Houselog Creek to Monte Vista: Rough and tough
Saturday August 12, 2017, 55 miles (89 km) – Total so far: 281 miles (453 km)
I cannot pry myself out of bed for an early morning start today either. I try, but two hours of meteor viewing between 1 and 3 am last night after I got up to pee means 5.15am is not happening today. I think of all those many, many mornings in Wyoming when I crawled out of the sleeping bag at 4.45am or earlier. I don’t recall it even being that hard after a while. I guess I’m just all run down and don’t have the mental discipline on this little ride.
However, I’m still on the road at 7.15am. The gravel surface is okay, but this road is not in nearly as good of condition as County Road 27 out of Powderhorn, FR788, or the road over Cochetopa Pass yesterday.
The climb commences immediately but gently. We roll up between tuff-capped ridges with open and low vegetation of grass and sage. The road meanders with the creek in the tight valley until we get into an open park-like meadow. Further along, the valley closes in again and the climbing is steeper. We climb up into aspen, pines and firs. Then the valley opens again and the climbing backs off as we enter another park-like meadow. We do this over and over. Steeper climbing through the narrow valley with rock walls fairly close on either side, then gentler climbing through wide, park-like meadows.
I pass one huge group of campers at the turn-off for the South Park area. They’re stoking two different campfires and have a mess of various-aged kids and every type of ATV, ORV, dirt bike and RV camper imaginable. Three BIG dogs bark like crazy as I slowly pedal by. I’m not sure if it feels like The Simpsons or Deliverance or a little bit of both. Further along, I meet a dad, son and mom on 4-wheeler ATVs. The dad doesn’t wave or anything but the mom does exuberantly. They were polite and slowed and moved way over for me. Along the way, I also see two different pick-ups, with two different levels of courtesy. But those are the only vehicles I’ll see until I get down to the county road. It pays to be early on a weekend.
As I ride, I think more about my remaining days in America. I agonized for so long over the decision to move back, then I did a respectable job of making the break and saying goodbye to my life in Oz. It was the most difficult and awful thing I had to do to say goodbye to Nigel and get on the plane. But I did it and I was ready to move forward. I put in many applications to various professional jobs. I visited several towns that pre-trip research indicated might have a slightly lower cost of living and decent amount of work available. I had friends from all stages of my life circulating my resume and sending me tips, links and ideas. I did social media. I personally met with people at Chambers of Commerce and in every place I went. I did everything I could to try to build a life.
But I failed. Completely. Oh, jobs are easy enough to come by in America. But jobs that pay enough to survive are not. I couldn’t believe I interviewed for a state-level government job in Boise whose upper pay-range was just $14 per hour. Ridiculous. You need a minimum of $16 to just survive in that town, $18 if you needed to cover occasional issues over and above hand-to-mouth survival, like car repairs or health deductibles. It was the same story everywhere I went: ridiculously low wages, ridiculously high health insurance costs and unaffordable housing. Then, the real kicker was that no one was willing to rent to me because I did not have local references and any US credit history. I have an excellent credit score in Oz and could show all the mortgage statements from the house at Jindera, but still – nothing.
So now I get to do it all in reverse. Break my parents’ hearts after they had gotten their hopes up of having me so much closer. Break my heart that I couldn’t come through for them and be established in America before they start needing assistance. I’m not sure how much emotional turmoil and big decision-making a person can do in a year before they just want to crawl in a hole and stay there for a while. But I can tell you, I am ready to get off the emotional rollercoaster and have a stable life for the first time in a long time. I feel like I’ve aged 10 years in the past 12 months!
So how do I go back home after I put in all the hard yards to leave? Thankfully, I’ve burned no bridges, but I never considered that I would fail and would have to return. Ugh. I’ve always been a high-achieving, goal-setting, persistent sort of person, and I am not used to failure. But I’ve certainly done a whole lot of failing in the past year!
The miles go by as I decide that I’ll just do this reverse decision like I’ve done everything else: just do it and find a way through. By the time I’ve convinced myself for today that everything is going to be okay, I’m to the final climb to the pass. We enter a bunch of trees and beetle kill and the crappy road cranks it up just a bit. There are a few curves and we start to feel pretty high in the landscape. Then we round the corner and there we are. This climb wasn’t overly scenic and the geology wasn’t as interesting as the calderas, but I still love a climb.
