After leaving Oklahoma, we cross the border into New Mexico for a short 65 mile section of pretty dirt road before the TAT route heads northwards into Colorado. Already the brown agricultural landscape of Oklahoma is turning greener as we begin our climb towards the Rockies. Once into Colorado we tackle Marshall Pass, the first high altitude mountain crossing on the TAT and one that is symbolic in that it crosses the Continental Divide. From the summit of Marshall Pass at over 10,000 feet it's all downhill from here to the Pacific and the end of the TAT in Oregon. Halfway to the summit the trail starts to gets rockier so we stop to air down the tyres. I'm running 18psi in the weighty Defender to help smooth out the bumps from the boulder strew mountain trails.
Colorado marks the 11th US State on my cross-country adventure and is the first state on the TAT that I've visited before. Trinidad is the first stopover in Colorado. We arrive in town on Labor Day weekend (a US national 3-day holiday), when the rodeo is in town and the State Fair is taking place just up the road. The result being the last room at the normally budget priced Super 8 is $190. My travelling companion Wes and I agree to share a room to spread the cost. In the bar in town that night the waitress enjoys telling the rest of the staff how much 'these two guys' have just paid for a room at the Super 8. She takes pity on us by offering us a free round of beer. We figure we're already ten dollars to the good!
Our occasional travelling companion, dirt biker Matt got delayed another day back in Bartlesville Oklahoma waiting for a tyre to show up for his motorcycle. As we finish our food, he texts us to say he's in the parking lot of the Trinidad Super 8. 'Where are you?' He's ridden over 400 miles in one day to catch us up. No mean feat when almost all the TAT mileage is off-road. Matt spends the night on our motel room floor after picking over the leftovers of our meal.
In the bar a guy overhears our conversations and asks if we're doing the TAT. It turns out he's the head of tourism in Trinidad and wants to know what his town should be doing to attract more riders/drivers doing the TAT and what our requirements are. It's amazing how few people en route are aware of the TAT and we've only seen one sign as we enter a town that acknowledges TAT visitors.
The following night's stop is in the small town of Cotopaxi. The town on the map turns out to be a gas station that doubles up as hardware store, restaurant, car parts supplier, plumbers merchant and entertainment venue. We meet up with Matt again in the gas station as he's trying to work out how to make the percussion buttons work on the electric organ they have in the store. The lady breaks away from making her homemade brownies to give Matt some organ advice. It turns out he can actually play a keyboard!
Matt has already found a campsite for us which seems a rough deal for Wes and I having given up a piece of our $200 carpet for him the night before. I can't take the Land Rover onto the actual campsite so set up the Pop Top in the parking lot. As I ready myself for bed, a young guy sat on the tailgate of his pick-up quietly strums a guitar to himself while singing the folk/country standard 'Will the circle be unbroken'. It's idyllic until the impromptu bedtime 'gig' is cut short by the arrival of the Park Ranger who very politely and apologetically tells me 'That's a badass rig you got there Sir, but unfortunately you can't camp in it here in the parking lot'. He suggests another location a couple of miles down the dirt track where I listen all night to the sound of the trucks on the nearby highway. Country music is full of songs about the romance of the sound of trucks and trains. The reality is very different.
In Salida we ask an old local guy where's the best place to get some food. He points out the diner across the street with the fly swatter he has in his hands. The diner is a restaurant come local community venue. Upcoming event for the diary is a Tupperware party. The waitress hands us our menus reminding us 'We don't do Mexican food on a Sunday'.
Matt leaves us for now. He's not sure where he's heading for tonight but Wes and I do. We're heading for Ouray. The off-road capital of Colorado where even the Sheriff drives a Jeep Wrangler. We get there. Eventually. After a mix up we take different TAT routes into Ouray. Wes follows Sam's TAT trail. I follow GPS Kevin's trail. Both take in Engineer Pass but take very different routes off the 12,800 feet summit. Both feature first/second low crawls down a boulder strewn trails and whilst negotiating our descents in the fading light we're both sure the other is sat drinking beer in a bar. We're both very wrong.
Arriving in the pretty town of Ouray I have a drive around to see if I can spot Wes's Jeep. There's no sign of him but I bump into James and Amanda a couple doing the TAT in their well-equipped Discovery 2. In the way that people do on the TAT I'd already heard about 'The Discovery couple' They're just checking into a motel. They've camped every night so far so this is their treat to themselves. They look like they need it! The Discovery had suffered electrical problems - obviously - and they were having to resort to shorting the starter motor contacts to start it. I notice they left one of their rear windows open all night. Broken probably...
As we swap TAT stories I spy Wes drive past the top of the street and head off to try to track him down. Ouray isn't a big place but I can't find him. With no cell phone signal, I figure I'll check into a motel and I'll find him somewhere. Sure enough I walk from the motel to Ouray's main street and spot the Canadian flag fluttering from Wes's CB aerial on his Jeep. He's parked outside a pub. He figured where's the most likely place a British guy is going to show up in town. A pub of course!
The plan the following day is to drive Back Bear Pass, an infamous high altitude trail. The summit tops out at over 12,000 feet but it's the descent that provides the real entertainment. A steep narrow rocky trail with off camber sections clings to the side of the mountain above terrifying thousand feet drop offs. And that's before you get to the succession of tight switchbacks. We awake in the morning to low cloud and rain. Not ideal Black Bear weather. We decide to postpone until tomorrow. I do some writing and picture editing. Wes empties his Jeep and decides to mail a box load of unused stuff back home to Canada that he's tired of listening to bouncing around in the back of his Jeep. At lunchtime we go to a bar. At midnight, we're still in the bar...
The following morning the weather is perfect for Black Bear. My head isn't so perfect and Wes has mysteriously acquired a sprained ankle. We press on regardless. The trail lives up to its reputation. The drop offs are huge and scary and the switch backs require a few shunts to negotiate in the Defender 110. It's a first-low crawl for the rocky sections and let the car walk itself down. An old 'Jeeper' in the bar the night before had advised us to 'Just trust the process'. Nevertheless, when the tyres occasionally slide on the polished rocks on the steepest sections, the 'process' can provide heart stopping moments.
The Black Bear trail ends in the town of Telluride. Colorado is a beautiful state but Telluride is its trump card. Nestled in a steep sided mountain valley, the affluent but hippy vibe of Telluride is a million miles away from the American south. European brand cars are now noticeable. The people look healthier and words like 'Organic' and 'Fair Trade' are everywhere. We park the trucks outside a Pet Boutique. Walk past a coffee shop with a rack of free cycle items outside and go into a bar that is playing Mumford and Sons and the Old Crow Medicine Show. Telluride is that kind of place. When you've made a few million dollars you buy a second house (made of logs) in Telluride and 'hang out' on its main street. I'm prepared to forgive it it's 'Hipster' vibe (even the Mumford and Sons tunes) as its main street remains refreshingly free of American chain names. Unfortunately, as we toast one another at having earned bragging rights forever by driving over Black Bear Pass, we realise we can't afford to stay anywhere in town and so we need to press on. Next stop Utah.