And the wind blows…..

Overheard at lunch in the only restaurant in Antonito, Colorado:

Customer, while holding up something between his fingers: “waitress….”

Waitress: “Whats that?”

Customer: “Well, I was hoping you’d tell me. It’s hard, and it was in my meatloaf”.

Waitress, after looking closely: “Oh, that’s only grease”.

She walked off, and that was that.

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My progress to Santa Fe is slower than expected! After two days riding, I’ve been all day in the tiny town of Antonito, about 120 miles south of Salida, and just short of the border with New Mexico. I arrived last night and was all set to leave early this morning when a huge gale hit, literally blowing tumbleweed down the Main Street. I belatedly checked the weather forecast and saw that a huge storm is over the whole region – winds with gusts up to 50 mph expected, along with sleet and snow. So I decided that it wasn’t the best day for a 60 mile ride to a camping place in a National Forest some 50 miles south.

And so far it has been a very wild and stormy day, with one ferocious blast of sleet at lunchtime. And this area supposedly has the highest percentage of sunshine in the US! I thought it would be much warmer this far south of the Colorado mountains, but its actually cold and getting colder. But while tomorrow is supposed to be very windy, the storm has mostly passed, and sunshine is predicted for later in the week.

So while there is little or nothing to do in this town (even the library is only open Thursday to Saturday), I’m staying in a nice place, a tiny accommodation only hotel dating from 1911 which seems to be run more as a hobby than a going concern by the owner. Unfortunately, the only place for dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow is the place with grease balls in the meatloaf…..

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Salida after dark

Yes, I was a little bored after dinner and so I thought I’d do a photo essay of Salida after dark.  I was really just playing around with my new camera (Sony NEX-3) to see how good its low light ability is (I didn’t use any flash, and most pictures are taken right up against a shop window). The interesting thing about taking photographs here is that it brings home just how few shops in the town actually sell anything useful.  But most are very pretty.

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(New) Mexico or bust

The weather has been lovely up to now in Salida, but every morning I can see the snowline on the mountains creeping lower.  So any faint chance of my setting off on the Divide Trail again has faded with the temperature.  Anyway, its been apparent for some time I would not be able to make the border.  To get to Antelope Wells (the final point of the Divide Trail, on the border with Mexico) is at least 20 days riding at my pace – New Mexico is a very big State!  And at most I have about 10 days left.  Plus there are some monster passes to get over before hitting the high plains.  So if I’m to complete the whole ride, it won’t be this year.

I’ve been pondering whether its worth making a dash for the border by road, just for the sake of completing a ride completely across the country.  Its approximately 550 miles from here to El Paso, the closest border town where I can reasonably get a train or flight back to the East Coast in time for my return flight.  I’ve been warned that its quite a dull ride – many miles across featureless desert.

So I’ve decided for now to postpone that decision and I’ll set off by road to Santa Fe, which I’ve been told is the nicest city in New Mexico, with great architecture and a good biking scene (I’m getting a little addicted to hiring full suspension bikes and trying them out on local trails – the riding here in Salida is amazing, even without being able to get up on the more famous high altitude trails).

So, weather permitting (the forecast for tomorrow isn’t good), I’ll set off for Santa Fe, about 220 miles (3-4 days ride) south of here.  When I get there I’ll decide whether to stay or to shoot for El Paso.

 

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Steamboat to Salida (part 3). Fairplay to Salida

Fairplay has a little theme park, a reproduction of a 19th Century mine town (which seems a little irrelevant as the old street is quite well preserved), and it calls it South Park City.  There certainly seem some mixed views in the town as to whether the South Park connection is worth it… 

The other Fairplay claim to fame is the annual Burro race, apparently the longest and toughest in the world. 

I rode on for 18 miles on the road before rejoining the official Divide route at the tiny town of Harsel.  I had lunch there and regretted it.  Interesting place, but not good on the stomach.

