Ft Garland to Lathrop State Park: Over the old pass
Monday August 14, 2017, 58 miles (93 km) – Total so far: 384 miles (618 km)
A man in one of the old trailers is standing outside soaking up the early morning. He watches me take down the tent. Then he heads over to start up his truck before heading inside. He nods at me. He’s heading to work, I’m heading for the road. It won’t be long now before I head back to work, too. The turn of events means I’m heading home soon and returning to the job I left in March. It’s a topsy turvy world sometimes – let’s go get amongst it.
There is already a bit of traffic at 6.30am – but the shoulder is plenty wide. It’s a long gentle climb into the wind and rising sun. The road follows some tableland upwards as the river cuts a long arc to the south. Off in the distance are houses scattered among the pinyon and juniper trees – lots of little allotments carved out of the old land grants. The history here is much more Spanish than American. Of course, this was part of Mexico for a long, long time. It was only after America did a land-grab with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 (America’s longest standing treaty still in effect) that this became American soil.
Up, up, up. I’m spinning away in a middle gear. We eventually come to a short steep downhill off the tableland back to the river. Our road then follows the river and rail tracks up through a wide valley surrounded by low hills of scrub oak, pinyon and juniper.
I rode this going the other way in 2013, so I know what to expect. It’s a shallow climb that twists with the river. Eventually, the railroad tracks take off up another valley and we continue upstream. The original narrow gauge route heads our direction. However, in 1901 the Denver and Rio Grande converted to a standard gauge and laid tracks over a pass further south. You can still take a tourist train that runs that route.
I’ve noticed on this trip that bumper stickers may predict how courteous drivers are in passing. The only problem is that you don’t see the bumper sticker until they’ve already gone by. I did note that two different vehicles with “Bernie Sanders 2016” stickers gave me the entire lane (and one gave a friendly honk) when passing on two different days earlier in the ride. One ratty pick-up with anti-government and NRA stickers brushed me as close as possible on the way out of Gunnison.
So today I hear a large vehicle coming up behind a ways back. I look in my mirror. It’s a big four-wheel drive pick-up whose front bumper is head-height. He’s in the lane, but I note he is starting to aim toward me. Asshole. I know what he is going to do. So I move over as far as I can in the shoulder and still have some pavement room for wiggle room. Then I watch him approach and get ready to bail if needed. But no, he just skims me as close as possible in the shoulder, before punching the accelerator and showering me in exhaust as he speeds away. I don’t know what one of the bumper stickers said. The one I do manage to read says: ‘My other ride is a fat bitch’. For some reason, I don’t think he would’ve voted for Bernie.
I watch one caravan being tail-gated by a flat-bed semi laying on the exhaust brakes and then finally get up to where the old road over the pass takes off from 160. My original plan had been to head up just a little bit further and go over the Pass Creek Road to view some interesting geology. But I’m not doing that. 2017 has been all about nixing original plans.
So instead, we head up the road toward Old La Veta Pass. This was the original rail route from the 1877 to 1899. It was the highest rail route in the world at the time. After the rail line was rerouted, this became a wagon road, and then the highway until the new pass opened in 1962. But I’ve done that pass, so we’re going for another new road. Boy, do I have an addiction for new roads.
We curve away from the new highway and the road climbs up gently into aspen. There are still patches of old pavement left in the well-maintained gravel. I stop for a pee break in the trees and then the grade increases a little. We curve back west through the trees and then pass a couple of properties on a long, sweeping left-hand bend. Then we climb gently a little bit more and the road seems to crest. What? We can’t be there already! We hardly even had a climb! But yes, we have reached the top of Old La Veta Pass – approaching this one from the west is almost shameful to claim as a pass!
