It's all down hill from here - literally. Squatting next to the Continental Divide, Frisco, CO, is the perfect base for exploring some of the most elevated highways in America.
I pull into Leadville, CO, with a dry mouth and a parched throat. I'm parked outside the Silver Dollar Saloon, est. 1879, but my ride isn't over for the day so I settle for a Diet Coke from a sidewalk teriyaki stall.
"Aren't you Robert Smith?" It turns out the stall owners are Steve and Judy Perry, who I met at the Seattle Motorcycle Show a few years before when I was working the RoadRUNNER booth. Steve and Judy abandoned the Pacific Northwest's perpetual gloom for sunnier climes in the Colorado Rockies. I'm amazed they recognize me, but I guess the motorcycle gear, camera and notebook are a bit of a giveaway.
It's Leadville's annual Boom Days, and the main street, while closed to traffic, clamors with teens in period costumes, kids taking burro rides, and a parade. Of course arriving in time to enjoy the festivities was careful planning on my part - not!
Day 1: Going Up - Aspen, Independence Pass, and Leadville
My day starts in Gateway, CO, where I ride away from the 2011 Victory model press intro on a pearl white Victory Cross Country. The X-C is a stable mate to the outrageous Victory Vision and boasts a similar feature-rich specification though more conservative styling. Mine is cowboyed up with the optional lock-and-ride trunk and features Victory's new, bigger, six-speed, 106-cubic-inch Freedom motor. Though imposing at rest and rather daunting at slow speeds, the X-C quickly gobbles up the freeway miles from Grand Junction to Glenwood Springs on I-70.
As I leave Glenwood Springs on I-82's broad, divided pavement, angry charcoal clouds are coalescing, and by Carbondale they're firing fat splats across the X-C's windshield. I struggle into my rain pants, only for the shower to pass through, and by Aspen the sun is out again and I'm steaming inside my rain gear. The two-lane highway into Aspen is packed with crawling tourist traffic, and the town center, while as quaint and trendy as ever, looks a little tired to me. This isn't true of the residences surrounding it, however, and the care lavished on them reflects their value.
The ride toward the 12,095-foot Independence Pass is more interesting. Scaring away less-intrepid tourists the narrow, winding road clings to the mountainside with precipitous falls below, loose gravel in the turns, and a surface badly beaten up by frost heaves. Nervous drivers, including me, take it slowly. About 10 miles on, however, the road widens as it swings through a broad valley of aspens. Along with Loveland, Independence is one of few passes that climb above the tree line. At its summit it feels like it should be on another planet: bald, rocky and breezy under fierce, blue mountain light.
The scenic switchback ride down the east side drifts gently toward Leadville, just a 2,000-foot drop, and back into the aspens. One of the highest permanent settlements in the U.S., it was gold and not lead deposits that brought prospectors to the area in 1860. The city's wealth spawned a theater, the 1879 Tabor Opera House, once claimed as the finest between St. Louis and San Francisco, and it attracted such notable westerners as the James Gang, Doc Holliday and Buffalo Bill.
Heading north for Frisco on I-91 I crest the 11,380-foot Fremont Pass, which at just 1,000 feet above Leadville seems like a non-event and opens on to an expansive valley, where a two-lane highway sweeps between rolling, forested mountains and mirror-like lakes down to I-70.
Born of the mining boom and incorporated in 1879, Frisco is now a tourist town serving four major ski resorts, including Breckenridge. It exudes cozy charm from its restaurant-lined main street, where I find the equally charming Frisco Lodge, my base for the next four days. The lodge, built in 1885 as a stagecoach stop, is one of the oldest buildings in town, though its exterior has been revised in Alpine chalet style. It's delightful.