/* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
	font-family:"Times New Roman","serif";}     A sign at the trailing edge of town announces "West Elk Mountain Loop," an extension of Colorado Highway 50.   So begins my ascent of the mountain's southern face.  70 miles of surprises before I exit at the loop's easternmost point.  The next sign states "Good Scenery Careful Driving."  Time to assess attitude.  Reflexes feel sharp; anxieties are at bay.  I'll push the corners hard and lollygag another day.  I zip to 70 mph and pray that the spring season and early hour discourage sightseeing vehicles from laboring up or down this road.  Ponderosa pines displace elms and sidle closer to the pavement.  The road narrows and its edges start to fracture.  Advancing foothills, unwilling to yield, crimp the highway.  Mountain S-turns are best approached aggressively in ascent.  Gravity compresses the motorcycle's suspension and widens the tires' footprints.  A sign indicates 45 mph for the squiggle ahead.  They're a breeze at 70.  I turn by throwing body weight and limiting countersteering.  My cornering lines keep the bike well within my lane.  The tires are heating up and sticking well.  There's room for more speed and steeper leans.  My lane for the ascent will be the outer one near a valley that sinks deep to my right.  The road is without shoulders or guardrails.  Hard to imagine a highway more in need of both.  Soon, I don't miss them.  The higher I go, the steeper the drop to the valley and the closer the chiseled mountain wall opposite.  The contrast gives conflicting notions of speed.  On my right, an open view of the valley revolves slowly while on my left, the mountain face spins in a blur.  Turns tighten.  Signs command 35 mph or less.  I take them comfortably at 60 to 65.  The even spacing of the turns and the side-to-side rhythm of weight shifting make the speed manageable and remind me of snow skiing.   A quarter mile straightway affords time to sit up, equalize ear pressure and open the louvers of peripheral vision.  Elevation is over 8,000 feet.  The pine-scented air is invigorating.  As the road climbs, maintenance becomes less attentive.  Yet, worsening road conditions do not deflate confidence.  I glide through some broad turns.  Still no traffic.  The surface is layered with patches of asphalt of different ages.  Grass grows in the cracks unsealed by tar.  Signs that warn of "Falling Rock" increase.  Letting things go and posting warning signs must be DOT's way of ceding to natural forces.  The painted white stripe on the outer border disintegrates into gravel.  Nasty precipices are a skip across the splayed grit in the corners.  The tops of 40-foot trees planted just past the drop-off are level with the highway.  On left turns, cliff-faces block my view at 25 yards.  Fear, capital F, leaps up for the first time - happily, on my shoulder not at my throat.  I don't let up.  Ahead is a left turn marked for 30 mph.  I enter it at 55.  The turn is clear and goes on forever.  Suddenly, a long strip of gravel appears, laid perfectly in line with the wheels.  Gravel, hit at a lean, zeroes a bike's traction.  A synapse sends reflex not thought through my body.  The bike is muscled into a steeper lean.  I dodge the gravel but cross into the opposing lane.  Zap!  A jolt from within nearly chucks me off the bike.  I'd no idea of the voltage capacity of a nervous system.  Instead of freezing,  I push hard and re-cross to my lane.  As the turn ceases, an RV coasts by.  So that's how it feels when doom grants foreknowledge.  The road rounds quickly into the first of a series of switchbacks.  I drop into second gear and double the recommended speed of 20 mph.  The first 180° hairpin is tightly pinched.  I ricochet in and out.  Six more come in rapid succession.  The motor has rev room and plenty of torque so I roll it on.  The banks increase their vertical pitch until they appear wallpapered to the mountain.  I intuit a rhythm, let go of fright and accelerate above 50 mph.  Greater speed increases the sag of the G-forces.  I tuck my elbows and strain to keep my head up.  The turns are sharp and long, so the view ahead is but a few yards past the front wheel.  The blur tunnels my vision.  The effect is dizzying, like riding a velodrome.  The climb refuses to quit and I'm doing things with a bike I never thought possible.  Finally, the pitch slackens and the bike gains buoyancy.  As if on cue, the sun makes a showy entrance on top of a mountain 90° to my left.  The way the light feathers through the clouds and speckles the earth is beautiful beyond real.  Albert Bierstadt’s utopian vision of the American frontier lives!  To my right, less than a mile away, is a parallel mountain range perhaps a thousand feet lower.  The sequence of its peaks mirrors the peaks I'm riding.  Separating the two ranges is an enormous cavity.  The bottom can't be seen from the line this road follows.  In and out I go, until at the apex of one turn, the base of the cavity appears.  It is the Crystal Reservoir of the Gunnison River and so richly blue-green it could be off the coast of the Yucatan.  In contrast to the turbulence I feel up here, the reservoir is serene.  A forested bowl rises sharply from the water's edge.  My attention is split between the spectacle of the reservoir and the exigencies of negotiating turns.  Each time I sense a pinnacle to the climb, I'm proved wrong.  The road lifts again, round corner after corner.  It's a musical legato, rising until the pitch is at the limit of hearing.  Then the pitch steadies halfway through a left turn.  I must have reached the summit.  Quickly the highway will bend downward.  Past the pavement before me is a void - no guardrail, no trees, no earth - only sky.  I've been on an acceleration ramp to this climactic corner, the terminus of the crescendo and the thinning air.  An impulse, as strong as any I've known, urges me to spike the throttle and launch into the firmament.  Another impulse squeezes the brake.  At the corner's edge I stop the bike and kill the engine.  My breathing calms.  All is perfectly still.  At 9,875 feet, the perch is high enough to see over the shorter mountain range to my right.  Past it is a mesa without end.  The mesa's pale green fades to a vapor at the horizon where it merges with a smear of pearly white clouds.  I've infiltrated the domain of deities.  As abruptly as my spirit sank in fear of catastrophe, it is lifted by the sublime.  Mortality juxtaposed with eternity.  A barrier has been breached and I am introduced to a new realm of confidence and of humility.  I remember home is six days distant but there is no longing.     Ted Samore ©2004
prev / next