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By Reid Wright

Approaching Indian Ridge, I ran out of water.

It’s a dry August in the Rockies and I hadn’t come across a clean stream all day.

With a 30 pound bike and 30 pounds of gear on, I chug in slow, jerky pedal strokes up the rocky staircase into the roiling sky — my lungs gasping for thin air.

Thunder rumbles and gray curtains of rain creep up the valley. I am but a dot on the naked ridge line, where there is no shelter from the lightning.

Electricity crackles in the air, and the scree stones shift under my tires like shards of broken pottery.

The first step to surviving the Colorado Trail is to realize that you really can die out here. The second step is to find something to live for.

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A year ago, I had flamed out of a promising newspaper career. I took a job as a cook at a sushi restaurant for $10 an hour. My relationship with my girlfriend is on the rocks. She says I have no passion in life.

I’m no athlete, just a weekend warrior. I finished eighth in my class at the home-town mountain bike race.

Nor can I afford gear designed for this trip. I have a heavy full suspension mountain bike, a backpacking pack with no saddlebags, and a 10-year-old sleeping bag with a broken zipper and hole burned in it.

At 72 miles long, with more than 10,000 vertical feet of climbing, the lower Colorado Trail between Molas Pass and Durango is epic — but not insurmountable. Some can do the stretch in a single day, where as I am overnighting. Just weeks prior, Jefe Branham had taken the trail more than 500 miles to Denver in just over four days and four hours in the annual Colorado Trail Race.

But to me, this ride is my Tour De France, my polar expedition, my Everest — the ride of a lifetime.

Against all advice, I ride alone. Among my friends and family, it’s hard enough to find to find someone to drive me to the trailhead, let alone someone crazy enough to come along. I am thankful for the solitude. Like so many, I am drawn into the wildness outside seeking answers to what lies within. It’s not about proving myself, it’s about finding myself.

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I start out on a sunny Saturday morning from Little Molas Lake across a mountain slope of purple flowers and yellowing weeds with angry grasshoppers snapping their wings as they float past.

At first, it isn’t as much of a solitary experience as I’d hoped. Joggers plod by and a burley mountain biker catches up to me I rest and asks me why I don’t have saddle bags.

One jogger halts with a warning, “About a mile, mile-and-a-half up the trail there’s a wasp or hornet’s nest,” she said. “I got stung four or five times. It felt like I was being shot by a BB or pellet gun.”

You never know what the Colorado Trail is going to throw at you.

Cranking harder until the wind sings in my ears, I don’t get stung.

Just a few miles from the trailhead, other users dwindle, and I am on my own.

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High above tree line into the boulder fields of a barren mountain basin I climb, experiencing a new sense of freedom.

That feeling is quickly overcome by fear as storm clouds darken the sky. I had never ridden this section of trail before, and every rise I think is the top of the pass turns out to be just another step higher.

Pushing my bike up one such rocky ledge, I think I hear thunder. It is another rider catching up and pushing over rocks. He said his name is Garen, and has his camping gear stashed at the halfway point along with some beer and tequila if I’d like to join him later.

I felt the heavy pack on my shoulders wearing a sore into my back. Why the hell hadn’t I thought of that?

Garen passed me and I caught up with him again where he had stopped at the top of Rolling Pass. Not wanting to risk being exposed in a storm to stop for a view, I roll on over the pass without stopping, burning up my brakes as I snake down through the switchbacks into the alpine valley below.

After a quick lunch of beef jerky and Clif bars, I reach the headwaters of Cascade Creek — a postcard beautiful mountain bowl with lush vegetation and waterfalls. No photo can do justice to how beautiful and how terrifying the Colorado Trail is. Only those who have been there understand.

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I fill up my water reservoir from a slight trickle of seeping from the mountainside. A bit of an experiment, I use Grapeseed extract (GSE) to sterilize it. It seems a blaspheme to add a bitter flavor to such pure mountain water, but at least I wont get sick from it. Some time after, I take the top compartment off my pack, and zip tie it to my handlebars to better balance the load. Wish I would have thought of that sooner.

It’s slow climb on to White Creek and Bolam Pass. Never am I so relieved to see the familiar Lizard Head peak. The sight lifts my spirits and sends me swooping down the meadow to Celebration Lake.

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After Bolam, the trail is carved less than a foot wide into a steep slope soaring high above the valley floor. If your eyes wander over the edge, your tires will soon follow and sending you tumbling endlessly down the mountainside.

I tell myself to look forward, not down. Look forward, not down. It becomes the mantra for riding and for life: focus on success, not failure. If you focus on failure, you’ll find yourself subconsciously steering your life toward disaster.

The North side of Blackhawk Pass is lush, green, streaked with cascading creeks and glacial boulders through which the trail switchbacks to the dizzying hight of 12,000 feet. On the way up, I find a mossy spring dripping from a boulder and fill up my water reservoir for the last time.
I reach the top of the pass, which towers over the Dolores River Valley and the small mountain town of Rico, Colorado. I’d ridden Blackhawk before and always stopped at the top for e-mails and text messages. This time, I can’t get a signal.

