Skyway alt-route presents off-road challenge
It was a gorgeous Sunday morning in Durango, Colorado; sunny and 70 degrees. Clouds were building over the mountains, but I decided to go for a ride up to Purgatory and seek out the entrance to Bolem Pass in the San Juan Mountains, maybe even ride it. I found this pass by accident years ago in a four-wheel-drive Toyota truck, and remembered little about it, save that there was a creek to be forded at one point, and a mine and cabin high in the mountains somewhere. And since I was astride a Buell Ulysses, I felt particularly adventurous.
I’ve owned the Buell for almost a year now; it’s the bike that finally replaced a long line of Sportsters as my daily rider. I bought the Uly for three reasons: the legendary Buell handling, the huge saddlebags and the advertised back-road capability. (That last factor took my money away from the Night Rod, which I’ve ridden and loved.) Despite the Uly’s purported dual-sport abilities, I’d only gone off-road once for a nine-mile loop of rough jeep trail that the bike performed well on, and my own mile of dirt road daily, so I felt that a good long mountain trail was overdue.
Up 550 North I rode, accelerating through the sweepers, passing cars on the long upgrade in fifth gear. Soon I pulled into the main gate of what will forever be known to locals as Purgatory, though it’s been renamed Durango Mountain Resort by the owners, and went up the dirt road, staying to the right and following the signs for the Hermosa Creek Trail. This nicely maintained, reasonably smooth gravel road takes you around the back side of the resort and into the National Forest, where I saw empty green ski runs giving out onto verdant meadows filled with wildflowers, mountain streams and the occasional fisherman. The air cooled steadily as I climbed, though the sun stayed warm on my leathers. My right knee started to heat up a bit too, due to the rear cylinder’s location inside the beautifully crafted frame-rail gas tank.
I passed a couple of Forest Service campgrounds, came around a corner and found the creek I remembered fording. It was wider than I remembered, and maybe a foot deep. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, and headed across, ignoring the mental picture of the bike sideways in the water due to slippery rocks below. The Ulysses went straight through the creekbed with nary a quiver from the front end, nor any sideways slippage from the rear, and I was on the other side.
After the creek, the road narrowed and became noticeably rougher. Gone was the pretty white gravel; now it was red dirt ruts climbing around and through the mountains. The bike kept right on going, the long-travel suspension soaking up the bumps with aplomb. Only for a couple of really bad potholes did I stand on the pegs.
Presently I rounded a bend and came upon a couple of Jeeps. I parked in the road by two older couples who’d stopped for a rest and pictures. I stopped the bike and dismounted for some shots myself, accidentally honking the horn in the process and giving a quick “sorry” to the startled man ahead of me. His wife came down and offered to take a picture of me on the bike. I accepted, and then cast about for a few good nature shots. By the time I was done shooting they were starting up again, and I followed them, but quickly realized that I was traveling much faster on the trail than they were. Fortunately, they realized this too, and pulled over so I could pass, waving as I disappeared ahead to ford the next small stream.
The road, such as it was, began to take all of my attention. There was lots of loose gravel and harsh rock outcrops, the grade steepened, and the curves tightened. The bike climbed willingly, and handled the rock outcrops well, never faltering over them. I found that I seldom slipped at all in the small amounts of loose gravel, but the sharp switchbacks had me wishing for some extra steering lock. (This problem has been fixed on the ’08s.) You can’t really lean this bike much in loose stuff, so the limited lock, which you’ll never notice on the road, hurts in the dirt.
Additionally, I began to wish for a lower first gear. On really technical bits, I was lugging the motor going slow enough to avoid sharp rocks or make a curve. Then I came to a particularly steep grade, gunned the motor to get up, and was right into the switchback, going too fast to make the curve. Foot down, try to slide the back end a bit… down went the bike. Kill switch, deep breath, take a photo for posterity, and pick ’er back up before the Jeeps catch up with me.
