There was one last famous rock display to squeeze in before leaving Utah. On my day off in Moab I cycled over to Arches National Park to admire the surreal formations with the swarms of other sweaty tourists.
I really liked Moab. It was a dusty desert town who’s streets were lined with more ATVs (quad bikes) than I’ve ever seen in my life but it had a supermarket and that was enough to make me happy after a not seeing much human life across the state. There was certainly more to Moab than a supermarket: it is a mecca for outdoor pursuits and I met some fantastic characters there.
The following day Amrah – who’d put me up for a couple of nights in town – took me out kayaking with a couple of his pals down the Colorado River. What away to spend the day! We floated downstream past red rock cliffs and jagged formations.
In the morning I cycled back up the way to where we had floated to and then turned East towards the looming La Sal mountains. Amrah’s colleagues at the bike shop in town had persuaded me to cross the mountains into Colorado and so I had a long climb ahead of me.
The previous night it had rained for the first time in a month and now the clouds hung low and drizzled intermittently. By the time I reached the top of the mountain and erected my tent it was raining heavily. I wanted to cook in my tent but I was back in bear country and that didn’t seem a good idea so I ate outside in the rain.
I was high up, above 8,500 ft once again. The La Sal mountains are the first I’ve seen above 12,000 ft since California and everything here looked different. The hills were blanketed in green trees and the mountain tops still had patches of snow on them. Small streams trickled through the forests. I wasn’t across the state border just yet, but this is what I imagined Colorado to look like.
At the first mountain pass there were some signs pointing out dinosaur footprints. They looked like the ancient animal just walked straight off the edge of the cliff but of course the landscape would have looked very different when those beasts roamed…
I was in Colorado. The road dipped down through a tight canyon and into Gateway, from where I pedalled north to Grand Juncton. I pulled up at the Greyhound station and waited for my sister’s bus to arrive.
I’ve been in a hurry the last few weeks but I’ve had good reason for it. My little sister Lea is coming out to cycle with me for a month and I needed to be somewhere we could easily meet. She had a flight booked to Denver ages ago but we’d decided that she could get the bus across the mountains from there to Grand Junction and catch me there. That way we’d get to pedal over the Rockies before the boring Great Plains.
I was excited to have some company. I’ve spent enough time by myself over the last 30 months to not get lonely anymore but I have noticed a change in my sociability recently. I’m tired of making new friendships that only last a couple of days at most. I still relish my opportunities to meet and engage with new people but at the same time I am starting to really miss being able to form new relationships. That has been missing from my life for a long time now. I’m constantly making my millionth ‘first-impression’ and forming them about others. I’m telling the same introductions and stories non-stop. I miss hanging out with friends who know me. Those who understand my humour and personality. The people I can sit with in comfortable silence with whilst still enjoying the company, rather than feeling awkward.
We Couchsurfed for a couple of nights in Grand Junction with Kevin and Elizabeth, a lovely couple who gave us a lift to the top of Colorado National Monument so we didn’t have to cycle all the way up. Lea’s never done any long-distance cycling and although Colorado will be an unavoidably tough introduction to touring, starting the ride off with a 1,500 ft ascent might be a little sadistic.
What a beautiful place to start the ride! We pedalled along the cliff’s rim, beside sweeping views of the valley below. It was great, until Lea’s tyre went flat…
I cycled over 5,000 miles and 6 months before I got my first puncture. Lea managed 3 miles and 15 minutes. I so rarely get flats that I don’t usually bother packing my spare tube on a day excursion and now we had nothing to make the repair. Great start.
It was sweltering so we pulled the bikes in under the juniper trees for some shade. Typically, it was now the hottest part of the day and all the traffic seemed to have suddenly disappeared. Another cyclist raced past on a road bike and I rushed out behind her to see if she had any patches with her. She didn’t, but just told me to take her spare tube and extra tyre levers. What an angel!
I returned to Lea and began inflating the new tube. My bike pump got stuck on the valve and when I pulled it off the valve split in two. Crap! The outer half of the valve was stuck in my pump and we couldn’t get it out. I needed a pair of pliers but – of course – mine were back in Grand Junction with the rest of the my tools. We flagged cars until we found someone with a pair, managed to pull the parts apart and finally got Lea’s bike on the move again. The whole ordeal had taken us a good two hours.
It was a beautiful descent down to Fruita, a cute little town north-west of Grand Junction. The nice bloke in ‘Colorado Back Country Biker’ bent Lea’s derailleur hanger back into shape for free so she could get into her lowest gear (and I was relieved that it hadn’t just been because I wasn’t able to adjust it properly) and we met up with Kevin & Elizabeth for pizza. The restaurant advertised beers for $2 when it was 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I checked the weather and was disappointing to discover it was ‘only’ 97…
It was time for us to start our tour. Highway 50 was a dull and busy road towards Delta but we were told that it would have less traffic and better scenery the further we headed east. The scenery was still arid high-desert and the temperatures roasting. When I started cycling I had cold weather along the pancake flat North Sea coast in Europe from London to Copenhagen. Lea has scorching temperatures and big mountains to manoeuvre. Let’s hope she survives.
Her first big climb was up to Black Canyon, a detour straight up the mountains and only one way back down again. It was worth the slog. The canyon’s steep sides were a dramatic sight.
We camped up at the top and cycled along the rim in the morning. At the visitor centre we chatted to some Amercians who asked us where we were from in Australia. This couple had actually lived in Oz for three years! The fact that they still couldn’t hear the difference between an English and Aussie accent baffled me…
I wrote a few mean things about the American’s inabilaty to spot the difference between our British accent and our mates Down Under in the previous blog. I don’t want to repeat the rant but what was an amusing observation in the last post has now started to piss me off. More people think we are Australian than British. A lot more.
