Heading north again: Salida to Leadville
Wednesday August 21, 2013, 60 miles (96 km) – Total so far: 4,285 miles (6,896 km)
My mom gets up to see me off. She doesn’t say anything about the wind, but I can see her looking at the aspen trees across the street, gently bending towards us with the wind.
I say, “Of course, it’s a headwind. I don’t expect anything else these days. It’s supposed to be 5-10 mph out of the NW, turning light and variable.”
My mom gives me a half-grin and a hug. And then it’s off I go against the wind. Again.
The road between Salida and Buena Vista follows Fed Highway 285. There is considerable traffic, but the shoulder is wide and generally well-surfaced. The road follows the Arkansas River upstream through a wide valley. To the west, high peaks, several over 14,000 feet, form the Collegiate Range. To the east, lower forested ridges lead into the Buffalo Peaks further north.
The road climbs and descends over mesas which extend outward from the Collegiate Peaks range. There is more climbing than descending, since Buena Vista sits about 800 feet higher than Salida.
North of Buena Vista, the valley begins to narrow until you descend into Browns Canyon. Here the low, rocky ridges and sagebrush flats escort the river through numerous rapids and bends. As you come into the canyon, Mt Elbert, the tallest mountain in the state, sits in front of you as a massive hunk of uplifted earth.
The shoulder disappears at Granite. Luckily, the traffic is not too bad between here and Leadville. The canyon ends soon after Granite, too. We emerge into a wide valley. The peaks to the west are dramatic and tall – Mt Massive is the rather…um… massive peak that stands higher than the others. It’s a fourteener, too. Down in the valley, along the road, the decaying structures of an old ranch are being restored. Cattle still graze the lush river flats. The road seems flat, but we’re climbing the whole time.
The wind is not our friend, today. The 5-10 mph headwind that was supposed to turn light and variable has instead increased to 10-20 mph. Out here in the valley, it’s a tough slog. After the road crosses the Arkansas River, the road clings to the eastern edge of the valley and starts to climb more steadily. I push hard but it’s tough.
Finally, we reach the outskirts of Leadville. We’ve climbed from 7036 feet in Salida to 10,152 feet here. I stop to rest near a hamburger joint and think about what I want to do. The RV park in town doesn’t look attractive at all. The clouds are already towering and turning dark. I won’t be able to get out to Turquoise Lake, where there are numerous USFS campgrounds, before it storms. I’m not particularly in the mood to get wet since it is only about 54 F in the sun.
As I’m standing here catching my breath, I get the distinct feeling that I’m being watched. I look up to see several guys sitting at a picnic table at the burger joint looking at me. The one guy nods and yells out, “Are you okay? Or has the elevation got you”? I yell back, “No, I’m fine, just trying to figure out what I want to do. Thanks”!
I decide to find a cheap motel, since it’s supposed to rain all afternoon. I don’t want to just hang out in the tent while it is cold and wet. I find a place for $50 and settle on that. I’ve been to Leadville several times. I like the place – it’s gritty. It still feels like a mining town. It has a ton of great Victorian-era architecture in the main street and old mining scars and structures in every direction you look. Wander away from the touristy main street and you can just feel the spirits and history enveloping you. The Mineral Belt Trail, a paved bike path which I’ve done before, goes past a bunch of the old mine sites and has very interesting interpretive signage, if you’re in the mood for some educational riding. Today, though, I wander through the rock shop and then spend the rest of the afternoon napping while it rains.