Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Across the Rocky Mountains

36 Years ago, I took a photo of my Honda 450 near this spot. A couple from Minnesota, whose friend designs motorcycle engines specifically for the Pike's Peak Race, insisted on taking my photo.

10:30 PM

Point Campground in the John Martin Reservoir State Park east of Pueblo, Colorado.

The sign at the campground entrance warns: ”no electric, no water, no shade.” And no humans. Not a soul around. (Though I can hear U.S. 50 to the north, an occasional train crossing south of here and a rare aircraft above.)


Started the morning at 6:30, uncertain if I had disturbed my neighbors with my snoring. (Perhaps related to this, I observed the nearby group of rock climbers looking rather somber, as they wordlessly prepared for the day's activity.)

Late summer is a great time to travel. Harvest time! An emotional time of year to share with your fellow humans.

Route 92 following the Gunnison up to Blue Mesa Reservoir is great, though a few sharp curves caught me by surprise. Nothing serious, just some unexpected hitting of the brakes. I was cold, and going faster than I should have been.

I was driving into the early morning sun, so I pulled over to take out sunglasses for the first time in my travels. Though I bought them over 18 months ago, the prescription lenses were incompatible with the Lexan faceshield material. Together, they created a polarized and refracted rainbow of color. So, I’ve never used them.

But this morning, I needed something, even if I had to ride with the faceshield open. Taking out the case, I found the frames broken, the sunglasses unusable.

I was happy to reach Gunnison, Colorado and begin my search for a hot cup of coffee. At 7,703 feet, this town attracts a hearty people. The Crested Butte ski country is just to the north. Lots of “outdoorsy” young people in town. High energy, healthy.

I quickly found The Bean coffee shop downtown. It’s wonderful: a buzzing community gathering spot. In addition to the usual coffee house fare, they specialize in crepes. I stuck with my usual cappuccino and a toasted bagel.

Climbing out of Gunnison, along the Taylor River, I stopped to watch fly fishermen. It’s something I can’t really relate to. I see it as a childish, cruel game, this “catch and release”. But I forced myself to spend a bit of time down on the riverbank, among the fishermen, looking for a little enlightenment.

Fly fishermen casting for Kokanee Salmon along Colorado's Taylor River north of Gunnison

At Taylor Reservoir, the road leaves the shady riverbank, skirts the reservoir and crosses alpine meadows. I turned off onto a broad unpaved road that would take me over the 12,126-foot Cottonwood Pass. Though still wet in many areas, the gravelly surface was firm and I could ride confidently. At the summit, there’s a wide open parking area from which to take in the Rocky Mountain panorama

Of all the possible Continental Divide crossings, I randomly selected Cottonwood Pass. It's an incredibly beautiful drive up the western slope, following the Taylor River. While the western approach is gravel, the ride down the east side is smooth asphalt.

A view west from Cottonwood Pass, Colorado

There I met Bob Keiss. Retired now, he had headed up Colorado’s Department of Wildlife Management for a quarter of the state. He explained that area lakes are stocked with Kokanee Salmon (those seen in the Taylor River below), specifically for sportfishing.

I heard the roar below and said to him “here come the Harleys.” Randy Sanders of Springfield, Virginia and Bob Williams of Shawnee, Oklahoma rolled up from the east side (which is a nicely-paved road.).

Atop Cottonwood Pass, I met these characters riding Harley Softails.

Randy Sanders of Springfield, Virginia (on the red 2003 "Fat Boy") and Bob Williams of Shawnee, Oklahoma (on a 1999 Softail) have been riding buddies since the mid-60s. They wanted me to mention in the caption that they had just driven down off that rocky slope in the background.

We talked a bit of our rides and snapped some photos. They joked about taking their gleaming Harleys off-road, heading up a nearby rocky trail.

Cottonwood Lake

Autumn color just coming to the Rockies

Pike’s Peak seemed a fitting farewell to the mountains. It's truly awesome to climb to the 14,110-foot summit and see the plains spread eastward from its base. A lot has changed since I last visited. The toll road is mostly paved now. (I believe it was free, all gravel the last time I visited.) There are multiple gift shops along the route, including a large visitor complex at the summit. Police regularly patrol the road.

