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Colorado Mountain Loop or Bust

By Nancy Paganelli

No better way to bond

A summer ride around the San Juan Range

Durango, Colo., July 10–14—Sitting in the cool of the air conditioning inside my house, and looking out at the 18 wild rabbits enjoying eating what was left of the grass, I realized that I needed to get motivated in another direction. I had been invited by my friend Jim Anderson to take part in a five-day ride to Colorado put together by three of his friends. Lou, Mike and Curry were the initiators, each with their expertise—Lou the planner, Curry the lead negotiator for hotel rooms, and Mike making up the routes and rider packets which included yellow safety ribbons, ICE (in case of emergency) phone numbers and route maps. This would be the fifth year the men had planned various versions of the ride.

It was not an organized motorcycle club or chapter ride, but rather a random group of people who meet for coffee at the C-4 shop (Cave Creek Coffee Company). Among the backgrounds of the people planning to take the ride were a couple of lawyers, a novelist, an author of Arizona gun laws, a corporate vice president, a couple of airline pilots and Vietnam veterans (one of whom is a retired Air Force colonel), a retired foreign luxury car importer, a nurse, one man with a doctorate in physical therapy, and possibly, me—a rabbit watcher! What in the world could all these people have in common? I would eventually find out because at the last minute—and I do mean the morning they were leaving—I decided to go.

Thursday morning, July 9, I threw five days worth of clothes and riding essentials together, packed up my bike, and at 2 p.m., with the temperature hitting 107 degrees in Phoenix, joined some of the other riders and headed to Flagstaff to spend the night and knock off two and a half hours of riding from the Friday departure to Durango. By the time we reached Flagstaff, it was probably in the high 80s and enjoyable. After a good night’s sleep, we all met for breakfast at—what else—Macy’s coffee shop on Beaver Street. This was my first introduction to many of the 19 riders in the group.

First off, I noticed that there were only three Harleys, Jim’s 2004 Deuce, Harvey’s 2008 FLHX Street Glide, and my 1997 883 Sportster. But in the spirit of “Can’t we all just get along?” (did I just say that?), David rode a Honda 11TX1300R; Jack, a 1050 Triumph; Steve, a BMW 1200 GS; Bart, a Gold Wing; Arch, a BMW 1200RT; Michelle, a 650 Exec Burgman Suzuki Scooter; Marc, a BMW K1200GT; Curry, a 2002 BMW1150 GS; Lou, a 2008 Gold Wing; John and Lynn rode two up on a BMW 1200GS; Al and Denise rode two up on a BMW 1150GS; Michael, a BMW R1150GS; Dan, a Gold Wing; and Todd, a V-Strom Suzuki. We also had a chase vehicle with a trailer driven by Fred Riedinger, a resident of Durango.

The next thing that became apparent was the age range. No one was less than 50 years old, most were in their 60s, and some were in their 70s with the oldest at 78! As it turned out, some of the fastest riders were among the oldest, and the slowest rider—well, alas, it was I. It is notable that the fact that we all preferred a motorcycle to a rocking chair was impressive. In all, there was a total of over 550 years of riding experience among all of the riders. The only two women riders were Michelle and me.

The plan was to break down into smaller groups for safety as well as compatible riding techniques and speeds. The three Harley riders, Jim, Harvey and I, along with Michelle, Bart and Dan, started out together but it was soon obvious that I would slow them all down, so Jim graciously held back and we ended up riding together. I ride the speed limit or slightly above, but my Sporty seems to require much more effort than the types of bikes they were riding. The first day’s destination was Durango, Colorado, where everyone would meet at the Siesta Motel to prepare for the next day’s ride into the mountain loop.

In writing this article, I hope to give experienced and intermediate riders an idea for a great ride in Colorado’s spectacular mountains, and what a normal day of riding might encompass. This is not a ride for a beginner, as there are many switchbacks and sharp hairpin turns going up the various mountain passes. Another important factor is that this was not a destination ride to an event, but rather an individual experience, teamed with friends of reasonably equal riding skills, riding separately but gathering together in the afternoons and evenings at the same motels to enjoy companionship and conversation about the day’s experiences.

In Durango, Jim and I rode to the Harley-Davidson dealership owned by our friends Jeff and Jodell Murray. The Murrays had once been Phoenix residents and our motorcycle acquaintances before they had the opportunity to purchase a dealership in Durango. The very successful dealership is a testimony to the management skills and personal charisma of the Murrays. Jeff manages to keep his good humor even while contending with a year-long highway repair that causes confusion as to how to get down to the dealership safely.

On Saturday morning, small groups of riders headed off on U.S. 550 for Silverton, no more than an hour’s ride from Durango. I was a bit uncertain about riding the 70 miles out of Silverton to Ouray on the Million Dollar Highway, as people were commenting that one shouldn’t look over the edge as it was a straight drop with very few guard rails. Well, that is true, but the road was really great, and concentrating on the turns takes your mind off the drop-offs. Beautiful! According to local legends, the road’s name comes from some low-grade gold and silver ore present in the roadbed, although some say the cost of building it led to the Million Dollar Highway description. The road that connects the old mining towns of Silverton and Ouray was built in the 1920s and follows the original road built in the 1870s.

The town of Ouray is nestled down in a valley of the San Juan Mountains. The Victorian buildings are from the 1870s and we chose to eat at the old Beaumont Hotel, listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1886, many presidents have actually stayed there, but the hotel was boarded up in the 1960s and sat empty for 30 years until it was restored in 1998. The incredible stairway, furnishings and elegance inside are worth seeing. We ate on the outside patio under umbrellas as the rain gently cooled the air.

