Friday, December 06, 2019

The lonesomer loop

It was well after 7 a.m. when the first beams of sunlight appeared along the mesas towering over Moab, where I rolled Beat's bike onto Main Street for another 150 miles of desert solitude. Temperatures were still frosty — 26 degrees — and my body seemingly hadn't yet recovered an ability to generate quick heat. I shivered in my puffy coat, feeling a hint of dread. This nervousness about upcoming adventures doesn't seem to change, no matter how much experience I gain or how many long, solo miles I put behind me. 

 My legs were slow to warm up as I pedaled out of town and looped south to follow the Colorado River. Thick fog obscured the shoreline, and soon I descended from the brilliant colors of morning into gray gloom. I liked it in there. It was eerie, yet soothing. The ethereal sparkle of silver light cutting through the cloud was all the engagement I needed from my environment at this early hour. Beads of frost collected on my pants and gloves as I pedaled. My breakfast of yogurt and berries was exhausted within an hour, so I stopped at the edge of the fog to sit in renewed sunlight and eat a second breakfast. For this leg of the trip, I had a secret weapon — no-bake cookies from the City Market.

 After 20 miles of dazed morning pedaling, I passed the sprawling industrial complex of the Intrepid Potash mine. It was odd to see huge concrete buildings and abandoned freight cars stretched along the sand in a place that resembled pristine Canyonlands in every other way. A rugged jeep road climbed away from the river and clunked along on sandstone benches before reaching the edge of the evaporation pools. These impressively large bodies of water were blocked by a chain-link fence, and I was otherwise too disgusted with industrial ugliness to take any photos. But I wish I had, as they were fascinating — an electric, almost psychedelic blue rippling in the gentle breeze, reflecting abstract impressions from the red cliffs surrounding the valley. This shade of blue seemed unnatural, and later I read that it actually is — the ponds are dyed this color to absorb more sunlight and heat, aiding in the evaporation process.

 Potash Road seemed to climb and descend endlessly from there, and I stopped to finally strip off my layers into something resembling proper desert attire — padded bike shorts (I learned my lesson on my last bike trip) and a long-sleeved synthetic shirt. I kept my vest on, because the wind still carried a stiff chill. I felt disconcerted by my inability to feel fully warmed in relatively mild temperatures. The fatigue in my legs also was disappointing. I'd only pedaled two 10-hour days so far, pretty much nothing in the scheme of the endurance I hoped to achieve at this point in my winter training. The first two days of this trip had been a breeze, but for this third morning I hit a wall that I couldn't climb over. Of course, the third day of any multi-day effort is nearly always one of the hardest — after all of the quick energy has been exhausted, but before the rhythm of the daily grind sets in. It's science.

 I was 35 miles into my day before I connected with the proper White Rim at the bottom of Shafer Trail. Here I saw the first people of the morning, two red jeeps rumbling ahead at a speed not much faster than my pedaling pace. By this point I'd started listening to podcasts, and an episode of Dirtbag Diaries had me bawling loudly, without shame. It was an episode with a couple from Seattle who embarked on a ski trip in Alaska and found themselves trapped in a 100-year storm. Their tent had blown away and they were huddled in sleeping bags, slowly succumbing to hypothermia. After receiving news that rescuers couldn't reach them, they were communicating with their family via satellite messenger. Although I knew they survived — after all, they were giving the interview — those interactions with family members set off the big crocodile tears. Clearly I was in an emotional state. Indulging in these emotions had a refreshing effect, and I found renewed energy for the climbs.

 With the emotional dam broken, my stream of consciousness unravelled as well. The unwinding thoughts landed on a particularly deep cut. I scarcely recognized the scene, and yet it was as real as my immediate surroundings. I could see the reflection of flames on a sheer sandstone wall, otherwise shrouded in darkness. Beyond the flickering canyon frame was an explosive night sky. I looked down to see the young face of a college friend, Chris, his eyes dampened with tears. There were other faces obscured in shadows from the campfire, and as I looked toward them I felt a warmth in my core, a deep sense of human connection. There was music playing softly, possibly from far away. I recognized "Ojos Asi" by Shakira, which is a song I likely haven't heard or thought about in 18 years, but I remember it. This moment was a real memory, but I couldn't tell you exactly when it happened, or why it matters to my subconscious. Yet there I was, experiencing that place, as viscerally as though I'd traveled through time. It fascinates me, the way these lost memories persist with such depth, so many years into the future, even without nurturing from my consciousness. It's as though the present is only a thin veil over an infinite, multidimensional reality.

 These reveries continued on and off throughout the afternoon, and suddenly the shadows grew long. I had 67 miles on the day now, but they unravelled in slow motion, creeping around chipped sandstone shelves and sandy climbs. Lots of time had passed. Decades, perhaps. When I allowed my mind to snap back to the present, I felt a dull pain in my lower back, and cramped fatigue in my legs. "Too much weight in the pack," I thought. "I'm going to have to rework this again tonight."

