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Hooray for Ouray: the best day of the year

From issue 84 • Words/images by Jered Gruber

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The winter is also a time when I go back and attempt to catch up on a few of the hundreds of thousands of pictures we take each year. One of these—a day we spent in Ouray, Colorado—happens to get my attention, and I find myself thinking back to a day that I haven’t really thought about all that much. It came…it was amazing…it went…I moved on. The zombie memory-eater gobbled everything up.

But when I go back to those images with the thought of remembering what actually happened to me each day in 2018, that Sunday, August 26 snaps into vivid detail. Turns out, the “nothingness” hadn’t gotten everything. It has barely nibbled anything at all.

So when I edit those pictures and take the time to remember that day in Ouray when Jonathan and I joined Stephen, Nik and Mike from Rodeo Labs for a very short (distance), very long (time), extremely difficult (double black diamond!) lap of the old mining labs just south of Ouray, I don’t think too much about my bike. I don’t think too much about the location either. Instead, my top 10 is punctuated by my people.

Here’s my list of the things I remember from that day—six months on.

1: McGriddles

The day starts before dawn in the Western Slope city of Grand Junction, Colorado, at our friends’ house; nay, our chosen family’s house, Jonathan and Mandy. Jonathan and I get up, then pack our stuff into his beloved old Tacoma—it’s called Trucky.

Grand Junction isn’t really all that close to anything, but it’s peculiarly close to everything. It’s a geographic oddity. Ouray, for example, is only 90 minutes away. And if you look on the map, Ouray isn’t close to anything either—except GJ.

We stop on the way to Ouray…at a McDonald’s.

I’ll probably lose some people here, but Jonathan is an evangelist for the McGriddle. Much as it pains me to admit, he’s a perfectly built human being. He’s the polar opposite of the slight figures of Ryan and myself. Jonathan’s a large, broad, lean, square-jawed, corn-fed Iowa farm boy who manages to acquire a tan from something as impossible as a normal incandescent light bulb. He has a doctorate in evolutionary biology. He also enjoys a childlike glee in reaching for foods that make him happy: neon-colored fluids from pretty much any energy drink company, gas station hot dogs, you name it, but especially McGriddles.

He looks over at me with a serious face, his black flat bill nearly invisible in the early-morning darkness, save for the white letters “FILTH” on the front. He begins his sermon: “Some of us like intense and complex sensations—light and dark, highs and lows, good and evil, pleasure and pain, sweet and salty.”

My mouth slowly drops.

“Some of us are stimulated by variety, and we don’t like to choose just pancakes or bacon and eggs. So we go to McDonald’s and get the fkn bacon-egg-and-cheese McGriddle, because it has pancakes with syrup infused into the fkn bun.”

Jaw settles gently into my lap.

He finishes with a flourish, the dirt-bag flourish: “Also, you can often get them ‘buy one, get one free’ in the app.”

So we stop, order two apiece, and savor this culinary invention as the sun rises over the low-slung mountains
near Ridgway.

First memory of the day: triumphant. One of my all-time favorites. Still no bikes.

2: Ouray

We arrive in the deep box canyon that Ouray sits in well before the warming sunlight reaches it. The mining-era richness of the town remains, but the mining is gone. In its place is what looks like a Wild West film set, except with cool, jacked-up motorized contraptions rolling slowly through town: Jeeps, RZRs, dirt bikes—all the things we’ll later come to look over at with lusty eyes as we creep, creep upward into the oxygen-free heavens somewhere around 12,000 feet above sea level.

We roll up to the aging brown hotel that does not belong in this Wild West film set and where Stephen, Nik and Mike are staying. We have that curious feeling that we’re walking right back into a conversation we left behind a year ago—in the same place! You know that fantastic feeling where it takes all of a “hi” and a “hug” to slide right back into the absolute comfort of a chat with good friends? I love that. I think it’s one of my favorite feelings.

Another winner! Still no bikes. I swear, there are bikes in this story.

3: Rest

“This route is moderately difficult to drive, because some sections of the road are rough, steep, and narrow.” I remember nodding earnestly, as I undertook my “research” for this ride when I read that sentence in my much-loved tome (what a word!): “Colorado Trails: Southwest Region. Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails.” I only saw the “moderately difficult” part—selective reading perhaps? I didn’t pair the moderately difficult with the word “drive.” I only wanted confirmation that this was in fact a great idea, and the moderately difficult description was just what I was looking for. Not too hard, not too easy, just right—for a 4×4 Jeep!

