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.