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Mudrunning could elevate a shoulder season

Essay by Ed Quillen

Mountain Life – April 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Among my many duties for Colorado Central, I sell ads. For those of us who went to journalism school in the early 1970s with the idea of becoming the next Woodward and Bernstein, selling ads is a dreadful betrayal of our youthful idealism. We’re supposed to be writing exposés of corrupt conspiracies in the military-industrial complex. We’ve sold out to the establishment if we’re writing prose for small-town merchants.

Not that I’m reluctant to sell out. For just $350,000 a year and a company BMW, I’ll put on a three-piece suit, visit the barber regularly, take up golf, and contribute frequently to Dole ’96 campaign to protect my interests.

Even if selling ads doesn’t pay as well as selling out, there is journalistic benefit. George Sibley, who now teaches writing at Western State College, used to own the newspaper when Crested Butte was a ramshackle mountain town, rather than a world-class destination resort.

Every year about this time, George runs a seminar on rural journalism. At one such colloquy, various idealists were ranting about how ad dollars corrupt the virtuous press. But in George’s view, a community publication must carry advertising, “because it maintains your connections to the community in ways that mere reportage and commentary do not.”

ONE OF THOSE WAYS: A goodly percentage of people whom I hit up this month said “We’d like to advertise, but things are really slow this time of year. Come and see me next month.”

Well, if I don’t forget, I certainly will. But waiting until next month doesn’t solve the problem of this slow time of year. Ski season is winding down; behind their required smiles, most of those resort service personnel grit their teeth as they count down the days. Nothing starts until late May, when we have rafting, mountain-biking, fishing, and the other delights of summer. Then there’s aspen viewing, hunting, and skiing again.

ALL WE’VE GOT at the moment is Mud Season. What can we do to convert this Slow Time of Year into Lots of Ads in Colorado Central?

Most modern forms of profitable mountain recreation began as grudging accommodations to necessity. The Utes did not fish and hunt because it was exciting to match wits with trout and elk; they had to put meat on the table.

Fur trappers and traders did not run rivers for exhilarating whitewater adventure; they used their bullboats and canoes to haul peltry to civilization and as soon as they discovered the rapids and sandbars of the Arkansas and Platte, they turned to mules and oxen.

Pioneer miners did not take up skiing for the exhilaration of a plunge through fresh powder; they strapped boards on their feet because it was the only way to get where they had to go. When they had too much to carry in the summer, they tied the stuff across a donkey’s back, and they would have been astonished at the notion that human and burro would, for the sheer sport of it, run across Mosquito Pass, a/k/a “the Highway of Frozen Death.”

So the historic trend is clear. Many popular and profitable forms of recreation began as an unpleasant but necessary activity.

Nothing is much worse than driving this time of year. You see a big puddle, and you don’t know whether it will just splatter your windshield, or swallow your vehicle up to the hubs, stranding you about ten mucky miles from the nearest phone that you could use to call a friend — and it better be a good friend who has about 50 feet of chain and a whole afternoon to waste on getting you out.

WE COULD CONVERT this loathsome necessity into the exciting new sport of Mudrunning The whitewater folks rate rapids on a scale of 1 to 6. We can do the same thing with brownwater:

Class 1: Mild washboard riffles, will not spill coffee on dashboard at low speeds. No significant drops, but wipers must be run constantly to maintain vision. Example — alleys in Westcliffe.

Class II: Some rocks, channel narrows, surface often a mixture of mud, ice, and short but deep chuckholes. Both hands required on wheel, and deft maneuvering necessary. Example — side streets in Leadville.

Class III: Moderate difficulty, challenging for novices and still interesting for the veteran. Deep ruts with high centers to snag the unwary. Constant attention required, speed must be maintained in the narrow range between sinking and losing control. Some sideslip dangers. Example — upper stretches of Ute Trail, which offers one of the longest free-flowing seasons in the region.

Class IV: These are serious, strong enough to smash your elbow if you’re holding a suicide knob when you come into one. Scouting is usually necessary, and rookies should portage with a winch. Long stretches of axle-deep mud mean that four-wheel-drive isn’t enough; this is where the chains come in. Examples — Poncha Loop roads, many back roads in the Cotopaxi area, Four-Mile Road above Fairplay.

