The Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway, which partly follows the Dolores River, is just another one of the those Colorado sights that makes you wonder what is wrong with the rest of the world. I’m repeatedly reminded of how beautiful my adopted home state is, and I get pretty selective about what “beauty” means to other people. This ride was nothing short of spectacular and it raised the bar on what riding in Colorado means to me. I woke up early, and the morning was covered with the thickest layer of frost and dew I had seen in a long time. Mornings this high, and this late in the summer season are always soggy, but this one seemed especially so. The ground this high up was especially unforgiving, too. Maybe it was because it was my third night on the ground, and maybe it really was the ground, but I was more sore than I had been the previous two mornings and I really wanted to sun to warm my tent up and begin drying things out. The sky was exceptionally clear, but my breath a pure vapor when I exhaled. Knowing it would be a while, I light my stove to boil water for breakfast, and sat in contemplation as the moments moved by: what had I seen already, what would I see today, what were the memories that were standing out, what would be camera’s lens yet catch? Also, I began to wonder about what direction I was really heading. Was I heading “home” or would I look for one more night out? I’ve gotten caught up in something lately where it’s really hard to spend a fourth night out on the road. I don’t know what it is, but I start to “miss” something. It may just be anxiety manifesting itself, but I always feel something pulling me “home,” even thought there’s nothing there to actually pull me.
Divorce, deaths, empty-nesting, surgery, they each seem to have pulled something out of me. I’ve had job stability, yet moved five times in this recent span of change. It has been a real challenge to learn how to trust myself again, and trips like this show me that I still have work to do. With all of this in my head, the sun began to warm and dry my camp site. I really didn’t want to store things wet, but I didn’t want to waste the morning light. The mountains around me still held a few Columbine and Lupine, and the one in the shadows were bent heavy with the dew as I started the bike, packing complete, and looked to return to the road. The ride out actually felt longer than the ride in the previous night. Was I being more cautious, or just more disoriented? The gravel under my tires seemed more uneven, and each new corner found me working a little harder to just “breathe” my way through. “Don’t tense up,” I could hear myself say. Looking west as I descended, I could see the western portion of the Uncompahgre National Forest that today’s route would take me around. It’s a distinct mesa, that runs southeast to northwest, and though it looks dry from this distance, I’m sure there are secret pockets of water and forests that cover its surface. The first part of the day would be riding from Ridgway to the town of Norwood. I’ve ridden here a number of times, but again, never get bored with the view, the route, the peacefulness. The highway southbound out of Ridgway starts to climb and the shoulders of the San Juans start to play with the roadway. Mt. Sneffels is to my left, and looking more majestic in the morning light than usual. This is full-on Aspen country, and the trees are easily twice as big as anything on the Front Range. Their bright, white bark shines in the morning light as the road twist, and cuts through their flanks. Topping out at Dallas Divide, the descent to the San Miguel River is one, long sweeping left-hand curve. The banks along the road becomes steeper the closer you get to the river, and the intersection at Placerville seems to be right in front of you a lot sooner than it should be. Turning left on Highway 145 will take you into Telluride. If you want to make the complete loop around the San Juans, you would that way. I’m turning right, and following the course of the San Miguel until 145 turns into 141 near Naturita.
This portion of 145, following the San Miguel, offers deep canyon twists and river views before climbing Norwood Hill to Wrights Mesa and the town of the Norwood. Wrights Mesa creates such a geographic anomaly, a broad swath of flat farmland, that looks more akin the Great Plains than it does the Rocky Mountains. The panoramic scenes that confront you offer a bipolar view of Colorado. Huge sweeps of hay fields on their second cutting, with center-pivot irrigation drenching the late season corn and bean fields, backdropped by the Blue Bird sky, and entire San Juan Range to the south and east. It’s a straight shot from the top of the Hill into Norwood, then a series of right and left sweepers to Redvale, where the road becomes constricted on the last portion of the Mesa, before dropping back down to rejoin the San Miguel. In Naturita you’ll find the cycle of boom and bust that was uranium mining in the 1950s. You’ll also find a much different Colorado from what you’ve seen the previous 75 mile. This looks and feels more like Utah, Moab to be exact. Sandstone begins to dominate the landscape. Brown and red hills, dry scrub and yucca fill the road sides. This is a forgotten corner of Colorado; Denver and the Front Range are a million miles away, culturally, politically, and economically. The stark, the “lost in time” sense that surrounds the places does have an appeal. The next 60 miles to Gateway will be a complete immersion in this space. I leave all sense of civilization behind at Naturita, and enter a completely uninhabited portion of BLM dotted with once hopeful, and cautiously named mines: Stormy Treasure, Liberty Bell No. 2, Tramp No. 2, and Depression Mine. The site of the Uravan company town is a reminder of the hopes and dreams that were won and lost as the uranium industry blew through this part of the world. While company towns may be mostly resigned to history books in the United States, they are a real, and dire circumstance for many in rest of the world.
