For about 40 seconds I let the demons loose on Grandview and go flying down a flat part of the trail. I turn a corner and there’s a short climb. My heart already feels like it’s about to explode [and not in the fun trying-really-hard way, but in the my-nervous-system’s-broken-and-can’t-regulate-my-heart-rate way]. I know I’ve pushed it too much already. I want to go further, and I want to go faster, and while giving in this little bit by hiking three miles into the Grand Canyon feels like it quenches my thirst a little, it probably made me more thirsty overall, like that water Dumbledore has to drink in Harry Potter six. And I’ll pay for it tomorrow, and for several more days with bad vitals. Because that’s right, I have a device now that measures my heart rate variability, heart rate, basal temp, movement, sleep, and respiratory rate every second 24 hours a day now. I love it and fear it.
The Grandview trail is somewhat controversial in history and I had a vendetta, not against it, but with my failure related to it, left over from last year. See, it’s the only trail you can’t get to by bus and so last year, I really wanted to do it but put it off heinously until my second to last day in the park. Then, because I felt tragic about driving all the way there, I attempted to ride my bike, based solely off of the information I had gleaned from riding a few miles down the USFS road I was camped on. There was a sign that said, “Grandview 13 miles.” I said, 13 miles sounds good to me! And packed up.
13 miles later, I arrived at a fire overlook tower, still alongside of the dirt road. I climbed the tower for some reason. I don’t have a fear of heights generally, but the dumb thing was basically a ladder made of that metal mesh that’s see through, which is sometimes cool but also the whole tower swayed and it was hard to see where you were putting your feet since it was see through. I continued riding the road, and saw 14 miles, 15 miles, 16, 17. Suddenly, I was on the paved park road! I made a guess and turned left? 18, and 19. Then I gave up and turned around. When I arrived back in camp, I looked at my map on Strava and saw that I was so close to the trailhead when I turned around, it had to have been a half mile or less. Oh well. The very last day in the canyon was reserved for one more Kaibab to the river and back, so Grandview wasn’t to be in 2019.
So here we are in 2020, and I’ve just learned somehow that OTS is actually a small, unusual, and severe category of the Sympathetic Dominance umbrella. How did it take so long for me to find this? Because unlike OTS, sympathetic dominance is a hot topic on the internet, and lots of people are on its spectrum. The internet tells me that I should stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system by doing reflexology on my feet, eating in such a way that might help balance too much copper in my body, and exercise should be limited to activities like restorative yoga and meditative walking. Because anything at all that activates my sympathetic nervous system will make things worse.
So Grandview was the first trail in the Grand Canyon. I can’t remember the other stories we’d heard before arriving at the TH, but the TH sign paints a picture of some guy that arrived at the canyon to mine, found the mine to be unproductive, and immediately pivoted to tourism. At the time, tourists from Flagstaff were being stagecoached for 12 hours to view the canyon, and there were photographers to take their photos and some amenities, but nobody was entering the canyon yet. So this guy takes his unproductive mine and builds this totally absurd trail down into the canyon, then collects some mules and lets tourists ride them down it. We’re all used to this feature of the GC by now, but I imagine how absurd the notion would’ve been then.
I’m also wondering about this trail, and how impossible it would’ve been for hooves the way it was built, steeply paved in rocks and with pretty big drops often. But then I think, tourists may not have had Yelp yet, but if this guy was killing people on the regular, word would spread and he’d lose his business right?
It’s also really cool to think about how hard to build this trail would’ve been. In some places, he hauled hundreds of trees to frame out and build a trail that just fully didn’t exist on the cliffside. It certainly takes an interesting and probably the only possible path down, traversing cliffs and winding in and out of other large rock features. He must have really cared about it, because there had to have been easier ways to make money [jobs easier than building this trail include: Alaskan fishing, oil riggers, blood worm hunter, sewer inspector, building the Transcontinental railroad, and those explorers that traversed Antarctica by kite boat].
The GC’s gotten some new signage since the last time I was there. I’ve seen in the news that this was a particularly bad year for rescues. I imagine there are folks whose job it is to go on the offensive and find new ways to prevent stupid people from killing themselves there.
