Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Beyond the horizon, day five


It was after 11 p.m. when I arrived at my destination for the night, rumbling up a rough road to the edge of a windswept mesa. My head was still muddled with fatigue and stress — traversing a remote ridge, battling dehydration, trying to rescue a stray dog, and absorbing a jarring impact when I crashed my bike. These events already felt like weeks ago. The blister bubbling from my sunburned lower lip and the sting of bruises all over my legs reminded me that this happened just a few hours earlier. I was ready for comfort again — a soft bed, a bottomless supply of water, and real shelter out of the harsh sun, relentless wind and icy cold nights. These abundant luxuries could be mine if I kept driving. But I wasn't quite ready to leave the desert behind. 

This is a place I remember from my youth. There are frustratingly few such places — most are now fragments of memories permanently detached from time and space. For all of the trips I took to Southern Utah in my 20s, I lacked the drive to plan an adventure. I was content to let my boyfriend and friends decide where to go, which trails to hike, and even what to cook for dinner (that was never a surprise — dehydrated pinto beans, tortillas, and an enormous block of cheese.) I rarely bothered to glance at the unrolled maps that my roommates spread all over the living room, nor did I endeavor to understand the geography of the routes we traversed. I didn't own a camera or keep a journal about my travels. I was so different then! 

The consequence of this lack of intellectual curiosity is that I can no longer trace the origins of some of my most formative experiences. There are fragments — names such as "Mexican Mountain," shapes of rock formations burned in my memory — but if I ever wanted to return to the places that helped shape my identity, most of the planning would be guesswork. The fact that I've lost much of what I experienced is one of the reasons I'm such an avid documenter these days. I understand now that memory is not permanent, that even the best moments flicker and fade. I don't operate under the delusion that anyone will care about my records once I'm gone. The digital archives — the photos, Strava feeds and sprawling blog posts — are treasures for me and my future self. 

One place I do remember — or at least retained enough details to return — is Temple Mountain in the San Rafael Swell. The location wasn't much of a secret even 20 years ago, and it's funny to see how little it's changed. Instead of old sedans and retrofitted school buses, it's Toyota Priuses and Sprinter vans, but the vibe is the same. Some might argue the region is much more crowded in the Instagram age. Maybe. I don't have the hard data to guess one way or the other. At least now, when you visit a pretty patch of public land in Southern Utah, you're as likely to see mountain bikers as four-wheelers, as many tent campers as obnoxious oversized trailers. That, to me, feels new. And you can still pull in at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night and find a secluded place to camp, with perfect silence, sweeping darkness and stars upon stars in the sky. 

Ah, Temple Mountain. I enjoy camping at a site overlooking the San Rafael Reef and sipping coffee as the sun rises. It's usually windy and cold, but the views are worth it. For this visit, I decided to stay two nights and take an entire day to explore on my mountain bike and find new connections for my scattered memories of the area. 

I climbed to the high point on Temple Mountain Road and turned onto a doubletrack that wraps around the mountain. This is a ridiculously fun descent, with a few chunky rollers to wake up the legs. I was lucky that my legs weren't terribly sore from crashing the previous day — DOMS would come later. The impact knocked enough out of me that I don't fully remember what happened. Piecing it together, it seems I landed chest-first, hitting my face second, and then tangled my legs in the bike, which is what seemed to cause most of the lingering pain. A patchwork of bruises now covered my legs. Still, it was a bloodless crash with nothing torn or broken, so I was lucky given how fast I was likely moving when I suddenly slammed into a hard surface. 

It certainly was nice to ride a mostly unloaded bike (I did have six liters of water for what I figured would be a 5- to 8-hour ride. I was taking no chances with that.) I had expected to feel more destroyed after the stressful day on Death Ridge, but there's always something left in the tank. In fact, I felt pretty good. I continued to operate under the delusion that I was moving with my usual amount of pep until two mountain bikers passed me like I was standing still while I was granny-gearing up a chute. 

The Utah desert is full of classic cars that came to their final resting point at the dead-end of a rugged road. 


View of Temple Mountain from the southern end. It was fun to wrap all the way around it. 

The circumnavigation didn't take as long as I expected, so I continued pedaling out Behind the Reef Road. I also rode this segment when I visited last November. The chunky rollers were more difficult than I remembered — truly, even the scope of recent memory has a blurred lens.

I had no knowledge of roads beyond Behind the Reef, so the plan was to ride out and back. But after Chute Point, I came to an intersection that wasn't marked on my map but did contain a trail marker. "BLM 858" was rated as a black diamond route, meaning most difficult for OHVs. Curiosity struck me. "Maybe it goes through." Before I made this right turn, I was languishing with late-afternoon lethargy. The prospect of something unknown injected my blood with renewed enthusiasm. The route snaked along the sandy bottom of a wash, meandering into a sandstone canyon. 

