To Hell You Ride
The early onset of spring makes you think about doing crazy things. Perhaps, things that should be left undone, such as getting on a mountain bike and trekking over 220 miles of mountainous Colorado back-country and scorching Utah desert. I did the trip in August 2006 and have recently started thinking about organizing a six-year anniversary ride. Here’s a piece I posted on Adventure Journey in 2007.
* * * *
Your head is bent toward the trail where you stare a few feet in front of you. To look up is to see how much farther you must go.
A cold, steady rain has fallen for the last few hours but is giving way to a dense fog bank moving in from the west. Just a few minutes ago you could look across a valley onto a distant mountain range, but now, you can barely see 15 feet through the mist.
You shuffle forward, dragging your bike through the mud, over rocks too big to ride. You stop and lean heavily on the handlebars, pausing to stare at a patch of yellow wildflowers.
For a moment, you have the strangest thought of running in slow motion through an endless field of flowers. It would be nice to lie down in that patch of flowers and go to sleep. Actually, you think if you died right now, right there in that flower patch, there could be worse ways to go.
You won’t realize until much later that you’ve just imagined a scene from the Wizard of Oz — the one where Dorothy falls asleep in the field of poppies. If only Dorothy had known about those red shoes.
God, you wish you could tap your shoes together and find yourself somewhere warm and dry.
Anywhere, really, but all alone on that mountain.
* * * *
Breathing at 11,000 feet above sea level isn’t difficult by itself. But after you’ve pedaled and pushed a bike 14 miles up a mountain, most of it in a cold, soak-you-to-the-bone rain, every breath feels like sandpaper sliding down the back of your throat.
At that point, you mark progress in feet and yards. You feel like you’re in one of Dante’s circles of Hell — the one where you’ve been damned to push a boulder up a hill for the rest of eternity.
Except in this case, the boulder is a Specialized Rock Hopper mountain bike. And your only sin, really, was to think that a seven-day ride from Telluride, Colorado to Moab, Utah would be fun.
This was my Hell — cold, wet, exhausted and utterly miserable on the side of a mountain. The first day and I was ready to quit. Unlike my friends, James and Paul, I had no one to blame.
They, of course, could blame me.
It was my idea to fly out to Colorado, rent bikes and take on the famous San Juan Hut-to-Hut ride. We knew it would be tough: average 32 miles a day over mountains and through the desert, cut off from the civilized world, sleeping in tiny shacks with no running water or indoor plumbing.
But I don’t think any of us were quite ready for the shock of the first day.
We hadn’t really trained for this trip. Sure, we took the bikes out on the weekend and rode our local trails through scrubby, palmetto swamp. But that was back home in Florida, one of the flattest places on earth.
All the guidebooks say to get to Colorado a few days early to give your body time to get used to the altitude. The reality, however, is the three of us were already using up all of our vacation time for the ride. There were no extra days.
In the best of all worlds, we would have spent a few days hanging out in Telluride, a mountain resort that sits at 8,745 feet in the San Juan Mountain Range.
During the winter, it’s a bustling ski town. But during the summer, it’s a destination for hikers, mountain bikers, kayakers, climbers and those who come for one festival after another. Bluegrass music. Cajun music. Chamber music. Wine festivals. Even a festival celebrating mushrooms.
Not bad for an old mining town. They discovered gold here in the 1850s. That brought the first wave of white settlers. I imagine in those early years, Telluride was a wild frontier town, with saloons, whore houses and probably not too many mushroom festivals.
There are a couple theories on how the town got its name. One is that it was named after the metallic clumps of Tellurium found with the deposits of gold and silver.
But the story I prefer is that it comes from mashing together the phrase: “To Hell you ride.”
* * * *
The morning we rode out of Telluride, it was early enough that the main street was mostly empty. The paved bike path out of town had gentle slopes and would be the easiest four miles of the trip.
