Back in June, Karen and I took a trip to Colorado to visit old friends. While there, we had the opportunity to have lunch with my old friend Steve, who I used to work with, and hadn’t seen in years, and his wife Ginnie. As Karen and Ginnie chatted about the kids, Steve and I talked about more guy-oriented topics – work, beer, skiing – and mountain biking. Steve, a mountain biking veteran, mentioned that he was planning a trip to the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park. We talked about his plans for a bit, I invited myself to go along, and Steve was kind enough to humor me and say yes.
Nearly four months later, after a little planning and a lot of anticipation, I found myself racing across the basins and ranges of Nevada on a Monday afternoon, headed towards Moab. The car was pretty well packed with bikes, camping gear, an inflatable kayak, and plenty of water, food, and beer. Riding US Highway 50, which calls itself the Loneliest Highway, I set the cruise control at 88 miles per hour, sat back, and enjoyed the ride.
Many people think of Nevada as one big nuclear test site, but I am not one of them. I find the endless sequence of ranges and basins to be somewhat stark and mesmerizing, and I love the feeling of solitude, being the only car on the road for many miles in either direction. I set my sights on Great Basin National Park, near the Utah border, and let the Allman Brothers, Primus, the Clash, Beethoven, and others provide the soundtrack as I sped on my way.
I became caught up in the rhythm of highway, music, and scenery, and did not pay enough attention to the gas gauge. So my groove was disturbed a bit when the fuel light popped on about 40 miles outside Ely on my way to the park. Hmmm… should I turn back, or take my chances on finding gas up ahead on the Loneliest Highway, in a thunderstorm no less? I opted for the latter, and rolled into Baker (population in the low dozens) with the gauge firmly on “E” and the dash showing zero miles left. The unattended gas pumps on the edge of town were a welcome sight. I breathed a sigh of gratitude, pumped myself a few gallons, and headed up towards the Park.
The park was a pleasant surprise. There was a lovely campsite waiting for me, a beautiful drive up to nearly 10,000 feet on Mt. Wheeler, and a trail up the mountain to a grove of bristlecone pines. I pitched camp, slept well, did an early morning hike, then got on the road to Utah.
I drove up to Salt Lake City to pick up one of the riders at the airport, then we drove on to Moab, arriving a little after 8 PM. We all met at a pizza restaurant to strategize and plan. Our group consisted of seven riders. Steve was the organizer and ringleader. He was accompanied by his daughter Acacia, a beer professional, and his twenty-year-old son Chris. The team also included his friend Greg from Denver as well as Mike, a flashlight engineer from Ohio. The group was completed by Ruben, a former co-worker of mine, and myself of course. Ruben and I were the only ones who had never done the White Rim; in fact, all the others had already done it multiple times.
After dinner we all proceeded to the Super 8 to look at our gear and figure out how few cars we could fit it into. The fewer cars we had to bring as SAGs, the more people would be riding and the fewer people who would be driving. Unfortunately, no one had a large car, and we were not traveling light. Rather than ditch all the discretionary gear (tables, chairs, propane fireplace, kayak, beer, etc.) we decided to go with three SAGs, meaning in general each of us would ride half the day and drive the other half the day. Not ideal, but it meant lots of creature comforts for our camp. Since we were all more interested in having a great trip than we were in proving anything to ourselves or to others, we all agreed this was the right decision!
The following morning, Wednesday, we had a hearty breakfast at the Moab Diner, stopped by the grocery store to top up our coolers with ice, then headed up to the visitor center at Canyonlands to check in and collect our backcountry permits. Then it was goodbye to luxuries like running water and cell phone service as we mad our way out to Schaefer Point on the canyon rim.
I started the day driving, which was fine with me. I knew that we had a 1200 foot drop into the canyon, and I thought it was sensible to let the more aggressive downhillers enjoy it. I have become conservative in my old age, and am pretty deliberate on steep descents. In any event, I had never driven down the face of a cliff, and was looking forward to the experience!
The White Rim itself is a hard, weather-resistant light-colored sandstone strata, vertically about halfway between the Colorado and Green rivers and the red sandstone canyon rim two thousand feet above river level. It consists of a somewhat level ground between a few hundred feet and a couple miles in width, with high cliffs towering above on one side and an abrupt drop deeper into the canyon on the other. There are countless mesas, buttes, hoodoos (a.k.a. “hoo-hahs”), needles, and balanced rocks in all directions. Perfect October weather… blue skies with puffy white clouds, in the seventies and sunny during the day, down into the 50’s at night. The trail we were riding circumnavigates the Rim from the Colorado River side to the Green River side, with a total distance of eighty miles or so. The scenery is straight out of a Road Runner cartoon, and I fully expected to see Wile E. Coyote fly by on an Acme rocket at any moment!
