Trail Ridge Road. 12,183 feet. The highest continuously-paved road in the continental United States. The summit of this road is higher by 1,000 feet than the tip-top of Mt. Hood, that glorious mountain just east of Portland. Featured in an article in Bicycling magazine in the early 1980s, I knew this road was destined for a future bicycle tour. How could I possibly resist such a challenge! In 1987, planning my cross-country route around the Contact Dyke list of Lesbian Connection, the centerpiece of the trip would be Trail Ridge Road.
Riding east from Portland felt like one mountain range after another. Right off the bat, the Cascades. On through eastern Oregon, over the Blue Mountains, cutting a corner of Idaho, over the Uinta Mountains in Utah, a rare east-west mountain range. Turning left to head east into Colorado, the Rocky Mountains gradually dominated the skyline. Turns out all previous mountains were practice runs.
The Rockies don’t appear as high in western Colorado as they would from western Oregon. Portland has an average elevation of about 60 feet above sea level. From this perspective, the mountains I was approaching would have seemed high indeed, with peaks 14,000+ feet above sea level. 3,000 feet higher than Mt. Hood.
Western Colorado, however, is already more than a mile above sea level. Climbing to leave Portland, and never quite getting the full descent on the other side to the high desert of central Oregon. Climbing some more, and never fully coming down the other side before hitting a plateau before climbing some more. From western Colorado, the Rockies appear shorter than the Cascades are from Portland.
From a bicyclist’s perspective, my body was already acclimated to over a mile high. Good thing, since I was about to add nearly a mile to my altitude and back down again in one day’s ride.
The Rocky Mountains extend nearly 2,000 miles, from northern British Columbia down through Colorado, fading into the deserts of New Mexico. Grand Lake, Colorado marks the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, home to the highest peaks in the entire mountain range. Grand Lake is a small touristy town nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, over 8,300 feet in elevation, with a disproportionate number of restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. Whether about to embark upward or just returning from the heights, whether biking, backpacking, or car driving, calories would be in high demand.
Shortly after noon, I leaned my bike against the outer wall of a café, and went inside for yet another meal. The attraction of this particular café was the ‘all you can eat’ sign out front. For a fixed price, I could go back to the buffet for seconds. And thirds. And fourths. ‘All you can eat’ made no money off me that summer! I couldn’t keep up with the calories I was expending.
As I ate and got more food and ate again, I chatted with Rhonda behind the cash register. Upon learning I was heading east on a bicycle, she said, with great concern, “You’re not going over Trail Ridge today are you?” I said no, early next morning, and she said, with even greater relief, “Oh, good, cuz you’re gonna be in God’s bedroom up there.”
Finally, The Day. I fortified myself with the largest breakfast or two I could find, knowing I’d have no way to eat more than granola bars on the way up and over. By all accounts there was no place to stop beyond a very occasional porta-potty. No infrastructure on this road beyond the road itself.
When approaching a mountain range, there is a period of foothills that is seductive: “I’m climbing the mountains now.” Then you reach the mountains and realize, “Oh. NOW I’m climbing the mountains.” The road out of Grand Lake is mountains. Immediately. And for a Long Time. Next stop: Estes Park, over 40 miles ahead to the beginning of the other side of the country, across the Continental Divide.
The trees grew shorter and more scraggly with each twist up of the road. Further apart as the air thinned. Patches of snow in the shade became walls of ice narrowing the road. The peaks of Trail Ridge are aptly-named: the Never Summer Mountains. The trees straggled, and then were gone. Above the treeline, even near summer solstice, the ice never melts. Roadside was tundra. No shoulder going either direction, the walls of ice encroaching on the pavement, obliterating the white line indicating road’s edge. This road was only open about two months out of each year; May 31 was the earliest it had been open in over twenty years.
And the wind. Always the wind. Nothing to break it any longer. It shifted, never consistently from one direction. I was nearly blown across the road numerous times. On a rare stretch of road that was downhill, I had to pedal downhill through a headwind. Some four miles from the top, the headwind was so strong I had to push my bike for a mile or so uphill.
The sky was thin, and I felt I was living above the atmosphere, as if I could take off for outer space with very little effort because I was already halfway there. The sun looked so close. I couldn’t catch my breath, and felt quite out of shape. My admiration for those who climb Mt. Everest soared to hero worship. Over twice as high as I was now…
As I approached the top, I looked with great anticipation for a summit sign. Every bicycle tourist learns to recognize The Top. A crest of a hill, then a gradual flatness, a shifting of gears, and then no need to pedal any longer. And – a sign we live for, a photo op for the bicycle leaning against a sign that says – there was no summit sign. I felt cheated; of all the summits I’d achieved, this was the hardest-won. I was to learn later, on the other side, that there is no summit sign for Trail Ridge Road to prevent cars from stopping mid-road for the photo op.
As I considered the descent, I was a bit desperate. It had taken me til midafternoon to get to the top, over 20 miles up from Grand Lake. As I continued east, down the back side of the Rockies, I was leaving the sun on the west side of the mountains. Dark would come fast. I still had nearly 20 miles to Estes Park. I hitch-hiked down. As I stood with my thumb out, I looked out east, and in the distance, a bit south and a long way down, I saw the smog of Denver, the mile-high city, a mile below me.
Jane and Roger stopped to pick me up. They helped me load all my gear and bike into the back of their station wagon, and drove me into Estes Park. As we talked, I was astonished to learn that they’d already passed me going the other way. They were heading over Trail Ridge Road to go home to Grand Lake. They saw me hitch-hiking and turned around to do a good deed. As Roger described it, they were moved by the desperation in my face.
This was an even bigger good deed than they initially realized; Trail Ridge Road closes at 8:00 each day. The Forest Service patrols the road to rescue those left behind when the gates are locked. Jane and Roger drove me to Estes Park, and then had to drive around the Never Summer Mountains via the interstate, not over the top; their day was extended by over 150 miles beyond what they anticipated.
I spent the next couple of days recuperating in Estes Park, gazing from the porch of my motel at what I’d accomplished. I was so depleted on arrival I couldn’t even go to dinner; I ate three bananas and collapsed in bed. The next day, I went no further than the café a couple of doors down, tired out by that small level of activity. I’d fully drained my considerable strength and stamina on that trek into the heights of the earth, fueled only by breakfast and some granola bars, gaining and losing nearly a mile in elevation in one day. God’s bedroom indeed.