The Heart Wants What It Wants
Nor did he think about man’s general weakness, able to live only within narrow limits of heat and cold. — Jack London, To Build a Fire
My fingers hovered around that point of numbness and pain. A few degrees cooler and the numbness would be complete. I’d not be able to tell how hard or soft I was pulling on the brake levers of my bicycle and then there would be the thaw… the thaw. Minutes of throbbing pain as my hands warmed up. Shaking my fingers, throwing my hands up and down, and pacing, wincing, trying not to succumb to tears which would do naught to aid my plight. I have been in this position a few too many times. I certainly will be again.
Numbness was around the corner.
We stood atop Burro Pass in the La Sal Mountains of Utah, right near timber line at 11,000 feet. Amidst the scant trees on the ridge line, forty or so cyclists shook and debated their next move.
My internal debate was less of a contest between decisions and more of a reticence to accept my fate. There is only one choice: head down the trail, into the trees, where the air would grow colder in the shade and the fresh layer of snow would turn the trail into an almost gray pulp of ice and slush.
This was The Whole Enchilada.
The Enchilada, is a route composed of a series of trails that descend from Burro Pass to Moab. It is a classic trek, one that takes you from high alpine ribbons of dirt into the boulder strewn, slick rock populated Porcupine trail system, and finally into Moab itself.
On paper, the numbers do little to belie the difficulty of this journey. 33 miles. Around 1700 feet of ascent. It doesn’t sound like much, compared even to my daily commute to the office or an evening session of lapping the trails of North Table Mountain, where one can climb over 3000 feet in less than twenty miles, if so inclined.
But numbers do little to tell the story.
Numbers are concrete, but they are also misleading. It is much like rating liquor based upon its strength. While Everclear might be potent, it is utterly terrible. There are many factors to consider when apprising a ride, more so after said ride has been attempted. Weather. Your physical condition. Your equipment. Your attitude.
It becomes this thing: a bad day the result of a vector that skews towards uncomfotable or scary colors an experience. For example, a poor set up of one’s bicycle can result in malignant pain that colors an entire experience. I always think back fondly, er, perhaps with resent (and a shudder) on a 126 mile bicycle race I did in the mud of the dirt roads around Salida in which I used brand new shoes that I had only put cleats on the night before and for which I paid dearly on the road with terrible blisters. Then there is that question if the route is something you want to do or something you’d merely like to accomplish. Perhaps Jon Krakauer said it best, in Eiger Dreams:
One of the differences between us was that Marc wanted very badly to climb the Eiger, while I wanted very badly only to have climbed the Eiger. Marc, understand, is at that age when the pituitary secretes an overabundance of those hormones that mask the subtler emotions, such as fear. He tends to confuse things like life-or-death climbing with fun.
I’ve been around this earth for three and a half decades and change and have certainly, as my stories bear witness, made some poor choices. But, at the same time, I am reluctant to hang up my bicycles and resort to something anathema to this… these, demons of adventure. Perhaps Mr Krakauer put it best, and apologies for two quotes from the same book, but:
Most climbers aren’t in fact deranged, they’re just infected with a particularly virulent strain of the Human Condition.
I, too, am infested with this. A constant need to prove, only to myself, that I’m somehow worth a damn. The endless miles of road. Every little bump and rock that can serve as a tiny jump on every piece of single track. My heart wants to be tested, even if I am not always confident in the endeavor.
Enter, The Whole Enchilada.
In my head, the route is something I would rather do from town. Riding up. Earning my turns. However, the events of this adventure, the culmination and cursed serendipty of a litany of conditions only exacerbated what might have been done as a completely self-powered exercise in The Human Condition.
Before the van dropped us off near the top of Burro Pass, we awoke in the dark. Awoke an hour before dawn, stumbling around the camp site with headlamps we donned our gear and loaded our bikes. Squeezing tires instead of checking air pressure. For me, half measures, at best… relying on my normally fanatical bicycle maintenance. All of this fueled, or not fueled, by a restless night with little sleep: we arrived in camp well after midnight and awoke five hours later.
Except the bike was new and I… well, I was about to make a mistake of omission that would haunt my lower back and shoulders for days to come.
There we were: I having held my bladder, floating on the back of my teeth as the white van wove around other vans heading back to town, winding up switchbacks and dirt roads for an hour, but there we were unloaded from the van and preparing for our adventure.
Donning all the layers we had carried with us. Recycling… well, not beer (we went to bed sober and in the cold dark of very early morning), but water and sugar free Red Bull and coffee, god, at least we had that.
If it isn’t clear: I abhor the cold. Or, rather, I abhor being cold. I don’t mind layers. I can throw on winter tights and hit the road for a fifty mile loop, as long as my hands don’t grow numb. But snow, is another factor to boot. Being cold. Slipping. Ice.
