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...