Saturday, December 24, 2016

Born in the Summer of his Twenty Second Year

A week after purchasing a used Honda 350 with a Doonesbury style opened face Green Bay Packer helmet, he strapped his framed Jansport backpack to the Sissy Bar and headed south to the canyon country.  Freezing his way out of the mountains he warmed on the Main Street of Mormon Land.  After stalling at a green light he overheated, kick starting the bike frantically 100 times before remembering to take it out of gear and release the clutch.  He was still learning.

His initial test ride the week before ended ignominiously when he drove the bike carefully around the neighborhood and then back into the rear wall of the seller’s garage.  He had never ridden a motorcycle before but he’d be damned if he’d admit that to the seller, an old friend and mentor who was helping him discover the freedom of the wild, wild west.   ‘I’ll take it’ was all he could muster while writhing in pain and laughter on the floor of the garage.   The best $150 he ever spent.   

Now he streamed south in a tee shirt and shorts between rock cliffs and tight canyons, into wide open, big sky country.  Intoxicated with the scenery and the sunshine, the freedom and the speed, he felt like John Wayne riding his handsome steed into Monument or Death Valley or the romanticized moto trip TV show of his youth called Then Came Bronson.  Either way he was fulfilling his fantasy and living the dream, filling his ‘bucket list’ before they were even invented and before he was even 23.

Heading towards the Needles District of Canyonlands he took the first right turn and thirty miles later found himself on the BLM Needles District Overlook where he could look out and see his intended campsite 2000 feet below him, straight down.  Doubling back he was burning daylight and most of his remaining gasoline. 

As he approached the lower Needles turnoff he slowed cautiously and a strap from his pack caught up in his back sprocket which locked the wheel up completely and sent him into a violent skid.  With all his might he resisted flying over the handle bars and maintained control of the skidding bike until, mercifully, his backpack frame blew apart from the force, releasing all of its contents and, thankfully, the back wheel.  

Limping to a halt on the wind swept shoulder, he surveyed the situation.  His clothes and cook set, food and tent were strewn all over the highway.  He looked back to see his sleeping bag sitting in the middle of the road as a steaming eighteen wheeler ran over it and shredded it into a nylon-down parachute floating above the highway.  He had to laugh.

He cobbled together what was left of his gear and repaired the motorcycle.  He then took the correct turn towards the Needles District campground, humbled and contrite.  ‘I am not John Wayne or Bronson from the movies,’ he thought ‘or even Rojo my imaginary Indian friend,  I’m just another dufus western wannabee.’  Forgetting his near empty gas tank he rode the straight, fast road west towards the setting sun and the canyons, gaining speed and confidence as he went. 

In the failing light he failed to see the hairpin turn dropping off the edge and hit it going way to fast.  He leaned into the turn for all he was worth but at the last minute his baloney skin tires gave way and skidded out.  As the bike went down and slid down the road to the shoulder he luckily and instinctively pulled out his bottom leg and rode the gas tank down into the ditch.  No harm, no foul.  

At dusk he limped dejectedly into camp, on nothing but fumes, to rendezvous with old friends and outdoor compatriots.  He later would drain all the cook stoves in camp to get enough gas to get out, but not right away, that could wait.  ‘Buttface’ they greeted him familiarly, ‘you don’t look too good’ they said with purposeful understatement.

Within minutes he had a dented, but undaunted, can of Dinty More Stew brewing on the fire and he passed around a plastic bottle of cheap Bourbon, already exaggerating the story of his adventures, trials and tribulations.  They all howled with laughter, and he did too, like it was some adventure far in the past, not one that he was still bleeding and shaking from. 

He sat back around the fire with his friends, staring up at the silhouettes of the surrounding red rock cliffs and the already emerging, amazing stars.  He felt at home.  He was willing, almost able, scrappy and adventurous.  Once again he was bent but not broken, all the more wiser and experienced, with the eyes of one who revels in just being born.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Did you ever notice that:

When you are on a big road trip and you pass something cool, that you should have stopped for, you regret it instantly, but you don't turn back.  I initially obsess but I eventually figure that we will just have to come back that way again and remember to stop, no matter how remote it is. That is why I've been everywhere, twice.

On a recent slow road trip up the west coast my wife and I came sailing into Big Sur in our big old pickup truck and passed a library-museum-book store-hipster coffee house celebrating Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, some of the main reasons we love Big Sur. Maybe we didn't stop because we saw this place on a blind curve and didn't have time to process it or slow, or we had stopped several times before this.  

We had just stopped for several hours at the cool Russian Fort Ross from 1812 where the Russians settled the central coast to grow food for their Alaska outposts.  They had more cannons than the Spanish-Mexicans, so they were invited to stay as long as they liked.  Walking around the old fort, with a precocious 12 year old girl in costume dress for a guide, transported us back to a slower more deliberate time.

We had been stopping everywhere that day, me being the new me, with our time having the new tempo of the retired leisure lower class. In fact, he road was so tight and curvy that, after several days,  my left arm hurt so much from driving that I was forced to steer with my inferior right arm, forgoing shifting, climate and radio controls.  We had seen elephant seals fighting for mates, whales and dolphins, otters and osprey as well as ocean overlooks and the classic coastal bridge views.  We often stopped for a pic-nic and a hike, a smoke and a snooze.  

