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?


  1. I was there in late October and it was crazy busy with those 4 wheel drive buggy's! So annoyingly loud, fast and dusty!!! I would lurch off to the side every time I saw one coming. I just wanted peace maybe I will go in November next year. Love that area!

    1. Everyone seems to flock to the area in April and October, but I've found it almost abandoned during visits through most of the winter months. March can be pretty wet so I think November is best, although this was a particularly wet week in November. We had quite a bit of snow the day after finishing the trip.

  2. That is some fantastic scenery! Big thanks!! I'll have to put that on my bucket list.
    I groaned when I read that Erica's sleeping pad went flat.... brought back tortured memories of having to sleep on cold rocky ground after one of my own sleeping pad failures. Now I carry half-inch thick foam yoga pad to protect my sleeping pad from the sharp pointy things on the ground that I always seem to miss. It doubles during the day for sitting,stretching,mobility drills.... and the occasional nap/sky gazing if time, views and conditions align :).

    Jeff C

    1. Yeah, my inflatable mattress has sprung several leaks at inconvenient times, and now has at least five patches. I'm not a big fan of relying on air mattresses for this reason, but I at least carry a robust patch kit these days.

  3. I use Locktite™ on all my rack and water bottle cage screws.

    1. Live and learn! I've mostly used racks for either road touring or in winter settings, where the terrain isn't nearly as rough. I jumped on the mountain bike and bikepacking bag bandwagon at about the same time, so discovering that racks don't work so well on dirt without reinforcement is new.

  4. Surely there was a spare water bottle screw between the two bikes that you could transfer to the rack?

    1. The age of frame bags ... although there were a couple of screws anchoring my frame bag to the frame that probably could have been sacrificed. I should have at least tried it. But I am so mechanically dumb that looking elsewhere on the bike for an extraneous screw didn't cross my mind until Beat mentioned it later. I didn't want to try any of the other screws on the rack as they all seemed load-bearing, but the telescoping arm was already at a setting where gravity could hold it in place, and it turned out to work just fine.


Feedback is always appreciated!