TRANS AMERICA TRAIL - PART 1

America’s Trans Am Trail is one of the world’s epic dirt rides, both in terms of mileage and terrain. Its legendary reputation lured six trail-mad Kiwis into a fly-ride adventure…

There we were, sat around a campfire in Australia’s Tanami desert, batting away the flies and discussing our next adventure. We were literally half a world away, but I’d had the Trans America Trail (TAT) in the back of my mind for a couple of years so I proffered the USA as our next big ride.

‘Big’ would be the operative word. The trail starts in Tennessee and runs all the way to Pacific coast Oregon - some 5000 miles - so we decided that the whole of the TAT would take too long. A spot of Google Earth research and a gander at the trail maps revealed that by starting in Colorado and heading west we’d see some of the greatest riding and scenery the TAT had to offer and still be back at work before anyone realised we were indeed dispensable. So this isn’t a tale about the whole trail, but the ‘best of the west’…

The A-Team

First we needed to confirm the team. Well, amongst our ranks there’s half-a-dozen of us who’ll sign up for madcap, three-week, adventures far in advance, without much consideration for leave passes or suchlike. The full rollcall was myself, Tim Stephens, Tony Armstrong, Grant Dalton, Terry Dunn and Scott Wilson. So that was easy…

Then six riders needed motorcycles. This was always going to be a personal thing, and it’s really HOW you want to do the trail that affects your bike choice - there’s no doubt you could ride it (eventually) on a Honda 90 Cub! You do need road legal bikes, so that limits the choice in the USA. There were the dated-but-dependable KLR650 and DR650, which have a loyal following in USA, but Yamaha’s XT660 wasn’t an available option. We didn’t fancy going bigger (some of us having F800GSs at home) as we wanted a more trail/enduro type ride, and we didn’t want anything smaller either. Really, there was one bike which fitted the bill perfectly - KTM’s 690 Enduro. The 690 has awesome power, controlled by a deceptively mellow throttle, and will hit Utah’s 85mph limit with ease, keeping going well into three digits. Add-in its dirtbike specifications and it was just what we were after for fun and misadventure. So, with a base in the States to store the bikes for future escapades, we each shelled-out for a new 690.

Bikes sorted, our true ace card was Tony’s wife, Robyn, driving a support van. We could have weighed ourselves down with all manner of kit, masses of spares and tons of tools. But why go through that when we could keep the bikes as light as possible, have a real blast, cover 200-250 miles every day, and then pop out at a town with a Best Western hotel. There Robyn would have cold beers in the fridge, our bags in our room, and the log-in for the wi-fi all sorted. This worked pretty well for us..!

Hit the Dirt

We air-dropped into Denver, Colorado, on a Friday evening in mid-summer and by lunchtime Saturday we were riding 180 miles down the blacktop of the Ronald Reagan Highway to Trinidad, where we joined the TAT. Good advance preparation had allowed for a lightning-quick turnaround in Denver but we had left some things to bolt on in Trinidad. The Kouba-link lowering kits needed fitting for the shorties, and I still had to load the routes onto the GPS from my laptop. It was a late night, and the excitement of hitting the trail in the morning made for little sleep…

It was hot, but that was fine - it was a nice dry heat. The routines involved in riding together were already resurfacing as we heading west, almost immediately onto dirt road. The pace was pretty fast, probably not the best way to start a three-week adventure, and with rocks becoming more frequent we did well to make it as far as mid-morning before Grant suffered the first impact puncture.

It was all good fun, though. We drew tyre levers, found the best way to prop-up the bike, and got to work. Grant grimaced as Tony scratched his rim with the tyre levers…

This was a 240-mile day and as we headed west we started to climb, leaving the ranch lands for the thicker birch woods of the San Isobel forest range. As it was summer our arrival in Salida at 6.30pm meant we had plenty of daylight left. The evenings ahead would allow us time to relax but on this day we changed-out the bikes’ ‘running-in’ oil and did the last of the fettling. This really wasn’t such a hardship as Robyn was standing-by with cold beer, chips and dips.

High up, it was cooler and it was stunning. The bikes didn’t give a damn though. The fuel injection adjusted to the thinner air and continued to lure us into misadventure. We seemed to be on our own through Marshall Pass (10,800ft) but in Gunnison National Forest we came within range of daytrippers and quads on forays out from Ouray and Lake City, and we shouldn’t have been surprised by oncoming, er, surprises. But Scott was. Dropping over the crest of a hill, he caught sight of an oncoming 4x4 just in time to grab too much front brake, hit the floor hard, and slide under the front of the vehicle. Fortunately, everyone else was fine, and both car and bike escaped without damage. Scott’s shoulder wasn’t quite so lucky. Treat every trail as two-way! Lesson learned!

