Monday, February 2, 2009

Monday Lives Down To Its Reputation (an Adventure of Sorts, Part VI)

Monday has a reputation as the crappiest day of the week, but that just makes a Monday on a vacation even sweeter. Getting up and realizing you don't have to go to work is such a fine feeling...

I got up a little before sunrise, in the Squaw Flat campground in the Canyonlands National Park, and climbed to the top of a nearby rock formation to watch the sun come up over the red rock country. Beautiful. The sunbeams worked their way along the top of the rock, eventually coming down the cliff and hitting the top of a motor home. A few seconds later, the motor home's generator turned on. It was a rather noisy one, and a few seconds after it started a tent full of German tourists emptied out in apparent panic, shouting the German equivalent of "What the #@$! is that?!"

Monday's plan was to explore the western part of the Needles area--Chesler Park, the Joint Trail (a three-foot wide, sixty-foot deep crack in the sandstone that's comfortably cool even in the middle of August), the Silver Stairs, the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, maybe even the Grabens (spooky sheer-walled canyons created by underground salt movement). Or maybe a hike from Chesler Park to Druid Arch. All sorts of neat stuff was waiting, and all I had to do to get to it was ride over Elephant Hill, a big sandstone rise that marks the end of the pavement and the beginning of the Jeep roads. Elephant Hill had a bit of a reputation, but after what I'd already ridden, I figured I wouldn't have any trouble--especially since I wouldn't be lugging all my camping gear along on the day's trip.

The front side of the hill is exposed sandstone at about a thirty-degree slope. By now I was pretty good at stuff like this, and got up without difficulty. Then, after a short ride along the top of the hill, it was time to go down the back side and get on to enjoy the scenery.

The back side is, depending on whose map you believe, either part of Elephant Hill or a separate formation called Switchback Hill. This latter name comes from the tight zig-zag at the bottom of the steep slot that drops down to the left--at the bottom of the slot there's a dead end and a sign that says "Pull In--Back Down." If you're in a Jeep, that's what you have to do. The backing down (and, on the return, backing up that same stretch) can be tricky. There's another such hill further into the back country, and it's got a more descriptive name: "S.O.B. Hill." Remembering these maneuvers from the previous year, I was more than a little happy to be on a bike.

My happiness diminished somewhat when I took a spill at the bottom of the slot. A bit concerned about stopping before the dead end, I slid the front wheel and flopped down hard on the right side. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and found I'd again injured little beyond my pride. So, figuring I was at least past the hard part of the day, I picked up the bike and continued. A few hundred feet down the trail, I stopped for something and noticed little bits of paper blowing around on the wind. Not something I'd expect to find in a national park, so I picked them up and found they were money. This gave me a good laugh--somebody must have lost his wallet coming down Switchback Hill--until I realized the money was coming out of my saddlebag. The last spill had ripped a pretty big hole in it. Nuts...

After gathering up about fifty bucks that was trying to blow away, I dug out some duct tape (no biker travels without it) and improvised a patch to the bag. Then, as I was getting ready to go, I saw a puddle of mud under the bike. No, not a new natural spring... my flexible plastic water jug had also sprung a major leak, and close to half of the gallon I'd brought along had already dribbled out. Uh-oh... You don't go into the desert without a good supply of water, and with mine already half gone, it was obvious I was going to have to go back to camp to fix and refill the water jug before I could continue. So, with a couple choice words about the delay, I turned the bike around and headed back.

I went up to the "Pull In--Back Down" sign, turned, aimed the bike into the slot, hit the gas... and about halfway up the hill, I ran out of momentum, fell over, and slid back down. Ouch. I tried again, a different route around the big pothole that I thought might have been my undoing... with the same results.

Now, let's pause here just a second to consider the physics of this situation. The slot has an average slope of forty-three degrees. Some parts are just plain vertical steps. Getting up such a slope involves finding the sweet spot--putting enough weight on the back wheel to get traction on the combination of sandstone, loose rock and sand (to which the helpful Park Service had added a few shovels full of crumbly asphalt in some of the big holes), while putting enough weight on the front wheel to keep the bike from flipping itself over. Up to this point, I'd been able to cheat a bit on steep hills like the one in Lockhart Canyon, by getting a running start and using momentum to compensate for the limited grip of those (now somewhat worn) "universal" tires. But the dead-end switchback limited this (and the taller highway gearing I'd installed probably didn't help).

And so, I threw myself at the hill over and over, always ending up back at the bottom. I never quite flipped the bike end-over-end, but I came close, and on one of the crack-ups I ripped the left saddlebag wide open. After a while I came to the realization that I just didn't quite have the skill to get my bike up this hill, and I was pretty much stuck here.

Well, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse places to get stuck. I was in a National Park, a few miles from a ranger station. I could walk out if I had to. And there were other people in the park, people with Jeeps and winches, who could make quick business of getting my bike up this hill. One would eventually come by. So it wasn't the life-or-death situation that, say, getting stuck or injured someplace in the Lockhart Basin would have been. At least that's my cool, rational assessment of the situation now, a quarter-century later. At the time, I probably wasn't quite so calm...