At this point in recovery, after overdoing it and relapsing so many times, there’s nothing I’m more desperate to do than to run again. But I understand that I need to get better and that there is no other way but to back off and give it time. Naturally, it was nearly impossible to be on this beautiful trail in the canyon thinking, I have to keep my dumb heart rate down. If I do too much today, it’ll set me back. Because then you’re like, I literally don’t care about anything else besides running this trail right now. Screw being pragmatic! How could I give this up?
Then I kept seeing points I wanted to go to. I wanted to see what it looked like from there, and then from there. What’s down there? I needed to know. But every step down is more steps up and more damage and slower recovery. I just listened to the Rich Roll episode with Apollo Ohno, one, that guy is amazing. Two, he raves about how there’s just nothing better than being a full time athlete. It is the most beautiful thing in a human existence. What are we without it? Wins and losses, boring grown up stuff. When you’re training, nothing exists but the act of bettering yourself every single day.
He also discusses this new documentary he’s in, The Weight of Gold, about the mental health of Olympic level athletes in the US, and how for him he’s 10 years into a journey of having to work on every single day being okay with not being an Olympic athlete anymore. I’ll never understand his level, but I do get it when every day I think about how badly I want to be there again. Being in the GC, too, it just reminds me how fit I was last time I was there. To maximize your potential, to be your absolute best every single day, to rip technical descents, fly past the tourists, and burn the ascents, to jump in the river. God, to see the fucking river! To sprint the bridges. There’s nothing else.
Here’s the trailer for that docu, which sounds awesome but it’s on HBO so who knows when I’ll get to see it. Great trailer though, it’s three minutes long and I cried. Five stars.
I was soaked to my skin, rivers running down my face and jacket, shoes squishing, and now with each step I climbed higher above Skeleton Point, I brought myself further into a winter storm. 40mph winds whipped around hail and snow, the clouds shifting quickly hid then revealed bits of the canyon below. It was the last day of my almost month in the Grand Canyon, and of course I had wanted, needed, felt compelled to do S. Kaibab to the river and back just one more time. While I knew I wasn’t in mortal peril if I kept moving, my teeth chattered so loudly as a constant reminder of my misery (honestly, I’ve been cold af before and overwhelmed with bouts of shivers but as my teeth chattered somewhat painfully, I was so surprised when it happened that it must not have before).
From higher up on Kaibab the day of the storm
The day before, I had attempted to mountain bike through the national forest to the Grandview Trailhead, but had given up the run without ever finding the trailhead (what a blessing GPS is, for I then got to look upon the map of my ride and see how very close I came to such a trailhead indeed before giving it up for lost and turning home). That night I put in some token miles on 302, just so I didn’t get too far behind, but secretly I was hoping that this day that I didn’t run to the river and back would leave me unusually well recovered for Sunday’s S. Kaibab run, and that maybe I might just PR on the 4,800ft climb.
Between Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point
When I got on the orange line bus at the visitor’s center to be taken to the trailhead that day, the bus driver warned the occupants, “You’re not going to see anything. If you want my advice, walk over to the blueline bus and get a drink in the village.” And everyone shrugged, got off the bus, and walked over to the blue line. Sure it was raining, but I knew better, because the Grand Canyon in a storm is a sight to behold. The steep, technical trail my heart was set on, however, that I now refer to fondly as the River Kaibab (WordPress won’t let me post a video of the river Kaibab) was not for the faint of heart. I slip slided my way down in delight, because having the trail to myself was plenty to make up for the fact that nobody is going to PR when the trail’s a slip and slide, and though I knew I should’ve brought a real goretex shell instead of a water resistant ski jacket, I couldn’t be that bothered to be concerned, because the temperature rises enormously from rim to river. They (the national park staff) say it’s an average of 20 degrees, but I’ve seen days where it’s a 40 degree difference.
