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Knot of Muscle
The wind piled into us as soon as we got out of Rawlins and up onto the high treeless plain south of the town. Suzanne hadn’t been able to find a front rack to hang her panniers on, so all her own clothes and camping gear were stuffed in her rear panniers leaving me weighed down with all the fancy food I’d bought. With all that weight and against the wind, it was like pedaling into concrete just beginning to set up. Suzanne rode in front trying to break the wind, but it did little good and eventually she took off, cycling into the horizon.
The next morning she repacked our gear. Suzanne is astoundingly generous and takes on far more than her share. When she’d finished packing she had everything. We were suddenly like those couples you see in African countries where the husband strides masterfully down the road, erect and unencumbered by anything but his dignity, while, twenty feet behind him, bent double comes the wife with the family’s possessions on her back. It was only because I’m bigger that I was able to wrest from her the chocolate bars and alfalfa sprouts so that I was carrying something.
Stuffed with all our gear, her tall red panniers looking like missiles pointing at the sky. She, nevertheless, still spun effortlessly up the hills, leaving me far behind huffing and puffing in my lowest gear. When the roads improved or became asphalt her entire body leaned into each pedal stroke, her shoulders pushing hard, for mile after mile. Unlike me, who sat daintily on my saddle, my upper body not moving at all as my feet twiddled the pedals around and around.
We left Steamboat Springs in the late afternoon on a paved road, heading southeast into another wind. Suzanne was ahead of me, came to a fork and without slowing took the wrong turn, heading up the hill to the right, her shoulders pumping, leveraging her legs, speeding up as she climbed, most likely shifting up to get a good burn.
I yelled into the wind, but she couldn’t hear and in seconds she was over the top and gone. By the time I crested the rise, she was out of sight. I looked far down the valley but couldn’t see her and in any case there was no way I could catch up to her. I parked Succotash and tried flagging down passing cars, hoping to get one of them to catch her and send her back. None stopped.
She came back eventually, as I knew she would, but the only time I was ever in front was when she wanted to take my picture.
I was back in Frisco, after dropping Suzanne off at the Denver airport, spending a few days with Dad who’d come out to visit, and visiting other friends in the area, putting Succotash back together in front of the Hertz office where I’d dropped off the rental car. There was snow on the peaks and an icy wind blew out of the west. It was mid-morning and I hoped to be over Boreas Pass before nightfall. As it turned out, I was barely out of town when the sun went down.
Like some of my early yo-yo relationships, try as I might, I was unable to leave the bike store in Frisco:
A quarter mile from Hertz, for unknown reasons, my chain breaks with a loud pop. It was a new kind of chain and I couldn’t refasten the links, so I walked with it to the bike store to have them fix it for me.
Back at the bike, I discover that when the chain had broken it had snapped a spoke (or so I thought) in the rear wheel. It was a cassette-side spoke which requires a tool I didn’t have. So I walked Succotash to the bike store to fix the spoke.
Spoke fixed, I head out of town. Just blocks from the store, I down-shift to climb a hill and the derailleur decapitates itself in my spokes. I now assume, like my previous derailleur decapitation, that the derailleur had been knocked out of alignment when I had put it in the rental car and was the cause of the broken spoke and chain. I leave the bike and walk back to the store to buy a new derailleur.
Back at the bike, I discover that the hanger by which the derailleur is attached to the bike is bent and I don’t have the tools to straighten it. So I walk the bike back to the store. At the store, we discover that the chain (new in Steamboat Springs) had five or six inches of links bent 90 degrees off the chain’s axis, so we put on a new chain with the new derailleur.
Note: By now it’s late afternoon and I’m getting sick, a vicious combination of nausea and fever. The three bike mechanics were too damn chipper and I go outside and lean on a wall.
With my new chain and derailleur, I bike away yet again and don’t get across the back parking lot before the chain skips—just as it was skipping in Rawlins. Back to the store.
