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-eight 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 '81, the off-road Beemers were still heavy and primitive, 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

1 comment:

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