The Wild Kingdom

Narrative of a three day tour covering  Aspen, Pearl Pass , Crested Butte, Ohio Pass , Gunnison, Pitkin, Cumberland Pass and Taylor Pass

There I was again, switching places with my bicycle, having fundamental doubts about the fun of it. My bike was supposed to carry me, not the other way around.  A freak September snow a few days before, had turned Pearl Pass into something resembling deep winter. Usually this is the perfect time for such a crossing. But this year it turned out to be not perfectly perfect. The vibrant fall yellows of the trees were now below me, and the surroundings didn't seem nearly as friendly as they did an hour ago.

I was very motivated to get across this pass. I had planned a three day circle, and the first step involved, was getting from Aspen to Crested Butte over Pearl Pass. There was no alternate route. People who think of Colorado in terms of hard top roads are amazed to the point of nonbelief, that you can ride a bicycle from Aspen to Crested Butte in just one day. If you restrict yourself to hard top roads you would have to make a detour through Leadville and over Monarch Pass, covering around 170 miles. If you accept that some roads in life are made out of dirt, the most logical alternate route is over Kebler Pass. But that route also totals over 100 miles. A shorter route over Schofield Pass is comparable in ruggedness to the Pearl Pass route, but not quite on the same level. In any case, if you can't get across Pearl due to weather, Schofield is not an alternative, and Schofield is still longer than Pearl.

The heavy wet snow melted readily as I stomped down into it. I started leaving a long trail of large holes in the snow below me. Next to this orderly set of tracks was a much more disorderly set of holes and disturbed snow, looking more like holes where somebody had a fight with a mountain lion. These were the "tracks" where I had set down, dragged and heaved my bicycle from place to place. I carried my bike across a little creek. I looked towards the pass and saw a gentle white saddle. I wasn't sure I would ever get there. Then I looked over to the columns of rocks along Castle Peak and felt that this was still all definitely a worthwhile experience, pass or no pass. The light had already that crisp, yet soft late autumn quality that looked perfect on photographs.

To cut a long torture short, I did make it over the pass on that September afternoon. I was past the summit, well on my way down, when my squinting, non believing eyes saw a couple pushing their mountain bikes up the other side of the pass. "Well I'll be darned" I let out. "And you probably will be" came the answer from a hundred feet away. Boy, just when you're doing something dumb enough to give you some individuality in this world, two people come along and break the illusion, just like that, a couple no less. They were dressed in thermal underwear, looking more like skiers than the commercial advertising billboard jersey look. We each wanted to know what was ahead for us, and the other one had the answer. What lay ahead for me, was better than for them. As is the custom, the snowier part of the pass always faces North, and they would descend that part along a series of holes in the snow that I had left.

Descending into Crested Butte for the first time seemed to me like a decent into a golden Aspen Paradise Lost. This El Dorado was ringed in the distance by a sawblade of white teeth. Crested Butte struck me as a very cool town. What else do you expect from a place where they invented mountain bicycling ?

The coolest thing about Crested Butte were all the mountain bikes standing around town, old clunkers leaning on fences, newer ones casually lying on the ground, scores of them lined up side by side next to the restaurants. They were hardly ever locked. It was as if they had a life of their own. They were kept free to roam around. Late in the evening they could go on explorations, by themselves or with their favorite friend bicycles. They were ready to roam the hills with the exuberance of a puppy bike. They could explore new sidepaths next to Schofield Pass. Since everybody was asleep, they could even venture into the wilderness area, and explore new sideroutes up Daisy Pass. It was a regular wild kingdom, not yet documented by wild life photographers. They would jump across creeks, do wheelies to their heart's content, race down descents, and climb much faster without the weight of their riders on them. By next morning they were back, leaning against the same fences and sheds, where their owners had left them. Some of them had a bit more mud on them than their owners could remember. But in any case, they were ready to take the inhabitants of Crested Butte to work again; or if it was the weekend, they were ready to go for another full day ramble with them.

The owners didn't mind the independent escapades of their bicycles. They could only benefit from them. Often they would venture out beyond trail 409 and 413, and all the other popular routes, and they would wonder how to get back. Then they could just sit back on  their bikes, and let them make the decision on what the best route was. And many owner was amazed, and thankful to his free bicycle for letting it show him a new route. Anyway, that's how the legend goes. Most of us do not have the luxury of giving our bicycles that much freedom. We have to lock it up, and guard it from thieves. I don't know if Crested Butte still has that supreme luxury of letting most of its bicycles stand around unlocked today. It is worth checking out.

