Sunday, July 08, 2007

San Juan Hut Trip 2007

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A discussion over dinner between friends regarding combining camping and a bike ride resulted in narrowing in on the San Juan Hut system of trails and huts. 8 of us chose the more difficult Durango, CO to Moab, UT route over the "easier" Telluride to Moab route. 225 miles with 26,000 ft. of climbing over 7 days and 6 nights. We planned for months, debated over gear, bike choice, clothing choices, transportation, etc. We settled on the week of the 4th of July for a couple reasons; take advantage of holiday days off and get out there before it gets insanely hot (well, one outta two ain't bad...). Two riders bailed mid-way through the planning, leaving 6 to do the trip. We paid, got our maps and keys to the huts and counted down the days 'til departure.

Personal Profiles:
Al - L.A., rigid 29" titanium singlespeed, rack + panniers
Carl - L.A., Niner 29" hardtail, backpack
Colette - L.A., Niner 29" hardtail, rack + dry sack
Jeff - L.A., Niner 29" hardtail, rack + panniers
Josh - L.A., Turner 26" dual-sus., rack + panniers
Peter - Brooklyn, Ibis 26" hardtail, BOB trailer

On Wednesday morning Josh and Carl picked me up at home, loaded my bike and gear and we were off to Moab. 12 short hours later we arrived. We checked in to our hotel and headed to Eddie McStiffs for dinner and drinks. Peter had flown in to Vegas from NY and caught a ride from Al & Colette on their way through Nevada.

The next day we had scheduled a shuttle van to transport all of us to Durango, CO. This would allow us to leave cars and extra baggage behind (thanks Best Western) and have everything waiting for us when (if?) we made it back to Moab. We loaded only what we would take on the ride into the van and Driver Dave headed east for Durango.

4 hours later we pulled in to Durango and went straight for the Steamworks Brewery. Turns out they have beer there too. We treated Dave to dinner for being a cool guide, and quoting Edward Abbey during the drive:

I like my job. The pay is generous; I might even say munificent: $1.95 per hour, earned or not, backed solidly by the world's most powerful Air Force, biggest national debt, and grossest national product. The fringe benefits are priceless: clean air to breathe (after the spring sand-storms); stillness, solitude and space; an unobstructed view every day and every night of sun, sky, stars, clouds, mountains, moon, cliffrock and canyons; a sense of time enough to let thought and feeling range from here to the end of the world and back; the discovery of something intimate -- though impossible to name -- in the remote.

We left the Brewery and Dave dropped us at our condo in Cascade Village, just up the highway from where our trip would start the next morning. The 6 of us in the condo spent the evening checking and rechecking bags, tools, maps and energy snacks. Water bottles and CamelBaks were filled in the kitchen sink. We were as ready as we could be. I used the office computer for one last glance at the internet before pulling the plug for a week.

Day 1
Durango to Bolam Pass.
18.7 miles
Hut at 11,400'
9:15am - 1:00pm

Starting a ride at 8000'+ is an eye-opener. Heading up to 11,000' is a lung-burner. But it was the shortest day so how bad could it be? We climbed a bit then hit a smooth 3 mile downhill. This ain't so bad! Eventually the road turned up to an endless series of switchbacks. I bailed to walk a steep section. Al, Peter and Josh were the strong climbers, dropping the rest of us on most all of the climbs. Even Peter with his BOB trailer would slowly pull away from me until he was out of sight. Blah. Nearing the top of the peak I started to hallucinate. I felt giddy. Talking to myself, laughing at nothing, I was tripping on a lack of O2. Sipping from my CamelBak tube and breathing through my nose for a second while I drank would leave me gasping for air. We arrived at the Hut exhausted, only to find two other riders still there who should have been long gone. One guy was puking non-stop then curling up in the grass, lying in the hut bunks, obviously not having a good Hut Experience. We broke out our Sat. phone and called the main office for help. SJH owner Joe Ryan hopped in his truck and drove up the hill to rescue the stranded riders. About 2 hours later they were loaded up and headed back down the hill; trip over, do not pass go, do not advance to Hut #2. We were so taken by the food in the pantry that we prepped a great pasta dinner, beginning with chopping and sauteeing some fresh garlic in olive oil, adding in diced tomatoes and basil flakes. I enjoyed a warm PBR beer. We didn't realize then that we were at the peak of our culinary adventures and soon we'd be eating ravioli out of a can. We cruised back down the road to watch the sunset over the stunning valley below us. We all passed out by 10pm to the light of the embers burning in the pot-belly wood stove in the hut. We were officially on vacation.

