Wednesday, May 23: Hagerman Pass — epic descent — Basalt — Carbondale: 67.5 miles
Morning at 11,000 feet: the sounds of birds are punctuated only by Steve and Tyler chatting outside the tent — and the furious drone of a dirt bike. Its rider flies by at 100 miles an hour and on his eventual return trip, spots Steve’s motorcycle and stops. He chats incessantly, leaving us all speechless and wondering how to get some of whatever he’s on.
After he finally leaves, breakfast is on: instant coffee, oatmeal with butter, brown sugar and fresh diced apples. We pack up our tent, sleeping bags and pads, cook stuff, clothes and everything else and make it fit (somehow) in our waterproof panniers (waterproof a word which will later be paramount). We part ways with Steve and climb up the last couple miles to Hagerman Pass. Already Mr. Wind is singing happily, his tune rising to a gusting crescendo every now and again.
In the first mile, we gain 800 feet or so, our wheels creep over large rocks and dried mud. Later this becomes large rocks and muddy mud. There are piles of snow and slush, most of which can be fought through. We — especially me — spend a fair chunk of time pushing our bikes along, our cleats clogging with cold mud. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about walking when I’m riding and wondering about riding when I’m walking. I come to the conclusion there is nothing quite like mountain biking with a fully rigid (aka no shock), mostly loaded touring bike, uphill, in the snow/mud. Tyler mostly rides through everything — or could. But being a gentleman and a scholar, he pretends to need to hike his bike with me.
Eventually, we reach our own crescendo — the apex of this magnificent, challenging climb. The top is more tunnel than road, a path through uneven white. I imagine that we could pop out anywhere — Narnia, Europe, China, or Middle-earth.
We emerge blinking from the tunnel, like newly formed butterflies on wheels. Although it took us longer than I’ll admit here, we made it to the top! And then, we begin what will become a very epic descent — one that encompasses around 60 miles.
The crest of Hagerman Pass is a flat other world, an amazingly dry (for late May at 11,900 feet), hardpacked wilderness. The otherworldish, alone feeling is broken only by a monstrous power station — probably the reason the road has been plowed. Clouds swirl busily overhead and Mr. Wind’s presence is strong and chill. We are at our highest point, and from here it is only down.
At first, we pick our way down through large rocks and hard-packed ruts that resist our tires, as unforgiving as a tax collector or an angry ex-lover. There is a short eternity of this — I imagine the creators of Rocky Road ice cream must have been wildly inspired by our location.
From this jostling path, we dump out onto another road which is alternately teeth-rattling and slightly less teeth-rattling. We continue as such until:
Road has become river. Tyler bravely pedals across the icy water, maybe a foot deep and flowing steadily. I picture myself getting halfway across and falling over — one of those slow motion falls where one is completely aware yet unable to change one’s trajectory.
I give up on the notion of riding, take my shoes and socks off and… I balk. Tyler waits patiently on the far side with an blatantly amused look. I take a deep breath and splash through water so cold that it must have been a glacier moments ago. I can feel my toes just about as much as George Bush felt like he wanted to end the war in Iraq. Tyler is laughing so hard he probably peed his pants.
After the sensation comes back to my toes, we continue on. Down, rolls the road, into the trees which block us from Mr. Wind’s annoying advances. Down, winds the road, past a precipitous drop on our left to another faraway dirt road and a sea of aspen. Down, dips the road, through pine trees and meadows. The descent goes on for so long it becomes hypnotizing.
We erupt finally onto pavement and break for lunch. As we snack on leftover pizza, we realize we haven’t seen anyone since Steve left, and before that no one but the annoying guy on the dirt bike. It’s a great feeling, being alone like this. Alone — except for the clouds looming ominous and watery in the distance. We press on in cooler air.
The next hours are a blur of green aspens, lonely, delicious paved roads and the rumble of the river whose downward motion we mimic. We pass the oddly named Mt. Nast Colony, nestled somewhere below in the trees near a lake amusingly named Nast E Lake.
The equally intriguing Norrie Colony whizzes by, followed shortly by sleepy, picturesque Meridith. Once, we stop to filter water by a culvert. The water is turbid from spring runoff, still eerily yellow-ish in our bottles even after it is filtered.
At Ruedi Reservoir — eternally long and narrow — the faraway ominous, watery cloud remains both ominous and watery but fails to be far away. We don rain jackets and pants as it begins to drizzle. The road is now a rolling journey around the reservoir. Rolling roads steadily become a climb as the drizzle turns to rain. Soon, the roads are wet. The canyon walls turn red as do the rocks, the dirt. Farms and expensive houses spring up. Cattle and cattails, herons and hawks, white fences and grizzled farmers. Rain brightens the colors in this amazing valley, but we can’t stop to enjoy. The rain is on and off and we still have much to ride.
In Basalt, we search for coffee, but it remains elusive. Between Basalt and Carbondale, the rain becomes a torrent. The bike bath would be pleasant — nearly deserted, downhill and through waterways, wild hedges and forest — if we weren’t standing beneath a massive trough being emptied by a nearby god. Thunder booms and lightning flashes as water drips down through our helmets and down our noses, rejoining its brethren now gushing freely down the bike path. At some point, I become very grateful that my panniers are waterproof (as I mentioned before). I am also thankful that the bike path is more or less straight, as I cannot see anything through my rain and mud smeared lenses.
But eventually, we squish through Carbondale and then ooze six more miles south to the RV park where Tyler’s parents’ very dry RV awaits us. Inside are two very worried but welcoming people — Mama Judy and Papa Ed. And two schnauzers with funny little ears. Dripping and with appetites as large as seven starved lions, we are ushered inside and stuffed with homemade ribs, tabouli, fries, coffee and wine. And for dessert, a little something special whipped up by Chef Judy:
Home made key lime pie! I have surely ridden myself to death and gone to heaven.
Tomorrow: the rain stops, but we sure don’t! Stay tuned for day three…