We were only making 100-200 miles a day, hardly enough for a gas stop every few days but enough to make us tired and the dog sick. It was a great tempo in the large and lumbering pickup truck, as opposed to our last trip up this coast in our Mini Cooper.  That trip was fast and furious and fun in a different way, with no stops or much scenery.  Sometimes it's the trip, sometimes it's the destination, sometimes it's the scenery. 

So for some reason we blew by the writer’s museum in Big Sur and had a pastry and coffee in this groovy cafĂ©.  We found out the camping and hiking in the Redwoods and on the beaches were still closed due to the big fire that summer.   So we headed down to Carmel, Pebble Beach and Monterey where we had a rude reintroduction to civilization and traffic after having hunkered down on the forgotten California central coast for past month.  

After a nice B&B and a tour of the Monterey peninsula and the incredible aquarium we were content again with where we were and where we were going but in the back of my mind I kept thinking of the writer’s museum we missed.  Shoulda, woulda, coulda - my optimizational obsession, my engineers curse kicked in like it always does.  So we will have to go back again, next time.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Water Bison

In 1803, our third President, Thomas Jefferson, bought nearly 1 million square miles of land in the Western United States from the struggling French leader Napoleon for the amazingly cheap price of 3 cents per acre.  (An Acre is roughly the size of a football field.)  A good deal.

The next year Jefferson, who also wrote the Declaration of Independence and had a cool round house in Virginia, sent his friends, Captains Lewis and Clark, out to explore these new lands with a bunch of soldiers, a black slave, a young Indian woman named Sacajawea, and a few small boats.  They pulled these boats all the way up the Missouri River, thousands of miles, to the Continental Divide and then rode down the western slope rivers to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.  Amazing.

They found many astounding things in the west like the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, Grizzly Bears and lots of Mosquitos but the most amazing thing they found were the ‘Buffaloe’  – as they called them, almost 100 million Buffalo.  With giant herds, as large as some eastern states, that would take several days to pass by, these giant prehistoric animals stretched out as far as the eye could see. 

These weren’t Buffalo, but actually American Bison (Bison Bison, so good they named it twice, officially in Latin).  Buffalo didn’t live in North America, they lived in Africa as the fierce Water Buffalo.  Lewis and Clark didn’t know that but we still call them Buffalo today, and they don’t seem to mind.  All Lewis and Clark knew was that the Bison had lots of meat that tasted good and supplied their soldiers with nutrition and blankets, clothes and tents for much of their epic trip. 

The Captains also noticed that the Native Americans that lived out west, and had for a very long time, depended on the Bison, or Tatanka as they called them, for food and shelter, clothing and hats, jewelry and tools.  They used every part of Tatanka and wasted none of it.  In fact they depended on the Tatanka for so much that it was a sacred animal that they worshiped and revered above all other animals, since their lives were so intimately intertwined.   They lived in harmony with the Bison and followed the great herds for all that they supplied.  Their lives were in balance with the great herds.

The Bison were perfectly suited to live on the Great Plains with thick hair and hides that could withstand temperatures from 120 above to 50 below zero.  They could move snow with their giant heads and forage grass all year long and sustain their big strong bodies everywhere they roamed.  They ate and then fertilized and aerated the grasses of the Great Plains and they could protect themselves and their offspring from wolves and bears and any other predator, except for one, man.

As white settlers followed Lewis and Clark out west, they discovered these seemingly endless herds and began to hunt them for food and for fun, for their horns and their tongues.  They hunted them almost to extinction to help them control the Native Americans by eliminating their main food source and natural resource.  Soon almost all the bison were gone.  I say almost, and it is a good thing, because extinction is forever.

The settlers still needed to eat when the bison were gone, so they imported fancy cows from Europe but realized they were ill suited to the weather and the feed of the Great Plains.  They could not forage in the snow and had to be fed in the winter.  In one great blizzard of 1898, half of them died from the wind and the snow and the cold.  But the Bison were gone and the white men were hungry so they kept importing and growing and feeding their fancy cows. 

The farmers had to grow hay and alfalfa and grass in the summer for the cows to eat in the winter.  They would let the cows roam the open plains and the mountains in the summer and then bring them back to the farm to protect and feed them in the winter. Then the farmers realized that the Great Plains west of St Louis did not get enough rain to grow grass naturally so they had to dig canals from the rivers to irrigate their fields so they could grow feed for their cows.  They diverted and plumbed the rivers to flow to their fields for feed and dried up many rivers doing it, killing the fish and the riparian plants and animals that depend on the rivers to live.  Things were starting to get out of whack.

This continued this for almost 100 years with great herds of cows filling up and dominating the lands and the rivers of the western United States.  Then in the after World War II things got worse.  Men had perfected how to build dams on rivers to save the snow melt and natural flow to use in the summer.  They also learned how to put pumps into underground water wells and pump water up from deep within the earth.  This made it easier for them to grow even more grass and feed even more cows but this heavy production took its toll on the Great Plains. 

When you fly over the Great Plains today you can see giant circles and squares of green crops with sprinklers watering the crops and a well in the middle pumping water from a dam or a river or from an underground river.  These underground rivers are called aquifers.  These aquifers are like big sponges that are filled up with water from rain and snow or from lakes and rivers, some that flowed millions of years ago. 

