This age of social distancing and avoiding large groups has made me value getting out in nature and savoring its beauty even more.
That’s why for this week’s “Throwback Thursday,” I’ve gone back to a time nearly five years ago in May of 2015 when I was isolated in the rough, rugged terrain of Canyonlands National Park with a few good friends and my trusty mountain bike.
Does covering 100 miles on rough, high-desert dirt roads and trails sound daunting to you?
I’m a decent mountain biker but the sheer distance certainly intimidated me as I prepared for the adventure. But, thank goodness, the fear didn’t get in the way and the rewards were breathtaking.
The conversation I had with a tourist from Florida near the end of the ride (and told about near the end of the article) is still one of my all-time favorites.
Mountain biking continues to grow in popularity with many area schools fielding club teams that compete against each other. Sometimes trails can get bogged down with large numbers of riders.
But, with a little effort and a little luck, churning down the trails can still be a chance to experience exhilarating freedom while staying safely distant from others.
Here’s the story of one of the best bike rides I’ve ever done:
CANYONLANDS — Every sport has its meccas.
These epic locations highlight the best combination of setting, challenge and thrill that brings enthusiasts from all over the world.
For cross-country mountain bikers, the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park near Moab is one of those must-ride classics.
The White Rim is a 100-mile circuit on the edges of canyons hundreds of feet deep, with views of arches, towers, monoliths and some of the most rugged country anywhere.
There are a few different methods available to experience this high-desert wilderness, including using jeeps or motorcycles.
For me and the other eight men and women who tackled this daunting challenge in mid-May, however, nothing could beat the experience of taking it all in one push of a pedal at a time.
Our preparations began when one of our group learned she had secured a permit to camp on the trail, a necessity for a biking adventure for riders at our level (see info box).
From there it was a matter of gathering the group — many of whom were strangers but who would become friends during our three-day trip — and getting the supplies and equipment.
On the Thursday of our departure, all of the bikes and gear were loaded and we drove southeast from Utah Valley — right into the teeth of one of the downpours that have regularly swept across the state this spring.
I wondered if our ride had come to an end before it had even gotten started or if it was a sign of how the weather would treat us while we made our way along the road.
But by the time we got to the Island in the Sky visitors center in Canyonlands National Park, the clouds had broken up — although some still clung in the form of mist to the tops of the highest mesas.
It was time to ride.
Day 1: The first 20 miles
Few rides match the combination of steep downhill, tight switchbacks and stunning views of the Shafer Trail section on the east side of the Island Mesa, which was how this expedition began.
The rains had added some soft, muddy spots along the three-mile, 1,000-foot descent to create some extra excitement as we navigated the hairpin turns along sheer drops. The road is wide enough for 4-wheel-drive vehicles, so the danger was minimal as long as the bikes didn’t get too close to the edge.
After the sheer exhilaration of flying down that twisty section, we cruised along the undulating landscape, alternating between pedaling up slight inclines and coasting down.
With the road in good shape and the rain reduced to some occasional sprinkles, I spent most of my time taking in the views of how wind and water had shaped the land into a visual masterpiece of colors, shapes and shadows.
Around every bend was another deep chasm or monument of rock, making the ride a series of discoveries. At times I could see the waters of the Colorado River and the green vegetation surrounding them far below.
After a few hours, we pulled into the Airport Tower campground, our basecamp for the night. It’s an area between the towering monolith to the east that gave the location its name and a deep canyon of colorful carved stone to the west.
It was time to settle in and prepare. The second day wouldn’t be nearly so easy.
Day 2: The long 50
Early the next morning, Mother Nature decided we’d gotten enough sleep.
A powerful desert thunderstorm brought microburst winds that broke poles and flattened tents. I awoke with my tent folded in half on top of me as the wind created human tacos.
But eventually the rain and wind subsided with no one having been blown very far and the damage not being too severe.
By mid-morning, everything had again been packed away in our two support vehicles and we’d set off on the longest leg of our ride.
The natural visual artistry, the sounds of the desert melding with the crunch of the bike tires, the smells of the sagebrush and the feel of the air rushing past, the sun peeking out from the clouds all intertwined to create a dynamic sensory experience that can’t truly be described.
It has to be lived.
This day was about pacing. We wanted to set a steady rhythm that would keep us going but allow us to maintain enough energy to complete the ride.
The first big climb, however, at Murphy Hogback is enough to sap a lot of that energy. Climbing nearly 500 feet in just over a mile isn’t just exhausting; it can be intimidating as well.
Of course, then there is the payoff as you get to race down the other side and enjoy eating up some mileage on the long descent.
By that point we’d completed our southwesterly course along the Colorado and started northwest along the canyons carved by the Green River. As we pedaled our way across the landscape, we drew closer and closer to the muddy waters and the foliage that gave the river its name.
But the White Rim had one more dramatic statement to make as we drew closer to our destination — Hardscrabble Hill.
It may not sound as daunting to tackle a 400-foot climb in just under two miles after the earlier climb at the hogback but after more than 45 miles of being bounced around on a mountain bike, it felt twice as hard.
It made reaching camp at Hardscrabble Bottom on the bank of the river that much more satisfying.
In the back of my mind, however, I knew the biggest climb was yet to come.
Day 3: The final 30
The weather couldn’t have been better when we were on the trail. It was cool and overcast most of the time, not like the blazing heat you often expect around Moab.
The final night did bring a drenching rainstorm and although it cleared up before we got back on our bikes, it left large mud puddles on the trail in its wake.
We skidded and slid our way through the gooey mud as the trail followed the river to Mineral Bottom — where we finally saw how we would return to the top of the plateau.
Like the Shafer trail on the east side, the Mineral Bottom Road on the west side of the mesa featured a long, steady 1,000-foot climb in just over a mile.
My plan of attack was simple: Lock in my lowest gear, don’t look too far ahead … and just keep pedaling.
It felt like forever but eventually the crest of the hill came into view and I got to enjoy looking back at the canyon I’d just climbed.
I got talking to a guy from Florida who was getting ready to drive down the same road we’d come up.
As our group climbed back onto our bikes and headed up Mineral Road on the final leg of the ride, he watched us and then turned to me and said the best line of the whole trip: “Where in the world did you find all these bad-achicks?”
I thought about that as we rode the final 15 miles of steady dirt-road climbing along the mesa back to the highway.
Indeed, the five women bikers in our group — Deanna Devey, Brie Hamilton, Emily Sell, Rachel Eddington and Sadie White — earned the compliment for their grit, toughness and ability.
The four guys who rode — Daryl Devey, David Haynie, Eric Ramirez and I — also struggled and fought to complete the ride.
Perhaps no one deserved more credit than the two drivers — Kelly and Randy Hamilton — who patiently bounced around the rocky road for 100 miles to support us every step of the way.
Yes, it was exhausting and epic. It was a ride I’d always wanted to do that created amazing memories.
But, in the end, it was the people I shared it with that made the White Rim one of the best adventures I’ve ever had.