Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Last Waltz

I awoke the next morning on the lovely shore of Lake Powell, the world's most controversial body of water. Critics of the lake deride the flooding of what some had considered to be the most beautiful of Utah's canyon country for the eventual benefit of the Phoenix-area car wash industry. However, one does have to admit that the lake is beautiful in its own right, and its also the only place in the world where one can explore a slot canyon in a houseboat and scuba dive to Anasazi cliff dwellings. In a strange twist, the lake also serves as the Daytona Beach of the southwest and so is patrolled by fleets of slowly drifting, amphibious frat parties.
Today I had a ferry ride to look forward to (Wait. I think I just sounded like a five-year old there.), as it is the only practical way (besides a two-hundred mile drive) to get to the opposite side of the drink. I was feeling like a real outlaw after riding the Burr trail the day before; that is, until I met a family with a toddler at the ferry dock who had just driven the trail in a Saab sedan with a huge trailer in tow. To save my ego I convinced myself that they were lying through their teeth. Regardless, the ferryman happily took fifteen bucks from honest man and liar alike; and soon we were all cast together aboard the proud and foam-streaked USS John Atlantic Burr for passage across the pond to a land where a man's potential is only constrained by the size of his water bag.
Once on board, a ranger in the truck behind me got out, stopped in his tracks, looked at my mud-spattered VA plates, than up at my disheveled self, paused for a moment, and then said,
"Well, it looks like you're having fun!"
He then agreed to snap a pic while I waited for my daiquiri poolside:

The Goodwill Fall Collection. Now available

The view from my hammock

On the far shore I realized that I had been duped, as the only street in sight was paved with thirty miles of neglected asphalt through a sagebrush plain instead of with the gold that I had been promised back on the Dublin docks.
But I pressed on nonetheless, and at an isolated crossroads further on I ran into Patrick; at his essence just a sun-glasses wearing dude from Grand Junction out for a few days on his red motorcycle. He didn't know where he was going and neither did I, but unfortunately we were aimlessly wandering in opposite directions and soon parted ways after a roadside smoke.
But, as legions of bumper stickers on 1987 Civic hatchbacks will attest to, Not All Who Wander are Lost, and my now sweat-soaked itinerary sheet had one more volley of giggles in store for me: Muley Point, the Moki Dugway and the Valley of the Gods-the three attractions that put the greater Mexican Hat, Utah area on the map!
Muley Point is an out of the way precipice on the edge of Cedar Mesa, looking out over the serpentine canyon of the San Juan River thousands of feet below and beyond that, Monument Valley in Arizona. At this point in the trip I had gotten over riding for the sake of riding, so I bounced down the dirt track to Muley Point in the early afternoon, and after inattentively riding through the middle of a romantic picnic (sorry!), I threw a pair of frozen burritos on my exhaust pipe to defrost for dinner, laid down my sleeping pad at the edge of the abyss and slept away the afternoon.
I awoke in the late afternoon and was greeted by unbelievable views, and as often happened on this trip, I had the place almost to myself.

That night was my final time sleeping on the ground in the desert. The milky way was out in full-force, the occasional ESPN satellite coasted across the sky, and in the distance, across miles of darkness, the towers of Monument Valley were glowing in the moonlight.
The next morning, I hopped over to the mesa rim in my sleeping bag and watched the sun illuminate the plain below:

Sunrise on the US-Navajo Nation border

First on the docket this morning was the Moki Dugway-a prime example of the power of branding. In reality the Dugway is nothing more than a steep set of switchbacks down the side of Cedar Mesa; built again by the Uranium men, without the efforts of whom, I was convinced of by this point in the trip, Utah would have been left completely roadless.
But with a name like the Moki Dugway, I didn't really care if it was a drive-thru pharmacy-I wanted to experience it. Luckily, it was right down the road from Muley Point so I was able to ride down in the early-morning cool.

My astrological sign is Vertigo

They dug it. I dig it.

