This is Part 2 of the story of our bicycle tour from Salt Lake City to Albuquerque in 1999. I’m honored and humbled that Part 1 was selected for Freshly Pressed by WordPress. You can read Bike Tour- Salt Lake City to Albuquerque Part 1.
When searching for more photos to scan from the trip, I uncovered my old trip journal. It’s interesting to see my notes from the trip, almost 13 years ago.
Since rediscovering my journal, I was able to piece together the two days from Lake Powell, Utah to Durango, Colorado. Looking back, it’s no wonder they were a blur. We put in two long, hard, hot days of 123 miles and 111 miles, respectively (averaging around 13.25 miles per hour both days). We were trying to make it from Lake Powell to Hovenweep National Monument in one day. At one point, (despite carrying nearly 2 gallons of water each) we ran out of water and had no choice but to backtrack 8 miles to fill up our motley collection of bottles again. There are few pictures from those two days, as we were trying to make up distance from the two days of rain where we took refuge up in Boulder, Utah.
In Blanding, Utah, we ate at a place simply called “Patio.” A super cheap burger place (Cheap, big food is huge on a bike tour- especially for 20-somethings traveling on a tight budget). While we gorged ourselves on fried food, we decided to take dirt roads to Hovenweep National Monument and take obscure back roads into Colorado.
I wrote in my journal:
“The dirt roads were amazing. Across vast mesas and down into washes. We saw Native American cliff dwellings along the road, unspoiled by tourism.”
We stopped and checked out the remains of Native American cliff dwellings and cave drawings inscribed into the red rock. There was no signage, no historical markers, no parking lot. There they were, a short hike off the dirt road; living history at it’s best. We looked, we saw, we took only a couple of photos.
It became obvious that we would not make Hovenweep National Monument by nightfall. We set up camp among the scrub brush on a mesa and had a great dinner under the stars, miles from any streetlights. Unfortunately, we couldn’t spare any water to wash ourselves or our cookware, and had to try to sleep with the dirt and sweat of 123 miles of riding. It was a sticky, uncomfortable night in the tent under the stars.
The next day we rode the final few miles to Hovenweep National Monument, washed ourselves and cookware as best we could, and drank copiously. We left Hovenweep into 10 miles of stiff headwinds before turning east toward Colorado. The only sign we had crossed into Colorado on the rural, two lane road was a change in the mileage markers. Within ten miles of crossing the Colorado border flowing water in creeks and streams returned, and trees returned to the hillsides. The deserts of Southern Utah are epic, and jaw dropping, but we were ready for trees, water, and greenery again.
We pushed quickly through Cortez, Colorado, stopping only for lunch. I wrote in my journal:
“Cortez was the biggest town we’d seen since Salt Lake. We hadn’t seen a stop light in nearly 700 miles.”
Nearly seven hundred miles on the road without a stop light! In writing this post, I pulled out all my old maps and retraced the obscure roads we chose. My map of choice for back roads travel is the huge DeLorme topographic Atlas and Gazeteer (and a compass). Still, I’m not sure exactly how we navigated through the scores of unmarked, unmapped intersections. I think I’ve blocked out all the wrong turns we made. Navigating seems so easy now with GPS coordinates pinpointing your location down to a few feet.
When we finally rolled into Durango to visit with H’s college friend Debster, we had put in three hard days through the desert and racked up 313 hot, dry miles through Southern Utah.
In Durango, we spent a couple of days in town visiting with H’s college friend Debster. We easily filled our time doing laundry, writing postcards, and cruising about town, happy to be unladen by panniers and camping gear. Durango was touristy, in the way many of many mountain towns. Nonetheless, we had a great time.
Food, on a bike tour is of paramount importance. We were probably burning somewhere between 5,000-8,000 calories a day. While bike touring, we made food choices not in our daily diet. One of those was the Western Sizzlin’ $7 all you can eat buffet in Durango. We spent three hours there, eating, writing postcards, eating, writing journals, and eating. We showed up in late morning as breakfast was being served, then ate lunch when they changed to lunch service. H showed some restraint, but I think I put down at least 6,000 calories in a single meal. We have few pics of Durango, except this one of me riding through downtown with the Colorado topo Atlas and a take-and-bake pizza strapped to the bike. Up the street is the billowing black smoke of a structure fire. Little did I know then that we would both “grow up” to be firefighters.
