July 18, 2014 : Glenwood Springs, Colorado : [ Day 52 ]
Long days of incessant crosswinds on the prairies, fighting for every mile across the barren hellscapes of western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. But the winds calmed when I crossed into New Mexico, and when I started heading north, I could just make out the ghostly silhouettes of mountains on the horizon.
Before long, I had made camp along a trail, at 9,613′ elevation in the Sangre de Cristo range. The air was charged and cool, and an intense high-country lightning storm had me momentarily worried. A little scared, even. But it passed, and I spent the evening between the tent and my campfire, dodging the rain showers and listening to thunder echo off the walls of La Junta canyon.
The water in the creek was ice cold, the moon was full, and the omen was good. This is what I came West for. I feel like I’ve been waiting my entire life for this, like every boyhood dream of being a cowboy or a prospector in the Wild West was coming to fruition in some way. A lone traveler and his horse, with a gold pan and a single-action tucked into the saddlebags. Searching for a better future.
I thought about that the other night as I sat staring into my campfire. And it made me smile.
The next day, I made the crossing into Colorado, skirting spectacular lightning shows on every horizon and feeling the weight of my thoughts lighten in the ever-thinning air. Colorado. I can’t believe I’m actually here!
Here is the Tiger above Silverton. I had to go up and visit the Miners’ Shrine.
I’m not sure if I was more excited about the riding, or how mineralized this entire area is. The area around Silverton used to be a caldera, and looking at the maps, the roads follow the ring fractures and the mineral claims follow the radial fractures (generally speaking). All the red stuff in the photo above is caused by oxidation of sulfide minerals, which can be an indicator of metal deposits like gold, silver, or copper. There are tons of old mines in the area, I can still feel the excitement that must have been omnipresent during the boom times of the late 1800’s.
I spent three nights camped here, along the South Fork of Mineral Creek. It’s about eight miles west of Silverton, at 9,832′ elevation. I panned down a couple grabs of sand from the creekbed, but found no gold.
On the subject of old mines, the ride up to Animas Forks was spectacular, and easy for a big bike. Animas Forks is an old mining ghost town, at 11,153′ elevation.
Here’s some of the road going up to Animas Forks.
It’s a bit bumpy, but mellow. Anyone can do it. From Animas Forks, you have access to Engineer and Cinnamon passes.
I had to ride Colorado 550, the “Million Dollar Highway” up to Ouray. I’d end up riding this several times during my stay. It’s a breathtaking ride, but dangerous – there are falling rocks and sharp curves on huge cliffs, with no shoulder or guardrail. A motorcyclist was killed just the other day, at mile marker 82. My thoughts are with his family. I suspect the tunnel in the above photo is to protect the roadway from rock falls.
This photo I think sums up the rock slide danger pretty well. Look at that huge block on a slick face, just waiting for gravity to run its course. The car and two motorcycles offer some sense of scale.
On the subject of rocks, I had to visit the Great Unconformity, exposed in Box Canyon just outside of Ouray. It’s the horizontal contact between the upper light and lower dark-colored rocks, to the right of the creek.
But enough of that stuff. I couldn’t go to Colorado and not attempt one of the famous passes. I picked Ophir, because I was told it was easy, and it made for a good loop from Silverton to Telluride, then back to Ouray via the Last Dollar Road.
The ride up to the summit from the Silverton / CO 550 side was a piece of cake. I was feeling pretty good at the top.
Then things went to hell in a hurry. The trail turned to loose boulders and scree, and I took a bad line going too slow over a deep rut. I tried to save it, but she bucked me. It was hard work getting the bike back up by myself, with the way it was laying and the thin air.
But I got it up, and took a breather at the beginning of the scree trail going across toward Ophir. With my confidence shaken, I walked some of the beginning of the trail and took measure of just how steep, narrow, rutted, and loose it really was. It doesn’t look bad in the above photo, but it was over my head on a big bike and solo.
I know I’m not that great of a rider off-road, and I’m not here to prove anything to anyone. I’m also not too proud to admit when I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. But, hell or high water, I was going to Ophir. So I started power-walking the Tiger across the scree, toward the treeline where I was told the trail turned back into good road.
Not quite a quarter of the way across, I realized that I had picked a fight with a mountain that was liable to last all day. It was slow going and hard work, and the loose rock underfoot was not helping. My hands were shaking, out of some combination of fear, excitement, and altitude.
Fortunately, these two guys from Oklahoma pulled up behind me in a Tacoma, and offered to help. It’s a guy and his son (I’m an asshole so I’ve already forgotten their names), and the older guy has been riding dirt up here for decades. He saw immediately what I was doing, what had happened, and what I was up against.
We talked for a bit as I caught my breath, and he offered to ferry the bike across the scree, and I could follow behind in the pickup with his son. As much as it hurt my pride, this section of trail is one way at a time, and I was starting to hold up traffic. I accepted the offer, and graciously. These guys saved me from a long, humiliating afternoon.
I should mention here that the Tiger had developed an idle / stalling issue the day before, and started dying here on the scree as it started to rain. I’m sure that it’s the stepper motor, which is sensitive to dust and a sort of Achilles heel for this bike. Luckily, I bought some carb cleaner in Silverton, and spraying it in the vincinity of the throttle body from the side seemed to help the issue, at least temporarily. We got the bike started and he took off across the scree.
Hell of a guy, and a hell of a rider. I regret that I forgot their names, and I regret not being able to buy the guy a beer or ten.
With my pride damaged and my confidence shaken, but my bike and body intact, I sought redemption on the Last Dollar Road out of Telluride. This is more my style. The Last Dollar Road gets pretty rough in the middle section, but it’s a great ride, and I had a blast running it. It was just what I needed to restore some of that confidence.
Colorado has been humbling, and amazing in every way. I spent that evening reflecting on the fact that this journey has been made by the kindness and generosity of strangers, connected only by a love for the road and all things on two wheels. If I had any good karma left in the bank, it was long overdrafted before I left Tennessee. There is no way to thank everyone enough for all the help, advice, tent space, garage space, and camaraderie. I can only say that I look forward to paying it back to fellow travelers in the future. The motorcycle community, and the ADV community in particular, is full of the best people I’ve ever known.
And this ride has transformed me and my life on every level. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt this happy, or if there ever even was a last time. There’s a lot of ground left to cover, but I feel like the searching is over. I’ve learned about the need for a balance in life that I’ve never before been able to achieve – everything was always all or nothing, sacrifice and shut up like a good Midwestern boy. I’ve felt, perhaps for the first time, real freedom. I’ve met some of the most amazing people, and my faith in humanity has been soundly restored. I also met Melissa, and I don’t think I have to tell you how happy I am that I’ll be seeing her again real soon!
Ride safe out there.