Grand Loop, October 3-4, 2008

Vital Statistics

With Sarah attending the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a fine weather prediction through Saturday afternoon, and the imminent closure of Trail Ridge Road for the season, I decided to take off Friday and scoot around the Grand Loop one more time.

I hit the road at 8:15, not too long after sunrise these days. The farmlands east of Boulder are beautiful at this time of year, so I rode a slightly less direct route to Lyons that also served (1) to bump the total mileage over 200 and (2) to let me avoid riding the same cross-Boulder-up-36 route that I've taken approximately a gazillion times now. I then joined with 36 in Lyons and rode it up the canyon to Estes Park.

My trusty new touring steed posed for pictures while we were in the canyon. It's a Trek 520, about ten years old, that I found a couple of weeks ago through Craig's List. I had been looking for a true touring bike for some time, so when I saw the posting for this 21" (about 54 cm) one out of NE Denver, I bussed on down to check it out. Other than a few (dozen) scratches and dents, it's in good shape. The previous owner had swapped out drops for the "moustache" handlebars that you see in the picture; I might reinstall the drops, which he still had laying around. The moustache bars have some great attributes, but they seem to push on a nerve in the meat of my left palm. I added the fenders, replaced the bent rear rack with a larger and sturdier one, and installed a new Brooks B17 saddle (purchased for a lot less than listed) for total touring comfort. Breaking in the saddle requires a few hundred miles of riding; I'm at something like 350 now, so it's really starting to conform to the unique profile of my derrière.

I reached Estes Park at 12:15 and stopped for a lunch of a peanut butter sandwich, Power Bar, and Snickers bar. I think the peanut butter sandwich was a little too fat/protein-heavy for that stage in the day's ride, as I dragged a bit after lunch. Jelly might actually be worth carrying since it provides fast carbs and adds a little lubrication to an otherwise dry sandwich. In any case, after taking care of other maintenance duties, I paid my $10 and entered RMNP a little after 1:00.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves for this part of the trip. To compensate for previous photography failings, I stopped frequently for photos until it started raining, so the pictures show a fairly steady progression up the eastern slope, with perhaps the last 1500' or so missing because of the rain. The rain stopped just before I reached the summit -- it had briefly turned to light snow flurries -- yielding joy-inducing rain-cleared vistas of the surrounding peaks.

At the summit, I met a couple visiting from Austin for the meeting of the Buffaloes and Longhorns (football) this weekend. He is in the Navy and about to deploy (again) for Kuwait to take on the unfortunately necessary job of hospital administration in the region. Having just completed a short but vigorous hike starting at an elevation 11K' higher than he had resided at the previous day, he was noticeably agitated (he said he felt like being sick, but couldn't quite make it happen). Nonetheless, we had an interesting conversation. He had asked about my profession after I had thanked him for his service; and hearing that I am (currently, anyway) a professor, he enthusiastically proclaimed the importance of education, stressing the gulf that separates the open-mindedness of educated Americans from the closed minds of people in the Mid-East. Besides access to "beautiful women", he cited access to education as one of the great characteristics of living in the free world. He also predicted that after the war in Iraq ends, the expanded GI bill will yield a swelling of mature, voracious students, which I hope is true.

Anyhow, we were all getting cold, so I prepared for the descent and reeled in the anchor. With almost 4K' to kill (the plains on the western slope are 2500-3000' higher than on the eastern slope, so the descent is considerably shorter than the ascent), I swooped through Milner Pass and across the continental divide. Without warning, the world suddenly changed: everything was wrong; water flowed uphill. Disoriented, I rode past herds of elk and out of the park. I should note, by the way, that in contrast to my experience in August, the ride through RMNP post-vacation season was an unadulterated pleasure. The few motorists that were in the park drove slowly and carefully. I suspect that many were locals there to see the elk herds that abound in plain site at this time of year, as many came equipped with powerful binoculars, cameras, and camping chairs. The cows munched just yards away from the onlookers, while the bulls roamed farther away and trumpeted out their manliness at -- I have to say it -- an embarrassingly high pitch.

Darkness fell unexpectedly early. I rode the last 5-10 miles to Lake Granby with lights. There, I found that what I thought was National Forest land is actually National Recreation land -- and camping is thus prohibited except at designated spots for $19 and higher. So I pulled into a marina at which dozens of folks had semi-permanent mobile home set-ups and asked and was granted permission to roll out my bedding next to a (landed) boat. I joined a family around a fire; they consisted of a mother and her two daughters, her sister, and her sister's (female) partner; the latter two own the RV and plot of land on which it rests, as well as a house in Denver. The mother and daughters left soon after, but I hung around for a while as it was clear that I was in intelligent and friendly company. The non-sister is a civil engineer who had spent a decade or so in Alaska working in the oil fields, while her partner was a math teacher and is now a school counselor. The civil engineer gave the first cogent argument that I've heard for why drilling in Alaska is not necessarily a bad thing and quite possibly a good thing. Contrary to what the superficialities shouted out in politics would have you believe, she said that drilling in Alaska is a tight operation because of the extreme cold and stringent (and heavily enforced) environmental laws. Her job when she lived there included monitoring operations, and she cited instances when seemingly innocuous spillages of a few drops while fastening a hose resulted in a total shut-down of operations. Moreover, the flora and fauna are essentially undisturbed because the facilities are compact and enclosed.

Anyhow, I hit the sack around 9:30 and woke up with the sun to find my bivy bag coated in frost. I bit off a chunk of will-power jerky (I had salted and dried a bit o' will power before the trip, knowing it would be cold Saturday morning) and prepared to head out and find warmer climes for breaking my fast. (For one thing, my Power Bars were solid from the cold, so I had to warm a few against my body before I could eat.) I passed a sign at 9:15 that indicated 37 degrees. But later, a sign proclaimed 45 degrees at 10:42, and still later another sign reported 44 degrees at 10:41. If this final sign had reported this slight cooling at a later time, the trend would have worried me. But the time-temperature data clearly indicated a warming trend, so I figured everything was OK.

After stopping by a gas station to buy 20oz of high fructose corn syrup in carbonated water (kinda like high octane gas), I proceeded up Berthoud Pass to cross back from looney land into territory where water flowed downhill.

I blasted down the other side of the pass into Idaho Springs, which, being an ugly stretch that I've only slogged through in the counter-gravity direction, brought me great joy (that is, from seeing it go by as a blur and a blotch on my rear view mirror). The valley is narrow, so the I-70 is the dominant and rather noisy feature. After a not-so-quick-but-at-least-short slog up from Idaho Springs to the Front Range, I stopped to capture a few shots of Golden before burning the last bit of elevation. Then I headed up 93 homeward bound.

© 2008, Aaron R. Bradley.