It is now past 6, the store is closed, but these guys shrug it off and slap on a new rear cassette; the new chain had been skipping off the old and worn rear cassette.
Aside from staying past closing, Zack, the mechanic working on my bike, didn’t charge any labor, just parts, for all of the work he did. I talked to his boss who was closing out the register at the end of the day and he too refused to charge labor.
The sixth time was the last time and, severely nauseous, with night coming on I raced up to the hostel in Breckinridge, some 12 miles up the road, where I crash and sleep for 13 hours, waking every hour or two to visit the head. Back in Juneau, Suzanne, too, had the same symptoms and diagnosed it as giardia—somewhere we hadn’t gotten some bad cow shit out of our drinking water.
Dennis and Hard Luck
Past Frisco, past Breckinridge, over Boreas Pass and up onto the high plateau of South Park. Ringed by distant mountains, the plain rolled more and had more grass than did the high desert of Wyoming, but it was as brown and dry. On the hillsides and distant ridges were aspen, now flaming gold as fall was coming on.
At the end of the day, I began climbing a narrow gravel road shaded by yellowing aspen. The light filtered thru the leaves and shadowed the granite crags on the uphill side. The beauty was difficult to absorb and I got off Succotash just to look for awhile before continuing on.
The road flattened out for a bit before finally cresting the pass and as I geared up, I passed an old log cabin and someone shouted at me. I leaned Succotash against the gate and climbed the stairs to the deck. On it were two men, one in cameo clothes the other in blue jeans, both with beers in their hands. I popped an offered bottle of water and sat down with them in the last of the day’s sun.
Dennis, black, hair starting to grizzle, was from Colorado Springs, though he’d been raised in a coal mining town in West Virginia. He’d joined the army in 1967, did two tours in Viet Nam. After the war, he became a quartermaster until his retirement some years ago. Working as a civilian, he’d been the local army base’s athletic director for five years and now he volunteered on fish and wildlife projects on base. He’d married twice, with kids from both marriages.
Hard Luck, white, 62, the same age as Dennis, was from Mississippi where he and his wife owned two stores. The one he ran, which his father had started many years ago, sold used farm and heavy equipment. His wife ran the other which sold second-hand sewing machines and household appliances. They’d been married all their lives and had no children.
Hard Luck had been coming to Lone Wolf Cabin since he was a teenager. On his first visit—back when he was Harold—he’d taken a shot at a deer every day for seven straight days and missed every time. He’d been Hard Luck ever since.
Dennis found his way to Lone Wolf Cabin fifteen years previously by wandering down the back roads with his wife looking for a place to park his RV. The cabin’s owner told him to park it in the driveway and from then on, he was part of the crew.
Since the late 19th century and only until recently, Lone Wolf Cabin had been packed with men during the hunting season; there were drinking parties, impromptu bands, and the hard-joshing camaraderie that binds men. On the cabin wall was a large collage of photographs of the many people who’d been regular hunters through the years. Hard Luck knew them all and told us their stories.
But that hunting life is over. Most of the original hunters have died, and their children have little interest in a couple of weeks away from families, hunting.
“It’s only us now,” Hard Luck said. Dennis nodded.
There was a poignancy for me, listening to Hard Luck’s stories of the waning of the hunting parties that had bound so many men. Just a few weeks previously I’d reread William Faulkner’s story, The Bear—about an annual hunting trip into the Mississippi wilderness and how it had bound the men, shaped the young boy they took with them, and how, as the boy grew, the annual hunting parties dwindled to nothing as their world changed and as the wilderness was logged and destroyed.
Aside from his generosity and easy-going sociability, Hard Luck’s defining characteristic was unending story-telling. When he learned I was from Alaska, he told us a story of taking a cruise ship up the Inside Passage. He was hot to see a bear (I’m giving you the Cliff Notes version) and when the cruise ship tied up in Ketchikan, he hopped a tourist flight in a small plane (sounded like a Twin-Otter) over to bear country. The pilot skimmed along a ridge and, when the ridge dropped away, pushed the stick forward. The plane dropped out of the sky; the other passengers lost their lunches, which must have stuck to the ceiling, and Hard Luck, “pissed his pants.” I asked him what kind of tips the pilot got; he just shook his head.
