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Journey to the High Country, Pt. 6

Well, here we are, Part 6 of my Colorado ride report. This is the closing chapter of my ride, but it’s a big one! Looks like I’m still in Salida…

July 1, 2013 – Million Dollar Highway, Part 1

Waking up in Salida, the day looked like it’d be a good one…for awhile at least. I made my way to the Super 8 office to grab some breakfast, and then packed up my gear and rolled west on US50, with a rough target being the Million Dollar Highway. My Colorado trip was nearing it’s end and there was just no way I’d pass up seeing what that road is all about. My route was to follow US50 over to Montrose, retracing some of my earlier steps, and then turning south on US550. The Million Dollar Highway “officially” starts in Ouray, CO….if Wikipedia says so, then it must be true…

US50, climbing Monarch Pass while enroute to Montrose. We haven’t hit Gunnison yet.

I’ve had really good luck on this trip with finding great roads….with no traffic. The rider ahead of me was doing the same as I was…gawking and snapping pics.

The summit of Monarch Pass (11,312′)…I’ve kinda lost track on the number of passes I’ve hit during this trip, lol. For a moment, I thought about riding the chairlift…but only for a moment.

Coming down Monarch Pass, heading towards Gunnison. You really can’t go wrong with the scenery.

Looking back from where I’d come, on the Monarch Pass summit. The formula? FJR+CURVES=FUN.

Puppychow, a fellow FJR rider from one of our forums, mentioned the expansiveness of the Rockies and that brought to mind something I didn’t really realize until after I returned from the trip. Point A to Point B could be quite long on my daily Colorado wanderings, but I honestly never gave time and distance a thought except when it came time to find a place to stay for the night. Part of this is probably due to not using my GPS at all while in Colorado and relying, instead, on a “virtual” paper map. The other reasons are probably due to the massive amounts of eye candy that kept my mind busy while the miles passed beneath my tires and the constant pumping of music through my Sena headset. On more than one occasion, the music perfectly matched the pace…it just doesn’t get any better than that. I missed a lot of the traditional touristy things, but covered a lot of territory…thank goodness the FJR makes it easy.

I eventually made it into Montrose and turned south on US550 towards Ouray. Montrose was hot and jammed with traffic and I was happy to pass through it. Just outside of town, on 550, I came up on my second construction halt for the trip, but luckily, it lasted less than 15 minutes and I was on the way to Ouray. On the fly, I decided I would go as far as Silverton for the day since my Allstays camping app said there was some tent camping there, plus I wanted to check out the town and absorb the scenery. Oh, and there’s that pesky Million Dollar Highway. 😉

US550, heading to Ouray, CO. I have to hand it to my camera (iPhone 4S), it really nailed the deep blue Colorado skies…among other things.

Minor dirt diversions…

Approaching Ouray…the road’s already showing signs of what’s to come.

And a bit closer…we’re almost on the Million Dollar Highway…the scenery goes into overdrive.

In my typical way of doing things, I rolled straight through the town of Ouray without stopping. US550, now turns into the “Million Dollar Highway”, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and starts out steeply from the southern edge of town.

The twisting climb south out of Ouray.

Looking back down the starting climb.

The town of Ouray, CO. US550 comes from the north through the valley…it’s quite dramatic and very scenic.

This is a sign of what awaited me on the run down to Silverton…

One more peek towards the NW, over the town of Ouray…staggering scenery!

On the way to Silverton, US550.

It’s hard not to be amazed…the views are simply stunning. 550 runs along the left edge of the photo and cuts across that mountain in the distance.

The road was in spectacular condition and traffic was fairly light. I was grinning ear to ear and giggling the entire time. Looking back to the north…while paused at the bridge you’ll see next.

A waterfall, a bridge, a curve, and a deeeeeep canyon/gorge.

It’s a bit of a drop…

The scenery didn’t let me down for a minute…dramatic stuff.

Here, US550 cuts across the base of a mountain…the same cut seen in the distance earlier. This road is friggin AWESOME!

This photo, one of my favorites from the trip, really sums up the spirit of the Million Dollar Highway…what a ride! Oh yea, no guardrails, so pay attention! Speaking of guardrails, the reason why you don’t see them much in Colorado’s high country is because they interfere with snow removal and, in many places, are subject to avalanches during the winter.

Continuing on to Silverton…these peaks are Red Mountain #1 and #3, according to my map. Seems to make sense…

And another pass falls to Feej, Red Mountain Pass (11,018′).