One of the biggest aquifers is named the Ogallala Aquifer named after the town in Nebraska, that was named after the Ogallala Sioux Indians.  This aquifer stretches from The Dakotas to Texas and from Colorado to Iowa.  It is huge and holds enough water to cover 2 billion acres  (or football fields – remember) with a foot of water.  But it is not endless.

The water in this aquifer was put there 5 million years ago from runoff from an ancestral mountain range, before the Rocky Mountains.  This aquifer now supplies a lot of water to a lot of farms and cities.  They are pulling water out of it faster and faster to the point that it is dropping like a rock and may someday dry up.  That might be in 5 years or it might be in 50 years, depending on how much is there and how much we take out, but if it dries up it could take 6000 years to replenish. Unfortunately when the big sponge dries out it compresses and collapses and then loses its ability to hold water so it might not ever refill.  That would be catastrophic to the animals and people who live on the Great Plains.

So if and when the Ogallala aquifer dries up and there is no water to pump to grow grass to feed cows, the cows will have to go away.  Then, the only animal perfectly suitable to the Great Plains, who is totally in harmony with the environment and the water, will move back in to take their place: the American Bison.  The Bison will rise again triumphantly and return to the Great Plains where they belong.  The Water Bison that is.

A herd the size of the original American Bison herd could produce enough meat to supply every man, woman and child in the United States today with a quarter pound Bison burger, every day, forever, and still maintain the great herd.  This Bison herd was a perfectly sustainable food source that we squandered once but can resurrect and recover again. 

Many of our natural resources are jeopardized like this; Bison and water, trees and grass, land and lakes, rivers and streams, coal and oil, air and climate.  They are underestimated and underappreciated and are squandered before we know what we are doing or what we had.   The American Bison is a symbol of our American bounty, our need and our greed and our short sighted solutions with respect to the natural world.  At the same time the Bison is a symbol of a sustainable future solution, where we live within our ways and means, the natural supply and demand and the limits of our resources where we actually Need Less.   Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Farm

There was a woods behind my house, when I was growing up on Long Island, that was full of mystery and adventure, nature and wildlife.  The Woods, prosaically named by my older brother, was really just a clump of ten or twelve trees at the back of a school yard that had recently replaced a potato field in the post war suburban sprawl.  Next to The Woods was the remnants of the potato farm that included a barn, a chicken coop with a crowing rooster, a sad swayback old pony, some out buildings and some broken down farm machinery.  We called this The Farm.  It even had a little farm stand on the highway where my mom would send us running, unaccompanied, for some corn, a tomato, a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. 

The Farm was surrounded by tiny little houses, built in the Levittown assembly line style to house the returning veterans from World War II and Korea who were escaping dirty Brooklyn and hot Queens. Ten thousand GI Bill dollars, mortgaged over 30 years at 2%, would get you a 1/8 acre lot with a 3 bedroom, 1000 square foot house with one bathroom, an unfinished basement and a garage, all for 37 dollars a month.  For open space every home was allocated a front yard and a back yard that we thought was the field of dreams and behind it all was The Woods and The Farm.  It still had a rural feeling to it if you squinted real hard or was a wide eyed kid.

As a young boy, your world is severely limited, simple and easy.  I had no conception about the rest of the world around us.  When we dug a hole we imagined we could dig to China and when we lay on our back and looked at the clouds or stars we imagined that they were the same ones the kids in Africa were looking at.  

I could not imagine the megalopolis, chaos and confusion that surrounded me, the humming Parkways and packed trains full of workers commuting to The City, or the planes overhead bringing people from all over the world to the nearby Idlewild airport, named after a local golf course developer, before it was renamed after an assassinated president, JFK.

The Farm consisted of old cluster of farm buildings with a few stubborn and deluded acres of remnant farming.  The only inhabitant was an Aqualung type of old man named Mandread, who hobbled around maintaining the farm and the old equipment.  He lived in a windowless tar-paper shack next to the barn all year round, I imagined.  He skulked around the farm like a ghost’s silhouette and never said much but growled or grumbled at me if I came too close.  He wore a red plaid, Elmer Fud type hat with a brim and ear flaps, a red checkered flannel hunting shirt and coveralls like Mr. Green Jeans did on Captain Kangaroo’s TV show.  But he was no friendly Mr. Green Jeans. He was a spooky, dirty old dude and we gave him a wide berth. 

One day the old guy was nowhere to be found so I started snooping around and checked out the barn, the chicken coop and eventually, with much trepidation, the tar-paper shack.  The door was only a big, dirty, heavy horse blanket and I carefully pushed it aside and crept into the dark room.  There was a small wood stove in the corner that was smoking even though it was early summer.  There was a bed and a dresser in the other corners and a small table with one chair in the middle.  There was garbage and old food wrappers everywhere with beer cans and whiskey bottles thrown in the corner.

What was astonishing to me was that the interior of the shack was completely wallpapered with pictures of naked women.  Not porno stuff, since it was the sixties, but tasteful, above the waist shots of buxom women with straight backs and perfect hair, smiling and looking slightly off camera.  I was transfixed as I walked around the shack, gape mouthed, admiring the artwork. 

Suddenly the pile of old rags on the cot in the corner stirred and rumbled and Mandread rolled over and gazed at me with his one glazed over, evil whale eye.  'What the fuck are you doing in here' he garbled gruffly. I nearly shat my pants as I stumbled backwards falling to the ground clutching at the horse blanket door, unwilling to stay but unable to run.   I sat there almost crying but couldn't muster even a feeble response.  Mandread rolled over and put his feet to the floor where they found his old rope soled shoes and slipped them on silently.   With some effort he got to his feet and shuffled over to me.  My eyes were as big as saucers as he raised his dirty scabbed and gnarled hand over me menacingly and then just rubbed my shaved head as he smiled a toothless grin.  My own private Boo Radley. 

