Two passes and a whole lot of sneezing: Monument Lake to Fort Garland
Saturday August 17, 2013, 64 miles (103 km) – Total so far: 4,144 miles (6,668 km)
I crawl out of the tent at first light.
Damn – the wind that’s been battering the tent since 3am is from the northwest. You know, of course, that is the direction I’m riding.
Then I look at the bike. The rear tire looks a little low. A squeeze of the spongy tire confirms my fears.
Damn – the rear tube has a leak. I just stand there and look at it for a few moments, as if it will magically re-inflate itself. I only fixed a front tube leak two days ago. This is flat number 8 of the trip. Maybe I’ll just put more air in and hope it holds. Then, I tell myself: “No. You have a little table to work on here. You are going over two passes today – you don’t want to have to mess with it on the side of the road later”.
And so I begin my day patching a tube in a cold, northwest wind. It is not an ideal start, but at least it means the day should only get better. The culprit this time is either a shard of coal or a sharp piece of black chip from chip-seal asphalt.
The road to Cucharas Pass climbs past Monument Lake and then quickly descends through curves to the Purgatoire River. We pass by North Lake where there are already fishermen wading waist-deep and casting lines into the wind-rippled water. The lake still lies in shadow; it is not until we round the corner and begin a long climb up a valley of grass and scrub oak-covered hills that we find the sun.
The road climbs gently and steadily. There is no traffic this morning, so it’s easy to get in a groove and just pedal and pedal. At times, the road drops steeply to cross a creek and then climbs steeply out the other side.
As we gain elevation, pines start to appear on sheltered slopes. Eventually, they edge out the scrub oak in all but the most exposed locations. There are a couple steep sections of 8 percent, but most of the climb is gradual. On the second steep section, known locally as Heartbreak Hill, I have to stop to rest. It’s not so bad as to be heart-breaking, I’d just call it lung-wheezing hill, instead.
At the top of this climb, the pass is in sight. It is just a half mile or so up the road. This has been a most enjoyable climb. There is some sense of achievement in topping a pass before most people are even out of bed.
I grab some photos and then head up the dirt road toward Cordova Pass. Interestingly, this is where I meet all the cars. I’ve only seen five in my ride to Cucharas Pass, but I encounter six cars on my one-mile-each-way, out-and-back ride to an overlook. Crazy.
Then, I take off downhill. Yippee! There are quite a few hairpin turns down through the aspen at the top of the hill. Then the road serves up a bunch of twisties, a few more tight turns, and a final switchback at the bottom.
I absolutely fly down and love every second of it. One of the great things about being four months into a ride is that the bike has become an extension of me. I know all the nuances of handling, grip and feel. I can pedal away from a stop or barrel down a hill like there is no load at all on the bike. On this hill, I actually get up off the seat, lean the bike horizontally into the corners, my butt and body providing counterweight. On other corners I stay in the seat and lean with the bike, throwing my knee out for balance. I cannot imagine how anyone could be having as much fun as me as this exact moment! I am so, so fortunate to be able to do this ride.
After zipping through the little village of Cucharas with it’s wooden-slab buildings and expensive summer homes, the grade levels out and I have to pedal hard to keep the momentum up on the gentle downhill.
I pass by two different dikes. These igneous intrusions radiate out from West Spanish Peak like spokes on a wheel. There are over 400 of them, and they run above and below the surface for up to 25 miles. This type of geology is only found in two other places in the world. Let’s get some nerd on.
Eventually the valley widens, and the scrub oak and sagebrush give way to open, irrigated fields and pasture. The headwind wipes off a few mph of speed. It’s not too far to La Veta, an artsy town of 925 full-time residents which swells to 3,000 in summer with a bunch of folks from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
I’m disappointed in the bakery. So instead of filling up on bakery carbs, I head to the supermarket and get some pasta salad and bananas instead. I also stand outside and drink an absolutely disgusting amount of chocolate milk while I chat with a guy from Oklahoma who would love to do some touring, if only his wife would let him.
