Riding my bicycle across the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
Where’s Francis? Follow along daily on my map: https://share.garmin.com/FrancisDavis (ask me for password)
A (Slightly) Premature End
If I had known it would be the last day of riding I would have tried to enjoy it more. The 120 paved miles between Cuba, NM and Grants, NM marked the end of section five of the GDMBR, with just one last push to the border in front of me. Cursing my luck, I fought viciously against the gusting headwinds to keep control of my bike. I stopped only briefly to ponder the beauty that I was mentally hurtling past. I pulled my thin buff (neck gaiter) over my mouth, nose, and ears, fashioning a seal by tucking the fabric under my eyeglasses. The lack of peripheral vision was both physical and metaphorical. Looking back on the above photo, I see stillness that I don't remember, peace that I can only find in retrospect. After emerging barely victorious on the other side of a dust storm, dodging tumbleweeds, my resolve disintegrated as I vowed to hitch a ride the last 40 miles into Grants.
Emerging from the dust a white Nissan Frontier pulled onto the shoulder, a clear image of my defeat. Donning my N95 mask, I loaded my bike into the back and hopped in the cab. Leroy, an affable, middle-aged road engineer ferried me into the rest of the way.
I'd been riding on-and-off with two 30 year-olds, Andrew and Marcus, who were trying to complete just the New Mexico portion of the route. They were about 10 miles ahead of me. Leroy and I stopped to offer them a ride but they refused. They were showing more gumption than I had, in the moment. They insisted that they were going to camp that night and finish the remaining miles in the morning. Knowing that a 40-degree wintery mix storm was supposed to start at three or four AM, I didn't think their plan was airtight, but there was nothing more I could do to help them. Not conditions I would want to ride.
Sitting in my hotel room in Grants, showered and with a huge pizza on the way, I wished my traveling companions all the best. The room was profoundly quiet, I think my ears were fatigued from a day of intense wind. It felt quite similar to when I had dodged another weather-related bullet back in Lincoln, MT, nearly two months ago. Around 9:00, in near food-comatose and with a few episodes of Schitt's Creek watched, I received a call from Marcus. "We're coming in tonight", a garbled, tired voice exclaimed, to which I responded, "I'll be up for you guys - there's an extra bed in the room". I was mighty impressed when, at midnight, Marcus and Andrew knocked on the door, more haggard and windburned than I could even imagine, but I was mighty impressed with their perseverance.
The next days passed with quite literally nothing happening. Enthusiasm was low, plummeting every time we looked out the hotel room window at a snow-covered wasteland. We watched movies and ate junk food, hoping that our luck might change, but postponing any real planning, partially to let the weather subside, mostly to avoid reality.
The illusion couldn't sustain itself forever. After two days of lethargy, options to move forward were proposed: ride on the road 250 miles to Silver Springs, or wait for an unknown amount of time for the snow to melt and the surface beneath (a notoriously sticky-when-wet Adobe clay) to dry. I wasn't fond of either option, and neither were the other chaps. We made the decision to pull the plug, but it wasn't without pain. Make no mistake, I've got unfinished business in New Mexico, but better to come back another time on my terms. I booked a 6AM Greyhound to Albuquerque and a flight back to Bozeman (to pick up my car) for the day following. I bid the lads farewell as they were whisked off by Andrew's girlfriend, who had driven from her house in Moab, Utah. I slept well that night, trying not to let myself be too disappointed by the poor ending. It's certainly cliché, but that was one hell of a ride.
Thursday 10/15 Journal
The last few days have been hard. Mostly due to the wind - forecasted 30mph gusts blowing east just as I was heading west. The fully loaded bike is in essence one big sail. The ride from Salida all the way through Sargents was like this, slowing my pace to a crawl. But this test had its rewards as I turned back eastwards and climbed into the Gunnison and San Isabel National Forests.
Today was particularly beautiful. Difficult, too, as I had miles to make up because of the wind. In 60 miles of riding and 5,000ft of climbing, the scenery completely changed. In the morning, undulating, expansive, barren hills complemented with distant mesas and a road to cut right through it all made for a rewarding ride.
In San Isabel, the climb up and over Cochetopa Pass put me back into the forest, but with soft, craggy cliffs poking up in the distance. It was approaching sunset as I neared the top of the climb, full steam ahead to try and salvage any last semblance of daylight at the campsite a few miles ahead. The last morsels of the setting sun floated right ahead of me as the entire air took on a pinkish hue. Amplified by my slightly yellow photochromic lenses the top-out was surreal.
That night I was cold and tired, devouring a mushroom, beef, and noodle stew freeze dried meal and some hot chocolate for good measure. The wind came strong off the nearby mountain until the early morning, leaves dancing outside my tent. With all the miles, however, I slept relatively well considering that I had to wake up a few times to blow more air into my sleeping pad.
