Sleepless in Colorado
By Ted Edwards of RoadDirt.tv
Ted Edwards Rides the Prestigious Colorado 500
“I came out of the bathroom at the back of the bar,” Currie Collier exclaimed, eyes wide, “and all I could see was a motorcycle headlight shining at me. I freaked. I mean, who expects that when they come out of the bathroom?”
No one really. Unless you are participating in the Colorado 500.
The Colorado 500 began in 1974 when Indy 500 racer Wally Dallenbach and his friend Sherm Cooper rode their dirt bikes through Colorado’s off road paradise and the old mining towns hibernating in the Rocky Mountains. Encouraged, they did what any riders do to “up the party”- invite more friends. The next year, they invited friends Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Ed Kretz, Lon Bromley, Del Garner and Dick Singer. The Colorado 500 was underway.
Then and now, the goal is to raise money for charity. For 44 years, the Colorado 500 has donated over two million dollars to communities, schools and scholarships for students. World class riders regularly attend such as Kenny Roberts, Malcom Smith, Parnelli Jones, Larry Roeseler, Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Kurt Russell, and a bunch of Unsers to name just a few.
Then there’s me. How a nobody like me got invited involves getting cussed out by an assistant director at Laguna Seca (Very heavily cussed out. Twice. On the same morning.), recognizing a Gurney Alligator on sight and being a pitiful looking vagabond on a motorcycle.
That, however, is a story for another time.
I arrive in Aspen, Colorado for registration Sunday morning and like Gershom in Exodus, I am a stranger in a strange land. My high mileage, 1998 Honda VFR and I arrive at The Inn at Aspen dirty, smelly, camping gear bungeed to the tail and looking like an entomology study from six different states.
For over 4 weeks I have been camping off the bike, and it shows. My smell alone announced my coming long before my arrival. As far as I can tell, I am likely one of the few people who rode here; for sure the only person who moto-camped across many states to get here and definitely the only participant from Washington State. Almost all the other bikes came on trailers. Gleaming, sanitary race trailers pulled by burly diesel trucks that unload tricked out dual sports and mounds of professional gear.
Outclassed and outgunned, I am a toaster at a stove convention.
I walk to the registration table and humiliation begins. Someone rings a cowbell and announces that a rookie is in the house, because to attend the Colorado 500 you have to be invited by a veteran and rookies like me are heavily scrutinized and lovingly hazed. I get sung at during registration, am forced to put a super sticky red “R” on my helmet and “asked” to carry the gear for the veterans during the week. If I mess up, will I be invited back?
My sponsors are good friends from California Hutch and Dawn Collier. Their son Currie is my roommate for the week and we have never met. This could be an interesting week.
L to R, Road Dirt author Ted Edwards, Currie, Dawn & Hutch Collier at the opening ceremonies of the Colo 500. Bikes are in their DNA. Hutch has done a 4-corners tour of America, and Dawn used to race flat track in her younger years.
Currie is an ornamental welder, making artistic railings and things for Silicon Valley millionaires and their palaces. He is friendly with a blue collar work ethic and gets increasingly gregarious with proper application of tequila. As we introduce ourselves and start talking welding practices, he forces me to drink tequila with him, much against my will of course.
In the back of my mind, the list of things that could go wrong over the next week fills my thoughts. I am riding a 90k mile, 20-year old sportbike desperately in need of new chain and sprockets, have never been to Colorado, don’t know the roads, am rooming with a stranger and am road weary after a month of moto-camping. I need laundry, a shower, food that doesn’t come from a pouch eaten with a plastic spork and most elusively, sleep.
Oh sleep, how I miss thee. Weeks of nights camped out in the woods, near the beach, on the asphalt or much stranger places followed by high mileage days have drained me and I need to recharge. Yet, the night goes on and Currie forces me to drink strange blue liquids as we bond talking about welding, motorcycles, and segue into life. I don’t mind staying up late tonight because now I have an actual bed and can sleep in, right? Was I ever mistaken.
Monday morning, 6:00 a.m.
“Ted, it’s six o’clock. Get up!” Currie shouts.
If Currie wasn’t possibly the nicest guy on the planet, I would ignore his shout. His strong work ethic gets him up at 4:30 every morning so for him, this is sleeping in. He also snores like my trusty Stihl Farmboss chainsaw at idle. Guess how much sleep I got… And due to the late night rounds of tequila my laundry didn’t get done, so I am forced to wear crusty road clothes that are stiff enough to ride the bike without me. Rest will have to wait until tomorrow night.