The driving on that first morning was fairly uneventful. Driving down the canyon wall was pretty straightforward, if not a little tense. The views, of course, were mind-blowing. I do not consider myself “afraid of heights”, but I certainly will admit to being uncomfortable with them and respectful of them. OK, maybe a little chicken, I suppose! Generally, throughout the trip I was about three feet further from the edge than most of the others, and had to look away sometimes when some of the more brave (or foolish?) riders were cavalierly hanging out right on the precipice!
Shortly after lunch, I finally got to hop on my bike, and had a very nice ride through the desert to our camp that night at the Airport camping area. The road was in generally good shape; just a few puddles and washouts from the big storms a few weeks previously, some easy climbs, and some long, gradual downhill stretches. Lots of amazing overlooks between lunch and the end of the ride at the Airport camp site.
We arrived early enough that there was time for further activities after camp was set up. I had seen a trail nearby that went up a wash and into the desert; I decided to explore this trail while the others piled into two of the SAGs and drove down to the Colorado River. Lovely scenery and solitude, and amazing echoes from the cliffs – the best I counted was sixteen echoes lasting over twelve seconds! As the sun set, the cliffs glowed – a particularly beautiful time of the day.
As I mentioned earlier, we were not exactly “roughing it”. We ate our dinner (salmon steaks with a ponzu glaze, brown rice, and grilled corn, if you must know) around the propane campfire and watched the stars come out. The night sky was quite amazing, with no ambient light from civilization. As we were approaching the new moon, there was not moonlight to diminish the intensity of the stars – which were so bright and numerous that it was difficult to identify constellations.
After dinner, our main activity (if you want to call it that) was to sit around the fire, share some beer and/or whiskey (Tincup, from Colorado, I highly recommend it…), and tell stories and jokes. These usually revolved around a fairly small number of themes – the day’s ride and what was ahead of us tomorrow, as well as endlessly riffing on who was seeing the most shooting stars, the sound made by comets, when the moon would come up, the demise of Wilson ( a story to be told elsewhere!), who was shirking driving responsibilities, the fact that riding the White Rim doesn’t suck, and other weighty topics.
I am not a heavy sleeper, so the exhilaration of the day, the stillness of the air, occasional snoring from other tents (never MINE, of course), and anticipation for the next day’s ride kept me awake for significant parts of the night. The fringe benefit of this temporary insomnia was the fact that I was awake well before sunrise each morning. I would take advantage of the situation, seeking out a perch from which to view the rise of the sun, and giving a respectful slow clap each morning as the bright orb cleared the horizon.
Thursday I again elected to start the day in the car. I knew that the afternoon ride would include one of the more difficult climbs of the trip, and I wanted to ride up that big hill. The driving again was lovely – even though the cars are substantially slower than the bikes, there is plenty of time to take in the views. Another cliffside lunch, and I was ready to get back on the bike.
The terrain that afternoon became a bit more rolling as we moved away from the rim of the canyon and headed toward Murphy’s Hogback, the formation on which the camp for the next two nights was located. It is reached by a steep climb of several hundred vertical feet from the level of the White Rim, and the experienced riders stated that it was pretty much impossible to ride all the way to the top.
I viewed this as a bit of a throwing down of the gauntlet, so I rode towards the big climb with no small degree of determination. But, in the end, experience won out over foolish (if unvoiced) bravado… I was able to ride more than half of it, but the combination of very steep stretches, loose rocks, deep gullies, and gasping desperately for oxygen forced me to reluctantly walk some stretches. Sill, I felt good when I reached the top, and sat on the rocks rehydrating with Ruben and Mike (who also rode up the hogback) while the cars made their way to and up the climb.
Thursday evening was not terribly different from Wednesday – watching the sun set from the cliff’s edge, dinner by the fire (sage-rubbed pork chops with faro and zucchini this time), the usual stories and jokes, amazing stars, etc. Relaxation, joy, and wonderment.
As I mentioned, we were staying at Murphy’s Hogback for two nights. This meant that Friday was available to do whatever sounded good – riding, hiking, driving, exploring, kicking back, whatever. We ended splitting up into two groups – Mike, Greg, and I decided to hike to Murphy point, an eight mile roundtrip hike to and up the canyon wall to Island in the Sky, while the others decided to drive back to some of the more fantastic viewpoints to see the sights, take some pictures, and to listen to the various booms and echoes that tend to occur while playing along the cliff’s edge.
The hike was fantastic – a couple miles of level hiking across the spectacular Utah desert, followed by a more taxing couple miles up the cliffs to the top. Deciding it was well worth the effort, we enjoyed a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, and fig newtons, and headed back down to the camp.
