Expectation must colour all of experiences I suppose; and so it was that I came to love Kansas and detest Colorado. From Kansas I expected a flat wasteland, and instead found spartan beauty. From Colorado I expected winding roads and scenic views. I guess I thought it would be another North Carolina or Tennessee, and I expected it to begin right on the state line. But when I left Kansas, the land actually became flatter, and for two hundred miles I crossed a road so straight and so flat as to remind me of the Canadian prairies. But it wasn’t quite flat: over the span of two hundred miles I went from 1600 ft to 5000 ft. The temperature stayed quite moderate throughout, and finally I could make out mountains in the distance. I was approaching my destination, the sixth national park of my trip (seventh if we want to count the Tallgrass National Preserve): the Great Sand Dunes, west of Pueblo and well south of Denver.
It may seem like an unusual choice for me: sand is the natural enemy of motorcycles, photography equipment, and of course slugs. Its abrasive properties damage precision components. It absorbs moisture and makes its home in every nook and crevice. But I’d seen the photographs (from the cameras that managed to make it out alive) and it was stunning. It was also on the way.
I reached the park just as the sun was setting, and in a flurry I set up my tripod. I rushed around like a mad person. People wanted to ask me about the bike and where I’d been and where I was going, but I paid them no mind. Only once the sun was down did I take the time to chat with two Puerto Rican ladies, sitting on the great dune nearest the parking lot, watching two young children play with sand-tobaggans. They pointed to a cluster of small black dots moving six or seven dunes up past us. “Those are our friends,” one of the women told me. “We’re waiting here for them to come back.”
“How long did it take them to get there?”
I followed the trickle of tourists back to the parking lot. Signs warned joggers not to hit the trails alone for fear of mountain lions. I camped in a real campsite and had a delightfully long shower. at 630am I rushed to get back to the Dunes for sunrise, having gotten the tip from another photographer that they look best in the morning. The sun rose very slowly, and I missed photo after photo. It was freezing cold, so I wore my new ski mask and gloveliners. Finally I gave up and spent thirty minutes balancing the sled so I could take it through the Dunes. I strapped on my vest and mechanical arm and headed out. My balancing act turned out to be for nothing: the wind, blowing steadily, upset the sled’s stability. Most of my footage missed there too.
After wandering the dunes for an hour with the sled swinging wildly from my waist, I headed toward a handful of photographers hanging out on another dune. I was surprised to recognize a 501 fluid head, and I realized that they were videographers! They were doing a location shoot for a music video. The lead camera guy was shooting raw on a 5D. I hung around them for a couple of hours, listening in on their conversation and trying to piece together what I could. I excitedly recognized videography terms like b-roll and mark and rolling, words I didn’t know just two months ago.
Finally it was time to move on. I made the long half-mile journey through sand, back to Dorothy. I hopped onto the interstate and headed north to Castle Rock, battling a moderate and steady wind north past Denver to the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was past dark as I finally arrived at the mountains. The sky flashed violet and faded yellow. It was unclear to me whether it was lightning or perhaps northern lights. Whatever it was, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen.The road wound around high jagged rock, and I found a place to camp in a dirt clearing a ways off of the highway, fifteen miles south of the official entrance to the park. Dorothy was too heavy to navigate through the area, so I unloaded the bike, moved to the clearing, and then brought in my belongings. I could hear whitewater rushing just beyond. I set up my tent quickly under a heavy and rather cool wind, and heated red pepper soup and rice for dinner.
It was a dark and stormy night. No seriously, it was. The wind ripped at my rainfly and I began to see the usefulness of tent stakes even in an occupied tent. The sheer noise of it was wild, like trying to sleep in a washing machine. I got up twice to pee and took those moments to refill my gimp sleeping pad with air.
In the morning I found a dead slug squished under my sleeping pad. I’d brought my creature containers into the tent with me to keep warm. I wasn’t sure how this little one had escaped, but I found another sliming up the side of my tent wall, so I put it back in the enclosure with the others. I wondered how the day was going to go. A dead slug has to be the worst sign possible. Good thing I’m not superstitious.
