San Juan Mountains Tour
Words by Mary Taylor
Images by Betsy Farris and Mary Taylor
“No one ever said it would be easy.” Day three of the tour pushed me to my limits, putting this thought into my mind. We climbed 6,000 feet into the town of Crested Butte on an unpaved road, hauling 40 pounds of gear, and no access to food or water. There were many moments where I thought, “I am done. We won’t make it. What are we going to do?”
Everyone goes through challenges similar to our ride over Kebler Pass into Crested Butte. Unknown tests arise that not part of the plan called life, like how we were not expecting to climb over a mountain pass on gravel instead of pavement. Parts of life like this are what pushed Betsy and I into choosing this particular vacation together. It was fate. We needed this challenge so badly in our lives that it, well, just sort of happened.
When our planning started, Betsy was living in San Antonio, Texas, and I was living in Fort Collins, Colorado. Betsy and I had lived together for almost four years before she moved away, so you could say that we are extremely close friends. I think our time apart was another catalyst to planning a bike tour together. You spend literally every minute together, pushing each other, getting frustrated with each other. Our friendship was truly tested. Furthermore, we were both going through very difficult times in life. You could say it was my lowest point. Yet, being in such a bad place gave me the yearning to make a change. I needed to turn my life around.
Once we started planning the route and gear list, we realized that working remotely, and separated, was going to tricky. Neither of us had been to Southern Colorado before, which is the area we decided we wanted to see the most out of our tentative options. I think that choosing a general area of interest is much simpler than choosing one specific city to start or end from. We knew that the route would need to be a “loop”, that way we could leave our car in the town we started and ended. This posed a bit of a problem: the mountains are not ideal for under 500 mile loops only on road. Not many established roads go directly through the mountains, limiting our options.
If you were to plan a trip like ours, the first place to start is the obvious answer: a Google search. Chances are, someone else out there has ridden the particular routes that you may be interested in, maybe not pieced together, but parts. Strava and MapMyRide are amazing tools. Many of you may use one of these programs to record your own rides, but they can also be used to search specific routes in a foreign place. For example, I would search in Google “Kebler Pass MapMyRide”. Seems simple, elementary even, but you can go through hours of Google Earth, and still not really know if it is rideable due to traffic, terrain, etc. It is comforting to know that other cyclists have taken those routes. Therefore, it was easy to piece together routes most ridden by the amount of times we found a previous route or by Strava heatmap (such a cool feature!). By using these tools, as well as, Google Street View (to check out if roads have good shoulders or bike lanes), we figured out the best possible route was approximately 400 miles, starting and ending in Telluride. We were to go over many mountain passes, see large bodies of water, and stop in a lot of cool little towns.
Once the route was figured out, I was feeling pretty freakin’ excited. Now, what am I going to pack? At this time in my life, I had never been camping, hell, I had never even biked over 25 miles in one day. Calling me a novice was an understatement. To be honest, you can be a beginner like I was and complete a bike tour. If you are going to be traveling on mostly pavement, you can do a tour on any type of bike, and the weight of your bike will not be THAT big of a deal. Having a lighter load is great, but I still do things a differently even after a handful of trips. It will take some tweaking to figure out your perfect setup. Having a road bike or touring-specific bike is definitely a plus, but not absolutely necessary. I rode on my Trek Lexa SLX, which is a beginner road racing bike. (Great ride for anyone looking to get into road racing!) However, I did not have a professional fit before the trip. No matter what bike you decide to adventure on, make sure that it is fit to you. I ended up having extreme knee pain a few days in, and developing tendonitis because of bike-fit ignorance. It can be a little pricey to have the service done, but when it comes to health, it should be pretty high on your list of priorities.
Once I bought my bike, I needed to get some gear. Betsy and I had a Google Spreadsheet to figure out who had what, and how to budget on buying gear as a unit. The first thing on the list: having a good attitude! Priceless, yet should ALWAYS be #1. For beginners, I would advise going to a local consignment store that sells outdoor gear. This is a great way to get started if you aren’t ready to make big investments, and you can figure out what works for you and your bike without draining your funds right away. I was able to find some good smaller items there: multi tools, pedals, hand pump, tire levers, etc. By doing this, I was able to put some extra cash on items I really wanted, like a new tent and good food after a long day in saddle! Set up your list in order of priority and buy everything over time. There are great examples of packing lists online, so look at a handful and see what looks best for your needs and comfort level. It is fun to see your pile of gear getting bigger as a trip approaches!
