Green Trails, Greenways, and an Ecosystem of Trails
It’s summer and, for many of us, that means loading the bikes on the back of the car and heading off on a road trip, to explore the vast network of trail systems that have proliferated through the efforts of trail organizations and Local IMBA Chapters. Singletrack now abounds, but it wasn’t always that way.
Forty years ago, a seismic shift occurred in the cycling world as the klunker-era came to a close and the first mass-produced mountain bikes came on the scene. There was an initial brief debate over what to call the new bikes as the klunker crowd saw no reason to change while others advocated for “all terrain bikes,” but quickly they became known as mountain bikes and no one looked back.
In the fall of 1981, when Specialized launched their “bike for all reasons,” I plunked down $750 and bought a Stumpumper, sight unseen at Gunnison, Colorado’s now historic bike shop, The Tune Up. I still have it, serial number 79. The idea of loving an inanimate object is probably psychologically questionable but I was obsessed with that bike.
I was never a racer but as with everyone else, klunkers, and now mountain bikes, provided a means to explore. In 1981, most of my riding was at Gunnison’s Hartman Rocks and the Elk Mountains around Crested Butte, Colorado, a jewel-like mountain town nestled at 8,900 ft. Certainly I was inspired by local legends and mountain bike hall of famers, Don and Steve Cook. When I’d hear they had ridden over high mountain passes to Aspen for lunch or Marble for breakfast I would follow suit the next week. It didn’t matter what kind of athlete you were, if you pushed, pulled, carried and rode those incredibly heavy, primitive klunkers above timberline you became the fittest you likely would ever be. Ultimately, a mountain bike changed my life and continues to shape it, though now it’s a dual suspension carbon fiber 29er.
So, in March of 1982, with snows still blanketing the high country, we headed to Moab, Utah for spring break to ride like we had the previous year. Popular Slick Rock trail wasn’t a thing yet so we headed to the familiarity of Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District and onto the back country jeep roads over Elephant Hill. You didn’t need a permit and the backcountry campground was empty. As with most of this tale, it was a “back in the day” time when there were just so few of us.
Changing Seasons in the Valley
That spring I rode Gunnison’s Hartman Rocks (now part of Gunnison Trail’s world-class trail system) and anything dirt that allowed us to explore. Some buddies joined me on weekends and after work. We might ride to the top of "W" Mountain and look out at the sea of sage and see distant fence lines and trails and bushwhack to them and find out where they went. Sometimes my wife, Kate, joined me and we would ride west out of town to McCabe’s Lane or north up Lost Canyon Road and into the forests or even over Ohio Pass to Crested Butte. Truthfully, you ran into nobody.
Through the 80's, Kate was the head baker at The Bakery Cafe on Crested Butte’s Elk Avenue. I had the summer off in '82. I would often ride with her up valley in our old Volvo so she could be at work by 5 a.m., drink strong black coffee and eat flaky croissants until it was light enough to head out. The Bakery Cafe was thronged by tourists and locals. I particularly loved Kate’s Mountain Munchie cookie.
I had friends over the mountains in Carbondale, down valley from Aspen, which allowed me to ride jeep roads over Taylor Pass (11,948 ft) or Pearl Pass (12,723 ft), spend the night and come back over Schofield Pass (10,705 ft). Generally though, I would do day rides and just had to be back at the bakery when Katy got off of work. Virtually all my rides at that end of the valley began and ended in downtown Crested Butte, no one shuttled to some trailhead. So, I did a lot of day rides to the top of Pearl, East Maroon Pass (11,901 ft), or Triangle Pass (12,900 ft) or to something closer like Green Lake. Sometimes I rode with people, usually alone, as long as I was back at the bakery when my wife got off of work around 2-3 p.m.
There was something magical about climbing up the ski area hill at dawn in the cool mountain air. Magnificent doesn’t quite describe riding the high lonesome, where the sheer silence was only broken by the cry of a hawk, the rustling wind, the gurgle of a creek or the whistle of a marmot.
Down valley in Gunnison lay our home and what I passionately beIieved was an undiscovered mountain biking gem in its own right, Hartman Rocks. I finally persuaded friend, riding partner and editor of the Crested Butte Chronicle, Paul Andersen, along with some other Crested Buttians to ride the big open southwest of town. I led them to the little hill above what is now a trail called Dave Moe’s and we dropped into the Enchanted Forest descending all the way to an abandoned cabin at the old ghost town, Aberdeen, on South Beaver Creek. Paul wrote an enthusiastic article for the Chronicle extolling it as riding venue and it became the first published piece promoting Hartman’s as a destination in its own right.
