Let's add some perspective to "14,264 feet above sea level". A basic Cessna 172 single engine aircraft has an operating ceiling of 13,500 feet. We're going to be above that elevation on a motorcycle.
Private pilots in unpressurized aircraft are required to use supplementary oxygen at altitudes above 8,000 feet in order to avoid hypoxia that leads to impaired judgment and ultimately loss of consciousness. We are going to ride up, look around, snap a photo or two, then ride down. No problem.
The ride through Roosevelt National Forest taught us one thing: To see the best of Colorado, stay off of tourist-y roads. Highway 7 is a local-use road - people going to work, running errands, and so forth. There were blessedly few motor homes, gawkers or wildlife peepers hindering our travel, smooth driving, and plenty of wonderful scenery to enjoy.
We rolled into Central City, ready for a break. Central City instantly stunned us with its Disney-perfect rows of Victorian houses, quaint shops, and exquisite streetscaping. It was a perfect place to stop for a bottle of water and perhaps an early lunch and a stroll.
Except that it was all an illusion.
Central City is one of Colorado's oldest municipalities. It was, long ago, enriched by gold mining nearby. Now it is one big casino. Every building, every store front, each one lovingly restored to better-than-perfect condition, was in reality a casino. The perfect homes were, in fact real homes, but had been restored with casino money.
The illusion became apparent when we looked for a place to park. The narrow streets didn't allow on-street parking, and every parking lot had signs advising that parking was reserved for patrons of a particular casino. There were no gas stations, no convenience stores, no coffee shops in the two square miles that Wikipedia says comprise Central City.
I spotted a perfectly restored steam locomotive in a setting that made it look like it was emerging from a mountain tunnel. I wheeled around the block for a better look.
The reality was that the engine, a tender and one passenger car were emerging from a fake tunnel alongside a parking structure next to a casino. There was no way to get close to the locomotive; it rests on a high track bed too steep for tourists to climb.
We left Central City shaking our heads in amazement and disappointment. We rolled down a wide four-lane called Central City Parkway toward I-70 where we knew there would be a gas station or convenience store. Only there wasn't. Central City Parkway exists only to bring gamblers from I-70 to the casinos. On ramp, off ramp, nothing else.
We got on I-70 and rode to Idaho Springs where we exited so we could ride up Mount Evans. We stopped at this convenience store for water and fuel. [Insert your own joke here].
Here's a gas pump.
This chain has stores all over Colorado and a few other states we rode through. I was going to buy a tee shirt with their logo on it, but couldn't think of a place where I would wear it.
We met a couple on the parking lot, motorcyclists from Montreal who were riding across America. They had attempted to ride up Mount Evans and were stopped by weather conditions above 12,000 feet. There were clouds and rain at that elevation, and snow falling above that.
Snowy roads, lack of oxygen, steep curves, and lack of guardrails are a bad combination. I was lightheaded when we crossed a pass at 12,000 feet and didn't want to add 2,200 feet of additional elevation combined with a slick road to the day's ride, even with the small container of oxygen we could by at a local pharmacy. We scrapped the plan and revised the day's travel to include a stop at Vail.
We headed west on I-70 toward Vail. I don't like interstate highways unless I'm trying to make time by riding fast from one point to another. I-70 through the Rockies is an exception. The scenery is beautiful, the road is smooth and the traffic flows well, so long as you stay out of the right lane where heavy trucks grind up and down the mountains at low speeds.
We crossed the 11,900 foot Loveland Pass and the 10,700 foot Vail pass, then exited at Vail.
How to describe Vail? That is a challenge. I think this is best: Vail is a living diorama of how rich people live. People who are not rich can view the diorama year-'round, but the price of admission is quite steep during ski season.
Vail is quaint and cutesy in a manner imitative of Switzerland. Here's the "downtown" area.
We walked around, ate lunch and enjoyed the scenery. The crowd was mainly tourists; the rich people were all wherever they go during summer. I can't criticize them too much, they seem to like dogs, so they must be okay.
We called this sculpture "Left Leg, Broken Tib-Fib".
Already behind schedule, we hit the road. After a brief stint back on I-70, we turned south on Colorado 24 crossed the Continental Dives at the 10,424 foot Tennessee Pass, and headed toward Leadville.
Whatever Vail is, Leadville is the polar opposite. It is old, struggling, and non-touristy, at least for tourists who have money. It's old, more than 100 years, and was a mining town. Some molybdenum mining activity remains. Leadville is also Colorado's highest incorporated municipality, at 10,200 feet above sea level.
Also highest in another way, I expect.
We checked into an original old hotel and then took a walk. The local tech school posted a list of classes on a kiosk. This one caught my eye.
Leadville has an old opera house, built by Haw Tabor back in the late 1800's when Leadville boomed. The building is still there, timeworn, but in use for special events. Judy Collins is performing there this summer. Things must be rough for Ms. Collins these days. The Leadville Opera House is a small, small, venue
We saw a poster advertising a high-altitude triathlon later this summer. All events, swimming, running and bicycling are promised to take place at elevations above 10,500 feet. No thanks.
There is an Irish Pub in Leadville, oddly named the Silver Dollar Saloon.
It opened in 1888, and has been in the same family since 1941 when an Irish immigrant and his Las Vegas showgirl bride moved to Leadville and bought the building. The interior is pretty nice. They didn't have Guinness, claiming that a large group drank the inventory earlier in the week. Sounds like an Irish story.
We returned to the hotel after a few beers for an early bedtime because tomorrow is going to be a long day of mountain riding. I called the front desk and asked how to run the air conditioning. The clerk said "the windows open" and wished me a good night's sleep.