Thursday, December 03, 2020

Thankful for wide-open spaces

When friends proposed a Thanksgiving-weekend ride around the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park, I was reluctant. I'd already told my family I wouldn't travel out to Salt Lake City this year, due to the COVID surge that drastically increased the risk of spending time in close contact with people outside our households. Any travel, even a road trip, was dubious at this point in time. Still, if done right, the White Rim ride seemed even safer than my day-to-day routine. I could load up my car with all of the food and water I'd need for a week. The only businesses I would need to visit would be gas stations, and I could and pay at the pump. I could camp every night. Bikes and rough terrain naturally create at least six feet of space when you're riding, and my friends and I could make an effort to keep our distance while stopped. I recognize these are justifications for a bike trip that I really wanted to join, but they made rational sense. This may be 2020, but does that mean we can have absolutely no nice things? 

I wrapped up my weekly deadlines around 10 p.m. Tuesday, brushed away six inches of new snow from the Subaru, and packed up: Beat's Why Cycles Wayward that is just the perfect desert bikepacking rig, bike bags and repair supplies, eight gallons of water, a surprisingly small insulated grocery bag of shelf-stable, low-moisture food for a week, a cooler with cans of Diet Pepsi to ward off temptation, camping gear, and a small duffle of clothing. I set a painful alarm and hit the road at 2:30 a.m. under clear skies and temperatures around 5 degrees. There was a lot of black ice on the roads, but at least there was no traffic. I crested Vail Pass, where the snow-covered forest sparkled in the moonlight as the empty road rolled toward all-encompassing darkness. I felt like I was entering another world, another time, both far beyond the cloistered realities of the present. 

Although I had some confusion about our meeting spot and drove aimlessly on sandy roads for 20 minutes, I still managed to arrive for the planned 10 a.m. start. Betsy, Erika, Danni, and I all drove from our various corners of Colorado and Montana for this overnight ride. Although I see one friend or another from time to time, it felt astonishingly strange to find myself in a group. As we finished setting up our bikes, I sputtered through stilted conversations and inwardly laughed at myself for being so socially awkward. I felt the way I feel when I have to make small talk with cashiers at Trader Joes these days, but amplified — stumbling over my words and stopping mid-sentence to gather a fraying train of thought. 

"These are your friends that you've known for years," I chided myself silently. "After pandemic, you will need to relearn all of your social skills."

We made quick work of 11 miles on Mineral Bottom Road to the edge of the abyss, where the route plunges toward the Green River. From there, the rugged jeep road begins its meander along the White Rim, a sandstone shelf below the cliffs and spires that prop up Island in the Sky mesa. Like most routes in this region, the road was originally built to support uranium prospecting in the 1950s. It's since become an iconic jeep or mountain bike tour, encompassing almost exactly a hundred miles when traveled as a full loop. 

The first time I was here was back in the spring of 2002 — before I was any kind of cyclist at all. I had only recently purchased a Trek 6500 for $250 on eBay, and had taken it on all of one or two rides before friends invited me to join a large group riding the route over three days and two nights with a support vehicle. I was terrible on the bike — lagging behind the group, bruised from several crashes, and finally unable to make the steep climb out of Mineral Bottom. The driver of our SAG vehicle found me sitting dejectedly on one of the switchbacks, and loaded up my bike and its unfit rider for the rest of the ride to the highway. I remember feeling so ashamed and pretty sure I was going to list that mountain bike on eBay as soon as I got home. But somewhere in there, a taste for adventure cycling entered my blood. It was a definitive beginning. I would never be the same. 

Since that fateful first loop, I believe I've made four or five more ... it's easy to lose count. It's not nearly enough for two decades of a lifetime, in my opinion. But the White Rim has become more of an annual pilgrimage since friends planned a four-day, three-night trip over Thanksgiving in 2018. I made a solo overnight ride from Moab along Potash Road and back via Gemini Bridges last year, also around Thanksgiving. I suppose this has become my new T-Day tradition. The sandy doubletrack along the Green River held a warm feeling of nostalgia, which seems a reasonable consolation for missing out on my mother's cream pies. 

November days are short, and we were off to a late start thanks to my and Erika's overnight drives. Even with our push to reach camp before dark, I stepped off the bike for every canyon overlook and lingered over vistas. My contentedness was at once familiar and strange. For most of 2020, since March at least, I've mostly stuck to my Boulder bubble, rushing through workouts while going more or less ... nowhere. Here on the White Rim, with unobstructed vistas stretching dozens of miles toward every horizon, I had everywhere to potentially be and felt as though I was standing still. It felt good — endless space to breathe. I'd nearly forgotten how much I enjoy simply being out in the world.

