I think the big ride yesterday kind of took it out of me because I felt like I’ve been in slow motion most of the day. I’ve learned to listen to my body so I just took it kind of slow today and took in the sights. Consequently I feel like I have little to share today so I’ll mostly just show you what I saw.
Today was a short ride to Capitol Reef National Park but even getting there took awhile due to road construction stops. I got to chat with Fred, a highway worker who was an interesting guy – self described “mountain man” who’s hobby is “black powder” backcountry camping where you don’t use anything that didn’t exist in 1840 (or was it 1880?). Anyway, wool blankets, canvas tents, and muzzle loaders. Another little hobby niche in the world I never knew existed.
Capitol Reef is one of those places in the West where American tourists make up 20% of the visitors – tops. You hear Mandarin, German, a lot of French and miscellaneous other languages. After awhile you look up when you hear American English. Europeans seem particularly taken with the desert landscape which makes sense – there is nothing like the American West in Europe and maybe we take that for granted a bit.
The name of this place never made any sense to me but I saw it explained today. Apparently the rock formations here are all part of a big uplift of tectonic plates causing a massive barrier, which has been deemed a “reef.” One of the famous foundations looks like the Capitol Dome – thus Capitol Reef.
The ride was short enough today that I pulled into Torrey by 4:00 or so. Harry runs Sand Creek RV park where I’ve got a little cabin for $35 – no frills, no AC but not pitching a tent tonight will allow me to get out early tomorrow. I’m curious to see this countryside in the early morning light so I’m thinking of another pre-dawn launch for tomorrow. I have a big pass to get over tomorrow – about 9500′ and I’m at 6500 now – so I want a fresh start in the morning for that. That should get me into Escalante tomorrow evening, then Panguitch, and Cedar City after that. Then Nevada – eek. There may be 4:00AM rides in my future yet.
Torrey is an interesting spot – I’ll have to get some photos this evening (after the current monsoon abates). It has its own water supply from the mountains so its a green oasis in this otherwise dusty dry land. You pull into town under cottonwoods and there are open irrigation ditches running a couple of feet deep literally down Main Street.
Today was one of the most beautiful days of my trip. No coincidence it was one of the most isolated too. I guess that says something about my tastes for natural beauty over man-made (and my status as a true introvert I suppose too). Often I’ve thought that one of the best ways to make an area beautiful is just to leave it the hell alone for awhile. Today’s scenery was that taken to extreme – leave it alone for a few hundred million years and amazing things happen.
I left from Natural Bridges this morning and I new that I’d have either a long day, or a short one. I was hoping for a long day and set a goal for myself that if I made it to mile marker 50 (i.e. 50 miles from Hanksville) by noon, and I was still feeling strong, then I’d do the other 50 miles in the afternoon.
The morning ride was a breeze – mostly downhill for miles and miles though canyon after red canyon. Everywhere you look is red dirt, red rocks, red cliffs, highlighted by green juniper, green sage, green twisted cedars. Green on red everywhere. Really spectacular and the canyon types constantly change – every 15 minutes seems like I’d see another brand new impossible landscape.
Someone back in Blanding had mentioned to me that the mile markers between there and Hanksville would count down the miles to there. So with that stuck in my head I kept and eye on those while I rode. When I hit mile 86 I suddenly started thinking about 1986 – a pivotal year in my life when I graduated from Rice, spent the summer driving a cab in Houston, shared a house with Chuck and Jay,and then entered the Peace Corps. Wow, quite a year. So then when I hit 85, I thought about that year too, and 84 and so on down the line. Of course this set me off on one of my favorite ear worms for this trip – Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years” which seemed appropriate and I never mind anyway. After awhile it became a habit to examine the years this way (I latch onto things like this sometimes) and I kept it up all the way until 64, the year I was born. It was a really satisfying way to spend an hour or so – contemplating my life, in reverse, back through my childhood until there was little to remember. I highly recommend it sometime when you have the time.
