Fruita is a singletack paradise in the lost lands of Colorado’s Western slope. It rests up against the infamous Bookcliffs and is a geological stone’s throw from the immense Grand Mesa to the East. Here in this High Desert Valley Fruita takes its name from the long growing season, cool, nights, and fertile Colorado River basin soils that make agriculture viable here. Indeed, within this valley is Colorado’s Wine Country. Palisade, CO to the east of here marks the gateway to this Land of the Lost and is home to many wineries, a brewery, and a distillery. Oh…. and ripping singletrack. In fact, Fruita may have put this dusty little valley on the mountain biking map, but her neighbors to the East are rapidly becoming destinations in their own right. Grand Junction and Palisade are quietly throwing down incredible trails that rival the classics found in Fruita. The result is a trailbuilding arms race that, unlike the Cold War produces a situation where everybody wins.
We rolled into camp a little later than expected. I worked the night before and Shrek had already been on the road for a couple days. Shrek is an Oldest and Dearest friend, a guy who was present for my mountain bike beginning back in the day. He possesses a particularly exceptional set of road-tripping qualities. He’s neat. He’s organized. He’s humble when he’s fast and he doesn’t make excuses when he’s not (but most of the time he is). He and I share a number of anatomical anomalies including but not limited to: completely separate Pizza and Barbecue digestive tracts. We can consume unprecedented volumes of both. He had road-tripped out for a business excursion and detoured to Colorado for a little well-deserved R-n-R. We pit-stopped in Frisco at a spritiual wayside known as Q4U. It’s a little Bar-B-Cue shack where the people are always friendly and the ‘Q is always amazing. Our first impulse was to grab some burnt ends for old time’s sake, but a stroke of genius took us down another path altogether.
It’s a four-plus hour drive and I think we rolled in around five pm. Times and days begin to become approximate. The Desert has this effect on me always. The millions of years of exposed geology visible on the Bookcliffs, the clockwork of time and gravity and water exposed; the proximity to all those dinosaur bones creates powerful temporal vortices. Time ceases to hold its meaning. Days and hours get lost. I forget not only what day of the week it is but I forget the order of the days of the week. I drift outside the normal universe. My bicycle is a trans-dimensional warp-craft that carries me along. I trust that my temporal momentum will carry me at a semi-predictable rate and that at some point I will encounter some sign that I must return to normal space-time. Some alarm on my control panel, a flashing light in my subconscious, a supernova or falling star. A Tunguska-level event to propel my consciousness back into the Real World.
The Desert does this to me, and I laugh out loud as struggle to remember what day it is so I can fill out the little paper camping permit envelope at our 18rd campsite.
18 Road is a bizarre desert playground whose trails spill generally downward from the base of the Bookcliffs and reunite at a common rally/parking area. They make use of the aforementioned space-time anomaly this area possesses and neatly fold in and out of the undulating micro-canyons of the North Fruita Desert like singletrack fractals. We puked our tents out of the car to stake our claim on what was likely the last campsite available and headed out for a sunset ride. From the campground the bulk of these famous trails are rideable. A two-minute gravel-grind takes one to the trailhead. We carry no maps and are armed only with a general idea of the topography. We cut left and head for Zippety-Do-Da. Zippety is a roller coaster ride that takes one along a knife ridge several hundred feet tall.
True singletrack riding 12-18 inches wide with epic failure to either side Zippety propels one into massive g-outs and then flogs the unsuspecting rider into sheer walls of grippy sandstone climbs too short to shift, breathe, or prepare for. It is a trail that is quintessentially and uniquely 18 Road. The identity of this trail system is evolving and new trails are being built but Zippety is the Source. It is the Dark Crystal to the twisted minds that built this area. Ride here and you will begin to understand.
The Best Idea Ever came to fruition back at the campsite. In a catering tin on the wrought iron grill over our campfire was two pounds of Q4U in the form of burnt ends, brisket, and several unidentified hunks of smoked meats that the wonderful lady at Q4U threw in to the mix because she thought that two pounds of meat looked so “sad and lonely” in the large aluminum tin. Complete with beans and two “beautiful” french rolls we gorged ourselves on simmering Q, chased it all down with Black Butte Porter and Dales Pale Ales, and contemplated the universe above us in HD. There are never more stars in the sky than there are in the high desert sky.
On day two, despite our perfect perch at the top of the 18 Road system, we abandoned these trails for the road less traveled. The night was punctuated with a steady-stream of late-comers who tried in vain, hoping against hope that they would be early enough to snag a camp spot. We woke to a circus of mountain-bikers, a two-wheeled assemblage of pilgrims paying homage to an off-road mecca. The entire spectrum of mountain biking was represented. Battle-armored, double-crown, shuttle-monkeys to the clueless Wal-mart specialists. Overheard at the trailhead: “I’ve had that fork for almost twenty years and I’ve never serviced it. Still works”. Some knucklehead with a crappy blown-out speaker blared an over-modulated version of “Cowboys From Hell” from his backpack as he rode. Because everyone likes Pantera in the morning. First thing.
I was beginning to see the problem with mountain bike festivals. Mainly it’s the festival part. We loaded up and headed back East to Palisade.
The Palisade Rim trail sits quietly on the Eastern edge of the Grand Valley. It is the bottom end of a trail that will one day spill down from the top of the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world at over 500 square miles. Rumor has it that this proposed trail will rival the prodigious “Whole Enchilada” trail outside Moab, UT plummeting down from 11,000ft heights from alpine forest to the desert below. For now, the Palisade Rim climbs up to a sub-mesa overlooking the town and wraps around two loops. The views are among the best in the valley and the techy, narrow singletrack requires continuous mental engagement.
|GPS route by Rapid Creek Cycles, Palisade, CO
Early in the climb, I came upon a sharp right-hander, steeply pitched slickrock that had very little run-up. Behind it, an exposed drop-off into a canyon. There was little room for failure. I dug deep and pushed hard. I maxed my leg-press into my 32 x 20. My trusty Independent Fabrication frame and my chain and my legs and my tires and the whole world quivered like the rim of a wine glass for just a second when disaster struck. My otherwise rock-steady drivetrain failed, throwing my chain from my freewheel into the rear hub. My right leg, at maximal redline full-torque capacitated thrust made the jump to light-speed propelling my knee into my stem. I still don’t know if the “KABANG” I heard was my chain jumping or my knee breaking the sound barrier.
The edge of the trail is the edge of everything. It follows the exposed precipice in a way reminiscent of sections of Porcupine Rim in Moab. The trail weaves in and out of the scrub trees and desert brush and the ill-transposed zig where a zag is indicated means certain death. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Done-zo. We climbed the trail as a figure-eight beginning clockwise around the first loop and counter-clockwise around the second taking us up the edge instead of down (literally).
On the Eastern edge the trail turns down again and meanders in swoopy ribbons in and out of hillside drainages. It was a good place to stop for lunch.
We finished the trail and rolled into Palisade for Second Lunch. The Palisade Brewery appeared like the promised land. Continuing our Bar-B-Bender we ordered up ginormous pulled-pork and brisket sandwiches slathered in spicy-sweet sauce and washed down with Palisade Brewery’s signature beers. Truly ridiculous food. Newly inspired we decided to go ride some more and headed for Mary’s Loop as we turned back toward Fruita.
Saucy Barbeque, Beers, a kilo of Gummi Bears, and a starbucks doubleshot were an unhappy combination in our bellies as we grunted up the rocky two-track to Mary’s Loop. It’s a conversational warm-up normally, but today it was a pre-flight sequence for the hodge-podge of culinary delights battling toward the exit door within me. The trail skirts a rim that overlooks the Colorado River and millions of gallons of Colorado snowmelt destined for the thirsty masses in Arizona and California.
Mary’s Loop and it’s associated tributaries behind us, we planned our next move. A phone call to a local buddy and destiny intervened, saving us from the sad party and tired DJ at the festival. We blew back through town, grabbed a 30-pack of High Life, ripped down 18 Road to a camelbak “shower” at Camp, and back to Fruita. I am honored to be a part of a band of professional brothers that never fail in hospitality or cameraderie. My Brother was at a barbecue hosted by his Brother who invited us over. The Bar-B-bender continued. A campfire, beers, and mountain bike tales growing ever-louder as the night got longer. Mountain bikers, like firemen, have a social advantage in that wherever we go we share a common thread, an easy conversation starter, similar scars. The same circus with slightly different clowns. As the night wound down my new Brothers had invited us to stay, offered to guide, and extended every considerate hospitality at their disposal to two strangers who wandered in from the night. I contemplated the truth in how necessary a little break from reality can be, and how difficult it can be to see that until actually on it.
We woke up back in camp to another beautiful morning. We made coffee, breakfast, tore down our camp, and considered our options. We hot-lapped a trail called PBR (Pumps, Bumps, and Rollers) from camp. It consisted of an unending series of its namesakes. It swirls back and forth, opposing axis kickers pitching the rider into the next little feature in a way that made the air in between as much a part of the trail as the dirt and rocks.
By now 18 Road had been completely over-run with festivallers. Backpack boom-box guy was back with some cochlea-searing house-techno fusion and the fanny-packs and comfort bikes were making a serious run at a full-on takeover. We hadn’t even touched the Lunch Loops in Grand Junction yet, and any serious mountain bike expediton to the Grand Valley would be woefully incomplete without the Ribbon and some Loops.
Where Fruita and Palisade are quaint little Colorado hamlets with a deeply integrated mountain bike culture, Grand Junction is a petroleum and methamphetamine-fueled metropolis. A sort of Mos Eisley/Bartertown mashup with lots of Haliburton trucks. Except with better riding. Really really good riding.
The Lunch Loops are a dream-sequence of all the greatest forms of desert singletrack balled together in a tangled mess. There are constant intersections of trails making for a dizzying choose-your-own-adventure. Instead of my typical decision paralysis we continued forward in our mapless methods and just rode up. Tabeguache to Prenup, across the road to the Gunnector to Gunny Loop, following those who looked local-ish in a generally downhill direction back to the parking lot.
My favorite trail in the area is The Ribbon. It starts out as a 200-yard wide slab of pockmarked limestone that quickly narrows down to 4 feet or so with sheer drops to either side, emptying eventually into a sandstone bowl flushing back onto singletrack. This continues down down down through gullys and washes and eventually takes one to the top of the Lunch Loops. Free Lunch drops down to the West into its Nitro Circus of drops and features.
There ended the mountain bike portion of my Fruita Fat Tire Festivus. Oh yeah… there was an expo and a $40 VIP party (apparently paying $40 instantly makes you Very Important) but Shrek and I spent Friday night in GJ with some random friends from home that we serendipitously ran in to in the Lunch Loops parking lot. We stayed there that night and ate terrific mexican food and took a cab and sat in vomit and hung out with my friends on their anniversary in the saddest little gentleman’s club I have ever attended and stayed up until 5am drinking Fat Tires and telling stories.
And really… that sums it up. Mountain biking trips aren’t just about fun riding in new places, they are about kindred spirits and finding the people to whom you belong. Sometimes those people are covered in the vomit of strangers. Sometimes they’re random people in the parking lot who bum you a cold beer when you’re hot and worn-out and forgot to pack your cooler. When we encounter these comrades-at-arms and feel that common thread between us, we are treated to a reflection of ourselves, of the great mountain bike collective to which we all belong. Even that douche with the boombox backpack.