At the bottom of the Dugway is the turn-off to the Valley of the Gods scenic road, a fifteen mile gravel road through a plain populated by giant sandstone mesas that are actually, according to the Navajos, supernatural beings frozen permanently in rock. Of course, all the really important deities are frozen down the street at Monument Valley, and we on US soil are left with the second stringers.
Now, bench-warming Gods or not, I was at the point in this trip where I was certain that if I never saw another sandstone monolith again it would be too soon. But, the road had the added benefit of taking me fifteen miles closer to the east coast, so I happily bounced down it. And, I must admit, it was quite pleasant.

The Patron Saint of Classroom Participation

Put us in coach, we're ready to play!

Well, there you have it folks, Mormon Trail Redux. It was now time to go home. I had been riding around, chain-drinking coffee, looking around at things and sleeping in odd places for 21 days now. "But Tom," you say, "That's almost identical to your routine at home." Well, I cant argue with you there, peanut gallery; but nevertheless, I still yearned for the comforts of home that can't be quantified, like the option of sitting down on something besides a sticky, four-inch wide vinyl seat, for instance. Or the freedom to pass two hours without a gas station being involved. Additionally, my brain had taken advantage of my copious sleep the day before to inform me in a vivid dream that it was no longer going to be able to accept any new scenery until the existing stockpile had either been organized or thrown away. I had been to the mountaintop as they say, had seen everything I had wanted to see and more, and all of it was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. All I could do now was take to heart the immortal words of Horace Greeley; who, with a simple declaration spurred an entire generation to relative inactivity:
Go rest, young man.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Falling Down the Grand Staircase

After leaving Horseshoe Canyon I was at a bit of a loss regarding what to do with myself. The majority of my planning had focused on the Canyonlands portion of the trip, and beyond that I only had a mental checklist of places in the general area that I wanted to check out.
The next day was my personal Y2K, as everything in my charge that had the potential to break broke- all at once. While giving my bike the morning once-over, I snapped the head off of a chintzy plastic bolt on my radiator while attempting to tighten it. I patched the hole with epoxy and was feeling pretty smug about my quick fix until I passed the city limits sign, the radiator got up to pressure, and a scalding stream of antifreeze burst through the patch and out onto my left knee. This time I went by the directions supplied with the glue, cleaned the hole with alcohol and sanded it clean before repatching it and this time, it held. Thanks QuikSteel! (The Quickest Steel in the West, all rights reserved)
And then I noticed that my phone didn't work anymore. Now, I don't want to be labeled a nutcase here ( as if that didn't already happen ten years ago), but the phone's demise started directly after I left the Great Gallery pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon. I took it apart and everything inside seemed to be in " Ship shape and Bristol fashion" as mariners sometimes say- it was just mysteriously fried, even though it had stood up to years of greater abuse, so I have to attribute it to those ghostly gazes staring at me down across time. Its only logical.
Well at least I still had Twitter if I got in a jam. I imagined my final tweet:

Me and the bike are having a relaxed afternoon getting to know
my new broken pelvis. Please, for the love of God, if you are
reading this please send help to the following locatio...

So, a bit demoralized, I pulled into a gas station in Torrey, Utah, sat down at a picnic table with a large coffee and hoped that someone would come by and give me further instructions.
And they did!
A middle aged guy pulled up, the back of his truck holding a mean looking earth-saw (my new favorite term for a dirt bike) He ambled over and struck up a conversation about my trip. The winds of time have stolen his name from me, but I do remember his motorcycling pseudonym: "Dakar Dad". I told him I was planning to ride Highway 12 to Boulder but he had better things in mind for me:
"Look, I can't in good conscience tell you not to ride Route 12, because it truly is beautiful. But, everyone and their mother on a Harley rides it and if you want to do something different, put another notch on your pistol, so to speak, you should ride the Notom Road to Boulder."
He told me that the Notom road was a dirt route down the east side of Capitol Reef National Park with beautiful scenery and that I could then catch the Burr Trail road over Capitol Reef and into Boulder. It would take a little longer than Route 12 but would be much cooler.
Agreed. Unfortunately, Dakar Dad had to take off back to his "job" and "commitiments" so he couldn't ride with me, but like a true gentleman, he offered to give me his Utah state atlas, which showed the location of every road, mesa, trail, napping rancher and elk carcass in the state. Thanks again for your help and generosity if you're out there, DD!
Feeling like I had been born again, what with my new marching orders and all, I double backed to Capitol Reef and found the entrance to the Notom Road. Now, for those among you who didn't learn about Capitol Reef in American History 235: More Giant Rocks That blocked Mormon Progress, here's the rundown. Capitol Reef is a really long, to the tune of 150 miles, fault in the earth's crust, just like the San Andreas in California, except much taller, wider and more colorful.
The problem with the park is that it is best viewed from an airplane, where you can see the pattern of alternating and contrasting rock layers marching off to the horizon. On the ground you can't really discern the overall pattern, and it just seems like you're in, well, Utah. But of course by this point in the trip I was a bit jaded, and if I had gone directly to Capitol Reef upon arriving in Utah I probably would have been blown away.
"Quit talking, Tom, you windbag, and show us some damn pictures"


