Thursday, October 1, 2015

Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Murtaugh to Ouray

The San Juan Mountains of Colorado
The San Juan Mountains as you get close to Ouray, CO
Words by , photos by Mercedes Lilienthal

In the second installment of Around the West in 95 horsepower, we had left Portland, OR and ended up in Murtaugh, ID. 

We awoke to a brisk but beautiful morning on Murtaugh Lake. We got up early to make the most of our second travel day. The orange and pink sunrise was amazing as we packed up the Teal Terror to head to Ouray, Colorado. Our Garmin GPS suggested a convoluted route back to the Interstate from our camp spot, but we went with it anyway. The GPS, who we semi-fondly refer to as “Jack,” took us into an amazing canyon en route to the Interstate; a wonderful surprise and a great start to the day.

We were back on the road, and this second day would be far more interesting a drive than the previous day. Within an hour and a half, we had crossed the border into Utah, and the landscape already became more interesting. There were large rolling hills with vast quantities of nothing in between, which was beautiful in its grand emptiness. We pretty much stop at every gas station to fill up, since our range is only about 150 to 170 miles and there isn’t much gas out there. Glad we have our jerry can.

BMW motorcycle with sidecar and dog
BMW Adventure bike with a dog in the side car!
It was a fairly gusty morning, too. We found it difficult to maintain 65 MPH, but on a down-hill section, we found that semi trucks make for great drafting opportunities, saving both fuel and helping to keep speed. We didn’t get too close; just enough that the semi broke the headwinds. Some semis were even too fast for us!

Another hour-and-a-half in, and we come upon Salt Lake City. The Salt Lake City metro area sprawls out for miles to the north, starting around Ogden. From here south, the Interstate stretches up to eight lanes wide with drivers darting in and out of traffic at rapid rates of speed. Well, more rapid than a 95 horsepower Suzuki, anyhow. This grey vein of concrete and endless low buildings goes on and on. You can never tell if you’ve moved into another city or not. There are signs for bunion care; signs for car dealers—pretty much your typical city stuff—but there seems to be more of it. There always seems to be construction going on, too. Another hour-and-a-half, and we reach Spanish Fork, which will be where the drive starts to really get fun.

US Highway 6
US Highway 6 east between Spanish Fork and Price, Utah.

After a quick lunch, we catch Highway 6, which runs from Spanish Fork to Price and snakes its way through scenic canyons and over Soldier Summit, at 7,477 ft., eventually joining up in Helper where 6 turns into US 191. This stretch of highway is well traveled, but very isolated. There are few gas stations, it is hot and arid in the summer, and it’s generally not somewhere where you’d want to break down. There are regular passing lanes, thankfully. I’m sure a lot of traffic wanted to get by … us. Eventually, we end up in Green River, UT where we catch Interstate 70.

Interstate 70 takes us east through more hot, barren land to Grand Junction, CO but not before we pass the exit to Moab at Crescent Junction. I knew there was a gas station there because of my yearly trip here for work. However, the place always looked strange and I never stopped. This time, we did stop at Papa Joe’s Stop & Go for fuel, which is a dump of a gas station that tries to be a tourist stop by having broken-down cars painted to look like the Mystery Machine and vehicles from the Pixar film, Cars. As we get out of the Suzuki, I hear Mercedes exclaim, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“What’s the matter?” I ask.

“Guess how much fuel is here.”

“$3.50 a gallon?” I ask.

“Nope. Higher.”

“Four dollars?”

“Nope. Higher.”

Done with the guessing game, I walk to the pump. $5 a gallon. Really? This isn’t 2006 anymore. We’d been paying $2.50 a gallon, give or take $0.10-$0.40 cents. This was simply price gauging. We put in five gallons—five too many—and leave with enough fuel to make it to Grand Junction, vowing never to return. The owners are clearly not putting the money back into the facility, by the way.

And just a tip: Although this place looks like the last place to gas up for an eternity, there is gas at the Shell station in Thompson, which is only six miles away, and I’m guessing it’s far less expensive (and less kitschy).

It’s getting warm; likely low 90s. We’ve got the windows down and are scooping up as much breeze as we can manage. Mercedes is manning the air condition, which in our case, is a squirt bottle filled with lukewarm water. But as the wind whips through the Suzuki’s cabin, the evaporating water feels good on your skin, nonetheless.

We exit I-70 at Grand Junction and catch US 50, and fuel up on the south-east side of the town. From here, we’re only a couple hours out. We meander through charming little towns, such as Delta and Montrose, eventually catching US 550. The scenery starts to get interesting just south of Elderige. You can start to see the jagged San Juan Mountains. The road gets progressively windier as we approach Ridgeway, which has an old paddy wagon at the main intersection. From here it won’t be far; about 10.5 miles.