The trail down from Burro Pass to Hazard County (a trail, not a place… I think it’s a reference to The Dukes of Hazzard, but it is spelled wrong) was an icy, slushy mess. To boot, constant dabs thoroughly clogged my cleats on numerous occasions. I’ve never had good luck with Crank Brothers pedals, which are known for their superior muck shedding (and little else), and swear by Shimano, but sweet Satan’s beard did I dream of easy engagement in lieu of sitting in the snow, picking out ice and muck with a stick and, always, my knife.
Our party split along these lines: Brandon and Cody choosing to ride the slop, Lindsey and I rode some, but weren’t too proud to just walk. I stand by my decision… but partly for other reasons that will become clear.
My weapon of choice was a brand new (well NOS… the build was from 2016/17) Santa Cruz Hightower. I won’t dwell on the details, but the bike ticked the boxes for me: climbs well, long(er) travel, slack, 29" wheels, it has a bottle cage… I have written before about my love of Alchemy, but the 29er squishy bike isn’t available yet. Team Alchemy (Lindsey and Cody) rode Arktos, Brandon shredded the shit out of his Evil Insurgent. These are all world class bikes, and they should be. This is the $5–6k super bike club.
But I had just picked up the Hightower. I made a few tweaks, but I’d only managed an 18 mile shakedown ride.
“Oh, Mr Weaver, when will you learn?” you are probably asking. Readers of my cycling adventures will certainly be familiar with this trope and the additional juxtaposition of my career in software: I always prepare for contingencies! Belt and braces. Exhaustive unit tests (forgiveness if that is gibberish), spare chain links, spokes, extra tubes, bottles of sealant…
While set up well at the shop, the rear had far too much pressure. A product of the break in, I should have checked the sag again. It was at 30% from the shop, and it was not when we arrived in Moab. I wouldn’t know this for certain, but after the ride, I figured out it had 50 psi too much.
This was my sin of omission.
I was effectively riding a hardtail with “big hit forgiveness.” I won’t moan too much, or perhaps I have already hit that threshold for you, but over the roughest stretches this did much to wear me out prematurely. This much pressure eliminated any suppleness in the suspension: it should have done much to gobble up the endless rough stretches of trail. If you, dear reader, are not a cyclist or, specifically, a mountain biker, be aware: on paper I was on the perfect bike. I, however, made some mistakes in setting it up.
I, at least, did not forget to chill… well, one wreck.
My lack of proper break in for the Hightower was akin to bringing a bottle of 1972 Stitzel-Weller Old Forester Bourbon to the party and choosing to drink the Fireball instead.
I was not alone in my grief. Cody’s Arktos was equipped with a Rock Shox Reverb dropper post. For the uninitiated: a dropper post uses air pressure and a remote lever/button that allows you to sit on the saddle and lower it, get off of it and raise it, without moving your hands off the bars. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest inventions in recent memory for mountain biking. Cody’s froze in the “down” position. While the Enchilada is largely a descent, some of it is rolling and rough and there is one significant climb.
However, we have progressed the narrative little beyond “cold and slippery.”
Before I rejoin the adventure, there is another aside worth mentioning. Culpability. Liability. Before the first descent, you climb. In this case, it was in snow. Often, we’d be stuck behind slower climbers and be forced to dismount or put a foot down.
At the top of this pass, while I dug the snow out of my cleats with a stick and then my knife, we noticed a large group of chaps on rental bikes in jeans and running shoes. These people were not qualified to set out on this adventure.
Let me be clear: I am not an elitist. This is a trail that anyone can ride. However, if I was the operator of a shuttle service, I would insist on at least a casual bike inspection and a clear checklist of equipment needed, in case things go sideways.
Hell, I didn’t even sign a waiver of any sort.
I detest the “sue over anything” culture of the modern world, but that is not the same as dropping off a group of tourists near timberline, who are equipped with the equivalent of flip flops and a t-shirt at Everest base camp (I exaggerate, but hyperbole is fun). Layers. Proper footwear. Tools, tubes, extra chain links, a pump, food… be prepared. These guys, lord I hope they made it, seemed to have none of that and they were wearing all cotton. Cotton does not insulate at all when it is wet and takes forever to dry out. Here’s a big word for yer britches: hypothermia.
We didn’t see those folks again. They say they haunt the La Sal mountains. Late at night, you can hear the Dave Matthews/Sublime sing a long echo off the canyon walls.
I hope they all survived, but Jesus.
The trail got much better.
