The Salida Circuit

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Salida makes the list of exceptional small towns with happy people and healthy economies.  A loose association of places that I may someday like to live, these towns all claim something special aside from jobs and homes.  Salida claims world-class singletrack and one of the most popular paddling spots in the US, the Upper Arkansas River.  What it doesn’t have, is a thriving ski industry.  That’s why it looks and feels like a real place.  Marquette, MI has Lake Superior, rail-trails and nearby forests.  Ithaca, NY is Gorges, if a little less happy.  State College, PA has access to amazing local forests and trails, but an overwhelming college culture.  San Luis Obisco, CA is great, but about 12 miles too far from the beach.  I hear Ashville, NC is nice.  And Flagstaff, AZ.  Leadville is a dream, although living at 10,200ft has both costs and benefits.  The more I travel, the more selective I become.  I may never settle down.

Salida warrants a week.  We found a ride to Interbike with a local shop owner, so we had a week to spare.  We waited out some weather, commuted to town every day on singletrack, and went for an epic overnight trip.  For a week, we were residents of Salida, doing all the normal things that people do, except working.

The greatest warmshowers host has a home in Salida, but lives in Texas.  Imagine the luxury of a house on a hill out of town after three months in a tent.  Of course, the outdoor hot tub overlooks the valley and several 14,000ft peaks.  Every morning, Lael practiced yoga as I wrote and drank coffee.  In the afternoon we would commute to town on singletrack– North Backbone to Lil Rattler, and then the Front Side Trail to downtown Salida.  We finished the day making conversation at one of three local bike shops– all amazing– before stopping at the grocery store and riding home at dusk.  Every evening, we prepared a feast.

Waiting out some weather, and snow in the mountains.

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Commuting to town is fun, until someone gets hurt.

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Riding home.

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Enraptured in the routine of city life, another commute to town.

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Crying makes it better.

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Front Side descends right into town, right onto Main Street.

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Route planning in town.

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Salida, 7083ft.  West on County Rte 140, cross Highway 50 to 220, a dirt road.  Then a few miles up towards Monarch Pass on Hwy 50 to Fooses Creek.  Back on dirt, connect to the Colorado Trail and climb another 3000ft to the Monarch Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.  Push the last 1000ft up to 11,920ft.  Finally, almost 5000ft above Salida.  Rest.

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Five miles along the Monarch Crest Trail at almost 12,000ft towards Marshall Pass.  As you ride over passes, they are the highest topographic point.  When riding ridges, the passes are the lowest.  Four more miles to Silver Creek, the last drainage that will route us back to town.  Further, the Colorado Trail leads over the Continental Divide towards Sargents Mesa.  For now, we want to return to the east side of the Divide, to Salida.

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Beyond Marshall Pass, toward the SIlver Creek drainage.

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Silver Creek, as the sun falls.

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…until someone gets hurt, and a crank is bent.  Could be worse.  At least it clears the chain stay.  Fading light, pedal on.

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Final light.

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Finishing up by headlight.  As soon as the sun falls, my dynamo lighting becomes visible in the thick wooded singletrack.  At the junction of FS 201, the road to Bonanza, and the Rainbow Trail, we select the Rainbow Trail.  We were here a year ago and have already ridden down the FS road.  Time for something new, in the dark.

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The final descent to Hwy 285.  High fives and a fast paved downhill to town.

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Love. Salida.

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Many thanks to Anton from Salida Bike Company for the ride to Interbike in Las Vegas.  And many more thanks for the escape from hundred degree heat and slot machines.  For now, we’re back in Colorado.

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Colorado Trail: Copper Mountain to Leadville

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Just another day or two on the Colorado Trail.  Still, there’s nothing not to like.  Pushing the final few hundred feet up to Searle Pass, the sun sets in amber brilliance.  Sleeping above treeline ensures an immediately warming morning sun; sleeping in the trees is cool and moist, and the most enticing campsites near water seem to be shaded until noon.  At just over 12,000 ft, we erect the tent as a shield from a cool breeze and frosty, mountain dew.  By morning, only a light layer of ice has fallen.  The early sunlight treats our tent like a greenhouse; growing, glowing, warming until slowly awake.  The final half hour of sleep, cradled in warmth, is the most restful.  We like biking and hiking and eating and sleeping, but this time of year the sleeping is best.  Golden aspen and light snow on high are signs of the season’s change.  We love fall weather, but winter is soon to follow.

A short section of trail from Breckenridge to Copper Mountain climbs and descends at extreme grades, and is said to involve much hiking and pushing.  Theres is a paved 16 mile bike path around the Tenmile Range, which we took in search of the next rideable segment of trail.  Climbing across ski slopes and away from Copper Mountain, Searle Pass finally comes into view.  A final push over the pass leads to our camp, in top-of-the-world brilliance.  Just before cresting the pass, not a single road or building can be seen.  On the other side: a mine, a paved highway, and a few forest service roads are visible, and in the morning several bow hunters crest the ridge.  We’re far away, but not that far.  This is what I like about Colorado.  Alaska allows you to get away, but only through a gauntlet of muskeg, moose and mosquitos, with very few trails and roads for access.  The constant threat of grizzlies adds to the sense of the wild, and lessens my level of comfort.  Alaska is a beautiful idea, but not ideal for comfortable outdoor living.  While we tackle immense challenges, hardship is not part of the design.  Colorado is easy living.

Lael’s bike has seen some improvements recently, including a new tire.  The fast-rolling Maxxis CrossMark was great for smooth hard packed trails and dirt roads, but was short of traction and volume on much of the trail.  Her XXIX has some monster tire clearances, and a 29 x 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent hooks up well.  Descending, the suspension fork and the large tires allow her to pick her way through rocky sections without steering around every pebble.  The bike is finally becoming a familiar extension for her, despite a few mishaps.  No matter how well equipped, a rider must become intimately aware of their bike.  This is why we choose to own and ride only one bike at a time.  Equipment or skill is no match for familiarity.

