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 mini-marts, 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.

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.