It’s tempting to look back on our journey with a filtered view, imagining that it was non stop smiles and enjoyment. Flicking through the diary pages for this next section helps me remember that amongst the great times there were some low times too as the strains of over two years on the road were really taking their toll on our bodies, bike and most crucially our relationship.
11th September 2016 – 23rd September 2016
The thick sleeping bags that Melanie had leant us were very much appreciated during another freezing cold night. We have to reluctantly hand them back though before rolling out of town. Walden is supposedly the moose capital of Colorado so we scan the plains all morning but they must be on holiday somewhere else.
It’s a big day for our riding stats today as, after reaching the brow of the next hill our speedo clicks over to 40,000km for the trip so far. A bit further on we reach 40,030km, now having ridden the equivalent to the distance around the equator. We give each other a big hug and the tandem gets an affectionate pat too, all three of us have made it this far together and it’s an emotional moment.
All the way from the Oregon coast the landscape has been like a creased bed sheet with rows and rows of mountains and hills taking us higher and higher into the Rockies. We’re approaching the highest ridge now and the landscape around us is a lot more how I imagined the Rocky Mountains to be with swathes of dense pine forests and towering cliffs. After summiting the Willow Tree Pass we ride alongside the Willow Creek in a wide valley. This is one of the head waters that feeds into the Colorado River so this unassuming stream will eventually help carve out the mighty Grand Canyon. It’s a gentle descent that requires no brakes but offers plenty of free speed so we can just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Then there’s a commotion in the trees to our left and a moose bursts out onto the road. With long, gangly legs it clumsily gallops to the other side and clambers up the bank and back into the forest.
We finish the day at Hot Sulphur Springs. A man in a 10 gallon hat directs us to Pioneer Park where camping is allowed. I’m hoping for a good night’s sleep as I’ve been feeling grotty all afternoon but the camp site sits near to a level crossing. It’s compulsory for trains to honk their horns day and night and it’s surprising how busy that line is at 3am. It’s also surprising how loud those horns sound when they’re within 20m of your head.
There are two services that have particularly impressed us in the US: Their post offices and their libraries. Even the smallest, most remote towns are likely to have one of each, providing a vital lifeline for communication and information. In the unlikely named town of Kremlin we arrange to ‘bounce’ a parcel that had arrived in Walden after we’d left. It’ll now overtake us so we can collect it in Pueblo in a few days time instead. This is a free service that you can use as often as you like so some people bounce parcels all the way across the country until they need their contents. We hoped to be able to use one of the computers in the library but it’s shut so we join a small handful of other people making use of the free WiFi that broadcasts to the immediate vicinity.
We have been collecting an interesting list of races that “we should do one day” during the trip that has included various ultras and marathons in the Himalayas, Angkor Wat and Japanese Alps. Before setting up camp near Dillon Lake we see posters advertising the local triathlon claimed to be the highest in the world. Definitely one to add to the list.
We’re now approaching the heart of the Rockies’ ski area so the towns smarten up and the log chalets increase in size accordingly. A well made cycle path allows us to climb up to Breckenridge away from the busy main road. The trees up here are already showing their autumn colours and provide a blazing tapestry of oranges, yellows and reds on the side of the mountains either side of us.
Breckenridge is a friendly, bustling resort town and provides everything we need. From a new spoke, tyre and gear cable for the bike to a pair of shorts from a thrift store [still in use to this day] and plenty of food to fuel us for the last climb of the day. The winding road stretches 15km from Breckenridge to the top of the Hoosier Pass, the highest point on the Transam, standing at 3,518m. This marks our 9th and final visit to the Continental Divide so in theory it’s all downhill to the Atlantic from here…
It starts to snow so we pull on jackets and begin the speedy descent down into South Park. My frozen knees turn numb and I hunch down over the bars with Kirsty sheltering behind my back. The road eventually levels off across the high, desolate plains. A few houses dot the horizon, standing alone high up here with their occupants choosing a life of solitude and hardship in return for the stark beauty of their surroundings.
