Defining the comfort zone

Sometimes an adventure starts well before you begin a trip. I am a regular family doctor with a fellowship in wilderness medicine through the Wilderness Medicine Society. I just love that stuff. They have several conferences every year, and I try to get to one a year. My job gives us an education allowance every year and I had already burned mine up on another conference, so I had to figure a way to get from Minnesota to Telluride, Colorado, for about a week on the cheap. You can guess the rest, but I will elaborate anyway.

My last ride on my 1995 R 1100 GS had demonstrated that the clutch would slip no matter how I adjusted the cable. I would get to the middle of the torque curve and would lose power as the clutch would slip. I planned to have a local shop replace the clutch, as I was scared to get that deep into the bike. After hearing an estimate of the cost, I got very brave – and so began the adventure to Telluride. Three weekends later after much cussing and many “learning experiences,” I was up and running again a week before departure. That gave me just enough time to change oil and replace the rotten plug-ins for my iPhone and Garmin.

I planned to hurry up and get to Colorado, slow down and explore the Rampart Range Road southwest of Denver, then wend my way southwest to Telluride in time for the conference. I had a copy of the Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4 Wheel-Drive Trails, BMW MOA Anonymous, Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and a blank journal. What could go wrong?

I got off work and saddled up the loaded bike; departure is the transition between preparation and problem solving. I was in southern Iowa in the dark for one of the few nights I had to pay to tent. The next day was the Nebraska day – golly, that is a long state. It is the kind of riding where you listen to the whole Ted Nugent “Stranglehold” or a complete Led Zeppelin live “Whole Lotta Love.” I made it past Denver after multiple stops looking for the Colorado Off-Road sticker. I eventually found one along Route 25 at a motorcycle shop near their closing time.

At dusk, I entered the Rampart Range. This area is set aside for multi-use motor recreation with a dirt road running longitudinally down the spine of the mountains. It seems to have much use and popularity. Still, I was able to find an empty campsite with a view to the valley and the rising moon.

I had bear spray with me as I was heading into their domain. Like exotic travel anywhere around the world, the common threats at home are what will actually cause you harm, not the unusual. I nearly hit a deer while I was worrying about bears! Still, I slept next to my spray and every night hung up my food side case. I had the bike set up so the left hard bag was the food, the right hard bag was clothing, and the rack and absent pillion seat area was shelter. I was able to use the two ratchet straps that affix the shelter portion of my gear on the bike to loop over a branch and hoist my food case out of bear reach and far from my tent. I called it the bear piñata. This became part of my bedtime routine, like how some people put on their pajamas and say their prayers.

The next day was dusty and hot in my early 1990s full leather suit on the Rampart Road. I took my time finding a campsite with several back-tracking trips and seeking a trail to a waterfall that I could not find. I was overheating my body even though the bike was just fine. I found a small lake to bathe and wash some clothes. I even strung up the hammock to read a bit. Eventually, I found myself on another ridge with another beautiful view for another quiet, gentle overnight. I could even hear my tinnitus.

The next morning, I rode into Cripple Creek, mostly for the name of the The Band song. It was full of casinos and more full of Harley riders there for a Hell’s Angels convention. I found an accommodating breakfast companion in a retired Oklahoma native who summered in the mountains around there. From here, there was a lovely dirt track following a river toward Canon City. It was remarkably hot in that high desert. I stopped to cool off at a convenience store and get more fuel. Once I started out again, it was clear I did not give myself enough time to cool off. I was even a little clumsy getting on the bike and dropped my iPhone, cracking the screen. I was back on tarmac and following the Texas River that carries vacationing river rafters. I found a pull-off next to the road, descended to the shore, stripped to my shorts, and dunked myself in that cool mountain run-off water. It was heavenly refreshing! I think it even brought my body temperature back to normal. I thought it was too dangerous to wear the full leathers in this climate, so tied on the jacket over my shelter pack. That was more like it, but I kept feeling guilty and vulnerable with my arms exposed in just a t-shirt. When I was exiting Salida, I saw two well-dressed GS riders coming toward me with a hearty wave. I felt more shame, pulled over, and put my jacket back on.

I stopped at the Gunnison Ranger station for some tips on where to go next that might be cooler. They directed me toward Lake City, where I was swarmed by ATVs, side-by-sides, and dirt bikes. Strangely, after filling up there, the bike was going up a hill and started to stall. The front brake simultaneously failed and squeezed right to the grip. The back brake worked fine. I gunned the engine until it evened out and rode back to the town. I found more brake fluid thinking I had an air bubble or leak. Then the brake started working fine. I topped it up the thimbleful it was down anyway and headed down another trail to find the night’s campsite. Right next to the trail were many sites and traffic on the trail. I found some quiet behind a tall pine in the sandy ground. It turns out the clearing was a deer trail, and they kept coming by and looking for a way through. The soft sand gently let the bike to the ground despite the use of the center stand. I was able to pick it up with the squatting technique I practiced at home and felt quite proud of myself. That night was clear and cold with uncountable stars. It was that kind of sky where there seem to be clouds of stars behind the stars.