Lael’s Hooligan has broken the one bike rule, but it is exceedingly fun and practical, and has a future with us.  For anything but real trail riding, including urban riding and touring, she demands to have “Hooli”.  With a 2″ tire, it would be fine on mild unpaved surfaces.  While 4″ tires and 29″ wheels provide much benefit, there is a lot to say of a highly maneuverable, and lightweight bike.  26″ and 20″ wheels have their place.

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Searle Pass is the saddle left of center.  Many trails become quite rocky above treeline.  Gaining the ridge:

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Camp at 12,050 ft.  Over the pass, a large mining operation and a few roads are visible.

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Warming light.  Yoga atop mountains is Lael’s favorite, in lieu of yoga in the park, on the sidewalk, in the backyard, on the beach, in the woods, or inside.  She has done yoga almost everywhere.  Dressed for the cool morning, she practices “Yoga for Ninjas”.

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Riding, pushing over Elk Ridge and descending down to Kokomo Pass near 12,000ft.  Descending, descending, down to 9,000ft feet over several miles of trail.  Brakes, kick up dirt, pedal and lean, fly; brake, skid, stop.  Snack.  Soon, 10, 9 thousand feet again and climbing.  Up, to Tennessee.

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We both appreciate the value of a lightly packed bike.  I was carrying a small cooking system and a two-person tent all summer, so Lael only had to show up in Denver with a sleeping bag and pad, as well as some clothing.  She’s packed into a Revelate Vischasa seat bag, Revelate Gas Tank top tube bag, Revelate Mountain Feed Bag, and an eVent Sea-to-Summit compression sack.   A spare tube and tire are strapped to the down tube, out of the way. She’s not carrying a shelter at the moment, but overall, her bike is optimal for this kind of riding.  It is simple, quiet, and light.  The bike rides like a bike.

Every day, I enjoy Lael’s combination of socks and shoes.  Other trail riders must think we are lost, or from another decade.

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I am carrying quite a bit more equipment, but this is exactly what I was carrying all summer.  We carry our own gear in favor of trying to match our paces by re-distributing the load.  Releasing ourselves from the idea of matching paces and necessarily riding together, we are relieved of stress.  It’s simply too much mental work, and is likely to slow one of us down or push the other along.  For such a fun, simple endeavor as walking or riding, there’s no need to complicate the joy of being on the trail.  Sometimes I ride ahead and wait at junctions.  Often, I ride behind allowing Lael to see the trail first, and we talk all day.  Other times, Lael rides ahead, descending with abandon as I stop to take photographs.  We’ve had too many fights about nothing by trying to match paces, so we don’t.

Tightly packed away is MacBook Air and an Olympus E-PM1, as well as a gaggle of accessories, chargers and cables.  Maps, a water filter, tools, a tent, and a cook system are stowed away along with food, clothing and shelter.  It’s tidy and it rides well, if a little heavy.  A framebag is a key component of any lightweight touring system and is the single greatest step to leaving racks and panniers at home, unless you are Lael and don’t even need a framebag.  In many cases, more important than the weight of equipment, is the ride.  My bike is quiet and comfortable, and the tires cloud the rocky disturbances of the trail.  I’m finally finding the optimal tire pressure for these trails, and it is much lower than I initially estimated.

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Up and over Tennessee Pass, and on to Leadville.  We heart Leadville.  Good living at 10,200ft.  Without a ski resort, Colorado towns such as Salida and Leadville avoid the glut of condos and t-shirt shops that plague other mountain towns.  Leadville and Salida are both beautiful communities in the mountains.  Fourteen thousand foot peaks, everywhere.

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The beauty of this part of the state is that it’s not a simple destination for tourists, but finding transportation out of town has been a challenge.  We’ve finally secured a ride to Interbike.  Some writing obligations and planning will take some time away from riding this week, but we’ll be back at it in a few days.  Thereafter we will transport to a galaxy far away from the CT, awash in the glitz of Las Vegas.  Whatever it brings, Interbike and Vegas will be an experience.

Perfect: The Colorado Trail

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It’s almost impossible to lose the trail, some of which is rough and unrideable, and some of which is better than perfect and seemingly, in the middle of nowhere.  Perfection in the middle of nowhere, unlike an unheard falling tree, still exists in waiting.  There are many resources about riding and hiking the Colroado Trail, so a photo essay seems the most appropriate addition to the current bank of information.  The trail is great, and it’s doable, if extremely challenging.  You really only need a bike and the Colorado Trail Databook.  A mountain bike is a necessity, but if you don’t mind hiking and just want to see some of the trail, the first few segments near Denver are accessible on an older rigid 26″ wheeled bike with 2.0″ tires.  It’s always more important to get out and do it, than to sit at home trying to figure out how.  If you get out and try, you’ll immediately know more than all the online resources could ever share, no matter how vibrant the pictures or captivating the text, it’s all fiction.  This blog is a fiction, allowing me to remember things the way I want and to write my own history in which I am a helmeted superhero and my world, perfect.  But it’s not perfect as I eventually require some income and winter is imminent and I do all this writing and riding for fun and for free– real life continues in our living fiction, and in fact I’m quite busy.  But the Colorado Trail approaches perfection and cuts through the stress of real life, and we’re drunk with it.  For a moment, we are helmeted superheroes clad in sunglasses and wool, grunting up and hollering down the Rockies.  For a moment, perfection.

Follow the photos below, imagine and plan your own trip on the local rail-trail, or to the beach; down the Divide or across the Colorado Trail.  If you’ve never traveled by bike, it may change your life.  If you have the experience, the time outdoors on two wheels will reinvigorate your belief in the bicycle.  You will return home different, if you don’t find a home on the road.

