Friday, December 06, 2019

The lonesomer loop

It was well after 7 a.m. when the first beams of sunlight appeared along the mesas towering over Moab, where I rolled Beat's bike onto Main Street for another 150 miles of desert solitude. Temperatures were still frosty — 26 degrees — and my body seemingly hadn't yet recovered an ability to generate quick heat. I shivered in my puffy coat, feeling a hint of dread. This nervousness about upcoming adventures doesn't seem to change, no matter how much experience I gain or how many long, solo miles I put behind me. 

 My legs were slow to warm up as I pedaled out of town and looped south to follow the Colorado River. Thick fog obscured the shoreline, and soon I descended from the brilliant colors of morning into gray gloom. I liked it in there. It was eerie, yet soothing. The ethereal sparkle of silver light cutting through the cloud was all the engagement I needed from my environment at this early hour. Beads of frost collected on my pants and gloves as I pedaled. My breakfast of yogurt and berries was exhausted within an hour, so I stopped at the edge of the fog to sit in renewed sunlight and eat a second breakfast. For this leg of the trip, I had a secret weapon — no-bake cookies from the City Market.

 After 20 miles of dazed morning pedaling, I passed the sprawling industrial complex of the Intrepid Potash mine. It was odd to see huge concrete buildings and abandoned freight cars stretched along the sand in a place that resembled pristine Canyonlands in every other way. A rugged jeep road climbed away from the river and clunked along on sandstone benches before reaching the edge of the evaporation pools. These impressively large bodies of water were blocked by a chain-link fence, and I was otherwise too disgusted with industrial ugliness to take any photos. But I wish I had, as they were fascinating — an electric, almost psychedelic blue rippling in the gentle breeze, reflecting abstract impressions from the red cliffs surrounding the valley. This shade of blue seemed unnatural, and later I read that it actually is — the ponds are dyed this color to absorb more sunlight and heat, aiding in the evaporation process.

 Potash Road seemed to climb and descend endlessly from there, and I stopped to finally strip off my layers into something resembling proper desert attire — padded bike shorts (I learned my lesson on my last bike trip) and a long-sleeved synthetic shirt. I kept my vest on, because the wind still carried a stiff chill. I felt disconcerted by my inability to feel fully warmed in relatively mild temperatures. The fatigue in my legs also was disappointing. I'd only pedaled two 10-hour days so far, pretty much nothing in the scheme of the endurance I hoped to achieve at this point in my winter training. The first two days of this trip had been a breeze, but for this third morning I hit a wall that I couldn't climb over. Of course, the third day of any multi-day effort is nearly always one of the hardest — after all of the quick energy has been exhausted, but before the rhythm of the daily grind sets in. It's science.

 I was 35 miles into my day before I connected with the proper White Rim at the bottom of Shafer Trail. Here I saw the first people of the morning, two red jeeps rumbling ahead at a speed not much faster than my pedaling pace. By this point I'd started listening to podcasts, and an episode of Dirtbag Diaries had me bawling loudly, without shame. It was an episode with a couple from Seattle who embarked on a ski trip in Alaska and found themselves trapped in a 100-year storm. Their tent had blown away and they were huddled in sleeping bags, slowly succumbing to hypothermia. After receiving news that rescuers couldn't reach them, they were communicating with their family via satellite messenger. Although I knew they survived — after all, they were giving the interview — those interactions with family members set off the big crocodile tears. Clearly I was in an emotional state. Indulging in these emotions had a refreshing effect, and I found renewed energy for the climbs.

 With the emotional dam broken, my stream of consciousness unravelled as well. The unwinding thoughts landed on a particularly deep cut. I scarcely recognized the scene, and yet it was as real as my immediate surroundings. I could see the reflection of flames on a sheer sandstone wall, otherwise shrouded in darkness. Beyond the flickering canyon frame was an explosive night sky. I looked down to see the young face of a college friend, Chris, his eyes dampened with tears. There were other faces obscured in shadows from the campfire, and as I looked toward them I felt a warmth in my core, a deep sense of human connection. There was music playing softly, possibly from far away. I recognized "Ojos Asi" by Shakira, which is a song I likely haven't heard or thought about in 18 years, but I remember it. This moment was a real memory, but I couldn't tell you exactly when it happened, or why it matters to my subconscious. Yet there I was, experiencing that place, as viscerally as though I'd traveled through time. It fascinates me, the way these lost memories persist with such depth, so many years into the future, even without nurturing from my consciousness. It's as though the present is only a thin veil over an infinite, multidimensional reality.

