Denver: City of Cute Dogs and Weed

So now that I got all my end of the world complaining out of my system, let’s talk about Denver. I can see why people move from all over the country to live there.

  1. Surrounded by mountains
  2. Great weather
  3. Cool things to spend money on, like:

    Food (gourmet strawberry Pop Tart)

    Coffee (look at all the twisty drip action)

    DIY shit (colorful ramekins)

    (cutest measuring spoons)
  4. Super bike friendly (motor vehicle-free bike paths that cut through the middle of town)

We stayed with Clint in a two-story house that used to be a church. It was right across the street from Section 8 housing, and the convenience store across the street got tagged big time the first night we stayed there. That being said, it was still a friendly little neighborhood and felt safe enough. Clint lives with four other early twenty-somethings, all of them from Florida. I think all of them are from Palmetto, actually. That’s the town Travis and Clint grew up in, just south of Tampa. And let me tell you, these kids are repping Florida pretty damn hard. Those shorts!

To my great happiness, there were three adorable animals residing in this house: Professor McGonagall, Luna, and Roxy. The Professor was a cat and spent her time outside challenging squirrels to deathly fence-walking face-offs. Luna is quite possibly the cutest dog we met on the trip, and she was the perfect size and expert cuddler.

Then there was Roxy.
Roxy was a rescue dog and still had issues. She barked maniacally when anyone entered the house, even the people who had lived with her for years. We soon discovered, however, that the best way to make Roxy’s attentions toward you turn favorable was to start petting Luna. Then Roxy would just leap up in your lap no problem. Not gonna lie, I empathize with the small neurotic dogs most.

Two of the housemates work at Starbucks, which turns the fridge, countertops, and coffee area into a home Starbucks bistro. Need that morning pick-me-up? Each of them gets a pound of coffee to take home every week. Return from the bar feeling peckish? It’s cool, would you like a brownie, a cheese danish, or scones? Can’t figure out what you want for a mid-day snack? You have regular and greek yogurt parfaits to choose from.

One more thing about this house. These kids smoke weed. Like they reeeeally smoke weed. Like when you turn on Netflix on the flat screen you have the push three bongs out of the way. Like every morning is a wake and bake kind of morning. Like I even learned about a new way to smoke weed.

Doing “dabs” is a way to smoke a bowl’s worth of THC in one hit. You buy this weed oil… I don’t know what it’s called or where you get it. Then you get this special bong bowl and heat it up with a crème brulee torch till it’s glowing red hot. Then you use a metal instrument to dab the weed oil into the glowing bowl and inhale. These veteran stoners told us sometimes it’s better to do this at night because you may as well plan on being stoned for the next 8 hours. These kids get so excited about dabs that they started chanting and clapping their hands about it when Taylor suggested that’s how they spend their Friday afternoon. “Dabs! Dabs! Dabs!” Apparently, dabs are the bomb.

So that’s one thing about this legal marijuana thing. Weed is very high quality, easy to obtain, and cheap. You can buy it for about half the price as you would in other places. But luckily, marijuana isn’t the kind of drug that makes you want to hit your girlfriend (alcohol) or allows for easy overdose (prescription drugs). Clint’s roommates all have jobs, even jobs that require them to be at work at 3am and 6am. Colorado is opening up huge tax revenues with their legal dispensaries. Marijuana bought legally is taxed 25%, and is only bought from certified producers, which are highly regulated. Not that the black market isn’t alive and well, but as I said, everyone still seems to be functioning.

Bummer Town

It was a descent back into civilization. Aaaand it was depressing. I think this is the first time I’ve seen a city in terms of the rural place that it originated from. Denver is in a desert valley just like like all the other desert valleys I just spent a month riding through. Except this valley is filled with lights and McDonald’s and billboards and an intricate system of highways. 

Now I’m not ready to move out to the country or anything. When traveling through some of these rural areas, the thought of living there struck me as oppressive. Oppressive because there is just nothing. Where is the yoga studio? Where can I get brunch on Sunday? How could you I ever visit friends if they live 30 miles away? I live in a small city now, but I lived in Chicago for three years. I really liked it. I liked the lights and the bustle and constant movement. But I only knew Chicago in terms of the city- I didn’t start with the wetlands of the Great Lakes and the empty places of Wisconsin and Michigan. It was easy to disassociate the cement with wild place it used to be.

Even the thought of the ariel view from Florida was contextualized differently. From the plane, our landscape is pockmarked with lakes, cut through with snaking rivers, surrounded by an ever-rising blue ocean, blanketed in trees. And then there are these deformities junking it all up— straight grey highways, asphalt wastelands, and subdivisions. GOOD LORD THE SUBDIVISIONS. Our whole state is a swamp, and we’ve spent the past 200 years draining it to make it habitable. We’ve done a great job of it, clearing out mangroves so we can be left wide open to the track of hurricanes, draining marshland for cattle grazing so the runoff can pollute our waterways, developing our cities till they are an indistinguishable blob of Starbucks and Hobby Lobby. 

As we descended the last mountain range the houses littered the highway in messy clumps. It seemed like every other yard had a scrap heap out back. The power lines transformed from a solitary telephone wire to a tangle of crisscrossing towers. Then we passed a modern day mine, today’s answer to all the turn of the century mines that gave Southwest Colorado a reason to be inhabited. Well they blew up a mountain to extract molybdenum, and all the water and dirt and rock leftover from the blasts is filling up the valley. But we can’t make steel without molybdenum, so we have to keep mining it. 

There are no easy fixes for Colorado or Florida or the planet. I’m not gonna spout conservationist lingo about going green by buying fancy products or switching to solar. None of that will fix anything. The only thing that will work is every human being on the Earth changing their idea of what land means— it’s not a commodity to be traded for greater economic development or a set of disparate objects waiting for us to use it. 

It is, in fact, what Deep Ecology and almost every indigenous culture on the planet claims it to be, which is a complicated web of habitats, natural forces and life that have inherent worth regardless of their use to human beings. That comes in to focus much more clearly after spending time away from lots of people, waking up with the sun, and reading Travis’ book of Indian narratives in which native people lament the loss of everything bountiful and beautiful at the coming of the White culture. 

But whatever. I’m not a climate activist. I haven’t made my career by organizing people to fight our imminent collapse. I drive a car way too much; I take cross-country flights; a good portion of my life is taken up with buying things. I do, however, make my living in a way that I feel good about, and I get to do my small part of education by the way that I farm. 

I don’t use synthetic chemicals to fertilize my crops, kill unwanted insects or destroy weeds. I don’t use genetically modified seeds, and I do my best to not buy processed food (which in America means it contains GM ingredients 99% of the time). I educate my friends, family, and customers about eating locally to cut down on carbon emissions which are a result of buying tomatoes that come from Mexico when it’s not tomato season in Florida. Our environmental crises have are major issues for me, and always have been since I started the Earthsavers Club in 2nd grade. I have found that organic farming and education are the best avenues for me to make my pitiful little difference, and that’s why I’ve stuck with it for all these years. 

So I felt slightly melancholy upon our entrance to the world of cities. Not only because of the city part, but because our trip was basically over. We had no more places to ride to, just a car ride to the airport. The journey was over just like that. But at least we ended up in Denver, which is a pretty cool city, despite the fact that it’s a city.  

Thirty Miles of Sand

Remarkably, we reached Sand Dunes National Park in like an hour. Wat?? Cars are just so fast! The Sand Dunes are part of a pretty remarkable ecosystem made up of several habitats, and host several organisms that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. They are mostly bugs. The Dunes are huge, the tallest one is 750 ft tall, and the main Dunefield stretches out for 30 miles. That’s a shit ton of sand. 

They are formed by a intricate combination of natural forces, as all of these crazy landscapes are. Winds from the West blow sand in from the desert in the valley, which collects at the foot of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. Then, wind blowing down from the mountains whips the sand up into these dune formations. Spring creeks, formed from snowmelt, carry the sand back down to the foot of the main dune field, completing the cycle and keeping all the sand in place. Ta da! That’s my reeeally rough scientific explanation. I realized that I am not great at understanding geological tables which explain this stuff. In any case, these dunes formed thousands of years ago, and the same sand has been recycling though the system in that time. The result is this strange mountain of beach sand perched right in the middle of a typical Colorado mountain scape. It’s pretty neat. 

I’m not gonna lie, I was not super pumped about the dunes. I’m from Florida. I’ve seen sand. I’ve even seen sand dunes. These dunes are cool and everything, but I was tired and wasn’t thrilled about walking out straight uphill through some sand. On top of that, it started raining and lightening. So I walked out with Travis and Clint for a little, but they had some male need to climb to the top of the highest dune, while I had a need to use the bathroom. 

Other people seemed like they were having more fun— kids obviously love sand and they were jumping around in it, and you can rent sand boards to skirt down the slopes like a snowboard. All I could think about were the buckets of sand they were going to have in their shoes. I was dunzo. 

