Days 71 — 77: Journey Across Utah

Kyle here. Cell phone service in Utah was mostly non-existent leaving me unable to connect to the internet for days on end. Below is a schematic rendition of our travel across the state, along with a roll of photos broken up by day. I will be backtracking to add bits and pieces of narrative into this section of the adventure. I’ll remove this footnote once it’s done — in the meantime, I’m plowing ahead with the blogging so I don’t wind up days behind again. — Kyle

Day 71: Monticiello to Natural Bridges

Distance: 62 mi.

Elevation Gain: 4751 ft

6AM: Wake in chilly desert sun to melodic Hindu chants sounding from the adjacent tent. Pack quietly and purposefully; spend five extra minutes stretching and massaging my left achilles heel which has been tender since my mismanaged Telluride rest day.

Lizzie intimidated by threat of canyon ridge climbs and me easing onto left foot, we skip breakfast but shove a few scooping handfuls of banana bread loaf into our mouths; drown it down with yesterday’s gatorade kept cool in thermos.

Reach Blanding. All highway indications of food are false advertisements, for it is Sunday, everything’s closed, even gas stations, finally find one open center. A&W Foods, branded like the root beer, go inside and buy a cup of fountain water (ice repurposed for icing tendon), chocolate milk and a few energy bars.

Late morning delivers severe hills at a hitherto untraversed grade — 10 or 11 percent; Lizzie later claims today as her all-around toughest day. Chance encounter with a cyclist traveling West to East on our upcoming route, he swerves across the road in alarmingly cavalier fashion and stops to chat, I judge by his gumption he’s not coming from a populated area. He is sun scorched and appears mentally worn too. “Nevada and Utah were brutal. My legs and butt hurt. I’m so glad to be done with those states.” Lizzie and I wave him on cheerfully and wish him luck. But we swallow a little harder on the mounting climb; deadened by the encounter, we meld into a quiet apprehension.

I climbed a small mountain while waiting for Lizzie to catch up after a big pass. I heckled her for ‘sunbathing’ on a 100 degree day.

Turnoff to Natural Bridges, only to be hammered by a steep four-mile climb beside a canyon wall to reach the Visitor’s Center. Abuse the water spigot for a while, then splash our faces and head into the air conditioned center. We nearly get the 2-for-1 deal on a $5 entry until the ranger double checks a list and declares that we both must pay. We watch a 15 minute film with brutal 80's transition effects — it’s perfect — before heading to the back porch to cook some ramen on a picnic table. The ranger doesn’t look thrilled to see us cooking on a contained flame on the porch, but it’s a severe fire ban and it’s probably the safest place to do it. And there’s no way in hell I’m leaving this center without eating some ramen.

A large Japanese family come through the rear doors of the Center, single file, forming two neat rows of 4 on opposing sides of another picnic table. The father sets a bizarre and oversized McDonalds ‘briefcase’ down gentle on the middle of the table; begins unpacking the contents, distributing the meals in an orderly fashion. I’ve never wanted McDonalds food so badly in my life… will they have leftovers?! I don’t get to see because after the 8 of them finish diligently chewing they re-pack everything into the same briefcase and exit without leaving a trace. ‘Happy meal’ only true for the beholder, I tell you..

A younger couple sits at another table and pull some snacks and games from a Whole Foods bag. ARE THESE MY BEST FRIENDS?! Yes, it turns out; they begin to assemble a game of Splendor and I remark how it’s one of my favorites. April and Nate are their names; we chat intermittently as they finish their first round. April is a mechanical engineer by trade working at a green energy consulting firm. Nate is a patent lawyer, who apparently works for a lawyer who aspires to be a comedian, but is in fact terrible, a fact that all of Salt Lake City has figured out. April offers us “some” of their snacks and Lizzie promptly devours 3/4 a bag of tortilla chips.

We part ways temporarily and head to set up our tent, the sun having cooled enough to touch the metal on our bikes again. April and Nate materialize again, tell us they’re planning to eat the remainder of their camp food tonight and leave early tomorrow; ask if we want some. Lizzie is happier than I’ve ever seen her before; fifteen minutes later she’s eating pasta and tortillas, cooked “Dimas style” over a grill with bits of cheese melted on top. And that’s not all — we are also invited for s’mores! The only hitch was that the wood was so dry an incindiary that most anything we put near the fire shot into immediate flames. We wound up dousing a couple Juniper branches in water long enough to protect them from the flames; the s’more factory opened for business.

Natural Bridges is one of America’s least polluted Dark Sky regions; we make a note to check the stars once the moon sets after 3AM.