Of course, Jeeps and dirt bikes are way better at climbing than I am. I think about this at length while moving uphill at about the pace of a three-legged armadillo.

Fast forward from the cramped comfort and humid air of a hotel room full of humans, bikes and all the paraphernalia that go with a big day in the mountains, and we turn off of old Otto Mears’ still-very-quiet Million Dollar Highway that connects Ouray to Silverton. The Million Dollar Highway originally connected Ouray to Ironton. No one has heard of Ironton though. It doesn’t really exist anymore. Wikipedia notes that it was a town. For us, it’s a small, unmarked turn with a bridge over a fluorescent-orange stream spiced with sulphuric acid that miners managed to exhume in one of their deeper slashes into the mountains of the area.

The first climb of the day is up Corkscrew Gulch. The climb is difficult. We’re already around 10,000 feet above sea level, and this climb is tipping the scales at 25 percent in parts. A 25-percent grade is hard at sea level, in case anyone has forgotten. I must have, because it’s a shock to my cardiovascular system when that first one bites hard in that beautiful little aspen grove at the bottom—that is to say, approximately seven seconds after turning off the main road.

The miners who built this road, hard-ass dudes back when maximal human hardness was likely attained, weren’t too concerned with making roads pleasant to climb for the future generations that would replace their struggles with recreation—especially bicycle riders. I don’t know if it’s possible to stress that enough.

They did, however, recognize that washed-out roads were bad for business, so they built in these sweet little pauses in the road that seems to climb directly up the mountainside. I think these might commonly be known as drainage things. One minute of stem-nibbling at 4 mph, three seconds of sweet, sweet coasting at approximately 1.5 mph. One minute of stem-nibbling at 4 mph, three seconds of sweet, sweet rest. If one could see a video of this process of our little band of four making our slow, slow way up Corkscrew Gulch, it would literally be the exact opposite of some kind of super-cool Red Bull Media-produced video.

I’ll never forget the deep-seated appreciation for these moments of respite. These are hard-fought, treasured moments in which to shake my head in disbelief at the last thing we just managed to make it up.

There, see? I told you there were bikes in this story.

4: The Red

Until this August morning, I’d not seen Red Mountain 1, nor Red Mountain 2 or Red Mountain 3. I did, however, smirk at the hilariously poor naming of the area around Ouray. There are some great names in the Colorado high country: Imogene, Mosquito, Tincup, American, Sneffels, Corkscrew, Hurricane…on and on and on. But Red? Come on. Someone must have been recovering from a doozy of a hangover to have sucked that bad at naming three mountains!

Turns out, Red is the only name for that little area. The mountains are, in fact, red. Exceptionally red, courtesy of the iron ore that covers the surface of these peaks.

I remember a particular moment when I realize that I can put the above-tree-line “moonscape” cliché away for the day. We have indeed landed on Mars….

5: Beating Jonathan (by three pedal strokes)

As I mentioned before, or maybe I didn’t, but I feel like I’ve said it without saying, which means I’ll really drive it home now: the riding around Ouray is easily described in two words: stupendously difficult. Riding—and that’s a loose term—along the upper reaches of most of the climbs peaks out between 12,000 and 13,000 feet, and the road surface looks like the remains of a titanic hailstorm comprised of football-sized rocks. Forward progress is a mixture of pedaling, stopping, walking, pedaling a little more, stopping, walking, gasping…. It sounds pretty fun, but I promise, in real life, it’s not nearly that easy.

With this rhythm in mind, one-upping your companions comes down to the weirdest little milestones. On the way up Corkscrew Gulch, I realize that wherever Jonathan stops, I zero in on that spot, then pound out approximately three more pedal strokes (at this point, it’s probably closer to doing some super-sick squats in the weight room, complete with my lifting shoes); and, in doing so, I pedal up to the precipice of unconsciousness. I put a foot down, reach for my camera (because that’s the only reason I stop, of course) and commence with the “pitcher taking.” I’m not sure I can call these instances photography, because most of the time my eyepiece is fogged from sweat off of my back; sweat is blinding me and I’m heaving like the Andrea Gail in “Perfect Storm.” We need an appropriate phrase for my piss-poor biathlon skills. It’s called pitcher taking.

But, yes, I’ll take that little check mark in the “win” column now, thank you, because I go 3 feet farther than he does that one time on that one little pitch back around that other corner down there somewhere.

I am not too proud to take petty victories over Jonathan…or anyone else for that matter.

6: Ryan!

