Back in 2006 wrenched life back into a 1982 Honda CBX that had sat partially covered by a tarp in a backyard in Portland, Oregon for too many years. Badly gummed up carburetors were rebuilt, the valve train was sorted out, and worn and weathered parts were replaced. I spent mid-summer running the bike on longer and longer trips, enjoying the engine's unique song as I built up confidence in the bike's mechanical state and my mechanical abilities.
One of my trial rides took me over Independence Pass, 12,095 feet in altitude. I posted a note about the ride and some carburetor issues in a forum where I had gathered lots of advice during the bike's revitalization. Another forum participant commented that he would never run his CBX over such a high pass. Why not? I wondered, and there began a germ of an idea. Why not see how many mountains passes I could cross in one day.
I live in south central Colorado, a land blessed with curving mountain roads and epic scenery. Mountain passes are plentiful. A few hours with a map and I had a route that incorporated beautiful vistas, great roads, and many passes.
An early September Saturday saw me up before dawn and rolling south on Hwy 67 through tendrils of fog along the foot of the Wet Mountains. I was wearing cold weather gear, had rain gear in the saddle bags, and carried two PB&J sandwiches, a water bottle, and a camera in the tank bag. The sun's red orb broke the horizon, glowing in the mirrors as I traveled west on Hwy 96, twisting through Hardscrabble Pass (9,805'), the first pass of the day.
Hwy 69 carried me south through cool air with the Wet Mountains on my left and the sun-kissed Sangre de Cristo Range towering on my right. The sun glasses came out as I motored past herds of wild antelope and domestic buffalo grazing along the valley floor. Mule deer crossing the road, cattle parked on the road, and flocks of raven bursting out of the ditches kept me on my toes.
I was feeling a bit chilled and was huddling into my warm jacket when an oncoming Harley roared by, the rider giving me a friendly wave. He was bare headed and gloveless. Cold is relative.
I diverted onto a gravel county road to bag my second pass, the not so imaginatively named Pass Creek Pass (9,500'). The tach began to howl, interfering with the engines music. I disconnected the cable and drove on. It would be the only mechanical difficulty of the trip.
A quick burst east on Hwy 160 topped North La Veta Pass (9,413'). A loop back on the old Rio Grande Railway route put me over La Veta Pass (9,382') at the old whistle stop town of Hilltop. Back on Hwy 160 traveling west, I carved out of the Sangre's into the San Luis Valley.
I crossed the valley on secondary roads, running through a mix of sage brush and irrigated croplands. It was harvest time and wild life gave way to ag equipment as the main hazard on the roads. I hit Antonito, Colorado, at 10:10am, missing the Cumbres & Toltec narrow gauge steam train by 10 minutes. I could see the iron beast trailing a cloud of coal smoke and steam as it hauled its string of cars across distant fields while I traveled Hwy 17 into the southern San Juan Mountains.
I paused for a snack and panorama overlooking the Conejos River along La Manga Pass (10,230'). The road wound through high mountain meadows and pine forests and crested Cumbres Pass (10,022) before dropping me into New Mexico. I passed another Cumbres & Toltec steam train puffing up the grade as I whistled down it.
At Chama, NM I turned west on Hwy 64/84 and powered through canyon country with the Chalk Mountain's dominating the northern horizon. Hwy's 64 and 84 split and I stuck with Hwy 84, which carried me back into Colorado through fields of late blooming wild flowers and impossibly green hills. An exceptionally wet summer had left the fields and meadows a brilliant spring-like green, rather than the browns I was expecting with the onset of fall.
Confar Hill (7,940') passed under CBX wheels enroute to Pagosa Springs. There I turned east and climbed fabled Wolf Creek Pass (10,850'). This is a stretch of challenging road and stupendous vistas that one could ride back and forth on all day without getting bored. The weather began to close in and rain put in an appearance so I broke out the rain gear. I would run through intermittent showers for the remainder of the day.