72: Natural Bridges to Hanksville

Distance: 100 mi.

Elevation Gain: 4111 ft

Wake at 4AM to an intensely starry sky; stars booming within a panorama of galaxies and swirls of star dust. The awesome blankness keeps us spellbound in two hours of silent night riding.

Day breaks as we descend into Utah’s monolithic landscape of sand and canyon; hit Glen Canyon and the magnanimity increases. Canyons are truly striking in every direction. Go there and see it.

Forty miles in we hit the turn off to Hite — the only water in the 83-mile stretch to Hanksville. But reaching Hite requires an additional mile’s climb in the wrong direction. It’s really starting to heat up now, past the 9AM mark, and our water supply is decent so we decide to skip it and keep riding.

That’s when we hit true, unabated desert.

Nothing, no life for miles; eventually I spot one spruce tree ushered forth by some hidden respite of water in rock or clever root. Everywhere I see lines of earth crust opulence bleeding horizontally and vertically in their thick bands of sandstone. I’m no longer on top of the Earth, it seems.

The final ten miles is an out-and-out struggle on a plateau of desert rock rising out of the end of the canyon. 102 degrees and water is even hotter under the sun; Lizzie spots my wobbling and yells at me; I break out of my survival spell for a moment and notice that I am severely dizzy and fatigued. I pull over and use my bike as a crutch for a moment; ask Lizzie if she has any more pedialite, it’s a negative. I’m completely out of food except for peanut butter and couscous; only one is an option, I shovel a few sporkfuls of peanut butter into my mouth. It tastes as you think it would taste. But it helps.

Lizzie finds $40 in the middle of the desert. Don’t ask me how.

We finally reach Hanksville; I order a chocolate shake and a fountain drink, drink them in the reverse order and feel intense physical positivity of being DONE! We buy a meal AND a room in the motel to celebrate.

73: Hanksville to Torrey

Distance: 48 mi.

Elevation Gain: 3323 ft

Sleep in late — I’m talking, 8:30AM! My initial excitement about staying in a motel with a memory foam mattress has worn off: my bruised ribs (yes, Telluride again) are aching terribly today.

On the bike I wince as pain shoots up my chest reaching for my water bottle. Luckily the climb is more mild than anticipated and a gentle tailwind boosts us up the first 2,000 feet.

Reach Capitol Reef National Park — it wasn’t on our radar but ends up being phenomenal, one of the best parks of our visit.

Fruita is an unlikely haven of running water and productive fruit orchards in the middle of tens of thousands of acres of bleak rock. I leave knowing something about Mormon culture as opposed to nothing; their settlement of the Western states was in many cases miraculous, in some cases succeeding where other peoples had failed (in other cases the existing inhabitants were simply killed, of course — a conveniently direct “scripture” explains that dark skin was God’s way of physically marking bad ‘men’.)

Lizzie uses her pie diving abilities to locate a shop with pies and ice cream, picks out a Strawberry Rhubarb. We haul it back to our picnic squat and eat it as mule deer plunder grass and fallen apricots from the riverside fields. Spend six hours in the park waiting for the sun to fall before trying the hot desert roads to make sure the sun is finished beating for the day.

July Fourth didn’t happen for us. But this country has great state parks and I will defend them against any attackers.

74: Torrey to Escalante (Petrified Forest National Park)

Distance: 57 mi.

Elevation Gain: 3675 ft

6:15AM: Lizzie shakes me awake; I blink at the bright blue sky two or three times, startled by the effect in high plateau country where minutes after rising the sun radiates with a spotless intensity more suited for midday sunbathing or equatorial climate. I wash yesterday’s chamois socks in the campground sink, working a bar of sandsoap through the fraying polyester; it’s no miracle but it’ll grant me another day’s riding without tiresome laundry stops. I apply a few dabs of bike tire sealant to a 3 liter water pack I bounced down the desert highway last night, trying to repair cuts in the fabric; it doesn’t really work so I start the morning ride slow dripping water onto the pavement behind me.

Trot into Torrey’s general store for a couple donuts, a yogurt, and a coffee, split them with Lizzie and supplement with two bananas and an apple — and coast the half mile down hill back to Route 12 West heading toward Boulder.

Lizzie is delighted to meet voluminous forests on the 3,800 foot mountain ascent: pinyon pines, spruces, junipers are tucked into Utah’s mid-elevation interior stretches between the Great Basin and Colorado river; higher elevation brings hundreds of pockets of white birches and firs. Who knew Utah’s mountains were covered in white birches?!