 These reveries continued on and off throughout the afternoon, and suddenly the shadows grew long. I had 67 miles on the day now, but they unravelled in slow motion, creeping around chipped sandstone shelves and sandy climbs. Lots of time had passed. Decades, perhaps. When I allowed my mind to snap back to the present, I felt a dull pain in my lower back, and cramped fatigue in my legs. "Too much weight in the pack," I thought. "I'm going to have to rework this again tonight."

I wondered if I could beat darkness to my camp site, but this seemed increasingly unlikely. The evening light was lovely, and I kept stopping to take photos. Each time, the wind bit through my damp shirt and I shivered profusely, noting that the skin on my legs was now the color of a ripe tomato. I wanted to put my layers back on, but that would take too much time. I still wanted to race the daylight. More than that, I wanted to propel myself to new and interesting vistas that I could burn into memory before the color faded.

 The White Rim has such interesting geology. 280 million years ago these were coastal dunes, whipped by winds and flooded by marine water, stirring the sediment into a chaotic formation that erosion couldn't tame. My time-traveling mind relishes in any opportunity to go prehistoric, and my imagination took me back to that place — the electric-blue ocean that once filled the horizon, the coast lined with dunes, and grains of sand carried into the sky by an ancient gale. It's interesting, I thought, that those once-ethereal piles of sand became frozen in place, emerging as petrified sand dunes hundreds of millions of years later. Now there is a persistent memory.

 Closer to the present, I kept rounding corners and looking toward mesas. Is that Murphy's Hogback? How about that one? Darkness had fully descended just as I hit a persistent steep climb that I knew had to be the one. My back relished a chance to finally stretch out when I hopped off the bike to hike. Ah, hiking. Feels so good. So natural.

 My campsite was Murphy B, nestled beside rounded sandstone outcroppings on top of a long and razor-thin mesa, the "hogback." My water cache was right where I left it, undisturbed. "What am I going to do with three and a half gallons?" I wondered. "That was a heavy carry." I didn't want to just waste it. So I washed my hands, took off my shoes and socks to wash the sand from my feet, changed my clothes and fired up the stove for dinner. I had two hot chocolate packets and halved them, drinking four full pots' worth of weak chocolate-flavored hot water. Then I had my tea. I'd be up all night again, but that was okay. I expected good skies tonight.

 The wind picked up strength overnight, and I was indeed up a lot. At one point in the night, when skies were still clear, I stood with my hair whipping in the gale while I gazed toward a bright, almost blue light glowing on the northern horizon. A check of my mental map told me nothing was up there — Moab was more to the northeast, the town of Green River was northwest and quite far away, and anyway either of those towns didn't have enough wattage for this level of light pollution. Northern Lights? Unlikely, and not really the right sort of hue, but what else could it be? A bend in the space-time continuum, a window into the Permian era? Finally I decided it didn't really matter what that blue light was ... it was mesmerizing.

 Morning dawned overcast with one of those "sailor take warning" skies. Terrified as I was of storms and mud, my mind paid attention. But I still couldn't coax the rest of my body to get moving. I skulked around with my oatmeal and watery coffee, feeling terribly sluggish — weighed down by creaks and kinks from all of this saddle time, still hungry and inexplicably thirsty. After breakfast and filling up my three-liter hydration bladder, I only had about three quarters of a gallon left in my hard-fought cache. I still felt bad that I couldn't use it all. Guiltily, I dumped the remaining water into the sand and strapped the containers onto my bike rack.

 The first 15 miles were almost entirely downhill with a few punchy climbs, and yet I still felt like I was just slogging along, barely able to pedal. During this stretch I connected with Erika, who was riding the 100-mile loop counter-clockwise, having started about four hours earlier at the end of Mineral Bottom Road. Her bike looked enviably light. My back hurt. I'd moved almost everything into a makeshift handlebar bag and rear rack bag. All that remained in the backpack was water, a puffy jacket, and a few pieces of food. But maybe the damage was done. Anyway, that water was heavy. Erika was perky, having a great time, and had already ridden 40 miles that day. I'd done about 10, and admitted that I was only beginning to wake up.

 Despite ominous morning skies, the sun came out for a while. My mental energy reserves still felt limited, which didn't allow for as many deep-cut reveries as the previous day. This was a good thing, forcing me to spend more bandwidth engaged with my immediate environment: puzzling out the route through a sandstone bench, steering toward the best-looking hero sand, admiring the canyon maze below the rim, and piecing together where I stood beneath Island in the Sky.

