Have you ever heard of someone “chasing dragons”?
No, not those kind of dragons. The expression usually refers to a drug addict’s never ending search for the biggest, unattainable high – always looking for a better high than the last. He wants to feel the highs that he had when he first started using drugs which, over time, get harder and harder to obtain.
|Ewan starred in a movie about chasing the dragon – Trainspotting
But chasing dragons is not reserved for druggies. The syndrome afflicts adrenaline junkies too. The next rock climb will be higher, the next river faster, the next trail steeper. The adrenaline from riding his local trails wanes as the rider’s skill level and familiarity with the trail increases. So he sets off in search of bigger and badder. The mountains of Colorado are so full of Midwesterners chasing their own personal dragons.
|Y’all want to go skiing?
I am afflicted too. So, when my friend Andy suggested a week-long bike ride through the Rockies, I was game.
The ride would be epic. The unadorned route would cover 210 miles, mostly on dirt roads and singletrack with many extra miles of singletrack available for the heartier riders. We would ride downhill runs on ski slopes, climb on 15% grades, and finish on mountain bike holy land – the rocky desert trails in Moab, Utah.
Part of chasing dragons is escaping from your present reality by constantly dreaming about the upcoming adventure. This line of thought naturally leads to also obsessing over gear. And spending money. Any true junkie will spend his last dime on his fix.
I planned my gear for every contingency – rain, heat, bears, broken legs, mechanical failures, and all while keeping the pack light. As a sidenote, this is why some backpackers have more money invested in their gear (titanium spork?) than in their cars (1989 honda civic?). Good prioritizing, if you ask me.
|Clothing for the trip
All told, I bought or horse-traded a total of five bike bags. I packed and repacked my bags, trying to get ever lighter. This meant a new lightweight rain jacket and a couple new dry bags too. A solar-powered phone/Garmin charger, and a portable water filter. Ka-ching!
I obsessed over my bike too. I was committed to taking the Krampus, but with a few mods. First, I would switch the single ring crankset out for a double, to give me a bailout gear for the mountains. This charge meant a new crankset, front shifter, and derailleur. Ka-ching!
I also put a bigger brake rotor on the front. Chasing dragons requires good brakes. Ka-ching! The gear was starting to add up – my wife wondered whether I was building a space shuttle when she saw the credit card bills. But at least I wouldn’t spend any money on bike parts during my seven days on the route. Not possible. Or so I thought.
About a month before the trip, the new issue of Dirt Rag magazine came out, with a cover article on the trip we were doing. The author had completed the exact same route almost exactly one year earlier. This served only to stoke the fire. Soon, I was showing friends and family the magazine article and youtube videos of the trails I’d be riding. They politely pretended to care.
Soon enough, it was time to go. I drove to Indy to meet Andy, who would drive us the rest of the way to Telluride, Colorado. In all, 24 hours of drive time. When I left the house, it was raining, just like every other trip I have taken this year. Stupid rain, I hate it so much.
As I crossed into Indiana, there was a sign proclaiming Indiana to be “America’s Crossroads.” Hoosiers, take note: that’s a terrible state motto. Essentially, you’re saying “Indiana; You Have to Drive through It to Get where You Really Want to Go.”
Anyway, I made it to Indy and met up with Andy. We loaded my gear into the IMBAru, and we were headed off to pick up Greg near St. Louis. Greg was to be one of the group of eight of us on this trip.
|Larry Byrd won’t tell you, but I will.
Along the way to Colorado, I learned a couple of things. First, Missouri stinks. Literally. It smelled bad the whole time we drove through it. Second, Kansas is long and flat and full of signs about Jesus.
After a full day of driving, with two hours of sleep at a rest stop, we reached Colorado. We had pizza in Salida.
We then drove through the “Garden of the Gods” on the way to Andy’s friend’s house in Ridgeway, where we would spend the night. After a meal in town, we were ready for bed.
We woke up to the enviable view from Scott’s balcony of “Pleasant Valley” and the mountain range behind it.
Scott had some Native American Medicine Cards and asked us to draw one each. I drew “the Wolf.”
According to the book, “As you feel the wolf coming alive inside you, you may wish to share your knowledge by writing or lecturing on information that will help others better understand their uniqueness or path in life. It is in the sharing of great truths that humanity will attain new heights.”
So, there you go, the spirit world wants me to feel the wolf coming inside me. I’m helping humanity attain new heights by sharing great truths such as “Missouri stinks.” You’re welcome.
We spent the day bumming around in Ridgeway and Telluride. Andy said that we could probably find great deals on outdoors gear in the thrift shops in these mountain towns, and he was right. I found a Big Agnes sleeping bag for $25. And also this sweet shirt.
Also, Telluride had these “free boxes” in the middle of town. Pretty awesome. I left my Columbus Crew ball cap in there. It was gone the next day. What a great idea! I wonder whether it would work outside of hippie towns full of wealthy people.
In Telluride, we saw some elk and visited the waterfall.