I have a look around Uptop – the little town established when the railroad came through. It’s a ghost town of some renovated and some dilapidated buildings. It sat deteriorating for many years before two sisters came along in 2001 and did a lot of work on the buildings and got the area listed on the National Historic Register. They ran a retreat space here before moving on to other things in 2014. The town is currently for sale. Read the inspiring story of the sisters who saved the town here: https://savingplaces.org/stories/uptop-colorado-ghost-town-beating-heart#.Wb8YfsiGPIU
We head on down the pass. The views are spectacular all the way down. The Spanish Peaks stand as lone sentinels way out in front of the Cumbres Range. The radial dykes are visible in places. Mt Mestas, another tertiary igneous intrusion of a different kind of rock, stands off to the left. At one point, the road runs straight toward it. The views are so long through here!
The gravel is bigger and thicker on this side and is quite slippery. Sometimes, I feel like I’m skiing instead of riding! The drop-offs are abrupt and high – only a few places still have the original wire barriers. But oh, this is soooo good! The road winds and turns and switchbacks on itself. It’s no wonder they needed a safer road! The route for a railroad is not always the most-suited to vehicles.
We sweep around a rocky section where there are views right down Hwy 160 heading east. We’ll be there pretty soon. The road heads back up the valley on a long, slippery downhill before one more u-turn that meets back with the main road. I am so glad I took this route. It’s been very historic and scenic, and I have not seen a single car!
I meet back up with the main road. And then we get payback for all that slow climbing and downhill concentrating on gravel the past few days. I quickly pick up speed. Soon we are doing 42 mph in that small shoulder sandwiched between the rumble strips and the steel guardrails. There’s no room to pick a line – there is only one. So we fly through all the debris – and there is a lot of it. I’m sure I’m going to get a puncture. So I enjoy the speed while I’ve got it. The trucks are rumbling by just off my left shoulder. The hum of my tires is that special sound you only get at high speed. Zoooooom!
We fly for what seems like forever. I don’t even have to turn a pedal until the turn-off to the town of La Veta. We are just flying along – wheeeeeeee! Verne giggles. We also have a pretty strong tailwind assist. Oh the joys of a downhill with the wind!! I’m out of the saddle acting like a sail (and letting my poor butt rest). Many of the cars and trucks actually pull over a bit in the lane to give me more room – thanks! Their other rides are probably not a fat bitch.
Somewhere after the La Veta turn-off when the downhill has resumed and I’m rolling along at a steady 27mph, the road starts to feel a little wavy. Um, yeah, you know what’s up. The wavy turns to squishy, so I roll to a stop. Thankfully, the puncture is on the front tire. For the amount of debris I’ve zipped through, I knew it was a matter of time. Thankfully, it’s actually punctured when I wasn’t pummeling head-long at 42mph.
I pull over and carry the bike down off the road into the ditch. I commence puncture repair. It’s a warm sunny day with a breeze – ideal conditions for swapping out a tube. I am lucky and immediately find the tire wire that’s found it’s way through. I am fast today, and I’m back on the road in about 15 minutes flat (that’s fast for me). As always, no one stops to see if I’m okay. How do other cyclists get offers of assistance all the time? No one EVER stops to see if I’m okay. I tell myself it is because I exude confidence…. ha!
We are back rolling again. The cops are out in force today – I see my third highway patrol car… or maybe it’s just the same guy patrolling. As we roll up to the next turn-off to La Veta, we come to road works. I glide past the line and roll up to the Stop/Go guy to see what I should do – pilot car, go on through, wait for the end of the line, etc.
The guy is super-nice. He says I have to wait for the traffic control since we are being sent down the opposite lane. However, traffic will be in the lane, so I can just stick to the shoulder on the opposite side and will be fine. He’ll give me a head start so I can get through before the line of cars finishes. No worries. I then start to move over to the edge to wait.
