West and Back Again

Part 3 of 5
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This is a blog (in 5 parts) on my motorcycle trip west from upstate New York to southern Colorado -- and back -- in June-July 2007.

Monday, July 2: Colorado!

After the heat and wind of yesterday afternoon I was resolved to leave early in the morning. I was up at 5.

I had tea and lounged a bit, and rode around the park, which was huge, officially getting under way around 6:30. A hundred miles before breakfast. It was, however, already getting hot when I got back out at 11. I buckled down and knocked out the fifty more down to the Colorado border.


At last, the state I had been trying to reach. If I broke down now I could still say I'd pretty much made it. Moreover I was within Greyhound distance of my ultimate destination. No more hard decisions about whether to spring for a flight (and what to do with the motorcycle if I got one).

The land itself was a bit of a let-down. Drier than all but southernmost Nebraska, with fewer rock outcroppings and other interesting features as well. Somehow I'd always imagined Colorado's grasslands being green, but tans and browns were more prevalent. It was hot and dry. No shade anywhere, no relief.

Moreover there was lots of truck traffic on the road for some reason. Every time a semi passed it brought a great woosh of wind that I had to brace myself against if I wanted to avoid literally being blown off the road.

The whole procedure reminded me of surfing, where there's a maneuver called the "duck dive", used to get under a wave about to crash over you as you paddle out. The challenge and the reason it's a "maneuver" is you've got an abundantly buoyant slab of foam with you that also has to somehow make it under. Otherwise the board, and you attached to it by a rubber "leash", get washed back towards shore with substantial authority. So you push the nose down and more or less lever the board under the wave, like the opposite of a high jumper. If you pull it off you totally avoid the tremendous violence taking place above and get sucked forward out the other side of the wave to boot. A great feeling. The only problem is overcoming the reluctance to dive on the first paddle out of the morning, when your hair is still dry and the water cold.

* * *

I carried on, knocking off a hundred miles in Colorado before stopping for lunch. By now it was really hot (a bank display had said 97 at one point), and I stopped for as long as I could using the internet in the library and then dallying over lunch. These times are always a battle between the itching restlessness to move I wrote of at the outset and the repulsion of the hot weather, which will cool the longer I wait. At last the balance is tipped, my restlessness just barely outweighs the heat, and I suit up and get back on the bike.

250 miles down, 70 to go, but it was a hard 70. Temps rose to 100. I could take it as long as I kept moving -- but I wasn't so sure about the bike. I comforted myself by thinking that for a 300 degree object trying to cool down (my cylinder head) the difference between 80 and 100 degrees ambient was nothing. Hadn't done the math to verify this though...

After 30 miles or so I reached Fort Collins -- and suburban hell. It was a rude shock after all of the emptiness to be confronted by four lanes of traffic with stoplights every few hundred yards, Starbucks, Panera, and every other chain in existence. That it was 100 degrees didn't help matters. I could do without the stoplights in the beating sun, without the weaving speedsters not looking for motorcycles, without the 35 mile per hour speed limits.

It sure would have been nicer to be here back when Fort Collins really was a fort.

Unfortunately I wasn't, and although my map showed empty space between here and Denver, it was apparently out of date -- it was ALL suburb going down. I could see the Rockies off to my right, and desperately I searched my map for a way out there, but there were no roads. No alternative but to suffer mile after mile of suburban slog until I could finally get far enough south. And naturally I'd managed to hit it at 4pm, start of rush hour.

* * *

Finally I made it, and the road started heading up into the foothills -- but it brought no relief. In fact, the lack of suburban-planted trees out here made it even hotter than it had been below.

That was it, enough was enough. I pulled off onto a side road, found a gravel turnout area shaded by some trees, and collapsed to the ground. The bike and I rested an hour, until 6. It still wasn't any cooler, but at least the sun was a little lower, hopefully a little weaker. Able to contain myself no longer, I got back on.

This time just a few minutes more riding brought me to some real mountain roads at last, and a decent temperature drop. I was still worried about the bike, now having to work even harder to climb these inclines, but at least there wasn't much further to go.

* * *

I rolled into the first campground I found, nabbed one of its two remaining spots, and was happy. 8,500 feet already, and the air temp had dropped into the 60's as the sun went below the horizon.

A young couple with a dog and a big, beat-up SUV had the site next to mine. Suntanned, trim, and glowing with health and vibrant warmth -- I could just tell they were from around here.

We exchanged some pleasantries about their dog, and my motorcycle.

"So, are you guys from Colorado?" I asked innocently.