It was an incredibly fun summer, and quite the staycation, but I wanted to take the bike beyond the valley. Today, we’re all feeling the sting of gas prices but back then inflation roared as well and gas had risen to $1.28 a gallon. I had talked about a "road to ruins” roadtrip with my brother, Ken. So we headed toward the Colorado Plateau and planned to visit and hopefully ride as many Ancient Puebloan ruins as possible.
Summer Road to Ruins Roadtrip
It was pretty astonishing. Mesa Verde was essentially hermetically sealed for trail riding and we ended up on picturesque pavement. At Canyon de Chelly they were glad to let us ride, if we could find a Navajo guide, with a mountain bike. The park ranger almost said it with a straight face. We ended up riding some beautiful pavement along the canyon rim as the sun set.
It was a different story in New Mexico at Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. We directly asked the Chaco Park superintendent if we could ride the trails around the ruins and into the backcountry. He looked astonished and invited us to ride anywhere. When we leaned our bikes against Pueblo Bonito no one shooed us away. We rode past the Supernova pictograph and out to a remote site, Peñasco Blanco. There was a fresh prayer stick in a collapsed kiva.
Hovenweep National Monument saw few visitors back then. One ranger manned a lonely little building and he looked thrilled to see a human face. He was enthusiastic to let us ride wherever we wanted. It's a small area known for stone towers and castle-like ruins. The trails were smooth, the sky was blue and the air was hot.
Our final stop took us to Utah’s Cedar Mesa where we dropped into Kane Gulch, part of Grand Gulch Primitive Area, and rode down to Turkey Pen ruin. At that time it was an extraordinarily intact archaeological site; ancient corn cobs and pot sherds littered the ground. A ranger at the Kane Gulch Ranger station recently told me that in the early 80’s, 100 people a month visited the area; now 100 a day are showing up.
Coasting Though the East Coast
A few weeks later I took another road trip with the Stumpjumper to visit family in Washington, D.C. and my childhood home in the suburbs of Boston. In Shenandoah National Park, I asked the ranger if it was okay to ride my mountain bike. He looked at me quizzically and said there were no restrictions on bikes in the park. Hawksbill Peak and a little segment of the Appalachian Trail were also part of my trip. There were some amazing vistas but it wasn’t super rideable. I also wasn’t popular. I encountered some thru-hikers and one muttered, “I walk all the way from Georgia and this guy rides up on a bike?”
Washington, DC was like a foreign land after that long and winding road across rural America. People pointed at me on the street and as I rolled across the National Mall.
My sister, Linda, joined me and we drove to our parent’s home in the Boston suburbs. It felt surreal to ride the Stumpjumper on trails through some of my childhood haunts; everything seemed closer and smaller, like you’ve been to Mordor and now you’ve returned to the shire. Verdant green and forested trails in places like Medfield’s Rocky Woods, Westwood’s Hale Reservation and Dover felt deserted and shrine-like. I love those woods but it was time to go home to Colorado.
Lessons Learned and Pedaling Forward
It wasn’t all fun. Beyond bonking, there was always the possibility of what I called desperation cycling; when you went just a bit too far, bit off more than you could chew. That time when I descended for an hour only to realize the trail ended and I was lost and that I had to retrace my route back up to that distant ridge. When I rode Pearl and Taylor back to back and then hit 14 miles of such severe washboard across Taylor Park that it slowed me to a crawl, rattled every bone in my body and had me whimpering when I got to the trading post. That descent on even more washboard, crawling down Cottonwood Pass on a moonless night in pitch darkness where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Times when I would have cried if it would help. But you persevere and learn something about your limits, and maybe it would be a good idea to have better maps and lights.
So how epic was 1982? Off the charts.
However, that world is gone. Is there less unfettered access? Of course. But the truth is, thanks to groups like IMBA, there are more trails and riding opportunities than ever. The equipment is light years beyond those early bikes, designed and built by those pioneers of the sport to whom we owe so much. More people than ever are riding and many from back in the day still are.
How lucky we are…and were. I hope to see you on the trail.