We spend the night in Hartsell, a tiny town of just 40 residents. The official campground has been closed down after some cyclists made a nuisance of themselves, but the saloon offers a patch of ground out the back for us instead. We’re soon joined by a fellow Brit when Andy from Reading arrives. He’s been riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a spectacular, 3000 mile ride from Canada to the border of Mexico along the Continental Divide, a journey prompted by voluntary redundancy from his job. This is one of the few points where the Transam and the GDMBR intersect and it’s interesting to compare our experiences. His route has largely been on very remote trails away from any civilisation. It’s also great to find someone who speaks the same language as us after so long away from the UK, so we all pile into the Hartsell Saloon for the evening.
“When a town is this small we all just have to get along”, Kat tells us from behind the bar. Everyone does seem very friendly, from the local pot dealer (Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012) to the girl who is planning on hitching up to North Dakota to join in an oil pipeline protest. We’re invited along too but have to make our apologies.
In the morning a heavy mist drifts through the town off the surrounding mountains. Andy spends an hour stuffing things into the variety of bags attached to a variety of different bits of his bike before rumbling off towards the gravel roads. We clip our panniers on and zoom off down the road. We’re now crossing the base of an ancient volcanic caldera, bubbling with hot springs. Once over the opposite rim the road takes us down for several miles. The trees begin to thin out with ochre cliffs and sparse scrub replacing the verdant shades we’d enjoyed higher up as we drop into Royal Canyon.
In Florence, after being woken twice by automatic sprinklers washing our tent in the night (again) we’re woken again by stall holders setting up for their farmers’ market. Once we emerge, bleary-eyed from our tent we’re approached by Larry who introduces himself as the deputy mayor and asks if we’re enjoying our stay? Deciding not to lodge a complaint about the sprinklers we begin to chat about what we’re up to. When we mention that we rode through China he asked if we visited Xi’an which of course we did. “You must come and visit my home then!” he cries without explanation. With some curiosity we take up his invitation, pack up, pick up some fruit from one of the stalls and head over to his address. We climb the stairs to his flat and are greeted first by his wife Beryl but peering over her shoulder are two chinese soldiers and a horse. Where most people would buy a small model for the mantlepiece, Larry and Beryl have had exact, life sized replicas from the Terracotta Army shipped over after a visit to Xi’an. It’s an impressive and bizarre sight to find in a small Colorado town.
Even more impressive and somewhat more chilling is the enormous prison complex that we pass a few miles outside of Florence. Known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies this ‘Supermax’ facility covers a vast area with rows of fences and concrete walls protecting the buildings in the distance. Some of the country’s most notorious inmates are housed here in solitary confinement including the Oklahoma Bomber, Uni Bomber and a certain Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the remaining brother responsible for the bombs in Boston in 2013. This is the second time we’ve been within a few hundred metres of that last character and we’re glad that this time he’s behind bars and concrete, and fences and more concrete, and barbed wire….
The road rolls over increasingly dry scrub land, the high mountains now filling the view far behind us. We eventually drop down into Pueblo for a couple of days’ rest with Warm Showers host, Mike. Pueblo is another milestone as it marks the halfway point of the Transam route. It’s a funky little town with plenty of street art and we enjoy a guided tour with Mike. He’s an enthusiastic character that seems to have been given a new lease of life after a recent separation. His current project is to run for state governor representing the ‘No Party Party Party’. He’d get our vote without a doubt.
As well as a place to rest, refuel and reset, Pueblo is the pickup point for our parcel which has arrived safely from Walden courtesy of USPS. We have a good sort out of the panniers and manage to find 8kg of kit and souvenirs that we no longer need so box it up to be sent home. If only we’d done that before tackling all those hills.
