Day 86: Royal Gorge, CO to Guffey, CO - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 7, 2011

Day 86: Royal Gorge, CO to Guffey, CO

It's 8:30 in the morning. The sun shines brightly in mostly clear blue skies and a slight wind blows. I feel not quite rested and a little dehydrated. It's just like every morning from the past two weeks except for two important differences: I'm sweating like mad and I can't go faster than six miles per hour.

I'm in the Rocky Mountains.

Peter climbing slowly but steadily into the mountains.
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It's a dramatic change. I ride slowly through a valley where yellow and green range land runs into mountains dotted with rocky outcroppings, small pine trees, and little bushes. They aren't the snow-capped peaks of postcards and movies, but they're beautiful in their own right. The air is crisp and clean and I breathe in huge gulps of it. I pass fields of grazing buffalo, which I've never before seen in person. Birds chirp all around me. The wind that rustles the trees and blows with a faint rushing sound comes down from the north in cool waves. Sometimes I stop and close my eyes and let the gusts wash over me, pull away the heat of the climb, and leave behind the smallest shiver.

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The mountains are a kick in the ass after not having done any sustained climbing since somewhere in Eastern Kentucky. I have to stop often, but that isn't a bad thing because I've moved into a part of the country where I can look in any direction and see something other than corn or wheat or cows.

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I head off route a couple of miles and ride into the small town of Guffey, population 15. I grab lunch at Rita's Place, a tiny cafe with six tables, walls and shelves covered with local art, and Gordon Lightfoot playing over the satellite radio. I'm the only guy in the place that doesn't have a mustache or beard and I feel out of place without a cowboy hat. The old men at the table closest to me talk about a ranch hand they know who nearly had his finger ripped off in a cow roping accident. Someone else mentions that there are 20 guys named Jim that come into the cafe, so each one has a nickname—Big Jim, Old Jim, Conservative Jim, and so on.

I ask Rita if she knows where I can find Bill, the local legend who rents out a dozen or so rustic cabins he built or rehabbed himself. She calls while I eat. When I finish I ride two blocks to a place called the Guffey Garage, a century-old wooden building with gravel floors and almost 40 years worth of tools, signs, parts, and vehicles scattered inside, outside, and attached to the exterior. Charlie, a friend of Bill's with a thick New England accent, a wispy beard, and tinted glasses, shows me around the property. It covers both sides of the road for the better part of a block and sits filled with two dozen buildings, all made of wood and topped with steeply sloped roofs of rusted metal. Some are cabins, some are for storage, and one is the most carefully crafted outhouse I've ever had the pleasure of taking a leak in. Mixed in between I find ovens, barrels, farming equipment, saw horses, scrap wood, and even a canoe.

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Bill rolls up in a dark gray 1964 Chevy El Camino within the hour. When I ask him how he ended up in Guffey, he explains that he originally moved out to the eastern end of Long Island in New York, back when it was mostly empty and he could live in peace, drive on the beach, and enjoy his life as a union electrician and welder. It was a good gig until a nuclear power plant went up a mile from his house, and then not long after he came home to find his wife in bed with another guy. He soon pulled up roots and landed in Colorado Springs, where he owned and managed rental houses for several years, but never quite found happiness and ended up angry and bitter at the world and everyone around him.

"Then one day I came out to Guffey," he says. "I saw that the general store was for sale and I thought, 'I need to do this.' So I bought it and moved out here and then bought up as much land in town as I could."

When he first arrived, back in the mid-70s, Guffey was a small, tight-knit community. It was a place where hippies could raise their families and smoke and drink and live a peaceful life up at 8,600 feet in the heart of a beautiful mountain valley, 30 miles from the nearest gas station.

"I used to be in charge of the town school bus," he tells me. "They'd leave it at the store every night and I'd fill it with gas, keep it clean, make sure it was running right, ya know? Well, sometimes on the weekends I'd start it up and drive through town and pick up maybe 20, 30 people, and we'd roll out into the hills with drinking and music and all the rest of it, have a real good time."

He laughs out loud with a big smile peeking out of his bushy white beard.