Up the next grade, around a couple more curves, and I was suddenly at the Graysill mine site. I stopped and parked off to the side, enjoying the sudden quiet and the chill, humid mountain air, still carrying the faint threat of precipitation. After a moment, the Jeeps pulled up, and I returned their earlier photography favor with a shot of each couple by the old miner’s cabin. We chatted a bit about bikes; they both ride Harleys, and were intrigued by the Buell dual-sport.
A couple of mountain bikes came tearing by, going down the way I’d come, and there was a sudden spit of rain, just scattered droplets. I quickly mounted up and left, already thinking of the consequences of riding at speed over rain-slickened rock outcroppings instead of dry ones. Fortunately, the rain was light and short-lived as I passed through a higher meadow with a small lake and finally crested the pass, pausing to admire the spectacular views that reward nearly any trip back country in Colorado. This, I thought, is why I chose this bike, to spend more time off the beaten path, on my own terms… a character trait that some bosses and girlfriends have had issues with. (Which is part of why I now own my own business.) It’s good to be king, I thought, then laughed at the ridiculousness of the sentiment. After all, I was surrounded by the forest primeval, as insignificant as a man can get below a thunderhead. But then again, I was on top of the mountain, wasn’t I?
My sense of accomplishment waned quickly as I started downhill. The road turned from hard-packed dirt with rock outcrops to a river of loose talus and scree, ranging in size from golfball to baseball, from the hillsides above. Even more than on the uphill, I longed for a “granny” gear for controlled low-speed descent. Coming around a switchback, the front tire slid in a sudden thick litter of sharp stones, and I went down again. As I got up I admired the flexible lever guards, which prevented any damage to clutch or brake, remembering a ride home years ago on an ironhead with no clutch lever. Kill switch, pick it up, hold the front brake so it doesn’t start rolling. Hello, what’s this? Brake fluid squirted from the master cylinder as I squeezed the front brake handle. OK, hands off the brake, up we go off to the side, and park the bike to examine the damage. As I completed all this I tried to imagine finishing this ride with no front brake. I couldn’t ride fast enough in this mess to use compression braking, and if I put feet down for something I couldn’t get on the back brake. Ah, bike up, kickstand down; let’s have a look.
I fully expected a brake line cut on a rock, or the master cylinder fitting bruised and broken, but this was not the case. The fluid was coming from the junction of the master and the banjo fitting, which was merely a little loose, perhaps from the combination of the last 20 miles and the fall. So I opened up the heretofore unused stock toolkit, and tried each and every spanner on the banjo nut. Not a one of them fit, and there were no adjustables. After a little creative language, I pulled out my keychain, set the closest spanner on the nut, and inserted a key into the remaining space between wrench and nut. Voila, a half-turn and I was good to go with a working front brake again… and a mental note to supplement the tool- kit pronto. The only damage otherwise was a broken smoked lens on the right turn signal; the underlying light worked fine.
After a few more minutes of skin-o’-the-teeth descent, I shut off the engine (whose cooling fan was whirring away like mad) and paddle-walked the bike down the worst of the loose stuff. A couple of riders on Japanese off-roads passed going uphill, and I was gratified to hear them ask how much longer this stuff went on. I assured them that they were in the worst of it, and they told me I had another two or three miles to go.
I continued my slow going and found to my relief that the road soon became merely rough, not treacherously loose. Rough I can handle just fine, and I started riding again, down past a babbling stream, and an old lady camped out with her lapdog by the roadside while her husband fished below. We waved companionably, and in no time I was coming out on Highway 184 between Telluride and Rico. In just over an hour I was savoring a cup of coffee in the late afternoon sun at the Millwood restaurant in Mancos.
This was a good first shakedown cruise, and surely not the last. I encourage anyone with a dual-sport to keep this route in mind next time you’re in this area. While your buddies are doing the paved Skyway, you can try the alt-route, see nature up close, and probably beat them to T-Hell-U-Ride, in the bargain.