Waterton Canyon to the South Platte River.  Petits cornichons, small pickles; grown, handpicked, pickled and packed by Lael in Corsica.  Electrolytes without equal.  Day 1:

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South Platte River to Buffalo Creek.  Burn area, and the smoothest singletrack of the entire trail.  I’m enjoying my used Surly Torsion bars with new Velo Orange thumb-shifter mounts, which fit the Shimano bar-end shifters taken off my drop bars.  VO cork-foam blend grips are cool and comfortable on hot days, and cushion my hands on rough descents, although they are more dense than standard Grab-On foam.  Unlike Ergon grips, they don’t callous and discolor my hands when riding without gloves.  An ergonomic cork-foam grip would be an ideal combination, and would be great on both drop bars and upright bars.  For the price of a sandwich, the VO grips fit my budget better than buying another pair of Ergons, as I hacked the last pair to fit my drop bars.  Ergons are the obvious choice for anyone spending lots of time on the bike, but I’m always seeking new, low-cost solutions.  The new grips don’t make my hands stink like rubber either, the curse of golfers and mountain bike riders alike.

Seductive singletrack abounds.

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Buffalo Creek to Jefferson Creek.  Thru-bikers from Durango, and some of the most exotic, scenic riding we’ve done.

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Jefferson Creek to Breckenridge.  Georgia Pass, and the intersection with the CDT, which is co-located with the CT for a distance.  The final descent to Highway 9 near Breckenridge is amazing.  Descend with glee– superheroes.

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Happy summer kids.  We love it.

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Switchbacks at dusk, descending into town.  Perfect.

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Biking to the trailhead

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Slowly pedaling past Pathfinders and Passports, past Colorado Trail signage and past day-riders descending the broad dirt road of Waterton Canyon, we make our way to the rest of Colorado.  I leave behind a wake of states and provinces, mountains and colorfully named highways.  A faint dotted line on a figurative map marks my progress, but we’re not looking back, only forward.  As the present become the past, the journey retains a specific character– the good times are served well by memory and the bad, mostly severed.  The last few miles to the start of the trail from Fort Collins to Boulder, to Denver and south through the suburbs along the Platte River Trail and Chatfield Reservoir are the easiest, but it’s been a long road, a detail which will not soon be forgotten.

Lumbering out of Anchorage on a repurposed “snow bike” into late spring was wet, yet spectacular; the Yukon is expansive and the midnight sun as relentless as the mosquitos and headwinds; the Cassiar Highway is a haul, and a means to lower B.C. and the States; the Icefields Parkway swarms with tourists, encouraging me off-pavement for the remainder of the summer; and the Great Divide Route is heavenly, as always.  All of this has been a means to this end– the Colorado Trail.  I’ve lost sleep over this trail, worrying that it is too steep or too hard, yet dreaming of the alpine scenery and the rewards of sitting atop mountains, and riding down their backsides.  The crux of this journey is this trail, and from my mid-winter vantage in Alaska, biking to the trailhead was the only way to get here.  As the future becomes the present, dreams become reality.  I’m here, finally.

Andy, our suburban host, provides a home for a few days and a convenient jumping off point for the start of the Colorado Trail.  Better known on the internet as Big Dummy Daddy, Andy holds a PhD in public health with a focus on urban bike-sharing; he has also earned an advanced degree in suburban family transport, to the credit of his Surly Big Dummy, the Snap Deck Xtracycle attachment, and a two-wheeled baby trailer.  Scout the dog follows alongside, and Piper keeps watch form behind.

Andy’s new Surly Pugsley is a gift to himself for completing his dissertation, and is blowing minds daily on the local canal trail and outside Whole Foods.  On this morning, our Pugsleys escort Stella’s little pink Kona to school.  This is suburban cycling, summa cum laude.

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Andy shows us the way to the trailhead.  Lael is back in the swing of things and her new Giro helmet is supremely photogenic against Colorado skies, and a little reminiscent of 1985 mountain bike culture.  A couple hot dogs and sodas send us off at the trailhead.

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Beyond the gates to the Colorado Trail follow six miles of graded access road, gently ascending the South Platte River.  At the dam, the road turns upward and the trail narrows.  The following few miles are supremely rideable singletrack and confirm the allure of the trail.  Soon, hiking through cobblestone rubble up steep grades confirms the challenges.  The rumor of challenges, like bad news and gossip grow with wildfire ferocity.  Tune out the naysayers who say it’s too heavy, too steep, too hard and too far– you can do it.  You can transport yourself!

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The list of colorfully named highways is fun: the Yellowhead, Icefields, Cassiar, Klondike, Glenn, Richardson, Top-of-the-World, Denali, Parks, Alaska, Taylor, Diagonale and Peak-to-Peak.

Rollins Pass

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Diverting from the Divide toward the Denver area, I seek a new route over the mountains.  Last year, I crossed the Front Range through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road.  Another option crosses further south at Loveland Pass above the Eisenhower Tunnel and I-70, while a third option crosses Georgia Pass and Kenosha Pass on the Colorado Trail from the Breckenridge area into Waterton Canyon, about 20 miles south of downtown Denver on the east side of the mountains.  Trail Ridge Road and Loveland Pass are both paved, while the Colorado Trail is mostly singletrack in this section, with some steep rocky pushes.  A final route crossing Rollins (Corona) Pass offers the most direct route and a pleasant ride on dirt roads over 11,666 ft.  A portion of the route follows an old railroad grade called the Moffat Route which is now partly maintained as a Forest Service road, but to the benefit of the hiker or cyclist the entire route isn’t passable by motorized vehicles due to the dilapidated and barricaded Needle’s Eye Tunnel, which limits traffic.  Several small rockfalls near the top of the east side further inhibit motor vehicle traffic.  Continuing in the spirit of the Great Divide Route, Rollins Pass is the perfect detour into the Denver/Boulder area.

