A Different World (USA Day 57)
Today had the most.
Today had the most climbing we’ve ever managed – just shy of 6000 feet. We began the day at altitude and just got higher, joining Highway 9 that wound northwest, up the sides of fir-clad mountains, ascending almost constantly from Mile 5 to Mile 30. Those 25 miles took us most of the day, what with stopping to talk to some very friendly Eastbounders with helpful tips for the upcoming towns (Hi, Bernard!), photo opportunities, copious snacks and, of course, the ridiculous hills. The sun shone, but coolly so, and we huffed upwards, anticipating each bend with eager eyes but unwilling legs. Despite the unrelenting nature of the climb, though, it wasn’t the steepest we’ve come across (longest? Yes) and like all others, it ended eventually.
Today had the most delicious coffee, courtesy of Mountain Aries Market, an unexpected alpine shack just outside Guffey, bursting with organic produce and hummingbirds. We watched one and consumed the other, thanking our luck that we didn’t need to climb the extra two miles into Guffey to fill our water bottles. Then we noticed the time and had a short but appropriate panic.
Today had the most intense hailstorm I’ve ever endured. As the gradients eased up (still uphill, though. Always uphill), we tore our eyes away from the epic hillsides to see an encroaching band of darkness, rumbling ominously. Blessed with a tailwind, we approached it for what felt like hours, but as the sky struggled to remain optimistic we did the same, and soon talk converged on how to avoid a soaking. Afternoon storms are a thing up here, we hear. Now it’s no longer hearsay.
“We should blaze through it,” I suggested. I’m great at suggestions. “They’re so localised. We’ll be out the other side in a second.”
“Guess so. Jackets?”
We agreed not to stop to put on our jackets. If anything, the rain would be cooling.
This wasn’t even rain. With the storm front came a change of wind – in our faces now, and as the hail began we realised how out-of-our-depth we really were. Glad to report, this was only metaphorical, but barely. You can’t ride uphill at the same time as shielding your eyes. You can’t wear sunglasses with skies that dark. You can’t imagine the pain of pea-sized ice balls falling from heaven onto your naked thighs until it’s happened, and then you’ll never want to experience it again. We did what all sensible humans would do, and gave up, cowering on the road verge with our backs (now jacketed) to the hail, doing A-Zs and trying to think about something else. Lightning zapped around us, connecting worryingly close to our hilltop, but we put it out of our mind and focused on the sogginess of our bums and the numbness of our fingers. And before long, it was only rain, and we were back on the bikes, and over the next hill the roads were dry and buzzing with mosquitos and utterly ignorant of the apocalypse a mile back. Soon we reached a highland prairie with herds of roaming bison, miles of open space and a nest of far-off snow-capped fourteeners that sent a shiver down my spine, and not just because I was sodden from the rain.
Today had the most dangerous road we’ve ever ridden. Take note, cyclists: the portion of Highway 9 from Hartsel to Fairplay is utterly horrible. It didn’t help that the cars from the 285 had been diverted onto this single lane road with no shoulder, doubling the traffic, but honestly, this wasn’t the problem. It’s got a 65mph limit, it’s narrow as heck, and the drivers have absolutely no idea how much space to give a cyclist. Not a hundred yards onto the road, a juggernaut of a truck attempted an overtake at the same time as traffic approached from the other lane. Not bothering to wait, he blared past us with such speed, at such force, with such little elbow room, that Amy and I were both forced off the road, tumbling into the ditch to the right. I’m not going to lie, I fully believed I was about to be road pizza, and discovering my body intact but a few metres from the road, I ugly-cried. I absolutely bawled. I’ve never been so scared in my life. Somehow we got ourselves back on, but less than a mile later the same thing happened again: this time a Land Rover, not even screaming past us but right into the back of us, if we hadn’t fled the road again. It was Amy’s turn to cry.
I was angry. Furious. “We’re riding in the middle of the f****** lane,” I shouted. “If they won’t give us space, we’ll make them wait.”
Well, I calmed down a little, but we devised a defensive road strategy that, if you’re riding this road, I completely advise. Firstly, hold your line at least a third of the lane in. That way, a car cannot physically overtake you if there’s oncoming traffic. They won’t even be tempted. Secondly, if you see cars approaching and hear them behind you, turn around and look the driver in the eye. Give them a smile or a wave if you’re that way inclined. We did, and consequently didn’t get a single impatient honk. Once the oncoming traffic is done, give them another wave. They’ll pass with plenty of space, often wave back, and consider you as a human being, not a mild inconvenience.
Today had the most amazing scenery we’ve seen so far. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. We forced ourselves to look up in those dwindling daylight hours, despite the horrendous drivers, to the forested hills and their bare white caps, to the growing shadows between blissful late rays. We are so lucky to be here. No road can ruin that for us.
Today had the most. We loved it.