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Summer Of Sixty-Nine

Day One

We had no set itinerary except to ride into the mountains, so we left Pueblo on Hwy 50, which led generally westward. This turned out to be a wide, smooth two lane highway that droned on as straight as the roads in Kansas. Ken led the way on his streetbike, and Steve and Dan followed me. About half an hour into this, yr. hbl klutz fell prey to his first disaster: I got a bee inside my shirt! All I can remember is that sudden alarm you feel when you realize your delicate epidermis is being pierced by a large hypodermic of some kind. I recall slamming on the brakes and getting off the road, and then ripping my shirt off to allow the attacker to get away from me. Dan describes it a bit differently, though:

"We were droning along at about 65 mph when Charlie suddenly hit the shoulder in a cloud of dust. He jumped off the bike before it quit rolling and let it fall - he started coming out of his clothes before his feet were on the ground!"

Whatever. I suffered about four good hits from the bee, or wasp, or whatever it was, but there were no ill effects other than the immediate pain. Then I noticed my bike was lying there in the dirt and the meticulously secured backpack had come loose. Argh.

I righted the bike, breathed a sigh of relief that it wasnít bent or broken, and reattached the cargo. Before we hit the road again, I made sure my collar was securely buttoned up tight. One bee a trip is more than enough.

A bit farther along, we encountered a gravel road leading off to the north and decided to explore a bit. Dan led the way on his 175, followed by Steve on the DT1, then me and Ken. We had been riding our Yamahas on gravel roads quite a bit back in Missouri, and I felt fairly confident of my abilities on the loose stuff. Dan wicked it up and began to leave the rest of us; Steve, the least experienced and skilled of the group, finally sped up to try and catch him. I followed suit, setting the stage for disaster No. 2.

Dan had disappeared over a low rise in the road; Steve dropped over it and out of sight about 50 yards in front of me. I continued into the dust at about 45 mph; as I topped the rise, I was greeted by the sight of a white pickup truck parked crossways in the road ahead of Dan, who was stopped. Steve was in a lurid sideways slide right behind him. No where to go, the stage was set for my very first panic stop on gravel! Sorry to say, I failed the test. I slammed on the rear brake, the bike went sideways and down, and I had my introduction to the concept of "ground-sky, ground-sky, ground-sky". This time, Ken describes my acrobatics:

"I was trying to keep the Honda fairly close to the dirt bikes, but it was really squirrley on the gravel. Dan and Steve were out of sight over a rise when I saw Charlieís brake lights come on. He immediately went sideways and then the bike went down - Charlie came off of it and instantly rolled up into a ball, before he even hit the ground. The bike flipped over once, then slid to a stop; Charlie rolled and bounced and tumbled for quite a distance. When he stopped, he got up and dusted himself off like nothing had happened."

Indeed. Ah, the resiliency of youth! I did just that - dusted myself off, and went to check the bike. Miraculously, it was relatively unscathed. A couple of small scratches, a tiny tear on the side of the seat, and a slightly bent shift lever seemed to be the only damage. My fishing rod had come loose, along with the backpack (again), but everything was okay.

Well, after we got ourselves calmed down and my bike repacked, and after the disgusted rancher had driven away, shaking his head at the stupid tourists, we had a little meeting. We decided that it was time to settle down and start riding more responsibly, and taking this seriously instead of treating it like a quick run down to the local creek. After all, we had come out here for a week of riding, and we didnít need to have it cut short by someone getting hurt and forcing us to call the whole thing off.

We turned around and rode more carefully back to the highway, then continued on to Canon City.

A bit past Canon City, we encountered a sign pointing toward the Royal Gorge. I had heard of the worldís highest suspension bridge, but I wasnít real excited about seeing it. The other guys wanted to, though, so we made the turn. Iím really glad we did!

Image of the view looking straight down from the bridge over the Royal Gorge This bridge hangs out in space 1,053 feet above the Arkansas river, spanning a narrow canyon carved out of solid rock. Now, Iím normally not squeamish about bridges, but this one was an exception. The order of the day seemed to be for tourists to drive out onto the bridge and park to get out and look over the side. Meaning we got about halfway across and had to stop. Okay, I'm brave enough, so I got off the bike and walked to the railing and took a deep breath and shot a couple of quick pictures over the side. Whew! Get me back to the bike!

