Back to Back Epic’s Part I
Crack, the sound of a truck door closing awakens me from my deep sleep. I tried to stay up for the arrival of my nephew, Ukiah, but my eyes were too heavy from the 7-hour drive to our meeting spot. I hear “Kai” outside the motorhome say “Hey Mikey”, and I yell back, “about time”. It was now 3:30 a.m. and our first Epic ride was to start in just 4 hours. As I lay there waiting for Kai to come into the motorhome, I start to visualize the ride ahead. Kai then tells me that there is a drunk Navajo outside the motorhome, I think nothing of it, as Kai is a good-sized guy and could handle the Navajo. That didn’t work as Kai said that the Navajo was trying to get into the motorhome. I slide out of bed with one eye still closed and headed outside. The Navajo was around the corner, so I walked around to see him. With the one eye open, I looked and there standing laughing hysterically in front of me is my brother, Dan, who by the way speaks Navajo. They had just completely hornswoggled me; all I could do was laugh with them.
This unicycling weekend that we were about to embark on was planned ahead by both my nephew Kai and I, that’s it. My brother Dan, Kai’s father, decided to join us just two days before the trip. Dan unicycles, but not to the extent that Kai and I were planning on achieving during this long weekend. So Kai, an expert mtn. biker/single speeder/ solo 24 hr participant, turned hard-core unicyclist built a bike for Dan so he could join us on our rides. I knew Dan would crank on the bike just fine with us, as he has been riding his bike 25 miles every morning before work for 8 years straight. He loves to unicycle as well, but the only way he would make every ride with us, would be on his bike. So, the three amigos group was set and ready for adventure. I was really excited to have Dan there!
We were where we needed to be to go on our first big ride of the weekend, Ruins Road. Ruins Road is the road that is in Mesa Verde National Park, located in Southwestern Colorado. The nearest town to Mesa Verde Nat’l Park is Cortez, Co., which is only 40 miles from the only place in the country where 4 states meet in one point, Four Corners. Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado all converge at one point, you can be in all four states at one time. Surrounding Cortez is desert to the west and the Rocky Mtns to the east. We decided on meeting in Cortez, Co. because it was half way between Flagstaff, Az. (were Kai lives), and Aspen, Co, (where I live). We chose a meeting place, and then we chose the rides that we would do from that area.
I cooked up the traditional before a big ride breakfast for Kai, and Dan, as they assembled the Cokers and bike together. Banana pancakes, fruit smoothie, and cowboy coffee, (GB4’s favorite), seems to do the trick quite well. We did sleep in a little longer than anticipated, but it felt great after both of us arrived pretty late the previous night/morning. The temperature was already climbing rapidly, and was supposed to top out at 98 degrees F that day. The morning low was around 55, so great sleeping weather. We were ready to ride around 8:30 a.m., not too late yet. It was approximately 9-10 miles to the entrance of the Park, with about 800’ of climbing as well. The morning drainage winds were spilling off of the La Plata’s into our face. The slight headwind was no problem and actually kept us cool. The traffic was minimal, it was a Friday, and so the weekenders were not out. We had planned on riding Mesa Verde during the week for that reason, less traffic in the Park = more enjoyable ride. Our speed was averaging around 12 mph, which felt really good on the legs. We were spinning away at a good cadence for the beginning of a big ride. The exit to the Park came into view, but we realized soon after, that we would have to work hard to get to it. A steep climb of only a mile placed us on the Ruins Road. We stopped and snapped a few pictures at the entrance sign; it is always fun to take before and after photos at the sign, fresh and ready compared to tired and goofy.
The three of us were starting to get very excited about what we were about to do; high fives and words of encouragement were handed out. I was especially excited because for one, riding with another strong unicyclist and two, having my brother along. During the 9 mile warm up, you can look over to the south and see the grand “Mesa Verde”. It rises dramatically straight up out of the Mancos and Montezuma Valleys some 2500’. It covers the view completely from east to west as the north rim of the mesa stretches some 12 miles. I knew that we would have to climb to the mesa top and then traverse the 12 miles from east to west. We rode to the entrance station, and I asked if we would get charged ½ of what bicyclist get charged. No luck, but it was worth seeing the look on his face. And true to form, we were the first unicyclists to ride in the park. The morning heat was really starting to set in as we spun our way up the road. The good news about the heat was that we were going to gain elevation rather quickly, and instead of 95+ heat, we would be in 85+ heat, which is much better!
