Sometimes there's nothing to do except to push on and see what happens.
We awoke early-early on the morning of Day 56 and started breaking camp. We didn't talk much — sleep had been restless and we were ready to ride forward, hopefully towards some answers. Would our road be closed up ahead? How close were we to a fire, really? Would our toes freeze on the ride? When would we get any cell reception back?
We'd slept in pretty much all our clothes, and soon enough we'd put the last puffy protection on, loaded the bikes, and were ready to go. (After eating hunks of Nutella on some tortillas — the Nutella was too chilled to spread, but still tasty!)
Sawmill Gulch is actually a closed campground, but the internet reveals that a plus side of it being off-limits to car campers is that it's become a kind of private haven for touring cyclists. In other weather it would have been fully gorgeous — it's next to the Willow Creek and a beautiful ridgeline — and even in our rattled, chilly state, it was still pretty beautiful. Also, the little (mercifully open!) outhouse building featured this graffiti. Rock on, K.G.!
We knew the whole morning would be climbing — which we weren't too upset to do, considering the cold. Climbing warms you up, whereas zooming down hills is more fun, but also freezes you a bit. You can feel all the sweat you've accumulated inside your layers turning into cold water as the wind hits you.
We climbed and marveled quietly. We were moving through two National Forests, first Arapaho and then Routt, and the scenery remained epic and impassive — the kind of land Werner Herzog would do A+ narration about.
We were heartened to see that the sky ahead of us (and, by this point, behind us too) looked pretty clear — no smell of smoke in the air. And soon we found ourselves at the day's apex: Willow Creek Pass. This is where we realized that, despite the triumph of Hoosier, we'll actually be tacking back and forth across the Continental Divide several times. So, for the moment, we're back with the Atlantic-flowing rivers. Never trust a cyclist who says, "It's all downhill from here!"
After zooming down the northern side of Willow Creek pass, we were pretty dang cold, and decided to pull over in the tiny town of Rand, hoping for, at the very least, somewhere that might provide a wind-break for a little while. We got much better. The Rand Store, run by Sandy and Don, isn't on the TransAm map because they're only open Wednesdays through Sundays, and they don't want to disappoint bikers who may happen through on Monday or Tuesday. But if you do roll by on a W-thru-S, it's such a treat! A lovely general store with lots of fascinating local merchandise, a coffee/tea/hot chocolate station (we had two hot chocolates each), and a wonderful wood stove that you can stand beside and warm up. While perusing excellent literature like this:
Sandy was incredibly friendly and chatted with us about our ride — and let us hang out in the store for as long as it took to heat up again. Eventually we snagged some postcards and other cute possibly bear-related items, and hit the road again.
The 20 miles to Walden offered another example of our early thesis that states bleed together near the borders. This northern stretch of Colorado was, we were to learn later, teaching us what Wyoming would look like. Still epic, but sparser, harder — vast fields of rolling sage brush with looming mountains in the distance. This is the beginning of the badlands.
It was (surprise, surprise!) a windy ride into Walden but—in the hard, vast way of the high plains—a beautiful one. And we rolled into town thankful to have plenty of day left in which to enjoy showers, finish up some non-trip-related work, and work on blog stuff in our motel room. Walden and its surrounding community of North Park (along with Rand and probably many towns in this area) is pretty obsessed with moose, and while we ate some burritos in one of the town's only restaurants (the Mad Moose, formerly Moose Creek Cafe), we were more than sufficiently entertained by a feed of cell-phone-captured moose videos on the TVs. A moose playing with a remote mini-lawnmower in someone's yard? Moose curiously encountering large and not-having-it family cat? Excellent.
Best of all — we discovered on arriving in Walden (which posts handwritten road closure signs on the doors of its gas stations), that 125 remained open to the north. The Cameron Peak Fire, which had been closing more easterly roads towards Laramie, wasn't going to hold us captive in northern Colorado. Praise be.
It's sobering to be moving—small and relatively agile but still quite capable of being trapped—through these fires, threading between them like little fish through open currents between whirlpools. There's a lot that's sobering about this trip, but much that's bracing too. Moving through this country at this moment—slowly, small town by small town, long road by long road—is a wild, complex thing. Tomorrow, we hit Wyoming... We'll keep pushin' till it's understood And these badlands start treating us good
Day 56 stats: Sawmill Gulch Campground to Walden, CO, 43.2 miles, 1800 feet of climbing, several hot chocolates, one fortunate route discovery, many moose referenced though, sadly, no moose seen.