"Born and raised!" the woman, Brooke, outgushed.

"My first Coloradans," I exclaimed with nearly equal enthusiasm. It was true, I hadn't had an actual conversation with anyone in this state yet.

"Ah, so you too?" she asked.

Give me a break. You are a child of sunshine and mountain air. I am a white-faced, skinny, slouching bum from the east coast.

"No, New York."

"New York? New Yawk? Why don't you have that accent?"

I debated. No sense going into my life story. "I'm actually from the country upstate, not the city."

"Oh." She seemed disappointed.

"But I did live there for five years," I added.

"Long way from here," she said. Unmollified.

I saw they had beer, and I wanted it. But her husband came back and they seemed antsy to get back to setting up their camp. I talked to the husband, Mike for a bit. Brooke lit a cigarette.

What? This couldn't be happening. They didn't even sell cigarettes in Colorado, did they?

Unable to make any further sense of the situation, I left them to their business and retired to my own site.

* * *

320 miles.

Tuesday, July 3: Through the Rockies

I was up early to go for a run. I headed out on a trail from the campground that seemed to lead endlessly up into the mountains. Ah, now this was more like it! I huffed and puffed away at 8,500 feet.

Then an early start on the move. The bike and I were both recovered from the heat, and a full day of mountain roads was on the menu. At last it was time to do some riding!

* * *

Roads with lots of tight curves are called "twisties" in motorcyclist's parlance, and my bike loved to eat them up. It wasn't the best highway motorcycle, owing to its medium size (650) and lack of wind-abating fairing, but here it came into its own. I passed plenty of bigger bikes, riders' faces tense as they hauled their lumbering machines around the turns.

The only thing putting things off was the altitude. The air up here was thinner, upsetting the chemically balanced proportions of fuel and air feeding into the engine. My carburetors had an adjustment for this, "air screws" so called, and yesterday I'd brought them out half a turn. At 5,000 feet that was good, but here at 8,500 more was apparently needed. The bike felt sluggish. I went out another quarter turn. Giving it too much air was worse than not enough, because that would make it run hotter -- not good given Colorado temperatures. Fortunately this did the trick.

Twenty minutes hard riding brought me to my first town. Apparently here in the Rockies people settled even up in the high areas. Unlike, say, in the Sierras, where the heights were left for the bears and the pine trees.

The town of "Nederland" was a hippie haven. Colorful signs abounded, using words like "karma", "bliss", and "om". Bicycles zipped up and down the streets. Everyone looked healthy and glowing. More Coloradans. A nice place to go on a meditation retreat and learn yoga. I filled up with gas and motored on.

Next town, "Black Hawk" could not have been more contrastive. Casinos everywhere. Valet parking. Smooth red stone facades, everything looked new. Amusingly a sign entering the town said "Historic District". Well, history had happened here, apparently -- a few gold rush remnant mining structures outside of town attested to this -- but that slate had been wiped clean in the name of a far easier, and more lucrative, form of gold mining.

After this came "Leadville". Given the continuing mining theme in various parts of the intervening country, I assumed this referred to the metal. Again the town seemed to have remade itself in more recent eras, however, this time opting for a compromise between the hippie and yuppie positions: the quaint tourist town. This type of town's most distinguishing feature was a super-slow main street jammed with cars, half of which at any given time were looking for parking spots, and the other half which were stopped waiting for pedestrians to cross in front of them. The pedestrians, it goes without saying, always took their own sweet time.

That was about it for towns. The rest of the day included winding roads, as I've mentioned, evergreen forests, sprawling meadows dotted by black and brown cows in the distance, rushing rivers, lakes. Three times I climbed 11,000 foot passes to cross the divide; each time the road would dive back down, bottoming out around 8,000 feet (and uncomfortably warm) before starting on another climb. The Rockies here in Colorado were a vast, sprawling mass, not a narrow chain like typical mountain ranges. It was a world unto itself.

* * *

Finally I rolled into Gunnison, about the halfway point between here and Pagosa Springs, where I'd meet my friends. Gas for the bike, a Mexican dinner for me, and then out to a "KOA" campground outside town.

I'd never stayed at a KOA before, but they seemed to be a culture to themselves, gated enclaves with manicured lawns, always a little shop, and that yellow sign. I wasn't sure who camped at these things.

It turned out to be families. Families, kids, and more families. RV-dominated. Sites all on top of one another, like a parking lot with grass. Some trailers even had satellite dishes set up impromptu outside. I wondered why these people bothered coming out here at all. But it was a pleasant enough place to spend the night, albeit lacking trails or any other way to readily enjoy the surrounds. People went to bed early, I slept well, and in the morning I ran along the roads.

