The cows were everywhere, and we were coming up on them fast.
And since we were all heading the same direction — up the dirt road, pushing deeper into a narrow mountain valley outside of Poncha Springs — their cowboys hadn't seen us yet.
We kept pedaling our mountain bikes, but my husband and I exchanged what-do-we do glances as we got closer and closer to the mooing herd.
A man driving a truck, bringing up the rear, spotted us and yelled to pass the herd on the left. We drifted left of the cows, waved to the men and women on horseback and pedaled hard to pull ahead. My heart rate climbed, and as I tried to catch my breath, I looked at treeline on the freshly snow-dusted range ahead of us to try to gauge our altitude. I had no idea. I just knew we were well above our Front Range home (as evidenced by the gasping), and above Salida, where we'd come to ride for the weekend.
We'd chosen Salida in October knowing that we'd probably missed both the fall color and our chance to ride the oft-lauded Monarch Crest trail, a 35-mile route from Monarch Pass to Poncha Springs that people in mountain-biking circles bring up in either hushed or excitable tones: "Have you ridden Monarch Crest? No? Oh, man." (Head shaking.) "You have to ride it." The top of the Crest was snowed in, but we were still banking on Salida's reputation for being a good place in the mountains to ride a bike or hike in the off-season: fall, winter, spring mud season, pretty much any time.
That day, when we passed the herd, we were heading up Marshall Pass Road, a dirt road that narrows into a less-maintained path before meeting the Rainbow Trail, which some cyclists ride as an extension of the Monarch Crest. This stretch is lower in the mountains, in the zone of the aspens, which were still clinging to a handful of fading golden leaves. It was snow-free and even warm by late morning on a sunny, fall day. Our plan was to ride the road to the junction, then take the Rainbow Trail back down to where we started.