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.
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.
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."
But it was nothing but blue skies and birdsong on the late September morning we set off. The road out of Telluride was flat and comforting, a paved mile of pleasant riding that I now think of as the garden path to the gates of hell. We were like the Von Trapp kids on an outing, laughing and waving and weaving. Then we turned right onto a monster incline and conversation pretty much ended for the next seven days.
That first day was 17 miles. Really, only the last 16 were painful. We were still acclimating, you see. That's the process by which sea-level yuppies who probably shouldn't have ordered that fifth pitcher of beer the night before adjust to high altitude by muttering oxygen-starved profanities under their so-called breath.
On the steepest pitches, I could barely pedal fast enough to keep steerageway. Hitting a pebble felt like riding the bike over a picnic table. Granted, my pencil thighs weren't the most powerful in the group (Gumby on a Bike, they called me). But even the hard-core riders were suffering.
"This is [now rendered a less-than-ideal situation]," croaked Chris Ferrara, a buff Honolulu charter pilot, as we crept toward the 11,000-foot line where we'd find our first cabin.
Yes, but it was beautiful. As we pedaled oh-so-slowly uphill in our highest granny gears, we could appreciate how lovely was the scene of our torment. The valley walls above Telluride were steep and amber. In forest groves, the golden aspen leaves fell on us like the flower petals they throw at Bombay weddings. Or is it funerals?
Even when we finally reached the hut, limp and winded, no one was too exhausted to miss a sunset that spread scarlet across the big mountain sky -- and (cue ominous music) the clouds moving in from the west.
Chillin' on the Trail
The snow was four inches deep on the seat of my bicycle the next morning. According to the maps, the day was long, 26 miles, but easy. Much of it was a long descent and the rest nearly flat. Nothing like the butt-kicking climb of Day 1.
Ha! Half an hour into that lovely downhill glide, the snow and sleet moved back in. The dirt road grew greasy and slick, which was actually fun on the curves, and a wet barbed-wire wind began raking my face. Ten minutes later, momentum died and I found myself pedaling hard downhill. I stopped and looked down at a pumpkin-size wad of mud around my rear-wheel gears.
Within minutes of stopping, I was chilled. By the time I'd cleared the sprockets of peanut butter, using stiff fingers and broken twigs, it was a bona-fide winter storm and I was downright shivering. The group was spread out over miles, mostly behind me. I pedaled three more hours through increasing cold and misery, stopping to clear the mud every mile or so. At the first paved road, Highway 62, I waited for the group. Things had clearly gone from discomfort to danger.
"The fun meter is now at zero," said Linda Ferrara when she pulled up. She's a museum administrator in Honolulu, where surprise blizzards hardly ever affect her daily rounds. "I'm done," she declared.
Not everyone had caught up, but there were enough spouses with proxy votes to reach an instant consensus. Five people would turn right on the highway and ride about 14 downhill miles to the town of Ridgway and, hopefully, a lift back to Telluride. The group was sundered. Four of us would go on: me, George, Les Harunaga, a dentist, and Sarah Rogers, a triathlete, the last three from Hawaii.
You probably think the bailout group had it best, don't you? Eventually they did (by nightfall they were uncoiling in a hot tub), but not at first. Turns out a 14-mile downhill ride in 35-degree freezing rain is a recipe for serious hypothermia -- no work and all wind. They finally stopped for shelter at an abandoned building where Loretta Siniff, an airline pilot, bottomed out. "I just could not go on," she said later. "All I could focus on was getting warm. Your thinking slows down."
Tyrie Jenkins, my sister-in-law, rode another few miles until she found an open country store. She rode back, uphill, to the rest and led them to the safety of hot coffee and gas heat. Their ride was over.
"I couldn't make my fingers work," Tyrie said. "I had to stick my dripping chin over the counter and ask the woman to unbuckle my helmet."
Weathering the Ride
The rest of us crossed that highway onto a dirt road. The mud there was even thicker, and some of the puddles were shin-deep on the down stroke. It took two hours to go about two miles. That put us roughly halfway to our cabin. Daylight, if that's the right word for the milky gruel that filled the sky, was fading fast. It was time for our own bailout.
"Hey, don't mention it," said Jim Roth as we hefted our bikes from the back of his white pickup. He stayed well back as we wrangled the muddy messes to the ground. We hadn't been able to chat during the glorious, 13-mile freezing lift he'd given us to within a thousand yards of our cabin. "I've been in similar situations. You have to have respect for the weather up here, or it will kill you."
We found our little sanctuary, a wooden hut in a pine grove. We cleaned our bikes as well as we could, fired up the stove and verbally danced around the topic of surrender. The map called for almost 35 miles the next day, 1,800 feet of climbing.
"I think we should pack it in," Les finally said. It hung in the air. Any kind of agreement, a muttered "Me, too," would have seconded the motion and tipped it into consensus. But there was silence. Finally, George said, "Well, let's see what the morning brings."
We didn't know it until later, but the storm we'd endured had killed someone that day. A hunter died of exposure in our same mountains.
Morning brought clear skies but icy, icy air. We decided to ride a few miles and see how it went.
The level road was easy, but at the first climb, I realized I couldn't shift. The derailleur was frozen, stuck in the middle gear of yesterday's last mile. (Later I would learn from one of the hut journals how to thaw a frozen gear: Pee on it). Everyone had the same problem. Les was stuck in low, which was agony on the flats. Sarah, a 20-year resident of the tropics, was clearly freezing and miserable. Five miles in, they turned back.
And then there were two.
George and I settled into a rhythm and surprised ourselves by cracking the 20-mile mark by lunchtime. But the sleet came back for another run. When a gray Ram Charger pulled abreast of us, I was climbing at half-a-mile an hour with frosted eyeglasses.
"I can't let you go on," said the driver, a twenty-something Coloradan in a Nike cap. His black Labrador forced a laughing head through the window. I looked down and saw what they saw, a couple of pipe-cleaner legs covered in ice and mud. "My daddy always said, there's a thin line between tough and foolish," the man said. His was a philosophy of aphorisms. "You're right on that line, aren't you?
"You've got 15 miles to the Columbine Pass. Throw 'em in. I'll run you up there."
I looked at George. He hates getting rides, I know. He's a purist about these things. But he was leaving it up to me.
"Naw," I said. "We're doing okay."
And you know, something about letting that truck drive off without us gave me a boost. I put my dripping head down, got an endless loop of "Stars Fell on Alabama" singing in my head and pedaled steadily for the next four hours. The weather stayed rough for the rest of the day. We got lost once and rode three miles out of the way. But we made the whole 35 miles.
By the time we reached the cabin, the storm had broken for good and we had daylight left for a long rest and a decent dinner. That's when I knew we were going to make it.
Monster Miles to Moab
The next four days were completely different. The weather dried out and, as we came out of the San Juans, so did the terrain. The aspens gave way to smaller, scrubbier oak and then pinyon pine. The scent of sage rose as the landscape warmed up. The distant La Sal Mountains soared on the horizon as we crossed under long, red mesas. Moab lay just on the other side of their gray snaggle peaks. We made a steady 30 to 35 miles a day.
And we weren't alone anymore. After some R&R following their death ride down the highway, three other riders caught a lift along the route until they overtook us on Day 4: Chris Ferrara and Dan and Loretta Siniff. They pulled their bikes and panniers out of the truck, and we were a group of five that rolled into camp that night.
It was an old log homestead on a working ranch. Its owner, a laconic bearded westerner named Tam Graham, had even built a propane-heated shower nearby for cyclists. We chopped a little wood for him (by now, we were ending the day with leftover energy) and Tam leaned against the split-rail fence and told us about ranch life in the Rockies. He showed us the bomb-crater-size barbecue pit where he throws a 1,000-person cookout every summer.
"Last year we had a rooster ropin'," Tam said.
"What size rope do you use for that?" one of us tinhorns asked. He considered.
"A very small one," he said.
The riding got more interesting, too. We had a day of true single-track mountain biking as we shed the San Juans, mile after mile on a thread of rocky trail. (I was thrown twice before I learned the fundamental rule: Look where you want to go -- not at what you want to avoid.) We had a day in the open desert with the trail nearly invisible in the loose red sand. We had a screaming three-mile descent into the town of Gateway. We sped so fast I had to let air out my tires to keep them from exploding under the heat of my brakes. Dan's set of fancy hydraulic disk brakes nearly failed when his fluid boiled over.
And we had one grueling day of nothing but climbing, six hours of groaning effort out of John Brown Canyon at the Utah line. I pushed much of the way, peering out from under my handlebars.
The last day, of course, was the hardest, a monster 38-mile run into Moab. Unfortunately, by the end of Mile 1 I was already mentally tasting the salt of my first margarita. The ride was endless, with long uphill slogs in the blistering desert sun. We were on scorching pavement now, and I was digging for the very last reserves. There was no question of quitting now, which made the effort even harder somehow. It just had to be done. My vacation.
By the time I dragged my sorry, bent and creaky frame -- and I'm not talking about the bike -- to the rise that looks over Moab, I was over. It was a popular view spot, and a fellow in a green Ford F150 was parked there, along with a dozen other cars. He asked me where I'd been riding and I told him I'd just zipped over from Telluride, 200 miles away. He nodded his head, looked at my noodle legs.
"Not many people do that," he said. His was a philosophy of simple truths. The best kind.
He was exactly right, I thought. Maybe that's why it was so fun.
Steve Hendrix will be online Monday at 2 p.m. to discuss this story during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.
For a photo gallery with additional images of the Telluride-to-Moab bike ride, go to www.washingtonpost.com/travel.