A week bikepacking the Colorado Trail brings moments of joy, lots of tears—and countless miles of pushing the bike.
After a week of bikepacking the Colorado Trail, pedaling, walking, crawling from the base of Mount Princeton on my way to Silverton, when I finally glimpsed the golden ribbon of Stony Pass Road I was so overcome with joy I admit I cried. My spent muscles trembled with adrenaline and I pedaled my Stumpjumper, loaded with camping gear, along a very thin single-track. I tried to focus on the hazardous terrain under my tires but was distracted by hundreds of sheep in the high-alpine valley below, all bleating a one-note chorus. It was a miraculous thing to behold.
Two border collies sprinted up steep treeless hillsides, harassing fluffy white dots of recalcitrant sheep, organizing them into a coherent flock and nudging them down the valley. A shepherd followed the congregation, calling and whistling commands. And like any typical afternoon in the high mountains, there was brilliant blue sky and rain, dark ominous clouds and a rainbow. I reveled in the beauty of the moment, completely exhausted, completely ecstatic. In my next life, I thought, I want to come back as a shepherd. Tears came to my eyes. Good ones. There are, after all, many ways a man can cry, and biking the Colorado Trail will bring out them all.
Let me be the first to tell you: Pushing 60 pounds of bike and gear in stiff bike shoes really sucks. I’d read somewhere that the truth of bike-packing the Colorado Trail is this: You can ride about 80 percent, but you won’t spend 80 percent of your time riding. The last two days I’d spent just a couple of hours in the saddle, covering about 40 miles and climbing over 8,000 feet. Contrary to recent noise about how the CT is the most awesome 535 mile bike-packing trail, it’s really made for hiking. Who knew? Well, I do now.
I’m 51 years old. I knew riding the Colorado Trail would be hard. Last summer I’d bike-packed from Waterton Canyon to Leadville; I’d planned to finish the Trail on this second sojourn, rolling into Durango, the western terminus, a dirty, rank, self-made hero. I’d decided on this endeavor after a cancer scare two winters ago. I’d had this old injury—a calf muscle tear that had developed into a knot which I’d always believed was just scar tissue. I went to a sports doc, who then referred me to a limb surgeon, who then referred me to an oncologist. The surgeon removed the malignant mass, leaving me with a five-inch scar. And all that time I never really worried. Even after the diagnosis, while waiting the full-body MRI and chest CT results I was like, Eh, no big deal. My wife, however, worried enough for the both of us.
I thought I’d ride the trail to confirm that, yes, I was okay. I was still the guy who thrived on difficult physical challenges, something I’ve been doing since junior high cross-country. I enjoy the pain, the pushing of one’s body and mind to a breaking point, and past. Mountain biking hurts, it scares me, it makes me feel alive. And Colorado is a most gorgeous landscape in which to perform these experiments.
The road loomed in the distance, tantalizing, entrancing, promising a downhill cruise into Silverton and a night of sleep in a real bed. And cold beer! And pizza! And a chance to take a shower—my first in a week. And an opportunity to restock my food cache.
I rolled over a few more ridges and then the road quickly rose to meet the descending trail, and I was out. Done. Finished with the single-track. No more hike-a-bike. No more stressing about food or water. I’d been walking my bike for most of the last two days, unrideable climb after unrideable climb, most of it above treeline, around 12,000 feet in altitude. A sun shower began to fall, lighting the peaks around me in a silvery glow. I turned my bike left, pointed the front wheel downhill, and away I went. The trail wasn’t as rocky as the guidebooks had promised, but I was glad and thought nothing of it. I flew downhill, singing John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” at top volume, perhaps slightly off key. The feeling was pure bliss, endorphin high, relief. Again, I might have teared up just a bit.
Then, a river crossing appeared. I didn’t remember the guidebook saying anything about a river. My phone was dead, so I couldn’t check my GPS app. Had I missed a turn somewhere? I dismounted and stomped through the stream, soaking my feet. I was so loopy and stupefied from the last two days of effort, I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t made it to Silverton already. Oh, Silverton, why hast thou forsaken me?
I reached a road junction, and a guy in a Jeep pulled up. I waved to him and he stopped. “Hey, do you know which way leads to Silverton?”
“It’s that way. Up and over the pass,” he said, pointing up the road I’d just bombed down.
Right then I remembered: When the trail reaches the road you’re supposed to turn right, uphill, for about two-tenths of a mile, and then you cruise downhill into Silverton. I recalled the passage in the guidebook, which I’d read about a hundred times over the past few days, huddled in my tent in the dusk light before falling asleep, grubby and bone tired.
Oh no. No, no no.
“I went the wrong way,” I said. “Oh crud. I can’t ride back up that.” I bent over and put my hands on my knees as if I might puke.
And then the thing that often happens out on the trail, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and in dire straits, when you’re about to give up: a fellow human saves your dumb ass.
“I’m going that way, I can take you,” the Jeep dude said.
When he said that, I cried again. But just a little bit. On the inside.
His name was Jake and he drove a super-cool tricked-out new Jeep with pillowy tires and a rack on top, where he stowed my bike. He carted me over the pass and into Silverton. I promptly procured a room at the funky and friendly Avon Hotel. I took a long shower, went out for dinner, ate an entire pizza, drank two beers, and collapsed into a soft, clean bed.
The next morning, I woke up in Silverton and didn’t want to get out of bed. When I finally did, the mere act of walking hurt, and when I thought of the remaining 80 miles and 13,000 feet of climbing, I crawled back into bed. And when I thought of my lovely wife and two amazing teenage daughters and our cute little house, and yes, even our weird dog who digs random holes all over the back yard, I was overwhelmed by homesickness. It was then I really cried. I mean I wept. It was a mixture of happiness and loneliness and relief and amazement and a bunch of other emotions. Right then I decided that my adventure was over. Durango could wait until next summer.
My week on the Trail confirmed many truths—truths one can only learn while in high mountains. There’s beauty that is unspeakably profound, beauty not many will ever see in person, beauty I’ll not soon forget. Often, the most difficult efforts are the most worthy, but while you’re in it, it’s misery. Pushing my bike up a steep, loose slope, storms raging all around, my breath ragged, my energy reserves on empty, I was definitely miserable. But when I’d gotten somewhere—I couldn’t have been happier. In eight days, I’d traveled over 200 miles. I’d made some enduring memories. I’d confirmed that I was, in fact, okay—even though I’d gone the wrong way, even though I’d sometimes walked when I could have ridden my bike, even though I’d decided I was done.
I made some calls and procured a rental car back to Denver. The drive home, with the windows down and stereo cranked up loud, definitely felt like a step in the right direction. And yes, I cried.
Michael Henry is an avid mountain biker, writer and executive director at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Thornton, Colorado.