From Harsel the ride to Salida was straight across the South Park basin.  This really is a strange place, a wide open area with just some buffalo and cattle grazing.  If you check it out on google maps it almost seems to be a city, with a dense network of roads set out in blocks.  But in reality, these roads are (apart from some incongruous looking road signs), almost invisible.  It seems that during every housing bubble someone gets the bright idea of laying out this vast area in subdivisions.  Presumably someone who thinks that half Denver wants to move up closer to the mountains.  But even in the biggest bubble, nobody is stupid enough to actually buy an acre in the middle of the desert (its not like this is Nevada….).  So all thats left are signs, faint tracks across the plain, and some very occasional and eccentric houses (most of which seemed to be abandoned).  I rode for nearly 30 miles through this landscape.

I stocked up with water at the only permanent watercourse.  It didn’t look the best quality of water, but I planned to camp at a high ridge overlooking Salida, and I knew there was not likely to be any water on the ridge.

The curious thing about these basins is that while the bottoms are very dry, you only have to climb a little before reaching green forest – it seems the ridges capture whatever rainfall there is.  I set off up the final climb of this section, 1000 foot up the side of a ridge.  The cattle seemed to be welcoming me, forming a little posse at each cattle grid crossing.  Then I realised that the cattle grids were on local high points, so the cows here were just like Irish cows, standing idly on the hills when they think rain is coming.  I remembered that the forecast was for rain and sleet on the lowlands that night, which most likely means snow on the ridge.

The final climb was steep, but lovely as it went up through pine forest.  The road was occasionally sandy making it hard going.  So it was 6pm and the sun was about to set as I finally crested the ridge at 10,000 foot, giving me a dramatic view of the giant Sawatch chain of mountains across the valley. 

Now I had a decision to make – make camp at one of the rough informal spots at the ridge as I’d intended, or press on.  Camping at the ridge would be nice, it had been a few days since I enjoyed the peace and comfort of a sleep at altitude (yes, it is lovely when you have a good sleeping bag!).  It also gave me the chance of waking to a snow covered forest.  On the negative side, it might also mean a cold and hazardous descent the next morning on a snowy, icy, or just very wet and muddy steep trail.

The other alternative was to press on, and do a very steep 12 mile descent to Salida as the sun sets and darkness set in.  Not very smart.  But I do believe that you haven’t really had a proper bike tour unless you’ve tried a 3,000 foot descent on twisty broken roads with precipitous ravines on one side with nothing but a head torch and the moon to see by.  So down I went.

The light went faster than I expected, but about two miles down I saw a wonderful sight.  A huge herd of about 50 elk let by a magnificent stag were grazing at the roadside around an empty house (presumably the garden provided good grazing).  They dashed for the forest when they saw me, led by the stag who clearly doesn’t believe in women and children first.  Mind you, seeing how fond the locals are of mounting stag heads over their fireplaces, I don’t really blame him.  I got my camera out too late, you can just about see the last of them vanishing into the woods if  you double click on this picture.

Apart from a little moonlight, it was pitch black for the last few miles down.  Its probably just as well that I couldn’t see how steep the drop was to my left for most of the way.  I could see just enough to see that this side of the ridge was a very different environment than I’d cycled through before – instead of low scrub or pine trees, this is a landscape of short twisted Pinon and Bristlecone – the vegetation of New Mexico, not of areas north. 

In the pitch black just on the outskirts of town, I saw the unmistakeable blue tinted light of a powerful bike LED.  I was greeted by Scot, who introduced himself as the chief mechanic of Absolute Bikes, and he kindly offered me a bottle of beer he just happened to be carrying.  He gave me directions to the best places to stay, and within half an hour I was in the Woodland Motel. 

This might just be the last stage for me of the Great Divide Trail (at least for now).  But not the last stage of the cycling I think.