* * *

250 miles, plus 5 running.

Wednesday, July 4: Gunnison to Pagosa Springs

This morning another early start. Have to avoid the heat somehow. Ten miles in I hit the start of "the Gunnison" -- a thirty mile long canyon set aside entirely as a National Monument: "Black Canyon of the Gunnison". A giant gash through the heart of the Rockies -- just from looking at the map I knew it was going to be spectacular.

The area around the campground was very dry -- bordering on desert, in fact. As I approached the canyon it dried further still, until the landscape consisted entirely of beige and red rocks, jutting up as crags, crumbling down into boulder fields, and pulverized into sand. Finally, the river itself: black! Where hit by the sun the water was a deep, deep blue, but in the shadow the surface absorbed all light.

Meanwhile, the road coursed in sweeping curves following the edge of the river, penned between it and the canyon walls. I accelerated the motorcycle, leaning left, leaning right, rocketing forward.

The Gunnison!

Barely had I begun when I had to pull off. My route led south, while the canyon continued west. Ah, until another day! ("Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.")

* * *

The road headed up out of the canyon, up, up, and up. Another 11,000 foot pass and a descent later, I came to a stop in Lake City. The highway was the one road through town, closed for a 4th of July parade.

I couldn't believe they were allowed to close the main highway. "No way through, and no place to get breakfast? Everything closed?" I asked a woman at the gas station.

"Yup. It's a pretty big deal for the town..." she said.

"This is a small town..." explained another person, almost apologetically.

I found a mini grocery store with a deli still open and asked if they could make me a sandwich.

"Sure, I can do that. What kind of bike ya got?"

It was a tall, grey-beared man with a Texas accent. Why did Texas people always sound and seem so friendly? Judging by capital punishment statistics and the war-mongering temperament of politicians hailing from there, they were the cruelest state in the union.

"A vintage bike, actually -- 1978 Kawasaki. KZ650."

"Wow, now that's a bike! A little small for the highway though. How're you liking the ride?"

"Pretty well, now that I'm around here! On the highway though I take it easy though -- maybe 300 miles a day."

"That's not bad. I've got a Kawi 650 myself. A little newer, 1992. KLX."

"KLX.. not the KLR.. is that a dirtbike?"

"Dual purpose, on road and off."

"That sounds great for around here." Thinking of all the dirt roads I'd been seeing branching off the main highway.

"It's actually a bit big, but it works. I can be in Silverton in an hour. That'd take YOU 180 miles by road. Drop down into Ouray in 90 minutes. Heck, Durango's only 60 miles, as the crow flies."

"As the crow flies," he repeated, grinning and looking me in the eye.

I had to admit he had the advantage. I'd had to plan my entire two-day route through Colorado based on whether we were going to meet in Durango, as we'd first planned, or Pagosa Springs. Now that I was committed to the latter path, I couldn't even think of making it to Durango.

He went on, "When I first came here, I was on a Goldwing. Couldn't even get down the driveway from my house if I was riding two-up. I sold the thing and bought a four-wheel drive."

"Sounds like a good move."

They were hurrying to close so they could go watch the parade, so I paid and left to do the same. I had nothing ELSE to do.

* * *

First came the emergency brigade -- police cars, fire engines, even ambulances flashing their lights, blaring their sirens. I think every small-town parade begins with this. Then some folks on horseback, animals under varying states of control. Then jeeps, ATV's, and motorcycles. Decked out in red white and blue to the last, as were half the audience. "Happy birthday, America!" some called out joyously.


Then came a long float with a brass band. I'd seen this earlier filling up at a gas station and had been looking forward to some oompahs. But evidently they'd played their one song and were oompahed out by the time they got to us, the end of the line, so they just went "boom-boom" on the bass drum.

And then all manner of other miscellaneous floats, many sporting names of local businesses (great opportunity for advertising), occupants throwing out candy to the kids. Every last piece of this was picked up without fail. If kids were too far away the adults would rush in. One time a piece fell near me and I made a move for it, but was beaten while still feet away by a skinny old lady.


I photographed what I could, ate my sandwich, then eagerly remounted the bike as the proceedings tailed off. Small town America. Love it or hate it, it lives on.

* * *

Now less than a hundred miles remained. One more pass, more meadows and peaks. Everywhere I looked into the distance looked like the picture on a beer can. Close up, things often looked even better.