'You are that crazy kid that runs around here throwing sticks, singing that Indian song and peeing in my corn field', he said sitting back down on his dirty bed, carefully rolling a cigarette with one hand.  He reached under his pillow for a small pint bottle half full of what looked like gasoline and he took a hit.   'You think I'm weird, don’t you.  You think I'm a monster', he began.  ‘I see you throwing rocks at my cats and chasing my chickens around my farm’ he said while slowly shaking his head and regurgitating the whiskey, ‘but I am just an old man and this is my house, this is my farm.’ 

 ‘This is the only home  I have ever know’ he continued slowly, almost swallowing his words,  ‘I have lived here for more than 80 years, before the turn of the century, before airplanes, trains cars, phones or electricity and before the likes of you and your dinky ugly houses that have taken my land and my livelihood.'  He spat on the dirt floor and whipped his bloody chapped lips with his hand leaving a blood mustache smudge across his face.  'My family and friends, my livelihood are all gone’ he almost moaned, ‘this place used to be my paradise, a garden of Eden, before it was invaded by all this development and progress’.  ‘Now it is shit ' he told me sadly with a tear in his one good eye, ‘but I am not leaving, I am too damn old and too stubborn and besides, I have nowhere else to go in this world.’

I flinched at the profanity but gained courage from his humanity.  'I am Matthew and I am sorry for what has happened to you and your farm but I am a friend to everyone and everything in The Woods.  I love your farm for the smell of the dirt, the color of the crops and the fun of running blindly thru your corn rows.   It is the only open land around in this concrete neighborhood it is the only thing that is real.  I will be your friend and will help you keep this place beautiful and green so the kids around here will know what it is like and won’t go crazy'.   

He smiled and shook my hand, thanked me and after a lot of chit-chat and sharing of some disgusting chewing tobacco, he let me help him feed the pony, collect some wood and clean the eggs out of the chicken coop.  When the sun went down and my mother called me across the open yards, we parted with an understanding of the old and the new. 

I grew up a little that day realizing that there are small powerless people who suffer big consequences in this world and we can do nothing about the cruel passage of time.  I went back to visit him a few times but mostly we just waved at each other knowingly across The Woods and The Farm fields.  We weren’t great buddies but we understood and shared this bucolic corner of the world knowingly. 

Then one spring I saw an ambulance at the farm and then I never saw him again.  My personal Puff the Magic Dragon was gone  Eventually they tore down the farm and built another Waldbaums grocery store, a Greenstamp return center and a Phantastic Phill’s Pizzeria. The Bastards.  They took The Farm, The Woods and the heart and soul of my youth.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


“Rojo the Indian boy
Loves all the animals in The Woods...”

Like most kids, I had an alter ego when I was young.  His name was Rojo and he was an Indian boy.   He ran thru The Woods, singing that song, loving nature and relishing the freedom of being an Indian and young boy in Massapequa, Long Island, a suburban Indian village, near the shopping mall. The Woods was only a few trees in a small field behind a school yard, that replaced the old potato fiends, but it was Rojo’s world. 

I may have made Rojo up or I may have seen him on a black and white TV but I ran around the only woods near my house, jumping over logs and streams, clubbing trees in vicious battles or throwing sticks at imaginary enemies, saving the day for my family and tribe.

One day Rojo threw a big stick at a small bird on the ground and killed it.  He spent the rest of the day crying and burying the bird and resolved then to be a friend of all the animals in the Woods.  When he went home for his nap his mom asked him what he was crying about he just shook his head silently.  He thought she wouldn't understand.

Late one night after bringing home, in a bucket, a few fish Rojo had caught in a pond, he went out to inspect his fish friends and one was belly up and the other did not look so good. He woke his mom up and got her to drive him and his fish back to the pond to set them free, no questions asked.  She understood.  She was Rojo's mom.  

Rojo also had an imaginary, invincible companion dog - Woody. There were dog prints ensconced in our driveway, placed by a stray dog when the concrete was freshly poured and he saw them as proof that Woody was there, he was real and he was invisible. They jumped the fence behind the house together every day and ran wildly, nilly-willy thru the Woods with no shirt on, in his PF Flyer moccasins.

One day Rojo woke up and there was an elephant tied to a tree in The Woods.  When he and Woody jumped the fence to investigate there were horses and goats, lambs and livestock milling around among tents and machinery, rides and games, concession stands and a food court.  The circus had come to town.  Rojo was willing to share The Woods for a week with all these animals and people but he was glad when they left and he had his sanctuary back.

This clump of trees was big enough for Rojo, for a time, and since he was not allowed to cross the street yet, the Woods was his home. He would spend hours laying in the grass with Woody under Eisenhower skies, by a Kerouac stream, looking up at the clouds and making animals out of the patterns or wondering if the kids in China were looking at the same clouds. In the spring he frolicked in the mud under the budding lime green leaves.  In the fall Rojo would play in big piles of colored leaves and in the grey winter wind he would track animals and build a snow fort for protection, warmth and napping.