I wondered if I could beat darkness to my camp site, but this seemed increasingly unlikely. The evening light was lovely, and I kept stopping to take photos. Each time, the wind bit through my damp shirt and I shivered profusely, noting that the skin on my legs was now the color of a ripe tomato. I wanted to put my layers back on, but that would take too much time. I still wanted to race the daylight. More than that, I wanted to propel myself to new and interesting vistas that I could burn into memory before the color faded.

 The White Rim has such interesting geology. 280 million years ago these were coastal dunes, whipped by winds and flooded by marine water, stirring the sediment into a chaotic formation that erosion couldn't tame. My time-traveling mind relishes in any opportunity to go prehistoric, and my imagination took me back to that place — the electric-blue ocean that once filled the horizon, the coast lined with dunes, and grains of sand carried into the sky by an ancient gale. It's interesting, I thought, that those once-ethereal piles of sand became frozen in place, emerging as petrified sand dunes hundreds of millions of years later. Now there is a persistent memory.

 Closer to the present, I kept rounding corners and looking toward mesas. Is that Murphy's Hogback? How about that one? Darkness had fully descended just as I hit a persistent steep climb that I knew had to be the one. My back relished a chance to finally stretch out when I hopped off the bike to hike. Ah, hiking. Feels so good. So natural.

 My campsite was Murphy B, nestled beside rounded sandstone outcroppings on top of a long and razor-thin mesa, the "hogback." My water cache was right where I left it, undisturbed. "What am I going to do with three and a half gallons?" I wondered. "That was a heavy carry." I didn't want to just waste it. So I washed my hands, took off my shoes and socks to wash the sand from my feet, changed my clothes and fired up the stove for dinner. I had two hot chocolate packets and halved them, drinking four full pots' worth of weak chocolate-flavored hot water. Then I had my tea. I'd be up all night again, but that was okay. I expected good skies tonight.

 The wind picked up strength overnight, and I was indeed up a lot. At one point in the night, when skies were still clear, I stood with my hair whipping in the gale while I gazed toward a bright, almost blue light glowing on the northern horizon. A check of my mental map told me nothing was up there — Moab was more to the northeast, the town of Green River was northwest and quite far away, and anyway either of those towns didn't have enough wattage for this level of light pollution. Northern Lights? Unlikely, and not really the right sort of hue, but what else could it be? A bend in the space-time continuum, a window into the Permian era? Finally I decided it didn't really matter what that blue light was ... it was mesmerizing.

 Morning dawned overcast with one of those "sailor take warning" skies. Terrified as I was of storms and mud, my mind paid attention. But I still couldn't coax the rest of my body to get moving. I skulked around with my oatmeal and watery coffee, feeling terribly sluggish — weighed down by creaks and kinks from all of this saddle time, still hungry and inexplicably thirsty. After breakfast and filling up my three-liter hydration bladder, I only had about three quarters of a gallon left in my hard-fought cache. I still felt bad that I couldn't use it all. Guiltily, I dumped the remaining water into the sand and strapped the containers onto my bike rack.

 The first 15 miles were almost entirely downhill with a few punchy climbs, and yet I still felt like I was just slogging along, barely able to pedal. During this stretch I connected with Erika, who was riding the 100-mile loop counter-clockwise, having started about four hours earlier at the end of Mineral Bottom Road. Her bike looked enviably light. My back hurt. I'd moved almost everything into a makeshift handlebar bag and rear rack bag. All that remained in the backpack was water, a puffy jacket, and a few pieces of food. But maybe the damage was done. Anyway, that water was heavy. Erika was perky, having a great time, and had already ridden 40 miles that day. I'd done about 10, and admitted that I was only beginning to wake up.

 Despite ominous morning skies, the sun came out for a while. My mental energy reserves still felt limited, which didn't allow for as many deep-cut reveries as the previous day. This was a good thing, forcing me to spend more bandwidth engaged with my immediate environment: puzzling out the route through a sandstone bench, steering toward the best-looking hero sand, admiring the canyon maze below the rim, and piecing together where I stood beneath Island in the Sky.

 There were several minutes of gawking at this bighorn ram, who was hanging out with his lady (top photo) near the edge of the rim. He strutted around her with a protective air as she made more timid, jerking motions. Then he bounded across the road, right in front of me. She didn't follow. Finally I continued on and left them alone.

 After climbing a few more benches, dropping to the Green River and then tracing the shoreline for a dozen miles, the route finally began its long climb onto Island in the Sky Mesa at Mineral Bottom. I stopped at the bottom of the switchbacks, which gain a thousand feet in just over a mile. Last year, when I rode the 100-mile loop as a four-day comfort tour with my friends, I made a goal of pedaling the entire climb. It was early morning on a day that only required 14 miles of riding, but I remember the lung-searing grind and feeling punched out at the top. I needed to be more conservative this year. Still, this feeling of self-preservation did not stop me from dumping more than half of the water out of my backpack, leaving only about a liter for the remaining 35 miles. While doing this, I laughed at the memory of my solo White Rim in the 95-degree-heat of May 2009, when I ran out of water before Murphy's Hogback. It wasn't until 30 miles later that I was able to collect some from the Green River and treat it with iodine. In this exact spot ten years ago, a half hour had passed and I took my first sip of muddy Green water. It tasted vaguely like cow manure and was so sandy that it left a film on my teeth. I still shudder when I think about that memory. Back then, I would have killed for this clean, clear cache water that I was just dumping into the sand. But not today. I'd overindulged, felt overhydrated and a bit off, and was officially over carrying a bunch of dead weight just because it was scarce. With the backpack lightened, I stretched my crumpled back muscles, lifted my head, and hiked. It felt so good to hike. So natural.

