It was a Fall Sunday during what should’ve been the slow part of the year. Our Colorado lodge in the Tarryall Mountains had burned to the ground a month or so before and I was up there dealing with it. I was sharing an old log cabin, which had not burned, with an 18-year- old intern—so, I was not alone. On the day in question, I was piddling around doing various things that needed to happen in the midst of rebuilding. That afternoon, Lee (the intern) had some leisure time and came up to the building site to let me know that he wanted to go on a simple and physically easy hike up the Ute Creek Trail toward Bison Peak and would plan to be back to the cabin before dark. Since he’d been on several backcountry trips with us in the past and I wouldn’t be needing his help with the work that I had planned for the afternoon, it sounded reasonable to me. And so, I gave him my blessing.
Ryan had never bonked before, at least in the metabolic shock overexertion sense of the word. When he started to bumble around and kept losing more and more of his edge, I knew that something was up and figured that’s what had happened. Not really realizing what was going on, he kept on trying to mountain bike further up the Colorado Trail, although with diminishing returns. The big patches of snow that still littered the trail, even though it was June, were probably a good thing since they ultimately turned us all around. His disrupted mental and physical state likely made the retreat more palatable to the 13-year-old, since he wasn’t one to be prone to turn around before his goal was reached, regardless of whatever difficulty he faced.
We called it the Valley of the Dinosaurs mostly because of the monstrous rock formations that were scattered all around. Besides just overwhelming the remote high valley in Colorado’s Tarryall Mountains with their sheer size, they breathed a strange sort of life into the area that had convinced me from early on that the whole place was on the move. I could never pick out any one thing that caused me to think that—it was more like a general, overwhelming and deep in the gut feeling that had me convinced. I was consumed by the place’s pure and simple beauty and a feeling that the whole area was way more alive than me from the very first time I blundered into it. Through the years, I took every opportunity to return and while the physical cost of getting there was never cheap- without fail, it was always worth it.
A stormy evening in the mountains…….
Lightning was striking everywhere and each time it did, there was a bright flash that was immediately followed by an almost deafening crash of thunder. When it had first started, I’d figured that it was time to do something about it, although I didn’t. But once the bolts started lighting up individual trees, I sprang into action.
A herd of elk in the Colorado high country
There must’ve been close to 100 elk filling the valley below me and I was astounded. I didn’t want to do anything to call attention to myself, so just sat there quietly peering over the boulder from afar. It was some sort of luck or fate that put me in that right place and at the right time, because getting into a position to see a big bunch of any sort of wild animals was not one of my predominate goals that day.
A broken mountain bike handlebar in the Colorado backcountry leads to an interesting fix.
It was a long downhill and flowed well. I’d ridden it before and knew that even though we were going down the valley toward Lost Park, I needed to pedal most of the way in order to keep my speed up. That particular section of the Colorado Trail drops slowly and steadily for miles as it winds its way down the mostly open Craig Creek drainage and it’s a fast, fun, and mostly effortless ride. Sure, there are plenty of obstacles all along the way- unfortunately positioned rocks, encroaching Potentilla bushes, and washed out ruts. But the only real tricky spots occur where side creeks, thick with willows, come in from the side. While they can be dealt with by using vigilance and technique, the creek crossings require something a little more. With their mud, roots, and big rocks they’re simply best done on foot. Despite all of the downsides, it is mountain biking in the wilds of Colorado at its best.
I’d ridden the thing in the other direction, a couple of times before, which obviously made it an uphill. While the grade going that way wasn’t steep at any one point, it was simply more fun to go in the downhill direction. And so, like this particular time, that’s what I mostly did.
Even when going in the downhill direction, the start begins with a substantial climb leading up to a high point on a low pass at the west end of the “park”, which is what many such open valleys and meadows like the one we were about to ride into, are called. A gate separates the uphill from the downhill and, in our case, marked the start of over two miles of carved turns, fast straightaways and, and almost effortless pedaling slowed only by the creek crossings and the sporadic need to stop and soak it all in.
And so, we began. As we rode, Drew and I had no need or time for worrying about anything other than how to maneuver around the occasional rock, keep our pedals from hitting the side of the trail, or how to avoid each other’s dust. Bison Peak and the entire Lost Creek Wilderness loomed to the west, but since our focus was on the trail, we mostly didn’t have the luxury of looking toward or pondering it. While we could sense the remoteness of where we were, we were confident that speed would quickly gobble up the distance and soon enough take us back to the world of cars, roads, and computers.
For about the first third of the descent, or 15 minutes, I thought of nothing, other than what the next bit of trail was like. If any other sort of thing tried to work its way into my thoughts, I blocked it out before it could ever gain traction.
But, eventually, I let it happen. It was my own fault and no one else’s. I should’ve known better or been stronger in my resolve, but I began to mentally speculate about what would happen if a handlebar broke in the midst of a downhill like the one we were on. If such a thing were to occur, I realized that there’d be a guaranteed instant loss of bike control which would likely lead to some sort of horrendous crash. As I rounded yet another corner, I envisioned an out of control cyclist riding straight off of a big drop-off as the trail veers away in another direction. I saw nameless faces smacking into rocks, heads auguring into the ground, and bodies sailing off of cliffs. It was ugly.