The road continued to twist through a narrowing canyon. It seemed likely to dead-end. GPS showed no hint of connectors. It was a great big blank spot on the map. But I had to know. I'd already passed and ignored my "back by dark" turnaround time when I encountered four men with three large side-by-side ATVs. They were all standing next to one vehicle and using a thin hose to siphon gas into a water bottle. They were surprised to see me, as I was them — I gotten used to seeing no other people on this beautiful spring Sunday. They'd come from the other direction. They asked me about the trail ahead, so I described the sandy wash. They seemed more concerned about hills. They didn't have enough fuel between them to climb many more hills, they told me.

"Well, there's a pretty steep one up and around Chute Point. But it's short. Of course there are still rollers until Crack Canyon. Where are you headed?" I asked, as though I knew this area like the back of my hand and was prepared to give directions anywhere. 

They just looked at each other blankly. So I turned the questioning to them. "Does this road go through to McKay Flats?" Again, blank looks. "I think it eventually connects back to Temple Mountain Road?"

That name sparked recognition, and one guy nodded. "It's a big ol' maze back there. Roads going off every which way. You got a GPS?" I pointed to the eTrex on my handlebars. "And there are big rock steps. You got enough water?" 

I pointed to the yellow bag on my rear rack. "I still have three extra liters in here. And headlights. A coat. I'm basically prepared to be out here until tomorrow, not that I want to be." 

"Good thing you have that GPS. That was one thing we didn't bring."

I thought about the hubris of driving large vehicles down a rough and unknown canyon without knowing exactly where you were going or whether you had enough gas to drive out. People think it's dangerous to be a solo bike rider, but as I viewed it, I had much more flexibility with my choices.

"Anything I can do to help?" I asked as I got back on my bike.

"Got any gas in there?" one guy chuckled.

"Just granola bars," I replied, and pedaled away. 

Sure enough, there was a steep and extremely chunky climb along precipitous cliffs out of the canyon — I'm impressed those guys got their vehicles down it — followed by seemingly endless rollers along the wind-blasted mesa. My instinct told me that nothing was out here and I needed to turn around, but GPS promised that McKay Flats still existed beyond the blank spot on the map. The guys were right about a maze of tracks veering in many directions. But from my slow-moving bicycle, the fact this was a main road seemed obvious enough. Anyway, I'd already set a straight-line track to McKay Flats, and as long as I kept to that general direction, I'd be okay. 

My instinct continued to insist I was hopelessly lost. The meandering nature of the road didn't help, and I battled nervousness as I pressed forward. It is funny, the way my brain reacts to unknowns, telling me I'm screwed even when logic says otherwise. Perhaps this is what comes from being an incurious youth, content to let others tell me which way to go. My instinct tells me that I can't trust myself. That the decisions I make are wrong. I've spent much of the last 15 years trying to deprogram this instinct and take ownership of my place in the world. It's a forever battle, I can tell, because I've managed much harder puzzles in the past, yet I remain frightened of even small uncertainties — even with an overabundance of food and water, and no physical issues that would prevent simply turning around. 
 
I was proud, perhaps overly so, when I reached the graded gravel of McKay Flats and knew for certain that I could close this loop. With that, I'd drawn a 51-mile circle around a map of fragmented memories. I'd connected decades-old dots. In five days, I'd traveled to farther horizons than seemed possible for much of the five years I spent weekend warrioring as a young adult. That alone is worth the sunburned lips and bruised legs. Successfully closing an unfamiliar loop and returning with plenty of time to watch sunset over an endless expanse of unknowns? Even better.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Beyond the horizon, day four

An eerie chill settled in during the night. When I stepped out of my tent the air was calm, the sky was stars upon stars, and my nose began to tingle. I thought I must be sun-fried from the previous day; it couldn't possibly be as cold as it felt. But even my hydration bladder inside the tent was beginning to develop flecks of ice. Erika would later tell me that she saw it drop to 19 degrees overnight. The desert is such a dynamic place. 

Somehow I failed to hear a 6 a.m. alarm and woke with a gasp just before 7. I hurried to pack up and hit the road still wearing all of my warm clothing — puffy jacket, mittens, fleece pants, and a fleece hat. I thought Erika must be camped at Grosvenor's Arch and hoped to catch her before she set out. I raced the final five miles to the arch, even bypassing a well-water cattle tank about a mile out. The picnic area at the arch was abandoned, so I continued another half-mile up the road to what I believed was a campground — actually it was just a spot that the route creator marked as a possible campsite next to a reservoir that was bone dry. Erika was nowhere to be seen, so I returned to Grosvenor's Arch.

Grosvenor's Arch was close enough to the highway that I was able to squeeze a few bars of cell reception if I stood on a picnic table and held my phone skyward, so I sent Erika a normal text message. As I expected, she received none of my satellite messages. She spent the night near the arch and set out early for the highway. She'd had a rough night — perhaps a combination of the day's strain along with the medication she needed to take — but it was ultimately much better that she spent the night closer to a developed site. She was already in Cannonville, some 17 miles away. I told her I still planned to travel back to Escalante via Death Ridge. I figured it was between 40 and 45 miles back to town. Since I was traveling solo, I felt no urgency. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of coffee with oatmeal, brushed my teeth, then scrubbed my legs with a handful of Wet Wipes. It seemed necessary to remove the opaque layer of grime to apply more sunscreen, and it took a lot of time — like removing chipped paint from my skin. I considered heading back to the cattle tank to top off my water reserves. But even after breakfast, I still had four liters. 

