Thursday, September 11, 2014

Alamosa, Colorado

Dark, gloomy low clouds hovered in the valley beyond Pagosa Spring obscuring the road ahead to Wolf Creek Pass.  It was a gradual climb of not much more than one per cent for nearly fifteen miles before the road rose sharply eight miles from the summit.  The clouds began dripping a light drizzle shortly before the road became a steep ramp.

It didn't take long for the drizzle to increase to a steady, then a hard, rain. It was cold and unpleasant, but I wasn't concerned that it would last long or amount to much, as this is a semi-arid region whose annual rainfall isn't much more than ten inches.  I'd suffered a similar rain two days before on the twin passes beyond Silverton that didn't last longer than half hour, though it included several minutes of hail.  

The road was three and four lanes wide and had an ample shoulder, so what traffic there was could pass me with enough distance to avoid spraying me with additional water.  The most significant spray came from the occasional sudden waterfalls spilling over the cliff sides to my right.   Snow plows were on the road to clear fallen rocks.  I was happy to stop and clear them myself to give my legs some respite and let my heart rate return to normal and to gain a point or two of positive karma.

If it hadn't been raining I would have stopped every two miles or 500 feet gained to eat and rest and read a bit, but I had to keep moving to stay warm. My Goretex jacket was keeping my torso dry, but I was still quite chilled.  I paused to rest my legs after half an hour, but remained in motion, pushing my bike to ward off a deeper chill, trying to put as much weight on my arms as I could to rest my legs.  It was raining too hard to dare shed my raincoat and put on my sweater.  

After another half hour of riding, gaining another two miles, reaching the half-way point of the eight-mile climb, the rain was still pelting down.  It wasn't the deluge I experienced a year ago when ten inches fell in an hour while I was climbing to Colorado Springs and was rescued by a rancher, but I still thought someone might stop and offer me a lift.  If they had, I would have just asked to sit in their vehicle long enough to put on my sweater and warm up a bit.  But no one stopped, even when I paused to put on my wool gloves and struggled to remove my cycling gloves.  I had to put my hands under my arm pits for a spell to regain feeling.

Another mile later, after nearly an hour-and-a-half of a steady hard rain, it relented enough for me to quickly take off my rain cost and don my sweater.  But my hands were so cold I couldn't pull the zipper back up on my raincoat.  I had to stand a couple minutes at over 10,000 feet with another 800 to climb hunched over with my hands under my arm pits again to regain enough feeling in my fingers to make them functional.  At least I didn't need my fingers for braking on the descent.  I could apply enough pressure with my palms to control my speed.  Still I wasn't looking forward to a descent on a road covered with a sheet of rushing water while being pelted by a cold rain.  I was prepared to seek refuge at the ski resort a mile below the summit.

But after nearly two hours, the rain finally quit a few minutes before I reached the summit.  I desperately needed the sun to warm up, but there was no sign of blue sky, just thick clouds.  I kept my speed under 20 miles per hour, about half of what it would have been had the road been dry.  It was a scenic descent of over ten miles following the creek the pass takes its name from through a narrow, thickly forested canyon.  I eventually regained the sun, but it didn't provide as much warmth as I needed.  I had to keep on my jacket and sweater and dig out my dry gloves.  The descent continued all the way to South Fork, where Wolf Creek joins up with the Rio Grande River on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.

I passed the South Fork library built in 2008, which advertised itself as a Carnegie even though it wasn't funded by Carnegie but is a branch of the Carnegie in Monte Vista.

Monte Vista's library, thirty miles down the road, is a classic dignified Carnegie that has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places, as have seven others in Colorado.

An addition to the back has solar panels on its roof.  The four counties in this valley beyond the Continental Divide have the highest percentage of homes and businesses with solar panels in the country.

On the same property as the library is the town's tiny original library built in 1895, now serving as a museum.

Monte Vista is also a rare American town with a thriving two-screen drive-In theater, the town's only option for big screen viewing as its downtown theater closed less than a year ago when it couldn't afford digital projectors.

If residents wish to see a movie on a big screen during the winter months they have to drive to Alamosa, seventeen miles away for its six-screen multiplex that took the place of the town's two old downtown theaters.  My friend Joel, a retired physician, who has been attending the Telluride Film Festival for more than twenty-five years, offered to rent one of the theaters to play something other than the Hollywood fare that the multiplex restricts itself to, but the owners didn't want the competition, so the two theaters remain dormant.

Joel has solar panels on his house that date to the 1980s.  His house also has a dike in its backyard, holding back the Rio Grande, though its only a meandering trickle this time of the year.  It hasn't flooded since 1926.  A bigger concern is the proliferation of deer.  Nearly the first question Joel asked me when I arrived was if I had seen any deer in his residential neighborhood.  I had indeed, though I had at first thought they were statues.  Joel says he has deer in his backyard 365 days a year. We saw several groups meander through in the early evening.   In the distance is one of Colorado's fifty-three 14ers--Mount Blanca, the fifth highest at 14,357 feet.

Joel protects his tomatoes and bees and a few of his other crops with a high fence.

He supplements his garden with produce from two community gardens a couple miles from his house, one that he helped establish thirty years ago.  We took a nice meandering ride about this community of 9,000 people in the early evening.  Up to World War II it was fifty per cent Hispanic.  Now it is about eighty per cent white.  Like Durango it has a narrow-gauge railroad for tourists, though the scenery in the high desert valley doesn't compare to the mountainous terrain of the more famed Durango-Silverton line.  

We had a fine evening recounting the two weeks we spent together at Telluride.  Joel arrives a week after I do in time for the Mushroom Festival, then pitches in at the shipping department.  He has traveled the world, including a seven-month meander around Africa. The walls of his home are covered with art from his travels.  I learned that he is also an accomplished cook, preparing a deluxe pasta sauce with tomatoes from his garden.  I only had two regrets.  One that I couldn't linger, especially with the local college hosting a film festival the upcoming weekend, and  also that its Carnegie Library had been torn down fifty years ago.

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