Getting the hell out of Wyoming’s Basin was our modus operadi for the past two days, whatever it takes. Some people say they like the basin because you can see everything around you for miles without end. We look at the empty landscape unraveling before us and look behind us just to see more of the same. We see everything very clear, yet there’s nothing to see. We can stay here and continue on the Divide or head on to Colorado and be there just in time to catch Nick and Lael on the Colorado Trail. Let’s get out of here and make it fast.
We arrive in Wamsutter happy to see traces of civilization in what otherwise seems the Anus Mundi. A gas station, motel and housing for people whose only excuse of being here has to be keeping the nearby mining and oil fields up and running. Trucks and campers stop, refill, restock and head out of here as if on a tight schedule. Most of them are leaving for California. We know because we’ve been fishing for a ride to Colorado for the past 30 minutes. No luck. Finally, we take the 23 gravel road out of town stocked up with chocolate muffins and two-liter cans of ice tea. We ride to the next paved road and try to hitchhike from there. The rules of the game are simple, if we don’t catch a ride to Colorado before the tea is gone, we ride. Hitchhiking in the US is made simple as a lot of people are driving huge trucks, but this time a couple towing a small camper stops and agrees to take us along.
We got seriously lucky, they’re going all the way down to Colorado Springs. I quickly check the map and it’s evident they have to go through Silverthorne and that’s exactly where we want to be tonight. Then Boulder to see our friends Helena and Mocha whom we met a couple months back in Iceland. Boulder, being a big city, is also a great place to restock on some gear that has worn over time. New shoes and tires are on the menu. It’s surprising how difficult it is to find big 29er rubber around here and even in Boulder I visit 3 shops before I find what I’m looking for, Maxxis Ardent 2.4 and Minion DHF 2.5 to replace the worn Hans Dampf.
Helena lives a bit outside of Boulder, on a ranch, that she’s taking care off. Having finished her Ph.D., she was looking for a place to stay and a job. A self-made rancher. She will wake up in the mornings, have a coffee, hop on her ATV and starss the day by checking up on all the animals on the ranch. Her afternoons are spent in the city pursuing an advisory career.
We spend our days resting, enjoying ranch live and going on road trips with Helena and Mocha. A much-needed break before heading out to ride the Colorado Trail.
Helena agrees to take us and our bikes to Waterton Canyon where we meet Nick and Lael and swap endless gravel roads of the Great Divide for CT’s twisting singletracks. The trail starts with an easy climb on gravel but very soon turns into steep, twisting track squeezing every last bit of power from our legs and drivetrains. It’s not long before we find ourselves pushing the bikes uphill. Yet, once we point our bikes downhill we are rewarded with some of the most sublime riding we have ever had. Smooth, flowy with the occasional challenge thrown in for good measure. Sadly, the Colorado Trail is too much for my Brooks saddle and I’m left with a two-piece contraption that I fix by clamping the broken rails in the seat post. I will have to do for another month until I can source a worthy replacement.
Nick and Lael disappear in the distance and we meet on and off on the trail during our breaks. As we take off we follow them for a while. Nick steadily climbing on his custom Meriwether with a head full of ideas on where to go next. A self-propelled route finding machine, running on bacon & horilka; he’s always keen to explore new places as long as the exploring happens on a bike. Just behind him, Leal bobs her head left and right as she takes on yet another climb, riding her new Specialized Fuse with an honest, pure excitement of a 5-year-old who just happened to unwrap a shiny birthday present. Watching her smile, as big as the climbs we encounter, it’s clear, on the bike she’s right at home; the saddle is her chair, and handlebars her remote and she’s zapping through her channels like mad. With her head high in the clouds and feet firmly planted on the pedals there’s no pass too high, no valley too low for Lael. Dream big or go home. She’s always up for a good challenge.
As for us? We’re neither racers nor strong bikepackers, but we are expert hike-a-bikers and we don’t mind when the going gets slow, as long we can keep at least one wheel grazing the ground we are happy pushing the bikes when the trails call for it and that’s quite often on the Colorado Trail. One, two, one, two; these are the numbers we mostly see on our shifters. That goddamn Rohloff-crow just won’t put his beak on anything above three. And above 3500 meters even that is too little to keep us moving, we barely move a hundred meters before we have to stop and catch our breath. All this while we keep a close watch on the skies in front of us. We’ve had daily afternoon thunderstorms since we arrived at the trailhead and I’m not one to play games on those exposed passes. Get up the hill, preferably before noon and get down before late afternoon seems to be the golden standard of avoiding being stuck on some pass with only a silly brush for cover.
It’s not long into the trail as we lose Nick and Lael for good, after coming down from Georgia Pass we look for them but to no avail. Later we find out that they rushed ahead to Breckenridge to meet Nick’s cousin. We follow the next day after waiting out a rainy evening at one of the camps in the Valley. As we enter town we head straight for a place serving soups and sandwiches. For one we are hungry, two we hope to get an update on our friend’s whereabouts in our mail. As I go hunting for resupply Saska stays back enjoying her soup and strikes up a conversation with Sheila, a woman working at soup joint. Sheila has a petite appearance to her with a big wide smile that could crush walls of despair. But don’t let her small posture fool you, she’s tough and fit enough to go trail running every morning in the steep hills surrounding her house where we get invited to stay for the night before tackling the Ten Mile range, known for the longest hike-a-bike climb on the first half on the Colorado Trail. A mother, wife, trail runner and painter, she’s got her hands full with life. Her husband Willy greets us with a firm handshake and smile that’s only second to Sheila’s. During the hunting season, in his free time, he and their two boys often spend time bow hunting for Elk. One animal can provide them with enough meat to last for the entire winter and before we leave the next day we are presented with a big chunk of frozen elk steak. A welcome treat for the night after pushing our bikes over the Searle Pass down to Copper Mountain, a resort town that barely deserves to be called a town. Surrounded by hotels and rental condominiums, the town center tries so hard to look like a mountain town it becomes a caricature of its own kind, a theme park for wealthy Americans looking to spend their hard-earned dollars on a futile escape from the hustle and bustle city life they lead for the remaining fifty-two weeks of their lives. After buying a pack of m&m’s we are out of there to enjoy a quiet camp a few miles out, and a medium rare elk steak cooked in aluminum foil on bonfire coals. You can’t buy this experience with anything else than a meager appearance, a smile and this tiny bit of luck that leads us to meet people like Sheila and Willy.