I have a conflicted relationship with nonstop talkers. I come from the other side of the loquacity continuum, being virtually catatonic in my younger days, and envy those who always have something to say. In social situations, I depend on others to fill, what would otherwise be, dead air. Yet it is the unabashed insertion of self of talkative people that takes me aback. Who could really think that what they have to say interests those listening?
I tend to poke at people who are so quick to dominate the social air, and when I first sat down with Hard Luck and Dennis on the deck with that welcomed bottle of cold water, I poked at Hard Luck. Teasing him when he interrupted and making snide comments when he started yet another story.
It took about an hour before I came to my senses and realized I was being snotty and ungenerous. I sat quietly for a while reorienting myself, sloughing my judgment and trying to resurrect my graciousness. Eventually, I was behaving myself and when, later that night, Dennis turned to me, his face puckered with disbelief, and said around the edges of whatever story Hard Luck was telling at the moment: “Did you know a man could talk so much?” I could say that we needed to revel in our characters or life would be too dull otherwise.
They took me hunting that evening, riding their big rigs up washed-out horse trails I’d have had to walk Succotash up, and down into a lost basin, once a homestead, the log buildings now long abandoned. We sat in the trucks listening to the elk bugle, but they never came out of the trees and when it was too dark to see, we drove back to the cabin.
When it was time for me to go, mid-morning the next day, Hard Luck launched into a long 40 minute story of an hours long seduction of a women he’d met in New York City many years ago. When he finally had her in bed, unclothed, he slipped his hand down across her belly toward his ultimate goal. As it neared it, she snatched his forearm and sunk her nails deep into his flesh. He jerked up, tossed the covers aside and looking down into that deep darkness, shouted: It bit me, that thing bit me.
Brock, the triage nurse at Orange Slice Bike Store back in Steamboat Springs, sold me a Continental tire assuring me that it was comparable to the Scwhable Marathon tires I’d had on Succotash since Juneau. I need to pause here and say that I had gained a religious awe of the Scwhable’s ability to take abuse. But the tread on the rear tire was wearing thin and I thought it wise to swap it out before it began to fall apart. In theory, this may have been a good idea; but the Continental was a disaster:
The morning after buying the tire, some 40 miles south of Steamboat, the tire goes flat. Opening it up, I find a 2 millimeter sliver of steal in the inner-tube. I figure either Continental’s manufacturing process had been contaminated or Orange Slice’s shop dirty. I also discovered that the bike mechanic had not transferred the Mr Tuffy liner from the old tire into the new.
That evening, just as Suzanne and I arrived in camp, I get a second flat. It was just a small puncture in the tube, no cause (thorn, metal sliver, etc.) that I could discover. I call Orange Slice the next morning to whine. Brock’s not there; I talk to Chris:
Two flats in less than a hundred miles
Missing tire liner
The new front sprockets are miss-spaced so that the chain doesn’t properly seat on the middle sprocket when shifting up from low.
Fifteen miles up the next road—a hard packed dirt road initially and then paved, I get flat number three. Suzanne and I independently examine the inside of the tire looking for hidden thorns or nails; and, thinking that I may have dropped some grit into it when I last changed it, I wipe down the inside with an alcohol hand-wipe and reinsert the tube with the wheeling lying on top of a pannier and not on the ground. I also mark the tire so that I could check to see if the punctures weren’t being caused by the same thorn or tack stuck in the tire that I’d not spotted.
Four miles up the road, we stop at a pull out to read the tourists plaques and look at the view. As I’m straddling the bike, I feel it sink beneath me. Puncture number 4 was on the inner rim of the inner-tube, not on the outer, road-side. I broke open the front tire and stripped it of its Mr Tuffy lining and put it in the rear tire.