We refuelled at Lake City and started to climb even higher over the famous Cinnamon Pass. It was the first real high pass (12,490ft) of many we would encounter in the next two days in Colorado. Mid-August, mid-summer, and the snow was still banked-up in the shaded spots. It wasnt just the altitude that had us breathless. This was indeed Rocky Mountain High and there were so many places to stop and take in the view.

As evening approached the temperature dropped and it was prudent to head down into town. At Silverton we joined the Million Dollar Highway, the tarmac ‘special stage’ into Ouray (the Switzerland of America). It may have been blacktop but it was seriously switchbacked and the 690s got to show their roady side. As we rehydrated that evening one of the team commented that ‘today was one of the best riding days I have ever had in my life’. He wasn’t alone and he wasn’t wrong.

Reluctant to leave this terrain behind we detoured out of Ouray the next morning. While the plan was a short day of 116 miles west to Monticello we mischievously headed back east! It wouldn’t hurt to do a little loop, would it? The Corkscrew was a name worth investigating and it easily lived up to it. It began as a rocky, genuinely steep wind back up to those glorious views of the day before. In fact, it was so steep I was questioning why I didn’t swap sprockets the previous evening to lower the gearing. But after 30 minutes of hard slog we were back on our first mountain pass at 12,263ft, and we continued onto Hurricane Pass (12,754ft) before reaching the highest point for the day, California Pass (12,972ft). There were no coughs or splutters from the KTMs but a few wheezes from the over-50s amongst us!

It was probably 11:00am by the time we hit Silverton for coffee, with the realisation we probably should start heading west! And the realisation that this mountain ride - stop for a latté - mountain ride format might come to an end, too!

Utah Saints

Ophir Pass seemed just like any other awesome high mountain ride but as we wound down to the bottom we saw the same birch trees that were growing in the lower forests when we first hit the Rockies. It wasn’t that we were that much lower but it was getting warmer. The forest then gave way to dry grassland. Utah awaited…

As we hit Monticello in the heat it dawned on us that while we had just doubled the planned day’s ride to eight hours, today was designated oil change day. No point showering just yet.

The great thing about having everyone on identical bikes is the economies of spares and simplicity of servicing. Six bikes were lined-up with each team member doing a task. Tony and I handled one side of the bike each, changing screens and filters before rolling it along the line for another member to refill the oil. Another team member was charged with keeping the mechanics’ drinks fresh and fizzy, and this was made possible by Robyn, who had the support vehicle loaded with the kind of amber beverage not available in ‘dry’ Utah.

After eight hours of riding, and a couple more of drinking and spannering, it was perhaps good for us to sit down to a meal of steak and a cup of tea. I’m not sure about having Donny and Marie Osborne singing ‘Puppy Love’ in the background, tho’…

The next day we headed off into terrain straight out of a Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon. Surrounded by sculptural brown rocks, it was searing hot and we thought we’d soon be in the desert. But the trail tricked us. We headed more north than west, entering Birch type forest and over the Lasal Pass into the Manti-Lasal National Forest. The denser fir trees returned and it was actually quite cold. We know how climates can change from one side of a hill to another, and with every change in altitude, but this really surprised us. You start off thinking of ways to stay cool and you end up throwing-on two extra layers of clothing.

With the change in temperature, terrain and flora came a change in fauna too. Deer are widespread throughout the forest and there are certainly bear roaming amongst the trees, though we saw nothing more than their droppings. Was that a good thing? It would’ve been great to see one, perhaps not so good to find one just around a bend in the trail…

As we came over Geyser Pass we saw, in the distance, the bare brown rock of Canyonland - a national park famous for, as you might’ve guessed, its canyons. However, this day’s ride was to end in the town of Moab, where the desert-dry part of Utah really begins. We unpacked our gear in 104-degree heat (37 celsius) and with half-a-day to spare, afternoon proved the perfect time to visit the Arches National Park just to the north of town. The park is home to more than 2000 sandstone arches and these massive sculptures carved by nature are awesome to see first hand. It certainly whetted our appetite for the desert trails to come, some of the best of the entire ride…

Follow Chris and his cohorts deep into Canyonland next issue.

For many more pictures clck the link below...

 

Read full article in RUST - Issue 23 or download as a pdf here

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