We wind through the Dixie National Forest in our granny gears, straining bikes and legs against 10 to 12% grade escalations over choppy, rocky pavement. Our clambering is encouraged by temperate breezes; the temperature drops into the 70's or 80's as we top 8,000 feet. After four hours of hard climbing we reach peak elevation for today’s pass; a German tourist pulls a convertible off the road and we accost him to capture a picture of the two of us together:

Fifteen miles of straight descent raises the temperature back to 100 but lands us in a beautiful state park near the Anasazi Museum. I’m surprised by the name as I had thought the term “ancient Pueblo” had replaced “Anasazi”:

The first inhabitants, the Indians, had been in the area thousands of years prior to the white man. The archeological record — pictographs, petroglyphs, dwellings, and artifacts — attests to the presence of these native populations. Evidence shows an early Desert-Archaid culture developed, one of hunters and gatherers. Later cultures to follow were the Fremont and Anasazi, more sedentary and mainly agricultural. The latter, known as the “Ancient Ones” lived in pueblos and for protection from marauding tribes and the elements they often built cliff dwellings high on the inaccessible canyon walls of Colorado River tributaries. This group vanished before the coming of the white man; but their stone huts, locally known as “Moqui Houses” remain in the high ledges. [Source]

Britta and Jens took an interest in our bike gear finagling, after some conversation we decide to throw our bikes in the RV they rented and scoot a few miles down Route 12 together, into the Petrified Forest campground where they’re spending the night. I’m thrilled to be spending another night in a forestry service park I would’ve have otherwise stopped into.

After a few hours of storytelling Britta breaks out a bottle of CHAMPAGNE someone had gifted them; we drink from multi-colored plastic cups and start feeling pretty spectacular. Jens later drives us into town where we eat a few salads and two extremely dense but satisfying pizzas.

Jens tells me a couple stories worth remembering, jotted in shorthand:

Green River — dirt road for ten miles onto a crystal geyser. Britta and Jens sat in the geyser. Found by accident during 1950's drilling, drilled into cave under earth and water erupted out. Cave builds up gas every 8 to 10 hours and water erupts 20 meters.
Eddie Metzger — farm in Virginia, train with him, $500, he cooks for you. 30 miles of inline skating in the morning to warm up. One of the best skaters in the world.

75: Escalante to Bryce Canyon National Park

Distance: 48 mi.

76: Bryce Canyon to Panguitch Lake

Distance: 46 mi.

Pleasant 30 mile ride into Panguith, eat breakfast at the best looking diner in town, the pancakes being the highlight, something we rarely order for some reason (probably because they barely count as food, lacking any real nutrition.)

Catch admixture of rainstorm and fire smoke from the massive Brian’s Head fire — 70,000 arces burning in total. Sixteen miles of climbing uphill.

Once in Panguitch Lake the weather really starts misbehaving; we barely make forward progress against the wind for a few miles; finally reach Bear Claw Inn where we pay $20 and camp for the evening. Good local beers are $2.50 and we drink three.

77: Panguitch Lake to Cedar City

Distance: 39 mi.

Ride through Cedar Breaks in pleasant mist, a few raindrops fall from the storms dwindling over the 10,000 foot peaks.

The fifteen mile descent into Cedar City fills me with such agonizingly intense joy that I cannot help but scream out, or at least emit a kind of “SQUEEEEEE!!” Berry-sized drops of mountain rain burst on my arms and neck as I rush down the mountainside at 50MPH.

Lizzie stops into the local bike shop and finds a copy of the upcoming segment of the Adventure Cycling Association map she’s been looking for. True, I pooh-poohed the effort; she prevailed per usual.

I hit the bargain bins inside a health food store and find some amazing deals. 1.5 lbs of Pea Protein shake for $5. I also haul in 2.61 pounds of granola which was for sale at the humble price of $2.31 / pound.

Next Up: Nevada

In ominous desert solitude it’s hard to ignore the fact that this personal re-wilding will soon draw to its Californian conclusion.

My mind wanders from Cedar City’s angled streets to memories of hip brooklyn beach strip at sunset; coney island, Coronas dragged thru sand in cheap plastic coolers; or Breezy Point’s quiet sanctuary of waves and seagulls…to think that when all is finally wrapped up and Schwalbe tires dip into Pacific Ocean, the journey ends back in Brookly where every day can be lived as occasion for adventure, every meal exotic, every step outside a small hint of the unknown.

Quiet wave sanctuary of breezy point.

To think that when all is finally wrapped up and Schwalbe tires dip into Pacific Ocean, the journey ends back in Brookly where every day can be lived as occasion for adventure, every meal exotic, every step outside a small hint of the unknown.