 There were several minutes of gawking at this bighorn ram, who was hanging out with his lady (top photo) near the edge of the rim. He strutted around her with a protective air as she made more timid, jerking motions. Then he bounded across the road, right in front of me. She didn't follow. Finally I continued on and left them alone.

 After climbing a few more benches, dropping to the Green River and then tracing the shoreline for a dozen miles, the route finally began its long climb onto Island in the Sky Mesa at Mineral Bottom. I stopped at the bottom of the switchbacks, which gain a thousand feet in just over a mile. Last year, when I rode the 100-mile loop as a four-day comfort tour with my friends, I made a goal of pedaling the entire climb. It was early morning on a day that only required 14 miles of riding, but I remember the lung-searing grind and feeling punched out at the top. I needed to be more conservative this year. Still, this feeling of self-preservation did not stop me from dumping more than half of the water out of my backpack, leaving only about a liter for the remaining 35 miles. While doing this, I laughed at the memory of my solo White Rim in the 95-degree-heat of May 2009, when I ran out of water before Murphy's Hogback. It wasn't until 30 miles later that I was able to collect some from the Green River and treat it with iodine. In this exact spot ten years ago, a half hour had passed and I took my first sip of muddy Green water. It tasted vaguely like cow manure and was so sandy that it left a film on my teeth. I still shudder when I think about that memory. Back then, I would have killed for this clean, clear cache water that I was just dumping into the sand. But not today. I'd overindulged, felt overhydrated and a bit off, and was officially over carrying a bunch of dead weight just because it was scarce. With the backpack lightened, I stretched my crumpled back muscles, lifted my head, and hiked. It felt so good to hike. So natural.

 After seeing only handful of people on route for most of two days, the top of Mineral Bottom was inundated with humans. Dozens of people crowded the parking lot with their Sprinter vans and modified jeeps and large circles of folding chairs. Later I'd see more pullouts overflowing with vehicles, and wondered why this random BLM land was suddenly so popular on a Monday in late November. Finally saw a sign celebrating the 2019 Slackline Championships. Slackline? Here? I suppose people have all sorts of weird passions. The event made for an absolute slog out, though — beyond the Mineral Bottom switchbacks are 15 miles of gradual, nearly continuous climbing on a dusty, washboarded gravel road. Add in an almost continuous stream of speeding traffic, and the whole thing was miserable. I couldn't bear to stop in the dust clouds and again became terribly bonked. Within a mile of the paved highway I was so done that I just cut off the road early, onto unmarked doubletrack riddled with goatheads. I didn't even care where it took me.

 The doubletrack diversion ate up about 45 minutes of daylight that I couldn't necessarily afford, but eventually I found my way back to Gemini Bridges Road. I knew this sandy track could carry me back to Moab, but was surprised when a sign at the top indicated there were still 14 miles to the highway corridor. I wasn't expecting it to be that far, or include another big climb that the sign also warned about. At least now I knew this hill was coming. Sprinkles of rain were beginning to fall from the overcast sky. I briefly wavered on just staying on highway 313 to avoid any chance of becoming embroiled in death mud. But no, I couldn't handle any more car traffic. Anyway, I need to re-learn how to be brave.

I thought about all of the lessons this trip had taught me so far — things I already knew, of course, but renewing the context gives these principles more purpose. The Rabbit Valley death mud taught me patience and perseverance. The broken rack taught me acceptance and improvisation. The solo camp taught me independence and the importance of balance when it comes to hydration. The aches and pains of day four taught me that my mind can take me far, but my body will have the last word. The weird way that I spent so much of the trip feeling cold taught me that my body still sometimes operates independently of objective reality. Apparently temperatures can be mild and I can wear a bunch of layers and still feel cold. Probably a hormonal thing. Deal with it.

Rain began to fall more steadily as I churned over the rock-strewn climb along the cliffs paralleling highway 191. The road surface was already beginning to soften. I could see traffic on the highway below and knew I only had a couple of miles to reach it, but I was still panicked — if this dirt turned to death mud, two miles might as well be a hundred. I let go on the final descent, zooming so quickly that my back burned and my vision blurred as I bounced over a minefield of rocks. I hit the bike path just as the sky unleashed big crocodile tears. The temperature was 39 degrees and my hands were blue as I wrestled into my thin rain shell and mittens. There were still ten miles of riding to town, and I could no longer feel my extremities, but I felt like I won. Four days in desert between two massive storms, and I'd unintentionally timed the entire thing with down-to-the-minute precision.