You can say that again!

I think its coming towards us, Pa!

My favorite pic of the trip, I think

My lens cover got stuck on this one so take it or leave it

Late in the day I finally arrived in Boulder, a burg which the more hyperbole-minded among us call the Paris of the Aquarius Plateau. This tiny place holds the distinction of being the last town in the lower forty eight to be reached by the gallant men and women of the US Postal Service. It is quite the little high-altitude Shargra-La, with several rustic looking restaurants that apparently boast world class chefs. The ten people who live here appeared to be cooler and more with it than the majority of the US population. While enjoying a dinner of salt-and-vinegar chips with a side of coffee (the fifth of the day) in a gas station parking lot, I realized that it would be a shame if I didn't visit Bryce Canyon, as it was only one hundred miles away and in addition to its close proximity it also resided at the tail end of Route 12, considered to be one of the most scenic highways in America. I made a deal with the Devil at this particular crossroads that I would go to Bryce but no further, as I didn't want to find myself in Long Beach on the Sunday night before I was supposed to be back at work.
Anyway, if you've been prodigal enough with your precious time here on earth to have read this entire blog, you know by now what happens when Tom strikes upon a notion; so in typical fashion and again with a totally inappropriate meal for the expected conditions ahead in my stomach, I saddled up and headed off across the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument towards Bryce. In order to best understand the National Monument phenomenon, imagine this conversation occurring in a DC boardroom filled with cigar smoke, c1956:
"Well, Jones, the farmers can't make heads or tails of it?
"No, sir."
"What about minerals? Have we had our people look into oil, aluminium?"
"Nothing there, Senator Johnson."
"Well, surely senators, there's Indians we can relocate."
"With all due respect, sir, we've already relocated them all."
"Gentleman and members of the committee, it looks like we have a National Monument on our hands."

But just because an area is useless to the Intelligent Ape doesn't mean it isn't beautiful, and in most cases the opposite is true, and the Grand Staircase was no exception. Right out of Boulder, route 12 soars out above the pearl-white canyons of the Escalante River, winding along the top of a narrow rock spine with great chasms on either side. The few roadside pullouts were filled with painters at their easels, capturing the canyon country in the late afternoon light. For the next twenty miles or so the road is cut directly into the sandstone canyon walls:

