There is a famous poem by Robert Frost about taking the road less traveled. Our life adventure (retiring early, selling or giving away most of what we own, and cycling across the US), is certainly a metaphorical road less traveled. Yesterday we literally took a road less traveled and our dedication ride to John Klemm turned into a real adventure.
Our initial plan was to ride along highway 50 — yes, that same old highway 50 that was its own dedication ride adventure — up and over Colorado’s Monarch pass and then down into the town of Salida. Monarch Pass would have taken us to 11,312 feet of elevation. But unlike Highway 50 through Nevada where the highway earns its nickname as “The Loneliest Road in America,” this section of Highway 50 is a major thoroughfare with lots of cars and big trucks. And not much shoulder to cycle in.
The night before our ride a couple of fellow cyclists recommended that we tackle Marshall’s Pass instead. This summit is only 10,864 feet, saving us 500 feet of climbing. Better yet, this road is built on a repurposed railroad line that winds through beautiful countryside, so, while 7 miles longer, never very steep. And because it’s a one lane dirt road, there are almost no cars.
They were not the first cyclists to make this recommendation.
Joy and I were torn about which route to take, particularly because it was supposed to rain all day.
When we got up early on Friday, the predicted rain had not yet appeared, though the skies were filled with complex layerings of grey clouds that promised a rain storm ahead. Beautiful and threatening at the same time. Knowing that it was going to rain at some point during our ride, I kitted up my bike seat and panniers with their rain covers and made sure my rain gear was easy to get to.
Even though it was 6am, there were already a lot of big trucks rolling by along Highway 50. Thinking about riding along the shoulder, getting splashed by big trucks zooming by, made the dirt road seem like a better alternative.
Fifteen minutes along the dirt road and we were congratulating ourselves on our decision. The road was smooth, packed dirt and the thanks to the train requirements for shallow grades, we were cycling in middle gears rather than super low gears and averaging 6-7 mph rather than 3mph.
The only thing that was slowing us down was our constant desire to stop and look at the beautiful scenery. We stopped to see if we could catch a glimpse of the beavers that had been building dams and lodges along the river. We often stopped to watch deer we’d startled pick their way through the Aspen forests. We stopped to watch eagles soar across the valley to land in trees just up ahead of us before launching themselves for another flight over lush meadows. Beautiful. And quiet.
“John Klemm would have loved doing this ride with us,” one of us said during one of our many snack breaks. I don’t remember who said it, though it’s irrelevant since we each said it several times during the climb.
Even better, we were able to cycle side by side. Cars were so rare we didn’t have to worry about them. And on the rare occasions that one passed us, we could hear it coming a long way off. In fact, over the course of the day we only encountered seven cars on that road.
As we climbed, the road became more demanding of our attention and more of a mountain bike ride as we maneuvered around loose rocks and roots and soft sand. As we picked our way along the road looking for the best cycling line we tried to stay away from the steep cliff drop off that sometimes was on the right side of the road and sometimes along the left. Along steeper sections or where springs or streams wandered across the road, the road had become washboarded (a series of parallel mini speed bumps that can be bone jarring whether you’re riding a bike or sitting in a car).
After nearly 18 miles we reached the summit. 10,842 feet. Not the 11,312 feet of Monarch Pass but still our highest summit ever. We were pretty proud of ourselves. Most people are out of breath just walking around at 10,000 feet and here we were cycling with bikes each loaded down with over 50 pounds of gear. Yay, us!
At the summit Joy suggested that we celebrate being at the continental divide by pouring water onto each section of the divide and capturing this moment with pictures. I don’t know what this was supposed to mean but we did it. Personally, I celebrated by standing on one side and peeing onto the other. A classic example of how men and women think differently.
As we stood on the summit we noted how cold it had suddenly become. The storm was definitely coming now. Looking up at the sky we saw nothing but angry clouds in every direction. We easily had 15 miles of down hill dirt road to ride and since we would have to ride slowly because of the road conditions the descent was likely going to take us a couple hours followed and another hour of riding once we reached pavement.
