Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Surviving the Utah Badlands

I’m up in the Colorado mountains, and the end of my trip is almost in sight. Getting to this point through the badlands of Utah was tough and intense, the most unforgiving and lonely part of this world that I’ve seen. It was also one of the most memorable and amazing experiences I’ve had, and I’m proud to have come through without any issues.

Bryce Canyon was the last big tourist destination I saw before setting out into the badlands. It’s a strange and beautiful sight. When my sister and I used to go on family trips to the beach when we were younger, we used to make these cool gothic sandcastles by packing out a base and making tall spires by dribbling wet sand through our hands on top. Bryce Canyon is a huge natural amphitheatre filled with structures that look a bit like this, but huge, and made from stone.

As with most of national parks, the interpretation events they have on are amazing. I went along to a free night time Stargazer event, and met some of the 35 amateur astronomers from Salt Lake City who had brought down their enormous telescopes (and I mean huge!) and set them up in the car park. I looked through a few telescopes and saw some galaxies and star clusters whose names I forget, very pretty though. I went mainly in honour of the Rainbow song Stargazer, one of my favourite all time songs and a regular on my cycling playlist.

As you head east from Bryce, the traffic diminishes and you have the road to yourself. Which of course means you have to be ready to fend for yourself. One of most valuable things about this trip is stripping my day-to-day existence back to basics. The section of Utah badlands brought this into sharp relief. For me there are 4 essentials that need to be met when cycle touring and camping. In reverse order of importance for this is:

4 - somewhere decent to sleep/put the tent
3 - a bike in working order
2 - food
1 - water

Water became the number one factor in planning my days’ riding. You know the riding is getting hardcore when you start worrying about the most basic of human needs. There’s a story posted up in the Grand Canyon about a girl who was a good marathon runner, but died in the canyon from the heat after heading out for a hike with only 1.5 litres of water. I haven’t done anything before where running out of water was a real issue, so this all became very serious. I worked out a rough formula for planning the amount of water to carry, by basically looking at the route elevation and mileage, estimating the hours of cycling needed, and carrying 1 litre per hours riding. In the really hot climbing sections I’d stop and drink 500ml every half hour.

Fun fact: on one of these days I drank 7 litres while riding and didn’t spend a penny all day so to speak - which shows how much is being processed and sweated out by the body.

After Bryce, I got a permit to camp wild in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This was my first taste of carrying huge amounts of water, I took 7 litres - enough for the afternoon’s ride, cooking food in the evening, cooking breakfast, washing dishes, and the morning’s ride. I found a decent spot but got mobbed by ants, which covered every surface of that bit of desert. I diverted them by leaving my trash out overnight, which kept them occupied. The view was worth it though.

All this trip I’d been wanting to make 100 miles in one day, and I noticed a large downhill section coming up on this part of the route. I figured I might not get a chance like this again so the next day I decided to do as much climbing as I could, to position myself at the start of the downhill section for the following day to try and make a century. I climbed all day, 4000ft straight up, with some incredibly steep bits.

For fun I decided to keep a record of my food consumption for the day, which I’ve copied out here:

- Full bowl oatmeal (triple serving) cooked on stove
- Plate of breakfast potatoes with a fried egg, bought at a cafe in the middle of nowhere
- 2 coffees at cafe above
- choc chip cookie at cafe above
- apple
- pack of peanuts
- 2 coffees bought at a store
- Clif energy bar bought at store (raisin & oatmeal)
- 2 bananas bought at store
- 6 large flour tortillas bought from store, eaten throughout day
- pack of jerky bought from store
- orange bought from store
- pack of trail mix (nuts, raisins etc.)
- 4 jolly rancher sweets eaten throughout day
- coffee made on stove in evening
- Pasta for dinner - boiled on stove w chopped fresh garlic & salt added to water then tin of kipper steaks added with pepper and sachet of taco sauce purloined from store
- 7 or so litres of water throughout day

After the day’s climbing, I camped wild in the forest, enjoying the cool and the shade after the heat of the desert. I set off the next morning, straight downhill out of the forest, through a couple of towns, and down through Capitol Reef. I would usually have stopped here for a look around but I was on a mission. At one of the towns a guy came over for chat after seeing the bike, he turned out to be the town mechanic and the guy who gets called out to help cycle tourers whose equipment fails. We had a good chat and he seemed impressed with my gear and level of preparation, which boosted my confidence. He said he’d recently seen a couple of Belgian cyclists trying to hitch a lift through this part of the route rather than risk riding it.

I nailed it through the park and out into the Badlands proper. The scenery quickly changed from green forests, to red rocks and formations of Capital Reef, to grey stone. I’d heard from a clerk at a visitor centre that there was a bakery in the middle of nowhere on my route, and got a stern warning from the guy that ran it about water supplies for the next stretch - “the heat, it’ll kill ya quickly”. I stocked up on supplies at Hanksville and filled all my water containers up. I’d done 50 miles already, and it was about 1pm, and getting hot. I was carrying enough food for 2 days, and 8 litres of water. This must have added at least 10 kilograms to my already very heavy bike.

