Stormy pre-ride angst aside, day one dawned clear for the train ride. Operating since 1882, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad helps to define this little mountain town in southwest Colorado, with the muscular 1920s-era steam engines’ inky billows of smoke and shrill whistle cries a constant reminder of days past. You can make the 48-mile run to Silverton faster on a bicycle, but the swaying trip through steep-sided canyons seemed just the way to find the right pace.
In Silverton, we made one last gear check (damn, still no tent), grabbed a load of food from a bike-friendly local café called Mobius (more on that later), pulled on packs that felt too heavy (on second thought, thank goodness we have no tent!), and, a little bit after noon, slowly rolled northeast along the Animas River. The road climbed at first gently and then more steeply up the valley, with jaggy peaks crowding tighter around us the higher we moved. We had planned to explore the mining ruins at Animas Forks, a boomtown that sprung up in the 1870s when prospectors were seeking their fortune in gold, silver and other base metals, but with great white cumulus clouds swelling on the horizon and 12,640-foot Cinnamon Pass yet to cross, we thought better of stopping.
Bikepacking requires a different approach than mountain biking. Loaded with 20 pounds of gear and food, you’re neither nimble nor quick, so it’s best to shift into granny, dismount on steep hills and anything vaguely technical, and disregard the glacially slow tick of mileage. As we ground up Cinnamon, alpine meadows spread out all around and the peaks become raw and denuded, stained in rich striations of saffron gold, slate gray, velvety chocolate and the rich reddish-brown of the spice for which the pass is named. It was like riding through a Delacroix canvas, with so much to look at that I barely noticed that we’d been in the saddle for several hours by the time we crested the pass. We lingered for photos and a sandwich, then, with the afternoon thunderheads shifting from lamb’s wool white to ominous smears, we plunged toward Lake City.
By the time we reached the Wupperman campground, on the shores of Lake San Cristobal, the sky was smudged black and livid and we hurried to string our Mylar emergency blanket over the picnic table for shelter. The campground host, a slow-talking retiree from Kaufman, Texas, named Cecil Mitchell, came to check us in and just shook his head when we told him the tin foil blanket wasn’t a tablecloth but a makeshift tent. “If I was you,” he told Jen as he pointed at me, “I’d trade this one here for one that’s strong enough to carry a tent.”