From County Road 3 on the Great Divide Route south of Kremmling and the Williams Fork Reservoir, turn toward the east on Keyser Creek Rd/FR 139 (County Rd 32).  The Divide maps identify that this spur is the way to Winter Park (and Fraser), and from this intersection you are about 19 miles from the town of Fraser in the adjacent valley.  Climb away from the Divide on the main road for 8.6 miles until the intersection with the Beaver Creek Road at the top of the unsigned pass.  Several signs are missing along the way, however, selecting the more-traveled path will get you to the top.  Intersecting the signed Beaver Creek Road (County Rd 50), turn right toward Fraser and begin a fast ten mile descent to town.  At the intersection of paved Hwy 40, the main route in the valley, turn right onto the bike trail alongside the road for several miles to the town of WInter Park. Two miles further as the road begins climbing more moderately toward the ski resort, a sign will direct you to turn left onto the Rollins Pass Road or the Corona Pass or Moffat Hill Road– a road of many names, with a storied history.  From this point, the surface turns to dirt and climbs 14 miles to the pass, almost entirely through USFS property.  Turning onto this road at night, I ascend a thousand feet to a campsite overlooking the lights of Winter Park.  Amidst an old clearcut, I light a fire in an existing fire ring for some hot tea and ambiance.  Cool, clear Colorado skies send me to sleep.

Soon after entering the Arapahoe National Forest on County Rte. 3, turn left away from the Divide Route onto this road:

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Intersecting County Rte. 50/Beaver Creek Road, turn right down to Fraser:

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The west side of the pass is a little rough, but not atypical of USFS roads.  Sandwiched by wilderness to the north and south at the top of the pass, continue toward the east on the obvious railroad grade, barricaded and signed “Tunnel closed…”.  Several small rockfalls in the first mile are rideable, if a little rough.  Two wooden trestles are in good shape, and within a mile from the top of the pass the Needle’s Eye Tunnel is encountered as Yankee Doodle Lake is visible below on the left.  The tunnel is in disrepair and is impassible, although two short trails lead over or around the tunnel.  Riding over the top of the tunnel, I hike down the back side which is loose and steep, but passable.  Back on the main Rollinsville Road, continue downhill for about 15 miles, passing the east end of the railroad tunnel that replaced the overland route.  Unfortunately, the several thousand foot elevation loss is not a fast descent, as the road is impregnated with angular cobbles.  Picking your way through and around potholes and rocks is fun, although tiring.  In Rollinsville, intersect the Peak-to-Peak Highway: turn right for Arvada and Denver, turn left toward Nederland to descend into Boulder.  Riding north on pavement toward Nederland, turn right onto the unpaved Magnolia Road for a low-traffic alternate to Boulder Canyon and Boulder.  Continuing to Nederland, you can ride north on the Peak-to-Peak Highway toward Estes Park and Fort Collins, or down the paved Boulder Canyon Road into town.

Climbing out of the trees on the Moffat Hill Road/Rollins Pass/ Corona Pass Road, Winter Park is visible across the valley.  A consistent mild grade makes for a quick ride to the top.

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Expecting a rapid descent into Boulder, I quickly realized I’d be picking my way through rocks and riding the brakes.  Although this is an unimproved trail, this is the most inspiring “rail-trail” I’ve ridden.  With trestles and a tunnel, as well as some brief hikes, the ride over the pass makes for a fun day ride and a great way to connect the Divide with Denver.

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A local rider directs me to the lower portion of the Jenny Creek Trail which eventually connects to the town of Nederland.  Enticed by a sign marking the upper portion of the trail, I cut left in search of a nice forested descent.  Instead, I find slow-speed rock-crawling.  A highly specialized red Jeep admires the Pugsley, remarking that it seems like a good idea to have big tires.  City people don’t often understand, while rock-crawling country folk never try to highlight the shortcomings of fat tires.  They get it.

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At once, my saddlebag is hanging near my rear derailleur.  Replacing worn leather straps, two nylon gear straps are hiding in the bottom of my framebag for such an occasion.  The thin steel bag loops on most leather saddles places extreme stress on the straps used to support and stabilize the saddlebag.  These leather straps have attached the bag to the bike all summer, but failure due to the design of the bag loops is inevitable.  Spare straps are a necessity on a longer trip.

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Back on the Rollinsville Road, conditions are still a little rough.  Even on suspended motorbikes, standing helps alleviate the discomfort of angular cobbles.

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Descending into shade and smooth roads.  Finally able to let loose of the brakes, I pedal on to Rollinsville.

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I miss the turn for the Magnolia Road and find myself in Nederland, so a quick descent down Boulder Canyon shuttles me to the big city.  The first Friday night since students have returned to town ensures a vibrant scene downtown, and a lot of curiosity about the bike.  Downtown Boulder is a world away from Rollins Pass.

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Connecting the dots: Rawlins, Steamboat, Kremmling

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Divide-style riding– the open dirt roads that are influencing a new generation of cyclecampers– has provided me with a home for the summer.  Daily challenges and joys come from climbing and descending the skeleton of the American west, while every evening is topped with delightful campsites, for free.  The Great Divide Route is the Trans-Am Route of the modern day, as Fargos and Trolls are the equivalents of old Trek and Fuji touring frames.  The Divide is the fusion of our American cycletouring heritage and several decades of mountain biking– it’s a way of connecting the dots and getting away from it all.

Most road maps facilitate travel along the paths of least resistance, though river valleys and along interstate highways.  Lesser known routes encounter greater resistance– in route planning and topography– but uncover the uncommon character that is hidden in the folds of the land.  The Great Divide Route is changing the way American cyclists look at cycletouring and is both ready-made and quite rideable, lessening the resistance to “getting away”.  While a single day’s ride on the Divide might be challenging, the open road ahead is an inviting yellow brick road of logistic simplicity.  Turn-by-turn directions and comprehensive resources for cyclists (groceries, water, lodging, camping, police, etc.) are listed on the maps, in addition to elevation profiles.  Concerns that the Divide reaches deep into the wilderness, days away from food and resources are unnecessary.  Every few days the rider encounters a proper grocery, and water is not an issue in most places; when it is less plentiful one simply carries a little more for the duration described in the maps.  If the Divide calls to you, I’m telling you that you can!  You still have to ride your bike up and over mountains, but it couldn’t be any easier.

