Thursday, June 24, 2010

Grand Canyon Bicycle Tour, Day 5

While I had a dream about a bear coming to the door of my tent, I spent the night at Penitente Canyon being entirely uneaten.  My food remained uneaten as well, until I woke up and retrieved it.  After tearing down my camp, I rode back to the water well to fill up my bottles, rinse out my clothes, and wash my hair.

A word about laundry on a bike tour: clothing is bulky, and the weight adds up quickly.  So the entirety of my wardrobe consisted of two sets of riding clothes and two sets of camp clothes.  The latter included swimming trunks.  Ideally, one is able to change into camp clothes after stopping for the day, wash that day's riding clothes, and hang them up to dry overnight.  But frequently what I had to do was to wash my riding clothes the next morning and strap them on top of my panniers to dry while I rode.  And "washing" ranges anywhere from a proper wash in a sink with soap, bringing the clothes into a shower, or just rinsing them out as well as can be done in a stream on the side of the road.

I headed south on County Road 38A, which is not at all paved, and at times the gravel was deep enough to make my 28-mm tires sink in and nearly send me toppling.  But I think it was better than back-tracking to US-285.

County Road 38A

After a while, I emerged onto CO-112 just northeast of Del Norte.  As I neared town, I passed by a bison farm.

Bison near Del Norte

Then I crossed the Rio Grande for the only time on this trip.

The Rio Grande, just east of Del Norte

I arrived in Del Norte shortly before 10:00 and turned onto US-160.  While riding down this main street of the town, I asked an elderly lady where the best breakfast in town could be had.  She told me that Boogie's, just a block or so down the road, had the best breakfast anywhere in the area.  This is another recurring theme during my trip.  Essentially every morning I had instant oatmeal before setting out.  So I made a habit of having second breakfast as soon as circumstances allowed.  I had no basis for comparison to determine whether Boogie's was the best breakfast around, but it was certainly a tasty meal.  There was a hose spigot in the front of the building, so after eating, I used it to fill up my water bottles (replacing some of the well water from Penitente).  I called my wife and talked for a little bit before getting back on the road.

Wolf Creek Pass was one of two obstacles on my journey which had me genuinely concerned.  Friends had told me about it before I set out.  A lady in front of Boogie's warned me about the steep grades and urged me to take frequent breaks during the climb.  Its summit would be the highest elevation I would reach on my journey.  In short, I was already afraid of it.  As I left Del Norte, a strong headwind out of the west picked up and I knew that the psychological battle for Wolf Creek Pass had begun.  I recited my Litany Against an Evil Wind (All cyclists have one of those, don't they?) and pressed on toward South Fork.

Just before South Fork, there is a small shop called Alpine Bike and Ski where I decided to pop in and look around a bit.  This place is run by a young family and, along with mountain-biking accessories or ski gear, according to the season, they offer rafting trips.  They have been in business for about three years now, and the place has a lot of potential.  If you ever find yourself in South Fork for outdoor sports of any kind, I encourage you to stop in and give them some business.  My hands have had some numbness problems, so I picked up a new pair of gloves.  After talking to the owner a bit, he went out to take a look at my bike.  He made some adjustments to the angle of my handlebars to help relieve some of the pressure from my wrists, free of charge.

More importantly, he gave me some more concrete information about Wolf Creek Pass.  The wind might be a bit of an issue, he told me, but the grade was only 5% or 6%, and it wasn't really all that bad.  It allayed my fears, and I planned to make for Big Meadows campground, just before the climbing would start in earnest.  There I would make my base camp and prepare for the final assault the next morning.

But before leaving South Fork, I had to eat.  So on a recommendation I got at Alpine, I stopped just up the road at The Shaft restaurant for some lunch.  There I ordered and quickly consumed a barbecue beef sandwich of the same name.  I smiled to imagine myself saying to the waitress, "I'd like you to give me The Shaft, please."

The wind persisted as the highway angled southward, but the scenery heading up the pass was very beautiful.  I set an easy pace and looked forward to a restful afternoon before the climb that awaited me in the morning.  Along the way, I stopped at several pull-offs to rest and enjoy the sights.

The river beside US-160 going up Wolf Creek Pass

Around 16:00, another blow in the battle for Wolf Creek Pass was struck.  I reached the turn-off for Big Meadows and rode up a gravel road quite a way to the campground.  When I arrived, there was a sign stating that the campground was closed for dead tree removal.  I was pretty angry that they hadn't posted a sign at the highway.  But the area was quite pretty, so I stopped for a few minutes at the reservoir to eat a snack and dip my feet into the cold water.  While sitting there, I decided that the only course of action was to launch a sneak counter-attack and take on The Pass immediately.

Big Meadows Reservoir

By 17:45 I had reached the summit and stopped to take a picture at the sign marking the Continental Divide.  As I was doing so, a family from Florida pulled up in a big white truck.  The man got out and offered me some cold water from his cooler.  I declined, as I still had plenty of water.  Then he offered me a beer, saying that as a former cyclist, he knew that I'd just had a major accomplishment and should mark the occasion.  I couldn't say no, so soon I was sitting on the edge of the Divide marker drinking a Modelo Negro.  It was the first beer I'd had since setting out and possibly the best beer I've ever had.

Wolf Creek Pass: conquered.

Once the descent began, a spectacular view of the valley beyond opens up.  Compounded with the joy of cruising downhill at 30 miles per hour, it was nothing less than inspiring.

The valley beyond Wolf Creek Pass

I stopped at the main scenic overlook on the south side of the pass, where I met a bicycle traveler heading north.  He was a younger guy who had come from California to Durango with some friends and was heading on to Denver on his own.  He was riding a mountain bike and had very minimal gear.  He looked wiped out, having made it most of the way up the steep side of the pass already.  We chatted for a few minutes, but time was short, as it was getting late and we both needed to find camping before dark.  After we went our separate ways, it occurred to me that I should have made sure he had plenty of food and water.  Failing to do that was one of the only regrets I had during the whole trip.

West Fork is the first campground I came to after crossing the pass, and it was there that I stopped for the night.  Everything was so verdant, especially in comparison to the desert campsite I had the night before.  I didn't have much time to do more than eat and set up camp, but I was feeling great.  I had won the battle for Wolf Creek Pass.

Incidentally, my daughter had told me many times that I needed to watch out so as not to be eaten by the wolves on that pass.  Having seen a sign about it at the summit, I was able to tell her that it was named after a fellow by the last name of Wolf, and that I had been in no danger.  Both she and I were most relieved that I remained uneaten.

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