The first picture I took on my first trip down Kaibab this year. The Colorado River from S. Kaibab
The GC is a real mindfuck for folks used to mountains, or any folks at all, hikers or otherwise, because even though it’s obvious that you *go down first* then have to *go back up* it’s somehow not obvious to the majority of people. All hikers of a certain age, personality, or disposition will always say to someone who is running down something when they are laboriously walking up it, “Sure is easier to go down!” And I’ve always taken issue with it because while it’s slightly less tiring than ascending, the wear and tear is much higher and more painful so I’ve always thought of them as different but equal challenges. Until I spent a month in the Grand Canyon running down 4,800ft FIRST. I’ll never change my stance on the much higher wear and tear from descending, but I do now concede, fine, yes, it’s easier. Which means in the Grand Canyon, the every run or hike will become harder and harder from the second half to the bitter end with no relief until you’ve crossed the last step and are safely back on the bus.
The CO river from Kaibab, on the edge of the moon curve
So here’s how I ended up spending almost a month in the Grand Canyon. I had mysteriously thought Flagstaff would be a cool place to do some between seasons training. I say mysteriously because now looking back, I can’t figure out why I thought Flagstaff was such a mecca for runners. Was it some combination of the internet and running magazines? The fact that so many famous runners choose to live in that heinous cesspool? I had this idea that it was basically Boulder but in Arizona. I told someone that, after everything happened, and he said, “No, Flagstaff’s really methy.” And I thought truer words were never spoken but this is the wrong time to be hearing them.
The only picture I have from Flagstaff, backside of Mt. Elden
After spending 16 days in desert running paradise, it was getting too hot and I was itching to order shoes for the season, and have access to citylike things, like grocery stores. I was also stoked to get in on what the internet advertised as a bunch of different running groups that hosted regular group runs, so I headed up to Flagstaff. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t. I found a lot of the national forest was closed for “logging operations” and the only forest road that was open, I pulled the trailer down and discovered a permanent homeless camp. I thought the situation was remedied when I moved to the east side of town onto State Trust Land, which was conveniently closer to the Mt. Elden trailhead and situated right on the Arizona Trail. For the sake of wrapping this up, while I was out running laps on Mt. Elden one afternoon with Pippa, someone broke into the camper. They appear to have only stolen a stun gun, leaving three pairs of skis and all of my climbing equipment that were in plain view for the sake of ransacking the whole place, presumably looking for cash. I’ve never been burglarized, and I can’t even tell you how much it upset me. It removed my sense of safety, it destroyed my optimism in humanity, it broke my fucking heart. I packed up immediately and ran away to the Grand Canyon, where I hid in its splendor for almost a month.
**EDIT: important new information came to light last night when I was packing for Whitney and realized those useless [probably] meth head scumbag robbers took my mountaineering axe. I bought it at Smokey’s shop in Leadville for $15 like five years ago. Congratulations, assholes, you’ve stolen the least valuable piece of equipment I had, but now I have to buy a new one!
The CO river, looking south from the S. Kaibab bridge
Anyway, so I was telling you about my last run in the Canyon, in that totally insane storm, but that wasn’t really wanted I wanted to tell you about. In the previous years, I’ve run a lot, even getting up to 100 mile weeks not last year but the year before. But I’ve always only run because I wanted to, because I felt like it, because I loved it, and because it’s fun. I’ve never gone through break down training, always preferring to comfortably recover as long as I thought I needed and I’ve always run by feel. Which is to say, I don’t know that I’ve ever truly trained. Until now. I ramped up my base in the desert and in Flagstaff, kind of painlessly really. When I arrived at the GC, it was time to finish what I started in Flagstaff which was adding tons and tons of elevation gain to that high mileage and doing it all as hard as I could on that day, without proper recovery.
From the Hermit’s Rest trail
This is a controversial method of training and I don’t highly recommend it, but when I made the decision not to go work for RMI this season and instead commit myself to running as hard as I possibly could, and really seeing what I’m capable of, I knew there was no other way to do it. “Denton called it ‘breaking down,’ although Cassidy preferred the nomenclature of certain Caribbean quasi-religious groups; walking death was much closer to it. Quite a bit more, really, than the simple exhaustion of a single difficult workout, breaking down was a cumulative physical morbidity that usually built up over several weeks and left the runner struggling to recover from one session to the next.” OAR always puts it better than I do, and my deepest comfort in these last weeks has been reading and rereading the Breaking Down chapter because, since I have no friends going through it simultaneously, Cassidy understood what was in my totally crazy, swinging, weary mind the best.
