"You look like shit dude!"
And with that, I was welcomed to the top of my last climb, Kebler Pass, by Disco and began the descent to the end of my trip. A wet and cold finish when everything seemed to die and fall apart at just the right time.
Before all of that, I had some miles to cover to get to that point. I left Cortez early in the morning after camping in the doggy park to try to get to Durango before noon. On the way to Durango I passed the beautifully lush valley that holds the small town of Mancos. Lots of hills were climbed, then descended, until I hit the last long long and fun fun descent down into Durango . I had been looking forward to Durango for a while, especially since it was second in line for me to relocate to after Crested Butte. Things started off well when I was introduced to an incredibly fast surface on the bike lane, unlike any I've seen before on the trip. Then for some reason the bike lane ceased to exist. I'm still baffled on how Durango, a town reknowned for being bike-friendly, didn't have a bike lane for miles on that highway. I picked up a pint of ice cream and downed it by the library, happy to get out of the horrible traffic that flowed through town. Suffice to say, Durango wasn't nearly as quaint as I had imagined in my head, and I was happy with my home in Crested Butte, not here.
I didn't want to linger for too long in Durango since I knew that afternoon thunderstorms were on their way and I wanted to make it as far as I could and hide out from them before getting close to the top of Molas Pass. After about 12 miles, the rain came sure enough, as well as lightning higher up. I was able to make it to The Needles, a strange town sort of thing just south of the Purgatory Ski Resort. I stopped in the bike/ski shop and chatted up some locals to see where I should camp for the night. There wasn't really a chance that I was going to make it to the top of Molas Pass before dark, so I wanted a spot lower down and hopefully out of the lightning. They told me about a great alternative, Lime Creek Road, which not only had great camping near the creek, but would also reconnect with the highway just north of the first pass. I hung out there for over 2 hrs, waiting for the rain to stop, listening to the owner tell me about how Montana is going to blow up like Colorado has soon, munching on Doritos, and enjoying the scenery of the San Juans. The owner was there with his wife and daughter and claimed that they had traveled a lot, and they lived in Needles because there was no other place they would rather be. Very cool.
Lime Creek Rd was indeed a fantastic road. At first it started out as a nice and smooth dirt road. After a couple of miles, it warped into a nasty rock-filled path that reminded me a lot of Lockhart Basin Rd way back in Moab, minus the steepness. I met a really cool couple from Aspen who were car camping and offered me a beer. Whenever I have to turn down a good microbrew I always feel like an idiot and that my adventure is a failure. This was no exception. I found the words "sorry, but I've got to ride further so I can beat the storms tomorrow on the passes" coming out of my mouth. Disgusting. I could tell they were good company, but I was so focused on timing my trip though the San Juans perfectly that I missed out. Sigh.
Luckily the road started to get smoother when I got down to the creek after a very fun descent. A massive boulder had fallen down to the road, making it impossible to bigger vehicles, but not a bike. It was incredibly beautiful out there. Green green. A little wet. Some good cloud cover and mist, and loads of solitude. Infinitely better than the highway that was somewhere above me. Soon the climbing began, but before I knew it I had rejoined the road. Since it was starting to get dark, I backtracked a bit down the road and camped away from the highway. I awoke the next morning to find frost on my tent and horribly numb hands from packing that thing up in the cold.
Although I'd been told horror stories of the climb up Molas Pass, it turned out to not be bad at all. First I had to get my knees to cooperate. When I first hopped onto the bike that morning, it hurt to pedal. I popped 3 Ibuprofin and pushed the bike for 20 minutes. When the vitamin I had kicked in, I could ride again, and within 3 miles I found myself standing at the viewpoint on Molas Pass amazed with the freakishly red volcanic rock that made up the San Juans in this area. These mountains were so unique that I knew I would be back this summer to hike in them. All that was left was to do the 7 mile descent down into the town of Silverton and have a cup of mediocre Americano and chat with the locals on a sunny bench while I quickly warmed up.
After an hour of conversation, I hopped back on the bike and started the climb up Red Mtn Summit, which I was promised would be infinitely scarier than anything else I'd seen in the San Juans. The climb is so steep that I'd have to rest every 10 minutes said the guy at the Durango library. Silverton locals told me that the lack of the shoulder and a cliff dropping off immediately beside me would have me crying for Mommy. Naturally none of that was really true, and I was treated with one of the best rides on asphalt of the trip. There definitely was no shoulder in certain sections of the climb, but it wasn't an issue since the traffic still hadn't picked up at 11:00 am. Sadly the summit didn't have much in the way of a view, but the descent made up for that in spades. Now this was easily one of the highlights of the trip. Hairpin turn after hairpin turn. Never have I seen so many road signs that depicted twisted spaghetti in my life. The road was so so windy, with nice drops on the other side, views deep into deep valleys, and a fast descent. I took a tip from some road cyclists ahead of me and kept the whole lane to myself. It was slow to try to brake and hug close to the shoulder. Instead I rode aggressively in the middle of the lane so no one would try to pass me. Then when a turn was coming up, I would cut it really wide to keep as much speed as I could. The riding was sublime, and I was flowing all over the street. I will never forget that descent down down down into Ouray. Or "Little Switzerland" as they call it.
