“And so I said, ‘Hey! Look at that crazy guy on the bike!’ Then I saw your struggling cadence and thought ‘This guy isn’t doing too well’”. -Randy, a bit paraphrased.
Lately I’ve been having a bit of a tough time stomaching rent. It’s not that I’ve been sweating the payments, it’s that I’m baffled at the ridiculousness of paying 700 dollars a month for a place to shit, shower, and shave. I don’t even do the last two that often! So since July I’ve been cruising Craigslist in search of a van to live in… Grandma just fainted and Mom just rolled her eyes.
A few weeks ago my roommate Gia and I took a little road trip over Independence Pass into Aspen to check out one of these homes on wheels. I ended up putting down some hard earned cash and signed the bill of sale that day. It’s here that I decided to make a bit of an adventure out of the process. Rather than have Gia drive back the Santa Fe and me the van, I thought it would be interesting to bike back to Aspen.
Consult route for location references. https://www.strava.com/activities/423867419
Years ago my uncle John gave me a Bruce Gordon touring bike (look them up, they’re legendary). My second outing I broke my arm after failing to clip out, let’s call it an Artie Johnson to use my dad’s lingo. Anyhow, I’d been meaning to take it out on a real touring adventure but never found time to commit. No time like the present, even if it is the last week in October.
The original path I had planned took me over the formidable Independence pass but after considering the weather and heeding the words of cyclist extraordinaire, Jordan, I opted for the bike path that followed the I-70. It would offer much less precipitation, and much more bike path.
I set out Tuesday morning running a bit late on the bus up to Nederland. “Well I wasn’t expecting this” said the bus driver as the bus’s extra large wipers smeared wet flakes of snow on the windshield. It was a premonition for what would come. My first few miles were wet and soggy, making me wonder what the hell I had gotten myself into. In comparison to hitchhiking where you can hide from the weather at a gas station or some other shelter and still travel a respectable distance in a day, the mileage you travel bike touring corresponds directly to the amount of time your ass is in the saddle. Sitting out for an hour might leave you 15 fewer miles from your goal, this left me with a more “suck-it-up-and-ride-through-it” mentality.
After a good up and down battle on the Peak-to-Peak highway that decimated my menisci, I arrived at Idaho Springs just as a cold rain began to fall. It soon turned to sleet as I made my way on frontage roads to Downieville and my hands froze to the handlebars. I finally had to hop off and stick my hands in my armpits while jumping around to save them. A few girls pulled over and offered me a ride to the Conoco because I “looked so incredibly cold”. They gave me the uplifting news that the gas station was only 2 miles up the road and I jumped back on my iron horse, mostly in excitement to find some warmth, but also to get out of the area because someone was getting a bit over zealous with their 12 gage target practice and I wasn’t sure where the gun range was in relation to my location.
I purchased the only coffee shop drink I know, a large hot chocolate, at Starbucks while my hands thawed and customers looked at me like some crazy. Before I left I carried out a pack of hand warmers, in case of emergency.
By this time the snow had started coming down in full force and it was only because the asphalt was still barely above freezing that kept the surface rideable. I found a private frisbee golf course and based my decision to camp there merely because it was in such opposition to all the frisbee golf culture I had ever known. What lame people would create a private course for FRISBEE GOLF? I set up camp out of the main path on a nice flat tee-off platform. I fell asleep for a few hours before awaking again around 10. My support team (Gia) let me know that the temps would reach the teens that night and a few hours later I became familiar again with winter camping. How enjoyable it was to not allow my legs to fully stretch out because the blanket I brought was too short to fill the length of my bag. Somehow I managed to sleep through the wind and passing semis on the interstate below. God bless ear plugs.
The cold morning made camp cleanup take twice as long but that ended up being the least of the day’s troubles. The winds blowing across Georgetown lake almost knocked me down a few times before I made it up to Silver Plume and the roads turned to ice thanks to the storm the day before. About an hour and a half of mixed walking/riding on ice ended up in a situation that was even worse.
The bike path approaching the Eisenhower tunnel began with just a few inches of innocent powder, easily rideable and admittedly fun to cruise without a sound while snow clumps flew off the tires. But this wasn’t for long. The powder turned to crust and heavy slabs that stuck to my spokes and got caught up in the brakes. It was so deep at some points I could leave my 75 pound Brucey to stand upright without needing any tree to support it. At a few hours already on the trail, I was committed and couldn’t turn around. I’d trudge for 50 meters, let go of the handlebars, and yell some sort of four letter combination to an empty forest while the blue sky mocked above. By the end of the path, I had travelled 5 miles in 4 hours, and Loveland pass still loomed before me as the sun crested the ridge line.
My squeaking knees could barely get over the top tube and my clips were crusted-over with ice to the point they had no prayer of locking in. A black car rolled by and I managed to raise a hand to simulate a happy, friendly gesture. I must have failed. Out of my periphery I noticed the vehicle reverse to match my blazing uphill speed of 4 mph.
“You’re not thinking of heading up the pass are you?”, I hobbled to a stop.
“Are there any places open I can warm up in? Otherwise, yes, I’m hoping to pull off one of the switchbacks for the night.”
