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Stuck in the Rockies: Switching Gears in Fruita

A mountain biker heading up towards the Bookcliffs. (Ted Mahon)

As I suited up to ride at the trailhead for the North Fruita Trails— a favorite mountain biking destination for Roaring Fork Valley locals— I noticed the flyer conspicuously posted at the information kiosk. It was a statement from the BLM about updates to the North Fruita Trails Master Plan.

It began with an announcement of the addition of 30 miles of new single track in the coming years. That will almost double what is currently available to mountain bikers.

Mentioned just underneath that statement was even bigger news: effective April 8, Class 1 pedal-assisted e-bikes are permitted on all the area trails.

As I pedaled off on my ride, it was hard not to think about how much had changed since I first rode these 18 Road area trails outside Fruita, Colorado.

In the late 90s, a friend first invited me to come along for a day trip there. We drove up the dusty washboard road north of town to a dirt parking area below a feature known as the Bookcliffs.

I only recall three or four trails at the time and about as many bikers. Most people were riding hardtails. Full-suspension rigs cost a few thousand bucks, which seemed like a luxury rather than a requirement. Bikes still had front derailleurs, tubeless tires and dropper posts weren’t yet available, while the concept of an e-bike was practically science fiction.

We lapped a trail called Prime Cut, which was a predecessor to the purpose-built flow trails so common today. It was smooth, fast, and fun. It’s no wonder that trail style has become so popular.

There was another memorable trail called Chutes and Ladders. It was slightly more technical, with rolling descents into the dry wash immediately followed by short, punishing anaerobic climbs. If you didn’t shift into granny gear early in anticipation of the transition you could tear your derailleur off or break a chain.

Joe’s Ridge was the highlight. This single track cruised along the spine of a hardened desert dune, more akin to a rollercoaster than anything we had in the Roaring Fork Valley at the time.

The BLM has invested a lot in the area. (Ted Mahon)

There were campsites available back then — everything was first come, first served. I have memories of a mad dash to get there on a Friday evening to claim a site for the group. Vehicles loaded down with coolers, bikes and firewood would race up the dusty 18 Road with hopes of getting one of the limited spots. If you showed up late, you were usually out of luck.

A lot has changed since then. While the main parking area is still dirt and the road is still tedious washboard, the 18 Road area, or North Fruita Desert as it is now officially called, has evolved into a premier bike destination.

The trail system has been built out further with each passing year, and the recent announcement of 30 additional miles ensures that it will continue.

Zippity Do Da is like Joe’s Ridge on steroids, and both trails have been extended further south. The cruisey Western Zippity trail is a pleasant uphill single track to access them both.

Descending Zippity Do Da. (Ted Mahon)

Vegetarian and Down Uppity offer more loop options to build off Chutes and Ladders on the east side. Pumps, Bumps, and Rollers (PBR) is a crowd favorite, like Prime Cut, but with more fun features, as the name implies. It’s a great run to end the day. Be sure to stock a few PBRs of the canned variety in the cooler for afterward at the trailhead.

And the run that started it all for me, Prime Cut, is designated as uphill only. As trail networks get busier, managers have learned the benefits of having directional trails to help with flow and reduce collisions. Prime Cut is the most fun way to climb uphill that isn’t on a dusty road. Its central location within the trail network provides convenient access to everything.

I find the camping situation is much improved as well. There are now many more established BLM campsites, 111 to be exact, each with picnic tables, concrete slab fire rings, maintained outhouses, and — in some cases — tent platforms.

You can reserve them on recreation.gov for $28/night. Some can be booked months ahead of time, and others open up for reservations four days in advance. And a small number of them are put aside for the last minute folks— those sites open on a first come first served basis every afternoon.

If your inner dirtbag finds that nightly rate too steep, there are still some dispersed (free) camp options south of the area.

Some find this level of organization takes away from the camping experience. I like knowing I have a spot lined up before heading out there. And from an impact perspective, the reservations system, proper campfire rings, outhouses, etc., will allow the area to function more sustainability for many years to come.

Allowing e-bikes on singletrack is the contentious topic du jour. In the Roaring Fork Valley, they’re permitted on Forest Service dirt roads and trails where motorized travel is already allowed. They’re also allowed on paved bike paths, to encourage e-bike commuting to town and work. But as of summer 2022, they aren’t permitted on singletrack trails that are off-limits to motorized travel.

A trail sign indicating e-bikes are allowed. (Ted Mahon)

The BLM manages public lands of the North Fruita Desert. They have different guidelines the than National Forest. After collecting public input from the community earlier this year, they decided to open the North Fruita Desert trails to Class 1 e-bikes.

They’re already permitted in nearby areas like Rabbit Valley, where motorized travel is also allowed.

According to the staff at Over the Edge Sports— the bike shop serving the Fruita community for 27 years— the outreach from the BLM regarding e-bikes was lengthy. They included the community in the discussion, and while differing opinions on the matter still exist, they respect the decision.

They see public opinion slowly becoming more amenable to the idea of e-bikes on the trails. According to one employee, “The quantity of haters is diminishing.”

From the sounds of things, other areas like the Kokopelli trails are expected to be opened to e-bikes in the future.

Rather than lament these changes, let’s embrace them. The North Fruita desert will remain popular, and the number of riders there will continue to grow. Building out the trail network to accommodate this growth is warranted. In addition, the developed campsites improve the experience.

We should also be open-minded to the idea of sharing the trails with e-bikers. They can coexist out there with the rest of us.

As the landscape shifts around us, we have to adapt. Change can be uncomfortable, but it can lead to improved outcomes and be an opportunity to make things better.

