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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Great Divide - Memorable Start To My Solo Second Half

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen's off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head.
White Rabbit, Grace Slick (1967)

Brush Mountain Ranch, somewhat near Slater, Colorado, but with a Himalayan hippy vibe.

Relaxing in the shade within the comfortable confines of Brush Mountain Ranch, I study maps and notes for the northern Colorado section of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. It's only 10:00 on a bright, clear summer morning, but I call it a day, or more like a half day. This is too good to simply pass through.

Trail Angel cooler filled with water bottles along a lonely road 25 miles south of Rawlins.

I didn't really plan on such a short day today, but certainly left open the possibility. Just yesterday, I awoke in Rawlins, Wyoming considering how to approach this stretch of my ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Cycling buddy Paul Brasby had left for home in Nebraska and I was about to start riding solo for the next 1,300 miles to Antelope Wells. My days are wide open.

I'm close to the Colorado border. The next town of any size is Steamboat Springs, which lies about 140 miles and two solid days of riding away. My wife Colleen and daughter Cara plan to be there, but not for another three days. Colleen dropped me off at the Canadian border 24 days ago and Cara just completed the Colorado bar exam. I'd love to see them.

Another tuna/ramen gourmet meal, here at my dispersed campsite near Aspen Alley.

So, I pedal south out of Rawlins early on a hot, windy summer morning, with three days to ride 140 miles to Steamboat Springs. As much as I enjoyed riding with Paul, and with others, there's a certain freedom that comes with riding alone. An empty road awaits.

The Adventure Cycling Association map shows 13 miles of pavement before turning to gravel that climbs into the mountains of Colorado. But times they are a changing. A mammoth wind farm is being built out there, resulting in pavement now stretching a full 46 miles. Fortunately, I see construction traffic only at one gravel road intersection after about 25 miles. Slowing to watch two big trucks cross, I spot a cooler with a taped note that simply says "GDMBR." Inside are dozens of bottles of water. Trail angels!

Aspen Alley in August 2021. 

Into the heat and head winds of central Wyoming, I steadily climb on shadeless pavement for many miles, with a few significantly steep pitches down into, and up out of, river bottoms. Ahead I see gravel, but immediately am reminded to be careful of what you wish for. Thick, heavily washboarded gravel punishes me for the next 10 miles. Effort increases. Speed dramatically decreases. Thankfully, the heavy vehicles capable of creating such conditions are not out on the road today.

Mid-afternoon, I fill water bottles at Little Sandstone Creek and finally climb out of the prairie into some higher elevation with trees offering occasional shade. I'm approaching the renowned Aspen Alley, where the narrow gravel road cuts straight through towering groves of old aspen trees. So old, in fact, that many of these giants are dying of age. 

Cruising through in amazement, I abruptly stop. I want to take this in, at a pace even slower than I'm pedaling. I realize that this forest will not ever look like this again, even if I did return someday. After a few moments, I decide to simply stay right here for the night.

The view out my front door in the midst of an aspen grove.

After a quiet night in the embrace of a peaceful aspen grove, I eat a hot breakfast by the pre-dawn twilight. It's my favorite time of day, watching the sky turn colors as the earth turns to greet the sun. And here I am, riding my bike through Aspen Alley on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Heavenly.

Far too soon, the road turns away from the aspen and back onto pavement. I briskly roll along a ridge line, drop a bunch of elevation, cross into Colorado, and pass through the don't-blink town of Slater. It's time to start climbing gravel into the mountains of Colorado.

Climbing toward Colorado mountains along Slater Creek.

Miles flow smoothly climbing along Slater Creek on the fast gravel of Moffat County Road 1. Active beaver dams dot the creek and multiple public access corridors suggest a popular trout fishing destination. I ride in and out of sunlight along the westerly facing side of the valley, as the morning stirs. I could ride a long way on a day like this.

Then I round a corner to practically ride into Brush Mountain Ranch, an iconic stop for everyone on the Great Divide. This I must experience.

Early morning sun reaches into the valley of Slater Creek.

As I soft pedal into Brush Mountain Ranch, proprietor Kirsten Hendricksen bursts out of the lodge shouting enthusiastic greetings. After a trademarked hug, she rapid fires a quick run-down of things, invites me to everything, apologizes for leaving to run a few errands but promises to return in an hour, and dashes off. Just like that, I have Brush Mountain Ranch all to myself.

I grab some cold water and trail mix, my map and guide book, and some shade under one of the colorful tarps outside. Looking across the scrubby valley to the forested mountains, I see why this is an ideal location for a stop along the Great Divide route. It's almost 90 miles from Rawlins, but still 50 miles to Steamboat Springs. Just ahead starts a steady, exposed 10 mile climb that works away from the creek to a steep 3 mile pitch over a watershed divide. What a great spot to reload before all that.

Soon, Kirsten returns, full of energetic hospitality. She eagerly shows me around the Ranch, which offers free camping, showers, water, and more. Rooms in the lodge and cabins are available to cyclists at half the price to motorized travelers. Cold drinks, snacks, and other supplies are in the kitchen. She even makes breakfast in the morning and pizza in the afternoon/evening. She merely asks you to keep track of what you take and make an appropriate donation.

Time to stop for an early lunch at Brush Mountain Ranch.

It's all simply amazing. After about an hour of buzzing around, Kirsten finally sits still for a moment and talks about the transformation of Brush Mountain Ranch into this iconic Great Divide haven. Many years ago, her father built this as a hunting lodge, adding and improving infrastructure over time. The family still operates the Ranch as a hunting lodge during those seasons, but the force of nature that is Kirsten turns this into a bike packer's paradise over the summer.

Starting about the third week of June, Tour Divide racers start to roll in. Practically all stop for at least awhile to refuel, rehydrate, and re-energize. In the 2008 documentary "Ride The Divide," racers congregated there to wait out a spring snow storm, some staying for days. But whether racing or riding, I've read several accounts describing Brush Mountain Ranch as a vortex, drawing you in and holding you there. Kirsten just makes it such a great spot to take a break from a difficult ride.

Kirsten Hendricksen, proprietor and hostess extraordinaire at Brush Mountain Ranch.

Even though I stopped before 10:00 am after only riding about 30 miles from Aspen Alley, I decide to just stay. I'll call it a half day and be part of the Brush Mountain Ranch experience for myself and others. And I can comfortably ride the remaining 50 miles into Steamboat Springs tomorrow to meet Colleen and Cara. I eat an early lunch, shower, wash clothes, dry out gear, and talk with Colleen, thanks to Kirsten's cell phone boost device in the Lodge. I even catch up texting with a few friends. This place really is a vortex in the space/time continuum.

It's now August 14, nearing the end of the bikepacking season here and I'm the only cyclist for awhile. Early afternoon, a trio of day riders from Steamboat Springs ride in for pizza and beer, relishing the good vibes for an hour or more. A local friend of Kirsten's stops by for lunch. Late afternoon, a group of three south bound bikepackers swing in for the night. Then a solo north bounder refuels briefly, before riding on. As the sun sets, more trickle in, including solo rider Franz, who I met way back at the Lost Llama Ranch in Montana and last saw near Grand Teton National Park.

As each cyclist rolls in, Kirsten rushes out to greet them with a smile and a big hug, offering water, other refreshments, and food. No one wants for care or attention, first by Kirsten and then with everyone else gathered. A small community forms. What a cool scene.

My first two days riding solo on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route only cover about 90 miles, but create two memorable days and nights. I can't wait to see what's ahead.

White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane live at Woodstock (1969)

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