"Until this one time, we brought the bus back to town and I forgot to put gas back in it. Bus driver comes back Monday morning and gets stranded out on the road with a bus full of kids!" he says, busting up laughing again. "And that was the end of that."

The character of the town has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. Property values have gone up, more people from Denver and Colorado Springs and far flung places like California and Texas have bought land and homes in the area, and a casino in nearby Cripple Creek (pronounced Cripple Crick by the locals) has brought in more travelers. With many of the original community members gone, the place has become less helpful, more expensive, and some of the new arrivals have worked hard to bring order to the town, complaining to the Sheriff about crowing roosters, unleashed dogs, and the guys at the Garage who used to walk around town with a can of beer in their hand. The outside world has closed in on Guffey, and although Bill still loves the place and won't live anywhere else, he holds the highest contempt for the people who want to bend the town to their way of life.

"Some days I just want to burn this whole place to the ground!" he says, followed quickly by a quick wink of his left eye.

The Guffey Garage.
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Bill will never leave Guffey because he and the town are in many ways one in the same. The connection comes through loud and clear as I walk into the City Hall, a large and musty-smelling one room building with hardwood floors that sit slightly higher in the center than they do at the edges. Bill's fingerprints are all over City Hall, and it's one of the most remarkable places I've ever seen. It's hard to let my eyes focus on just one thing, because a hundred other interesting objects try to steal away my attention. Along one wall there's a skeleton wearing a yellow hard hat and holding a lightning bolt while straddling a rocket. On another I see a dozen animal heads, some with taxidermied eyes and noses and fur, others only bones. Hats, hubcaps, saws, and old license plates are everywhere, along with newspaper clippings about Guffey, little red wagons, a vacuum cleaner from the 1950s, a pair of 1930s-era swimming trunks, political campaign signs from 25 years ago, Great Speckled Bird posters and hats, a hula hoop, and literally a thousand other artifacts.

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Mixed in with everything are signs and flyers related to the annual Fourth of July Chicken Fly, an event I missed by three days. It's another one of Bill's creations, and this year it attracted more than 150 participants. Each person climbs to the top of a 12-foot-high platform, places a chicken inside a hollowed out mailbox, grabs a plunger, and then pushes the chicken out into the air. Officials then measure the distance the chicken travels before it hits the ground, with the longest flier being named the winner. It's the kind of event that could only take place in Guffey.

Making sure the people in the back row can feel it.
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I'm more than happy to leave the museums and monuments and historical markers for tourists in SUVs and station wagons. The Guffey that Bill has so carefully helped build reveals the wonderful side of America that's worth traveling across the country for. It's a place dripping with character, created with soul and passion and the understanding that the best things in life are often the most ridiculous. Thunder booms and lighting strikes all around as I sit in City Hall on a couch covered with a bearskin rug and try to take everything in one last time. To most people it looks like a bunch of junk, but when I twist my neck around and find five more curious items that I missed the first time, I see a giant piece of carefully created art that makes me smile, that makes me think, and that makes me feel.

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After I drop off the key to City Hall I hang around the Garage with Charlie, another friend of Bill's named Carl, and the mayor of Guffey, a fat black cat called Monster. We sit inside, next to a boiler that looks like it's at least a hundred years ago, watching Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid on a black and white television while drinking barely cold cans of Milwaukee's Best. Thunderstorms crash and bang and flash overhead and drops of water leak through a dozen tiny holes in the metal roof. For the first time since the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia I can step outside and feel cold and rain together.

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Bill and Charlie.
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In the evening I grab dinner at the town bar. I run into Bill, who introduces me to three or four more of the locals, all of whom are incredibly nice and show nothing but support for my big and crazy bike ride across America. A few hours later I tuck into my warm sleeping bag in my eight-by-ten cabin and think about what a great time I had in Guffey—how I love the character of the place, and how every person I've met has been friendly and welcoming. I realize that it's the greatest town I've been to yet, and that I'd be a fool not to stay for another day, maybe two. I head to sleep planning to do exactly that.

Today's ride: 25 miles (40 km)
Total: 4,305 miles (6,928 km)

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