When last we heard from our superannuated adventurers, they were covered in red dirt and wandering somewhere in the Utah desert.)
On our fourth day in Moab we creaked our way up out of our beds at the Red Rock Inn with the ambitious intention of doing the 100 mile White Rim Trail around the perimeter of Canyonlands National Park.
This time we skipped quickly through the beginning Shafer. Trail part, the territory that so impressed us yesterday,. The scenery out here is grand, sweeping and now familiar, with the great towers of red rock, jutting skyward, the backdrop of nearly every Western movie you’ve ever seen. I expected swelling orchestral music to be playing for us as we rode into the first valley, but unlike that scene in Blazing Saddles, the musicians were absent today. We were intent on reaching that split inside Canyonlands National Park where Shafer goes right, climbing the canyon wall up to Island in the Sky, so we could this time make the left turn and start the White Rim.
There was a brief pause as we reached the split, as if our bodies knew what our minds had yet to grasp, that this trail was a commitment far beyond what two old men should make so lightly.
At first, it appears that we are just riding off into the desert, because we are, with no particular route to guide us. The “trail” is marked mainly by tracks across the rocks and red dirt, sometimes with small cairns of stones to show a border, and at times it’s difficult to tell where we’re meant to travel. Quickly we are on the rim of a white rock canyon, the first of many, where the bedrock we’re on has eroded and collapsed after millions of years of water’s patient efforts. Skirting these huge voids means that we are making our progress in a series of gigantic scallops, like sketching the outline of daisy petals on a poster board.
Sometimes the trail leads us out onto a vast plain, bounded by the red towers off in the distance, but perfectly flat as far as we can see in front of us. Not to get complacent, however, because the canyons just appear, with no warning, not unlike one of Wile E. Coyote’s Instant Holes from the Acme Corporation. I suspect that some careless travelers back in the day found this out the hard way.
Before long though, the trail climbs a canyon wall, going steeply in switchbacks that turn 180 degrees and then go up at a 20 or 30 degree angle to the next one. The map gives these things names like “Hogback” and “Twister”, but those are far more polite than the names we had for them. The “road” is narrow, barely enough for one four-wheeled vehicle, and rocky rutted so that it is difficult to keep a straight line. But the penalty for veering off is a drop of hundreds, or in a few cases, perhaps a thousand, feet down. Once on top, the trail continues on across the mesa, then starts down another series of turns Downhills, where often the road below can’t be seen past the crest, seem more challenging, since gravity is not your friend on rocky surfaces.
The deep sand is the main problem on the flat bits, often looking just like the rest of the trail in this dun colored landscape, and only noticed when the front wheel suddenly wants to wander like a drunk in a parking lot and the power to the rear seems cut by by 80%. Usually I can save it, putting my weight back as far as I can, adding a bit of throttle and skimming on over the patch, but sometimes it goes on forever and we are reduced to just holding on, feet akimbo, trying to guide the bikes through the soft stuff. I crashed once on entering a corner in suddenly deep sand, just not paying enough attention, but it was a soft, slow motion sort of crash that left me uninjured (I’m gonna feel it in the morning !) and the bike unscathed after I straightened out the controls. A little sand in the throttle, but like most things we’ve thrown at them, the little XT 250 just shrugged it off, ready for more. Once Jay said I “exploded” after hitting a particularly deep patch, with sand spraying up so far that he had to stop because he couldn’t see me or the path.
Most of our progress is made standing on the pegs, letting the bike’s suspension take the endless battering of the washboard hardpan rock floor and the undulating waves of the dirt and sand. I’m at least fifty pounds heavier than the designers of this machine ever anticipated a rider to be but still it goes on and on, never complaining. Sometimes the shock bottoms out on something that I never saw coming, but the Yamaha shakes its head, like a boxer taking an unexpected punch, and just motors on.
By late afternoon we are in an impossibly vast valley floor, surrounded by buttes and mesas that seem to be very far away, all the landscape on our level the same white and off-white rock and sand, sprinkled here and there with low bushes. The air is dry but hot and our water is getting low. The odometers on the bikes say we’ve come about seventy miles, meaning we still have about another thirty to go. Thirty miles off road is a long day in my book at this stage of life, even if I was just starting the day. Legs are wobbly, arms just going through the motions without a lot of actual control and that spot on the back of the neck, where the helmet and the jacket don’t meet, is telling me that the sunscreen wasn’t quite good enough.
Still, we are in one of the most spectacular places in this part of the world, our bikes are, despite our best efforts to kill them, running well, and we have nothing else that takes precedence over enjoying this remarkable experience. We are so very fortunate to be here and that is enough.
By 5 o’clock, the shadows are getting long, the temperature has dropped dramatically and both of us are exhausted. The odometer showed that we’d put over 90 total miles behind us, only 18 of those on pavement. We were in the Colorado River valley, having just come up and then down a frightening series of carved-in-the-wall switchbacks, when we happened upon a campground with some mountain bikers who were there for the weekend. A pair of Spandex-clad women athletes who appeared to have been carved from granite, told us we had 23 more miles to the end, but then, after a dramatic pause added with an ominous tone, “You’ve gotta go up”. Their demeanor and delivery suggested grave consequences, and we knew what they meant. The final canyon wall road out of here.
The trail is wider now, capable of handling four-wheel drive traffic and the sand pits are frequent and deep. We are right at the edge of the river down here in the bottom of a canyon and way up ahead we can see an intersection. The sign tells us that the White Rim goes right and it’s 17 miles back to pavement. The next few of those miles have to climb a vertical wall at the end of the box canyon to the rim that we can see only if we tilt our heads way back…not something we can easily do at this point in the day. Fortunately, it’s a better road up than any we’ve yet seen in this situation. Unfortunately, it still has the sensation of clinging to a wall by one’s metaphorical fingertips and the edge of the road is the edge of a cliff with no shoulder or impediment to a very long fall….getting longer the higher we climb. Don’t look at the edge, look only where you want to go, trying to keep the gaze on the next curve and not the dropoff that it leads to.
Finally at the top, we park the Little Bikes That Could and walk over to the edge to look down on the road we’d traversed. A man is standing there with his dog, both looking over into the valley just as we are. He had come up a bit before us in his Jeep and had the same sensations, enhanced no doubt because unlike us, he couldn’t see his outside wheels. This man had been here before and still was amazed by it. He told us that the remaining fourteen miles were dirt road, mostly washboarded, out to the paved road that would eventually take us back to the highway down to Moab. He was right. The stutterbumps shook loose what remaining fillings we had and reduced our vision to a blur. I vaguely recall the sweeping asphalt curves on the highway, descending the mountains back into the rift that holds the town. By the time we reached Moab, our tiny tanks had gone on reserve at 143 miles our bodies had gone into survival mode and we were more than ready for dinner and a bed.