Once we got the gear and arrangements set up, the day finally arrived, and we headed out to Telluride. I picked Betsy up from the airport and made the 9-hour drive South. We get to Town Park in downtown Telluride, pitch a tent, and crash after a long day of traveling. The next morning, we get our bikes put back together, and are running about two hours late. Typical. Let’s just say punctuality is neither of our greatest attributes. At around 2:00PM, lunch is consumed and the bikes are ready to go, we leave for a 40 mile ride out of town. Our excitement is so high, we don’t even realize we climb over the first pass of the trip, Dallas Divide. The views are incredible. As the sun is setting and we rolled into Ridgeway, the destination for the evening, we eat a ton of Thai food and grab a bottle of beer to celebrate ourselves for taking a leap in life together. Looking out into the mountainous sky as we pitched our tent that night, I started to feel whole again. Betsy and I were reunited and yes, it felt oh so good. The stars twinkled above us and the fire started to die down. We lay our heads next to each other, not talking, but both thinking in unison about how we ended up in that tent, and what was to come. Not just on the next day’s ride, but in our lives. I have never felt so lost in life during that time. But our bikes brought us down to earth, giving us a week to think about what we needed to keeping on keeping on.
The next morning we peaked our heads out of our tent and gazed at the sun rising over the beautiful San Juan Mountains. Day two’s journey lead us to the small town of Paonia. Stopping in small towns can be an eye opening experience. Everyone is in a peaceful mood, and there is a sense of community like none other. For example, as we were preparing for day three, we sat in a tiny coffee shop, trying to wake up from two days of mental and physical exertion. A man overhears our conversation and approaches us. Turns out this man is the mayor of Paonia and proceeded to help us find our way. He biked from the coffee shop to his house, printed a map, biked back to the coffee shop and explained how to get where we needed to go. We met a lot a kind people on our journey, but this experience stands out. The small town people seemed to be looking after us, interested in our excursions, and truly showed us love and generosity.
With map in hand, we start our day out to Kebler Pass. “No one ever said it would be easy.” This is what Betsy told me when we first arrived in Telluride four days prior. We get to the base of Kebler Pass and flashes of the elevation profile come to mind. It was going to be a long day of slow, painful uphill. 30 miles of climbing seemed like hell in my mind. We ran out of water. My knee was throbbing. It started to rain. Throughout all of us, which I hate to admit, I complained all day. But Betsy stayed calm and collected. I know she was in just as much pain, yet she mentally carried me up that mountain. I think this is the most important life skill that I have learned from her. Stay positive, because if your attitude is bad, your day will be bad. I look back to myself before this trip, and I don’t like who I was. My attitude sucked. I didn’t believe in myself.
We rolled into Crested Butte and navigated to our host house. For those of you unfamiliar with Warmshowers, it is an amazing online community of cyclists who host bikers passing through on tours. We stayed with a young couple who had fresh brownies upon our arrival, a bed made up, and really big hugs. Talk about a cool way to meet other amazing people. We immediately went into comas the moment we got to bed that night.
The next two days were painful. Brutal. Stormy. Windy. One day we rode into the pitch black night. The next we biked 100 miles in the rain. Yeah, the situation could have been better. But you know what, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Maybe I would have had a bigger smile on my face, but pushing through the pain has trained me to be like Betsy was that day on Kebler Pass. Bike touring teaches you that no matter your situation, you have to push on. If you get a flat in the middle of nowhere, YOU have to fix it to get back on the bike and get to your destination. No one is there to fix it for you, you must rely on yourself completely.
My life has changed in almost every way because of this trip. When we finally made it back to Telluride on the final day, I told myself that I would never look back, as there is only moving forward. I now live my life with patience, like Betsy had for me, and generosity, like the Mayor of Paonia and our lovely Warmshowers hosts. Any time we go out for a ride, I have a smile on my face and try to make sure everyone else does, too. Face it, no matter how bad life feels, it is never as bad as you think. Might as well have fun in the meantime.