Entering the Dolores Canyon, the present becomes the objective as the river has carved a most spectacular pathway. No less than a dozen, connected “S” curves greet you in the first 20 miles. These aren’t the “hard and fast, knee down!” kind of curves we associate with canyon riding on the Front Range, but much more gradual, larger in scope and apex, and a place to truly project your turn. No oncoming traffic to derail your train of thought, just gentle counter-steering to connect the arcs. It was best to mimic the river below’s leisurely pace. It wasn’t quite noon, and the blue sky above remained cloudless. This is a place that should be ridden out and back, but the corner at Gateway leads to the Unaweep Canyon which tops out in 20 miles, descending another 20 plus miles to the Gunnison River, before intersecting with U.S. 50. This stretch up and over Unaweep Divide gave me time to start thinking forward, though I really didn’t want to. I was nearly halfway through my fourth day when I reached highway 50, and I had no firm plans for the rest of the day. I really had lost my entire train of thought in the Dolores Canyon. I had no worries on wonderings, just the unimpeded road in front of me. Just yellow, beige, red and brown stone, carved from centuries of water pulled back to the sea. The same river pulled me along, washing away care and worry, allowing me to glide effortlessly, exactly how I’d wanted to that day.
But now, sitting at an intersection, I actually did have a choice to make, one that had been crawling back into my conscience that past 20 miles of descent. “Where did I need to go?” “Where should I sleep tonight?” “Am I hungry enough for lunch?” “Am I tired of camping out?” “Can I patiently access my situation?” “What else is there left to see?” Everything up until this point had been very intentionally. The previous night, on top of Owl Creek, was as close to “off the beaten path” as I had gotten on this trip. I was wary of going astray, but was enjoying the spontaneity. I didn’t want to curb this enthusiasm, but I was definitely getting tugged in a direction, psychologically, but I couldn’t really sort it out. Taking the time to look over my map, with my helmet off, allowed some rational thinking to surface. “Get some food, first, but try to stay in the high country!” my inner co-pilot suggested. I knew that if I followed 50 south to Montrose, it would be really easy to turn east, and start to “push” my way to Denver. I’ve made the run before, and the game can quickly seize you before you’ve notice. So, I’d turn at Delta, and catch Highway 92 to Paonia. Unsure of what would greet me there, I knew that I at least had options; returning over Kebler Pass to Crested Butte, turning left into the eastern flank of the Grand Mesa, or dropping over McLure Pass and riding into Marble, Redstone, or Carbondale would slow my pace and keep my attention on the moment, not allowing me to worry about the destination for the day. Paonia has a perfectly preserved downtown off of the highway. It’s the sort of place that probably has struggled when the highway was built to bypass it, but with enough artists and miners and retirees, Paonia boasts a brewery, more than one art gallery, and half a dozen places to eat. Pizza was today’s choice, which came out in a reasonable amount of time, but not too quickly. This was a well needed rest, and it I could really look over my route and now plan without the worry of not eating.
I’d ridden over that eastern portion of the Grand Mesa last fall on a color tour, but really knew nothing about it. Riding over McLure Pass would mean another “first” and I’d been staring at the town of Marble for YEARS on the map. Crystal Mine is one of the most recognized Colorado icons, but again hadn’t done enough research to know exactly how to find it, and my current set of maps just didn’t contain enough detail. I also knew that the Frying Pan River offered National Forest land with undeveloped camping, if I found myself that way. Lots of options, that’s what I needed. With lunch finished and the bike repacked, I would make my way north on Highway 133, “bag” McLure Pass, and turn right at the Crystal River to see the sights of Marble. The road into Marble is well paved, so it is easy to get to speed and enjoy a quick set of turns. It’s barely six miles into Marble, and the Maroon Bells Wilderness to the north, Elk Mountains in the east, and Ragged Wilderness to the south create the dramatic backdrop that Marble is famous for. The stone that is cut from its mine’s adorns many of Washington D.C.’s landmarks. The Marble Quarry sits on the National Register of Historic sites, and still produces stone today. The road up to the mine provided a brilliant overlook of the town site, but no Crystal Mine. Returning to town, I followed the signs to Schofield Pass, and was soon tracing the Crystal River. About two-mile east of town I came to a steep section that made the bike feel awkward and unruly. This was my signal to turn around, as I was really happy to have had no incidents so far. I know “adventure” bikes are meant to be dropped. I felt I had adequate protection on the V-Strom, but wanted to avoid what I could. I felt I could spend some time this next winter researching these passes and sites more thoroughly, and make another trip with a lot more confidence in 2016. I also hadn’t bathed in three days, and I knew of a roadside hot spring between Redstone and Carbondale. I thought of that as a pretty ideal way to start winding down my day, so turned the bike back towards 133, and found myself at the Penny Hot Springs, quickly enough.
