Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ready to roll

So this is what my bike looks like loaded. I couldn't find a wonderful place for my sleeping pad so I finally just strapped it to the aero bars. Sleeping bag, spare tubes and clothing go in the seatpost bag. The bivy, batteries, headlight battery pack, med kit, pump, filter (if I decide to bring it) and food go in the frame bag. I hose-clamped a bottle holder underneath the frame so I have a place to carry a bottle. The rest of my water, tools and electronics go in a backpack. I've carried it with as much as nine liters of water inside. It's not too bad. The bike, on the other hand, is heavy.

But that's how it goes. I'm a tourist, not an ascetic. I haven't weighed the bike at all. These are things I'm best off not knowing. But I've made considerable improvement since my cross-country tour six years ago, when I carried a laptop and accessories that weighed close to 10 pounds by itself, along with a six-pound tent, a pillow(!), a full-sized Thermarest, three full changes of clothes and Tasty Bites (foil-packaged Indian dinners that we didn't really like and for some reason couldn't throw away, so we hauled a few most the way from Utah to New York.) Yes, I'm so much better now. At least I'm leaving the laptop behind.

I'm heading out Sunday for an overnight tour near the Uintas. I'll have my SPOT on but I'm not sure how interesting it will be. I don't feel comfortable mapping my own gravel route in the high country, so I may stick mostly to pavement. I may head out and back on some gravel if the conditions look good. I'm going to kind of wing it as I go. Sometimes, that's the most fun way to travel by bike. This is pretty much my last chance to dial in my gear in the field. After I get back, I'll talk about what comes next.

I had a great time visiting my friend Anna in Heber. She has a 1-year-old, Mia, who I've only recently met. Adorable, obviously. We met up at the Stewart Falls trailhead and I was surprised to see Anna's brother, Matt, in tow. Matt's with the Air Force and works all over the world - it was pretty random that he just happened to be visiting Utah during the same weekend I planned to visit Anna. It was fun to catch up with him. I went on a river trip with Anna's whole family four years ago and afterward felt tempted to ask Matt if I could run away with him to whatever exotic locale he was working at the time. He's married now. Too bad. :-)

After Stewart Falls, we hit the Dairy Keen for fresh raspberry shakes and then Cascade Springs. It was a pretty idyllic summer Saturday in Heber. I'm feeling a bit loathe to leave right now. But the solo bike tour awaits.

Road bike ride

The transition between the virtual world and the real one is strangely fluid. Since I left Alaska, I've had the opportunity to meet several people that before I only knew - or knew of - online. It's strange to look into the eyes of someone you've only seen pictures of, hear the voice of someone you've only seen text about, and really feel like you know them. I find myself listening to their stories and saying, "Yeah! I remember that!" Of course I don't remember that. I remember the blog post they wrote about that. The line between virtual and real is often more blurry than we're willing to admit, and I'm one of those people that's OK with that.

Today I met up with Elden and his friends for a road bike ride up the Alpine Loop. Since I don't have a road bike, Elden was nice enough to lend me one of his. He even gave me his geared Ibis road bike and rode his singlespeed so I'd feel more comfortable. But road bikes are still fidgety creatures. I feel weird balancing on 23mm of rubber and leaning over drop bars and only using two fingers to pump the brakes (I generally use more of a white-knuckle-full-fist braking approach.) All of Elden's friends turned out to be these buff-looking guys. I was the only female in the group, the only one on a borrowed bike and the only one who still feels severely oxygen-deprived above 7,000 feet. I braced myself for disaster.

Oddly, disaster did fall, but not on me. About three miles into the ride, Kenny - a guy I know from Elden's blog as "the singlespeeder who crushes every race he enters and rode the whole Kokopelli Trail in an unreal 14 or 15 hours" - hit a freak patch of gravel, swerved wildly in a dust cloud and toppled next to a large rock just as Elden and one other guy flew over him in a tornado of bikes and bodies. I was fourth in line and - as uncomfortable as I am with pace lines - hanging far enough back that I was able to slam on my brakes and stop just short of the wreckage. It was the most stunning crash I have ever witnessed - similar to those Euro-roadie pileups that I've seen on YouTube - but luckily everyone hit the tarmac laughing. It took a while for them to untangle themselves, and Kenny had a deep gash over his eyebrow and road rash on his shoulder and knees. It looked painful. I would have turned around on much, much less, but Kenny just washed his face in a waterfall and kept going.

I rode most of the climb with Kenny. Probably because of a combination of soreness from the spectacular crash and the unreal gear he was running - I think he said it was a 50x17; Elden analyzed us and said I made two and a half rotations for every one of Kenny's - I was able to keep up with him. We talked about Kokopelli and photo processing. We talked about a funny picture Elden photoshopped of me towering over Kenny (one of the ongoing reactions I have heard after meeting virtual friends for the first time is that I am bigger in person than they pictured me. It's funny to me, because I don't view myself as a big person. Maybe it's because I'm usually wearing six layers of clothing in my self portraits. I'm 5'7" for the record. But notice Kenny ducking in the top photo? That's intentional.) But it was a fun ride up. I felt like I was catching up with an old acquaintance. First time I ever met the guy.