We left Durango determined to ride on the Continental Divide mountain bike route for a bit. We put in a 112 mile day, climbing over 10,857′ Wolf Creek Pass and crossing the Continental Divide for the first time on our bicycles. It was a long, tough climb, but gratifying to see overheated big rigs, cars, and RVs as we rolled by under our own power. Good thing we were rested from a our days in Durango and ready to hit the road. I mentioned eating everything in sight. We found a day old package of a dozen
assorted donuts for $0.99, a real find when you are on tour and on a budget. We climbed over Wolf Creek Pass fueled by discount, stale donuts and Coke. Of course this stellar food combo left H bonked and out of energy in no time, creating the “eat when H is hungry, not when S is hungry” rule. After a few low energy incidents, I figured out that H had to eat much more often than I did. Trail mix and peanut butter sandwich bites were the snacks of choice. I’m more like a garbage disposal- feed me 4,000 calories of junk, donuts, and coke and I’m good for hours. H needs quality food at regular intervals.
Traveling with H is great. We quickly fell into a routine of touring together, which has continued for years. We have our little “chores” of setting up and breaking camp. I filter water, set up the MSR stove and get dinner rolling, while H sets up the tent. I can’t think of anyone else with whom I could spend weeks or months living smoothly in a tent. She is also a stellar, tough-as-nails athlete, who routinely crushes me on the bike.
Sure, we have our not-so-happy moments, too. They are few, though. The stresses in our relationship are usually related to three things: cold, tired, or hungry.
From South Fork, Colorado, we headed south to the Continental Divide mountain bike route. After climbing on a dirt road for nearly 20 miles to over 11,000′ elevation, we came to the Summitville junction and realized that our road was blocked by snow yet again. As I was sitting in the dirt, looking at the maps for an alternate route, a group of mountain bikers came through half riding, and half pushing their bikes through the snow. They were riding the Continental Divide mountain bike route on with their gear in trailers and had started at the U.S.-Mexico border. They said that there 25-30 large snowbanks, but it was possible. They also came with stories of incredible burgers and food in Platoro, 30 miles down the road.
Suddenly, the impassable became passable! They had done the route finding for us and all we had to do was follow their tire tracks. Sounds easy right? It was one of the longest days I’ve been on the bike- 11+ hours to cover 50 miles. Pushing and pulling the bikes through long patches of snow above 10,000′ elevation. We made the final push over Grayback Pass at 11,924′ elevation. Turns out that mountain bikes with trailers and wide tires are better suited for the snow than touring bikes with panniers and skinny tires. In many spots our tires immediately sunk into the snow up to the hubs, and we would posthole in the snow up to mid-thigh trying to lift the bikes out. I gave H my Goretex socks, but our shoes were already soaked with and filled with snow.
Along the way, we passed through the Summitville mine and Superfund Site. We didn’t know it at the time, but Summitville was perhaps the worst environmental disaster in Colorado history, and one of the most costly environmental disasters in U.S. History (in excess of $200 million dollars to mitigate cyanide leaching downstream into the Alamosa River, killing everything downstream). It was a strange scene. Here we were, riding through incredible Colorado beauty and scenery only to accidentally stumble upon a massive open pit mine. The Summitville mine had been in operation on and off since the 1870s. When we rode through, the roads were still unplowed and the place looked abandoned. Old mining shacks sat dilapidated next to modern tractors and cleanup equipment. Strong blasts of sulfur would assail our noses us as we rode closer to the mine, and warning signs were everywhere. Of particular concern to us was that we couldn’t filter drinking water. Every creek and drainage had “Contaminated” signs posted prominently. We did not know it was, but avoided the water anyway.