"That should be enough for 40 miles," I thought. "The route stays high now and it was so cold last night. It can't get that hot today." 

I continued up Four-Mile Bench, passing a sign that read "Road impassable in 24 miles," and a bit later, with seeming emphasis, "This is NOT the way to Highway 89." The air was cool, the morning pleasant, my belly was full of coffee and I was in a great mood. I zipped through the rolling drainages surrounding bone-dry Wahweap Creek. Fifteen miles from the arch, while coasting down to my low point for the day, I saw an animal dart out of the juniper forest and stand in the road at the bottom of the hill. At first, I thought it was a coyote. When I realized it was a medium-sized dog, my blood went cold. Middle-of-nowhere dogs with no humans in tow are always a threat to cyclists. They're either aggressively guarding sheep or cattle, or they're vicious local dogs with wide-ranging territories and a taste for cyclists' ankles. I clicked into a higher gear and prepared to crank up the hill. As I zipped past, the dog darted back into the shadows. But soon enough it was right behind me, giving chase as my momentum slowed up the hill.

"Go away! Leave me alone you stupid dog!" I screamed. I filled my mouth with water so I could spit at the dog if it lunged for me. But when I turned back again, I saw no teeth and heard no barking. It seemed the dog was just peacefully following me. He slowed to my uphill pace, but when I stopped and put down my foot, he darted into a stand of pinion trees. 

As I looked around, it was clear this dog was all alone. I hadn't seen a single vehicle since I left Grosvenor's Arch. No one was parked along the road. There were no sheep or cattle nearby, and it seemed like a strange place for a dog to be with a herd of cattle — it was a steep and narrowing ridge with juniper and pinion trees but little undergrowth. 

"Are you lost?" I called toward the forest. "Where is your owner?" I couldn't even see where the dog went. I set my bike down and walked toward where I saw him last, locating him five minutes later and at least 100 meters off the road. He had laid down and was panting vigorously. 

"You must be very thirsty," I said. "Here, give me a sec."

I found a Ziploc bag that I folded into a bowl and poured in about two cups of water. The dog continued to sit in the shade and wouldn't come toward me, so I sweetened the deal with strips of beef jerky. I threw one toward him and he again darted away, but then returned to sniff and then eat it. When I showed him that I had more jerky, he slowly walked toward me. He ate a few more strips and then enthusiastically lapped up the water. I could see he had a blue collar. He briefly let me scratch his head, and I reached around to confirm that he didn't have any tags. Despite the lack of tags, I was becoming more convinced this was somebody's lost pet. He was a bit skinny and definitely thirsty, but he probably hadn't been out here for too long. Still, what could I do? I was on a bicycle. I had no cell reception. And there was no one, absolutely no one around. 

I sent a satellite message to Erika's regular phone number, giving her a description of the dog and my location and asking her to report it, as she was sure to reach Escalante before me. Then I left the rest of my beef jerky and the zippy with another cup of water in the shade, hoping that could hold the dog over for a while. But several minutes after I took off, I looked back and there he was, back on my trail. This was a slow section with frequent sand traps, chundery climbs, and loose rocky descents, so he had no problem holding my pace. Often during the climbs, I had to get off my bike to push. Whenever I stopped, he always darted into the trees. He only liked to stay beside me if I was pedaling. He picked up the pace if I did. Sometimes I lost him during steeper descents. But he always returned. 

We reached an intersection, unmarked except for a sign that read "Impassable to full-sized vehicles." I thought, "Well, now we're really going to see no one." The dog had already followed me for five miles and was panting vigorously. I'd admittedly left the Ziplock bag behind, having believed the dog would stay with it. But I had to give him more water. I dug out my camp pot and placed it on the road. When he didn't come toward it, I moved the pot into the shade and held up a lemon Oreo cookie. He crept toward me, took the cookie from my hand but spit it out, and then went for the water. I held onto the camp pot as he drank. This was a precious resource. I wasn't about to risk spilling water onto the ground. But he didn't seem to mind my proximity then. After he finished, he rolled over and allowed a few belly pats. That's how I learned he's a boy dog. 

These brief contact allowances never lasted long. The rolling spine of Death Ridge continued to narrow until it was barely the width of the road over precipitous slopes, but the dog always found places to hide when I stopped. As long as I was pedaling, he was right behind me. I started to fret about this unexpected companionship. We were still at least 25 miles from Escalante. He'd have to be an unusually fit dog to run behind me for 35 miles on a hot day. And more concerning, I did not have enough water to share. I'd already doled out nearly a liter on top of what I'd been drinking and was down to just over two. So far I'd been traversing the ridge at an average of 5 miles an hour, and had no reason to believe that was going to change before the route intersected with Smoky Mountain Road about 7 miles from town. 