The Great Divide Route is the realization of an idea with roots in the original Bikecentennial route (renamed Trans-Am), which was meant to uncover America’s backroads.  As originally designed, the cross-country route included miles of gravel farm roads inspired by terrain encountered on the Siples’ Hemistour ride.   Overwhelmingly, the first wave of Bikecentennial riders complained about the hardship of riding dirt on the typical 27×1 1/4 (630 x 32mm) tires of the time.  The Siples had ridden handbuilt 650b wheels laced to Campagnolo hubs, with an approximate 40mm tire.  Edit: I’m currently researching the tires used on Hemistour, as they are simultaneously and incongruously referred to as 650B (584mm) and 26 x 1 3/8 (590mm).  June Siple has a record of equipment used, and may soon shed some light.  Ten years later as ATBs exploded onto the market. riders finally had the appropriate equipment to explore these dirt routes, especially the more challenging rides into the mountains.  Meeting over margaritas and Mexican food in 1994, as legend has it, Michael McCoy conspired with ACA staff to design a dirt route along the spine of the country. Within the year the Great Divide Route was born, and the rest is (recent) history.

Today, more people are touring on mountain bike tires and mountain bikes, in the mountains.  Riders are discovering the value of lightweight packing as backpackers have known for years.  The combination opens up the opportunity to ride high mountain roads and singletrack for multiple days at a time.  My own evolution as a rider mirrors the history of American cycletouring, and after a few long years the final and most contemporary piece to the puzzle will fall into place on the Colorado Trail, and beyond.  They call it mountain biking or bikepacking, but it’s still just a bike ride.

Connecting the dots from Rawlins, WY to Steamboat Springs, CO:

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I sleep atop mountains and passes whenever the weather is clear and calm, with only my sleeping pad and bag on a nylon groundcloth.  Since entering Montana, most nights have been spent en plain air.  I keep most of my gear packed away, but will remove my cookset for some dinner or tea in the evening.  Now out of grizzly country, I gave my bear deterrent spray to some CDT hikers and I can leave the stove set up for the morning.  When I’m feeling especially organized and indulgent, I’ll prepare the pot with clean water so that it can be heated as soon as I awake for coffee or tea, like the auto-brew setting on your home system.  The Penny Stove that I use was built almost a year ago while in Steamboat Springs, and has seen about 150 days of use.  The steel Klean Kanteen is versatile in that I can defrost frozen water from a cold night, or sterilize stream water right in the bottle.  An enameled steel camping mug isn’t much heavier than popular Lexan or plastic models, and can similarly be used for cooking or heating water.  While I technically only carry one 0.8L cookpot, these versatile vessels allow more creative meals and hot drinks.  A 1L plastic drink bottle contains fuel, of which I’ve mostly been sourcing the yellow bottles of Heet (automotive antifreeze, methanol).  In bigger cities I can buy a full liter of ethanol, or denatured alcohol at paint and hardware stores.  In France, corner stores sold a 95% concentration of ethanol as a household cleaner, always in an inspiring floral or citrus fragrance for two euro.  In Mexico, “alcohol industrial” can be had at some paint stores, which wasn’t an entirely reliable source.  I finally realized that the rubbing alcohol sold in Mexican pharmacies was a 70-90% concentration of ethanol, whereas rubbing alcohol in the US is almost exclusively isopropyl alcohol.   Isopropyl burns incompletely and leaves a sooty mess on your pots.  Inevitably, it makes a sooty mess on other things until you look like a coal miner on a bicycle.  For reference, higher concentrations of isopropyl alcohol burn just fine, if necessary.

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With tired legs from several weeks of riding without a rest, I find cover during the heat of the day along the Little Snake River.  Of course, this was a fine swimming spot, if a little shallow.  My transition into Colorado signals a more temperate climate– surface water and shade quickly reappear after a few scorching days in central and southern Wyoming.  Aspens provide wonderfully cool shade while climbing, and a stark contrast to western skies.

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Steamboat Springs is a tourist town, a ski town, and a little hard to crack at first.  Local businesses are busy crafting and creating, and a visit to the Moots factory is inspiring (10 AM on M-W-F).  Kent Erickson, who started Moots in the 80’s, now crafts fine titanium bikes in a space shared with Orange Peel Bikes, a must-see building and a fine shop.  Smartwool offices are in Steamboat as well, and my host for the night offered some socks and a lightweight merino sweater– he’s a quality control agent for the company, and is full of socks that didn’t make the cut.  Finally, I contacted Big Agnes in advance for some tent repairs after four years of hard use.  I’m constantly seeking better solutions to equipment, but my Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 is hard to beat and while I’ve looked for other options with curiosity, nothing improves upon the blend of durability and light weight.  It sleeps two, but is light enough to carry for solo adventures.  It is conveniently freestanding, which is great during the buggy season and the rainfly can be used without the mesh tent body for good ventilation during a summer rain shower.  In more extreme weather, a total of 13 guy lines ensure a solid stance against the wind and rain.  While in town last year they repaired a large tear in my rainfly due to a zipper mishap; this year, some sections of my tent poles needed replacement and a finicky zipper was repaired.  It’s nice to have contact with real people, with real skills and expertise to help sort out technical issues.  If I had gone to REI, they would have shrugged and replaced the entire product.  Repairs are a much better solution, and the cost to get me back under cover was only $10.

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The ride from Steamboat Springs to Kremmling is pleasant and familiar as I’ve now ridden the route over Lynx Pass three times.  It was part of my path from Boulder to Steamboat last fall to meet Cass and Nancy in early October for some Divide riding.  Check out Nancy’s first day of bicycle touring, climbing at 8000ft over Lynx Pass on dirt roads in the snow!  At the same time I ran into Greg Mu on the road, riding a look-alike Surly Troll to what Cass was riding.  Whose Troll was born first?  Greg insists it was his.  We all rode together for a period and had a great time, despite cold nights and some early season snow.

