Saturday, September 14, 2013

Rain and More Rain in Colorado

Dark skies and the threat of rain forced me to camp a little early along route 115 out of Penrose.  It had rained off and on all day beginning as I chowed down on a stack of hotcakes in Florence that could have choked a horse.  I lingered in the town library for a couple of hours digesting all the calories as it rained some more, happy for the opportunity to give my legs some welcome rest after five days of demanding riding in mountainous terrain.

Late in the afternoon I began a gradual climb out of Penrose from 5,000 feet to Colorado Springs up at 6,300 feet, thirty-six miles away.  I had hoped to close within twenty-five miles of the big city before camping, but the imminent rain curtailed me five miles short of my goal.  I fell short too of reaching the Fort Carson Military Base, whose border extended for over twenty miles along 115.  It was rough, rugged high desert terrain.  I found a bushy tree to camp under after pushing my bike over a rise through a mine-field of cacti.  I brushed against one limp-armed strain and it latched on to my calf and then the back of my glove when I attempted to remove it.  I feared flat tires in the morning, but I was spared.  It was no small relief to awake with still fully inflated tires.  It would have been an extra miserable start to the day repairing a flat in the rain.

It had sprinkled intermittently all night and was back at it with the dawn.  It kept me in my tent a little longer than I wished, though I was forced into a quick evacuation when I noticed water had begun to pool inside the foot of my tent beginning to soak my sleeping bag.  A glance outside revealed a small lake threatening to engulf my tent.  The hard desert terrain was no longer absorbing the water.  The rain was light enough I was in no panic, though I did hop to it, packing and disassembling my tent with a little more vigor than usual.

After yesterday's off-and-on rain I didn't expect this to last more than a few miles.  There was a steady flow of early morning traffic, all with their lights on.  I climbed into a darkening, rather than a brightening sky.  The rain followed suit, growing heavier, rather than diminishing.  Before long it was coming down in torrents.  It wasn't a mere downpour, but had escalated into a furious deluge such as I had never experienced in a gloom that was nearly dark as night.  It was hard to imagine where all this water was coming from, especially in a drought-ridden region. 

Fortunately there was a wide shoulder, and I was climbing a moderate grade, so my speed was at a minimum and I was generating some body heat.  I had on a t-shirt and a long sleeve shirt under my high-quality Gore-tex jacket that kept my torso and head dry.  But it was a cold rain and I could feel a chill coming on.  I would have loved to have stopped and put on my wool sweater, but that would have been impossible without becoming instantly soaked by the torrential downpour.

The road had become a river of water.  I dreaded a descent of any sort, increasing my speed.  If I washed out, I didn't want to hit the pavement with more than minimal speed.  I had little faith in my brakes slowing me much.  When I came upon a dip, I was relieved it was just a short, gentle descent followed by more climbing, sparing me the need of testing my brakes.  The heavy rain and all the water on the road helped to slow me.

Though the conditions were horrific, I was enjoying being out in the elements.  I was more than holding my own, making progress and keeping just warm enough.  I knew it was dangerous, not only staying upright, but also going hypothermic. At least it wasn't as perilous as a night-time ride in Lesotho a few years ago on an isolated dirt road in a cold drizzle with no traffic and no village for miles when I had a wet sleeping bag and was in a highly-desperate life-and-death situation needing to find a warm, dry place for the night.  I could stop any time here and try to wave down a vehicle.  Two SUV police cars had passed me without paying me any mind, so maybe the conditions weren't as fearful as I suspected.   I felt alarm when I noticed the water cascading down the road had turned brown and was a bit deeper as I neared the intersection of a dirt road that added its river of water to that on the paved road.  An 18-wheeler passed just as I reached the confluence of these two torrents of water and blasted me with a thick spray speckled with debris that almost knocked me over.

After I passed the confluence with the dirt road the water on the road thinned to what it had been. I felt a reprieve from the danger of the rushing water toppling me.  By now I'd been riding nearly half an hour. Rather than feeling miserable, I felt a glow of satisfaction to be demonstrating to all the motorists that a cyclist could endure this.  I was pedaling along at a good steady clip giving no evidence that it was anything but a nice ride.  I wasn't bemoaning my fate at all, rather thriving on it. 

Then I came around a bend and saw a pick-up truck with a horse-trailer stopped along the road.  As I neared,  a woman with a classy cowboy hat hopped out of the driver's side of the truck.  I couldn't tell if she was having problems and might need my help, or if she had stopped to rescue me.  She spoke first and said, "Do you want to put your bike in the back of the truck?"  She didn't need to ask twice.  That was a most sensible thing to do.  I had once before accepted a ride while in Bolivia, also on a rainy day, on a long steep descent from the altiplano on a dirt road that had become a river of muck.  I had shredded my brake pads and was dragging my feet to keep my speed manageable.  A truckload of men on that  occasion leapt out to come to my aid.  I didn't consider that they might be kidnappers,  only that the conditions were most treacherous and they were behaving like Good Samaritans.

And so was this woman.