After we descended (everyone else in a couple heart beats; me very, very slowly), Elden and I headed up the Suncrest hill to do about 1,300 more feet of climbing for good measure. One amazing thing about road bikes, especially Elden's road bikes, is that they're so superlight they make climbing feel a lot less like climbing. Still, I was surprised Elden was up for 4,500 feet of gain just one day after a race. I wondered if he was thinking about blogging prospects of the ride. I know I'm guilty of that sometimes. :-P
Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Stansburys

I headed out to Tooele County today to visit my friend Mary Ruth in Grantsville. I worked in Tooele for three years and lived there for most of 2004, but I haven't been back since I left rather suddenly and moved to Idaho Falls in November of that year. Mary Ruth and I had completely lost touch, but she randomly e-mailed me a couple weeks ago and I wrote back one of those, "Hey, I'm in Utah!" replies. We planned dinner at 6 and it's a long drive to Grantsville, so I thought I'd make a day of it with a ride in the Stansbury Mountains.

I took the long way through the town of Tooele just to see what had changed, and felt a little unsettled by my first drive down Main Street in nearly five years. Tooele is the kind of place you can grow to love, but it is what it is ... a strip mall town in a rather desolate valley that's home to a chemical weapons incinerating plant and a big Army depot. I was fairly unhappy when I lived there. I weighed 25 pounds more than I do now, I ate a lot of fast food because I was really busy and watched a fair amount of television because I was burnt out. My relationship (yeah, that relationship) was going nowhere. I rode my touring bike a few times a week, but was fairly bored with the activity. My life in Tooele was mildly toxic. I knew it at the time but didn't know what to do.

Today, some of those old sour feelings came bubbling back up from somewhere deep in my gut. It's hard to revisit the places where your life took a wrong turn and wonder if you're currently on a similarly misguided path. But those unsettled feelings quickly dissolved as I mounted my bike and started pedaling up South Willow Canyon. Hard climbs turn off my brain. Usually, that's a good thing. I stopped at the wilderness boundary and turned around, thinking about the possibility of making it a short ride. But on the way back down, I stumbled across a sign for the Stansbury Front Trail and veered off. I knew 100 yards into that trail that I was in for a sufferfest. There's not much I can say about the Stansbury Front Trail as a bike trail. It's technically a trail and bikes are allowed, but unless you're the kind of manimal that can climb 1,000 feet in one mile on rocky, loose dirt, it's really more of a long hike with intermittent terrifying downhill coasting thrown in. I'm pretty sure my shoulders got a better workout than my legs.

Um, really?

Um, wow.

And that's the reason I stuck with it. The little creek valleys that the trail dropped into were absolutely stunning. I'd throttle the brakes to the bottom and mash the pedals to get as far up the next climb as I could stomach, until my forehead was throbbing and my legs were nearly stalled out. Then, off the bike and walking again, I'd look around at electric green aspen leaves and fields of sunflowers and think about the parts of 2004 that were good ... hiking to the top of Deseret Peak; making a fairly successful go of freelance outdoor writing for local publications; being adopted by an adorable little alley cat.

Sometimes it's good to go back to the places where you were unhappy, and realize you really weren't.

Clipless pedals hate me

Elden recently lent me a super-posh pair of Sidi cycling shoes to test out and determine whether or not I'm as inept on clipless pedals as I claim to be. I was skeptical, but one doesn't borrow a $300 pair of shoes and not at least try to fall in love with them. I bought a used pair of Time pedals in Hurricane, but decided to keep my platforms on through that trip because the riding there is hard and my knees and one elbow were already scarred.

When I finally set to removing my old platforms, I could not get them to budge. Rusted to the crank arm they were. My dad, armed with a fat crescent wrench, a hammer and a piece of lumber wedged against the crank, could not remove them. I eventually took the bike to Canyon Bicycles, where a pro with a big long pedal wrench failed on his first tries. I was certain I was looking at buying a new crank. But the mechanic took the bike to the back of the shop, and 20 minutes later came out with two fairly bent pedals and a stern lecture about the importance of greasing the threads (believe me, they were greased at one point, long before 16" of October rainfall followed by a freeze-thaw winter followed by a high-mileage spring in the dirt.)

Anyway, the Time pedals went on and I set out to take my maiden voyage on the trails around Herriman. Reaching those trails involves a 15-mile approach on pavement with a lot of stop lights thrown in. I had a beast of a time trying to click into those pedals. I'd position my foot and push and reposition my foot and push again and again, but nothing would happen. When I finally did get my foot clipped in, I'd race and race just to make a green light, but I rarely did. Then the slow-moving battle would commence, again.

Finally at gravel, I hit the steep stuff quick and stalled out a couple of times when my rear wheel ran into too-large-to-summit rocks. One time my foot made it down. Another, it didn't. I laid for a minute in the dust, knee bashed and bleeding, hands pin cushioned with thorns and sharp little bits of gravel, actually laughing out loud because I was so angry and amused at myself at the same time. Why am I such a perpetual beginner? Why can't I get better at the one hobby I love the most? Why can't the whole world be covered in snow?