The landscape here is vast, vast, vast. There really is no other way to think about it. Have you ever had the experience of looking out over the desert as you’re flying across Utah or Nevada and seeing all these canyons and valleys and wondering – where’s that? How do you get there? Well I’m there – I’m a little speck slowly traversing that landscape. And frankly I pity the folks blowing by in cars – they miss so much. Seems like I barely have time to take it all in at my leisurely pace before it changes to something else. Meanwhile the cars are running on up to the next attraction, missing much of what’s in front of them.
The other idea that got stuck in my head as the canyons got deeper, and more rocks seemed to teeter precariously over the road was that I had somehow pedaled my way into a Road Runner / Wyle E Coyote cartoon. I’m not sure what that says about my cultural education – most of the opera I know is from Bugs Bunny and when confronted with red canyons and desert landscapes I start keeping an eye out for falling anvils.
I’m not sure what it is about the time out here but spending some time in real isolation has been good for me. True introvert I suppose – I recharge by being alone whereas extroverts recharge by being with others. Anyway, the days in the desert sure were good for me and I didn’t know I’d lost it but I kind of feel like I got my mojo back.
Riding here can be frustrating though. About an hour after I left Natural Bridges I realized that the road had made a big loop and I was about a mile as a crow flies across the canyon from the road that I’d viewed the bridges from yesterday. I could see the road just across the canyon. The same thing happened as I crossed Lake Powell and I was barely across the lake from the store that I’d left 45 minutes earlier. C’est la vie – there’s no shortcuts in desert roads.
The other strange thing about being out in the middle of nowhere is that the cars that you do see seem so odd. Most of the day I would be passed by a car every 15 to 30 minutes – not very often really. So when the car comes and it’s a Frito-Lay truck you take notice. Hmm who needs potato chips in the desert? Of the 125 mile stretch that I traversed yesterday and today, there is exactly one store, in Hite, about 75 miles in (i.e. 50 miles from Hanksville). So OK, he’s headed there. Then I saw another Frito-Lay truck after passing through Hite. OK wait. Same truck or do we need 2 Frito-Lay trucks out here. At which point I suddenly realized that I had picked up a bag of Fritos when I stopped at the store in Hite for lunch. Oh god, I’m part of the problem.
The other strange vehicles that I saw were pickups pulling boats and jet skis. I realize this sort of makes sense because Lake Powell reaches Hite (now – it was too dry for years) and these folks are going to the lake to swim and fish and whatever. But I couldn’t get over how absurd it looks to be pulling a boat across the desert. I tried to get a pic but they move too damn fast.
I got into Hanksville on the late side and am treating myself to an air conditioned room for the night. I got one of the last one’s here and a shower never felt so good.
Today felt like a real adventure. It’s the first day that I need to be careful about my provisions because I’m headed out into the desert and the next grocery store is 125 miles from my start. No option for calling a cab or picking a cute B&B to hole up in.
I made sure to stock up before I left with a trip to the grocery store where I laid in supplies for the next 48 hours. Also I have a spare 2 gallon container for water that I usually just use at my campsite but I put an extra gallon in that too. So leaving town I was as heavy as I’ve been the whole trip.
After leaving town I turned out into the desert and was enjoying perfect temps and overcast skies. It could be a lot hotter than it was today but that was no issue and for that I’m very grateful.
After 10 miles or so I made a short climb to a huge cut in the rock. As I approached this gap I couldn’t believe that a highway engineer would cut such a huge gash in solid rock – the chunk they took out of the hill was over 150′ deep, and not just any old hillside – this was close to solid rock. But the deed was done and I went through it and out into an amazing valley. Turns out the rock the highway cut through was part of a long canyon wall on the edge of “Combs Wash”. I was on the lookout for it because I knew I had a 2000 ft climb that started there.
