I know, I know. We've been on the road for months in our new van and not a peep. So why the silence? No good reason other than being in places for short amounts of time leaves me limited days to explore and not be on a computer. Then time adds up and here we are. So, my dear diary, I owe you a pretty big entry on our 2021 trip in the Great Wide Open.
But for now, as I gaze out of the window of our 6th rental of the trip, staring at the Book Cliffs on the eastern edge of Fruita, Colorado, I will retell the tale of our 12-year wedding anniversary, riding the newly minted Palisade Plunge, a 32 mile traverse starting at 10,700 feet atop the Grand Mesa, eventually ending at the Colorado River.
We traveled up to Colorado along the famed Million Dollar Mile, after a stay in Santa Fe. We found dispersed camping for a night just north of Durango up some remote 4x4 road to a lake the fly fishing guy told us about.
It was only a few weeks prior that Ryan's office changed the dates they were going to allow employers to return. We thought about it for all of a minute before we decided to extend our GWO'21 road trip. Since I was injured at this time last year and didn't get to ride the western slope with our friends, and an announcement on the socials that shuttles were still running up to the newly opened Palisade Plunge, the plan started to fall into place for where to go next. Plus, it seemed a fitting place to celebrate the 12th anniversary of taking the actual plunge into married life! Ryan also reminded me that on our honeymoon we rode a trail in California called the Cannell Plunge!
We overnighted in a local state park only about 10 minutes from the shuttle pick up point. We enjoyed a fire followed by a rare full night's sleep. We were up early and things were going good until I managed to spill almost an entire bowl of the last of our dried oats all over the van! Shit! We rationed the remaining two packets between us and shared the last apple as well. I added a Lara bar to make up for the lost calories that were on the floor of the van and I was good to go. We packed up and followed two other vehicles packed with bikes to the pick up point (which was also where we would finish). I could tell Ryan was getting excited by how fast he was driving to keep up with the others--just like on the trail. ;0
After a quick load of the bikes, ten riders were headed up the Grand Mesa, a solid hour shuttle. We were dropped off "at the top" which is to say, at mile 0. As we found out later, the hard way, there were better places to get dropped. I was excited but also a bit nervous. Reviews online are mixed which told me that it was going to be a challenge. Last year we happen to have met one of the Plunge's builders, who did some of the major rock work, at his house we rented in Salida. He told us of the team that had to dangle from ropes to cut the trail into the side of the cliff, where riders descend off the mesa. Well, shit, that only made me want to actually see it more! So, yes, we knew all about the extreme exposure, the technical nature of the trail, and the remoteness. But for us, that's the attraction. We can ride alpine single track all day but to ride remote back country on the edge of a cliff, well that's something unique and worth seeing what there was to see!
Ok, back to the ride. The husboy and I were the last to leave the parking lot (my choice) and we had the single track to ourselves. It was frozen and there was plenty of frost on the vegetation. Then we hit sunlight and the once frozen trail became a loose slur of black mud. To our relief, it wasn't collecting on the tires, but it sure was spraying on everything else. We heard from a friend that the top of the mesa was a boring XC trail through flat terrain and was a waist of time but we wanted to do the whole thing. We're not vertical junkies. We're adventure xc riders with a tick for exploring new areas. But this time, we should have taken our friend's advice.
As the morning wore on, the mud began to get sticky and about 6 miles in, I had to get off my bike and start scraping it off the tires with my shoe, as there wasn't a tree in site that could offer up a stick for such things. I might have gotten another mile up the trail before I had to do it again. Ryan's bike was holding up but my front mud flap was creating a narrow tunnel and the mud was packing on the edges, creating a tire that looked like I was on a fatbike. The back tire was fine and my chain looked like I had just lubed it, so I was optimistic, but I knew we had to get the hell off that mesa because it was just going to get worse. And it did. We caught other riders with bikes upside down or they were bent over trying to clear the mud. It was a shit show and I was questioning why we were being allowed up there in those conditions knowing that the hardest part was yet to come? Someone was going to get an earful!
The first dozen miles cut across the Mesa and so did a very clean paved road. On that paved road, were other drop off points that could have been very easily used instead of mile zero. I made the comment after crossing said road when coming upon Ryan and a group who were waiting for others behind us that were also having problems. We found sticks and tried to get as much mud off as possible. I carried the stick with me the rest of the way across the mesa and finally, we made it to Shirt Tail trail head, which was where we should have started. But our shuttle service didn't indicate any issues by starting at the top, instead saying there may be some mud, but we'd be fine. Insert eye roll here.