I raced some roadies back to Draper, with a stream of dried blood still clinging to my leg. I kept up with them for a while. I really wanted to pass them, on my steel mountain bike with a big backpack and a T-shirt and all kinds of things hanging off my handlebars. But then I remembered that I was wearing $300 shoes, and I didn't feel so smug. I didn't pass them, anyway. They reached a slight downhill and dropped me.

Finally at home, I bent down to take the shoes off, and couldn't loosen the strap. It's set up like a snowboard binding, with the lever that clicks to tighten it. Everything I did only seemed to make it tighter. After about five minutes I just sat down and wrestled the tight shoes off my feet, reasoning that I'd figure out how to loosen the strap when I hadn't just returned home from racing roadies and my head was more lucid.

Later that evening, I was sitting in the living room with my entire family - my two sisters and my parents - and solicited their help. Everyone passed around the shoe and played with it for five minutes while we talked. No one could figure it out. We gave up for a while, but eventually everyone went back to it, twisting and clicking and passing it on like a Rubix Cube, intrigued by the sheer puzzle of it all. "It's just a shoe," I said. "A brand new expensive shoe. It has to be something I did." I said that I was going to have to call Elden, and he was going to laugh at me and probably pen a hilarious paragraph about it on his blog. "You tell him that three people with bachelor's degrees, one with an associates and one who's a semester away from a bachelor's couldn't figure it out," my dad said. Eventually my mom cheated and consulted Google, but that yielded little useful information. Finally, a light lit up in my sister Lisa's eyes and she grabbed the shoe, pressed down on the little red buckle that we had all but pounded with a hammer, and slid the strap out. Easy as that.

Somewhere down the line, this has to all be worth it. I just can't imagine how.
Monday, May 25, 2009

Land o' Zion

I spent the past few days in the southwestern corner of Utah. The purpose of my trip was to get the Karate Monkey overhauled by master mechanic Dave Nice in Hurricane (pronounced Her'kun), and visit my grandpa in St. George (Saint Jahge). And these two tasks just happened to reside in an area with spectacular biking, and on a weekend where early-season monsoonal moisture kept high temperatures in the low 80s. (I was fully expecting 105.)

I had a late, slow start Thursday and showed up just a few hours before I was supposed to meet Mr. Nice. I stopped in the town of Virgin for a quick ride, and chose a random gravel road off the map and ended up rolling along a high plateau just outside Zion National Park. The views became more spectacular as the road climbed steadily, and I was more than 2,000 feet above my car when a front brake pad popped out, again. This had happened to me a few days earlier and I replaced it with a new one, but it didn't seem to sit right and I became convinced there was something wrong with the caliper. But it seemed to work at the time, so I decided it could hold until Hurricane. When I tried to wedge the brake pad back in the second time, it wouldn't hold at all. I finally just turned around and inched back down the steep, winding road, riding my back brake at 9 mph because I didn't want to shoot off one of the hairpin turns. It was still a bit of a white knuckle ride to the bottom.

This is Dave Nice. He marches to his own drum, in a good way, because you know no one is ever going to accuse this guy of not living his life. He has a shirt that says "Bike. Drink. Blog," which Dave says pretty much sums it up. But he adds an essence of "Daveness" that makes everything he does deeply intriguing. He works at a bike shop in Hurricane, travels around to enter endurance bike races every chance he gets, has awful luck in general but is always smiling, plans to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from south to north starting June 5, and, oh yeah, he rides a fixed gear 29er mountain bike. Dude is nuts. In a good way.

Anyway, Dave and I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. working on my poor bike. We crashed out next to the register at the bike shop and woke up bright and early Friday morning to head out to Gooseberry Mesa for a ride. Gooseberry Mesa is technical. It's covered in cactus, boulders, slickrock obstacles, sand pits and head-spinning ledges. I knew this going in, but I couldn't say no to such beautiful trail. I came out with bashed shins, new cuts, and yet more eroded confidence. I keep telling myself I'll never learn to ride the desert if I don't ride the desert. But it's been tough. I find myself actually feeling angry at the general consensus that technical singletrack is the ultimate mountain biking experience.

Dave, on the other hand, has mad skillz. Who says fixies can't coast?

Still, I ached to take on the terrain and find my flow, any kind of flow, even as I dodged cactus and kicked my back wheel sideways on loose rocks and knocked over boulders and tried to force back the dizzy sensations brought on by sheer ledges. Dave explained how to find the Gould-Jem-Rim trail loop - a Hurricane classic - and I set out to ride 24 miles of techy singletrack on my own.

Whenever I ride alone, I still think a lot about my relationship situation and how unhappy I am about it, regardless of what may or may not be best. Right now I'm in this phase where I think about going solo for good ... about how this biological need to form unions is as easy to suppress as sleep and food in an endurance ride, and I don't need it. And when I ride techy singletrack, I start to understand Geoff's views on monogamy. When you commit to one person, one narrow line over a vast plateau, you're rewarded with instant direction, a swooping, fun, often bumpy ride, and feelings of accomplishment and gratitude. But you become so focused on the task at hand - every rock, every cactus, every hairpin turn directly in front of you - that you completely lose sight of the surrounding landscape. Eventually, you're going to look up, and realize that your entire experience is that trail. You know almost nothing of the world around you. And you feel bewildered, and lost. But I've vowed to work to become more comfortable with technical riding. Then, when I go back to Juneau, I'm going to move into a studio apartment and get seven or eight more cats.

