True to form, this year’s carefully crafted plan was not followed. We left on time, by car after considering the forecast and Tulliver’s dislike of heat and humidity. Other than having to divert to St Louis to replace the riding boots I’d left behind on the kitchen floor at home, and my shock at the abysmal fuel economy our little V6 RAV4 got while towing such a light trailer, the drive out was uneventful. We passed through Denver CO early Sunday morning, left the trailer with our online friends, Gary and Jenny near Evergreen, fired up the fully loaded rig and set out to explore the area.
We had a reservation in a Denver hotel that night, but had several hours to kill before check-in time, so I decided to take a lap around the bulk of nearby Mount Evans. The volume of traffic from Evergreen to Conifer surprised me, but shouldn’t have. Denver is a huge city and the draw of those magnificent mountains so enticingly close and refreshingly cool clearly exerts a powerful pull on those needing a break. We followed the Platt River to the tiny town of Grant, then turned right and headed toward Guanella Pass. The view from the top was spectacular! Tulliver and I stretched our legs and drank our fill of cold water. He was clearly excited to be with me in such an interesting place, so we cuddled a while and he posed for photos with the clouds above reflected in his RexSpecs goggles.
Then down the north side of the pass we rode, down to bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-70 heading back to Denver! I’m not a fan of big cities and generally try to avoid them, but there was a special group we wanted to meet the following morning – the good people at the Morris Animal Foundation. The MAF is a non-profit devoted to animal health issues through their funding of well-designed scientific studies. Thanks to their efforts diagnostic tools, treatment protocols and even preventive measures have been developed. But my primary interest in the Foundation was their Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, a rigorous study following three thousand golden retrievers from birth to death, gathering detailed data on pedigree, diet, exercise, immunizations, environmental factors and health history as well as annual blood, urine, nail and fur samples in a long-term effort to determine why sixty percent of these magnificent dogs will eventually die of cancer. Having lost several wonderful dogs of my own to cancers, and thanks to my background in epidemiology being able to recognize a robust experimental design when I see one, I’ve become a donor and an active supporter of their efforts. We toured their offices, met the staff (and several of their pets), and put faces to names we’d been emailing. Aside from trying to steal toys from office pets, Tulliver was a perfect gentleman.
With a fond farewell to our friends at MAF, we left the city by 10:00 and headed northwest to the relative coolness of the Front Range. The parched dryness of Denver gave way first to rolling hills, then jagged stone cliffs as we made our way to the busy little tourist town of Nederland where we stopped for a light lunch. From there we rode to Estes Park for fuel and ice, then on to Rocky Mountain National Park’s Moraine Campground, our home for the next couple of nights. I set up our tent to the rumble of distant thunder, though just a few fat raindrops fell while the sun was out.
We walked around the campground striking up conversations with total strangers, bought wood for a campfire, then started a small warming fire back at our site. As my JetBoil stove heated up a packet of Indian food, Tulliver climbed atop the picnic table and stretched out with his head next to my arm. I absently groomed him while uploading the day’s photos into my laptop. That big red dog of mine would blossom in the next several days of not having to share me with Glenlivet or Kazoo.
The rain started as darkness fell, so we retreated into the tent. Tulliver seemed worried at how loud the drops sounded against the nylon tent; he held his cherished rubber ball and stared into the night as rain pelted the tent and thunder rumbled ominously off the surrounding peaks. I talked to him soothingly, caressing his ears and working bits of pine pitch out of his fur till he started snoring…
I woke up at 5:30 and started water boiling for coffee. Tulliver rose at the sound of kibble filling his bowl. Because giardia is endemic in the Rockies, and because it’s not an organism my dogs have been exposed to, I had begun supplementing his breakfast with probiotics two weeks before our departure in the hope that gut health would leave him less susceptible to an opportunistic infection. The formula had a beefy aroma that seemed to agree with him; he ate with gusto! By 6:30 we were mounted up and riding to Bear Lake hoping to beat the crowds to that popular destination. We beat the crowds for sure, but we also beat decent sunlight! Still, it was nice hiking around the lake and catching the sights and sounds of the forest waking up.