Since it was late morning, the Jeeps were already in the back country and wouldn't be returning to Elephant Hill for several hours, so it made more sense to walk over the hill to the ranger station. There I recruited the ranger's boyfriend, who was also a motorcycle rider. We hitched a ride back to Elephant Hill, hiked over, and figured that we'd engineer some way to get the bike up the slot. It turned out to be easy. This guy was a much more experienced dirt rider than I was, and he rode up the slot on the first try, leaving me relieved and more than a little red-faced (then again, maybe it was just the sunburn). There's just no substitute for skill and experience.

Postscript: Elephant Hill--or more precisely, the Switchback Hill slot--is no longer the S.O.B. it was in '81. Jeep enthusiasts report that the Park Service has done a lot of improvements to the slot, to the point where the surface is now mostly more-or-less smooth concrete. Check out this picture to see what the slot looks like today.


The Elephant Hill fiasco was pretty much the end of my off-road adventure touring experiment. On Tuesday morning, I gave the ranger's boyfriend a lift into Monticello so he could pick up some parts for the Honda 750 he was repairing behind the ranger station, and from there I continued by roads (mostly paved, though some gravel) to Silver City NM and then to Austin TX before coming home. Somewhere east of Safford AZ I ran into one of the heaviest monsoons I'd ever encountered on a bike, the ignition points drowned out (so much for my brilliant decision to go with a points system rather than electronics), and I spent a couple hours sitting by the side of the road waiting for the rain to stop. I was aided in my wait by a Harley rider in an El Camino. He couldn't help dry out my points, but he did have a couple beers in his pickup bed, and these helped pass the time until it finally dried up.

In Austin, I sustained the only significant injury of the journey when I tripped over a full can of Coors beer at a Willie Nelson show. It twisted up my right knee, and for the remainder of the trip (just a sprint back on the Interstate), I had to practice a sort of side-saddle kickstarting technique, standing on the right side of the bike, kicking with my left foot, and hoping my right leg wouldn't collapse out from under me.

The trip came to an unceremonious end about fifty miles from home, near Peotone, when the much-abused chain snapped. At least it didn't wrap around the sprocket or bash a hole in the engine, and I was close enough to a gas station to get to a phone. I suppose I could have hitchhiked to a motorcycle shop and gotten a replacement chain, but this close to home, with that sore knee, I just wimped out and called the Significant Other, who came down to fetch me in the pickup truck.

And that was the end of that trip.

Since then, I haven't done another such major off-road adventure. I've done my share of off-pavement riding (mostly Forest Service and fire roads) on my street bikes, but nothing of this scale. Nor did I continue with the enduro competition--I might have ridden one or two more events after I got back from Utah, but the competition bike was sold before I moved in '82. The XT500 off-road-touring bike got street tires, and spent the next couple years as my "Beater de Luxury" bike, commuting to Northwestern University. It was the perfect bike for this job--to ugly and beat-up to be worth stealing, easy on gas for the 50-miles-each-way trip, and the long-travel suspension was just perfect for the potholes, frost heaves and general lousy condition of Chicago area streets. Sometime in the late '80s the engine siezed up from neglect, and I gave the thing to a couple of ice racers to use as a parts bike.

"Adventure Touring," as this kind of riding is now called, has become a big business. BMW, Suzuki, Ducati and Buell (and probably others) make bikes especially for this kind of trip, with long-travel suspension, big gas tanks, luggage and tires that actually work well on both pavement and dirt. There's GPS to help you navigate, and satellite phones to call for help. Companies run organized, guided tours (complete with luxury accommodations and support vehicles) and even schools to teach you the proper way to ride up Elephant Hill. It's no doubt a good thing. On the other hand, I'm sorta glad I did this thing when I did, because there's something sweet about adapting a bike to the job and heading off into the middle of nowhere...

Monday, January 26, 2009

I Never Found the Plane Crash (an adventure of sorts, Part V)

After a refreshing night in Moab, I prepared for the big ride down to the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park on the Lockhart Basin Jeep road.

Getting out of Moab and finding the right road was a bit of a challenge. There are a lot of little two-bit dirt roads around to the southwest of Moab, and only one of them will eventually take me where I want to go. Four-wheel-drive enthusiasts tell stories about getting lost and going up one dead end after another before locating the right trail--and that's still the case today, with the assistance of GPS! I actually lucked out, and think I found the correct road on the third or fourth try. Not bad, all considered.

The early part of the road, as far as Hurrah Pass, is almost passable by two-wheel-drive vehicles, if they've got the right tires and a fair amount of ground clearance. So this stretch is mostly about the scenery, which is spectacular. Mushroom-shaped hoodoos and balanced rocks are all over the place.

There's a fork in the road shortly after Hurrah Pass. One direction heads south into Lockhart Basin and from there to the Needles area. The other's a dead end, but a dead end that leads to some really spectacular scenery along the edge of the Colorado River canyon.

