The Middle of the USA

The Salt Marsh near Newton Kansas is about as close to the geographic center of the USA as we will ever get.

Day 39: Newton to Eureka
72 miles

Our ride to Newton passed as close as we are going to the geographic center of the continental USA. Near this point there is a great salt marsh that is the last remnant of some ancient sea. Strangely, there is a kind of land locked white pelican that still lives here. We saw a group fly over us as we passed and couldn’t believe it, pelicans so far from the sea.

At the same time we bumped into a couple cycling from Massachusetts to Oregon. They left the East Coast the same day we left San Francisco. How funny. We bump into a cyclist a week and just happen to meet this couple dead center in the trip.

Mennonites originally settled the area around Newton. There are still many that live in the area and there is a Mennonite college in Newton as well. Newton was a breath of fresh air to us. We found a great health food store there and stocked up on tasty snacks. The owner of the health food store recommended a restaurant for lunch that is in a yoga studio. How cool is that for a couple of yuppie Californian’s in Kansas. It was really good.

The scenery is starting to change. We are seeing small hills now and more water. Eureka is nothing to write home about so we won’t.


Yee-Ha!!! A Waterslide

Chanute Kansas has one of the best public pools we have ever seen. And a great waterslide too.

Day 40: Eureka to Chanute
63 miles

This was the prettiest day in Kansas yet. We encountered trees, hills, rich pastureland and even a lake. We hit two real hills today and had to drop into the granny gear for the first time in over a week. And what goes up must come down. Yee-haaa!

Along the way we bumped into a Scotsman and an Irishman cycling across the USA heading west. They raved about the pool in Chanute we were heading that day. They said it was the best pool they had ever seen and … IT HAS A WATERSLIDE!!!

The thought of an afternoon at the pool pumped us up and we made it to Chanute in no time. We checked in, showered and jumped on the bike in search of food and the pool. After an OK lunch we set out for the pool. We were not disappointed. It was a very hot day and there were a lot of kids at the pool. The pool is huge and the water clear. And there at the far side, in the deep end, stands the water slide. It is big, about 30 feet high with four hairpin turns. Yeeee-haaaaa! We must have gone down that slide twenty times.

That night, back at the hotel, we were treated to a great Kansas light show. A big thunderstorm brewed up in the west and rolled into Chanute shortly after sundown. It was a sight to see.

Crossing the Great Plains

The Great Plains are vast and we hit them during a heat wave. Up at 5 and on the road by 6 to beat the heat, we crossed the as fast as we could.

Day 32: Pueblo to Ordway
50 miles

Day 33: Ordway to Eads
62 miles

Day 34: Eads to Leoti
80 miles

Day 35: Leoti to Ness City
83 miles

Day 36: Ness City to Larned
68 miles

Day 37: Larned to Hutchinson
72 miles

Day 38: Hutchinson to Newton
46 miles

Heading east from Pueblo (the locals say PEE-blo) we descended into The Great Plains. Pueblo is still at a pretty high elevation but the Plains drop ever so slightly as you head east. The grade is so slight that you really cannot tell that you are loosing elevation. For the first morning, we could see the San Juans to the West but sometime during the day they just disappeared into the western horizon and that was it, no more mountains.

The territory changes ever so subtly as you cross the Great Plains. The western Plains in Colorado are very dry, almost a high desert (many ranchers sold water rights to Denver). As you head East, you begin to see immense wheat farms that stretch as far as you can see and eventually as you get into wetter country East of the 100th meridian, you begin to see more variety in the crops and a few trees. This change occurs very slowly over a few hundred miles. So while Eastern Colorado is vastly different from Eastern Kansas when traveling by bicycle the change is so gradual that the overall effect is that the entire route is just one very long stretch of road.

Mostly cycling across the Plains was very hot, very windy and very flat. We quickly fell back into a routine similar to Nevada where we would wake a 5AM to be on the road by 6 to beat the heat and winds. Leaving at 6AM we would normally hit our destination by 1PM, check into a motel and hide with the air conditioning on until around 6 or 7 in the evening. Unluckily, when crossing the Plains, we hit a hot spell and it was over 100 every day, usually over 105.