He just seemed so thirsty. He still ran away whenever I stopped pedaling and showed no interest in the chunks of protein bars or granola bars that I tossed his way. But as soon as I pulled out my camp pot, he loped out of his shady hiding spot toward me. I gave him another 12 ounces and urged him to drink slowly. "We have to start rationing," I said. I wished there was some way I could tell him to "sit" and wait for help to return. Not that I could drive my car up here. Nor did I expect that reporting a lost dog in Escalante was going to lead to any kind of follow-up. 

Just as my anxiety about the situation had ratcheted up to a fever pitch, I heard a low rumbling. Auditory hallucination? But sure enough, as I neared the top of yet another steep climb, a black truck rose above the horizon line. It was an enormous vehicle, an older model Ford F150 or similar, scratched and dented and sparkling beneath the noon sun. I sheepishly waved the vehicle down. When the driver stopped I saw a deep frown on the face of an older gentleman — possibly 75 or 80 years old — and a less clear view of a smiling woman of similar age in the passenger's seat. The man rolled down his window and let me speak first.

"This is a weird request," I started. "But see that dog over there?" I pointed to a dappled patch of shade 100 feet off the road. "That's not my dog. I don't know whose dog he is. He's been following me for 10 miles. I've given him about all the water I can give him. I don't know what to do."

"I don't have any water," the man barked, and my heart sank. He wasn't going to help me. 

After he said that, though, the man opened the door and stepped out of the truck. Something about his stance startled me. He reminded me so much of my late grandfather — similar height, similar wispy blond-gray hair, button-down shirt tucked into his jeans, and cowboy boots. 

He asked me a few questions about where I found the dog and who else I'd seen. I mentioned the collar had no tags. The dog was gentle but skittish, I said. He ran away when I stopped but otherwise seemed desperate to follow me wherever I might go. 

"That's definitely a lost dog," the man concluded. "Here, let's see if we can get him in here." He opened the rear door of the cab. 

Wrangling the dog was an arduous task. I had no more beef jerky to dole out, and the dog seemed wary enough of the man to not come when I trickled some water into my camp pot. After five minutes I thought the man might give up, but he stuck with me as we closed in on one shady spot after another. I learned the man was a local, out for a drive with his wife, and "this road isn't washed out; I don't know why they closed it." I didn't want to discourage him from helping me, so I didn't ask too many questions. I never got his name. 

Finally, the dog decided to let us approach and the man was able to place both hands on the dog's torso. He held the dog with outstretched arms like he was some kind of poisonous snake — "don't want him to bite my face off" — and placed him into the cab. I got one last glance as the door closed — the dog had already curled up on a seat and closed his eyes. Scared, but maybe saved? He was better off now than he was running in the heat with me, at least. 

"I guess I can put something on the Internet," the man said gruffly. 

By now I had big tears rolling down my face. I couldn't help it. I already get so emotional on physically taxing adventures, and I'd become attached to this thirsty little dog. 

"Thank you so much. I'm so sorry to saddle you with this, but I didn't know what to do. I don't want him to die out here."

"Oh, he'd die out here. There's no water out here. None at all." And with that, the man rolled up the window and drove away. 


The older couple drove south and I continued pedaling north in a daze. Without the dog loping behind me, this difficult traverse had lost its purpose. Of course, I still needed water. I pulled out my Camelbak bladder to assess the supply. There was less than I hoped. Less than a liter, for 25 hot and hard miles. The pit of acid in my stomach gurgled with renewed anxiety. I was going to have to ration. 

I tried to pick up the pace — at least on descents. I launched down another boney, sandy chute only to arrive at a sharp turn across a wash at the bottom. I couldn't brake in time. The bike slammed into the sand, which washed out the rear wheel, then threw me down onto a baked clay part of the wash. It felt as hard as concrete. The left side of my body and my entire face slapped down with a hard thud. The impact pinched the wind from my lungs. I must have laid there for 10 minutes. First gasping for breath, then waiting for the world to stop spinning, and finally just pondering if this would be a good point to give up on life. 


I limped up the steep rise, then limped down and back up the next hill. My chest hurt from having the wind knocked out of me, my legs and especially my right shin throbbed with righteous fury, and my throat was parched from drinking a lot less than I wanted to be drinking. Perhaps an hour went by like this, with me mostly walking and feeling sorry for myself. One pitch was particularly mean — 20 percent grades — rising to the rim of a high mesa above 7,600 feet. The road up there was wider and smoother so I got on the bike to ride, wincing at how even pedaling punished my sore shin. The road started to wrap around a small summit. I rounded a corner, and ... what was that? Was that SNOW?!?

Salvation! Yes, it was the dirty and sun-baked remnants of a winter drift. That was as good as the clearest spring cascading from the highest mountain. I threw the bike down and jumped into the patch like a puppy, plopped down on the snow, and covered my sore shin with a thick layer of icy clumps. For a few minutes, I just sat and enjoyed the ice bath. Then, after water soaked through my tights, I stood and grabbed my Camelbak bladder to fill to the top. I dug around for the cleanest cupfuls of snow I could find, then threw in two chlorine tabs for good measure. The small amount of water left in the bladder melted it quickly. Before long I had three liters of ice water. 