Then one day, several big yellow machines that looked like dinosaurs came and started digging up The Woods.  They knocked down the trees and dug a big hole.  Then they filled the hole with foundations and big sprawling concrete buildings.  They paved the parking lot and put up a big neon sign and christened the new strip mall Massapequa Park.  Rojo wept wordlessly and retreated into himself.

Every day my mom would tie my shoes and ask me what I was going to do on such a glorious, sunny day. Play, I would say. Then one day my mom taught me to tie my own shoes, easy as pie but the tide had somehow shifted.  Then my dad taught me how to cross the street (look both ways, twice) and my world expanded beyond my backyard and The Woods.   Rojo was forgotten.

Eventually all the fields went away, all the lots were filled in with more sprawl and progress, all The Woods were razed for something new and necessary.  All the roads got bigger and busier. All the people got busy and bustled around like ants.  I did too.  

Soon I was going to school, riding a bike, making new friends.  In fifth grade I got a job delivering newspapers, by seventh grade I discovered girls.  Soon I was going to prep school in the city in a jacket and tie.  Then it was designer colleges far from home and then a huge road trip out west to start my own life with a job, a trophy home and a family of my own. 

One day I was hiking in the snow in the woods near my new home and I just started, inexplicitly, running, delicately,  dynamically, effortlessly, joyfully, up and down and all around.   I jumped over logs and rocks and threw sticks at big trees and rocks.  I was energized by nature, the sunshine, the wind, the snow, the cold climate and my surroundings, my freedom and just the fun of being young and healthy and alive. I was feeling my inner Rojo again and I loved it. I found myself doing it more and more often to keep my life in balance, for my sanity and for my own real sense of self.  

I consequently structured my life to maximize my inner Rojo; to ski and ride and hike outside in the hills as much as possible, to simplify my needs and desires and find pleasure in just getting out and about, to treat people and animals with kindness and to revel in nature, preserving and protecting it. I still spend a lot of time in my back yard; the woods of the West, the slopes of the Rocky Mountains and the deserts of the Colorado Plateau, channeling my inner Rojo.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


June 20 is the longest day of the year but the earliest sunrise was last week and the latest sunset is next week. The combo makes the solstice the longest or the shortest day. 15 hours of sun compared to 9 in the winter solstice in Park City. The longest day is 24 hours long at the poles and always close to 12 hours at the equator.
Sunrise at solstice in PC is 32 degrees north of east and sunset is 32 degrees north of west. Winter Solstice sun rise and set at 32 degrees south of east and west respectively. It rises and sets due east and west for the equinox, everywhere. North and south sunrise and sunset deviations increase with latitude until summer solstice at the pole the sun just spins around 360 degrees. Winter solstice at the opposite pole is dark all day. Men cycle with the sun.

The moon is full on the solstice this month and rises, by definition of opposition, at sundown and comes up approximately 24/28 of an hour later for each day past full. The moon arcs low in the south when the sun is high in the summer and high when the sun is low in the winter. It rises and sets north and south of due east and west respectively, opposite of the seasonal sun during the solstice and due east and west at the equinox. Women cycle with the moon.
Betelgeuse is my favorite star; the big, old, red super giant star located to the left of Orion's Belt (the hand). It is huge and it's diameter is the size of the orbit of Jupiter! It is only 640 light years away and it could explode and go supernova some day soon, if it hasn't already.
Since the universe is expanding and accelerating, all starlight has a slight Doppler red shift to a lower frequency on the visible light spectrum, just as a train going away from you has a lower frequency sound. In a few hundred million years the stars will be receding from us so fast that they will not be in the visible light spectrum frequencies for us anymore and will disappear. Go out and see them tonight.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The White Rim Trail and Canyonlands National Park

Walking down the river,
Sweet Lullaby.
It just keeps on flowing,
It don't worry about where its going.

Allman Bros.

‘That is one big old hole in the ground’,  I said to my wife as we dropped down the super steep Shaffer Trail into Canyonlands National Park for our collective 25th ride on the famous White Rim Trail.  The seminal Mountain Bike ride in Utah, the White Rim leads into and around the geographical and geological epicenter of the state.  The White Rim Trail is the center of collective consciousness of the state, the focus and the power point of Utah. It starts by heading south, downstream with the Colorado River, or 1000 feet above it on the White Rim sand stone layer.  Then it turns back north at the White Crack overlook above the Colorado confluence with the Green and loops back upstream to where it started, 110 scenic, spectacular miles later. 

We are riding with some neighbors and friends, old friends, new friends, friends for life after another shared adventure, driving one truck full of beer and food and a little camping gear.  With over one hundred years of collective White Rim experience or group is taught; Abe and Audry – lifelong seasonal resort workers and energetic fun hogs, Vern and Mary – empty nesters and seasoned river rats, Matt and Tracey - dilatants and dabblers in moderate outdoor adventures, Joan and Dwight – high end performance and endorphin junkies, and trip leader Katherine - the matriarch of the group with an easy laugh and teen age attitude to match her tiny, powerhouse body.

Canyonlands NP is not as massive or as seemingly infinite as Grand Canyon NP but it has more subtle beauty and contrasting color, more nuance and fractal detail that, in its entirety, appears endless.   It is not as deep or long or wide but it has two rivers instead of one and is surrounded on three sides by snowcapped mountains.  It is cozy and connected, contiguous and comfortable yet larger than life and all of our imaginations put together. 