While the stretch of the Colorado River from Moab to the upper reaches of Lake Powell isn't as well-known as the Grand Canyon, it's still a popular rafting destination. I'm told that Cataract Canyon has rapids to rival Grand Canyon favorites like Grapevine and Lava Falls. But that's further downstream--in this stretch, the river's pretty calm and it looks like the rafters are kicking back to enjoy the sunshine and maybe a cold beer. I tried calling to them, but I don't think they heard me. Oh well; I doubt anybody could have thrown a beer up to me.

I think I shot the picture of the rafters from a spot called "Chicken Corners," which is pretty much the dead end of the dead-end fork. Chicken Corners gets its name from a spot on a hiking trail where you've got a sheer rock wall on one side, a four-hundred-foot cliff on the other, and about eighteen inches in which to walk. Then again, my guidebook suggests the name also applies to this spot on the road, which gives you about eight feet between the rock and the big drop. I imagine a Jeep would just about fill the narrow road. On the bike, of course, I had all the room in the world.

Regardless of whether Chicken Corners gets its name from the hiking trail or the Jeep road, it's definitely not a spot for people who are afraid of heights and big drops.

And speaking of heights and big drops, if you know just where to look you can find this little natural bridge growing out of the cliff face not far from Chicken Corners. It's about twenty feet long, a foot or so thick, and about two to three feet wide. And while it's only a few feet from the cliff, it's also something like four hundred feet up. So... did I walk across it? Of course I did. But... did I have the nerve to ride across it? That's a different issue...

After visiting Chicken Corners, my next task was to find the Lockhart Basin road. As I've mentioned, there are a lot of two-tracks and bulldozed "roads" in this area, and it's easy to get lost. Making things more complicated was the fact that the guy who wrote my guidebook apparently ran undersized tires on his Jeep... or he spun his wheels a lot, because his estimates of the distance from Point A to Point B were always a bit more than what my odometer registered. Which was strange, since I'd carefully calibrated the Yamaha's odo during the long freeway cruise across Nebraska, and knew that it read exactly three percent high (that is, 10 miles by the roadside markers showed up as 10.3 miles on the odo). Go figure.

After a few false starts, I came to another fork in the road. On the right, the road ran down Lockhart Canyon to the Colorado River, which would have been a neat trip if only I'd had the time (I was beginning by now to realize what a lousy job I'd done of planning--I hadn't allowed anywhere near enough time for exploration and side trips). The other side claws its way up out of Lockhart Canyon, and continues south to the Needles area. The trail guide warned that this climb could be difficult; in fact, there was a possibility that the trail could be washed out by a flash flood and completely impassable (this is why the guide recommended traveling north to south; if you're headed the other way and find this section is washed out, it's a long way back to Needles). As it turned out, the trail was in pretty good shape, and the bike had a lot of fun attacking the hill (which is steeper than it looks in this photo).

The hill coming up from Lockhart Canyon is pretty much the toughest part of the journey, so the rest of the day was about scenery and history. The scenery's impossible to miss. The road runs in between two sets of cliffs: to the west, there's a drop of a few hundred feet to the river itself, the east, there's another range of cliffs several hundred feet high going up to the rest of Utah.

The history was a little harder to find, but it too was everywhere. At the top of Lockhart Canyon, just about the place where the road gets easy again, there's the remains of an old rock wall supposedly built by horse thieves. Legend has it they used the upper part of the canyon to stash their ill-gotten gains.

The guide book also said I'd be able to see the wreckage of a 1950's-vintage jet airplane somewhere along the road. I looked and looked, but saw no signs of it. When I got down to Needles, I asked the rangers, and they'd never heard the story. Nor does the Internet mention it. A mystery...

One of the many problems with traveling solo is that you don't get many pictures of yourself in front of the scenery. Figuring I ought to snap at least one, I piled up stones to make a platform of sorts, stuck the camera on top and tripped the self-timer. Just to prove I was really there.

There were also lots and lots of cross trails from mineral exploration and such, and at times I was faced with some decisions about just which way to go. After I while, I found I could navigate by reading the tire tracks in the sand. I knew that a commercial tour service ran a weekly trip down this road using Toyota Land Cruisers, and it seems these vehicles had a distinctive (Japanese?) tread pattern that I'd seen all along the route. So, when I came to an intersection and wasn't sure which way to go, I looked for those Toyota tracks. In a way I suppose I was following in the footsteps of the earliest inhabitants of this country, who navigated by following animal trails. It wasn't the most sophisticated navigational trick, but it worked.

One of the things you just don't expect to find in the middle of the stinkin' hot desert is running water (other than in the motel, of course). And yet, not too many miles from my destination, I came around a corner, looked down and saw... a creek! Not a huge one, but definitely a creek.

Matter of fact, the road crosses it at a little stream ford. Nice. Wet. And as it turns out, if you're lucky enough for there to be some moving water in the creek, there's more than just the fun of splashing your motorcycle across it. If you know just where to look (and I did), you'll find a neat little pool and waterfall.

Now, I suppose there's something a little creepy about a waterfall in a creek that's about the color of blood, but that's just the way things are in this country. The sandstone is soft and erodes like mad, and so the water is full of it (the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon used to be about this color, but it's lost a lot of silt because of the dam at Glen Canyon). Besides, out here in the desert, you sorta take any water you can get.