Our destination for the day is Mount Crested Butte, so eight of us street riders gather together and plan a circuitous, 300-mile loop that tracks north before turning south to Crested Butte. This is the one thing that makes me feel like I belong in this foreign world of high dollar bikes and world class riders because after years touring the West, one thing I can do is 300-mile days on twisty roads.
Flowing curves and devastatingly beautiful Colorado scenery. You know what to do.
But the ride is disappointing. Roads clogged with summer travelers hinder our progress and I swear if I see one more Winnebago with fluffy white dogs in the back window, I will pull my clutch and pin my throttle until my exhaust roar makes them pee on the rear sofa. It’s not until we turn south and reach Monarch Pass that things improve.
At the summit, Hutch waves me on past him, Dawn and Currie. Ahead of me is octogenarian Phil Weida on his BMW GS1200. Phil is a veterinarian who can’t seem to retire and a Colorado 500 veteran of 39 years so when I get stuck behind him, I begin rehearsing ways to apologize to the old man for passing him.
But I can’t pass. Phil is an ace in the curves and he makes that big Beemer dance like no one in their 80’s should be able to do. Heavily impressed, I settle in, play tail gunner and watch the show. It’s a fleeting moment of only a few miles and the only time that day that things get fast. Nevertheless, I still feel out of my element.
This is Currie’s first week long tour and he is celebrating every element of the event: the roads, people, terrain, and camaraderie. So at Mount Crested Butte that night, Currie decides to celebrate until late. Again.
Tuesday morning, 6:00 a.m.
“Ted, it’s six o’clock. Get up!” Currie bellows.
Currie’s nightly celebrations involving anonymous Mexican liquid (of which he forces me to partake), his ability to instantly fall asleep and begin snoring wear on me like nightly Chinese water torture. I don’t let it show because by now, we are tightly bonded by the ride, and I don’t want to ruin things. This is good for Currie’s well being. Otherwise, I would beat him with a hotel room pillow filled with my laundry quarters.
Despite this being Currie’s first multi-day tour, he is a swift rider and puts his BMW GS1200 through its paces (why do they all ride Beemers?). There are times I want to stop and take photos for this story but I fear that if I pull over, Currie will already be in the next county. Since I have never been to Colorado and am a rookie, getting lost would not be a smart thing. I want to be invited back, after all.
We ride from Mount Crested Butte to Telluride for lunch, then backtrack to camp at Ouray, Colorado. Ouray is a tiny, warm town hiding in a box canyon and the 200 motorcycles from the Colorado 500 invade like a giant herd of scudding cockroaches, bikes and riders scurrying everywhere with cacophonous exhausts, overwhelming the small town peace.
At camp, Currie forces me to join him in polishing off a bottle of whatever strange Romulan ale he just set in front of me. We stroll down the street to The Outlaw restaurant and when I walk in, I think it strange that the wait staff podium is in the corner. This doesn’t make sense. Have I had too much Romulan ale?
Maybe. But there is no denying that a Honda CRF450L is deliberately pointed towards the front entrance of The Outlaw. You see, the Colorado 500 gives generously, both in donations and commerce. The riders throw their tourism dollars to the locals so it allows a few liberties, which is where Ben Cheatwood comes in. Ben is an executive with American Honda and the official ringmaster for this motorcycle circus so he has the street cred to get away with what came next.
Ben throws a leg over the Honda, thumbs it to life and rides it over the sidewalk and through the front doors as I step to the side. Ben continues past me, through the bar and doesn’t stop riding until he reaches the bathrooms at the back of the bar, just as Currie steps out of the men’s room. I haven’t seen so many cell phones whipped out in a bar since Vegas.
Then and there, I am immediately convinced of three things. First, The Outlaw is now my favorite place on earth. Any establishment that allows,…no, encourages this hooligansim gets my medal of approval. Second, everybody should be able to ride their motorcycle up to the bar and order a drink from the saddle. Third, these are my kind of people, this is my kind of place, and I just might belong here.
Ben on a bike in a bar. It is as it should be.
We dine at The Outlaw, I tell Laguna Seca stories that make people laugh until they cry (again, more stories for another time) and Currie forces me to drink more Romulan ale until we crawl back to our hotel where we hot tub past midnight in the cool Ouray evening air. Canyon walls surround our hot tub as my new lifelong friend, who I have known for 3 days, and I talk bikes and life because the two are inseparable. Just like us. Currie thinks this is why we are here, to ride, eat, sleep (barely) and repeat. It’s not. I know better.
