The trip, by this point, had met all expectations: scenic, remote, dry weather, all the bikes were cooperating and everyone was healthy. However, remember the black cat I saw on the first day? Well, read on...
Day 5 - Breaking into Gateway
Total Mileage:31mi. Starting Elevation: 8700' Ending Elevation: 4500'
The group was more than ready to leave the goats behind, but even more so because the rowdy Ute Creek trail was on tap. For those with the wider tires, flat pedals and longer travel, this was a day they'd been waiting for.
I don't recall exactly how it went down, but at one point it was only going to be a few of us doing the single track and the others were going to continue on gravel. Some people were feeling the fifth day and wanted to keep it chill but by the time we actually all arrived at the trailhead, all of us were going to ride it! Woohoo! We'll sleep when we're dead!
Ryan and Andy took off, just like cartoon action figures --KWA-PING!-- leaving a small dust cloud in their wake. The rest of us picked our way down. Well, I should clarify: I was picking because the track was rough and steep and I just didn't have the confidence to ride it with all my gear on the front end of the bike. The Ute Creek trail sees way more uphill dirt bike traffic than downhill mountain bike, so upon looking back, my apprehension, though self induced, seems justified. We met back up with Ryan and Andy and again, but they disappeared in an instant. The track was narrow, below stands of aspens. It seemed more like a drainage be as how it was less contoured to the hill. I remounted and was able to ride a bit better and faster but still grabbing a bunch of break. I dropped my front wheel over a moderate rooty ledge, my butt rubbing the back tire. After passing it, I heard someone call out the drop and then I heard a loud crash and someone yelling and then a bunch of F-bombs. I immediately stopped, propped the bike and ran up the trail. Brian had gone over the handlebars on the root drop, landing on his bad shoulder and putting a pretty good gash in his shin. His helmet had markings that indicated he'd hit his head but he was on his feet and cussing like a sailor, so I assumed he hadn't lost consciousness. His wife, Sara, the nurse, was trying to calm him down and assess him at the same time. These were seasoned outdoors professionals, who have been in this situation with the public at large, so they knew what to do. It was assumed that when Brian's wheel hit the rock at the bottom of the drop it turned severely and quickly, the heavy weight from his backpack assisting in sending him down hard, onto another rock. His shoulder was in working condition, but the mental demon had settled in. So, we all walked. Eventually I met up with Ryan and Andy who were walking up the trail, worried something was up since we hadn't arrived when we should have. I told them what had happened and continued on until I reached the spot where they had left their bikes and waited until everyone was back together.
By then, we were past the steepest part of the trail, which quickly opened up and we could see the walls of the valley. It sorta reminded me of riding up the back side of Hazard Trail in Moab. The trail was benched into the side of the hill covered in dense brush. It was narrow but rideable with little punches across and down slick rock (look, cool rocks!) and boulders.
At some point, I found Ryan and Andy, again below a stair step of rocks, waiting to take our pictures. Nothing as steep as what we had started on but it still took some finesse. I felt pretty solid, despite the weight on the bike. It actually kept the front end from bouncing around. It was like driving a tractor.
With everyone safely down the descent, we were once again a posse out on a grand adventure, riding in the most remote section on the whole trip. We were away from roads, goats and humanity, on a Thursday afternoon. Life was good.
And then it wasn't.
The single track eventually became wide double track though was still rugged and demanded our attention. Lauren and I were riding together, Sara and Brian were close behind. Every so often we'd catch back up to Ryan and Andy. At one of those such times, I was riding close behind them as they ate up a rough section of a punchy climb. Seeing this, I ratcheted up my effort out of the saddle. After a couple pedal strokes, my back wheel lost traction over the baby-head rocks and I began to tilt. Thinking nothing of it, I put out my left hand. I wasn't going fast since I was climbing but as soon as my hand hit the ground, I heard a crunch. There wasn't much pain but I knew in my mind that something was broken. I stepped off the bike and was immediately very pissed off. Brian and Lauren stopped to ask if I was okay. I wasn't sure. Not far ahead, Ryan, Andy and Sara stopped to rest in the shade of a juniper tree and I walked up to Ryan and told him I crashed and that there was something wrong with my left wrist. Sara came over to look at it. She wasn't sure how bad it was or she wasn't telling me, but regardless, she wrapped it as best she could using gauze from her kit. Though we had started at the most remote segment of the route, by this point we were about 10 miles out from the only civilized stop, the town of Gateway, Colorado. From the Bike Bible, we knew there was a gas station where we could stop and assess.