I reposition and try again. No signal. The battery is low, so I go to hook up my backup battery. I pull out the connecting cable only to realize it’s the wrong one.
I can’t charge my phone, or find any signal to let loved ones know I’m alright.

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Counterintuitively, I become more worried about their concern for me, than I am about myself.

I power down the phone, strap on my pack and bomb haphazardly down the south side of Blackhawk, my tires thundering across boulders and mossy logs in the fading daylight.

On the ridge above Scotch Creek, I am finally able to get a single bar of signal on my phone. Wary of my dwindling battery, I punch in a quick text message to my girlfriend: “Scotch Creek. Phone is dying. I love you. See you tomorrow evening.” After deciding the message is a bit grim, I add, “And GSE tastes terrible.”

After a failed attempt at riding in the dark with only a headlamp, I push my bike off the trail and roll out my sleeping bag on a cheap tarp — using a mossy log to keep me from rolling down the hillside. After a dinner of cold beans from a can, I’m too tired to stow my pack up in a tree where the animals can’t get to it. So I just throw it on top of a log fifty yards from where I will sleep. Earlier that day, I had seen a freshly scarred log where a bear — or something — had sharpened it’s claws.

Sleep comes heavy and dreamlessly under towering pine trees silhouetted against a night sky. At dawn, it’s too cold to ride, so I go back to sleep and set out when the sun climbs higher in the sky.

With a new day comes new hope. After popping an aspirin for muscle aches and rubbing lotion on my saddle sores, I roll out easily on the soft dirt down one of the smoothest sections of trail. Convinced I’m making good time, I stop to power up the phone and send out a message letting everyone know — only half joking —  that I am still alive.

Where the trail crosses Roaring Forks Road, I pass a group of overweight tourists in jackets climbing off their ATV’s. I shake my head and ride back into the wilderness —toward the La Plata Mountains, where scattered afternoon showers sprinkle, then retreat. The sun emerges and summons steam from the forest floor. It is peaceful here, with only the occasional duo of backpackers. This is the experience I imagined when planning this trip.

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Even with the rain, I cannot find a source of fresh water. My concern only grows as I climb back above tree line to Indian Ridge — an ugly jagged crag of rock that cuts into the sky.

At the top, the thunder begins to rumble. I had seen photographs of people split open by lightning on mountain peaks. The terrain is unforgiving, and  progress is slow. I have to dismount and push my bike over shifting rocks.

Lurching by a pair of backpackers, I am too proud to ask for water. So I drink from a puddle. A dot on the horizon grows into a passing V22 Osprey military aircraft. I stick out my hitchhiker’s thumb, but the pilot pays no heed.

In this moment, what matters to me is water, shelter and every single molecule of oxygen in my lungs. All the things I used to bitch about — a strong-willed girlfriend, dirty dishes, a low-wage job — I suddenly miss like I’ll never see them again. This is the draw of the wilderness — a reminder of what really matters.
Slowly, steadily, I push forward.

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Beams of sunlight cut through the clouds, illuminating stoic stone peaks, mirror lakes and the yellow-green slopes of a mountain basin below. The sound of howling wind and my own heavy breathing ring in my ears.

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Finally, I reach a rock outcropping overlooking Taylor Lake, Cumberland Basin and the familiar Kennebec Pass. I mount up and skid down the winding trail to the four wheel drive road, where I encounter an older couple with a pickup and ask them for water. They give me a plastic bottle of melting ice. I could not have been more grateful. Humility is nature’s greatest lesson.

Immediately after, I encounter my first clean stream of the day.

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The descent down into Fassbinder Gulch is winding, fast and surreal. With red dirt, lush vegetation and enormous trees, it feels like mountain biking through a fairy tale. I pass a backpacking couple washing in the stream. The woman is topless.

The trail climbs again, up steep winding switchbacks. I won’t remember much of this stretch. Only the haunting feeling that I would not make it in time. Over each rise, around each bend, I expect to come across the familiar High Point — the furthest up the trail from the other end I had previously been.

At long last, I pump slowly around a bend to find the High Point overlook. I eat my last Clif bar, and send a final text message to my girlfriend telling her I am almost home.

The ride down to Durango is fast and euphoric. I allow myself a few jumps and rear-wheel skids — careful not to blow a tube after traveling so far without a single flat or mechanical problem.

I imagine my girlfriend and family gathering at the finish line to cheer for me. But when I get to the Junction Creek Trailhead, there are no familiar faces to share my triumph. So I ask a stranger to take my photo, and ride the paved road into town as the sun sets over the vanquished mountain peaks behind.

It isn’t just the mountains I conquer on that trip, it is my fears, my doubts, my ego and my false priorities. I came home that night a changed man, to a world that is still the same.

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