I am generally very tolerant of sleeping in less than ideal conditions. I’ve slept many hours in C-17’s and C-130’s, in jungles and deserts, in heat and in rain. But last night I could not get comfortable to save my life. The temperature was perfect, but I tossed and turned all night. I see now why “credit card camping” is so popular.
The altitude actually plays games with me this morning while I pack up my gear. Everything takes way more effort and I take many deep breaths between stuffing a tent or pannier. It’s amazing what I take for granted living near sea level.
I’ve already made plans to stop and stay tonight in Salida, Colorado. That means it’s not going to be a big day on miles, maybe 130 or so. The temperature fluctuations still baffle me today. I leave the camp spot and it’s 55° and not more than fifteen minutes away it’s 75° in the open. Those canyons where I camped really held the cold in. It eventually reaches a high of 100°. So much for escaping to cooler mountain temps.
I still haven’t reached any riding that I would call “technical”. There was a steep downhill section with some soft dirt, and another section that was silty, but overall none of it was difficult.
I didn’t stop to take a lot of pictures, just mostly enjoyed riding through the mountains at a relaxed pace.
I stopped in Westcliffe for breakfast but that affair took up about 2 hours of my morning. The food was good but I wasted a lot of time there.
I rode up and down between 10,000 and 7,000 feet and only ran into one issue. The cows were using the road so I had to wait for about forty of them to pass before getting up the hill.
I ended in Salida and the Arkansas River passes right through town. It’s a beautiful river that they have turned into a brown trout habitat and whitewater park for kayaking. I sat and watched kids and adults all take their turns in the rapids. I took off my adventure boots and socks and cooled my feet in the river.
Tomorrow I will hit Marshal Pass which marks the Continental Divide, and ride the TAT eventually into Lake City. Today was a short day so a short story. Tomorrow should hold better content for you to enjoy. Consider this a rest day.
Today was a day of quality over quantity in regards to miles. A day to take my time enjoying one of my favorite parts of the nation. It was also a day of unpredictable weather.
I began by heading west out of Silida towards Ponca Springs. A left turn and I start climbing quickly on highway 285 until my turnoff at Marshall Pass road. Here, I follow the small but picturesque Poncha Creek as is descends out of it’s 11,000ft headwaters.
Ideally I planned to split from Marshal Pass road and take the more challenging Poncha Creek trail and they will meet at the top of the mountain. I started up Poncha Creek for about a mile until I reached some flood damage where the creek had reclaimed the trail. It looked passable so I had a chat with a couple who were dispersed camping at the washout. They said they had explored further up the trail and there were two other spots they saw that were washed out before they came back. With a second rider this would be an easy decision to continue on and see for ourselves. Without the ability to do further intel on the condition of the trail I decided to take the main Marshall Pass road instead. Marshall Pass road is a scenic road, but one that is maintained in a way that soccer moms can claim they have conquered a pass of the Continental Divide. Not exactly the pass you brag to your friends about, but I take the requisite photos to prove I was there nonetheless.
Once over the pass I’m on the long decent down to Sargents, Colorado. Most people don’t know that beginning in 1880, there was a narrow gauge railway that went up and over Marshall Pass to link up rail traffic from Gunnison to Salida. It was operated by the Denver and Rio Grande Western. Sargents was the site where they staged the helper engines that were needed to get the trains up the steep grades. The reason I’m telling you this is that if you take the time to look around you can still find remnants of the original line. The roadbed and ballast can be seen in some areas, as well as footings and pilings of the old bridges that are long gone. I even saw one small bridge with narrow gauge rails still on it. In Sargents there is one remaining water tower dating back to 1937.
Sargents has a very small community of residents and even a post office. I can’t imagine the postal route takes more than 15 minutes on foot. Matter-of-fact, you probably have to come get your own mail. There is a modern gas station with a restaurant where I had breakfast. It was unexpected and really good.
From Sargents I head north, noting dark clouds building and approaching my path towards Lake City. I didn’t expect to run into weather until tomorrow. The route passes up and around the Cross Bar Ranch, it’s cows being begrudgingly courteous enough to let me pass.