I finally catch the owners of the bike tire tracks I’ve been following since the Dome Lakes area yesterday. A father and son with mountain bike bikepacking set-ups are sitting in the shade eating breakfast. After the pass sign photos, I go over for a chat. They are from Durango and were doing the Great Divide Route back home from Steamboat. But, they decided to take a more scenic route down the Colorado Trail after Marshall Pass. This was a mistake. Of the 18 miles, 15 were hike-a-bike, and the son totally blew out his shoe in the process. So they are now making their way to Del Norte to be picked up by their wife/mom tomorrow. They are low on food but are happy to hear that La Garita has a general store that I think should be open on a Saturday. I don’t really have any food to spare for them, and I totally forget that I carry a small roll of electrical tape that might have helped with the shoe. Doh!
I take off from the pass before the father/son and bomb down through forest and more open meadows. This road is really rough and rocky in places and not-so-great overall. The scenery is pleasant but not as grand as the past two days. I would go back to ride the other ones again with friends, but I wouldn’t do this one again – it’s the least scenic with the worst road.
I aim and weave and roll fast – faster than I probably should… I get air off one rock, no kidding. Just after I fly over a cattle guard, I come up to another couple (M/F) on loaded-down mountain bikes (expedition bikepacker style). They flag me down to chat. They are doing the whole Great Divide Route south to north. I don’t know their speed or daily distance, but an August start in the south seems like it would be pretty darn cold a lot of nights toward the end of their ride! They are heading for the Dome Lakes Reservoir today – I assure them they’ll have no trouble making that (since I came through there yesterday and the distance is easy and the road mostly good after they get off this one). They are enthusiastic and have studied those Adventure Cycling maps down to the tiniest detail. I give them all the info I have for where I’ve overlapped their route, then I’m heading on down the hill again.
Once I pop out of the forest, I encounter a bit more traffic on the county road. It is wide, but it is not in great shape either. There are some really interesting dykes and fire scars to keep my mind off the vibrating and bouncing, though.
Just as I’m ready to head off after a snack and sunscreen break, the father/son guys pass me. I let them get a bit ahead before I start off again, but our speed differential means they always stay in view. They turn off and head up to the church at La Garita (it’s an impressive old Catholic one) while I pass by and head to the general store. The folks that run the place are very friendly and ask if I’m eating a meal. I tell them “No, I’m just here for a drink” but feel bad that I’m not contributing more. They ask me to sign their cyclist book. I tell them I’m just out for a week-long ride and that I’m not doing any big route, but they still want me to sign in. They just fed a very hungry group of British Air Force guys who are southbound. So, if you are ever this way, hit up the general store in La Garita. They really look after the passing cyclists.
The father/son duo roll in. They thought the store was up the church road. I laugh and say, “Oh, I just thought you were going out to the church and art centre to be all cultural. But good news for you, there is everything you could ever want inside. They’ve got full meals.” The hungry guys are happy to hear this and disappear inside. After emails and updates to let everyone know I’ve made it out of the forest, I disappear, too, only I disappear on down the road toward the center of the San Luis Valley.
There’s a couple things you should know about the San Luis Valley:
1) It’s pretty huge (125 miles long and 65 wide – larger than the state of Delawarej) and pretty deep (6-8,000 feet of sediments).
2) It’s a rift valley – a place where the lithosphere stretches and thins which in turn creates basins like this valley.
I ride out into the middle of the valley and think about scale and timelines. The northern part of the valley is a closed basin, the southern part drains to the Rio Grande. There’s plenty of somewhat salty artesian water that they’ve done lots of engineering and irrigating to use. You have to really want to grow stuff in a cool, high altitude desert with a short growing season and less than 8 inches of precipitation a year. There are all sorts of crops grown down here (mostly potatoes, barley and alfalfa, but also corn, lettuce, carrots and canola) and a huge workforce of Hispanic workers that tend them.
I cruise down through the valley on a paved county road. The one thing that really, really sucks about riding in the San Luis Valley are the bazillions of frost heave cracks every 10 or 15 feet. If you’ve ridden or driven to the Great Sand Dunes from the Hwy 17 turnoff past San Luis State Park, you will know what I mean. It’s not just that road, though – it’s a lot of them. It is a sometimes painful and all the time jarring ride. Thunk, cruise, thunk, cruise, thunk, cruise…. In a valley that is stretching apart (about 1.5 mm a year, mind you), the roads pull apart in a very annoying way, too.
