I’m sitting in Bongo Billy’s Salida Cafe, drinking a cup of coffee and reading Persepolis for book club on Tuesday. The book is wonderful so far. My knees are aching. My thighs are aching. My feet and ankles are aching. Even my fingers are aching. And my eyes are still bleary even though it’s 11:30 a.m.
Dave and I took Friday off work and packed up the car. We had to stop at the gas station and the grocery store and water the garden before we could get out of Lafayette, but we drove away by about 10:00 a.m. It only takes about two hours and forty-five minutes to get to Salida from home, so we arrived in the early afternoon. We first headed to the O’Haver Lake campground, where there was one spot left. It’s a really pretty little lake and people were out fishing. I imagined waking up and looking out at the lake in the morning light. But the only spot left—number 28—had a post about 200 feet from the lake that said NO CAMPING and showed two arrows, one pointing left and the other right. Dave guessed that it meant no camping beyond the sign. It made no sense to me—why not just say “no camping beyond this sign”? We walked around the lake to see if there were any other sites, but number 28 was it. It was a lovely site, actually, except that it sloped rather aggressively downward toward the “no camping” post, at which point it flattened out.
It’s always a hard decision to leave a campground with an empty site when you don’t have a reservation anywhere. Doubly so on a holiday weekend, when it can be really hard to get a site. The weather—a good chance of rain for four days straight—was in our favor, because other people might be staying home. We deliberated, thought about how uncomfortable it is to sleep on a slope, and decided to continue taking our chances. We drove about 20 minutes to Angel of Shavano campground, nestled up the hill at the base of Shavano mountain, which we’ve actually climbed—it’s a fourteener. I hate climbing fourteeners, and I’m awful at altitude. I get near the top, which is often a boulder field, and start challenging myself to go just two more boulders before stopping to catch my breath. I suspect that Ed Viesturs‡ could lap me six or eight times. Anyway, that’s another story. The Angel of Shavano campground was the way to go; there was only one other family already camped when we arrived. It’s not reserveable and it’s slightly out of the way. We had our choice of spots, so we chose number 2. Dave has actually camped in that spot before, when riding the Monarch Crest with some friends, but I checked out the whole campground and decided that it’s the best one. Not too close to the roaring creek, which was full of spring meltoff and very noisy. (Our mobile home neighbors, with their constant generator noise, hadn’t pulled in yet.) We set up camp in a very light rain. There’s a beautiful spot for a tent, nice and flat, and Dave did his magic with Noah’s Tarp (cute, huh?), keeping part of the picnic table and enough space for our camp chairs dry. Once we had everything set up, we headed into town to go to the grocery store and get a few things we’d forgotten, plus some wood for the campfire. We stopped at Bongo Billy’s for a cup of coffee and to check our friends’ website. Our friends Erica and Adam were in the process of having a past-due-date baby, and while Erica labored away, Adam was adding quick text updates to a website. Technology is so cool! Baby Henry was born Friday evening and he and Erica are well, if exhausted. When we got back to camp, the rain was still intermittent, but a bit heavier. We had planned two campfire meals and one camp stove meal, so we went with the camp stove and cooked burritos, which we ate under the tarp. Delicious! We built a fire, which fizzled out twice, and stood around it warming up and eating a couple of toasted marshmallows before bed.
Our site is indeed comfortable: we slept well and woke up around 8:00 a.m. on Saturday.
Dave got up first, leaving me to fall back asleep in the warm and suddenly spacious tent. He used the Mukka (thanks, Erika and Heidi!) to make himself a mocha and me a latte, then cooked eggs with green pepper, spinach, onion, tomato, and cheddar cheese, topped off with Cholula and wrapped in burrito shells. He’s an excellent back-country cook and breakfast was just the thing to start a good day. We hung around camp for a while, waiting for it to warm up a bit and listening to Click and Clack on the radio. (Don’t drive like my brother!) We got out the softball and gloves and threw the ball around. Around 11:00 a.m. it was warm enough to think about riding—the point of the weekend—so we started to pull on our bike clothes and pump up our tires.
The sun even peeked through the clouds for a moment, an auspicious sign. The campground is located at the junction of Chaffee County 240 and the Colorado Trail, so we only had to go about 100 feet to get on the trail, right about noon. The weather was still intermittent, but I was full of good cheer. It’s always fun to get started, to check out a new trail, to get moving for the day. We rode only a few hundred feet before we hit the trailhead and a sign-in box, which contained a sheet torn out from a notebook, covered in names and hometowns, wrapping around the margins. I squeezed us in and we were on our way!