Yes, on to the "I hate men" phase. Except for Dave Nice. You're awesome. (Thank you, thank you for all of your help with my bike.) I headed down to St. George on Friday to visit my grandpa, a gruff old guy who likes to yell and can go from smiling to rant in 60 seconds, but who also has a kind heart and a high tolerance of granddaughters showing up an hour after his bedtime covered in red dust.

I headed out Saturday morning (OK, it was actually 12:11 p.m.) with my decade-old regional map and this idea that I wanted to make a loop out of some jeep roads east of Veyo. I climbed up Snow Canyon and found a dead end on the first road I tried. The second was rougher and quickly launched into a steep climb. I decided that was a good thing. After all, it was 79 degrees and I was roasting. :-) Elevation sounded good.

Climb, climb, climb. I went from 2,600 feet up to 7,000, and the road kept going while petering out to little more than a severely overgrown rock garden. I was not detecting any spur roads that I hoped would connect my loop, and pretty soon I was winding up a set of switchbacks toward what had to be a pass, because the GPS was nearing 8,000 feet. Down that pass was another possible route that seemed appealing, but it would have tacked 30 or more miles onto a ride that was already moving a lot slower than I had anticipated. (Who knew those roads climbed 5,000 feet? They looked so flat on the map.) I turned around, bummed that I couldn't test my route-finding skills on an actual loop of my own making, but reminding myself that I really don't have any route-finding skills. And, anyway, I had to be home before grandpa's bedtime.

On the way down, dark stormclouds moved in like a freight train. In an instant, the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, from the high-60s to the high-40s, and the wind gusts picked up from 20 mph to at least 50 mph - enough to knock me sideways off my line down the rocky trail, forcing me to slam on the brakes. I stopped to grab my jacket out of my backpack, and I didn't even have one arm in before sheets of rain began to pummel me. Streaks of lightning lit up the black sky, but they were fairly far away and I was well below treeline. Still, I was frightened. I fixed my eyes in the direction of the lightning and huddled down next to a little pinon bush, a good 50 yards down the trail from where I had left my metal bike. My bottom lip started to shiver. I kept telling myself that 48 degrees with heavy wind gusts and rain is nothing I don't deal with nearly every day in the fall in Juneau, but lightning is another uncontrollable factor altogether. Luckily, the storm moved past me as quickly as it arrived, the temperature returned to normal, and for the rest of the ride I was rewarded with a strong tailwind. The Southwest is such a strange place.

Dave and I got in one more early morning ride Sunday. He took me out to Sand Hollow Reservoir - the first time I had seen the body of water that covers an area I used to visit often as a teenager. If you squint, you can see in this picture a little sandstone island on the right. That was once a playground of redrock formations and sand dunes where I really started to cement my love of the desert.

"That right there," I said to Dave as I pointed at the reservoir, "is the image of childhood lost."

"I dunno," Dave said. "It's kind of pretty."

Time marches on. It always does.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When worlds collide

This is a picture I've always wanted, ever since I started blogging. It's a picture of me with Fat Cyclist, aka Fatty, aka Elden Nelson. Back when he was still on MSN Spaces and I was mulling an entry into an impossible-seeming race called the Susitna 100, he sent me a Banjo Brothers seatpost bag as a prize for writing what is possibly the only funny thing I've ever written - an essay on bungee cords. Now look where we are. He's helping raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight cancer and I'm ... in Utah. It made sense that we meet up to go for a ride.

He invited his friends, Dug and Brad. I tried to warn them all that I am a flailing klutz, a timid one at that, on a mountain bike. I have stamina but no skills. "Think of your 6-year-old niece and take me where you'd take her," I told them. Maybe I forgot to tell them that. Either way, I showed up with my Karate Monkey, which is currently having front brake problems, and Elden offered to let me borrow his Gary Fisher Superfly - a full-carbon rigid singlespeed superbike. I picked it up and it weighed less than my Camelbak. On top of that, Elden offered to let me borrow his brand new Specialized bike shoes to go with the clipless pedals attached to the Superfly. The only problem - I've never ridden a singlespeed; I can't ride clipless to save my life. And, oh yeah, I have a 6-year-old's skills on singletrack. No matter. I was too busy drooling to notice.

I only fell twice on the climb, mostly because my trained-for-distance-but-not-power legs stalled out on some of the steeper pitches and I couldn't get out of the clipless pedals, so down I went. Elden was being amazingly patient about how ridiculous I must have looked. But I could feel the shame burning through ... "I thought you were that chick that rode the Iditarod. What's wrong with you?" But the fear took over by the time we reached the top of Jacob's Ladder, and from there I didn't care how silly I looked. I was going to ride the brakes, keep my right foot free from the pedal and get down alive. I still took one fall on a boulder near the bottom. I felt horrible about crashing the Superfly. I think I would have preferred to break an ankle over breaking that one-of-a-kind frame, which was light enough to be made out of Styrofoam and looked like it would bend if you flicked it with your finger. But, luckily, all looked well. If that bike can hold up to my lack of mad skillz, it can probably handle anything.

Elden shot video the whole time and I'm terrified what might turn up on his ultra-popular blog. But the blood and humiliation was all worth it to have a chance to meet the master. I learned a few things about the Fat Cyclist:

1. He's just as nice in person as he is on his blog.

2. He'll make fun of you if you deserve it, but it always comes out in a friendly way that lets you laugh at yourself.

3. He gives away free stuff in real life just like he does on his blog. After my rather disastrous clipless run, I mentioned I was thinking about clipless pedals for the Great Divide. He offered to let me borrow a pair of his shoes (a size too large, perfect for my frostbitten toes) and see how they work out for me. Also, Brad brought me a bag full of CarboRocket drink mix. I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but I plan to take it with me this weekend to the hot, hot desert, and I'll report back.

4. He's not lying about the quality of the Corner Canyon trails. The amount of singletrack really is amazing in its awesomeness as well as its proximity to the city. His friends helped build several of those trails.

5. He's not fat.

I finished out the day with a jaunt up Little Cottonwood Canyon and descended at sunset. Tomorrow I head to St. George to get some work done on my bike, visit a couple of friends,visit my grandpa and just enjoy a few days in the Land of Zion. I'm expecting more heat and sun, which feels a little less horrible every day.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Oquirrhs

I headed west today with little more than a vague memory of some doubletrack near Herriman and a rough connector road to Middle Canyon, one of my favorite places to ride back when I was a non-mountain-biker living in Tooele, Utah. More than a million people live in the Salt Lake Valley, a once-barren valley surrounded by two large mountain ranges. The Wasatch Range, to the east, was deemed the crown jewel and is now home to a dozen ski resorts, countless campgrounds, trails, paved roads and mad development in general. The Oquirrhs, to the west, remain largely unvisited and unknown.

For all the years I lived in Sandy, Salt Lake and Tooele, my Oquirrh experiences are limited to Middle Canyon and one mountain bike ride near Herriman in which I tore a calf muscle on an endo and couldn't walk normally for two months (I wasn't a mountain biker back then, mind you. I'm so much more graceful now. Ha!) I was feeling really lousy this morning - in an emotional sense - and decided I needed to wash out the malaise with some tough climbing. I hoped some Oquirrh roads and trails would suffice, and I was not disappointed.

Postholing in wet slush up a steep grade ... this has to be good practice for something.

The Kennicott Copper Mine posted "No trespassing" signs everywhere but the scenic viewpoint road. Nothing says scenic like open pit mining. I could not see the bottom.

The trails were much better - or at least less restricted - to the southwest, my old stomping ground - Tooele County.

Look ma, 9,100 feet! I'm going to take a picture every time I reach my "highest elevation of the training season thus far."

Thunderstorms moved through all afternoon. For about five minutes it would pour and I'd be completely soaked, then the sun would come back out and within 10 more minutes I'd be completely dry. It was actually quite refreshing, bursting through a spray of sweet-smelling rainwater and relishing the first real chill I've felt in a couple weeks.

I can't say the rainstorms or the ride washed away all of my malaise, but springtime in the mountains, with the intense colors and smells, definitely provides a good dose of dopamine.

I stopped at the car wash on my way home to finally wash the layers of caked-on red sand off my bike. Even the car wash was pretty, although I lost about two quarters worth of spray time looking for my camera. I have no idea where tomorrow will take me. And maybe that's not a bad thing.

Facing the fear

No amount of laughter from the back of the boat could muffle the screams in my heart. They burst from my chest, 190 howling beats per minute, pressing every cell in my body against the relentless rush of the Colorado River at flood stage. My ears, however, could only hear the primal roar of an explosion of rapids. The canyon was closing in like a funnel. Water as black as the sheer cliffs burst into torrents as white as the sun-blinded sky. They crashed against the rocks, building mountains of whitewater surrounded by a vortex of whirlpools. "That's it," said Hansel, the oarsman. "That's Skull." I glanced back at him. His face betrayed no emotion. I gripped a strap with icy fingers and held my other hand against my chest, grabbing for breaths as hyperventilation set in. My body stiffened and I felt helpless to turn away from the roiling mass in front of me. I faced it with a conviction that, despite everything I do with my life, remains a rare one - the honest conviction that I was about to die.

Everybody who knows me - or who has read my book - knows that I am deeply afraid of moving water. Large waves ... the ocean ... fast-flowing rivers. But right at the top of my list is whitewater rapids. It started in childhood and culminated with a couple bad whitewater rafting experiences in my early 20s. Since then, I have either completely avoided or reluctantly embarked on - with much stress - any kind of rafting, canoeing or boating experience. It's been hard, too, because rafting is something most of my friends in Utah love to do. They had planned a Westwater Canyon trip for our annual spring gathering of college friends. I have been telling them since March that I wasn't going to go. But then everything started to change. Geoff went back to Juneau. I decided I wanted to be with my friends. And, after all, a little fear training could probably do me some good.

