Morning, sun behind us, a dozen motorcycles are haring along Tarryall Road, a magnificent 30-mile stretch of good pavement in Colorado, on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. Granted, there was a bit of construction at the beginning, but now we are free and clear of all obstructions…and traffic. The byway, with a nigh-on perfect two-lane surface, hugs the Tarryall Mountains on the east side of the valley, curving endlessly around the foothills. The slightly elevated venue avoids the possibility of flooding from several creeks, and in all those miles we passed only half a dozen ranches.
I was running third, and quick glimpses in the mirrors showed the remaining nine riders evenly spaced, making for a very pretty picture. In truth, this was one of the better half-hours I have experienced in a long time. Tarryall Road ends in the tiny community of Jefferson—which conveniently happens to have a grocery story that specializes in homemade fudge. I recommend it.
After fudging a while, we took off again, 11 BMW 650, 800 and 1200 GS bikes, and one little Yamaha 250 that was being prepped for a trip around the world. That rider had put in his time with the army, recently retired, and was looking forward to spending a couple of years traveling. Now we were headed for a dirt road that goes over the Continental Divide at Boreas Pass, a modest 11,481 feet above sea level. The road was dry and we sped along at a mildly immodest pace until getting to the top, where we dismounted for a photo and a wander-around, looking at some old buildings.
An elderly gent, who had driven up in his SUV, came over to find out about this gang of bikers and spoke to a member of our staff, who explained that we were a group of veterans out to clear our heads. The week was free for all the participating vets, funded by donations to the non-profit Motorcycle Relief Project (MRP). The gent said he had been in the army in the peacetime late 1950s, pulled out his wallet and gave the staffer three Jacksons, saying he thought this a worthy cause.
I’ve been to a lot of places, done motorcycle tours on six continents, and did not think there was much left to surprise me. Until I walked into the office one morning, returning a test bike, and Tuttle pointed at me and said, “He’s the one!” Jenny and Greg agreed. Turns out that half-an-hour before, a fellow named Tom Larson had called up and asked if the magazine would like to send somebody along to cover a weeklong “adventure” tour in the Rockies. The MRP is set up to help vets who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety problems. Since I’m a vet, and always anxious about getting my column in on time, I qualified.
When Tom, the founder of MRP, came up with the notion a couple of years ago, he had no idea the extent of the work that would be involved. Tom is one of those people who like to do good works, and fortunately his family is very supportive. His previous non-profit project was bringing clean water to those who did not have it, now active in four countries. Liking new challenges, he moved on to the problems that face many veterans, one being the sense of not really fitting into the civilian culture. And the suicide rate among vets is a horrifying 20 or more a day. All vets belong to a loose tribe, with a secondary tribe being those who ride motorcycles. With that communality, Tom was looking for participants who had issues they were struggling with—and would be willing to talk about them. No religion, no politics.
Back to the very beginning of the ride. Sunday evening we had all met up near Denver for a little get-to-know-you dinner, with the eight participants coming from all over, Vermont to Washington state. Some flew in, others drove or rode. And five staff members, one of whom would drive the bright red chase truck. Next morning we saddled up, those of us without dual-purpose bikes using the small fleet of BMWs that Tom has collected. Heading south, we stopped in Deckers for lunch, and then went into the U.S. Forest Service’s Eleven Mile Canyon, a dead-end dirt road running along the South Platte River, with fishermen cursing the non-biting fish, ending at the bottom of a 135-foot dam. We all did well on the dirt, which obviously made Tom happy. Over the phone he has to determine the applicant’s ability to ride on both pavement and dirt.
Exiting the canyon, we headed for the little town of Florissant, best known as home to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Not being out to see fossils, we rode three miles up a dirt road to a remote cabin…with no cell reception. A big cabin, I should say, with three floors, housing all 13 of us.
Soon supper was served. This was all done relatively inexpensively, using an outfit called Dream Dinners. Tom needed four dinners and a couple of breakfasts for 13 people, and called up the Dream team, who prepared and froze the meals, like pork chops with mashed potatoes, chicken burritos, sausage omelets, etc. Of a morning eggs would be scrambled, bacon fried and muffins toasted. This effectively minimized the work that needed to be done in the kitchen, and the food was quite good. Three times we made sandwiches, which were carried in the chase truck until time for lunch.