The climb was long and slow and the vast open beauty of southern Utah kept me entertained for the next 20 miles or so. Then I had a tough choice. My intended destination tonight was Hite, which is basically just a gas station on Lake Powell. That would be a 75 mile day which is about right for this terrain. But at mile 36 I came to the turnoff for Natural Bridges National Monument. I’d seen it on the map but put off the decision whether or not to visit to now. There’s a campground at the park but it’s 5 miles off course (10 round trip). In the end I couldn’t resist taking the detour to see the bridges.
After getting to the visitor center it became apparent that if I was actually going to see the bridges, I’d need to stop for the night. They aren’t just sitting there at the visitor center and it’s a 9 mile loop to see the three main bridges. So I set up my tent and went to explore the park, knowing that tomorrow I’ll either 1) have a 50 mile day with dinner from a gas station + Clif bars or 2) I’ll need to put in a 95 mile day tomorrow to make it to Hanksville where there are hotels and restaurants and other trappings of civilization. We’ll have to figure that out tomorrow but my money’s on the long day with a hotel at the end.
I only had time to hike down to one bridge but I could see all three from the loop. The hike to the bottom of the canyon was harder than I thought after my big climb this morning. But being right under the bridge gives you a much better impression of how big they are. The one I hiked down to is called Sipapu and it’s 220′ high and 268′ across the span. That’s huge!
The name of the park is almost unfortunate because it puts all the focus on the bridges. But the canyon itself is huge, multicolored, and has these beautiful curved sandstone sides that might be an attraction itself, without the bridges.
After climbing out from the hike down to the first bridge, I opted to just see the other two from the road. At the second one the breezes kicked up and the sky got that dark hue that only means one thing in this part of the world. Seems that I didn’t leave the monsoons behind in Colorado. Today I have the luck of being on a bike, riding up a hill on the day when the park gets half of its annual rainfall.
When the first few drop fell I put on my jacket and then the skies let loose for real. The quantity of water in the air for a few minutes there was simply unbelievable. I was soaking, but not too cold. Once again I felt like today its my job to make everybody feel warm and cozy in their cars. I just kept plugging along and even stopped to see the third bridge, Owachomo, in the pouring rain. As I was drenched and pedaling slowly uphill in the downpour I began to have second thoughts about adventure, but even at seemingly low points there is incredible beauty around and I was able to find the “one who enjoys the rain.”
And then, just as soon as it started, it was over, and the blue skies return. So here I sit, mooching electricity off the visitors center and trying to dry out with the remaining hour of sun on my back.
I lucked out at the Cozy Comfort last night and my host invited me inside for the night. It turns out that there have been bears raiding in town for food and they were concerned about me sleeping outside. So I got the “yoga room” for my own last night, which saved me pitching a tent and was comfy indeed. It also meant it was easy to get out and on the road this morning.
Brenda also told me about how they came to run a campground in Dolores. I’ve stayed in a lot of campgrounds in my day and Brenda and Tony don’t exactly fit the mold. Actually, they run it really well, which is kind of what’s unusual. So many campgrounds are run really half-assed – poor hygiene, a lot of things in disrepair, and generally kind of low class. So I was curious to hear about how they came to be there. It seems that Tony and Brenda both have successful businesses in the Phoenix area awhile back. They summered in Colorado and bought the campground as a way to help pay for their home away from home. But both of their careers were tied to the real estate market and in 2008 when the market crashed they were hit hard. They worked for awhile to run the campground in the summer, and were working on restarting their businesses when they decided that the campground was really enough for them. It’s low stress and they get to spend all of their time in their “vacation house”. So they made a conscious decision to put lifestyle ahead of the rat race and have been happy with that choice. Their story echoed in my mind all day today as I headed out into the high desert of western Colorado and eastern Utah.
Today was a gorgeous day from start to finish – perfect 70 – 80F temps for riding, and few breezes to contend with, and mostly at my back when they were up. Sweet Mariah has been very good to me this trip. The good weather put me in good spirits and the 80 miles today went quickly.
