Date: March 26th, 2017
From/To: Springfield, CO/La Junta, CO (eventually)
Daily Mileage: 45 miles (of biking)
Total Mileage: 1590 miles (of biking)
Conditions: Early sunshine leading to overcast, persistent headwinds reaching 25mph. Mid 50s, felt like mid 30s with the wind chill.
There have been plenty of times I’ve wished someone was on this journey with me, more so someone to share experiences and explore the road with. Today I wish I had someone with me so they could smack some sense into me, and maybe try to rationalize the poor decisions I made regarding my route. I wish I had someone to grab me by the shoulder and say “Hey Matt, you think it’s a good idea to venture down this rocky road to nowhere? Do you have any idea where this will lead to and when you’ll get there? Have you considered the +25 mph headwinds coming from the northwest, implying they’d brush over your skin leaving you with a bone chilling and painful feeling of discomfort? How about those dark clouds heading your way?” Where was that voice today? It certainly wasn’t with me. I finally found my reach that exceeds my grasp, and I fell pretty hard.
I woke up pretty early thanks to the time change, 7:30AM seems early to me please don’t judge. I made my way to the living room of the hotel I was staying at and had some coffee with the owner. Her name’s April, and she’s running the place for her mother who’s currently recovering from an injury, I wasn’t told much more than that. We had a long conversation about her upbringing in Oklahoma, my background in New York (upstate… as I’ve had to explain to everyone). She told me living in a small town like Springfield causes you to know everyone’s business, “It’s hard to keep your distance from everyone” she said. People are constantly trying to figure you out, any personal issues become pubic knowledge if not kept quite. It reminded me of a saying an old teacher used to tell me, “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” We both laughed when I quoted him on that. I enjoyed hearing her perspective on living in rural Colorado, I’ve never come across a person from these parts let alone had a half hour conversation with one, leaving us well acquainted. I finished my second cup of coffee and cut off the conversation because I had to get going. It was 89 miles to La Junta, and I anticipated making good time after my last few days on the road.
La Junta is Spanish for “The Junction,” because it once served as an intersecting point between the Santa Fe Trail and a pioneer road that led to Pueblo, Colorado. Today it holds up the same reputation as well. U.S. Highway 5o travels through La Junta, approaching from Pueblo to the northwest and continuing eastward towards Lamar and into Kansas. I’ll be taking this route into Pueblo tomorrow! U.S. Highway 350 begins at La Junta and travels southwest before reaching Trinidad, Colorado. State Highway 10 also begins at La Junta and travels west-southwest before reaching Walsenburg, Colorado. Even with all these intersecting highways, I was off the radar coming from Springfield. I set off from that small town with no idea what I would be encountering that day in southeast Colorado. As I rode, I saw some things every once in a while leaving Springfield. Maybe some abandoned houses, farming equipment, lots of cattle. Some “things” turned to some “thing” after a while. An old street sign, a barbed wire fence, maybe some foundational ruins here and there.
I began to worry, but the sign of manmade objects left me with a slight confidence to push on. I had no sense of strandedness yet. I battled onward through rocky roads and chilling headwinds, passed what seemed to be endless fields of parched shrubs randomly assorted like sprinkles on a birthday cake. That view, minus the occasional rolling hills and rocky peaks, did not change. I hope nobody has attempted to bike with 125 lbs of gear on a rocky dirt road with no end in sight. I had a ten inch wide track to follow the entire way, and if you couldn’t guess why it was a tire track. I could tell these roads weren’t used often based on appearance of the tracks. They weren’t freshly made, but nonetheless there for my use. Many times they would disappear leaving me fighting for balance as much as forward progress. I started to lose confidence about 30 miles in. How couldn’t I? I tried to fight the voice in my head but I also had a sense of reason. Everything was working against me, or so it seemed at the time. I’ve been in this position before, but I’m always on asphalt and I have cars or trucks occasionally passing by. Out here, not a sole. It was the first time I truly felt “alone.” Not just on my own but in a place where I wouldn’t be found for days if something bad happened. That was my mentality. Then I remembered it was Sunday, even better. In these parts, the Sabbath is taken seriously and I couldn’t count on anyone so much as lifting a finger. With all the cards stacked against me, I remained steadfast to the best of my ability. I will admit I let out some shrieks and cursed at the wind countless times. Nobody was around to hear the crazy biker and his lack of self-containment. I needed some sort of rebuttal to the wind, and screaming at it was sadly my only option. The pain I felt was as inexplicable as my surroundings. My thighs were numb, not from the cold but the lactic acid that was building up for four hours by then. My hands and feet were starting to lose sensation, to the point that I actually went into one of my panniers to grab some really warm socks, to then be used as mittens over my hands. My wrists became locked in place. I tried to roll them out occasionally but it wasn’t doing much. I thought about how awful my basketball shot would’ve been at that moment, knowing how bad it is without impairment. Chuckles. I continued hopelessly attempting to zone into the ride, but I couldn’t focus on anything aside from finding my balance on the rocky road. If I so much as looked up from the road for two seconds I would face the possibility of wiping out due to the countless potholes and large rocks that spanned across the road. I finally hit the panic button on one of the many ascents I had made by that point. I got off my bike and started walking, trying to think of what I was going to do. I had been watching GoogleMaps (the only functioning application on my phone by that point) go from “53 miles left” to “52 miles left” for what seemed an eternity. I wasn’t making it any closer and I knew I was in a tight situation. What now? Camping wasn’t an option, not out here. The plains are a dangerous place to set up camp especially in March when Colorado receives it’s harshest weather. The last thing I wanted was rain. I kept biting my lip when I was about to throw out the classic “Hey, it could always be worse” punchline. I was pushing “worse” to the limit and rain would take me beyond there. It wasn’t necessarily that the air was cold, it was mid 50s, but like I said that northwest wind made it feel like low 30s if I’m being generous. Time was going by, I wasn’t making much progress. I went through a series of mounting and unmounting my bike. It felt amazing to walk but I was only going 2 mph and it was almost as useless as standing with +50 miles to go. There were no other options. I passed through countless cattle fields, at times passing cattle on the road. I was worried one of them was about to attack me, feeling threatened by my presence. Some would charge at me from a distance, then fleeing away shortly after. Phew.