By this time we had entered the Eastern part of the state. Terrain-wise, it’s very similar. Population-wise, it’s basically another state. Southwest Colorado is so rural that we just got used to seeing single-pole electric lines carrying enough power for the whole county and roadsigns announcing 60 miles till the next town. But now we were driving through our last set of mountains on our way to Denver, and this was a whole new story. 


It was pretty surreal to ride around in a car again. Yeah, yeah, we had gotten rides before but this felt a little different. We packed into Clint’s roommate’s Explorer and headed back to Saguache for breakfast at the diner, but this time the journey to cover the distance from the hot springs to the town only took 20 minutes instead of two hours. Which was great because Travis and I ordered half the menu, which included homefries with eggs smothered in green chili, a large blueberry pancake, french toast, fried eggs, bacon, and coffee. Sometimes diners are the best.

We had stop along the way before we got to the sand dunes, a little spot recommended to us by a few people— the UFO Watchtower in Hooper.

Apparently there has been a lot of extraterrestrial activity in the San Luis Valley, and in order to alert the internet about these sitings you have to hire a web designer who thinks 1996 was the best year of the internet. We knew we were on right path to the Watchtower when we saw handmade painted roadsigns that read, “You’re on the Cosmic Highway”, held by a wooden cutout bugeye alien. After paying our $5 to enter, we were greeted by this impossible little creature named Vi, who offered me a rock sandwich with ketchup and ranch. It was delicious.

This place is just pathetic enough and just genius enough to leave me torn. Pathetic because the Watchtower is the height of a second story hotel balcony, made of fencing material and equipped with sun-weathered lawn chairs for those who want to do some serious alien hunting. Pathetic because someone was hired to build a little dome-shaped structure for the gift shop, but they apparently lacked engineering skills because the building is cracking apart. Pathetic because Vi’s mother sits all day in said cracking building in wretched desert silence, selling terribly-printed Watchtower t-shirts, Chinese-made bugeye alien keychains, alien abduction memoirs, and a dwindling supply of Fritos.

Genius because the woman who started this thing, Judy Messoline, is turning lemons into alien lemonade in this shithole little town of Hooper, CO. Travis read a part of her self-published memoir and learned that she bought the land in the valley to try her hand at ranching, but it wasn’t working out and she was going broke. So she took a (GIANT) risk and built this Watchtower, based on rumors that people had seen UFOs in the area. Judy herself has never seen one. Now she has this silly gift shop, tent and RV camping, and people coming from all over the world to visit a tourist trap that she made up in order to not go broke.

Apparently she only has to make $100 a day to stay in business, and from looking back at her guestbook, she has between 20-30 visitors to pay the entrance fee that provide’s Vi’s mom with what looks like one of maybe three jobs available in Hooper. So, pretty genius.

We looked for some aliens.

We visited the rock garden (20 psychics visited the spot and told Judy she needed a spiritual rock garden, though she didn’t know the first thing about rock gardening).

We wished there were better graphic designers/screen printers in Hooper who could print better Watchtower t-shirts. We chatted with Vi a little more, and peaced out.

Valley View Hot Springs

I know, I know, you’re all like, “Jeez Claire, how many awesome things can you do in one month?” To which I respond, “INFINITELY AWESOME THINGS.” This was all Travis’ doing. The boy can certainly spend a lot of time looking at maps, but sometimes that pays off. One of these instances was finding a hot spring for us to camp at.

Valley View Hot Spring is a part of the Orient Land Trust. The springs have been here forever, and there even used to be a mining town nearby called Orient that dwindled away like all the other tiny mining towns. Back in the 70s, a couple bought the hot springs and turned it into a nice little mountain retreat. When it became clear that their kids weren’t interested in taking on the business, they turned the land over to a trust to ensure that their beloved springs wouldn’t be turned into a bougie, highly developed hell hole. As it is, wooded, secluded hideaway perfect for people to get naked and sit in really hot water.
Yes, Valley View is also clothing optional. However, unlike Orvis, the previous hot springs we visited, it feels a little more ok at Valley View. Orvis is like 50 feet from the highway, small, and enclosed in a privacy fence that makes it feel like a compound. Valley View feels like mountain summer camp for naked people. 
One morning in the communal kitchen, Travis and I discovered Nude & Natural Magazine, the official publication of the Naturist Society. Did you know there’s a Naturist Society?? I should have guessed, but I was not prepared for how comprehensive this lifestyle is. There was a piece on a nude 5K, which aging naturists are hoping will draw in the youthful running crowd to a naturist way of life. There was a personal essay written by a dude who only likes to be naked at home, complete with pictures of himself going about his normal naked life chopping vegetables and lounging in the sunroom. There were profiles for the candidates running for the board of the Naturist Society, which featured “get to know you” photos showing one election hopeful birdwatching nude, another raking leaves in his yard nude, and the last going to a brisk hike— nude except for hiking shoes.
I guess the Naturist thing started in the 70s, and it evolved from simply a clothing opt-out to a lifestyle choice. They claim that it is more healthy, not lascivious, and natural (clearly). They are quick to distance themselves from other raunchier lifestyles that involve lots of naked people in public, like gay cruisers or swingers. These people go to Naturist conferences where everyone is naked; they choose naked vacation destinations in Croatia and New Mexico; they are enticed by non-piercing body jewelry. Well, I’m not sold on the lifestyle. But I did get naked with strangers.
It is super weird having a totally normal conversation with someone you’ve never met while you can see his balls. That’s all I’m saying.
In any case, the hot springs were amazing. There were seven pools to soak in located all over the mountainside. Trees everywhere, clear sky view, LOTS of birds for Travis to ‘noc. It was relaxing. We just let it all hang out. Lololololol. 
On the second night, Travis’ brother Clint drove down from Denver and soaked with us for a bit ( NO ONE was naked for this, we aren’t WEIRDOS). Then we camped for the night outside the springs, ready to wake up for our last National Park visit.

Saguache Road

After grocery shopping, re-watering, coffee-drinking, using WIFI and sandwich-eating in Gunnison, we were finally ready to leave on the final stretch of our journey. It was about 6:00 pm.


We started out for Highway 114, or Saguache Road. Saguache is pronounced sa-WATCH. It’s another Ute Indian name, like Ouray. I had done some map studying, and this road was even more desolate than the West Elk Loop. There were no towns listed here, not for over 60 miles. It was exciting to get out of town again, and this road was beautiful.


Travis found us a Forest Service road leading up through the canyon, and just five minutes later we were in the middle of nowhere. No telephone lines, no road. Just Mesa and sagebrush and sunset. Definitely the best campsite as of yet.

The next morning we climbed slowly over our last mountain, and with the elevation came shifting landscapes. 


We started with flat grassy pasture, we moved through hard rock canyon, then stark sunny Mesa, and eventually we approached the alpine habitat of ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, and quaking aspens.

About these aspens. First of all they are creepy trees. Starkly creepy. They only live at high altitudes. All of their foliage is concentrated at their top branches, and when the wind blows its hard to tell if there’s running water nearby or if it’s their leaves fluttering.


The leaves are green on top and silver on bottom, so that wind causes them to looks like they’re shimmering. Their trunks are white, and at each spot where a branch was formerly connected to the truck, a scar remains that looks exactly like an eye. A human eye.


White trunks covered in eyes, staring at you as the leaves quiver like the tree is coming to life. Also, aspen groves are thought to be the single largest organism on the planet, because the roots of each tree are connected underground. Aspen groves are one giant tree with many trunks, reproducing by offshoots. How’s that for a forest?

The last of the climb was North Cochetopa Pass, climaxing with a two mile summit. This was after about six hours of climbing, and it was steep enough that some backpackers we encountered thought to give us some encouragement. “You’re doing a good job!” one girl called to me as we passed her, biking about as fast as she was walking. Then it was over, and we had reached the Continental Divide.


We didn’t celebrate too hard or anything. Did I mention I found an elk skull? We poured a drop of whiskey on the ground, in hopes that it would reach us over in the Atlantic someday.

We stopped to camp near the top of the summit so we could catch an epic sunset. There were some cliffs near the campsite that looked promising, so we scurried up the rocks to catch the view. The perspective changes dramatically when you climb straight up with no switchbacks. We reached a good vantage point and watched an evening thunderstorm approach.


Unfortunately, it approached right on top of us. I was counting seconds between lightening and thunder, and in about five minutes it went from 10 seconds till thunder to instantaneous. That is scary. And loud. We hightailed it back to the tent, where the rain had left our site unscathed, then built our only campfire of the trip and succeeded in not starting a forest fire. It rained one more time and put out our cinders.


The next day we were halfway to Saguache, which was the first town in the San Luis Valley at the bottom of the mountain. There was a quick descent, followed by some flat, dry riding through the valley. We were popped out onto the highway, then found ourselves in downtown Saguache. First stop was lunch at the 4th St Diner, a darling little restaurant that served travelers, grizzled ranchers, and new transplants alike. And the food was good! Even this little place had local grassfed beef burgers and peach milkshakes made with local fruit. That’s hard to top.



After a good respite, Travis, the elk skull and I headed through the flat sagebrush land into the storm of doom.