Entering the San Juan Mountains

You know you’re getting close to Ouray when you feel like you’re entering a narrow valley and suddenly you can see mountain peaks. We stopped at the gas station on the north side of the town to fuel up for tomorrow’s adventure. But not before talking with some of the locals.

Ouray, CO sign
Ouray is pronounced "YOO-ray."
The woman who runs the gas station has family in Oakridge, Oregon. I know this because I talked with her last time I was there. I fuel up, and walk inside and she’s behind the counter. I mention the Oregon connection, and she perks up and says she remembers talking to me last year. That’s the kind of place Ouray is. It’s a very small town of just over 1,000 people. I’m guessing it’s pretty tight knit.

I come out to the truck to find a gentleman talking to Mercedes. Turns out he works at the gas station, which also has a host of rental cabins.

“I like your rock sliders,” he remarks, pointing at the Teal Terror. “Subcompact Culture? Is that who makes them?”

“No, the sliders are from Tail Tough; Subcompact Culture is my blog,” I reply.

“Ah, gotcha. I like your bumper, too. I have a Tracker over here.” Naturally, I follow him as Mercedes heads to the lady’s room. The guy has a nice Tracker with a mild lift, some 29” tires, and a several other parts. He’d done a nice job with it. Of course, we end up chit-chatting on and on about the trucks. I ask him how to get to Amphitheater Campground, which is where we’d be staying. He informs me it’s just through town just as you start the Million Dollar Highway. We exchange a handshake, and venture through town.

Main St. in Ouray, CO
Main St. in Ouray, Colorado. 
Ouray is amazing. Most of the streets are dirt, sans the main road. It’s nestled in a giant punchbowl of brown rock and trees. It sits at 7,706 ft. in elevation. It has a distinctive western charm that is filled with a mix of mountain bikers, climbers, off-road drivers, and general tourist types. There are a few excellent eating establishments, two breweries, a host of shops, a couple of outfitters, and a general store.

We make our way to the Amphitheater Campground and it’s incredible. It’s located above the town and you have a great view of it. The sites are good sized and spaced out. I was told it’s quiet, too. We had reserved a spot, so we knew we’d have a place to camp for three nights.

Suzuki Sidekick Camping
A couple of older gentlemen, who both look like they had lived all their lives on a ranch in the mountains pull up in a green golf cart. They are the camp hosts.

“You the Lilienthals?” asked one of the camp hosts.

“Yes, indeed,” we answer.

“So, just remember to keep your campsite clean, food put away. We’ve had a couple of bears—a mother and cubs—come though here the last several nights.”

“OK, we’ll keep our stuff in our refrigerator and our truck shut. Will that be OK?” asks Mercedes.

The duo says yes, and jumps on their golf cart and heads down the path.

So, admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of bears. Mercedes and I encountered one several years ago on a hike in the Columbia River Gorge. At first, we thought it was a running dog; maybe a Rottweiler or something. But with its distinctive run, we quickly determined it was a bear. Luckily, it was about 50 yards or so away from us, but it was close enough for me. Admittedly, ever since then, I’ve been a bit bear-shy if you will. (This may be an understatement …) But part of camping is dealing with things like, well, widlife. So, I’m going to suck it up and get over it.

After futzing with trailer in order to get it level, we cook a quick dinner, get some firewood, and have our first campfire of the trip. Come to think of it, it was actually the first campfire we’d built together while camping by ourselves. In the Pacific Northwest, despite its rainy reputation, is extremely dry in the summer, and campfires often get banned by about mid-July. Now, I know how to build a campfire, although ours wasn’t so successful. But it was great while it lasted.

Ouray Colorado as seen from the Amphitheater Camp Ground
The view of Ouray, CO from the Amphitheater Campground.
We sat around talking about what we were going to do tomorrow. I’d said I wanted to take the Sidekick over Imogene Pass, which is an off-road trail that links Ouray and the town of Telluride via an 11-mile track that peaks at Imogene Pass located at 13,114 ft. I’d done this drive in a 2014 Jeep Wrangler last year, and it was incredible. I vowed to take my own vehicle and my wife up and over this pass someday, and the time was now. The weather report said tomorrow would be the least chance for rain in the next few days, so Imogine Pass was going to happen, and I was totally stoked. I’d wanted to share this incredible place with Mercedes ever since I visited last year. Little did I know that we’d be here almost a year to the date; I didn’t think we’d be back so soon, but I was elated.

We crawled into our trailer-mounted roof top tent for the night, eager for adventure tomorrow. Excited about the next day, and a bit worried about the bears, I hardly slept. However, our upcoming first full day in Colorado would not disappoint, and proved amazing in many respects. Hell, even the latte that next morning would prove to be awesome.

Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Portland to Murtaugh
Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Intro and Preparation

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