Mike has become something of a stalwart host for Transam cyclists and tells us about another ‘superhost’ for the following night. 85km further east, we find Gillian, a relocated Kiwi who has a small holding in the small town of Ordway. Her offer of accomodation in her caravan comes at a small price as everyone who stays is assigned a task to earn their keep. Kirsty gets to walk her pack of dogs while I’m given a bundle of paracord to unravel. It seems like a fair deal.
The last couple of days in Colorado shake out the final ruffles from the mountains with some very gentle hills before we hit the flatlands that form the central regions of this continent. With the reduction in altitude comes an increase in temperature with the middle of the day peaking at 35°C. We seek shade under trees when we find them at tiny settlements with a population of 9 or 10 people, 1 horse and 100,000 flies.
We cross into Kansas and with it comes a new time zone and a new challenge. The road straightens out in front of us as a never ending grey line disappearing into the horizon. The fields of wheat either side rustle in the wind and predictably bend in our direction as the strong easterly blows into our faces.
I try various things to help the kilometers pass, mostly involving distraction techniques. I spend as long as possible focussing on the white line at the side of the road as it flashes by. I try not to look up at the grain silo that isn’t getting any closer. I try not to look down at the speedo to see the distance clicking over all too slowly. Is it even working?
The plains of Kansas are feared by Transam cyclists just as much as the mighty hills on either side. It’s a mind game as much as a physical test so if your head and your legs aren’t feeling strong then the plains will give you a very hard time.
We’re sharing this stretch with Charlie, who has ridden his beautiful, white, steel bike from Sacramento, California and is on his way to Buffalo, New York. He shows up to camp at the same water towers as us each evening then spends the day travelling at his own speed. The towns in Kansas don’t mind us using their parks but in some we have to register our presence with the police. In one we forget to do this and get a visit from a patrolling officer who is just happy to have an excuse to stop for a chat. It’s a welcome break from chasing kids who are breaking curfew. Here under 15s have to be home after 10pm while 15-18s can stay out until midnight.
We can see the grain elevators shimmering in the distance from about 20 miles away, the only tall feature in any direction. Crickets chirp from the grass and at one point make a mass exodus across the road, bouncing off our panniers and sounding like popcorn. There are also nodding donkeys working away amongst the fields and the smell of crude oil causes us to gag whenever we find ourselves downwind of one. It all makes the taste of a cold, fizzy drink all the more refreshing and when we find a drive (ride) through burger restaurant with milkshakes we might as well have arrived at Nirvana.
At this point in the trip Kirsty and I seem to have fallen into a resigned acceptance of each other. Spending 24 hours a day within a metre of each other for over two years makes for an intense situation to test any relationship. We share the same ambition to complete this ride but it’s clear that the current difficulties of the ride are bringing our frustrations with each other to the surface. There are a few mornings with breakfast eaten in complete silence. Somehow we need to hold it together for a few more weeks and that means trying to keep each other happy and trying not to forget why we’re here. After all, a bad day on the bike is always better than a good day in the office.
Way back in Oregon we took a photo of a sign advertising Newton Bike Shop, “An oasis in the grassy desert”. That was 1510 miles ago and it seemed ridiculously far away at that point. A lot has passed under our wheels in the meantime but now we get to walk through the door and spend the night in their cyclists’ hostel. We’re joined by Charlie and also meet Dan from Florida who is also easing his way along the Transam. It’s just the evening we needed as we sit down to watch the film ‘Inspired to Ride’ following riders on the inaugural Transam Race. We stuff ourselves with pizza and are given free use of the shop’s beer tap by the owners James and Heather who leave us to it.
The film is a great chance to appreciate what we’ve already achieved and what exciting adventures are still to come and it suddenly all comes back into focus. We’ve come this far so surely we can finish the job? The three of us: two crew members and a bike all have our grumpy days but surely the good days far outnumber them? So long as we continue to function as a team we can get through the worst of times and that’s why I’m sure we’ll make it to the end. After all there are only 1700 miles left to go.