In 2018, I wrote an article about riding the Colorado Trail for Elevation Outdoors.
You can find it here.
In 2018, I wrote an article about riding the Colorado Trail for Elevation Outdoors.
You can find it here.
Holy cow, where has the summer gone to? Seems like Memorial Day was just a couple days ago.
Wanna know what I’ve done this summer? (I know. I’m sooo self-involved. Many apologies.)
Well, I: Hung out at a literary festival, saw a moose, watched my girls play a lot of awesome tennis, went camping, almost hit a deer while driving, face-planted on a rock while riding, read a lot of poetry (Muldoon, Lowell, Olds, Tretheway Hass), wrote some poems, celebrated a new book, taught a few classes (confessionalism, scenes/passages, art museum writing sessions).
And I’ve been riding a fair amount. Not as much as I would have liked–what else is new–but enough to keep me sane. Relatively sane.
Here are some images. I hope you enjoy them.
Enchanted Forest trail at Apex.
Me and shadow.
Elk! Hiding behind a pole. (You can still see her.)
Poison Spider Trail, Moab. (I crawled on my hands knees at a few points.)
Rainbow. White Ranch.
Every year I get to spend a week up in Grand Lake, Colorado, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. And every year I sojourn back to two trails I like very much: the Grand Lake Metropolitan trail network, and the Gilsonite to Wolverine Trail, which courses through the remote Arapaho National forest.
One of the things I enjoy most about this is the almost eerie back-in-time quality about riding a trail only once a year, at the same time of year. Much is different about these routes; much is the same.
The Grand Lake trail network leads all the way to the headwaters of the Colorado River, and each year I’m eager to see how the river is running. A few years ago, after a very snowy winter, the River churned and wrestled its way past with great violence–and, what seemed to me, a deep self-confidence. As if it were saying something like, I am the Colorado River, Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
The past two years, however, the Colorado’s confidence has been shot. It’s more like a shy little creek than the tributary that carved out the Grand Canyon.
Just to show you, here are some images from this year.
Yes, this is the mighty Colorado. Notice all the dead trees.
For images of the River in 2010 and 2011, visit a previous post here:
I thought the texture of this burned-out tree was pretty cool. Reminds me of Clyfford Still’s paintings.
An above treeline meadow.
Riding into the sky–on the Wolverine Trail.
The Gilsonite to Wolverine Trail hasn’t avoided the sad transformation that nature (and climate change) can wreak. Last year the trail was closed due to logging activities. This year, I hardly recognized the place—what used to be deep forest is now denuded open space. The number of felled Lodgepole Pines is staggering—they littered the landscape like some massive game of pick-up-sticks. And the mountainsides that haven’t been cut are now a deep gray, almost purple color, filled with dead trunks whose green needles long ago turned red, then fell. (This is, as you may know, due to Pine Beetle infestation.)
But once I got high enough—around 12,000 feet—it was as if I’d traveled back in time. The same thin ribbon of trail steeply gaining on an open meadow, the same rocky singletrack running along a ridge and up past treeline, the same snowfield and amazing view that fills me with a bliss that I can’t describe.
It’s funny, because this week I’d used sections of E.B. White’s classic essay, “Once More to the Lake” for a class I was teaching at the Lighthouse writer’s retreat. In the piece, White keeps suggesting that “there had been no years” when he visits a lake he use to frequent as a child. But then, gradually, his assertion begins to ring hollow, and he is forced to admit that yes, there have been years. It’s a beautiful essay about the endless forward hurtling of time, and the ways that things do change, and yes, how our children become us, and we become our parents—or to borrow a line from poet Sharon Olds:
…. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.
Nothing ever stays the same, and watching that happen is beautiful, and a little bittersweet, too. That river isn’t going anywhere, nor are the mountains and meadows of those trails I’ve been returning to. But someday, I won’t return.
Now that’s something I don’t really want to think about. Maybe I’ll just look forward to next year.
Yesterday, while riding up a trail called Mayhem Gulch at Centennial Cone (great names, aren’t they?—but that’s another story), I think I (brilliantly, amazingly) developed a new kind of essay: a chain.
Riding is good for such deep, creative musing.
Anyway, a chain essay is a linked series (duh), connected by an idea, image, or concept. And the ending has to loop back to the beginning somehow.
This new form is perfect for writing about riding, of course.
Speaking of marine animals, I’m not a big fan of the band Phish, but I fondly remember teaching freshman comp back in the early 1990s, when about half of my students wanted to write the following essay: “Why Phish is the Greatest Band Ever.”