I stayed in my tent for a long time, reviewing video footage and waiting for the sun to bring in some warmth already. By 9am it was still cold. I put on another shirt and my ski mask and set to beginning the day, taking down the tent. I washed my cooking pot in the river behind me, which turned out to be a tough class IV whitewater section, although the water level was currently too low for any kayak to pass through. I carried fresh water from the river back to my stove, and loaded up Dorothy while I waited for it to boil. Twenty-five minutes later the water was still only warm. I was at 7500 ft. So I ate some lukewarm oatmeal and headed north.
The wind was pretty dodgy, but there was no traffic. The road knitted through the mountainous range, and signs warned of falling rock. I looked down at my GPS to see how far I was from the park entrance – and my tracking device was gone! Shit.
I u-turned on the narrow road. I was only five miles past last night’s campsite. Had I had it when I left? I couldn’t remember. When’s the last time I saw it? I couldn’t remember that either. Yesterday I think I checked the battery. It updates the location automatically, the battery life lasts for five days, it’s waterproof, so most of the time it just sits in its mount on my handlebar, behind the GPS. It doesn’t require much attention. But it’s bulky and bright yellow, so surely I would have noticed it missing — ?
I rode back to the campsite, watching the sides of the road for yellow. I could see nothing. No big deal, I’ll just track its location using my cell phone – but wait, no cell service. Hm-mm.
There were houses alongside the highway; I stopped at one that had a couple of cars out front. A woman with messy dark hair answered. An old dachshund with a missing left eye yapped frantically. I explained my dilemma and asked to use her phone. She handed me a cordless. “Our long distance is all-inclusive, take as much time as you need,” she said warmly.
I called my stepfather, but he wasn’t near a computer and couldn’t look up the tracker’s location. My mother was in a meeting. I called five other american friends, but no one was answering. I was growing increasingly frustrated. It could be anywhere! As I dialed numbers, the dark-haired woman asked where I was headed. “To the national park,” I said absentmindedly.
“Is the road still open? I’d heard it might be closed due to snow,” she said.
I stared blankly. “What’s the … what’s the elevation?”
“Twelve thousand feet at the highest point,” she said.
Shit. Maybe I should be doing better research.
I called my stepfather again. “Look, I’m just going to leave it behind,” I said. “I need to get out of here.”
Back on the bike, I plugged in my vest and consulted the map. No more Rockies, then – where to? Arches? I heard a voice behind me. It was the woman, running down her driveway. Her white pajama pants billowed in the wind. She held her cordless phone in her hand. “It’s your father,” she said, handing me the phone.
“Okay, I have your location,” he said. “Just north of Denver.”
“I need the GPS coordinates,” I said. He recited them to me. The wind caught the phone and I had to have him repeat the numbers several times. I punched them directly into my garmin and pressed Go to direct me to the location. I accidentally hit the reset, and it routed me to a spot round the corner. Damnit. Well, I’d just ride south to Denver until I found wifi, then I’d look up the coordinates again myself.
So I rode ten miles south to the nearest small town, Lyons. The wind was treacherous. The woman had directed me a cafe called the Barking Dog. It had free wifi. I found it and searched for the tracker. It had last been seen … ten miles north of Lyons? Back to where I’d been? I shook my head, confused. The coordinates I’d entered the first time – they’d been right, after all. Well, no trouble. At least now I didn’t have to retrace my steps the hour’s ride to Denver.
Back at the campsite, about a mile past, where the tracker had been sighted. I parked the bike and walked in an expanding circle. I walked down into the ditch in case it had rolled downward. I wasn’t worried about missing it – the thing was almost the size of a brick, and an unnatural yellow. But it was nowhere to be found. I got back on the bike and canvassed the further areas. Nothing.
