It must be a universal human love to observe landscapes—their colors, textures, features; how the cloud-shadows and light play on them. This is the allure of the White Rim, so named for its distinct path in the desert canyons above the Colorado and Green rivers of southeastern Utah. In a 3-D labyrinth of hematite-orange walls and strata, this contrasting layer is blown sand from white beaches of the Permian Period, when the desert was a seabed around 250 million years ago. The awe it elicits in anyone who travels the White Rim’s 72 miles was, no doubt, the same experience for Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited the Canyonlands a millennium ago. A dwelling built of flat rocks and mud chinking still stands above an isolated horseshoe bend of the Green River, for prime viewing.
This is why, when a last-minute overnight permit to mountain bike the White Rim becomes available, I say yes and start recruiting fellow riders and a driver. I can see their minds conjuring the scenery, their memories of previous trips, a brief revelry. In the end, though, no one is free to go, and neither am I, really, with my daughter in her last week of third grade. The day before, I settle on a two-day, self-support solo ride.
As a parent, one thing you get good at is packing bags, fast—soccer bags, swim bags, lunch bags, Friday folders—I do it in my sleep. So, while my daughter is at swim practice, I give myself 45 minutes to outfit my bike—a new full-suspension Scott Spark that I haven’t actually ridden. I ask for a quick tutorial at the local bike shop.
“Never used disc brakes?” Johnny asks. “One finger.”
The catch is going to be carrying enough water: A gallon a day is the rule; that converts to nine water bottles and a full Camelbak, minimum, for two days. Panniers won’t work with my fancy drop-seat post, so I’ll need a triangle bag that fits inside the frame. The shop is full of bikes, and always a few dogs lying on the floor; Johnny disappears among all the handlebars and digs out a camo-print triangle pack, old dog food and hairs inside. With a handlebar pack and another to Velcro on top of the frame, air cartridges and a spare inner tube, I’m well-enough equipped and heading back to the pool.
"As a parent, one thing you get good at is packing bags, fast—soccer bags, swim bags, lunch bags, Friday folders—I do it in my sleep."
After school drop-off the next morning, I drive down from the mountains three hours to Island in the Sky—a flat-top of orange globemallow in Canyonlands National Park—and begin loading my bike. A gnat attack is almost a deal breaker, but I discover some Buzz Away in the glovebox. By 2 p.m., I’m off, adjusting to the loaded handlebars and disc brakes on a shaky 1,200-foot descent of the sinewy Shafer Trail with 43 miles to ride to Murphy’s Hogback campsite. It’s late May, when desert temperatures can reach 100F degrees, but the forecast is for clouds and a reasonable 75F. We’ve had a big winter with 200% of normal snowpack, and cool, wet conditions persist.
The desert is just flowering now in yellows of yucca petals, prickly pear cactus blossoms, and feathery Prince’s Plume. Pink-bellied clouds overhead reflect the desert colors, rain curtaining out of them and evaporating in the sky, a phenomenon known as virga. I pause to gaze across the bright, variegated puzzle of canyonlands.
Uranium explorers built the rugged road along the White Rim without finding much. Somebody—cattle ranchers perhaps—gave the prominent buttes, arches, and spires prosaic names. When I pass by one of these, Airport Tower, 16 miles in, it’s 4 o’clock. The two gallons are taking a toll and I’ve got a headwind.
“Visionquest or sufferfest?” some friends asked, half seriously, when I said I was self-supporting.
I first rode the White Rim in my 20s on a Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo, a three-day trip in the company of artists, athletes, and eccentrics. Now, as I get in a rhythm of climbs up one side of a basin and descents into the next one, miles-long bays, I remember my poet friend, who rode a too-small women's town bike, wearing a rainbow helicopter hat (no helmet). There was a writer who had cut her hair short and dyed it white to match a character in Hemingway’s last novel; she broke her wrist on the Slickrock trail the day before but went on the trip anyway. One friend was Colorado mountain bike champion back in the 80s, the dawn of the sport, and another might have been a pro hacky-sacker. One night was brutally windy making cooking impossible and food sandy. We all retreated to shelter, I to a pickup flatbed. One crooner kept it up, wailing over the wind, then fighting for a long while to put up his tent, and failing. We listened giggling to his play-by-play and dramatic laments. I recall watching my surfer friend from the Bahamas, a diminutive woman, gun the sag wagon up the steep, 4-wheel-low, powdery single-lane Hogback, perfectly matched to the task.
Getting a permit back then was as easy as mailing in a form. Nowadays, you have to be a computer hacker to nab a permit at 8:00 a.m. twice a year when the park website opens the system. I was the trip leader (TL) of three White Rim trips, before I and everyone else realized that my standards were definitely low. There were broken eggs and broken ribs. What I learned was you need more ice and do not need five gallons of Rio Grande trademark margaritas; it’s better to rent vehicles, and there is no time to make pancakes in the morning. Fortunately, my more organized friends took over as TL, and years went by as I got immersed in distance running, then momming.
"What I learned was you need more ice and do not need five gallons of Rio Grande trademark margaritas; it’s better to rent vehicles, and there is no time to make pancakes in the morning."
The miles are silent, peaceful; the full-suspension bike hums over bedrock; tires make a certain music on the sand and rock. Time is plastic. The Green River is flooding the lowest end of the White Rim, so no vehicles can come through. I meet no one. I recognize certain cliff angles, sheer lips, cracks in the walls. The Western Apaches, like most native people, associate moral stories with places—springs, a copse of trees, a rock face. They identify individually and collectively with these places in a process they call “remaking” themselves, and they rely on the places’ stories to preserve the culture for generations ahead. My moral sources are a mishmash, from my parents, to works of literature. Still, three decades have passed since I first experienced this place, and after personal loss and grief, I’m glad for its familiarity. Memories live here.
The mesa tops and fins catch a gold sunset and blaze for an hour. I push up the Hogback in the twilight, salt crumbling off my skin, and climb into a bivvy sack.
Early the next morning, I don’t make it up a steep climb, wobble right, and go down. The headwind is back as I retrace my route, climbing out. I stand up for the first three hours of pedaling to avoid sitting. I sacrifice some water to pour on a throbbing hot spot in my toe. Sufferfest is on. I accept some cold water from two guys from the Southern Hemisphere searching for desert bighorn sheep. Six hours of riding and I start asking myself why I wanted to do this: “What is wrong with me?”
A single rider is coming my way, cruising downhill, a load on the handlebars, packed frame, and a backpack. A few rises later and she passes, brown hair, thirties, looking like a younger me, big smile.
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