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Steamboat to Salida (part 2)

The trail from Breckenridge promised to be both beautiful and quite difficult.  The main difficulty is not just the highest Divide Crossing (not the highest pass on the route, thats still to come, but the highest crossing of the Continental Divide), but a lack of accommodation options between Breckenridge and Salida.  The official maps and book offer no suggestions and Eric mailed me to say that wild camping was very difficult in the wide open space of the South Park basin to the north.  I decided on another detour, this time going to the town of Fairplay, looping back to the official route a few miles south.

I had a look around Breckenridge before leaving – its beautifully preserved, even the sole Starbucks is forced to keep a low profile.  The town is very touristic, based on the top class skiing in the area.  But the snow hasn’t come quite yet.

So after breakfast, off I went on a 2,000 foot climb up the Boreas Pass, named rather ominously from the Greek God of the wind.

I wish all climbs could be this nice.  Thanks to a very gentle grade (its a former railway line), and great scenery, it was a great mornings riding.

The Pass is a beautiful spot, and used to be the site of one of the highest towns in the US, where a settlement grew up around the maintenance depot for the narrow guage railway between Beckenridge and Leadville (both very important mining towns at the time).  They’ve restored the old railway buildings and a section of railway.  You can see why some of the earliest bike tourists on their penny farthing bikes used to prefer to ride on the ‘ties’ instead of the roads at the time.

So after lunch at the Pass, it was time for another big descent, down to the small town of Como and the dry basin of South Park County.

Near the base of the Boreas Pass there is a sudden change in the landscape.  South Park County is a shallow, arid basin, with only a handful of people living there.  Everyone still argues over whether its the ‘real’ South Park.

The curious little town of Como, an old and fading coal mining center, is the first thing you meet at the base of the Boreas Pass.

From Como, I left the ‘official’ route to go west on the main road to the town of Fairplay, seemingly the only place between Como (where the one guesthouse had closed for the season) where I could stay or camp for about 60 miles.  It was a surprisingly hilly road, but quite easy riding. 

At first glance Fairplay seemed like a pretty grim place, with the usual sprawl of liquor stores and truck lube stations, but working my way to the south I found the original old Main Street was very well preserved and a really nice place to stay and visit.  I stayed in the Hand Hotel, which looked like it had hardly changed in a century (although thankfully, that didn’t include the shower, which was nice and hot).  The rooms didn’t even have a phone or TV, which all the customers seemed to think was ‘real cute’.  And it is.  Oh, and its allegedly haunted too, but I slept too soundly to notice.

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A few days in Salida

I’m really enjoying Salida – quite a few people have said its maybe the nicest town on the route, and I’m inclined to agree.  While Steamboat and Breckenridge are very nice, the whole ski thing can get a little too much – Salida’s saving grace may be that while its surrounded by beautiful mountains, and has some great mountain biking and rafting, it doesn’t have any ski slopes.  So there are fewer upmarket restaurants and pretentious shops, and even fewer monsterously oversized second homes owned by rich ski fans.  Its just a very nice town with a very good vibe.

In some ways it reminds me a little of Butte, or a Butte that didn’t fade away with the price of copper.  Maybe its the solid brick buildings of the town center – even the nice towns elsewhere i’ve seen here have an air of temporariness, as if nobody was quite sure they were settling for good. 

I hired a very nice mountain bike (a Specialized Stumpjumper) and I’ve been riding the local trails.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t ride the most famous high altitude trails here because they are snowed out, and the shuttles stopped running last week.  So I can only ride those within easy cycling distance – which is essentially the Arkansas Hill trails.  The locals consider them ‘beginners’ trails, but they are fine for me! 

As you can see from the pictures, in coming over the final pass, I came into a very different climate zone.  The pines here are mostly bristlecone, and instead of sage, there is pinon and cacti.  Its the first sign that I’m approaching the high plains of New Mexico.  Even some of the buildings here are adobe style.  It also means I can ditch the bear spray I’ve been carrying for two months.  I just have to worry about rattlesnakes now! 