View from Pike's Peak. Colorado Springs sprawls below.

It was about 40 degrees up at the top. And still some slippery patches of mud, slush and snow. You can’t get too cocky, but in all it's a pretty tame ride these days (unless, of course, you're in the annual race up the mountain.)

Parked my bike roughly where I had taken a similar photo 36 years ago. I was just going to take a photo of the bike there, but a couple from Minnesota insisted upon taking the picture with me in the photo. They told me their friend in Minnesota builds motorcycle engines especially for the "Pike’s Peak Rally".

Descending the Peak, I came to a brake-check station, where vehicles must stop to have an officer check their brake temperature (I guess with an infra-red monitor.) An effort to prevent boiling brake fluid and runaway vehicles on the steep, winding mountain road. I was waved through without a stop.

Pike's Peak from the Crystal Creek Reservoir

I couldn’t get through Colorado Springs quickly enough. It is completely unrecognizable as the city I visited years ago. Crazy sprawl. I took highway 94 due east, breathing a sigh of relief as the suburbs yielded to rolling prairie.

Turned south at Yoder, intending to connect with U.S. 50 forty or fifty miles to the south. Within a short distance, the pavement ended. (The atlas showed this road as paved!) I was on a dirt farm road, but was committed. The sun was sinking and I didn’t want to waste time back-tracking.

Strong cross winds washed out of the Rockies and across these plains. The road was broad and flat, but rutted. Between ruts, mounds of soft soil were heaped up. Occasionally, especially in low-lying areas, there was standing water and mud. This was Argentina’s Ruta 40 revisited. (Difficult to imagine in the United States!)

Somehow confident that road conditions would not deteriorate below a certain level, I kept my speed up around 60 mph and rode standing, only slowing when I approached muddy sections.

I figured as long as the road continued south I was bound to run into U.S. 50. (“It’s unlikely that these roads would simply come to an end out here.”) My eye followed the power lines that paralleled the road, searching in the distance for any sign of a change in course. When I’m lost, I tend to become apprehensive, impatient and speed up. All the wrong responses.

After forty miles or so, I thankfully reached pavement. It was dusk. The road bent west. “Wrong way!” I stopped to look at the atlas. It showed the jog. I just hadn’t paid careful attention when looking at the map earlier. U.S. 50 was not far now.

I waved down a passing motorist to ask directions to 50. He directed me toward Fowler, where I would connect with the highway.

Once on 50, I could relax a bit. Few worries about the road surface, only the occasional critter that might be lurking on the shoulders. These are roads that’ll wear my tire tread flat, as it’s nearly a straight line to the Mississippi now.

I set John Martin Reservoir as my target for tonight. Riding well after dark, counting down the miles.

Stopped at a roadside produce stand and purchased two ears of corn and a bag of “Señor Tom’s Lime Flavored Potato Chips”.

The cost to stay in this “unimproved” campground is $17. Expensive! I first checked on one at the eastern end of the reservoir, which was lined with motorhomes, and featured well-lighted grounds, bath houses and some other facilities. Talked with the host. He said for a few dollars less, I could try the more remote “Point Campground”.

Cooked the corn, half an ear at a time. Also munched some Whole Foods 365-brand peanuts. “These suck!” (They must buy distressed inventories á la Trader Joe’s.)

I've needed the electric vest the last couple days, coming over the high desert and Rockies. I'm hoping to pack it away now.

Great view of the Milky Way out here on the open plains. Few lights in the area. A nearly-third quarter moon finally rose around 10:15, washing out the spectacle.

In my tent by 10:30. It had been a long day, with a lot of terrain covered. Slowly but surely, camping is becoming more comfortable.

Coyotes howling in the night. Bats squeaking. Crickets chirping.


otto said...

UH!!!--excuse me
Can you step aside, we can't see the view.

Thank you!!


Anonymous said...

36 years ago? And you were, what...12 at the time? As G.Bernard Shaw said, "It's not that we stop playing because we grow old...we grow old because we stop playing!"

Keep on, young fella! Evan