Alaska Adventure Machine!

Alaska Adventure Machine!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


It was another rainy morning. The forecast was for nearly 2" of rain along the eastern side of the Sandia Mountains, roughly 80 miles away. It had rained all night here in Espanola, NM. Clad once again in wool socks, neoprene booties and full rain gear,  I turned on my flashing rear tail light and joined the 6:30 AM commuter traffic bound for Santa Fe, NM. After a few hectic miles of pedaling alongside the highway traffic, I found a peaceful frontage road to ride on. I climbed steadily out of the Espanola valley. I passed Camel Rock, which I remembered from my youth. I wondered if this frontage road had once been the main highway, now bypassed by the multi-lane highway nearby. Taking a couple photos here felt nostalgic.

Highway 89 was shade-covered by tall cottonwood trees. "A pretty spot" I thought as I cycled through Tesuque Pueblo.  After a few miles I dropped into Santa Fe. I was still in rush hour morning traffic there. I was making good time, though wary of the dark rain-laden clouds. I stopped at a gas station and bought a sandwich, as I still hadn't had any breakfast due to my early start.
After battling through the construction zones on Cerrillos Road, I sped South out of Santa Fe. I began to lose elevation rapidly. That was not good, as I'd face lots of steep hills to regain elevation on the backside of Sandia Peak. I passed some fanciful wind vane bicycle art outside of Santa Fe.
Up and down I went, passing through the mining district of old Madrid. I was enjoying the distinctive southwestern landscape in spite of all the climbing involved.
All alone in my world, suddenly another cyclist appeared. Wow, another touring soul! I pulled over and we had a chat. His name was Greg, a college student from Tempe, AZ. He was headed to Colorado Springs to work as a camp counselor for the summer. He was camping out along the way, although often grabbing a couch for the night he'd located through a cycling site His ride was to be 750 miles long and he had 75 days to do it. Not exactly a rocket pace, but he was also killing time until the job started. He was quite the cycling novice and had no idea about clip-in pedals or even toe clips for his feet. His bike was a heavy steel steed. But he had spunk and youth on his side. I was sure he'd make a great youth counselor, already creating a good role model for the youth he'd soon meet. Fancy bike equipment was not needed, his 'can do' attitude surely would propel him the rest of the way!
I was making good time as I reached the eastern side of Sandia Peak. Albuquerque was just 15 miles away. It was chilly out, scud clouds hanging low. I treated myself to a coffee and pastry at a Cedar Crest bakery. I phoned home to have my wife forewarn my in-laws of my impending arrival. With a warm belly I raced down Tijeras Canyon, a fortuitous tailwind whisking me into Albuquerque, the "Duke City". Still wearing winter cycling tights, neoprene booties and rain jacket, I knocked on my in-law's door. In seven hours I had quickly ridden 90 miles and over 5,000' of steep hill climbing. My fifth day, and my last ride of the 458 miles, had been done in good form. An amazing route through central Colorado and northern New Mexico had been ridden. I was back in my old stomping grounds. It was time to visit family and friends and even dress up for a wedding! The tour had exceeded my expectations. A "Credit Card" type of speed touring using motels and cafes versus the full camping and remote Alaskan ride of last September. It was fun to go light and fast for a change. "What would be next ride" was already in the back of my mind!

Steaming South

The morning dawned bright and clear. The cobalt blue skies of the American West lifted my spirits as I clipped into my pedals. I had a quick goodbye with Dan as he rolled over to sleep in (finally!) and await his car ride home. On the edge of Antonito, NM is the northern terminus of the Chama Toltec Scenic Railroad. This coal-fired steam train first began running in 1880. Now it is a popular tourist ride of 64 miles, chugging it's way through sage hills and alpine aspen groves. Although not officially running for the season yet, I was fortunate to be there as they were moving the steam engine around the switch yard. A big black coal plume bellowed skyward, pumping steam power to the big wheels. And a long toot of the whistle...magic!