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Steamboat to Salida 13 Oct to 17th Oct (part 1)

After a relaxing and enjoyable six days in Steamboat, staying in the Rabbit Ears Motel, I set off south through some lovely farmland, before the road turned to dirt yet again and rose up into the uplands towards Lynx Pass, some 50 miles from the town.  I was riding alone again, Eric had ridden on a few days earlier.

I arrived at Stagecoach State Park to find that the dam on the reservoir was being rebuilt, necessitating an 8 mile detour all the way around the lake.  The lake is heavily used for recreation, with numerous camping sites and picnic areas.  On such a lovely day it seems strange to see them all empty, but this is the quiet season in this area – most camping sites have long closed.

From there the climbing up to Lynx Pass commenced in earnest.  The rest in Steamboat must have done me some good as I found it relatively easy.  It helps when the weather is so lovely.

It feels more like winter up past 8,000 foot, as the Aspens have lost all their leaves.

I got to the Lynx Pass camping site just past the high point to find an unpleasant surprise.  It was closed due to forestry works – they were actually cutting trees within the campground.  But it was 5pm, and not enough light to be sure to get to the next campground (at least 15 miles away) before dark, so I camped there anyway.  It is a lovely campground, very peaceful, but after setting up my tent I found that the water pump was broken – so I didn’t have enough water for cooking.

The morning was cold and frosty but very beautiful.  I set off on a gentle downhill on a roundabout route to Kremmling.

I came to a ford which the maps said might only be impassible in the Spring.  But it sure looked deep to me.

A quick walk around revealed why it was so deep.  A beaver had built a dam just below the road!

The scrub was too dense to bring my bike downriver, so I had to go upriver to find a suitable ford.  Inevitably, I ended up with very cold and wet feet.

So I set off with the sun on my face and ice in my boots towards Gore Pass.

The ‘official’ route included what was promised to be a very beautiful downhill and climb into a Canyon on the Colorado River.  But on something of a whim, encouraged by my lack of a cooked dinner the night before, or breakfast (basically, I was surviving on nuts and Clif Bars), I decided to hop on the road to take the much easier road over Gore Pass and the highway across to Kremmling.  After just 2 miles of steep climbing, it was essentially 20 miles or so of descending on smooth highway.

I made it to Kremmling and instantly regretted taking the fast route.  Its not exactly the most interesting place to spend the last few hours of daylight on a lovely day.  Not horrible, but nothing much of interest either.  I stayed in what proved to be a very overpriced Inn, and planned the next days ride.

The ‘official’ Divide route goes on higher roads over Ute Pass, before dropping down to the main road again into Silverthorne.  I was anxious to get some distance and that seemed too much of a detour when the main road was just 39 miles or so, and is part of another well known cycle route, the Transamerica Trail.  I set off, and for the second day in a row, regretted taking the ‘easy’ option.  The road is narrow and busy, and not a pleasant cycle.

But some of the scenery was very beautiful, and again, I was blessed with a lovely day.

And there were some interesting businesses along the way – how did they persuade the authorities to let them put this sign up?

Anyway, I soon got to Silverthorne.  I had intended to stay there, but as I got there so quick I decided to press on to the higher ski resort town of Breckenridge, 16 miles (and about 1000 foot) further on.

I was glad I did – Silverthorne seemed a little uninteresting, but it was a beautiful ride up to Breckenridge.  There was a near continuous cycle path – a beautifully designed one – almost the entire distance, a really great ride and I met lots of riders on the way.  The path started on the Dillon Reservoir (which provides most of the water for Denver), and continued up through Frisco, and into the very well preserved town centre of Breckenbridge.

Breckenridge is notoriously expensive, but it is off season and I found a very nice and reasonable place, the Fireside Inn, a B&B and hostel, run by an English couple.  I was tempted to stay a day or two, but the forecast was for bad weather to arrive in three days time, so I was under pressure to keep going if I was to make Salida.

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