With those visions overwhelming my mind, I was beginning to feel nauseous as we rode up to one of the creek crossings. We picked our way along the trail for a few feet the willows and then came to a complete stop as we rode up to a large rock blocking the way. We got off and began walking and maneuvering our bikes through and around other rocks and multitudes of mudholes. After only a few minutes, we came to a particularly tricky spot and I latched tightly onto my handlebar to hoist the bike up and over an obstacle. When I pulled up, the right half of the bar came up, but without the bike attached. I was initially both surprised and caught off-guard by the whole incident, since it wasn’t the response I was anticipating. I bumbled around for a moment between the rocks, mud, and bushes as the two of us initially laughed and speculated about the various “what ifs” related to it all. But then, our smiles turned to frowns as we realized the predicament that we were in and the potential wasting of another mile or so of downhill bliss.
I was at a momentary loss for a solution and began to visualize having to walk with my bike the rest of the way. Far off down the valley I could see where Craig Creek turned toward Lost Creek which gave me a frame of reference. From where we were, I calculated that it would take two hours for me to walk what could be ridden in 15 minutes to get to my truck over on the Lost Park Road and that was not how I wanted the ride to end.
And so, I rifled through my small pack looking for any sort of remedy. Among the various things I pulled out were a headlamp, rain jacket, and my first aid kit.That was it, I concluded! The answer. The first aid kit contained a possible fix. I opened it up and the solution was right there in front of me, at least I thought. I would be saved by the ace bandage and roll of white athletic tape almost staring me in the face. Sure, I knew that they were intended for human body repair, but realized that there was no reason why the two particular items couldn’t be used together to work in this particular case.
I was convinced that they could be combined in such a way as to put the bar back together, at least sufficiently enough to allow me to ride back to the road. I became overjoyed as I realized that the ride as intended could go on.
I pulled the two items out and wrapped and taped the broken bar back together. But when finished, I realized that the repaired bar was going to be way too flimsy for serving its purpose, if it did, indeed, even remain stuck together. My idea simply hadn’t worked.
I was at something of an emotional and mental crossroad, when Drew pulled out a single shot Quickfill air cartridge, which he always carried in the event of a flat tire and inserted it into the hollow and still partially tape-attached handlebar tube, as if he’d done it before. The three inch long, full of CO2, and hollow submarine-like piece of metal was an almost perfect fit. Without hesitation, we stuck the broken end of the bar onto one end of the cartridge and inserted all of that into the still attached part. Then we began wrapping tape around the whole thing in order to secure and hold it in place. When finished, I pulled and tugged on it to check, and it was solid. There was hardly any movement. It was almost as good as new, although it had probably added 6 ounces to the weight of bike. At least, I reasoned, it was solid enough to allow me to be able to ride out to the road.
And that’s what it did, but with a bonus. Within moments of finishing the repair, we were back on our bikes and rolling down the trail again. Initially, I was a little tentative and backed-off a bit on my speed, but for the most part, the handlebar felt as good as it ever had.
Once back on the trail, my first thought was simple satisfaction about how the fix was allowing me to ride, rather than walk. Admittedly, I was kind of amazed that it was working. We rode slowly at first picking our way down, gingerly steering clear of the Potentilla bushes, and giving the jutting rocks wide berths.
But our riding method didn’t last. Slowly, our speed increased. Single bushes began to blend into several and we kept getting closer and closer to the jutting rocks. Instead of seeing each potential trail hazard and consciously dealing with them one a time, we began to collectively pass them all by and kept looking further and further down the trail. Something seemed to take control and it wasn’t rational. Our concern about just simply being able to get back to the car with both of us actually riding, soon became a “given.” Eventually, we were back up to cruising speed, weaving in and out, and almost rhythmically flowing our way down the trail. Each time we looked down the valley to where Lost Creek veered off toward the road, it was closer. But instead of just savoring the end of the trail, we were suddenly hoping the ride would last a little longer
We reached the road and ultimately my truck. When the handlebar incident first occurred, our hope was only that the two of us would be able to ride out to in any form or fashion. But since we actually got to ride that last mile of single track the way it was supposed to be ridden, the whole episode became epic.
It was all a matter of mountain perspective.
A tree catches fire in the Colorado backcountry at a particularly inopportune time.
Lightning streaked across the sky and was followed instantly by an explosion of thunder, telling me that the thunderstorm was somewhere right above us. It was unsettling, but there wasn’t time to worry about it. I didn’t see any sort of flash hit the ground but had to wonder if there was one up there, wherever it was that lightning came from, that had one of our names written on it. The wind kept blowing relentlessly and the constant gusting made the whole situation seem all the more chaotic. But, where’s the rain, I thought? The Tarryall Mountains needed it. A real downpour might put an end to the monstrous Hayman Fire as well as whatever the smaller thing was that was visibly burning above us on the mountainside.