At a fuel stop in South Fork I exchanged greetings with a couple of riders on mud-splattered Kawasaki KLR650's sporting Oklahoma plates. The bikes were loaded high with camping gear and the riders, one of whom was 70 years old, were enjoying extended back country riding. It was great seeing another set of machines used as their makers intended. I hope I have that "senior citizen's" energy and ability 25 years from now.
Following the Rio Grande River to its headwaters over curvaceous road and stunning scenery, I was treated to an early touch of fall with golden aspen cascading off high ridges. Hwy 149 carried me through Creede and over Spring Creek Pass (10,898') and Slumgullion Summit (11,530'). I picked up a threesome of riders led by a deep blue Honda ST1300 out of Lake City and tagged along as they carved up more highway following the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River towards Blue Mesa Reservoir.
At the reservoir, I turned west for the last time on Hwy 50. Late afternoon saw the CBX skirting the length of the lake, then climbing in turn Blue Mesa Summit (8,704'), formerly known as SOB Hill, and Cerro Summit (8,045'). The sun came out and things started getting warm again as I maneuvered through traffic in Montrose. A fuel stop in Delta saw me shedding the rain gear.
Hwy's 92 and 133 to Paonia carried the heaviest traffic of the day. As I neared Paonia Reservoir, ominous clouds covered the route ahead. I stopped for a second snack and suited back up in a warm jacket and rain gear.
Cruising up McClure Pass (8,755'), I experienced my first close encounter with a deer. A young animal was up on the raised causeway caught between the guard rails. She blended into the background well and misting rain wasn't helping things so I didn't see her until quite close. Fortunately, I was traveling slow, so slow that she had no trouble pacing me for about 50 yards, bounding along almost close enough to touch before veering off and letting me go. I focused harder on the road ahead in the gathering gloom and tried to resist admiring The Raggeds rising formidably along my right.
Twilight deepened as I hustled along the backside of the Maroon Bells through a beautiful red rock canyon cut by the Crystal River. By the time I reached Aspen, it was officially dark.
Ahead of me lay Independence Pass, the literal and figurative high point of the trip. I had hoped to crest it at sunset. Instead, I was faced with pitch black night and pouring rain. For those unfamiliar with the route, the road is cut into sheer cliffs on both sides of the pass with no guard rails in many places and lots of air time if you miss a turn. To my credit, I was feeling good, I knew the route, and the bike was running flawlessly.
I cautiously picked my way up the pass, careful not to over drive my 1982 headlight. I had no traffic traveling with me to help define the route, but plenty of oncoming to blind me with headlights. This was further exacerbated by Coloradoan's habit of not dimming their high beams until they can see the white of your eyes.
About half way up the pass, it occurred to me that there was a real risk of encountering snow before I reached the summit. I've been snowed on in mid-July at midday on Independence Pass, so snow in September was a genuine possibility. My second close deer encounter put snow out of my mind for a while.
I was nearing the ghost town of Independence at tree line when a buck and doe burst into the headlight beam from the right. The buck exploded across the road about six feet off the bike's nose as I laid into the horn and brakes. I thought for sure the doe was going to jump between me and the windshield, but beyond the last possible second she executed a sharp right turn and dropped back off the embankment.
Thoughts of snow didn't re-emerge until I crested the final massive ridge and was in it. It was mixed in with the rain, but not accumulating so I was safe. I paused for the obligatory photo at the dark, cold, windy, wet summit (12,095'), then continued on.
As I descended Independence Pass, the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and a bright moon put in an appearance. I was still two and a half hours from home, but the remainder of the trip was a pleasant night's moonlight ride following the Arkansas River through steep canyons backed by the Sawatch Range.
Thus, the CBX and I surmounted ten Passes, one Hill, and three Summits over 794 miles and 17 hours. We burned 25 gallons of gas and averaged 45mpg. It was a gratifying and rewarding ride.