08.01.11 – Big Hills, Bigger Thrills

I talked to Jesse (from Fort Collins) a lot about how he got over the Rockies. From Colorado Springs, I planned on following his exact route all the way to Gunnison. It was the suggested route by people he met when he did his ride. Still, even though he really seemed to enjoy this part of the ride, I was my usual self and held no expectations (not to be confused with low expectations!). I got an early start thinking I might do a 100 miles all the way to Salida if nothing grabbed my interest along the way. The riding was easy and I stopped in Cañon City at noon for lunch at their brewery. Sadly, their brewing license had not been acquired yet so I didn’t get any beer. It’s good that I didn’t because the hill just out of town was more like a small mountain. Appropriately named 8 Mile Hill, it rises 1000ft in, well, 8 miles! Starting it at 1pm and only traveling at 5mph, it reached 105 degrees several times. I knew there were a bunch of rafting companies at the top of the hill so I shade and water to look forward to before deciding my next move.

At the top of the hill there must have been half a dozen or so different rafting companies all vying for your choice. I chose the one that looked the coolest. How do I define cool? Well, Echo was too glitzy and had a big restaurant attached to it. It seemed like a family tourist trap. Another one looked just ridiculously small. They had a building not much bigger than a shed and activity around their property seemed pretty dead. As I approached the last company on the strip (really, it was the very last one!) it looked like the kind of place I’d like. A few old wooden buildings resembling what used to be barns and an A-frame shed were inhabited by only a handful of customers and guides. The guides there reminded me of the ones I rafted with in Fort Collins and talking with a few of them, it was obvious they had the friendly rafting guide personality (don’t ask me to explain that any more, you just have to experience it). An older gentleman behind the counter, Guy, told me about the area. All of these companies rafted down the Arkansas River, which flowed through the Royal Gorge, with several hundred foot vertical walls down to the river. Showing me a picture, I probably should have gone over there and walked out on the bridge but at this point I was still considering getting a move onto Salida. I asked about a place to get a sandwich to go and he offered to let me make myself a sandwich from some leftovers they had for the morning customers. Sweet!

As I made my sandwich in their Kitchen, Mel walked up and asked me where I was headed. I wasn’t surprised she knew it was my bike. There aren’t too many people walking around there in spandex. When I told her, a big smile overtook her face. I love it when that happens. I thanked Guy for the food and sat in the shade for a bit to eat and read a magazine about the area. I then decided to go talk to Mel a little more and hear her story. If I remember correctly, she hadn’t planned on working for River Runners but when she visited here with a friend, got hooked and was given a job. She bought a bus, made it into a little RV and parked it at a campground down the road from the company. She lives there 6 days a week and commutes back to her apartment in Manitou Springs to reload. When I asked about the cost of rafting, she offered to take me out on one of her free passes. Apparently each guide gets to take a couple people out each year for free and all they have to pay is the state fee of $3! I love it when that happens.

I think I was a pretty good addition to the boat since the family we were with seemed more interested in a leisure rafting session. I was super psyched that I had decided to spend my afternoon rafting instead of riding. We had been rained on a bit and then it was super hot. It would not have been a fun afternoon off the water. Wanting to repay my debt and hang out with my amazing new friend, I offered to buy Mel dinner. Unfortunately, she had a concert to go to with her rafting buddies but promised I could buy her breakfast and even offered to let me sleep on one of the cots in her bus! She warned me about her dog, Sebastian, but I told her I’m a dog guy and could gladly take care of him.

Riding into the campground, I passed a guy my age and he asked me where I was from. I figured he was just a curious RV traveler but then he told me that he was also crossing the country with three of his friends. They happened to be camping here for the night and also got a free rafting trip through their friend at another company! Kevin was his name, and I told him I’d come by to talk as soon as I took care of Mel’s dog. I got to the bus and met Sebastian. He’s a thin, 40 pound black lab with a seriously leaky slobber mouth. I’m almost certain he has a condition that causes him to over-salivate. Constantly, he would shake his head as if he had just gotten out of the pool! Cute as any dog, he just wanted to run and play. So run and play we did! We ran and played around the campground, which was really just me following/chasing him and I went to meet Kevin and his friends. They started in Ohio and have been following the ACA route. After finishing school it seems they decide to ride across on a bet. I put Sebastian away and we all went to a bar down the road to get some dinner. Along with Kevin was his girlfriend, Melissa, and another couple, Johnny and Kim. We swapped stories and decided to ride for a few days together over the Continental Divide.