The country in these here' parts was much more inviting than the canyonlands. The pinkish white rock here had a more rounded and soft contour, and looking at it didn't immediately scorch my retinas like the surface-of-Mars stuff at Canyonlands. It felt Fall-like at this higher elevation and I could taste a little moisture in the air. I even detected a slight scent of decaying leaves, though I didn't want to believe it after not having had seen a proper tree in weeks.
As the evening descended on our Rank Stranger, some higher force enticed me to keep pushing on, even though I knew that riding at dusk is pretty unsafe and can quickly devolve into "cartwheeling like a rag doll through the rocks and underbrush at dusk". However, my reservations were quickly forgotten as I hurtled on into a twilight fantasy world, the scenery becoming more and more unbelievable with every passing mile. Deciding to go to Bryce on the spur of the moment, I had no idea what was in this part of Utah or what type of country I was riding through, so everything around me was pouring into my mind label-free. Route 12 wound through a lush valley filled with grazing cows, hemmed in by hillside forests of dark evergreens, reminding me of Western North Carolina, except for the fact that the forests were capped high above by white sandstone mesas. As I flew along at 60, it began to get progressively colder, seeming like it was dropping into the forties, and I began to shiver intermittently. Now that the fading light had hidden the horizon and the equilibrium it provides and only the orb of my headlight beam remained, all my available brain power was diverted to properly leaning the bike around the turns and through the on-rushing ether, and my mind was just dumping everything else, including the surrounding scenery into my awareness without any processing. The first thing I saw were the tops of the mesas: Over in the Alps they have alpenglow, when the mountain tops remain unnaturally illuminated after sunset by conditions in the atmosphere. This was beginning to happen to the white mesas around me, and they were now glowing in the dark almost as if I was looking at them through infrared goggles. Up above the incandescent mesa tops, there was a sunset gradient of almost unnatural colors going from purple to orange, reminding me of Popsicle-box graphics from the 1980's. A minute later I looked over my other shoulder and there was a bloated crescent moon, seeming so nearby that I could have sworn that I saw a mountain behind it. The whole scene seemed completely unreal, like the curtain had just risen on an evening stage set from Oklahoma!. Flying through clouds of sweet alfalfa scent, between fits of shivering, I remember saying to myself (and this is not poetic license here), that "This is too beautiful for a human mind to handle". I began to think that maybe Bryce Canyon wasn't famous for its rocks after all, but more for the magical light that falls on them in this part of the world. Just then, a giant elk, easily the size of a moose, plodded across the road a hundred yards in front of me. As soon as its rear hoofs stepped off the road I roared through the space it had been occupying a second earlier and found myself, white-knuckled, coming into the town of Tropic. By now it was 9:30 at night, my brain was fried, it was about 45 degrees out, and the main drag of town was completely surrounded by a dome of inky darkness filled with jay-walking ungulates. I knew I couldn't go any further and just then, down the strip I saw a lone "Vacancy" light shining among a sea of tour buses, and was forced as a captive audience in freezing Tropic to pay a room rate for the night that still to this day makes me wake up in a cold sweat.

At Canyonlands People Carry Water Jugs and Maps. At Bryce Canyon They Carry Diet Cokes and Fudge

The next morning I realized to my delight that I was only two miles from Bryce Canyon. Upon arriving at the park I quickly sensed that I was not going to be that into it. As beautiful as Bryce is, the entire place is no larger than a baseball stadium, and seems as if it could have been built by any suitably motivated group of people with access to industrial quantities of colored foam. The whole place has a saccharine feel to it, and the short trails down among the rock spires are so well traveled that they reminded me of queues at Disney World. After a short hike I quickly hightailed it out of the park. But here's some pictures I got before my camera greedily consumed batteries #16 through 20 of the trip:

After paying a Summer of 2008 price for a tank of gas at "Bryce Village Delicatessen, Indian Trading Post, Fudge Liquidators and RV Axle Repair Center" I retraced my steps back down Route 12, and upon arriving in the little town of Escalante, I stopped in for a visit to the famous "Desert Doctor", a one-man savior to the motorcycle tribe who runs the "only shop within 200 miles" out of a tiny garage behind a purple-trimmed brick bungalow on an Escalante side street. The shop is surrounded by several eight-foot tall stacks of used tires that the doctor has changed out over the years for riders, and on each tire he has painted the home nation of the tire's owner:

The Netherlands

Taking advantage of the temperate climate, the Doctor does most of his work at a sturdy workbench out in the driveway, Venice Beach weight-lifters style. The day I visited he was tinkering around in greasy jeans and a tank top which revealed scores of tattoos from his biker days back in his native Windy City. The Doctor had a great bedside manner, so to speak, and quickly made me feel right at home as he recounted stories of his path to Escalante:

"I was riding through on my Harley with some friends back in the seventies, when Escalante was a pretty unfriendly place and really out in the middle of nowhere. My primary drive broke outside of town, and I couldn't get a new part even for a million dollars..."