The next morning, I was infested with flies and other bugs flying around while I tried to make coffee and a breakfast burrito. I checked the clutch play and needed to adjust, the brake fluid was fine, oil level was a little low in the spyglass, and tire air pressure was fine. I was out of there fast.

The narrow dirt road led to an access to the Cimmaron. I found on the sandy and loose rock trail that I needed to use the mass of the heavy GS to propel me through and gyro me upright. Eventually, gravity caught up with me and I was down on the trail. I unpacked all my gear and tried the squatting technique that had served me so well. All I did was push it across the sand and rock. I pivoted the bike so the seat was uphill and the wheels downhill and tried again.

This time I got it on the rubber in time to amuse a GS 800 rider coming down the hill. He pulled off his helmet and jacket and said, “Well there is your problem!” I responded, “I know. BMW.” He clarified, “No! The 1100! It’s too heavy for out here!”

He and a cluster of dirt bikers helped me get it rolling again with a hearty push and I was off again. The trail was challenging but beautiful. A side-by-side passed me while I was stopped near the top of the ridge for one of many water breaks. He asked if I dropped a bottle of brake fluid – and it turned out I had. On the descent in to the next valley, I stopped to top off the brake fluid. I noticed my self-inflating mattress was gone. Dang. I was starting to try a 20-point turn on the narrow trail when the same cluster of dirt bikers caught up to me. They found my mat and had stashed it on an ATV. They saved my ass twice that day. I felt like Blanche DuBois when she said, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.”

At the base of the valley was California Gulch with a clean-looking stream. I cleaned up and filtered some water for my bottle. I chatted up an Oklahoma native out riding some trails he knew well in a Jeep. He told me about a Jeep and Land Rover going off one direction from this intersection. The Land Rover rolled off the cliff. “Must have been watching the scenery instead of the trail,” were his wise words.

He pointed to the easy way for me to get to Silverton. Lunch was at a roadside peach stand. That was a delicious cucumber and peach in the shade! I passed through Ouray and got cheese and similar supplies, then followed the east end of Last Dollar Road to a birch-rimmed clearing that I called my home for the night. Somehow, one of my Crocs had fallen off the bike somewhere, rendering the unmated clog useless. With the hammock up and the tent awaiting, it was a peaceful end to the day.

The next morning, I was breaking camp and noticed old, dried cow pies in the area. Then I noticed that there was an entrance and an exit from the clearing. I camped on a cattle highway! More bad news was that in the jostling and tipping of the bike, my peanut butter popped open and left 1/3 of its contents all over the other food containers. What a mess. I was thankful for my compostable, multi-purpose moist wipes!

This day brought me to Telluride: my destination. I had a list of chores to do in town including getting my phone screen replaced. It turns out the to-do list never goes away, it just changes. I followed a winding trail crossing a stream and over an isthmus to Alta Lake dispersed camping ground. This was it. Eleven thousand, five hundred breathtaking feet high with a source of water for bathing, clothes washing, and drinking. I placed my tent in the same spot for the next four days.

On the registration day, I was heading to the conference center down the bumpy track when the engine sputtered and stalled. I looked down to see and smell the gas that sprayed all over my right boot top from the fuel line to the injector. What a stinky mess – a great way to make a first impression. Fortunately, I had the trying experience of replacing the clutch, which included disconnecting the fuel lines. I reconnected it, but it kept popping off when pressurizing. It turns out I was pushing too hard. A little more finesse and me and my stinky boot were on our way.

The conference was terrific. It turns out it was also the World Congress on Mountain Medicine. There were experts in mountain medicine and research from all over the world in attendance: Italy, China, Argentina, Switzerland, and more. There was even a charity aspect to the conference, to benefit the Wongchu Sherpa Memorial Hospital Project ( Every day, I got out of the tent and commuted down the rutted rocky trail to the conference. In the evenings, I raced the setting sun so I would have more light to read the terrain.

On the last day of the conference, I loaded up the bike to start heading back to Minnesota. I reviewed the trail book and saw a nice easy green trail that led to pavement and then maybe take some dirt shortcuts to the highway east. There was a light rain as I gassed up and headed up the southern end of Last Dollar Road. The engine bogged down like it was trying to stall and the front brake did nothing and had no resistance. Then, it weirdly got better. At the beginning of the dirt part of the road, there was a sign noting “four-wheel-drive necessary, especially when wet.” With my TKCs and my recent trail riding, I thought I would be fine. It was only a green trail.

The puddles started getting deeper, flowing water over my boot tops. The mud changed from a thin coating to a slippery grease. I was still using inertia to move forward as I went through yet another deep puddle and continued sliding left to the edge of the trail and off. I was next to the trail, still upright and in gear with the engine running. There was a two-foot drop off with shrubs holding me from sliding the remaining 30 feet down to the stream. I shut off the bike and started to unpack to lower the weight.