It was time to give up on it. I went south to Lyons. The wind was awful, blowing me every which way. I reached Lyons and decided to go to Boulder, where I could begin to work my way westward to Utah. I needed to get out of Colorado. The highway to Boulder was a flat wide stretch of fifteen miles. Rolling hills of rock and pale grass rose from either side of the road. I passed by a thousand photo opportunities, but I didn’t have the heart to stop. I doubted my tripod would stay planted anyway. As it was, the wind pushed me sideways and into oncoming traffic. At times I was holding my bike at a thirty degree angle just to keep going straight. It was ridiculous. I had never ridden in anything like it before.
I reached Boulder, and found an REI store. I found a new sleeping pad and another stupid tracking device. The cashier swiped my card. “It’s been declined,” she said politely. “Would you like to try another?”
“It’s probably been flagged for all of my traveling,” I said, taking it from her. “I’ll call them.” I used my american phone to call the number listed on the back of the card. After ten minutes of holds and transfers, I convinced the security department that the real Shannon Zawartka was indeed roaming the countryside making strange purchases. After I hung up, I saw a text message from my stepfather: “Someone found your tracker.”
Well that was lucky. I let the clerk keep the Inreach, and instead just paid for the sleeping pad. I called the number of the guy who’d picked up the tracker. No answer. I called again, no answer. Maybe he was up in the Rockies, with no reception. I used the store’s wifi to check my tracking page to see if the location had been updated – it had! It was in Lyons.
Okay. No problem. I got back on the bike. Back onto the road from hell. Twice the wind pushed me so forcefully to the left that I could feel my tires actually sliding sideways. I wasn’t sure where to be positioning myself in my lane: normally a motorcycle will ride in the left tire track of a two-lane highway. This was a bad spot with the wind however, as it put me too close to the oncoming traffic. Riding in the middle of the lane would put me in the greasy part of the road, where oil and antifreeze is leaked from cars. I opted for the right tire track. The wind might run me clear off the road and into one of the steep ditches, but I knew it was better than the threat of a head-on collision.
In Lyons, I rode to where the tracker had been sighted: on Main & Broadway. I was pulling up to the curb when I heard my american phone ringing. It was my good samaritan. “You sound frazzled,” a young male voice said. His name was Jacob.
“I’m having a bad day,” I said. “But I think you’re about to make it a whole lot better!” I looked around excitedly, expecting to see Jacob come around the corner any moment, a phone on his ear and my tracker in hand. “Where are you?”
“I’m in my pickup truck,” he said. “I just got into Boulder.”
“Boulder?” I could feel myself choking. I put the phone down, trying to regroup, unsuccessfully “Boulder? You’re in Boulder? I just came from Boulder! I can’t — I can’t do that road again – I’m on a motorcycle – the wind . . .” I was losing it. What little of it I had left, I could feel it getting away from me. Blown away by that awful wind.
“I’m going to dinner, in Boulder,” the voice said calmly. “Firehouse Subs. It’s on Canyon and 28. I’ll wait here for you. I won’t go anywhere.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” It was not okay. I was not okay.
The road back to Boulder . . . you’d think, having run it twice already, it would be easier. It was the toughest pass of all. I was tense the entire time. I felt like I was in a tennis game between two giants, and I was the ball. They batted me back and forth across the road. Sometimes gently, oftentimes not. It didn’t seem to matter if I went slowly or quickly.
I reached the sub shop. My good samaritan was waiting outside. He looked like exactly what I would expect a man from Boulder to look like: slim athletic build, plaid button-down shirt, tawny hipster beard and friendly eyes. I wanted to strangle him. If he would have just let the tracker alone, he would have saved me six hours and 100 miles of pointless searching through an ongoing wind tunnel. He extended the tracker to me with a flourish of his hands. I took it from him, trying to seem grateful. It wasn’t really his fault my day had gone horribly wrong: he’d thought he was doing the right thing. And maybe if he’d left it, someone else would have gotten it – someone of less pure intent, or someone without the tech savviness to be able to operate the thing and send a text message out to my stepfather. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to find it on my own. Who knows.
Jacob identified a new route for me, to the I-70, which would take me out of the horrid windy area, and safely into Utah. “Call me if you have any trouble.”
Some good samaritans just don’t give up.