We got back to camp feeling exhilarated from our hike. Everyone started to chill out for the evening, but both Ruben and I were feeling the need to hop on the bikes for a bit. So, we talked Acacia into following in the Q5 while Ruben and I rode down the other side of the hogback. We would just go a mile or two, then turn around, and catch a ride up the formidable climb in the SAG.
We headed down the big hill, and Ruben was off like a shot. In fact, he was practically out of sight before I had made my way down the initial pitch, which was very steep and rocky. The ride down was much rougher than anything we had seen earlier – rocky stairsteps, deep ruts, blind inclined turns, other fun stuff. Ruben waited at the bottom, and we rode a further mile or so while the Q5 made its way down.
We turned around and headed back towards camp, and met up with Acacia. She said she had a great ride down, and was very impressed with how well the Audi handled the terrain. We put the bikes on the rack, I got in the drivers seat, and we headed back to camp.
Everything was going great as we approached the final steep pitch that would bring us back into camp. That particular pitch looked very intimidating, but I was confident. I asked Ruben and Acacia to hop out and take pictures while I drove up the grade.
I approached the grade as I had all the other steep sections – a steady, deliberate pace, with no slowdown until the top was reached. This time, though, I got about two-thirds of the way up, and the Audi bogged down in a hole of loose rocks, and would go no further. Great. Just great.
Greg was watching, and suggested that I reverse back to the bottom, and approach with much more speed. I did this – but was not really having fun any more. Backing down was treacherous – the front wheels were skidding along as I tried to steer my way down, and the view over the side was not encouraging. However, somehow I managed to do this successfully, and prepared for my second attempt at the ascent.
I held my breath and stepped on the gas. And made it about three quarters of the way to the top until, once again, I could go no further. And it was at this point that I politely asked for someone with some more goddamn experience driving on jeep roads to get the goddamn car up the goddamn hill. All while sweating profusely, and practically pressing the brake pedal through the floorboards of the car to keep from sliding back down.
Steve gamely and confidently agreed to take over, and hopped in as I evacuated the driver’s seat. He too got to experience the adventure of backing/skidding the car back down the hill before getting in position for the running start. Meanwhile, I was standing by the side, watching and expecting the inevitable humiliation as Steve effortlessly charged up the hill with yee-haws and fist pumping. It was with relief and gratitude, therefore, that I watched Steve somehow get the car successfully to the top, only three wheels on the ground at times, with a determined grimace instead of a triumphant grin.
On Saturday morning it was finally time to leave our camp at Murphy’s. I really think I could have easily spent a week there, actually – or at least until food and water ran out. Anyhow, our ride Saturday would take us down the Hogback and along the White Rim again until we reached the Green River. We would then head over another dicey stretch called Hardscrabble Pass before descending to the river again and reaching our camp at Labyrinth.
Once again my assignment was to drive in the morning and ride in the afternoon, which was fine by me I was eager to ride along the river, and I looked forward to tackling the mighty Hardscrabble Pass. We drove out of camp, and it was immediately time to do battle with my nemesis from the previous evening. A lot easier to descend than ascend, however, and I drove/slid/skated down without much problem. I continued down over some of the other more dicey stretches, and was just in the process of high-fiving myself on how well it was going when out of the corner of my eye I caught a curious sight – two people and two bikes laid across the trail down at the bottom, half a mile or so in front of me. Hmmm, I thought, strange place to take a break…
I diverted my attention back to the road, and drove on down. When I arrived, I saw that Steve was lying on his back, not moving, and Chris was standing over him. My leg’s broken, said Steve, and it was pretty clear that he was right. Turned out he was not doing anything crazy, just caught a rut, went of the trail, and landed in such a way that his femur was snapped.
After lots of talking, conferring, stabilizing, unloading and reloading, and hand wringing, Steve was loaded into the back of the Pathfinder, with Chris at the wheel and Mike in the back with Steve, to make the several-hour drive over rough roads to the hospital in Moab. Steve was in serious pain, and perhaps the day was saved by a group of bikers who came through. One of them happened to have a heart condition, and had some serious prescription painkillers with him to address his condition. Yes, life can indeed be stranger than fiction sometimes. Steve deliberated for all of five seconds before deciding to take his chances with biker medicine, and the result made the ride into Moab a lot more tolerable.
Ruben rode ahead to find Acacia, and Greg and I spent an hour reloading three SAGs into two SAGs in the warming desert sun. Though it was by no means a slam dunk, we somehow got everything in, and started driving up the road towards Hardscrabble to find Acacia and Ruben. This stretch of road turned out to be incredibly rough, and with heavily loaded vehicles with bikes on the trailer-hitch racks it took us about two hours to cover the next six miles or so.
