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.