From Red Mountain Pass summit…

After an unforgettable ride, I finally came down the mountain into the town of Silverton. US550/Million Dollar Highway, climbs back up the mountain on its way to Durango, but for today, I’d be stopping here to camp and soak up the scenery. Silverton sits to the east of 550, so I made my way into town and passed to the other side, looking for the campground my Allstays app said was there. I found the sign pointing the way and turned off onto a gravel road…very loose gravel, and made my way to the office. As I pulled up into the office’s parking lot, I almost lost the bike in axle deep gravel…not fun. After freeing the bike, I checked in and rode the VERY rough dirt road to my campsite out in an open close to a creek. It wasn’t much, but the views were awesome.

You can just make out the low slice of US550 cutting up the mountain from Silverton as it heads towards Durango.

An old mine adds to the atmosphere of this beautiful country…

Looking east from my campsite, up a valley popular with ATV’s. The campground had a large staging area for them, as you can see.

It was hot and only mid-afternoon, so after I got my tent setup, I suited up again and headed for town looking for ONE thing…mission accomplished…

I sat on the bench outside the ice cream parlor for probably a good hour, chatting it up with the old fella that owned the place while we watched the tourists stream through town. The old guy soon closed up shop, saying he was heading for the Chuckwagon in Durango to have dinner and watch a show, so I decided to sample US550 a little bit more before my own dinner.

Even though I’d be running it in the morning, I decided to run US550 south a bit. Looking back on Silverton…my campsite is at the far edge of town, into that valley heading off to the right. I swear I could almost see my tent.

The curves and views continue…I got to run it with the very light early evening traffic. Yes, it was bliss…

I ran 550 south for a ways and then turned back to the north for awhile, just kinda enjoying the ride and the environment. Once the stomach started grumbling, I finally made my way back down the mountain and into town for what turned out to be an awesome steak dinner…and a beer. 😉

I returned to the campsite as the light was starting to get long.

Kendall Peak catching the evening rays of sun…it’s hard to tell that evening’s nearly here with all that sun.

Looking to the west, with Silverton in the foreground, as the sun slides behind the peak. Darkness falls fast…going…

Going…

Gone…

While today was a somewhat short day, it was filled with some of the most spectacular views and riding I’d experienced so far. I spent the evening chatting with my neighbor campers while enjoying some cold ones, then let the night bring on the sleep…

Tomorrow, I’d be hitting the rest of the Million Dollar Highway and leaving Colorado…

Tuesday, July 2 – Million Dollar Highway Part Deux & Four Corners

I woke to the sound of rain drops tapping gently on my tent…great. I poked my head out and noted the angry clouds rolling over the peaks to the north with the morning sun trying to break through down the valley to the east. During a brief lull, I threw on my riding underclothes and got out to start assessing the situation. Mountain weather typically doesn’t last that long, but this little storm was persistent, so I suited up and packed up my soaking wet tent into the spare dry bag I had for just such an occasion. Got everything lashed down and beat it into town for some breakfast. After enjoying some cinnamon rolls, coffee, and some idle chit-chat with the locals and tourists (“Oh, it must suck to the ride in the rain!” comments really), I hit US550 south with the intention of going through Durango and then turning west to bag the Four Corners Monument.

Between the time of getting packed and eating breakfast, the storm blew out, leaving just small pockets of spitting clouds behind…figures. At least it looked nice south. Anyway, US550, aka The Million Dollar Highway, continued to live up to it’s reputation…yes, it was FUN!

How can a rider NOT like this sort of scene??

Looking back north…the storm clouds are getting left behind…for now.

And another pass passes….Coal Bank Pass (10,640′). They really blew the budget on the sign…

From the summit of Coal Bank Pass, looking southbound. The motorcyclist’s favorite sign…up here, it really means “Fun Ahead”.

The weather cleared up and the riding continued to be awesome as I continued down towards Durango. I’m pretty sure this is Engineer Mountain…another one of my favorite pics…

And then it was over….I dropped out of the mountains and into a valley, leading pretty much straight into Durango. Along the way, I spotted something I’d seen countless documentaries about… The Durango & Silverton Railroad was making its way towards Silverton, neat!

It was hot and full of traffic, but breaking my own rule, I stopped briefly in Durango to grab a little snack and properly refill my hydration system (needed some ICE) before turning west onto US160 and heading for Four Corners. Being a minor railroad fan, I almost went to check out the Durango & Silverton, but then I remembered the crap experience that was the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad and decided to pass.