The guy asks me where I’m riding and what it’s like on the road. He wants to know what it’s like to be out there all alone. He is super-impressed with me and my bike. I’m embarrassed by his exuberance and admiration. He just keeps saying, “You are so damn cool.” He can’t believe I’m just out for a spin – he thinks a one-week ride is a super-amazing feat. I assure him people head out for much longer, and that even I have done 4.5 months before. He wants to know how many miles I’ve done in my life. I tell him I’ve got no idea, but I’ve done more than 30,000 miles on this bike, more than 20,000 of that with a load. His eyes go huge and he says, “Shut the fuck up. That is insane. You are just so fucking cool.” I laugh and tell him, “No, I’m actually a huge nerd and I’m really SLOW!”
As I wait over on the side of the road, I can see the guy keep looking over to check out the bike. He’s a Hispanic guy in his late 20s or early 30s. He’s probably never really even thought about bike touring before, and he’s probably never, until today, had a conversation with a bike tourist. It’d be like me going to a hotted-up car event where all the cars bounce and are highly-modified. I’d have not a clue about what that was all about!
He gives me the go-ahead and I race down the shoulder before the cars start up. They are adding a passing lane on the opposite side and repaving the main lane. Zoom! The roadworks go around a curve and then end. I thought they’d be longer. So I pull up to a stop in the shoulder where the other cars are waiting. I wait for the huge, long line of cars going my way to make their way past. The Stop/Go lady calls out to me, “Are you just taking a break?”
What? How can she not see that the best course of action is to wait and then cross over after the line of cars have passed? Whatever. She comes up to me. She is very interested in the bike, too. She’s also Hispanic and in her late 20s. She is more interested in what I carry with me. She’s amazed I have an entire tent in my front pannier, plus food, water, sleeping bag, clothes, tools, etc. She can’t believe I can be totally self-sufficient. She wants to know, “So how hard is it? Like is it really hard to ride in the mountains?” I assure her that once you have a base level of fitness, it’s not that hard. I tell her it’s really more of a mental challenge than a physical one. She is also very impressed. And then the line of cars ends, and I’m on my way back down hill.
It’s not too far to Lathrop State Park. We’ll be done by 11.30am today. It’s amazing how quickly you can cover miles on an easy pass and a long downhill! As I pull in, a ranger stops and asks about the trip. He’s excited about my ride and says he’s a cyclist, too, but never done a long trip. I tell him someday the bug will get him, too, and then there is no stopping.
Then I head inside to get a tent site. The woman inside is incredibly helpful. She spends 10 minutes finding me the perfect site in one of the electric loops. I need to charge my phone, and I’m keen to be a little closer to the pay showers – so I can have a shower in the morning before meeting my parents. It would nice not to be too stinky when I meet them – my clothes might not be great, but at least I can be clean!
After the incredibly helpful woman sets me up with a perfect site with shade, she hears about my plans to meet my parents and tells me how we must go up and have a look around the ruins of Berwind near Ludlow. She gets out the atlas and shows me the correct road, and then shows me pics on her phone of the old stone jail. Thanks so much – she really went above and beyond the call of duty.
I set up the tent and then head the 3 miles into town to get a Subway sandwich. There’s not a lot to Walsenburg. It’s a sad, sad, former coal mining town. The history here is fascinating though – be sure to go to the museum in the old jail behind the courthouse.
A big-arse storm is brewing and hits me with a few splats on the way back to the park. I don’t think I’ll make it back to the tent before we get drenched, so I head for the swim beach and take cover under a picnic shelter, knowing I can move to the bathrooms if it gets really bad. The winds blow hard across the lake and the weather changes from nice to stormy in minutes. I eat my sandwich while the rain whips sideways and the temp falls dramatically. I’d hoped to take the guys down to the swim beach for a floatie session. But 45 minutes later, even after the slow-moving storms have rumbled off toward the plains, it’s still too windy. So we head back to the tent, laze away the late afternoon, then go for a long-ish walk up to the ridge in the evening to watch the colours shift and change as the sun sets. The sun reflects off the Spanish Peaks and it’s just gorgeous. It’s quiet and peaceful on the trail, and I even see a coyote. It’s a great end to a great tour!