At the top of the final pass before Pagosa I hit the first serious rain of the trip. I tried to tough it out for a while, hoping I could just ride through it, but we seemed to be skirting along the edge, catching it repeatedly as it slowly advanced. Finally I capitulated and donned my rain gear. I knew from experience this was the surest way to bring any precipitation to a rapid end. And sure enough, the laborious ten-minute stop did the trick this time as well. A few more drops here and there, and then clear sailing. Another five minutes to take it all off again, once I was sure we were in the clear.

* * *

In Pagosa Springs I checked into the most luxurious motel I could afford -- hot tub, pool, A/C, and wi-fi. And made it blissfully to unconsciousness a few hours later. All this time I'd been starved for human contact, but now that I was in a town full of humans I was overwhelmed. Or just dead from all the traveling.

* * *

190 miles, plus 5 running.

Total distance out: 2635 miles, in 11 days: 240 avg / day.

Thursday, July 5: Pagosa Springs

Today, for the first time since leaving, I didn't have to move. My friends were due to arrive in the evening, and I had only to run an errand or two and await them.

In the morning I busied myself with the motorcycle. An oil change was needed, along with a chain-tightening and a general going-over. When finished with this I gave it a thorough cleaning for good measure. It was the halfway point, and time to bring everything back up to snuff. The bike still didn't seem to like the altitude, but it had done everything I'd asked of it, and overall it was still running beautifully. I took care of it so it would continue to take care of me.

I wandered around the town a little bit. Various categories of people were here: scruffy backpackers and scraggly-bearded thru-hikers doing the CDT, yuppie-ish inner-tubers and whitewater rafters, hunter and fisherman types, walk-about-town tourists, grizzly, leather-chapped Harley motorcycle riders who never wore helmets, the odd European couple. And the people who lived here: glowing Coloradans mostly.

I didn't seem to fit into any of these. I rode a motorcycle and wore leather while doing so, but was too clean cut to be a Harley rider. Besides, I wore a helmet when on the bike and removed my leathers when I was off. On the other hand, no backpacker rode a motorcycle. That much was absolutely clear. I felt closest in temperament to the locals, but of course I lacked that tell-tale glow. I could only be a tolerated imposter in their circles at best.

So I mostly kept to myself, relaxed, and waited for my friends to arrive.

For the next week starting tomorrow morning, I would be up in the mountains, carrying all necessities of life on my back. Away from civilization, even the internet.

* * *

0 miles.

Friday-Wednesday, July 6-11: Backpacking San Juan Wilderness







Wednesday, July 11: On the Road Again (Poncha Springs)

"Are you sure you want to stay here?" asked the lady behind the counter.

I considered. I'd just ridden 70 miles, the first 30 through pouring rain, the last 40 through high winds. After hiking 5 miles in the morning. Storm clouds boiled above the mountains I was heading towards, visibly dropping precipitation.

Two police officers stood by the gas station counter, holding a tense discussion with some people behind it. There were more people there than there should have been, most of them manager types. The best guess was that a crime had been committed.

Outside the town was a dead zone. I'd passed through several tourist towns hopping with motels and restaurants before, but had wanted to get to this one to make some decent distance and dry off after getting soaked.

But whatever economic forces had led this town to form had long been spent. A lone gas station and a few dilapidated buildings stretched along a couple of hundred yards between the sign naming the town (Saguache) and those describing the main highways leading out of it. One sign said "business district" and pointed right, but a glance down that street hadn't revealed anything but more dilapidated buildings, and I'd declined to investigate.

The woman was middle aged, short, with long black hair, Hispanic-looking, but with no accent. Her teeth had seen better days.

"Go around the curve and on your left you'll see the Big Valley Inn," she said. Her question had been rhetorical, but the meaning was clear. "Only place in town."

"Thanks," I told her. I went outside and looked around. I really wanted a laundromat, internet cafe, and restaurant in addition to the motel. None of which were visible.

You can't have everything.

I climbed back on the bike and fired up, exited the gas station. Around the curve and I saw a restaurant, some kind of "Mexican - American" affair. Barely still open -- if it was open. Iffy. But better than nothing.

Then the motel. It looked sort of OK. Clean. In decent repair. One pickup truck in the lot. I parked the bike and went up to the office. Closed. A handwritten sign / note saying "Mr. Preis, your room is #1, unlocked, with the key in it." Another note below this: "For a room, please call 719-655-2524. - Lorraine."

Great. So everyone's supposed to have a cell phone, right? Yeah.

I looked around for a payphone. Nothing. Pretty lame, but with the amount of business around here, understandable I guess.