She was a life-long rancher,  who said she couldn't imagine being out in such conditions on her horse, let alone a bicycle.  She said she had never seen rain come down so hard or so thick, nor had she driven with such limited visibility.  It was indeed a storm of epic proportions.  The following day I learned that Fort Carson recorded ten inches of rain that morning.  The rain that fell over the next several days was unprecedented, amounting to more than twenty inches in some places.  It was said that such a storm comes along every 500 years.  She welcomed the rain, as the region was in drought conditions, though at the time neither of us could know how cataclysmic the storm would become, wiping out bridges and shutting down dozens of roads including two Interstates and requiring military helicopters to evacuate hundreds of people.

She was a cattle rancher, who was in charge of her family's operation.  She couldn't have been more amiable or considerate or real.  As we drove along, she took a phone call from an associate and discussed the purchase of calves.  She wasn't interested in an auction at Salida, as she'd had a bad experience purchasing calves there that had introduced disease to her herd.  She told me how ranching had evolved over the years.  She now practiced "high-density grazing," a concept introduced by a South African.  It involves bunching one's cattle in smaller pastures for a short period of time, allowing them to nibble the grass half-way down and also trampling the turf so it would make it easier for moisture to seep in rather than run off, and then moving the cattle to a fresh pasture.  She could divide her pastures into any size she wished with temporary electrical fences.  She spoke passionately and eloquently.  She was clearly devoted to ranching and loved talking about it.

Since 1995 she had opened her ranch to tourists to experience the life, going out on the range on horseback.  One couldn't have a better introduction to ranching than through this woman, Elin Ganshow.  Her ranch is Music Meadows and is located in Westcliffe, about sixty miles south of where she picked me up.  Her website is She was headed into Colorado Springs to do some shopping.  After about ten miles we had out-run the storm and it had dissipated into a slight drizzle. Rather than dropping me off I let her take me the last ten miles into downtown Colorado Springs and its Carnegie Library.  She dropped me off just a couple blocks away from it a little after nine, just after it opened. 

I was still wet and needed to dry out and warm up.  The Carnegie had been built in 1905 and remained the anchor to a huge glassy generic metropolitan addition.  The original building had a rather modest front, particularly since it was constructed from a large $60,000 grant as a large urban library, in contrast to the usual $10,000 that funded the vast majority of small town Carnegies.

The Carnegie portion of the library was now a research center, entered only from inside the library, as the original entrance was no longer open.  I had to put my pack in a locker before I was allowed into  the Carnegie section.  One of the librarians told me to be sure not to miss another smaller Carnegie, built a year before this one, less than three miles away in the old part of the city.  

Though the sky was darkening and another cloudburst seemed imminent and it was in the opposite direction that I was headed, I gladly paid it a visit.

It sat majestically on a small hill and had the character and dignity of a typical small town Carnegie and was unmarred by any additions.  It was across the street from a park in a residential part of the city and was packed with mothers and children.  Its lights seemed extra bright illuminating the interior yellow walls in the heavy overcast.  

I was lashed by another heavy downpour as I headed back into the downtown district of the city.  My original plan was to bike due north seventy miles to Denver along the Front Range and visit its handful of Carnegies, but with all the rain that had fallen and clearly more on the way, I chose to flee the nearby mountains where the stormy weather seemed trapped, and head due east into flat terrain and away from all the rain.  It was a wiser decision than I realized, though I didn't entirely escape the rain.

I could have waited out the rain in the downtown Carnegie, but I biked past to nearby Platte Avenue, route 24, my exit route, and proceeded east riding in the wet that I was now well accustomed to.  I did need to eat, so when I came upon a Taco Bell after several miles, I took a break from the rain and had a burrito.  I was in no hurry to resume riding, so had another burrito as the rain continued to pour. I was tricked by an occasional pedestrian walking along without an umbrella into thinking the rain had relented. Rain is so rare in these parts, people seemed to enjoy being out in, like someone from the tropics who rarely experiences snow thrilled to be out in a blizzard.  Shortly before noon the restaurant was overrun by students, none with rain gear, from a nearby high school.  That was enough to send me on my way, even though it was still raining lightly.

For the next six hours it rained off and on.  I was able to lay out my tent and sleeping bag and let them somewhat dry at a service station.  While I sat and ate someone gave me a large luscious locally grown peach similar to what Janina paid two dollars for at a roadside stand outside Telluride.  

That was the second, but not the last, extra-friendly gesture granted me this day thanks to the nasty weather. The final came at the end of the day right at dark about an hour after I had made camp, once again a little earlier than usual, rushing to set up my tent before the rain resumed.  I quit early thanks to a head wind that had begun to gust and swirl, giving me concern about finding a protected place to camp out in the flats.  When I saw a fenced-in, closed-down warehouse just off the road that offered some protection from the wind, I decided to make it my campsite even though I wouldn't be as secluded as I prefer. There was a break in the fence I could duck under and some grassy, not-so-saturated terrain for my tent.  Though I wasn't totally hidden, in these inclement conditions I didn't fear anyone making an issue of my camping somewhat in the open. 