I overheated and perspired through my first freezing night, even though I was sleeping without a tent  After buying and returning a half-dozen sleeping bags to REI over the last few years, I finally found my ideal bag at The Trailside in Missoula, MT last fall.  The Mont-Bell U.L. Super Spiral Down Hugger 3 is filled with high-quality down and is rated to 30, which is an accurate description of it’s warmth.  The bag is constructed in a spiral stitch pattern with elastic stitching which ensures that the down is close to the body while sleeping, but that nighttime movements are not constricted by a narrow bag.  The advertised weight of the bag is 1 lb. 6 oz., and compresses to the size of a cantaloupe or smaller.  An Etowah vapor barrier liner (VBL) from Rivendell keeps me warm down to 10 deg, with a lightweight down jacket and a blend of Ibex and Smartwool long underwear.  I have not been carrying the VBL or down jacket through the summer months.

Connecting the dots from Steamboat to Kremmling:

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My host in Kremmling is a recent Pugsley owner, with a glowing enthusiasm for fat tires.  Without saying, we got along just fine.  In a few weeks, he’ll set off for the Divide with my maps on his new fat tires.  There are great camping and riding opportunities north of town, most of which is BLM property.  Camping along Muddy Creek is recommended.

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The promise of fat tires

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Pneumatic tires and large volume rubber had been in use for almost a century when in the late 70’s a strong lightweight frame with adequate brakes and gears turned an average balloon bike– a klunker capable of country lanes– into a performance machine capable of climbing and descending off-pavement.  These were all-terrain bikes, later dubbed “mountain bikes”.  As sales of fat tires grew in the 80’s, bicycling magazines published forward-thinking expeditions to Everest Base Camp on Specialized Stumpjumpers, out the abandoned Canol Road on Ritchey frames in the Northwest Territory of Canada, and along the flanks and spines of local mountains everywhere.  Never before had bikes been able to ride these routes and riders were willing to dream new places to ride; as well, riders quickly found the limits of the new bikes.  The Canol Road, for example, is unrideable for much of the distance due to washouts, overgrowth and avalanche– and thus, the term hike-a-bike was born.  Still, prices for these new machines fell and consumers bought up “mountain bikes” by the millions, finding varied uses.  Many bikes became daily commuters on urban streets, cycletourists found larger tires and strong frames to be ideal for long distance travel on unknown roads, and some riders actually rode singletrack trails as pictured in magazines.  But many (or most) mountain bikes, like Jeeps and Ford Explorers, spend very little time in the Tolkein environment pictured in sales catalogs and magazines.   Consumers buy mountain bikes because they promise the ability to go places, simply because they can— it’s the promise of fat tires.

Winter endurance racing and sand-crawling cyclists birthed fatbikes over the past twenty years, and out of a slow stew of development the Surly Pugsley was born in 2006 as a mass-market option.  The purple Pugsley that I ride is the analogue of the 1981 Stumpjumper, a ready-made option to those curious about riding large-volume rubber.  In 2011, Salsa introduced a complete Mukluk build and Surly followed suit with a complete Pugsley— 2011-2012 has seen the explosion of fat tires as a result.  Being able to enter a shop, point at a bike and ride out the door is a boon to sales and to curious consumers.  A dismal snowfall in the lower 48 has done nothing to lessen interest in fatbikes this past winter, as curious and creative riders are finding new ways to ride big rubber.  That’s the promise of fat tires– new places to ride, and new ways to ride.  It’s more than just a snow bike.

Over the past few months I’ve explored the capacity of my Pugsley in reverse, finding that it can ride pavement and the graded dirt roads of the Great Divide and the Top of the World Highway on 2.35″ Schwalbe Big Apple tires.  I refit “ultralight” 120 tpi Surly Larry tires to the 65mm Marge Lite rims a few weeks ago and have been riding the varied terrain of the Great Divide Route through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.  Skeptical onlookers point out that I’m still not putting fat tires to full use– much of what I’ve ridden can be ridden on a normal mountain bike– but the sandy soils of the Western Idaho Trail and the intermittent washboard of the Divide are minimized under large-volume rubber.  There are more instances where I am happy to have big tires than I curse the disadvantages– there’s more to gain than to lose.

We’re easily convinced that 29″ tires make obstacles “smaller” (despite statistically significant evidence to prove their efficiency), but many riders are calling fat tires a fad, and even worse, sacrilege.  Admitting the obvious penalties of weight and rolling resistance on pavement, fat tires improve upon all three features of the pneumatic tire: traction, suspension and flotation.  If you don’t need it, you don’t need it; but if you are curious and can dream up new ways to ride then it’s available through your local bike shop.  It’s 1984 all over again, and in addition to the refined custom options, Surlys and Salsas are filling the floors of shops all over the country like Stumpjumpers and High Sierras.  With the assurance and insurance of big rubber, I can plan a trip of unknown routes through the mountains and deserts of Colorado, Utah and Arizona.  I’ve passed-by and turned away from enough rough-stuff riding opportunities in the past to know that I need a bike with some teeth.  With new riding opportunities ahead I can point and shoot without limits, as my fatbike has teeth.