Cycling through Eastern Colorado and Kansas was kind of a blur to us. We didn’t take a single rest day in an effort to push through to more hospitable climates. One day blended into another so that it now difficult to remember where a particular hotel was, or where we ate a certain meal, etc. What does stand out though is the immensity of the landscape. You can tell you are approaching a town when you can begin to make out the local Co-op grain elevator 10-15 miles in the distance. Over the next hour the elevator slowly appears larger and larger until finally you can read the writing on the side and you are there.

The Plains remind me of the ocean in their unrelenting monotony. I used to have dreams of sailing off the edge of the ocean. In the dreams, when you got to the edge, you could see that there was another ocean about 500 feet below the edge of the earth and water just pouring over the edge into the lower ocean. The Plains gave me a similar sensation. Looking out to the horizon in any direction, I felt that I was always just an hour’s ride from falling off the edge of the world.

If we happened to be in a slight depression, I got the sensation of being a dust particle sitting in an enormous dinner plate that curves ever so slightly up at the edges. If we were on a slight rise, I felt like a dust particle in the middle of the biggest stack of pancakes in the universe, puffy in the middle and sloping off before dropping at the edges.

We happened to be going through The Plains during the wheat harvest in one of the biggest wheat production years in recent memory. Apparently everything went right this year and created ideal conditions for the Spring Wheat. It was a record crop.

The harvest is pretty impressive and definitely broke up the monotony of the landscape. There are many, many workers that head into the Plains for the harvest, in some areas you will see huge rigs pulling extra wide harvesters which take up the better part of the two lane highway. There are also rigs pulling 5th wheels and full size mobile homes that are used to house workers and for temporary offices.

What makes it even more impressive is that driving down the highway, you can still only see a small portion of the plains. Often you will come across a dirt road with a sign with an arrow saying something like this: “Thompson Farms, Five miles East, Three North”. You look, you can’t see a thing, but it is out there.

The people of Kansas are great. So far they were the friendliest and most courteous people we have met. Every driver gives you room and waves and everyone wants to know your story. After cycling across the Plains, we developed a tremendous respect for those people. It is a tough place and a tough life but where and what would the rest of us be without the wheat farmers?

Sangre de Cristo

The Sangres are the last mountains we will see for a long time and they are beautiful.

Day 30: Salida to Westcliff
64 miles

One more full day in the mountains and this one was a good one. The road from Salida follows the Arkansas River for a few miles before heading away from the main highway and South along the Sangre de Cristos. Along the river, we pass by so many whitewater river outfitters that we wonder how they can all make a living.

After a while we climbed from the Arkansas River Valley up a steep secondary road to Hillside in the Wet Mountain Valley. This is gorgeous country! The Sangre de Cristos are every bit as awesome as the San Juans but much more uniform. Where the San Juans are jaggedy and twisted, the Sangres line up in a straight line, one 14,000 foot peak after another.

Early in the afternoon we rolled into Westcliff (there is no cliff) and we love it instantly. It is a small town in a beautiful green valley about five miles from the base of the Sangres. There is another set of mountains to the East which are the last mountains before the Plains. The town itself only has a few hundred residents but has a lot going on. There is a concert series, a rodeo and an art festival each summer and it has a cosmopolitan feel for such a small town.

That night we stayed at the Courtyard in right in the center of town. John Johnston who we also took an immediate liking to owns the Courtyard. John and his wife Laura are recent (three years) transplants from Ft. Worth Texas who seem to have landed in paradise. John is also a real estate broker (Custer Freemont Realty) which he runs out of offices in the front of the building. They have had the hotel for just a few months and are still in the process of renovating it.

We had a very nice conversation and a couple of beers with John and Laura and they give us a great alternate route to Pueblo the next day that took an unpaved county road through the mountains via an area called Rosalita.

Day 31: Westcliff to Pueblo
66 miles

The alternate route that John gave us was a perfect way to end our time in the Rockies. There were wild flowers everywhere and we finally saw the fields of Columbine that we had been looking for throughout Colorado.

After a final climb to about 9500 feet, it wasn’t long before we were tearing down the final descents of the Eastern Rockies and into the Plains. The sky opened up like we had never seen before with the horizon seeming to just drop off the edge of the earth.

Four thousand feet lower, twenty degrees hotter and a couple of hours later we were in Pueblo and The Great Plains. And so ended the beautiful mountainous western portion of our trip.

The Continental Divide by Bike

We did it!!!! We crossed the Continental Divide by bicycle!!!

Day 29: Gunnison to Salida (sa-LIE-da)
65 miles and the crossing of the Continental Divide

That is how they pronounce it here, sa-LIE-da. But we kept calling it sa-LEE-da like the Spanish do. Whatever.
Anyway, this was a really big day for us, monumental in fact. From the Pacific Ocean to the Continental divide by bike!!!!! Yeeeee-haaaaaaaa! Monarch pass is one of our major milestones along with the Mississippi river and the Atlantic. We took photos, bought souvenirs in the gift shop, smiled a lot and gave each other great big hugs and kisses.

From there it was a very fast descent into Salida where we had two great meals (lunch and dinner) at The Country Corner café and tasty beers at the local brew pub. It was their annual “Art Walk” in downtown Salida so the town was jumpin’ with energy. The Arkansas River roars right through the middle of town and they really took advantage of it. There is a very nice park along the river in town and also a white water park right in the river. We got some great photos of some freestyle kayakers rolling and flipping in an area where they created a little wave with rocks. (insert link…).

We had a lot of fun but somehow missed the Thompson’s. We cycled with them for a couple of hours before ascending Monarch pass but after a snack break we never saw them again. We wish them tailwinds and good luck.

Between the Mountains (and the two Parkers)

The towns of Montrose and Gunnison sit along the Gunnison river West of the Rockies and North of the San Juans.

Day 27: Telluride to Montrose
67 miles, – 3500 ft

This part of the country is probably one of the most beautiful places in the world. Telluride rivals Yosemite for sheer boxed in, steep rock mountain awesomeness. The rest of the are is pretty amazing as well. Many years ago, when I was 15, I went on vacation with Wayne and his family to Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. There was this one town called Ouray that I thought was heaven on earth. Whenever I was going to run away to escape whatever it is that teenagers want to escape from, that was where I was going to run to. Ouray, Colorado. Pronounced ooooo-ray, like hooray without the H.

Well, Ouray is just the other side of the mountains from Telluride and while our route didn’t go through Ouray itself, it went about 10 miles from there through a sweet little town called Ridgway (it really is spelled that way). We could see the Ouray valley that the town sits in very clearly. It turns out that The Sound of Music was filmed just outside Ouray. I always thought they filmed it in Austria.

Ridgway is another little town that we fell in love with. It is really small but seems to have just about everything you need in a small town. A library, a health food store, a couple of bookstores, Yoga classes, a guitar maker, saddle shop, hot springs, a park in the town center, you name it, they have it. We looked over Real Estate magazines over lunch in the True Grit café and were just about to start looking for property when we came to our senses and realized that as beautiful as it is, it is still a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and we kind of like having a home base in the middle of somewhere.

On the other hand, the neighbors are pretty shi-shi. On the way from Telluride to Ridgway we passed by Ralph Lauren’s little ranch, the Double RL. 14000 acres nestled in one of the most beautiful mountain passes in the world. The property goes from fertile valleys to alpine peaks and the entire spread in fenced with a post and beam fence. The fence stretches as far as you can see and disappears into the horizon. Local legend has it that the fence cost 4 million dollars and that Mrs. Lauren wasn’t happy with the way it was initially built and had it redone. That is some serious money but don’t get me started on better uses for four million dollars!

After Ridgway, you descend out of the San Juans into the valley near Montrose. It is a straight shot through ranch and farmland and after the beauty of the high country seems a bit monotonous. Montrose itself seems a pleasant town but not too remarkable. It is a good access point for the mountains and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison though.

Day 28: Montrose to Gunnison
65 miles

Today’s ride had a few noteworthy events. First there was a quick skinny-dip in a mountain stream and then the meeting of two Parkers and our first semi-major bike work.

The climb out of Montrose is a long one and about 4-5 miles from the summit a group of cyclists were coming down the hill. They were obviously (to us) cycling across country from West to East. One of them pealed off and rode with us for a while and chatted. This was the first Parker, Parker Snyder, a very affable young man who probably would have made a great traveling companion. Since Parker was in his third day in the mountains and we had been riding in them for weeks, we passed along some of our tips and recommendations: carry extra food and water in Nevada, take a rest day in Tropic and hike into Bryce, stop at TDs in Baker and say hi!

Just before it got steep he turned around to join his group and said so long.

Just at the summit, we decided to pull over for a quick stretch break. Right next to the road behind some trees and a cattle fence there was a gurgling mountain stream beckoning. I went over to cool my feet and before I knew it my clothes were off and I was in the creek. Ahhhhh. There is nothing quite as refreshing as freshly melted snow. I tried to get Gabi to join me but there was no way she was going in that icy water.

A couple of minutes later we were back on the bike and barreling down toward the reservoir on the Gunnison River. That is where we met the second Parker. This Parker, Parker Thompson is seven months old and cycling across the country from West to East with his parents Mike and Karen. You can read more about themhere.

We had been following the Thompson family for weeks. We first heard about them in Nevada in a hotel where we stayed and kept hearing about them as we went. Each time they were a bit closer: three days, two days, just yesterday they passed through. We finally caught them at the Marina at the reservoir where we stopped for lunch (the sorriest excuse for a chef salad I ever had). After chatting a while, we decided to hook up in Gunnison.

Unfortunately in Gunnison we needed to find a bike shop and do some bike maintenance. We replaced the tires, washed the chain at the auto wash and tightened the chain. By the time we did all that it was getting late and we were starved so we decided to hook up with the Thompson’s in Salida the next day.

Into the San Juans and hangin’ in Telluride

We are finally in the mountains again. This time for a while. The San Juans just might be the most beautiful mountains in the USA too.

Day 25: Dolores to Telluride
64 miles, 3000 ft

What a beautiful ride! We spent all morning riding up the Dolores river valley. It is nice to be in mountains again. The headwaters of the Dolores River are near Lizard Head pass, which is the highest point that we climb in the San Juan Mountains. Near the town of Dolores the river is pretty broad, just before it spills into the Mc Phea reservoir and is split off into numerous irrigation canals to irrigate the farmland in the Colorado Plateau. Another tributary of the once mighty Colorado bites the dust.

Nevertheless, the ride from Dolores to Telluride is beautiful. About halfway to Telluride there is a little semi-ghost town called Rico. The town is trying to come back to life and there is now a school, an Inn a couple of restaurants and a great Pub. The pub has a restaurant side and a music side, which is in an old movie theatre. They get some great musicians there. Burning Spear, Bela Fleck, The Dixie Chicks, John Mayall and many more. We couldn’t quite figure out why the town wasn’t more prosperous than it is.

Gabi and I had lunch with a fellow gypsy named Laura who has settled in Rico. Well up a canyon in a geodesic dome about two miles up a canyon and off the grid. She and her husband are still living the hippy dream. She said that she spent most of the past 30 years walking all over the USA looking for the perfect place and Rico was it. Their one room dome is on a year round creek which is where they get water and bathe. They make ends meet by having a couple of different jobs in town. They met in Ashland so we had some shared experience and we talked some about my donkey trek and the commune in Butte Falls. Wow, that was at least two lifetimes ago.

At Rico you are already pretty high, so after lunch it didn’t take us long to get to Lizard Head. The pass is right at timberline so you are right there in the middle of these jaggedy San Juan peaks. It reminds me of the Alps or the Dolomites. All the peaks seem so close that you can just reach out and touch them. From there it is a (mostly) screaming descent to Telluride.


Day 26: Telluride
Rest day in the Promised Land

The idea of Telluride being the Promised Land became a private joke between us starting in Nevada. Whenever we would miss some creature comfort like a drug store, fresh vegetables, good wine, great food, a bakery, etc, we would say “we’ll get that in Telluride”. Well, Telluride does have just about everything you can imagine but it comes at a cost. We thought San Francisco was expensive but prices in Telluride are just plain stupid. Oh well, we are on vacation and the next state is Kansas so what the hell.

After checking in and cleaning up, we pulled our nice shirts from the special places at the bottom of our bags and hit the town. We started at the Oyster Bar and Noir Bar for appetizers. We had some great drinks and a great chat with the bartender about life in Telluride, how to get fresh fish at 9000 ft, what to do in life after being a ski bum for 12 years and all kinds of stuff. With a nice buzz and a couple of hours of daylight left we decided to explore.

Telluride is an old mining town that had a pretty wild reputation in its day. They had 4000 people, 26 bars, and 4 brothels. The story is that skiing was introduced to the area but Scandinavian miners who would race down from the mines on skis to beat their fellow miners to the brothels on payday. While we didn’t see any brothels, I’m sure that there are still at least 26 bars in town today.

The town itself is a national historic town, which means that none of the old buildings can be altered on the exterior. But the interiors are fair game so you find some really stylish places hiding inside of these old quaint buildings. Like the Noir Bar which was done up in a Fred Flintstone meets Betty Page kind of motif.

After exploring a bit we went to the Excelsior café for our second course and a bottle of wine. We sat at the bar (like we like to do in new towns) and it turns out that the bartender is a transplanted New Yorker named Steve and a lot of fun. One thing led to another (as they do over a bottle of wine) and we ended up staying for a great dinner and talking to Steve, the chef and a bunch of other folks who seemed to be coming and going all evening long. We didn’t quite close it down, but the place was getting empty and after a shot of some fine Tennessee whiskey on Steve, we decided to stumble outside and howl at the moon for a while before heading back to the hotel for the night.

The next day, being a rest day, we decided to rest.

Out of the Redrock and on to the Colorado Plateau

After Fry Canyon, there is about another half day’s riding in the Red Rock before you reach Comb Wash and climb into the Colorado Plateau

Day 23: Fry Canyon Lodge to Blanding
55 miles

This was an easy day, just what we needed after the previous day’s ride to and through Glen Canyon. Not only was the ride tough but it was a little sad. The upper end of the reservoir has a grimy greenish tinge to it and looks dead. It is horrible when you consider what the river must have looked like before the dam was built. The mighty Colorado reduced to a huge pool of silt. Sad. I decided that it was time I read “The Monkey Wrench Gang” or something else by Edward Abby.

The ride to Blanding was pretty much the same as the previous day. However it was a cool morning and the winds were not up yet. Tom, the fellow from Tennessee that we met in Hanksville kept calling it “Blandsville”. I think it was a mental slip but that pretty much sums up the town. We were checked in by noon and after eating lunch didn’t have a thing to do but make calls to family and update our journals. Sometimes you need a little down time.

Day 24: Blanding to Dolores
83 miles Extreme headwinds

We are leaving red rock country and heading toward the San Juan Mountains across the Colorado Plateau. This is a fertile agricultural area but they are just coming out of a four-year drought and the farmers are having a tough time. The main crop in this area is beans. As we rode we passed a number of bean warehouses and distributors that had recently gone out of business. There were a lot of ranches for sale as well. It is a pretty sad situation.

Still, it is good to be out of Utah and into a “non-Morman” state. Utah is beautiful but there is just something a little weird about it.

As we rode, we could see the San Juans looming in the East. Each hour they got just a little closer and looked a little bigger. But the wind was killing us. We were pedaling hard all day even in the downhill stretches. When it wasn’t in our face, it was whipping us from the side and trying to blow us down. At times it was a bit difficult to control the bike. We finally decided to pull over and get out of the wind and take a nap in front of one of the abandoned bean distributors.

Finally, about 10 miles from Dolores, we turned onto another road and finally got the wind at our back. Before we knew it we were in Dolores. Dolores is a nice little town. Nice health food store, a great park, a bookstore, flyers for Yoga classes… For the first time since leaving California, we were someplace that felt a little like home. We checked in to a very nice motel owned by a Swedish fellow from San Diego who was also the owner of San Diego Saab before moving to Dolores a few years ago. We got cleaned up, had a great German dinner and got ready to climb to Telluride the next morning.