Each of us had saddlebags on both sides of our rear tires. In our packs, we carried extra water, Gatorade bottles, sandwiches, energy bars, an extra set of biking clothes, rain gear, extra tubes and tires, a first aid kit and a small camera. We also had backpacks with 2-liter hydration packs inside of them.
The weight didn’t seem like much until we got to the first incline, a straight 45-degree shot up Last Dollar Road.
As I leaned forward out of my seat, peddling into the incline, I could feel the blood rushing into my quadriceps. My legs felt like they were about to explode. I had to stop and push. We had gone less than a half of a mile up Last Dollar Road.
According to our directions, we had at least another mile and a half of climbing before we would reach the Telluride Airport. Some of the people who do this ride start from the airport.
We had scoffed at that idea. No cheating, we agreed. But here we were, not yet in sight of the airport and I realized that I might be in over my head. By the time we were eight miles into our ride, the idea of turning around and riding downhill back to Telluride was starting to creep into my thoughts.
At one point, before the storm clouds rolled in, we were resting on the side of the road when an old man, all wrinkled and bronzed, rode past us and smiled. This guy, probably in his 70s, pedaled up a stretch of mountain we had to push our bikes up. “You have to live here a couple years,” he said sympathetically.
* * * *
The ride itself, though physically demanding, doesn’t involve much technical riding. Most of the trip involves traveling across dirt service roads and double track through federal lands. Some of the trip takes you over paved roads, as well.
Despite, our struggles on the first day, you can complete the ride between huts with enough time to get in some single-track riding on trails that have been carved out around the huts.
Depending on what time of year you take the trip (the tour promoters book trips from May through September) weather can be your biggest concern.
Travel too early and you deal with the heat. Travel too late and you run the risk of freezing weather and snow at the higher elevations. We made our trip in August, which put us in the middle of the rainy season.
Rain can cause all sorts of problems. It’s cold, uncomfortable and saps your energy. The lightning, however, is a different issue.
Twice, we had to take shelter off the roads because of lightning. On the sixth day, after we had crossed over into Utah, we were on a plateau when we rode into the worst storm of our trip.
With lightning crashing down around us, we felt vulnerable and exposed on the dirt road and moved off into the brush, which was mostly dwarf oak.
Crouched under branches, we were wet and cold. The temperature had dropped into the 40s or 50s and we were starting to lose daylight.
We sat there for at least an hour before we decided that we had to risk the lightning or face hypothermia. The problem is that when we got back onto the road, the mud was so thick,we couldn’t ride. We had to push our bikes through the mud for several miles until we got off the plateau and into the La Sal Mountains.
By the time we got to the hut, we were caked in mud and exhausted but there was also exhilaration because we knew we had made it to the last hut of our trip.
I had mixed feelings that night about the trip coming to an end. I was looking forward to having a steak and a beer the next night in Moab but I was also going to miss the trail.
I was even getting fond of the huts.
The huts have bunks, sleeping bags, water and supply closets loaded with food. You won’t starve on this trip.
There’s canned soup, vegetables and all the canned meat you could want: chili, beef stew, corned beef hash, chicken and tuna. There were tubs of trail mix. Boxes of candy bars. Pancake batter. Peanut butter. Jelly. Bread. Even eggs, bacon and beer in the coolers.
Of course, we never had eggs. The cabins are stocked every couple days and in between, you’re at the mercy of the group of riders in front of you. We spent a few days cursing them for our lack of eggs.
I ate a warm meal every night, except for the first day when I was too exhausted to move. I had to force myself to open up a can of beef stew, which I ate cold out of the can.
The huts were small and cramped for the three of us. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we had had a full group of eight riders.
The elevated, compost crappers were built away from the huts and were much better than I had expected.
The bunks were padded and comfortable. We were asleep by 9 p.m. every night and awake by first light.
By the third day, we had our morning routine down. Fix breakfast. Fill our water bottles and mix our Gatorade. Make some sandwiches for lunch. Wash dishes and then clean up the hut.