The group had all stopped to take a break but Ryan, understanding that I'd be slow going, decided we should continue onto Gateway. I was able to hold on to my handlebars with both hands but only if the terrain wasn't too rough or steep. As long as I could stay seated, I could ride, unlike the last time I was in a similar situation. (It's been at least ten years now but a month before we were to go on the SJH Durango to Moab route, I fell during a race in Kansas City and managed to fracture the radius on my right wrist).But this was not that. In fact, though it was already starting to swell and bruise, I could rotate my wrist without pain and all my fingers could move. What I couldn't do was bend it or flex it. Ryan rode a ways ahead to scout the trail for me. There was only one section I had to walk before finally reaching a dirt road that would take us down a thousand feet in just a few miles. It was difficult riding. Ryan flew like nothing while I smoked my brakes, trying hard to stay in control on the loose road. The view was amazing. At one point I just had to stop, not only to cool the brakes but to look around. We were on a pretty precarious ledge that looked down into Unaweep Canyon. According to an online article in Colorado Magazine,
'“Unaweep” means “parting of the waters” or “canyon with two mouths,” depending on who you ask. But long ago, the Utes realized the important point, that Unaweep Canyon is the only known canyon in the world with a divide that drains water out each end. West Creek flows out one end and East Creek out the other. It’s not a radical divide visually, and if you blink, you might even miss it.'The two creeks cut through the Uncompahgre Plateau where elk and cattle graze. From our vantage point we could see all the way to the horizon. The sky-scraping Precambrian walls, colored many shades of salmon, against the true blue sky never gets old. I've been coming to western slope of Colorado since the early aughts and its grandness humbles me. I'm in awe of it every time. Even then, when I was in pain, it brought me wondrous joy.
Ryan snapped me out of my vision quest state quickly enough. We had to keep moving so we could get out of this blast furnace. The road turned into a sandy wash at the bottom, which was certainly not ideal when one's bike has a bag the weight of a newborn on its handlebars, making steering nearly impossible. But soon we were on pavement, cruising down the Unaweep/Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway. Hugging the right edge, I dropped the seat, tucked and pedaled as hard as I could, surprised that I still had the legs. The baking wind off the asphalt did little to cool us as we dropped down to just over 5K, to the canyon's bottom, near the Delores River.
The Gateway Canyon Resort sits close to the highway, beside lush green landscaping. Designed in classic Spanish stucco, the maze of buildings making up the oasis blended in perfectly with the canyon walls beyond its property. None of us had cleaned up much but we didn't care and to our relief, neither did the hostess nor waitress. We were greeted warmly, as if we had just came off the back nine instead of the back country. Our waitress was a transplant from another town, who lived on the resort's property, with roommates, whom together were all in this nowhere town in order to scratch out a living just so they could climb the ancient canyons. Ah, to be young and free! She kept us in margaritas and mules all through our meal. The food was five-star but then again, we had been eating canned meat for the last few days.
While waiting for dessert, Sara and Brian arrived, all clean and looking fresh, but still uncertain to their plan come morning. All would hinge on how Brian was feeling. Our plan, however, was set: Ryan and Andy would be leaving around 6:00 a.m. while Lauren and I would take the shuttle a bit later. We left the resort buzzed and happy. But by the time we returned to the hut, we were no longer as happy (although Lauren would argue that the farm cat made her very happy). The hope for the air to cool at sundown was a lost cause. The overnight forecast was to be in the mid 70s, some twenty degrees warmer than what I expected, having always traveled to the desert in the spring or fall. We stayed outside as long as we could but one's ass can take so much sitting on a wood picnic bench or stoop.
The night was tortuous. Worse than trying to sleep on an overnight flight. Worse than trying to sleep in a moving car. I got up twice to go to the bathroom, just to get some reprieve from the stagnate air trapped in hut. At least the hut had a screen door to assist with air movement, had their been any. Even in my sports bra and shorts, on top of my sleeping bag, next to a window, I was miserable. I even tried putting a blue ice pack from the hut's cooler on my chest but even that wasn't enough. My mind was too busy worrying about the lack of sleep and the condition of my throbbing wrist. Alas, despite my efforts, sleep would not come for me.