(click on images to enlarge)

Day 2
Bolam Pass to Black Mesa.
29 miles
Hut at 10,625'
9:45am - 2:45pm

Up at 6:30am, cook some oatmeal, make coffee, prep PB&J sandwiches for lunch. Hit the bikes at 9:45 am and I can feel yesterday's climbing in my legs. Not a good sign on day 2 of 7. I warm up and get past the cramps. We're getting passed by lots of trucks and ATVs. Some are cool and slow down, others blow by leaving us to suck dust. Apparently when you're overweight and ride an ATV with a firearm on your belt, you take seniority on the trails. We cross a wide river where I stop to dunk my hat to keep me cool on the climbs ahead. We reach a small bridge over a river where some of us crouch underneath to take a lunch break, out of the sun and enjoying the steady sounds of water over rock. After lunch we cross a busy blacktop highway and once again head up a dirt road. We're now used to direction such as "Mile 3.2: Cross stream. Double-track goes to your left. DON'T take it!!!" I had been using my iPod Shuffle to keep me preoccupied during long climbs, but today it decides that it no longer wants to function, so I grind out the climb at 3-4mph under a hot sun, without the sweet sounds of Kelly Clarkson in my ears. C'est la vie. I arrive at the hut after most have made it. Another great location; tucked away in the woods, invisible from passing ATV traffic. We cook burritos and enjoy the full moon rising over the valley. Hit the bunks at 10:00pm again, passing out immediately.

Colette forges...

Our toilet with a view

full moon

Day 3
Black Mesa to Dry Creek Basin
40 miles
Hut at 6,600'
8am - 1:30pm

Somebody's up at 5am and its making me cranky. I get up at 6, Colette hands me a cup of fresh Joe and I head back out to the overlook to take in the sunrise. Not a bad way to start a day. Make some oatmeal and mount up by 8am, our earliest day on the bikes so far. Lots of descending today, can't wait. It changes from smooth, fast, wide dirt roads to a backwoods Jeep road that's so bumpy my bike starts to jettison gear. My Keen sandals strapped to the rear rack are the first to go, then the chain bails off the chainring. A quick stop fixes all the issues, other than being briefly lost by the quirky directions. We get back to the smooth roads and now we're cruising at 30mph watching clusters of Aspen trees flicker by. At the 25 mile mark we hit Miramonte Reservoir. We all ride to the boat launch ramp, drop the bikes, slip out of our shoes and walk down the ramp into the water for a) refreshment, b) a bath and c) laundry day. We have lunch while our wet clothes air dry in the sun. We pry ourselves from the water's edge, re-sunscreen and hit the hot, dusty trail. At one point we all reach 40+ mph on a downhill. On one descent I feel a pinch near my groin and realize that I've been stung by a bee while riding. A 30mph "ow!" in the crotch. Neat. I arrive at the Hut shortly after and Colette treats my sting with some first aid. At 6600' its much warmer here and chaparral, Joshua trees and red sand have replaced the pines and crisp air we were used to. Bugs everywhere. Carl is snoring at 3pm in his bunk. I have a warm PBR and watch the sunset over the valley, constantly waving my arm at the pesky flies and mosquitos lapping up my Deet. No wood stove needed here - its hot! Dinner degenerates to instant Mac 'n Cheese with grilled Spam as a treat. Seconds anyone? We discuss having left email spam long behind for actual Spam in a can that we are eating. Josh politely declines the Spam addition and sticks to M&C. Bedtime? 10pm. Peter and Josh haul their mats and sleeping bags out to the deck and have a romantic night of sleep under the stars. They start the idea that this might be a cool thing to do from now on. Dibs on night 4!