It’s perfect season for wildflowers to be springing up along the dirt roads. At one point I can pick out five separate varieties in the same area. I pick up a few sprinkles but the darkest clouds are still in front of me.
As my dirt road passes highway 50, I have a decision to make about the weather. It’s about 50-60 trail miles to Lake City and it’s clearly raining between them and me. I don’t push my luck and instead make a right for the 20 miles to Gunnison. I can hide from the rain there.
There is a huge girls softball tournament going on in Gunnison and everything is sold out or overpriced. The same name motel I just stayed at for $75 was $325. I hit up the iOverlander app for some camping options and learn about Hartman Rocks. Free 14 day camping and awesome scenery. It’s just outside of town so I can easily come back in tonight for dinner. I roll up and start exploring the area. It’s not crowded for the weekend yet and I think the weather has people spooked. It’s supposed to rain Saturday and Sunday. Hey, the site is free and I can hide in my tent for a couple days while the Aussies catch up if it comes to it.
I pick a spot and as soon as I turn off the bike I notice a whitetail buck casually walking by in the rocks maybe a hundred feet away. The weather now is awesome. Sometimes a rain cloud passes over and cools things off, then the sun breaks out. It alternates like this all afternoon, as I lay in my tent letting the cool breeze pass through while listening to the rolling thunder that seems to be all around me but never threatening me directly.
If this spot had a couple of uprights for my hammock it would be perfect. Tomorrow’s forecast shows 100% chance of rain but I don’t think it will rain really hard. I’ll just play tomorrow by ear. Whatever it is, at least I’m riding my motorcycle.
I wake at 2 AM to the pitter-patter of rain on my tent. I’m warm and dry and surprisingly very comfortable and so the low rumbling of thunder echoing through distant canyons puts me right back to sleep.
The next thing I know it’s 0630 and I need to get a move on. The rain has passed for the time being and my rain fly dries before I pack it away. I try to keep my luggage organized but even so, I dread the morning pack up. Once buttoned up and my preflight checks are complete, I’m on the road 45 miles south to Lake City where I’ll pick up the TAT.
The road to Lake City is part of the Silver Thread Scenic Byway and it has scenery in spades. My head spins in every direction taking it all in. Every blink is like a camera storing a postcard in my mind. As I get close to Lake City I drop into a canyon just wide enough to build a road that perfectly follows the Lake Fork Gunnison River’s edge. It couldn’t have been more perfectly conceived if it was an amusement park ride. Soon after, I reach the north edge of Lake City. The canyon opens to small pastures of bright green grass, anchored by beautiful ranch houses. It’s too early for my favorite restaurant to be open so I grab an underwhelming alternative across the street.
I top off the tank and make my way to the beginning of the Alpine Loop. Not a route you want to take in the height of tourist season on a weekend. The “traffic” can be outrageous. But today there is hardly anyone out. I think the weather has them spooked and it’s not prime tourist season yet.
Initially the road is easy gravel, maintained for city folks and their city RV’s. I pass Lake San Cristobal and one last RV park. After that, a sign warns me of the serious nature of the road ahead and of particular note a mention of a lengthy delay for EMS to reach me due to the remote area I am headed. For a spit second an entire scenario plays out in my head. Something about broken bones and not being able to ride back out. In an instant the thought is gone. I need all my attention on the road. I really had no recollection from four years ago of how technical the terrain was up to Cinnamon Pass. And by technical, I am of course describing things from the point of view of riding a bike that with me on it, is putting well over 800lbs to the ground. My biggest disappointment today is that there is no way to stop and take photos of the rough stuff to show what I have to ride through. If I stop I lose precious momentum, and momentum is balance. I learned this riding tough Arizona trails and it serves me well today.
I am in a constant state of partial apprehension at not knowing how hard the route will become, and partial outright glee at passing each section. My focus is bouncing back and forth from near vision to far. Looking at the road ahead to plan my 5-inch wide ribbon of imaginary safe space between the rocks, and back to near vision to make sure I’m not going to misplace the front tire.
