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Friday April 27 — WRIAD

Day 8 route

Route I Biked This Day

The White Rim Road is a 100 mile jeep trail circumnavigating the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. The century has no immediate access to outside support or reliable water sources. Most visitors that explore this trail on a mountain bike only ride part of it. Others wanting to see the entire road generally spend close to a week on the trail, with a sag wagon carrying their gear and offering support. Nights are spent around camp consuming beer with a bunch of friends.

I, on the other hand, would complete the entire trail solo in one day without any outside support —WRIAD. Never mind that my mountain bike only had about fifty miles that year (although I rode around 1,000 trainer miles with my road bike.), and my longest bike ride prior was seventy miles on a time trial bike half a year ago. And I was not much of a bike mechanic either.

Nothing could possibly go wrong with this winning combination, right?

It Begins

I spent the night in the parking lot at the western edge of Mineral Bottom Road before the large descent. That morning I emerged from my car and readied my supplies for a departure at first light. Nothing ever ran according to plan though, and I did not get into the saddle until around seven, already behind schedule.

Deep canyons

With no outside support on the barren trail, I carried all the day’s nutrition on my bike. My stockpile included four liters of water, two water bottles of Gatorade Endurance, four hammer gels, and six granola bars. Although these rations sufficed to survive and recount this day, I realized in hindsight that they were not enough. My preparation was unscientific and barely included enough calories for such a long, strenuous journey. Anyone else attempting this undertaking should pack a larger menu.

From the parking lot the trail started with a big drop to the canyon floor, and all of three complete pedal strokes were needed to cover the first couple miles. Although the descent was not extremely steep or technical, I cautiously rode my brakes the entire way down. After reaching the bottom the jeep trail became level following the Colorado River’s shore. Even wearing arm warmers, the morning was chilly as I easily ticked off the opening miles. Although with the desert’s unruly nature, I would beg for such cool weather in only a couple hours.

Mercifully, the jeep trail was smooth and nontechnical. Dirt paths and small loose rocks were the trail’s mainstay, which, unlike the Porcupine Trail, was within my riding abilities. This initial section was very easy and an enjoyable ride, but I continually reminded myself of the very long day ahead. I stayed in that mindset to keep a leisurely, steady pace that would prevent me from running out of gas halfway through.

I passed several campsites still occupied by riders enjoying a warm breakfast that were smart enough for a multiday White Rim Road trip. No such plush luxuries for me though. I was already breathing dirt and quickly passed the sightseers that drifted into my memories.

Keeping with the theme of my lackluster food selection, my eating schedule was also haphazard. As a best guess to make my food supply last, I alternated between a granola bar and gel every hour, with water and Gatorade in between. At the time it seemed like that should keep me fueled and preserve my rations. I foolishly, however, never performed any even rudimentary arithmetic to determine if that formula would last the whole day despite the real danger posed by running out of food. I flew by the seat of my pants with little room for error and tall consequences for failure. I obviously survived (the zombie guest writers are on strike), but my nutrition plan was almost certainly calorie deficient and detrimentally affected me as the day dragged on.

There Are No Easy Scrabbles

After enjoying a large downhill and flats, Hardscrabble Hill was my first major difficult encounter. The ascent up this bump became very steep in several spots, and I resorted to walking my bike up the incline. If absolutely necessary I could have reached the top pedaling, but my goal for the day was an entire loop of the White Rim Road. Surmounting this hill without walking could have jeopardized that goal, so I swallowed my pride and kept the prize in sight. After enjoying a nice view from the top, I coasted down the other side which actually seemed steeper and longer than what I just crawled up. How happy I was to have gone the easier direction.

View from Hardscrabble Hill

The view from Hardscrabble Hill

The next several hours were spent smoothly sailing across jeep roads. Several minor twisty sections and bare rock were the only slight hazards. The west side of the loop was mostly flat, but had quite a few short, very steep climbs interspersed. I could usually power up these in granny gear though if I hit the right line.