So the Doctor did what any free-spirited biker would do: He bought a cheap fixer-upper, had all his tools shipped out, and set up shop. Now, being a former metal worker, I have some appreciation for the tools of the trade, and the Doctor's one-car-garage shop had the most densely packed and bad-ass assemblage of tools that I have ever seen in my life. Every surface was covered with boxes of bolts, parts catalogs, tap-and-die sets for every imaginable fastener, nut or combination thereof; welders, torches, grinders, polishing wheels, metal lathes and various projects-in progress, including a beautiful old Harley that he was in the process of resurrecting for a client. He told me that if he couldn't get a part for someone he could probably fabricate it from scratch. He then showed me his wintertime project: An arsenal of fantastic prop weapons that he had won the contract to build for a remake of Mad Max that was being filmed in the area.
Getting down to brass tacks, I asked him if he could sell me a can of chain lube as my chain was as dry as my mouth and only slightly less dirty, but instead he let me oil my chain with his shop can, free of charge while he gave my bike a quick once-over. I thanked him profusely and he only asked me to spread the word about his shop. Thanks Dr. Desert!

After leaving Escalante I rode back to Boulder, and picked up the Burr Trail again heading south towards Lake Powell.

It took me through a beautiful red rock canyon outside of Boulder...

...then over the spine of Capitol Reef, with views of upthrust layers of red rock and the isolated Henry Mountains beyond:

...then down off the Reef and across thirty miles or so of arid and lunar-like terrain between Capitol Reef and Lake Powell:

...and finally through some more red rock country along the shores of Lake Powell...

It had been a long day, with Bryce now 150 miles away with a Desert Doctor thrown in for good measure, so I settled down at the oasis of Lake Powell and relaxed before the final leg of this comedy of errors...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Horseshoe Canyon: Where Adventurers Lose Limbs and The Pictographs Dont Have Any to Begin With

Down through history it has been proven time and time again that a wayfaring stranger can't live by rocks alone, and indeed, my rough itinerary, scrawled on a piece of wallet-bound loose leaf, informed me that it was now time for old caliche-dusted Tom to be exposed to a little culture, in the form of the spectacular, ancient art preserved within a jagged tear in the surface of the desert miles from nowhere known as Horseshoe Canyon.
Getting to Horseshoe is a bit of a jaunt by any standards, but to add to my anxiety, I was informed by Connecticut's leading authority on the outdoors-my mom, that Horseshoe was also the place where Aron Ralston, author of the 2002 bestseller "I Left My Arm at Wounded Knee" (don't quote me on that title) was forced to cut off his forearm with a Swiss Army knife after it became trapped beneath a giant boulder while he was canyoneering alone. After promising to hike with my hands in my pockets like a good boy, I set off for the canyon. Here's how to get there in style:
Head north out of Moab on route 191, past Arches National Park and out across the white, hard-pan expanse north of town. After a while the towering and empty Book Cliffs will began to dominate the horizon, and one will begin to make out trucks on I-70 running along their base. But don't get too exited yet, as it will still take a quarter of an hour at 65 mph to cover the distance to the interstate. Once there, head west for twenty minutes to the desert oasis of Green River, and if you have time to spare once you arrive, spend the well-worth-it 4 dollars to poke around the John Wesley Powell museum and learn how real men toured this region. Spend some time ruminating about the reality of traveling 400 miles through unknown country in a tiny boat filled with scarce and moldy provisions as you fill up your own water jugs in the museum's bathroom. Afterwords, head into the center of town and pick up a Jerusalem melon, the agricultural specialty here and stow it away somewhere. You will very happy you did fifty miles down the road. After that its advisable to head over to Ray's Tavern (The Place for Everyone), belly up to the bar, order a giant burger (only dwarfed in comparison to the hair of the waitress serving it) and down a couple of watery drafts, held to 3.2% alcohol throughout Utah by Mormon decree.

Why did there have to be a minivan in this picture?

