Hearts in our throats: Silver Thread campground to Gunnison
Saturday August 10, 2013, 82 miles (131 km) – Total so far: 3,797 miles (6,110 km)
Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no! This can’t be happening!
I’m standing in the dirt at the side of the road. Tears well into the corner of my eyes. My heart rises to strangle my throat. I raise my hands to cover my nose and gaping mouth.
The ambulance screams past, sirens on and lights flashing. It is closely followed by a sheriff’s SUV and two first responder SUVs.
Oh, crap! What do I do? I have not seen Jenny for 25 minutes since we started to roll down from the Slumgullion Pass summit. I started ahead of her, since she would likely pass me on the way down. She does downhill faster than me.
But then, I pulled off at the Windy Point overlook, where we had agreed to meet, and she never showed. That seemed really odd. I waited there for 15 minutes. It had only taken me 5 minutes to get there. A man showed up at the overlook. He’d come from the top. He hadn’t seen her. So I just assumed she would be waiting for me somewhere downhill.
But now, oh no, what if something happened to her?! The downhill was incredibly steep, fast and scary at the top. The road had tight curves and huge drop-offs with no guardrails. All you would have to do would be to hit a small rock, and that could take you down. What if an on-coming vehicle had then hit her? What if she’d gone over the edge? It is unimaginably awful.
Oh, no! Oh, no! How did it come to this?
We get an early morning start. The first three miles or so are a sustained climb to an overlook of the Rio Grande River. The morning is cold and clear. We both feel good getting warmed up and getting the legs moving.
From there, we have several miles of downhill where Jenny leads and I try to keep up. Following this, there are several more miles of gentle uphill through roadworks. There is little traffic. As usual, I pull ahead of Jen. We are riding in a high and wide valley. I stop to wait on her a couple times before Spring Creek Pass where we stop to take a picture and marvel at what a gentle ascent that had been to get us close to 11,000 feet.
Then, we take off down the hill on very new chip-seal. It is a bit slippery but far preferable to the very deep-cracked road surface that greets us after the downhill. Some folks in a jeep give us some encouragement honks as we start the climb up Slumgullion. From an open and grassy valley, the road quickly ascends into the trees through long but blind corners.
Somewhere after the first mile, still deep in the trees, the road takes a hard left. And this is where the steep climb is located. I stop to use my inhaler and tell Jenny to go on. I’ll catch her. I usually ride curve to curve in the really steep bits, stopping to let my lungs rest in each corner of the road. The road here is over 9 percent in grade. Luckily, it doesn’t last too long, though, and I don’t have to walk any of it.
I slowly catch and overtake Jenny. She says my lungs don’t sound good. It’s nice to get external confirmation that my gasping ascents aren’t just me being out-of-shape. I slowly pull ahead. We finally get good pavement again. I think we have a mile or two more to climb, but all of a sudden, there’s the summit sign. I yell back to Jen, “You’re almost there!”.
And so we summit Slumgullion Pass from the easy direction. The pass has no great views. It’s just smack in the middle of a whole bunch of trees, many dead or dying. We take all the requisite photos. We snack. We congratulate each other on summitting two passes before 10 am.
Then we take off for the descent, Jen in the lead. Before we start into the steep bits, Jen pulls over to put on more clothing. And this is where I leave her. I just keep rolling, not pedalling, knowing she’ll pass me in just a second. And this is the last I see of her.
Soon, I’m holding on tight and flying down the hill. It is so fast, and the corners so tight and steep, it is a little bit terrifying. I feel just on the edge of control. I’m using the whole lane. As I come around one corner, I see the sign for the Windy Point overlook ahead. I see the little road that leads to it. The road takes off from the highway at an angle and steepness of a runaway truck ramp. I don’t brake, I just aim for that little road at 30-some mph. I’ve got so much speed, I barrel up that little road almost out of control. I only have to put in two hard cranks to get to the top. Phew! That was just a little bit crazy.
The views are tremendous. It’s a 270-degree panorama of fourteeners and other high peaks of the San Juan Range. Jen will love this. But she doesn’t show. I wait and wait. I talk to a guy who’s on a two-week driving trip in the Rockies. He doesn’t want to go back to work tomorrow. He’s envious that I’ve been on the road so long. I ask him if he’s seen Jen. No, he hasn’t. I finally decide she’s not coming and ask him if he sees her to tell her I’ve gone on down.
I fly down the hill again. Wow, this is a crazy descent. Then, I run into several oversized loads towing road construction equipment downhill. They are in low gear doing 10 mph. I am on their ass and on my brakes. I can’t stay on the brakes like this without overheating the rims, so I stop in a pull-out and wait for the trucks to get way ahead.
The man from the overlook goes by. He slows to say, “I never saw your friend”! I wave. Several more cars pass. I get back on the road, catch up to the trucks and line of cars again. I stop again in another pull-out to let them get ahead again.
Finally, I start off and catch the line of cars again. This time they are actually stopped. The man from the overlook is at the rear of the line. He waves to me as I stop in a nearby pull-out.
And then the ambulance goes by. And my heart begins to strangle me. The overlook man leans out his window and says, “Oh gosh, I hope that’s not for your friend!” I reply, “Oh, god, I sure hope she is down in Lake City having a coffee right now”.
My mind races. Where would they take her? Gunnison. Where would I go in Lake City to find out what the call-out was for? Would they have her phone? I don’t know her family’s phone numbers. How do I get to Gunnison?