Form Crested Butte the ride continued over a much more civilized pass than the previous crossings, Ohio Pass. I climbed through a canopy of trees. The road traversed along a gentle wooded shoulder. A few times the trees pulled back, and the forest curtain opened on the fall theater of the West Elks turning yellow.  Soon after,  this became a regular bicycle tour on hard top pavement, with cars and shopping malls, gas stations and 7-11s, but just for a little while. In Gunnision I erased the last memories of Pearl pass stream crossings and snowdrifts from my Ascent, as the model was called. I went to a car wash, and hosed off any last sign of mud. I could still remember the beauty of Pearl Pass, and now I could sit on a clean bike, and actually pedal it, while remembering the pass. With a vivid memory, it was the best of both worlds.

The day was still young, so I pressed on towards Pitkin. I wasn't sure how far I would get today. There were two passes and a day and a half left, before I was scheduled to show up for work again. Either I would ride two passes today, or two passes tomorrow. I rode right through Pitkin and started up Cumberland Pass. This was the end of civilization as marked by pavement. The mainstreet was fronted by an abandoned narrow gauge railway station, as well as an assay office from mining days. Along the backstreets, snowmobiles competed for space with rusty car wrecks. I was there recently, and was surprised to find the same places now occupied by expensive luxury homes.

"Gee, that was nice a hotel back there in Pitkin" said one kneecap. "Let's go back and check it out" said the other. The old hotel was also a youth hostel. It offered the feeling of an old hotel of the wild west.  Search out a place off the beaten path and you shall find other people who search out places off the beaten path. I spent the evening talking to an English chap, who was a teacher when he wasn't traveling. This hotel was more to his liking than the usual American motel. He commented about them : "There you go through your door, to your room, and then watch TV, and that's that. What's so great about that ?". I learned again that the most interesting people are found in the most out of the way places.

The next morning my stomach was properly lined with eggs, bacon and potatoes. Before I lit the fuse on that long lasting energy inferno, I topped it off with some high octane donuts. Now I was ready to go. After an easy day yesterday, this last day contained two very high passes. First was Cumberland. Cumberland Pass is a long steady climb on a well traveled dirt road. You can ride up it in the same aerobic style as any hard top road, but with less traffic, and a bit more dust. This outrigger of the Sawatch Range, is a prime vantage point onto the Collegiate Peaks, part of the Sawatch. Afterwards came a free ride, a coast to the isolated collection of log cabins called Tincup.

I made a mental note to return when I had more time, because the major climb of the day was still ahead, the climb back up to the rim of the pot that's called the Gunnision Basin, via Taylor Pass. This jeep trail was again a demonstration of all the amazing things that the bicycle wheel is capable of. It can roll over boulders the size of cowheads, cross Amazon like currents, and cross over holes the size of calderas. Well, I'm exaggerating a bit. I should also mention that I was walking, pushing my bike over boulders the size of cowheads, carrying my bike through Amazon like currents, etc. This was really more enjoyable than riding, even if riding would have been possible, which for me, it wasn't. I had an unsuspended cromoly frame mountain bike, complete with loaded touring panniers. But I imagine that  full suspension would change little about my attitude regarding walking. I like to walk with my bike in a beautiful place like this, and a bike still is the only way that the whole tour could have been done. You certainly can't walk 210 miles over four passes in three days.

The roughest part of this pass was actually near its bottom, when it followed a rough stream bed. It became smoother as I gained altitude. The final descent from Taylor pass down into Aspen is one of the great scenic adventures that this state has to offer. I lost elevation quickly, and a lot of it, 4520 feet in less than an hour and a half. That short time and many feet of elevation loss still included many stops. I had to stop regularly to enjoy the view of Castle Peak, framed by turning aspen trees. I had to stop even more often to regain some feeling in my numb hands. This was before the days of U breaks and suspension bikes, when braking the bike on a steep jeep trail was harder than pedaling it up the same hill. More recent rides down this pass on my fully suspended Klein Mantra have been even more enjoyable. But I still have to stop just as often, to enjoy the views. Now it's just easier to click the camera with a working finger. (Sept/86)

Copyright (C) 2003 by Michael Fiebach - All Rights Reserved