Sunday, August 16, 2009

Day 8: South Fork to Westcliff

I'm quite a bit late with this post but don't be concerned. This was our last fun day of riding on this trip. Tomorrow (actually today as I write this) will be more rushed with the goal of reaching Trinidad, loading our bikes, and beginning the ride home. Our route today took us from South Fork over a high pass on some scenic dirt roads, into the high plains, into Sand Dunes National Park, over another pass, and finally into Westcliff for the night. But when the morning started in South Fork no one was moving very fast toward our bikes. We'd shared our last time with Gregg, Lloyd, Beth, and Bob and bid farewell as they left for the easterly trek early in the morning. That just wasn't a nice way to start the day. We should all still be riding together! Mark wasn't with us as he had stayed in Gunnison the previous night. Mark is nursing an old shoulder injury and chose another route than the group to avoid aggravating it. This never gives me a good feeling having our group divided since so much can happen out here. And lets not forget the toll the miles are taking on all of us at this point. So you roll all that together and it was just hard to get excited about riding out of South Fork.

We finally did get on the bikes, got fuel, water, snacks, and got on our way. It took all of 10 minutes on the bikes to forget everything I just mentioned! We rode out of town a few miles and then turned off on a dirt road which went up, up, and up into some beautiful areas. The scenery changes with elevation as you climb through pine trees, into aspen trees, and sometimes you top out with no trees. But this climb had a new wrinkle: Cattle. We rode right into a real cowboy moving a herd of cows up the road to a new pasture. We've seen plenty of cows on this trip but never 200 at a time! The lady in the chase truck told us to go on ahead through the herd but just try not to scare them. So we did our best to follow directions. It was so cool and kind of scary at the same time. If a stampede started while we were in the middle of the herd things could've gone very bad. But save for a few freaked out cows everything went fine and the cowboy gave us all a friendly wave as we passed by. What a cool experience. But back to the riding....

The pass was windy and clouds were moving quickly above through partly cloudy skies. This made me nervous that we were in for some unpredictable weather just like the day before. So we kept moving, keeping our breaks short, over the first pass and into the section that followed along some lakes and streams for miles. Finally it looked like weather had returned to the level of gorgeous that we've come to expect on this trip so we stopped for a lunch break. It's hard to believe I've been living on trail mix and beef jerky for so much of my time on this trip. I think the key is that we always stop in a beautiful location which renders the actual lunch as a mere footnote. And today was no different. But after lunch the scenery started to change quickly. As we left the lakes and streams it seemed we just turned a corner and there before us was the high plains. It was stunning. I think we all glanced over our shoulders in amazement that the topography could change this much so quickly. But there was also the excitement of being thrown into something new.

We stopped into a gas station in Animosa (sp?) and found out we were about 45 miles from the Sand Dunes National Park. I knew nothing of this place but it sure sounded odd that there could be sand dunes in this area. So we rode in the directions of the sand dunes on some straight dirt and sand roads for awhile before popping out in the entrance road to the dunes. And they they were. Thirty square miles of tall sand dunes that the wind has driven into the base of the mountains. It's a real curiosity in the surrounding landscape and we stopped several times for pictures. But the enormity of the dunes tricks you into thinking you're "there" long before you actually reach them. So we stopped for one more picture just before the park entrance and who should roll up but Mark! What a trip. It's absolutely amazing how often things like this have happened on this trip. It was so good to see Mark again and to know he was back in the relative safety of our group.

We stopped into the visitors center for stickers, maps, etc and Mark spoke to one of the park rangers who warned against taking our bikes on our intended path which skirted the dunes. He said the sand was deep, soft, and there were water crossings. Mark was sure this would aggravate his shoulder and Dan was worried about his hard saddle bags trapping his leg in a fall on the soft sand. All legit concerns. I was on the fence. I don't have any experience in soft sand but I have a bike that can take the beating and enough energy to pick it up a few times if I crashed. So Dan came down the trail a little before turning back and after assurances that it was completely ridable I took a spill in front of Dan to further validate his choice. But I was not deterred!

The sand was tough to ride in. I followed the wheel tracks which grooved the road from the 4x4 traffic. But every once in awhile the tracks got disorganized and I tended to go pretty out of control. This section lasted for a couple miles and it was slow, hot riding. I took two spills total and neither of which hurt me or the bike because falling in sand at 3 miles per hour really only hurts your ego. We finally stopped at the first shade we found to let ourselves and the bikes cool down. This also happened to be the first of 9 water crossings we would make. The cold water felt soooo good splashing on us as we crossed. And by now the trail had changed into a rocky dirt trail that climbed pretty steadily away from the dunes. We ran into lots of people camping in this area which reminded me that it's Saturday and I've been on vacation long enough to forget my days of the week. Anyway, the top of this pass was pretty nondescript except for a maker citing Lt. Pike's January crossing of this pass. That's a little nutty. August, not so nutty.

We made our way for miles it seemed just slowly making downward progress past the top of the pass. Many passes are very steep to climb and steep to ascend. But this one reminded me alot of riding in Uwharrie in my local area where it just rolls. So I was really surprised when we exited the woods into the green rolling grasslands on the other side of the pass. It was gorgeous. Lots of cows, some impressive deer, and just miles and miles of stunning views in every direction. We kept rerouting toward Westcliff to stay in this scenery as long as possible and pretty much did just that until maybe 2 miles from town. What a ride!

I honestly wasn't sure what I saw when we arrived in Westcliff. Was this an actual town? We've seen some areas with collections of homes in the middle of nowhere that rival this town for size. But I was pretty tired from the ride and was anxious to relax a little at the hotel so I wasn't going to split hairs on Westcliff's qualifications. And then I laid eyes on the Antler Motel which is our lodging for the night. The Antler is a motel, beer, wine, liquor, and general store. That's a first for me (there is a pawn/loan/notary down the street which is another first). The motel is not nice but somehow has a real dive bar charm. I understand that this place has a cult status amongst riders of the Trans-America Trail and that makes alot of sense. And actually when you get past the lack of motel amenities and the curious smell it is kind of charming. I bought a t-shirt to commemorate my stay. Dan rode up at almost the same time we did after taking a mostly paved route to Westcliff. Mark showed up just after and we had our group back together.

We got some direction on dinner choices from the motel/package/general store clerk and walked a couple blocks to what we thought was a Mexican place. Turns out it wasn't Mexican but some of the best food I've had on this trip. They also had cheap Margarita's. And what followed was as close to a goodbye dinner as we'll probably have. Lots of laughs and stories from our adventures. It was a fitting end to our last full day on the trail. I'm going to miss so much about this vacation but I'm ready to get back home.

Tomorrow we take a relatively short jaunt into Trinidad and begin our drive east. The loose itinerary has us arriving in Trinidad around 12:30 pm and hitting the road as soon as possible. We're not sure how far we'll make it tonight but anything will help make Monday less painful. I'll spend some time uploading pictures while we're driving home. Since the pictures are linked within the various posts I'll put up new post's to let you know what has been updated.

Link to larger pictures

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