High Country Etiquette: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

After three years, I finally encountered my first example of high country road rage. So sad… But I also encountered several groups of great people all associated with the FJ Summit (more later).

Yesterday (Friday) found me way in the high country, going up Ouray County Road 18, stopping at Engineer Pass and Animas Forks, Picayune Gulch and Placer Gulch, California Pass, Hurricane Pass, and Corkscrew Pass. I also took in several side roads and will post on those separately.

The rules

But…let’s review the rules: Many, many people love visiting the high country in the summertime, and the end of July/beginning of August is high season. The roads are rough and in many places very narrow. The vehicle going uphill has the right of way (because it’s safer to back up a hill than to back down a hill). But…and the authorities emphasize this, use common sense! The roads are shared by Jeeps/Jeep-equivalents, ATVs, UTVs (like an ATV but with side-by-side seating–becoming popular), and motorcycles. In general, a motorcycle must travel faster (8 to 10 mph minimum) to stay upright. But a Jeep often can do no more than 3 mph. So…if there’s someone behind you, let them by at the first safe opportunity. I’ve never had a problem with this—usually drivers will see my headlights in their rear-view mirror and let me by. If not, a quick beep gets their attention. Also, ATVs are often faster than Jeeps, but not as fast as motorcycles. (Note that the term “fast” is relative—much of the high country is first-gear terrain on a dirt bike like mine.)

The Good: The FJ Summit

Before we get to the bad and the ugly, let’s talk about the good: The FJ Summit Folks. This is an annual gathering in Ouray of those who have Toyota FJ vehicles (sort of an oversize Jeep). They come here by the hundreds. They’ve worked closely with the Forest Service to plan how many vehicles go where and when. As I was going up Ouray CR 18, thinking I’d be alone, I encountered a long line of these FJs in front of me. The trailing vehicle saw me. Soon they all pulled over to let me by, or let me by one-by-one without delay. And, when I was atop Engineer Pass, one of their members took my picture—I reciprocated by taking a picture of their group. I found out later they all have CB radios and strict instructions regarding high country etiquette, and they stick by these! I ran into a Forest Ranger toward the end of my ride and he commented how well they’ve worked with the Forest Service. I was so impressed with this group that I stopped by their headquarters on the way home and thanked them. I also promised I’d put a link to their organization on my site. Here it is: www.fjsummit.org (and it’s on my links page too).

The bad: ATVs on US Hwy 550

There is nowhere around here, except for an extremely short section in Silverton, that ATVs are allowed on paved roads. Any paved roads. So imagine my surprise to be traveling down US Hwy 550 (a federal highway, mind you), and finding several ATVs working their way down from (presumably) Corkscrew Pass to (presumably) Engineer Pass Road. ATVs, as fast as they are, are way too slow to be on a highway. Plus, the owner’s manual will tell you that it’s not safe to drive on pavement. And they’re not that big and can easily be overlooked. I drove up next to one and told them that what they were doing wasn’t permitted, but one driver just shrugged and drove on. If the Sheriff or the State Police saw them, they’d be pulled over, ticketed, and their ATVs towed away. Why risk it? It’s not safe and no one should ever plan a loop that involves highway travel for a non-street-legal vehicle.

The Ugly: Misguided Tour Guide out of Silverton

Well, here’s the ugly. I went up the road to Picayne Gulch. The road is initially quite steep. I found myself behind a light blue Suburban or similar that was a tour ride with a big 800 number on the back (I wish I’d taken a picture). The driver saw me soon enough, but made hand gestures that quite clearly indicated he wasn’t going to let me by. He was traveling way too slowly for me to follow, so I’d stop, then drive, then stop, then drive. Well, we finally came to a place where several vehicles were coming downhill. Common sense would say that this driver should have found a place to pull over and let all these vehicles by. But…no…he demanded the right of way. So in the general confusion as all these Jeeps (and FJs) tried to get out of the way, I slipped around the tour guide and headed up the hill. The tour guide was exceptionally unhappy about this. As I passed him (at about 1 mph) he shook his fist and swore at me. And all this in front of paying customers! (I point out that I never used my horn, nor did I make any gestures of my own. I just motored on by while everyone else was stopped.) I mentioned above that I talked with a Forest Ranger. He thought the guy was probably out of Silverton, as my description didn’t match anything out of Ouray. He said that some of these tour guides have been doing this for 25 years and think they own the road. We just shook our heads and bemoaned the guide’s lack of common sense. Oh well…one road rage incident in 2-1/2 years of riding the high country—not too bad really.

The contrast between the FJ crowd and the tour guide is completely black and white. Let’s you and I be like the FJ folks, okay?

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