A note to my readers: As I am in Seattle doing my very first petsit this weekend, I have handed over control of this week’s post to the husband, in what he calls a “blog takeover” and what the rest of the world calls a “guest post.” Yes, last week’s post was something of a teaser. Enjoy the full story and see you soon!
The gravel road stretched on before me, and the shadows lengthened. I had 30 minutes of daylight left and I knew that the temperature would drop precipitously in this arid, high altitude plain. About one quarter of a mile ahead was a small copse of desert trees, close to the road, but slightly elevated. Exhausted from eight grueling hours in the saddle, I was “pedaling squares” and recognized that even a 3% grade was enough to get me walking. My actions disturbed a small herd of antelope up ahead, and I realized that this was the longest quarter mile I had ever biked. Going over the checklist in my head, I knew that I had to make camp quickly and efficiently; time was against me. Pulling over, finding a plot under a stunted tree, I began to make camp.
And that’s when things got a lot harder…
Let me rewind a little, and give you a sense of perspective. Firstly, I am “The Husband.” I personally like to use capitalization as it makes me the genuine article. Secondly, I am doing a “Blog Takeover” as I have put it to the esteemed Travel Architect. Thirdly, I am telling the tale of my cycling adventures in the San Rafael Swell region of Southeast Utah, a journey I had been planning to take since Christmas. As advertised, this first day should include 65 miles of dirt roads, meandering in a great loop through some of Utah’s finest deserted backcountry. Awash with astounding geology and mining ruins, I would have plenty of time to appreciate this wilderness, stopping to take photos at every given opportunity. The route, chosen from Bikepacking.com, was rated a 6/10 in terms of difficulty, but I was not worried about any physical limitations. With two Ironman® triathlons under my belt, as well as several century rides, multiple trips cycling up and down the Rockies, Alps, and Dolomites, as well as many other athletic interests, I knew I was up to the challenge. New bike, new packs, new stove, and new sleeping gear: everything was state of the art and the measure of the challenge. I began to wonder what I would do with the rest of my time, once I’d knocked off the first 65? The plan was to complete the second 59-mile loop. Or would I blaze new trail? Or get a room with a hot-tub and relax, satisfied that I had checked off another milestone?
But as the title makes clear, things were not as advertised…
Saddled up and raring to go, I entered the San Rafael Swell in the remote desert Southeast of Utah at 11 am, flush with three water bottles, candy bars, jerky, a rice meal, and fresh ground coffee for the morning. Following my bike computer’s high-tech colour GPS display, I smiled as I told myself, “Take it easy, this is not a race. You’re here to enjoy the experience.” Soon I came across another cyclist, travelling the opposite direction, and learned that his party had been attempting the same route, but had fallen on extremely hard times. Broken chains and flat tyres were just some of their horrors, and the route was impassible on their bikes. The group had sent one rider back to get a vehicle, while the rest of the them waited at the last place vehicles could travel, nursing their wounds… and their wounded pride. Taking little heed of their plight, I cruised on, enjoying the dramatic scenery, snapping photos, all the while ignorant of what was ahead. Soon enough the “road” stopped and the “trail” started. This became the longest, slowest, most arduous 15 miles I have ever ridden. With steep gradients and primitive, rock-strewn tracks that barely merited the word “trail,” I dug deep, hiking my bike up (and sometimes down) terrain that would challenge a 250 cc dirt bike.
Doing my very best to keep it all “rubber side down”, the level of physical exertion and mental strain was akin to a full Ironman®. Only here I had no aid stations, no clear course, and no company. The challenge was pure.
After camping under desert scrub trees, with no hot food*, I awoke on day two nowhere near my initial goal. I was lost, hungry, and running on willpower. The goal of cycling 65 miles and then “filling” my remaining time became a goal of simply “making it out of this desolation”. With careful navigation and attention to detail, I biked to within two miles of my exit point, and then I entered “The Labyrinth”. This is a region of twisting paths between buttes and canyons that seemed inescapable. Two falls (one particularly savage) later, I was back on tarmac, and heading for my truck. Their 6/10 was my 11/10. Their desert roads had been my backbreaking slog, but I had made it out.
Was it beautiful? Yes. Incredibly.
Was it remote? Yes. After I met some hiking couples doing day hikes through slot canyons, I was alone. Returning to civilization brought a strange sense of discomfort after being so alone.
Did you have enough food and water? Yes to both (just barely).
*What made it hard? Well, a lot of my food required heating, and the only piece of astronaut equipment I didn’t test before my departure was my space age stove… The temperature dropped below freezing… Thank you Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls!
Would you do it again? Yes. I have plans to return to this area. I cannot allow myself to be cowed by the very act of embracing the wild. In fact, one may say I have heard “the call of the wild.”
Thank you for the Blog Takeover, Travel Architect (also known as my wife).
Other cycling posts for all you two-wheeled fanatics out there: