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. 


  1. I think you got up close and personal with the Morrison Formation near Fruita. One rainy ride at Boggy Draw we had a similar experience - as long as we rode the trails on the cap rock, the Dakota Sandstone, we were fine, but as soon as we dropped off the rim onto the apron of Morrison, we proceeded about one wheel revolution before our bikes came to a complete stop.

  2. I was on a fire in Utah someplace once, and we were riding a school bus to go to some drop point. It started to rain and the road became undriveable in minutes. We just had to sit there until the sun came back out. So I can picture the scene well.

  3. This post made me keep thinking back on your TD adventure in the New Mexico red-mud. Reading that part of your book is the very definition of tenacity to me. Ive never yet sat down and cried on a bike-ride, but I think that red mud would have done it. And maybe what you just did...your 90 minute detour. Just shows you that you never know what life has in store just around the corner...cruising or cursing...or both. LOVE your stories Jill! As always, you still blow my mind. And Im still chuckling about Beat and his reactions to how you use his bikes!

  4. All your photos are beautiful. But the first one in this post is truly amazing!

  5. Good writing once again. Was gritting my teeth reading where you heaved the bike over the fence. Take care.

  6. This post made me laugh out loud multiple times only because it was so relatable! I mean just in the span of and extra 150 minutes an enjoyable outing turns into a mud battle  and a quest for survival . LOL. Flinging the mud back across state lines put me over the top:-). Mud can be such a energy draining Soul crushing experience, sometimes I felt it's almost like a amoeba slowly working its way up my body trying to devour me! There have been times when overwhelming futility has made me want to curl up in the fetal position and hope it all goes away :-) but then the other voice says to suck it up buttercup and get moving! Mud experiences Exaggeration?? Ahhh .... No :-).

    Jeff C


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