I forget that most people see whitewater rafting trips as fun. 13 of us launched on Saturday morning, and it grew into quite the party trip. We camped at a spot just above the big rapids. We hiked to a small waterfall, and the brave among us (not me) slid down it like a waterslide. I tried to relax but had a difficult time. Despite everything that had happened to me in the past week ... big solo bike trip, serious dehydration at 90 degrees in the shadeless desert, making the final split with Geoff ... I couldn't shake the feeling that the chocolate-milk-colored water rushing down the canyon was the ultimate doom.

The group was fun though, even if my "fear training" did bring more jokes than sympathy. These are friends I only see once a year. I guess it doesn't have to be that way since I'm technically living in Utah right now. But the spring trip still has the flavor of a reunion.

We continued downriver late Sunday morning, and hit the heart of the rapids very, very fast. The river was flowing near peak levles, which means big water in some spots but washed-out rapids in most. So in the view of the oarsmen, the Colorado River was flowing at an easy stage. But Skull Rapid was enormous. The last time I floated through Skull - in 2002, at a flow 15 times lower than what it was at on Sunday - I was under water. During that trip, Geoff flipped his boat at the top of the rapid and those of us on his boat - four people and a pit bull puppy - had to ride it out alone. I still remember popping out of the water just as my helpless body was heading full-bore at a sheer wall that rafters call the "Rock of Shock." Right next to me was that little puppy, shrieking. The sound remains embedded in my memory as the voice of primal fear. I was convinced I could still hear it seven years later as we barreled through Skull - despite the high water, with hardly a splash. By the time the waves finally calmed down and reality set in - that it was a perfectly smooth run and the danger was minimal - tears were streaming down my face. I wasn't crying because I was happy to be alive. I was crying because I was angry about my fear. And that made me angry about all the misplaced joys in life that, no matter how hard I try, I may never be able to reclaim.

Westwater was a good trip for me - but not in the ways that I had hoped. I am still terrified of moving water, terrified to the point of panic. That was a disappointing discovery because after everything that's happened to me since 2002, I had hoped the anxiety would be lessened. That maybe I could become like my friends in the back of the boat, cheering and having fun. But Westwater did remind me that everything I am most afraid of can still be done - if I just learn to embrace my fear.
Friday, May 15, 2009

Trial by fire

I placed the water valve between my blistered lips, coated in salt and sand. I bit down hard and licked at the tip with my swollen tongue, trying to extract the last drops of water from the shriveled bladder. Nothing. Even the air inside was gone. I stopped pedaling and looked out over the shadeless expanse of desert. There wasn’t even a rock large enough to crawl behind. Chiseled sandstone peaks marked the rims of two great rivers - so inaccessible to me that they might as well have been in Alaska. I knelt in the hot sand to rest, the stop my head from spinning, to work to rationalize away my growing fear. I hadn’t seen another person since I passed a vehicle-supported group at least seven miles back. I had no idea who if anybody was in front of me. I knew I had at least 10 bone-dry miles before the trail dropped off the plateau toward the Green River. All I had to work with was a narrow line cut into the sand, stretching toward the sun. How I hated the sun.

“Bring lots of water with you,” was the advice of everyone I consulted about my plans. I packed a six-liter bladder and filled it to the brim. I bought a water filter and iodine tablets, promising myself that I’d fill up at every water source I came across on the route, even if it was gross cow water. It weighed at least 11 pounds by itself but it was worth it. I had never planned such a daunting solo bike tour - 140 miles of trail and rough dirt roads with no services on route and only a handful of road and river crossings, followed by 100 more miles of a dirt road loop with absolutely no bailout points. And here I was, practically fresh from coastal Alaska, skin still ghost-white and glistening with rainforest moisture, and sweating bullets anytime the temperature climbed above 70.

The trip was daunting for other reasons that had nothing to do with water. I knew I had to plan something physically challenging in order to make a decision how to proceed with the next few months, but my head just wasn’t in it. I drove five hours from Salt Lake City to Fruita, Colorado, and almost let a loose front spoke coax me out of the entire trip. I finally decided that I didn’t need a super early start and could always cut the trip short or extend it if I had to, and headed to a bike shop first thing in the morning. I called Geoff at the trailhead to work out the logistics of permanently splitting our trip. It was the first time we had talked at all in more than a week. There was a peace to the conversation, apologies on both sides, but it left me feeling even more empty. The whole trip was only looking more directionless. Riding a bicycle alone in the desert. What would be the point?

