The Cardinal Challenge West: A Different Angle

Click here to read the first post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge: Origins

Click here to read the second post in this series – The Cardinal Challenge South: Slipping Away

Click here to read the fourth post in the series - The Cardinal Challenge North: An Escape

Click here to read the fifth post in the series - The Cardinal Challenge East: Reflections

Words by Brett Davis

My wife, Diana, and I live in a condo, which means we share walls with our neighbors. To the east is Dave, a retiree who spends his days on his own never-ending Cardinal Challenge, hiking and riding his bike to explore all of the places he has yet to visit after 30 years of living in the southwest. To the north above our garage lives Nan and her teenage daughter, Sailor. They are always on the go, as one might imagine for a single working mother with a teenager who has an active school and social life. To the south is our balcony, which is perched above a commercial business plaza. Delivery trucks and customer traffic keep the view always changing. Only to the west do we share a wall with solitude. Our bedroom, kitchen, and living room windows all open to the La Plata Mountains, a sub range of the mighty San Juans. Due to our one and only view, the cardinal direction of the west is always prominent in my thoughts. Consequently, it is also one of the areas I have explored the most, having skied, biked, hiked, and climbed extensively in that direction. Determining the west route and mission was going to be interesting.

As it frequently happens, things fall into place when I find myself on the right path. After a few text messages with friend and fellow adventurer, Steve “Doom” Fassbinder, the west mission was determined. Diana and I would load up mountain bikes—me on my Spearfish and Diana on her Timberjack—and make our way to Doom and his partner, Lizzy’s ranch—located south of Mancos, CO—via pavement and “new to us” trails. The Scullbinder Ranch is located at the end of an unmaintained dirt road on the borders of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park and Mesa Verde National Park. It is a stunning property with the Mancos river flowing through its heart. Prior to the pandemic, Lizzy and Doom were in the midst of starting their company, Four Corners Guides, a tour company specializing in bikepacking, packrafting, and bikerafting in the southwest. The ranch is the base of operations for permitted trips into the tribal park and beyond. Given that all travel was curtailed by a world turned upside down and avoiding humans was recommended, Doom had been toiling away on the ranch, building a barn/home that would serve as company headquarters. Though numerous friends had been lending their expertise to the project, for the most part, Doom was single-handedly constructing the barn. What better a quest than to make our way to Scullbinder Ranch and help the man out for a couple of days? This was going to be fun. As someone once stated: Helping others is the secret sauce to a happy life.

Diana pedals her loaded mountain bike along a dusty mountain road on a bluebird day.

On an early Saturday afternoon, Diana and I pedaled away from our home and began the journey. Under threatening skies, we climbed a dirt road toward the La Plata Mountains. The initial part of our route was a bit of a gamble as we were unsure of whether or not there was public access through a trophy-home subdivision in order to reach national forest land. We ultimately wanted to access an old irrigation ditch that we hoped to ride to the remnants of the Rio Grande Southern Railway now turned doubletrack. The railway would then deposit us on the top of Mancos Hill for more adventure riding, including some steep hike-a-bike. After crossing private property (which we had permission to do), we would find ourselves on the dirt road leading to Doom and Lizzy’s. All told, we had just under 55 miles of riding ahead of us.

Upon reaching the subdivision we found a massive private gate, blocking all nonresidents from entering and thus, accessing public land. Our plans were foiled. As an exclamation point to our accepted fate, fat rain drops began falling from the dark clouds overhead. We had no choice but to retreat to the highway and ride 15 to 20 miles of pavement in order to reach the railway grade.

With traffic zooming by us, the urge to be off the busy road was strong, so we quickly put the wet pavement behind us. With it raining intermittently and the prospect of a wet night spent outside, we made the decision to retreat to Nan and Sailor’s home away from home, the Mayday Schoolhouse turned cabin. Established in approximately 1890, the mining community of Mayday once boasted a population of 2,000 and was the county seat before Durango took over in popularity. Today Mayday is inhabited by a small group of hardy individuals seeking seclusion from the ever-growing crowdedness of Durango.

A brightly colored, purple and yellow drawing of the old Mayday School is taped to a refrigerator door.

The front of Nan and Sailor’s cabin still includes the old Mayday School sign above the front door.

White prayer flags hang in the sunshine on a taut rope outside Nan and Sailor’s cabin.

Diana and Brett’s loaded bikes rest on the wall of the former Mayday Schoolhouse.

After a warm and dry night in the renovated schoolhouse, the next morning dawned clear with the remnants of the previous day’s showers found only in depressions along our double track thoroughfare. After a leisurely morning start, we continued our ride west. As we crossed the highway into Montezuma County our wheels left tracks in fresh-to-us dirt. Climbing the 4WD road, I kept looking over my right shoulder at the La Platas. Diana and I had now crossed over to their western slope. My usual home view of Silver, Deadwood, Baldy, and Lewis mountains was slowly being replaced by Helmut, Hesperus, Sharkstooth, Lavender, and Mt. Moss. Though I had viewed these peaks from the window of a vehicle moving at 60+ MPH, the easy pace of pedals turning over gives one more time to take in the minute details of the range and to wonder what adventure can be found in the valleys or atop the summits…

Brett pedals uphill through low scrub brush and wildflowers under partly cloudy skies.