From S. Kaibab, just below the Tip Off
Frequently, I found myself struggling greatly to drag myself the last 500, 1,000, 1,500 feet out of that damned Canyon and thinking, this is the worst it’s ever been. I’ve never been this tired. It’s like the end of a race. My joints are all tin man-ing, my muscles so thoroughly exhausted they’re useless, my mind just desperate to stop, stop, stop, make it stop. It’s actually been the perfect training for mental toughness, because it’s hard to imagine what feat I might put my body up to that will hurt more than running to the river and back day after day after day. “Didn’t I see you here yesterday?” The mule train leader asks innocently. “No, that was on Kaibab. I mean yes, I saw you yesterday. But not here. Yesterday I did Kaibab down and back, today I came down Kaibab but I’m coming up this way.”
The S. Kaibab bridge, the tunnel, and the CO river
Here’s the river after a week of storms, it turns brown from all the run off. Looking back at the tunnel and the S. Kaibab trail, the opposite perspective from the last photo
For an example, I tried reading Moby Dick and got stuck reading and rereading the first page for 40 minutes. It may have well been in Arabic, I couldn’t understand a word. I eventually started listening to podcasts during recovery time because my eyes were too tired to read for very long for a while. I did find myself depressed, which isn’t a state that’s normal for me and made dragging myself out for yet another, Jesus God, 17 miler, the worst thing I could possibly do. I would fixate on something I said or something someone else said in a recent or not recent at all conversation and think about it all day long. I also thought about everything I’ve ever done that I wasn’t proud of, that wasn’t very fun or inspiring. I was frequently too tired to cook or eat.
The only picture of me I took this year
The real saving grace of this misery was the Canyon itself, because who could ask for a more inspiring place to run? Or a simpler place to carry out the miles and elevation gain that needed to be done? Through combinations of biking and running and riding the shuttle buses, I was easily conveyed wherever I wanted to run and to the store and home again without ever having to drive or the inconvenience of starting or ending in the same place as my car. Despite that heinous winter storm on the last day, the weather was consistently cool up high, hot on the bottom, and when storms did happen they weren’t dangerous like they are in the mountains. I was sleeping at 7000 and staying reasonably acclimated, and anywhere I went had free potable water available. Plus, if ever too hot, I could jump in the Colorado River. Every step I took brought me new, extraordinary views. The S. Kaibab trail is the absolutely most spectacular trail I’ve ever been on in my life. It’s so spectacular, that I wish I had never used the word spectacular before, so that I could use it now and it would feel like that word most solemnly belongs in the Canyon and nowhere else. Plus it has this vibrancy, which I’ve never really understood until Skylar came out and visited for a couple days, went to the Yavapai Geology Museum and told me that the rocks at the bottom are 1,700 million years old. Of course! The bottom of the canyon is one of the oldest places on this planet! And sometimes despite Everything, I would feel strong and tireless even just for a moment and I’d know it was the Canyon itself filling me back up.
Sun setting from Cedar Ridge
Or there’s those bridges, the two bridges over the river, running across those bridges is delightful and restorative somehow. Maybe the water from the springs is also restorative? I learned while I was there that all the water that supplies the park, its millions of visitors, and the small town of Tusayan comes from a spring somewhere in the canyon, which they don’t know the source of and they don’t know how much is left. So that sounds sustainable. Something else I never learned the source of is the plumbing at the bottom of the Canyon. At Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch, there are actual bathrooms with tiled floors, mirrors, tan stalls with locks that barely work, electric lights, and toilets that flush. Toilets that flush! Why?! Every other bathroom in the canyon (and there are many, for obvious reasons) are solar-assisted composting pit toilets. But at the bottom of the canyon they have some sort of sewage system!? I’ve never been willing to inquire about this because I either don’t want to ruin the mystery or I don’t actually want to know the answers.