But, lucky for me, I have a hard time backing out on the decisions I make unless I have a really good reason. It was nearly noon by the time I set out. The Kokopelli Trail left Fruita on rocky singletrack. Back when I lived in Salt Lake City, I hadn't yet started mountain biking. I didn't really start until after I moved to Alaska. For all the time I've spent attempting to ride on snow, I'm a rank beginner on rocks and sand. I felt like a little kid trying to pilot a three-wheeler over a minefield of toys. I was all over the place. And off to a slow start, feeling foolish for thinking I could ride a bike through the desert. An intense hike-a-bike at about mile 14 nearly did me in. I was feeling lonely, overheated and sick to my stomach. I could look down the valley and see trucks wheeling effortlessly down I-70. It would have been so easy for me to hike down the railroad tracks and follow the freeway back. But I remembered that every time I start a long ride, I always feel like quitting early, and that usually wears off. And sure enough, I started to settle into my groove.

For as little riding as I've done in the desert, some of it felt very familiar.

A hard headwind blew from the southwest, infuriatingly in the direction I was heading. Miles 30 through 70 or so are probably the flattest of the whole route, but it didn't feel that way to me as I ground down the pedals at 8 mph. It wasn't that hot but the 40 mph gusts seemed to suck the moisture right out of my skin. I didn't realize it at the time, but a severe deficit was just beginning.

One positive aspect of the wind is the silver shimmer of spring grass, like waves in an ocean. I didn't realize it at the time, but an extreme preoccupation with water was just beginning. Still, the beauty of the landscape helped keep my mind off all my uncertainties. The simplicity of my goals - eat, drink, ride - convinced me that sometimes life can be that simple.

And desert sunsets never disappoint. I was feeling downright blissful by 8 p.m.

Unfortunately, I didn't realize how light my pack had become. I started out the day with six liters of water and hadn't gone by a stream that I noticed since mile 14. I had been taking what felt like conservative sips and hadn't peed once since early that morning, but just past Westwater (where I could have cut off route to find water, but didn't realize I needed to) I heard that awful slurping sound that told me my water was all gone. I had somehow managed to burn through a gallon and half - all I had the ability to carry with the gear I brought - in nine hours. It didn't seem like a good sign. I reached Highway 128 and agonized about cutting the route to find water quickly. I had 10 miles of slow, sandy trail ahead of me that I would have to ride in the dark without any water. My tongue was already beginning to swell. But I finally decided that I wasn't racing the thing - I was on a bike tour. Suffering wasn't a requisite of my plan. I turned down the highway and cranked it in high gear to Dewey Bridge, thinking only about the promise of the muddy Colorado River.

I spent 20 minutes pumping six more liters of river water through my filter after pumping at least one liter directly into my mouth. I headed a little way up the road, unrolled my bivy, and tested my theory about the need for simplicity in bike food - by eating half a jar of peanut butter for dinner. The moon washed my meager campsite in cool blue light. I realized that I truly felt content. Life was good when I had water.

I woke up feeling slightly hung over. I had already ridden a few miles away from the river, so gulping down a liter of water with my breakfast of two Clif Bars cut into my supply. The trail up from the Colorado River started steep and ended unforgivingly rocky. I wasn't willing to try anything to strenuous or risky when the route was so long, and I was alone and so far from help. I ended up walking a fair amount of the next 20 miles. Most of my hike-a-bikes were downhill. I started to seriously question why a person like me even bothered to bring a bike when a backpack and a good pair of boots seemed faster. I noticed the skin on my arms was starting to blister, even though it didn't look burnt. I had been slathering on SPF 50 ever two hours during the daytime since the trip began, but I just couldn't wear enough to hold back the UV rays. I stopped in the thin shade of a juniper tree after five hours of solid effort, 20 miles into the day, and checked my water supply. I was already down to less than two liters. I knew Onion Creek was close but I had no idea if there was actually water there. I felt dehydrated and sun-shocked. Bailing from the route at that point seemed almost inevitable.

I heard a truck roll up and soon heard someone say "Jill?" It was my friends Jen and Mike - who had no idea I was on that particular trail and who just happened to be in the area looking for a place to hike. They were the first actual people I had seen since I left the Fruita trail system. I refilled my bladder with their supply. They told me Geoff had picked up my car in Fruita and was somewhere near by. I dropped into the valley just before the long, long climb into the mountains. Sure enough, I saw my car parked at the base and a few miles up the road I saw Geoff running.

It was strange to see him after spending a week half believing I'd never talk to him again. But my anger had settled and I was genuinely glad he was there. I told him how much I had been struggling, how thirsty I always was, how I started late and was moving slower than I had hoped, so the White Rim was pretty much out of the question. He agreed to meet me in Moab with real dinner, a tent, and a car ride to the White Rim trailhead in the morning. It messed up my original goal of doing the entire thing self-supported, but making my peace with Geoff seemed more important than any bike goal.

After we parted, I set into the long climb slow but comfortable. In all of my suffering in the heat and sun, my body felt great with the exception of soreness in my frostbitten toes. I had to laugh at the appropriateness of frostbite-caused pain in the Utah desert. I would have killed for a slab of snow to roll around in.

As it was, the climb brought me pretty close. I reached 8,600 feet, lightheaded but alive in the cooler air. According to my GPS, the route has nearly 12,000 feet of climbing in the short 70 miles between Dewey and Moab, and the time it took me to complete the ride testified to the steepness, but the day didn't feel too physically difficult. I still wasn't drinking enough water - easy to tell because nothing was moving through me. Still, Moab seemed like a safe haven, and the big sips of water were making me feel slightly nauseated, so I didn't worry too much about it.

