Disaster In The Rocky Mountains

Woah there. Sorry about that compadres, I’ve only gone and done an entire state without filling you in. How rude. Needless to say its’s been an eventful few weeks. I’ve wiggled my way up The Rockies, visited a long lost friend and wound up smack bang in the middle of a natural disaster. What’s say we start with the non-disaster part?

A WET WELCOME

My first night spent over the border from New Mexico was a baptism of fire. I got in late and erected the pop-up-palace, just as it started to rain. Okay, I thought. Rain’s fine. I can do rain. Rain soon turned to full blown thunder storm, with lightning directly overhead. I’m not ashamed to admit that I reached about an 8.0 on the poop-my-pants-o-meter. Storms have been plentiful, of course, but never in all my days have I heard thunder that loud. After Googling ‘can tent be struck by lightning’ (always Google before taking action) I affirmed that there were enough scare-stories online to warrant sitting in the campground toilet block for 30 minutes. Here I hung out with a very talkative moth until the skies calmed themselves down. Looking back, it’s clear that this was the appetiser to a 10 course storm-meal, about to be served up at Colorado’s table….

COLORADO THE COOL

There’s no two ways about it – Colorado is cool. It boasts the lowest adult obesity rate of all the US states, and you can see why. Living in Colorado and not embracing an active outdoor-lifestyle is like going to a sushi bar and ordering a burger (WHY ARE YOU IN A SUSHI BAR IF YOU DON’T LIKE FISH?!). Winters are filled with Nordic skiing, snowboarding, snow-tubing or sledding. Summer sees residents swap slidy boards for wheels, throwing themselves down the very same mountains, or cycling up. Coloradans simply excel in enjoying every inch of what the good Earth planted at their doorstep.

SMALL TOWNS, BIG VIBES

Towns in Eastern Colorado are achingly hip (who says hip these days? Me, thats who). Telluride was an early contender for the cream of the cool crop. Home to a host of international music and film festivals, it’s the kind of place where instead of returning your smile with a wave, locals deliver a ‘hang ten’ or ‘rock hand’ – seriously, this happened several times. It’s heavily into beer and bikes (always a winner) but cooler than all of this, as always, is the history. Once a gateway to the San Juan mines, Telluride was famous for it’s abundance of brothels and saloons. It was this lucrative seedy underbelly that kept the place booming for almost half a century. The local government even learnt to rely on the brothel fines as a source of income (clever bunch). It’s wealth reached such dizzy heights that in 1889 Butch Cassidy targeted it, and stole $24,000 from the town bank. Brilliant. You just couldn’t make this stuff up.

Telluride – the cream of cool

RALPH’S RANCH

Of course when I tell you that Colorado is a special place, I wouldn’t expect you to take my word for it. I need celebrity back up – enter… Ralph…

As I set off one morning, I was told by local cycle guru, Bob, that if I looked to the left, at the crest of one of the passes, I’d see Ralph Lauren’s ranch. Inevitably, a daydream followed. Ralph would come out of the ranch in an understated truck (I’d recognise him because of the cameo he made in Friends – the one where Rachel allegedly got it on with him in the copy room). Ralph would inquire where I’d come from and where I was going (everyone else does) and invite me in for lunch. I’d politely refuse, then accept. He’d love it, love me, my cause and donate a truckload of money to the charity. Ridiculous? Of course. But it was a daydream that got me up a 13 mile climb, past his ranch and over the Dallas Divide. So: Ralph, if you ever read this, I owe you a debt of gratitude. And www.justgiving.com/thebigfiveo is the site you’re after. Ta verily.

THE ROCKIES THEMSELVES

The fact that I’ve cycled the Rockies feels rather surreal. I mean, these are Grandaddy of the ranges. The Tony Soprano of the Mountain Mafia, the Papa of the peaks. They straddle the site of one of the greatest tectonic plate showdowns – where North America (Blue corner) pummelled other less significant plates (Red corner) into submission. My take? You simply cant face those humungous humps with them way up there on that pedestal. You have to bring them back to earth. And once you’re in amongst them, they’re not so big (ish) you know.

