This desert is vast, and ancient. Both
of these scales boggle the mind. The essential hugeness of this place
plays tricks with your senses. If you stop and sit and gaze at this
landscape, you soon realize that it is even more huge than you
thought. And it is old, so very old. This is not a landscape that
can be glanced at and understood, which is why seeing it from a bicycle
is so satisfying.
In early May I joined Mike and Maggie, proprietors of Magpie Adventures
for a three-day tour of the White Rim Road in Canyonlands National
Park, Utah. The White Rim road is an 84 mile long double track jeep
road that skirts the southern edge of the Island in the Sky district of
the park, following the incised meanders of the Colorado and Green
rivers. The road stays, for the most part, on the White Rim sandstone,
which is an erosionally resistant dune sandstone that was laid down on
the underwater side of an ocean shore some 260 million years ago.
I feel compelled to start out with some statements of intent and attitude. It
has become something of a badge of honor to crank this ride out in a
day. “White Rim in a day” has become a battle cry for the
goal-oriented cyclist. In fact I hear nasty rumors of “two White Rims
in a day.” Whatever. I repeat, whatever. After having
done a White Rim in three days, I want my next trip to be five days. Or
seven. It is simply too amazing, too beautiful, and too mind
boggling to rush through. You could do Cincinnati in a day. This area
deserves to be lingered over. Savored. Processed.
Finally, this is not singletrack. There is a fetish in the mountain
bike community for singletrack. With particularly choice bits of
singletrack being bestowed with coveted laudatory terms such as “buff”
“ripping” and “choice” I have been lucky enough to ride a lot of really
great singletrack. This ride is different but by no means pedestrian. It is a jeep road. There are a few challenging sections, but this ride does not consist of the coveted singletrack. I have a friend who drives this route on occasion. He mocked me for
replacing a derailleur cable prior to the trip. “You won’t be shifting
much.” He told me. “You won’t be shifting much…”
Maggie put it all into perspective on the third day when we were
tooling along an undulating section of doubletrack and she said “This is
one of my favorite parts about this ride, rolling Ponch and Jon with a
friend.” Yes. That’s it. Cruising, enjoying the sights. Being there.
So here I am, caught in the middle ground between the aggressive
ambition of blazing through the White Rim in less than a day and
driving through it in a truck. Epic singletrack and “boring” jeep
road. Middle ground…unresolved territory. This seemed just about
One last observation. Harry, one of the folks on the trip, was making
apologies for his aged mountain bike. “But you know what” I said, “It’s
Mike and Maggie have been guiding for years. A couple of years back
they started their own concern, Magpie Adventures. They have a national park concession, which is a fiendishly
complicated set of permissions to obtain. Between them they have
probably done 200 or so laps of the road, and their experience and
knowledge of the area shines through.
We met up at Poison Spider Bicycles on a Monday evening for a pre-trip
meeting. I had gone into work that morning and left Golden at about noon, which
rolled me into the parking lot of Poison Spider in Moab at about 5:10. Not
too bad. We had a brief meet and greet, went over the route, and
discussed logistics. Then I headed up Sand Flats road to crank out a quick
loop on the Slickrock Trail at sunset, and find a flat place to set up
my cot for the night.
The next day, after a hearty breakfast at the Jailhouse Café, I
met up with the group to shuttle out to the beginning of the trail.
I’m going to resist the urge to quantify and explain every moment of
the trip. I took a lot of photos, so I’ll let those do the talking and
interject when necessary. The route was clockwise through the park.
Mike and Maggie, our little group leaders. That's Patches the faithful
truck there as well.
Maggie, telling it like it is.
You can see a sliver of White Rim down there, just to the left of the
road on the canyon's edge.
Rolling down the Shafer Trail.
This is the initial descent onto the
White Rim from the Island in the Sky. This 1000 foot drop takes you off
of the Wingate and Kayenta Sandstone formations and down 70 million
years of geologic history to the Paleozoic Era and the White Rim
Sandstone. Thrilling stuff indeed. I guess that is part of the
lure of this landscape, so many millions of years of our earth's
history are laid bare by the forces of erosion and incision, upheaval
and collapse. In comparison, we are so temporary, so fleeting. And we blithely blunder through it, on bikes, in jeeps, or on foot.As
Bruce Cockburn said,
"We're the insect life of paradise:
Crawl across leaf or among towering blades of grass
Glimpse only sometimes the amazing breadth of heaven."