And what a difference a day makes. The landscape this morning hardly seems from the same planet if you compare the view at 9:00AM yesterday to 9:00 AM today. As I pedaled west out of Dolores, the mountains can still be seen to the east but they’re already a memory. Today most of the landscape is sage, mesas, little canyons and dusty soil.
I passed through the little town of Dove Creek Colorado this morning. Dove Creek’s distinction is that it is the self-titled “pinto bean capital of the US.” Indeed I saw several “bean mills” where beans are traded and stored. They don’t claim to produce the most pinto beans, but the best pinto beans. Apparently they’ve revitalized some heirloom pinto bean strains here. The soil is perfect for them, they don’t typically need irrigation, but the early farmers had to fight the sage from reclaiming the planted fields. Nowadays there is some concern that the area is even drier than it used to be, so the pinto bean crop maybe in jeopardy.
All of this scenery and adventure and I spent about $50 today – $15 for my campsite, another $35 for food and snacks. The correlation between money spent and happiness breaks down once your basic needs are met. One of the lasting (I hope) adjustments to my attitude as I continue on this journey is that my time is getting more dear, more precious to me. It’s a cliche, but it’s really all we’ve got so don’t waste it. Thanks Brenda and Tony for that gift to ponder today.
I had to pry myself out of Telluride this morning. Such a beautiful setting and I met such great people, that pedaling away wasn’t easy. Literally – it was uphill to boot. But over the last week I’m missing Megan and Jonah more and the pull home is stronger so I pedal on.
I only have one more big pass in Colorado and it’s on tap this morning. By climbing to Telluride I’m much of the way there already, but still have to do the low-O2 part of getting over the 10,200 ft “Lizard Head” pass. Points for best-named pass so far, with “Hardscrabble” a close 2nd.
It’s Sunday morning and traffic was quiet as I made the climb under sunny skies as far as the eye could see. I saw Elk on my way out of town, and the approach to the pass was one of the most beautiful spots on this whole trip – complete Julie Andrews “Hills are Alive” moments all over as I passed cliffs, bluffs, peaks and lakes. All just as green as could be. Again I think photography is a weak substitute for being here but its all I can offer.
The only thing I won’t miss about Colorado is riding in the rain. I seem to have hit the monsoon season square on and the afternoon rains are regular and sometimes long. This is all great news for the locals – Colorado has it’s drought years and there are a lot of folks downriver in Arizona and even California that get their water from here. So its good news in general but it can be hard to get miles in without some level of afternoon misery.
Given that intro, you can guess what my afternoon looked like. Just after making the summit, I headed down into a beautiful meadow, and then followed the emerging Dolores River down the valley. A few miles from the top, the wind kicked up in a now-familiar way, the darker parts of the sky began to pull together around the big peaks and the temperature began to drop. I had my rain gear on before the first drop this time but even so, when the clouds opened up my feet and hands were every bit as wet as if I’d dunked them in a bucket. Climbing in the rain is actually easier than descending – on the way down you don’t generate much body heat because it takes no effort, and you also have a 30 mph wind wicking all the heat out of your body. By the time I reached Rico, I was cold and wet and ready for a break (i.e. grumpy to boot).
I dropped into the local bar and grill for lunch and a warm up, quickly surrounding myself with my own personal rain puddle as I peeled off layers to warm up. I was missing home and family, and with being cold and wet, I wasn’t your ideal friendly bar guy. But the mood in the place was very friendly and I met Kay and Tina who had seen me descending the pass and had lots of questions about my trip. There have been lots of ways that folks have helped me on my way and they helped by getting me out of my shell through warm conversation and genuine interest in my story.
I headed on down the hill after lunch and the sky opened up again. But as I descended it began to get warmer, and the trees turned back to more deciduous ones. Getting into town here in Dolores, you can tell by the vegetation that they get a fraction of the water that I’ve seen up the hill.
"If I had my druthers, I'd ride a bike" Jim's low CO2 trans-am cycling trip