Where are we???

Laundry day

Day 4
Dry Creek Basin to Wedding Bell (Hell?)
33 miles
Hut at 6,580'
6:45am - ?

Up early. Like 5:15 early. It's "Desert Day" after all and we need an early start. We're pedaling by 6:45 and headed to the small town of Basin, CO for the Basin Store and Diner. We sit down and look at an actual menu. Biscuits and gravy and eggs please. And another cup of hot coffee can't hurt. Man that was good. So good that I forgot about the six of us sitting there in our spandex while the camo-dressed locals flipped through "Big Cat Hunter" magazine over their breakfast. Filled with grease and animal fats, we file back out to the bikes and took a 5 mile, single-file blacktop spin down the highway, headed to our next turnoff to decipher from the magical directions - "Mile 7.2: T-Intersection. Go Right/northish onto a larger road." Northish. As the miles passed, the sun got hotter and hotter. Short steep climbs tested our persistence. We took a short break at an amazing canyon overlook and another at an old cobbler's workshop. We continue on so we can get out of the heat soon and make it to the hut. Not so fast, Hutters! We take a second read of the directions and realize we're not where we should be. Nothing jives with the paper. Al takes off by himself to scout for the hut. Carl and I ride the opposite direction to scout while the others wait under a tree for shade. We return with no news. Al still hasn't returned 30 minutes later. No response on the walkie-talkies. We start to count our collective ounces of water. I leave my bike and hike up the road shouting Al's name. Nothing. I'm alone and for the first time get a sense of how easy it is to perish in the desert. I'm a mere speck out here. Nobody back home has a clue as to where 6 of their friends are at this moment. Then Al rides up on his bike, Hut-less.

Thankfully Josh is able to pinpoint where the Hut should be with his GPS. We all pedal in his direction and spot the Hut on a hillside. During the short, steep, loose climb up the driveway I stall out. I go to unclip from my pedals and realize I can't, I'm stuck. The bike tips over and I collapse on top of it, squarely planting my handlebar end in the center of my sternum. This knocks the wind out of me and leaves me lying in agony in the dirt, mere yards from the Hut. The other gather around to help and when my breath returns they assist me up and I make my way to the Hut. Once comfortable, I join in on some poker and blackjack being dealt in the shade of Hut #4. Drink a hot beer. Tough day. We cook fusili pasta with canned chili as a sauce and sit under the most unbelievable canopy of stars. Pitch black sky with millions of brilliant stars. We spot satellites silently passing over the planet, wondering if anyone's spotting 6 infrared bodies out in the middle of nowhere. Bed at 9:30pm with a Vicodin chaser for my chest pain.

Day 5
Wedding Bell to Paradox
38 miles
Hut at 5,240'
6:30am - 2:30pm

Up at 5:15am. Its starting to wear on me now. I'm sore. I'm tired. I'm wearing the same shorts, socks and wool jersey that I was wearing 5 days ago. I'm a little groggy from the Vicodin. But the show must go on. I mix powdered milk so I can have a bowl of raisin bran. We're pedaling at 6:30am, before the sun's up and getting a bright moon as travel companion. I yawn. We pass through some old Uranium mines, imagining what the area must have been like in its mining heyday in the 50's. The flat road ends as it always does and we begin a long climb. I feel strong and set a good pace climbing. Was it the drugs? The coffee? Raisin Bran? Whatever it is, I'll take it. We arrive at the lookout over the Paradox Valley. We're at least 1000' above the valley floor and we begin our descent. SJH's Joe Ryan has directed us to bypass a 10 mile section of highway in favor of the "Catch 'em Up Trail", an actual cattle trail used for moving herds of cows up to mesa, and back down, as needed. We quickly realize that its basically a sketchy singletrack trail that has no potential for riding a bike down. None. We begin the balancing act of trying to walk our bikes down the trail without slipping and falling to our deaths. We need to detach Peter's trailer from his bike and hand-carry it down the hill. We later hear that the road ride is almost all downhill and a pleasant experience. Good for you. Excuse me while I shake the 10 pounds of dirt out of my shoes.

