Don’t Let the Western Distress Get You Down

When I did my 2019 bike tour, I decided to ride from Indiana to Pueblo Colorado where I would pick up the Adventure Cycling Route’s Western Express Route across Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. I knew this route would be challenging.

Up to Pueblo, there had been minimal climbing on my route. Missouri was a series of rollers that I handled without much difficulty. Kansas was a false flat, a gradual climb of 1 or 2 percent. After Pueblo things got interesting.

The first 20 miles to the town of Wetmore involved about 1,500 feet of climbing that I handled without difficulty. The next ten miles involved a climb of over 3,000 feet. I had never ridden above 7,000 feet and it showed. I couldn’t catch my breath. I stopped and leaned over my bike wheezing. Albuterol (which I take for asthma attacks) did nothing. I pushed my bike for miles unable to maintain power while pedaling to go more than 3 miles per hour. At the top of the climb was Hardscrabble Pass. There was no sign denoting this landmark. I had only my fatigue and broken spirit as a reward.

Somehow I didn’t notice this climb during my tour planning or even during my stop over in Pueblo the day before. It was the beginning of a relentless series of climbs that, while mostly beautiful, broke my body.

Hardscrabble Pass was just the beginning. This and each ensuing summit was followed by a descent of a thousand or more feet. My trek across southern Colorado included six more climbs including a 4,000-foot climb over Monarch Pass and the Continental Divide at 11,312 feet of elevation.

Utah involved more of the same, six climbs culminating in a another 4,000 foot ascent to Cedar Breaks National Monument at over 10,000 feet. After an amazing 25-mile, 4,500-foot descent to Cedar City I faced a brutal roller coaster that would last more than a week. Four more climbs in Utah to a maximum elevation of 6,723 feet at Wah Wah Summit.

Then came Nevada. 13 climbs including back to back 7,000+ footers. And wind. And heat. And I had to carry extra food and water because there is no there there in Nevada. Once out of the basin and range country, I had four more climbs to get across the Sierras maxing out at Carson’s Pass at 8,573.

So depending on how your keeping score I did about 35 climbs during my tour. In an odd way, the pandemic has been a godsend. It allowed me to fully recover from the toll this took on my body.

What did I get for my troubles. Rocks, as Frances McDormand’s character in Nomadland says. So many rocks. The scenery is truly amazing. And there is so much more to see. I bypassed Natural Bridges in Utah. Canyonlands, Monument Valley, Moab, and Zion National Park were off my route. By the time I got to western Nevada I was so sick of rocks! The blue water of Lake Tahoe blew me away. And the trees in the Sierras seemed to be pumping me full of oxygen.

All of this is to say, that I have enormous respect for anyone who rides from San Francisco to the East Coast. I met several people going West to East including Sandra and Elise, two sisters from France who were going from San Francisco to New York City.

Sandra and Elise at a cafe in Boulder Utah

They rented a car to see some of the stuff I missed in Utah but their self-designed route also took then through Yosemite, Zion, and Great Sand Dunes National Park. They put together a video of their trip and posted it to You Tube today. I highly recommend it.

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