Just west of Mancos, CO…the mountainous terrain is melting away quickly.

Desert landscapes…I’ve always loved them….at least while blowing through them.

I stopped in Cortez for some lunch and continued working towards Four Corners, passing “The Knees” and “East Toe”…take a guess at which is the “toe”.

Desolation…plus a big casino along the way (no photo).

The official portion of my Colorado visit passed as I entered New Mexico and turned onto the Four Corners Monument road. I had low expectations of this monument and those expectations were richly rewarded…it’s really nothing more than a tourist trap that you pay to enter. That said, it has always been a place I wanted to at least visit once just so I could say I was there. It was hot, really hot, and I didn’t feel like sticking around too long or attempting to stand in all four states at one time because the line was too long for the heat. Instead, when I left, I rode the bike all the way around the monument, hitting all four states. 😉

I snapped some shots of random tourists doing what tourist do. 😀

Yep, it’s out in the middle of nowhere…

The monument is surrounded on all sides by vendor tables, where you can buy various Native American knick-knacks commemorating your visit if you so desire.

From Four Corners, I continued south to the junction in Teec Nos Pos, AZ, where I made the turn east, signaling the official start of my journey back to North Carolina, 2048 miles away.

I headed for Shiprock, New Mexico on 64, with a ludicrously low posted speed limit of 60 for the desert run…if I remember correctly. THERE’S NOTHING OUT HERE…why is the speed limit so low? One possible answer came in the form of a white SUV. I was the only person out there and as I rounded a corner, I saw a white SUV on the side of the road in the distance. As I got closer, the SUV pulled onto the highway, in front of me, and I fell in behind him. He was driving EXACTLY at the speed limit and we had NOTHING but straight pavement ahead of us for miles. Of course, the first instinct is to blow past him, but I took a closer look…the windows were very darkly tinted, but in the back window, I could JUST make out the profile of what I thought was a light bar….an unmarked officer…hmm. I suspected the goal was to sucker me into a pass…or something along those lines. I stuck behind him for a few miles until Ship Rock came into view…I had to stop and snap a pic.

Ship Rock, visible for miles and miles.

The white SUV continued on ahead as I stopped for pics, but pulled to the side of the road about a 1/4 mile ahead and just sat there…no one got out to snap pics or take a leak. I can play the game; I decided it was a good time for a Cliff bar break. After about 15 minutes, the white SUV, from which no one emerged the entire time, flipped a U’ey and blazed past me…I win, heh. I continued on to Shiprock.

The desert does offer some visual treats…

And some bits of fun stuff…

Yep, it’s still there…

Report Note: You might get the sense the mood’s changing…and you’d be right, my mind was going into “go home” mode, so photos, from here on out, are few. Back to the story…

I reached Shiprock, NM and stopped for some fuel. From there, I continued on 64 until a little cutoff road that turned south and eventually linked up with US550 (again), heading south. As I rolled SE on 550, somewhere along the way between Shiprock and Cuba, fighting the increasing crosswinds, I pulled in to a gas station out in the middle of nowhere to grab a snickers and a cold Mountain Dew. Sitting at the gas pumps was a GSXR 600 (a gixxer for the non-riders out there) and its rider, who was just standing there, staring off into the desert…he did this for what seemed an eternity. He finally walked over to me and looked the FJR over… “Man, I wish I had one of those!”, he remarked. Turns out he was on a ride from Sacramento to Dallas on that 600. He had been stopped for about a half hour in an attempt to return some life to his wrists…he couldn’t remember the number of times he had to stop to do that. We talked bikes for a bit…it seems his girlfriend, a rider herself, was due to get his bike and he was going to upgrade, but not before this trip happened. His bike was not suited for the journey, with the not-good-for-long-distance seating position and the haphazard collection of stuff bungied to the pillion seat. But then again, it’s all about the ride. He turned out to be a really nice fella with some stories to tell. I felt bad for him, but there wasn’t a lot I could do other than wish him a safe ride as he finally resumed his voyage about 10 minutes before I did. I’d see him two more times…

The winds were ever-increasing and on the northern horizon, a storm brewed. I passed by the Gixxer fella pretty quickly in a few miles…he was already favoring his wrists… As I neared Cuba, NM, the storm was in full force along the ridge east of town, complete with heavy lightning and very apparent heavy rain. 550 turned southward at Cuba, putting me just ahead of and parallel to the storm, but not out of touch of it’s leading edge winds and pockets of rain/hail. A dual sport rider joined up behind me and, together, we spent the next 70 or so miles battling the storm…the FJR was leaned over heavily and holding relatively solid between the wind-direction-changing hillocks; the dual-sport fella not so much. This continued for what seemed like forever, but as we neared the outskirts of Bernalillo, NM, the storm relinquished its grip. Mr. Dual Sport peeled off into a gas station and I continued, intent on finding a cheap Super 8 or Motel 6…there’d be no camping tonight, especially since my tent was still wet from the morning wake up. After a 358 mile run and heavy battle with a storm, I found the local Super 8 and thankfully settled in.