Day 6 - The Rescue
Total Mileage for Andy & Lauren: 11 Starting Elevation: 7400' Ending Elevation: 8300'
It was still dark when I heard Ryan's phone alarm, and soon thereafter the sounds of boiling water for oats and coffee. As soon as there was enough light to see, I was up, wanting to have a look at my wrist. And it wasn't good. The swelling had increased and all my fingers were turning three shades of purple. My hand looked like a rubber glove filled with air. I could still use my all my digits but my wrist was extremely sore. I was starting to rethink my decision to ride to the hut because it meant riding down to Moab yet the next day. I told this to Ryan even as he was all kitted up and ready to ride. He asked me if I'd rather have him stay to help me figure out what to do next. I reluctantly said yes. This sudden change of plans meant Andy would need to know if he was going to ride by himself or with the others, so he and Ryan rode over to the resort to discuss things with Brian and Sara. Brian came out to meet them to say they'd rather take the shuttle and then ride the rest of the way to Moab.
The hut group arrived at the gas station around 7:30. Brian and Sara rolled up soon after. The shuttle was scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. There were a couple tables outside the closed gas station where we waited for our rescuer, further discussing our options. It was then that Brian and Sara realized that the shuttle didn't go all the way to the hut but just to the Utah border. If they were to continue to Moab on highways, that would require them to ride a minimum of five hours. Not impossible but it would be during the hottest part of the day. Now we had yet to discuss any of this with our shuttle driver. We knew he had room for four bikes. We also knew he had an afternoon shuttle scheduled to Telluride. We weren't even sure he could take us to Moab, our thinking being that at the very least he may know someone else who could or maybe take us another day. As we waited, a few cars stopped to fill up with gas but none came over to us. Then a small hatchback turned into the lot, with a bike rack on back for two and two racks on top. Surely, that couldn't be our shuttle? The car stopped in front of all six of us and our bikes. An older gentleman, wearing a sun hat and dirty jeans got out of the car, an earring glistened in the morning sun.
"Good Morning, I'm John Stewart." He had the easy going demeanor of an old time surfer. "I thought I was picking up two riders and taking them to the border?"
Then Ryan told John the situation--we had two injured riders that wanted to get to Moab. The other two needed to get to the border.
"Well, this is a conundrum", said John, in his small town drawl, reminding us that he had an afternoon shuttle to Telluride.
"But, I do have a friend who helps me sometimes. Do you want me to see if he can help?"
As if he needed to ask. We all nodded in agreement.
"Jacob lives right over there. Has a glamping operation and I sometimes hire him when I need him. Let me go see if he's up".
And with that, John got back in his car, crossed the wide parking lot and disappeared across the highway. About ten minutes later, we saw his car again, this time with another person with him. A young guy greeted us with a big smile in that very adventure guide sorta way. I felt a bit of relief because for a while I thought this person was going to be very upset that he was being called on last minute. But that was not the case at all. This dude seemed happy-go-lucky and ready for whatever.
"How much will this cost?" Ryan asked.
John touched Ryan's shoulder in that very grandpa-like way. "Since I need to pay for my friend's time here, how about $400?
"Done. But, none of us have that kind of cash. Okay if we pay in Moab?"
"Yep. You'll just need to stop at an ATM. I trust ya."
So with the gentleman's agreement, the plan was in motion. But first John and his buddy had to go get another vehicle. John had a truck that could fit the two bikes for shuttling up to the border. The small car would take the four of us. "Better on gas", John said, giving his waste band a tug as he began into a diatribe of his adventures as a shuttle driver in the middle of nowhere. He was also a rider, on an e-bike of course, and just enjoys helping people. Finally he got around to the business of getting the truck. Once both vehicles were there, it was time to load up. The car had a pretty solid rear rack, which took Brian and Sarah's bikes. My bike and Ryan's went on top, using a tetris of bungie chords and rags to tether them in place.
"Haven't lost one yet" said Jacob. Dude! Knock on something, I thought.
Once all the bikes were loaded, it was close to 9am. It was a bittersweet departure. Brian, Sara, Ryan and I along with Jacob headed south first, bound for Moab. Andy and Lauren with John, took a dirt canyon road up to the border. It was an ending nobody wanted nor could have imagined happening. But considering where we were, we got pretty lucky that we found a helping hand.
The drive to Moab was stunning. We stopped once at a look-out point near Paradox so Jacob could check bikes, but it was also a place he liked to show newcomers. There we could see a section of a gold mining operation from the 1800's called the Hanging Flumes. As their only way to move water at the adequate grade, unskilled minors built about ten miles straight into the towering cliffs. I stared at the decrepit architecture in complete awe, admitting out loud to Ryan that we are wimps compared to what these people endured. Today, it's considered an engineering marvel.
|Credit Atlas Obscura|
"First time I've had to shuttle anyone all the way to Moab." Yeah, Jacob, we're glad we could oblige.