From this I learned that the universe will reward me, if I chose to interpret its randomness in this way. In other words, think positive.

Thank you, White Rim. It was a great ride. 
Monday, December 02, 2019

The lonesome loop

Canyonlands in November is starting to become something of a tradition. For the past three years I've made my way down to this coarse country late in the 11th month, after the crowds have faded away, the sand is speckled with frost, and winter light saturates the sandstone cliffs in iridescent shades of vermilion and bronze. November is something of a throwaway month for most in the North American outdoor community, but I think it's the best time to visit the Utah desert. So I was thrilled at a chance to join my friend Erika on a 300-mile bike tour along the eastern rims of the Colorado and Green rivers. The planned route formed a lopsided figure-eight with Moab in the center, for convenient resupply. Most of the route traveled through places I'd never explored.

The first loop looked easy enough on paper — 154 miles, 10,000 feet of climbing, following the Colorado River south and the Lisbon Valley north along a network of jeep roads and ranch roads. Although lacking in singletrack and big vert, I've spent enough time in the desert to know that everything is either rocky, sandy, hilly or muddy. I braced myself for 154 hard miles, and packed enough gear to stay comfortable and happy enough in fierce wind, blowing sand, rain, snow, and chills down to 0 degrees ... all of which are possible here in November.

The day before we set out, it rained hard until sunset and then temperatures dropped below freezing. We expected to find a lot of gloppy mud on the initial climb along Kane Springs Creek, but the thirsty desert managed to absorb most of the moisture. Only a few frozen puddles remained, which was more than a pleasant surprise. We held a conversational pace and chatted for the first 15 miles to Hurrah Pass, with stunning views of the Colorado River valley.

We descended from Hurrah Pass into the rugged and remote Lockhart Basin. How remote? Although I imagine this four-wheel-drive road sees more summer traffic, we were passed by all of one motorcyclist in sixty miles — the rest of the time, we were all alone in a vast basin, listening to the whoosh of wind, the soft grind of tires on sandstone and the rhythm of our own breath. I was glad for Erika's company, as I always feel a little unsettled when I'm so far displaced from humanity. This is a feeling I must embrace with exponential repercussions in Alaska, but even here it's unnerving all the same.

Lockhart Basin Road is not your standard gravel grinder. There are a lot of punchy climbs and descents riddled with boulders, blocky sandstone outcroppings and ruts large enough to swallow an entire wheel. Beat's Wayward handled the sand, bumps and drop-offs with ease, with no hint of damage from the earlier mud disaster. But the perfect bicycle couldn't save me from the most obvious mechanical. Within the first 20 miles of the ride, a screw rattled out of the rear rack where it attached to the chain stay. As a result, the rack slumped to the left and pressed against the rear tire. I did not have a spare screw. This was an egregious oversight.

With the rack grinding against the tire like an extra brake, I rode up to Erika in a near panic. I never handle mechanicals well, and was already plotting my escape back to Moab. I certainly didn't want to quit the trip, but my options were limited — I was carrying a 12-liter backpack, and had only one spare strap, not enough to rework the gear I was carrying in two panniers and a medium-sized dry bag. Erika helped bring the panic down to a simmer as we zip-tied the rack to the chain stay, removing the pannier on that side to reduce the weight pulling the rack against the tire. I used the single strap and one of Erika's carabiners to attach the heavier pannier to my small backpack, letting it dangle across my lower back like a messenger bag.

We rode a few more miles without further incident, and I became more confident that this system could work. But I was still a knot of anxiety ... we were truly in the middle of nowhere, the kind of place where I did not have enough food and water to walk out, and no one was around. If the rack fully failed, I had no reasonable way of attaching everything to my back or the bike. I watched the other screw like a hawk, stopping every mile and tightening it until I feared I may have stripped it.

It's disappointing that I was so preoccupied with the broken rack and getting "trapped" out here, as the anxiety did distract from the stunning scenery. Broad sandstone mesas and deeply incised canyons formed an imposing border to the east. To the west, sagebrush plains rippled toward the Colorado River. A strong aroma of sage with salty hints of mineral-rich sand still permeated the air following recent storms. The road traced a sandstone contour below the rim of Hatch Point in a way that resembled the more famous White Rim. Around mile 40, we descended into the sandy basin, where smoother road allowed my mind to finally relax.