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The direct comparison of fatbikes to “normal” bikes is often unfair.  First, the riding conditions in which they are compared is necessarily biased towards a typical mountain bike, unless you’d previously included a lot of loose sandy hike-a-bike in your rides, snowy commutes, muddy trails or deeply rutted roads.  Secondly, comparing bike weights of a refined mountain bike to a base model fatbike is also unfair, even at the same price point.  Comparing bikes based on cost benefits the mass market offerings with “normal” 26″ and 29″ wheels; much of the additional cost and weight of a fatbike comes from specialized componentry, mainly rims and tires, which are expensive due to limited production.  Rim weights have been cut in half in the last half-decade of fatbike development and the new Surly Marge Lite rim is only 690g (the 50mm Jeff Jones rim is 660g), both of which approach the weight of standard-duty XC rims.   The weight and price of fatbike equipment is only coming down.  Within the year, I suspect the Surly Pugsley will lose the 1150g DH Large Marge rim from the stock build; another tire manufacturer will enter the game, undercutting the weight of Innova tires and reducing rolling resistance with more advanced casings; and non-utilitarian offerings such as the new Salsa Beargrease (28.5 lb XC and race-oriented model) will change the way we think about these modern day klunkers.  A studded fat tire, no matter the price, will be a panacea for dedicated winter commuters in Alaska and other consistently wintry climes, where a single commute can include fresh snow over hardpack, glare ice and icy rutted lanes.

Looking ahead even further, the leap to 3.7-4.5″ tires has left a huge gap, and the Surly Krampus arrives soon to fill it.  Large volume tires in more practical everyday sizes and weights will continue to roll in, as will the frames that can handle them.  Expect to see more lightweight (non-DH) 2.5-3.5″ tires in the future.  The Krampus is betting on a lightweight 3.0″ tire on a 50mm-wide 29″ (622mm) rim, and I’m all in.

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In Kremmling, CO a local raft guide rides a new Surly Pugsley with 45North Husker Du tires.  He’s owned full-suspension mountain bikes in the past, but never enjoyed rebuilding suspension parts and linkages after a season of hard use.  On a whim, he hopped on a fatbike.  Of course, he bought it!  He’s devoted several upcoming months between the rafting season and the ski season to play, and his first-ever cycling trip will be on a the new white Pugsley somewhere in the west.  I’ve lent my Great Divide maps and assorted state highway maps, which I’m hopeful will get some use.

On another note, my Schwalbe Big Apples tires have made their way to Anchorage via USPS where they have again found a home on the Surly Man’s Big Donkey.  A modern proverb states, “it takes more than one man to wear through a Schwalbe”.   Below, mountainous snowbanks persist though late March in Anchorage, conquered only by the mighty Mukluks.  The snowbanks would not disappear until sometime in May.

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The “promise of fat tires” was realized late at night as an indirect rebuttal to a recent article on Mike Varley’s Black Mountain Cycles blog.   A favorite cycle-centric digest, Mike reflects expertly on old bikes, new technology and practical tire sizes.  Check out the BMC Cross frame, which features the largest tire clearance of any non-suspension corrected steel 700c/29″ bike available.  With a fast-rolling 1.9-2.1″ tire, this frame would make a real dirt road scorcher!

Twelve-second timer; Middlewood Hill, WY

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Near the top of Middlewood Hill, 7965 ft; about 30 miles south of Rawlins, WY on the Great Divide Route.

Purple first-generation Surly Pugsley frame with Marge Lite rims and Larry tires; Shimano dynamo and Supernova E3 Pro headlight, B&M Toplight Line Plus taillight; Salsa Cowbell 3 Handlebars with modified Ergon grips, Shimano bar-end shifters and Cane Creek V-brake road levers to Avid BB-7 brakes; homemade coruplast fenders of “Joe Miller For Senate 2010” (Tea Party) signage, modified Nitto M-18 rack as bag support, and Salsa Anything Cage under the downtube to hold a 64 oz. Klean Kanteen.  Luggage includes a Carradice Camper saddlebag; Revelate framebag, front Pocket and Gas Tank; Sea-to-Summit drybags and compression e-Vent drybag fill the gaps.  It’s a bike and even with three days of food, an Olympus E-PM1 camera, MacBook Air, and a spacious Seedhouse SL2 tent, it rides like a bike.

Anymore, the oldest part on the bike is a pair of vintage Suntour XC-II beartrap pedals, purchased used from Pacific Coast Cycles in Carlsbad, CA before riding into Mexico.  Footloose, I enjoy a good platform pedal and a real pair of shoes.

I’m almost nine months into my “One bike for all seasons” experiment– to date, I have ridden over four months and 2000 miles on fat tires through a snowy Anchorage winter; 3500 miles on Schwalbe Big Apple tires while touring paved and dirt roads from Alaska to Montana, and about 1000 miles on Surly Larry tires on the Great Divide Route from Bozeman, MT to Steamboat Springs, CO.

Questions?

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A reader, Dylan, has generously shared a PDF of Ian Hibell’s Into the Remote Places.  If anyone is interested in this out-of-print classic, email me at nicholas.carman@gmail.com.

Tents and teepees; the Great Divide Basin

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Leaving the Winds and the woods behind and riding on with a conglomerate ball of day-old donuts from the Pinedale supermarket, I shoot for the Great Divide Basin.  I’m to be in Denver in just over ten days and I’ve found a peaceful groove of riding and resting and reading and eating and riding; the pace is not challenging and the rhythm is intoxicating.  I’d rather put time in the saddle now and relax upon reaching my target, and the mountains of Colorado are a better place to spend some lazy days with ready access to shade and water.  The Great Basin is topographic and hydrologic fantasy where water neither drains to the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans, instead contained by an enclosed basin.  In this dry climate at 7000 ft, most of what what falls from the sky eventually evaporates.  It’s fantastically beautiful, but it’s not really a place to hang out, especially by oneself.

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Spending a restless night in a teepee in Atlantic CIty, WY, I depart in the cool morning and shoot for the Sweetwater River– this will be my last swim for a while.  Ten miles further is Diagnus Well, a constantly gurgling pipe designed to create a wetland in the desert to sustain livestock.  It smells a pungent saline swamp, and two lambs are tied to sagebrush, bleating for reprieve from heat and hunger.  An empty, but lived-in trailer stands nearby.  I give the lambs some water.  While cooking grains in the shade of a fencepost, a vaquero arrives on horseback with a white dog with a prominent ribcage.  He comes close, and licks the remaining grains and salt from my pot without asking, kicking sand.  “Go away”, I demand half-heartedly.  He’s hungry, and I’m tired from the heat.  For a moment, I’m taken back to Mexico and the emaciated cattle of Baja.  Ranching in the sage desert at 7,000 ft isn’t easy.

