Thursday September 25, 2014, 55 miles (88 km) – Total so far: 5,488 miles (8,831 km)
The touring season is coming to a close. The longer you ride into September and October in the Colorado mountains, the more likely you are to encounter periods of snow and cold temperatures. The upside of September and October, however, is that there are periods of stable, clear and warm weather between cold fronts. Those days are glorious. And I’m in the middle of a string of them. The downside to September and October, though, is the mornings are cold, regardless. This morning reinforces this anecdote. When I crawl out of the warmth of my bag, I immediately shiver. There is frost on the tent, and wispy layers of moisture create a haze of cold, clamminess along the river.
The tent is so wet with condensation inside, and frost outside, that I decide my raincoat will work best to keep me from getting soaked while packing up. Then I trade my raincoat for my red warmie jacket before we head out. The sun is just peeking over a hill and through the haze as we head down the road to the highway.
Somewhere between day end and day beginning, the nuts and bolts on my left toe clip have disappeared. The plastic mold piece and the straps flop down to the road, and I have to improvise a solution. I stick the plastic prongs where the bolts go into the inside front of the pedal with all the strength my cold, arthritic fingers will muster. It makes the surface of the pedal uneven under my foot, but for now, it’s the best my frozen brain can devise. It seems to work okay.
We zip along through Byers Canyon in the shadow of early morning. The rocks walls rise high above, as the road, rail and river wind downstream. Once we pop out of the canyon, cross the river and climb onto the river’s northern benches, we encounter a bit of sun. But the radiant heat doesn’t do much for us. I am absolutely freezing this morning!
We travel through the wide valley of grasses and distant valley walls. We are mostly up on high benches above the river. Its course in the distance is defined by a weaving line of trees and thick sheets of fog. When we meet the river on occasion and plunge down into the mist and fog, the cold, damp and thick air feels like it might freeze upon us in a million tiny droplets. It’s so cold, Verne my reptile Commander, is in a torpor. He actually stops barking commands for once. So there are advantages to freezing your tootsies….
By the time I’m five miles out from Kremmling, my toes are numb, even though I’m wearing my wool socks. I stop at the gas station in town and purchase a hot chocolate. I take it outside and sit against the wall of the building in the sun – but there is just no warmth in the wall yet and no warmth from the sun’s rays. The chill in the air outweighs any radiant heat. Finally, I decide I really need to go inside somewhere to get warm. I’m shivering. A lot.
I see a coffee shop. A touring bike is parked out front. Inside, I get another hot chocolate and meet the touring cyclist. He’s a 20-something guy who rode across the Northern Tier with a friend. When she had to return to grad school, he headed south down the coast and has been working his way back toward Denver in a wiggly line. He flies out in a few days and thinks he wants to ride Trail Ridge Road. I encourage him to go for it since the weather should be good for the next few days. He is from Pittsburgh, and despite all the places he’s visited this summer, he still wants to return there to live. He likes the area and being close to his family and friends. We chat for about an hour while my body thaws.
The ride today is a backwards repeat of the route I rode in 2010, so my mind is not fully absorbed by new scenery and geology as we ride south of Kremmling on Highway 9. Instead, the ride gives me time to think about how much I love touring and the feelings of finiteness, connectedness, awe, strength and determination it provides. I think about how the routine of the road, at this point in a tour, means you can just ride and ride without worries about how your body will respond or about your level of fitness. All of your physical quirks are known. And you just live with them, or you’ve figured out ways around them. You get up each morning, and six hours later, you have pedalled some distance that most of society won’t ride in total in their adult lives. And all the miles add up to incomprehensible figures that drop the jaws of the strangers you meet. But it doesn’t seem incomprehensible to you. It’s just a whole bunch of days on the road, and a whole bunch of days where you can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else in the world but on your bike on that road beneath that sodden or sunny sky. It’s an existence beyond the confines of society. You can dip your toes in its normality as much as you like. Or you can skirt about the edges, retaining the freedom and fancy that are the envy of your friends and family who quietly wish they had your decisiveness and courage to take the time to do what they really wanted in life.
Touring reduces you to the simplest of needs. Yet it also provides you with landscapes, people and experiences so complex and grand that your heart and mind feel like they cannot expand quick enough to understand all the forms that beauty, change and challenge can possess. Touring pulls you out of whatever box you were living in and stretches you in so many ways that you will never find a way to fit back in that old box. Once your horizons have expanded underneath skies that stretch forever, you can never go back to what you were before. Touring doesn’t have to be life-changing, but there is no way to escape how it changes your perceptions of what is important in life… or reinforces what you held dear before you went away. I’ve never been able to imagine life without a bike, and now I can never imagine a life without 4-6 month tours somehow interspersed with periods of life more recognizable to most.
On the road today, the slopes are still alive with colour. The aspen groves climb the shale slopes beneath the rocky profile of the Gore Range. The aspens’ colour adds an extra dimension to the view. The peaks grow larger the further south we get, until we roll into Silverthorne among the tall peaks of Summit County. The mountains in Colorado are just so much grander than Montana. Sorry, Montana, I explored a considerable part of you, but I really do prefer Colorado. The elevation in the valleys, and the peaks which scrape the sky, just speak to my soul in ways your forested low mountains and lake-speckled valleys do not. Of course, I have developed this deep thing for Wyoming….
Silverthorne gives me my final chance for a Wendy’s baked potato with chili on this trip. So I take advantage of it, and pair it with a medium Frosty. Then I strike out on good deals at Pearl Izumi, Columbia, Golite and the sunglass shop. I am able to source my favourite lotion, however. Then we spend the rest of the afternoon admiring the peaks and the glorious, warm and sunny September weather. I try to soak it up the best I can. Tomorrow is likely my last day of the tour. My mom has been pressuring me subtly to get to Salida as quickly as possible… since about mid-August. When I speak to her on the phone today, she talks about me arriving tomorrow, like it’s just a short hop down the road from Silverthorne. In reality, it’s a 95-mile day with an 11,000 foot pass to climb. I tell her I will try, but it will really be up to the wind. Because, regardless of the miles you’ve ridden and the months on the road, the wind always has the last word.