We continued on U.S. 550 to Montrose where the road becomes U.S. 50. Our destination for Saturday was Glenwood Springs, but there is a short and a longer way to get there. The longer way is more challenging and Steve, Bart and Curry took it on, while the rest of us took the more direct route. No matter which route you choose, the roads go through beautiful mountain scenery. Near Carbondale we rode through an area of coal mines with miles of train cars loaded with coal. By the time we reached Glenwood Springs, it was evening and it was raining. My total miles for the day were 234.

Day two we backtracked through Carbondale and turned east on CO 82 to Aspen for an Austrian breakfast at Wienerstube, established in 1964 by two Austrians. They serve traditional Austrian food and judging from the breakfast pastries, eating there regularly would make staying slim a challenge. Jutting up into the sky behind the restaurant is a ski slope I remember from the 1960s. Needless to say, Aspen is totally different today from what I remembered, but still an interesting stop.

Leaving Aspen, we headed for the Continental Divide via Independence Pass, with an elevation of 12,095 feet. We had experienced some rain during this ride, which adds more of a challenge to the hairpin turns; however, reaching the top is fantastic and the view is spectacular, with snow-capped mountains surrounding the scene. The temperature at this point was about 62 degrees.

As we descended from the pass, we were starting to get hungry for lunch and when we saw a sign for “Fresh Roasted Corn on the Cob” in Buena Vista, so we pulled over. Set in the corner of a gas station parking lot, the Terminator Food Stop might not have appeared to be the best choice for lunch, but it turned out to be the best meal we ate during the entire trip! Though the owners knew how to cook, however, they didn’t know how to report the weather. They told us we wouldn’t hit rain before getting to Gunnison, but we were deluged!

Going up US 50 we would again reach the Continental Divide via Monarch Pass, 11,312 feet. This is reputedly a beautiful part of Colorado, though I personally didn’t see much of it through the pouring-down rain. What I did see was a huge billowing smoke cloud. It turned out to be a truck pulling a mobile home, with the driver desperately trying to put out an engine fire. As we descended into Gunnison we passed at least eight emergency vehicles heading up to assist. Nearing Gunnison the rain stopped, allowing us to see miles of open range, ranches and herds of horses roaming the countryside. We had made the second day destination and as it turned out we were the first to arrive at the Super 8 motel. The total miles for Sunday were 170. Some of the group had taken a side trip to Leadville, making their ride a little longer. That night we had pizza delivered to the conference room and we all joined in with conversations about the individual trips of the day.

On Day 3, the last day of the mountain loop ride, we left Gunnison in our small groups. Our destination was Creede, where we’d have lunch at the Old Firehouse, the town’s historic firehouse that has been turned into a restaurant. Creede, with a current population of about 500, has a big history for a small town. In 1800, it was the last silver boomtown in Colorado, growing from a population of 600 in 1889 to more than 10,000 in 1891. Some of the famous residents included Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, who became the leader of Creede’s criminal underworld, Robert Ford (the man who killed Jesse James), Bat Masterson, and William Sidney “Cap” Light, the first deputy sheriff in Creede. We left town in light rain via CO 149, heading through Wagon Wheel Gap, South Fork, up on US 160 through Wolf Creek Pass, and down to Pagosa Springs.

There we met up with Harvey and Michelle at a very popular ice cream shop. It was hot and humid and even the long line to get into the shop didn’t keep us from waiting for root beer floats, shakes and hot fudge sundaes! We also saw the most enormous banana split in the world—big enough for a whole family—being eaten by one rather large man! The hot springs here are known for their therapeutic powers and the town’s name derives from “pah gosah,” Ute words meaning “healing waters.”

By late afternoon, we were back in our base town of Durango. Monday’s total miles, for me, were 237. That evening some of us took the trolley downtown to look for a good place to eat. The trolley is now a free service that entices visitors staying at motels to venture out to the downtown main street. Of course it is paid for by doubling the parking tickets and raising the lodgers’ tax for hotels and motels! There we found Ken and Sue’s, a casual fine dining atmosphere with an outside patio for rowdy bikers. Since we took the trolley, we didn’t have to worry about drinking and driving. Afterwards we headed to a local pool hall, where Michelle, Harvey, Jon and Al challenged each other’s skills.

Tuesday morning, at 6 a.m., again in our small groups, some taking different return routes, we headed back to Phoenix. Jim and I stopped at Kayenta to photograph the beautiful rock formations on the Indian reservation. It would be a 453-mile day, returning in the heat of the late afternoon at about 6:00 p.m. The total mileage for the trip was just shy of 1,600 miles.

“The main goal is safety,” stated Curry, one of the organizers, “but the purpose is to provide a framework that allows a diverse group of participants to experience a fun and interesting trip, which allows individual and/or small group flexibility to travel independently without being encumbered by lots of rules and structure.”

“In short,” added Lou, “it’s a group effort with everyone contributing their particular skill set. Our goal is to have a safe and fun-filled ride where you may not know everyone at the beginning of the ride, but by the end everyone feels like long-lost pals!”

As David related to me, “There are a lot of people on the ride who are world travelers, yet no matter the backgrounds, everyone was a delight to be around and in any circumstance you would say, “Hello, friend.” The class distinctions simply fall by the wayside with motorcycling—you couldn’t tell who was what—everyone was just a biker.”

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