Suddenly I hit my 43 mile mark for the day, and like an oasis I saw a house appear not too far down the road once I wrapped around a hill. I couldn’t believe that someone actually lived out here. I was also worried that they were crazy and that was why they did. I didn’t care it was the first sight of civilization in hours. As I neared the home I noticed many trucks and tractors parked around the garage, hay bails staked in the yard, dogs running around, all the signs of life I needed to see. The problem was, nobody was there. I made sure to check anywhere and everywhere they could’ve been, nothing. Great. I was still on my own. The road ran right through the property, so I didn’t feel I was trespassing. Besides, I’d been lucky with my spontaneous appearances in the past. Who doesn’t find a cross country tour biker with a cause interesting? I thought about moving onward, looking down the long stretch of thin dirt road leading away from the property. I thought about staying put, and waiting for help to arrive. I still had 45 miles, I had eaten almost all of my reserve food (probably out of anxiety more than hunger) and I was more than halfway through my water. I noticed a water spigot near the house and decided to check its status. I pulled the lever up and to my excitement heard water running. It reached the mouth of the faucet and started spilling out water as brown as the dirt road I had been riding on. I decided I didn’t want my trip to end with Giardia (don’t Google Image it…). I thought about investing in a water filter but I never did. It would’ve paid off here. I waited around for about an hour before deciding my next move. I finally had a bolt of energy and determination. I lifted my bike and rode the rush about fifty feet up the inclined path before admitting defeat and shamefully turning back towards the house. How could I leave the only sign of civilization I’d seen all day? I didn’t know what I’d come across in the next 45 miles, nor did I have a reasonable amount of supplies to make it that far when battling strong headwinds on an uneven dirt road. There’s a difference between quitting and picking the right battles. If being realistic leads to preferable outcomes, I’d prefer to remain somewhat reasonable with my already poor decision making skills. I had gotten myself into this mess and I needed a way out. These people weren’t coming back any time soon, I had to keep telling myself that to prepare for the worst, despite hoping for the best. They had plenty of animals to tend to, but I noticed a very generous amount of dog food on the front porch, and lots of hay laid out along the road for the cattle. Maybe they’d come back, but I needed to start planning in case they didn’t. I searched around the property and noticed a tall peak just over a mile away from the house. I looked at my phone, it read “No Service,” not surprisingly, it had been reading that since I left Springfield. I had to take a chance. Maybe there was reception up there, just maybe. It was the highest point I could find within reasonable distance. I changed into some other clothes. My biking attire was damp, wet, and freezing by this point because I hadn’t been moving for some time now. Remember it feels like low 30’s with this 20mph windchill. I started hiking up towards the peak, battling the cold every step along the way. It took me just over 20 minutes to reach the top, now I waited for the moment of truth. Would I be saved? Would I have to start planning my next move? “No Service…No Service…… No Service…….. Verizon 1x” I screamed out of excitement! I wasn’t a powerful signal, but it was something which meant I was in close proximity to some sort of cell tower. “Verizon 1x….” I then got a one bar 3G signal. That was all I needed make a call. I looked up the local police department and gave them a ring. The call was spotty but I finally got my story across. It took me about an hour to communicate between the local police, 911 dispatch, and the Colorado State Patrol. I was being passed around from one location to the next. Finally the Colorado State Patrol dove into my rescue plea. “So where are you?” asked the dispatcher. I looked at my map “Close to the intersection of County Road 215.5 and County Road 70.0.” “Where?” she asked in a confused tone. I tried to find any other landmarks, anything at all that would help them find me. Nothing helped. I finally found a way to send them my location by longitude and latitude. You know it’s bad when the state patrol doesn’t know the roads you’re on. She told me they had my location marked, and to stay put. I made my way down the hill and grabbed my bike. I waited about another hour for the State Patrol to arrive. By that point I had developed an uncontrolled shake throughout my body. My fingers weren’t working well, and I had apparently forgotten how to form sentences when he showed up. His name was Doug, and he was a Corporal and Drug Recognition Expert with the Colorado State Patrol. He was a friendly guy, and as excited to see me as I was to see him. His SUV was packed with gear already, so