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

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