The Black Canyon

Day 41 Tuesday 13th August 2013 – Glenwood Springs, CO to Montrose, CO

The ride from Glenwood Springs to Montrose should have been a leisurely cruise of around 200 miles, taking in the scenic loop along the Gunnison River and the Black Canyon that the river has carved.

It started well enough. A breakfast at Starbucks and then fast ride out of Glenwood Springs along the wide green valley, dotted with houses.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

At Carbondale, we sailed right past our turn off without even noticing it, and we were in Aspen before realising our mistake. I knew Aspen was not on our intended route, so something was a miss, but we made the best of it and stopped for an early lunch at the City Cafe – somewhere I thoroughly recommend if you are in the neighbourhood, they’ve got a great brunch menu.

Our unexpected stop in Aspen, gave me a chance to contrast it to Vail. Of the two, I’d much rather spend time in Aspen. Aspen gave the impression of retaining something that Vail had lost to development – it’s soul.

After a great corn beef hash, we retraced our route back to Cardondale. Our detour to Aspen had added over an hour of riding to our day, but it was still relatively early, so that didn’t matter too much. When we reached Carbondale, I almost missed the turn off onto the 133 again. The small signs for the 133 were placed right on the junction with no forewarning. This happens to me all too often in the US, the route signs are suddenly there on the exit, often with no warning and I’m cruising past in the wrong lane. More often than not, I notice the signs as I’m passing, and then have to do an about turn as soon as I can, but sometimes I get to visit unexpected places, like Aspen.

The poor route signage is in contrast to the speed warning signs on almost every bend in the US where you need to slow to below the speed limit. These warnings are really useful if you have never ridden the road before. Sometimes, like in parts of the Black Hills, these advisory speeds are bang on, and you suffer if you try to take the bend much above them. In other places, the advisory speeds are way too low, but at least there give you some idea of the severity of the bend. Britain could really do with adopting a similar approach – it’s a rare bend in the UK that contains an advisory speed warning and most country lanes just have the national speed limit of 60 mph even if it would be madness to attempt the roads at anywhere near this speed.

As we began our course along the 133, the mountains loomed ahead of us, but the sky was full of ominous dark clouds. The wide valley narrowed and we were soon riding along a river with mountains on either side.

From Colorado, August 2013

The clouds were closing in ahead, so we pulled over to gear-up. The spot we pulled into appeared to be next to a long line of huge, decrepit pizza ovens.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

On reading the handy nearby sign, we discovered that these overgrown pizza ovens, were in fact disused coke ovens which used to provide coke for the steel industry. The small town across the river had, at one time, housed the workers.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Continuing on through the valley, we passed a sign warning of road damage. We both saw it coming – I stood up on the pegs to avoid the worse of it, but Doreen was nearly bounced off the back of the Trooper. The roads I’d encountered on both my trips to the US had generally been good. Obama’s investment in public works projects, such as roads, had been good for me, at least, and had meant that I had ridden many newly surfaced roads. Someone had missed this stretch though.

Despite the bump and intermittent rain, we were still being treated to a feast of mountain scenery.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

We made our way steadily toward Hotchkiss. One stretch made a switchback, followed by a steep climb with great views of the valley below. There were roadworks on the climb with a 15 minute wait. This gave Doreen a chance to hop off the Trooper and take a few photos. The elderly passengers in the car in front used the wait in a different way. They got out of their SUV and took a geriatric aerobics class by the road side. They had a great view for it.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

As we began the descent down toward Hotchkiss, we rounded a bend to find a huge open cast coal mine blighting the mountain scenery. The village a mile or two further along the road seemed to be there solely to service the mine, which looked like it was providing jobs for a whole community. Still the village and the mine seemed oppressive and grim, and in stark contrast to the lush valley with it’s vineyards, just a handful of miles further along on the approach proper into Hotchkiss.

From Colorado, August 2013

We stopped at Hotchkiss for refreshment, and debated whether to take the scenic loop along the Gunnison river, or whether to just continue straight onto Montrose. By now, the storm clouds had cleared, and a quick scan of the skies gave us enough confidence to attempt the loop, and I am so glad we did as it was a delight to ride. The road is twisty and runs along the rim of the Black Canyon for most of it’s course. Frequent turn-outs provide great views of the canyon, which is supposedly deeper than the Grand Canyon in places.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Along the road we meet mainly other bikers, and whenever we encountered them in the turn-outs, we chatted, sharing stories of where we’d come from and where we were going, and offering help to take photos, so that travelling couples can be in the shot together. And of course, they returned the favour.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

At the end of the Black Canyon is a dam and the Blue Mesa Reservoir.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

The ride from the dam to Montrose along the southern rim of the canyon on US-50 is much faster but less scenic than the northern rim. We made good time and rolled into Montrose around 6pm. Montrose is a typical modern small American city, with low-rise sprawl along the main streets. A quick scout around and a few google map searches later, we choose the Briarwood Motel – a typical ‘mom n pop’ motel for around $50. The room was clean and tidy, and the owner was extremely friendly and helpful. At the price, it was a good find.

When we’d rolled into town, we’d noticed the Horsefly Brewing Company further along Main Street, but there was also the Firehouse restaurant right next door to the motel, so we opted for that. That was a mistake. The Firehouse bill themselves as specialising in pizzas, and have a proper pizza oven in the main bar area. The menu was pretty eclectic with dishes from all over the world. I took a risk and ordered the weiner schnitzel – a risk because I had had something similar in Fredericksburg, Texas, which claims a strong German heritage but I’d been really disappointed because it was a very poor imitation of real German food. Doreen, however, thought she’d play safe and go for the house speciality – a pizza.

Alarm bells should have rung when we had walked into the quiet restaurant and had to wait to be seated and offered drinks and a menu. We seemed to have walked in and ordered from a completely dysfunctional restaurant. By the time we left, we half expected Gordon Ramsay to come storming out of the kitchen, asking them what the fuck they were doing. My risky schnitzel came out after 20 minutes or so, and was passable, although the sides of German potato salad and pickled cabbage were not so much like the real McCoy. But Doreen’s safe pizza had failed to appear. She was told there had been a little confusion in the kitchen and it should be out shortly – we were left wondering why they’d sent out one meal without the other. At Doreen’s insistence, I ate mine before it got cold. I’d finished my meal and there was still no sign of the pizza. I went out onto the patio and had a smoke, and about 10 minutes after I returned, our server came over and told us they had ‘lost’ Doreen’s pizza. He was very apologetic, and asked if she still wanted it saying she could have it for free now, and could have a complimentary wine as well. Well we’d had a hard day’s ride, so of course Doreen was hungry and there seemed little point in going anywhere else and waiting even longer, so she accepted the offer.

The pizza Doreen had ordered was a mixed vegetarian, when it did finally arrive, it was under-cooked, smothered in way too much mozzarella with very little in the way of other toppings. Firehouse was probably our worse dining experience of the trip so far. When the bill finally arrived, $10 had been deducted rather than the promised ‘free’ pizza. We were tired and couldn’t be bothered to argue, so we just deducted the rest from the tip when we left. It’s not all good service in America.

We’d have probably stayed in the restaurant and had a few more drinks if it had been any good, but as it was, we went to the nearby gas station and got a take-out 6 pack to take back to the motel.

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