This ended up NOT being the relaxing soak I’d anticipated. There was one couple there already, and a couple of other people leaving. The pools that were crudely built didn’t offer a lot of space, and the water in the Crystal River was still flowing pretty fast. There was also another pair of guys, who at first seemed to be having a long conversation. I soon realized that it wasn’t really a conversation. It was one guy, in his late 20’s, panhandling another guy. The second guy was silent as the younger one rambled on and on and asked in every way possible for anything that could be spared. A cigarette, some water or food, money for gas or a place to spend the night. Never stopping, barely taking in a breath, the younger get just laid out a torrent “poor me” woes and finally that older guy just blew up! He’d obviously heard this guy’s pleadings before, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with him. I’d been in the water briefly with this confrontation started to escalate, and I made up my mind that I didn’t need to be a part of it. These sort of confrontations never end well. I made my way back to my bike, redressed as quickly as I could, and headed down the road.
A close friend, Suzie, lives in Carbondale and it had been more than a year since I’d seen her, so I thought I would take a chance and find her at work. She grew up in Northern Michigan like I did, and there’s just a bond that is never broken. We can pick right up where we left off, and we are two of each other’s biggest fans! I love talking with her, as she always brings out the positive in life. Today was no exception, but we didn’t have as much time together. Catching her on a short notice, she’d already had plans for the afternoon. I promised to give her better lead time, the next time. As I was loading up, Suzie relayed to story of a close friend who’d died just days before, in a horrible set of circumstances. Tara was our age, and very experienced in the outdoors. She’d slipped with traversing a snowfield, and slid into a crevasse. The injuries and unfortunate exposure took her life.
Riding again, and heading towards Aspen, I figured I would refuel, make my way over Independence Pass, and start to head home. There was plenty of light left in the day to make the run make to Denver. My bed was calling, I’d seen enough, and didn’t need anymore adventure. I don’t know if Suzie’s story shook the adventure out of me, or if I was just feeling the draw of home. “Three days…” I said to myself. That really seems to be my limit. Getting gas at near Snowmass, I glanced over my map one more time. Ashcroft jumped up from the page, as did the forest road that climbed to a pass I wasn’t familiar with: Taylor Pass! I dropped back down into Taylor Park on another forest road, and seemed I could make my way pretty quickly back up to Cottonwood Pass, or down to the Taylor River! Either way, there would be campsites, and “YES!” I could spend a fourth night out!
I’d been through Ashcroft a few years before, on my way to climb Castle and Conundrum Peaks. Ashcroft also has a cross-country skiing track that I want to try, but my mind was set on “Taylor Pass,” so there wasn’t going to be any extra exploring today! The road to Ashcroft itself is beautiful. Smooth black top, great sight lines, plenty of run-off between the shoulder and Aspen groves that follow along, bringing on a really brilliant end to today’s riding. So completely diverse; every aspect of Colorado covered! The light was just reaching that angle where shadows were growing long, yet the surfaces that caught the light were jumping to life. The clouds looked heavy, though sparse, so rain really didn’t seem to be a threat. The turnoff came just before Ashcroft, and even the sign stated “Taylor Pass – 5 Miles.” Even slowing on the rough sections it was a quick 20 minutes up. Some of the road was rougher and narrower than I’d been on yet with the Strom, but it handled it with ease! I was following Express Creek, and there were a couple of huts just a few miles in. Aspens gave way to pines, the road getting more and less rough in different sections. The road climbed as it headed south, arcing east until the trees started the thin out, where it made a sharper left before a hard turn to the right and I was on the last traverse to the top of the pass. Above treeline the wind was strong, especially since I was on the windward side of the ridge. Insight of the top, my confidence buoyed by the agility of the bike, and came to the top of the road and paused for a long while. At 11,929 feet Taylor Pass took in an incredible panorama. Other trails, too came into this junction, and it looked as though it saw a lot of traffic. I stretched, and walked around, finding the road sign pointing out, and spying Taylor Lake at foot of the pass on the southern side. Undaunted by the sign, which read “Taylor Park – 4 Mile” and “4 Wheel Drive – Only”, I surveyed the road ahead, climbed back aboard the bike, and pointed it down hill.
I’d been fairly conservative up until this point, decided to let obstacles be obstacles. But here, now, I had confidence in the bikes abilities, I knew where I would be once I was down this hill, and it seemed only the next 300 yards or so would be the hard part. Yes, it was steep. Yes, it was rocky. And yes, it was rutted out. But it was just 300 yards, and I could see the road flattened out once it reached lake level. Easy. Just ride the brakes and clutch, down in 10 minutes.