* * * *
Here’s a blog entry I made before the trip:
In less than a month, I’ll be on a mountain bike somewhere in the Colorado mountains making my way toward the Utah desert.
This week-long biking adventure has been planned since last fall when I got the idea to celebrate my 40th year with some sort of he-man adventure. The idea was to prove to myself that I wasn’t ready for the over-the-hill gang just yet.
Two good friends will be making the ride with me. We’ll average about 35 miles a day, which by itself doesn’t seem so bad until you consider that we’ll spend as much time riding up mountains as we will coasting down them.
Then there’s always the slim chance of a freak snow storm or the more likely chance of some really nasty thunderstorms. Here’s what the guidebook suggests if we get caught in a lightning show:
If you get caught in one of these apocalyptic systems, hunker down with your rain gear on, deep in the forest (but not under a big tree!) and wait for the cell to pass. If you get caught out in the open, stay away from fences. Cows and horses caught out in these storms are frequently blown into the corner of a pasture or section of the range and get electrocuted by a lightning strike, occurring at times great distances away, conducted to them via wire fence . . . While your bike will not attract lightning due to its metallic structure, it is one heck of an awkward thing to be sprinting downhill next to, fleeing God’s wrath. . . . Set your bike down gently, kiss it goodbye for the next little bit, and run like hell for lower country or deep into a forest . . .
My original plan was to spend the several months before the trip getting myself into the best shape of my life. That’s now been replaced with the somewhat modest goal of maybe losing 10 pounds in the next three weeks.
I’m not really that worried, though I probably should be. But let’s face it, once I start this ride, I will have no choice but to finish. Besides the matter of personal pride, there’s the grim reality there’s no place to quit.
We’ll be out in the middle of a national preserve. Quitting means having to ride 40 miles out of the mountains to the nearest town.
I’m in this one for the duration.
* * * *
I think I was on the high school wrestling team the first time I heard the saying, “If it doesn’t kill you, it just makes you stronger.” That has always been a cliche that didn’t really have much value until after that first day on the mountain.
We didn’t die and we did get stronger. By the fifth day, my legs felt like twisted steel cables. We had pushed ourselves to the limit every day and were becoming accustomed to the altitude. We had been rained on five of seven days, taken refuge from lightning storms and pushed through mud so thick it looked like chocolate cake batter. There were no easy days on the ride but after the first day, we didn’t think of quitting again.
We were going to finish the ride even if we had to drag our broken bodies into Moab — which was pretty close to being true. If our bikes had been horses, we would have put them out of their misery at the end of Day 5.
Among our three bikes, we had one set of working brakes. None of our gears shifted properly. The chains were rusting and falling off with regularity. Two rims were bent and three tires had to be replaced.
Paul took the worst beating, crashing his bike on our descent into Moab. James went over the handlebars in Colorado when his front tire went flat on a downhill.
And though the trip wasn’t all fun, it did give us some of the most spectacular views any of us had ever seen. You had to remind yourself, sometimes, to enjoy the scenery.
Looking back on the trip a year later, it was one of the best times I’ve ever had.
The pictures we took don’t do justice to what we saw. Each day had its own special moments.
We climbed mountains, went through valleys and crossed over mesas. The sixth day we made a five-mile trek up through John Brown Canyon, the toughest climb of the trip. The payoff was the spectacular view from the top.
I’m not sure which vista was my favorite, though it would be hard to beat the view on the fifth day.
We made a screaming, 2000-foot descent down Uranium Road. It made me think of the Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disney World, except here, the red outcrops and cliffs were real.
When we came out of our descent, we rode under a pine canopy for a short distance and then turned a corner into a view that was so beautiful it almost made you cry.
I stood there for the longest time and soaked it in.
At that moment, alone with my thoughts, there was no place else in the world I would have rather been.
All photos by Joe Newman and James Carey.