Wednesday morning, 6:00 a.m.
“Ted, it’s six o’clock, get up!” Currie yells.
As punishment for these early morning wake-ups, I have decided that my new best friend must die. Given our late night abuse of Romulan ale, hot tub and cigar, my thoughts are muddled and thick like heavy gear oil in the dead of winter. Yet, through the haze of only a few hours of sleep, I swear I remember a Caterpillar D9 somewhere in Ouray that would make digging a deep grave extremely efficient.
But I know what is coming today and I want Currie to see it. It’s why I rode thousands of miles to get here. So I spare his life. For now…
We head south that morning to Silverton on the Million Dollar Highway, which is worth every penny. I am convinced some highway engineer threw angel hair pasta on this part of the map and decided that yeah, that was good road planning technique. Whoever they were, thank you.
You look at the mountains and think there is no way a road could go through there without going straight up a cliff. So the Million Dollar Highway goes out of its way to go around them all. Rocky peaks emerge from around every corner like giant pedestrians loitering by the side of the road, if those pedestrians were 14,000 feet tall, which is deceptive because you are already at 10,000 feet. We hug the sides of cliffs on cold morning asphalt with no guardrails. It’s listed at number 3 of America’s Most Dangerous Roads for a reason.
When we arrive at Silverton, I insist we stay for the presentation at the school. We ride to the school and, with the other Colorado 500 riders, line up our bikes in front of the traditional brick schoolhouse. Then the students come out onto the front steps with their teacher. Total, the school population barely covers the front steps.
Paul Dallenbach, son of Colorado 500 founder Wally Dallenbach and winner of the open wheel class at this year’s Pike’s Peak Hillclimb, makes a presentation to the teacher as a crowd of crusty dirt and street bikers look on through the afternoon drizzle. It’s a check for $1,500.
The teacher beings to cry.
I am guessing by now, most of the students in Silverton School were pressing their faces on the windows and learning was pretty much done for the day. Sorry, teacher.
“You don’t understand,” she says, choking back tears, “These kids can’t swim. There is nowhere here for them to take swim lessons. With this money, we are going to bus them to Durango and pay for their swim lesson so they can be safe.” This is why I am here. This is why all of us are here. It’s why the Colorado 500 exists. Pure generosity. A student’s life, somewhere in the near or distant future, just might be saved because they had swim lessons funded by the Colorado 500.
The drizzle starts. Bikers give muffled claps through riding gloves. I start to choke up. Then I look at Currie over my right shoulder. He is frozen in the mist, oblivious to the elements, staring at the school steps and their students,. “I never knew,” he says softly. A long pause. I don’t interrupt. He continues.
“I get it now. This is why we’re here.”
Yes my friend, this is why we are here. It’s why the Colorado 500 is here. This organization changes lives directly, and has been doing it for 44 years with a smile, a handshake, a check and maybe a few tears. No government red tape. No middleman. It is American love for their fellow man at its most elemental: here is a little something to help you out, and I trust you know how to best use it.
The Colorado 500 changes lives, not just the lives of the students it sponsors and the communities it donates to, but also the lives of the participants, including Currie. I see it in his eyes.
Then Ben Cheatwood, ever the hooligan, yells “To the bikes!” Each student runs from the school steps to one of the over hundred bikes parked in the dirt in front of their school. Through the increasing drizzle, they don the smelly helmets of their owners and throw a leg over muddy bikes.
The Colorado 500 is about moments like these.
Everywhere, kids are on bikes, wearing overly large dirt bike helmets like bobbleheads, pinning throttles WFO until they bounce off rev limiters. Bikers laugh hysterically at it all while exhaust fumes cloud the air.
Best day at school. Ever.
It’s debatable who the bigger kids are. I’m not sure it matters.
We exit Silverton south to Durango then head north over Lizard Head Pass and for the first time, I hit my stride. The mountain roads here resemble my northwest home: remote with smooth, wide radius sweepers lying in open grassy fields among fuzzy evergreens. Maybe I am a little homesick after weeks away, but I could swear I was home. I don’t ask anyone in our group, I just take the lead and cut loose. My VFR and I have been doing this for years and it knows how to play along.
My throttle hand plays with the landscape and my exhaust sings its sweet song to the listening trees as I trail brake to apexes and roll on throttle through the exit forgetting time, place and others. Right now, it’s all about me, my focus and planning two corners ahead. One brief glance in my mirror shows Currie is right behind me. Come along comrade, and try to keep up.