What it does not have is people.  Canyonlands NP is an undeveloped park and if there are 100 people on the White Rim Trail at one time, that would be a lot.  Canyonlands NP (527 sq mi) sees barely a half a million visitors a year compared to ten times that much at Grand Canyon NP (1900 sq mi) or twice that much at Capital Reef NP (378 sq mi).  Like Capital Reef NP, Canyonlands is mostly dirt roads and undeveloped backcountry with a few small developed pieces for the tourists and Winnebago’s. 

We need these National Parks, public places with easy access to spectacular country for all, to show the masses that there are great public lands worth protecting.  We need to develop a national mindset and a land ethic based on preservation for all, not exploitation for the few.  That way we can protect more of the spectacular lands outside the park system that are not as easy to get to but are worth preserving, like Wilderness Areas, Monuments, and Recreational Areas.  There are efforts to protect 2 million acres around Canyonlands and another 2 million acres around the Grand Canyon to provide rim to rim protection of the these ecosystems, similar to the efforts to protect the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.  These are good ideas that have met with some resistance from the locals and extractive industries.

We ride down the Shafer Trail to the White Rim sandstone cap rock layer, past several scenic river overlooks.  At one, I follow the rim several hundred yards downstream and drop thru a crack, down 10 feet into a living room sized enclosure that a friend had showed me years before.  With room for 10-20 people there are wide crack opening windows overlooking the river and rock benches around the walls with a white rim rock table or alter in the middle.  Is this a temple or an ancient Anasazi hang out or home this high on the rim, more than 1000 feet above the river. 

I lounge around for a while trying to get the feel or the vibe of this place but realize in the back of my mind that no one followed me out to the rim or down into the crack.  I head back to the entrance and pile up some flat rocks so I can reach the chock rock in the crack.  Things are a little higher and a little more slippery than I thought when I entered and I scramble unsuccessfully, trying to chimney and mantle my way out in bike shoes, helmet, gloves and shorts.  A wave of concern, almost panic pass thru me and I restart with more concentration and conviction.  I manage to inch my way up and slither over the chock rock in the crack, with less style than determination.  I pop out into the sunshine, chastened and humbled but thrilled and energized.  I find our group and take a few of them out to the crack and our trip leader Vern climbs down but most are not interested in the living room temple or the effort and adventure it represents.

Back on the bikes we ride out the lazy miles of the afternoon, alone or in small groups, enjoying the views of the river below, the tall red walls besides us, the snow caped La Sal mountains in the background and the endless Utah sky above us that remains a perfect blue all the way to the horizon due to the lack of humidity and pollution.  Red and blue, brown and orange, white and green, our rainbow is limited but our pallet is full. 

Chatting and spinning effortlessly on large diameter wheeled, full suspension bikes that make this ride much easier than the rides of the past when we had hard tailed bikes and hard butts and bodies to match.  The roads are much improved and well-traveled, making our ride safe and sound.  We wonder how long it will take the Park Service to pave the roads for vehicular air conditioned access for all Americans.  The proposed Bear’s Ears National Monument, which would expand the protected contiguous area of the Park by almost 3000 sq mi, may go a long way at protecting more of these wild backcountry lands.  On the other hand it may increase the marketing, attraction and focus on the heart of the park and promote development and pavement of these rugged roads.  I hope not.

I ride alone for a while, lost in my thoughts of the privilege we enjoy; having the time, resources and ability to appreciate this spectacular, secluded place that previous generations were wise enough to reserve for all Americans to enjoy.  Their foresight is equal to those New Yorker’s who saved a huge chunk of sheep meadows and undeveloped Manhattan Island for Central Park, for the sake and the sanity of future generations.  Sixty years ago this park was the purview and playground of a few cowboys and uranium prospectors who built this dirt road around the White Rim loop to facilitate moving cattle on horseback or to putter around in their Willis Jeeps, pounding on rocks and mapping these birthday cake layers of prehistoric sand dunes and seas.   Before they even knew what they had, they saved it for future generations.  The new park saw only 20,000 visitors in 1963.

I stop at the head of Lathrop canyon and think back 35 years when I first came to this country with my sister in a dilapidated Subaru and we rebuilt the road down this canyon to the river so we cold camp and swim for a few days.  The canyon seemed endless and unfamiliar at the time but since then I have traveled to every section, run the rivers and explored every access of the park and canyons and gained a familiarity with the country to the point where I know how all the big pieces fit together.  Familiarity breeds contentment and although the park has shrunk in my mind, I feel very at home here and have a story to tell about every aspect and outcrop, nook and cranny, some of which are true. 

Everyone catches up with me as I nap and we pedal the last few miles to Airport and make camp.  Perched on a wide open bench the size of Rhode Island, Airport can be windy and hot and too exposed but on this night it is cool, calm and collected.  We gorge on vegi-appetizers, since in our haste to get started this morning we skipped lunch, and then have a monster salmon for dinner with asparagus and salad with gin and tonics and a fine wine from a box.  No fires are allowed but we tell stories well into the night under a waxing moon, Mars and the Milky Way.  We look to the southwestern horizon towards the Abajo Mountains and catch a glimpse of the tips or the Bears Ears poking over the rim at sunset.  Mary hopes that they will further rise into view, like the stars do, as the night progresses but they stay solidly in place.  We call this camp, ‘Bears Ears Rising’.