Being so wide open, you can see storms accumulating and rain falling from miles away, but even that visual warning couldn’t prepare us for the headwind we were making a beeline for. We had been trucking along on the flat highway feeling pretty good about ourselves and the strength of our massive thigh muscles, but then that wind knocked us back to like 4 mph. We took a side road that paralleled the highway, and of course it started paved and transitioned to gravel. However, we somehow missed the storm. By the time we made it over to the mountains that framed the East side of the valley, the ground was wet but the rain had moved North. Lucky lucky.

We were approaching the Orient Land Trust, our destination for the evening. Our path was out of the valley and to the foot of the mountain. Somehow this was one of the toughest little segments of the trip— it was only six miles, but the road was gravel and agonizingly straight and inclining verrry slowly.

We could see the cluster of buildings where we would be staying during the entire ride, but it never seemed to get closer because there were no markers to pass, only sagebrush desert. We creeped and creeped along, and by the time we reached the driveway of the camping area, each pedal stroke was a nightmare. Luckily, we had spent the last two hours riding to a HOT SPRING.

West Elk Loop

The West Elk Loop was totally out of the way. Our final destination was in SE Colorado, and the West Elk Loop highway would take us NW before circling back to exactly where Kate picked us up to take us to Crested Butte. But we were really feeling these mountains. I had been intimidated by them for the whole trip lead up— The Rockies!! Who bikes through the Rockies!? Here’s the secret guys: the Rockies aren’t that bad.
Even when carrying 40 pounds of shit. Bring on the mountains.
This highway is amazing. No cars. Like one car every ten minutes. There was one real town. That’s it! It was called Crawford and it was another weird little mountain town, except this one clearly didnt get as much traffic and was in an economic downturn. I say “real town” because after the Cimarron incident we’ve come to realize that just because a town is listed on the map doesnt mean its going to contain more than a few trailers. No gas stations, no minimarts, no shops. So after Crawford was when the real emptiness started. 
The other thing about this highway was that we got to see the Northern side of the Black Canyon. You would think that a giant gorge in the ground would mean that all the water in the are would be flowing down to it, right? Well in order to get the canyon overlook you have to climb up a huge plateau and THEN there’s the startling drop off to the canyon.
 We pedaled as much as our little legs could go then we realized we had been climbing for like five hours, hopped some barbed wire and settled down for the night.
I’m starting to feel repetitive talking about biking and climbing and pedaling and descending, but I don’t know what to do about it. On some days we really just ride our bikes from six to ten hours. Not continuously of course— there are snack breaks and lunch breaks and snack breaks and bird breaks and picture breaks. It’s not super exciting to write about but that’s what’s going on. It’s an amazing way to spend the day, especially when you’ve picked one of the most epic landscapes in the country to do it 

And it actually feels awesome to exercise that intensely. My little legs love it. I don’t think it would be as much fun cycling at 15 mph all day without a little climb up a mountain to set you back to 4 mph for a few hours. Where would the challenge be? 
Anyway we made it to the Black Canyon stretch. The canyon was at the peak of the climb, and we could see all of the landscapes we’d passed through during the past few days.


The scenery is so varied here that you’ll pass through two or three habitats in a single day, and once you get high enough you can see all of them at once— desert valley, sagebrush hills, verdant mountains, jagged canyon and blue blue reservoir. All at once! Didn’t I pick a great place to ride bikes for a month? My idea.

We descended and descended down this perfect highway. It started to rain again just as we were reaching a pit toilet. This was tolerable because it seemed like an actual “afternoon thunderstorm”. I’m ok with that, because that is a normal Colorado weather pattern.


We dressed for the rain, this time I did the classic Chicago homeless man move and rubber banded plastic bags over my shoes. I looked a mess but my shoes were DRY. Luckily I look great in my rainpants.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck. In the commotion of packing up from the pit toilet, I left my Lady Crocs. A LEGITIMATE tragedy. Those shoes were crucial to this trip. That added to the total of shit I lost, which at this point is up to over $100. Arm warmer, sock, shoes, gloves. That’s just my stuff. Travis lost a fair amount as well. The moral of the story: always put stuff back in the same place; always run the strap THROUGH your clothing item instead of just strapping it down to the bag; always do a site sweep EVERY TIME you stop anywhere. Now I have to wear these stupid athletic looking cycling shoes for the rest of the trip. Life is hard.
As we neared the valley, we passed over the Blue Mesa dam, which forms the Blue Mesa Reservoir.


They dammed the Gunnison River which runs through the Black Canyon in the mid-60s, flooding out three small towns. The reservoir provides water to the city of Montrose and area farms. And that reservoir is looooooow.


Like 50 feet low. Like you can see on the banks where the water has been in the past and it is scary low. 

This is how Colorado gets its water. There is an average of 12 in of rain in most parts of the state, so all the water is stored from the spring snowmelt. And if there’s not a lot of snow in the winter… Then that’s it for the year. Have you heard the This American Life about climate change? A  good portion of the episode focuses on Colorado. You should listen to it.
The state’s population is expected to double in the next 15 years or so, and they are expecting 10-20% less water to be available. This is going to be the front lines of future water wars. And still people keep moving in, building fancy houses in the suburbs with fancy lawns which need watering. Kinda like another state I know… Except in Florida we’re changing our natural landscape by draining the Everglades to build fancy houses for people who aren’t from here, going deeper and deeper into the aquifer, overloading our waterways with agricultural runoff that pollutes the only water we have. So we can’t judge here, but we are equally fucked.
We rolled up at the Curecanti Recreation Park, which is situated right on the reservoir, which was perfect.


Because there was a bar there and a restaurant that served fried things.


So we got to set up a tent and then go over to drink margaritas and beers and eat fried pickles. It was really necessary. 

Then there was the treat of the evening: the ranger program!! I forgot our ranger’s name, but he was awesome. He reminded me of Coop from Wet Hot American Summer. image

The audience was set up in the amphitheater between campsite 31 and 32, and the they we a perfect mix of smart, over achieving nature nerd kids, and drunk 50 year old women. Coop went over his National Park power point presentation, then the real fun started. There was a pile of skins, skulls and taxidermied animals on the table, and he let us ask about any of them. The young overachievers identified obscure skins and asked complicated questions, and one of the drunk 50 year olds announced that it was her friend’s birthday and asked if we could all sing for her. We did, even though nobody knew her name. 

We ended up having a great camp night despite the RVs and other multiple campers and the ballsy little chipmunks.  
Then we packed up and hit the road. 

We stopped in another part of the reservoir to jump off some cliffs and go swimming. 

Then we booked it to Gunnison to try and beat the rain. But then I got my first flat of the trip. Luckily I was wearing my pink tank top and we got picked up almost immediately by a nice lady whose husband owned an outdoor adventure outfit. He happened to know a bike shop owner who dropped off a spare tube for us even though his shop was closed on Sundays. People have been very kind to us. And it all worked out. 

Bye Bye Crested Butte, Hello Paonia

We had to tear ourselves away from Crested Butte. It was extremely difficult. We had been sleeping in a king size bed for three nights, there were a million restaurants to spend our money at, and hundreds of day hikes that we could have ventured on. But alas, we wanted to ride the West  Elk Loop route, and it was going to circle us around back West instead of East to our final destination, so we had to get going. 

Then it started to rain. FFUUUUUUUUUUUU.

I want to make sure you understand this rain. The temperature drops 20 degrees immediately. It drizzles steadily until your whole body is soaked. The clouds block out the sight of the mountains so you feel like you’re encapsulated in a space cloud. 

Also, the pass to Paonia is mostly gravel, and we know how fun gravel roads in the rain are. We scrambled to the thrift store to look for rain gear. Since Crested Butte is a rich outdoor sports town, the thrift store was packed with ski and hiking gear. We both found rain pants for about $20 each. I said earlier that my only regret for this trip was not bringing a Go Pro, I lied. I regret not bringing rain pants. And fenders. And lobster gloves. All of which I have at home.

After the shopping trip, it was still raining, which was a perfect excuse to go eat inordinate amounts of junk food. Which brings us to a note on food and eating.

It is insane the number of calories I’ve eaten on this trip. The very first day of riding in Arches my body freaked out and I made Travis stop for pizza and then I cried. I was that hungry. Travis never feels hungry when I am, so I always suggest eating and he’s like, “Naw, I’m good,” which makes me feel like a glutton. But at least as soon as I start eating, he realizes he’s hungry and then I feel redeemed. 

We eat pretty well when we’re on the road camping— granola with powdered milk and peanut butter for breakfast; tuna wraps for lunch; Indian packs or ramen noodles for dinner; cliff bars, summer sausage and cheese, beef jerky, apples, peaches, or PB&Js for snacks throughout the day. I’ll post more in depth food reviews later.

But when we get into town it’s a totally different story. It’s like we have to eat all the fried things, and we normally do. This pizza place we ate at in Crested Butte offered “The Workingman’s Special,” which was a specialty slice, salad bar, a shot and a fancy beer for $15. We both ordered that, AND truffle fries. I am extremely curious to see if I lose any weight from this trip, despite the 5-7 hours of bicycle riding on travel days.