Then, we met up with Sam, another rider in our group and his wife Natalie. It was their first wedding anniversary. I wonder what kind of negotiating Sam had to do to start a weeklong trip on the day of his first anniversary. But such is the power of the dragon.
After dinner in Telluride, we headed back to Scott’s place to do a final gear check for the start of the ride on the next day. I made the tough decision to cut my gear by almost half and abandon a large handlebar bag in favor of light weight. I also left behind my bug spray, because Greg said I could share his. I would regret this decision later.
I went back and forth about what to cut from my packs, particularly about the spare tire I had brought. A 29er+ tire is roughly the size of a cantaloupe, even rolled up, and almost as heavy.
|That’s it on the right.
If I left the tire, I would have enough room for a whole extra change of clothes. Or more bourbon . . . In the end, I decided to take the tire, just in case. Andy was riding a 29er+ too, so it would be the backup for both of us. I packed about 12 ounces of bourbon anyway, which my friends assured me would not be enough. More on that later.
Finally, it was time to turn in for the night. In the morning, Andy left early to drop his car off in Moab, where our ride would finish, and took the shuttle back to Telluride for the ride start.
In the meantime, Sam, Greg, and I hung around Telluride, drank coffee, and reviewed maps. Eventually, we wandered over to the ski gondola, where our ride would begin.
Other members of or group started floating in. While I waited, I had a beer. I think the lady bartender was genuinely taken aback by my enthusiasm at the fact that they had Shlitz on tap. First came Mick, John, and Chris. Then Matt and Andy rolled in. It was time to go.
We had a crew from all over the US. Matt and Sam from Durango, Andy from Indy, Greg from the St. Louis area, Mick from Eugene, Oregon, Chris from Dallas, John from Salt Lake, and me from Columbus, Ohio.
When we reached the top of the gondola lift, we were all a little wired, anticipating the ride to come, and sizing each other up. Typically, on long group rides, the ride sorts itself into groups – fast riders up front, and slow in the back. Nobody wants to be the slowest! We each wondered whether we’d be in the front or back.
Me, I usually get jittery and super jacked up on adrenaline in the first few miles of a long trip. I’m on the dragon’s tail! So, after the group photo, I hit the first ride with my brain in the wrong place – too twitchy and overthinking every move.
The first ride of the day started with a long downhill run on trails built on the ski slopes. Early in the run, I hit a loose turn a little too fast and went down. First crash of the ride, and not 20 minutes in! I needed to settle down and loosen up.
Fortunately, I was okay, but John watched me crash and decided to follow suit. He actually drew blood.
After the fun downhill runs, we started the long, slow uphill slog, mainly on dirt and gravel roads. This ride would only be about 18 miles, but it included almost 2,700 feet of climbing over the last ten miles. For a flatlander like me, this is a lot of elevation.
When we settled in for this climb, the group began to split. Sam, who is used to riding at altitude, and Mick, who is training for the Leadville 100 quickly became the leader. Both are trained in leading wilderness trips too, so they helped us stay together and not get lost. Me, I was happy to yo-yo thorough the group, chatting and trying to encourage people up the climbs.
We crossed a section of road that had seen a massive rockslide.
As a few of us struggled with the altitude, Greg had to abandon the ride altogether. Tough choice, and he would be missed for the rest of the ride.
As we stopped at a creek to let the group regather, Kelly from San Juan Huts happened to drive by on her way to stock the hut. She gave us some cold cokes and took the bags off our bikes in her car. Score! We stuck our cans of coke in the stream to cool them down.
After lollygagging way too long at the creek, we started the final few miles of the day – also the steepest! I was stunned by the flora at this altitude.
The ride ended with a push up a steep gravel grade. When we got there, Kelly was trekking back and forth a footpath to the hut, carrying fresh food and water. Tired as we were, we all pitched in to help her get the goods uphill. Then, it was time to crack a beer and enjoy the views.
This hut was called “Last Dollar Hut,” because it sat atop Last Dollar Pass. Legend says that Last Dollar Pass was the last way around hostile Indian territory. You’d give your “last dollar” to take the pass rather than the alternative. Me, I’d give my last dollar just to spend some more time up here.
In honor of Colorado, I drank some Coors, (the banquet beer). Someone claimed that the mountain on the Coors can is Mount Telluride, which we could see from our picnic table. What do you think?
We spent the evening getting to know each other, and swapping stories, like ways to poop in the woods without leaving a trace. Ever heard of the “smear method”? Gross. Personalities began to emerge. The comedian, the worry wart, the caretaker, the cheerleader, and the potty mouth drunk(s). (Guess which one I am).
|Hint: That ain’t me.
We still had cellular service here, so a few of us spent a little time on our phones, knowing that we’d soon be forcibly unplugged from all the facetubes (this would be harder on some – Sam had a flip phone, so I don’t think he minded) and that it would be tough to find a Tinder match on this trail anyway (unless you like mountain men, but more on that later).
As Day One flickered out, I realized:
Only six more days left to chase dragons.
Be brave for the thrill of it.