The first 70 miles were a breeze, even if it was 15-20 mph and on the nose.
After a bunch of weeks of hard work with little or no cardio, it felt like being released from a barn stall and running free; old nag back to stallion. Tip-toeing down the dirt road of the valley, keeping the speed down and avoiding rocks and potholes, on a borrowed tire, wheels freshly trued and a bit dainty, the road bike felt like silk on the pavement.
On the highway, also, given recent inactivity, it was no problem keeping the speed down.
As the sun climbed and the morning warmed, though, so, too, did the legs. Pleasant daydreams carried the red bike through a late summer landscape of wildflowers gone to seed, the tips of skunk cabbage stalks showing yellow, hinting at cold nights to come, distant mountain ranges hazy with dust carried from the desert.
So pleasant were the daydreams — floating the timeless canyons of the San Juan, finding new trails switch-backing up the side of Yellow Mountain, last winter’s deep snows and incredible skiing — that it was 20 miles before it was realized, while pedaling hard down a big hill and making precious little headway, that a stiff wind was blowing — the wrong way.
Not to worry. At the first ranching town to the west, a quick visit to the food store yielded a candy bar, an orange-vanilla soda and some fried chicken, downed with gusto and off across the mesa then with renewed vigor, wind be damned. The fried chicken was homage to Mikey Paris, who paced Fall Creek’s Georgie Schindler to an 18th place finish in the Leadville 100 a decade ago, nothing to sneeze at.
At each aid station, Mikey had wolfed from a plastic container of City Market fried chicken. “It’s all in the grease, baby!” he crowed. Georgie’s secret weapon had been a baggie of pre-cooked bacon, carried in his pocket. I couldn’t quite go there.
It was Mikey who had provided the inspiration necessary to get back on the fried chicken horse, a conscious effort, after a bilious experience years earlier riding in the back seat of a small plane while Mick Flaherty practiced wing-overs above the Black Canyon. What goes up must come down. What goes in must come out.
And to hell with riding in the back seats of Cessnas.
As far as the candy bar goes, why would anyone in their right mind get a sawdusty Clif Bar when the same coins will get you an Almond Joy and a Hostess Fruit Pie? Makes no sense. Apple, blueberry, lemon custard or cherry: take your pick.
The soda pop? Brilliant. Creamsicle in a can. Slurp and burp.
Out on the mesa the wind rippled the sunflowers lining side roads, forced livestock to face away from it, rows of poplars slanted and danced the can-can. Early afternoon now, and hot. A half-dozen field workers at a water truck waved. The feet started to feel uncomfortable in the bike shoes by the time the mesa was traversed and the next town — and the 70-mile wall — was reached. Stopping here was a big mistake.
Yes, the feet felt better after a rest on the shady bench in front of the liquor store with the shoes off, where a good percentage of the town’s population swung by while I relaxed, but the joints had started to set up like concrete, creaky, and the show must go on. Surely the wind would relent in the next big valley, but no; if anything it increased, and a serious hurt dance ensued.
The sun was a furnace. The legs hurt. The knees hurt. The butt hurt. One butt cheek was tried, then the other, then back again, over and over. Nothing worked; no respite. The bit in the middle? Forget about it.
The elbows hurt. The hands couldn’t find a comfortable position on the handlebars. The ears hurt. The feet swelled up and hurt worse than before. The toenails hurt. Eyelids ached. It hurt to think.
Keep pedaling. Just. Keep. Pedaling.
The carrot dangling out front was a visit to the pool at Henry Castigliani’s Spa and Resort at the west end of the valley, an annual pilgrimage. The road that led to it was a ribbon of torture. It passed by a middle-of-nowhere general store left over from the cowboy days. Twelve little yellow plums enjoyed on the porch provided a dozen reasons to keep living, and the home stretch was addressed, one pedal stroke at a time.
The cemetery passed by in a dizzy blur. This is sometimes visited, sagebrush rustling in barren soil studded with lonely tombstones. Not today; a little too close to home. That club will be joined soon enough.
The last of the water bottles, hot from the sun, was poured over the head and down the chest and back, cooled in the wind and felt good, right, essential for hope. One last straightaway, pavement turned back to dirt, a couple small climbs that seemed huge, and it was all over. Teeter over to the grass and lie down in the shade, slightly nauseous. Dizzy is OK; pukey, not so much.
Water ice-cold from the cooler was quaffed until no more would fit in; the head cleared gradually, immense cliffs of blood and orange far above wavering in the last of the afternoon’s heat, great fins exfoliating, peeling from the face to crash down, break into boulders, melt into dirt.
The wind coursing through the large cottonwood overhead sounded like the music of a steady rain. The Music Tree. At the edge of the grass, the branches of a pear tree hung low, heavy with fruit, as did the boughs of the peach tree nearby which sat in a bed of mint, nursed along patiently in the desert heat for years, now bearing reward and lovely perfume, rivers of sage, mint and peach leading to a peaceful place.
Aches receded and everything was not so bad, in the end. Don trunks and stroll slowly through the liquid yellow sun to the edge of the pool, shadows lengthening, and dive into the crystal water. Sweet redemption.
Sean can be reached at: email@example.com.