Here’s the most surprising part to me— all that riding has kicked my metabolism into overdrive, so instead of my normal travel bowel activity (pooping once ever three days), I’m pooping at least twice a day if not more. Gotta move that food! 

Also there’s the farting issue. When we first got started on the trip, Travis remarked that it was like we had two extra traveling companions: our buttholes. They had a lot of opinions and were very vocal about them. Kinda like Chewbacca’s unintelligible running commentary. I blame it on the processed food, summer sausage particularly. In any case, Travis’ body has adjusted to the eating and exercise, and mine just hasn’t. It’s kind of great though because I basically always have a fart on cue. 

Travis: “How do you feel about climbing this mountain before lunch?” Claire: “I think we can manage.” 
Butthole: “Pfffffttthbbbh (Yeah let’s go!)”

Anyway, the sun came out in the afternoon and we left Crested Butte over Keblar Pass around 4pm. 

Gravel roads are so low traffic that they are worth the challenging terrain… Until it starts raining. Which it did, of course.

This time we had rain pants but still hadn’t figured out a shoe situation. Feet were soaked very quickly and hands were cold and wet this time Travis got mad. It was just bad luck. We were riding down into a beautiful valley with a Cezanne pallet— orange cliffsides melting down into a lush green valley. 

We even saw a herd of elk (if you squint you can see them).

 It was really hard to enjoy though. That was the big bummer about it.

The rain really slowed us down, and dark was approaching. Our lights were shit and our rain gear was all black. I stuck out my thumb and a VW bug stopped. Melinda let me borrow her pink anorak to show up better in the headlights, and offered to go home and switch out the bug for her truck. We were pretty close to Paonia so I told her not to worry about it, but ten minutes later she showed up with her truck and her dad.

Me, Travis, five bags, two bikes and tons of mud stuffed into the back of the pickup camper, and they dropped us off at Dana’s house around 9pm. I gave Melinda her anorak back and thanked her profusely.

Dana is Cousin Kate’s friend. She used to live in Crested Butte but ended up buying a house in Paonia when she and her boyfriend broke up three years ago. She makes her living as an artist as well, and Kate set us up to stay with her, which was great. We stayed up talking for a bit and then fell asleep on the pullout couch.

What do you think Shackelton’s doing right now?

The next morning, we got a tour of Dana’s backyard garden, which was quite impressive.

Gardens in high season are fun to look at. 

Dana had all the veggies plus a peach orchard. 

I cant wait to buy a house so I can finally plant perennial fruit. 

Dana decided to ride with us part way as we left town. She took us to downtown Paonia to restock on supplies. We stopped by the restaurant/inn branch of The Living Farm, an organic farm right outside of town. 

That’s some successful agritourism right there. The restaurant is supplies with local veggies and meat from the farm, and tourists can stay at the inn right above the restaurant.

I remember reading something a while ago about how Colorado is staunchly anti-corporate, and how they drove Borders out of the state in favor of local bookstores. It’s still true today, even in these small rural towns. Paonia had local restaurants, a variety store, a butcher shop, and a thriving downtown. Compare this with Florida small towns— there’s usually a CVS, a Dollar General, a gas station, and maybe a Winn Dixie. The downtowns are blown out and abandoned, unless some enterprising out-of-towner has moved in to start an antique shop. It’s depressing.

We were all packed up— we even bought fresh sweet corn, peaches and cherries from a farm stand. We passed by the site of The Living Farm, but they only offer tours on Tuesdays and you have to have reservations.

That’s what I’m talking about! Farmers work hard and don’t have time to be showing people around any time of day. Since Farm to Table is so in these days, farmers should be jumping on the chance to make some money on a marketable resource and charge people for what they want to see.

Dana rode with us to the very edge of town, wished us luck, and sent us on our way to embark on the West Elk Loop.

Cousin Kate and Crested Butte

Cousin Kate is pretty great. She loaded our bikes into her chariot (a Toyota pickup from the 80s) and saved us two days riding by depositing us in Crested Butte by motor vehicle.

From the get go she started telling us (very animatedly) about her art, her cat, her roommate, it was all great. She runs an Air BnB operation out of her spare bedroom. If you’ve never used Air BnB, I highly recommend it. Regular people rent out rooms in their houses, or sometimes their entire house, and you can stay there instead of staying in a shitty hotel. So if you’re ever in Crested Butte, stay with Kate.

Let’s talk about the house. First of all, its In downtown Crested Butte. 

Crested Butte is a ridiculous little resort town that has attracted a large artist population, in addition to the typical Colorado outdoorsy type. If you want to know what the typical Colorado outdoorsy type looks like, it’s this.

My boyfriend has “gone Colorado”.

I would like to assure you that I am still wearing all black when I can, and the only fashion irregularity that lets you know I’m on a camping trip is my Lady Crocs, which look like flats and aren’t immediately recognizable as garden wear.

Anyway, the house. It was built in the 1880s. It’s a weird, slanting, two story cabin that has been added onto over the years.

Kate bought it a while back and has made it awesome, with antique and junk sale finds, marvelous houseplants, and charming animal inhabitants.

The animals! There is Phoenix, who is a wolf dog pup who belongs to Kate’s roommate Jess. 

He’s a baby, but he’s also half wolf… Luckily the only ways he gets into trouble is trying to nab the butter off the counter and chewing up the toilet paper.

Then, there’s Shackelton.

Shackelton, the adorable diabetic cat. He was recently diagnosed, and Kate is doing her best to keep him healthy— feeding him a raw diet, giving him shots of human insulin, monitoring his blood sugar levels by catching his pee in his litter box. I became slightly obsessed with Shackelton. 

 He’s enormous, for starters. Also he has great big blue eyes that bug out a little bit. He has the most pathetic meow— he just lets it squeak out a tiny bit, like he’s losing his voice. Also, his favorite game is “the chewies”, which means he likes to be gnawed on by a little dinosaur grabber toy.

 I find myself reminiscing about Shackelton— I’ll ask Travis, “What do you think Shackelton is doing right now?”

We spent a lot of money that night at a great Asian fusion restaurant called Ginger. It’s extremely difficult to not spend a lot of money every time we’re around places to spend it. Our logic is, “We spent two whole days eating tuna and trail mix! Fancy Pad Thai time!!” What’s great about Crested Butte is that there are so MANY great places to spend your money— gourmet coffee places, mountain bike rentals, bookstores, art galleries. Luckily for us our choices are limited because we can’t carry anything. However, I DID find the perfect boots that I’ve been looking for for YEARS. 

They were in a thrift store and I bought them and mailed them home, that’s how perfect they are (I can wear them with pants OR shorts!).

Kate is extremely busy. She talks fast, she jokes, she moves on from one idea to the other in a heartbeat. Idea examples—  plant a garden out behind the cabin so she can serve Air BnB guests truly local meals; start a goat dairy and make artisan yogurt packaged in reusable terra cotta containers, delivered by bicycle by some of the hundreds of mountain athletes in the area (“Like the milkman used to do!”); at baby showers, expectant mothers receive their baby’s ONE STRAW which he or she will use over the course of a lifetime so as not to waste plastic (she really hates plastic). One idea that came to fruition was Poo Fest, an annual Spring event during which residents of Crested Butte pick up dog shit that has been accumulating in the winter snow. Kate was just really tired of stepping in dog shit everywhere. Also, in years of heavy snow, she constructs a “snow cave”, which is a multi-roomed cavern dug out of the snow embankment in the backyard. 

This lady is for real.

Kate’s a successful artist and makes her living from it. She helps run an artist co-op, does some freelance work, and features her pieces in monthly Art Walks. So saw her some, but we were left to ourselves during the day. So of course, we went for a bike ride. It wouldn’t be a full day unless we climbed a mountain, amirite?

Crested Butte is the Wildflower Capital of Colorado, and it shows. We even technically missed wildflower season by a few weeks, but they were still spectacular.

I don’t understand why more places don’t follow Colorado’s example— in Florida, we mow all our wildflowers, plant sod, then pay someone to mow it every two weeks. There’s no reason we can’t have blanket flowers, coreopsis, and clovers growing by our roadsides. Florida means flowers for chrissake. 

A neat thing about working in agriculture is being able to recognize wild cousins of cultivated crops and landscape plants. We know dill, so we recognize cow parsnip. We know carrots, so we can pick out Queen Ann’s lace. Same thing with wild roses, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, yarrow, amaranth, echinacea, and dracaena. 

We got hungry after our nature ride, and ate a very late afternoon pizza snack. A little while later, Kate invited us to the local movie theatre to see Wolverine, which was badass. The movie theatre, not Wolverine. Wolverine was kinda stupid but Hugh Jackman does have great abs. No, the movie theatre! 

You can buy liquor drinks there! And beers on tap! And when you get popcorn they put clarified butter on it for you, and you can top it with nutritional yeast! Nutritional yeast at the movie theatre! Popcorn for dinner!

