`A Nice Little Bike Ride’
September 10, 2003
It was 90 degrees and the sun was super-nova hot when I collapsed beneath the dappled shade of a lone willow bush. Was this Death Valley or the mountains of Colorado?
Brains boiling, I crawled lizardlike from my small patch of shade to where the creek burbled between grassy banks and plunged my head into the current.
Back in my shady den, I decided the willow would be my home until the sun dipped in the west, so I found my flask and gulped a healthy swallow of medicinal scotch. Gazing across the panorama of rolling sage country in the heart of the Cochetopa Hills on a sweltering July day, I dreamily recounted the past four days of bike touring through the wilds of Western Colorado.
A pair of interwoven threads – the serene beauty of the mountain West and the rich history of the mining days – best describe my pedaling peregrination. From weathered homesteads collapsing in remote meadows to towering granite peaks spilling their torrents into deep valleys, the story of the West is written in the dreams of men and the great expanses of wild country to which they were matched.
When I started this “nice little bike ride,” which is how I described it to my wife and son, I left from my home in the Fryingpan Valley on a cool Sunday morning, coasting downhill and eagerly anticipating six blissful days of cycletherapy. From Basalt, I hammered out 20 miles up the Rio Grande Trail to Aspen, then climbed the grade to the ghost town of Ashcroft. Here, the humble wooden structures that have stood for more than a century give mute testament to the silver boom of the 1880s, when Taylor Pass was a major conduit for wagon trains to and from the Roaring Fork Valley.
Starting up Taylor Pass, the 70 pounds of bike and gear I was straddling suddenly felt like a ball and chain. The road was strewn with brick-sized rocks and covered with an inch of talcum-powder dust. Riding was out of the question, so I pushed.
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Exhausted after an hour, I felt like the Eveready Bunny without a battery.
When my body finally quit, I was within a stone’s throw of a small camp on Express Creek. I lay down in the shade and was immediately beset by a cloud of flies. I set up my tent, zipped closed the netting, collapsed on my camp pad, and drifted in and out of consciousness. Then I heard a familiar sound: “whoooo-whoooo!”
It was Dave, my old friend from Crested Butte, who had ridden over Taylor Pass the day before and had planned to make the entire ride back with me. He had left me at the start of the pass, and I assumed he was far ahead. When I didn’t show at the last stream crossing below the summit, he came looking for me.
“What happened?” he asked, crouched down by my tent, a big smile on his face.
“I hit the wall,” I moaned.
“No wonder, with all this stuff,” he said, hefting my bike a few inches off the ground. “Well, come on, buddy, I’m not gonna to leave you here. There’s cold beer at my car in Taylor Park. You’re comin’ with me.”
Still wobbly, I rolled up my pad and packed my tent. Then Dave did what only a true friend would do; he pushed my loaded bike up the last switchback while I walked with his bike. At 11,900 feet, with the Elk Range laid out before us, we watched the sun drop behind Taylor Peak, tinting the high cirrus streamers a light purple. We mounted up and bounced down the scrabble-strewn road to his camp on the Taylor River. Cold beer was a Lethean beverage that slaked my thirst and eased the trials of the day. The Taylor River was my cold plunge.
Sharing a campfire with an old friend and a cold beer is a tonic, and Dave and I recalled other campfires on other trips, conjuring images of mountains and deserts that came alive in my dreams that night. I felt rested and ready by first light.
“See ya, buddy. Have a great trip!” said Dave, a steaming coffee mug in his hand. A white mist rose from the meanders of the Taylor and the sun glinted from behind a timber-studded ridge. I swung my leg over the saddle and pedaled down the gravel road. A few miles from camp, I stopped at Dorchester, where an old log cabin stands sentinel at a National Forest campground.
The cabin is all that’s left of a once-promising mining town where an eccentric Parisian socialite, Madame Esther LeFebvre, lived and ran the Star Mine in the 1880s. Dorchester, which once had a post office, saloons and a hotel, was named for the first postmaster’s hometown in Massachusetts. The remaining log cabin has another historic tie. It is where members of the Ken Torp party took shelter during the 1993 “Miracle in the Mountains” debacle, when six skiers were lost in a blizzard for three days.
From Dorchester, I pedaled across Taylor Park, a vast expanse of sage flats hemmed in by the Collegiate Peaks to the east and the Elk Range to the west. Taylor Reservoir glimmered with the deep blue reflection of a flawless summer sky as fishermen trolled for lake trout. After a deliciously greasy plate of fish and chips at the Taylor Park Outpost, a tail wind pushed me to the small settlement of Tincup.
Tincup dates to the 1860s and was named after a prospector, Jim Taylor, who allegedly carried his gold poke in a tin cup. The town is comprised of 50 or so restored cabins neatly arranged on a grid of dirt streets. Summer refugees, mostly from Texas, fly American flags and ride their ATVs over Tincup Pass to St. Elmo, another old mining mecca. Tincup has a quaint little restaurant called Frenchy’s and a historic church.
The town’s cemetery is laid out on a group of knolls neatly delineated by religious affiliation: Protestant Knoll, Catholic Knoll, Jewish Knoll and Boot Hill (for atheist reprobates). A lone grave on a nondenominational knoll was crudely marked “Negro Cook.”