It was on this day that I learned an important lesson: Never leave your partner. We were still a few miles outside Platoro, when evening began to creep up on us. We realized that the Platoro Inn might be closed when we get there. The stories of incredible range fed burgers, and a warm bed were pulling me like a mule to a carrot (we were also above 10,000′, had little food, and temps would dip into the 20s). I suggested to H that I go ahead and book a room and order food. She reluctantly agreed, and I was off, hammering out of the saddle (as much as you can on a loaded, 70 pound bicycle) in search of bed and burgers as darkness fell. I left a flashlight on the road at the intersection. I arrived at the Platoro Inn, made sure they were open and headed back out to get H. H was just a couple of minutes behind, but had been riding by herself on unknown roads in the dark for some time. Everything worked out fine, but leaving H was a mistake I still think about today. Any number of things could have happened.
H has this to add:
“All I could think about riding alone was: “Was that a bear? What was that noise, a bear?!?!?! Am I going the right way? Did I miss a turn? Is that a bear?!?!?” All I can say is that the burgers and the Cowboy Room was worth it, as I saw no bears.”
I hadn’t mentioned that we were in bear country. We saw many large bear tracks on the road. They were probably just black bears, but we didn’t have much experience with them.
Unless there is an emergency, never leave your partner during unfamiliar backcountry or back roads travel. Just missing a turn can be disastrous, or at the very least cause unnecessary stress. We’ve applied this lesson consistently for many years now. We always regroup at intersections, and usually keep each other in sight or earshot in unknown terrain.
Incidentally, the burgers in Platoro were great and we got a great room and hot shower in the “Cowboy Room.” The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast, worked on the bikes, and started the day with a 23-mile dirt descent into Antonito, Colorado (we started around 10,000′ elevation). What a day! Stunning terrain, flowing water, aspens, meadows choked with wildflowers, unbelievable rock formations, and snow-covered peaks. Colorado at it’s finest. It was so incredible that we took 5 hours to go 35 miles, mostly downhill (many stops and WOW! moments). We stayed in the hostel in Antonito Colorado and got a private little cabin for $8/night each including breakfast. Hostels are still a great way to travel.
The next day, we had a great breakfast of pancakes with diced apples and granola in them. Once again, we took the road less traveled and chose to take dirt Forest Service Roads into New Mexico only to be cut off by a thunderstorm and pelted by rain and gravel-sized hail for hours as thunder and lightning boomed all around us. We set up camp early and listened to the little one speaker AM/FM radio in the tent. Unfortunately, there was no water nearby and I had to ride back three miles and filter water from a cattle pond- by far the worst quality water I’ve ever had to choose. Needless to say, we boiled everything.
One of the things about riding rural/backountry roads is the sense of forgotten history you see along the road. We rode by abandoned ranches and homesteads, left vacant decades ago. Often, hand laid rock walls were the only evidence of lives past. Who were these people, and what were their stories? They invested blood, sweat, and tears into the land in hopes of prosperity in the American West, only to pack up and abandon the land.
The rural American West is often a story of people in search of better lives. Summitville, the EPA Superfund mine we rode by once had a population of 700 people living in harsh conditions at 11,000′. The remains of towns, ranches and homesteads tell a silent story of hope in harsh country.
The following day was epic yet again. My journal says it best: “One of the best days yet. Began the day with 38 miles of outstanding dirt roads, stunning aspen meadows, big ring descents, the works! We dodged thunderstorms and watched massive lightning strikes all around us. The dirt ended with an 8-mile fast doubletrack descent to icky Hwy 285 into Tres Piedras. The final 30 miles into Taos was mostly tailwinds with long sections above 30mph till we crossed the Rio Grand Gorge and had horrible cross winds for the last 20 miles.”
Taos was a bit of culture shock. We crossed into New Mexico on isolated, scenic dirt roads with zero traffic. In one day we crossed into a kitschy tourist mecca with a gaudy, artificial feeling southwest theme. My impression of riding into the populated areas of New Mexico was one of poverty and it’s accompanying litter. Suddenly, the roads were strewn with trash. On several occasions we saw people fling trash out car windows, like it was no big deal. We stopped at the grocery store in Taos and scored a bag of mixed veggies for $0.99. and a big bag of bread rolls.