I briefly debated with a man in Atlantic City who complained about ” the people from south of the border” that were ruining the economy of his home state of Colorado.  In the desert, a lone vaquero starves with his dog and two lambs.  Is this what he refers to, or is the the hardworking men and women doing the other jobs we’re too disgusted and too lazy to do?  This same discrimination has plagued this country for centuries, and has no doubt affected your family.  Willfull outsourcing of labor and consumers unwilling to buy local goods are more at fault than hardworking Mexicans, regarding the current state of things.  We raised our voices talking about wild horses and wolves, but discrimination disguised as patriotism is most enraging to me.  This is pretty typical Wyoming politics as I understand.  I find it powerful to retort, “where did your family come from?”.

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WIth just under three liters of water, I ride onward from the gurgling pipe in the desert.  For a time, I am enchanted with the vast moonscape of the Basin, but soon enough I am thinking about water and shade, with no relief save for a snow fence and my warm bottles of water  I drape my groundcloth over the fence slats, providing shade, but it also blocks the cooling west wind.  I savor warm salty sips until within ten miles of the A&M Reservoir, then I open my throat and empty the end of the bottle, throttling onward.  I’m not dying of thirst, but I imagine bringing my lips to damp sand in the desert in search of relief, or as Ed Abbey suggests, biting on a small pebble to instigate salivation and to relieve thirst.  Luckily, my map shows a state managed reservoir which provides cool, clean water and a place to calm my sunburnt skin.  Only 55 miles, that was a long time without a swim.

Cooled and cleansed and full of water I make quick friends with CDT hikers, and then make a break for it.  Racing downhill away from lightning bolts, I relieve pressure from my tires to smooth the terrain at 24 miles an hour, and lean into a sidewind– like a sail, the framebag sends me sliding into the thick thundercloud air.  This is the first thunderstorm of the entire trip and I reach Lamont quickly, taking refuge in the Annalope Cafe.  That night, I sleep in another teepee, this time provided by a woman I would never meet– a devout Christian– who has helped passing cyclists for years.  The Divide Route passes within a few miles of Lamont and the popular Trans-Am bicycle route.  Wells in the desert and relief from rainclouds– Wyoming provides.

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Awake to clearing skies, I stop into the Annalope Cafe for some fuel for the ride to Rawlins.  Indeed, the desert is constantly changing, but what’s for dessert?

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A great thanks to “LB”, who I never did meet.  The teepee was much appreciated as my tent is currently in partial disrepair.  It will be back in full service after a visit to the red house on Oak Street, Big Agnes headquarters and repair shop in Steamboat Springs, CO.

Good Morning Great Divide

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Bed by campfirelight, awake by sunlight. Smoke fingers linger over my down bag in the early morning; I always take time to admire how lofty my bag has become by sunrise. I played games with REI for years returning bags, and finally bought a better bag at a local shop in Missoula last summer. I’m fully content with it, and a vapor barrier extends the range at the end of the season. Toss the coals about, lay a log on top and heat some water– coffee and cream of wheat will get me where I’m going. This is my last night in the woods for a while, as I’m into the great wide Wyoming open for a week of sage and sunshine. I can count the campfires I’ve had over the past four years on one hand, and this seemed like an occasion to burn a little bit of the woods. The campsite was littered with rusty cans of Texas ranch-style beans and shotgun shells– it wasn’t dirty by USFS standards, but well used. I took the opportunity to use it some more. If i’d had a big gun, I woulda shot it.

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Two days ago I climbed away from Idaho on the Reclamation Road between Yellowstone and Teton National Parks into a thick August swarm of tourists. Yesterday I climbed away from Teton tourists to the not-so-secret handicap accessible swimming hole at the top of Togwotee Pass. Descend twenty miles, then climb back to Union Pass and ride until dark. From my camp at 9000 ft, today is all downhill, nearly, and the final miles into Pinedale are paved. Ice cream and wifi aren’t too far off, despite fifty miles of riding. I rest my forearms on the bars and find my aero position– I’m there by noon.

The Great Divide narratives underscore the pretense of long stretches without water, the presence of bears and to be off the trail by “mid-October at the latest”; mostly I count long stretches without a half-gallon of ice cream for $4.44, and the fact that I’m “in bear country” is nothing new. The riding is occasionally challenging, but the route is a logistical walk in the park with the help of the ACA maps. It’s dangerous to visit supermarkets with big eyes and an empty stomach as 4 for $7 promotions of Keebler cookies and day old donuts are tempting– a hungry sucker, I had to find a way to pack a dozen day old donuts and a half-gallon of soymilk. The soymilk fills the Kleen Kanteen, but doesn’t last long. The donuts are now a ball of smashed donuts, and that’s just fine. This is the first “super”-market I’ve visited since Butte, and the experience is overwhelming– they have everything.

Leaving Idaho behind, squeezing between the two national parks…

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Not interested in an $8 campsite– the campground attendant was incredulous at that, and rude– I rode the final hour of sunlight to the Teton Nation Forest boundary. This is public land and I figure my tax dollars are hard at work helping the trees grow so that I can sleep amongst them. Actually, the USFS is a road builder above all else. They build a lot of roads, and a gated logging road provides perfect camping. I awake to climb up Togwotee Pass, to a 46 mph descent down the other side, and a climb back up to Union Pass. At 15 mph the Surly Larry tires hum, at 25 they sing, and at 45 they scream.

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Making camp by campfirelight, I awake to descend two-thousand feet to Pinedale over fifty miles– let the fat tires roll.

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