Monday September 15, 2014, 63 miles (102 km) – Total so far: 5,280 miles (8,498 km)
I know the road. More or less. The curves, the climbs and the descents are all there in the back of my head somewhere. I rode this route to finish off my 2010 tour. I spent many hours playing in the Poudre Canyon during my years at Colorado State. I’ve been through Walden and North Park on trips to Steamboat Springs. The memories are all in there somewhere. Some have stayed fresh, as if a particular trip was only a few weeks ago. Other memories do not surface easily. They exist somewhat foggily, a moment here and there from an entire adventure clings to the surface of thought. The other moments drift away. They are held down and swamped by the many adventures and experiences I’ve encountered between then and now.
We are heading down to Fort Collins to see my friend, Jenny. She joined us for a week or so on our 2010 and 2013 tours, but she couldn’t come this year. I didn’t want to miss her on a trip to the US and Colorado, so I thought it made sense to just drop down to see her on our way south. I’ve coordinated an arrival date with her via email in the past few weeks. The guys and I are not due in Fort Collins until tomorrow, so the idea is to have an easy day today and camp somewhere in the canyon.
The road out of Walden sticks to the tops of the sagebrush benches for the most part. On occasion, we dip down and climb back out of a drainage to regain a bench. Even though the western slopes of the mountains are still in shadow, and the sun glare creates a hazy picture, we can still see big swaths of brilliantly gold aspen splayed out along the slopes. Further along, as we enter forests alongside the road which have been hit hard by the pine beetle outbreaks, we pass stunning stands of gold-leaved aspen right beside the road. It is a bit of a surprise to me, since none of the aspen had begun to change yet just up the road in Wyoming.
The Never Summer Range, and its rocky, barren peaks, commands the view as the road begins its gentle climb. Soon we round the corner at Gould and turn more easterly under tall peaks and grassy meadows interspersed with thick forest decimated by the pine beetle. We start into the climb to the pass and quickly ascend from creek level to slopes several hundred feet above. I’m feeling a bit odd this morning. It progresses to really odd. Then, the sharp pangs in my gut coincide with chills which reach to the top of my hand and make my head feel tingly. I’m cold and clammy. Yes, I know, my blood sugar has dropped really low. I stop at the gate to a Forest Service road and gently lower myself to the ground next to my food pannier. Maybe I didn’t eat enough the past couple days, because I’ve had the standard amount and schedule of food this morning. Obviously it wasn’t enough. So I shovel in some food and some fast-acting gummy fruit candy, and sit there and let the world settle back down again from its spin.
We head on up the pass. It is an incredibly short and shallow climb from the west – the grade never exceeds five percent; most of the time it is probably only three percent. The road follows a valley beneath craggy rock walls on the left. To the right, treeless peaks rise above the lower, forested slopes. The scenery is on a grand scale that I’ve not seen too much of on this tour. We continue upward beneath steep roadcuts where pebbles and fist-sized rocks succumb to gravity and slip down the slope as we ride by. The scraping and rolling sound does not really encourage you to stop. Then the road curves up and out of the valley and the climb is nearly finished. A short, flat section of meadows and puddles draws us up to the sign for Cameron Pass.
Then it’s down, down, down. Most of the 60-some miles into Fort Collins is downhill. It is steep and fast at the top as you descend through lots of dead pine with views right out over to the foothills at the edge of the plains. The gradient backs off after you pass by a large reservoir, but it is still a long, glorious down. The canyon narrows and the road passes underneath incredibly tall and rocky walls. In the distance, the aspen colour the hillsides gold in between the patches of grey, dead pines and green survivors. There is little traffic today, so there’s plenty of time to swivel my head and have a look around.
I suppose when I lived in Fort Collins I came to take the Cache La Poudre Canyon for granted. It is a designated National Wild and Scenic River. Highway 14 through the canyon is a scenic byway. But during my years in Fort Collins, the Poudre was just a playground, and I guess you start to take for granted the beauty and the spectacular scenery. I didn’t remember it being so narrow, vertical and craggy in the upper reaches. I think about all the valleys I rode through in Montana and how very few of them could come close to matching this scenery. I think it is because the Montanan valleys are wider and more rounded because of glaciation. They also sit at a lower elevation. Here, the canyon is stream-carved, rocky and narrow, and it feels mountainous rather than like a low area surrounded by hills. Whatever the case, it’s a good cruise today!
I stop a few times to let the guys take in the views by the water. I have plans to stop in Rustic to get a feed at the bar there. They are supposed to be open Friday-Monday on fall hours, but when I get there, it is all closed-up. They’ve already gone to winter hours. How disappointing! I was looking forward to a hot meal. I still haven’t celebrated my 5,000 mile-mark in any way. But it won’t be happening today.
So we coast on down to Kelly Flats Campground and pull in there for the night. I know the fire-affected parts of the canyon start just below here, so this is a good spot for the night. It is mid-afternoon, and the guys and I have plenty of time for a short hike through the last of the season’s wildflowers and a whole bunch of post-fire weeds. The fire trickled fingers of flame down the hillsides here, but much of the damage is light and did not scorch the canopy.
I also have a chat with the camphosts. They are originally from Greeley and their daughters live in Denver. They come up here for the summer and head to Arizona for the winter. The campground closes for the season this coming Sunday. They invite me over for dinner, but I just want to enjoy the quiet of the off-season campground (the Poudre Canyon is absolutely nutso in summer), so I decline.
The quiet of the canyon, and the nearly empty campground, are pretty stark reminders that summer has finished and everyone has gone back to the grind. I’m drawing out the summer, but not for much longer. The feeling of ‘ending’ grows more each day. Where I used to seek out shade, now I look for campsites that will stay in the sun the longest in the evening but also see the first rays of sun at dawn. When I lived in Fort Collins, I loved autumn. It was always a period of beginnings – new classes, new people at work, new people to take out riding. But now, twenty years later, this autumn heralds the end of another tour and another amazing summer on the road. I have trouble believing it’s been twenty years since I first moved to Fort Collins. I have trouble believing it’s almost been four months since I started this ride. Time seems to slip away more quickly than I can pedal. I realize its preciousness and hold it dear. As I settle in to the sleeping bag, my thoughts make me think of the quote by Thoreau: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”