A large group of riders descended before us and they were soon off their bikes as the trail was slick and rocky. This wasn't an issue for us so we kindly got by some of them before we hit another group stacked up. It took me a second to realize what was happening because we were in tree line but once out of the trees, I saw it all. The view of the Grand Valley and all of its pastel glory. THIS was why we came up here: to peer over the edge of the world onto a scene that is THE Great Wide Open. At that moment, we were explorers, in awe of not only the sights before us but also of the challenge that lay ahead: 6000 feet of relief (You'll notice I didn't say descent. There was about 2000' of climbing in order to get down)!
That challenge started at that moment, as there were 4-5 very tight and steep switchbacks right at our feet, dubbed Otto's Wall, named after the pioneer builder of the Colorado National Monument, John Otto. Some guys rode the few seconds in between each but it wasn't worth it to me. I felt pretty rushed through that section, as everyone seemed amped to get on with riding and less walking. The trail continued down, in tree line, and the switchbacks weren't nearly as steep but were pretty slick. I walked most of them along with a few other dudes. From then on, for about 3 miles through the Kannah Creek drainage, was classic alpine single track, with roots, rocks, creek crossings and all the fall colors to boot. I was happily surprised by this, having thought that we'd be in high desert terrain the whole time. But that was coming soon enough. We managed to pass quite a few riders in this section. I think folks were already gassed from the mud up top. Our bikes were making all kinds of noise so we had to take care not to stress our chains too much. They were dry as the desert floor and made no bones about it telling us for the rest of the ride!
By mile 15, we crossed Land's End road for the final time, and if one was to bail, this would be the last chance. It also is the last drop point if one were to skip the stuff higher up, but for those reading this, Otto's Wall, for just the view alone, is worth the effort.
At this point we entered the Whitewater Basin and the beginning of classic Western Rim terrain: sandy high desert with rock step ups and roll downs and sections thick with scrub bushes (think Hazzard above Porcupine Rim) and pinon pine. Some of the switchbacks I had to slide down but I wasn't in any real danger. Open meadows celebrated the changing of the seasons and rock falls from the Whitewater Creek made it challenging. This was the last water we'd see until the Colorado River at the bottom.
This section of the Plunge was the belly of the beast. From here until about mile 27, we were riding at our most heightened, aware of the drop to our left but not looking down at it. We took breaks at obvious view points and many times I got off the bike to gather myself, rest, walk and make sure I was eating.
The temps were perfect, the wind calm and the sights were majestic. I could tell Ryan was eager to keep moving while I, though equally as eager, wanted to try to savor it all. Alas, he'd go for a bit and wait for me and then disappear again. Sometimes those were at prime photo spots so we would take a few moments to take it all in and thank our lucky stars that we were able to do what we were doing.
But even the most happy go lucky find their limits. Fatigue was starting to set in and it seemed the valley floor was nowhere nearer than it was at the last turn. Around miles 22-27 was a slick rock playground, marked by white stripes painted on the surface. I was thankful that it meandered predominately away from any cliff edge, as this type of terrain, with its deep bowls and quick edges, can suddenly take you to places you don't want to be.
Once through the slick rock, the terrain returned to classic, rocky desert riding. With about 5 miles to go, we were still thousands of feet from the bottom and the tech kept coming. When you get tired small things can start to piss you off, like having to dismount (again) or the sound of your dry ass chain. I'm not above this type of behavior. We were approaching the sixth hour by this time, on a trail that we probably should have been able to finish in five. Every turn I'm hoping was the last.
Riders that had been behind us start catching up and passing us. Some were out of water and had been for some time. I saw their mud crusted back sides, dried from hours in the sun. Few words were exchanged, as the focus had shifted from thrilling adventure to down right let's get the fuck down!
At no other point did this crystalize for me than after entering a wash and Ryan said, "Look, I can see a building". I thought thank the Lord, we're done. Oh, but no. There were at least two maybe three super steep roll downs or in my case walk downs. I had plenty of water and food but my mental stores were low and my aches and pains were getting louder (but not as loud as my god damn chain)!
Finally, I saw a fence and then a road and then a parking lot and then our van and it was only then that I knew we were actually done and quite literally dusted. Our bikes were equally as trashed, as the mud from the mesa had dried to cement. Every seal and bushing was covered and it was going to take a trip to a car wash to get it off. But, before that, it was a time for high fives and gratitude; not only for what we just accomplished but also for the dozen years of fun and adventure. And even though they are behind us, we willfully carry their joyful memories with us.
From mud mustaches and unibrows, to dirt clods in butt cracks, the Palisade Plunge delivered on all expectations from the most terifying to the most thrilling. And as we do in life, tackling all of its challenges together, checking off this massive bucket list ride was the perfect way to celebrate our adventurous marital plunge.
The last sentence in the paragraph on the Palisade Plunge website, if read in the context of our life together, sums us up pretty succinctly: