The Dirty 1300

Our preparations for this part of our trip down to Belize by way of the States and Mexico saw us meticulously planning every aspect of the journey south, not least the equipment we’d be needing along the way. Sand ladders, mosquito nets, hot weather sleeping bags and a tent with high ventilation properties. Everything needed for scorching deserts and tropical sun. Unfortunately, (as per the last blog) we still find ourselves freezing our ‘proverbials’ off at 12000 feet. It’s not even like we’ve been forced to do this, we’re doing this through choice! My mum recently asked how on earth she gave birth to a son like me. She hates the cold, hates ‘roughing it’ and loves her creature comforts. Conversely, I’d go as far as a dose of frostbite in pursuit of travel if circumstances called for it, as would Liz (lucky for me). As I understand it, the being born bit was all quite natural and run of the mill, however, the travel bit is proving to be rather challenging right now. I do like to think that where there is challenge there is reward though, however optimistic that might be.

We’re now just about coming to the end of what we now affectionately call the Dirty 1300; 1300 miles of dirt roads linking together as the Shadow of the Rockies Trail, and while its been hard its also been breath taking. Sometimes as a result of the cold admittedly but more often because of the stunning views and variation of landscape. If you have nothing better planned for a few weeks, we’d highly recommend it. The maps aren’t always too clear but that’s a part of the fun.


Since our last blog our toothpaste has continued to be frozen for large portions of the day and we’ve discovered that it is still possible to breath while encased in two sleeping bags, two blankets, a thermal top, fleece, balaclava, hood and down jacket. We’ve also discovered what a pain in the backside it is to encase yourself in such regalia to then realise you forgot to put the wash bag in one of the bear bags up the tree a hundred metres away to ensure that no large and furry mammals with big teeth and claws visit us in the night. We love the bears and have seen a few from a distance, I’m pleased to say, but we don’t want them in our tent. It’s a shame they like our food and toothpaste so much as well. It really is rather inconvenient having to hang anything edible or smelly up a tree every night. Everything from soap to chilli and the cloths we cook in go in the bags. Sometimes there’s more stuff up the trees than there is in the tent or car. One evening we were forced to employ the 12 tonne winch to get it all off the ground. (How much food do two people and a dog really need I have to ask myself.)

Bags in tree

The 1300 miles of dirt we’ve trundled along, kicking up great plumes of dust in our wake have taken us through some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve ever seen on our travels. It’s also taken us through some of the most remote and forgotten corners of the USA. We’ve seen the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans living far away from the cities, people tending dusty valleys, herding beef cows on high mountainsides and entire villages abandoned in the wake of recent economic hardships. We’ve been stunned at the number of homes, stores and farms which have so obviously been abandoned in the last few years. To see it is to realise how hard the USA has been hit by this recession. One day, today may well become known as the second age of ghost towns. Whoever wins the next Presidency has one hell of a job on their hands. For us though, the hardships have been different. Tincup Pass, high in the Colorado Mountains, covered in snow for eight months of the year proved to be one such challenge. At 12,140 feet it was once a hellish route for miners to get to a hellish mine. Today it’s a recreational route for hardcore 4×4’s and the route that the Shadow of the Rockies Trail proposed to take us. Prior to tackling the rock-strewn, single track climb we stocked up on food and petrol in Gunnison, some fifty miles to the east and set off for the pass with nervous anticipation of what lay ahead. You Tube had once again proved its worth as a research tool, McDonald’s had also once again proved its worth as a free wifi spot and car park in which to watch people’s home movies of the pass so we had a good idea of what the route was like. Simply put, it’s tough, very tough. Axle breaking boulders lie embedded in the road (using the word ‘road’ loosely there,) the climb is steep, muddy, snow covered in parts and rough enough to rattle the fillings from your mouth.

