I have this ongoing hit list. Some years no hits are made but I try to chip away, wearing it down while adding new missions – the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim on foot in one go, skiing the Grand Teton, soloing the three Tetons as fast as I can, riding the White Rim…. Then there are the missions in my native New Zealand: the Grand Traverse of Aoraki/Mt Cook, riding the Heaphy track, paddling across Milford Sound and climbing Mt Pembroke…. Sometimes I go alone but often I join forces to carpool, yet travel fast and light, unencumbered by overnight gear and the need to find extended babysitters. This year’s mish would be the White Rim. A fitting ride to celebrate my pending 45th birthday. I’ll do it in a day of course. It’s too far for my son to ride just yet and I have four friends who will join me. We’ll carry over four litres of water each and our kids will remain in Moab with grandparents while we cruise the desert. With my husband working at Mt Everest in this most harrowing of seasons, I needed distraction.
My birthday, always so autumnal and drizzly in the austral fall, is glorious in Utah. The desert country of Southern Utah is vast and red and dry and fantastical. The White Rim would be a grand excuse to get back on my bike, an old Cannondale Scapel that’s been ridden hard and put away wet. I can’t remember when I last rode 100 miles but with previous experience of training for endurance events, I’d put in a few miles to get the old cycling muscles back in order.
The White Rim trail, situated in the Island of the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park near Moab, is a 100 mile loop consisting of 13 miles of dirt road, 10 miles of pavement and 77 miles of four-wheel drive road. We would camp at Mineral Bottom beside Green River then climb the daunting Mineral Bottom zig-zags in the comforting pre-dawn gloom. This clockwise approach would have us through the 23 mile pinion/juniper uplands of Island in the Sky first and down into the desert spectacular early in the day. It proved spot on as we hit the Shafer trail with it’s remarkable serpentine descent toward the Colorado river, just as the sun lit up the vermilion cliffs around us. Skidding around the bends, we helter-skeltered our way onto the White Rim proper. True to name, the White Rim sandstone has resisted eons of erosion and borders a mid level bench amongst the district’s 2000 foot sandstone cliffs. In places the rim looks like white icing dripping over the void. This rim of white guides us in our grand loop.
Gazing into the sun, I sight a blaze of colour across the land. A veritable flower carpet sweeps the mesa to sharply contrast with the red wingate sandstone cliffs. Amongst the yellow flowering rabbitbrush on the side of the trail are glimpses of shy flowering barrel and prickly pear cacti. Orange penstemmons wave cheerfully and the odd rabbit darts across the path. What I believe to be lovely white asters form clusters near the track. But I’m no botanist. Sure, I’m all for being here now – I smell the flowers on the desert wind, but I’m not one to stop and smell flowers. I am engrossed by this environment but I like to move. I adore spring in the desert southwest. The first time I came here, with my (eventual) husband, I was entranced by the magic of this place and began to read the likes of Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams. Tempest Williams, in her astonishingly brave book, Red, poignantly says “For those who do know and love the Colorado Plateau, may these stories be a reminder of pink sand underfoot and ravens overhead and the joyous sensation of finding red dirt in every pore of your skin. May you recall the transformative power of wildness and remember it survives now only through vigilance.”
Indeed, the desert is fragile and precious. Mountain bikes can damage and we are careful to remain on the trail, using the outhouses provided about every ten miles at each campground. Despite the fact of eight national Parks on the Colorado Plateau, the desert Southwest is loved to death in places and fought over as various interests seek resources – natural gas and extractables like potash and uranium, more recreational opportunities and always, more water. Along the White Rim, I’m heartened to see vast tracts of intact cryptobiotic soil, the skin of the desert. The many bikers who frequent this classic trail revere also. I like to think of us as one in our wildness creed. Tempest Williams talks of belief in a sense of place. I know this feeling in the mountains in New Zealand but I seem to have adopted the pulse of this landscape in Southern Utah. It’s a privilege to know such a place.
We occasionally come across cyclists who have come sensibly to spend several days riding the White Rim. Swag vehicles loaded with water (there is none on the trail) and camping gear grind along the four wheel drive trail. Often travelling slower than the cyclist themselves, I try to pass one jeep and scare the bejesus out of it’s inhabitants. Were they so mesmerized that they forgot that this was primarily a mountain bike trail? The ride is so much more than I imagined. Though we rarely see the the vast Colorado river, principle artery of the Colorado Plateau, it’s enough to sense it’s power nearby. And we will pass the confluence of two mighty rivers – as the Colorado meets the Green. Halfway looped at White Crack campground, we pause to recover and eat. As we re-group, a guy with a ukele darts past. I catch him up a few minutes later. He’s strumming and singing, hands-free on his bike. The bumps plus my cheery hail nearly startle him off his perch. Onward, the views broaden again. I recognize the familiar North Six Star Shooter Butte at Indian Creek near Canyonlands National Park’s Needles district. Through the increasingly magnificent panorama, I sneak glances across the vast sheaths of layered sandstone, an occasional tantalizing glimmer of emerald as a river reveals itself. We grind to a halt at Murphy’s Hogsback and walk together up the perishingly steep gradient, laughing and chatting. From the top, the rim of white divulges the miles yet to travel (actually only 30 now). Candlestick Tower looms, a spire sitting apart from the main cliff chain. The trail is mostly smooth and fast for miles as we descend toward the Tamarisk strewn banks of the Green River. Sweating, we crest the final nasty hill, Hardscrabble, and negotiate washboard down the other side. While the others likely benefitted from the bigger roll factor of 29 inch wheels, my bum is glad of the rear suspension on my old Scalpel. The bottom bracket creaks alarmingly but I reckon it’ll get me there. We’ve been through a lot my bike and I.
The night before, I’d gazed pensively at the stars from our open-air bivouac at Mineral Bottom. Could I still make this distance after seven years of little riding? Obviously I couldn’t let the fact of my mid-forties be an excuse. I know plenty of older friends who go harder and longer – whether on foot or by bike.
With neck and oddly – my feet – aching, I pull into Mineral Bottom grinning at the others. I’m feeling a tad sick but as we loiter by the vehicle and snack on salty chips, I recover quickly. Karoline provides grapefruit/beer radlers. While they sound disgusting, they are the ultimate recovery drink. Geoff has now ridden the White Rim in a day over fifteen times. I can see why. Good times with good friends.
Me, Karoline, Geoff, Heidi, Renae at the top of Hardscrabble hill (I think). About 3/4 into it.