I kinda wondered if it would be possible to brew beer with this water. Never mind that "pure mountain spring water" that's supposed to be the runoff from last year's snow; everybody knows brewing water should have a fair mineral content. Well, you're going to have a hard time finding brewing water with more mineral content than this... We could call it "Slickrock--the Dry Beer from the Stinkin' Desert." Or something. Probably good that I'm not in the brewing business.

Of course, after spending a day riding across the desert, what's the chance that I'd pass the opportunity to take a quick dip in this little swimming hole? Right, pretty much next to nothing. True, all the silt in the water left me with a sort of dusty scum, but the day's ride had already left me pretty much coated with dust and sand anyway. And the water was nice and cool...

(Now at this point you're probably wondering just how I shot this picture. And the answer is... I'm not telling.)

After a quick, and more or less refreshing, dip, I headed the last few miles to the Needles Campground and pitched my tent. All told, it had been a great day and a big adventure. Best of all, I hadn't fallen even once, so I figured I was ready for the big challenge of the trip: the journey over Elephant Hill.

Next: Monday Lives Down To Its Reputation (as I try to ride over Elephant Hill)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Legend of the Bowlegged Half Cowboy, which I just made up (an adventure of sorts, Part IV)

So I survived my first big day of Serious Jeep Road Exploration, and was comfortably checked into a motel in Moab, complete with pool, air conditioning, and civilized food and drink just down the street. Since I still had much of the afternoon left, I decided to explore some things in the Moab area, notably Arches National Park and some of the "Island in the Sky" section of the Canyonlands.

Arches National Park features just that: hundreds of wind-sculpted natural sandstone arches. In 1981, all but one of the major named arches could be reached by paved roads. Oddly enough, the one that required a few miles of unpaved road was also the one that's sort of the park's trademark, probably the best-known of all natural arches, and the only one to have been featured on a license plate--the so-called "Delicate Arch."

There are two ways to reach Delicate Arch: go about halfway down the unpaved road and then hike about two miles each way to see the arch up close and personal. That's what the people clustered around its leg in this photo did. If you're lazy, you can drive or ride another mile down the road, make a short hike and see the arch from an overlook. But you'd better have a long lens on your camera, because this overlook is a good half-mile or more from the arch.

To me, Delicate Arch has always looked kind of like a bow-legged cowboy in chaps who was for some reason cut off at the waist. And so I propose we start circulating a legend: that Delicate Arch isn't a natural formation at all, but rather a piece of ancient statuary (perhaps carved with space alien technology), whose top half was removed by some great catastrophe.

Sad thing is, there's probably somebody in the world who'll take this explanation seriously...

After seeing Delicate Arch, I headed back to "Island in the Sky" section of Canyonlands National Park. The "Island" is a plateau, flat on top and surrounded by sheer cliffs up to a thousand feet high. It gets its name from the fact that at its narrowest point, where the "Island" is joined to the larger uplands to the north, the top of the plateau is barely wide enough to accommodate a two-lane road. Ranchers used to drive herds of cattle onto the Island, fence off the forty feet or so of the narrow spot, and rest assured that the herds would neither escape nor be attacked by predators, as nothing could get in or out except by going across the narrow spot.

If you look very carefully at this picture (taken close to the narrowest point), you'll see a little curve of road in the distance, almost directly above the motorcycle seat, peeking out from behind the sheer sandstone cliff. That's a bit of the Shaefer Jeep Road, a one-way two-track path that is the only other way off the Island. It's narrow, twisty, and (in the words of one Park Service brochure) "not for the squeamish."

While the Shaefer road is not particularly rough or loose--a high-clearance two-wheel-drive vehicle can handle it pretty easily--it's not the place to be if you're afraid of heights and sharp dropoffs. This Google Earth image does a pretty good job of showing what the road would look like if you were in a blimp a mile or so to the northeast. As the picture shows, the gravel road claws its way down something like a thousand feet from the "Island" plateau to the White Rim (about halfway down to the Colorado River). Much of the way, the road's right on the edge of a sheer sandstone cliff.

By the way, if you start up Google Earth and go to those coordinates: latitude 38.451 north, longitude 109.818 west, eye altitude about 2km, eye looking west-southwest, you can get a really amazing experience of "flying" through the canyon.

As impressive as the view from the Google Blimp might be, the view from the top of the road is even more amazing. This shot, spliced together from several pictures, gives some idea of what you're looking at when you first turn onto the Shaefer Road.

Given the enormous amount of rock that had to be blasted and piled up and shaped to make a road up this sheer cliff, I have to wonder: why did anyone do it? True, the Shaefer road does provide a sort of short cut from Island in the Sky to Moab, but it's not the kind of shortcut that ranchers could have used to haul cattle to market. The Moab area went through a period of oil exploration in the 50s and 60s, but by then I think the Island area was part of a national monument... so the reason for building this insane road remains a mystery. To me, anyway, and if some good people in Moab know the answer, they haven't bothered to post it on the internet.