A collage(ish) memory: lots of slackerish types, slouched in cheap stacking office chairs. Lots of corduroy and long hair. Chunky black boots. The dudes and gals abide by Grunge. Rain, in Boston. Slush. Carrying around a large stack of papers to grade in a soft leather briefcase. The Internet wasn’t ubiquitous yet. (Man, that’s so weird to realize.)
Listening to KBCO while driving to work the other day, as Brett Saunders chatted with Trey Anastasio, he of Phish fame, I got a big kick out of Trey talking about biking in Central Park. Especially how some riders look and act like they’re world class athletes, with the fancy gear they wear, and how they blast by, yelling things like, “on your left” or “get the frick out of the fast lane!”
And here’s a note on the woman who placed fourth in the Olympic road race—the one that probably flies by Trey every morning in Central Park, the one he talks about:
Things were looking good for her—she was in the lead pack—until an unfortunate flat dropped her back. Though she still finished in seventh place.
Here’s a Youtube video of Trey performing his song about cycling slowly, “Let It Lie.” With the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
I got two flats while riding home from work the other day. I had to call my wife to come pick me up ( I only had one tube). And then I thought I lost my wallet somewhere out on the trail home, maybe fallen out of my jersey as I tried to fix the flats. So I called and canceled all my credit cards. And then two days later, my wife found my wallet, stuck between our bedspread and the bedframe.
All because of the flat tires. It makes me want to scream.
Here’s that biking song, which is quite pretty, and unlike grunge, has no screaming in it.
Speaking of video, and the Olympics, I just loved watching the mountain bike race. There are some wicked technical sections on that course. These guys are no slouches.
Yesterday, like I said, I rode Centennial Cone, around 18 miles worth. I’d only ridden it once before. Which made it awesome—a loopy singletrack that’s new and fresh and tasty, with steep, exposed sections, rambling forest loops. Just about everything you could ask for. Kind of like a race course.
(Note: This dispatch was originally written in April 2012, during a trip to Grand Junction.)
It wasn’t easy, but I’d conquered my fear—mostly—of Zippety-Do-Da, one of the more exposed trails in Grand Junction/Fruita area. I’d ridden all of the spine of Zippety—a very narrow singletrack that runs along the Bookcliffs, undaunted by the long drop-offs on either side. (This vid gives you a good idea what Zippety’s like.)
Geologic note: the Bookcliffs are capped with a hard layer of Mesa Verde Sandstone and the side slopes are comprised of Mancos shale. I am no expert, but I believe that the sandstone is very tough and resilient, and the shale is less so, which is why the Book Cliffs—which is part of the Grand Mesa formation—has the look it does. The top layer protects the rest from erosion, but when things do erode, they erode from underneath, causing the sandstone to break off in pieces, creating cliffsides. From far away, they look like open books, standing with their spines in the air, which looks cool—like a series of rooftops—though that’s very bad for the long-term health of the book itself.
Last time I was there, a few years ago, I’d walked most of the exposed sections. This time, I rode them Slowly. But I made it, and didn’t let my fear of heights overcome me.
All except for what’s known as “The Turn” which is narrow, rocky, loose, and curves around a cliff itself. As you get close, you can’t see where you’re going. It looks as if the turn will take you off into nothing but air. I walked that part.
But not too far—maybe twenty feet—so I was feeling pretty cocky and sure of myself. “I am a badass!” I shouted into the empty air. (No one heard me. It was 3:00 PM on a weekday and I’d seen only a handful of other riders all day.)
I kept saying “I am a badass!” to myself all the rest of the night. For dinner, I rewarded myself to a medium pizza from a local shop (salami, pesto and red sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoncini—absolutely delicious), and I ate the whole damn thing. Like a superior mountain biking dude would.
Totally rad, I was.
The next day I was still feeling frisky so I decided to try one of the “More Difficult” trails off Exit 15, along the mighty Colorado River. Heck, I’d done pretty well on Mary’s Loop earlier in the week, so I was ready to kick some burly, manly singletrack.
I hopped on a jeep road and headed toward Colorado River, turning onto the Mack Ridge trail, which would lead me on to Lion’s Loop—both of which I’d never ridden before.
