Day 26: Aztec NM to Cortez CO: 80 miles with about 4000 feet of climbing
I took an easy, except for the climbing, day today. By riding to Cortez, I kept my options open for my route west and north. Having arrived in Cortez after seven hours of riding, I stopped at the Colorado Info Center for a talk with a lady familiar with this area including Utah and New Mexico. She agreed that Aztec was the nicest place in north western NM, and then we started looking for bicycle routes out of Cortez. Then it became a litany of: 'nope, no services along that route!' as we explored western Colorado and eastern Utah. There is no routing without long distances of no services. Maybe I'll have to do that 80 miles of nothing - she said it is a newly re-paved road - from Blanding to the Hite Marina at the top of Lake Powell.
My day started with a continental breakfast consisting of coffee, orange juice, and a big cinnamon roll. I supplemented it with a bagel. Then I headed out of Aztec for La Plata. First I had to find the road; NM 574 is unmarked till a mile from La Plata. 'Turn right at the Conoco Statio.' OK. Then I had a nice ride that gradually climbed through desert like country and then climbed steeply over several mesas before a long descent into La Plata: about 800 feet of climbing and fifteen miles of riding.
I had expected La Plata to have at least a convenience store, but it didn't. So I headed north on NM 170 toward Colorado. Nice riding, but not much shoulder and a quite steady 2% climb. The valley is irrigated and pretty in NM. I stopped at the Colorado border for a rest and a snack, having covered about 18 miles and climbed 1000 feet. Then I rode north to Red Mesa, a small Mormon town seven miles into Colorado. It was tiring riding because the climb, although slow, was relentless.
At Red Mesa there was a small, but very nice, store. I got a large drink, some good chilli, and some powerade to take with me. Then I sat outside the store and ate my 'meal.' I did add a bagel, but I figured I'd have a real meal when I got to Hesperus where the road, now CO 140, intersects US 160. It was a long grind from Red Mesa to Hesperus. Not a really hard grind, but a tiring one because of the continual uphill. There was only one real climb on CO 140, at a beautiful place called Long Hollow. That climb required my granny gear and was several hundred feet vertical in less than a mile. Mostly, I was riding at about eight to nine mph in my 37/26 gear. The eight-mph range is awkward on my touring bike since it is right where my granny and middle ring overlap. They don't overlap much, so I end up either at the top of my granny ring range or at the bottom of my middle ring range.
When I got to Hesperus, I found only a very limited 'one stop.' They didn't have nearly as good a selection as the small store in Red Mesa and they wouldn't even fill my water bottles. I bought a large coffee and a large candy bar, ate them - they were good, and then headed west on US 160. Unfortunately 160 was under construction for ten miles or so, but fortunately it was mostly downhill. I started the morning at 5500 feet and climbed to 8250 feet near Hesperus. US 160, heading east, climbs more before descending into Durango, but heading west it descends, with only one major hill, most of the way to Cortez at 6200 feet.
I started riding 160 on the wrong 'shoulder.' Actually I was using the newly paved lanes which were not open to traffic. When they ended, I switched to the right lane which had small shoulder. That shoulder went away and, after a stop for a flag man, I found myself 'leading' a group of vehicles at 30 mph downhill. It was an awkward situation because the road edge was very rough and the lane was too narrow for large vehicles to pass. I eventually managed to get off the road without crashing so that I was no longer the leader. I had to repeat that process a few miles down the road to let two large trucks pass. I'm glad I have good bike handling skills - the road edge was a tricky thing to get off of and then back onto.
After the construction, I got to climb Mancos Hill. It was only 250 feet vertical and about a 5% grade. After that hill, it was nice downhill into Mancos where I finally got to eat an actual meal, my first, and as it turned out, only meal of the day. When I left Mancos, it was about 4 PM and I had 18 miles to go to Cortez.
A few miles west of Mancos, I met two more tourists! These guys, who were on their first tour and riding mountain bikes, are from Indiana and had ridden from Grand Forks ND (I think), to the west coat of Washington, then down the coast to California where they went inland down the California/Nevada border before coming across the top of Arizona. They looked pretty well cooked and said they did not advise riding into the Arizona desert. They were heading back to Indiana, so we discussed routes in that direction. I should have told them to go north ASAP since Kansas in July will be very hot and very windy! The remainder of the ride to Cortez was uneventful except for passing the entrance to Mesa Verde. That is a neat place, but not on a bicycle.
Cortez is not nearly as hot and dusty as the towns south and west of here according to the guys who had just ridden through Cortez from northern Arizona. It is only ten miles from Cortez to Mesa Verde and that Mesa, which is huge, dominates the view to the south and east. Cortez has lots of services including bike shops. That reminds me, I saw two young bicyclists very well dressed on road bikes heading south on CO 140. I would guess they had ridden from Durango, which, much more than Cortez, is a bicycling place.