The Hotchkiss of Death

Hotchkiss, Colorado: I’m sure it’s a lovely town, but to me it brings to mind cattle-herding delay tactics and serious abandonment issues.

My biggest adventure on Colorado Highway 92, the road I haven’t been on for decades but now may get to know all over again over the course of the next two years, came during a bicycle race.

This was back in my sportswriting days, despite a dearth of sports experience prior to taking it up as an avocation. This was long before I was an interested spectator in bicycle road racing, way back before I knew that “prime” was pronounced “preem” and meant a point inside a larger race eligible for a cash prize.

The West Elk Road Club had tried. I went out on Wednesday evenings to various roads around Gunnison to take pictures of them conducting their summer-long time trials, but I still rarely knew what I was talking about.

Not that this would stop me, as readers of this blog are well aware, but in the case of this race on Highway 92 it put me in a perfect situation to be rather helpless.

This race, which I think was the brainchild of people at Crested Butte’s ski resort, ran for a few years in the late ’80s, generally under the name Munsingwear Classic. One year it attracted a large international field of big-name riders, none of which meant much to me at the time. Now I would be a lot more impressed.

Then, not knowing anything other than to stand by the side of the road and take pictures, I headed out as requested by race organizers to Blue Mesa Dam, where the race was going to start. Whoever was coordinating media did not want a lot of cars on tiny Highway 92, and so the young reporter from the North Fork Times in Paonia and I (the young reporter from the Gunnison Country Times) were put into the 9 News Suburban.

Now we were talking celebrities I understood. At that time, 9News dominated the Denver ratings, and Gunnison High School graduate Dan Dennison was a correspondent for them. I was getting to ride with famous Dan Dennison!

Dan turned out to be a very nice fellow, but trying to take pictures of a bike race from a Suburban didn’t really work. He and his photographer obligingly stopped where their big vehicle could find purchase on the roadside, we would try to photograph the fleeting passage of the peloton, get back in the Suburban and roar past the racers, and we would try again.

Until we got to Hotchkiss. I believe the race turned right toward Paonia, presumably to head over Kebler (not Keebler, sadly) Pass to Crested Butte, perhaps to end with great fanfare at the ski resort.

What I clearly remember is, Dan kindly but without apology informed the other reporter and me that this is where we were getting out, because they were going left, on to Grand Junction to develop their film and prepare their story.

The media coordinator, long since vanished, apparently did not know or care that she had assigned us a one-way ride, and we were not within any sort of walking distance to our cars, back at the dam, or even Paonia, where the reporter lived. We were stranded.

I’m sure Hotchkiss had a pay phone, and I might have been mulling over who to call, or perhaps I was just panicked that I was going to have to spend the rest of my life in Hotchkiss, probably without much cash or a toothbrush.

Dan did us one last favor, though: he spied Gary Sprung and Mark Reaman, members of Crested Butte’s media, standing nearby, and pretty much flat-out told them they needed to give us a ride back. Not stuck in Hotchkiss, but this was an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire event.

The Paonia guy and I were assigned the open back of the little pick-up the two were driving (I think it was Gary’s, but this was a long time ago). But, Mark appeared to have just finished a massive, very angry argument with a woman and he was in a fury.

I really don’t recall the details, not sure I knew them even then, but I’m going to go with the story I’ve always told myself, that this was the woman who went on to become his wife and the mother of his two sons. That way there’s a happy ending that continues to this day.

The two of them completely ignored the two of us as we all got in the truck, and they had a very animated conversation the entire length of the road, which they were driving at the highest rate of speed you could imagine — a lot faster than I would have ever considered taking those curves.

The guy from Paonia — maybe I knew his name back then — and I braced ourselves crosswise in the back, and I just remember watching his not-terribly-long hair flying as we ripped around corner after corner. Finally I shouted, “What do you think our chances are if we miss a turn?” and he just closed his eyes and shook his head.

Not that it wasn’t a whirlwind of a ride, but I would have felt far worse if I didn’t know that people from Crested Butte, at least the people back then, did a lot of driving on curvy roads. Whichever one of them was driving seemed to have complete command of the truck, despite the conversation that required lots of gestures and other reasons to take a hand off the wheel. But it was, and still remains, the scariest ride I have ever taken.

We made it back alive to our vehicles at the now-lonely dam, and were dumped with even less ceremony than we had been in Hotchkiss. Unfortunately for the guy I was with, he had to go back over 92 for a fourth time that day to get home, although I imagine he took it far more slowly, and I drove home along the reservoir, also at a leisurely pace, pondering the life lessons: it doesn’t pay to hang with famous people because they’ll just leave you hanging; always provide your own transportation for any long-distance event; and there is nothing like a high-speed ride in the open back of a pick-up truck on Highway 92 to make you appreciate the tenuousness of life.

You should only do it once, and never again.

For most of these years I have remembered the fork in the road as happening at Crawford, but mapmatically that doesn’t make sense. However, in my internet meanderings about Crawford I happened across this, and it just feels like it ought to be shared. It’s from 2015, so your chance to purchase is likely long gone.

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