Here's another view from the top of the cliff. The road starts out along that shelf just above the big drop, and then winds down through all the switchbacks, and eventually makes it onto the debris slope at the base of the cliff. From there it continues along the White Rim--which is still only halfway down to the Colorado River itself.

I snapped this picture during the family vacation in 1980, from the safety of an overlook, as the Significant Other took one look at where the Shaefer Road went, how close it came to the edge, and promptly vetoed my proposal to explore it in our rented Scout.

On that particular day, there were a couple bikers working their way down the trail. You can just barely see them in this photo, which is an enlargement of the area surrounded by the rectangle in the larger shot. They were on full-dress touring bikes, not dirt bikes; as I've said, the road itself isn't particularly technical, just scary. Seeing a couple human beings in this landscape gives a real sense of just how huge these rock formations are.

Once I got down to the bottom of the hill, there was the minor matter of figuring out how to get to Moab. There are a lot of four-wheel-drive roads down on the White Rim, and once you're outside the park most of them seem to dead-end into potash processing facilities surrounded by barbed-wire fences and threatening signs warning about what will happen to trespassers. I was starting to get just a bit nervous about where I was when I noticed a small--make that tiny--sign alongside the trail. Couldn't have been more than one by two feet, but it carried these reassuring words: PUBLIC ROAD. Darn good thing to know.

Past the potash processing district, the road picked up pavement and passed some other interesting sights, most notably a big rock cliff that seemed to have been equipped with a handle, so Paul Bunyan (whose "Potty" is said to be a pothole arch in the Needles section of the park, where I'd be headed next) could pick it up easily. There were also some roadside petroglyphs and what were said to be fossilized dinosaur tracks, but these things refused to be photographed. Kinda like Hollywood stars.

Wow. What a day. Did I really start in a campground in Colorado, get stuck in the mud in the mountains, negotiate the Cane Creek Road and the Shafer Rim Road all in one day? I guess... one really long day.

Next: I Never Found The Airplane

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Full Treachery of Mud (an adventure of sorts, Part III)

I was feeling pretty confident by the time I crossed the Utah/Colorado state line. I'd conquered the Phantom Canyon road, gone over the Continental Divide on a dirt forest road, and survived a sticky nasty mudhole. Maybe, just maybe, I actually knew what I was doing and had gotten the hang of this off-road touring thing. Or so I thought.

Shortly after entering Utah, I saw this sign in the rear-view mirror. It was strange enough to be worth turning around for a second look. Now I have seen my share of signs that say what road I'm on, but this is the first one I've seen that tells me what road I'm not on. Perhaps the inverse nature of the sign had something to do with the last town I'd passed, a little hamlet called Paradox, Colorado.

But a peculiar road sign was just a diversion. A few miles further on, I came to the road that was US 163, headed north for a while, and looked for the spot that was marked on my Jeep-trail maps. Ah, right here, turn left...

And we are now officially in the back country of the Utah Canyonlands, on the BLM slickrock land, following roads and trails bulldozed by uranium and oil prospectors. Civilization and paved roads, bye-bye; we're heading into the wild country!

This particular road starts by crossing a fairly flat stretch of desert, going past a rock with the interesting name of "Prostitute Butte" (it has since received the more politically-correct title "Lone Rock"). From there, it climbs and dips across Hunter Canyon and along the edge of Kane Creek Canyon (which, for some reason, was spelled "Cane Creek" in my 1980 guidebook).

While we're on the subject of things changing names, in my notes from the trip, this feature is called "Window Frame Arch." The internet and the government, however, turn up nothing with that name. They do refer to something called "Picture Frame Arch" in the same vicinity, but the online pictures of the "picture frame" don't look quite like what I saw. On the other hand, the hole-in-the-rock just across the trail from this spot, called "Balcony Arch," does look like what I photographed. Another Mystery of the Desert.

Whatever this arch is called, it's a pretty neat sight. Especially when you're alone on a desert trail and have the sight all to yourself.

And then the road got more... interesting. Going down into Cane/Kane Creek Canyon requires first going up over a steep hill. I suppose I should have expected it, given the "NOT 163" sign; obviously the town of Paradox is the capital of Opposite Land.

The guidebook warned that this particular hill is steep, higher than it looks, covered with loose sand and rocks, and prone to washing out after rainstorms. In fact, the book went so far as to say that I might have to do some trail maintenance before I could climb it. Luckily, it wasn't that bad (I hadn't thought to pack a shovel), but the business about steep grade and loose stuff was dead-on. After some thought, I decided the best way to tackle this hill was to build up a little momentum first and sort of half-coast up, rather than trusting my "universal trials" tires to get a good grip.

My plan almost worked... but I was a bit conservative about that "momentum" thing, and so ran out of steam just shy of the top, and which point I discovered Gene Kranz was wrong. Crashing most definitely was an option. Though it wasn't much of a crash; more an unceremonious pratfall that injured little beyond my pride.

The bike is visible in the photo at left, if you look really, really carefully. Look at the close-up: the bike is highlighted in the middle of the picture. If you squint a bit, you can just barely make out the saddlebags and the mirror. Kind of gives a sense of scale, doesn't it? Of course, to take this picture I had to hike down to the bottom of this hill... and then back up. The sense of perspective almost made the hike worth the effort. Almost.