For some reason I had my heart set on breakfast in Estes Park, so we rode out of the park…and I immediately saw the problem with that decision. On the other side of the road, waiting impatiently to gain access to the park, was a long line of cars. My odometer counted 1.3 miles between the park gate and the last car in line! Well, I figured, if we have to wait in line to get back into the park we might as well enjoy breakfast first! So we went to a little eatery called Claire’s where I had perhaps the best omelet on the planet: chile verde and huge hunks of chorizo folded into three eggs, the entire plate smothered in melted cheddar! Yum!
As we headed back to the park I noticed several signs pointing to the Hwy 36 entrance where all the cars were headed, and just one small nondescript sign pointing to an alternative entrance on Hwy 34. We took the road less traveled and got right in! We continued along that route over a twelve thousand foot elevation pass where elk grazed right up to the edge of the pavement, then turned around to head back to our campsite. Along the way we passed a busload of kids. An excited cry went up as the first noticed Tulliver, goggles in place, leaning out the side window. One after the other, in what looked like a choreographed wave, tiny arms held aloft a string of smart phones to take pictures of the big red dog as we sped past!
Back at the campsite I packed up the non-essentials to speed our departure the following morning. As I was finishing up, Donovan, our neighbor from the next site over, asked if I had a can opener. I reached into my bag and pulled out my P-38, the tiny but efficient device sometimes called a John Wayne with which can of C-Rations were opened back in the day. Donovan had never seen one, and asked how it worked. I demonstrated as his eyes widened with wonder. “That’s awesome!” he blurted. “Wait till I show my friends back in New York! This will be the next big thing!” Pleased to think such a tiny device that was ubiquitous in my day would soon be rediscovered, Tully and I retired as a light drizzle began falling.
We awoke to a cold drizzle, ate, finished packing, and got underway. The twelve thousand foot pass we had explored the previous day was a lot colder when wet! Spotting blue sky several miles ahead I accelerated to 60mph in a 45mph zone. A few minutes later a Jeep passed me, and within seconds red and blue lights came out of nowhere as a park ranger made a U-turn and gave pursuit. The ranger wagged a finger at me as I pulled over, then accelerated and went after the faster Jeep.
The rain finally stopped at Granby CO. We continued on to Kremmling which didn’t seem quite as grand as the map had led me to believe. And there were other towns prominently marked on my map that turned out to be small clusters of a dozen or so homes. North to Steamboat Springs, then west to Craig and finally Dinosaur where we found a lovely curve in the Green River for Tully to take a dip. The heat rising, we checked into a hotel in Naples UT, then had dinner at a family restaurant across the street. It was surprisingly good homestyle cooking…if you were fortunate enough to have a mother who knew how to cook
We got up early again to beat the heat, and were underway by 7:00. We reached Flaming Gorge in the early morning light. Unfortunately the visitor center wouldn’t be open for an hour, so we pressed on to the town of Manila UT and the rolling grassland beyond. The road was empty, and I steadily increased speed to 85mph. When we reached I-80 for the final westward leg, however, we had to increase our speed yet again just to keep up with the flow of traffic. For the first time in my life I was on a road where every vehicle going my way was running 95-100mph! The big BMW kept up with no difficulty, covering the miles with silky smoothness…
It was hot in Salt Lake City! Tulliver and I checked in at the rally registration desk, then parked and hastened into one of the air conditioned vendor buildings. We made a pass or two, familiarizing ourselves with the who and where, then gave up for the day and rode to our hotel. La Quinta by the airport was both welcoming and absolutely immaculate! Best of all they had very powerful air conditioning. Tulliver climbed on the bed nearest the AC and sacked out.
We’d been on the road for a week. With temps at the rally expected to brush 100F by afternoon, we were determined to cram as much into the morning as possible. Arriving at 7:00 we parked the rig, found coffee, and settled in for an educational seminar on sidecars. Randy Owen, a friend who had over a million miles on motorcycles, had recently joined the ranks of sidecarists and was going to share his observations. It was fun seeing him again and listening to how comic and similar his experiences were to my own introduction to sidecars some seven years and eighty thousand miles ago.
Next up was a seminar on the Helite airbag for motorcyclists. It was a very interesting concept and the clinician in me saw how it might prevent or mitigate many of the injuries I had seen in my EMS years. But it also appeared likely that it would block the chest vents I used to maintain sanity in hot or humid conditions. I chalked it up to a solid Maybe. And then they demonstrated by activating the airbag on a volunteer. The gas cartridge let loose with a sound like a 410 shotgun going off; Tulliver, who had been napping, leaped to his feet looking for the duck!