It’s things like nutritional yeast at the movie theatre that make Crested Butte a part of what I like to call The Fantasy Bubble of the West Coast. I have very little experience of with “the West”— I’ve spent some time in Portland, visited LA, and at the end of this trip I will have a month in Colorado. But boy oh boy do I have some opinions about the region. 

The West Coast seems cut off from a lot of American reality. The fact that you can walk into a store here and buy marijuana to smoke recreationally, not medicinal purposes puts Colorado on a whole new level. Smoking for pleasure could put you in jail almost anywhere else. Also, nobody locks anything here, from their beach cruisers to their $1500 mountain bikes to their front doors. 

Cousin Jonathan and his roommates in Durango haven’t even seen a key to their house in three years. This is what happens when you go to the liquor store for goodness sake!

Crested Butte seems to embody this insularity— it’s a resort town that has the particular distinction of being artsy and creative. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to live in a place that supports artistic people and has embraced liberal and creative concepts decades ago to make them the norm. But I guess I like life to be harder, and I still want to work to transform my backward-ass, conservative hometown into a place that would welcome a firecracker like Kate. In like fifteen years. We’ll see how long it takes me to get burnt out on THAT project.

Moving on… The next day, we followed Kate’s roommate Jess’ advice and decided to hike up to Green Lake. It was 4.5 miles away. After biking this whole time, 4.5 miles seems like nothing. We figured this would be a three hour hike. Well it was 4.5 miles straight up a mountain.

After three hours in ascent I started asking Travis, “Are we there yet?” like every three minutes. I had nothing else to do that day except I really wanted ice cream, and I was expecting to have my ice cream fix fulfilled much sooner. But the hike was worth it.

We did indeed buy ice cream as soon as we got back to town. I got a single scoop of lavender honey, and Travis got a double of Thai basil coconut and pear.
 Both on homemade waffle cones. People need to jump on this basil ice cream bandwagon, that shit is the bomb. If you need specialty basil, I know a GREAT little urban farm in Tallahassee that can supply you with some.

After ice cream, we had very good intentions of going back to Kate’s house and making healthy vegan dinner. Except that Kate was at the bar, and that bar happened to serve quesadillas and chips and salsa. So we ate junk food and got drunk instead. Kate showed us her studio, where she was busy at work with a volunteer getting pieces framed for Art Walk.

She gave us shots of Makers and introduced us to her creepy chimpanzee toy. 

Afterwards, we did indeed go home and do some drunk cooking, and it turned out GREAT. Jamaican style cabbage with coconut rice and curry kidney beans. YUM. We chatted with Jess and then we all had to go to sleep.

What do you think Shackelton is doing right now?

Trials and Sufferings in the Cimarrons pt 2, plus Black Canyon

There was an epic battle between sun and raincloud the next morning. We were pretty sure that the sun would win, because everything we heard about Colorado reminded us of Florida: quick, intense, afternoon thunderstorms. Certainly the sun would win.

We packed up the tent during a lull in the drizzle. I wore long underwear under my bike shorts because it was about 55 degrees. Personally, I think should be against the rules for it to drop below 65 degrees in July. But apparently Colorado doesn’t care about my opinions. I had my rain jacket handy.

I was ready to leave the forest, even though it meant splashing through puddles on the gravel road. The lull in the drizzle stopped and turned into full on rain.

It didn’t let up.

You guys thought we were having nonstop fun on this trip, didn’t you? 

Remarkably, our attitudes stayed pretty good through the next five hours. 

We saw a baby coyote. I fed some horses.

Though our shoes had soaked through in the first thirty minutes, our pants were covered in mud, and Travis had worn through his brake pads on account of the mud, we managed to descend for miles and miles on a gravel road (let’s be real, it was dirt turned mud), and we were more than thankful when we finally reached the paved highway. The town of Cimarron looked really close on the map. Then we would get a motel and take a shower and rinse out our clothes and put on warm socks.

This was what we found in Cimarron.

It was like a movie. It was terrible.

The next closest town was Montrose, which was 20 miles away and we had to climb a mountain to get there. We changed into new shorts and shirts, swapped our soaked cycling shoes for Crocs and Chacos, and started the ascent. Thankfully, the climb was only five miles and the descent was fifteen. Mercifully, the sun came out.

So that was the terrific trial of Cimarron Road. It ended at a Montrose motel that had laundry and cable, and with a dinner that contained an astonishing amount of calories derived from a burger and chicken wings and beer. You wouldn’t BELIEVE the mud we washed off our bikes. We slept in a bed and it was awesome.

Black Canyon National Park is 17 miles outside of Montrose, straight back up the mountain we had descended that day before, and then a little higher. We did some iPhone research and learned that the grade (steepness) of a road is determined by how many feet the road rises out of 100 feet. The road to Black Canyon is a 6% grade, which means it rises six feet every hundred feet.

Well that doesn’t sound steep, but it was definitely one of the most severe inclines we’ve taken so far. It took over two hours to reach the canyon.

Our time to enjoy it was short, however. It was pretty awesome though.

The two hour climb took approximately 15 mins to descend. No kidding. I’m really starting to enjoy bombing these hills. It was terrifying at first but if you can just stop thinking about all the horrible things that can happen to your body if you crashed at 40 mph, then it’s awesome. We hurried and hurried, because Travis’ cousin Kate was at the park’s entrance, waiting to pick us up and take us to Crested Butte.

Trials and Suffering in the Cimarrons pt 1

The only time I’ve gotten truly annoyed with Travis on this trip so far has been when he gets started talking to people about taking the Cimarrons. People are very curious about our trip— they want to know where we’ve come from and where we’re going, and even more importantly how we’re getting there. I have the basic rundown: we started in Moab and we’re ending up at Great Sand Dunes National Park, then getting a ride up to Denver. In between that, I have no clue where the fuck we’re going. 

Travis, however, has been planning this trip for months. Literally months. He sat down with Google Maps, a Colorado atlas, two maps from Adventure Cycling, and a cycling map that Colorado DOT sent him. It was escapist for him— instead of thinking about work, he planned extravagant routes and alternate routes and alternate alternate routes. He even looked at Google street view to make sure that the roads looked epic. So when people ask how we’re getting there, boy does Travis have an answer. A long, long answer.

When we were at the potluck that Farmer Michelle from Song Haven took us to, this hippie guy told Travis about a route through the Cimarron Mountains that cuts through the Uncompahgre National Forest. A gravel road. Which summits at Owl Creek Pass, at over 10,000 ft. But we would avoid a lot of traffic and see one of the most beautiful parts of Colorado. Hippie dude showed us the route in the atlas, and from that moment on Travis told everyone he met about the Cimarrons, except he couldn’t remember what they were called or where they were or how to get there. 

"Yeah, instead of taking 50 up to Montrose we’re thinking about taking this other road… It’s called… it’s called…" At which point I roll my eyes and say " Cimarron. It’s called Cimarron Road." He apparently just wanted everyone’s opinion on the matter.

So Cimarron Road. It was a nice change from the highway. Hardly any cars, beautiful scenery, blankets of wildflowers. Since we left Orvis pretty late in the evening, we were on the lookout for the National Forest land ASAP so we could camp legally. The climb was tough. The gravel was rough. We had bought beer for Orvis but they had no alcohol rules, so poor Travis was hauling this six-pack and it was killing him. I took the beer backpack from him and the incline was so steep that I lost my balance almost immediately. Couldn’t clip out of my pedals and fell right over. 

And of course right after I fell, the forest started right at the top of the next hill. 

Camping was uneventful, we carved out a little nook in the woods and set up the tent. Foolishly, we used a bunch of our water cooking that night, thinking that we would reach the Silver Jack reservoir soon enough. Well this is where the suffering started. Because we embarked on a 3000 ft climb with just a half a water bottle each.

I got mad. This road was dusty. Every time a car passed it kicked up a cloud that I inhaled and made my parched throat even drier. I saw wild raspberries growing but they were covered in dust and I was too mad to pick them. It was sunny and warm and I was thirsty, dammit. Then that steep incline came and I lost balance and fell over while clipped in again. WAY PISSED. 

Travis is a good-natured dude. Even when he’s pissed off it still seems like he’s pissed with a smile on his face. When he was growing up, his mom would shame him relentlessly if he ever complained— making him feel bad about how many other people in the world had it worse than him. So now he doesn’t really complain; however he puts up with my complaining, but only to a point.

"We’re just climbing a mountain, Claire." 

So what do you say to that? Nothing. You flag down a car and beg for water. I did that, and as soon as I had filled my water bottle with this good Samaritan’s Dasani bottle, my bike fell over AGAIN and half the water spilled. It was like a movie. It was terrible. 

Somehow, we made it to the summit. 

And I am slightly exaggerating— it was a beautiful ride, with the tallest ponderosa pines I’ve seen of yet, and these supernatural quaking aspen groves. 

Also, the road started following a stream, so we chlorinated some water and drank it THANK GOD. Then the descent started and everything seemed like it was going to work out fine. Except. EXCEPT. We had the exact opposite water problem of the ascent. It started to rain.