We started out full of enthusiasm, but quickly hit some rocky uphills that were too hard to ride. Dave usually got a bit higher than I did before he had to pop out of his cleats, but we both ended up walking up rocky slopes, wheeling our bikes. I was still in a good mood. The temperature was good for riding—slightly chilly and not too sunny. I only needed sunscreen on my face, which meant that I wouldn’t be thoroughly sticky in the tent that night. I figured the uphill rock slopes would end eventually, and they did. We hit a patch of uphill dirt that Dave executed perfectly. I had taken my inhaler (for exercise-induced asthma), but was still huffing and puffing. It wasn’t the asthma, I could tell, just a general lack of aerobic fitness. At the top of the hill, we rode downhill for a few minutes, including a very rocky downhill slope that I did perfectly and Dave chickened out on. Then we were immediately back uphill, and it was rocky again. The ride continued like this; some really fun parts followed by rocky uphill slogs, dragging the bikes. There’s a moment in every mountain bike ride that I find myself grinning with pleasure, and that certainly happened, on one of the sweeter downhills. I’m not usually a big fan of fast downhills; I prefer technical bits that go slightly up or downhill. But this ride seemed to be steeply up or fairly steeply down the whole way. As we got higher and higher on the mountain, watching clouds and drips of rain roll in and then roll through, I could breathe less and less. As I mentioned, I’m awful at altitude. It wasn’t my lungs; I could feel the air getting down into the deep chambers (thanks, albuterol!), but there just wasn’t enough of it to power my leg muscles. I even got dizzy a couple of times. Nevertheless, the sweet downhills, either rocky but doable or dirt and pine needles, were pretty fun. I love to ride on pine needles, especially when they’re a bit wet. The smell is wonderful, and I really feel like I’m in the woods.
We were heaving our bikes up another rocky uphill when we were joined by a hiker who’d been heading up Shavano to find himself in a dense cloud of fog and snow. Dave got out the map and showed him where he was headed, then checked our location. Just then we heard some thunder—always a sign to get off the mountain. We were headed for a dirt road that would bring us back to highway 50. I was pretty tired by that point, even though we’d only gone 5 or 6 miles. We only had two Clif bars and a package of beef jerkey with us, so we stopped in the middle of some rolling pine-needle trail to have a snack. I ate half a Clif bar and got enough energy to keep going. We kept riding, and riding, and dragging the bikes, sometimes up and sometimes down extremely technical downhills. We crossed a stream several times. It was fun to be in the wet woods instead of the dry desert, but I was getting exhausted. At one point, Dave offered to pull my bike for me, but I wanted to keep going on my own steam. We were looking for a campground and several unmarked dirt roads that were supposed to cross the trail, but we hadn’t found anything. Dave swore that we weren’t lost, and the rational part of my brain knew that was true. We were on the Colorado Trail for sure—we’d seen several signs, and I felt confident that it crossed a few roads at some point. We just had to keep going, sometimes through rain, sometimes through a clearing sky.
Eventually, we got to a juncture that was marked “wagon loop.” We checked out the map and decided to take the shorter side down to a road. I couldn’t wait to see a road, even though Dave pulled the map away and joked that he wasn’t going to show me how far we had to go to get back to camp. A road is always easier than trail, and this trail had been pretty aggressive so far. Well, the wagon loop, at least the side we picked, should’ve been called “rock chute.” It was a gully carved out of the mountain and full of rocks. Some parts were rideable, but not many. We ended up walking our bikes down most of it. Worst of all, Dave put his weight on his bad ankle funny near the top. I asked him if I could carry his bike, but he said no. Later he told me that he was using it as a crutch. The sun came out for a minute as we were walking down the gully, but we were still keeping our eyes on the weather. I was looking forward to seeing some road, even though we’d only ridden about 12 miles at that point.
Road! We stopped for a minute to look at the map and then headed out again. This road was gorgeous, hard-packed dirt, and downhill. We were flying, with the wind in our hair and my bike in a high gear. We even had to stop to put on our jackets. We ate a few pieces of beef jerky for energy, and rode until we reached highway 285. At first, it was lovely to be on paved road. I turned off my shock and rode along, remembering some of the road from my motorcycle trip with Elaina. It was uphill and kept getting steeper, and I was already pretty tired. Dave rode ahead, and I was wishing that I had my motorcycle. The cars were speeding by and I got more and more nervous. I had been reading Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, so I’d been trying to act, at the most basic level, as a “son of God” and keep my frustration and fear inside. I often get angry while biking, when everything seems too hard, but I’d been trying to keep calm. However, 285 stretched on and on and up and up. The cars and trucks went by in a whoosh, and worst of all, the noise of the air was constant. I don’t do well with endless loud noise, and there’s no vegetation along the side of the highway to break the wind. When I finally got to Dave, who had stopped to wait for me, I lost it. He let me cry for a few minutes and promised to stay close to me on the highway.
