Saturday, January 24, 2009

An Enigmatic Sign, and the Treacherous Nature of Mud (an Adventure of Sorts, Part II)

After a day or so to make sure everything had actually hung together for the first few hundred miles, I set off in earnest for Utah. This meant crossing Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado along the way, and it was at the Minnesota-Iowa line that I encountered the first Enigmatic Sign of the trip. "Welcome to Minnesota," the big sign declares, but the small sign beneath warns that motorized vehicles are prohibited. I never did find out if the prohibition applied to the whole state or just the state-line parking area...

Of the ride across the Great Prairie, the less said the better. I recall spending one night in a state park campground attached to an artificial lake that seemed to be the world's biggest gnat farm, and playing hide-and-seek with a long, curving weather system across eastern Colorado. What's important is that two days after leaving Minneapolis (which is to say, four days into the trip), I'd finally made it to the mountains. Now things were going to get interesting.

Since I hadn't done much real off-roading with this particular bike, especially loaded for traveling, I decided to take as many unpaved roads and trails I could through the mountains. I found a nice set of unpaved roads that ran down the back side of the Front Range from around Boulder to Canon City. Today, I think a lot of these roads are paved to provide access to the casinos, but in '81 places like Cripple Creek were just sleepy little former mining towns. And the roads serving them were mostly used by logging trucks and hunters in 4-wheel drives, so they were a good warm-up for the kind of roads I expected to encounter in Utah.

And, they were pretty darn scenic to boot.

The American Motorcyclist Association had written up a big piece about the Phantom Canyon Road, from Cripple Creek to Canon City, and their article had suggested it was a fairly challenging trip. So when I had no particular difficulty negotiating it on the fully-loaded Dirt Touring Bike, I felt pretty good about my chances of pulling this expedition off successfully. Of course, eight years later I took this road on a Harley Super Glide, so perhaps the people who wrote the article were exaggerating a bit. Journalistic license, you know.

In any case, the road, a former narrow-gauge railroad route with a few narrow-gauge tunnels, was a fun and pretty ride. I even made it down to Canon City ahead of the afternoon thundershowers, though the sky turned pretty black at times.

After a night in Canon City, I took off up the Arkansas River canyon on US 50, which is one of the great pretty motorcycle roads. But it had the disadvantage (from my standpoint) of being paved. So instead of following 50 over the very scenic Monarch Pass, I cut north a bit and crossed the Continental Divide at Cottonwood Pass, which turned out to be the (geographic) high point of the trip. (Oddly enough, the last time I came over Cottonwood, in 1997, the road was paved on the east side, right up to the county line at the pass. Something about the business people wanting to make it easier to get to Gunnison and Crested Butte.

We should pause here for a second to discuss the state-of-the-art in Adventure Touring Gear. Today, somebody heading out on a trip of this sort would be wearing the latest in Kevlar, ballistics, viscoelastic hard-shell pads, reinforced boots, and of course a high-end full-face helmet. But all that stuff came later. In 1981, state-of-the-art for off-road touring was blue jeans, a Levi jacket, sneakers (worn without socks, so they'd dry out more quickly after rainstorms), and an open-face helmet. Practical stuff for a comfortable summer ride, but as far as crash protection goes... well, let's just take a cue from Gene Kranz (flight director for the Apollo moon shots) and say "crashing is not an option."

I suppose that if any modern dirt riders are reading this, they're shaking their heads in disbelief that I'm still alive... but we were tougher back in the Old Days (yeah, right). Besides, I was only 27, and we all know that people under 30 are indestructible.

So, after crossing the Great Divide and stopping to have a look at the Black Canyon, I found myself in Montrose, Colorado, looking for a place to spend the night. I overheard some travelers complaining about the high price and limited supply of motel rooms, but I wasn't concerned; I knew of a cheap Forest Service campground about twenty miles up in the mountains on a dirt road. Ahh... rustic luxury...

I pretty much had the campground to myself (except for a Forest Service ranger who came by to collect the fees). It was pretty nice to be alone in the deep woods... and a bit scary, especially when heavy thunderstorms came through during the night.

Come morning, the forest was sparkly and clean and beautiful... and I, having brought no breakfast food along, was ready to hit the road down the mountain to the town of Naturita. Of course, the thunderstorms had left the roads a bit on the muddy side. No problem; I'd ridden though my share of mudholes when doing enduros in the Midwest, and surely Colorado forest mud can't be as nasty as Illinois cow-pasture mud...can it?

I started down the road, and four or five miles down the hill I found that yes, Colorado mud can be just as nasty as that Illinois stuff. In fact, when it's a two-inch layer of sticky wet clay on top of something dry and slippery, it can be a lot nastier. The mud wrapped itself around my tires, jammed in between the wheel and the shocks... and the bike lurched to a sudden halt. As some free-range cattle chewed their cuds and looked on in what I assume was bovine amusement, I dug the clay from around the wheel and got started... and went all of fifty feet before everything got all clogged up again. Oh, great; I'm going to be spending the rest of my life here...

Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained... I cleaned the wheel out again. This time, I dumped the clutch and spun the hell out of the back tire, hoping to fling the mud away. It worked, after a fashion. The back wheel fishtailed all over the place, I dabbed my feet and hung on and tried to keep pointed straight ahead... and after a scary and silly-looking mile or so, I got out of the sticky stretch. I could swear I heard cows laughing behind me.

Had I been thinking, I would have stopped at the coin-op car wash in Naturita and hosed off the mud that was all over the bike. But most of the big chunks had already been flung off, and I figured it's a dirt bike; it'll just get dirty again anyway, so I didn't. I would come to regret that decision...

Next: I Arrive in Utah, Where I Encounter Another Sign and the Full Treachery of Mud!

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