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Buelling around on the Alpine Loop

By Richard Carpenter

A little shortcut

It’s only 32 miles (if you don’t count the changes in elevation)

Lake City, Colo.—I have the great good fortune to live in Durango, Colorado, where motorcyclists come from around the world to ride and sightsee. My yearly loops include the paved roads through Ouray, Gunni­son, Lake City and back down over Wolf Creek to Durango, but in looking at a map it occurred to me that there was a shortcut I’d been missing since trading my Harley for a Buell XB12X Ulysses. Like so much of the Colorado landscape, the shortest distance is between high peaks, and Silverton, 160 miles from Lake City on pavement, lies only 32 miles from it on dirt roads. Years ago, I took a four-wheel-drive truck over Cinna­mon Pass on my way to hike Handies Peak, but I’d not been up there on the Buell. I didn’t remember it being too difficult, and I did remember gorgeous scenery. So, at the tail end of monsoon season, with fingers crossed that it would be nice weather, I booked a room in Lake City and took a Saturday off with my honey for a two-day back country trip.

Saturday dawned partly sunny but with a definite chill in the air compared to previous weekends. We packed lightly and headed out up the valley toward Purgatory, and soon were winding up over Molas and Coal Bank passes at highway speed. The chill increased as we climbed, the sun hid stubbornly behind the thickening clouds, and by the time we dropped into Silverton hot drinks were in order. The Avalanche Coffee House was serving Black Velvet and we sipped the welcome heat in the dirt street of the town and glanced up toward the pass we were planning to ride, noses sampling the moist air and trying to judge the likelihood of rain.

“I ordered sunny skies until at least 2 o’clock, but Mother Nature must have missed the memo,” I joked. “We could stay here instead…” I offered, but my companion wouldn’t hear of it, and we started out again, warm and caffeinated, out to the edge of town and up CR 110.

The first bit of the dirt road was smooth and well graveled, winding along a valley before starting to climb the side of the mountain. We stopped for pictures, and talked for a bit with a friendly local coming down in his jeep. He said he had just finished reinforcing the tombstone of a postman who had died years ago up valley in an avalanche. They buried him where they found him, and every year the snows moved his gravestone and it had to be found and replaced the following spring. This year the volunteers decided to sink it into a concrete pad, hoping to avoid this same exertion next spring. But the winters are fierce up here, and time will tell…

Up now past waterfalls and abandoned mines we rode, my attention on the road and Shelly’s on the scenery, as she shot pictures from the backseat. The cool damp breeze carried always the threat of rain, and an occasional droplet, but no actual downpour. Soon we were at the ghost town of Animas Forks, which once referred to itself as the largest city in the world. The small print on that sign read “at this altitude” which is 11,300 feet. Tom Walsh owned a house up here that is still known as “The Walsh House” though there is dispute over whether his daughter Evalyn Walsh, who owned the Hope Diamond until her death, ever actually lived here.

We arrived above the town at the choice between going over Engineer Pass (hairy even on four wheels) or up a steep pitch toward Cinnamon. A red KLR650 came up behind us as we snapped photos and started up the Cinnamon fork, knobby tiresspitting gravel. I wondered whether I was biting off more than I could chew. My passenger hiked up the rocky trail and I ascended solo, the Buell clawing its way up surprisingly well on 90/10 tires. Looking back down that first section, I thought, “In for a penny, in for a pound!” My honey got back on and up we went, passing a long train of four-wheelers who were admiring the scenery in a super-low first gear. I for my part wished for a lower first gear several times in the next 15 minutes as we wound slowly but surely upward, over hard-packed soil, loose sharp talus and rock outcroppings. Above timberline, we agreed that the landscape resembles nothing so much as Ireland, rolling green hills with occasional gray rocks and shrubs that could be heather (but aren’t).

Coming up the final grade the bike started to bog a bit, and I did a bit of judicious clutch slipping and engine-revving. The Buell leaped forward, light in the front wheel, and we were at the summit—12,640 feet. We stopped for photos and a rest, and I noticed that the light seemed to be changing on the trail up ahead, as though sun awaited us. As I mentioned this, raindrops started to fall on our current position, and we got back on the bike and started down.

What goes up must come down… and down, I found, was every bit as steep as up had been. Riding two-up over a water-slickened rock outcrop, the front wheel slid and we went down. Fortunately we both saw it coming, and went over at very low speed; still we each bumped a knee. Up we jumped, picked up the bike and pulled over to let traffic behind us go by. The first jeep by was solicitous and helpful, but we waved them on, had a quick breather and started down again. Very shortly the sun was out and the rocks fortunately dry once more. Nevertheless I walked the bike solo down the steepest switchbacks, thankful that I had not attempted the climb from this side… the Silverton side was definitely an easier ascent, and this part of the ride is certainly at the far outer edge of any big adventure-sport bike’s envelope. A smaller dirt bike would be more at home on this pass.

Soon enough we were two-up again, admiring million-dollar back country trophy homes occupied a few weeks out of the year in most cases, and the million-dollar views that went with them. The edges of the aspen leaves were just beginning to yellow; another two weeks and the colors would be in riot. We fell in behind a four-wheeler all the way to pavement, then stopped and chatted with the rider for a few minutes. He was on his way in to Lake City for cigarettes; my girlfriend gave him hers since the four-wheeler was technically illegal on the highway, and he told us that if we liked barbecue there was a must-try new joint in Lake City. With waves and good-byes, we hit the pavement, and shortly were stopping at the first gas station for a rest stop. The KLR rider that went up ahead of us was just coming out of the station, and his eyes widened a bit at seeing us.

“You know, I wondered about you two when I saw you up at theY,” he said. “Two-up on a Buell over Cinnamon… you must really be able to handle that bike. That’s some pretty good riding.”

“Well,” I said, “I had a pretty good passenger.”

The Smoque Shack BBQ joint completely lived up to the back-road review we’d received. Shelly used to live in Kansas City, and pronounced it the best she’d had since that town. As for me, I just know what I like, and the ribs had been well basted with a savory sauce during the cooking process, not just afterward, and the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender. We complimented the proprietor, and he gave us the history: He used to run another long-time town restaurant, sold it to his kids the year before, but got stir-crazy in retirement and decided to do barbecue his way. We assured him we’d spread the word, and after finishing our Coronas we rode a couple of blocks and checked in at the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn isn’t the oldest lodging in Lake City, but it was the first modern-style hotel, built in 1949. Previously, cabins could be rented that surrounded a communal bathhouse. The Matterhorn’s original owner moved to Lake City from Arkansas and decided to open the first “modern” hotel with kitchenettes and private bathrooms. The hotel has been well maintained and kept charmingly retro and the rooms, though Spartan, are completely functional—complete with a comfortable bed and pillows.

Checked in and unpacked, we walked the town, poking into picturesque curio shops and art galleries here and there. Lake City is full of summer activities; we seemed to have missed most of them according to the posted calendars. Ah, well, next year…

At an appropriate hour we found ourselves at the obliging Depot Tavern for football, peanuts and a bucket of beer. After the Cowboys suffered an ignominious preseason defeat at the hands of the Texans, we strolled back to the room and turned in to the occasional sound of gently falling rain.

The morning dawned partly cloudy and chilly. I walked around with the camera, finding a fence and some drying shoes from some other guest’s adventures, and we headed to the Tic Toc diner for breakfast. The Tic Toc is one of 2,000 prefabricated restaurants sold in the 1940s and ’50s to enterprising food service owners. Their number has dwindled over the years to about 200 remaining of the original manufacturing run. It used to stand in Albuquerque, but was moved to Lake City in 2000, and is now for sale! The biscuits and gravy were good and the coffee hot, though weak for my taste (Mean Jean’s is better) and soon we were fortified for the road and headed up into the mountains again.

This morning’s route was all pavement, and the Ulysses seemed happy to leap into the curves and stretch its legs after the slow going of the previous day… or maybe that was just me! In any case, we flirted with dark clouds until nearly to Creede, and then the sun burst forth and began the job of warming us up. Creede has a charming downtown district, if you can get over the first impression created by the sardine-can trailer park as you enter town. Their Repertory Theatre is known nationwide, and if you enjoy touring old mines, the opportunity beckons just a short drive upward from the main street. We settled for more of the demon caffeine, and made tracks again on delightful two-lane roads towards Wolf Creek.

Wolf Creek pass is a joyous curving ride, a favorite of mine on two wheels on dry pavement. As we neared the top, though, I wondered if winter was coming early; it couldn’t have been over 40 degrees and there was a wet gray mist almost to the road at the summit. A month later, I thought, and it might be snowing. We wound back down into the sun, past the runaway truck ramp (am I the only one that’s ever wanted to hit it just to see?) and into Pagosa Springs. Riding through town, the sulfur smell of the steaming springs beckoned, but we settled for hot tortilla soup and chipotle enchiladas at Chatos Mexican Restaurant.

As we walked out of the restaurant it began to rain, one of those Colorado sunshine showers where the sun never vanishes as the drops fall. We saddled up and were out of the wet in no time, sweeping over Yellowjacket pass, through Bayfield and back into Durango.

“Come to think of it,” I told Shelly, “Mother Nature must’ve gotten the memo—she did pretty good by us after all!”

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