I thought for a minute. Then looked over at room #1.

I knocked to be sure, but the pickup truck was parked halfway across the lot. No answer, and I went in. An OK room, I supposed. But no phone. I checked twice.

"655-2524," I thought. Did I really want to do this? I looked back up at the mountains. Ugly.

I thought about just camping out in room #1 until someone showed up. But that had the chance of leaving me in a worse position than before. Mr. Preis might not have a cell phone either. And be mad.

I got back on the bike, turned around, rode back towards the gas station. Another sign saying "business district this way" popped up. This time I took the turn.

Well, Virginia, it turns out ghost towns do exist. Three straight blocks of shut storefronts. Weird warehouse-like building fronts on a main street. It reminded me of East New York in Brooklyn. Or maybe downtown Detroit. I've never tried, but I don't think you want to be caught alone in either one at night. One glass window was painted, in best old-fashioned storefront style, "Albert Kutcher, Drug Dealer." I couldn't quite laugh. Hurriedly I rode back to the main highway.

I looked up at the grey-black sky above the mountains again, trying to find some way to talk myself into riding into that. But couldn't.

Back to the gas station. The cops were outside now, looking suspiciously at me in my black leathers. I ignored them. No phone was visible, and I went into the shop. Behind the counter was even more of a furor before, the manager types and peons all talking excitedly. I couldn't see a phone in here either. I stood and waited at the counter until the original woman broke away from the confusion and asked me what I wanted. No signs of recognition or memory of our conversation from ten minutes ago crossed her face.

There was a public phone on the side of the building. I went back out. An old man was filling a one gallon wine bottle from one of the gas pumps. Whatever. I dialed the 800 number from my calling card.

"Please deposit 25 cents."

Great. I fumbled through various pockets, found no quarters. Aren't 800 numbers supposed to be free?

Back in, past the suspicious cops. Another wait until someone broke away from the hubbub, this time a big, young white woman. I gave her a twenty and got $19 and four quarters. Went out and dialed again, directly this time. Six rings, then a voicemail. I left a message giving a piece of my mind, but nicely.

I looked up again at the darkness boiling above the mountains. Poncha Pass ahead. No choice now.

Back to my bike, the man from before is pouring the gas from a wine bottle into a plastic jug. He glances up, I look at him quizzically.

"Stupid government rules. No glass, they say."

I look at the plastic jug, recalling a former occasion when I'd seen a similar vessel dissolved by gasoline. "I don't think that's much better."

"It's worse!" he exclaims. And goes on a further tirade about the government and rules.

I shrug and get back on the bike. I've got more serious matters to worry about. I motor out of town, steeling myself for the wet ahead. So much for my clever ideas of drying off.

I head east for 10 miles. A turn north, into the mountains and the rain, waits ahead. Suddenly, a sign: camping, 1000 feet. I start debating: that rain will come down here for sure, but maybe I can have my tent up by that time. Better than riding through it! When I get to the side road and see a sign mentioning "laundry, showers", that seals it.

I turn off onto a dirt track. My bike's not really set up for this surface, and after a brief scare trying to do 30, I slow it down and eventually make it a half mile to another turn. After this one I pass a series of junk yards, closed tractor repair places, and general dilapidation.

Not a warm fuzzy feeling here.

At last I roll up to the campground itself. Lots of cars around, a strange-looking brown building. No sense of nature surrounding. I pause for a minute. A vortex of decay and stagnation waits to suck me in. Perhaps unsavory types also wait, to steal my cash, wreck my motorcycle. It just doesn't feel right.

So I turn around and ride the mile back out to the main road. Only 15 miles more to Poncha Springs. Maybe I can dash through the storm sections.

* * *

Indeed I can! First I hit the rain. It's not too bad, I've got my rain suit on. I hunch behind the windshield and up the speed a bit, for the road remains good. Then I see up ahead the surface gets wet. Almost like a line. First it's dry, then past a certain point, wet. Too late now, I'm committed. I hurtle onto it, letting off the throttle only a bit.

And the rain abates.

Simple -- the rain has already been here, so the road is wet, the rain has already been here, so it is leaving. I lance forward, seeking the place where the rain has left long enough ago for the road to have dried out.

And find it.

Down, down from the pass now, exulting in my good fortune, until I find Poncha Springs, and a little motel and a clean room with wood floors. I bring my things inside, cover the bike, and walk across the road to a Mexican restaurant. Sometimes it's the simplest things that bring the greatest pleasures.

* * *

4.5 miles walking, 100 miles riding.

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