When all else fails… – Day 1

Salida to Houselog Creek (FR 690): Like old times… without the fitness

Tuesday August 8, 2017, 65 miles (105 km) – Total so far: 65 miles (105 km)

There was rain overnight. The ground moisture has risen in the still air and fog envelopes the Arkansas River Valley. It is not quite dawn, but it’s beyond first light. It is clear here, but the mountains appear and disappear as the clouds dance up and down the valley below the Sawatch Range.

My parents rise early to see me off. They have confidence in me all these touring miles later, but there is still some trepidation since they are parents, and parents never ever stop being parents. I load up the last of the gear and my dad photographs me leaving the driveway of their home. Their home has spectacular views and my parents never get tired of showing off the beauty.

Heading out of my parents’ driveway at 6.30am. Sawatch Range in the background.

And then we are off – our first few miles all downhill to the river. The grey of early dawn is accentuated by the grey of the foggy clouds dispersing. The sky is clear to the north of Mt Ouray and the huge orb of a full moon is just about to set. The beauty burns through that fog, and I am so happy to be out pedaling for a few days once again. It’s been a really crappy few months, and I need the bike like I need oxygen right now.

Full moon about to set near Mt Ouray – at the junction of CR156 and Hwy 291.

We cross over the river and climb up to the mesa. It’s a gentle uphill ride toward Poncha Springs. I stay up on the mesa on a bike path that heads out past Elevation Brewery, instead of dropping down to Hwy 50. It’s quiet up here, the path is smooth and there isn’t all of the shoulder debris that feature on Hwy 50.

Soon enough we head south on Hwy 285 and up into the valley that leads to Poncha Pass. I rode this fully-loaded toward the end of a 4-month tour in 2013. In 2013 and 2014, at the end of those tours, I would ride this most mornings unloaded just to get the fun of the speedy descent back to town.
But today, I’m not at the end of a tour. I haven’t even been on the bike more than 100 miles in the past three months. So I am not fit. And I am not used to carrying a load. So I’m slow. And the ride is not nearly as effortless as all the times past. However, this is the easiest pass of the trip, so get your butt up there, Em, and enjoy the easy grades and the good pavement while they last.

As always, there is a headwind up the canyon until the Marshall Pass turn-off. The road twists and curves and ever-so-gently climbs. There is plenty of traffic out – even though it is early. I have been amazed at how crazy and crowded the roads have been in Colorado this summer when I’ve been driving around. It is exponentially busier than just a few years ago. Even my parents have made the same comment.

Heading up Poncha Pass below the turnoff to Marshall Pass.

Normally the headwind diminishes after Mears Junction, but today the wind actually increases. Thank you. It makes me feel even more unfit. But it is still an easy climb as far as a pass goes, so we just keep on pedaling. I do overnight and three-day rides a lot back in Australia, so a loaded bike never feels too unfamiliar. My muscles might protest, but they know what to do.

Soon enough, we reach the top. The forecast is for showers today, and it doesn’t look all that great looking down into the San Luis Valley. There are low, swirling and dark clouds congregating on the Sangre de Cristo Range. It is an ominous atmosphere. It is one you might expect in the afternoon during monsoon season, but that much moisture at 8am does not bode well for later.

Looking southeast from Poncha Pass. The clouds are very brooding and scuddy today.
I’ve ridden this pass loaded once in 2013 and many times unloaded. Lack of fitness today means it wasn’t as zippy as in times past. It is still a very easy pass, though.

We fly down off the pass for a short bit, then there are gentle hills all the way down to Villa Grove. There is no good descent on this side. Still, it is a gorgeous view with the abrupt rise of the Sangres on a normal fault to the left, the lumpy hills and reaching ridges of the San Juan volcanics (one of the more recent calderas centered around Bonanza just over there) to the right, and the wide, flat expanse of the huge rift valley ahead coming into view. There’s three different exciting geological stories all unfolding in that view.

I stop for snacks in Villa Grove. I love the first snack stop on a tour. You’ve got your choice of goodies and most things have not been crushed into tiny pieces or crumbly powder. I snack on trail mix and some fruit gummies. I watch the traffic passing through and a man on the opposite side of the road unloading lumber for a building renovation project. This is a really sad little cluster of buildings that is all once-was, except for the pottery place, so I wonder what he’s working on. I don’t go over to ask, though. Mysteries remain.

There is really not much to Villa Grove. The coffee shop was not open. I wonder what constitutes an “outrageous card”.

