So I just crossed southern Utah on a bike. Turns out it’s a lot harder than the Rockies.
In Colorado, I could afford a sort of blissful ignorance relative to my San Francisco deadline. The mountains and the altitude were all new to me, it was just the beginning of my alotted time to get from Denver to SF, and I expected there would be a learning curve anyway. Meanwhile I was conscious of several exit plans. If I ran out of time, I could skip most of Nevada by taking a Greyhound with my bike from Cedar City, UT to Reno, NV. If I attempted Nevada after all, and if I were to fall short, I could take Amtrak from Reno to SF. And finally, that solar eclipse was still nagging at me—it would have required trading Utah and Nevada for a huge skip via rental car from SW Colorado to Portland, OR, followed by a final bike ride to SF down the coast.
So many choices. Mostly, I was starting to feel agitated by the imminent end of my free time and also by the looming possibility that I could have trouble getting to SF on time. I was already having to write emails and take calls for soon-to-be-work while trying to climb those first Rocky mountains, so the reminders were sometimes daily. I started to frame my own question of how to spend my remaining time by: “what will I regret least?,” which is never a good position to be in. Then thankfully the cost of getting me and my bike from Durango to Portland doubled over night and made my decision for me. I felt more content with Plan A, and I kept heading west into the desert. So no avoiding it: I’d have to face my fears of days extreme heat and little access to water (achem, see: Kansas, achem).
Utah is an order of magnitude more difficult than Kansas ever was. The map segment through Utah earned a disclaimer that never appeared on the map for Colorado:
“This section of the Western Express Route is considered very difficult due not only to terrain (grades of 6% to 14% in Utah), but also due to lack of water, temperature extremes, and long mileage without services… Utah is extremely dry and most of the route has only rocks for shade.”
Yes. All of that.
The first day, between Dolores, CO and Verdure, UT, was uneventful. Boring even, like simple intersticial space separating two very different worlds. At a diner in Monticello (Mon-ti-SELL-oh), a woman at the next table over asked me where I was riding. “San Francisco.” “Oh, did you start in Boston?” Me, shocked, “yes…” “Oh I just read about you in the paper!” “Uh, oh, I hope not! I swear I didn’t do anything wrong!” It turns out it was some other guy entirely, doing the same thing. I’m sure neither of us is even the ten-thousandth person with that itinerary, but it made me smile.
The next day was the scariest. The Adventure Cycling Association maps do a good job telling you where there are large gaps in services. The first section in Utah had an 80-mile gap (with about a mile of climb) immediately followed by a 50-mile gap, punctuated by a single convenience store on the edge of Lake Powell that was supposed to close at 6pm. I had reason to doubt that even that was correct, and they didn’t answer their phone to help me feel more comfortable trusting my life to their operating hours. So I carried as much as I could: enough food for two days in case the store was closed and 5 bottles of water. I planned to drink out of the lake if the store were closed.
I started as early as I could. I meant to hit the road at 7am, but it ended up being 8am because a family with a screaming baby moved into my campsite at 4am then took an hour to set up—I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they probably didn’t see my bike, but they didn’t apologize either. I had a slow-burning panic all day that that store wouldn’t be open when I got there. The manager of the campsite had also just told me: oh that marina hasn’t been open for years… I kept my pace as high as I could manage all day. But it was also very hot and I went through water faster than I had planned; I was rationing it 20 miles out. The landscape was among the most beautiful I’d seen on a bike. But parched. It’s exactly where Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner play in the cartoons, the kind of scenery that makes you thirsty when you imagine it.
The first water I saw was at the bottom of a canyon, and I tried to think of how I could get there, but nothing made sense. Then I realized that all of my thoughts were about some form of water. I was just starting to feel desperate when I saw the first sign for Lake Powell. I knew I would make it, but I was also realizing then that I was more dehydrated than I remember ever being before, which was scary. My back ached (not normal despite what I’ve put it through) and my head had been hurting for a while.
Then there was, of course, one last steep climb before that store was supposed to appear, and though I was also nearly out of energy, water first! Partway up the hill, I felt dizzy, then that I was imminently going to pass out. As a mental trick I learned to deal with my fear of needles, I fixated on something else that I decreed would solve the crisis. In this case, drinking most of the last few sips of water I had left. That worked, and I got to that store at 5:37pm. Closed.
…but actually there were still people inside and the door was unlocked. They now close at 5pm, they said, but they just happened to have a continuous flow of customers that day after closing time that prevented them from locking up, and I was the very last. They were very nice. I bought a ton of food and a couple gallons of water, all of which I consumed by the morning. I didn’t have to drink out of the lake after all, but I did go for a swim in lieu of a shower.