So, to the passes. Well, I managed a few. And then a few more on top of that for good measure. Heres a run down of the top 5:

1. The Dallas Divide (8,983 ft): Not technically a ‘pass’ – but it has Ralph’s ranch at the top. Reason enough to do it. Dress well prior to ascent.

2. Lizard Head Pass (10,222 ft) : Forgiving gradual gradient most of the way, with a cheeky little kicker 3 miles from the top. Disappointing sign at the summit. Sign could try harder.

3. Monarch Pass (11,312 ft). Steady as she goes. Incredible views in the last few miles. At the top awaits elderly couples offering you fresh pears and butter pecan fudge so good, you’d sell your own mother for a bite.

4. Loveland Pass (11,990 ft) A firm favourite. Beautifully wiggly, switchbacks a go-go, and the longest descent known to man into Denver. Not advisable to listen to the Dixie Chicks whilst cycling up. Singing ‘Wide Open Spaces’ at the top of one’s lungs leaves one devoid of oxygen at altitude.

5. Hoosier Pass (11,539 ft) Oh wow. These are all merging into one now. Umm, it went upwards. For hours. Did I even do this one? Oh yes, here’s a picture:

THE THOUSAND YEAR FLOOD

And so, to the crazziness (change in theme music, dim the lights). After taking a detour to south of Denver, I dropped in on a friend I’d met on Swim Trek holiday last year. Her family were visiting at the same time, so us 5 girls behaved like like the Sex In The City gang for 3 solid days – Big breakfasts, hot tub sessions, big lunches, big dinners, art gallery visits …. I had a total blast, got oodles of sleep and recovered from the 13 days straight spent on the bike.

Over the course of my stay we watched the flooding unfold on the news – I stayed a day longer than intended, but when the time came to head North, having checked weather warnings online I was confident I could pick my way through. Of course, floods don’t pay any attention to what it says in the Internet.

That day I made it 50 miles before finding myself in places where the water was flowing across the road. I tried to cautiously weave through, but it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t the site of a flood that had happened, more one still in full swing.

A mile down the road things deteriorated rapidly. I can’t convey just how creepy it is to see houses deserted and half under water. Children’s climbing frames and household belongings floating in front gardens. Busted up cars in ditches and fully grown trees deposited in the middle of the road. More than this, the one sight that really made my jaw drop was coming across a point where the road had been washed away completely. I could see the other side, but between me and it was a full blown river. Alone at this point and with darkness falling – I knew it was time to head to the nearest motel.

The motel was almost full, largely with people who lived in one of the worst affected areas. Some had fled, others had been evacuated forcibly, nearly all had lost some form of a house or belongings, and many were going back and forth to see if they could salvage anything. It would have been stupid to attempt to leave the following day, as the rain continued, so I stayed and watched the news constantly. I learnt of the of 8 who had lost their lives and the 1,000 still waiting to be rescued by helicopter.

Drama aside, the things I saw and heard in those few days chilled me to the core. It needs a whole chapter in a book some day. And honestly, I’ve struggled to place them alongside the overwhelmingly positive experiences I’ve had up until this point – on the trip, and in life in general. I know that this is the real world, and that in the real world bad sh*t happens all the time. I’ve just never had it happen so close to me, so you’ll excuse me grappling with the sheer sadness of it all.

After a few days of trying to get my chirpy little brain around it, I’ve resolved that I don’t really know what to do with sadness. And so, the triumph has to be not in forgetting the bad things that you come across, but in remembering and carrying them with you as a reminder of what to be grateful for. The last few days in Colorado will sit quietly in my saddle bag until Hawaii for this very reason.

ONWARD

Crossing the border into Wyoming two days ago was a relief. I’m now back on track and following some sunshine and Blue skies treatment, firmly back in the game. I’ve got a another double whammy of National Park action on the horizon this week (very excited) as well as a school visit to some kiddies who’ve been tracking my progress since term began (even more excited). It’s starting to get cold up here, and everyone keeps telling me winter’s on its way. Hopefully it can hold off until next week at least… Until then 🙂

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