There’s nothing like a little meteological spice to add flavour to a bicycle ride.
In fact, it’s one reason I love to travel on two wheels. There’s no sidestepping oncoming elements as you might within the cocoon of a car. No easy way out of disconnecting from the realities of the seasons. Like it or lump it, it’s part of the experience.
In this chapter, Nancy has her first taste of snow biking/trudging (best enjoyed after the event) as we bid farewell to Colorado, and cross the border into the Land of Enchantment, New Mexico.
Giant-sized cottonwoods in autumnal bloom.
It was almost like they were clamouring to wave us out of Del Norte, ushering us on towards the next challenge. Indiana Pass is perched at a lofty 11 920ft high - 3630m - and ranked by some as the toughest climb of the Great Divide. The first stretch was paved, a gentle climb through the valley, followed by steeper and corrugated sections.
A rich assortment of double tracks peeled off to reveal prime camping real estate.
Our reading matter for the evening, gifted to us by the kind folks at the idiosyncratic Subculture bike shop, back in Salida.
As October comes to a close, the hunting season begins. Unfortunately, this was also the cue for brigades of pumped-up pickup trucks - deploying mini-armies of Four Wheelers - to thunder by, leaving us to eat dust in their wake.
Up, up, up... Snow ahead...
Further on the air was clearer, as the views magnified in size.
Finally, after some 22 miles of upward peddling, we emerged at the top of the pass, facing the vast wall of the Continental Divide
On with the layers, then it was back down the mountain we went...
It was a fast descent, through a thicket of pines.
Our route passed by the environmental disaster that is the Summitville Mine. Gold was first discovered here back as 1870, but it was the process used to leach its remnants from the low grade ore, well over a century later, that contaminated the local creeks, adding to the area's already naturally high acidity . The clean up camping cost millions - possible more than the entire revenue earned by the mine.
It wasn't long before forward progress was drastically stalled. The advance party, Nick, Lael and Greg, had already texted us warnings of what lay ahead: some 4 miles of snow, leftovers from a previous storm.
The odd patch was rideable.
But for the most part, it was a slow drag 'n trudge.
After a few hours of pushing, we were grateful to be back on dry dirt once more.
Nancy, still smiling. Just.
When the descent did come, it was a good one. It unravelled in great loops down the valley, before crossing the Alamosa river. There was one last sting-in-the-tail climb up and over Stunner Pass to Platoro - a journey made by countless gold prospectors before us. The last light of the day highlighted the streaks of red oxide in the mountains, considered a giveway that gold was to be found nearby.
Somehow, pine trees found purchase on these near vertical slopes.
Platoro is so named after the Spanish words plata (silver) and oro (gold). We treated ourself to a night in a half-finished cabin built for Divide hikers and riders, in the appropriately named Gold Pan RV Park. It's neon sign enticed us in, while the rest of the settlement was almost completely borded up for winter. The campsite manager was a Texan escaping the summer heat. Beaming a gap-toothed smile, he told us he was from Lubbock, slap bang beside 'the largest military base in the free world.' I'm not sure if I was as reassured as he was...
A few more words on Nancy are perhaps in order for storytelling purposes at this point. While she may vehemently deny it, having moved around the US over the years, Nancy is in fact a Texas Girl herself. The border town of El Paso, to be precise. Which, she insists, is about as un-Texas as you can get.
This being her first bike tour, Nancy had sought a few words of advice on the intricacies of two-wheeled travel and its accompanying paraphernalia, so I'd issued her with a shopping list in a language she had yet to decipher. A little giddy with the idea of spending someone else's money, I argued the case for fitting a pair of Jeff Jones' curvy Loop H-bars. Over twice the $$$ of a standard set of handlebars, I assured her they're a steal at half the price of a pair of this season's knee-high leather boots...
I couldn't quite convince her to to invest in a Rohloff speedhub for her Surly Troll - that kind of cash can only be generated upon selling your car... Mine, however, is still doing me proud, shifting with reassuring clunkiness come rain, shine or snow.
Indeed, despite the temperatures, there's been no shortage of shine, bringing out the full splendour of Fall. But appearances can be deceiving, for after a mellow ride to Horca, we heard about a storm forecast that night. Our original plan had been to continue along the Great Divide and tackle the 10 000ft La Manga Pass. But as it was on the weathermen's hitist, it seemed prudent to detour off route.
Instead, we pedalled to the lower elevations of Antonito, one of the stops along the old narrow gauge railroad, originally laid down in 1880.
Since 1970, the Cumbres and Toitec Scenic Railway has been taking tourists over the Cumbres Pass to Chamba, 64 miles away.
Time-warped Antonito felt a little run down and financially depressed round the edges.
In the late evening light, the clouds looked benign and the air was cold but crystal clear. Even welcoming. It was hard to believe the state had been issue a severe weather warning...
While we munched thoughtfully on chocolate pistachio cupcakes in the oasis of the Pony Expresso cafe, we pondered the options. Find a cheap motel and sit out the storm, or ride out of town, bed down on public land, and see how things panned out the next day.
Placing our trust in a paper thin wall of tarp fabric, we opted to save the $50...
Since the BLM land proved worryingly vast and open, we nailed ourselves down with all the extra pegs and guy ropes we could muster. Which was just as well, as it was a ferociously windy night. The tent tossed and turned like a restless sleeper, flapping manically and smothering itself over our faces, as it buckled in the wind. But come morning, the sun was out, the wind had dropped, and the worst of the storm seemed to have passed us by, sponging away most clouds in its wake. We cheered! But little did we know...
For 45 degree, curvy bars, have a look at Jeff Jones’ H-bar Loop. The aluminium ones are a third of the price of the titanium versions…
Want a tasty, homemade cupcake while you patch in to the internet? Check out the characterful little Pony Expresso in Antonito.