Touring Utah’s Canyons By Bike Teaches Lessons About Adventures Past

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”

-Robert Pirsig

I’d only been living in Colorado a year or so when I first heard tell of what I came to think of as the Hole in the Rock expedition. Researching via the internet wasn’t yet a thing and my local library in Crested Butte housed nothing on the subject. Thus for at least a decade what I knew about this incredible journey came via word of mouth, passed along on road trips or during fireside conversations. The stories shared were fantastic, inspiring, unbelievable. A seed was planted.

It took Dan’s nurturing to bring it to life. Because he’d been born and raised Mormon, the stories I’d heard as an adult had been with Dan since his earliest days, and not just as “stories” but as a historical narrative of his people, of uncommon faith and trust amidst and against indescribable hardship. A journey that the settlers predicted would take 6 weeks had stretched out to 6 winter months. 139 years later, and with the benefit of roads, trails, pneumatic tires and boats, and no beasts of burden to care for, we would traverse it in 6 leisurely spring days.

Dan’s motivations to see the entirety of this historic route ranged from curiosity to pragmatism to outrage. He sought to understand the enormity of what his people had overcome to settle the last as-yet unexploited corner of Utah. He wanted to comprehend the entirety of what would be lost if the shrinkage of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments were carried out. He desired a last, long, 5.10’s-on-the-ground look at a remote area that land-grabbing legislators endeavor to turn into an ill-conceived theme park of sorts.

He enticed my wife Jeny and me with photos of slot canyons carved through fluted red sandstone, with a wild, corrugated route that could be traversed via bike and boat, with a history and pre-history so fantastic that the largest question looming wasn’t how or why or if, but “WHEN?!”

After days of waiting and postponing due to spring snowstorms, we finally left Escalante propelled by nuclear tailwinds. If leaving the comforts of known routes and haunts to set out over unknown lands can be intimidating, this time the winds made it easy: So strong was the natural propulsion behind us that I ran out of gearing, even on the climbs. Coasting uphill at 20+mph was certainly not a phenomenon experienced by the originators of this route. Signs and wonders…

We took a cursory side hike into Devils Garden then resumed hauling ass SE, hoping to find shelter for the night from that which had made our day so effortless.

Up with the sun the next morning we left bikes stationary and hiked to and through the intimate cathedrals of the Peekaboo and Spooky slots. No words I might conjure could explain the uniqueness, ubiquity of these places. Pics help, but you really need to just get there and drag elbows through them to understand.

If you do go? Please plan ahead as there are no facilities anywhere near this trailhead. A fact that didn’t stop multiple (allegedly) human specimens from just shitting on the ground and leaving their paper to blow around in the breeze. Multiple as in many. That humans in this day and age can behave so shortsightedly, so irresponsibly, should no longer surprise me. Indeed it still shocks me to my core. WTF, humanity?!

We swung legs over bikes to continue the tour, traversing beneath the looming Straight Cliffs. The road was still emphatically that, but it continued roughening as we neared the lake, and the little bits of traffic we’d seen steadily dwindled to nothing. We stopped for a brief moment at Dance Hall Rock, where we wondered aloud how the pioneers could have found cause for celebration and merrymaking when their situation was so tenuous? Given how relatively easy our travel had been thus far, each passing moment seemed like cause for celebration. Considering that made me think that, hey — I suppose it’s all relative?

Late afternoon we arrived at what felt like the edge of the planet, but which turned out to be merely the margin of Glen Canyon. We knew that getting down to waters edge was going to require considerable time and energy, and we’d already put in a good day. So we called it camp at the rim, changed into comfier clothes, and wandered out to where we had better views over tomorrow’s labor.

Getting bikes down that crack in the earth was, in a relative sense, pretty easy. There was no riding to speak of: We rolled and shouldered and hefted and lowered and with some frequency had to help each other out. Dan had a bigger pack than Jeny or I, and moved most of his load into it for this section, substantially lightening the mass of his bike which made it significantly easier to manhandle. SMART.

Maybe 90 minutes of dragging elbows and pedals on steeply sloped sandstone brought us to the edge of the lake, each of us with a better appreciation of what it would take to get a loaded covered wagon through that juggernaut. I’ll be completely honest here and say that it is baffling that they did what they did, when and how they did. And that’s not even touching on the subject of why.

An hour later we’d inflated and packed boats and were slowly paddling our way across the lake, enjoying calm seas with the lightest of breezes keeping us cool. The traverse of the lake almost got exciting when Dan’s top-heavy (and loosely secured) load shifted on him and he shipped a bit of water. Better packing, a smaller load, or a bigger boat could have prevented this. Because we had only 2 miles to paddle and ~a week of riding to do, I’d lobbied for tiny boats with tiny paddles. It just didn’t make sense to carry more weight and bulk for such a quick crossing. In the moment that Dan’s load shifted, I think he cursed me a bit, but once he’d paddled over to a tiny blip of an island to dump the water he resumed his normal tranquilo state and the rest of the crossing passed sans drama.