The other side of the hill is just as steep, if not steeper, and it was on that downhill that the Treacherous Colorado Clay Mud came after me: I tapped the rear brake pedal, and nothing happened. I hit it a bit harder. Still nothing. Well, downshift, hit the front brake, watch the front wheel snowplow in some soft sand, watch me do my second unceremonious get-off of the trip. And the day. And the hour. When I got the bike upright, I found the rear brake rod was jammed with mud, which had set up to about the consistency of concrete in the desert sun. Get out the tools, chip away with a screwdriver until the brake works again. After all, according to the trail guide, I'm now entering the more difficult part of the journey.

Except that I couldn't find the trail--I went all the way down into the canyon, out onto the slickrock, and couldn't see where I was supposed to go next. This was more than a little scary, because I really didn't want to go back over that hill, even with a functioning brake.

After several frustrating trips around the slickrock, I got the bright idea of going back up--not all the way up the Nasty Hill, but up to the rim of the canyon, to see if maybe I could see where the trail continued. And there it was. Look at the picture to the left, and you'll see a trail enter the valley on the right, go over those slickrock pillows, and resume on the left. Easy to see from a hundred or so feet above, not so easy to see from ground level.

But, once I'd found the road, the rest was (relatively) easy: down the trail, into Cane/Kane/whatever Creek Canyon, and north to Moab. As the trail map had warned, the road ran into the dry creek bed, which was full of rocks the size of Chicago slow-pitch style softballs, but I had far less trouble riding this section of the road than I'd expected. Maybe a (relatively) light motorcycle doesn't push the rocks around as much as a two-ton Jeep.

And so, by mid afternoon I was comfortably ensconced in an air-conditioned motel in Moab, wondering what to do with the rest of the day. After all, it was mid-summer, so there was a lot of daylight left. Lots of time to have more adventures...

Next: The Legend of the Bow-Legged Half Cowboy, Which I Just Made Up

An Enigmatic Sign, and the Treacherous Nature of Mud (an Adventure of Sorts, Part II)

After a day or so to make sure everything had actually hung together for the first few hundred miles, I set off in earnest for Utah. This meant crossing Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado along the way, and it was at the Minnesota-Iowa line that I encountered the first Enigmatic Sign of the trip. "Welcome to Minnesota," the big sign declares, but the small sign beneath warns that motorized vehicles are prohibited. I never did find out if the prohibition applied to the whole state or just the state-line parking area...

Of the ride across the Great Prairie, the less said the better. I recall spending one night in a state park campground attached to an artificial lake that seemed to be the world's biggest gnat farm, and playing hide-and-seek with a long, curving weather system across eastern Colorado. What's important is that two days after leaving Minneapolis (which is to say, four days into the trip), I'd finally made it to the mountains. Now things were going to get interesting.

Since I hadn't done much real off-roading with this particular bike, especially loaded for traveling, I decided to take as many unpaved roads and trails I could through the mountains. I found a nice set of unpaved roads that ran down the back side of the Front Range from around Boulder to Canon City. Today, I think a lot of these roads are paved to provide access to the casinos, but in '81 places like Cripple Creek were just sleepy little former mining towns. And the roads serving them were mostly used by logging trucks and hunters in 4-wheel drives, so they were a good warm-up for the kind of roads I expected to encounter in Utah.

And, they were pretty darn scenic to boot.

The American Motorcyclist Association had written up a big piece about the Phantom Canyon Road, from Cripple Creek to Canon City, and their article had suggested it was a fairly challenging trip. So when I had no particular difficulty negotiating it on the fully-loaded Dirt Touring Bike, I felt pretty good about my chances of pulling this expedition off successfully. Of course, eight years later I took this road on a Harley Super Glide, so perhaps the people who wrote the article were exaggerating a bit. Journalistic license, you know.

In any case, the road, a former narrow-gauge railroad route with a few narrow-gauge tunnels, was a fun and pretty ride. I even made it down to Canon City ahead of the afternoon thundershowers, though the sky turned pretty black at times.

After a night in Canon City, I took off up the Arkansas River canyon on US 50, which is one of the great pretty motorcycle roads. But it had the disadvantage (from my standpoint) of being paved. So instead of following 50 over the very scenic Monarch Pass, I cut north a bit and crossed the Continental Divide at Cottonwood Pass, which turned out to be the (geographic) high point of the trip. (Oddly enough, the last time I came over Cottonwood, in 1997, the road was paved on the east side, right up to the county line at the pass. Something about the business people wanting to make it easier to get to Gunnison and Crested Butte.

We should pause here for a second to discuss the state-of-the-art in Adventure Touring Gear. Today, somebody heading out on a trip of this sort would be wearing the latest in Kevlar, ballistics, viscoelastic hard-shell pads, reinforced boots, and of course a high-end full-face helmet. But all that stuff came later. In 1981, state-of-the-art for off-road touring was blue jeans, a Levi jacket, sneakers (worn without socks, so they'd dry out more quickly after rainstorms), and an open-face helmet. Practical stuff for a comfortable summer ride, but as far as crash protection goes... well, let's just take a cue from Gene Kranz (flight director for the Apollo moon shots) and say "crashing is not an option."