Tincup Pass

The first fifty miles to the quaint wooden village of Tincup were paved most of the way, then giving way to good and fast dirt. Turning left and skyward out of the village the road immediately becomes rutted and strewn with sharp rocks all the way to Mirror Lake; the point where sight-seers turn back and the 4×4’s with their high-lift modifications and knobbly tires begin to earn their keep. We stretched our legs at the alpine-blue lake and enjoyed the views along the valley. The kind of snow capped mountains, fir-trees, glistening waters and blue skies that sell glossy brochures were all around us. However, time was getting on and if we were to clear the pass before dark we needed to get going. The narrow and rough road hugs the left hand shore twenty metres above the blue water. Setting off we put the Niva into the low gearbox which gave us half the speed and twice the power. We bounced nervously over every boulder in the road but before long we were past the lake and looking to the higher reaches of the pass. See the (easy) stretch along Mirror Lake here:

As the road began to climb away from the lake Liz was out of the car and checking the ground clearance for me as I edged forward over the larger boulders. The Russian build quality of the Niva will easily take a challenge like Tincup in its stride mechanically, but with three hundred plus kilos of gear and our bodies within, it sits low on the suspension and we had chosen not to raise the clearance with a high lift kit before we’d left the UK. We had a couple of inches to spare at most over some of the boulders and we had only just begun.

The first half mile to the end of the lake took half an hour in itself and the bridging ladders that had lived on the roof of the Niva until now had already been used twice. We were doing ok. With the use of the ladders we were clearing the bigger rocks safely without risk of hitting the sump or axle but it was taking too long. Far too long. We decided to keep going, see how the road ahead shaped up but another two miles on and we knew that we were never going to complete the eighteen mile pass with time to spare before dark. Without a mobile phone and without the equipment to last a night at 12000 feet the only sensible choice was to turn back and accept that some things are better left alone when you have three hundred kilos of gear and our bodies inside a little car. We gave it a good go, sulked a bit in the cold on the side of the road and then drove back to Gunnison to come up with an alternative route.

Road to Cottonwood Pass

The alternative was Cottonwood Pass, a hundred feet lower than Tincup Pass but reached via a good dirt road with countless hairpin bends and everyone of them with a view for the front of a Christmas card. We stopped at the top, gasping for breath in a howling wind and attempted to take a posed photograph with John. Unfortunately John loves snow and always becomes totally barmy at the mere sight of it. He eats it, pees himself in it, rolls in it and most of all, attacks us in it with his overflowing excitement. He is unquestionably still just a puppy. With poor photographic results Liz comforted herself with cold pizza while I struggled to put something warmer on. Watch the struggle here:

Cottonwood Pass


Now, having crossed the continental divide between the watershed of the Atlantic and Pacific we are winding our way ever south into New Mexico, Texas and lower elevations where we may just be able to sleep in the same way that normal people do, without the risk of self-suffocation and looking like a Halloween onion.

Featured in our next blog:

  • Its too hot,
  • New Mexico,
  • Tex-Mex, and quite possibly
  • Mexico

5 thoughts on “The Dirty 1300

  1. Inspirational way to start a Friday morning in work!! Thanks for the reminder that its time to start planning next trip! Not that i need reminding as I have just returned from the Irish section of the Carl Stearns Clancy Centenary run!!

    This T E Lawrence quotation epitomises you two!

    “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”

    Liam and Naomi

  2. My goodness – that’s some rocky road ! We have travelled on similar roads (hubby and I – when we were much younger), the length and breadth of southern Africa. Of course, the difference was the temperature, and we always had the added worry of the engine overheating.

    I had a giggle at the video. I had to look up a map to see where you were. You still have a long way to go.

    I think you are both very brave and inspiring.

    • It was indeed quite a road. We’re a little sad that we couldn’t give it a go all the way but its better to live for another day and another challenge than to try too hard and get into ‘bother’ (as you know with Africa.)

      Thanks fo rthe very kind words about the the blog too. xx

  3. Well, great meeting you all today in… Terlingua, Texas! [hope this will not be a giveaway or spoiler]. Looking forward to Monday, camping with a nice fire and some good food and watching John and Spirit [who is running for President] play. If you read this before getting here to Base Camp “The Oasis”, it is 30 miles, not 25!
    Adios… Ara and Spirit
    432 371 3342 Landline for more questions if you have.

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