We regroup at the bottom and ride directly to the quaint Bedrock Store. This is a landmark in the directions, a spot for cold drinks, ice cream and beer. Its a great old place, in this location since the 1880's. Everyone goes straight for the cold drinks and starts the cooling down process. Its over 100F in the shade. I grab the hose on the side of the store and give myself a quick hose-down, rinsing my hair and more importantly - my socks. We could spend all day at the store. They have cold things here. They have shade. We wave at passing traffic like the locals do. I drop .50 cents into the pay phone to make my first call home since leaving Durango. Planning ahead, I drop a Fat Tire Ale inside my CamelBak bladder and fill the remaining space with ice. We grudgingly get back on the bikes under a searing sun and set out to tackle the last 10 miles to the Hut.

Later that evening I hire one of the neighbors to run me back to the Bedrock store for more ice, beer and drinks. "Jeannie" takes me to town, waits for me to shop and returns me to the hut, much to the delight of my fellow hutters. She's used to seeing groups of cyclists come through Bedrock. Some are having a great time, some are not thrilled with having to hike down a cattle trail. That night we make ramen noodles with canned chicken, complimented by an ice cold beer. Al and I decide to try out sleeping on the deck this night. Pretty cool, other than being awoken at 3:30am by the farming machinery being fired up. Then again at 4:30am by Colette who is up boiling water for coffee.

Day 6
Paradox to Geyser Pass (CO to UT)
25 miles
Hut at 9,864'

We're up early again. I'm yawning again, didn't sleep well with the tractor and all. It's another huge day of riding so we need another rudely early start. We spin for 30 minutes across flat farmland, then turn up to Carpenter Ridge - a 4 mile fireroad climb that we're happy to hit in the cool shade of morning. Well, kinda happy. I'm not warmed up and end up walking and cursing most of it. I don't have it in my legs today. I finally crest the hill and find everyone grouped, waiting for me. We shove on, Carl suffering a mechanical that requires Al to remove his crankset from his bike to fix the problem. Then we're back on bikes on our way to Buckeye reservoir. Its still fairly early so not all of us are gung-ho to jump in the lake. We relax, eat, drink water and enjoy the scenery, completely in denial of the long miles still ahead of us.

We cross the state line and leave Colorado behind. Farewell Aspens, hello 3.2% beer. We cruise into the enormous Redd-Geyser Ranch; private property that we have permission to cross due to Joe's arrangements with the huts. Hut #6 also sits on this private land. It's amazing property complete with horses, cattle, rivers, forest, etc. Beautiful. We hit more climbs. I'm done, toast. For some strange reason I resort to counting out loud just to keep a pace and to keep me motivated. "One, huff, two, puff, three, huff...." all the way up to 100 then I start over. We find what *should* be our turn-off to get to the hut but its not too clear. Just a mound of rocks blocking what looks like an entrance to some sort of Jeep road. We decide to take it as no other choices are left nearby - it has to be our turnoff. About a mile of walking our bikes up the too-steep-to-ride road, we wonder what the hell we're doing and if we're on the right path. 2 miles of walking later and I'm going numb. 3 miles of walking later and I'm officially a zombie. Peter pushes his bike + trailer past me with a blank, empty look on his face. All I can muster to tell him as he goes by is "I'm covered in flies." Gray clouds start dropping large, heavy, cold raindrops. Some stick to me as bits of ice. We press on, slowly marching towards some unknown destination. I see Josh up ahead detouring us off the Highway to Hell and down into the woods. "The Hut is that way" he tells us, and I want to hug him but I'm too mad and too tired. Peter and I arrive at the Hut and both take some much-needed "Me Time". We're fried. I don't want to talk to anyone. "Just leave me alone for a second..."

