Written on Saturday, August 8th (Day 25)
This day started out great, woke up from camping in the wild. With the views of the sun-rise on the rocks
99 miles for the day - of which, 32 of them were us going from our actual objective to another city because hotels were sold out everywhere. (Friday/weekend in Colorado). 4,283 total for trip.
Breakfast with a new friend.
After breakfast, we hit the trail and we are immediately headed up Cinnamon Pass. Great ride, wonderful views. 12,640 feet above sea level!
After coming 'down' Cinnamon Pass, we end up in "Animas Forks" - a Ghost Town from 1876 - mining town.
From there, we're headed to California Pass. Great views with one very evil corner. In a switchback that was steep, both Paul and I took the outside and ended up in deep gravel. I powered out of it after a considerable amount of effort and maybe a bike nap or two. I park up the road a ways waiting on Paul to get out of the "devil's Switchback" (aptly named by me). He doesn't get out, he goes down, so I leave my bike up on the road (highly trafficked by OHV / jeeps) and walk down to him to help out. We get his bike up and I offer to get it out of the deep gravel. I immediately notice that his clutch is slipping - badly. I power through and we get it out. I'm certain that his clutch is not doing well, even worse after trying to get out of that mess.
This picture below is taken from Paul’s perspective. If you look closely, you’ll see me up further from him
This view below is my perspective on Paul’s location compared to mine. That corner he is in is evil.
I ride his bike up to where mine is, which, by this time, I'm sure that all the Jeeps/Side-by-sides passing by are glad to see us moving our bikes out of the way. It probably took an hour or so to get through this corner. Sadly, I walked down to him to help, he had to walk UP to the bike's new position. Very arduous at this altitude. Shortness of breath is prevalent for us "Florida boys" (he has technically become a Florida boy recently - he is from Indiana).
Below picture is Paul attempting to climb the road back up to where I parked his bike and mine.
Once at the top, we're delighted to reach "California Pass"!
After the frustration of "Devil's Switchback", we were both tired and interested in getting to Ouray. We could have kept going the route of the TAT or we could find an alternate path. Critical Decision Point (CDP). This decision will haunt us the rest of the day - and likely be remembered forever.
I'll remind you, we're amateur off-road at best. We didn't grow up on dirt bikes.
The story goes... sitting on top of California Pass, we look at the map and realize there is a shortcut to Ouray. 10 miles, straight down the valley. Our experience with valleys are 'that can't be too difficult'. So we decide that we don't want any more "Devil Switchbacks", we're tired, we're hungry, and we're thirsty.
Let's talk about the water situation for a minute... remember from Day 23, we camped. Which means, we cooked and drank water. No wine, no Jack Daniels, just water. Next day, we start off pretty quickly and fuel up. But we knew it would be a short day, so we kinda felt like the water in our hydration packs would be enough. This is a lesson to all those in the future riding the TAT - Always Get Water (AGW) (should be part of ATGATT&AGW).
We start down a pretty treacherous hill with large rocks - no dirt. They’re stacked on top of themselves. It is slippery due to the rocks moving under your tires. Front brakes will lock up going down this hill and it'll send you down. Rear brakes lock up and you slide out of control. Pretty steep. This is a start of a really bad decision.
A good friend of mine once said, Bad Decisions, Make Good Stories. (he actually said it many times...)
We get to the bottom of this hill, not without incident. Paul is down in the corner, side-by-sides are coming up and causing us grief. We eventually get down, we are elated. We pull over to drink some water and have a chat with a group of Jeep People. They were having a grand ol' time there by this lake (Lake Como). Grilling, hanging out, joking. They all have lifted Jeeps, lockers, etc etc.
The Jeep People invite us to have a hot dog or hamburger with them. They just watched us struggle to get down that hill just above them, just after California Pass. Yeah, it was that bad. They offered us a bottle of water, etc. They listened to us explain that we were on the "Trans America Trail" and that we wanted to go to Ouray. They asked if we knew about this road that we were headed towards. We said we took a shortcut off of the TAT so we could get to Ouray. 10 miles seemed easy versus the probably 50 around the mountain and possibly through more "Devil's Switchbacks".
They were a little hesitant - but they started hinting at the fact that the roads in front of us were difficult. One gentleman went so far as to pull out his phone and GAIA GPS app to show us the two routes that are possible. He explained that once we get going, there is a fork that we will come to pretty quickly. Going left was probably a bad idea. Something about "The Wall". He said, he wasn't sure where the fork was, but to be on the lookout and take the right. Don't go towards "The Wall".
Of course, the first thing we are looking at is this major incline. I even walk up it before we attempt. I wanted to make sure we had a good line. It was steep enough that if you stopped, you'd likely slide all the way back down the hill. No stopping is the rule. Forward Momentum is the goal. As you can see in the picture below, there were two paths, left and right. both go up the hill. I discern after much study that it would be best to take the left side.
Please note, this picture above, does this hill no justice. It is much steeper than it looks and for an old and inexperienced rider like me, I was a bit scared of what the outcome might be.
I look back and forth between this hill and the hill we came down to get to the Lake Como area. "Should we just go back up and complete the TAT track?" - we answer by stating that we don't think we could get up that hill if we tried. not enough traction on our "one wheeler" - we watched many four wheelers with lockers go up it and it was a task. So, reluctantly, we decide that 6.4 miles of Poughkeepsie Gulch (click to learn more about this "road") can't be that bad, as long as we avoid "The Wall" (please, click the link to better understand what the nice Jeep people helped us avoid). By the way, did I say that Poughkeepsie Gulch is a favorite amongst four wheel off-road vehicle enthusiasts? Note four wheels.
I will say that there were dirt bikes riding Poughkeepsie Gulch - though, none had luggage, all were on dirt bikes. None of them were like us.
I go first up the hill, taking the left, the line I chose. Went up with no problem. Paul followed my line and he made it with no problem. I'm certain the Jeep crew thought, "they'll be ok if they can make that".
From there, our ride continuously got worse. So worse, that at times, we worked together to walk bikes down the massive boulders / steep declines. We would try and get on, ride a couple feet and crash. Albeit slow, there was still damage being done to both our bikes and us. Nothing serious on either part, bruises, cuts, and most importantly, fatigue. All the while, we're above 12,000 feet and descending. Can't breathe, need water.
There were many times that I would ride down a small section. Park my bike and wait for Paul. Helping him understand the line that I may have successfully or unsuccessfully used to get to my position. The unfortunate part about a road like this, you don't get to walk it like I walked that hill. You have to make decisions on the fly as you're riding. Most of the decisions I made on this road were wrong or at least, there was not a good decision to be made. So as I would wait, Paul would crash, I would attempt to go up the hill I just came down on foot. I would tell, it is going to take me a while. Thin Air, Heart Racing. Pain and Fatigue. Legs like Jello.
There were many vehicles (Jeeps and side-by-sides) going up where we were coming down. They'd see us struggling, they'd ask us if we needed help. Sometimes, we'd say yes. Help us lift our bikes. Fatigue. Every time we would lift a bike, it would make it that much harder the next time.
There were sections of PG (Poughkeepsie Gulch) that we thought, oh, the pain is over, this nice little section means it'll be easy from here on out. No, because just around the corner was another disheartening realization that the pain does continue and it does get worse. (PG, maybe it should be rated R... Restriction: No old guys on adventure touring bikes allowed)
We continue to struggle. My water in my hydration pack is almost empty. All the water I had is now sweat in my jacket (which now weighs five-ten pounds more than when we started the day). We'd sit for 10-15 minutes and rest. Anywhere. sometimes, when our bike went down, that was the time to rest.
I can remember (and it was only yesterday that we went through this) that we started with 10 miles on the GPS to get to Ouray. There was a point early in the day after the initial hill ascent (Lake Como) that the GPS said we had 7.2 miles remaining. It took about two hours to go those grueling 2.8 miles.
It didn't get better.
There were times when my mind was yelling at me - how are you going to get out of this? There is no way out. You have to keep going. You're far too deep, going back is not an option! There were other thoughts too - can we just camp here and finish it tomorrow? I would say to myself, no, not an option. You don't have water. No resources. Bad Place. Get Going!
There are not many pictures from this section - due mostly to the fact that we were in survival mode.
We keep going. I've mentioned my fear of heights before. We come to a section of PG that is so frightening to me that I tell Paul that I'm going to crab-walk my bike up against the wall because I can't look over the edge or I'll simply die. It was that steep. It was that scary. I wish I had a picture to show you.
We keep going. We ask some people going up their thoughts on 'how much left' - "uh, it is all gravel and rocks". I was hoping for light at the end of the tunnel. They provided none.
4.5ish hours into this descent, we traverse the 6.4 miles and come to pavement. Happiness for pavement. Happiness that we're almost in Ouray. Happiness that we'll get water.
There is a sign down at the bottom of this monster called Poughkeepsie Gulch that says Engineer Mountain Road 4x4 Vehicles Only. I wish that sign was up at the top where you can decide to go LEFT and stay on the regular route or go RIGHT into hell's abyss.
Today, we're sore. We are resting. Our bikes are resting.
I didn't mention this - but let's talk about the other challenges of the day. Our motorcycles. His clutch is going bad, his clutch handle is broken because of a crash. My brakes (front and rear) kept going in and out all day. Imagine going down a hill and realizing your front brake is out or your rear brake is out. If you've never ridden motorcycles, this is frightening on just a regular road. Now do it on a rocky steep road created by the devil himself.
For those that are going to ride the TAT - this is mostly all CO-04 tracks from Sam. Unless you're a VERY experienced rider, do not take the "short-cut" (PG) to Ouray.
Lessons learned... the hardway.
Life is still good.
From Jenny Morgan on the TAT Facebook page:
For anyone else reading, if you want to go to Ouray from Animas Forks, take Engineer Mountain Road towards Engineer Pass, then head downhill - don't go via California Pass and Poughkeepsie Gulch (well, unless you are on a smaller bike and are a confident rider) - there is a reason Sam continues his official TAT from California Pass via Hurricane and Corkscrew Passes to hwy 550; where you can always head down hwy 550 to Ouray if you do want to visit that town.
Oh, and if you struggle on California Pass, don’t even think about Imogene as part of the TAT, nor Black Bear - again, the reason Sam sends you over Ophir is because it is gentle on both sides, even though there is a lot of flat rocks on the west (downhill) side.
note. There is an alternative pass much further south still - Bolam Pass (out of the Purgatory ski resort), which connects to the TAT route just north of Rico on hwy 145. That is easy in good weather, not so much in the rain. You also get to ride pretty much all of hwy 550, and visit Silverton too if you wish.