The weather on this day was cool and clear — low 50s for a high, heading toward the upper 20s overnight. Toward evening, a stiff breeze signaled a weather disturbance. The forecast for Thanksgiving Day predicted more snow to the Colorado mountains. I hoped it wouldn't bring rain to Southeastern Utah, as I still have nightmares about the death mud I encountered in the desert last year. Still, as the waxing moon climbed above Island in the Sky, I felt certain that good fortune would follow us through the rest of the week. 

As the moon rose, the sun set abruptly and all to soon, as it does this time of year. I will always happily trade the short days of November for its gorgeous light. I'm a night owl anyway and am just as content to be out for a midnight walk under a moon so bright that I don't even need a headlamp. The cool afternoons are a bonus as well — although I was regretting my decision to carry nine liters of water for the two-day trip. Since we were dry-camping and I wanted to make hot drinks to my heart's content, I erred on the side of bringing too much water. But I basically drank none during the day and had to hoist all of it up the punchy climbs as we neared Murphy's Hogback. My heavy bike was annoying me so much. I fantasized about drinking six hot chocolates and then tossing an entire bladder's worth of water in a sunlit fountain over a ledge (sadly, as it turned out, I forgot the hot chocolate. I had none at all. For the entire trip. This would prove more tragic as the week went on, but for now, it was less irritating than my heavy bike.) 

The final climb up Murphy's is a grunt and a half, but our reward was arriving at camp in the clear twilight. The spot is exposed to the hard wind and higher than the other campsites on the White Rim, so it's not necessarily the most comfortable place to sleep. But you can also see almost all of Canyonlands from the rim — Needles to the south, The Maze to the east. 

And somewhere, back that way is Horseshoe Canyon. So many places that I've never visited, that I'll likely never visit ... but I love to imagine myself there. I suppose that's the draw of wide-open vistas — to be a tiny human in a single pinpoint of space, traveling the universe in my mind. 

Camp with a view. The cold clamped down quickly as we set up our tents, and Erika and Betsy retreated to their sleeping bags as soon as it was dark, which came around 5:30 p.m. Danni and I sat at a safe distance, cooked up pre-Thanksgiving dinner in bags (with no hot chocolate. Sniff), and chatted away the bright moonlit evening in our puffy pants. I was exhausted after an eight-hour, stressful drive on black ice followed by a six-hour, slightly less strenuous ride on rocks and sand, and plunged into a deep and disorienting sleep that lasted until dawn. 

Day two brought many more canyon overlooks. I stopped at them all. Just when I thought my heart couldn't feel more full, the vistas would fill me with warm contentedness. I thought we had all of the time in the world for lingering, even though thanks to my sleepy-headedness, we still got a somewhat late start and our ride day only included about seven hours of daylight. 

Out of six trips around the White Rim, this is the only time I've ridden the loop counter-clockwise. I soon realized how ideal this direction is for riding the loop. For starters, there's Mineral Bottom Road, which is dusty, washboarded, high-traffic, and generally annoying. It's definitely better to spend less time on this road by descending it and getting it out of the way first. The route above the Green is filled with punchy grades that aren't easy as climbs or descents, so in my opinion, you might as well climb them. Beyond Murphy, there's a long, ramped descent that generally loses altitude for more than 15 miles — it feels tedious riding clockwise, and comparatively effortless in this direction. Finally, there's Shafer Trail. Shafer is long and grueling as a climb, and I think that's the reason why most people choose to ride clockwise. But if you like hard, slow, meditative slogging, and it's your favorite thing in the world, well ... the directional choice is obvious. 

We still had plenty of ramped descents to enjoy before the climb commenced. I had regrettably consumed both of my sandwiches on the first day while ignoring the rest of my snacks. At least I had an abundance of bars to enjoy at every overlook along the rim. 

Here is another one of those punchy climbs. Betsy was able to clear a lot of them on her fat bike in impressive anaerobic bursts. I was a bit lazy and didn't really try, even after I'd whittled my water carry down to three liters, which I also barely touched during the ride. "Walk and conserve energy," I'd call out, but quietly I was envious of Betsy's determination. 

The daylight began to grow long again. How did that happen? Where do these winter days even go? Both Betsy and Erika had been riding long days before the White Rim and seemed eager to leg out these final miles quickly and be done. I greedily wanted to cling to every canyon overlook, and mused aloud about dropping into Lathrop Canyon to see what was down there. If I had been alone I probably would have done it, and then I definitely would have had to climb out in the freezing darkness. Ultimately I'm grateful my friends were there to keep me on track, as the remaining views were jaw-dropping.