We had an even better encounter at the National Monument with a guy from New York. Sometimes me and Lea talk Danish when we want to bitch in secret about someone nearby but on this occasion we were speaking the Queen’s English with a blatant London twang. This American came over and said “I love you guys’ accent! You’re French, right?” I can’t make this up, I promise…
The weather was changing. Every afternoon big black clouds rolled in over the mountains. Some days we’d get lucky, other times we’d get drenched. I was glad Lea had packed a good raincoat despite me telling her I’d had rain once during my first month in the country. The locals tell us it is monsoon season which I think is a pretty pathetic use of the word ‘monsoon’. A brief afternoon shower is not a monsoon. It’s a sprinkle in comparison. Go ride your bike in Myanmar in May as I did and you will understand the word monsoon.
In Gunnison we stayed with Chris & Krissy who took us up to Crested Butte, a ski resort with a free concert on. The band played against a gorgeous backdrop but to a crowd covered in bright raincoats ready for the black clouds to open.
I was not enjoying Highway 50 at all. It had indeed gotten more beautiful but not less busy, as we’d been told. The road narrowed into two lanes without a hard shoulder and it was hard to appreciate the scenery with all the dangerous traffic. I wouldn’t have picked the road if I’d been on my own but I thought it would be a good route for Lea to cycle over the mountains. The road was marked as ‘scenic’ on my map, it wasn’t remote at all and the gradients were civilised.
Locals told us that the road isn’t usually this busy but for some reason it had been worse this summer. That wasn’t much comfort. When we heard that the stretch over Monarch Pass was 3-lanes I decided that enough was enough. If I am going to climb a 10,000 ft pass for the final time on this tour I wanted to do it properly. Lea said she was up for an adventure so I plotted an alternative route along 30 miles of dirt culminating at the Old Monarch Pass.
It was a beautiful ride once we hit the dirt. There was barely any cars on the back country roads through open ranches, just grazing cattle and the occasional farm house. The road quality deteriorated towards Black Sage pass but at least Lea would now understand what I meant by ‘piece-of-shit washboard’. It was worth it. Mountains should be enjoyed in peace and quite. If there is noise to deal with, it should come from your bicycle bumping over the rocks and not from loud engines.
It was our last night in bear country. Good riddance. I tied up our food to an electricity pylon nearby and was pleased that I wouldn’t have to worry about the bears until I reach the Appalachians. Lea was happy too. Being the nice, caring and considerate older brother that I am I had sent her this article a couple of days before she flew out about the boy who’d been camping in these mountains and had been woken up by a bear dragging him out the tent, skull clenched in the bear’s jaw.
We made it up and over Old Monarch Pass in the morning. The road was well graded, the ascent was gradual and the lack of oxygen not a problem at all. The Americans are pathetic about altitude. Honestly, some of the ‘advice’ they offered Lea about cycling at high altitude made it sound like she was pedalling up and over Everest. They told her to drink extra water, pay attention to her head and if she felt at all funny to quickly descend to lower altitude. Then she should rest for a day to acclimatise before trying again.
We could just about notice that the air was thinner above 11,000 ft but it was hard to tell – sometimes you think you notice the lack of oxygen simply because you know that you are high up. What I had told Lea was correct: If you are fit enough to ride a bicycle you will not notice the difference in altitude below 10,000 ft if you are slowly cycling up. I never notice it before 12,000 ft. If you are having troubles at 9,000 ft then you should either stop smoking or go and see a doctor. I think Lea was disappointed to get over so easily after listening to all the Americans’ scare-mongering. Personally, I was very annoyed that she reached the top before me…
From the pass it was an easy descent down on the asphalt down to Salida, a cute little town with many mule-deer strolling around the suburbs as if they owned the place.
We continued downhill towards Canyon City where we stayed with Mark and Susan via Warsmhowers. They were in the process of building the most beautiful house in the mountains and we got to sleep in their RV which was very exciting. I’ve shared the road with hundreds of those things but never actually stepped inside one.
On the way into town we cycled up along Skyline drive. The road was made in 1905 by the inmates at a prison nearby. From there we could see the flat horizon. I haven’t seen anything like that since Central Valley in California. We had reached the Great Plains. That was the end of the mountains…
We took a day off in Pueblo. That was the town where me and Lea were initially planning on meeting up. Thank God we started in Western Colorado. I don’t think Lea realised how boring the Plains would be. I did, and I also wanted to see more in Utah so I took things a little slower and squeezed in as many parks as I could. The 10 days me and Lea spent in the mountains were amazing and I’m so glad that she got to experience crossing the Continental Divide. I am not excited about what comes next.
Our first couple days on the plains were still fun. The empty horizons were a novelty and flat cycling is always welcome after a stretch in the mountains. Once again I was amazed by the scenic variation of this country.
I’ll tell you about the Great Plains properly in the next blog but before I wrap things up let me just say a few nice things about this country before things get dull. The last 6 weeks here have been one of the best sections of my entire trip. I had no idea the US would blow me away like this. When I compare this to the other best 6 week stretches it is right up there with the ride through Central Asia from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan and my ride from Chengdu in the heart of China, up onto the Tibetan Plateau and down into tropical Yunnan.
In this country I’ve experienced the Bay Area’s urban sprawl, crossed two big mountain ranges, tackled the deserts of Nevada, rode some surreal landscapes in Utah and had this alpine workout in Colorado. It has been an absolute blast.
Now it is time for some flat…