Around the table in the evening we each gave our high point and low point for the day’s ride, with humor being a major factor. I laughed a lot during that week, as did we all. Several of the guys were still in the service, some had made a career of it and retired, others had done their two or three years of duty.
After dinner we got up, cleaned up the meal mess and went to sit in a rough circle in the living room. Now we were getting into the therapeutic side of the trip. And I was mildly astonished at the relative ease with which some deep, dark, unspoken secrets came out. We had become that little band of brothers, all good, strong men. Two vets had been in Vietnam, one vet had never deployed to a war zone and the rest had seen duty in the Middle East. But this was less about the blood and bones sort of trauma one sees on a battlefield, and more to do with the anxieties of daily living.
Being in the service is rough on marriages. Spend a year on deployment, and when you get back the spouse has changed, the kids have grown. And you have changed. That first evening, and the three following, was intense—in a very good way. There is something about being amongst people you do not know, but who do understand what you have been through, that allows a formidable familiarity. We talked about events in our lives that we might not ever have shared with long-term friends, while here was a sort of like-minded anonymity that allowed us to share. As I said at the beginning, this was a trip I had not taken before.
At the end of each session we did a bit of yoga—led by a drill sergeant. This was one tough dude whom I’d want at my back in any scuffle, and he had developed his own version of yoga, which he explained using cheerful scatological and sexual adjectives. And it was effective; at least I fell asleep quite easily every night.
We looked after our own bikes, checking tire pressures and whatnot each morning. The second day we checked the weather forecast—good—and headed for Pikes Peak. That mountain has had a good many names, from the Ute’s Sun Mountain to the Spanish El Capitan and finally Zebulon Pike, an American explorer who tried climbing it in 1806 and failed. The trip is much easier today, with the 19-mile Pikes Peak Highway, all paved, going up to the top. There, the visitor center makes scrumptious doughnuts—at 14,115 feet up in the sky, the dough is much lighter.
After descending the peak we rode over to Manitou Springs to eat our sandwiches in the Garden of the Gods, a dramatic park with odd-shaped sandstone formations all over the place, some going straight up 300 feet. Then home via a dirt road through the recently burned Rampart Range. When it began to rain after 20 miles and the red mud developed a nasty slickness, we detoured to pavement.
Third day, Wednesday, it was down to Cañon City and the stunning Skyline Drive. The drive is a very narrow, one-way, seven-mile paved road, of which four miles are along a very, very thin razorback ridge, the sides going a thousand feet straight down into the valley of the Arkansas River. Fortunately, none of us suffered from vertigo because at times that narrow strip of asphalt took up 80 percent of the ridge itself. No Armco barriers either.
In our travels, just about anywhere we turned was a great road, a great vista or a century-old house with a dozen bathtubs outside—like Guffey, which is barely big enough to justify a zip code. Friday, the last day of riding, was another eye-opener, going over Guanella Pass at a modest 11,665 feet, dropping down to Georgetown, over to Echo Lake and then climbing Mount Evans. This is even taller than Pikes Peak (by 154 feet), but the road ends at 14,130 feet, so motorcycle-wise we were only 15 feet higher. But it was damned cold (33 degrees) with snow on the road at the top, and no doughnuts. We returned to warmer climes, with me thinking the good riding was over.
Not so. At Echo Lake we headed east along Squaw Pass Road (State Highway 103), with 18 beautiful miles of curves and trees. This ends up in Evergreen, an exurb of Denver where Tom lives. And we had a final dinner, along with a lot of other people who have been supporting MRP. One was the head of the Colorado chapter of the Victory motorcycle owners club. The club had just had its national rally in Colorado, the rally always sponsoring a worthy organization. This year it was MRP, and Tom got a check for more than $19,000.
The two gifts I have spoken of here, the $60 from the fellow on top of Boreas Pass, and now the check from the Victory owners, are of equal weight, showing how people do like to support such an enterprise. If any of you readers feel like helping others, send a check of any amount to the Motorcycle Relief Project, PO Box 3220, Evergreen, Colorado 80437.
More importantly, should you know any veterans whom you think might benefit from the program, tell them to run up motorelief.org and mention that it’s all free, thanks to your generosity.
And I seem to be less anxious about my next column.