The climbing begins in earnest right after the entrance station. Steep switchbacks stack up on each other at the beginning, and then the road straightens out with a good grade. At this point, you are looking over Mancos Valley, and towards the towering peaks of the La Plata Mtns. Road construction season in Colorado is now, heck there are only two seasons in Colorado, winter and road construction. We run into some one lane only sections as we climb higher towards the mesa top. The usual picture taking and comments come at us as the vehicles pass us very slowly. I summit the first climb feeling awesome and wait for Kai and Dan to summit. The wind blows cool air in my face as I feel like I could soar right off the cliff edge next to the road. Kai totally loves the ride so far, and so do I. Most of my epic rides are solo, so to have another unicyclist, (my nephew) and my brother to share it with is bringing special meaning to it already. The notch in the mtn. leads us to a narrow valley with some downhill relief. The Parks only campground is on the right, we pass it and ride towards the mesa top. Then the famous ¼ mile long tunnel comes into view. I turn on my blinking taillight, and Kai and I spin through it together. The tunnel is just long enough for the darkness to be a bit sketchy. Kai comments on how he is feeling the sensation of floating through the air, and I totally agree. We close our eyes for what seemed liked eternity, and both comment on how that was about the strangest feeling we have ever experienced on a unicycle. The temperature in the tunnel is PERFECT, like air conditioning while riding. We were lucky, as no cars came up from behind us. A couple of oncoming cars did pass us though. We emerge into another narrow valley and look ahead to see the next climb. Each climb we ride, gets us that much closer to the mesa top.
Mesa Verde has suffered some catastrophic fires in the recent past. In the years 2000’ and 2003’, lightning caused fires scarred over 80% of the Park. The juniper have recovered somewhat, but the pinyon will take allot longer. The grasses and shrubs are abundant this year, so if you look down, it looks very green. But, once your eye looks up, it catches the horizon comprised of skeleton charred remains of trees’. Sure it takes some of the beauty from it, but it is just a small part. Mesa Verde is a special place, with so much more to see than the landscape.
Mesa Verde Nat’l Park has many narrow canyons and valleys, all running more or less parallel from north to south. All of these valleys, and the mesas in between them sit atop the giant- Mesa Verde. Ruins Road cuts across this terrain from east to west along the north rim, creating a sweet roller-coaster effect as it winds and rolls. As we continued we realized that the climbing was not ending, every time we would go to the upper end of the valley, which was downhill, we would then have to climb back up to the mesa top again. There are numerous valleys that this takes place: outside corner/downhill to inside corner, then uphill to next outside corner. Some of these traverses changed 300- 400’ in elevation, which was no problem, it was actually quite fun. I could see that this road on a road bike or motorcycle would be fast and dangerous. Exposed edges of road were common along this stretch. What really became sweet were the views, they opened up to the sky and 360 degrees around. The road rolls relentlessly as it finally climbed to the highpoint in the park, 8,571’. We have ridden 22 miles so far, with a vertical gain of 4,500’. In the 12 miles ridden in the Park so far, we have gained 3,700’ vertical feet.
This ride’s high point is almost exactly 1/3 into the ride, i.e. mileage wise. The ride is 65 miles long, and is a 32-½ mile out and back ride. After reaching the high point there are only two more uphill sections in the next 11 miles, the rest is downhill to all of the cliff dwellings. From the high point the view is world class! You can see 4 states, deserts down to 5000’, mountaintops above 12,000’, and valleys and canyons that have 1,400 years of preserved culture. One can only imagine what the Ancient Puebloans life was like back then. The mesa tops is where they hunted and farmed, and they lived under the overhangs of the canyons that we were unicycling to. It was HOT and DRY, so life must have been very challenging to them. The towns of Cortez and Mancos were visible way down below in the valleys, as were the rock formations Shiprock and those found in Monument Valley. To the south and way below us in elevation were the canyons where the cliff dwellings are located. From our vantage point, it looked very hot and arid. As well, it looked like it was really far away.
Far View Visitor Center was our next planned stop. This is where you sign up for ranger led tours of different cliff dwellings. There are other cliff dwellings that don’t require ranger led tours, they are awesome in their own right, but the ranger led tours are awe-inspiring, (the dwellings, not necessarily the tour). The visitor center came at a perfect time, we needed a stop for water re-fill, shade, and to cool the core-temperature down a bit. I had gone through almost 100 oz of water to this point, only 25 miles into the ride. I don’t ever remember riding in such hot conditions for such an extended period. My body felt great, strength was great, it was just that my core temperature felt like it was getting a little to warm. Kai and I met up with Dan, and we stood in line to sign up for the “Balcony House” tour. The Europeans that we met in line kept calling us “crazy Americans”. Most people were truly interested in our adventure and impressed at the same time. This of course is not unusual to long distance coker adventures. The stop turned out to be exactly what I was looking for, and we were able to get into a tour in one hour. We had about 10 miles to go, all downhill in 95-degree weather.
