To Hell And Bike

bike map
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005

Out West, wisdom comes dispensed through pickup truck windows.

I learned that on the unforgiving back roads of Colorado's San Juan Mountains. More than once, it took a 4x4 philosopher to point out some essential truth in life. Or maybe that wasn't too hard, given that my life consisted of trying to ride a bicycle across the 206 miles of snowy mountain trails, muddy forest roads and blazing desert heat that separate Telluride, Colo., and Moab, Utah.

"Tell me you're having fun," said the burly man in the white utility truck as he rolled down his window. His was a Socratic approach (we encountered others). Here's what he saw though the driving snow on that steep and slushy mountain road last October:

Two stiff and soggy figures, straddling bikes and hunched over a dripping map. One, me, with a frosting of sleet on my bare legs. The other -- my brother-in-law George Norcross -- with an inelegant tether of nasal drip connecting his face to his handlebars.

The driver could tell we were lost, cold and miserable. He didn't know we were the last two survivors of a nine-person group that had been decimated, in three short days, by a surprise autumn blizzard, grinding physical toil and ailments ranging from altitude sickness to marital discord. The first five decided during the whiteout conditions of Day Two that a holiday without comfort, warmth or safety was hardly a holiday at all. Two others made it another 24 hours before pulling the rip cord. Now we were down to two.

Were we having fun?

Well, no. Not yet. But we did have four days to go.

200-Mile Hump

Why do we do things that hurt to have fun? We asked ourselves that question, in a martini-musing sort of way, during two happy days of gearing up in Telluride. We were a group of friends and friends-of-friends from Hawaii, Ohio and Washington to whom a country bicycle ride sounded like jolly good fun.

We were not crazy to do this. The San Juan Hut-to-Hut route is one of the best-known mountain biking treks in the country. Between early June and early October, the route is fully booked and the string of six cabins spaced along the route are at capacity with eight riders almost every night. (In winter, they turn it into a hut-to-hut cross-country ski route.) The great appeal for most riders is that the simple cabins -- padded wooden bunks, cast-iron stove, remote latrine -- are kept fully stocked with food, water, sleeping bags and beer. All you need to pack in your panniers are clothes, flashlights, lunches, water, and lots and lots of Motrin.

bike map
For most of the season, the ride is just a 200-mile hump, about 35 up-and-down miles each day between cabins. The route is spectacular, starting in the aspen forests of the San Juan Mountains and ending in the high red-rock Utah desert. It's a thigh-burning workout for sure, but nothing out of reach for fit riders who can handle the altitude. Even novices take it on; I hadn't been on a bike in more than 15 years before signing up.

But in the fall, fate and nature take a hand in Rocky Mountain goings-on, and the changeable mountain weather can make for a more interesting experience.

"Usually at least once a September, we get a two- or three-day cold front that makes things pretty nasty," says Joe Ryan, the owner of San Juan Huts, the company that runs this private system on various public lands. "Normally only about 6 to 8 percent of people who start end up quitting. In the fall, though, that goes way up."

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