My confidence on the big heavy bike is higher than it ever has been before. I feel like I’m learning and applying what I learn at the same time. The rougher the road gets the more I learn what the suspension can absorb and it takes everything in stride. A few miles up I meet two older guys on a Honda CRF250L and a 300L Rally. We chat a bit and it’s also their first time. One is clearly more confident than the other. I pull out first and make good time. I wait for them at the split where you go left to American Basin or right to Cinnamon Pass. The sign warns 4 wheel drive beyond this point. There is only 2.5 miles to the pass but they are the steepest.
The guys catch up and I let them go ahead of me. The first switchback is tight and I almost bobble it but save it with a quick right wrist and a smooth clutch lever. There is a little congestion at the next section as uphill and downhill traffic alternate. The two guys on Hondas are still in front of me. The first goes up to the next switchback followed by the second. I can tell how the second gets off his bike that they are picking up the first guy’s bike. I’m waiting and watching. I don’t want to stop mid corner so I’m hoping they can continue and also looking for any indications someone may be hurt. I get impatient so I go up to check on things.
There is a little snow melt runoff and his tire slipped on a rock slab causing him to go down. No injuries, nothing broken.
This turn has three distinct lines. All with their own hazards. The outside line is the one you can use with momentum like a banked race track. But you can not take it slow or stop or you will tip to the inside with nothing but air under your foot. The second guy wants to go on this line. I can tell he’s timid about it. I stop him. I tell him he absolutely can’t stop or go slow and we both tell him the other line is safer. I see the writing on the wall and can only watch the inevitable happen. And it does. Like watching a Redwood fall in slow motion and just as violent when he impacts the ground. The gasp from the two of us watching sucked the remaining oxygen from the air at the 11,300ft impact zone. I’m sure I looked like I was blowing out a candle in reverse with my eyes closed. How there were no broken bones involved was pure luck. The meteor that killed the dinosaurs impacted the Earth with less energy.
We all take a moment to console and eventually lift the bike and clear the road. I have decided that once I get past this obstacle I’m going to the top. This is a situation that doesn’t need my help any longer. I know when to check out.
I pick my line up the middle and the bike crawls right up it. No thanks to me I’m just on for the ride, the bike knows what to do by now. I check on the two guys one last time and make my way up to the top. A few more switchbacks and I’m in the snow line splashing through streams that cross the trail from the melting remnants of winter. At the top is a simple sign reading Cinnamon Pass 12,640ft. No one here but me and so I take a picture and head down the back side.
I pretty much slide on tennis ball sized rocks the first 300ft. I’m conscious not to lock up my front brake but the back isn’t doing much either. I’m picking up speed and have no choice but to ride it out. Brakes won’t help on a mountain of baseballs. As I reach the bottom I exchanged glances with a wide-eyed Jeep driver. We probably had the same expressions. I thought the worst of it was over but the trail was basically an example of every type of terrain I would never willingly take a 650 pound bike on all the way to Animas Forks. And when I got to the bottom and could actually think about anything other than what I was doing, I realized that I just had the most incredible riding experience of my life.
At Animas Forks I look around and take photos, hide from the rain for a few minutes and wait for those two Hondas to show up. I waited around maybe an hour but I never saw them again.
Since it was raining and the rocks are getting slick, I decided to take the easier route to Silverton rather than try three more passes in the wet.
At Silverton the rain is off and on but not heavy and as I ride slowly down Main Street I hear the whistle of the Durango and Silverton steam locomotive at the station. I decided right then and there I had to ride it. So after a meal in town, I find a cheap motel in Durango and reserve my round trip ticket on the train. One of the pleasures of traveling solo is making snap decisions like that. I’m doing whatever makes me happy.
So tomorrow will be a rest day and then I’ll head to Moab to get back in the heat and do some red rock riding.
Enjoy the photos, Good night.
Day 18 of my TAT trip was a rest day from trail riding. I stayed in Durango and made plans to ride the steam train up to Silverton and back. I did this as a personal side trip and something I wished I had done in 2018. I won’t go into the details of the train ride since this is really a moto adventure, suffice to say it was worth the trip for me.