Lesson #1: 5 bottles of water isn’t enough so I’d have to figure out how to carry more. Lesson #2: dehydration can sneak up on you and become a big problem all-of-a-sudden, so be even more careful. Lesson #3: get up even earlier in the morning.
The next day I started by crossing the Colorado River, which was tragically dammed to create Lake Powell on the 60s. The last time I was there, I was under that same bridge, a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old headed to college, just ending a weeklong Outward Bound whitewater rafting trip as part of my Emrick-Cutler scholarship to Ohio University. We took the boats out of the water there (back when the marina was open), and I would have walked by that same store.
Later on the road I caught up with a cross-country cyclist who was also headed to SF. That’s just twice in 2,500 miles since Boston that I’ve found someone else going my way; the last one was in Erie, PA, but she was exhausted and didn’t share much. This guy’s story was much cooler than mine. He was at work one day in Maryland, and he saw a story about a guy who rolled his wheel chair across the country. He thought “I could do that,” put in his two-weeks notice that day, and left for the bike ride two weeks later. He said he hadn’t touched a bike in over a year before that and had never gone more than ten miles. I hope I see him again somewhere on US-50 in Nevada.
Okay, so then came Utah Route 12. WHOA. You might have been wondering why my route through Utah was so circuitous. It’s partly because that’s what the paved roads do and partly because that’s what the great roads do. Utah-12 must be in the Pantheon for cycling.
It started in Torrey, UT with a 3K-ft climb over Boulder Mountain with a breath-taking 4K-ft descent to a small town with good lunch. I honestly thought that was about it for the day; it was enough. I headed south out of that town and almost immediately found myself on a knife-edge with thousand-foot drops on both sides and no guard rails. Pictures could never represent this, but the best I could do is below.
It’s the closest thing to flight I’ve ever felt. Better, even, than the downhill on the Marin Headlands loop north of SF where I first fell in love with cycling. From the knife-edge, you drop into a canyon to gently follow a river like you arrived by glider. But then like anything, you have to pay for it by climbing out of the canyon with some heart-taxing steep grades.
Since then and for the last four days now, little thunderstorm cells have chased me every afternoon. Really, like they have been appearing out of nowhere behind me and they always want to be where I am, headed toward me at right about the maximum speed I can maintain. None has caught me yet, but I still really don’t appreciate the stress. Thunderstorms, like I mentioned before, are particularly dangerous to cyclists on wide territory like I have been, where [even] I am the tallest thing around. One big un-forecasted storm stranded me where I was eating lunch then lasted for 12 hours. I stayed in that little town that night, but it threw off my math to have such a short riding day. I didn’t want to burn the full day of slack in my schedule I had earned through extra miles over several days before, so the short day had to be compensated for with a century (100+ miles) the next day, my last full day in Utah and the day of the eclipse.
Lastly, I have to say something about the people here. I’ve been blown away by how genuinely kind everyone is. I was coal-rolled once in Utah, but that stands out as odd all the more because almost every other driver has given me plenty of space. Drivers and motorcyclists have waved at me for encouragement as often as a few times an hour. That happened maybe three times in Colorado and never before then. I was waved at in the Midwest and East Coast several times, but with just one finger.
I met a family of three at a rest stop one day who were visiting from New York. We chatted for a while, and the young son posed with me for a picture. They found me the next day too as I was climbing Boulder Mountain. I heard a car slow next to me and a voice say “I thought that was Colin!” If you’re reading this, you’re awesome. Thanks for the pick-me-up.
During the eclipse, I was preoccupied with riding as far as I could as fast as I could, having accepted that this year I couldn’t participate. At a fairly high speed, I was just about to pass a guy and his daughter, who had just parked on the side of the road where they found a break in the clouds, when the man reached out to me to offer his glasses. I screeched to a stop, and I got to see that crazy bite out of the sun myself too. Still the greatest thing about that was that a stranger on the side of the road saw me as another human and offered to share something amazing with me. It shouldn’t be exceptional but it is. After riding through most of this country, I’ve become used to being treated fairly consistently as a nuisance on the road, and here there were so many examples of people seeing me as just a guy… who happens to be on a bike.
It feels so good to have all these people, locals and fellow travelers alike, acknowledge me as a person, and usually as a person who is doing something admirable. Crazy too, probably, but admirable. I couldn’t possibly ask for more.
Utah: Challenging? The hardest so far. Worth it? Yes.