Everywhere we’ve been on this trip has been arid to semi-arid. It only rains during a few months of the year here. In Colorado there are “monsoons”, which are really just afternoon thunderstorms in July and August. We figured this sprinkle would be a fickle mountain shower. We were in no rush. We stopped to pick some wild alpine strawberries as a downhill treat. The Silver Jack reservoir was only a few miles away, we had plenty of time to set up camp and we were sure this drizzle would end soon anyway.

Well it didn’t end. Travis was more confident in his weather casting abilities and went for a bird hike while I set up the tent and got lunch together. He got soaked while I curled up and took a nap after reading a few chapters of Jane Eyre (you wouldn’t BELIEVE what that madwoman in the attic was up to!). It didn’t stop raining, even after it got dark. I cooked lentils under the shelter of the rainfly. TO BE CONTINUED…

The Coolest Mountain Descent and Naked Hot Springs

Red Mountain was so much easier than I thought it would be.

So far all we’ve climbed were mesas, which seem to be a much steeper grade. We pulled up to the base of the summit ready for a super challenge, but you know what?

The weather was nice, about 75 degrees. The traffic wasn’t too bad. And the road wasn’t steep at all. Granted, there were some dramatic cliff dropoffs to nowhere.

But we climbed that thing in less than an hour!

Then we picked some mountain wildflowers.

And then got to enjoy the coolest descent yet. One thing I do regret for this trip is not borrowing a GoPro, because riding down these mountains is so insane and I want to video it but it’s way too dangerous to take my hands off the handlebars. This is the safest video I could take.

The descent lowers you down into Ouray (pronounced “you’re ray”).

For a long time, this part of SW Colorado was cut off and secluded from the outside world. An enterprising businessman named Otto Mears started construction on a wagon toll road in the 1880s to link mountain mining towns, and it’s claimed that it cost him $10,000 per mile build. They had to lower workers by rope to set dynamite charges in order to start carving out the road. The original toll was placed over a canyon to make sure no one could skirt around it. Now it’s a badass overlook with a waterfall.

Ouray is another mining town turned tourist town.

What’s crazy is no matter the size of the town, there’s probably a local brewery. In fact, I can only recall one town we’ve passed through that doesn’t have a brewery. The Ouray brewery has a balcony.

There’s only so much you can do in a tourist town, so we headed on. We stopped to eat lunch at a river, these mountain rivers are still a novelty.

Right near Ouray is Orvis Hot Springs. Everyone and their mother told us to stop at Orvis. It used to be Ute Indian land, as most of Colorado and Utah used to be. The last Ute chief was named Ouray, despite the fact that he was half Apache and appointed to be Chief by the U.S. Government. This made “treaties” with the Utes a lot easier to pass through. The Utes thought that these hot springs were spiritually healing and wanted to keep them and the rich farmland surrounding them. Well surprise, white settlers broke every treaty and pushed the Utes out, cornering them in two reservations in SW Colorado and NE Utah. The end.

Now, the rich farmland is used for pasturing cows and the hot springs are privately owned. The hot water is diverted into different pools of varying temperatures, so you can soak in a big warm pool or a ridiculously hot “lobster pot.” There are also saunas and cold showers and cool pools so you can really experience some radical temperature differences, which is supposed to be great for your body.

Did I mention that it was clothing optional? It was clothing optional. Unfortunately (fortunately?), there were no electronics allowed back in the springs so I can’t show you pictures of any of the pools or landscaping. Or naked people.

We were planning on camping at Orvis but it was a Friday night and we didn’t have reservations and all the camp spots were booked. So we soaked for a few hours till it was dangerously close to sundown, then headed to the Uncompahgre National Forest to find a campsite.

Train to Silverton

Iron Horse Classic is an annual bicycle race through the San Juan Mountains. It starts in Durango and ends in Silverton, which is 47 miles away.

It was started in 1971 by two brothers— one was a cyclist, and the other was a brakeman for the railroad. The original race was who could get to Silverton first, the bike or the train. The first year, the cyclist won! The fastest time was  by Jonathan Vaughters, who finished in 1:57:27 in 1996.

We knew that we could never beat two hours, so we decided to take the train. 

I think we’ve decided our average speed while climbing is about 6mph. It would have taken us two days to reach Silverton from Durango, so the train saved us some time, and besides, Travis really likes trains.

Silverton is a cute little tourist trap. The train brings three loads of passengers up from Durango daily, and they love spending money on beer and ice cream and little figurines of black bears.

Originally, Silverton was a mining town. The mines were most active active in the early 1900s, but mining continues up until this day. Of course the industry has ruined all the water in the area, but according to Silverton Historical Museum, the average American uses about 4 million tons of mined material in his or her lifetime. Depressing.

But the museum was neato.

We consumed sandwiches, Silverton-brewed beer, and espresso drinks. We drank water to avoid altitude sickness. Silverton is over 9000 ft, so we had to breathe deeply but no headaches or dizziness. Then we went for our ride to camp.

We ended up just pulling off on the side of the road, walking up a trail and setting up the tent in a relatively clear spot. We had to load up a bear bag with our limited tree options (I think that’s too close to the tree). 

We’re getting much quicker at setting up camp now, and making dinner was a cinch. 

It’s definitely getting cooler up in the mountains, so Travis set up our sleeping pad couples so we can snuggle more easily under our camping blanket. 
We’re hoping the blanket was a good choice as opposed to sleeping bags, because snuggling was a top priority for this trip.  We bought an emergency bivouac just in case. So tonight we stay warm and stay away from the bears, and tomorrow we climb Red Mountain Pass. 

Durango Time and Colorado's Unbelievable School Food Program

The road to Durango looked steep according to the elevation map. Two big climbs, a dip, then the big descent into town. I thought it would take us 5 hours at least. It did take us 5 hours, but with a pie/espresso break, a few birding breaks, a flat tire break (first one), and a lunch break. So either the elevation wasn’t as bad as it seemed, or we’re getting stronger. Maybe both. 

We pulled up to Durango around 1:30pm and reveled in being in town again. And not just a town, a tourist trap ski and adventure town.

Crepe stands! Artisan jerky! Craft breweries! We went a little overboard and ate blue corn tacos, margaritas, specialty chocolate truffles, and locally-brewed beer.
Then we saw the new Bruce Willis movie and it was kinda awful but also great. 

Next stop was heartburn city, then Cousin Jonathan’s house. Jonathan is Travis’ first cousin. Their dads are brothers. Jonathan is a wilderness therapist, which sounds kind of hokey but he explained it and then it sounded miraculous. He goes a out into the woods with teenagers  in crisis— some have tried to commit suicide, some are using drugs, some are on the last rope with their families. They go backpacking and talk about their feelings. I asked how they liked talking about their feelings, and he said they are reluctant at first but then they get really into it, challenging each other to be real. “You’re not being real, man! You’re being fake about your feelings!” Right?! Jonathan said he used to work as an occupational therapist seeing clients once a week, and they would take small risks and make a few small changes, but since these boys are in crisis and the backpacking therapy is so intense, he sees radical improvement pretty quickly. It definitely sounds like a difficult job but when it’s successful it must be very rewarding. 

The next day in Durango was a “rest day”. It ended up being the most stressful day so far. My toes have been going numb clipped in to my pedals, so I wanted to get different cycling shoes (FULL product review at the end of the trip, FYI). We went to a mountain bike shop and the dude working was probably in his 40s and had clearly been working with bikes for a long time. When I told him my numb toes problem the first thing he said was that there are a lot of important nerves and blood vessels going through my pelvis, and I probably needed a new saddle. And new shoes. And that they would cost about $300 but I would feel great. 

Maybe this wouldn’t be as frustrating if I hadn’t JUST bought a new saddle and shoes. Or if I hadn’t JUST walked in to another bike shop in Gainesville where the bike shop owner told me I had bought the wrong size handlebars, needed smaller brake levers, and different seat post. I’ve spent over $1500 on this bike over the past 3 years buying and switching out components to make it right for me, and my feet are falling asleep and now this dude is telling me I need to spend $300 more to fix it. I got mad. We left and ate lunch so I could decide what to do, and I cried over my pizza. 

We still had a million things to buy— food for 4 days, iPhone speaker cords, emergency blanket, chlorine pills, a one hitter (it’s legal here…), whiskey, and my 4th pair of sunglasses (I brought a pair that was too small for my head, then broke two more pairs- actually Travis stepped on one and ran over the other). I think we spent about a million dollars. I made up my mind and ignored the bike shop dude, deciding to just buy different cycling shoes that had a more flexible sole and more padding. I haven’t tried them yet but I have high hopes that this numbing bullshit is over. Shopping can be stressful!!

Then shopping  was over, and we went tubing. The Animas River runs right through town, and Cousin Jonathan and this roommates have tubes. 

This is not your Ichetucknee tubing, folks. Sure, in Florida our rivers have snakes and alligators, but this mountain river has ROCKS. This is NOT a lazy river float!
Travis was very gallant and splashed around desperately to guide me away from the boulders. And there were little rapids! It was very exciting.

