08.05.11 – The Ups & Downs of Road & Reality

I spent my final night in Gunnison at Jim’s parent’s house just outside of town. They have one of the greatest views from the hillside overlooking Castle Rock. The first 25 miles out of Gunnison were rain-free and pretty easy. The first two climbs I encountered were called Little and Big Blue Mesa and the final was Cerro Summit. Each one was bigger than the next and to make things tougher, rain looked inevitable. A few dark clouds produced lightning here and there but they were north of me. Still, I sat for a while to track the clouds and make sure we weren’t going to cross paths. My reward for climbing Little Blue Mesa was an awesome descent into a narrow but lush green gorge. Big Blue Mesa was just a bigger climb but also a bigger descent. The final climb up Cerro Pass was as tough as I expected and to make it more “enjoyable” the DOT decided to place traffic barrels on the shoulder, requiring that I weave arbitrarily through them all the way up. I descended 14 glorious miles into Montrose and like I do whenever I don’t know where to eat, sleep or relax, I went to the bike shop for advice.

Donny has owned Cascade Bicycles for several years and gave me some route, food and beer advice. Before I left for the brewery that he suggested, Tom Barrett road up to the shop. Tom is a tall and older but very fit gentleman who I could tell clearly frequented the bike shop by the way he and Donny conversed. When no one else showed up for the weekly ride, Tom set out by himself and, in the process, led me to the brewery. As I finished up my burger and beer, Donny stopped in for a drink so I grabbed another with him. Just as he was about to leave, the bartender informed us a gentleman had bought us another round. Tom and his wife had arrived and I suppose noticed our near empty glasses. Before Donny left, he gave me local magazine with Tom on the cover. Reading the article, it seems I was in the presence of a local celebrity. I felt honored and welcomed into Montrose as I sat between Tom and Donny. Tom offered a lawn space for me but lived pretty far south. Before it got too late, we all shook hands and I headed down the riverside bike path to a nearby campground. At a rate of $20 I opted for the corner of a nearby field hidden under some trees. What I love about small towns is the ease with which stealth camping can be done so close to town.

I awoke in the morning and decided the sky needed a little time to clear up. At around 8am I took off and though the first couple miles out of town were paved, I knew the highway through Uncompahgre National Forest wasn’t. Tom and Donny said it was fine-packed gravel but after about 2 miles, it became a loose and muddy mixture of washboard gravel and dirt. Several times did I think that riding all day through a national forest with no places to get food or water was a bad idea. It took me until noon just to reach the summit (Montrose is 5500ft, the Uncompahgre Summit is 9500ft). I reached the peak at noon sharp and it immediately began to hail! It was small enough that I didn’t notice it at first but it was in fact hail. With serious cases of exhaustion and relief, I began to laugh and enjoy the madness that this weather added to my situation.. A jeep drove by and I flagged it down for some water. Thankfully they had some and graciously provided me two bottles. I ate the Subway sandwich I picked up before leaving town and after the rain passed, I began what I thought would be a fast paced descent.

Some of it was fast but most of it wasn’t. I almost hit some cows and nearly fell into a few pools of mud! The road was steep so I wanted to go fast but the mud and large rocks meant I couldn’t. I could feel the muscles in my forearms and hands suffering as they struggled to hold my brakes and steer to “good” sections of roadway. When I finally reached pavement, I could’ve dismounted and kissed it. Arriving in Naturita I went immediately to the campground, took a much needed shower and fell asleep after a big pot of my famous Chili Mac-n-Cheese. For the second day in a row, I climbed over 4000ft, the same amount as when I crossed the Continental Divide into Gunnison. If only people had warned me of more than just the Rockies!

In the morning I woke up and headed for Moab. I was excited to revisit a place from my childhood. The prospect of mountain biking with the same tour company from 10 years ago filled me with a lot of excitement and, unfortunately, a lot of expectation. I rode 25 miles down the entire length of a valley. At the end of the valley the road got closer and closer one of the valley walls and began to twist itself in and out of the crevices as it climbed up to the top. In less than 3 miles I climbed 1000ft with spots of 10% grade during one of the hottest places in my ride. About a mile from the top I stopped to talk to Eric Johnson, an older resident of the valley, who walks up the hill every day for exercise! Apparently I had just ridden through Paradox Valley, a collapsed anticline. A collapsed anti-who? Eric told me that this anticline was created when a high concentration of salt that had pushed up from underneath the earth’s crust was washed away, leaving the valley through which I had just ridden. Wikipedia told me that Paradox Valley took 150 million years to form, which is why the Dolores River was able to continue flowing during this slow process and “maintain its ancient course” perpendicular to the valley. I now understand why the valley abruptly ended and I was faced with this brutal climb to get out. After the climb out, I descended along the wall of an adjacent valley and was able to enjoy the amazing view. The descent lasted for quite a while and even when the road turned upward, it was quite slight and the lack of wind made it relatively easy. In the distance I could see the La Sal mountains an knew that my destination was just on the other side.