Image of the Royal Gorge bridge as seen from the overlook on the west side So, here I am, sitting astride my little dirt bike 1/5 of a mile above the abyss, beginning to get a little of that old height phobia going, when I look down at the floor of the bridge for the first time. Folks, the thing is made out of nothing more than 4 x 4s! With an inch of space between them! Egad! You can see all the way down to the river below! Get me offa here! I could just see one of those boards breaking, the rest sliding over to fill the gap, and another one failing, andÖ suffice to say, I was very happy to see the traffic commence moving again, and to get to the other side. On the other side, from the safety of a rock-solid overlook, is where I took the picture you see here.

Once there, we had to decide whether to go back across the bridge, or to take the "back way" out, back to Hwy 50. We chose the latter, much to my joy. And, as it turned out, to everyoneís enjoyment. This back way out was longer than the way in, and in contrast to the basically flat and straight frontal approach, it was crooked and steep and a real blast to ride.

At about this point is where the combination of fatigue from the long drive and lack of sleep, the unaccustomed altitude, and the overwhelming nature of the unusual sights and activity started taking its toll on me. I know we rode on up Hwy 50 to Salida and then took Hwy 17 south, but it all disappeared into a haze of sensation for me. I vaguely remember stopping in a parking lot in Salida and replacing the jets in the Yamahasí carburetors because the climb up had reduced them to 40 mph shoulder-hugging obstacles to other traffic. I donít recall crossing over Poncha Pass (9,010 feet), or our decision to take the west fork when we came to the junction with Hwy 285 to Saguache, but thatís where we ended up. Up to then, the ride was lost in a big blur.

I guess I got a second wind along in there, because things started registering with me again by the time we left Saguache; and am I ever glad! We were riding through the heart of the astonishingly beautiful San Luis Valley, the most beautiful wide open space I have ever seen in my life. Nestled between the continental divide on the west and the fabled Sangre de Cristo range on the east, the sheer distance and expanse of it struck awe in my soul. Iíve since been a lot of places and seen some beautiful sights, but the one I most want to revisit is that valley. I canít believe itís been almost 30 years and I havenít been back.

Midafternoon found us somewhere south of Saguache, with no idea where we were going to spend the night. We decided to take a side road and see if we could find a place to camp. This dirt road, which we showed greater respect for than the one I had crashed on earlier, led us westward and up. The climb was gradual at first. The road twisted along among the brushy, waist-high growth that was almost the only plant life in evidence, skirting outcrops of rock and some low hills. A couple of miles along, as we approached the highest of these hills, we decided it was time to leave the road and do some hillclimbing. (Remember, this was back in the days before every square foot of the known universe was fenced - we hadnít seen a fence since we had left Saguache.)

We took off up the slope of the hill, wending our way through the brush. We quickly found out this brushy plant wasnít the wispy, limber growth it seemed to be. I attempted to ride over, or through, one, and was stopped as surely as if I had hit a brick wall! Iím glad I wasnít going faster than a walking speed, or I would have gone over the handlebars. This thing was tough as iron and just as unyielding. I had to get off the bike and pick up the front end to extricate it. Looking around, I saw Steve had suffered the same fate. Dan was almost to the top of the hill, and Ken was just getting his heavy Honda 350 into the brush.

The only way Ken could get the streetbike to climb that sandy, brushy hill was to get up a big head of steam and let it fly. He was blasting up to the vicinity of where Dan had parked, when I noticed Dan jump in front of him and start waving him down. Ken slammed on the brakes and stopped. I came putting up behind him and stopped as well. Egad! Yet another lesson learned: The smooth gradually ascending hill suddenly terminated in at least a 300 foot cliff. Had Ken ignored Danís warning, he would have floated gracefully over the edge and onto a huge jumble of rocks below. We simply HAD to get our heads on straight about riding out here or we were gonna get killed.

Image of the San Luis valley with the Sangre de Cristo range in the background But, the view of the valley from there was well worth the climb. We stood in awe on top that hill and gazed out across the valley toward the Sangre de Cristos for a long time.

Back to the dirt road, we continued on up it for a few more miles. The only signs of civilization, besides the road, were the occasional water troughs and accompanying windmills we found here and there. Finally we arrived at the edges of a forest. Tall pines reached for the sky all around us, but we knew it was a narrow strip of woods because we had been able to see the tree line up ahead just before we got into them. These trees must have been at about 9,000 feet.

The road seemed to go on forever, but we didnít want to. At a place where the road momentarily leveled off, we pulled off into the widely spaced pines and found a secluded little glade. This, we decided, is Camp!

We unloaded the bikes and looked around for water. There was ample firewood around, but we had managed to get all the way up here without ever thinking to stop and fill our water jugs. We had delayed doing this because we didnít want to burden the bikes or ourselves with the weight. Now, however, we were dry and thirsty and knew we couldnít make it thorough the night without water. But there was none to be seen. Nor had we seen any sign of it, other than the watering troughs we had passed on the way up, and they didnít look very sanitary. So, we threw our empty canteens on the now unencumbered bikes and headed back down the mountain.

As we exited the trees, we stopped and surveyed our options. The valley spread before us an incredible distance. But, we could clearly see the highway we had ridden in on, and several ranches scattered around. It felt as if we could reach out and touch them all. We picked out the closest one and said, "Letís run down to that one and see if theyíll let us have some water." "Sure; shouldnít take but a few minutes. Yeah, right!

We rode the unladen bikes at a good clip down the twisting, sandy road. Ken was doing little powerslides on his street tires and Dan was hanging the tail out, too. I was being more cautious than before, but still ran at a good speed. And we rode. And rode. Man! We shoulda been there by now! Distances are deceiving out here! It was close to 20 miles to that first ranch!

When we arrived at the drive to the ranch, we discovered our first fence. The gate was open, though, and there were no signs telling us to keep out. We putted up into the dusty yard in front of the ranch house. A tall, gangly man stepped out onto the porch, cradling a rifle in his arms. We respectfully stopped about 50 yards away.

"Hi!," yelled Ken, the silver-tongued one among us. "We were wondering if we could fill our canteens with water?"

The door behind the man was partially ajar; two young boysí faces poked out, one above the other.

"You just passiní through?" the man asked.

"Yes. Weíre from Missouri," Ken said, "and weíre riding around out here. Weíre gonna camp up in the trees, but we canít find any water up there."

The man pointed behind us to a large pipe that jutted up out of the ground next to a big water trough. A large crescent wrench sat atop the valve.

"Just open it with that wrench," he said. "And close it when youíre done."

"Okay, many thanks!" Ken shouted.

We rode over to the pipe and Dan opened the valve. The pipe was about 4 inches in diameter, and it seemed to have no intermediate setting - it was either full off or full on. A huge spout of water shot out of it, halfway across the water trough. It looked good and clean, so we started filling up our canteens and plastic water jugs. The force of the water almost ripped them out of our hands, and it was COLD!

When we had filled our containers and strapped them to the bikes, we turned and waved to the man on the porch. He hadnít moved an inch, and the rifle was still cradled across his body. The kids had come outside and were hiding behind the man, peeking around either side of him.

We mounted up and rode back up to the gate. As we hit the road, I turned and looked back. The man and boys were gone. The place looked deserted.

Looking back up the road we had ridden down impressed on us the distance we were dealing with. We couldnít even see the trees from there, not even the top of the mountain. By the time we rode back up the mountain to the campsite, it was getting dark.

We parked the bikes and stood around a few minutes guzzling water. Dan had thrown a few sticks of wood together on a bare spot of ground the first time we had been there, so it was an easy matter to start a small fire. But thatís all we did. I managed to eat a banana. We all seemed to have been hit by massive fatigue. I know I was about to collapse. Between the lack of sleep the night before, the long, hard day of riding (about 200 miles, easily the longest day I had ever put in on a bike), and the effects of the 9,000 foot altitude, I was almost shaking. Steve and I just looked at the rolled-up tent. The sky was clear; we agreed we didnít need to go to the trouble. Ken didnít unpack his, either. We all threw our sleeping bags on the ground and crawled in, fully dressed. Danís outfit suddenly looked very good. Had he known weíd have nights like this? All he had to do was crawl in and zip up the mosquito net and he was set. Heck, I didnít care if there were any mosquitoes around; I wasnít gonna notice them tonight anyway.

By the time we got situated in our bags and zipped up, we were all panting like weíd just run a marathon. The altitude! I remember lying there thinking my heart was going to pound its way out of my chest, and thenÖ

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