We roamed through the vendors one last time before calling it quits and retreating from the heat to the blessed coolness of the hotel. We packed up to speed our morning departure, took one last pee break, then turned in for the night. In the morning we would begin our circuitous route back to the Rockies.
We set out before the sun had risen above the nearby Wasatch Mountains, proceeding south on I-15 in the blessed coolness of the shade. A perfect formation of ten Utah State Patrol motorcycle officers shot by in the left lane, no more than six feet separating each bike. We left the interstate and refueled in Nephi UT, continuing south and east on secondary roads to Torrey UT at the entrance of Capitol Reef National Park.
After a quick and uncomfortably hot recon ride of the area, we checked into the Noor Hotel, a small but extremely accommodating inn near the entrance to the park. It was next door to a Mexican restaurant which offered some of the most phenomenally authentic Mexican food I’d had since leaving San Diego over two decades ago! Though Tulliver remained under the table and on his best behavior, our server was clearly terrified of dogs so the owner himself became our server. I think he got a kick out of my sounds of culinary delight as I consumed all that was placed in front of me! Back at the hotel, we did a load of laundry as the wind shrieked, rain came down in sheets, and lightning lit the surrounding red rock. It was quite a show!
On the road at the crack of dawn, we followed the park’s Scenic Drive twelve miles to the end, then backtracked and motored down a dirt road into Grand Wash, the vertical cliff walls closing in on us as we progressed. We saw the arch where Butch Cassidy hid from the law for a time, and old hand-dug shafts where uranium was mined by hand…before the effects of radiation exposure were understood. We spent two hours exploring without seeing a single person in this little gem of a national park.
On the way back to the main road we stopped at the historic farmhouse for fresh peach pie. An inquisitive doe approached as Tully and I were sharing our breakfast; Tulliver took one look at her and retreated to the safety of his sidecar, giving me a look that told me I was expected to protect him from that wild creature.
We moved on at a fairly high speed, again trying to cross the open desert before the heat built. East to Hanksville, then northeast to I-70, then east again in oppressive heat to the town of Fruita CO. A recon ride through Colorado National Monument, a visit to a local pet shop for a refill of kibble, a dinner of delicious ribs and cold beer, then we checked into La Quinta where we were assigned room 128. I laughed out loud. At the Noor Hotel we had stayed in room 128, and before that room 128 at the hotel in Salt Lake City! I wondered if Colorado had a lottery…
Again, we were on the road at dawn, back to the Monument this time armed with cameras. It was a bit like Capitol Reef but from a different perspective. At the Reef, one rode in the valleys looking up at the cliffs. At the Monument, one rode atop the cliffs looking down. Again, thanks to the early hour, we had the place to ourselves.
South on US-50 then right on CO-141 toward Gateway and the Delores River Valley, a narrow valley carved by erosion with massive cliffs on either side. It was a fun ride with numerous spots to pull out and take in scenic vistas. The Hanging Flume, built during the gold mining days, was particularly interesting as I could imagine workers installing it while suspended by ropes from the cliff edge above! Tulliver wasn’t particularly interested in the scenery; he simply enjoyed rides with plenty of stops, as at each one he got cuddle time.
South, and south some more through the charming town of Placerville CO, then on to Telluride. Stowe VT, the town we once lived in, had matured into what can best be described as tourist chaos while we weren’t looking. It took a charming little New England town and turned it into a place of hellish traffic, high prices, and visitors who spent large sums of money on themselves and felt that entitled them to treat the locals like peasants. Telluride was all that magnified. I rode less than two blocks into town before making an abrupt U-turn and escaping as fast as I could!
South again, past Lizard Head Pass in a light rain toward where I hoped to find a campsite. But then the thunder started rumbling, the rain picked up, and before long brilliant fingers of lightning began reaching out. I’d been warned that Colorado led the nation in deaths by lightning, so accelerated out of the storm past Rico and Delores all the way to the arid little town of Mancos. I started searching for campgrounds, but it had been a long day and riding all the way to cooler heights along US-550 would have added another couple hours…and put us back in the path of the storm we had just fled. Frustrated, I opted for a hotel north of Durango and lay back on the grass with a heavy sigh.