This seemed to work as I was flat-free for the next several hundred miles. But what the liner served to do, was lull me into thinking that I’d had the problem solved, so that I didn’t buy a new tire when I was in Frisco, CO, the last bike store within easy distance of the Trail until I got to Silver City 920 miles away—and only a couple of days from the Trail’s end.
360 miles out of Steamboat, coming down from Cochetopa Pass, the tire blew for the fifth time. Opening it up, I discover that the inside of the tire had deteriorated for about 2 inches along the edge of the liner and tiny copper wires in the tire had abraded a 2 inch section of the tube until they poked a hole in it. I cut two two inch pieces off the liner and fit them cross ways over the deteriorated part of the tire, hoping it would protect the tube.
It did not and on the following day, I had flat 6 and came as a relief because, for reasons I couldn’t determine, I had no energy and really needed an excuse to quit early, eat dinner, and get some sleep. The pieces of liner had shifted re-exposing the little wires. This time, I crosshatched three layers of electrical tape over the damaged part of the tire, patched the tube with a self-adhesive patch of a type I’d not used before.
At this point I was desperate to get rid of the tire. An occasional flat was part of the adventure, but six in 420 miles was simply a drag. So my heart was all aflutter when I bumped and banged my way down the boney ATV track out of the desert and into the Rio Grande Valley. Del Norte, population 1,700 lay on the south side of the river, which was clear and fast flowing. Turning left, I headed down the town’s main street. The stores were faded, old signs with peeling and pitted paint hung over them and the wares in the windows seemed tired and listless. When it’s not your home, you wonder why people don’t leave.
Directed by an elderly woman who had lived her full life in Del Norte, I entered a rundown, dimly lit shop on main street. Inside, two women were pushing and shoving old shelves and display cabinets with second hand clothes, knick-knacks and old kitchen utensils on them. Nothing there looked like bike gear. I asked and they sent me next door to their brother/husband, Alex, who had closed down his sporting goods store and given the building to them.
I found Alex next door standing in the sun before a stand holding an intricate tree bole that he was carving for the tourist trade. He must have been around 70. A full head of short, grey, unkempt hair, worn and dirty white t-shirt and shapeless, also well-worn wool pants and chewed up black shoes. It was as if he’d faded with his town. But his eyes lit up when he saw me in my biking shorts and he told me of the days when he ran shuttle for bikers doing only a portion of the trail and needed to get back to their cars, left where they’d begun their trip. In his twenties, he’d hitchhiked to Alaska and, coming back thru Canada, had stopped in one of the National Parks—he couldn’t remember the name, but it sounded as if it were either Jasper or Banff—and with a notebook had spent several weeks exploring and cataloging the Park’s plants. When he came back into Park headquarters to identify some of the plants he’d found, he learned that several were new species, never before identified. Impressed, the Park offered him a two year contract to survey the entire Park.
At this point, the excitement drained out of his eyes and he shrank a bit as if he, too, had had a flat. He turned down the offer.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I wanted to come home,” he said and then, mournfully, “It‘s the only thing I regret.” But then he perked up and said he’d met his wife and raised his family here in Del Norte.
He’d closed down the bike store because there was no money in it, curiously, there were fewer bikers coming through than there had once been. All the bike bits he’d stored in boxes, and while he didn’t have any tires, he did have patch kits. It was just that he’d never be able to find them. I pleaded: could we go take a look. I had hundreds of miles of rough roads in front of me and I didn’t trust the self-adhesive patches I had left.
He took me to his old store and walked thru musty storerooms in the back, dimly lit by a single hanging bulb. The floor was oak that had shrunk in the dry air, opening wide cracks between the planks; the ceiling plaster had pocked and disintegrated from water leaking thru the roof. Sometime in its past, Del Norte must have been a town abuzz with possibilities and expectations and this store had been part of the action—now it and its residents were just hanging on. Cardboard boxes were stacked floor to ceiling and he pulled uncertainly at one and poked around in it. “There are more boxes back at the house,” he said and I knew it was hopeless.