The warehouse was on a dirt side road that had a "Dead End" sign.  I could see one lone house about a quarter of a mile away.  After I was well settled in the owner of the house noticed me and drove up in his pick-up and invited me to his home.  I might have accepted if it weren't raining.  I was cozy and comfortable in my tent and didn't want to take it down in the rain.  There was the danger I might be flooded though if it rained too much.  He told me that if at any time I wished to come to his house, not to hesitate. I thought that might be a possibility when the winds started whipping my rain fly and my radio was interrupted every ten minutes with a flash flood warning.  The warning didn't apply to me, as I was over thirty miles away from the mountains and the water cascading out of its canyons.  The turf I was camped on was softer and more porous than the hard desert terrain I had been on the night before, but it was still a long night.

The next day the rain continued, though it was intermittent and never more than a light drizzle.  The waitress who served me hotcakes wasn't concerned about flooding at all.  It had rained so little the past few years, she wanted the rain to keep falling.

 When I reached Limon, seventy-five miles east of Colorado Springs out in the flats, I turned north to the next Carnegie in Brush, seventy-five miles away up along the South Platte River.  It was a little risky to be joining up with the Platte, as it would be carrying a good portion of Denver's rainfall.  There were no reports on the radio of evacuations or flooding along its route yet.  When I reached Brush I noticed sand bags outside doors of businesses.  

The librarian at the Carnegie told me not to be alarmed, that the bags were left over from a previous alert that proved to be unfounded.  Her library had been greatly expanded and was now called the East Morgan County Library, though its original entrance identified it as a Carnegie.  It was several blocks from the Main Street through Brush in the center of a beautiful large park.

From Brush I angled northeast following the Platte River, though it was a quarter of a mile away and lined with trees preventing me from seeing how high or fast rushing its waters might be.  Interstate 76 was on the other side of the river, up above the arid terrain.  I could see a steady flow of 18-wheelers speeding along in both directions between Denver and Interstate 80. Forty miles later I came to Sterling and my seventh and final Carnegie in Colorado on this trip.  Wikipedia said it was now a bed-and-breakfast.  That was no longer the case.  Like the homeless shelter that the Florence Carnegie had been, it proved an unsuccessful venture and was now just a private residence.  It had served as Sterling's library up to 1976, but still retained Library on its facade and had been immaculately maintained.

It had a plaque besides its entry acknowledging it as a National Historic site. 

The home resided across the street from a large park that was taken over by Sterling's annual Sugar Beet Festival.  The Platte was less than a mile to the east but no one seemed concerned about a wall of water rushing through.  I camped ten miles out of town between two towering stacks of hay bales for what I assumed would be an ideally protected campsite.  I somewhat thought the same the night before beside a cornfield just as a fiery red sun ducked below the horizon.

It was my driest and most tranquil campsite in days, but I didn't realize I had pushed my bike through a treacherous patch of goat-heads to reach it.  I was greeted by two fully deflated tires the next  morning.  Each tube was punctured multiple times and my tires were studded with the prickly knobs of the goat heads.  It had me regretting not camping in one of the many abandoned houses in the semi-ghost town of Last Chance ten miles earlier, as was my initial impulse.  But I was enjoying the first tail wind of these travels and kept going until sunset.

I had no concerns of goat-heads between the mounds of hay the next night, as they were on a sandy surface without any vegetation.  But it turned out to be another cursed place to camp, as the stormy weather continued with a post-midnight rain that the sand retained not allowing it to soak in.  At two a.m. I awoke to a sopping wet sleeping bag and pad.  I was another flooding victim and had no choice but to move my tent to ground with better drainage.  If there were none nearby, I'd just have to start riding until I found some. Fortunately there was grassy terrain less than one hundred feet away.  I converted my duffle bag to a sleeping pad.  My synthetic sleeping bag provided just enough warmth despite being wet to allow me to resume sleeping.  

The rain continued the next day and had locals concerned about the river swelling.  Some were putting out sand bags, but the local radio stations weren't sounding any alarm, nor were there police cars trolling the road with a warning.  I could see a steady flow of traffic on Interstate 76 a mile away on the other side of the river going in both directions.

I did come upon a trio of ranchers rounding up their cattle to move them to higher ground away from the river.

The line of trees in the distance is guardian to the Platte River and up above it is Interstate 76.  I crossed into Nebraska shortly before dark last night and am now following Interstate 80 and the Platte.  I'm at least twelve hours ahead of high water.  I'm also following a rail line that is between my road and the river that people say will serve as a dyke.  We shall see.


dworker said...

Wow. And i thought that a day or so of rain was bad. Thrilling to read, with so many 'OH F*CK' moments.
One good thing about the bridge washouts though. You will be able to lift up your bike and eventually carry it thru. Cars can't do it. I have had to do that twice. Keep your posts coming.

stephenallen28 said...

Pretty impressive to read about the flood from your perspective on the road. Glad you made it through safely, and with some help from great people.

Matt said...

Thanks for the update George. Quite an adventure. Glad you got some aid along the way.

Mike C said...

Wish we'd been in Colorado Springs when you came through, you could have stayed with us or at least met for lunch near Ft Carson (although I know that would defeat the purpose somewhat). Glad you got to see both Carnegies. I used to do family history research in the one at the main library. Safe journey the rest of the way!