I suppose that if any modern dirt riders are reading this, they're shaking their heads in disbelief that I'm still alive... but we were tougher back in the Old Days (yeah, right). Besides, I was only 27, and we all know that people under 30 are indestructible.

So, after crossing the Great Divide and stopping to have a look at the Black Canyon, I found myself in Montrose, Colorado, looking for a place to spend the night. I overheard some travelers complaining about the high price and limited supply of motel rooms, but I wasn't concerned; I knew of a cheap Forest Service campground about twenty miles up in the mountains on a dirt road. Ahh... rustic luxury...

I pretty much had the campground to myself (except for a Forest Service ranger who came by to collect the fees). It was pretty nice to be alone in the deep woods... and a bit scary, especially when heavy thunderstorms came through during the night.

Come morning, the forest was sparkly and clean and beautiful... and I, having brought no breakfast food along, was ready to hit the road down the mountain to the town of Naturita. Of course, the thunderstorms had left the roads a bit on the muddy side. No problem; I'd ridden though my share of mudholes when doing enduros in the Midwest, and surely Colorado forest mud can't be as nasty as Illinois cow-pasture mud...can it?

I started down the road, and four or five miles down the hill I found that yes, Colorado mud can be just as nasty as that Illinois stuff. In fact, when it's a two-inch layer of sticky wet clay on top of something dry and slippery, it can be a lot nastier. The mud wrapped itself around my tires, jammed in between the wheel and the shocks... and the bike lurched to a sudden halt. As some free-range cattle chewed their cuds and looked on in what I assume was bovine amusement, I dug the clay from around the wheel and got started... and went all of fifty feet before everything got all clogged up again. Oh, great; I'm going to be spending the rest of my life here...

Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained... I cleaned the wheel out again. This time, I dumped the clutch and spun the hell out of the back tire, hoping to fling the mud away. It worked, after a fashion. The back wheel fishtailed all over the place, I dabbed my feet and hung on and tried to keep pointed straight ahead... and after a scary and silly-looking mile or so, I got out of the sticky stretch. I could swear I heard cows laughing behind me.

Had I been thinking, I would have stopped at the coin-op car wash in Naturita and hosed off the mud that was all over the bike. But most of the big chunks had already been flung off, and I figured it's a dirt bike; it'll just get dirty again anyway, so I didn't. I would come to regret that decision...

Next: I Arrive in Utah, Where I Encounter Another Sign and the Full Treachery of Mud!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fools Rush In (an Adventure of Sorts, Part I)

I suspect angels would fear to tread unaccompanied into the Utah Canyonlands during the middle of summer. And they wouldn't even think of riding a dirtbike from Chicago to the Canyonlands to ride around in this desert wilderness. But angels are wise, while twenty-seven year old men are often foolish. Luckily, angels are often deployed to keep an eye on fools...

I got the Bright Idea in the summer of 1980, when I'd visited the Canyonlands National Park on a sort of family vacation: my girlfriend, her daughter and I rode to Moab on our street bikes, rented a Jeep (actually an International Scout, but who's keeping track?), and drove around to look at the rock formations. We camped at the Needles campground, drove into the Grabens, hiked into a cool and narrow crack in the rock. We took mostly paved roads, and only went into the four-wheel-drive back country inside the park. But I was hooked on this country. When we'd returned the Scout, gone on a little raft trip, and were safely back home, I found myself looking at the photos from the trip and thinking, I want to come back here next summer. On a bike.

Which, of course, was easier said than done: lacking a pickup truck or trailer (and having no desire to expose my "dedicated biker" self-image to the epithet of "trailer queen"), I would have to figure out a way to ride to the canyon country from my home (about 1500 miles) on the same bike that I'd then use to explore off-road. Not an easy task; in those days one's on/off road motorcycle options boiled down to a few big dirtbikes with street-legal lighting. And, just to complicate things a bit more, my off-highway experience amounted to little more than a few unpaved country roads and gravel parking lots. Obviously, I had a lot of preparing to do.

First things first: I had to learn to ride off-road, on really wild terrain. Since I lived in the paved and civilized Chicago suburbs, I couldn't just ride in the south forty, so I hooked up with a friend who was into off-road competition. I bought myself a big competition dirtbike and proceeded to spend the spring of 1981 running into trees and getting stuck in mudholes on the northern Illinois/Indiana enduro circuit. While I didn't do well in terms of competition (I rarely finished at all, let alone in a competitive position), I learned a lot about getting stuck and getting unstuck, getting up and down steep hills, crossing streams without drowning the engine, and hopping over logs that were bigger than the bike's ground cleaance. I learned a lot about how to ride in the dirt without falling off, and a lot more about how to get back on after I did fall off.