I like reminiscing about those early rides on my old, steel Trek 930. But I much prefer the full-suspension bike I’m on now. And I like what’s become of the North Fruita Desert Trails area.

Aspen Art Museum presents ‘Mountain/Time’ video art exhibition

IF YOU GO …

What: “Mountain/Time”

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Friday, May 27, through Sept. 11

How much: Free

More info: Related events include the panel discussion “The Archive as Future Knowledge” (Saturday, May 28, noon) and a performance of “Itinerant Cinema” by Korakrit Arunanonchai and Alex Gvojic (Wednesday, Aug. 3); aspenartmuseum.org

Don’t expect to lean back in a chair in the dark with a bag of popcorn and passively take in the Aspen Art Museum’s ambitious new video art exhibition. It will be an immersive and active experience, according to curator Chrissie Iles.

“People may think, ‘Oh, a video show — that’s a bunch of projections on a white wall,'” said Iles, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, who put together the exhibition with Aspen Art Museum curator at large Anisa Jackson and assistant curator Simone Krug. “Absolutely not. Every room in this show is different.”

Titled “Mountain/Time,” the 12-artist show opens Friday and includes site-specific pieces made for Aspen along with work on loan from the Whitney’s holdings and the vaunted Rosenkranz Collection. It fills all of the gallery spaces on three floors of the museum, with galleries subdivided into smaller rooms so that each of the artists has their own distinct gallery environment.

“When Nicola (Lees, the museum director) invited me to curate the exhibition, the first thing I did was think about the site,” Iles said Wednesday at the museum during a break from the bustling late stage of installation. “Because large exhibitions of moving image installations like this one don’t occur very often, period. And when they do, we always see them in cities. They’re always seen in an urban context.”

She could not ignore the mountains surrounding the museum.

“As a curator, I feel that the environment we see an exhibition in really matters,” Iles said. “Seeing an exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum is very special, because you’re never not looking at the mountains — when you come out of one gallery and into the other, the mountains are there.”

Thinking about a show of video work, also referred to as “time-based media,” led her to thinking about the concept of mountain time — not the Greenwich-based time zone but the millions of years in a mountain’s lifespan, the local aspen tree root systems that have been here since the Ice Age, the ways the Rockies force you to think in broader geological time frames.

Iles’ preparation for this show brought her to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to go deep on local geology and forestry, to the Aspen Historical Society to study archives and maps, inside Smuggler Mine and to ghost towns here and at the historically Black ghost town Dearfield on the Front Range.

You won’t see that research on the walls anywhere in the museum in “Mountain/Time,” but it informed Iles’ curatorial decisions.

“Even the trees’ root system was telling us something about the ways in which the artists were working, actually,” Iles said. “And so that started to really tease out the works, and what their relationships could be to each other.”

The artworks explore identity, geography and culture, and as the museum’s description has put it, “ideas of re-mapping, migration, Black and Indigenous geographies, storytelling, and time, in themes inspired by the intertwined histories and geographies of the mountains and their ecological systems.”

The Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, for example, created a viewing room where the floor is made of soil and explores, in part, film-making and screening traditions of a region of northeast Thailand where outdoor screenings of films are part of a spiritual practice.

“When you walk in there, you can smell the earth,” Iles explained. “And then the walls are made of kind of fabric that he made with the staff here at the museum. … The projection itself occurs as an element within a larger environment.”

The Mohawk artist Alan Michelson has made Aspen movie screen-like surfaces out of blankets and fabric — one horizontal and one vertical — onto which he projects a manipulated and dreamlike version of the 1941 western “They Died with their Boots On,” with Errol Flynn as a heroic version of Gen. George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn alongside a second film using documentary footage of indigenous leaders visiting the actual battle site in 1926.

“He’s really taking film footage from an archive and then Hollywood film footage and remapping history from an indigenous perspective,” Iles explained.

Other artists in the show include Maia Ruth Lee, who was born in South Korea, raised in Nepal and settled in New York but moved to Salida when the pandemic hit in 2020. The museum’s second-floor corridor is home to the artificial intelligence “BOB (Bag of Beliefs),” created by Ian Cheng. “Mountain/Time” also includes work by Doug Aitken — who had a solo show at the museum in 2006 — along with Kahlil Joseph, Kandis Williams, Arthur JafaTourmaline, Anicka Yi and Mark Leckey.

Clarissa Tossin, of Brazil, divided her room in two and included in it sculpture and video of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, depicting its so-called “Mayan revival” design elements, alongside with footage of actual Mayan dance and music.

“The relationship between sculpture, projection and dance and sound and music — it’s very holistically interwoven,” Iles said.

The much-anticipated exhibition, due to run through Sept. 11, had been scheduled to open concurrently with Gaetano Pesce’s “My Dear Mountains” — an inflated sheath-like work that would shroud the facade of the museum. Pesce’s installation has been delayed, though a collection of his ceramic works will still go on display in the museum this week.

Iles suggests that there is no one way to experience “Mountain/Time,” that viewers can have fulfilling experiences by exploring one floor or one gallery or by taking in every moment of every work.

“I think that you should give yourself lots of time,” she said. “People stand in front of paintings for, what, 10 seconds? 30 seconds? This demands more time but it’s very immersive. … It’s not like a movie where you go in, it starts at 7 and you leave at 8:30.”

Some of the works are more narrative than others, and one (the AI-based “BOB”) is infinite in duration. But spend any time in any portion of the show, Iles predicted, and you will start to find connections for yourself.

“Each work is telling a story, and then the exhibition itself is telling a story,” she said. “So you’ve got lots of stories within stories.”

atravers@aspentimes.com