Kai and I arrived in 59 minutes to the start of the tour. About 8 miles into the decent, Kai’s hamstring cramped up on him. It reminded me of my little cramping episode in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. After a few minutes of massage and stretching, we were cruising again. I knew that we would be close to the start time of the tour, so we pushed a little harder towards the end. I also knew that Dan would hold the ranger up on starting the tour, if necessary. The edge of the canyons are right next to the road at this point, which makes for some focused riding. There are a bunch of cliff dwellings that can be spotted along this “East Rim Loop”; they are incredible to still be intact 800 years later. Remember, these dwellings are made out of stone, mud, water, and sometimes wood. Kai and I arrived just as the ranger was gathering the people to start the Balcony House tour.
A quick word about the Balcony House cliff dwelling. This cliff dwelling, I believe, is the one of the only ones that faces east. Therefore, when we arrived at it, I knew that it was going to be in the shade and cool. To actually get to the Balcony House, you have to go down a bunch of stairs built into the Cliffside. Then, you have to traverse a narrow trail on the canyons edge w/o running into cactus. We saw a very cool lizard that was green in color with a yellow head. This trail leads you to a 32-foot tall ladder, BIG LADDER, which two people climb up side by side. The ladder is very steep and looking down into the canyon from on the ladder gives you vertigo. Once you make it to the top of the ladder, you must then shimmy your way through a narrow slot in the canyon wall. This leads you to the north half of the dwelling. This half includes a few little rooms with tiny windows and tiny doors. The belief is that this was the side where they lived mostly and the south side was where the ceremony’s where held. The views from here were incredible, looking east towards the La Plata Mountains. The overhang of the canyon wall provided nice shelter from the weather and intruders. It was a deadly drop into the canyon from the front edge of the dwelling. The temperature in the dwelling must have been 20 degree’s cooler than the mesa top, a nice relief from the heat for sure. We then walked up another ladder onto some 800-year-old original footholds to access the south side of the Balcony House. At this point, you are totally immersed into what life must have been for these ancient people, and I certainly was! Another narrow passage way leads to the south side. On this side there are two kivas and other rooms. Kiva is a Hopi word for ceremonial room. The kivas at Mesa Verde were underground chambers that may be compared to churches of later times. Based upon modern Pueblo practice, Ancestral Puebloans may have used these rooms to conduct healing rites or to pray for rain, luck in hunting, or good crops. Being a spiritual person, this side really impressed me, heck I got Goosebumps all over from it. There were also grinding stones and a small spring on this side. From this side, the narrowest tunnel has to be crawled through to access the ladder system, which gets you back to the mesa top. A story goes that a man got stuck in the tunnel, and they tried pulling legs from one side, arms from the other, taking clothes off, etc. Somehow, he finally got through it. Since then, at the Far View visitor they have a virtual tunnel so big people can see if they will fit, kind of funny, and very American. The tour last approximately one hour, which isn’t long enough, but that is just the way it is. I would love the opportunity to spend the night in Balcony House, maybe some day.
Kai, Dan, and I were well rested and ready for the hot ascent back to the high point of the Park. We knew the 10-mile climb in 98-degree heat would be hard work, but we also knew that there was relief at Far View Visitor Center. We applied tons more sunscreen on, re-fueled and pedaled our way back up. A nice pace was kept, and we all took turns in the front. This was one of the only times that all three of us were riding together, and it was great to “be” a group. We talked when we could and the 10 miles went by pretty fast and easy. When we arrived back at the Visitor Center, we took some pictures from there. We also refilled water, and immersed ourselves in the water fountain. The fountain was overshooting it’s catch basin, so you could have someone hold it on, and get under the stream of cool water and cool yourself off. More fuel, more chamois lube, and off we went. At this point we were almost back to the highest point in the park. This alone made me feel great, knowing that most of the remainder of the ride would be downhill. The same uphill/downhill inside/outside corner combinations came at us, only this time it was in the reverse direction. Kai and I were riding together here and for the rest of the ride. That is until one of the corner combinations came. Kai pulled ahead of me on the uphill part, he was flying uphill. I was tired, we had been out about 7 hours, 50 miles, 8500 feet of climbing and 6500’ of descending to that point. Being the competitive geek that I am, I dug deep and started spinning faster. I could see the top of the climb ahead and figured that I could pass him if I really went for it. I went into LT, but new it wouldn’t be for very long. I gained on Kai and sure enough passed him before the top of the climb. These old legs can still rock and roll when needed. Kai and I stopped at the highest point in the Park for some photos. Just as we were finishing our photo taking, a car pulled up to talk to us. The song “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf was blasting from the car, this appeared strange to me, as the occupants were older Navajo’s. It was that song that stayed in my head the rest of the day, “Looking for adventure, Head out on the highway” etc….
