They say the sense of smell is a powerful trigger of memories. Each time Kathy and I roll our tandem into the lunch stop on the day’s RTR route, the aroma of grilling onions and peppers takes us back to RTR 2011.
It was our first RTR, and our first extended bike tour on our tandem, period. Day 1 began in Crested Butte, over Cottonwood Pass and into Buena Vista. It was a bright, clear, cool day, and the ride up Taylor Canyon was delightful. Then the road turned to dirt, and the long slog up Cottonwood began.
We kept at it, slow and steady. As we rose above treeline, the switchbacks got tighter. The air became cooler. We added layers. Soon, the banks of snow, still left from a bountiful winter, began to rise above our heads. At the top of the Continental Divide, massive snow cornices hung out and over the ridgeline.
Our bag of snacks had long been empty. We were running on empty, cranking the pedals slowly, counting down each tenth of a mile to the top, where we knew an aid station was waiting.
We turned in to the parking lot, nearly delirious with hunger, almost starved of oxygen, and were nearly overcome a divine wave of the smell of grilled onions and peppers. Kathy and I nearly rode our bike right into the tent where Mike Paige, his wife Katrina, and their sons were cooking up fajitas.
I can’t recall if we actually asked for one. We may have simply pointed and made indistinct noises. Either way, Kathy and I soon were perched on a rock atop the snowy mountain pass, the most unlikely of places, devouring food that we were certain would transport us directly to heaven.
Well, an experience like that tends to make an impression upon you, and since that time, we spend nearly every RTR lunch with Mike’s family and their awesome fajitas. We paid a visit to the stand on Tuesday on the road from Durango to Pagosa Springs, a day when Mike said business had been “steady.” That may have been because a lot of riders, anticipating another hot day, got an extra early start to beat the heat and smoothed out the usual lunch crush. The heat has been the story of the tour so far, but Tuesday was a bit milder than the first two days.
Mike’s been grilling up fajitas on RTR for 20 years. He says he got the idea about 25 years ago, during his ski-bum days when fajitas were already a staple in his diet, when he rode RTR and decided there wasn’t a lot of food available. Badda-bing, badda-boom, a business idea was born.
These days Mike runs the fajita stand with his wife, and their three sons, Mitch, Luke and Zak. They have grown up with RTR, spending a week of their summers serving up grilled goodness to ravenous riders. The stand does enough business to pay for itself and put a little money into the boys’ college fund, he says.
When RTR is over, Mike applies some of the business lessons of the fajita stand to the AP economics class he teaches at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs.
“When we’re talking about the free market, we’re talking about pricing structures, we’re talking about looking at the competition, about what the customer will tolerate,” Mike said, and the fajita stand provides a real-world example they can study.
“At one point the kids asked me if I would this for no money, and I said absolutely not,” and he turned it into a discussion about opportunity costs and the other choices he could make that offer no profit.
During RTR, the Paiges stay one town ahead of the tour, getting up at about 4:30 a.m., and arriving at their assigned aid station by 6. Then the food prep begins. After the last fajita is sold, the family decamps to the next hotel down the road.
Can he do this 20 more years?
“I don’t think so,” Mike said. In fact, he’s preparing to turn the business over to his oldest son, Mitch, while he and Katrina step back and watch.
Kathy and I have sampled just about all the RTR food there is to eat during a day’s ride, and all of it has been terrific — partly because of the edge of hunger that cycling adds. But there’s nothing like your first time, so we’ll always save some room for the Fajita Guy.