It was a long downhill and flowed well. The section of the Colorado Trail we were riding drops slowly and steadily for miles as it winds its way down the Craig Creek drainage. It’s a fast, fun, and mostly effortless ride. Sure, there are plenty of obstacles along the way, such as unfortunately positioned rocks, encroaching Potentilla bushes, and washed-out ruts. But the only tricky spots occur where small creeks, thick with willows, come in from the sides. While you can successfully ride most of the trail by using a combination of vigilance and good riding technique, the creek crossings generally require something a little more. And with all of their mud, roots, and big rocks, those parts often end up being walked. Despite the downsides, it’s mountain biking in the wilds of Colorado at its best.
It was a Fall Sunday during what was normally the slow part of the year. Autumn in Colorado’s Tarryall Mountains is spectacular with Aspen trees turning gold and warm sunny days interrupted only by the occasional and temporary arrival of winter. Most years, late September is an ideal time to be there, with long pleasant days that are almost perfect for mountain biking, hiking, and climbing area peaks. But this particular year, my days were occupied with the aftermath of the burning down of the OWA base camp lodge rather than recreation. Instead of the comforts of my private lodge bedroom and bath, I was sharing an old one-room log cabin with an 18-year-old intern, and not doing much besides clean-up and prep for the new construction. On the day in question, I was piddling around the job site doing various chores. Since it was something of an off day, Lee (the intern) asked if he could go on a leisurely and straightforward hike toward Bison Peak. I considered the fact that he’d been on several backcountry trips with my outdoor program in the past. And since there was no work planned for him that afternoon, it seemed reasonable. 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 losing more and more of his edge, I knew that something was up and figured that’s what had happened. Not 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 remained on 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.
We called it the Valley of the Dinosaurs. Mostly because of the humongous rock formations that were scattered all around. They dominated the remote high valley in Colorado’s Tarryall Mountains with their sheer size. And they breathed a strange sort of life into the area that had convinced me 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 gut feeling that had me convinced. I was consumed by the place’s pure and simple beauty. And I sensed the place was 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 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 I 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 wild animals was not one of my goals for that day.
Mount Borah, Idaho- 1990
Tuna Surprise was a pleasant-sounding way to describe our supper entrée. We camped that evening on the lower slopes of Idaho’s highest peak, 12,662-foot Mt. Borah, ready to do a night ascent. Going up it in the dark was a good way to make an otherwise arduous and steep summit climb less mentally tricky and more interesting, I reasoned. We were able to drive right up to our embarking point. And thus, we had the luxury of being able to use whatever sort of bulky, non-trail food that we wanted, along with a large propane burner. The plan was to have a good, filling, and early evening meal, followed by a few hours of sleep and then a projected five or six-hour ascent that would begin at midnight.
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 a lightning flash hit the ground but wondered if there was one up there 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 both the monstrous Hayman Fire, and the smaller thing was that was visibly burning above us on the mountainside.