 After seeing only handful of people on route for most of two days, the top of Mineral Bottom was inundated with humans. Dozens of people crowded the parking lot with their Sprinter vans and modified jeeps and large circles of folding chairs. Later I'd see more pullouts overflowing with vehicles, and wondered why this random BLM land was suddenly so popular on a Monday in late November. Finally saw a sign celebrating the 2019 Slackline Championships. Slackline? Here? I suppose people have all sorts of weird passions. The event made for an absolute slog out, though — beyond the Mineral Bottom switchbacks are 15 miles of gradual, nearly continuous climbing on a dusty, washboarded gravel road. Add in an almost continuous stream of speeding traffic, and the whole thing was miserable. I couldn't bear to stop in the dust clouds and again became terribly bonked. Within a mile of the paved highway I was so done that I just cut off the road early, onto unmarked doubletrack riddled with goatheads. I didn't even care where it took me.

 The doubletrack diversion ate up about 45 minutes of daylight that I couldn't necessarily afford, but eventually I found my way back to Gemini Bridges Road. I knew this sandy track could carry me back to Moab, but was surprised when a sign at the top indicated there were still 14 miles to the highway corridor. I wasn't expecting it to be that far, or include another big climb that the sign also warned about. At least now I knew this hill was coming. Sprinkles of rain were beginning to fall from the overcast sky. I briefly wavered on just staying on highway 313 to avoid any chance of becoming embroiled in death mud. But no, I couldn't handle any more car traffic. Anyway, I need to re-learn how to be brave.

I thought about all of the lessons this trip had taught me so far — things I already knew, of course, but renewing the context gives these principles more purpose. The Rabbit Valley death mud taught me patience and perseverance. The broken rack taught me acceptance and improvisation. The solo camp taught me independence and the importance of balance when it comes to hydration. The aches and pains of day four taught me that my mind can take me far, but my body will have the last word. The weird way that I spent so much of the trip feeling cold taught me that my body still sometimes operates independently of objective reality. Apparently temperatures can be mild and I can wear a bunch of layers and still feel cold. Probably a hormonal thing. Deal with it.

Rain began to fall more steadily as I churned over the rock-strewn climb along the cliffs paralleling highway 191. The road surface was already beginning to soften. I could see traffic on the highway below and knew I only had a couple of miles to reach it, but I was still panicked — if this dirt turned to death mud, two miles might as well be a hundred. I let go on the final descent, zooming so quickly that my back burned and my vision blurred as I bounced over a minefield of rocks. I hit the bike path just as the sky unleashed big crocodile tears. The temperature was 39 degrees and my hands were blue as I wrestled into my thin rain shell and mittens. There were still ten miles of riding to town, and I could no longer feel my extremities, but I felt like I won. Four days in desert between two massive storms, and I'd unintentionally timed the entire thing with down-to-the-minute precision.

From this I learned that the universe will reward me, if I chose to interpret its randomness in this way. In other words, think positive.

Thank you, White Rim. It was a great ride. 


  1. This post brought back memories of the time we rode the entire White Rim Trail one fall, years ago...before permits and crowds. And the Gemini Bridges road, too...back when you could camp there. It was one of our favorite camps. We sailed down, down, down to the Bridges on our bikes...losing precious elevation through sand traps that would make us sorry and sore after pedaling back out. That second hill was a surprise to us, too, but so close to the highway we just had to go. Thought about taking the pavement back, but ended up slogging G.B. road all the way back to camp. We were puckered and tuckered after pushing our bikes back up what seemed so easy coming down...slogging through the grip of death sand, beat down by Utah's unrelenting, blistering sun.
    Of all the outdoor "memories" one collects over a lifetime, why is it always the most grueling that return to haunt and take pride in?
    mark, in Lovely Ouray

  2. Always amazed and appreciative of the effort you put into capturing images of the transcendent qualities of the landscapes you travel through....amazing.

    "It's as though the present is only a thin veil over an infinite, multidimensional reality."

    That's so true, that the present is also so transient, a mere speck in a ocean of infinity.
    I thought me and Hobbits we're the only ones that had second breakfast :-). Cold mornings I tend to get rolling first and get my blood flowing and have a fast first breakfast once I'm warmed up and can spare the blood flow to process food. Second breakfast (happy meal) is the best, energizing comfort of hot coffee with the dazzling taste of food fuel, during that moment the world world seems more alive and vibrant! Ehh that's just me.

    Jeff C

  3. As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures from my armchair! I was on the edge of my seat! And kudos for persevering & learning lessons. You’re amazing!


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