Once again Joe has pulled off placing his hut in an amazing location. Nestled in Aspen trees, a meadow, a pond and the sound of a nearby river flowing. I honestly don't know how he gets permission to drop a small mobile cabin in the places he does, but it really counters all the difficult parts of the trip by having such beautiful settings to relax in.

We went full-circle on dinner tonight, going back to boiling pasta, chopping garlic and tomatoes and offering canned chicken on the side for a little protein. We crashed at 9:30, everyone completely wiped out.

2 days left to get over those mountains

Day 7
Geyser Pass to Moab
35 miles
Moab or Bust!
9am - 2pm

Up at 6am today but taking a real slow pace getting going. No hurry, as it's almost all downhill to Moab and we have all day to get there. We pack up our things, have breakfast and coffee, sweep out the hut one last time and grab a final group shot. It's hard to leave such a pretty spot, and also hard to swing a leg over a bicycle again after the previous day's toll on the legs. Three hours later, we're rolling. Colette's having trouble with her cleat/pedal so we pull over and I swap cleats from my shoe to hers and we're rolling again. We have a brief climb through dense woods, Colette and Carl spot bear tracks in the road, but alas no bears. Honestly that is one of the things I really missed on the trip was having a bear sighting. It didn't have to be up close thank you, but I did want the experience of seeing one in the wild. Next time. (did I just type "next time"???). We wind down the La Salles, coasting ever so closer to civilization. We're hardly pedaling, we're almost home, life is good. We come around a bend and hit the brakes. "Bridge Out" signs dare us to make it back smoothly. The bridge for local traffic is completely gone. We double check our maps to make sure this is the road we want. It is. The only way across is a small aluminum foot bridge for the construction crew. We size it up to see the feasibility of getting bikes and bodies across the river safely. Colette snaps. "I'm done." She has a little rant about not wanting to figure out one more obstacle, she turns her bike around and announces "I'll see you guys in Moab." Yikes. And we were so close. Fast forward, Al and Colette talk, we all cross the bridge together, helping as needed and we continue on. A few small climbs later and we're back in coasting mode, clicking off miles and feeling the temperature rise hotter and hotter the lower we get.

And we've done it! We roll down Main St. in Moab in our tired, dirty, smiling paceline. Its about 104F degrees out and the sun is blazing. We all agree that food is in prompt order, so we steer the bikes for Zax restaurant and bar, the same spot we lunched at prior to leaving Moab a week earlier. Little things like wait staff, cold drinks and bus boys seemed like miracles. Only 7 days had past and yet we felt like we just walked out of the jungles of Aitutaki for the first time in our lives. Jokes were plenty; we wanted to throw all of our paper trash in the fire of the pizza oven, our waitress would leave, and then return with beer!, and we had to refrain from belches and other "body sounds" in public which went unedited for 7 days.

We left Zax and crossed the street to our hotel. After checking back in we all scattered to our respective rooms to enjoy the first real shower in a week with real soap and real shampoo and big, real towels. Best. Shower. Ever. My shoes and socks were so nasty that they joined me in the shower, getting a nice flooding to let the healing process begin. Later that evening, cleansed and scrubbed and dressed, the six of us walked up the boulevard to the Moab Brewery for dinner (and yes more beer). It was a great night out - warm and calm and relaxing, a perfect end to a week of adventure.

It was an amazing week. The West is so vast and remote and beautiful and varied. It can also make you vanish in the blink of an eye. Its the perfect remedy to claustrophobic city life, fearing that if every bit of open space in your neighborhood is being developed, then the rest of the country must be headed that way too. Its not. I had 360 degree views of nothing but millions of pine tress on millions of untouched acres, day after day. We rode miles of trails that the locals don't know exist and have no reason to explore. You're still in your United States, but far away from anything that resembles a modern society. I highly recommend unplugging and taking a tour of your West. The End