It had been a hard day. But the bikepacking gods provide. 

It was after 5 p.m. by the time I arrived back in town. Erika was waiting for me in the now-empty lot of the visitor's center. She said she reported the lost dog, but as I expected, the rangers shrugged it off. "There are lots of ranch dogs out there," they told her. Before then she'd enjoyed a lovely tour along Highway 12, taking her time and stopping to see the sights. I tried to relay details about my day, but my brain was scrambled, as though I'd just completed a hard ultra and hadn't slept in two days. 

I did many variations of the search for "Lost Dog Escalante Utah" on Google, but sadly never came up with any more information about what happened to the dog. I like to believe that the gruff old man who sort of reminded me of my grandfather ended up adopting him. 

Erika decided she was going to head home to Colorado that night. I briefly considered sleeping off my adventure hangover in the Subway parking lot, but decided to first drive to a place I believe could bring peace — another high and dry place, way out yonder in the fearsome desert. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Beyond the horizon, day three

 The morning was already hot and bright by the time I crawled out of my tent, just a little surprised that the wind hadn't torn through the nylon during the night. A stiff southwest wind was picking up again, and I rushed to remove stacks of boulders and take the tent down quickly before gusts complicated the task. While working, I took in the first views of the surrounding landscape, since we arrived after dark. It was quite the location — horizons upon horizons, punctuated by sandstone spires and the dystopian dry marsh stretched across the barren lake bed. 

This is the view toward the "lake." Even in daylight, there wasn't a hint of water to be seen. I imagined this as a view of the deep past on Mars, sometime just beyond the lunar cataclysm, when the planet's primordial oceans retreated to the frozen poles. The doubletrack, I reasoned, was the Mars Rover of ancient alien beings, who sent their technology to the red planet because Mars was more conducive to life than Earth at this point ... 4 billion years ago.  I love to imagine the deep past, the distant future, distant galaxies. I like to acknowledge myself as an infinitesimal speck on an infinitesimal speck swirling through an infinite universe — somehow, this helps me feel more hopeful, less alone.  

I did take one photo before I pulled my tent down, with the hot sun climbing over the eastern horizon. I cooked hot oatmeal and coffee. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead as I ate, even though I'd already removed my puffy. 

"Today's going to be a tough one," I thought. 


Despite this thought, we took our time packing up and set out for what was, in hindsight, a regrettably late start. I thought we still had plenty of time for a planned 65-mile day to Grosvenor Arch. 

We climbed out of the dry wash, briefly shaded by canyon walls. 


The shade did not last long. The canyon was not the thrilling amusement park ride that I remembered from the fading light of the previous night, zipping through a tunnel of sandstone. It feels notably different when climbing in the heat, but it remained a beautiful spot. 

Beyond the Warm Creek Bay turnoff was 10 miles of this: Utterly barren badlands, churning into a blowdryer wind. I thought this section was fantastic — so much wide-open space that I continued to crave even as the expanse engulfed me. But the headwind was taxing, sucking the moisture from my body faster than I could replace it. By the time I arrived at Highway 89, I was surprised to hear the slurping sound from my hydration hose and realize I'd mindlessly drained the final drops of three liters that had seemed like almost a surplus of water the previous night. It was just in the nick of time, but still ... I was going to need more water for the next stretch. I had the capacity to haul 10 liters. Would that be enough?

Erika arrived 20 minutes later, and by then I'd already become ridiculously thirsty while standing on the gravel of a dusty pullout in the hot sun. She was moving admirably well and not complaining at all. But I'll admit, I was beginning to worry about our pace. We should have planned for three nights instead of two. Of course, then we'd need even more water. 

We coasted down the highway a half-mile to a tiny convenience store at the edge of town. Big Water was a strange place — there were garages and apparent service shops for the storing and repairing of boats, a hotel, and not much else. At least we were here in the spring when Lake Powell business was hopping and everything was open — I'd read accounts from autumn when cyclists arrived to find shuttered businesses and had to fill their bottles with hot water from the bathroom sink at the visitors center. The convenience store was a cramped place with limited selection, but Erika was able to buy two hotdogs and I found a Choco Taco, so we were both happy. The woman behind the counter was even wearing a mask, which I found pleasantly surprising — almost nowhere else in southern Utah did I see people wearing masks. 

We took another long break to enjoy our multiple cold drinks and lunch at a picnic table outside. I bought a 10-pound bag of ice and a gallon of water and used all of that to fill my containers — one four-liter Dromedary and two three-liter Camelbaks, and threw in a 20-ounce Gatorade bottle now filled with water for good measure. For those keeping score, that's more than 22 pounds of water. Most of the containers went into a single pannier. Now, instead of lifting my bike off the ground using the handlebars, as I usually do, I had to squat low, push my hands under the rack and lift the bike as though I was mimicking that CrossFit exercise where they flip over a tractor tire. 