Tulliver immediately nestled at my side, one paw draped over my chest, his nose pressed against my neck. “False alarm, Big Boy,” I told him. “Daddy’s just tired.” We mounted up and rode to Durango where we checked into the hotel. As I removed my helmet I noticed the helmetcam dangling loosely from the side. The incessant heat had caused the adhesive to fail; it hung down like a long piece of gum. “Crap!” I muttered, and promptly fell asleep.
There was a Starbucks just a short distance from the hotel, so we stopped there on the way out of town the next morning. It was staffed by three beautiful young women – they reminded me of Charlie’s Angels without the big hair – who took one look at Tulliver and rushed outside to fuss over him! Caffeinated, we headed north. The scenery improved near Purgatory while the temp steadied out at around fifty degrees. My ears tickled as air caught behind my earplugs expanded and escaped. Without the helmetcam I had to pull over more often for photo ops, an arrangement that suited Tulliver just fine. We reached Silverton CO by 9:00am, just in time for a mid-morning dose of caffeine. I actually liked Silverton. While clearly a tourist town, it poked fun at its own history and didn’t try to pretend to be something it wasn’t. I found some Gorilla Tape in a local hardware store and remounted the helmetcam, hoping it would hold.
North some more. The heat rose as the elevation dropped. And it dropped in a spectacular way! The stretch of US-550 between Silverton and Ouray is called the Million Dollar Highway, clearly with good reason. The scenery, cliff faces and sheer drop-offs, were stunning! Not sure if the helmetcam was properly reoriented, I pulled over several times for photo ops and ball chasing breaks. Tulliver was having a blast! In Ouray I gave Tully a break as I checked and topped off the engine oil. We walked into the bank – an old fashioned affair with a carpeted lobby, ornate decorations, and the tellers inside brass bars to protect them from outlaws – to exchange large bills for smaller. A snack of kibble, a bowl of chilled water for the dog, then we remounted and continued north.
We refueled in Montrose, but it had gone the way of so many American towns. We motored past all the usual chains – KFC, McDonald’s, Arby’s, Subway – and turned east on US-50 bound for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Though crowded, it really was a spectacular sight. We met and mingled with a large group of Swiss riding Harley Davidsons, some speaking French and others German. At one scenic overlook a Belgian man was kind enough to take a photo of me with Tully. Unfortunately we were unable to visit two of the viewpoints as a doe protecting her fawns had been attacking dogs in those areas. With the heat building, I pressed on to get some air flowing over my panting co-pilot, but it didn’t turn out well. Just a few miles down the road we were stopped by road construction, a 35 minute delay in mid-afternoon heat.
When we finally got going again I pulled over to let Tulliver play in the cooling waters of the Blue Mesa Reservoir. A short time later we sought shelter in a motel in Gunnison CO as a storm rolled in and thunder echoed off the hills. We ate at a local rib place, then retired. Tulliver stretched out by the air conditioner as I uploaded photos from multiple cameras.
We rode through town on side streets the next morning, passing a large group of teenaged girls running in formation. “Look at the dog!” one screamed, and the group chased us block to block, catching up at every stop sign for a better look. There is no Sidecar Delay Factor worse than those caused by young girls, however, so I turned left and accelerated toward Crested Butte CO where we found another tourist town that had done it right. We had breakfast in the historic district at a diner called McGill’s, which was phenomenal! Jerry, a friend Barley and I had met in Montana a couple years before, was waiting by the sidecar. “I recognized the rig and knew you had to be around here somewhere!” he shouted. We chatted a bit, but his companions were hungry so we said our goodbyes and promised to find each other again.
Kebler Pass was the most direct route to the Paonia rally, so up and over we went. Though dirt, it was very well maintained and lightly traveled. It also passed through the most enormous stand of aspen trees I’d ever seen! I’ll bet the autumn colors there are incredible! Near the summit we took a side road to Erwin Lake which turned out to be the scenic highlight of the route. Someday I’ll have to go back there and camp for a few days.
We reached the Top of the Rockies Rally early in the afternoon, picked a nice spot, and set up camp. Paonia City Park is an awesome little gem with enormous trees that provide a nearly unbroken canopy of shade. When a man wearing muck boots and a wooden barrel greeted us by reciting sonnets in a cultured British voice I knew this would be a different sort of rally!