When we arrived in Moab, we stopped first at a gas station to use the ATM. On the way, Brian told us that his debit card had expired and asked if we could spot them the cash. The problem was, Ryan had only one card and it had a $200 limit. I think he had about $100 on him and I had some but it was in the van. We convinced Jacob, which wasn't hard, to drive us to the MTBCRIB where we could get the rest of the cash. Once there, I jumped out of the car to locate my wallet and luckily there was enough cash to pay Jacob and give him a tip. I walked around the van to give him the money when suddenly out of nowhere our friend's college-aged daughter, Abbey, was standing in front of me yelling surprise and giggling! Ryan came around the corner of the van and I was like, look who's here! There were hugs and laughter and what the hells and we learned that she was traveling with a friend in the area. When she saw our van she thought it would be funny to take a picture next to it and send it to us and that's when she saw me. It was a funny, surprising encounter. We said our goodbyes too soon as we needed to get to the Urgent Care when they opened at 11am. But first Ryan bought a case of beer for the bike shop's manager to say thanks for the parking spot. She wasn't in but the girl at the front took the beer saying she had been worried about us. She didn't know that we had made an agreement to park there, and she thought we were a couple of mountain bikers from Florida, lying dead somewhere in the desert. Glad we didn't get towed! Bike shops--they are all the same.
We got everything loaded up and headed for the hospital. We thought we'd see Brian and Sara but they never showed up. (We found out later, they chose to go home and see their local doctor--he was fine, actually). I was first in line though the Urgent Care wasn't officially open. By the time I was lead back, there were half a dozen people there for a myriad of ailments. The x-ray confirmed a fracture, a minor one below the wrist. The tech made me a fiberglass sheath that molded to my hand and wrapped my entire forearm in Ace bandage. After the doctor came back to inspect his work, he said to keep it on for about ten days and then buy a spica brace to support the thumb and wrist, and wear it for 6-8 weeks.
I was bummed. There went the rest of my Colorado GWO tour. I wasn't going to be healed in time for the Dakota Five-0 either. My only saving grace was that my fingers still worked so I still would be able to volunteer for the Breck Epic, which OMG we needed to get the heck back to Breckenridge because the race was starting in two days! Originally, had the trip gone as planned, we were going to arrive back in Breck as soon as possible on Saturday night, then grab the PA system and be ready to get after it on Sunday. Now we had a day to play with and it all worked out with flying colors. (Even with my broken wing I was able to contribute to the recovery of many, many racers).
Before leaving Moab, we stopped at the hotel where Andy and Lauren's car was parked. We left them a thank you note with the wish that they made it back and that we'd celebrate the adventure later that month. Soon after, taking the scenic route through Monument Valley, we looked off in the distance to the La Sal mountains, where we hoped Andy and Lauren were safe and sound because there was a nasty black cloud over the top and we could see lightening strikes. Our whole trip, we hadn't seen one drop of rain, and now on the last night, it looked like a deluge. I took a picture and sent them a prayer. (They actually had made it just before the rain hit. They also reported better dirt conditions the next day).
Adventure in the GWO is always unpredictable. That's the draw for us and this trip was no exception. Riding multiple days in a row in the backcountry has its risks. It takes planning. It takes preparation. And it takes a lot of perseverance. Our final tally was around 150-ish miles. Had it not been cut short, it would have been closer to 205. We rode 5 of the seven days, averaging about 4-5 hours each day. With nothing on the agenda but pedal into the Great Wide Open, I don't have anything to complain about. I find that any time away from comfort and digital distractions galvanizes me to my true self, and doing hard things with other people adds depth and color to the story as well as to my own life. We are forever bound by the experience. Yes, it was a bummer I was injured but had it not happened, never would we have met John nor Jacob, nor learned more about Gateway, Colorado; a place where most people don't consider visiting. A place that takes effort to get there but are rewarded when they do. And you better believe it, we are already figuring out how to get back and finish what we started.
DAY 7 - REST & RECOVER
Total Mileage for Andy & Lauren:31 Starting Elevation: 7700' Ending Elevation: 4200’
As we woke up in Breckenridge, Lauren and Andy were finishing the rest of the route strong, riding into Moab on service roads, skipping Porcupine Rim, which was the other option. They want to try the Durango Route.