An overlook of the Colorado River. 

As shadows crept down from the mesa, we finally reached the bottom of Shafer Trail. My heart fluttered as I gazed up at the imposing cliffs. Such a thing of beauty: You think there's no way a road could find a way to scale this wall. It's impossible. At yet you know such a thing exists — you've been here before. Somehow you'll have to climb this wall. You'll do it on a bike. You'll pedal the whole way. The whole idea is so preposterous yet so compelling. 

Shafer Trail finds a way, by threading a tight series of switchbacks through brief weaknesses in the cliff. It's smooth but steep and precipitous. Someday — maybe next Thanksgiving — I will attempt a White Rim in a day and climb this road as hard as I can right at the end of my dirt century. It will be gloriously painful. 

For now, I was grateful for easy breathing, ample photo opportunities, and gorgeous light. Ominous clouds sank low over the La Sals. I could see a white blur of snow extending along the Moab corridor, but the storm never touched us. Fortuitous indeed. I stopped at the top of the climb to layer up for the final ten miles to camp and enjoyed a coffee-flavored candy bar that found its way to me all the way from Canada, courtesy of Danni's "emotional-support Canadian," who is our mutual friend Dave. Dave wanted to remind us that even though life in the United States is a little bit insane right now, we can be grateful that there are still places of calm in the world, places to which we can hope to return if we remain vigilant. The coffee wafer bar with French ingredients was blissfully tasty — mostly because I neglected to bring much candy of my own on this trip (and no hot chocolate. Sigh.) 

The ride back along highway 313 was gorgeous, if somewhat stressful with traffic after two days on the isolated White Rim. The temperature had dropped into the low 30s by the time we arrived at our cars. Betsy and Erika packed up and headed out before Danni and I had even changed out of our sweaty layers, which I understood ... I'd hoped they'd stay to hang out and enjoy water-flavored hot drinks during the evening, but late November cold and darkness is just not conducive to relaxed car camping. Danni and I had another bike trip planned, so we stayed to heat up our Thanksgiving dinner (two Tasty Bites for me. Punjab Eggplant and Madras Lentils spooned straight out of the bags.) Then we retreated to our tents at an unconscionably early hour. My gratitude for this overwhelming abundance lulled me to another peaceful sleep. 


  1. Amazing photos. Doing White Rim in a Day is definitely on my bucket list! But I want to do it when there is enough daylight to see it all and it isn't too hot, too.

    1. Here's my idea for a November loop: Aim for 10 hours. Start at the Canyonlands visitor center 90 minutes before sunrise. The first ~20 miles on the mesa are okay but mostly missable. You should reach the good views right at sunrise and finish up around sunset. You wouldn't be able to stop much or at all for this strategy, so you'd miss a lot either way. If you really want to "see it all," I recommend three nights and four days. ;-)

  2. Great write up. It has always been the case that I find out what is going through your head later when you blog about our trips :-) I was joking with Amber about how funny it is to do a bike ride with three introverts and be the only extrovert. This was really a wonderful ride thank you!

    1. I'm always grateful for my extrovert friends. My best trips are those in which I'm the only introvert and I can just sit and listen to lively conversation and smile. Sorry you were the only one in this case, but thanks for the laughs.

  3. I'm writing this in a grumpy mood because I am in serious need of adventure. My friends and I had also planned a trip to this area though I would be hiking instead. My Montana friends thought we should all take Covid tests but here the results don't come back for days and it isn't feasible to strictly quarantine here when you have to go get your mail. Anyway we were put in lockdown and we decided that it didn't look good when non essential travel was banned. But it is good to know of a late fall option when things get better.

    1. Public mandates are all over the place, and thus we all have to make our own decisions about how to keep ourselves and those around us safe. I wouldn't choose to travel by air or use hotels right now, but I don't consider self-contained outdoor travel to be a high-risk activity. You can literally stay well over six feet away from other humans at all times. However, I understand why states would ban non-essential travel. There's always risk of accident or injury that might land you in an overcrowded hospital outside your home region. It's definitely something to consider.

      Lockdowns similar to those in place during the spring may return, and I'd welcome that and happily stay at home. Still, if I had to rank all of my activities in the past month by risk of COVID exposure for myself and others, this Utah trip would be low on the list, below my weekly shopping trip and well below my regular allergy shots at a clinic located inside a hospital.

  4. "Gloriously painful." An "Oxy" that I really get. Those who don't, don't know what they're missing.
    Box Canyon


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