Note to self, made at the top of Aladdin’s Lamp Pass after climbing rough trail all day away from the lake: Seasoning a bland freeze-dried backpacker concoction with salt you packed along for that purpose makes it taste better. Doing so with salt you had the presence of mind to remember was lying in the bottom of your bag of cashews makes it memorable.

Camping under some of the darkest skies in the world is also memorable. That said? While staring up from a goose down bag, laid atop an insulated sleep pad, in the middle of my vacation, and possessing a satellite device capable of summoning a helicopter should one of us so much as develop a blister, I knew that the context and fine details of our modern situation would prevent me from ever really understanding the challenges the pioneers faced.

We motivated early the next day, buoyed by the fact that we’d largely be riding an ocean of slickrock. Much of the route was punctuated with inclines so steep that we could scarcely believe loaded wagons drawn by stock had ascended or descended any of them. Somewhere near Grey Mesa — while catching his breath after pushing up a really steep slab — Dan uttered an unforgettable line invoking Brigham Young and ‘some stout effing kool-aid’.

Views to the north stretched to the Hanks and Waterpocket Fold, while the southern vista afforded views between our toes down into the San Juan Arm.

Carrying the loads we were the way we were had made the most sense pre-trip: Keeping the mass low and off our backs was the smartest, most efficient compromise we could devise. And for the miles and miles of miles and miles we had to cover, that worked out great. Alas, there were a handful of short, sharp descents for which we were unable to get low enough and/or far enough back behind the saddle, mandating a few quick forced walks. I told myself while swinging a leg over the saddle to start hoofing it down, that this was giving me yet another opportunity to look around, to savor the enormity of the landscape through which we were passing. And I mostly believed that. But still — I wanted to ride ’em!

Snow and rain had blanketed the Colorado Plateau the previous winter, yet we’d arrived just late enough in the advancing spring that water was neither abundant nor obvious. Springs marked on USGS topos assuaged our fears, while in reality, we forewent leaving the route to find those and instead relied on errant potholes and puddles within sight of the route. These were never as obvious or copious as we’d have liked, but we always managed to find one before panic set in.

We forewent shelter on all but one evening, bivying atop the sand and beneath the stars.

The route of the pioneers traversed south of the Hanks and Abajos and north of Grand Gulch, following a path of least resistance that had been used by the local tribes who occupied this region hundreds of years earlier. That path of least resistance now hosts a state highway. Ticking off pavement miles is my least favorite type of riding, but in this case, my distaste was tempered by the fact that we could so easily poke our noses into roadside arc sites.

The ease with which we could step off a byway and into some distant human past bordered on surreal. We wondered, often aloud, how many pictographs and petroglyphs the Mormon pioneers had stumbled upon, and what sort of reaction they’d had when they did. Were they impressed? Awed? Nonplussed?

While poring fireside over maps to see what was coming, as well as while discussing what we’d already seen, we each expressed awe, amazement, disbelief at what people (both modern Mormons as well as ancestral Puebloans) had done, endured, merely as a matter of course.

They did what they did because it was what had to be done. When no other option exists, there isn’t much point in complaining, dallying or prevaricating. You just get to work. We could all stand to be reminded of this.

Heavy overnight rains driven by powerful gusts caused us to remain in camp half a day due to impassable mud on the path forward. We spent that time lounging, relaxing, rehashing conversations from previous days while being thankful for overhung Cedar Mesa sandstone.

The forced delay ended when we saw another wave of moisture inbound and decided to risk moving forward into mud over being stranded in place overnight. A few miles of what turned out to be mostly densely packed wet sand separated us from pavement.

Although our journey began with Dan convincing Jeny and me to witness what the Mormon pioneers had done in the 1800s, with each passing mile I cared less about that journey and found myself more interested in the ancestral Puebloans who’d lived here ~700 years prior. Seeing their architecture, grasping why they’d built on specific aspects to catch (or avoid) sun at certain times of the year, using exposed moqui steps to access rooms or granaries or ledges they’d held dear — each of these helped paint a clearer picture of an advanced culture thriving before the wheels came off.

While only the most distraught henny-penny types fear that our civilization is in any danger of collapsing, those whom would protect the Bears Ears area face a damned-if-you-do conundrum: Advocate for protection from resource extraction at the risk of banging a drum that draws industrial strength (think: Moab) recreation. There is some consensus that the latter is more impactful. While every user group believes its footprint is minimal, sheer numbers matter and not everyone arrives with the same intent. Even informed, low-impact visitation to this area results in cumulative damage over time. We’re effectively loving these places to death.

Our heads filled to bursting with petroglyphs, pictographs, kivas, anthromorphs and — most concretely — sand, we dieseled up a last juniper-lined grade to take in a view encompassing Comb Ridge and the Sleeping Ute, the La Platas and Shiprock, the Abajos and the Hanks, even a sliver of the La Sals. We’d exerted a fraction of the energy that the Mormons had, over a fraction of the elapsed time out, yet still felt a sense of satisfaction at traversing the chunk of landscape that we did. Traveling by boat and bike had allowed us a boots-on-the-ground connection with a route rich in history, to understand the sacrifices made by different peoples in different times, to contemplate their motivations, to walk a literal mile in their shoes.



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