Class V: Horrendous holes, many of them keepers that must be avoided, which is tricky because of strong side-tilts leading down into steep canyons. Frequent dangers of rock slides, snow slides and mud slides. Other hazards include log trucks and elk. Much portaging and filling; do not enter without spare parts including drive shafts and differentials.

This is where the cellular telephone or CB radio is worth its weight in gold. Examples — upper Bear Creek, Weston Pass early in the season, Mosquito Pass all year.

Class VI: Only the very experienced — say, propane delivery truck drivers or utility line repair personnel — should even consider Class VI, which can be run only under favorable circumstances with first-class equipment, like a D-9 Caterpilla tractor. In the interest of public safety, no examples are presented.

Once all our roads have been rated, then we can set up competitions for various vehicle categories — mountain bicycles, street motorcycles, dirt bikes, passenger cars, two-wheel-drive pickups, four-wheel-drives, all-terrain vehicles, armored personnel carriers, etc.

EVEN THOUGH every rural county in America can doubtless offer an adequate supply of muddy roads, people would flock to Central Colorado because our mudrunning competitions would be organized.

Early in the season, brave passenger-car drivers could tackle the Ute Trail Course from Salida to Cotopaxi. A week or two later, hard-core four-wheelers would be slushing up the Oak Creek Grand Slalom from Westcliffe, wondering if the next slough would be the dreaded abyss, capable of swallowing a 1973 Blazer without even a hiccough.

Mountain bikers might tackle the mysteries of the back roads of the Baca, where the views are rewarding if they ever look up from the muck. By mid-May in many years, Old Monarch should be open to some serious brownwater competition in the Beater Pickup category — bald tires and cracked glass required, and you get extra points for every quart of re-refined oil you burn en route.

The grand finale of the Central Colorado Mudrunning Season might be the thrilling Mosquito-Weston Loop, where ATV drivers would face a triple challenge — rock, mud, and snow slides — as well as 2,000-foot drops and keepers big enough to hold a locomotive.

From mid-March until late June, Central Colorado could host a different mudrunning competition every weekend. Motels would fill and restaurants would bustle. Tow trucks and mechanics would enjoy record business. Thousands would come to participate, to watch, to cheer on their favorites.

Some would like to enjoy the thrills, but would prefer to engage local guides and outfitters for their mudrunning expeditions.

This could deprive many local residents of their accustomed annual period of unemployment compensation, but there’s a benefit, too. Many traditional skills of Central Colorado — chain-handling, gin-pole management, brush-weaving, rock-sinking, come-along stringing, snatch-block locating, widowmaker operating — are in danger of being lost, and our mudrunning guides and outfitters would preserve these arts for posterity.

IN FACT, if mudrunning and collateral brownwater adventures be came a major attraction, there would be efforts to enhance and extend Mud Season. After all, now that snow is an asset instead of an aggravation, ski resorts buy machines to make snow. Rivers get stocked with fish, and their flow is precisely controlled to maximize commercial rafting opportunities.

So we’d probably see some pavement being ripped up, so that mudrunning sites would be more accessible. Other roads, mere Class I gravel with a few ripples, might benefit from the excavation of a few wallows, perhaps half-filled with imported Georgia red clay and slick Wyoming bentonite. Irrigation ditches might be diverted from low-profit hay fields into high-profit mud runs, so the season might be extended into July and August.

That’s a danger we face if we take up brownwater adventures to alleviate the horrors of the Slow Time of Year. The cure might be worse than the disease.

A FRIEND HERE once complained about being kept busy in the winter. It seemed like an odd complaint, and I said so.

“Yeah, but if I’d wanted to work all year, I’d live somewhere else.”

So maybe we’re supposed to hibernate for a spell, and given the vagaries of the April climate — when else can you be hip deep in icy mud and worry about a sunburn if the wind doesn’t get you first? — this is as good a season as any. If we can live with a seasonal climate, why not a seasonal economy?