May 31st – June 1st 2016
I cycled a long day on the Cherry Creek Trail from Denver, a 40 mile hike & bike path that follows a greenbelt through housing developments and pasture. I felt pampered to not having to fight for space on the roads with the trucks. The only obstacles I could possibly face were the snakes. There were signs for them every couple of miles warning me to stay clear of rattlers. I looked for them, but was disappointed to see only bull snakes.
The trail ended in the middle of a field without much warning. A sign that said ‘trail ends in 350 feet’ almost a quarter of a mile after the last possible exit. I back-tracked feeling dusty and tired. The humidity that was building large storm clouds all around me only succeeded in cooking me under my bright blue cracks in the sky. I left the trail and turned onto a fast-moving two lane highway with lots of trucks and little shoulder. I hunkered down into my bicycle crouch, the one that helps me ignore how close traffic is and allows me some peace of mind instead of jolts of adrenalin every time a car passes by. I cycled with most of my attention on the sounds of what was creeping up on me from behind. As I came up on a railing that forced me to merge into the car lane, I heard a large truck approaching from behind. I pedaled hard so that I would be able to keep my line, exhaled a little plea to whatever or whomever may be out there to help me, and hoped the truck driver would be kind. At the exact moment that he was even with my rear tire I saw my first rattlesnake, about six inches from my right foot, sunbathing. I couldn’t swerve. I didn’t have enough time to think anything other than, “what, NOW?!?!” And then I was passed and the truck was ahead and I was breathing in deeply it’s exhaust.
The adrenaline from that tiny moment got me up the next big climb, and the next.
I had originally thought I’d be able to make it all the way to Colorado Springs, about 75 miles that day. Afterall, I had pushed two 70 mile days in a row back in Washington and been invigorated by them. Surely after climbing Lolo pass since then I was in better shape for a big push now. But the miles creeped, and time flew, and my muscles begged for mercy. I changed my mind after only twenty miles and headed west towards where my maps said there was a kids theme park campground just fifteen miles away. West was the last crack in the sky between storms, so the change in direction eased my worry about sudden downpours.
Sometime that afternoon the thunderstorms stopped building and started to move. My crack of sun filled with dark clouds. I was high in the hills south of Denver and could see the land the way birds do; and all around me were curtains of black wet rain. On the hilltop about a mile ahead, I watched lightning strike the ground. There were no trees here to stand taller than me, and I was all at once grateful for the cows in the fields that could possible draw the lightning to them instead, and shameful for wishing that on them. I suppose in a pinch it’s every cow for herself.
I managed to dodge the rain for another hour. At 7 miles from camp I was struck by large, heavy drops, but I was still warm and I had all my rain gear on.
At 6 miles from camp the rain turned to sleet. I didn’t mind. At least the sleet was dry. It stung a little but I barely noticed through my layers. I had one last climb and then my route was a steep downhill and an easy flat into camp. I wasn’t worried about getting a little wet.
At 5 miles to camp the sky opened up and dumped the biggest rain drops I have ever seen. I was heading into a new housing development and the wide boulevard filled with inches of water in a matter of seconds. As I crested the hill into the decline, I was already soaked through all my layers, my temperature was dropping fast, and my brakes made the strangest sound from the water churning up into them from the road.
That’s when the hail hit. Ice the diameter of a quarter struck my helmet, shoulders, and arms. I couldn’t continue because my brakes might fail. I couldn’t stop because the hail might damage my exposed body parts. I sailed into the first driveway I could see, at 15 MPH, like a runaway truck, up and under the porch of a very startled older man standing in his doorway watching the storm.
He probably said more, but the first words I remember him saying as I stood shaking myself on his porch like a cat that had just fallen into the fish tank were, “Can I get you a towel?”