Erika kept asking if I was in pain, as the heavy pannier looked rather awkward dangling over my lower back. But the bag was actually seated well and I hardly noticed the extra weight on my back. This convinced me I should ditch the rack and carry a larger backpack for the White Rim half of the ride. After the death-mud carry two days prior, I was feeling a little soured on bicycles. I soothed any remaining frustration about the rack with gratitude that I wasn't going to attempt to babysit a bicycle across Alaska in March. Of course, plenty can go wrong with a sled, and even more can go wrong with a body when it has to absorb all of the impact. Anyway, the complete meltdown that I succumbed to when I broke a trekking pole during the 2018 ITI shows how I'm just going to become an emotional mess over any gear-related setback. Might as well just accept this about myself, prepare as well as I can, and practice breathing exercises to temper the inevitable panic.

Despite my annoyance with managing bicycles, I am still completely in love with riding bicycles. I didn't have nearly enough recent saddle time to arrive at this trip in top condition, but muscle memory runs deep. I was enthralled with the soothing motion that propelled me through this vast, gorgeous landscape. My legs felt strong and I was climbing well, although Erika left me in the dust whenever a flatter stretch demanded high-RPM spinning.

The sun set early, as it does this time of year, and we were in a race to beat closing time at the Needles Outpost store. We reserved a campsite there so we could buy water, which otherwise would have been unavailable along the route. We put the hammer down and managed to wrap up the 65-mile day with 15 minutes to spare. At the store we bought three gallons of water, hot tea and soup. I found four small bungees that I could use to strap my tent to the handlebar, as well as create a makeshift seatpost bag if needed. "You ladies must like the cold," the owner said as his wife took at least ten minutes to tally our purchases using a pencil and a calculator. "Only one other party here, and they have a generator."

I may have lacked what most consider winter camping necessities, but my setup felt downright luxurious with a tent, air mattress and 0-degree down sleeping bag, as well as two puffy coats, stove, Mountain House meal, two hot chocolate packets and a Kindle to kill the many hours of darkness before my natural bedtime. Worth the rack drama? Well, yes, if I had been smart enough to threadlock the crucial screws and carry spares. Erika was rocking a minimalist setup with an ultralight sleeping pad, lighter sleeping bag and one of those emergency bivies. Unfortunately her sleeping pad failed and she spent a miserable night pressed against the cold sand, hardly sleeping. I had so many hot drinks before bed that I was up several times in the night, gazing slack-jawed at the brilliantly clear sky and a depth of stars that I've only ever witnessed in the Utah desert. We awoke at the first light of dawn to temperatures in the teens and thick frost.

From Needles Outpost, we had a long highway climb beside the corrugated cliffs of Indian Creek. We were both groggy and it took a long time to warm up, but eventually I started shedding layers and spinning happily. Not a care in the world. I'm just riding my bike. Why can't every day be like this?

Erika's bike next to the famous Newspaper Rock. She had to lock out her fork to prevent the handlebar bag from bumping against the tire, a common issue with small bikes. This issue combined with the failed sleeping pad had her hesitating on spending another night outside.

This is the main road into the Needles District of Canyonlands as well as several popular climbing areas, and yet there was almost nobody around on this Saturday morning. Stunning swaths of space captured all of my attention, and we climbed 2,500 feet over 25 miles before I even noticed the passing of time.

More wide-open space greeted us along North Flats Road. The softer features and pastel hues were an abrupt change from the red cliffs and sculpted sandstone of the previous day. I enjoyed the distinction.

My favorite animal encounter during the trip was this herd of pronghorn, who galloped toward the road in an arced, almost bird-like formation until they saw me straddling my bike, then stopped abruptly. A few crept away and others crept toward me, assessing the threat level, before one near the front of the line made a kind of nodding motion and they all streamed away. I supposed I was deemed a threat. Erika rode up just as they were fading from view.

We sprinted across Highway 191 and continued on the seemingly abandoned Lisbon Valley Road. We pedaled over its steep rollers for 16 miles, buffeted by a stiff headwind. Despite expectations, temperatures never warmed much on this day — Erika saw a high temperature of 42 on her thermometer — and the windchill cut to my core. I stopped at the intersection of highway 46 to wait for Erika and put on most of my extra layers, shivering in spite of the protection. I wondered why I was so cold. When I bent over to pick up my bike, blood drained from my head and I became alarmingly faint. "I'm probably bonked," I thought. Most of the food I carried for this tour was variations of nut and seed trail mixes, which are hard to eat on the go. Also, although I like to believe that I can be an mindful consumer of high-quality fuel while engaging in strenuous activity, in reality nuts and seeds just don't do much for my energy levels. I'm a carb burner, and usually feel and perform best when I just give in and keep the stove burning hot with kindling.