We finally caught up to where Acacia and Ruben were waiting for us, and stopped for lunch. Acacia understandably said that she was done with riding for a while, and took over the wheel of the Q5 as I prepared to ride. Ruben and I took off down the road on bikes, while Greg and Acacia followed in the two remaining SAGs. The first half mile or so was pretty somber, until we both pretty much simultaneously came to the realization that there was nothing we could do, and we might as well enjoy the ride. Which we did. And Steve would want us to, we rationalized.
We got to Hardscrabble, but my fighting spirit was gone, sapped by the hike the day before and the morning’s calamity. When you don’t have spirit, there is no way you can tough it up the difficult hills. As soon as you reach difficult section, you tend to give up. Which is exactly what I did. So I ended up walking the bike up large parts of Hardscrabble – including parts I certainly should have been able to ride. But, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone or to myself, so I just did what felt right – and was fine with it.
At the top of Hardscrabble, we waited for the SAGs. While not quite as tough as Hogback, it was by no means easy, and I wanted to be available to help Acacia if she needed it – I figured if anyone was going to drive the Q5 into the rocks, it should be me, not a daughter whose father was on the way to the hospital with a broken leg! I was pleased and impressed, therefore, as I watched Acacia charge the Q5 up the hill with a big grin on her face! And trembling hands, as it turned out.
After Hardscrabble, it was an easy (though sandy) ride/drive down from the pass to the Labyrinth campsite, on the banks of the Green River. We got to camp, and decided that Ruben and I would hang out there with the Q5, our bikes, and a small mountain of gear. Greg would drive Acacia up to Moab to help care for her dad, and would come back that night or the next morning to help transport everything out of the canyon. I’ll be back tonight for sure, he said. But I wasn’t so sure…
The nicest feature of this camp site was its proximity to the river, which I took advantage of in short order. A short bushwack got us down to the banks, and before long I was in the Green rinsing off several days worth of red dust, sweat, and bacon grease. Man, that felt good! After that, it was a joy to set up camp.
One more dinner of steak and potatoes as Ruben and I sat around the flaming charcoal of the grill. Earlier, as I had set up camp, I had realized that I had used my sleeping bag and most of my warm clothes to cushion Steve in the back of the Pathfinder, so I was slowly adding layers of clothing as it got cooler, and thinking about just what I was going to sleep in.
After a while, I realized that there was a pile of gear from Greg’s car that almost certainly contained a sleeping bag I could use. About 9 PM, I was about ready to give up on Greg’s promised return, and was starting to think about pillaging his gear. As I was summoning the energy to do just that, I saw a reflection of headlights on the cliff, and soon the Pathfinder and the Escape arrived back in camp, with Greg, Chris, and Mike. The five of us enjoyed the night by the charcoal campfire, though of course it was not as boisterous with Steve and Acacia’s absence.
Sunday morning was beautiful and bittersweet, as I new it was time to leave. At this point we had three cars and five riders, which meant only two riders could do the ride along the river and up and out of the canyon. Greg and Mike got the honor, as they had not had the opportunity to ride while doing their yeoman’s service the day before. We rode/drove up the canyon loaded the bikes on the card, and started the drive to the Moab hospital.
We arrived just as Steve was coming out of the surgery to put a rod and four pins into his leg, so we killed some time having lunch. Back at the hospital, we got all seven riders back together one last time before we all had to scatter and make our way home! I took Ruben to Salt Lake City Airport to catch his flight back home, and I started my drive across the Utah salt flats towards Nevada.
The spirit of the drive was a little different coming home. I tend to get a little pensive and depressed after the conclusion of something which I have looked forward to for so long. Still, I get a certain exuberance from the road that definitely helped to defeat the blues. After a lovely night at the Super 8 in Wells, I got on the road very early Monday, heading towards Danville, and home.
Driving down Interstate 80 is not quite the same as US Highway 50. There are other cars, and plenty of trucks. The Nevada landscape continued to be majestic in its own subtle way, and once again I set the car on cruise and enjoyed the sights and soundtrack. Dylan, Bach, Steely Dan, Nirvana, and others kept me upbeat on the way home. It was a cold and clear Nevada morning, and I was tempted to find a place to ride, if I had been prepared for the near-freezing temperature. Once I got to Reno, though, I pretty much set my sights on home, and finally came up my driveway a bit after two o’clock.
Personally, I am not a big believer in bucket lists. However, if you are, then a trip to the White Rim should certainly be on it. The grandeur, the beauty, the silence, the solitude… you should start making plans. And while you are at it, plan on taking me with you!