Have I mentioned that I don’t like heights? That I’m mildly acrophobic? If I have something to hold on to, or if there’s an easy out—splaying out on the floor, flat on my chest, arms and legs spread-eagle—I’m pretty much okay. Or if I’m skiing, I’m not so afraid because I can actually take the leap and carve my way down the slope. (That silly glass “skywalk” over the Grand Canyon is the stupidest thing ever made.)
I’d read somewhere this about a fear of heights: it’s not the height that you’re scared of, it’s the overwhelming feeling that you will actually make the leap. Not that I’m suicidal or anything, but that’s kind of right: when I’m up high, I feel like my body is somehow magnetically attracted to the edge, and wants to get closer, closer, closer. (Just typing this makes my heart quicken.)
Mack’s Ridge starts out hard—narrow, rock-strewn, technical. I went slow, balanced well, and made it over most stuff, though I got hung up once and pitched over because I didn’t clip out in time, bashing my left forearm and giving up some skin to the Colorado River gods. (Cursing and spitting, I loosened the grasp of my clipless pedal so that wouldn’t happen again, freaking A.)
I continued. Going up, and up, and edging gradually closer and closer to the ridge overlooking the Colorado River.
Then, the trail eased up and opened up for a bit. And then: it turned toward the ledge. And stayed there.
I’m all for riding up high, but does the trail need to be inches from a 300-foot drop?
On Mack’s Ridge the answer is: Yes. Yes it does.
And you can’t ride off trail because the soil upslope is a rare and special cryptobiotic soil, which is supposedly incredibly sensitive to trauma, and takes 5,000 years to set up. Ride over it and you kill it. Kill it, and the soil that’s stable and well-formed can turn to sand in a few years, ruining the trail, the mesa, the entire landform.
Plus, it’s like riding in loose sand, because, in fact, it is a kind of loose, flaky crust. And that’s no fun.
Ride on the trail, and if you tip over cliffside?
Simple. You die.
The alternative: ride scared on the trail, leaning upslope as much as possible, your tires as far away from the ledge as possible. This works. However, you risk:
I almost did both 1. and 2. Several times. Before I clipped out and began walking the really exposed sections.
After a while, it clouded up and the wind started whipping against me and my bike. When the trail curled away to safe riding, I rode. When it curved back toward the edge, I walked.
Gradually I was walking more and more until I was so freaked out I couldn’t imagine riding at all. At which point walking then became difficult.
So there I was, all alone on this cliff–I can’t even call it a ridge at this point–three feet from eternity. Frozen and scared witless.
I’ve never had a full-on panic attack, but I got pretty close right then. Yet I knew fainting would very bad up there, so I made sure I kept breathing. Deep long draws. And that helped a lot.
And then I told myself that this was stupid, and no fun, and I should never do this kind of trail again. That I was fucking stupid idiot, and not a very good rider, either.
I turned around and carefully lifted my front tire and spun my bike around on its back tire—becoming disoriented and totally losing all sense of balance for a moment, almost dropping my bike into oblivion—and began a slow walk back to a safer part of the trail.
This is what I must have looked like: a very old man. Tiny steps, more like shuffling. In black socks. Hunched over, totally focused on those baby steps, trying not to see anything peripherally. (Cliff, cliff, cliff! River way down below.)
It was all very humbling. I must say, I am a pretty humble guy in general. Well, except for the day before when I was blustering to myself—bragging in my own head about how well I rode Zippety, and how, really, there’s not much left out there to challenge my immense and impressive bike skills.
Yeah, as if.
At that point, crawling back to the trail junction with Lion’s Loop, a crow should have flown into my mouth.
Just beyond the bike, the rock ledge ends and there’s nothing but air.
Mood shot. The distance down to the river isn’t clear in this pic–let’s just say that it’s way the frick down.
(Note: I’m on a three-day solo trip up to Summit County to check out some of the riding there, and to do lots of writing. I hope to get three rides in, depending on weather, and to camp. All by my lonesome.)
It’s around 5 PM, and I’m sitting in a denuded campground along Route 9, which leads from Summit County to Steamboat, waiting for the blazing sun to lose its power so I can stop hiding in the shadow of my trusty old Subaru. The sky is that distant, gigantic Colorado blue, and the sun is a gold circle burning like a god who wants to warm the world but doesn’t understand the frailty of us, her worshippers.
While driving on the way out from Denver, a series of deep thoughts (Jack Handy-style, full of hokeyness and dripping with earnest feelings!) came across my brain and hit me with sledgehammer force, most notably this simple truth: the most precious thing in this world is to love and be loved.