The next day after a leisurely breakfast, Dwight, another member of our group who started a day late catches up to us as we leave camp.  We ride up and back the canyons of the east flank if Island in the Sky, past the Washer Woman rock formation 1000 feet up the walls, with alternating views of the La Sal and  Abajo mountains, Lockhart Basin and the Six Shooter peaks in the Needles district with Salt Creek and Beef Basin in the distance.  The road is somewhat incised with the desert floor at eye level full of blooming desert flowers and cactus that zoom by as we ride.  I take my turn driving the truck and it is heavy and unwieldly at first but becomes familiar and comfortable after a while with my arm out the window, a beer between my legs and the tunes turned way up loud.

We break at lunch and ride out to White Crack to scope out the confluence area.  It is getting hot and sunny so we seek the shade like a Mexican Burro but eventually take the hike out to the rim for the view.  This is the power point of the White Rim and of all of southern Utah where the main rivers come together and the panoramic view stretches completely from east to west, from the San Juan Mountains in Colorado to the Henrys in Central Utah.  In between is all of Canyonlands; from the Needles to the Maze, Land of Standing Rock to Pete’s Mesa and the Flint Trail to the Holy Cross Butte.  You can’t help but feel the landscape raising you up, exalting and resonating down to your soul. 

We are energized despite the sleepy, sunny heat, feeling the healing power of land scape.  We ride out the sandy side road back to the main trail for the afternoon jaunt, racing and pacing playfully with our partners, telling stories and lies as we go.  Reality and the truth are hazy in such an unreal place.  We ride past scenes of previous accidents and mishaps and the stretch where, during one hot ride a woman rode topless singing ‘Free free, set them free’.  Or maybe that was a dream.

By mid-afternoon we reach the climb to Murphy’s Hogback and Joan and Dwight tackle it right away, dabbing at the impossibly steep and sandy starting section but then riding strong all the way to the top.  I stop for my afternoon nap and wait for the group to catch up and we tackle the climb together, well rested, riding with style and aplomb.  The climb seems easier than in years past but maybe it is the new bike, or the fancy, well vented, zip to the waist bike shirt, or the improved road. After the impossible steep start there are several relative flat spots where the slope backs off for several pedals and you can trick yourself into thinking you are resting, breathing, strong and young.

We all make it to the top as does the truck and we find our scenic campground, inhale several ice cold beers and are joined by a couple of geology students from Texas who need a camp site to share.  They are pleasant and polite, reverent and respectful to us old desert rats, incredulous that we are out here in the middle of nowhere on bikes.  They are looking for cross bedded Aeolian (wind) deposits in the White Rim layer and we give them some hints where to find these outcrops but they seem more entranced with the country and the company and make a good addition to our cocktail conversations and dinner time camaraderie.  We dine on wonderful burritos full of lots of guacamole, vegies, cilantro and god knows what else mixed with Margaritas.  Everyone gets a nick name made from the names of their first dog and childhood street address.   I am Suffolk-Ling for the night, the rest of the trip and probably my life.  Nicknames are like family, you don’t get to pick your own.

Kathrine pulls out a robot parrot from her pack that screeches obscene rants at everyone like ‘Polly Wants a Freaking Cracker’ or ‘Dickhead alert’.  I move away from the camp to watch Mars rising in the east, chasing a waxing moon as the Milky slowly rotates around in the evening gloam.  The next morning I rise with first light and stumble towards the kitchen to start the coffee and see Vern doing the same from his tent site.  Halfway to the kitchen the Parrot breaks out in a extemporaneous squawk, ’Dickhead Alert’ and we break down laughing, pointing at each other.

After a light breakfast of oatmeal, bacon, fruit, granola, juice and coffee we descend from Murphy’s towards the Northwest now.  Right off the rim is a wrecked Park Service Honey Wagon that crashed a few days before spewing the waste tank and truck accoutrements, antennas, windshield wipers and toilet paper 100 yards off the cliff and awkwardly across the desert landscape.  A rudimentary sign on a cardboard box at the side of the road said the young driver took Life-Flight directly to Denver and was in fair condition.  We took a moment to pause and consider the horror of rolling down that hill in a two ton truck as the windshield exploded and the cab was crunched into an unrecognizable scrap.  We all said our own little silent prayer for the driver.

The morning riding is cool and casual as we wrap in and out of deep canyons, around the rim past Vertigo Void and Studebaker rock, slowly dropping towards the Green River level where we will camp tonight.  The river looks swollen, engorged, turgidly stretching from bank to bank, flowing chocolate debris from the snowmelt and rainstorm runoff up stream, mostly from the Yampa River that has no dams on it and received 4 inches of rain in the previous week.  I estimate the flow at 20,000 cubic feet per second or a million pounds of water flowing by every second, powerfully, peacefully, silently, to the sea. 

Powered by the joy and comfort of being in this place, and Vern’s incredible edibles, the miles peel off free and easy as we spin the morning away.  By 11 we take a break at a saddle climb between major side canyons and seek shade under a nearby overhang.  We lounge nonchalantly in the relative comfort of the cliff and the shout goes out for a breakfast beer.  ‘You can’t drink all day unless you start early’ Abe declares.  More beverage than bacchanalian, the ice cold beer tastes so good and goes down smoothly.