There is no better time for tackling 50 miles of brutally wash boarded sand track through the San Rafael desert than at high noon, right after stuffing yourself with 2500 calories worth of thirst-inducing fat, salt and alcohol. With that in mind, head south out of town along the Airport Road, where you will find every inch of the steep surrounding hillsides covered with the graceful, crisscrossing tire arcs of dirt bikes and ATVs. While you head towards the airport, meditate on why it had to be built ten miles out of town when there appears to be no shortage of flat and empty spots even fifty yards from City Hall. Directly after the deserted airfield, bear left onto the dirt and head out into the emptiness:

On the way to Horseshoe the traveler will pass the only stream in Utah graced with water

Japanese engineers, please don't fail me now

Don't give up yet...

After arriving at the surprisingly bustling canyon rim about two hours after lunch at Ray's I realized two things: One, the so-called campground here consisted of the unused portions of the dirt parking lot, and therefore provided absolutely no shade or protection from the constant and gusty wind. Secondly, I hadn't completely filled up my water bag back in Green River, so I couldn't really afford to romp around in the afternoon sun if I wanted to have enough water to hike into the canyon the following day. So I quickly set up my tent and filled it with rocks to prevent it with me inside from being blown down into the chasm. I then crawled inside and did what was quickly becoming a tradition on this trip: the high-desert afternoon nap.
Once the sun had dropped into the desert I emerged and did a little exploring:

Horseshoe canyon

Dusk falls on the few remaining possessions of mine that haven't been blown into Nevada

The next morning, as the sun just began to light the backside of the distant La Sal mountains, I threw on my pack and headed down into the dark canyon.

The canyon bottom at daybreak

I had the place totally to myself at this time, besides a few mule deer walking along the sandy canyon bottom. Soon I spotted the first panel of pictographs, high on a crumbly ledge:

I then came upon a breathtaking alcove in the canyon wall, easily the size of an upended Wal-Mart, carved out of solid rock by a constant stream of windblown grit and the occasional flood over a span of time incomprehensible to man.

Inside was more rock art:

And then, after walking three miles down a sandy canyon bottom in the dawn silence, I came upon the Great Gallery, where life-size, featureless ghost figures float towards you across the millenia. Archaeologists call the artists of these paintings the "Archaic Culture", and believe they painted them between 2000 and 8000 years ago, but this is just grasping at straws, and the truth is that the people who put these images here were as much of a mystery to the Anasazi as the Anazazi are to us. Adding to the mystery is the question of where one finds paint that has a 8000 year warranty?

The guys above (along with other scenes from southeast Utah, and also a NASA rocket, don't ask me why) star in the opening montage of Koyaanisqatsi, a film about god-knows-what, set to strange Phillip Glass music. Watch the below (skip the rocket launch footage) and it will sum up the atmosphere in Horseshoe better than I can

While I was looking at the Great Gallery I was reminded of the below photo from National Geographic, and I could imagine how the paintings were influenced by living in a heat distorted landscape devoid of any landmarks. But more than likely they were painted by aliens who later went on to found the Federal government, so what good is my theory, anyway?

Well, Horseshoe canyon was great, but I was a little anxious to hit it by this point as I was low on water, I still had fifty miles, thirty of it sand, standing between me and the nearest town, Hanksville, and my bike had been sitting on the canyon rim being sandblasted for the last 24 hours. In addition to that, my cam chain, the Achilles heel of the venerable KLX 650, had been developing a nasty rattle during the last few days, letting me know it was beginning to stretch after 2600 miles of riding. That's the noise it makes right before it derails and drops the valves into the engine, at which point the trip is really over. I wanted to wait until I got to Hanksville to adjust it so that in case I botched the adjustment there would be a chance of getting some assistance, so the ride out of the canyon was a little bit tense.

Anyway, needless to say, I made it to Hanksville, pulled into the only gas station in town, which, I crap you negative, resides completely within a hollowed-out sandstone hill, and easily adjusted the chain within five minutes while parked in front of this monument to free-speech:

Next up: Waterpocket folds, moki dugway's and Utah's fudge zone!