Aside from that, it’s a long, flat ride down valley. I’ve got the typical southerly headwind happening, and I’m watching storms build over the San Juans. I’m also watching all the valley inhabitants out and about on their Saturday.
I stop in Center for a snack and a drink from a gas station. The San Luis Valley is a very poor economic area, and most of the population here in town are farm workers. There are dilapidated trailers, run-down homes, a large social housing complex that seems fairly new and a huge new school and community center. There are three Mexican restaurants, a bank and two gas stations. The gas station is busy with people coming and going, the agricultural worker bus filling up with gas, people hanging out and eating inside, younger folks cruising around in their cars, and a couple of guys that speed off on motorcycles and return 15 minutes later. As a white chick, I’m definitely in the minority for once.
As I sit there eating a slice of pizza and drinking a rootbeer (go ahead and judge, I’ve been eating cold stuff from the panniers for several days), I enjoy the people-watching. One thing is a bit disturbing, though. A couple of twenty-something, trashy white guys arrive in a mini-van and proceed to clean and vacuum out the vehicle in a way that makes me think they are trying to destroy, hide or otherwise suck away evidence of bad things. It is sooo creepy, and I’m not the type to get creeped out by much.
Onward. I thunk my way on down the valley and then turn back to Hwy 285 to cross over the Rio Grande River and into Monte Vista. I am hoping for a motel room, a hot shower and some hot food. The motel rooms in Alamosa, and the Best Western in this town, are all $100 or more a night. But the old motel on the corner of 285 and 160 has rooms for $70 with tax. It means I get a room… just. There are only two rooms left.
Never mind that the rooms are ancient, the carpet and mattress definitely need replaced, and ‘wildlife-themed’ means a jarring jumble of cabin, fishing, animal and hunting prints and patterns all in one tiny room. There are soooo many elk in the room – there are even four different floor mats with cabin and wildlife themes. But just never mind all that. It’s relatively cheap. The owner is nice. The shower is hot (most of the time – there was one chilling 20 seconds of cold water in the middle) and comes from a showerhead instead of a bucket. The fridge is big. There is a microwave. I never hear anyone in the other rooms. It is clean-ish. Mostly. And, it keeps me out of the thunderstorms in the afternoon.
I think for a bit about the rest of the tour. Originally, I had planned to turn north on a gravel road off of La Veta Pass to check out some geology, then head through Gardner, back down through La Veta and then over toward Trinidad on some gravel roads I haven’t ridden before. Then I was to meet my parents in Trinidad for an auto tour of the Highway of Legends Scenic Byway I rode in 2013. But I’m not going to do that – I’m going to axe those three extra days. There are a few reasons for this:
1) I’m ticking off the days until I head back to Oz on the 24th. I needed to get out on the bike. I needed to do some climbs. I needed time in my head to reconcile the decisions I made – and the bike helps me do that. So that is part of the reason I put together this tour. But I feel okay with things now, and those are three more days I can spend with my parents before I go.
2) I’m really tired of all the traffic. Colorado in summer is just not for me anymore.
3) If I stick with the original plan, I’d be meeting my parents on Friday. That would mean they would miss one of their friend’s birthday parties on Saturday. That friend is in hospice care and this is likely his last birthday, so I don’t want my parents to miss that.
So I ring up my parents and ask if I can meet them in Walsenburg instead on Tuesday. I ask if it would be okay if I figured out accommodation and just emailed the details. It all sounds fine to them. We’ll meet at the mining museum in Walsenburg at 10am.
And so I shift and change the tour – who cares – 2017 has been so much about shift and change that I wonder if I will one day know what to do in one gear again. I do a bit of internet research, book rooms in Trinidad and La Veta and then go source HOT food and snack resupply before the thunderstorms hit.
I’ve really enjoyed this short tour, and it’s just what I needed. But ever since March, when the real hard stuff began, I’ve felt like I’m just watching all this stuff happen to someone else. It’s all third person and I don’t feel like ME at all. But when I’m on the bike and when I’m on tour, I’m ME again. I know who I am and what I am doing and where I am going when I’m on the road. I don’t know when the third party feeling will end, but it’s been a nice respite from it the past few days.