Besides climbing hills, the trail also paralleled high cliffs that dropped several hundred feet to the canyon below. These vertigo inducing ledges were usually along the side of a large slab of bare rock. I was overly cautious going across these since the first step down was really a doozy. Sometimes large rocks stood guard near the periphery warning of the danger, but other spots had no such notice. That was one turn not to be missed.

Impressive canyons and rock formations surrounded the White Rim Road. Abrupt drops, spiraling towers, and soaring cliffs were just a sampling of the wonders that lay around every bend. After a while though, these magnificent structures and landscapes blended together. One brilliant canyon with unearthly terrain looked very similar to another one. Differentiating them was nearly impossible. Besides, I had to concentrate on the trail and my trajectory to ensure my tires would keep their rubber on the ground. I could not always be the most observant to the beautiful scenery or soak up all the wonder.

My second major climb was Murphy Hogback. The clamber was difficult but still mostly doable. Unfortunately, the majority of the ascent also hid behind unending switchbacks, so around each corner another couple hundred more feet of elevation gain appeared. Nonetheless, I peddled almost the entire molehill except for the very last stretch which became absurdly steep.

Falling Down Hurts

I started down the other side of Murphy Hogback, proceeding slowly down the steep incline riding my breaks. Even though I barely surmounted this behemoth in granny gear, my cautious downhill pace was the same as that climbing. Despite my vigilance a couple mid-sized steps appeared and I sensed trouble half a second before my front tire rolled over them. My worst fears were realized as for the second time this vacation I crashed over my handle bars. Although I lay interwoven with my bike, the fall did not seem very damaging. The one earlier in the week was uglier, but unfortunately upon further investigation this latter one inflicted considerably more damage.

Panoramic view of the canyons

Panoramic view of the canyons

The shifter for my rear cassette had been sheared from the handlebars and dangled freely by its cord. I also received a couple small scrapes and a giant Charlie horse in my leg. Despite the gloomy and slightly painful situation, I picked a good spot to fall since a large drop paralleled one side of the descent down Murphy Hogback. Fortunately, I avoided that disastrous precipice and stayed on the trail. Tipping a couple feet to the right would have resulted in a very long and injury inducing fall.

Assessing the situation, I found myself bruised but all in one piece. My bike, however, was not. Initially, the damaged shifter appeared to still function even if it was no longer attached to my mountain bike, but I later discovered this was not the case. In my ignorance of the shifter’s condition, I jury rigged it to my handlebars with spare rubber bands that happened to be holding extra tubes. As for my own condition, I requisitioned some of my precious drinking water to partially clean my wounds since my infinite wisdom did not include packing a first aid kit or even simple antibiotics.

I walked my bike down the remainder of the hill, not wanting to test my improvised repairs on a descent. After reaching the base and carefully hopping back on my bike, it quickly became apparent that my rear shifter was completely broken. It would not change gears, reducing my bike to three speeds selectable only through the front chain ring. This limited repertoire resulted in my gear ratio invariably being too high or too low. Riding in a smooth, efficient rhythm became nearly impossible. To add to the distress, one of the three positions crossed the chain, producing a horrible racket and causing excess wear. So there I was, less than halfway through my desert century, limping on a hurting leg on a bike with only three gears. Not everything was lost though because:

Turning around and taking the shorter way back (still about forty miles) never crossed my mind. I continued forward on the loop instead, determined to complete my endeavor. Reduced functioning gears made the ride frustrating as I could rarely stay at an optimal speed or cadence. Significantly more energy was exerted than normal to cover less ground. My bike did not even shift between its incomplete set of gears well either, as the crash repositioned the front derailleur as well. My already long day in the desert just became a whole lot longer.

I was extremely stubborn though (and quitting was not an option fifty miles from my car with no other way than my bike to get back) and kept going. I was, however, extra paranoid and cautious on any rocky sections, walking my bike whenever I felt even the least bit uncomfortable. Another mechanical failure would have been a major disaster — as opposed to my current minor emergency.

