Bicycle Touring In The West
Day 17 – Pagosa Springs to Alamosa
“I’ve learned that everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”
Today we’re back to a little more mileage, but still a tad shy of a 100 mile day. We cross the Continental Divide this morning at Wolf Creek Pass. It’s a day I’ve looked forward to throughout the trip – as much as a test of my fitness as for the beauty of an 11,000’ pass.
We get an early start, and since we stayed on the west end of Pagosa Springs, we’re rewarded with some beautiful views and photos as we move into and through the town. We stop on the east side of town to calorie up a bit. While I’m scarfing something down that is loaded with calories but probably terribly unhealthy, I watch a couple cowboys fuel up their truck and come in and pay.
Of course, I don’t know how much real “cowboying” these fellas do, but they’re dressed the part, with spurs and the whole shebang. They’re not the first cowboy types we’ve seen along US160 through southern Colorado, and I find myself wondering about how much of the fancy duds are to help the fellas show off for girls (or whatever), and how much really add to the practicality of their day.
I’ve met a couple real cowboys in my life, and I’ve seen an awful lot of fellas who like to dress the part without any real need. Drugstore cowboys we used to call ‘em. The real ones tend to be a lot less flash and sparkle, and they tend to carry themselves with a lot more humility. I suppose the real work that cowboying involves would tend to help a fella grow accustomed to the taste of humble pie.
Many years ago, when I was a young idealist just out of college and pretty sure I knew about everything that was important, I met an old guy down in southern Arizona who helped me open up a little understanding of just how little I really knew. His name was Archie, and he was probably one of the last real cowboys around. This was in the mid 70’s, and he was probably 90+ at the time, so I imagine he was born in the late 1870s or early 1880s.
Archie lived in an old broken-down trailer deep in the high desert of southern Arizona. I spent a couple weeks as a guide/counselor with some young boys, camped a couple miles from his trailer, and spent enough time with him to build a whole new respect and awe for the heart of the word “cowboy”.
We’d sit around a campfire in the evening, and listen to Archie spin yarns about his days working horses and cattle across the Southwest. It was a desolate, hard, dangerous life he survived, and his tales told of a lot of fellas who weren’t as lucky at the survival sweepstakes as he was. By the time he was 20 he’d learned more about physical pain and discomfort than most folks in our culture learn in a lifetime. He became a solitary and self-sufficient man, who wandered from job to job as the wander-lust tickled his fancy. A seeker of adventure far more than a seeker of fortune, Archie had several stories of small fortunes gained and quickly squandered on opportunity for adventure.
Prior to meeting Archie, my stereotype of a cowboy was that of an arrogant and insecure dandy. Archie couldn’t have been further from that stereotype. He was soft-spoken, with an aura of self-confidence that was wrapped around everything he did. He didn’t wear spurs that jangled as he walked, but instead let his soft-spoken self-assurance speak with every step. He didn’t wear tight jeans and shiny shirts, instead letting the tattered and work-ragged jackets and pants speak of hard work and well-earned callouses.
We’ve created quite a mythology around the cowboy, and an awful lot of folks in our culture today like to emulate and worship that mythology. In reality, these guys were probably mostly misfits with an overdeveloped wanderlust and outsized sense of adventure. Most of them dabbled a bit on whichever side of the law was convenient at any given time, always looking for the path most heavily laced with adrenaline.
On the one hand, I find it easy to be quietly critical of the guys today who dress the part of the mythological cowboy. While many or most of them might be honest and hard-working folks, I can’t help but feel that they’re chasing a myth, not the real cowboy. But on the other hand, I realize that for the most part, a “real” cowboy living in today’s world would never survive. They’d end up in jail at an early age, and become institutional criminals.
Is there enough adventure in our world today to support the real cowboy? Can we suffer enough and endure enough discomfort to condition ourselves to the life they lived? The guy walking back to his truck after paying with a credit card has some shiny spurs that jingle, and I suspect he’s a hard-workin’ fella. But I doubt he’s really a cowboy…
I look east at the mountains ahead, and figure I’ve got a bit of sufferin’ in my near future this morning. I’ve driven over Wolf Creek Pass many times, and I’m looking forward to the 4000’ climb ahead of me today.
Highway 160 has some shoulder to it east of Pagosa Springs, and the traffic is light. The scenery is wonderful, with lush valley meadows all around us as we gently climb toward the base of the steep climb. It’s another beautiful morning ride for us, and I find myself stopping often to take pictures – primarily of the many horses pastured on the lush grass.
As we hit the base of the steep part of the climb, I’m wanting to test my fitness against Dave as my measuring stick. While Dave is always a stronger climber than I am, I’ve been surprised over the last few days at several instances where I’ve passed him on some climbs. Of course, those could be “off” days for Dave and “on” days for me, so this long and steep climb will be a good barometer for me.
As the climb starts, I pass Dave and try and maintain a hard pace. However, very soon we pass a photo op, and I pull over to take a picture. From here to the top of the pass, it’s Dave’s familiar back that I’m watching…
Of course, I’m not as far behind him as I’ve often been in the past – when there’s been more discrepancy in our fitness levels. But nonetheless, my fitness for climbing is still not up to Dave’s. While I’m a little disappointed, I’m also delighted to be as close as I am. Still, there’s something about a long climb that is the perfect competition for the cyclist. It’s pure hard work, and as much as anything else, a test of your ability to suffer. Strength to weight ration is what will generally determine who wins in a race up a hill, along with general fitness of course, but regardless of where you end up on a climb relative to other riders, you always have an internal gauge letting you know how much suffering you endured. On this climb, I set my suffering gauge at about 75%, and just hold it there. With 100 miles of riding today, I don’t want to burn it all on this climb, and I’m happy to stay as close to Dave as I am while keeping the suffering meter where it is.
