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. 


  1. I only visit your site now and then, but those are swell photos..
    Thanks Jill.

  2. Oh how well I know that fruitless hunt for a campsite in the growing dark. Waiting eagerly for the next installment.

  3. The ending left us all hanging. Hope Erika is ok.


Feedback is always appreciated!