Hazzard County is a rough trail (where my extra firm set up first reared its head), but not that rough. Rough as in “some sharp baby head rocks in the turns” not “endless stutter bumps.” It does have some optional jump lines. Of course I hit them. Not with aplomb, as I was starting to feel like I couldn’t ride out the landings at proper speed (note to self: don’t bring new bikes on big adventures), but I hit them. Turned my bars. Tried to be the fun not fast guy I’d like to be.
It was good.
To thoroughly interrupt the narrative: I met Brandon on a trip to Fruita (18 Road and Loma, specifically… he attacked Horsethief bench with aplomb). As is typical, we had many common friends. There are only three and a half million people in the Denver-Boulder area. Having been here for ten years, it’s hard not to engage in a Kevin-Bacon-like degrees of separation exercise. My first impression (and still true): a truly cheerful, quality human being with a knack for photography and excellent technical skills. Funny aside within an aside: Cody and I roped Brandon into a lengthy discussion with H-ball (Greg Herbold) about the “good old days” and his old tour van once in Grand Junction before devouring some tacos at a restaurant aptly named “Taco Party.” That was a good day.
Lindsey, since I’m on backstory, I first met on another mountain bike ride: in my home turf of Buffalo Creek. My family owns a cabin in nearby Bailey and I know those trails like the back of my hand. Probably better as that’s a shitty aphorism. I’ve ridden them mid-week, at dawn, at dusk… more than any other trail system (Strava says I’ve climbed Baldy 49 times and I am 28 on the leaderboard, for what shitty hubris that is worth). A few years ago, she joined us on a ride introducing Phil (see my story on the Argentine Pass), an East Coast native to the buff trails of Colorado. Yes, we have rough patches and plenty of technical features, but our trails are so well trod and maintained in comparison to other states that we’re a bit spoiled. Lindsey was conned/coerced into hauling six beers up for a friend of ours… a character who eschews smart phones and, at the time, derailleurs and is fueled by beer. Needless to say, she didn’t complain, smiled all day, and didn’t frown when said friend put his empties in her hydration pack. Serious cycling, as in the leg-shaving, power meter using, ten thousand miles a year (be it singletrack or road) is a very misogynist pastime. Yes, men have a biological advantage (though I know plenty of women who can kick my ass), but the barriers to entry for women in cycling are rather… daunting. Immense. More girls (I mean specifically girls as in “women who are not adults”) need to be encouraged to ride. Adult women should be encouraged to ride. To know the pain and equally magnificent joy of cycling is a grand thing. Think of the first time you felt the wind in your hair on a descent or let your hands off the bar and giggled like a fool. Serious cycling amplifies these sensations. The lows exacerbate the joy of the highs.
Think about that, the next time you pass some slightly confused man or woman (person) on a climb or a descent. Maybe stop and help them remove those shitty reflectors or ask how their ride is going. You have all week to do intervals/punish yourself. High fives save Watts. Google it. Even the pros have day jobs (I know quite a few). We’re all in this for fun.
I can’t properly introduce Cody. I’ve known him for too long (that is not a bad thing) and I am not objective. Not that any of this is. This is all editorial, enhanced for your pleasure, drivel. Cody does everything well. I introduced him to mountain biking a few years ago and he took to it like a Kennedy takes to scandal. But he was hamstrung by that damned Reverb. It’s 2017. A six thousand dollar bike should have a working dropper post and it is not a “needs service” issue. It was just serviced before this ride. Sram/Avid/Rock Shox/Truvtiv has had some home runs, but when they miss, they really miss.
Cody is awesome. There are too many stories to enumerate that testify to that fact.
I’d rather tell their stories, from their perspectives, but all I’m afforded is my own… and so, I must insist that all of these folks are fantastic people and excellent mountain bikers. If anything, I felt like the weak link in the chain.
Oh, the trail? Yes, I suppose that is why you’re here.
Hazard eventually works hits a bit of the Kokopelli Trail and then funnels into the Porcupine trails. You have Upper Porcupine Singeltrack (UPS), Lower Porcupine Singletrack (LPS), Porcupine Rim, and… finally, Porcupine proper.
Some of the sections are just endless rough double track, loose gravel and rippling sand stone (aka slick rock) shared with enduro motorcycles. These are the sections that put a toll on the small of my back as the bike was simply too firm in the initial path of the rear wheel’s travel. This is one of the main reasons I finally caved in and bought a “super bike.” I love hardtails, but over a long day, even the super slack, forgiving steel Niner Ros 9 I’ve been riding beats me up.
That and, to be honest, there are technical lines with rock launches and baby-head (e.g. rock) landings that the hardtail can’t really manage.
