Our first day's ride from Salida would not be forgotten by either of us. Not so much for the scenery this time, as good as it was heading up 10,842ft Marshall Pass. No, this time it was about Alia and I, and our future together. Yes, it was time to ask 'that' question - no, not whether we could buy a house next to Villa Park and buy a lifetime club membership. Or what was for lunch (and what time should we eat. Soon?).
No, it was time for the really big question.
It took me a while to get things planned but I managed to get it all together. The moment took place after we reached Marshall Pass, around 26 mostly tough uphill miles from Salida. Earlier that day, just outside Poncha Springs, we met Ed from northern California. He would get almost as much of a shock as Alia would once we reached the pass. After setting our bikes against a wooden sign at the top, I reached into my front bag and pulled out the ring; I walked over, handed Ed my camera (which has a video), knelt down and asked Alia if she would be my bike partner for life. She said yes, and I was thrilled. And we could honestly say it would be all downhill from that point - quite literally, as it was a three mile drop to our campsite for the night. It was an enjoyable descent (aren't they all), not least due to events at the top - adding to the ride was the sharp yellows of the aspens that lined much of the route.
Next morning we made the 10 miles to the small town of Sargents, a town on highway 50, where we enjoyed a cooked breakfast. Any time we ride through a town we generally try and take advantage of the local diner or restaurant, most of which cook up pretty good breakfasts and burgers, amongst many other things. And coffee. Lots of coffee. Please.
People have been curious about what we eat. If we're out on the trail, it's generally a breakfast consisting of a granola or bran cereal topped with prunes (don't they get me going) using milk powder,along with a coffee provided we have enough gas remaining (and I don't mean from the prunes) in our canister; lunch consists of sandwiches, usually with dried meats and cheese (the type that doesn't need to be refrigerated, with the happy cow on it. Moo.); dinners are usually pasta and/or rice based, along with mash potato as a starter (the potato comes in powder form, to which you just add hot water). Snacks include high-energy protein bars, Mars or Snickers bars, and plenty of trail mix. The longest period we generally have to pack food for is four days, although even on these stretches can come across some form of small general store or diner. In some ways water is the harder item to plan for and pack. We usually know where water can be found, as our maps are quite detailed. Yet at times we still need to carry 7-8 litres, as it takes time and batteries to filter and clean any water we consume from rivers or streams (we have an ultraviolet filter). And with one litre of water weighing around 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), you can quickly see how weight can then become an issue - you really do feel it when you're cycling up the side of mountain.
Back on the trail from Sargents, we made our way along highway 50 until we turned south onto a dirt road that traversed a semi-desolate valley. The Elk Mountains, young and proud, beckoned to the west. After a total of 48 miles for the day we reached Dome Reservoir where we camped for our second night since leaving Salida. Ed was still with us, and he was great company - we appreciated having someone with us who was not only interesting in his own right (Ed is very much an outdoors person) but whose shared riding experience gave us a fresh perspective on the same trail we had traversed. Ask any rider and they love hearing about how others fared on the route, particularly the tougher sections - so it was no surprise that the Great Basin back in Wyoming featured prominently.
Our next day, 41 miles from Dome Reservoir to Storm King Campground to the southeast, would have us riding up two 10,000-plus passes (Cochetopa and Carnero). And, as only Murphy would have it, the second one was the much tougher one, just at the time late in the day when you've spent most of your energy.
The changing colours of the many aspen groves continued to captivate. Not just yellows but also oranges and reds burst through the otherwise largely green canvass. As we descended into the lower altitudes we rode through a number of wonderfully contorted and tight canyons, some with rock formations so life-like you found yourself staring at them while descending at 15-20 miles per hour on rough roads. And all savoured with no one else around, something that was noticeable on this third day.
From Storm King campground we made our way through another staggering rock formation, the grand basalt entrance to Coolbroth Canyon. Quite simply, wow. We stopped before it, beneath it, and after it...we just had to see this mass of rock from every angle possible. Our next stop, La Garita, little more than a general store/diner, saw us enjoy a burger and beer before we headed across the very flat and seemingly arid (well, not so as it would turn out) San Luis Valley. On the opposite side of this Valley was our next stop, the Great Sand Dunes National Park. We parted ways with Ed here - he continued south on the trail proper. His company would be missed.
We pointed our wheels east towards the distant Sangre de Christo mountains, sheer 14000ft peaks that sit as a stunning backdrop to the National Park. Maybe it was travelling on flat and paved roads again, and the extra ground you can travel, but our (well, ah, my) estimates of how long it would take us to get to the National Park were severely wrong. What I guessed would be a fairly easy 30 mile ride ended up being 45 miles and that only yielded us a campsite at San Luis Lakes State Park, still 12 miles short of the National Park (but a wonderful campsite all the same, as it looked over the sand dunes). Add to this the 15 miles we had travelled earlier in the day, and you have a total of 60 miles, or 100km. What made things a bit tougher was a poor choice of route by yours truly which saw us mired on a road so sandy that we had to walk a mile to the north to get to the nearest paved road, plus the unexpectedly high temperatures (we later learned that the San Luis Valley, at 8000ft, is a magnet for the sun, the best place for collecting solar power in the entire country. In a twist to this though, it's a haven for growing crops such as potatoes and carrots, as it sits upon a huge aquifier).
It was all well worth it. The Great Sand Dunes were absolutely amazing, billions of grains of sand so flowing and sculptured you swear a human hand had spent an eternity crafting them. We climbed the second highest dune in the park, at around 700ft, giving us a vista so magnificent I won't even bother to try and describe it. Suffice to say, get there yourself one day. That these dunes are backed by yet another stunning mountain range, that of the Sangre de Christo (Blood of Christ), only added to the spectacle. We camped just outside the park that evening, at Oasis Campground and Lodge, and while a privately run facility we found ourselves in a rugged and secluded site amongst gnarled pinon pines with seemingly endless views across the Park and San Luis Valley. Coyotes howled us to sleep again that evening, and not long before the sun flooded the valley once more we heard the 'who who-whos' of an owl. It's easy to understand why the Spanish left this as the northern border of their Americas territory, it's sheer remoteness and toughness still so easy to imagine and feel to this day. That, and the marauding Ute Indians, who were so effective on horseback at defending this region that no permanent settlement was made by white man in the area until the 1850s.
Our next day had us ride 33 miles to the town of Alamosa along what was the best bits of pavement we have cycled the entire trip, road 150 (part of the scenic byway named Los Caminos Antiguos, or Trail of the Ancients), and highway 160. The latter had a shoulder so large it really belonged on Arnold Schwarzenegger - no girly-man shoulder for this part of the country. At 2-3 metres wide we had plenty of room to move on what is a rather busy road.
Our next two weeks will see us enter New Mexico, and make our way to Albuquerque (again, off the official trail). To date we've cycled over 4000km, or 2600 or so miles. From there we'll take a week off and head to Vegas for our wedding, before returning and starting on the trail again. Until then, all the best.