Rocky Road (USA Day 56)
Aside from being awoken by a drunk driver crashing into a tree out the front of the house, we slept great. As dawn broke, we watched his truck get towed away, and sipped coffee, wondering what penalties he might incur for such dangerous behaviour.
Our late departure today (8am. WOAH!) was only possible because we had fewer miles to cover, and the temperature was only going to hit 32 Celsius, rather than the astronomic 45 we’d seen previously. We went off-trail for most of the day, cutting up through Pueblo State Park and its reservoir, the first large body of water we’d seen since the Mississippi. The rock formations changed instantly: within miles we were surrounded by those bulbous, cakey clifftops above deep canyons, with all the cliff’s multicoloured strata on full display. The climbing started immediately, too, though nothing serious. More like England, really. If you’re never riding on flat, you never get bored.
Riding Highway 50 was a risk: busier road, faster traffic, but more direct, less hilly and with a much more considerable hard shoulder. The traffic was bad, yes, and we stayed on this road for pretty much the entire day, but the experience of riding the increasingly undulating terrain, straight into the gaping maw of the Rockies, was thrilling. To our right, prairie dogs stood to attention atop their little mounds, scrabbling underground if we stopped to look too long.
The downside of riding a highway’s hard shoulder reared its ugly head pretty quickly, though: I clocked my second puncture in two days, both from little staples of metal, potentially from shredded car tyres. We replaced the dead tube by the side of the road, munching on a peanut butter and raisin sandwich and relishing the fact that sitting in the sun didn’t result in instant death.
We chose not to visit the centre of Cañon City, opting instead to sample the delights of its out-of-town shopping arena. Provisions gathered, bottles filled and toilets very much made use of, we re-joined the 50, this time uphill. The Rockies had begun.
Our first climb was long but not steep, and would have been a total delight if the traffic wasn’t so whooshy. Prairie turned to scrubland, the ground became jagged and the hillsides swallowed us whole. After climbing gradually for eight-or-so miles, we nipped south down a rugged dirt track towards the Royal Gorge Campground, a primitive hilltop affair (the way we like it) especially compared to the nearest campsite on the road which offers a huge bumpy slide and a range of lifelike dinosaurs to enjoy while you camp. Our pitch looks back east, to the great plains thousands of feet below. Hundreds of featureless miles, as far as Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Ten paces over the brow of our hill and we can see west, to the breathtaking Rockies that appear in silhouetted layers, each mountain paler than the one in front. It’s achingly beautiful, and full of promise for the coming months as we explore them, though I already know that won’t be enough.
I’m sitting on a sun-warmed rock, inhaling the pine-scented air, watching the sun get ready to set and feeling oddly nostalgic for the two months we’ve spent far below. It’s easy to let them fold into a big, noisy, insignificant fifty-day prologue to this: where the fun really begins.