“The resorts open tomorrow.” a slight pause, “Why don’t you load your bike into the back of our car and spend the night at our place. We’ve got a warm bed and a hot shower.”
I thought for a second. It’s not my style to cut corners on a trip even to the extent of the impossible to fathom miserabilities. But at that moment, with knees killing me, frozen feet, and the lowest morale, this sounded like an absolute godsend. And I was curious as hell to meet these people who would pick up some long-haired kid off the side of the highway.
Back at Roberta and Randy’s place in Silverthorn I got to meet this beautiful couple a bit more. Bike tourers themselves, R&R were always on the lookout for fellow cyclists when they were on the road. “When I saw you I said ‘Hey look at that crazy guy!’ Then realized you might be needing some help”, Randy told me. Well, I truly can’t imagine I’d have finished this ride if the two of them hadn’t pulled over. It’s amazing what good company, a warm bowl of chili, and some soft sheets to curl up in, can do to help a weary traveller on his way.
I awoke the next morning feeling 100 times better and ready to hit the road. We had done a bit of research the night before and concluded that the pass over to Vail was probably not going to look good on the bike path, and if it was anything like I had endured the day before I was in no hurry to tramp through snow again.
In any case, I figured I would ride to Frisco to ask the local bike shop what their interpretation of the conditions would be. And boy was I glad I did so. The path along the Dillion reservoir was gorgeous and I managed to catch a spectacular red-tail hawk launch right in front of me as I rode along the path. It was the beginning of a good day.
To no surprise, the local reviews of the path said that it had iced-over and I rode to the entrance to the I-70 to do what I do best, hitchhike. 45 minutes later Brucey was in the bed and I was in the cab of a F-350 talking about the amazing ability of the human body to recover from it’s ailments. Periodically I’d peek out the window to glance at the bike trail. Sure enough, there were many sections with nothing but snow, and I was glad to not be chasing freshies sans snowboard.
I was dropped off in Minturn and thus began the day’s descent from 8000ft to 6000ft. It’s astonishing how much more ground can be covered when a bike tire is in its natural element of asphalt, not ice. I cruised to Glenwood Springs and made it to the brewery before happy-hour was over.
I began conversation with Bill, a Vietnam war vet who was also an avid cyclist in his day, riding to and from New York and Chicago many times. We talked for hours over a few imperial pints and double pours of Jameson. He was genuinely excited to help me on my trip to Aspen and even offered me a place to stay for the night. I politely declined, as I wanted to at least use some of the camping equipment I had been lugging over 100 miles. I found a grassy field next to the municipal airport that night and the air was a balmy 50 as I curled into my bag. The wind was stirring a bit so I expected it to rain, and it eventually started a light shower around midnight. I put up my rain fly and went back to sleep.
I found it curious to be awoken by my own sweat, as it was pretty cold outside so why would I be… OH NO. I bolted upright and turned on my headlamp. Even with my vision being on the verge of legal blindness I could see a puddle forming around my sleeping mat and felt the icy dampness that had soaked my sleeping bag. In my Jameson haze, I had failed to pull my floor tarp from underneath my rain fly, causing a pool to form under myself. It was 6AM and I had nothing left to do but pack my soggy belongings and try to find a place to warm up before setting off on the final 45-mile leg to Aspen. Thanks to the incredibly poor circulation in my fingers, I could only work for about 5 minutes before I’d have to stick my hands in my armpits to get the blood flowing again.
I chatted with the convenience store attendant while I warmed and learned the directions out of Glenwood Springs. “I’m definitely not jealous of you!” she called as I mounted Brucey and set off. Aside for a few brief rain showers, the slog up to Aspen wasn’t particularly bad. I was dead tired from the poor sleep of the night before and yawned through my first 20 miles. It’s worth noting how incredible the bike trails are in Colorado (when they aren’t snowed over). Between Glenwood Springs and Aspen is a path that used to be the old rail line following a river almost all the way to the mountains. It’s wide, has many bathroom stops along the route, and has very low traffic, (probably due to the season, but still worth a mention). It’s infinitely nicer to travel on these bikeways and never have to worry about speeding vehicles as it allows one to view a bit of the scenery and utilize the senses without being distracted.
As the miles whittled away, and the elevation increased I became increasingly excited as the journey was nearing its end. I rolled through the canyon and into Aspen to where the van was parked. Vince, the seller, had a pot of tea ready on the stove as I walked through the door. I recounted a few of the more memorable events as we re-scribed the bill of sale and then went out to go over a few final aspects of the van; it has so many features I’ll be learning the inns-and-outs for months to come. A few minutes later he wished me luck and hurried back to his home, hiding tears. Vehicle purchases are much more fulfilling when you know the previous owner cared so dearly for the intricately assembled mass of plastics, rubber, and steel. Don’t worry Vince, she’s got a good bit of adventure left in her.
As I relaxed by the fire of Bonfire Brewing in Eagle that night with an Imperial wet hop IPA, I settled in with the fact of how much more nomadic my life would become. I’ve still mentally committed myself to Boulder for the next few years to learn all I can in the web development industry before exploring new places, but rest assured (especially you Gram), I’ve still got a few Aces in the hole to keep life a little interesting.