The descent from 8,000 feet to 4,000 feet down the Sand Flats Road was amazing - my favorite part of the entire trip. I was blasted by so much cool air that I was actually chilled, and the sunset painted the alpine in intense colors.

Desert sunsets never disappoint.

I know I've used this blog to gripe about my constant lack of sun in Juneau, but when it comes down to it, Juneau is a better extreme for a person like me. I had soaked up so much UV light that my skin, though not sunburned, was radiating heat. Watching the sun leave was my favorite part of the day.

Geoff and I had a good, although long, talk in Moab. It was after 2 a.m. by the time I went to sleep and I had a hard time dragging myself out of bed at anything resembling an early hour. Geoff drove me to Island in the Sky, thereby cutting about 25 miles of road off my original planned route. Still, White Rim in one day isn't technically easy. It's 100 miles by itself, with about 8,000 feet of climbing, there's no shade and once you drop in and commit, there's no escape.

I was in love with the White Rim for the first half of the day. I rode it once before, in 2003, with a $250 Trek 6500 that I had only ridden a handful of times before the trip. We took three days and it was vehicle-supported, with gallons of water and Dutch oven dinners. I still remember it as a hard, daunting ride. But on Thursday the miles passed easily, at least compared to the Kokopelli Route, and I was amazed how great I felt despite everything.

Things started to go south right around a climb called Murphy's Hogback, about halfway into the ride. It's steep but not all that long. I wasn't setting out to test my limits and walked a good portion of it. I reached the top and saw one of the few touring groups on the trail - the White Rim route was surprisingly not crowded. It was downright deserted, at least relative to what I expected. I hadn't seen that many people, but I didn't know at the time that they were going to be the last people I saw for the rest of the day.

The White Rim has no water and no services, but it does have many, many opportunities to end things quickly if it comes to that.

A few miles beyond the bottom of Murphy's, I started to feel intensly dizzy. I swerved for a few seconds before I was forced to stop my bike and sit next to the trail. The hot sun pounded my body and there was no way to hide from it. I had no idea what was wrong - hydration, electrolytes, or a serious bonk - so I tried everything. I took large sips of seriously warm water and gulped down a couple of electrolyte pills. I choked down a Power Bar and a couple handfuls of pumpkin seeds. I tried to pee but couldn't - there was nothing there. I checked my bladder and saw with dismay that I was down to less than two liters again. Just over 50 miles into a 100-mile ride. I had ditched my filter with Geoff and only had iodine tablets. And I had no idea when the trail even met the Green River. I couldn't remember and only had a National Park map to go by. For all I could tell from that map, it may have been the very end. I might run into another group, but I had no way of knowing. I was scared. I was genuinely scared. The desert is an intense environment that in my experience is deeply similar to frozen tundra - hauntingly beautiful and deadly. My whole body system was freaking out and I was far from help. Still, I was able to put rationality to work. The Green River was at most 30 miles away. People don't die of thirst in a matter of hours, although heat stroke was a real possibility. My body's reaction was probably more a lack of calories and electrolytes than lack of water, and after 20 minutes of a good rest and a few more pumpkin, I already felt better. I mounted my bike and moved with single-minded purpose toward water.

So close but so far away.

Still, my bladder did run out before I reached the river. I had been rationing but running out completely was another big blow. My lips and tongue were swollen. When I licked my lips, I tasted only salt, so I knew that I really was severely dehydrated. Then, stupidly, I reached the river but decided to continue further to a campground that was on the map, knowing I was close to the river but hoping I would find someone that would give me real water (I know I have to get over it, but I still struggle with the prospect of drinking directly from silty rivers, even with iodine.) I didn't know that another huge climb awaited at a placed called Hardscrabble, and pretty soon I was 500 feet above the rive again, truly frustrated.

I finally dropped down to the river and stopped to fill my bladder with thick brown water and drop my tablets in. I didn't want to start the steep climb out of Mineral Bottom in as bad of shape as I was, so I decided I would take a break for a half hour while the iodine kicked in, relax in the shade and take a bath in the river. I was coated in three days of dust, sweat and sunscreen, and a swim sounded awesome. But when I tried to get in, I sank to my knees in quicksand. Everwhere I walked down the bank was the same situation. At one point, I had to grab a bush to pull myself out. There was nowhere to get in the river, and at that point I was not only coated in dirt, but my legs were covered in stinky sludge. To top it all off, mosquitoes were attacking me in force. That did it. Water or none, I was not going to hang around the White Rim any longer. I had had it.

After the iodine kicked in, I drank a whole lot of silty water and wondered where all that moisture was going. Apparently out of my skin and directly into the air, because it didn't seem to stick around in my body at all. I felt like a sun-dried tomato, shriveled and spent. But as the sun went down, I climbed out of Horsethief with renewed power, and with water back in my system, finally feeling strong again. I remain amazed at the sheer pleasure I extract from the seemingly pointless act of pedaling all day. Life is hard on a bike - but at the same time so simple.