Ride to Remember
Traffic thins as Colorado Springs fades into the small circular mirror perched atop the handlebar on its heron leg stock. The warming temperatures and flowing corners of CO-115 greet me; silent pleasantries shared with an old friend inspiring a sense of belonging to this ribbon of blacktop that snakes south. The trees shorten and the mesas appear painted on the limitless horizon; blues so pastel they seem to be left by Georgia O’Keeffe’s brush fill the sky above me. The bike surges up each hill with the momentum of a freight train and my right wrist knows every crest will be better than the last. Each hill crowned increases excitement and pleasures my vision with never-ending skies; it feels like I’m breaking through the steel gray surface of the Arctic Ocean to come up for air. Then, in the blink of a hummingbird’s eye, I earn my first breathtaking glimpse of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, that jagged monster whose ice age escape was halted before it could fully break free of southern Colorado.
An hour before, engine rumbling to its preferred operating temperature, I straddled the 40-year old Honda, envisioning the upcoming ride. Even though I haven’t left home, I feel my optimism swell like the cast aluminum engine cradled in the frame. The sun’s warmth and machine’s rhythmic motion blend into a timeworn comfort, momentarily transporting me back to one of the many desert sunrises I witnessed from an Abrams tank hatch. In those few calm moments, as the sun once again greeted the sand after its nightly absence, I found serenity in the brief peace and excitement in the upcoming day. The engine is now warm and I’m back on the Honda’s smooth leather seat. No navigation today, as I know where I am headed and still enjoy the flow of adrenaline. Tired of waiting, my left hand prodsaction on the clutch lever, initiating forward motion and leaving the day’s stress in Old Colorado City.
Back on CO-115, apple orchards and prancing horses signal my arrival to Penrose. I can count on one hand the times I’ve ridden a horse, yet I still feel an attachment to these majestic animals. Perhaps my inner history buff appreciates their longstanding contribution to society or that they were the motorcycles of their day? Nevertheless, I wonder what motorcycles will be equated to in the future. On the road, my eyes dart wildly between the Coyote Den and Goose Berry Patch as my mind races to contemplate the bitter goodness of Kenyan coffee and the sweetness of banana cream pie. Penrose’s speed limit makes the decision easy as I find myself sliding past both establishments. With the town to my back, I pass a lonely silver Pontiac Fiero resting on blocks. In the middle of a dirt field, it first appears to be waiting on the inevitable end that is to come; however, when I look at the whole setting, I see that we’re both right where we need to be. Entering Florence, my right hand eases the throttle forward, letting the road’s downgrade provide effortless motion, and I spy two shimmering emerald lakes set before an abundance of mesas. These tabletops leave me with the feeling that I’ve stepped into an old Victorian home whose owners covered everything in sheets to prevent dust buildup prior to their departure—quite fitting as Florence, the Antique Capital of Colorado, houses at least 12 of the treasure troves on Main Street, each adding to the town’s irreplaceable charm.
Crossing the Arkansas River for the second time today, Cañon City fills my eyes. Left hand finding its way off the bars, I wave at passing rafters as they are briskly carried off by the dancing icy waters. The rafters will wrestle their inflatables out soon, signaling an end to their excursion. The river, like me, has no plans of stopping as it savors every mile on the long eastbound journey. Eager passengers gather around the handsome red brick train station waiting to board their historic ride up the Royal Gorge. The bright orange engine gleams proudly in the sunlight, purposefully waiting to lead the eight passenger cars out of the station. Cañon City’s well-kept downtown is a preserved slice of Americana that allows even the fastest paced souls to apply the brakes and enjoy the moment. Main Street businesses beckon me, their colorful window displays, clever names, and inviting appearances waving like hands on a parade float. Sorry guys, not today. This afternoon is reserved for miles and smiles. I feel joyous amusement in passing the Pioneer Motel’s giant golden horseshoe situated on the far west end of Main. Apparently, luck is in the thin air today; better breathe deep and relish every drop.
Taking one last right turn before leaving Cañon, I shoot up the one-way road to excitement titled Skyline Drive. The 10-foot-wide ribbon of asphalt appears half its width as it disappears into the blue above me. The narrow lane gives way to a shear drop off on the right and a menacing mud and rock wall on the left that looks paused mid-slide. The road is a marvel of civil engineering, the product of affordable labor, and not for the faint of heart. My adrenaline climbs with the elevation, and soon we’ve peaked. A pause at the top delivers picturesque views of the city and a chance for a rest. Sipping water and reflecting on the day, I watch tiny cars make their way along US-50. From my high vantage point, life appears to have slowed, evident in a smoothness and fluidity in the motion below. I’ve always thought that birds flew because it was the faster option, but now I wonder if it is just their way of slowing things down.