But the competition bike, a big two-stroke, wasn't up to the task of a cross-country trip; for that I'd need a bigger, dual-purpose bike. Nowadays I'd have a huge variety of bikes to choose from, particularly the BMW G/S series of "adventure touring" bikes or the Buell Ulysses. But in the fall of 1980, the only such bike around was the BMW, which, because it had been released only a year earlier, I did not know existed. So I ended up with a big thumper single: a '79 Yamaha XT500. I chose the two-year-old model intentionally--1979 had been the last year of points-style ignition, and I figured that if I was going out into the wilderness alone I'd want a bike with an ignition system that could be repaired. Points require constant maintenance, but they fail by slowly degrading, and when they start acting up you can always get them to work a little longer. An electronic ignition, in contrast, tends to work perfectly... until it doesn't work at all, at which point there's nothing you can do but push your bike home and go buy a new module. Not the kind of thing you want to have fail fifty miles into the desert. So, even though it cost as much as the new '81 model, I bought a "non-current" '79.

I made a number of changes to the bike to prepare it for this trip. The stock gas tank, a beautiful polished aluminum vessel, only held two gallons. Not enough for the distances in that country. So it came off, replaced by a five-gallon plastic tank (the new tank was translucent, and a friend of mine was always threatening to put some plastic goldfish in it). For highway cruising, I changed out the rear sprocket. Luggage for dirtbikes was obviously not available, so I constructed my own rear rack from angle stock and bolted onto this rack a pair of saddlebags made from cheap K-Mart suitcases. And for the piece de resistance, I had a custom touring seat made on the stock pan, a plush, wide-at-the-back, narrow-at-the-front bucket whose comfort rivaled that of any Gold Wing. The result was perhaps not pretty (especially with a pair of wet swim shorts bungeed to the saddlebag to dry), but it worked. In fact, the 860 miles I did between Silver City, NM, and Austin, TX, on the way home still stands as my longest single day on a bike. Not bad for an unbalanced, rigidly-mounted thumper.

Tires were a bit of a quandary. I was going to ride a lot of pavement at highway speeds on my way out to Utah, along with gravel forest roads, maybe some mud if I got caught in the rain, and of course the sand, loose boulders and slickrock sandstone of the Canyonlands trails themselves. Knobbies and ordinary street tires were obviously out of the question. Today, people who take trips like this can choose from a variety of "dual sport" tires optimized for just this sort of trip. In 1981, the state of the art was something called "universal trials" tires, which were kind of like knobbies with smaller, more closely spaced knobs. Of course, the term "universal" turned out to mean the tires were equally bad on both pavement and dirt...

And there was the matter of navigation. If you go "adventure touring" today, you can take advantage of GPS systems that are accurate to within a few feet, and have complete, current trail maps downloaded from the internet (including aerial photos of important landmarks, courtesy of Google Earth). And just in case you get lost, there's always the satellite phone. In '81 the aids were more basic: a compass, the bike's trip meter (not guaranteed accurate), and a trail map and guide written by Moab area off-road enthusiasts. The guide featured directions like this: Go about 3.8 miles, more or less, and when you come to the place where you can see a mountain directly in line with a redrock spire, turn right onto the road that goes down into the canyon. There should be a small pile of stones marking the corner. And the map carried warnings like this: Your odometer may vary. Not all cross trails are marked on this map. Uranium exploration may cause trails to be closed or rerouted, and may create new trails that dead-end into drilling sites. We accept no responsibility... All of which may seem a bit primitive today, but since GPS, satellite phones and the Internet didn't exist at the time, I didn't see any problem going into the wild with such limited navigational aids. Ignorance is bliss...

The other thing the trail book advised was to never, never NEVER travel alone. Always take at least two vehicles, so that if one gets stuck you can pull it out with the other--or if you break down or get too stuck to get out, you can still get back home. Well, this was pretty much out of the question for me. The Significant Other had no interest in dirt riding, or being at the top of a thousand-foot cliff, and most definitely no desire to ride in the dirt along the top of a thousand-foot cliff! And I didn't know anybody else who had the time and/or inclination to take this expedition. The guy who took me to the enduros was interested only in competition, so all his bikes were the type that traveled in the back of a van and got ridden for maybe fifty or sixty miles before needing maintenance. So I accepted from the beginning that I'd be violating the Golden Rule of desert exploring. Which was OK with me. In fact, I sort of liked the idea. I'd picked up a copy of Edward Abbey's classic Desert Solitaire, and his romantic descriptions of being alone in the desert kind of made me look forward to the solitude.

So, having learned at least the basics of off-roading, equipped my bike for the trip, and gathered up my guides and maps, I packed up my tent and and sleeping bag, and hit the road. While my destination was the Southwest, my first stop was in Minneapolis to visit a former co-worker (funny how every place is on the way to where you're going when you're on a bike). And there, I did something that was maybe symbolic of this whole expedition: we went up to a state park along the St. Croix River, stood on top of the cliff about forty feet high, and there I took a flying leap into the river. A leap of faith, perhaps, because the water was pitch-black and I only had it on the advice of another guy who'd claimed to have made the jump that it was really deep enough. It was plenty deep, of course, way over my head. Which might also be a good metaphor for this trip.

Next: the Journey to Utah, including Peculiar Signs and the Treacherous Nature of Mud