Will it go?
By: Betsy Welch
A couple things happen when you get older: one, it gets a little harder to make new friends. And speaking of friends, for some reason making simple plans often feels impossible. Finally, taking risks just isn’t as exciting as it used to be.
If all of those things somehow magically come together, then whooeee, you’ve got yourself a recipe for an adventure.
This plan — with new friends Megan and KJ — started ambitiously: four days in late September bikepacking through the early autumn alpine in the San Juan’s. Gradually, via sporadic emails and texts, it shrunk, both in number of days and participants, until it was just Meg and I and one day of riding in the high country.
It was actually KJ (who had to work that Thursday) who lobbed the idea at us: you guys should ride from Silverton to Telluride. She had a route and an idea of what to expect — a very long hike-a-bike to start, a trail that ended at Columbine Lake and an off-trail link-up from there to the Lewis Mine on the other side of an unnamed pass. According to the map, it looked like it would go. Meg and I just had to figure out a shuttle so we’d have a ride back to Silverton from Telluride.
Meanwhile, I’d gotten into a bit of a pickle back home. I had sold my truck — to Meg’s boyfriend Cooper — but hadn’t lined up a new rig yet. I called my petrol-head buddy Mumford to ask if he knew of anything lying around and as luck would have it, he was immediately helpful: you should take my old Land Cruiser. It’s down in Telluride with Skimo Michelle. You’d just have to pick it up in Telluride, he said. Serendipity!
I texted Skimo Michelle who seemed elated that someone would take the Cruiser off her hands. She lived up Lizard Head Pass, but I told her if she could get the truck down to town, I’d take care of it for her. She said she’d figure it out and let me know.
Meg and I left KJ’s place in Silverton without knowing. Where the car would be parked, for one, but also if it would start, and if it started how far it would go. Would the brakes work? I trusted Mumford but he hadn’t seen it in months. Of course, we also didn’t know if we’d even make it to Telluride given the untested route and recent dusting of snow. Really, we didn’t even know each other that well.
But I’ve had good luck with trust in very uncertain situations, and Meg was a willing companion, so we set off from KJ’s Silverton ski-bum compound at about eleven, two new friends, with a half-baked plan that ranked a moderate five on the ‘how risky is this’ scale. My gut felt good about it.
We pedaled out of town on railroad grade, tunneled by aspen leaves tinged with yellow. When we got to the ziggity zaggedy Columbine trail, we got off our bikes. And stayed off our bikes. And pushed our bikes up about 3,000 feet to where the aspen leaves were well and fully yellow, and a powdered sugar dusting of snow glittered on the ground. A proper hike-a-bike. I had been hiking faster than Meg and hoped silently that she wasn’t taking it personally. We reunited at a low saddle and plopped down trailside for a snack. We pulled out our red raincoats — for wind protection only, the sky was cerulean — and laughed that we were twinning. Then, finally, we rode.
Meg and I live on the north side of the Elk Mountains, but the San Juan’s are something special. It’s why KJ splits her time between Silverton and Carbondale, lucky girl. The mountains are arresting, and no two look the same. Some are bright orange, their sides sheared off by decades of mining. Behind them, toothy jagged ridges slice across the sky. You can never stop looking.
Columbine Lake, our first major landmark, was like that, too. We ooh’ed and ahh’ed the aquamarine water, imagining warmer days and skinny dipping. We found a hiker’s singletrack and rode along the edge. Here, we started looking around with purpose — this is where we had to figure out where to go. We pulled out our phones, modern wayfinders doing double duty with a USGS map on Gaia and a Strava heatmap. We looked down, looked up, looked over. That way.
Surprisingly, we could pedal. We rolled easily over dinner plate-sized slabs of shale, and it wasn’t steep or shitty. We got to the base of a very small incline and rode up. At the top, we high fived. Lewis Lake and Lewis Mine sat in the foreground, and the Bridal Veil Basin sprawled out before us. It went!
We hiked our bikes down a trail beaten into the talus and scree. It was north facing and covered in more snow than we’d seen all day. Someone had gone before us, and we slid down their greasy track. At the bottom, we picked our way toward the old mine, dodging erratic boulders and puddles. We stumbled onto a small cabin, painstakingly restored by a Telluride local over two decades. Signs begged us not to leave anything that would attract the marmots. “They’ll destroy the place!”
Daylight doesn’t do any favors in late September in the mountains, and we were only halfway to Telluride by that point. Still twins in red raincoats, we pedaled away from the cabin and the Lewis Mine into Bridal Veil Basin. The top of a lift tower from Telluride Mountain Resort glinted in the distance. So close! As the crow flies.
Meg was starting to feel bonky, and I did not want to get caught in the dark. We trudged on, the trail friendly enough to pedal but the altitude taxing. We finally got to the Wasatch Trail, which would dump us some 3,000 feet down into town. It took a while, long enough for a slender crescent moon to rise above a toothy peak we deliriously called the Matterhorn.
I flatted, our only snafu of the day, on the Bear Creek Trail, which is less technical than anything we did all day by orders of magnitude. We could laugh, though, because we were only two miles from town. We rolled into Telluride as the alpenglow settled onto the high peaks. We asked a server from the Last Dollar to take our picture by the flower box on Main Street, which really seemed to put him out. I powered on my phone, and there it was — a text from Skimo Michelle.
She’d left the Cruiser at Carhenge, Telluride’s free parking lot, and left the key in the tailpipe. We rode over, and there it was. What she hadn’t left us was a beer or nearly any gas in the tank, but oh well. The Cruiser started right up, and we rolled out of town, still in our sweaty clothes and bike shoes, as the sun set behind the box canyon.
The plans had changed, and then gotten better. When you trust it, it almost always goes.