Not long after getting checked in, the storm I’d been battling passed overhead with a whimper and a few squirts of displeasure…

I spread out my wet tent in the room, took a shower, and enjoyed a nice meal at the Denny’s across the street. About an hour after dinner, as darkness was falling, I spied a Gixxer 600 roll into the parking lot…it was my friend riding to Dallas! Coincidence at work. We spent about an hour talking bikes and travel again. He’d seen the storm and decided to take a pass and wait it out. That, combined with his many wrist-recovery stops, got him in late. I wished him luck and made my way back into my room and dozed off to some anonymous movie playing on TV.

Wednesday, July 3 – The road home. Bernalillo, NM to Elk City, OK – 445 miles

There was no brilliant route plan to get home, just I-40. My plan, if you want to call it that, was to get home either on Friday or Saturday, giving me some time to unwind before going back to work the week after. Photos are sketchy as I just wanted to roll.

West of Amarillo, I-40, heaps and heaps of nothing…

I laid up for the night in Elk City, OK. There, I enjoyed a lovely Italian meal cooked up by an eastern European fella…it was good.

Thursday, July 4, 2013. Elk City, OK to Forrest City, AR – 534 miles

Not much mystery to today, just run the miles. The further east I rolled, the more the rain started to get in the way…I was rolling into that Gulf of Mexico trough that was pushing up through the south.

Just outside of Oklahoma City, in Midwest City, I found something I hadn’t seen in years…unspoiled gasoline! Of course I filled up.

Just outside Forrest City, AR, I saved Tokyo by taking out Mothra….

At Forrest City, AR, I found a quiet America’s Best Value Inn and settled in. Met up with a group of Harley riders from Louisiana staying there and had a great chat while we were being consumed by monstrous mosquitos. As evening fell, we got to enjoy several distant fireworks shows. Happy Birthday USA!

Friday, July 5, 2013 – Forrest City, AR to Blue Ridge Motorcycle Campground, Cruso, NC – 545 miles

Woke up early, had a rather nice continental breakfast and hit the road. I had 851 miles to go until I reached home, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to push it that far without taking a heavy fatigue risk, so I shelved that idea and decided to push for the Blue Ridge Motorcycle Campground in Cruso, NC. For most of the day, the rain fell. As it approached 6:30 in the evening, I finally reached BRMC and setup my tent between the spells of rain and enjoyed a wonderful dinner. If you’ve never been to BRMC, you’re missing a great hangout!

Around the campground…

After an evening of shooting the bull with fellow riders, I turned in and dozed off. At around 2:30 in the morning, I awoke and found myself laying on a waterbed! The tent hadn’t been leaking, but it had been raining very hard…the spot I had pitched my tent appeared to be covered with 2″ of water and the floor of the tent felt like a waterbed…it was weird and fun at the same time (ok, maybe not fun). Sure that my tent’s integrity was safe, I passed out.

Saturday, July 6, 2013 – The Last Leg to Rocky Mount – 332 miles

The morning wasn’t much different than earlier in the middle of the night when I awoke…the rain was still falling. Luckily, the ground had drained off and I was no longer imitating a ship at sea. After enjoying a massive biscuits and gravy breakfast (BRMC has GOOD meals), I packed up the wet tent a bit haphazardly, bid ado to those I’d met the night before and beat it home.

The roads getting out of the mountains were a bit of a challenge, with fog and a HEAVY dose of gravel washed onto them from all the heavy rain. It perked my morning up.

It rained off and on while in the mountains, but as I moved further east, things dried up and just stayed hot and humid. A little after 5pm and 5650 miles, I arrived home!

A trip of a lifetime, made possible by the beautiful machine that is the FJR… It was hard to believe that it was finally over…damn, that was awesome!

There’s nothing quite like a long road trip on a motorcycle; those of you who have done them know exactly what I’m talking about….

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I live in Eastern NC, work on websites all day, and enjoy motorcycling immensely. What more need be said.
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