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Tuesday, December 21, 2021

The Great Divide - Locals Brighten My Day

The sun is shining in the sky
There ain't a cloud in sight
It's stopped raining, everybody's in the play
And don't you know, it's a beautiful new day
Mr. Blue Sky, Jeff Lynne (1977)

Professional photographer Raymond Bleesz stops to chat and take a few pictures.
Oh, I mean portraits.

Wrapping up evening activities at my dispersed campsite just off a dirt road deep in the mountains of northern Colorado, I grab my journal to jot a few notes before turning in. It's another good, long day. The end of Day 29 on my ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Time to rest.

Then a dark pickup, sporting a business decal of some sort on the door, rolls up, slows, and stops. Oh, man. I'm pretty sure I'm camped on National Forest land, but I rode past a large, active ranch not far back. Maybe this is the rancher stopping to tell me I'm on private land and have to move. I hope not.

Leaving behind the bustle of town, CR 18 meanders alongside the Yampa River.

My choice of campsite is not by chance, but results from a chance encounter earlier in the day. Pedaling from the ranch/ski town of Steamboat Springs, I roll quiet miles through bucolic countryside populated with both working ranches and lavish vacation estates. Eventually turning to more primitive gravel and dirt, the route follows the Yampa River toward Stagecoach Reservoir and then up gentle Lynx Pass. What a pleasant start to the day.

Dropping off Lynx Pass onto a wide, high altitude meadow, I stop at the restored Rock Creek Stage Station. Built in 1880, this large, two story log building served as a stage stop, hotel, post office, election polling place, and the Gates family residence. It still stands as an imposing structure sitting alongside the old stage line, now a dirt road that is part of the Great Divide route.

Rock Creek Stage Station, circa 1888.

Just around the corner, I ride into Rock Creek, my first serious creek fording. Even in mid-August, the water reaches almost knee deep. I carefully cross amidst a cascade of animated chatter and laughter. A little upstream, two couples and five kids are splashing around in even deeper water. The kids barely notice me, but one of the dads, John, walks over to offer me water, soda, beer, and snacks. He says they're locals who came up here as kids and now bring their own kids for fun in this hidden swimming hole.

Eyeing my loaded bike, John asks where I'm headed. He seems not the least bit surprised to hear that I'm riding to the Mexican border, but doesn't think much of the developed campground in Radium for my destination tonight. Instead, he suggests camping at the top of a ridge right before leaving Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. He says he camps there often for the big views of the surrounding mountains and canyons. Then, in the morning, it's only about 5 miles, mostly downhill, to Radium. Besides, he says the Radium campground is just a glorified parking lot.

Well, alrighty then. Thanks, John. I'm off to find this dreamy campsite.

Rock Creek, somewhere northwest of Radium.

It doesn't take long. In less than 10 miles, I top out a short climb, roll by a large ranch with several large construction projects, and see a big downhill just ahead. This is it.

The views are stunning in every direction. There's plant and rock cover enough to shelter a small campsite and more than enough downed trees for an impromptu table and chair. The only thing lacking is water nearby, but I filled up at Rock Creek and it's only 5 miles down to Radium in the morning. Local intel is awesome.

Seeking to pitch my tent to optimize sunset, moonlight, and sunrise views, I go here, then there, then over yonder. So many sites from which to choose. I finally pick one and take care of evening business. That's when the black pickup shows up.

This is it, just after the rain stops and the sky clears.
Pick a campsite amongst the aspen, before the road drops off.

A man steps out, but he's no rancher. It's Raymond Bleesz, a 71 year old somewhat retired professional photographer. Raymond says he's out driving around looking for inspiration, but not merely mountains, trees, or other scenery. "I like to meet interesting people and hear their stories." Looking at my loaded bike and pitched tent, he adds, "You look like you have a story to tell."

I introduce Raymond to the world of bikepacking and this little corner called the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Of course, all this is new to him. He starts by asking typical questions about my bike, gear, and logistics, but soon moves into a larger discussion of the journey itself. For him, I'm opening a door into an entirely different culture.

Similarly, I know little of his world. Raymond's passion is fine art photography and he is a co-founder of the Vail Valley Art Guild. He currently is working to host the annual Vail Valley Fine Art Show, a 3 month long show featuring local Colorado artists of many media, including photography. He's especially excited about presentations teaching the history of fine art photography in Colorado.

My little dispersed campsite in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, just off USFS 212.

Raymond asks to take some portraits of me. I hesitate, but quickly realize no harm is likely. So, I agree, as long as I can take a snap shot of him with my point-and-shoot Olympus TG-3. He laughs and asks to see my simple camera, with its cracked screen. Hearing my tales of camera abuse, including flying out of a pack at 40+ mph, he is amazed with the camera's ruggedness and durability.

We chat for an hour, or more, each eager to learn of the other's experiences and future endeavors. Two individuals from completely different worlds connecting around that little dispersed campsite off a dirt road deep in the northern Colorado mountains. It's a rare privilege.

As the sun descends, Raymond takes leave to return to pavement before dark. I retire into my tent for the night. 

Now we both have a new story to tell. 

Addendum. True to his word, Raymond sent me several portraits that he shot that evening. An 8x10 print of this black and white image hangs in my bicycle room as my primary memento of my Great Divide ride. Since then, we've kept in contact with occasional e-mails, which I hope to continue.

Raymond entitled this "Portrait of a Cyclist."
(photo by Raymond Breesz)

Second Addendum. I posted that black and white portrait on social media and received concerned comments about how I look old and tired. Well, they're right. Relative to many, I am old. And that was at the end of Day 29 of my Great Divide, after riding hard all day through intermittent rain showers, setting up camp, attending to bike and body, preparing dinner, and stowing things for the night. I was preparing to turn in when Raymond arrived.

For what it's worth, here's another portrait Raymond took at the same time. I'm still 63 years old and tired, but maybe look a little less weathered in color.

(photo by Raymond Breesz)

The overcast skies sputtering rain on and off all afternoon started to clear when John welcomes me at Rock Creek and recommends this area to camp. The blue skies broke through when Raymond stops. Both locals brighten my day, which was already pretty darn bright. I love this journey.

Mr. Blue Sky, Electric Light Orchestra (1977)


  1. Who wouldn't be tired!! You aren't old, you are LIVING and your journey is amazing! Thankyou for sharing!

  2. What a beautiful, inspirational story of your journey through the Great Divide!
    That's indeed living life to the fullest! Congratulations and thank you for sharing your adventure!