Making the right turn from US-50 onto CO-9, I cast one last glance at the Sangre de Cristo mountains. There is solace in knowing they’ll be waiting for me next time; an unspoken promise that we will meet again making good-byes unnecessary. CO-9 is part of the Gold Belt Tour, a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway that retraces the historic travel routes connecting Cripple Creek and Victor to the communities of Florence, Cañon City, and Florissant. The southern end of CO-9 simultaneously radiates ruggedness, majesty, and tranquility, and each time I pass, my mind conjures images of my dream ranch adorning the landscape. An enormous red barn fills my view as the bike begins to lean right in anticipation of CR-11. The road winds into the mountains like a ribbon of silk that’s settled after its whimsical flight on a cool breeze. Passing a herd of deer happily grazing in the golden rays of the sun, I feel connected to this place, to this moment in time, and most importantly, to myself. This is the point of the trip where the riding becomes spectacular as the road always climbs, descends, or turns. This is fine by me and the old Honda whose pegs hold the scuffs of many forgotten corners.
The change from southwest desert to alpine climb happens in an instant—so quickly that a previous trip required some hard braking and a U-turn to confirm what my brain had just processed. Gone are the bristly shrubs and jagged rocks; in their place are green grass and happy cows which remind me to clench my jaw before the cattle guards to keep my teeth from rattling around like rocks in an aluminum can. Dotted with aspen trees, these high mountain meadows appear to gently sway side to side themselves, creating a picturesque setting for Pikes Peak, a staggering mass of history, triumph, and tears. Each breath and piston stroke hurdles me forward towards the western slope of the historic mountain, and I feel alive devouring the fresh alpine air by the lung full. For a fleeting second I am the only one on earth enjoying its splendor before I am brought back to reality by a passing Subaru. A smile reaches the corners of my mouth because even though I must share Pikes Peak, today’s trip belongs to me: it’s my Colorado adventure. As I bypass Cripple Creek in favor of fossils and less traffic, Florissant greets me with aspen groves clumped together so tightly that seeing through their trunks becomes impossible. The tuffs of mint green swaying upon the ghost white stalks will soon succumb to cool mountain winds, their kisses bringing a modern gold rush to the state. Witnessing the aspen’s fall magic is like seeing a million canaries conduct a ballet on a lake of honey decorated by sunrays. The synchronization is perfect; leaves move so quickly one questions if they are at all. This dance only lasts about a week per year making it one of nature’s sweeter treats.
As I crown the 9,100 feet of Ute Pass Summit in Divide, I chuckle to myself, “It’s all downhill from here.” Divide is gone, soon to be followed by Woodland Park and the plethora of residents who went on vacation one endless summer past. The descent through the pass is steady and winds through perpetual corners that have the Honda rocking like a small boat in stormy seas. The eastern end requires all my remaining attention, an ample amount of compression braking, and just a hint of explosive corner acceleration for good measure. The “Climb to Safety in a Flood” signs are slightly menacing and force my gaze upwards for clouds as I offer a silent hope that I make it home dry.
High above on US-24, Manitou Springs is a quirky painting of the ideal mountain town full of intriguing characters and tales taller than the summit that gave the city its motto: “At the Foot of Pikes Peak.” Even after 130 miles, and with home in sight, I find myself exiting the highway for a detour though this natural spring water oasis. Manitou Avenue can be described as delightfully enchanting; a wealth of businesses line the sidewalks and none can be ignored. People stroll between the shops, a few carrying ice cream, but all carrying some amount of awe. An air of happiness floats among the city like fog enveloping a coastal town.
Alley dirt crunches under the front tire as I pull up to the garage. Silencing the engine for the day, aluminum heated to panini-making temperatures, I place the bike on its stand. Wrestling a 600-pound hunk of metal around 130 miles of corners has left me overstimulated and in need of a quiet moment to gather my thoughts. Contemplating the day, I recall the details of the journey: breathtaking views, painted skies, thousands of corners, wild nature, excitement, and inner peace. Knowing that the is world growing smaller, and new explorations are few and far between, I find happiness living in a place that supports modern adventure. Get out there and find yours!