When I left Ouray, I could see thunderstorms building up in the higher reaches of the San Juans, now behind me. I had about 30 miles of gradual descent to get to Montrose , and I did that in record time. Somewhere in the last few miles I was passed by the couple that I met the previous night who offered me a beer. They gave me a friendly honk and a wave as they flew by me at thrice my speed. Just as I was entering Montrose, I realized I had made a critical error in constructing my route: I was avoiding Kebler Pass. Instead I had planned to go back on highway 50 all the way back through Gunnison and up to Crested Butte, a route I've been on too many times. Instead I realized that I could go North 20 miles further to Delta, then head east thru Paonia, and climb on quiet forest service roads up to Kebler and down to Crested Butte.
After a bit of research at the library to confirm that it wasn't too much further to go this new route, I took off from Montrose headed for the Grand Mesa which towers over Delta. The wind was coming from the west and the road was still on a mellow decline, and I made it to Delta in less than an hour. At this point I had ridden around 90 miles, and with the upcoming tailwind as I turned east, I was starting to have delusions of grandieur and thoughts of getting in a 150 mile day before the trip ended. As I rode east, I was doing the math in my head and realized that I had to average 18 mph for the next few hrs to get to that point before dark. The road became a roller coaster as I headed east, with constant dips and slow riding through construction zones. Within two hours I realized I wouldn't be able to make 150, and would instead just ride until dark and see where that put me. Once I got to the town of Hotchkiss, I got a flat that had to be repaired in someone's farm. My energy had finally waned and I decided Hotchkiss would be where I'd crash for the night, 117 miles from where i started in the San Juans. Not too bad really. I called the county fairgrounds camp for the night, grabbed 22 oz of bad beer, and called it a night.
My chain had been acting up on me, mainly due to the fact (I think) that in the past few long days, I hadn't made the time in the day to lube my chain. Now one of the links was ready to break off at any moment, causing the chain to constantly slip to a smaller cog, and me to worry about busting my face on a big climb. Once I got to Paonia 10 miles after starting for the morning, I finally made the time to work on that chain. A cup of bad coffee had me focused, and I quickly discovered that I didn't have all of the tools for the job, mainly one more link to replace the bad set. I had brought some links along, but just not quite enough. That's a mistake I won't make on future bike tours (Bolivia anyone??), but for now I had to just pray that the chain would make it to CB, some 50 miles further.
Paonia turned out to be a beautifully lush paradise, complete with multiple rivers meandering through the valley, farms and vineyards, and deep blue skies to complement all of the greenery. Just outside of town there was a goat running on the street. He stayed in front of me, turning around every once in a while to see where I was. Eventually I caught up to him, and he ran alongside my bike for a while. When we were hanging out like this, I was able to clock him on my cyclometer as running at 12 mph. Incredible! At every bridge we would cross over, he would look down to the water, as if he were thirsty. Soon enough I passed him and was a little worried. I have no clue where he came from, and would he find water??
Finally I turned off the highway and started the gradual climb up to Kebler. The road turned to a well graded and maitained dirt one, and the scenery was great. Just as I was thinking how much I was happy with my bike setup, how my lack of panniers made me feel invincible and able to take this thing over anything, my bike failed me. Not the chain, but a pedal. My left pedal had broken off of the spindle, so I was left with riding on a slender cylinder of metal underfoot for the rest of the day. It didn't take long to realize that going uphill with a foot that kept sliding off of the spindle would be horribly slow. No matter what I tried, duct tape, zip ties, magic...I couldn't rig up a way to keep the pedal on the spindle and still rotating. Just after breaking the pedal, the couple, my friends from Aspen passed me again!! This time it was just absurd, and the 3 of us laughed for a bit of the insanity of us running into each other again was. Now we were all on a pretty obscure dirt road. Apparently they had spent last night camping up at Lost Lake with some friends, and now were finally on their way back to Aspen. As I pulled away from their car after finally introducing myself and getting their names, I could hear the girl still laughing about it all. What a cool trip this turned out to be. Still, I had climbing to do, and a spindle to do it on. My right leg would get really tired every once in a while since it was doing the majority of the work on a functioning pedal. Up up up, and the scenery was getting incredible. There were vast tracts of yellow below in the meadows, surrounded by green. Green grass, green shrubs, and green leaves on the aspens. More than once I had the thought "This is the most beautiful place on earth", and to think that I live here!
With that ecstatic mood, I neared the flats near the top of the pass, and got a flat. Naturally the afternoon storms were just starting, and I sat next to my bike, patching up the front tube while a drizzle was slowly wetting my shirt. Finally I got to the top of the pass a mile later, welcomed by Disco with lager in hand. I had been looking forward to the descent into town since I had never been on this road before due to it being closed to snow since I've lived here. Of course nature had something else in store, mainly hard rain, sleet, and cold cold cold wind. The drop down was really fast, on washboarded road, and beautiful when I could see it through my squinted eyes. With teeth clenched, I tried to ignore how cold I had become. With nothing but a windshirt on, I was definitely getting soaked to the bone, and temps were the coldest I'd seen since waking up that frosty morning before climbing Molas Pass. Here, my bike had a joke in store: finally that chain broke. Honestly, I was happy that it happened. It seemed like beautiful poetry at the time. The bike failed me at the exact time where it should, on a fast descent when I didn't really need the chain, and right before getting into town. I let the bike coast all the way down to the valley floor, about 4 blocks from where I wanted to be. The perfect end to a nearly perfect trip.