After much debilitating struggle rivaled only by the fun I’m having (I’m actually not kidding!), I chase on after taking some pictures (read: I find a shot I like, and hold the shutter button down for an inordinately long amount of time, of which I later want to punch myself for when I finally get around to editing these images).

I round the corner and our little group has surrounded two moto riders. It’s Ryan and his dad. It’s Ryan! Ryan and Jonathan and Mandy and Thomas and Ian are our self-selected family.

There are more, but I won’t burden you with a comprehensive list. That’s my escape clause, so no one can get mad at me, which is what self-selected family, like normal family, is wont to do. For better or worse, we’ve managed to come together in the oddest and most powerful of ways, and we’re now stuck together.

I love seeing my friends. I love seeing our self-selected misfit family even more. The joy I feel upon first seeing them is always a highlight of any day, but when that sighting is a surprise and in the middle of nowhere and in a completely hypoxic state—it’s euphoric.

I wish my words could do justice to the feeling of absolute happiness in this moment. I wish I had the vocabulary, the ability to convey, the chance to tap into your brain and let you feel that rush of love and happiness in this moment.

I think that’s my favorite moment of the day, one of my favorites of the whole year. If you ask me in 50 years what I will remember from this ride, I think it will be this one moment. That said, 50 years is a long time.

7: The Mountains

I’m going to do some non-joking writing for half a second now.

The prospectors came in the 19th century. They pushed out the Ute tribe, slowly at first, then firmly, then completely. They came in search of riches and success, bolstered by their “manifest destiny,” their so-called God-given right to find fortune in the vastness of the American West.

They struggled. They toiled. A few found glittering reward in these harsh mountains. Some found their end. Most toiled…and struggled. They labored on the slopes of these giants. Like little ants enduring their eternal Sisyphean punishments at the altar of unimaginable wealth, hidden somewhere just beneath the surface.

They performed surgery on a grand scale, opening up the mountains in search of their rich tumors, removing them for their own health and leaving the mountains with everlasting scars. Only the vanity of man would allow anyone to believe that they were ever on a level with the mountains. The mountains have dutifully removed most traces of their former presence.

Some residue remains of the hundreds of mines that dotted the region. The roads remain in some variety of a passable state. Now, recreational vehicles make these gigantic climbs almost look easy—and then the odd moto doesn’t make it, or the brakes fail on another.

We go by bike. It’s palpably obvious that this is not the prudent choice. RZRs cruise with card-carrying AARP members chilling with beers in hand, miniature poodle on the lap, while we pry one pedal stroke from the ground, then another and another. Power, traction and respiratory action all vie to achieve absolute max at any given moment. And when the prying doesn’t work anymore, we plod by foot.

The bike is a silly form of transportation here, but it’s one I feel is appropriate, one where the struggle to gain the top is actually up for debate at times, and one wonders why in the world are we doing this. These mountains deserve this don’t they? They’ve always been an imposing presence—something to be admired, respected, feared. Not something to be stormed up while drinking a beer.

Also, it’s just what my “weird friend” circle does. Maybe there’s not much more to it than that—the mountains are big and beautiful, and it’s fun to do something exceptional, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to the normal world. Also, despite all of the struggle, it’s a lot of fun. I spend most of the day laughing and talking, which also might explain my difficulty breathing.

8: Pictures

Sometimes, I don’t take many pictures. It stresses me out when I realize it. I think that I’m being lazy, or that I just suck at taking pictures, or I’m not seeing the shots. It’s amazing how effective negative self-talk can be in convincing myself that I am indeed a janitor waiting to happen.

But then the special days hit and I can’t stop taking pictures. Thousands upon thousands of pictures. Every five seconds. Repeats. Begging for someone to do that impossible part one more time. Pleeeeease…just one time? I’ll buy you all the beer you can drink!

In those times, I’m not really aware if I’m taking any kind of good pictures per se, but I am obsessed with the mission of putting all of this amazing stuff into my little black box. Over and over again. All day long. I love it. It’s a compulsion. It’s what I love to do. I live for these days when I can’t stop taking pictures. I feel alive, almost high in those moments. This is one of those days.

9: The Come Apart

It always happens up here. At some point about an hour and a half into the ride, I feel like I’m a car in neutral. Gas pedal fully pressed. All the effort, all the noise, all the promise of movement—but no actual forward progress whatsoever.

I’ve been reading a book on mountain running in the U.K. It’s called fell running there, and it’s about as logical as riding gravel bikes on Mars. It’s generally a fascinating book and one that most bike riders could find oddly alluring—a different flavor of ice cream to get excited about. If riding a bike in these mountains is Rocky Road then mountain running is Candy Bar…or something like that.