The Colorado-Smile and Colorado-Cry are terms which, I believe are non-existent at the moment, but should make their way into the dictionary as both of them are tangible feeling we get on the Colorado Trail. The flowing single trails, twisting their way down from almost 4000 meter peaks to the river stricken valleys will give you the Smile, know that you’ll have to pay your way into this state with the Cry, a feeling of despair once, after a few days out of trail, you realize this simple truth – what comes down, must come up. As long as we’ve been spending half a day going up to enjoy a minimum of hour riding down it was OK with us, we accepted the trail with its full inventory of roots, stones and tight switchbacks, where we wish our bikes would just break in half for this tiny piece of trails and then magically come back together after we’d cleared the obstacle. Yet once we are past the Mt Princeton Hotsprings the trail goes up and down in short merciless bursts. Not long enough to really enjoy the ride down, but long enough to feel the burden that our heavy bikes were for us. We ride for 16 kilometers not really going anyway high and particularly far, but in this short section, we managed to accumulate more than 1000 vertical meters up without really noticing the other 1000 meters when we were pointing our bikes downhill. Once the bicycle trail goes on a wilderness detour via a dirt road to Salida we are not particularly sad about it. It’s a nice feeling to be doing a fair distance at a fair pace and anyway, Nick and Lael are already in town so there’s a good chance to meet them again.
We find them sitting in the Riverside Park, chilling to the sound of birds and Arkansas river waves flowing down a cascade. Together with them are Scott Morris and Eszter Horanyi, the King and Queen of American bikepacking. Both accomplished ultra-distance racers having held or still holding records for the most know bikepacking races. Scott has been involved in getting the Arizona Trail race started and made the first web page and forum concentrating around bikepacking routes and gear – bikepacking.net. And if you follow ultra-distance bicycle races you will most probably do so by means of Scott’s brainchild trackleaders.com which he founded together with Matthew Lee. They both live now out of their camper, towing their house from one trailhead to another – wherever the sun shines and trails are good enough to bother. Sitting with these four all I can bring up to my defense are my superior beer-can-crushing skills; five in a row out of six. Not bad at all, but I could do better.
Photography courtesy of Nicholas Carman
Salida marks the halfway through the Colorado Trail and is the place where we want to get some rest before continuing further. We get invited to stay with Lael’s and Nick’s friends Janie and Jimmy, both of them racers from this year’s Trans AM race. Janie finished 9th in the overall classification, leaving her the third woman to finish the 2016 race.
For three days we roam Salida in the afternoon and enjoy hot tub baths and wine in the evenings; talking about our different adventures Iceland gets a bashing as the one place we would never come back to on bicycles. It’s true. At the same time, Nick and Lael are plenty busy with finishing up with the final touches to their Baja Divide web page. We use the chance to visit the Oveja Negra factory that’s in town as I have to get some stiching fixed that has come apart on my bag and repair broken buckles and Saskas Viscacha gets a set of webbing loops for a more secure hold on her dry bag.
Once our resting time is over a last minute change of plans find us going north to Grand Junction instead of following the Colorado Trail south to Durango. After a week on the trail, we honestly miss 100% ridable dirt roads. At the roadside McDonald’s Nick comes up with a quick route that will lead us to our destination. We pack our stuff and head back to Mt Princeton Hotsprings and over the Tincup Pass the next day. Just before the pass there’s the ghost town of St Elmo where Americans come to let chipmunks crawl all over them eating nuts left on body parts as bait; an All-American favorite shit-show, not really different to what one would see in other European tourist destinations, where such queer pastime activities are seemingly the only attraction; of course chipmunks have to be substituted for something found on the European Continent. We get some soda and sit down on the old walk board watching the spectacle unfold.
We part ways with the adventure duo once we reach Crested Butte. Nick and Lael intend to climb the Pearl Pass known for the Klunker Tour, one of the oldest American mountain biking events. We let them climb ahead with the initial intention to follow their lead but climbing yet another 1000-meter climb feels out of reach for us after we had so many of those in the past weeks and to be honest, the Colorado Trail has left us worn down and tired. And so, like rats, we turn around leaving only an e-mail bidding bon voyage to our friends, hoping they wouldn’t hold this faux pas against us in the future.
There’s only so much one can take, whether it’s hardships, physical punishment or just the plain fact of being in one place for too long and we haven’t been doing much progress on the Colorado Trail. We had our fun and that’s important for us, but it is high time to move one and explore different landscapes. We have heard much good about Utah and we feel the faint holler drifting in the Autumn Colorado air, calling us East. We pack up, say farewell to the beautiful highlands of Colorado and enter the hitchbiking realm towards Grand Junction where the Kokopelli Trail will take us deep into the canyonlands.