We push on toward Saguache. There are building cumulus clouds to the west, low, scuddy swirling ones thronging the Sangres to the east. It’s not a good day for a great view of that range. We lose some of the traffic at the 17/285 split, but there is still a lot more along here than when Jen and I rode this at a similar time of year in 2013. The wind is a quartering headwind, but the shoulder is huge. All of those lumpy San Juan volcanics keep me interested in the landscape though, so the miles tick by without too much work. I am also amazed at the evidence of some recent flooding near the roadside and try to imagine what rainfall rate would create that much water for such a distance. It’s all gone now, but it would have been a sight to see when it was roaring through the road-side ditches and swirling around the fences at the bottom of the gullies.

I stop for some turkey and a choc milk in Saguache. It’s a quirky little town, but I like it. Today it is a good place to stop for lunch and a break. The town park is on 285. There are benches, a toilet and water accessible. Today there are plenty of families at the playground and a few rumbles of thunder that have me reaching for my phone to check out the radar.

It’s not so good when there are already storms at only 11am. But it has been a very active monsoon season this year, so it is not unexpected. The storms look like they are moving to the south, but it does prompt me not to linger too long, so that I may get as far as possible before getting wet today. There are more storms building to the west. Oh, my legs are really not too happy, nor is my butt, and they would love a longer break. But on we go.

Finally, we are to a new road. I had hoped to come this way in 2013, instead of riding Monarch Pass a second time in a week (really, you don’t ever need to ride that one – it’s too busy to be fun). But that year, Jen needed to back to town a day earlier than I’d hoped, so we didn’t have time to come this way instead. So that means today we have a new road.

Heading northwest out of Saguache on Hwy 119.

Traffic is pretty light and the road surface good. There are long views up the long, wide valley. We are passing between various piles of volcanics that lump into hills on either side of the road. There are lava flows and ashfall from various periods of volcanic activity around 30 million years ago. The San Juan volcanic field is one of the largest on the continent. Erosion complicates the story, and sometimes you need to get down to rock chemistry to know which caldera the rocks originated from, but it is still exciting to think about all that energy and what the landscape might have looked like back then.

More of Hwy 119 north of Saguache.

Back in the present, there are storms and dark skies to the left. I’m pedaling pretty hard and happy for the quartering tailwind. We get all the way to the westward bend in the road before we start fearing precipitation. The wind is much more squirrely now, and there are really dark swaths of sky to the northwest. There are darker patches in the area I’m hoping to camp for the night, too. It is not “if” I’m going to get wet, but “when”.

On we go through that valley with basalt-topped lava flows to the right and heaped lumps of eroded hills to the left. I put the crew away in a pannier and put on my pannier covers. Not long after, we get hit with squally rain and winds which lasts for about a mile. Then the sun returns. The dark swaths of sky seem darker against that brilliant light. The area I’m heading looks okay for now but in the path of more storms soon. Let’s get a move on!

I head up a gravel county road. My plan is to ride up into the national forest to camp for the night. It’s all private land down along the rivers and creeks. The gravel is quite corrugated but we pedal our way up between lava flows and capped ridges. It’s actually quite pretty. But my legs are totally done, the road surface is poor and a bit uphill, and the storms are moving faster than me. So maybe some of the beauty is lost on me today. However, we’ll get a second chance for appreciation as I plan to come this way on the return loop in a few days.

I make it to the forest boundary about 2.5 miles from the main highway. Just inside the boundary is an open area. It’s obvious people camp here (and probably park their trailers for snowmobiling in winter). It’s quite exposed BUT there is a creek joining the main drainage and there is a path heading upward trampled down by cattle. I follow up this for a little bit, until I find a nice flat spot big enough for the tent among the trees. It’s a bit closer to the creek than Leave No Trace would recommend, but I’m not going to shit or pee anywhere close, and it’s obvious many herds of cattle have done just that anyway, so I set up my gear. I have to move a few logs and bend a few branches back behind others to make the space, but it’s a great little spot.

My perfect kind of campsite – quiet, no one around, near water and just some random spot in the forest.

I get everything set up before the next round of rain, and the guys are ecstatic about being so close to habitat. It’s a great ending to the day. I love nothing more than camping all alone in some random spot in the forest near water. I already feel so much better mentally – the bike is just an amazing mood transporter. That magic is how my bike got the name The Wizard so many years ago.

Three bumps on a log. Day one done.

It’s been a great day. Oh, everything hurts, like…. everything. It was not a zippy, easy ride. We are not in the groove just yet. But this is what I love to do, and what I would do for the rest of my life, if finances and health permitted, so I am so grateful to be out here, fit or unfit, rain-soaked or sun-burned. More new roads tomorrow… now it’s time for a few Sudoku puzzles and a hike to the top of the ridge for sunset-viewing. Good evening.

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