Range Roaming – Colorado 2013 – Day 124

“Come ride me!” OR How I love coal miners: Trinidad to Monument Lake

Friday August 16, 2013, 39 miles (62 km) – Total so far: 4,079 miles (6,565 km)

Early in the morning in August 2011, a gentle earthquake shook awake the residents of Trinidad and people living upstream in the Purgatoire River valley. Eleven more temblors would shake the area in the next 24 hours, the strongest registering magnitude 5.3. The largest quake was felt up to 200 miles away and was the strongest earthquake in Colorado since 1973. Interestingly, a similar swarm of earthquakes, registering 2.8 to 4.6, had shaken the same area in 2001.

What would cause these quakes? Some people point to the exploration and production of coal seam gas which began only a couple years before the first earthquake swarm. They claim that injecting enormous quantities of liquids into the coal seams, in a process called fracking, can lubricate faults. However, investigations after the quakes, which included mapping of faults and injection well sites, could not conclusively associate the fracking with the earthquakes. In other areas of the country and overseas, however, fracking has been identified as the cause of some earthquakes.

Who knows? The only thing I’m sure of is that the coal seam gas industry does not generally follow the precautionary principle. And the industry is big business down here these days. I’ll be passed by innumerable gas trucks, mining-related pick-up trucks and semis carrying mining equipment today.

Our ride out of Trinidad involves considerable climbing. After Trinidad Lake was created in 1977, the road was rerouted into the hills. Consequently, the legs are well warmed-up by the time we reach Cokedale. It is the first of many, many old mining communities that we’ll pass through today.

Cokedale was established in 1906, and at its peak had a population of 1500 people. The mine produced 1500 tons of coal per day, and 800 tons of coke in 350 coke ovens. The mine shut in 1947 but allowed residents to purchase their homes from the company. As a result, much of the town was preserved and is now on the National Historic Register as the only intact coal mining town in Colorado. At the entrance road to town, huge black piles of slag (impurities washed and cooked out of the coal) provide a gritty, industrial welcome.

Some of the old coke ovens at Cokedale on the Highway of Legends.

After Cokeville, the road descends to the Purgatoire River valley. The history here is multi-layered. Part of the ‘legend’ of this “Highway of Legends” scenic byway refers to Juan Humana and his conquistadors. They were in search of gold and disappeared near the river in 1594, never to be seen again. The Purgatoire River, or River of Lost Souls, was named for them.

In the late 1880s and early 1920s, coal was king. This area produced over 60 percent of Colorado’s output at the time. All the way up the valley today, we’ll be passing through old coal mining communities. While much of the area still looks run-down and vacant, some little towns like Valdez, Segundo and Weston show evidence of the resurgence of coal mining and the growing coal seam gas industry. Valdez has a new gas station, general store and laundromat. Segundo has brand new apartment buildings.

This also means there is A LOT of traffic on a curvy, winding road with no shoulder. The gas trucks try to give me room, but there is not much room to give. It is tense riding until you get past Weston. There is just too much mining traffic to have any fun.

Looking toward the Culebra Mountains with Weston in the foreground.

The New Elk Mine was established in the 1940s and ceased production in the 1990s. It has recently reopened. The road right in front of the mine has been repaved to include a turning lane and shoulder. I stop here to get a picture of the scenic byway sign. Just as I get ready to leave, I hear a truck getting ready to pull out of the mine entrance. I look back, ready to yield to them if they are going my way.

There are a couple guys, probably in their 40s, in the truck. The driver yells out, “Where ya’ ridin'”?

I just yell back, “West”!

He yells, “Well, why don’t you just come ride me instead”?!

Okay, that is incredibly crass. A part of me feels spunky and wants to ride over to him and say, “Well, what time are you getting off work, boys”? I have been known to call a bluff like this in the past. But mostly I’m just feeling pretty grumpy because of all the traffic, so instead, I just yell, “No thanks! You’re not that hot”!

The passenger cracks up and claps his hands. The driver pauses for a moment and then says, “Well, you’re looking pretty hot. I’m a good ride. You don’t know what you’re missing”!

Then he floors it, spinning the rear tires in the gravel, as he heads the other direction. It gives me a good laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever been hit on by a coal miner before.

Another scenic byway. This ride is pretty stressful up to Weston as there is no shoulder most of the time and the road is pretty busy with all of the renewed mining activity in the area. After Weston, and particularly after Stonewall, the road becomes lightly travelled and is an absolute joy. This is where I have my cultural encounter with the coal miners.

The traffic thins after Weston, and the ride becomes enjoyable. The road carves right up through the valley. In the far distance, the Culebra Range of the Sangre de Cristos creates a tall, rocky backdrop to the smaller hills flanking the valley upstream.

Sunflowers and other wildflowers cover entire sections of pasture as we approach Stonewall. A long ridge of up-turned Dakota Sandstone runs north-south for many miles. At the townsite, the river has carved a gap through the rocks.

Stonewall and a bunch of flowers.
This rock at Stonewall is upturned Dakota sandstone and creates an impressive ridge through this whole area. It is exposed in some places but not everywhere. The river in the foreground has carved a gap through the rock here.

This area has an interesting history, too, related to Spanish land grants and later settlers who were told they must pay ‘rents’ for the land they felt they owned. There was bloodshed, pursuits, people run out of the area. It all reads like a graphic western novella but it is real history, and it all went down not that long ago.

After Stonewall, the road turns north, and the real climbing begins. It is fairly park-like with big grassy meadows interspersed with pine-clad slopes. The climb goes for several miles before we drop down a hill to Monument Lake.

Looking back down the road at Stonewall. The real climbing to the pass begins there.

Monument Lake is an old Works Progress Administration project from the 1930s. It is now run by the city of Trinidad. The main adobe building has been renovated, and there are old adobe cabins you can rent. All around the property are examples of old stone work structures from the time. Unfortunately, there are no old photos of the place from the 1930s on display.

The place fills up for the weekend, so it’s pretty noisy and chaotic. It is good to see people getting out and dragging the kids away from the couch, though. The crew and I go for a walk around the lake. I get the Don Ho burger at the cafe, and it is really good. I order a piece of banana cream pie for dessert. My server brings me out this absolutely gigantic piece. She says, “I hope you like it. There wasn’t enough left for two pieces, so I just gave you what was left in the pan”. I thank her and tell her that I’m on a bicycle tour and can use all the calories I can get. She’s intrigued and asks a few questions. She just can’t believe I’ve ridden over 4000 miles. I hear her telling her colleagues back in the kitchen that ‘the lady over in the corner has ridden her bike here from town. She’s done over 4000 miles since April”!

We camp for the night at Monument Park. This is an old WPA camp. The restaurant is good, the showers/bathrooms just about acceptable, and the camping area okay. When I ask about food storage, the woman at the desk suggests I leave my toiletries and food in the office overnight since they don’t have bear boxes. I am going to leave early so I just hang it instead. There are heaps of people here since it’s the weekend.

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