"Big Water is really living up to its name," I quipped as Erika finished loading her bike. She either didn't hear me or mercifully ignored my Dad joke. 

So there we were, setting out with two days' worth of food, 20-plus pounds of water, and camping gear on bikes that weren't terribly light to begin with. This next section could be called the "Highway 89 Bypass," following an unnamed BLM road through Jacob's Tank Draw. The elevation profile made it look not terrible — the segment climbed from 4,000 feet to 5,300 feet in 10 miles, followed by a five-mile, 600-foot descent back to the highway. Right off the pavement, the road shot up a 13-percent grade on deteriorating gravel. After just a half-mile, it faded to a seemingly abandoned doubletrack of bottomless red sand. Climbing. And not steadily, but in and out of drainages, plunging and then rising up 13- and 14-percent grades. For 10 miles. 

This section was just ... so ... merciless. I will say, if you ever feel inclined to ride a bike to Nome and you don't live in Alaska, this is where you should come to do your training. Load up your bike until it weighs 70 pounds. Then push it through this morass, up and down, up and down. Two steps, rest. Two steps, rest. It's all the better if it's 80-plus degrees. Sure, hot is different than cold, but learning how to manage the self-care necessary to endure either extreme can be equally educational. 

It took me nearly four hours to cover the first ten miles. Then, drenched in sweat and no doubt at least six pounds lighter in drinking water, I curled up in a thin patch of juniper shade and studied the maps. Then I read a couple of chapters of a Kindle book on my phone. Then I felt guilty about getting so far ahead of Erika in this fearsome heat and started hiking back down the trail — it was much easier to hike without the bike, so it stayed behind. Erika wasn't too far back at this point, but she seemed to be struggling. The afternoon was growing late. We still had a long way to go. 

She mentioned something about taking the highway back, and it took me several minutes to realize that she was probably talking about veering onto Highway 12 after traveling up Cottonwood Road. If we took pavement all the way back to Escalante from here, we'd still have more than 180 miles to ride.  

"We'd end up in Panguitch," I thought with a smirk. And then it occurred to me that "shortcuts" like Cottonwood Road are why motorists become stranded and die in the desert. 

The red sand descent back to Highway 89 remained soft but it was at least rideable, so those five miles didn't take as long as I feared. Still, it was late afternoon by the time we started up Cottonwood Road. The surface was much better than I expected, basically smooth gravel with a few ruts and sandtraps here and there. But we planned to ride 33 miles of this road before camping, and it was already 4:30 p.m. Erika was cooked. She ate a few chips and dumped the sand out of her shoes as the hot sun bore down. I huddled in a meager strip of shade, stretching like a cruel knife from the thinnest part of a trail sign. I couldn't wait to start riding again. At least there was a breeze when we were riding. 

The road rolled through the badlands for ten miles before dipping into the valley beside the Paria River. The river burbled with the joyously audible melody of flowing water, chocolate-milk-colored though it was. New spring leaves dotted the cottonwood trees; it was thrilling to see something green, bright green, in what seemed like so long — after all, it's more or less still winter in Colorado. In hindsight, we should have grabbed a campsite down here, or at the very least filled up on water. But I was impatient. The road never crossed the Paria; we would have had to hike down to the river to collect some. And as is usually the case in such decision-making, I still had an abundance and believed I would find more later. Cottonwood Creek, or at the very least the cattle tank at Grosvenor Arch. These weren't sure bets but seemed likely. 

Cottonwood Canyon cuts through a geographical feature called the Cockscomb, a colorful and slabby ridge formed by swift erosion of steeply tilted strata. It was nice to roll through this area as the rich evening light descended.

The road climbed away from the Paria River and followed Cottonwood Creek, which was in fact bone dry. At this point, Erika and I had discussed finding a place to camp in the canyon, but the road was surprisingly well-trafficked on this Friday night and most of the obvious spots were already taken. It's true bikes can pull out anywhere, but we were still holding out for a nice site, maybe with a little bit of tree cover beside the creek, perhaps even a lingering pool.

As the light began to fade, we made a plan for me to ride ahead and look for a spot to camp. If I didn't find anything obvious, I'd just ride the rest of the way to the arch in the dark. We thought this was a good plan as we both had satellite communicators. We exchanged our numbers. Then I set out. 

The Cockscomb continued to narrow as I climbed, rising above 6,000 feet on a rolling grade beside the slabs. 

The late evening light was no longer ideal for photography, but it was a gorgeous ride. I could see why this shortcut is so popular. Popular is relative out here — maybe five cars went by per hour. After 8 p.m., there were none. Still, many of the pullouts were filled with campervans. I wondered if the "campground" at Grosvenor Arch might be full as well (there's actually not a campground at the arch. A wrong assumption on my part.) It started to feel more urgent that I find something, anything, while I could. 

