Climbing over Lizard Head Pass, Colo. Day 6
Morning came with the incandescent reflection of unobstructed sun on a fresh layer of snow - warm, awake and alive. Geoff prompted me out of the tent with the first big breakfast of our trip - French toast, eggs, and orange juice - the subtle luxuries of staying in town. It was the perfect prerequisite to our day - the day we would climb over the mountains and the highest elevation of our entire trip, Lizard Head Pass.
The storm had moved on, leaving behind only the snow-coated mountain peaks as proof that it ever existed. Fall colors blazed across the foothills, but those peaks make the deep yellows and greens seem almost unreal - as if a cinematic Technicolor brush saturated half of the landscape, leaving everything else stark white on black. In the smog-laden valleys of the Intermountain West where I come from, elevation equals clarity, and today we’re headed as high as this road goes.
I expected this day to be physically grueling, but unlike the grade that soared toward Telluride, this slope is surprisingly gentle - rolling hills that rise through canyons and drop back into valleys. Maybe this climb is just easier than the roads through southern Utah, or maybe my strength is really increasing that quickly - a possibility that never occurred to me until I glanced back at a sign on the left - warning truckers of the 8 percent grade I was currently ascending. And that, fellow desk potatoes, is a great feeling.
And my day is so bent on climbing, so prepared for work, so apprehensive for the zenith of the entire trip, that I’m almost disappointed to roll over that gentle mound that is Lizard Head Pass - 10,222 feet in the sky - and stare down the Dolores River canyon and the 55 mile descent ahead. A cold wind blows up from below and pounds my face, the only skin not buried in winter clothing.
But the thing that hits me the hardest is the contrast. Here I am, standing is the midst of 14,000-foot peaks, snow-covered islands in a sea of yellow aspen and deep green pine - when just five days ago I was rolling through the vermilion sandstone cliffs of the desert, air still stagnant in the lingering heat of summer. And I made this transition on a bike. With my own wimpy legs and inherent fear of physical challenge. The prospect still staggers my imagination.
The next 15 miles fly by in 27th gear, a blur of blues and greens through my tear-soaked eyes. In just over a half hour we have already arrived Rico, our lunch stop, and are back at the riverside; this time, the Dolores. Things are getting back to normal, elevation dropping, snow-capped peaks fading into the background. By this time tomorrow we’ll be back in the desert.
Wasn’t it Ernest Hemingway who said “Only by bicycle can one truly know the contours of the land?” All the distance I’ve traveled in the last six days would take me just over four hours to traverse in a car. And yet, it feels like I’ve traveled so far, so long, that I can barely remember the landscape of my home in Salt Lake. But everything between here and Moab is burned in my head, and I can’t help but find familiarity in this strange place.