Back in Saguache, I had shown Jenny my insurance card and where I keep it. At that time, she realized she’d left hers back in Salida, but told me the name of her health insurance company. And that was all we’d talked about for an “in case of emergency” situation. Now, I don’t even know phone numbers for family.
The line of cars starts to move forward. The overlook guy gets to the next pull-out about 150 feet ahead and turns around. He comes back to me and says, “Your friend. She’s just up there waiting on you on the opposite side of the road.” Then he turns around and heads on downhill. “Oh thank you! Thank you!”
I cruise down to Jenny. We are a little bit overjoyed to see one another. She was thinking along similar lines about my safety.
We settle down at the excellent bakery in Lake City. I have a huge spinach and feta roll. It is wonderful. Jen and I both agree we are so glad we did that pass from the easy side. We both think going up the side we came down wouldn’t have been any fun at all. We both think we would have had to walk a bunch of it, and there weren’t any shoulders.
Jenny heads to the bathroom. A middle-aged, overweight man comes and sits down and starts up a conversation with me. He asks about our bikes and where we are riding. I explain Jen has joined me for a few days and that I’m on a longer tour. He asks how far I’ve ridden. And the next moment makes me very proud. I say, “well, I’ve done about 3800 miles. I’ll probably end up with around 4500”. And he literally, spits out some of his food in disbelief. Smile. Big smile from Nerd Em. The conversation continues when Jenny returns. He ends up giving us a pretty accurate description of the road ahead.
It’s around noon when we get ready to take off. Jen and I think we can make it to Gunnison, even though it’s gonna be a haul. Just as we are leaving, a guy in a pick-up truck stops and says, like he knows us, “So you guys made it. You guys make good time”! We look at him with question marks on our faces. He replies, “I talked to you at South Fork a couple days ago.” Oh, I should have recognised his southern accent. I say, “yeah, we are doing alright.” He wishes us well.
We cruise down through the scenic rock walls of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River canyon. Eventually it opens into a wider valley. We make good time. It is mostly downhill – but into the wind, of course.
We then hit a multi-mile climb. Our legs aren’t overly happy about it. But I’m feeling all Popeye from my big bakery spinach brunch, and I take off and pull way ahead of Jen quite quickly. She’s probably crashing from her sugary bakery stuff – I’m ready to save Olive Oil or something. I power up that hill.
I get to the top of the climb and stop to wait on Jen. However, there is thunder and lightning pretty close by and it is very dark behind me. Powderhorn is only a few miles ahead downhill, so I decide I’ll just wait for Jen there. Maybe there will be some shelter. I hope she’s pedalling hard, it looks black back there.
The scenery is beautiful. It’s an arid area of grass, sage and pinyon-juniper woodland. We’ve descended several thousand feet. The views are wide, the landscape expansive and rolling. And I’m rolling fast downhill. I pass the ski resort and then see several ranches and homes ahead in the ‘town’ of Powderhorn. I zoom by the dirt road that leads to the post office at about 37 mph. Okay, we won’t be finding shelter down that way! I never do find any commercial buildings along the main road, so I wait for Jen by a bunch of mailboxes.
After a short break, we start off again. I tell Jen I’m worried about the black stuff behind us. She says, “Oh, I never worry about what’s behind. I just look forward.” I laugh and say, “Well that’s okay if you can outrun what’s behind you. But I think that’s going to get us”! And off we go.
This climb is really long. 4 miles. 5 miles. I don’t know, but it is long and a bit steep at times as you climb up through open hills of sagebrush. It’s our fourth decent climb for the day, so our legs are protesting a bit. The worst part is that the wind has gotten strong and gusty. It blows me off the road twice. When Jen finally catches up, she says it’s blown her off once, so she wondered how I went since I’ve got front panniers.
I wait near the top in a grove of aspens. There’s thunder around, so I’m not waiting on Jen out in the open. When Jen arrives, we agree to sit and wait out the weather for a bit – or at least until the wind becomes more manageable. We nap and chat. It’s been a big day already and we’ve got 20 miles left to go.
30 minutes or so later we climb the rest of the hill. The road undulates for a bit at the top of open, grassy hills. There is rain all around, but not here. Then we get the long, long downhill. The views are great, the speeds are fun. We do hit rain and get road grime all over our legs and the bikes. The downhill is just reward for four long climbs, though. Yippee!
Once to the bottom, I take the lead and pull us toward Gunnison on Highway 50. We are following the rain, so the pavement is full of puddles, but we aren’t getting rained on. Much. The traffic is heavy enough to get us all wet from spray. The shoulder is wide, though, so I just put my head down and pedal hard, anxious to get us done for the day.
I get to the turn-off to the KOA and finally look in my mirror. Crap. I dropped Jen somewhere. When she catches up, I apologise. I hadn’t been looking in my mirror to see that she was falling behind.
The campsites are beyond soggy at the KOA, so we find an island of high ground that isn’t really on our assigned site and pitch the tent there. The hot showers are beyond awesome at this point in the day. We then ride into town to the Nepalese restaurant. We are unsure if the proprietors are going to be able to pry us from the booths. The food is good, the booths soft, the building warm. We both want to just lie down in the seats and stay the night. Eventually we push ourselves back into the wind and head back to the RV park. Jen is totally out by 7.45pm. I’m probably asleep by 8.30 pm. What a day!