Cousin Jonathan was working late, so we cooked dinner with his roommates Mike and Gala. She made us a tasty dinner of curry coconut tofu noodles, and I contributed the kale. 

Then Gala casually mentioned that they always have tons of leftover kale at her school garden, and now they’ll be able to grow it through the winter because they just completed construction on a thirty-foot geodesic dome greenhouse. 

Wait WHAT. 

She continued. Yes, the school she teaches at, Animas Valley Elementary, has a productive school garden that the children plant each spring and is maintained by the teachers over the summer, and is harvested by the kids when they come back in the fall. They use all the food they can in the cafeteria, but there’s usually so much extra kale that they donate it and get to take it home. 

This opened up an entire conversation about the magical, mythical world of the Colorado school system’s Coordinated School Health program. Gala is head of her school’s Wellness Committee, and she has written and received grants from Whole Foods, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Michelle Obama’s organization Let’s Move. 

Here were our questions.
Q: Who takes care of the garden?
A: The teachers, but the kids do a lot of the work too.

Q: Isn’t the garden work yet another burden placed on public school teachers?
A: It is work, but it’s a huge part of the school’s culture and everyone is really proud of it.

Q: Do the kids actually eat the food?
A:. Yes, the cafeteria food is great and she eats lunch there every day, especially from the salad bar. Each week they have Risktaker Tuesday, where the kids harvest something from the experimental planting part of the garden- purple mizuna, tatsoi, hakurei turnips- then the cafeteria puts out samples so the brave kids can try something new.

Q: How does the cafeteria staff feel about the extra work of preparing fresh food in the kitchen instead of frozen, packaged processed food? 
A: The cafeteria staff is totally on board and is proud of the food they prepare.

And there’s more. 

The school hosts monthly cooking classes for low income kids and their families, teaching them how to prepare simple, inexpensive meals with whole foods. The kids get really invested in wanting to learn how to use the garden food, and nag their parents about cooking differently. The families go home with a bag of garden food to use throughout the week.

All the food used in the cafeteria is local and organic, and the school contracts with farms within 100 miles of Durango to grow their produce and meat. So these kids are eating local, grassfed, hormone-free beef and freshly-harvested vegetables from local farmers and ranchers. Every day. And they love it.

We explained that in Florida, the cafeteria budget is approximately 35 cents per child, so our kids eat the lowest quality processed crap imaginable. Gala said, ” Well that just doesn’t seem to be enough money. That’s why you need school gardens!” 

If anyone else had said that, I would have rolled my eyes and thought, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HARD IT IS TO MAKE SCHOOL GARDENS WORK!!” These poor, overworked teachers are expected to run food gardens with no gardening experience; the cafeteria workers balk at having to do more work to prepare fresh food instead of just opening packages and heating them up; kids HATE vegetables and trying anything new and insist on covering everything with ranch dressing before they eat it; and low income parents, whose families are most at risk for diabetes and other food-related illnesses work multiple jobs and can’t afford fresh food, nor do they have the time to cook it. What seems like a very logical and easy solution to food insecurity and obesity is actually wrought with obstacles and frustrations. 

However, it does look like Colorado has figured some of this shit out. It seems magical, and could be because of the more progressive culture out West, but it’s probably the result of many years of dedicated educators who area committed to the well being of their students. After all, Gala had a point: “If our students aren’t eating well, they’re just not going to learn as well.”

Race and Mesa Verde

DISCLAIMER— lots of thoughts here about race and culture in America from an American white girl from the South. These are my experiences and interpretations, which are obviously open to criticism.

Monday morning was Mesa Verde. You probably learned about Mesa Verde in elementary school— it’s the Pueblo apartments built into the side of cliff walls. 
Since we were camping in the RV campground 20 miles away from the park sites, we figured we’d have plenty of time and energy to bike up the Mesa. In long waiting to buy tickets, we learned that the road to the top had no shoulder and was pretty dangerous for bikes. Then, the man in front of us started talking to us, turned out to be from Tampa, and offered us a ride to the top with him and his two daughters, Taylor and Mesa (who was named after the park). We accepted. 

No sooner than he had introduced himself— his name was Will— he asked us if we had noticed anything weird about the people around here. Yes, in fact we did (more on weird Utah shit later). He said, “You know, theyre real naive. They don’t think anything bad can happen to them,” he said. “And I say, ’ Once you live in a place that has people who dress like Trayvon Martin, you wouldn’t be thinking like that.’” We had happened to stream NPR the night before, and we’re surprised to hear that there were still Trayvon protests a week after the Zimmerman verdict. We did the nervous liberal thing and laughed nervously as we got in the Pathfinder and climbed the Mesa. 

Turns out Will was a fireman  back in Tampa, and was almost finished taking a two week Out West vacation with his girls. Mesa was about 11 and Taylor looked about 15. I was amazed that they were all getting along so well, and they chattered on about playing Minecraft, the challenges of learning Korean, and relayed some of their dad’s best rescue stories. They were thrilled to pick up a hitchhiker. I asked Will is he often picked up hitchhikers, and he said, “I do, but I’m trained in self defense, so if anything happened it might be the next Trayvon, you know what I mean? Naw, I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

Soooooooooo…. we told them about our journey so far, and Will warned us not to travel through Navajo country. “I took the girls there and they said,”Dad, don’t take us to a town like that again. They really hate the White Man.” Heres a guy who named his youngest daughter after a beautiful archeological site that highlights one of the most advanced Native North American cultures, and had traveled all the way across the country to show it to his kids. His older daughter Taylor corroborated his story by saying that there were vendors everywhere even where there were No Vending signs, and she was scared they were going to get robbed. General consensus was that the place sucked and might be dangerous. 

So at this point, what do you do? There was a Savage Love episode recently where a girl called in saying that she was out with a group of friends and his guy kept being a douchebag to her— touching her, saying dirty shit to her. She wanted it to stop but didn’t want to make a scene. She wanted to know if she should just blow up at him and make everything awkward, or just laugh it off. Dan got a lot of callers saying that she could approach forcefully and quietly, telling him that his behavior was inappropriate and if he kept it up she would break his nose. If she didn’t say anything to him, the douchebag would continue to think that this was an appropriate way to act around women. 

 This guy Will was obviously identifying with us because we were white, and thought that his comments were appropriate because we shared his white privilege, though we gave him no reason to believe that we were on the same page as him. Meanwhile, we’re stuck in a car with him and his daughters for an hour as he’s doing us a favor, and aside from this racist mindset he seems like a decent dude. We copped out and didn’t say anything at all. Talking with Travis later, he said he felt ok taking that route, because with dudes like that you’re not going to change their minds, you’re just going to encourage an argument that is uncomfortable and awkward, and in the end you’re just where you ended up in the beginning. I agree that we weren’t going to change his mind, and that his aggressive political proclamations are probably influenced by right wing talk radio culture. Liberal and conservative America know each others’ arguments intimately, yet we rarely engage in reasonable discussion. This is probably how he talks with his friends all the time, and gets no challenge for voicing his opinions. If we did challenge him in any way, it would have opened a huge can of worms. So we did the easy thing and stayed quiet, and Will and his daughters went on their way thinking that we were white people just like them. 

Is there an in between here? Is there an alternative between blowing up at someone and ignoring their racist sensibilities? Is there a way to tell an otherwise decent father that you don’t think like him and don’t assume that I do because we share the same privilege? If you’ve had similar experiences, please let me know how you dealt with them successfully, because I run into this shit all the time at home and I hate laughing it off and changing the subject like a coward. 

Meanwhile, we reached the top of Mesa Verde. We said goodbye to our ride and joined the other hoards of white people who paid for tours to look at the remnants of this disappeared Native society. We went to Balcony House, which is one of the smaller sites, which only housed 25 or so people, in comparison to some of the other apartments which sheltered hundreds of people in the cliff sides. Our ranger, Patti Bell, told us her theory that very important people lived at Balcony House.
She based this on the security of the buildings, which at the time of habitation could only be entered and exited by crawling on hands and knees through a 12 ft tunnel. 

We, however, got to climb a giant ladder to view the site.

The tour was pretty rad. The architecture was impressive and held up to time— the Pueblo societies abandoned these cities around the year 1250 AD. 

Up until I was in 5th grade, I was convinced I would grow up to be an archeologist, and that was even without seeing an Indiana Jones movie. I was engrossed by books about Pompeii, and loved learning about mysteries of lost civilizations. No one knows why the Pueblo left— there are theories ranging from a 24 year drought, to loss of religious cohesion leading to fractured ideologies, or the good old Daniel Quinn (author of Ishmael) theory that all civilizations are built to fail. 

I’m partial to the Quinn theory, combined with Travis’ theory that the corn and bean farmland on top of the Mesas eventually degraded due to decreased soil fertility. It makes sense— the land is sandy and sloped, and if all the sagebrush and pinyon pines were cleared out to make way for corn fields feeding over 30,000 people, I can definitely see there being devastating  erosion and nutrient deficiencies. In any case, the ruins were fascinating and I’m glad I saw them. 