Exhausted, I napped on what was probably an unmarked grave, steeping myself in the spirit vapors of departed souls.
The Tincup cemetery saw plenty of action, as suggested by a report from a newspaper in 1882: “The first comers were a hard crowd . Feuds were common, and `gun plays’ were frequent occurrences. More than one man has bitten the dust upon its streets, and the bullet holes in sides of builds still attest the bad marksmanship of the inhabitants. Had it been otherwise, the town would have been depopulated within the fist six months of its existence.”
Beyond Tincup, I followed the road south to Cumberland Pass at 12,000 feet. This jack road dates to 1882, but is well-graded today and seemed like a breeze after the brutality of Taylor. I had planned to ease up the pass in my granny gear, but a fast-moving storm changed my cadence. There is nothing like a lightning bolt to motivate the ambivalent cyclist, and I flew over that pass with a menacing black cloud at my back that flashed like a strobe machine.
I camped that night near a creek in a dark stand of timber beneath the wreckage of the old Bon Ton Mine. I lit a small fire, mostly to ward off a lonely feeling and to scent the air for bears, then slept the sleep of the dead. Another blue-sky morning saw me grinding up the Alpine Tunnel road. This historic grade of the Denver South Park Railroad climbs above the deep valley of Quartz Creek toward the ruins of the longest tunnel ever bored for a narrow-gauge line – half a mile long.
Veering south near the tunnel, my route climbed over rugged Tomichi Pass, a 12,000-foot summit where sections of the road were covered by talus slides. The slope dropped steeply for 500 feet below me, prompting a cautious traverse, but assuring that no ATVs or dirt bikes would spoil the quiet. With storms gathering, I stood alone at the summit and looked north to the distant mountain ridges marking the last three days of my tour.
Tailed by a thunderstorm, however, I hustled downhill chased by thunder and lightning. The once wild and woolly mining town of Tomichi, where violence and gunplay were the mark of the frontier, was nothing more than an open meadow. At the edge of the forest, there was a single grave, the marker for which read: “Killed by explosion – 1890.”
The storm caught me in White Pine, a collection of restored cottages and derelict shacks evincing a once-thriving mining district, but now looking more like Appalachia. The rain abated long enough for me to roll down into the open ranch land of Tomichi Creek. Turning west, I crossed Black Sage Pass to Waunita Hot Springs, one of the foremost resorts in Colorado at the turn of the last century, and a Ute Indian healing place before that. Sadly, the hot springs has become an exclusive dude ranch where the public is not welcome. I submerged myself instead in a stagnant mudhole of a reservoir.
The next morning I encountered an old elk hunter in the shadow of Tomichi Dome. The old guy stood outside his trailer home and just stared up at the enormous volcanic mountain. “Used to spend most every hunting season here,” he said wistfully, his eyes tracing the contours that his feet once knew.
Crossing Highway 50 east of Gunnison at Doyleville the next morning, the country opened into rolling grasslands bordered by endless sage hills. Ranches dotted the vast meadows of the Gunnison country and antelope sprinted with fluid grace through tall-grass pastures. As the road climbed, so did the hills, which were soon marked by ridges of pine forests. The distant peaks of the La Garita Wilderness, topped with billowing cumulus, silhouetted the horizon to the south, and rumbles of thunder rolled across the land.
In the Cochetopa Hills, however, it was furnace-hot and dry. It was here that, exhausted, I huddled beneath the shady willow bush and sipped scotch near the Los Pinos Indian Agency. While resting I commiserated with the Ute Indians, who were captive guests of the U.S. government starting in 1868.
The specter of subjugating a once wild and free people seemed contrary to the pastoral scene in this grassy valley set among gentle hills. Some say that tepee circles are still evident at Los Pinos, and if ghosts exist, there must be many from the forlorn and starving Utes who wintered in minus-40-degree weather.
Another ghost may wander here, too – that of Alfred “Alferd” Packer, the “Colorado Cannibal.” Packer emerged from the wilderness in the spring of 1874 at the Los Pinos Agency and was soon arrested for cannibalizing his five partners.
From Los Pinos, I followed the old Saguache-San Juan Stage Road, which contoured through tawny mesas and pastoral hills bedecked with wildflowers. The graded road climbed over Los Pinos Pass and followed Cebolla Creek through canyons of rosy-colored granite, eventually winding its way to the top of Slumgullion Pass between Lake City and Creede.
Since leaving Ashcroft six days before, I had ridden a total of 20 minutes on pavement; all the rest was dirt. Now, the last leg of my journey was a series of smooth, paved hairpins dropping into yet another historic mining town.
Thinking back on my journey over a frosty mug of beer at a Lake City bistro, the history of Colorado seemed as alive as the forces of nature. The threads of my tour entwined in a continuum of mountain passes and river valleys, lonely graveyards and ghost towns, railroads and mule trails, all connected by the treads of two bicycle tires.
Paul Andersen is a columnist for The Aspen Times daily edition. He has bicycled extensively across Europe and through the mountains and deserts of the West.