Just as Joy’s nemesis is heat, mine is cold. I hate being cold. I hate when my hands and feet are cold. I always wear wool socks with my riding shoes while Joy rarely wears socks. Today was no exception. Deciding to get ahead of the game, I put my rain coat on over my cycling jacket. I was now wearing three layers. I also pulled my rain pants on over my cycling shorts and switched from my half-finger cycling gloves to my full-fingered gloves. I did not put my rain booties on over my shoes. I would come to regret that. Joy, in a rare moment of testosterone-driven thinking, decided she wasn’t going to put on her rain gear just yet. She would come to regret this, too.
In Ken Burns’ documentary about the Donner Party, at one point the narrator says, “That night it began to snow.” For us, the narration would be, “And then it almost snowed”. It was almost cold enough to snow. For moments at a time it would hail – we could tell because it would hurt when it hit us in the face. We couldn’t wear our sunglasses so our faces were completely at the mercy of the weather.
If it had snowed we would have been better off. As it was, the road quickly became treacherous. Dirt became mud. Rocks and gravel became slippery. Firm dirt became soft. And while the grade was gradual, it meant we were constantly picking up speed we didn’t want. Picking the right path became much harder. And that cliff along the road edge became more challenging to avoid.
I asked Joy to always ride on the uphill side of the road. I remembered watching her ride her bicycle off a cliff in Bali, and given the sharp drop off here, I didn’t want to experience that again.
We decided that we would switch to riding one behind the other with me in front since I sometimes have a better knack for finding the line than Joy.
During the descent I continually thought to myself, “John would have hated this.” Joy and I were definitely hating it!
As we descended, the road became more and more slick with mud and sections of running water. And the temperature continued to drop. My feet were sodden and freezing. My hands and fingers had become numb which was a real problem because we were constantly braking. At first I was hearing Joy brake because one of her brake pads was slightly misaligned and squealing. Over time I stopped hearing the squeal and assumed she was applying a different braking technique. And then I realized I was squeezing the brakes harder and harder. We were wearing through our brake pads! It was getting harder and harder to brake and we had a long way to go.
I worried about one of us slipping and falling. With all the rocks on the road, even only going 8-10 mph we’d surely end up cut and bleeding. I worried about one of us puncturing a tire. It was getting harder to avoid all the sharp rocks and every time I felt a tire pinch a rock and send it flying with a ping my heart would skip for a beat. Trying to clean and dress a wound or fix a flat tire with numb fingers would be next to impossible.
When I’m backpacking, or more recently cycling along on a very hot day, I often fantasize about having a refreshing root beer float. Today I found myself yearning for a hotel bed piled with blankets and snuggling with Joy for body heat.
Even though I wasn’t pedaling as we coasted downhill, I found my breath coming in gasps and my body beginning to go through big shudders. Now I had serious things to worry about since my core body temperature had obviously dropped. Looking back at Joy, I realized that she’d lost all color in her face and she was worse off than I was. We stopped to talk about whether we should try to set up the tent to ride out the storm. But given how much trouble I’d had earlier trying to undo my pants so I could pee, there was no way we’d have the dexterity to put up the tent or start the camp stove.
The lack of cars on this road didn’t seem like such a blessing now. We decided our best bet was to get down off the mountain as soon as we could. It had to be warmer the lower we got. We continued to descend, pulling harder and harder on our brakes before the remaining brake pads engaged.
After 90 minutes the harrowing part of the ride was over. We’d hit lower elevations and the temperature was much warmer, though it was still pouring rain. It was also a relief that the grade had flattened out. We slogged along flat, muddy roads for a few miles before finally reaching pavement. Twenty minutes later we pulled into a deli and ordered two large hot chocolates. We were so wet and mud spattered I’m sure it looked like we’d drowned and then waded through vats of hot chocolate.
5 miles later we had checked into a hotel, showered, and were sitting in the hotel’s hot tub.
Man, what a great day of cycling. John would have loved it!