we had to disassemble my bike just to fit it in the back. I would’ve unscrewed every bolt if it meant getting out of there. “So what happened, did you run out of juice of something?” he asked. “I didn’t plan for the rocky roads, the headwinds and desolation out here, I had no idea where I was or when I would see another sign of civilization before I hit La Junta” I told him. “These parts are the thins of Colorado, I’ve never even been out here myself” he told me, after mentioning he’d been living close to here for 20 years. We loaded everything up and started off towards La Junta, the heat on full blast. It was another 20 miles of winding rocky roads until we reached asphalt. Highway 109 took us another 25 miles to La Junta where I would be staying for the night. I really enjoyed the car ride, as much as I realized it was against the rules it was way too close to dusk for me to pick up pedaling, and my bike was in parts all over his back seat and trunk. Doug was a huge history buff, so we shared stories about my historical encounters along the ride so far, and his fascination with Lewis and Clark, among many other things. We passed through valleys, plains, and miniature mountains all along the ride to La Junta. We saw antelope, mule deer, and other wild life. I really wanted to see all this at biking speed, but Doug reassured me I would have plenty more of this as I made my way up to Denver. (I had forgotten to take pictures all afternoon, likely because I was trying to be rescued. Thanks for reading all this anyway). At one point we passed the Picketwire Canyonlands on the Comanche National Grasslands. Doug slowed down to show me the turn onto a road that lead 12 miles south to the site. These primitive canyons are home to the largest known set of dinosaur tracks in North America, Native American rock art, early Hispanic settlements and a historic ranch. Doug mentioned much of the land around here is full of historical artifacts and writings, but unfortunately most of it is private property, likely purchased in the late 1800s by cattle ranchers. “Land doesn’t ever sell around here” Doug mentioned, “It’s passed down from one generation to the next.” I found that hard to believe based on the vastness of the land around us. It ran on forever and seeing it by car was too fast for my tolerance. Doug told me I was likely to see a lot of wildlife as I made my way west from here. He said I’ll likely see anything from elk to deer to antelopes to bears. “You’ll most likely see an occasional bear crossing the road when your biking out here.” He went on, “This is probably the worst time to venture through these parts because bears are coming out of hibernation. They’re hungry and they’ll eat just about anything. You should be fine though because you can outrun them on a bike.” I thought he was kidding about that last part, waiting for a humorous chuckle that never came. Great. The ride into La Junta was a slow decent along a beautiful horizon of zig-zagged terrain. The sun was making its way there, one of many amazing sun sets I’ll have out here I’m sure. I asked Doug when I would see the Rockies for the first time. He glanced out at the horizon, examining every part for peaks. “You can usually see them by now, the problem is we’ve had a lot of wild fires that fog up the sky, and today just isn’t a clear enough day to see them.” It’s a big deal to finally see them. I’ve been waiting for nearly a month to set eyes on them. My last challenge, my final opponent of this ride is finally within striking distance. I can’t wait. It’ll be by far the most scenic part of the trip, the reason I brought all my photography and videography equipment with me (owning a proud presence of +25lbs on my back rack). Doug dropped me off at a hotel where I unloaded my gear. It took me a solid 20 minutes to reassemble my bike and I was quickly inside after that. I was glad to be done with today, more glad than any other day I’ve had so far. It wasn’t a clean win in my book, but I wouldn’t have played my cards any other way in hindsight. It’s my first rescue of the trip, and a good story to tell now. I was glad to meet Doug, he was a wealth of knowledge and a good story teller. At the hotel we broke out my map on the hood of his truck to break down the rest of my trip. He was very familiar with Colorado, and actually gave me a few pointers on great roads to take, and some key places to see. He’s never been to the northeastern parts of the country before, but he’s planning to roadtrip the U.S. with his wife once he retires. I told him he needs to visit the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes when he’s passing through New York. He said he’ll be sure to do so. I thanked him again for rescuing me today and he told me he was glad to do it. “It took me on an adventure to some place I’d never been before, I had no problem doing it” he said. That was music to my ears. I’ve been going places I’ve never been before, many of them I’ll never see again. Many places I don’t want to see again, I thought to myself. No more dirt roads.
Enjoy The Ride,