I heard engines approaching from a distance. By the time the dirt bike and side-by-side loaded with four young people came to me, I had all my gear and cases off and ahead of me. They were willing to help once they clarified that they signed the damage waiver on the rented side-by-side. I attached my ratchet strap to the front fork of the bike and the hook on the back of the side-by-side. With but a gentle tug, the strap broke. We repeated this fiasco pulling backward. Next, we dug out the side of the trail so that the right cylinder head would not dig in as much. We reattached the knotted ratchet straps, but this time to the crash bars on the side of the bike and used two of them at once connected to the rear hook on the side-by-side. Finally, the four-wheel-drive dragged the GS back onto the roadway. I got two of them to help me get it upright, and we took selfies.

I asked about the trail ahead. They reassured me that it got drier and was mostly rocky. Liars! I was on the ascent to the pass when I dropped the bike again. The rain continued to fall and I could hear sheep bleating in the distance. It was quite peaceful standing there trying to think of what to do. I unloaded the bike, as usual, but I couldn’t pick it up. Every angle and effort just slid the bike across the mud.

I heard engines in the distance from where I had just been. It was the same crew that helped me get the bike back on the roadway! Continuing to rely on the kindness of strangers, they helped me pick up the bike. They did not stay for selfies this time. I reloaded and pressed on forward as I was near the pass over the top. It did get a little easier with more rockiness to the trail. However, just over the crest, the mud got deeper and slicker. I was eventually riding with my feet on the ground like outriggers. I could leave my boot in the mud and just slide along. The knobbies were filled with mud and even the front fender was caked. It prevented the front wheel from turning, so it slid along like a ski until the bike became unstable and fell over again. Threatening signs loomed from both sides of the trail describing the unpleasant things the landowner would do to me should I breach the border. It rained on. No innocent bystanders arrived. I took out my BMW MOA Anonymous book.

I had not really understood this publication by the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America. I found a nearby town listing and, with my one bar of cell service, phoned a member with a garage and a trailer. When he picked up, I realized the cleverness of the title of the book, “Hi, my name is Rik and I own a BMW motorcycle.” We brainstormed a few ideas, including waiting out the rain overnight. I had all the equipment, but the rain was predicted to continue through the next day. Eventually, it was clear I had to call a tow truck. He found a listing and I made the call. About two hours later, I saw a diesel, four-wheel-drive flat-bed tow truck ascending toward me. He found a wider spot for a 20-point turn and backed toward the bike. We picked it up and then I drove it onto the tipped flatbed. He then leveled it out while I was on the bike, supporting myself with my muddy slick boots on the wet aluminum surface. I put my broken handguard in the chain box by the bike and dragged my sad, muddy, wet self into the passenger seat.

On the slippery drive down the mountain, he told me a little about the area, including pointing out the site for the shooting of the John Wayne movie True Grit. He described the hourly rate and the three hours this expedition was taking him. I was able to get away with just paying the $160 cash I had in my wallet. Then I rode away from the aptly-named Last Dollar Road.

By now, I was not interested in seeking more dirt adventure. I just wanted to get moving home. The handgrip heaters worked full time in the cold weather. I ended this day at a pay campsite in the desert where there was running water to wash my face and clothes. As a bonus, the van next to me had a KLR parked by a trailer. The site had a bear locker, so I didn’t need to string up the bear piñata. The next morning, I was up early in the chill and quickly packed to make some time.

The battery was dead. I had left the handgrip heaters on. I unloaded the bike and tried push-starting. Nothing. I pushed it up a hill to try to get more of a run at popping the clutch into second and still got nothing. I was going to need a jump start. Nobody was up. My factory tool kit, while pretty good, did not include a 12mm wrench to remove the tank to reach the battery. I knocked on the caretaker’s RV and woke him (and his little dog, too). He was going to get dressed and then come around. In the meantime, the KLR neighbor had awoken and was sipping coffee by the RV. He was able to hold back his laughter and find me a 12mm wrench. It turns out he was from a small town near the small town where I live in Minnesota and had owned two boxer BMWs. By the time the caretaker pulled around, I was ready for him. The bike quickly blipped to life, and my neighbor kept the RPMs up while I reattached the gas tank.

I was 14 hours in the saddle to get over the Iowa border. I just wanted to get past Nebraska. I called the tow guy to ask if the handguard was still in the chain box, and he said it must have flown out. I was now missing the other spark plug cover, as I started the trip with only one. At least now the heads matched. That night was at a pay campsite between a tenting extended family from California and an RV with grade school-age kids. I basked under the glow of the sodium farm light the last night of this trip. I had 12 nights in a tent, with most over 8,000 feet elevation. The next day, just 20 miles from home, I noticed my beloved BMW Motorrad cap was gone from the strap on the tank. I began a new mantra: “If it’s not looped, it’s lost.” The list of the items I lost included my Crocs, the cap, the spark plug cover, one handguard, a bottle of brake fluid, and my mattress – but golly, what I had gained in exchange!