I’d Rather Feel Pain Than Nothing At All

I hobbled forward on my injured bike, riding as best I could through the miles of open expanses. Rounding the southern edge of the White Rim Road, I crested a small ridge and suddenly the La Sal Mountains appeared on the distance horizon. The spectacular view was a great surprise and welcome uplifting moment after my crashing setback.

Me on my mountain bike

Still many miles to go

I had covered approximately half the loop but many miles through the desolate countryside still remained before my day was over. Without much to keep my mind occupied, I zoned out cruising along the trail. The rock formations and hills blended together over the many hours hammering each mile on the dirt road. Overall, the eastern half of the loop seemed flatter than its western counterpart, but I still only averaged about 12 m.p.h on the flats due to my diminished bike.

Several times throughout the day, riders would quickly pass and then abruptly drop me. Their swift progress was depressing as I sputtered along the trail. My only semi-functional bike and lack of mountain bike skills prevented me from covering ground very fast. These other riders served to remind me of this deficiency. Of course, they were probably not attempting an entire day loop either.

I occasionally passed others though, one time overtaking an outfitter led tour group. I chatted with them for a while as we rode together. They sought a slightly different desert experience though — wanting an expert to guide them through the barren wasteland, allowing someone else haul their heavy supplies, and only riding reasonable mileage each day. They rightly questioned my sanity for pedaling the whole loop in one day. The group’s leader was extremely nice (and cute) and offered support from their shag wagon. My fuel was currently lasting though and my shifter’s damage exceeded anything they could fix in the field, so I declined her kind offer.

After departing their company, the effects of the long day accumulated exponentially as the heat cooked my skin. The mercury only climbed into the mid eighties, but the relentless sun sucked away energy and baked my brain. The harsh environment offered no reprieve as the sun would linger above the shade producing cliffs for at least several more hours. The drawn out day only exacerbated the already high mental strain of rocks constantly jarring me along the path. I sought mercy from my self induced predicament, but none was to be found out there.

As a coping mechanism to survive this grueling day, I convinced myself that all my hard work would be over if I could just hang on until the big climb up to the visitor center. Only an easy coast back to my car remained after that. Somewhere in the back of my mind the knowledge of the twenty miles left after that bounced around, but I selectively ignored that fact, instead focusing on the pavement and well-groomed gravel roads.

Passing each campsite or landmark along the White Rim Road, I was afraid to study my map to determine the exact distance remaining in my expedition. Knowing that fact would not change how far was left to ride, and it could only serve to demoralize me upon discovering the true distance was significantly longer than anticipated. I had an approximate idea of the torture still to be encountered, but I could once again deceive myself into believing it was not really that far. Gleefully thinking for most of the afternoon that only a handful of miles remained was much more uplifting than actually realizing how many hours in the saddle were still left.

Climb to the Visitor Center

Eventually I reached the base of the greatly anticipated to the visitor center. At the bottom I gazed up at mind numbingly long set of switchbacks rising high into the air. Finally admiring the road scaling the sheer rock face was a mixed blessing. On one hand, I was relieved to arrive at my last major hurdle (so I thought), but I now had to actually make it up the imposing grade. The obstacle at least presented an immediate goal to reach. This specific problem focused my energy after languishing during the countless monotonous miles through the desert.

Climb to the visitor center

The mighty climb to the visitor center

I attacked the beast head on, using sheer brute force as my weapon of choice to slay the creature. The battle was brutal though, and throughout this epic struggle to hammer up the slope, I conserved my strength by staying in my granniest gear almost the entire way. The test of endurance was steep and its terrain rocky. I huffed and I puffed up the inclines, forced to take rest breaks at almost every switchback. I emerged victorious after over an hour of fighting though and coasted onto paved road high above the canyon’s base. I even pedaled the entire length and never once walked my bike. It was not exactly curing cancer, but I was proud of this accomplishment after a long day through the desert.

The Island in the Sky visitor center can serve as an oasis for riders needing a bathroom or their vending machines. Despite having consumed the last of my fluids and fuel during the climb, I loathed the extra several mile diversion necessary to reach the outpost, so I haphazardly started down the road out of Canyonlands with no food or drink.