The climb up Wolf Creek from the west is one of the nicest climbs I’ve ever done. The road is good, the shoulder wide, and the traffic light. The grade sets itself at a nice 7% or 8%, and just stays there the whole time. It’s easy to find a gear that works, and just crank.
As I near the top of the climb, I realize that it’s my birthday today. I’m 57 years old as I top the pass and pull off to chat and take a couple pictures with Dave. It’s chilly, so I wrap up in my windbreaker soon after stopping. I can’t imagine very many ways to spend a birthday that would be more gratifying than the climb I just did.
Coming down the east side of Wolf Creek is a wonderful glide. I think I have to squeeze the brakes about twice the whole way down, with nice smooth pavement to enjoy. From the base of the climb all the way to South Fork, we have a tailwind, so we glide along the gentle descent at a screaming pace, before stopping for an early lunch at South Fork.
Leaving South Fork, we enjoy a quartering tailwind for several miles, and the smile on my face that plastered itself there this morning is still shining. But before too many miles have passed, the wind shifts 180 degrees, and we realize we’re facing a headwind that’s likely to last the rest of the day. I’m not smiling…
I’m suffering. And I’m pissed.
A headwind does that to me every time. Pisses me off and makes foul language spill out of my mouth as I ride. While Dave doesn’t like a headwind any more than anyone else, it doesn’t seem to incite the same misery in him that it does in me. Just by the nature of the way we’re built, I should do better in the headwind than Dave does. I weight more and generally do better on the flats – the whole power to weight ratio thing might actually work in my favor in a headwind… Or maybe that’s just creative physics on my part…
At any rate, Dave is out in front of me, and steadily pulling further and further away. He just puts his head down and pedals. He seems able to make himself somewhat oblivious to the joy-robbing wind pounding into his face. And of course, this just pisses me off more.
Dave has commented many times to me that he thinks that I find more joy in life. He’s not saying that my life has more joy in it, but just that I seem more able to notice and savor the joy. I don’t really know if he’s right or not, but he might be. If he is, there might be an advantage that the difference gives to Dave in times of adversity. That is, I think Dave is more tolerant of adversity than I am.
It’s not that I’m a complete whiny crybaby about things. In fact, I think I handle adversity and misery better than most folks. The key is that I need to find a frame of mind that accepts that I’m just going to be miserable for a while. I can’t just roll with either abundant joy or mind-crushing misery – whichever life throws at me. I need time to prepare my frame of mind. I love riding my bike, and when I’m on my bike, I want to feel the love and joy baby. I want to be happy. So, when facing a headwind, it takes me a good bit of self-manipulation to end up being “OK” with being miserable while I’m pedaling.
I can’t go from a glorious tailwind to a screaming headwind and just say, “Oh, the wind shifted, so now I have to gear down a good bit and work harder to go 12 mph than I was working 30 minutes ago to go 20 mph”. I’ve tried. Every time it happens I try. And every time I leave a torrent of plumbing words spilled out along the road behind me. Eventually I find an OK place with it, gear down, and accept that I just need to suffer in silence. But it takes a long time to get there, and the whole time, I’m building all sorts of false hope about a favorable wind shift.
Dave, on the other hand, just takes the wind shift in stride. He gears down a bit and just keeps pedaling. If it’s true that I can exploit a moment of joy for all it’s worth, then I think it’s equally true that I’m more fully trounced and demoralized by a moment of misery.
As I’m coming up on Del Norte, Dave has gotten so far in front that I don’t see him anywhere. I’m sure hoping he’s pulled off at a cStore, and if he hasn’t, I’m contemplating pulling off at one by myself just to gather my wits. Thankfully, he’s pulled off and waiting for me. I eat way more than I need to, and realize I’m only eating so much to delay getting back out in the wind. I joke about it a bit with Dave, but the truth is that I really need to sit here quietly for a bit to get my mind dialed over to the misery quadrant.
From Del Norte to Monte Vista the wind stays consistently in our face, but by the time we stop at a cStore in Monte Vista, I’ve got my misery tolerance dialed in, and am OK with the upcoming 15 or 20 miles into the wind to close out the day.
It’s beautiful and magical what a difference this makes for me. I don’t know if the wind really dies back a bit, or if my acceptance of it just makes it tolerable. Whatever the reason, the final 15 or 20 miles of the day into Alamosa is pretty darned pleasant. At one point we pass a couple girls on horseback, and they wave flirtatiously with us. I’m sure they figure we’re a couple young bucks since we’re out on bicycles, and the last thing I want to do is slow down so they can see that we’re a couple middle-aged men. I wave back and smile, hoping they’ll have wonderful fantasies about the guys they thought we were instead of nightmares about the guys we really are…
We roll into Alamosa after 10.5 hours of elapsed time, only 7 of which were spent actually riding. I’m surprised to find out later that our average rolling speed for the day was 13.6 mph, since we spent so much of the time fighting a headwind. The day started off at 47 degrees in the morning, and hit a high of 98 on the flats in the afternoon.
I feel good. I’m not too tired. We rode almost 100 miles and had a really nice climb. We fought a headwind for a good part of the day. But I feel I could easily have ridden quite a bit further. I feel a sense of real satisfaction as I understand how much my fitness level has improved on this ride, and just how strong I am right now.
And I start to feel really sad, because this is our last night on the road – tomorrow we finish our ride. We go out and have a nice dinner and a beer in downtown Alamosa to celebrate a great adventure. Well, maybe 2 beers…