There’s one thing that stands out to me though as offensive, something I think about often, because I always seem to be at the whim of the mountains, a victim just waiting to happen. A quote from the book: “For the one immutable run when men and mountains meet is this: that either man or mountain must be in charge. They cannot both be master.”

I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt like I’ve been in charge of a mountain. If I’ve ever deigned to occupy that seductive thought, I think I’ve been slam-dunked back to reality with the force of something big against something small. Master of the mountain, GTFO. We’re about as much of a master of the mountains as an astronaut is a master of space, or a hen in a stadium of foxes.

Falling to pieces is a humbling experience anywhere, any time, but at super-high altitude it’s like watching a glass break in Super SlowMo. It juuuuuust neeeeever ennnnnds.

This I will also remember. It isn’t my favorite moment of the day, but it’s fun to share it with the band. Three out of the four of us are in at least semi-limp mode. Of course, Jonathan takes strength in our deteriorating conditions. Because he’s a high-altitude vampire.

That’s a real thought I have in a sucky moment. I look over at him and his easy pedaling, smiling away like we are noodling down to the coffee shop for a macchiato. It’s clear that my life force is being sucked out of me either by a lot of physical activity in a very difficult environment—or it’s him. It’s obviously him. Somehow.

10: Super Donkey

This is the only time I’ll talk about equipment, and it’s only because I get to sit on Super Donkey. It’s debatable whether gravel bikes make a ton of sense around Ouray, but to my little group of friends, it makes about as much sense as peanut butter and jelly. And that’s all I really want to say about that for the moment—ride what makes you feel good, and the Donkey makes me feel good. Even in the roughest moments, I feel happy, comfortable, solid on a Donkey. I assume I’d feel good on other gravel bikes too, but I’ve never ridden them, so I can only speak for the humble Donkey.

One stat to explain my feelings: I’ve spent approximately 10,000 hours in a road-like position. I’ve spent approximately 50 on a mountain bike. You tell me what I’m going to pick to go ride up some old roads—even if they’re the bumpiest thing since, well, the word bumpy was invented.

Plus, who said any of this was supposed to make sense? We ride bikes. The very idea of that makes no sense at all. So if we decide to willingly subject ourselves to a bike that closely resembles a 1985 mountain bike, just remember: We wear tight-fitting clothes and alien sunglasses and weird little mushroom protective devices on our heads and clip-clop-clip-clop around in gas stations like some dang aliens landing in the middle of a county fair on the Fourth of July. Don’t forget: The rest of the world thinks we’re absolutely insane, and there’s no need to heap disbelief on your fellow bike riders who have selected to pursue a form of bike riding that is slightly different than normal.

I say that to say this (Warning! Bike dork red alert!): At some point during the vile descent down to Ouray, Stephen hands me his new Super Donkey. Super Donkey has 2.1-inch mountain bike tires and a sweet RedShift suspension stem. It turns a stubborn, kicking ass into a docile, friendly donkey. It’s glorious. My 2019 will include this.

11: Pavement

If you ever want to appreciate run-of-the-mill pavement, just go take a bike off-road for a good long while. Return to pavement about an hour after you think you can’t stand it anymore. Exalt in the ecstasy of simple pavement. Take away basic comfort, replace with distinct discomfort, return basic comfort: Voilà, happiness. Expectation management at its finest.

12: Magic Beers

Right as we finish, Jonathan disappears for about five minutes. He returns with sweet calories of some variety, as well as beer. He gives me one. He returns my life-blood. I forgive him for borrowing it. I love him.

13: The Drive Home (13! Yeah!)

I don’t remember much. I remember being happy though. Really happy. And content. I know that’s a thing. Sometimes, my memories don’t have a dialogue or a real point, but the feeling makes it through.

So that’s it. That’s the day: August 18, 2018.

Remembering every day doesn’t have to be an exercise in serious self-reflection. Self-reflection and mindfulness still give me the heebie-jeebies when I say them. They sound so earnest and serious. That’s not me. I’m not serious. I hate it when my writing gets all staid and somber and yucky like that. I don’t behave like that under normal conditions. I don’t talk like that. Why in the world should I write like that? Why should my memories be written in long-face talk?

No. I’m a goofy, giggling, non-stop-talking, foot-in-my-mouth kind of guy, so when I remember this day, it will be just that way. I hope. Who knows what’s going to be edited out of this?

From issue 84, buy it here.