Soon it was lunchtime and we were crossing yet another landmark divide. Below us lay Weber Canyon, the home of Scullbinder Ranch. In order to reach the gravel road that would take us the final miles to the ranch, we would have to negotiate a seemingly impenetrable steep slope of scrub oak and cliffs. Let the fun commence. Looking east, I stole one last glimpse of the La Platas before shouldering my bike and beginning the bramble-bashing fall down into the canyon. With our arms and legs scratched and dripping with sweat due to the rising summer heat, we regained our saddles and coasted the final miles to the ranch.

Diana rides her mountain bike down a partially overgrown two-track tail, high above the plateau.

Diana carries her loaded bikepacking bike through waist-high scrub brush and bushes.

Diana pushes her loaded mountain bike down a steep, loose sidehill.

A view of Doom and Lizzy’s property taken from a distance, part way down the mountain side.

 

But then it occurred to him than any progress he had made on his quest so far, he had made by accepting help that had been offered to him.—Neil Gaiman

 

Doom and Lizzy have a formidable vision for creating an adventure tour company like no other. The cornerstone of the business will be the Scullbinder Ranch. Purchased a couple of years ago, the entrepreneurial team has already placed three high-end glamping tents on the property and built some flowy singletrack mountain bike loops. In progress is the “barn.”

Beginning with three shipping containers, Doom is constructing the property’s magnum opus. With a skillset developed through years of supplementing his income for adventure, Doom is a talented carpenter and general contractor. Upon pedaling into the ranch, I was immediately struck by this fact. Incorporating all three containers, the barn was coming along quite nicely with his and hers bathrooms, a state of the art kitchen, an open living area, a loft, and plenty of storage for all of the guide service toys.

Doom and Lizzy’s buildings, under construction, sit nestled up against a mountain side.

Though Doom is the driving force in the creation of the headquarters, he is not without help. Many of our mutual friends (include Diana’s brother) are lending their expertise and time to the cause. I was just the latest to join in on the fun. I must admit, other than a high school shop class or two and a simple home renovation, I am a neophyte when it comes to anything construction related. As I explained all of this to Doom prior to starting the West Challenge, it was clear he could care less. He just needed a second pair of hands to help him get all of the barn’s windows in and sealed. My unskilled labor was just what he needed.

An indoor view of the construction setup, tools ready, and windows waiting in the background.

Two windows completed, a third waits for installation.

Steve stands precariously near an open, upper floor window with a large nail gun while installing windows.

For two and half days, Doom and I shuffled up and down ladders; balanced ourselves and expensive windows on scaffolding; and worked non-stop to get the barn’s glass installed. Each evening we would retire to the riverside patio of their little shed turned cabin where Lizzy would feed us gourmet meals and cold beverages. I would fall asleep exhausted while watching the NEOWISE comet flare across the sky unimpeded by any light pollution. I was also thankful to have not dropped a window or lost a finger to Doom’s table saw. Ahhh, the simple things in life.

Steve and Brett with shirts off, celebrating a hard day’s work in front of the building under construction.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.

Marcel Proust

 

With the inside of the barn protected from the elements, it was time to begin the journey back home. Feeling grateful and ecstatic about what we had accomplished, Doom decided to join me on my ride to Durango. As I pedaled away from the ranch and began retracing my previous tire tracks along the Weber Canyon road, my mind began to wander back to the western view of the La Platas. Through the years, I had already ridden the majority of the singletrack that lay ahead. However, there was one high alpine trail that had eluded me for years and it was the key to making the west loop a loop. Beginning at the tree line, this ribbon of dirt contours its way across a high alpine basin through vibrant fields of wildflowers and rocky outcrops of ancient volcanic rock. The surrounding high peaks are a kaleidoscope of color due to the exposed, mineral-rich soils that have lured miners to this range through the ages—after all, “plata” is Spanish for “silver”.

Brett approaches a long, loose scree field with a singletrack trail running through it.

Photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder

Brett descends a singletrack trail into a lush green valley tucked into high mountains.

Brett rides a narrow trail that climbs through a massive scree field of loose rock.

Photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder

Brett rides a narrow, dirt singletrack trail through wildflowers in the high mountains.

Photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder

Steve rides a wheelie across the top of a grassy knoll surrounded by high mountain peaks.

Once across the basin, the trail begins to climb with more purpose. The riding stops here and the pushing begins as the old miner trail makes its way through a talus field. Gone are the Indian Paintbrush, Lupine, Larkspur, Sunflower, replaced by the occasional Columbine or Alpine Phlox growing in the nooks and crannies of the rockscape. After 20 minutes of struggle, the trail tops out at well over 12,000’ to an isolated patch of alpine tundra. Before me were the backsides of the mountains I stare at daily from my windows. The mountains looked different to me. I recognized the shapes of their summit features but the gullies, chutes, buttresses, and avalanche scars were new to me. Areas that were once just a daydream were revealed in their true identity and I gained a new perspective and understanding of my backyard. Or as Doom stated to me just as we are taking the final few steps of the hike-a-bike, “Davis, it’s pretty amazing to experience your backyard from a different angle.”

Brett and Steve give the thumbs up with a spectacular mountain view in the background.

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Click here to read the first post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge: Origins

Click here to read the second post in this series – The Cardinal Challenge South: Slipping Away

Click here to read the fourth post in the series - The Cardinal Challenge North: An Escape

Click here to read the fifth post in the series - The Cardinal Challenge East: Reflections

This post filed under topics: Brett Davis Explore Mountain Biking Spearfish Sponsored Riders Timberjack

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brett Davis

Brett Davis

I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.

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