Finally, just beyond a punishingly steep dip and climb away from Cottonwood Narrows (I even hiked a short distance into the slot canyon to see whether there was a place to pitch two tents, and there was not) — I found a nice spot a half-mile off the main road. I sent Erika a text message and placed what I thought was my most conspicuous piece of gear — a yellow dry bag — on the road where I thought Erika would see it. Then I headed back up to camp to stake a spot. I put up my tent, headed back to the road, and waited a while. But she didn't go by. Or maybe she missed my text message and the yellow bag and had already passed. It was impossible to know. There were bike tracks in the sand, but there had been others earlier. As it turned out, two others were touring this exact route about a day in front of us. Argh. Too often this happens. I plan trips with friends and then overambitious planning and poor communication leads to us becoming separated, and we don't find each other again. But it was too late to change that now.

I retreated back to camp, cooked dinner *and* hot chocolate (such excessive use of water!), and headed to my tent. The wind was picking up and I could tell the temperature was plummeting. It already felt so cold ... maybe even close to freezing ... although my body temperature usually doesn't regulate well after a full day in the sun. I sent two more messages to Erika and never heard back, so that plan didn't work. It was weird she hadn't texted me, but maybe we both mistyped the numbers. Alas. I already figured she was going to take Highway 12 back, and probably wanted a head start on Saturday traffic. As the cold wind rattled my tent and an enormous powerline buzzed and popped overhead, I could hear the enticingly remote, supposedly impassable Death Ridge calling my name. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Beyond the horizon, day two

 The Grand Staircase bikepacking trip nearly derailed before it started. Overnight, Erika had a medical issue that prompted her to seek out the urgent care clinic as soon as they opened at 9 a.m. I pondered whether I'd embark on the trip solo if she couldn't ride, and surprised myself with wavering motivation. Usually, I have no problems with solo travel in the backcountry. I prefer it, even, because I like to make all of my own decisions and do exactly what I want to do. My anxiety and trust issues mean I intend to be 100 percent self-sufficient and prepared for my worst imagined contingencies no matter what. (I was the type of person to run a supported 50K trail race with a full-sized backpack and three liters of water. Of course, I can also be surprisingly careless in truly dangerous situations. I am human.) 

As I see it, a partner isn't necessarily even a safety advantage, as this often just means you need to address the needs and solve the problems of two people rather than just one. The time all of that takes can cause more setbacks. On a leisure tour, dealing with group dynamics is usually simple and enjoyable. But on a "soft epic" such as this one, with terrain and distance that would likely demand 10-plus-hour days, strain can set in quickly. Still, I was looking forward to Erika's company. Also, I was genuinely frightened of being out there all alone in the fearsome desert. 


Erika, tough woman that she is, was in and out of the clinic in an hour and raring to go. We hit the road only about 90 minutes later than planned. I thought she might be in some pain, but she was cheerful and gave no hint of difficulty. We parked both of our cars in Escalante at the visitor's center, where I requested permission to park while acquiring the overnight permit for the national monument. The conversation with the ranger was fairly humorous. Among my many neuroses, I become extremely nervous around people with any sort of authority, even wilderness rangers. I walked into the building prepared to explain and justify every part of our plan. I expected the ranger would at the very least lecture me on our apparent intentions to commit suicide by desert. But instead, the woman shrugged through my entire spiel until I reached a section near the end called Death Ridge, where she said in a notably ominous tone: "That road is bad. We barely got our truck through the last time we were out there. You might have to carry your bike."

The horror. 

For all of my fretting, this first day was about as painless and enjoyable as a backcountry bikepacking trip can be. Granted, I'm in reasonable shape to pedal a loaded bicycle 75 miles in a day, and for this, I'm grateful for relative health as well as the time and freedom to invest in training. It really is an incredible gift — to exist in a body that can do these things. I take it for granted, and I shouldn't. 

But yes, it was a beautiful day. Temperatures ranged between 65 and 75 degrees with a light northwest wind that was often a tailwind as we traveled almost due south. Afternoon clouds arrived in time to temper the worst of the heat but didn't threaten even a hint of road-destroying rain. (Many of the roads in this region are composed of bentonite clay. Once wet, this clay clumps to everything so quickly it will stop even large trucks in their tracks. Hikers' shoes peel right off their feet. Cyclists have no chance. If you've experienced it, you know.) 

We traversed the rolling drainages of Kaiparowits Basin via Smoky Mountain Road. This unimproved path wends its way over miles of rutted clay, sand, and sandstone slabs. The region proved as remote as I expected. Over the entire stretch, we saw one vehicle — a motorcycle parked several meters down a side trail with a driver apparently tinkering with something on his bike. He didn't call out to us, so I figured he was probably okay — not that there was much we could do for a motorcycle if he was having a mechanical issue. But this did lead to more rumination on being solo out here, breaking down, and what I might do. 