Back in the street, Alex launched into another story, but the sun was only a couple of hours above the horizon and I wanted to get out of town and find a campsite before dark, I touched his elbow, thanked him, and said I had to go.
A couple of blocks back up the street was a NAPA store, and hoping that some cars hadn’t made the switch to tubeless tires I went over and asked if they had patch kits. They did; the patches were big and meaty and they filled me with joy and comfort just looking at them. I bought one box. It was a mistake, I should have bought two.
The next morning the tire was flat. Number 7 was caused because the self-adhering patch failed. I repatched it with one of the thick patches I’d bought at Napa—leaving me with only five.
The highest point on the divide: 11,910 feet, two miles in the air. I started that morning at just under 8000 feet and began the long climb up. The golden aspen lit the hillsides and the lodgepole pine shaded the road. By the time I was approaching the pass, it was cold and blustery, with hard bits of snow—grauple—that stung when wind spit them into you. I wasn’t dressed warmly enough, and thinking that the descent on the other side of the pass would be as steep as the ascent, I pushed on instead of stopping and putting on jacket and pants.
But the trail stayed high. I came into the industrial wasteland of Summitville, site of a large abandoned gold mine. When Galactica Gold’s cyanide leaching pond overflowed its dam, the company declared bankruptcy and ran, leaving the public to clean up its mess. The mine site leached acid mine drainage and was declared a superfund site and millions of dollars were being spent to build a water treatment complex that would have to treat the toxic water forever.
Still the trail stayed at altitude traversing several sub-alpine basins already brown and leafless this late in the season, with snow on occasional north facing or shadowed slopes. When the road began to drop, I was cold and the air rushing into as Succotash accelerated drew pulled any remaining heat out of me. The pine were replaced by large, dusty green, and comfortingly familiar spruce. Dropping fast, I came to a high polychrome mountain streaked with reds, oranges and purples; barren of life so mineralized was its soil.
It was late in the day, the sun hidden by the ridge to the west when I biked into Stunner Campground—as USFS campsite already closed for the season, although several RVs were there. Circling the grounds, I saw flames leaping out of a fire pit. After setting up camp, and bundling into all my warm clothes, I wandered over towards the fire, asked the two men there where the drinking water was and instantly I was offered water, fire, and dinner.
Gary and Tim were from Texas, both had been coming up to southwest Colorado to fish for many years. Friendly and garrulous, both were proud to be from the Lone Star State. When I asked Tim why specifically he liked living in Texas, he said he loved Texas because Texans were proud to be Texans. It was too brief an answer for him and he later emailed me a lengthy disquisition–which, I to my regret had lost. Gary, an electrical designer, designed gas fired power plants. He was currently working on a huge one in Florida that was replacing an old coal fired plant. This old plant discharged its warm cooling water into the Atlantic and over the years, the local manatees had adapted to it, wintering in its warmth instead of migrating to South America as they had historically. When the new plant was permitted, the utility was required to provide warm water for the manatees during the years between the shutdown of the old plant and the start-up of the new.
Tim, also an electrical designer, did autocad work for a pipeline company in San Antonio. When he mentioned his home town, he looked at me like he expected a reaction for me. It was “huh?”
“Where the Alamo is,” he said. Texas was a different universe for some of us.
Tim made knives from stainless steel and bone or wood for the handles. The craftsmanship was exquisite. He doesn’t have a website, but Google “Churchman blades” in Google Images to see pictures.
Both asked the standard questions about my trip and at some point during the conversation Tim asked, “Do you carry a pistol?” I said, I couldn’t imagine pulling a gun on anybody, but both of them had pistols and always traveled with them.
We had chili and fire-baked cornbread for dinner and I didn’t leave them any leftovers.
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