One of my first purchases after moving to Colorado was a DeLorme Gazetter. For those not familiar with the red bound book o’ maps, it breaks our lovely state down into a series of maps replete with topographical lines, backroad routes, and meandering trails. I have whiled away many an hour poring over my Gazetter, penciling in possible loops, and daydreaming of exploring forgotten routes.
Being a singletrack snob, anything labeled as “pack trail” immediately leapt to my attention. Way up on the Grand Mesa, roughly south of the tiny ranching town of Collbran lies a route I traced out with my trusty #2 several years ago. I would look at it every time I opened to page 44, and wonder just what this High Trail to Silver Spruce loop would be like. In my mind, I imagined it as the perfect backcountry mountain bike loop: a mellow climb, a ripping descent, and a healthy smattering of good ol’ trail riding thrown in to round out the mix; all on all-but forgotten singletrack, weaving a dark line of loamy harmony through green meadows and tall trees.
Last weekend I had the chance to explore this route with my co-worker Dave and some buddies of his, Mike, and Brad who were out to escape the Front Range madness for the wide-open spaces of the Western Slope. Looking over my well-worn map, and the pencil-traced route in a large but cozy cabin, my heart sank a little when his father-in-law, who hunts the area often, answered the question, “Is this singletrack?” with a finger sweeping over the map, “Oh no, these are all ATV trails up here.”
As a kid, ATV’s were one of my first fascinations. On a kindergarten survey, my answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was “Professsional 3 wheeler racer.” About the time I reached 1st grade production of 3 wheelers ceased, and my dreams of racing an ATC 250R for Team Honda began to crumble. By high school, motorcycles were my passion, but it was moving away to college that brought me into the world of mountain bikes; a pragmatic acknowledgement that I couldn’t bring my CR250 into my dorm room. By the time I moved to Colorado, my singletrack snobbery was beginning to develop, and was accelerated by the ethos preached in the local riding community to “keep singletrack single.”
ATVer’s have a had time grasping the sense of moral indignation mountain bikers feel when they find a favorite section of singletrack has ballooned into XXL double track. In the mind of ATVer’s they are doing the same thing as mountain bikers – enjoying the great outdoors, only with a much greater degree of common sense. Why would anyone pedal their legs off to give their ass a ride when one could be comfortably resting a camo’ed beer belly on a long-range gas tank, and simply pushing a throttle for forward locomotion?
Such was the clustering whirl of thoughts in my head when we arrived at the trailhead, a wide, well-worn double track heading up into the aspens. I couldn’t help but wonder what the original pack trail was like before it became ATV-sized, and in my mind saw a cowboy on his horse, with a pack mule following behind as they descended through the open meadow between dark stands of spruce into the aspens below. (My most idyllic images of trails are always downhill). But the further I pushed my singlespeed up the loose, rocky course, my sense of loss & indignation faded. Even if it were preserved as singletrack, it was still too steep and fall line to be sustainable, or enjoyable. Even the hammerhead and carbon fiber 29er’ rider found themselves pushing up several sections.
So that was the first uphill.
Continuing past this crest, we found ourselves in a broad land of open meadows and dense spruce thickets that called to mind the tiaga of the Far North. The grade here was much more mellow, though the various mudholes we encountered along the way were not. While mudholes are great & obvious joy to ATV’ers, we found ourselves skirting through the soggy meadows, trying to avoid ruts hidden in the thick grass, left by less sporting quad riders attempting to avoid a mud bath.
As we began to drop down the eastern side of the High Trail, premonitions of a less-than pleasant ride began to settle in. For one, we had no map. Instead we were relying on NASCAR navigation to complete our loop: just keep turning left until we got to the finish. At our first rest break, Dave was dismayed to realize that he had forgotten to refill his pack, and was heading out on our unknown epic with approximately 12 oz of water and half a granola bar. I had at least filled up with water, and packed a few snacks, but utterly neglected to bring any extra layers or rain gear. Mike had been more conscientious about packing and planning, while Brad was relying on his jersey pockets, and the packs of others to carry his essentials.
Near the bottom of the first descent, Dave endoed in a section of loose babyheads (which I blamed on a stem too long and bars too narrow), resulting in severe bruising on his thigh and thumb. Fortunately, it wasn’t enough to be debilitating, but certainly added to the gravity of the situation as we ate our peanut butter & honey sandwiches, and contemplated the remainder of the ride. We felt fairly certain that it was all downhill (or at least mostly) from this point out, so we decided to press on.
The following section was the most rewarding: grades none too steep, mellow rollers to catch a little air, and the first fallen gold of aspen leaves sprinkled like God’s confetti on the trail. I am not sure what to attribute it to, but there is something singularly thrilling about riding over aspen leaves in the fall; one cannot help but be overtaken by giddiness and joy, even on the most non-descript of trails.
Our NASCAR navigation worked like a charm, and we soon found ourselves at the intersection of the Silver Spruce trail, which would lead us back to the truck. It was obvious that at least a moderate amount of climbing would be involved to complete our loop, but the appearance of a low-lying pass nestled amongst the aspens gave us hope for a pleasant, relatively painless return.
Have you ever spent an unpleasant and fitful night where you keep waking up to the same nightmare, over and over again? Such was this ride, only there was no fluffing the pillow, rolling over and falling back asleep. Every time it appeared we were about summit, the trail would turn upwards again. It became a maddening rhythm, seeing blue skies shining through the trees on our right, the trail appearing to be heading for the crest, then it would turn to the left, and continue uphill. Occasionally, there would be a short, steep downhill with pleasantly railing turns carved out by ATV’s, then the trail would head upwards again. This continued for hours, long past the point where my legs were capable of turning over the 30/18 gearing on the mud-packed tires of my singlespeed, reducing me to pushing up the mellowest of grades. The pattern became heartbreaking: no matter how reasonable & logical it seemed to my trailbuilding instincts that the trail should flatten out, if not start heading downhill, the sickening conclusion forced itself on me that if there were any terrain above the trail I was pushing my bike, the trail would always turn up, never down.
With darkness falling fast upon us, and physical and mental reserves fading with the light, we finally came to an open-topped summit where we could see the road below, and the trail descending. Too tired to whoop for joy, we carefully picked our way down amongst the loose rocks and ruts, not trusting in our tired bodies to avoid disaster. Reaching the bottom of the valley, we ran into a fenceline, and true to form, the trail turned right, and we began climbing (or rather pushing) back up the same ridgeline. A helpless fury at the idiocy of this route blistered my soul when we topped out, and I could look over the valley to the open meadow we had just descended from.
Normally such experiences ignite a resolve to come back and find a more sensible route, but this expedition of idiocy left me so charred that I decided this route was best left to the Texas wheelchairs. We passed by many of them on our loop, parked off to the side of the trail, backcountry access for Coors Light sportsmen. At this point in my ride, I found myself accepting the fact ATV’s owned this trail. It was simply too long, too steep, too uphill to be any fun on a bicycle, no matter whether it was double track or singletrack.
Dusk was morphing into darkness by the time we made it back to the truck, with barely enough light to see to load our bikes. The good news of our extra long-ride is that it had given the beer plenty of time to chill. With deft, eager hands, we cracked open bottles of Dos Equis Amber. I don’t always drink Dos Equis, but that particular beer was one of the tastiest I have ever had in my life. Stay thirsty for adventure, my friends.