This morning, Friday, was an absolute non-starter as far as the temperature was concerned. Fortunately, the air was still at first light, about 6:30, but the sun would not make an appearance for hours to come. I packed as quickly as I could, guzzling coffee and instant oatmeal, for I knew that on the other side of a 14 mile, 2,800ft descent was a breakfast spot in the “town” of La Garita.
Typically, I’m fond of long descents, but not when it’s that cold. I conducted frequent audits of heat zones in my body, wearing nearly every layer I had with me, torso - warm, arms - warm, legs - warm, fingers - barely passable, feet - cinder blocks. That was my reality until I made it into the desert valley where the sun hit in full. At the La Garita Trading Post, a hot cup of coffee, grasped Wings of Desire style, felt all the better after a chilly ride.
Tuesday 10/6 Journal
I fell out of my rhythm today. Sleeping in after having spent a little too long on Netflix last night, I hurriedly packed up my belongings from the AirBnB room, said goodbye to my hosts, and turned for downtown Steamboat Springs.
Breakfast this morning was truly memorable. I’m making a note here to return if (when) I am back in Steamboat. Creekside Cafe, menu item called “wafflelaughagus”: a malted waffle with two over easy eggs, sausage gravy, sausage patty, home fries, and hot sauce. I must admit that the addition of the waffle was perplexing but delicious!
I let some amount of the afternoon drift away sipping cappuccinos and writing, updating social media, and starting to look at my exit strategy for this route, assuming the weather grants me safe passage all the way to the Mexican border. As of today, it’s been 38 days on the road with 1,384 miles under the belt. I find it odd because I am not particularly staggered by these numbers. (With the exception of today) I think that I have fairly well assimilated to this sojourner’s lifestyle and habitude.
The downside of all this time spent in downtown was facing the reality that 40 miles and 4,000 ft of climbing was not realistic to complete starting at 3:00 in the afternoon.
That was no large matter as I’ve found and am staying at a state park just 20 miles outside of Steamboat. I’m confident that I’ll be able to roll those extra 20 in tomorrow as I climb towards the town of Kremmling. I spent some time this evening looking at the next 900 miles or so of route. My takeaway: Colorado until Salida (the end of section four out of six of my maps) will be an absolute fairyland with ski towns, sizable towns, even an REI (in Dillon). Looking to southern Colorado and into New Mexico the story, at least on paper, could not be more different.
With plenty of high altitude terrain to cover, civilization will be sparse. Additionally, it would seem that my last remaining riding partner, Zack, is peeling off in a few days to head towards Denver. That’s fine. I’ll have to be strategic with food, and I have a feeling that I may be almost wholly trading my freeze dried meals for whatever can be scrounged at the crossroads convenience stores. I think this will be the testing grounds of the trip, in a good way. I am looking forward to enjoying all the creature comforts that Colorado has to offer while becoming equally excited to plunge back into the wilderness (northern Montana style) with days of uninterrupted wilderness and certainly lots of stars.
Monday 10/5 Journal
The yellowing aspens are a sight for sore eyes after covering all of southern Wyoming’s arid, windswept sagebrush country. The last couple days through Wyoming saw me cover the Red Desert and Great Divide Basin, a unique geographical aspect of the hydrographic U.S. continental divide. To the layperson (i.e. me), rainwater collects into this basin instead of flowing east or west. That said, it is particularly dry and quite desolate.
It was an absolute blast to be able to roll quickly through the high (about 7,000 ft) elevation desert on sandy and hard-packed gravel roads. Many antelope and one herd of wild horses were interrupted by my movement. I enjoyed watching my shadow grow long in the evening time as the low sun’s rays stretched all the way across the desert in the absence of shade.
Colorado reminded me that it is fall. Tonight I am in Steamboat Springs having reunited with a riding partner who I hadn’t seen in a couple weeks. With a belly full of Greek food I’m quite content. Happy also, to have a shower and a bed (AirBnB) since it’s been about a week since I’ve last enjoyed either of those luxuries from more civilized society.
Last night was particularly interesting. My 5,500ft of vertical gain for the day culminated in a 1.5 mile hike-a-bike over loamy, rocky trail. This slowed my pace to a crawl, which I wasn’t upset about inherently. But it was getting late, I was running out of water, and looking for a place to camp. Fortunately I found a small creek and a hill with just enough of a flat spot to set up a ground tarp, pad, and sleeping bag (it’s been warm enough to camp al fresco the last few nights as it’s not been dewing or frosting and the temps have been mild).
It went dark quickly as I rushed through the evening time motions: heating water for freeze dried food, changing into warmer clothing, stowing my victuals so as not to have a bear visit, etc.... The calm water anchored the evening as the sun went down and the sky filled with stars. It was particularly clear at 9,600ft (perhaps too high for the residual smoke) and without any light pollution in the middle of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. That all made for particularly nice conditions as I nestled into my sleeping bag for the night, and realizing that I am just ever so slightly past the halfway point in distance for this voyage, it was time to savor.