With the whistle ringing in my ear, and New Mexico a few minutes ride away, I enjoyed the cool morning air. I reflected a bit more, with some melancholy, about Dan's dropping out. It sure had been a good time with him. We'd figure out some future adventure fun someday. Yeah for sure! I took photos at the NM border and pedaled into the home state of my youth. It felt good to be returning this way, by bike.
The miles passed quickly. The grass lands of the San Luis Valley gave way to rolling juniper and pinon pine covered hills. Alpine mountains were in the distance. A very quiet highway, perfect for cycling. After 64 miles I passed through Ojo Caliente, NM. Meaning "hot water" literally in Spanish. This is the bi-lingual "Land of Enchantment". No stopping at the hot springs for me; the upscale spa there would have been a wonderful respite. But I had miles to ride and a friend's wedding date to arrive by! I dropped into drier country now.

 I finished my day's ride at Espanola, NM. I had ridden 87 miles. I called Dan up check in. He was still in Antonito, CO awaiting his ride. He was pretty bummed to not be riding; even a bit more so at not having left Colorado yet, and I was done pedaling for the day. We said our goodbyes and hung up. I celebrated my progress by having a large pizza delivered to my motel room.


Day 3 dawned with more rain and forecasted 'doom and gloom' on the motel TV. The low pressure system wasn't going to let up at all. In fact it was beginning to look like we'd be experiencing it into New Mexico now. This lingering winter weather was beginning to ruin my dreams of a sunny cycle South.

We quickly downed the burritos we had purchased the night before from a roadside food truck. We had a 107 mile ride ahead of us, beginning with a 2,000' climb up Poncha Pass. The sooner we hit the road the better. In the pre-dawn drizzle, and with low cloud ceiling, we cycled upwards in full rain gear, neoprene booties and a flashing tail light blinking our presence.
The grade up Poncha Pass was reasonable, in fact one I found my perfect rhythm on. Some climbs are so steep one really strains on the pedals. This one seemed ideal for me; a nice 90 rpm cadence and I quickly gained elevation on the 2,000' climb. Dan seemed to be dragging a bit, the cumulative exertions digging him deeper into his illness. Today would be another test for him.

We had a quick descent down Poncha Pass into the San Luis Valley. Now we were at the northern limits of the conquistadors explorations of 1599. This is the oldest area of Spanish influence in Colorado. It is full of rich history and worthy of a visit by both history buffs and nature lovers. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is certainly unique, consisting of thirty square miles of sand dunes nestled at the base of the 14,000' tall snow capped San de Cristo Range. But there would be no viewing of the cloud shrouded peaks today, as we were chased by frequent rain squalls across the  hundred mile long valley floor. Nor was there time in our demanding schedule to detour to the dunes. We were factory workers slaving away, turning the bicycle cranks round and round.
We took a short break in Alamosa, CO. Dan's energy was really slipping. We had another 27 miles to go. A strong wind was really picking up. For 17 miles we struggled to even stay upright, as we were slammed sideways frequently by the gusty blasts. We were punch drunk as we fought our way past Jack Dempsey's birthplace, Manassa CO.
By mile 107 Dan was beaten down. His bronchitis had won. His normally cheerful spirit was crushed. With just fumes in his tank, he said his last cycling prayer for this trip at the oldest church in Colorado. Just 6 miles from the NM state line, here in Antonito, CO, was the end for him. I couldn't blame him. He had started the trip sick and run down. This was a predictable conclusion. However he had battled mightily and we had grown closer over the days and rugged miles of this trip. It had been trench warfare for him. The weather had been wet, windy and not pleasant most of the way. These hadn't been conditions suitable for any sort of recuperation by him at all. So we enjoyed our last evening together over a tasty green chili New Mexican style dinner. It had been a memorable ride all in all, but now I would have to push on alone. A friend of Dan's from Santa Fe would drive up tomorrow and take him back home to Albuquerque. He was quite disappointed.