The bottom of the canyon (s kaibab bridge in the distance) from the Bright Angel Creek bridge
Writing this, you guys might already know I’m at the Whitney Portal and looking back. I don’t yet know if the break down training worked, I’ve just finished high mileage and after Monday, I’ll start an almost three week gradual taper (during which, in theory, I will finally recover!). But what I do understand about it is this, every day, I’d go out and run further and higher than I wanted to, than I knew was wise, and I did it as hard as I could. Every day. For no other reason than I said I had to. “But then his life was most certainly focused on The Task. And hadn’t he decided at one time or another that he would do whatever was necessary to become … Whatever it was he could become?” I had decided that this week, I’d run 85 miles and 20k and next week I’d run 90 miles and 21k and somehow or another, those miles must get done. A random guy I saw resting on the side of the trail said to me one day, “That’s a good pace, but are you having fun?” And I smiled and said something like, “Who could not be having fun here?”
just below Cedar Ridge
But when I really thought about it after, yeah, somehow, I’m having fun. Despite all of it, “weary beyond comprehension,” sometimes I go out and run and it feels amazing. I don’t know, I mean maybe fun’s not exactly the right word, or your definition of it. But every day, I work as hard as I can to get better, faster, stronger than I was before, and that makes me feel free. It is profoundly satisfying. And it feels primal, like this base necessity to see what I’m really made of. Do you ever watch an inspirational sports movie and the football coach is making an outrageously dramatic speech about luck being what’s left after you’ve given your all? It makes good movies, seems a little silly in real life, but I honestly think things like that in my exhausted mind all the time. I don’t know that I’ve made it sound all that great, I don’t know that it could be made to sound that great, because even someone gifted with words like old JLP made it sound pretty miserable, “All joy and woe.” The thing is, though, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.*
I think this is the only picture I have from the Bright Angel trail
*Except when I ran over a rattlesnake and it launched itself up in the air and tried to bite me, that was fucking terrible. The worst. I still love you GC, but that was a shitty thing to do.
I don’t think it’s some revelation that the secret to living your life is “do it anyway”; it’s not crazy or unexpected to realize that when you struggle through hard shit everything else gets easier. But although I’ve gone through that thousands of times with all the increasingly hard shit and crazy situations I end up in, this was so different. Long linkup days in the mountains have made me feel like I can get myself into or out of any situation, albeit sometimes with cold quiet acceptance. That’s the famous “freedom of the mountaineer”, that your body and your skills can take you anywhere safely. This bike trip, though, expanded that freedom to EVERYWHERE, because it eliminated the tethers. It makes me feel like even in the worst case scenario situations, I will figure it out, and I will be ok.
Tell me what is impossible but still true: I lived on my bicycle and rode hundreds miles around southern Utah.
Although nothing that interesting happened in Capitol Reef, the landscape was COOL, and this and the next several photos are from the park
I don’t remember when it was, but I spent hours one afternoon riding and thinking of this thing a first grader said to me in a school that I worked at in Lansing, Michigan years (probably 10) ago. I rode my bike to that school (and everywhere else I went), it was about 40 minutes from my house I think. I would come into the classroom with my helmet and gloves tucked under one arm, but I rode in my regular clothes so I didn’t have to change. It was a poor neighborhood, and my job was paid for by federal grants. Here’s the exchange:
“Did you ride a bike here?”
“yeah, I always do”
“Do you not have a car?”
“I do actually, but I would rather ride my bike.”
At this point he didn’t say anything, but looked at me with disgust
“Your body can take you anywhere, don’t you think that’s really cool? We’re really lucky to have strong, healthy bodies.”
The kid’s eyes were a mix of pity and confusion, and he just went back to his desk. I will never forget any part of that exchange, including the way he looked at me, because I had previously been someone that he had some measure of respect for, but in one minute I became someone that he felt bad for.
We woke up in the desert, and didn’t get bitten by snakes! I trapped the spiders that were blocking our exits, and we packed up to go. In the grey desert, we were just a couple of miles outside the official boundary of Capitol Reef National Park. The previous night, I had looked over my maps and lists of mileage and elevation gain and thought it was obvious that I would pass through Capitol Reef and onto route 12 that day, then be in Bryce Canyon on Sunday. I knew something was wrong, so I pulled the maps back out and looked over them again. I had written the elevation profile in legs, so to speak, and because the towns on route 12 were suddenly much closer, the legs were much shorter.