Can you hear the violins playing a sweet, delicate symphony? I did. Still do. (Go ahead, fellas, and revoke my Man Card. I dare you.)
Why I must build the complicated machinations of going away by myself in order to recognize this truth, I don’t know. But I have my suspicions.
Distance from those you love—while you’re all by yourself, imagining them going about their day, without you—is enough to break your heart when you realize that you should, and will, be there. Because there is no other place on earth where you more belong.
And perhaps that is why I love to ride off into the wilderness, to get away, to get above treeline and to scare the wits out of myself. For the sheer work of it, of course; for the strong dose of adrenaline, too; and the beauty of nature, the endless challenge, to be sure. But also this: it takes me away from those I love and need, and allows me to see them for the foundation of my entire being that they are. All of them. Blood relations, life partner, friends. And dog. And Hamsters.
Sure, the world would get along fine without me, whether I am dead or have run away (a youthful obsession of mine) or merely slogging up a trail between Keystone and Breckenridge. But I don’t want to get along without the amazing world I’ve somehow found myself in the middle of.
Sometimes I need a good reminder of it all; going away and then coming back home does just that. (Never, ever, take your life for granted. That would be very stupid, Mike you too, gentle reader.)
Now the sun is trailing low along a ridge and soon she’ll be gone. The body of water in front of me—the Green Mountain Reservoir—is calm. Occasionally a fish leaps out and breaks the surface. Thankfully, my campground neighbors have turned down their loud music, and the hum of Route 9 is easy, hushing. I rode 25 miles today, climbed over 3,800 feet to around 11,200 feet above sea level, and my body and mind are beat tired, but grateful. Tomorrow and the next day, I’ll have more mountains to climb. All by myself.
And then I’ll rush home to my real wonderful life.
Now, for some images….
On the way back down, finally.
Colorado Trail, near Breckenridge–up Tiger Road, on the way to Georgia Pass. It was smooth and soft like buttah, as they say.
Campground pic–with my trusty old Subaru.
Last year during a visit to the high country in Grand Lake, Colorado, I rode some really fun new trails created by the Grand Lake Metropolitan Recreation District, just a short jog from the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. (On the way there, I saw a moose, just off the road. Such is life up in the Rocky Mountains.)
Tight, twisty, rocky, in the midst of a lodgepole pine forest, the trail is a complete blast. Lots of slow riding, shoehorning around pines and over rocks–sometimes jamming up against the trees and getting hung up. Riding there is a full contact sport, and I have the scratches and scrapes to prove it.
Last year I also ran into a bear, staring at me from around 30 yards off the trail. (My first thought: Wow, what a beautiful statue of a bear. Wait a second, the fur is blowing in the wind. Oh. Crud. That’s not a statue. That sort of mind-slogging at the unreality of it.)
Needless to say, I didn’t get mauled. I stopped, stepped back, my disc brake squealed lightly, and the bear turned away slowly, seemingly thinking, eh, the hell with it.
And then he disappeared.
The other highlight of this trail is that it crosses a rocky ridge and drops down to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Yes, the Mighty Colorado, the river that carved the Grand Canyon. I was excited to see the beginnings of this amazing serpentine ribbon of water; but I was surprised, and disheartened, a bit, to see how unmighty the River actually was. (Note the small puddles of water and dry river rocks.)
That was 2010.
Year 2011 is a completely different story. The snow season in Colorado has been heavy; even now in July, there are more white-capped peaks than I’ve seen in the 15 years I’ve lived here.
Which means that the rivers are the highest they been in a while–highest in 40 years, some Grand Lake locals have said.
Riding the same trail just a few days ago gave me that odd sensation of slipping back in time, to see the same narrow singletrack, the same rocks, the same trees, that I’d seen last year. How odd and wonderful, to gain the sensation that this place has been there through an entire year, waiting for me to return, and that it hadn’t changed at all.
Except for the Colorado River.
Here’s an image from the very same bridge, almost exactly a year later:
You can call it climate change, you can call it the natural variety in weather. Either way, it’s impressive. And it reinforces that old truth–one I’ve always loved to ponder: Nature does not care about us. It does what it does. And it’s gorgeous, and it’s haunting.
PS One more pic, of the rushing 2011 water.
PPS Every year I spend a week up in Grand Lake at the Lighthouse Writers Retreat, which is always a fun and thought-provoking time. Thanks to all those wonderful writers who were there this year–you’re a tremendous inspiration.