I was gnawing on unappetizing blocks of something called "NUT-rition" when Erika pulled up, raring to keep going. We were again racing the fading daylight, and she was excited to return to Moab for hot showers and real food. I was still trying to reignite my internal pilot light, and shivered as I struggled to match her pace. Finally the NUT-rition kicked in, and I found a few extra gears and we swooped through the steep and rocky rollers of the aptly named Rimrocker Trail.

The sun finally set as we reached the top of Pole Canyon, where we watched a truck hauling a massive and modified high-clearance camping trailer toward the winding and rutted doubletrack that we'd just cleared. "The audacity of some of these drivers," I said, shaking my head with a hint of admiration. Bicycles are more than enough liability for me, but I can respect the skill it takes to maneuver so much mass into the middle of nowhere. They were, again, the only other humans we'd seen for miles.

Me in my big puffy coat at sunset. I was mulling adding the down coat as well, since I knew we had a long descent in front of us. But I didn't want Erika, who is training for the ITI 350, to pity me ... I mean, it probably seems like I don't stand a chance in Alaska if I need two puffy coats to ride through Southern Utah in November.

The final 20 miles of our 90-mile day were almost entirely descending, but also included some of the most muddy, technical, and confusing miles of the day. We were tired when we arrived in Moab around 7 p.m., and ready to inhale all of the carbs. Erika was already leaning toward forgoing the second loop so she could take a needed rest day and then ride the classic 100-mile White Rim route with a lighter bike in a single day. I was set on on a night at Murphy's Hogback — after all, the night sky is the best part of bike touring in the desert. Also, I'd already gone to all of that effort to hike in a water cache.

Erika, freed of the evening's burdens, was fast asleep by 8:30. I still needed to shop for more food, dry out my gear and reconfigure the whole system. I noticed a screw holding a telescoping arm of the rack that would work for the frame attachment, so I decided to keep the rack but only use a single dry bag and leave the panniers behind, moving lighter but bulky stuff such as the sleeping bag into a 35-liter backpack. I was up until nearly midnight fiddling with everything, again feeling a bit annoyed with all of the logistics that come with bikes. Then again, all I had to do for the next two days was ride bikes. Is there anything better?
Wednesday, November 27, 2019

When the prep is harder than the trip

 My friend Erika had an intriguing proposal: Four days of bikepacking through the Utah desert, averaging 75 miles each day, pedaling through beautifully corrugated and intimidatingly remote country along the eastern rim of Canyonlands National Park. Although long pedaling days aren't necessarily in my training plan right now, nor is my conditioning ideal for 300 miles in the saddle, I couldn't resist. It looked like the timing would be perfect as well, as I'd be traveling to Utah for Thanksgiving. "And the weather will be nice," Erika reasoned.

A harrowing winter storm warning in Colorado convinced me to drive out to Moab a day early. This extra day would also allow time to hike in a water cache for our third camp, at Murphy's Hogback on the White Rim. I schemed and planned and headed out, meeting the front end of heavy snow and then rain on the western side of the Continental Divide.

For the trip I borrowed Beat's Why Cycles Wayward, a 29-plus rig designed for loaded bikepacking and rugged terrain. It comes equipped with dynamo hub lights and a bulletproof frame bag, and is just an all-around fun and capable adventure bike. I've been eying it greedily since he got it, but never asked to borrow it, because Beat frequently accuses me of stealing and subsequently abusing his bikes (and he's not wrong about that.) But when I mentioned I was thinking about bringing the fat bike to deal with all of the sand, it was Beat who suggested I try out the Wayward. Of course I couldn't say no! I got all of 45 minutes of test riding during a hurried sunset ride on Tuesday, had Beat mount a wonky old rack to accommodate my many pieces of comfy cold-weather camping gear, and headed out Wednesday morning.