I started the trip with eight liters of water — I wanted to have enough to drink comfortably, cook dinner and breakfast, and travel all the way to Big Water before needing a refill. There were two possible water sources before that — Last Chance Creek (pictured) and Lake Powell, where we planned to camp. I'm okay with filtering somewhat questionable water sources. In my relative youth, in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, I ingested water out of a garden pump that tasted like straight gasoline and burned as it went down. I'm certainly more cautious these days, but I know you can drink a certain amount of alkaline water if needed, and Lake Powell filtered and treated with chlorine is unlikely to hurt me, even if one might taste bitter and the other skunky. Still, hauling water meant I always had it. Even if my bike imploded right here and I had to walk 30 miles out, I could probably do so without dying. Also, eight extra kilograms of weight is great strength training for the legs. (Did you know a liter of water weighs exactly one kilogram? I just learned that. So eight would be 17.6 pounds.)


We continued rolling in and out of steep and chunky drainages cutting through the stratum of the Staircase. The Grand Staircase bikepacking loop establishes an almost perfect circumnavigation of the Kaiparowits Plateau, at the heart of the national monument. The features of this high mesa are perhaps less dramatic than the slot canyons carved into the escarpments to the east or the colorful redrock formations to the west. But the plateau has a dramatic, Mars-like quality, made more surreal by the almost total absence of civilization. 

We climbed onto a high shelf where the road was straight and flat for seven miles before again plunging off the face of the Earth into the Colorado River basin. This was a fun segment, the first time the road was smooth enough to ride side-by-side and chat. 

The plateau also offered sweeping views. I believe the mound to the right is Navajo Mountain, a 10,300-foot volcanic dome and sacred summit that stands alone in the vast basin south of Glenn Canyon. As the raven flies, it was probably more than 100 miles away. 

The view from the edge of the plateau. Through the moonscape, we could spot blue fingers of Lake Powell as well as Warm Creek Bay — our destination for the night, 20 road miles away. 


Then it was time to plummet off the plateau. This was such a fun descent, carved into the cliffs with seemingly impossible continuity. You'd think there was no way this dirt ribbon could possibly carry you safely off the mountain, but then you'd round another corner and the ribbon kept unraveling. 


It was after 6 p.m. and the light was otherworldly. I actually tried to color-correct these photos, but they came out looking so strange that I just put them back as they were. 

Erika and I chatted about how this road reminded us of descending from Canyonlands' Island in the Sky onto the White Rim on Shafer Trail. Sometimes it seems so random — which places become must-see destinations visited by thousands of mountain bikers and jeeps each year, and which remain so obscure that it's possible to encounter no other people over the course of a beautiful spring day. 

Near the bottom, we spotted a light blue cattle tank and found it completely full of water. Being a standing cattle tank, it also had flecks of dirt and floating moss, but the tank looked recently filled and the water seemed fresh. Erika eyed it skeptically and said something about cow feces. 

"There's likely not too much of that in here. It's above ground after all. But cows do put their faces in it. There's probably cow slobber." 

We both decided to grab a liter for cooking, reasoning we could both filter it and then boil it. Erika would also add iodine tabs to hers, for good measure. 

Once off the plateau, the wind shifted to a stiff southwesterly right in our faces. There's nowhere to hide from anything out here. Erika was slowing down near the end of a long day and a tough week for her. The sun set before we reached the turnoff and five-mile spur to camp. Even with the sun gone, it was warm down here — I would have guessed it was still close to 80 degrees at this low altitude. I looked at the altimeter on my watch and thought, "This is probably the first time I've been below 4,000 feet in more than a year." 

Erika and I reconnected at the Warm Creek spur, then began a fantastic descent into a sandstone canyon, wending through the narrow corridor between sheer walls. It was too dark for photos, but I committed to grabbing a few on our way out in the morning. By the time we reached the supposed lakeshore, it was fully dark. All I could see ahead was more sand, cracked mud, and a marshy flat. The "lake" has receded substantially. We knew there was water out there somewhere, but how far away, it was impossible to say. We decided to follow one of a maze of spur trails to the top of a bench overlooking the bay. 

Mostly we didn't want to camp in a mire of sand, so we were happy to find a gravel pullout at the end of a side road. But it was windy there — even windier than it had been on the shore — and we were becoming too tired and hungry to care. Still, I should have considered how difficult it can be to set up an ultralight backpacking tent in 20 mph winds, or the fact that I only had five stakes to work with. It was an arduous process involving more than a dozen small boulders both inside and outside the tent to brace the structure against the wind. Erika stayed patient and erected hers without drama. 

I spent another 20 minutes building a small wind shelter out of rocks for my stove. That seemed to protect the flame, but since the wind was blowing so hard and I didn't want to waste fuel, I decided to forgo my after-dinner hot chocolate. I actually dumped out the remainder of my cow slobber water (such wastefulness!) and instantly regretted it. I still had three liters but I knew it wasn't that much, taking into account breakfast, rehydrating through the night, and the 15-mile mostly uphill and into-the-wind ride to Big Water. I found myself looking ruefully toward the yawning darkness that held the distant reservoir.

Erika and I stayed up late gazing up at the night sky and speculating about which far-distant and spectacular city resided in the bright lights on the horizon. (It was Page, Arizona.) Finally, as the wind began to lose steam, we retreated to the blissful respite of a warm night in the desert.