La Veta is bustling today. Part of the tourist onslaught is due to the scenic rail trips to La Veta Pass and beyond. Plenty of folks are gathering to ride the train, as I sit in the adjoining park consuming lunch. I’m taking my time, hoping the wind will swap to the northeast this afternoon as the NWS promises.
I chat to a couple curious folks. One older man, about 75-years-old, is very inquisitive. He had wanted to do the TransAm back in the 1970s but was never able to do so. Back in the 80s and 90s, he used to host touring cyclists at his house. He wants to know if I’ve got spare tires or just tubes, how many miles I’ve gotten on the tires, how long it took to feel like I was in shape, etc. Then he says, “well, you look so good. You look so healthy. So many touring cyclists look so skinny, like they are wasting away muscle, too. But you look great.”
I’m not sure what to say, so I just reply, “Well, I did want to lose some weight, and I’ve lost it. Now I’m just trying to maintain weight. That’s still hard. I just eat crazy amounts of food. But I’m not looking to be a supermodel or anything. You can’t turn ugly into attractive, and you can’t turn 37 into 20 again”.
He laughs, then he lowers his voice and leans into me and says, “Well, I think you look fantastic. If I weren’t married, and I was 30 years younger, I’d want to get to know you”.
Whoah. I think I just turned 50 shades of pink.
He smiles and winks at me and then says, “Now I must be going. The wife and I are taking the train up the hill today. It’s a beautiful trip. We love it here. Be safe”. And then he heads off with his lawn chairs toward the waiting train. Whoah. I think I just got hit on by a 75-year-old man.
I give up waiting on the wind to swap. If I wait too long, I’ll just get stormed on instead. So I head out of town and up the hills on a county road shortcut. Mt Mestas at 11,000-and-some feet dominates the forward view. It is igneous stock, too, just like the Spanish Peaks and several of the peaks to the north. When the Sangres were uplifted around 27 million-years-ago (that’s right, they’re babies!), the two main parts of the range were offset with a gap in the middle. This gap is where a whole heap of molten magma was located beneath the crust. About 25 million-years-ago the magma intruded surrounding rock and was uplifted. Overlying, less resistant rock was worn away, and now this igneous stock forms dramatic peaks, buttes and plugs.
The hardest riding of the day is found from the Hwy 160 junction to the base of the climb up the pass. The wind here is just roaring in my face, and it is a hard slog. There is heaps of traffic, too, though I do have a wide shoulder.
Once we get into the climb, the wind backs off, and the road widens to two lanes all the way to the top. I still have a shoulder a couple feet wide, too. All of the trucks move into the other lane. The climb is easy for me. I just get down in granny gear and get in a groove. I’m not fast, but I’m not having any trouble. I’m even pushing 6.8 mph at times. That is super-fast for me on a hill! It’s great to be in such good physical shape and to have gained that fitness doing something so fun.
I almost miss the sign for the pass. Somehow I’ve gotten it in my head that the pass was 9 miles instead of 8. So I’m not looking for a summit sign when I start to pass it by on the other side of the road. The sign indicating a new county tips me off that we may have hit the crest.
The downhill is all so gentle, I never get any great speed. The scenery gradually changes from pine-clad mountains to open, sagebrush valleys to dry and arid flat plains surrounded in the far distance by high mountains. There is a good shoulder the whole way and one decent climb.
Once I hit the arid and somewhat featureless edges of the San Luis Valley, I spend 2.5 miles sneezing. I think I may have my eyes open for about 1.25 miles of those 2.5. You cannot physically keep your eyes open when you sneeze. I am very thankful for the wide shoulder here! For the rest of the afternoon and night, my eyes go red, itchy and watery, my nose constantly runs and I sneeze enough times to set a Nerd Em record. I’m guessing ragweed is the culprit, but whatever it is, it wins! I drag into Ft Garland fatigued and sneezy but still incredibly happy to be on the road.