We kept riding and riding and finally got to Chaffee County 241, where we turned. We had some more jerky and I kept trying to drink water. The sky was beautiful around the mountains, which we were now facing.
Dark fluffy clouds and mist shrouded the tops, but we still didn’t have rain. I got a tiny burst of energy and kept peddling uphill. We turned onto 250, which would just be a short spur, but it was downhill! I tried to fully enjoy the moment, while knowing that the pain would be back soon. It reminded me of the brief respite you sometimes get in the middle of a long headache, or a back rub when your back has been aching. I could even feel myself grinning again. We turned onto highway 50 and everything got hard again. My bike was squeaking and rubbing and groaning, and I could barely keep peddling, even in the granny gear I’d adopted around mile 25. I knew, according to Dave’s look at the map, that we would reach camp around mile 40 on my odometer. Dave was wonderful, sticking close to my wheel even though I was moving so slowly. The speedometer read about 5 miles an hour (I was thinking that I could almost walk faster!), and the odometer was creeping up past 30 miles. Dave encouraged me up the hills, and we stopped for a rest a couple of times. I saw a few buildings I’d noticed in the car, where they’d come one after the other. I was so frustrated with the pace, and pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it, which made me equally frustrated. As we neared 240, the road the camp was on, Dave said that he would go ahead and get the car and come back for me. I watched him sprint ahead, filled with admiration and hoping that he hadn’t started uphill too fast. (Yes, uphill again! The camp is located four miles up a hill, past some cute houses and ranches, including—strangely—Planet Hockey Ranch where Dave joked he might drop in to watch the Pens game.)
At the bottom of the hill, I stopped and put my bike down. And it started to rain. I stood there for a few minutes, and then realized that I was going to have to keep moving so that I didn’t get too cold. I don’t have too many survival skills, but I do know that you have to keep moving if you don’t want to freeze to death. I started up the hill in my very low gear. For a while, it was fun. I love to be outside in the rain, and I was warm enough from all those miles of riding. I peddled until I was too tired, and then I walked the bike. As it kept raining and I got more and more soaked, I thought about stopping under a tree and waiting for Dave, but I knew I would just start to shiver. I decided that Dave would arrive when I hit mile 37, so I kept going, walking some and then riding some. Around mile 37.5, I started to wonder if he had lost his car keys and wouldn’t be able to come. Then I thought that I might come upon his body lying on the ground. What would I do? Then, worst, I thought he might be challenging my perseverance and showing me what I was capable of. I’d find him sitting under the tarp in a camp chair, eating chips. I was definitely wet and cold, and I was shaking my hands to warm them up. I decided that he’d arrive when I reached mile 38. No sign of him. Some cars passed, and I thought someone might ask if I were okay, especially while I was walking, but no one even rolled down the window. Around mile 38.5 I realized that I was rescuing myself, and got a burst of adrenaline. I suddenly felt happy, and rode faster. I could rescue myself! I knew that the road turned to dirt when there were .75 miles left before camp, so I was glad to get that far. And then I saw Taco! Dave stopped the car and gave me some grape Powerade. He had fallen over sideways when his bike failed to shift and his foot got stuck on the pedal. He’d also walked twice and changed into dry clothes. So, in the end, we both rescued me. I was proud to ride the final .3 miles into camp.
I made it! Dave got me some dry clothes and I changed under the tarp.
We got into the car and drove to Salida to find some hot food. Dave and his bad ankle limped down the sidewalk and I hobbled, due to aching knees. I had hot chocolate and fish and chips and Dave had Pepsi and chicken tenders at a local tavern. We both took Advil. I drove back up the hill while Dave tried to stay awake. Soft snores proved that he had failed. Back at camp, we brushed our teeth and climbed into the tent, with a gentle rain falling. We fell asleep right away and woke up to the light.
It was epic. We’re not riding today. We’re both sore, but there doesn’t seem to be any bad damage to Dave’s ankle. We had hot oatmeal for breakfast, and coffee. The weather was supposed to improve each day, so although it’s still cloudy today, it might be nice enough to bike tomorrow. I’m already feeling like I could use some exercise. If you had told me when I was a kid, eating olives and reading in bed, that I’d one day be biking 40 miles in Colorado on a long weekend, enjoying time with my husband, I wouldn’t have believed you. That’s what I like about the future: it’s always surprising me with things I could never have imagined. So what’s next?
*Dave picked the title for this post.
‡Ed Viesturs is an extremely gifted mountaineer, possibly the best in the world: click here for his website.