It did look like: Blanding to Hite 80 mi +4285 -6664
and now it looked like:
Fruita to Grover 17.3mi +2165 -479
Grover to Boulder 28.8 +3077 -3356
and what I hadn’t thought of last night, when I thought it would be reasonable to add several of these short legs together was that I’d be looking at 2 8000ft of climbing days. Which, pre bike trip, I thought was totally reasonable, as I do more than that on skis and much more on foot in the summer. What I know now: climbing on a loaded bike with a trailer with a dog in it is at least 30x harder than running uphill.
200 million years ago, this was underwater. The dinosaurs swam here.
I’m pretty sure the Little Mermaid was based on this area.
Coming out of Capitol Reef, we spent hours just climbing. I can’t even think of another way to put it, it felt as though I were just desperately trying to drag a train uphill with only the strength of my legs. I knew it would be hard, but I thought after the first couple days, I would adapt physically to the work and be stronger. I think I was, but the hills kept getting longer and steeper. We were making about four miles an hour. Each time we crested a hill, I could see better the storm that was ahead, and better feel the wind coming. The temperature had dropped at some point to 7 degrees Celsius [I had bought a tiny thermometer to put on my bike and didn’t notice until I left that it was only in Celsius. I haven’t had to translate temperatures from Celsius since like third grade]. The wind came in these crazy gusts, it would hit me like a wall and either stop me or nearly knock me over. I was trying to keep riding, and when the gust was over, the force that I had been fighting the wind with also nearly knocked me over. I yelled into the wind “WHY WON’T YOU LEAVE ME ALONE?!” I yelled at Utah. I yelled at Luna, because she was cold in her trailer but she also didn’t want to get out and run beside me for the double benefit that she’d warm up and be less weight that I had to haul. This nonsense went on for hours that felt like days that felt like my whole life. We crested another hill, and suddenly there was snow.
I pulled over, leaned the bike on a sign post, sat down on the ground, and wept. I knew the weather wasn’t attacking me personally, and I wasn’t actually mad at Utah, it was me. I had underestimated the terrain. I had misjudged the weather. I had overestimated my own strength (and ability to adapt). I had definitely underestimated how hard it would be to tow Luna. I had underestimated how much Luna would even want to be out of her trailer and running under her own power. I was infinitely disappointed in myself. Here I was, on one of the most beautiful tours in the country, and I couldn’t keep the train moving. I wouldn’t be able to do the 23,000 feet of climbing over the next three days to make it to Bryce canyon and back in time to ride back to Moab. And now it was winter. Because even though I knew how much climbing there would be, I had written it all down, it hadn’t occurred to me that Bryce Canyon is at 9k, which is why there’s all that fucking climbing. While it’s unusual that S Utah in general is so cold in late March, obviously it’s still winter at 9,000 feet. I could keep climbing all day, and it would keep getting colder, but ultimately I would have to turn around tomorrow, without having gotten anywhere, in order to make it home on time. The tour was essentially over. It took me so long to write part three, because I knew reliving this moment would hurt the most. My heart broke. I didn’t have time to finish what I started, I couldn’t, because I wasn’t strong enough, because I hadn’t planned this whole thing out intelligently enough. The tour was over, and I still had several days of riding left to close the loop and get back.
But there was nothing else to do but ride. And for a few more hours, the wind pounded me, and I struggled and suffered, and finally I stopped to take a break. I had accidentally stumbled upon a BLM historical site that featured a couple sweet campsites, and I thought, “I have fucking HAD IT. I do not want to ride anymore. I am DONE for today.”
This is a historical site because the Native Americans used the holes in the rocks to store grain
Really, I think that about sums it all up. Yeah I rode for several more days and put in a really hefty amount of mileage. There were good times and bad times. There were times I thought drivers were going to kill me, there were times I was super stressed out, there were times when the mileage and hours just rolled by. There was sun, there was more rain. I came to terms with my disappointment in myself. It was hot sometimes and it was cold others. I had some delicious french toast, and I ate a lot of fuel that I didn’t care much about. We had a couple more good campsites. We talked to some interesting people. A photographer stopped me and asked to take some photos. It made me really uncomfortable, but I obliged. She said, “what you’re doing is extraordinary.” I said thanks, but what I thought was “it just feels normal now”. An elderly woman gestured to the rig and asked if it was my home. I said “for now”, but I wished I had said “yes.” There were more spiders, there were more miles, and I got bitten by a fire ant (it hurt more than expected). There was another very violent storm, during which I got a flat tire. My rear brakes came loose. The derailleurs were struggling to shift at all on the last 2300ft climb. I got another flat tire. I was just about to type that I fell apart in the last 10 miles to Canyonlands, but I didn’t. I didn’t fall apart. In the middle of this super violent storm, I considered my options and started running, because it seemed more reasonable to get back to the truck instead of trying to fix the bike in the storm at 7:15pm. Ultimately, a nice family gave Lu and I a ride for the last couple miles. There was no triumphant return, it was just over.
