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)

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