Riding on paved roads and having conquered the dragon, this hero thought his work finished, and he could now leisurely parade back to the cheering crowd. No welcome committee greeted me, and I instead kept riding along the lonely pavement. That extra twenty miles blocked from my mind most of the day came to the forefront. The path was easier, but I still had close to two more hours on my bike.

Also, I had completed the hardest part of my entire trip, the one climb defining the entire day. All my mental and physical energy went into making it up to the visitor center. With that hard fought goal now accomplished, my motivation deteriorated on the smooth asphalt strip. In my head I already completed the loop. The top of that climb was the end. To regain my purpose and keep moving forward through the uninteresting last miles was nearly impossible. I could devise no new immediate goal to pull me forward. All the doubt and despair held back throughout the day leaked out, and I just wanted everything to be over. Unfortunately, I still had to reach my car under my own power for that to happen.

To make matters worse, the few gears still lingering on my bike were slowly deteriorating. It would not even stay in the middle chain ring very well anymore, so my bike was effectively a dual speed.

The desert tried hard to claim another victim as mental, physical, and mechanical breakdown plagued the end of my trip. All was not ending well as the miles ticked by like molasses on a winter morning. And things would only get worse.

Bad to Worse

Rather than ride on Highway 313 the entire way to Mineral Bottom Road, my plans instead called for a shortcut along a jeep trail that met up halfway down that road, theoretically saving around ten miles. Unfortunately I only scouted this path through other peoples’ WRIAD reports and Google Earth during my thorough preparation. I found the turnoff to this “shortcut” without incident but after that was an adventure. My expectation for this road were low, and it delivered as anticipated. It was really just a lightly used jeep path with a labyrinth of spur trails emerging from the main trunk that headed into the desert.

Rock formations

The directions to Mineral Bottom Road included only one turn, but no markings offered assistance and from my vantage point it was impossible to decipher where any of the paths led. The stakes were high too, because missing the turn meant continuing on the wrong road for miles until a dead end in the middle of nowhere. So with great anxiety over passing my exit, I found a correct looking turnoff and rode down the side trail. Surprise, surprise though — I was horribly wrong.

In retrospect, despite my infamous history with bad directions, making this mistake was just careless. My bike had an odometer that would have easily measured the segment’s distance and pointed out the correct turn without a hitch. Perhaps due to baking in the desert sun all day though, I made no such determination and barreled down the (unknown to me at the time) incorrect path. The trail stopped after a short distance, but not at my road. Right then, I should have realized my mistake, turned around, and returned to the main road. Like a fool however, I kept moving forward instead. I do not remember if it was due to stubbornness, not thinking straight, or convincing myself that continuing further along this diminishing path would eventually dump me in the correct spot.

Whatever the illogical reason, I continued pushing onward, unwisely trail blazing through the dessert. At least my compass and the setting sun definitively indicated which way was north. Heading in that general direction would have to eventually cross the unmistakable Mineral Bottom Road. Of course, an impassable ravine or other obstruction could have stood in my way.

Poor Decisions

Wandering north, I mostly walked my bike and tried to minimize my impact on this fragile environment. The sun was falling ever lower, and worries about being lost in the desert after dark crept into my head. By this time I had also traveled too far through the wilderness and across barren rock to easily retrace my steps to a known location. I was stuck headed into the unknown without any breadcrumbs for an exit strategy.

Only my own bad decisions caused this situation with no good choices. Having come this far already, I just continued my nomadic journey. I found a different jeep trail that seemed to head in the correct direction. It eventually turned the wrong way though, so I abandoned the well defined path and plunged back into the desert. I had no way of knowing whether that road was only making a quick turn before returning to the direction I needed, or if it snaked ever deeper into the abyss.

Throughout this whole ordeal, I expected the desert to rebel against my trampling and stick a sharp cactus needle through my bike tire. A flat may have been just punishment for my negligence, but thankfully that sentence was never handed down.