The short punches (climbs) and ledges, quick descents and rolling terrain of UPS and LPS are fun. They remind me of the terrain I basically grew up riding (as far as mountain biking is concerned… I am not a Colorado native nor wish to imply as much) in Colorado Springs (Palmer Park, Templeton). Up and down, techy enough to require a bit of bike english. Enough slick rock and roll downs to teach you just how grippy (and treacherous) the aforementioned sand stone can be. If you crave the epic lines of Moab, you’d do far worse than to test your mettle in the foothills of Colorado Springs.
While the terrain felt like home, blurring that line between the rider I am today and the seventeen year old scrubbing skin off his elbows back then, I no longer possess the same fearless (and reckless) nature I once had. Thankfully, some skills don’t go away, but others…
And my body was hurting.
From frozen fingers to shuddering, high speed, bumps, I felt far more spent than those damned numbers indicate.
The real gem of the ride is the last section: Porcupine. There you are faced with some interesting technical features and endless ups and downs on a narrow trail that, on paper and, in re-imagining was quite fun. However, I can only speak for myself, but I was too beat up to truly enjoy it.
I started the final section with a grin and gusto. We were almost done. There was beer and rest to be had! I led the charge and hammered every little rise. But then, we ran into tourists.
To be fair: we’re tourists too. It is easy to get into this “I’m less of a fool” than someone else, but despite the hubris involved in such judgements: there is some truth to it. The collection of men who started the ride in jeans and sweat shirts on rental bikes. The people we encountered as we got closer to town, riding reflector clad hardtails wearing running shoes and gym shorts were not the scarred, broken, experienced adventurers we are (do broken bones from cycling count as “trail cred”… I hope so, as I’ve had a few). The trails are, as I said, for everyone. But standing and staring off into the canyon on a very narrow section of trail, and ignoring the rings of my bell and yells, causing me and my party to dismount because you’re not paying attention adds a bit of salt to the festering wound of a long day in the saddle.
I didn’t yell, I didn’t visibly get upset. All I do, in these situations is sigh. I’d like to think I’m aware enough to get off to the side of the trail or find a wider section to rest and contemplate, but perhaps not. These people certainly were not.
At any rate, running into these folks sapped my remaining joie de vivre.
I just wanted to be done.
“Done” came soon enough. Brandon expertly navigated one of the most technical features (a steep rock slab that ends in a rocky, sharp right turn) and contemplated a feature I’ve only seen in videos.
But soon, we saw the tunnel under the road and joined the bike path back to town.
There, Brandon’s wife greeted us with beer and whiskey, and we all took a moment to contemplate the day.
We sat around in our kit, collectively sighing, watching kids play in the park as we peeled off our shoes (yes, we were breaking the law a bit by cracking beers and passing around a glencairn filled with Weller in a park) and I was unsure of how I felt about the day.
Would I do it again? Maybe.
I’d like to try it with my bike properly set up and at a time of year when the timberline would be free of snow. But yeah, as I look back now, I would. Absolutely, I would.
Around the campfire that night, my back was throbbing and I felt incredibly worked over. My shoulder would ache for the next week and Cody’s arm would swell up from the poor position (due to his dropper) and heavy braking. Lindsey seemed well, though worked, and Brandon… well he was all smiles and came back to Moab the following weekend.
As for the human condition? That virulent version of it still beats a tattoo in my ears. That shaky feeling of deciding to take a rock drop and the cool calm you must ensconce yourself in as you commit is something that definitely has to be earned, for me. This ride was one of those where I never quite found my groove. I had to engage in the old mantra of “fake it until you make it” but my spirits never quite perked up. It was all, too much, too fast for me and my new whip.
Moab, and adventure, still call to me. I’m planning a few more trips this November, the desert has my soul under its spell. And, as you probably know, I’m fairly stubborn.
Ride on, friends.
Shout-outs! Brandon for photos, kicking ass, riding better than anyone, taking great photos, and driving. XOXO. Cody for making me do it and soldiering on despite a cursed Reverb. Lindsey, for crushing lines and making “ride like a girl” a compliment. Jenny, Brandon’s wife, for driving and picking us up with beer and whiskey! Wheat Ridge Cyclery, specifically Steve Heal and Matt Deviney (amongst others) for hooking me up with a fancy new bike (buy bikes and shit from them). Alchemy for the Arktos’s we rode, the team van we abuse, and my other favorite bike. Smith for the occasional free stuff (more please). And Maxxis who have given me nothing (other than a prototype Minion I put on my hardtail, not that they knew about it or who I am) but make affordable, fantastic tires that pretty much rule. Oh and Fox (the brother of the shock guy), because though I have a deal, these gloves (which rule) are the only Fox thing I have, at the moment. To be amended! Basically: buy things from Alchemy, Wheat Ridge, and Smith.
Not to be forgotten: Kim, Sam, and Ben for letting Cody, Lindsey, and I out to play. I’ve been traveling a great deal.