There’s a Mario Kart course based on this area I’m pretty sure.
I believed during the various periods of suffering that after the tour was over, I would only remember the good parts. Well, shows how much I know. I miss all of it; the bad, hard, scary, miserable parts just as much as the joyous descents, sunny miles, and sweet campsites. I can feel the fear and worry, the cold, and my aching body as if I’m still out there. And I want it back, I want it all back. I had been afraid of losing safety and security, and comfort; of being too far away. I didn’t realize I had been afraid of living directly in the environment for a length of time, of being exposed, of deprivation. This tour has changed everything. I used to want to be fearless, and believed that by continually facing my fears I could evolve to a point that I had none. That’s impossible, because fear is what makes you human, and I don’t ever want to be without it. Choosing to do it anyway, THAT is freedom.
“Paralyzed by the voice inside your head, it’s the standing still that should be scaring you instead. Go on and do it anyway. Risk it anyway.
Tell me what I said I would never do, tell me what I said I would never say. Read me off a list of things that I used to not like but now I think are ok.” -Ben Folds
(who knew Ben Folds was this brilliant philosopher?)
I really wanted to get my thoughts down right away about all the things that happened in Utah in the past 10 days before anything slips away, because I’ve already noticed after being home less than 12 hours that it’s surprisingly hard and surprisingly easy to adjust back to regular life. I think human adaptivity is one of our greatest qualities, as a day ago I had been adjusted to waking up in a flooded, ice cold tent and my morning spider trapping duties.
On my last night on tour, a family gave me an 8 mile ride and the daughter, who is around 12 I think, told me she’s too lazy for biking or for running. There was a book in her lap. When I was 12 I would’ve said the same thing probably when my dad came home from a tour. I’ve wanted to go for a long time and it’s been one thing I was too scared to go through with. Why? Because I’m tethered to the relative safety and comfort of the truck and my house. We use words like “hostile” to describe the environment and weather when it makes us uncomfortable, and words like “exposure” to denote the danger of living in that environment, the real environment; the one that we haven’t manipulated. The reality of humanity is that we don’t at all live in reality, we live in a web of environments that we’ve manipulated into being safe and comfortable. Cars and houses and buildings with climate control, packaged food, machines and tools that we don’t really understand but are designed to make our lives easier. Running water, indoor plumbing, and cell phones. The number one thing people responded when I told them about this tour, before during or after, was “that sounds miserable”. I guess it was, if that’s the way you’re going to look at it.
I was so excited, anxious, and afraid on the drive to Utah that I swear my heartbeat shook the truck. Unloading the bike and my baggage and setting up the rig, my hands shook madly. It was sunny and beautiful, and as I dragged the whole thing down the sandy BLM road I was parked on back to highway 313 I began to think the whole thing was impossible. It was so heavy, and so far, and I would have to leave my tether to safety for a long time, and get impossibly far away from it (which is one thing that makes bike touring much scarier than backpacking, the sheer mileage). But there was nothing else to do but get on the bike and ride it, so that’s what I did.
The excellent Moab bike path is dotted with mtn bike trails, and uncrowded enough that it was the only time Lu got to run untethered next to me while I rode.