In the morning, I noticed Mel had not yet returned from her concert and was a bit sad that I wouldn’t get to say bye or repay the favor. Kevin and the gang had left their bikes at the bottom of 8 mile hill so I was just going to wait for them to ride up (unloaded and lucky!) and then head out with them. As I finished packing up, Mel pulled up and we were able to grab a quick breakfast before she started work again. I learned that she has two children but kind of knew it already from seeing all of the children’s clothes and toys in her bus. She says the kids love spending time at the bus and the campground, which I can easily imagine. Just look at the pictures I took and the beautiful valley in which they get to play! It was exciting to hear more about her passion for rafting and that being out on the river has sparked an interest in going to school for environmental education. I realized I really like passionate people. It seems that anyone who is passionate about something recognizes that there are things in life greater than themselves. In a way, you gladly give yourself to your passion and proportionally get back what you’ve put in. Mel drove me back to the campsite and we said our goodbyes. She said she enjoyed meeting someone with such great energy. It was a word no one had ever used before to describe me. I couldn’t help but take a moment to think what the heck she could have meant. I didn’t feel any different nor did I think I acted any differently than I have before. I began to wonder (and still do) if I’ve been changing slowly over the course of my ride into someone with a better “energy”. Another part of me thinks I’m reading way to deep into the simple words of someone I’ve just met.

I went over and found Kevin and the crew had returned. They were just about ready to leave. Our descent into the canyon was fun and we road along Hwy 50 for pretty much the entire day. This section is on the ACA maps but it was pretty hairy at times. Little to no shoulder squeezed us between cars and a guard rail keeping us out of the rushing river. Headwinds greeted us through the entire day. Canyons are funny places for wind. It seems you can never be sure which way it will blow, regardless of the time of day. After 50 miles to Salida, we were too tired to continue up to Buena Vista. My plan was to head there and go up Cottonwood pass, a much less traveled road than Hwy 50. A guy at the local bike shop, however, told us that 50 would be fine and so instead of adding on an extra day, I decided to continue riding with my new friends. It would be nice to have people to celebrate with at the top of the Rockies! We checked out the local brewery, got some massive calzones, and passed out next to the river behind the bike shop. An early morning included only three of us. Johnny must’ve had a bad calzone and decided to take a day off. Kevin and Mel set off in front of me while I took too long to decide on my climbing music. I chose Slayer to start me off.

The ride up Monarch Pass was pretty intense. In the granny gear, I averaged about 4 or 5 miles an hour. It took 3 hours to travel 15 miles but we gained 4,000ft. I remember rounding the last switchback and being surprised that I was at the top. It was unreal. I was officially at the highest point of my ride, 11,300ft. Though I couldn’t see past the mountains that surrounded me, I looked back east and could see all of the roads I traveled to get there. I thought of everything I had done that put me here on this peak at this moment in this state of mind. The rain that set me back in Virginia, the tailwinds that pushed me 130 miles in one day, and the rafting that grabbed me only days before were just a few of the things that made that moment special. If you’re reading this, thank you for helping to it make happen.

Looking around, I didn’t see Kevin or Mel. It turns out they stopped at a rest stop along the way and we totally missed seeing each other! I was on top by myself for a half hour and I was almost certain they rode down the other side without me! When they reached the top, I did my best to capture their faces with my camera but it only worked so well. We had some food and they took the Gondola the extra 700ft to the peak. No way I was going to rely on a machine to get me up there! It was a very steep hill but after 20 minutes of some manly hiking, I arrived at the peak under my own power. The walk down was a bit easier and the ride down was spectacular! We got stuck behind a semi so we couldn’t reach our max speeds but 35mph down a winding road was fun enough. I got as close as I would possibly dare to the truck to see if drafting it would do anything. I think it did because I found myself having to brake. It was pretty cool to pass a car and wave outside their window at those speeds!

I was very happy to finally be seeing my friend, Jim Harding, in Gunnison. Jim is a friend from college a couple years older than I. He’s getting married soon and since he was at work, his fiancée, Erin, took us out for some good Mexican food and beers at the local brewery. It was surprising to see such a small town have their own brewery but then again, this is Colorado! Kevin, Mel and I spent a day exploring the town, visiting an art festival and eating some great food. Johnny and Kim came into town that day and then they all left for Crested Butte the next day. Kim had friends up there and invited me to come along but I wanted to rest my legs and spend some more time with Jim. I rode a few miles with them out of town and then headed to a coffee shop for some blogging. Perhaps I will see my friends again in San Francisco, which is where they plan on finishing their ride. Heck, they may even be there by now!

I thought I’d get through more days than this, but again I’ve managed to write about every little detail. Enjoy this, I hope you will. Get out there.

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