On the road again with Jen: Salida to Del Norte
Thursday August 8, 2013, 82 miles (132 km) – Total so far: 3,653 miles (5,879 km)
Back in 1996, two young women aged 20 (Em) and 21 (Jen), went for an overnight backpacking trip. After an ascent and traverse of the Mummy Range, they ran, slid and precariously picked their way down an impossibly steep slope into the glacial cirque containing Mirror Lake in the far reaches of Rocky Mountain National Park. For dinner that night they ate two packets of Lipton Instant Noodles and Sauce. Over dinner, with little metal spoons raised high, they toasted to living their lives in the pursuit of ‘truth, freedom and happiness’. They pledged to meet every year in a different state for some sort of outdoor adventure after they left college. Their lives were full and happy. They were both clever and capable young women with their whole lives ahead of them.
So now, those young women are 37 and 38-years-old. About half of their lives lie before them. They are still clever and capable. Their lives are still full and happy. They still keep in touch and talk about seeking truth, freedom and happiness, even though their lives have taken very different trajectories. Yearly adventures have not been possible, but Jen makes a huge effort to go see and adventure with Em whenever Em’s in the country.
Some people in your life come and go. Others become friends for life. Jen is one of Nerd Em’s friends for life. In the pre-dawn light of August 2013, they are ready to take off on another short adventure and spend four days talking about truth, and enjoying some freedom and happiness.
From my mom’s place in Salida, it is an approximately 1500 foot climb over 12 miles to the top of Poncha Pass. The road gently climbs up a fairly narrow canyon. After the turn-off to Marshall Pass, the climbing gets a teeny bit steeper as you reach the higher parts of the canyon. Still, it is all easy climbing through an eye-pleasing area. The road has a wide and clean shoulder, and there isn’t too much traffic this early in the morning. It’s a great way to start a ride.
It quickly becomes apparent that Jen and I, on fully-loaded bikes, lie at opposite ends of the cadence scale. I am definitely a spinner. Jen is definitely a masher. To start, I’m riding behind Jen. It is almost painful to me to watch her pushing so hard and so slowly on the pedals. Later in the climb, Jen rides behind me and can’t believe that my heart doesn’t fly off the red zone and into cardiac arrest with the rate at which I pedal.
Over the course of the four days we confirm that I am faster going up hills. She is faster going down. I pedal fast and stop to take short breaks fairly frequently (the hare). She pedals slowly but just keeps going and going and going (an Energizer tortoise). However, the hare keeps winning the uphill ‘race’ this time, most likely because of my fitness level at this point in my tour. We both agree that I’d be unstoppable if I could breathe normally – my heart rate never goes nuts, even with my high cadence. I only stop to break so I can breathe.
None of it matters though. We definitely have different styles, but it just shows that you can make it to the top of a pass in whatever manner best suits you. Still, Jenny can’t believe my heart doesn’t feel overworked, and I can’t believe Jenny doesn’t get all sorts of knee pain!
We sail down Poncha Pass and stop for a moment in Villa Grove, a tiny little place at the head of the San Luis Valley. For once, it’s not me looking for a chocolate milk (I can’t do calcium in the first four hours of the day because of my thyroid pill). Jen comes out of the little general store disappointed. No coffee or chocolate milk.
We cruise down to Saguache. The shoulder is wide enough to ride side-by-side. We chat research and the things we most valued learning while doing PhDs. We find it hilarious that we like writing the exact opposite sections of academic papers. If we weren’t in such different fields, we think we’d be great research partners. I’d write up the Introduction and Literature Review. She would collect the data. I’d do the statistics and write them up. Then she’d write the Discussion and Conclusion sections. Done deal. If only it were all that easy!
Saguache is a pleasant surprise. This little town (pop. 458) has really put some effort into revitalizing their main street and parks. We have coffee, hot chocolate and muffins at the bakery/cafe which is housed in a late 1800s building. It still has the original wooden floorboards and ornate ceiling work. The folks are friendly. We leave a huge tip. The little town even has a market with local produce. However, I think I may have finally gotten nerded out. There is a museum in town, and I have no trouble just passing by without going in!
The rest of the day is spent riding south through the western edge of the San Luis Valley. For the most part, it is a flat-ish ride into the wind across irrigated fields and pasture. Mountains ring the valley in the far distance, but it feels more like eastern Colorado than south-central Colorado here.
The wind picks up, and the shoulder diminishes to nearly nothing, as the day wears on and the traffic increases. By the time we pass the turn-off to La Garita, it doesn’t feel particularly safe, but at least there is some strength in numbers and we can take turns pulling and drafting. That is a luxury I have not had in the first 3500 miles of the trip!
We end the day in Del Norte. The woman at the visitor’s centre is incredibly friendly and helpful. We couldn’t find the RV park on the way into town. She tells us how to get there and suggests the brewery as a place for dinner. The RV park is a tiny little place, but it’s only $13 and the tent sites are all huge and shaded. The showers are very basic, but it’s all a good deal. The site sits right on the Rio Grande River which is flowing fast and black, carrying all of the ash downstream from large areas of forest burnt in the West Fork and other fires earlier in June.
We get the tent set up just in time before the afternoon storms. We nap in the tent and wait for a break in the rain to go eat. Finally, it lets up a little. The beers at the brewery are quite good. We catch up on each other’s lives. The beers help us deliberate and solve the world’s and each other’s problems. Jen samples several different brews. I learned the hard way on her 21st birthday that I should never try to keep pace with her, so I just stick with an amber ale and have a good laugh when we walk out of the place and Jenny asks if I remember how to get home. Ah yes, just like the good old days….