Heavy rain pounded the windshield for much of the drive from Vail to Grand Junction. This should have been discouraging, but I had fixated on taking one more test ride with the bike. I remembered from prior runs that Rabbit Valley was fairly sandy, and thought I might be able to find a short, rideable section of trail along the Colorado-Utah border. I unloaded the bike and started pedaling with a plan to turn around as soon as I hit mud. The rain had already tapered off, and the initial jeep road was fast and enjoyable, with hardpacked sand and relatively few mud puddles. From there I found the Western Rim trail, which was gleeful fun — a thin ribbon of sand and slickrock tracing the rim above the Colorado River. This trail had a few more mud puddles, but nothing terrible. My pants were barely splattered.  After 13 miles of smile-inducing riding, the sun came out and hubris set in. I scrolled through my map and noticed that this trail came out on the Kokopelli Trail, which I could use to loop back to another connector just north of the freeway. Loops are always better than out-and-backs. Plus, I figured the jeep roads would be a faster return than the singletrack.

 For two or three miles the Kokopelli was sandy and fast, but then a more clay-like surface took over. The tires began to bog down in gloppy mud, but it was still rideable, and I felt committed by this point. As the trail slowly snaked up the valley, conditions went swiftly downhill. Soon the road was covered in a white mud speckled with marble-sized pebbles that peeled off the tires as I rode, pinging me in the face. I fretted for the drivetrain, but my anxiety was unnecessary, as the mud began to clump against the frame until I could no longer spin the crank at all. The freeway was still more than three miles away. I pushed the bike all of a hundred meters, shoes slipping through the mud as they collected pounds of clay, and then the wheels seized up. Nothing left to do but hoist the bike onto my shoulders, hunch over, and hike.

 What a nightmare. I constantly had to pick up the bike and put it down, because my shoulders ached and I hoped to find a pushable surface (nope), and because my clay-caked shoes had less traction than a pair of skis smeared in butter. I slipped and crashed down onto my knees multiple times, crying out as sharp pain rattled through my kneecaps. Then the pain refocused to my lower back as I attempted to stand with the clay-coated bike still pressed against my shoulders. At one point I went down and thought about staying down — just curling up in the mud and waiting for it to harden again, even if it took days. I felt utterly stuck. It may have only been a couple of miles to the freeway, but if you're anchored in place, the distance might as well be infinite.

The hopelessness launched me into a dissociative trance, one of my deeper coping mechanisms usually reserved for tough endurance efforts. I imagined myself as an Egyptian slave hauling a sandstone block for the pyramids, hunched and strained with rope cutting into my shoulders, sweating in the heat. Through this haze I realized that I was actually quite cold, having gotten soaked in the rain, and now barely moving through the slop. It was too much effort to put the bike down and put on my rain shell, my only extra layer.

Somewhere in this haze, where I did manage a little bit of pushing and even some downhill coasting, I reached an underpass of I-70. My plan had been to access the pavement at all costs. It was nearly dark and I wasn't thrilled about riding the Interstate at night, but it was only three or so more miles, and even getting mowed down by a semi seemed preferable to the mud purgatory. But I found that the entire access point was lined with barb-wire fence — the standard in open cattle country. Plus, the jeep road had become somewhat more rideable. With renewed hubris, I continued on the dirt.

I actually did manage some riding, and a bit more pushing, when it started to rain again. The road pitched more steeply uphill, and the surface condition was almost quicksand — foot-sucking clay that swallowed a shoe and left me teetering on one leg with a wet sock suspended in the air, still trying to balance the bike. When I managed to get the shoe back on and take a single step, I'd slide backward the length of two steps, nearly dropping the bike as I flailed to keep my balance. Progress was truly, literally impossible. I put the bike down and stared bewildered at droplets falling through the sky, reflecting the light of my headlamp in a way that made them look like deadly icicles. I really was going to spend a night out here. Right next to a freeway. Two miles from my car. How weird is that?

This realization ignited a hot rage that renewed my flagging strength. Screaming like a crazy person, I put the bike down and shoved it through the grass. The wheels weren't turning; it was like pushing a dresser through the mud, but it was moving. The grounded bike gave me the leverage I needed to walk. In my headlight beam I saw the sign for the state line, "Welcome to Colorful Colorado," and scoffed out loud. Just as my rage energy began to fade, I reached the barb wire fence lining the freeway. Smooth, hard pavement was only 20 meters away. The fence was only waist high, but flimsy. It was risky.