The rest of the ride was so much fun, mostly downhill and only 20+ miles to go. We were back on top of the mesa now, so the air was much nicer. As well, some beautiful cumulus clouds were beginning to provide some welcome shade. Dan was gone out in front, we figured we would hook up with him at the entrance. Kai and I proceeded to stop a few times to take some more pictures. The scenery was incredible, and I was bummed that I didn’t stop on the way in to take pictures. The downhills were really fun and enjoyable, Kai was most comfortable at a pace of about 10mph, so we just took our time and enjoyed Mesa Verde. The tunnel came into view and I was really excited to ride through it again. I was looking forward to the cool temperature and the darkness. I turned on my flashing taillight and we went for it. About 1/3 of the way into it, a car came from behind us. For that brief period, we had great lighting. But, as soon as it passed, the most bizarre sight happened. The light that it projected onto the earthen tunnel left us and traveled onward at what seemed like the speed of light. I felt like I was in space and we had just gone into warp speed. I think it was one of those things that you would have had to have been there to visualize. We emerged from the tunnel laughing and looking at each other asking, “was that bizarre or what?” One more uphill, past the campground, and the rest is downhill to Cortez. I filled up the bladder one more time in anticipation of the late afternoon hot breeze, which was going to be a headwind. I led the way down the steep descent out of the Park, through the one lane construction zone, and finally met up with Dan at the entrance sign. We knew that we were quite a ways behind him; we had stopped and had fun a few times. I really didn’t want to leave the Park, we had just spent 7 hours up there Cokering, adventuring, and just having a great time being outside in a wonder place. It turned out that Dan got an hour nap in before we showed up. We talked about each of our adventures in the Park, took some photos, and pedaled onto Cortez.
The final 10 miles back to Cortez turned out to be much more pleasant than anticipated. We had been out so long, that the heat of the day was over and we were spinning back at a very comfortable air temperature. Riding the mostly flat stretch back to Cortez with Kai and Dan was cool. We would look up at the Mesa top, and make out places up there where the road was. It looked really far away, and it amazed us that we were just there a few hours prior. The shoulder on the highway was very wide, which made for stress free spinning. A break along the way for bladder release, and we were back in the saddle. We arrived back in Cortez to the motorhome with a feeling of great accomplishment. Kai and I were certainly a little tired, and Dan felt like he had just ridden a good ride as well. The temperature was back down into the 80’s when we got back. Food was our next priority, solid food. We choose Chinese; I have to be Gluten Free, and there is enough Gluten Free Chinese that we went for that. The food went down slower than anticipated, I think the gels; bars, heat, etc had our bellies a little off. We finally did finish our food and went back to the motorhome. We had just experienced a unicycling adventure, an EPIC Coker day, and to think that we were planning three of these in a row, both Coker and MUni.
Talk of the next epic ride began as we relaxed to some Michael Franti. It was to be a MUni ride in the San Juan Mountains north of Cortez. More on this ride in Part II of Back-to-Back Epic’s.
STATISTICS OF RUINS ROAD RIDE,
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
TOTAL DISTANCE – 65 MILES OR 105 KILOMETERS
TOTAL CLIMBING – 8,900’ UP AND 8,900’ DOWN WHICH TOTALS 19,800’ OR 2713 METERS UP AND 2713 METERS DOWN WHICH TOTALS 5,426 METERS. AN EPIC DAY FOR SURE.
TOTAL TIME OUT – 10 HOURS, WHICH INCLUDED A ONE AND ONE HALF HOUR TOUR OF BALCONY HOUSE
TOTAL TIME IN SADDLE – 6 HOURS 45 MINUTES
AVERAGE SPEED – 9.9 MPH OR 16 KM/HR
FASTEST SPEED – 14.8 MPH OR 24 KM/HR
AVERAGE TEMPERATURE – OUT WAS 89 F OR 32 C, BACK WAS 88F OR 31 C
HIGHEST TEMPERATURE – 100 F OR 38 C
LIQUID CONSUMED – 220 OZ 0R 6.5 LITERS
FUN METER SCALE -10 OUT OF 10, I ACTUALLY BENT MINE A FEW TIMES.
DIFFICUTLY SCALE – DIFFICULT BUT NOT EXTREME
Gallery can be found at: