Kokopelli. The mention of it doesn’t mean much to most of us. Wikipedia says that Kokopelli is a mystical, flute-playing Hopi Native American fertility spirit, a desert-mountain jester, alternately provoking carnal behavior, providing rain for crops, or intoning a healing melody — all by tooting his magical flute.
In certain circles, though, the term “Kokopelli” means the promise of wild jeep roads and singletrack, winding along valleys and high desert ridges along the Colorado River from just outside Fruita, Colorado all the way to Moab, Utah. A magnet for all vehicles off-road, most sections are challenging on their own; completing the entire trail carries a “Bucket List” allure for knobby-tired motorcyclists, monster 4-wheelers… and mountain bikers. It’s one hundred forty-two miles of rugged, unforgiving, breathtakingly-beautiful vistas. Part lunar surface and part Martian red stone, and at times, every bit as inviting.
John Wayne country. And a mountain biker’s paradise.
This trip started, as these things often do, with a casual suggestion in a Facebook post. One thing led to another, schedules were cleared, logistics support procured, airline tickets purchased, and before you can say, well, “John Wayne,” we had a Serious Mountain Biking Adventure Plan put together.
For me, it was an opportunity to reconnect with Joe, a dear friend and colleague from my time in Nashville, now living in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The bonus was that he, in turn, assembled a number of his friends with whom he had some history from his many career assignments: the Durango Connection — Gerald, or “G,” who Joe also met in Nashville (but whom I’d never met); and Chris, a young paddler and mountain biking virtuoso. Add in Joe’s next-door neighbor and thoughtful entrepreneur, Steve, and you have a recipe for the Ride of a Lifetime.
Full disclosure time: as we discussed this over the planning stages, I expressed my, um, concern that with my 10- to 20-year seniority over everyone else in our group, along with my residence a good 9,000 feet below the rare air towns in southern Colorado, wouldn’t I just be kind of a wet blanket for the overall festivities? Joe’s answer reassured me… a little: “It’s not a race; we’re just out to have an awesome time.”
Mountain bikers can be a Jekyll-and-Hyde group; there are those whose sole purpose in life is to shred every trail they encounter, to take singletrack by the throat and pummel it into submission. Then there are those who follow this mantra: “Go ahead and ride as fast as you can. There will always be riders behind you, and they’re having a much better time.” While there is a little of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous schizo in every mountain biker, our group definitely leaned toward the Jekyll side. Our tour group, alas, also included another half-dozen riders who were Hyde all the way.
Arriving in Grand Junction, I still was unsure about my ability to complete this ride. I was just recovering from the flu. My training had revealed that I required much more recovery time than I did at, say, age 50. 142 miles, logistics support only (meaning that Joe and Steve did all the critical meal planning, gear planning, pace planning, group management planning); the tour company essentially hauled our camping gear and food from one pre-determined campsite to the next. It was up to us to pitch camp, cook, clean up, and repack everything before riding the next day. A minor diversion, but still requiring some additional energy.
Bright and early on Thursday morning, the Hermosa Tours van dropped us at the Loma trailhead, and we were off. Nice singletrack at first, then some challenging climbs… and then we hit the Rough Stuff. Boulder-strewn, jutted-rock singletrack and jeep trails, only navigable by the most elite mountain bikers.
And a lot of the trail was simply, as we say, “hike-a-bike”: carrying bike and pack up grades either too steep or too rocky (or both) to ride. Easily the most difficult terrain I’d ever encountered, it was taxing beyond comprehension. A true wake-up call for what the Kokopelli was all about.
But our group hung together. Early on, Joe’s friends became my friends. They offered quiet encouragement. Took long breaks with me. We ate two lunches of smoked salmon wraps, fig bars, chips, and fruit. It became clear early on that it really wasn’t a race. 35 miles, 8 hours and, according to my heart rate monitor, a whopping 6,000 calories later, we rolled into camp at Bitter Creek Mesa.
Despite the gracious support from my new friends, I was toast. And honestly, close to throwing in the towel. I’d never ridden so long, so far, or so hard on a mountain bike; was I ready to repeat this for three additional days? I wondered how my recovery time would ever be enough to prep me for Day Two. My training experience suggested that fatigue leads to dumb mistakes – could I afford such a risk on such a treacherous trail?
But over a dinner of pesto pasta with salmon, Joe, Steve, G, and Chris talked about all that we’d seen that day. The variety of scenery. The valley basins stretching for miles. The omnipresent peaks of the La Sal Mountains. Was it possible that I was not seeing these things because I had my head up my bike shorts? What was it that they were doing that, in my preparation, I’d missed? I never mentioned my apprehension, vowing to see what the next morning would bring. I decided that if I had any doubts before we rolled out Friday morning, I’d opt to ride in the van.
As I lay in my tent that night, with the full moon beaming high over the still-distant La Sal mountains (our ultimate summit), I considered my options. I hadn’t come all this way to ride in the stinking van. On the other hand, I didn’t want to risk genuine injury, either. But I remembered my bride’s parting comment to me as I left for the airport: “Be in the moment. You might not ever pass this way again.”
I awoke on day two feeling much better than I anticipated. I could stand, speak, and actually eat breakfast. While day two was longer in miles, it was much lower on the Sexagenarian Mountain Biker Difficulty Index. As I suited up for the day, I realized that I was indeed going to complete this entire ride. One moment at a time. I did take a slight detour from some of Day Two’s singletrack, choosing a more direct, paved road route to that night’s camp. Still part of the Kokopelli Trail, that road was a godsend for me after the energy expended on day one.
Once everyone arrived at the campsite, we prepped for dinner. I busied myself with getting my tent up and quarters arranged. Still too pre-occupied, in hindsight. Joe, on the other hand, wasn’t so distracted with getting things set up. While the rest of us were otherwise occupied, he retrieved his “solar shower” from the van. This is essentially a large, black plastic bladder full of water, dangling a small shower head. When set out in the sun, it warms nicely. Joe, being Joe, climbed up onto a red sandstone ledge, hung the shower bag, stripped down and then turned to the assembled dozen below and commanded “Carpe Diem!!!” at the top of his lungs, all the while, well, going “commando.” In Joe’s outburst, I finally heard what Kokopelli had been trying to tell me. It was a turning point for me. Our group was laughing and hollering; the taciturn “Hydes” on the other hand, I guess, weren’t so much into the “moment.” The example was set.
We were having waaaaay too much fun…
Day three broke with everyone in high anticipation; mileage-wise, it was to be similar to day one, but with one large added challenge: throughout the day, we would be climbing 7,000 vertical feet of elevation. We began the day at about 5,000 feet above sea level and would sleep tonight at 8,500 feet. The difficulty is that we had to crest two passes – gaining and losing 3,500 feet through the first one, then having to gain it all back on the second summit. That, folks, is difficult enough on foot. Add in a 35-pound mountain bike and an additional 20 pounds of food and water, and you’ve got a truly taxing day ahead.
We broke camp around 9:00am. Chris and G, full of amazing competence and youthful enthusiasm, quickly disappeared from sight. Joe, Steve, and I took a more deliberate pace. Picking his “moment,” Steve, in particular, vowed to stay in his granny gear for most of the day. Day three promised to be mostly about survival. Steve’s was an excellent example to follow; no sudden moves, no drama, no bursts of frustration. Just a methodical “left-foot-right-foot… repeat” cadence that covered ground very nicely, thank-you-very-much. A calming influence on me. I relaxed… and began to be more acutely aware of where I was and what I was doing. Looking at our resplendent surroundings for what must have been the first time, I was thrilled.
We were in the saddle for more than 10 hours on Day three. After two sandwiches, a dozen fig bars, an orange, an apple, three Clif bars, four EnduroLite capsules, a gallon-and-a-half of water, spectacular mountain vistas, scrub desert, voices-in-my-head, snow, ghostly white aspen stands, a much-appreciated “rescue” bottle of water left by Chris and Steve about three miles from camp, a total of 35 miles and that Herculean gain of 7,000 vertical feet, I rolled into camp at Fisher Mesa around 8:30 that night.
And feeling, somehow, cathartically healed. Friends, attitude, perspective, and I’ll have to say, some true grit, had me feeling more like young Chris’s 40-years than my 60-plus. I had conquered the mountain, on my mountain bike. In the moment.
Day four was mostly fire road downhill into Moab, Utah. We did take a little diversion to ride the amazing and fun Upper Porcupine singletrack. We finished the “UPS” with a killer descent that, at the beginning of this ride, I’d have never attempted. A high point for me, I was euphoric, laughing like an idiot after cleaning that downhill. After that section, we headed down the road to Moab. Except for young Chris… he had to do the Lower Porcupine as well, befitting his expertise and zeal.
25 miles per hour on loose gravel, shooting downhill through switchbacks and hairpin turns. A far cry from day three and its 3mph pace up the mountain. It was an amazing feeling of being “on the other side;” in so many ways, especially for me. Arriving at the Moab Slickrock Trailhead, I realized that the temperature was well over 80 degrees. After spending the night at 30 degrees, it was a nice warm up.
We rode through town to the Moab Brewery for a short celebration, then loaded into the van for the shuttle back to Fruita. Bone-tired, spiritually rejuvenated, profoundly blessed, I had the chance to reflect on the weekend as we drove back up Interstate 70.
Here are the highlights, in no particular order:
- Spend 36 hours on a bicycle over a four-day period, and your butt is going to hurt.
- You’re never too old to have a life-changing experience. New beginnings are there for the finding… and seizing.
- There is an afterlife, but it has nothing to do with Heaven. It has to do with Love.
- I am the luckiest man on earth.
- There are a multitude of Americas: the one I saw this week was free-spirited, full of life, circumspect, pragmatic, and self-centered. I wonder how many more Americas there are? We truly live in a post-modern world.
- Try as you might, you just can’t get away from assholes.
- While the media might try to convince you otherwise, each of us is ridiculously insignificant when viewed from the perspective of a red sandstone bluff. Nature wins. Period.
- Spend a long weekend away, immersed in a strange, magnificent, beautiful location, and the ongoing turmoil of the world gets put in its proper perspective.
- Everything in Life is made fuller, richer and easier with friends.
- Love touches you at the most surprising moments.
- Personal growth is what happens when you render yourself a fool.
- Sometimes, by God, the view is worth the climb.
Even now, years later, I’m not so certain that, every now and again, I don’t just faintly hear a native flautist’s healing melody drifting in the wind.
What a moment…