May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, and dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. – Edward Abbey
The Rocky Mountains were waiting for me. I wasn’t particularly concerned. By this point in my journey, I had learned that the way to get through the day was to get up, climb on my bike, and start peddling. Life was pretty simple.
I am not as familiar with the Rocky Mountains as I am with the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. But I have driven back and forth back across their 3000-mile spine several times. More importantly, I have sampled their beauty on foot in Canada, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.
My first ever backpack trip was near Lake Louise in Banff National Park. It was 1969. I had read Colin Fletcher’s “The Complete Walker” to learn about backpacking and then stopped by REI in Seattle (when it was REI’s first and only store) to buy my equipment. It was early in the season and I remember lying awake at night in my tent with the rain pouring down while I listened to large rocks and minor avalanches tumbling off the surrounding cliffs and wondered just what it was that had made me think backpacking would be fun. Later, I backpacked into the more remote Canadian Rocky’s with a geologist from the University of Arizona in search of some of the world’s oldest rocks. It was my job to help carry out the samples. Lucky me.
Once, while backpacking in Montana’s Glacier National Park, I was treated to listening to Peggy sing numerous repeats of “99 bottles of beer on the wall” at the top of her lungs. We were hiking through brush and kept finding massive piles of steaming grizzly poop.
I backpacked by myself following “crooked, winding, lonesome and dangerous” trails in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. In the Wind River’s, a not-dangerous marmot nibbled on my shoe— with my foot in it. At first I was amused, but his sharp, chisel-like teeth led me to shoo him back to eating flowers. Slightly more dangerous, a cow elk played tag with me in the Gila Wilderness. That game ended with her charging and sliding to a stop five-feet away. Elks are big animals, even from a distance. Up close, this girl looked and sounded like a steam locomotive.
With the exception of Peggy singing to the bears, which was yet to come, I thought of these Rocky Mountain experiences as I checked out my map during my layover day in Springerville. I would be following New Mexico 60 for most of the trip across the mountains, which was a road I had never travelled. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of a climb but it was easy to see that services were few and far between— nothing new there.
I also noted that the distance to the top was further than I thought, closer to 70 miles than 50. Whether steep or not, the climb would be long. The good news: A small community named Pie Town was located on the Continental Divide. A town with that name would have pie to sell, right? Visions of a large slice of hot apple pie with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream made me drool like a Pavlovian dog.
The time came to climb on my bike, as it inevitably did, and I was out at 6:00 AM. I grabbed breakfast in Springerville. Pickings looked slim along the way. My day unfolded with three surprises. First, the climb was not difficult. There were even a few decent downhills. I am not, however, a fan of downhills when I am climbing a pass. Lost elevation has to be regained! I think there is a basic law of physics involved.
I replenished my water in the small town of Quemado and passed by a couple of wide spots in the road that may have had booming businesses once, but that was ancient history. Beyond that, there was nothing, nada. I began to hallucinate pie. I would eat two pieces of apple pie with ice cream and then switch to cherry pie with ice cream. Maybe there would even be the prize of all prizes: coconut cream pie, no ice cream required. I had loved that as a youth. I worked as a janitor cleaning the Episcopal Church in Placerville on Saturdays when I was 12. They paid me four dollars. Afterwards I would make a beeline to the Golden Chain Restaurant for a cup of coffee and a piece of coconut cream pie. It cost me a buck, one-fourth of my weekly salary. Talk about an addiction…
My second surprise came as a rude shock. The pie shop in Pie Town was out of business. The owner had retired. There would be no apple, cherry, or coconut cream pie for Curt. I whined loudly at the pie gods and was met with silence. There was nothing to do but climb on my bike and start down the mountain. But there is more to this story.
Several years later I passed though Pie Town again and an open sign pulled me into the Pie-O-Neer Restaurant. I was greeted by its delightful owner, Kathy Knapp. Kathy and her mom, Mary, had driven through the town in the mid-90s and her mom had found it a travesty that a town with the name of Pie Town had no pies to sell. So Kathy, an advertising executive from Dallas, had purchased the restaurant and she and her mom had gone into business. I told my tale of woe to Kathy. As I left, she presented me with a piece of coconut cream pie in a to-go box, for free. “This is for when you biked through and didn’t get any pie,” Kathy told me. Had I not already been married to Peggy, I might have fallen in love.
Peggy and I stopped by again in April as we retraced my bike route. Kathy was as bubbly as ever. Her restaurant is now famous and Kathy is something of a celebrity. Numerous newspaper articles, Sunset Magazine, national TV news, and an award-winning documentary have featured the Pie-O-Neer Pie Shop. People drive for hundreds of miles to sample the delicious pastry. Kathy and her business partner, Stanley King, posed for a photo and then Kathy insisted on coming out and having her photo taken with us and the van. As for pie, Peggy and I ate more than we should have. There will be no more said on the subject.
But back to bicycling. What a romp! I had forty plus miles of downhill in front of me. I bicycled past a museum featuring windmills, through Ponderosa Pine forests, and by massive rocks with strange faces. I hardly touched my brakes. A cool wind caressed my face. All too soon I left the forests behind and returned to the high plains desert. Then something magical happened, I came on my third surprise: A collection of huge radio telescopes scattered across the Plains of San Augustin and pointed toward the sky. A thought buried in the nether regions of my brain came skipping to the surface: VLA, the Very Large Array. Naturally, I had read about them; the huge telescopes enabled scientists to explore the universe using radio waves, unlocking secrets withheld from optical telescopes. But I didn’t have a clue that they were located on my route. I looked on in wonder, wanting to see more.
Dusk was approaching, however, and I needed a home for the night. I told the VLA I would be back and biked on. A few more miles brought me to a small camping area. As I was unpacking my tent, I was struck by another thought. Aided by a great downhill, I had biked over 100 miles and crossed the Rocky Mountains, all in one day! It was my first ever 100-mile day.
NEXT POST: A blog special on the Very Large Array. Peggy and I were lucky to arrive at the VLA when the facility was hosting its annual open house. A scientist took us on a tour that allowed us to see the giant telescopes and the massive amount of computer power that allows astronomers and astrophysicists from around the world to study the universe back to the very beginning of time.