Today's a big one. It's time to get as high as we're going to get on this trail. (No Colorado pun intended.)
We wake up early in Guffey and pedal out before 6 AM — winding down dark hills, watched by skulls that would excite Georgia O'Keefe. It's cold. We've put hand and foot-warmers in our shoes and gloves before we head off, but before too long we have to stop because Beau—who's wearing two sets of gloves—is actually getting the circulation cut off in his hands. We stop again a little later on to do some more defense against the temperature. The moon is still in the sky.
As the sun slowly rises at our backs, the country around us gets even more epic. Pedaling through the Pike National Forest, the ride turns joyful despite the chill — the landscape is incredible, and just gets bigger and bigger. As we head through valleys where the sun seldom reaches, we see traces of snow.
As we keep climbing (steadily, steadily — Colorado-style), the yellow Aspens have fewer and fewer leaves on them. We're wrapped up in practically every piece of clothing we've got at this point. My parents have sent a box of our warmer clothes onwards to Breckenridge, our destination for the day, and we're riding up a mountain to get to them.
It's not too long before we come over a crest and see... this:
There they are — the snow-capped peaks. The real live Rockies. Toto, we're not on the East Coast anymore. (Or in Kansas, for that matter. Thank goodness.) For a Blue Ridge girl, it's quite a sight. These things are awesome, primeval. They're like the craggy frozen knees of sleeping giants. And we're about to ride through them.
As we're coming into Hartsel, the winds start to pick up. We pump out the last few miles and, blessedly, find ourselves in a tiny town with an excellent diner. It's time for second breakfast — the most important biking meal of the day. Thank you, Highline Cafe & Saloon! Your huevos rancheros were freakin' delicious.
And we need every calorie of them. As we pull out of Hartsel, the winds are higher still, and it's all one long upward trek towards the pass we'll be climbing before sundown. We make pretty slow time towards Fairplay (the last big town before you really start up in the mountains). But, on the plus side, we're mostly biking through a big, beautiful nature reserve... And there are buffalos!
The last three miles into Fairplay suck. Even before Hartsel—and despite the chilly temperatures—Beau has sweat through every layer he's wearing from pedaling into the wind. (Like, through three shirts, a sweater, and a flannel). Now, we push down a shoulder-less road while the wind assaults us and semi-trucks blow by. It's a SLOG. We're averaging under 7 miles per hour. People can run that fast. In Fairplay we gird our loins with a couple of beers and get ready to attempt the big—the ultimate!—climb. (Oh yeah, we also take advantage of a nearby dispensary and get a chocolate bar spiked with some of that stuff that's legal in Colorado. Sweet, bro.)
Soon, the beers are drunk, the tab is paid, the afternoon is wearing on, and there's nothing for it. It's time to climb. As we're leaving Fairplay—headwind still blasting us—someone shouts from a nearby parking lot, "Y'all are masochists!" "YEAHHH!!!" we shout back. But really, we're just unlucky. And stubborn.
At least the last stretch of blustery miles before Hoosier Pass is on a bike path beside the road (though that path's asphalt is cracked about every 5-10 feet, making for a ride full of heavy ka-chunks). It lands us in Alma — "North America's Highest Incorporated Town!" Is it a pun? You decide... It's a cute, funky little place, though. And it's all that's left before (drum roll)... HOOSIER PASS.
As we stuff a Kind bar into our mouths before beginning the final ascent, a small miracle happens... The wind turns around! For just a second. Still choking down granola and chocolate, we leap on our bikes to try to take advantage of the — well, the advantage! It's a big old gust, and for the first 100 or 200 feet, it feels amazing! Like there's a gigantic hand behind us just pushing us right up the mountain. WOO!!!
Of course it dies off soon enough, but it feels like a good omen, and we push up and up and up. It's a hairy climb: The road has no shoulder and a pretty broken edge. Cars are, overall, considerate of you, but it's a gnarly roadway for slow climbing. Still, up and up we go. And after a while there's one hell of a view.
"Good for you guys!" shouts a tourist who's standing outside his car at one of the overlooks. "HOW MUCH FURTHER?!" we shout back. "Not far!" he assures us. Whether it's true or not, it's appreciated.
Then, finally, suddenly, it's there: the summit. 11,539 feet. The top of the trail. The Continental Divide. The watershed. We've made it. We did it.
It's surreal. It's awesome. It feels fucking RAD. Of course we hang out at the summit taking pictures and breathing hard and glowing for a while. But we can't dilly dally — it's already after 5 o'clock! We've been riding for 11 hours and the UPS store in Breckenridge (where our warm clothes are waiting) closes at 6:30. Breckenridge is 13-ish miles away, but it's all downhill. Let's do this. And WHAT a downhill. The switchbacks are intense and we keep a tight hold of the brakes for the first stretch, but wow, it's a rush — we haven't felt speed like this in a long time, and the sun is dipping over the mountains as we fly down into the valley. Actually, with the sinking sun and the shadows and the rushing air, we've got to pull over at one point so that I can take my hands out of my gloves and rub some life back into them. But we're making incredible time, and before long, we're passing swanky ski vacation homes and gorgeous lakes. Breckenridge awaits!
We pull in with just about an hour of daylight left. My head's a little spinny from how incredibly tourist-y it is. Which I don't entirely mean in a bad way. We've been in so many ghost towns, at so many intersections with only a gas station and a suspicious tumbleweed — it's kind of a shock to the system to roll down a super commercial main street, all glittery shops and fancy eateries tricked out to look Alpine-ish. It's like Disney World meets Santa's Workshop, designed by rich ski bums. I... don't hate it? I don't know that I'd like it much at its most intense, but the streets are understandably quiet-ish right now, and I'm a little overwhelmed by so much to look at.
We've sprung for a semi-pricey but very nice hostel/hotel for the night (there's nothing not expensive in Breckenridge, but we found a relatively chill place with good folks running it). They even do laundry for us! (Deal MAKER — they'll do a bag's worth for any "through hikers," which includes us!) I grab our box of winter warmies from the UPS Store (which charges me a super-shitty $30 box pick-up fee so BE WARNED, ALL YE that would ship to Bougie Breckenridge!). But ah well. We've got our down jackets. We're unstoppable now.
Except for tonight. When we definitely stop quite hard. HEY, we climbed Hoosier Pass! It is time for large burgers, Great British Baking Show in bed, and maybe a little chocolate-flavored baking of our own...
Oh, also, the coolest thing about Breckenridge is the foxes. They're everywhere after dark. Like feral cats. They clearly own this town. When Ski-tropolis has crumbled into dust, they'll be waiting. Cute and hungry. HOOSIER? WHO'S HER? PA-POW.
Day 53: Guffey to Breckenridge, CO, 69.2 miles, 5150 feet of climbing, much-wildlife-many-mountain-very wow, lots of the wind, ALL OF THE HEIGHT, one big sleepy victory!