On the way out of town we learned another good lesson for bike touring: If it’s nearing dark, and threatening rain- don’t try to get extra miles. We passed up good camping trying to get extra miles, and felt unsafe for the first time on back roads. A few times, cars slowed down and it’s occupants leered at us with an evil eye, sometimes passing us 2-3 times. H and I both had a bad feeling about riding around here. To make matters worse, a light rain turned to a heavy downpour as we struggled to find a spot to camp that was invisible from the road. We finally found a place and set up the tent in the dark under a drenching rain. I hurriedly tried to cut little drainage trenches around the tent as water flowed across the ground. Those veggies and bread we bought? We made a great dinner of hot soup and bread, while listening to the roar of rain and thunder on the tent. The next morning we woke up to dry skies.
In writing about New Mexico, I almost feel guilty; like I’ve given it a bad rap. After traveling for two weeks in isolated natural beauty, we were suddenly riding with traffic and littered highways. I’m sure there were better, less traveled roads, but we couldn’t navigate our way through with the patchwork of Indian reservations and dead end roads without taking long detours.
From our campsite outside Taos, we headed South to Santa Fe. Once again, we couldn’t find a way to navigate via back roads and wound up on Hwy 285 being buzzed by cars and trucks at 70 mph with no real shoulder. We rode as hard as we could trying to get through to smaller roads, afraid of being creamed by a big rig. Safely in Santa Fe, we checked into the hostel for two nights. Santa Fe was incredible; two nights were not enough. Music, Art, Culture, Architecture, Food. Santa Fe rocked and is on our list to revisit. We spent a day visiting museums, checking out the southwest architecture, and (naturally) eating.
Our trip was winding down and we had one more day of riding into Albuquerque. We rode Southwest roughly along the Turquoise Trail and into Albuquerque along old Route 66. As we approached Albuquerque, we also encountered miles and miles of urban sprawl. Shopping centers, fast food chain restaurants, modular home and trailer sales lots, and car dealerships seemed unending. We nicknamed Albuquerque, “Sprawlbuquerque” after a few miles. We did not have enough time to find the nice parts of Albuquerque and leave with a different experience. Rolling into miles of urban sprawl after over 1,000 miles of country roads left a bitter taste.
We spent two nights at the slightly seedy Route 66 Hostel (complete with cheetah print bedspread). A local bike shop gave us two bike boxes, and we packed up our bikes in a nearby park, took a cab to the airport and flew home.
Writing a blog about a trip over a decade earlier brings a different perspective. Time makes the hard parts seem easier; the great parts remain great. If not for my journal, I would not have remembered the hours we spent sweating over baking asphalt through the desert, or the times we spent freezing in driving rain, or struggling to wrangle bikes through thigh deep snow at nearly 12,000′. Looking back, we had a crazy, physically demanding adventure. We did not set out to do something “extreme.” In the moment, taking the road less traveled just seemed like the thing to do.
In part 1, I mentioned that this trip set our relationship in motion. H and I have been together 13 years now- a relationship started by our love of riding bicycles. Growing older and having “real” jobs has not dampened our love of outdoor adventures. We’ve logged literally tens of thousands of miles together under our own power on roads, trails, snow, and water. We still dream about epic trips, although our ability to get away for weeks on end has diminished. Now, at a different point in our lives, we still try to have epic adventures- one big one a year, and shorter ones every chance we get.
If there is one message that I want to convey through this long story of our trip, it is this: Get out on your own adventures, large or small. Take the road less traveled. Life is not always about seeking comfort. Experience heat, cold, hunger, exhaustion, physical and mental challenges- they make all the other parts sweeter. Take pics and make memories. When you look back at your life, you won’t remember the time spent sitting in front of the TV or at the mall. You will remember the times you were totally present in the moment, pursuing the things you love.
Thanks for reading. More stories coming…