A young, self-supported, Canadian couple rides up the hill and we offer them an ice cold beer which they accept after a polite nanosecond of hesitation.  The women are entranced by the young stud and the men are captivated by the gal, tripping over each other to share the shade, snacks and stories.  Beauty and strength are an accident of youth and the six pack abs and perfectly smooth skin are lost on those who have it now but not on those who used to be that way. 

Some of us have another beer as different groups pull up and take a break in the sun, since we have capitalized the shade. We stay long enough that is becomes lunch time and we break out another feast of cold cuts and chicken salad sandwiches, complete with pinion nuts and cranberries.  There is always room for comfort, style and culinary delights on the trail.

As we settle in for our post lunch nap, the other groups start to stir with concern as they discuss the rumors of the rising river and the potential for backwater effects on the new road alignment crossings thru Taylor and Upheaval Canyons.  I notice that the young guides and the newcomers to this country are very alarmed and planning in almost a panic mode.  The older, more experienced riders seemed to take it in stride.  I discuss it with Vern, our co-trip leader, and he is nonchalant with all his experience and confidence.  ‘We will cross that bridge when we come to it’, is his attitude and we don’t let it squelch the joyous, almost boisterous feeling of the day. 

We ride out the afternoon, stopping to climb down a slot canyon that ledges out over the river.  We notice perfectly cross bedded Aeolian deposits deep in the slot and make a note to mention them to our geologists if we ever see them again.  The sun is bright and it is getting hot but we take time to marvel at the river on overlooks as we drop with the strike or dip of the White Rim layer as it sinks under the river.  At Potato Bottoms where we make camp under some huge shady Cottonwood trees.

 Lounging in the shade drinking beer and napping again we are approached by a very nice but officious Ranger and his side kick, a visiting Ranger from Australia or Austria or some such place.  They advise us that the river is rising quickly and that we might want to pack up and make the crossing before it is too late.  We look at each other questioningly for a few seconds and then simultaneously and unanimously say, ‘Naaaaahhhh”.  We offer the Rangers a beer, pepper them with questions and comments and take a few selfies and group shots with them before letting them go to spread their information and advice to other riders, thanking them profusely for their service, professionalism with cool, pressed uniforms and hats. 

The next day we are up at dawn and after a quick breakfast of bacon and oatmeal we are packed and on the road by 8 am.  It was going to be a hot one, 90-95, and we wanted to get the hard climbs in before the heat .  The river is down four inches from the night before but we are taking no more chances.  The morning climb over Hardscrable is difficult but cool.  We meet a new party from San Francisco struggling up the hill as we rush to get to the water crossing before it becomes unfordable.  At the Taylor Canyon backwater crossing there is perhaps 12-18 inches of water over the road that we ride thru and the truck has no problem navigating.  Much ado about nothing.  Tragedy narrowly averted.

The last of the ride along the swollen river was spectacular with a cacophony of birds singing from the riparian vegetation and a yellow biplane circling overhead in a cerulean sky.  We take a group break before the big climb at Mineral bottoms and then proceeded up in groups and singles.  The climb is not bad and just a question of putting one pedal in front of the other. I have troubles with my seat that keeps sliding down until I feel like I am like Pee Wee Herman riding on a mini tricycle.  I jump off a few times and pull it up but to no avail.  The seat has been sliding down for several weeks but being a low maintenance type guy, I seldom pay attention to it, except on big climbs.  Before we know it are at the top where the truck is waiting with water and beer.  I finally get an Allen wrench and tighten my seat for good as the rest of our group filters in.  Better late than never.

Some of the group rides the last hot and windy 12 miles of dirt road back to the pavement and some ride in the truck.  It is the weekend and our re-introduction to humanity is abrupt.  There are hikers, bikers, kids and dogs wandering aimlessly in all directions without water, sunscreen, hats or a clue.  When we get to the road we see an oblivious air conditioned Lexus SUV go by with a nice, expensive bike hanging precariously off the back bike rack, dragging on the ground, shooting off sparks while other people beep and point and laugh.

We head back into Moab for a shower and a debriefing party but the town is packed with tourists, bikers rafters and motor-heads so there is traffic and accidents waiting to happen, everywhere.  The Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks, our country’s best idea, and the upcoming 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service has really put this place on the map with Arches and Canyonlands NP.  With over 300 million visitors a year even little things like lower gas prices has exacerbated the already insane growth the parks have been experiencing lately with stagnant budgets and little support from congress.  

We desperately need more parks, and more funding for the parks that we have, to accommodate the hoards that will seek and need these places in the future.  By the turn of the next century, when there will be 10 million Utans, 100 million Californians, 1 billion Americans and 3 billion Chinese, the pressure on and the need for parks like this will be tremendous.  The State of Utah would like to take over 34 million acres (53,000 square miles) of these federal public lands and sell them to Exxon and McDonalds for short term profit for the school kids but oil wells and hamburgers are temporary while National Parks are forever.

 Even when we leave early on a Sunday morning, with our fading perspective, there is a traffic jam going out of Moab.  This country is so amazing and so huge but the growing concentration of needy recreationalists and irresponsible thrill seekers in these parks is overwhelming and obscene compared to where we have been in the backcountry.  We are lucky to have the energy, experience and ware-with-all to explore the heart of this country while we can, while it is still there.   As we head north for home I hope that some of the other tourists get off the road and away from their vehicles and creature comforts, to seek some space and solitude and explore the canyons that make this big old hole in the ground so unique, so special, so worth preserving.