The first day was magically easy; the weather was good and it was pretty much all downhill to Moab. There’s a magnificent bike path between 313 and Moab so you don’t have to ride on the highway until you’re just about in town. Which is nice, because riding 191 on any of the days I had to do it was one of the worst and scariest things I’ve ever done. I slept on BLM land maybe ten miles south of Moab, and day two was the first of several days I woke up to a large and poisonous spider hanging from the door of the tent. I was sufficiently terrified of the predators of southern Utah, because they’re hard to predict and understand. The internet suggested making sure the tent is zipped up all the way, never walking around without shoes on, and some golden advice, “spiders, scorpions, and snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them.” Well internet/National Park Service/Utah state government, I would like to assure you that spiders are not afraid of people at all, in fact they routinely broke into my tent to be closer to me despite my best efforts to seal them out. So what do you do when a large, colorful, and poisonous spider is blocking your only exit? I thought hard about cutting a new exit into the back of the tent, but instead I trapped it. I felt sick all day, and I don’t remember if I woke up that way but I could hardly eat anything all day.
Luna: all play, no work
Day two was hard. I knew it would be, in fact I had imagined the first couple days would be very hard, adapting to full days in the saddle and towing that heavy ass trailer, and then I would be stronger and start mashing miles. I also imagined that Utah was basically flat (even AFTER writing out the elevation profiles for each leg of this trip), and that they never had winter. People make mistakes. Moab to Monticello is just all uphill, divided into steep climbs and long low grade climbs. The shoulder on 191 is taken up with the most enormous rumble strips I’ve ever seen, thousands of potholes in a row. Also, I think anyone would imagine that towing a trailer with a dog in it would be harder than riding a bike without it, and climbing with a dog and trailer is harder than climbing without it, but what I hadn’t at all prepared for was that downhills feel like flats and flats feel like climbs. And that climbs are now basically impossible and require maximum effort to keep the whole freight train moving at all. And that’s the story of how you can ride for ten hours and only get 50 miles in. There was so much traffic between Moab and Monticello, I imagined Monticello must be the size of Denver. It’s not. I’ll always wonder where all those people were going, so aggressively and in such a hurry.
We slept at a campground in Monticello, as it was already 7:30p when we got there and I was too brutalized by climbing and traffic to ride anymore anyway. The proprietor was like an old western grandpa. It was 30 degrees that night. Day three I woke up still feeling ill, but at least I knew I’d be off of 191 before long. The hills between Monticello and Blanding evened out, were more rolling, and by the time we got to Blanding I was starving, finally. I had breakfast at a diner where both of the employees looked me up and down long and hard but didn’t have anything to ask or say about it, and I put down the whole plate before the waitress came back with a napkin. Topping off my enormous reserves of water (8 liters) at the visitor center before we left, a nice older man named Steve marked on a map for me where he thought I could find wild water in the canyons along highway 95. He also told me that in the summer as many as 30 cyclists per day departed from Blanding to ride 95, but they’re generally supported and in groups. “An intrepid adventurer like yourself is very rare indeed.” Thanks, Steve. [In fact, I didn’t see one single cyclist until 24 between Hanksville and Capitol Reef NP].
I will now always have a deep, visceral reaction to downhill steep grade warning signs.
Once on 95, there is almost immediately an 8% downhill. Normally, I would have been braking the shit out of that hill on a massively loaded bike (with 16lbs worth of water, at least 5 days of food for me and Lu, in addition to all the gear) and towing precious cargo. But the version of me that was somewhat brutalized the previous day threw caution to the wind and I found myself descending the serpentine road into the canyon at 40mph. In time, I think I’ll remember few details about this trip, but that moment of delight with all of Fry and the surrounding canyons suddenly opening before me, I will never forget. It makes me feel so overwhelmed every time I think about it, it was the first time I understood the freedom of touring and it felt like all of Southern Utah was at my disposal.
The road came through that little notch in the ridge. This isn’t looking back on the joyous downhill I wrote about above, I didn’t take that picture. In fact, I don’t think I have pictures from any of my favorite moments, those will live in my memory forever and nowhere else.
I know a lot of people start tours from Blanding, but that downhill could not possibly be as satisfying without the 7k of climbing leading up to it. So, Steve had warned me that there was a big, 8 mile climb starting 20 miles west of Blanding, and after that I’d be home free. I had hoped to get that climb out of the way that afternoon, but I just seemed to never get there. Since this is turning out so long, I take it it’s going to be in the format of installments. So, end of part one, to be continued.