My first stop was the touring company with whom I had mountain biked 10 years ago. Wanting to recreate that, I talked with the owner who bought the company 2 years after I had been there. Upon telling him of my current ride and how I came to Moab specifically to “relive” my past adventures with them, the excitement was not quite reciprocated. He was excited to get me out on a bike but I felt like any old tourist wanting to go mountain biking. While I may not actually have deserved special treatment, I traveled specifically to Moab on a special mission that meant a lot to me and hoped to receive at least something resembling special enthusiasm to help me fulfill this mission. When it seemed I’d be sent out onto unknown trails alone, the thought of spending $50 for a XC bike or $70 for All-mountain was depressing. I left the store and headed for the Brewery to eat, drink, and think. So far, Moab was not turning out to be the adventure I was expecting.

At the brewery I met a bunch of interesting; some who were passing through town and a few guides for other adventure companies. Feeling a bit better about what else there was to explore, I decided to stay at the Lazy Lizard Hostel, which would be my first hostel on this ride. For $9 a night, I was provided one of several beds in house with a full kitchen. It turned out to be more like cooperative housing with a handful of season-long residents and many temporary residents like myself. While it might not have been the nicest of accommodations, it was quite clean and the people I met are what made it one of the best places to stay.

Shane, a gentleman in his late thirties, lived and worked at the hostel and would occasionally take a few weeks off to travel by bicycle around the western United States. Needless to say, we shared stories and I enjoyed hearing how someone else decided to steel around. I asked Shane about nearby places to hike and he pointed straight up the very cliff face that had ridden alongside into town. Hidden Valley was up and over this thousand foot valley wall. Instead of walking 3 miles south to the trail head at one end of the valley, he suggest I climb up the cliff face, claiming the existence of a seldom used trail. I search all the way to the top looking for signs of a trail but in the end I had found myself at the top having set foot on nothing resembling a path. At times, I had to scramble past certain obstacles and worried about the solidarity of the rocks on which I stepped. Thoughts of Aron Ralston entered and exited my mind as I made my way up but at a certain point I would have been more foolish to attempt going back down. Realizing this strengthened my determination to reach the top and before I knew it, I was standing inside the Hidden Valley. For an hour or so I walked around until I had a single bottle of water left. It wasn’t quite enough to get me back but now I know what it’s like to go without water for a bit! After a shower and an impromptu potluck with a few hostel-mates, sleep followed quite easily.

Jeremy and Brian arrived the next day to spend the weekend in Moab. Jeremy is exploring the country from San Francisco and eventually headed east to see his family. Brian, coming from Alaska on a rugged BMW motorcycle, is touring the western United States (www.hasadv.com). They invited me on a hike to a water hole and see some petroglyphs. It seemed Jeremy had been to this spot before and became our leader of sorts. I did my first cliff diving into the water (see the picture!) and when I got out, Jeremy had found some lovely girls to chat up. We tried to play it cool with the girls and went on our hike up to the petroglyphs but I’m pretty sure Jeremy and I were equally as interested in staying to talk with them by the water. Regardless, we walked up the middle of a small creek to a lesser known spot and after climbing up a steep embankment, found ourselves about 200 feet above the people jumping into the pool. It was an amazing view of the valley with sections that could pass as amphitheater style architecture. To see certain petroglyphs, you had to crawl along a 2 foot wide ledge with a 50-100 foot drop right next to you. To say it was terrifying is an understatement. To say it was exhilarating is also an understatement.

When we returned to the pool, the girls were still there and we all walked out together to our cars. We invited them to the bar but they invited us to hike with them at Arches National Park. Make more friends? See Delicate Arch? Yes, please. It was getting dark as we reached the arch and though many people were there when we arrived, they left as the sun went down and the 5 of us were left to enjoy the open space alone. In the distance, a thunderstorm sprinkled the sky with flashes of lightning so far away we couldn’t hear the thunder. It was a nice we to end my time in Moab, a relaxing evening under a “very unique” structure like the arch. Before I left, Jeremy and Brian and I exchanged numbers, group pictures and handshakes. I was happy to have run into other travelers looking to explore Moab on our own terms.

I had many tough hills and long days getting from Gunnison to Moab. I didn’t so much as touch a mountain bike while in Moab. While reliving my old memories may have been exciting, I ended up doing something totally different. In the end, new memories were made that I now cherish perhaps more than were I to have stuck with my original plans.

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