Despite my gigantic navigation errors, I finally spilled onto Mineral Bottom Road, very thankful to finally be on a smooth gravel road headed in seemingly the right direction. I was however, still extremely paranoid of possibly being on the wrong road. Two strikes had already been called, and I could not afford another mistake. It was dark when driving in on this road, so now I had no scenery or other reference to recognize. My fear eventually convinced me to ask a passing motorist exactly what road this was. To my relief he confirmed this was indeed Mineral Bottom Road, which meant no perplexing turns were left on the homestretch.

My implementation of the “shortcut” was a boondoggle, and any distance savings were more than negated by my incompetence in execution. The shortcut would have worked though, if done properly. Posthumous examination concluded that I turned off the jeep road too early trying to reach Mineral Bottom Road. If I had only kept going straight for a little longer and not become disoriented, the time savings would have been significant.

Almost There

My celebration from having found Mineral Bottom Road was short lived since my car was still seven or eight miles away. The road was at least generally slopping downhill so I covered a lot of ground with minimal effort.

Gravity’s assistance was sorely needed as no power remained in my pedal stroke for these last miles. The climb to the visitor center sucked away any remaining stores, and I had no food left to refuel. Since stopping or complaining would not help, I just kept making circles trying to reach my car. I was the master of my own destiny, and the only way to improve my situation was to continually move forward.

WRIAD Odometer

My first century

With the immediate fear of becoming stranded in the desert at night gone, hunger returned and my stomach rebelled against being fed solely gel and granola bars all day. I felt queasy, but everything stayed down. My stubbornness overcame my stomach as I was in no mood to stop due to GI issues.

During this last stretch my bike’s tiny seat also reminded me that I sat on it for over half a day. The endurance event left me a little saddle sore, which was yet another discomfort during the final leg of the ride.

With my time consuming romp through the desert, the sun was close to slipping behind the cliffs. Light still remained, but a cool evening settled in. I was so weary of being on my bike that I did not even take the extra time to stop and put on the arm warmers in my back pocket. Any delay here would just elongate the time spent with my bike and not significantly reduce my discomfort. I lacked the dexterity to put them on while riding so I fought the chilly air instead. The cold was bearable though, as long as it meant getting to my car sooner. What a way to end a day spent in the desert sun.

The only eyewear I carried was prescription sunglasses, so as darkness crept in I was forced to ride blind along Mineral Bottom Road in order to barely see the road in the dim light. The impending nightfall and my own deranged state also played tricks with my mind. Mini hallucinations had me swearing that a tree trunk was really a man holding a shotgun, and I could not distinguish between cows and large rocks. How long before the DEA regulates long distance riding? Endorphins can be quite addictive.

The End

Despite the delusions, a large crash, an entire day on my bike, and other events that will only emerge years later in therapy, I finally arrived at the end of Mineral Bottom Road around 8:30 p.m where my car waited patiently. I collapsed inside and consumed some much needed food. After a short recuperation, I somehow found the strength to start my long drive back to Iowa, making it all the way to western Colorado before stopping.

Although my WRIAD loop turned wretched at the end, overall I must confess it was a good ride. I expected a difficult and hard day, and that was what I found. Half the fun is when things do not go right anyway. Besides, if not for crashing my bike and that navigation snafu, the ride would have easily been two or three hours shorter and much more bearable. It would still have been long and hard, but not to the point of desperation and despair I encountered. Lessons to know for next time.

Distance Chart

I created a chart of the distances between campsites and other landmarks along the White Rim Road from the NPS’s numbers. It is presented below in hopes that it may be helpful to others. It is for informational purposes only, and I make no guarantee of its accuracy.

White Rim Road Distances (in miles)
Visitor Center 7193039455566707277
Shafer7 122332384859636570
Airport1912 1120263647515358
Gooseberry302311 9152536404247
White Crack3932209 61627313338
Murphy Hogback453826156 1021252732
Candlestick554836251610 11151722
Potato Bottom66594736272111 4611
Hardscrabble Bottom706351403125154 27
Labyrinth7265534233271762 5