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.