20111016-110241.jpg20111016-110637.jpg20111016-110921.jpg20111016-110943.jpg

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Trolls and a Mule; en la Alta Sierra

20111010-105634.jpgWe leave on the snowiest day yet. Large flakes, accumulating in sequence on frozen leaves, cars parked overnight, grass, and roadways– we all agree– are better than the windy, rainy tempests of several days ago. Snow is certainly better than 34 degree rain.

Cass and Nancy arrived at “half midnight”; the following day was full of framebags (by Scott, of Porcelain Rocket) and Fanta (not for consumption, not for Nancy; for 1.25L water storage), Surly Trolls (x2), a Tout-Terrain Mule, and a lot of decision-making. Every bike trip– every journey– begins with some anticipation and anxiety. Imagine Nancy’s nerves as she tests a new mode of travel, coached by self-proclaimed experts. She’s pretty well pickled with good advice and better intentions, and she has more than the right gear thanks to knowing a guy like Cass; but the truth is that it’s snowing at 6600 ft in Steamboat and we’re only going up from here. I casually describe our first day as one big hill and further widen her eyes. We explain that, in truth, it is a gentle climb to 8900 ft over 50 miles. Hmmm, I guess those numbers mean something different to her than they do to me. Our host, Andy, describes a gentle grade: “the hill may be imperceptible, but every few minutes you check to see if you have a flat tire”. She looks at all of us suspiciously.

Within two days we’ve ridden and camped in the snow, mounted passes, forded icy streams, and slogged through mucky roads. Nancy has fast-tracked to expert status.

The cabin is an historic rural stop-off; serving as a mail stop, a guest house, and a Wells Fargo depository.

For the official, hi-fi version of our travels, check Cass’ blog, “while out riding”.

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In transition

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The weather has broken. Summer is over and fall is here, which means sun, rain, and snow are possible and likely all in a day. I also bought a used Gregory daypack for thirteen dollars, in anticipation of upcoming walking opportunities. Some places are not best travelled by bike, but bikes are still the best way to get there. For anyone that knows me, walking has not been an activity I have sought, almost ever. Maybe I was just a sucker for a neat older bag; but I’m actually excited to put stuff in it and walk somewhere and sleep outside. It’s like riding a bike, but simpler.

Waiting out some weather with a welcoming and experienced Warmshowers host; but maybe going out into the weather is what I want. Tomorrow morning is a good time for such decisions.

Aspen, willow, and oak

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As the elk call in RMNP, aspen radiate yellow electricity. The willow along the Colorado River call with a similar hue, infused with burnt orange. The scrub oak– as I descend toward Steamboat and below 7000 ft– are an expired red, almost brown.

Of late, I lay skid marks on the road as I hope to capture– mentally, and with the hasty touch of my iPod screen– the moment of sunlight filtering through lightning bright aspens, quaking in anticipation of storm clouds. The aspen– trembling, quaking, waving– alter their mood from celebratory dance to excited warning as sunlight fades to shadows. Sometimes its not supposed to be summer-warm and fall-colorful at the same time; and sometimes the townies in Steamboat are a little to quick to warn of the impending weather as if I don’t know the date, the seasons, or how to find ten-day forecasts and Dopplar radar projections. But days like this are without match and a few town-bums aren’t ruining my fun. Statistically, there’s a chance of snow on October 5th. But it’s not snowing — yet– and on a bicycle, at the right pace and place and time, days like this actually happen.

Grey skies and storm clouds in Colorado are rich with energy, and the same is said to be true of NM and Utah and Arizona and west Texas.

I’ve been reading some Aldo Leopold and keep running across John Muir and his disciples– people who bring philosophy to life, and elevate the art of living to philosophy. Of wilderness ethics and living in and living with the “wild”, these men are uncontested heroes. Unlike Muir, I have not watched the sun rise and set on the same granite peak from the same vantage, all day. Nor have I observed the migration of birds year after year, after year like Leopold. I’m not that patient or thoughtful; but I’ve seen many sunsets and many fewer sunrises, and many birds whose names I don’t know. I’ve experienced the seasons in a continuous, although incongruable mess that in the past three years has included everything but winter.