We arrive at Ouray and I see Currie is a slightly changed man. He is now realizing what I have known for years. It’s not about roads, it’s about relationships. Welcome to the club my friend. The club that realizes that motorcycles are the vehicle by which we bond with each other and our environment. And sometimes, every once in a golden while, we get the opportunity to give back. That opportunity is named the Colorado 500.
At our camp at Ouray that night, Ben Cheatwood gives a $1500 check to Ouray Mountain Rescue. The first responders are humbled and thankful while the muddy group of bikers applaud, hoot, cheer and raise a glass. Being a first responder, I would clap along but Currie forces some clear liquid in my hand that has a lime treading water at the top. He is clapping loudly. He gets it. We celebrate (again) with more south-of-the-border in a bottle and I partake willingly with my companion. My bed in Ouray that night is a welcome respite.
The idyllic box canyon in Ouray, CO, where motorcycles just seem to fit the landscape.
“Ted, it’s six o’clock, get up!” Currie shouts.
We are living a charmed existence, but every night with Currie shaves a few days off my life. When I expire, whatever age I die at, I will say that I could’ve lived a few more weeks, maybe even a year, if it were not for Currie Collier. My clouded brain plans his overdue demise. Where was that Caterpillar D9 parked?
We mount the bikes and backtrack to Mount Crested Butte and for the first time we hit true Colorado rain. Big, wet, sloppy drops that sting when they hit like getting shot with a paintball gun on full automatic. My Klim Latitude gear is fully waterproof so I don’t carry rain gear, I just keep riding and tolerate the lack of visibility and traction. In every fairytale, a little rain must fall.
At our banquet that night, fines are levied for offenses both real and imagined. When the MC asks every road rider who did triple digit speeds to stand and be fined, Currie and I both get up and willingly open our wallets because we know where the money goes.
If we had done triple digit speeds. Which we most certainly did not, because that would be very irresponsible and stupid. No road rider should ever go deep into triple digit speeds on the glorious, open roads of Colorado. Because the Colorado State Patrol deeply frowns upon such things. And they are out there. Waiting for you. Silently. In their grey Dodge Chargers with blacked out hoods making them impossible to see. So you should never speed in Colorado. Ever.
“I have to treat you like everybody else,” a trooper might theoretically say. “I don’t care even if you are some kind of celebrity doing a fundraiser. I have to treat everybody the same.” This is what I would imagine the Colorado State Patrol saying. If I ever ran across one. If that ever happened. Which it most certainly did not. Because that’s how rookies like me do not get invited back to the Colorado 500.
Friday morning, 6:00 a.m.
“Ted, it’s six o’clock, get up!” Currie shouts.
I begin to question why I have let Currie live this long. He is one of the nicest people I have ever met, but I cannot keep up. That night, after he fell asleep while I tossed and turned, I grabbed a pillow with groggy anger and plans to end him. But after realizing that Hutch and Dawn might miss him (and I would have no sound alibi) I just bludgeoned him with the pillow. He didn’t budge. I would have filled the pillow with quarters but I used them for desperately needed laundry a few nights before. Clean laundry or end Currie. Life is full of difficult decisions.
The cool morning air, flowing carpets of evergreens and smooth pavement over Cottonwood Pass make Friday surreal. By now, the “fast five” of Phil, Dawn, Hutch, Currie and I are developing a swift, sweet rhythm through this land and I have criss-crossed the Continental Divide so many times I have lost track. I have a feel for our group’s riding style, the proximity of the towns and the many ways to interconnect them. As we crest Cottonwood Pass, a familiar refrain plays on my headphones inside my helmet.
The horseshoe bend descending newly paved Cottonwood Pass is emblematic of the Colorado landscape. Toe slider scrapes are optional, but highly recommended.
“On the road again, Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway. We’re the best of friends, Insisting that the world keep turning our way. And our way, Is on the road again.”
I sing along with Willie Nelson in my helmet, painfully out of key, taking in the scenery, the bikes, my friends ahead of me, and the moment. In a long horseshoe curve descending Cottonwood Pass, I celebrate and give the VFR a little more throttle and lean angle until my toe slider touches the fresh asphalt in a long, flowing arc. I finally belong.
Then it’s over. We have our celebration banquet in Aspen that night and there is both a silent and live auction to raise more funds. Currie knows where the money goes and bids generously, winning a few items.
But the real winners are the students in Silverton, the Ouray Mountain Rescue, the many scholarship recipients and others who benefit from the generosity of the Colorado 500.
I will be back next year. But first, I need some sleep.