HOWEVER. There’s still a lot to think about when visiting Native cultural sites. This is what you get for going to college— instead of just enjoying the pretty old apartment buildings, I spent the whole time at Mesa Verde thinking about the cultural implications of all these nice people from an oppressive culture treating Native culture as an extinct, separate existence to be marveled at and almost idolized. 

Meanwhile, the living descendants and relatives of these idolized cultures are STILL AROUND, and they are most often treated with the contempt that Will and his daughters exhibited. In fact, we passed right by the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation on the way to Balcony House, with a sign posted boasting of Indian arts and crafts and food. There was almost no one in the parking lot to investigate the present day Indian culture that butts up against the tourist attractions.  

Meanwhile, back at the tourist attractions, we visited the Mesa Verde museum right by Spruce Tree House. Along with archeological finds like pottery, baskets, sandals, and weavings, we saw the classic dioramas depicting Indian life through the centuries. Travis pointed out the clothing of the figures shown, and wondered why we haven’t heard discourse on it before. 

All the figures are clothed in loincloths, carrying on their daily business of hunting, building, or shooting the shit in the marketplace. Yet when we visited another room around the corner, we saw what these people actually wore.

People wearing brightly colored and intricately woven clothing, made of cotton which was obtained through vast and intricate trading routes doesn’t exactly fit the white American ideal of the primitive savage. But it does help us cope with the cultural amnesia that allows us to think of these dissipated societies as an Other to be learned and studied in a museum, separate from the very real people who our culture continues to decimate present day. 

I’m pretty much done here. We descended the Mesa coasting gloriously. Travis even saw a black bear cub, then spotted a new bird with his binoculars. We returned to our RV campsite, ate Indian food packs for dinner, and fell asleep.

The Last of the Desert

We rose before light.
The Needles Canyon overlook was only 16 miles away into the recreation area we were camping in, so biking there with no gear was pretty much a breeze. 16 miles! Thats only the legnth of the St. Marks trail! However, we still didn’t arrive at sunrise, which would have made for the best photo ops, but the canyon was pretty impressive anyway.
I’ve definitely never seen a canyon before. It was about an 8 on the Epic-Shit-o-Meter.
Clearly, I had to spit off the edge.
The desert is hard, though. It’s the sun that gets you! It’s so bright! So even though the 36 mile ride to and from the canyon was relatively easy, by the time we got back to our campsite to pack up the sun was really bearing down. We powered on though. In fact, we powered on through a region that was designated on the map as “Dry Valley”.
That shit was dry! And hot! We still had plenty of water, and the only incident was when I was trying to draft off of Travis, so I was about a foot away from his back wheel when he came across a Pygmy rattlesnake in the road. He braked quickly, and I ran into his back tire and swerved into the road. I’m still not used to riding clipped in to the pedals, but miraculously I righted myself before I fell on the shoulder, imminent victim to a passing semi or the deadly venomous rattler. PHEW!
We only had 26 miles of highway riding before we got to the next sign of civilization. But fuck if that weren’t a 26 mile trial. Mile markers were passing verrrrry slowly. And of course there was our first mountain climb before we came to the town of Monticello.
My friend Katie Harris and her partner Aaron go on bike tours almost every summer. They’re farmers too, and annually they take off a month in the high summer season to bike somewhere for a month. Katie gave me some sound advice before this trip— namely, DON’T wear underwear with your bike shorts, and the first three days of the bike tour are the hardest. Well Katie, this was day three and it has definitely been the hardest.
By the time we got to the climb outside of Monticello, we had already been riding for 52 miles. Our legs were jelly. Then we had to climb this goddamned mountain (ok it turned out to be a Mesa but it was next mountains and still 1000 or so feet tall). Can you believe we made it? We really did. And it was terrible.
We ate overpriced burgers at the hippie restaurant in Monticello and it was awesome. Then we hit up the RV park and took showers, and it was awesome. Old people at RV parks know what’s up— they are a Mecca for little dogs. Little dogs are the bomb. Easy to walk, don’t eat that much, little poops. There were so many great little dogs.
Now, some observations about Utah.
First, beer.
In Utah the alcohol content in beer is limited to 3.2%. WUT? So there are these Utah breweries brewing shitty beer with terribly low alcohol levels. It’s bullshit. And they taste bad. What the fuck, Utah? You’re right next to Colorado, arguably the microbrew capital of the US! It’s all because of those Mormons!
Second, Mormons.
Organized religion is creepy enough. But Mormons! The only thing I know about Mormons is that Mitt Romney is one. That’s not true, I do know know more about Mormons— they don’t drink caffeine, they wear magical itchy woolen underwear, and according to PBS they love ballroom dancing. Only 2000 people live in Monticello, but I saw two Mormon churches and one temple. The checkout kid at the grocery store was wearing a shirt that said, “I’d rather be…Mormon!” There was absolutely no diversity there, which isn’t really surprising since its rural Utah, and the Mormon Bible says that all dark skinned people are the sons of Cain and destined for Hell. Oops. And I know I’m from the Bible Belt South, but it is decidedly different out here and you can feel it. In any case, I definitely wasn’t sad to leave Utah the next morning.

Up to the Canyonlands

Learning our lesson from Arches, we woke up buttass early in the morning to leave Moab. Like we left town at 5:45am and that was actually a little late.
Riding out of Moab is so strange— it’s a little town in the middle of the desert that attracts all kinds of out doorsy folks, like Rick climbers, mountain bikers, and hikers and rafters. So it’s an enclave of craft beer ( more on Utah beer later), kokopelli art and decent restaurants.

But then it just disappears. There’s nothing again, just that sage brush and tall bluffs… for the next 60 miles. No towns, no gas stations, no nothing until Canyonlands National Park. We packed for two days- six water bottles filled, two camelbacks, and two gallon bottles of water. Then we had to climb.

I don’t really know what to tell you about the climb except that it lasted a long time. There was construction, traffic, blessed cloud cover, then bright sun, ridiculous views at the top of the hill, one terrifying downhill, and then a godsend of a campsite.

Seven hours later, we pulled up into a deserted campsite that hadn’t been on any maps, and it came 26 miles sooner than the campground we were headed for in the national park. We got set up in the hottest part of the day and chilllllllled.

The decision was that we would skip the National Park section of Canyonlands and head out to the canyon overlook in the morning. We spent the afternoon reading instead of doing anything. I don’t know what’s going on with my literally choices lately, but I have been obsessed with 19th century women writers. I can’t stop reading Jane Austen and the Brontës, which is ridiculous because they are just glorified soap operas with done up language thats hard to understand. I got to some really juicy parts of Jane Eyre, relayed them to Travis, who was busy reading his new western paperback and humored me by pretending to be interested in listening to me tell him what Mr. Rochester was up to. Then it started to thunder. Cue surreal lightening storm.

Luckily, our tent works. And so do my earplugs. We were ready for more dawn riding in the morning.


When I got to Utah, I felt like I wanted to vomit. No, it wasn’t because of the Mormons, it was because of the travel I think. My bowels get finicky when I step foot outside of Leon County, and that combined with waking up at 5am and flying for 11 hours made me feel kind of terrible. But we made it! We checked in to the Lazy Lizard hostel, and our bikes had arrived by mail in boxes a few hours before. We put them back together (this only requires putting the wheel back on, screwing on the pedals and attaching the headset and handlebars), and lo and behold we were ready to ride. After a quick visit down to the Colorado River, we stopped for some errands (used book store, grocery run) and passed the fuck out.

Foolishly, we left to ride to Arches National Park at 8am the next morning. That meant we had lost three hours of comfortable riding weather. Highs were in the high 90s that day. Heat is a tricky character. We’re from Florida and we work outside, so we think  can handle anything. There’s no humidity! Your sweat actually evaporates instead of soaking your shirt! But desert heat is not to be fucked with. Because there’s no visible sign of water leaving your body, you can get dehydrated real quick. But we brought plenty of extra water, don’t worry.

I know I can come off as an abrasive or cynical person, but I’m so not, to the point where it’s kind of a joke to think that I am. Every bend we rounded I gushed, “Wow!” Like unabashed, innocent wonder. Arches is an alien landscape, shaped by water, time, and the right combination of minerals. The result is like nothing else on the planet.

And it’s so big! Have you ever been to a place where you look out and all you see is nothing going on forever? And by nothing I mean sagebrush growing on endless hills, giant red bluffs slowly eroding into absurd shapes, and canyons disappearing into the earth. This was ranking pretty high on the Epic-Shit-o-Meter.

On the way out of Arches we learned a valuable lesson: climb and descent.

Climbing happens for a long time, and while you’re doing it it seems tough but it’s gradual and conquerable. It’s only when you turn around and go back from where you came that you realize how much elevation you’ve gained. It took us about three hours riding to reach the Windows section of the park, and about 45 mins of straight screaming descent to reach the entrance.  Which was good because we we almost out of water and it was 96 degrees and my body was reeling trying to figure out why it was incurring such abuse. But we made it, and it was awesome. Arches was done.