I’m honing my personal wilderness ethic that considers both the time I’ve spent waiting out rainstorms in Safeways and libraries and also the lazy, naked, sun-filled days up some creek I hope nobody else knows about. Imagine if Aldo and John and I had shared an apartment in town, and ridden bikes along the river trail and pulled tap-water from a dammed public water source. These are functional facts of life that I’m talking over with my new “housemates”. No matter if a man can live off the land, alone, in the woods; 7 billion others are not, and won’t and can’t. Bike commuting with Aldo and an inelegant house party with John?…a make-believe tea party for a kid like me.

Muir’s evocations of the wild are powerful stuff for most people, but practical concerns weigh heavily as well. Nobody wants their mid-western cousins to yield less corn, or their neighbors not to have the great job that requires an hour-long commute by car. Thankfully, Muir is the radical that you can invite to the dinner table. Despite being Scottish, he’s very American.

Not winter; not really, not yet. I will undoubtedly have some dramatic photos of three inches of snow on my bike in the next week. But that’s still not winter, it’s just early season snow in a high place that– moments ago– allowed the cut-off T-shirt I’ve worn all summer.
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Up and over in CO

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Some classic bike touring days; you don’t plan to be riding in a cut-off t-shirt at 12,000ft on the 2nd of October in Colorado. To experience days like this, you risk rain, snow, and freezing nights– with some luck, comes sunshine, 70 degrees, and brilliant foliage.

I left Boulder (5200 ft) with a riding companion– a cousin– who showed me a locals-only route up Boulder and Fourmile Canyons; Gold Hill Road, Sawmill Road, and a final mile up Lefthand Canyon to the town of Ward (9200 ft) and the secret roadie grocery. This mixed-terrain route is exactly what my bike does well, and delivered us to Ward with a minumum of bike traffic and rewarding views of peak-season foliage. In Colorado, fall foliage is no more than some yellow aspens, but their brilliance is stunning against blue skies and scrubby pines, and can be counted on seasonally.

In Ward, I washed down a cinnamon roll with a carton of whole milk. I now know why the legs of touring cyclists are unlike the legs of roadies– liters of whole milk and a seventy pound bike.

I followed the Peak-to-Peak Highway toward Estes Park (7500 ft) descending into this bustling tourist town at the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park. Mating elk disturbed my sleep through the night; at this time of year, the meadows of RMNP are like a cheap motel with hourly rates.

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Trail Ridge Road was built to shuttle motor vehicles up into the alpine tundra, which begins at about 11,400 ft. The road replaces the first route designed for motor vehicles in the park– Fall River Road (still unpaved and closed to cyclists in season, come on NPS!)– and in doing so, climbs up into the tundra at greater heights, with a gentler climb, and offering greater (more broad, and far off) scenery. Trail Ridge is the highest continuous, or “through” road in the US. I was disappointed that no marker existed at the road’s peak elevation of 12,183 ft. I was actually going to have a picture taken. It wasn’t meant to be; but it was snowing, to my delight.

Four-thousand foot descents are fun.
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A bevy, or a birdsnest of plans

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The counter is blanketed with maps and guides of places that had only existed in fantasy before now. I’m planning my immediate future, which is necessarily tied to the chance of snow as soon as next Friday, and beyond. Ideas overwhelm days remaining of this Indian summer, including some routes that are new to me. It may require an entire summer to ride all of this; there is no shortage of dreaming going on.

My (partial) list of chores over the next year: the Colorado Trail, Kokopelli Trail, White Rim Trail, Arizona Trail, and the remaining portions of the Great Divide Route. Surely, the purchase of DeLorme state gazeteers for the southwest and mountain states would be money well spent, and would allow summers full of dirt and paved explorations off of the aforementioned routes and trails. Maps show a lot of green areas in this part of the country. Green is good; white checkerboard is generally not so good.

Likely, I will ride mostly paved roads through Rocky Moumtain NP to/ward Steamboat Springs to resume Great Divide riding as I have the opportunity to meet up with a few other riders there in a few days. The next major crossroads offers either continued riding on the Divide into NM; or some exciting riding into Moab via the Kokopelli Trail, and beyond through Canyonlands NP, the White Rim Trail, Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon, etc. The Arizona Trail lay in that region as well; Lael’s talking about walking. She’s also in Seattle now (air travel is amazing!), so I resume my duties as captain of this ship.

I’m open to ideas if I’ve missed anything. Nearly, darts are being thrown at the map– give me something to shoot at.

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