"What's the worst that can happen?" I thought. "Tetanus shot?" I picked up the bike and attempted to lift it over my head, but my shoulders went limp. The muscles were done — too many repeats of lifting the bike over my head to balance it on my shoulders. If you do enough overhead presses, eventually you can just not do anymore, not matter how much you want to. I thought back to my experiences during the Race Across South Africa in 2014, when I was constantly convinced that the next 10-foot game fence was going the one that finally broke my failing arm muscles, but that never happened. I took comfort in that memory, growled and screamed some more, and finally lifted my bike to the other side of the fence. As I turned to lean it against a pole, my headlamp beam caught the most unlikely break — a California license plate, bent lengthwise in half, hanging over the top wire of the fence. It was just the thing I needed to balance my weight with one hand as I hoisted my legs over the wobbly spiky wires. Finally! Something goes right!

I still had to push the muddy dresser to the edge of the interstate, gauge the distance of the truck headlights barreling toward me, sprint through the cloak of darkness with my anchor in tow, cross the deep muddy gully of the median, stair-step the bike up a virtual wall, and sprint across more lanes of traffic to reach the shoulder of the eastbound highway. I stopped at the Welcome to Colorful Colorado sign and tore clumps of mud off the frame, flinging them angrily behind me. Let that shit stay in Utah where it belongs. Even after removing dozens of handfuls of mud, the wheels still barely rolled. Thankfully, most of the final two miles were downhill.

 I know a lot of this story sounds exaggerated for effect, but it's hard to overemphasize just how beaten I was by this recreational "just to break up the drive" jaunt before my big trip. Back at my car, alone in the dark in the Rabbit Valley parking lot, I stripped off all of my mud-caked clothing and slumped onto the drivers seat in my underwear, not wanting to deal with anything. But I knew I had to address the mud ASAP. That stuff doesn't just go away; the Ancestral Puebloans made pottery out of this mud, some which has been found intact 800 years later. I had four gallons of water that I planned to hike into Canyonlands the following day, so I dumped all of it on the bike while gently scrubbing with an old towel. That did absolutely nothing, besides coat other things in mud. All I could do was shove the bike in the car and continue onto Moab. "Beat is going to be so annoyed with me," I thought.

I was super bonked, having embarked on an expected 90-minute ride that turned into more than four intensely strenuous hours with no snacks or dinner, but the first thing I did was drive to a car wash. My hands were shaking as I picked up the hose and turned it on the low-pressure setting. There I spent the next 45 minutes working at all the moving parts with my towel and frequent three-minute intervals of spraying. I got the bike looking reasonably pristine, lubed things up, and rode it around the parking to check the shifting and brakes. All seemed fine, so I could turn my attention to my broken body. My knees were throbbing, and had become alarmingly swollen. My back and shoulders were deeply sore. What a great way to start a 300-mile bike trip.

 Of course, before that happened, I still had that water carry to complete. This didn't necessarily have to be done — our 75 miles from Moab to Murphy's Hogback would end at a dry camp with no water along the way, necessitating a two-day carry. But it's a cool time of year, and we could have been conservative by leaving stoves behind and skipping cooking and hot drinks. Still, that's all of the fun part of cold-season camping. So I washed my containers, which like everything else were coated in mud, and refilled them with 3.5 gallons of water. I started my 12-mile hike at Murphy Point, at the edge of Canyonlands' Island in the Sky. Along with my own supplies and a bit more survival gear — because you really never know when you'll have to spend a night out — the pack weighed a little more than 40 pounds. Could be worse, but with my sore shoulders and knees, it proved a particular burden. The trail off Murphy Point was precipitous, snaking down a veritable cliff with sheer drop-offs, occasional wooden platforms, and steep step-downs from boulders. Bruised knees were angry, very angry, but I took it as slowly as possible. I also took heart in the fact that it was a beautiful day and a rather nice hike, anchor notwithstanding.

I reached the Sunday-night campsite and placed my cache, along with my permit from the national park that required I return for it, lest I receive a fine. From there I looped back on the White Rim road connecting with Murphy Wash, which was also lovely. The climb out was steep but not hard, being mostly unweighted as I was. As I made my way back along the mesa, harrowing dark clouds gathered overhead. Driving back to Moab, I encountered heavy rain, than hail, then a thick and icy sleet as the temperature dropped to 33 degrees. Rainwater cascaded down the pavement like a stream. This did not bode well. Not well at all. Southeastern Utah hadn't seen rain in more than two months, and the sudden series of deluges were sure to mire our bikepacking trip in death mud. I couldn't even think about it; the memories from the previous evening were still too fresh and traumatic. I couldn't think about tomorrow.