I started to get apprehensive. My map showed the next potential place to get water as being at least another 65 miles, and this would be uphill. I was aiming to reach Hite Marina at Lake Powell, where there was a campsite and water tap. No stores, gas stations, ranches or houses on the way to get water from. The baker had told me the marina was dried up, the campsite shut and the water taps ripped out. My plan was to check this out, and sterilise water from Lake Powell if I could get to it, if necessary.

I was carrying extra water in case of a breakdown, but it was incredibly hot so this would go quickly. My phone reception had disappeared some time ago, so there would be nowhere to call for help. Traffic occasionally passed, so there could be some hitchhiking options in case of real trouble. As soon as I left Hanksville I turned straight into the wind which blew against me all afternoon and then the following day too.

I pushed on uphill and into the wind. After about 75 miles, a UPS van driver pulled over for a chat. He told me the great news that Hite Marina was open, camping was available, and they had water. He offered me some water but I declined as I was carrying enough. He told me a place a few miles on into a canyon where there was a spring he used to wash his face and cool down, although too muddy and small to drink from. He told me the temperature was up at 110f (43c) at Hite, but there was some shade behind the Ranger’s building.

A few miles later I met a group of American cycle tourers headed the other way for San Francisco. They’d stayed at Hite and confirmed drinking water. They also told me it was uphill all the way and steep at the end of my day. I told them they had a 50 mile climb out of Capitol Reef. I hit 100 miles. I honked my horn and did some singing out loud for celebration, and felt great.

This quickly turned into swearing as I saw the last hills of the day. I’d counted 3 big hills from the elevation plan on my map, so when I ran into the 4th and 5th I lost my temper and actually started shouting and cursing out loud, the first time on the trip. My water was down, and my legs really were hurting now. The last few miles are a bit of a blur, but I remember listening to Meshuggah’s Chaosphere on repeat and very loud, which served to whip me up the last climbs.

I crossed the Dirty Devil river and then the Colorado River, and here my memory is sharp - straight after the Colorado River it was 1.3 miles up a really steep grade to the campsite turn off. I was on 110 miles now, and it was about 7:30pm, and the sun was setting. The shadows were long and everything was orange. My music had finished and I did this last bit in silence. I stood up in the saddle; I sat down and spun my legs as hard as possible, and slowly, very slowly, reached the turnoff for the campsite. This hill felt like it took forever. Then 4 mile of cruising downhill to the campground.

The marina at Hite has dried up, there it nothing there except for a small store, a few caravans and the campground restrooms and pitches. And the water tap of course. The sort of place that makes you feel like there has been an apocalypse and you are the last person on earth. It felt great to be finished for the day, but I was almost too tired to put the tent up. I lay on top of a picnic table and ate some bread and drank gallons of water. 

I considered sleeping out in just my bag as I was tired and didn’t want to put my tent up, but the wind was till blowing strong, and there were quite a few bugs about. I roused myself and put the tent up, took a couple of photos of the stars, crawled inside and slept like a log. My distance for the day was 115 miles.

I woke up the next day as soon as the sun hit, and it was hot! I took the tent down quickly and packed up, got out of the sun and waited for the grocery store to open at 9am. In the meantime I took a close look at the map and my heart sank. I’d know there was going to be some climbing, but it was another 40 mile day going straight uphill to the next water stop, which was the visitor centre at Natural Bridges Park. The only consolation was that with each mile it would get cooler as I got higher.

It was a truly horrible day on the back of the long day before, it was all about endurance rather than enjoyment. One nice moment came when a motorcyclist came over for a chat while I was resting in the shade of a bush, looking sorry for myself. He gave me some water and parted with ‘fare thee well and say hello to the Queen for me’. This cheered me up and I managed somehow to get myself up the hill to the visitor centre at Natural Bridges.

I did a short session the following day to a town called Blanding by early afternoon. I was exhausted. The wind had blown up and the town was covered in red dust. This gave me the excuse I needed to keep the tent packed away and get a hotel room for the night. I really fancied a beer but the town was dry, as per usual for Mormon towns in Utah. Instead I hit all the stores in town and ate voraciously. I’d made it though the Utah badlands, got my touring century in the process, and felt pretty good about things.

I woke up the next day planning to leave Blanding early but hit a major disaster - my solar panel was bust! More than being the source of power for my phone, camera and headtorch, it powers my phone to serve me music while riding. The thought of riding the last few hundred miles of my trip without music was too much. I figured my panel had served me well for two months, had taken a beating from my riding, so I could sacrifice it by trying to fix it myself.

I cut back the material casing and took a look inside. I saw one connection from the panel to the output plug had worked loose. I took it the hardware store who told me there would be no store that could fix it for me. So I found a small battery-powered soldering iron on the shelves, bought this with some super glue, and went and sat out the back of the hardware store to work on it. Luckily, my first attempt at soldering the loose connection worked, which was great as it was fiddly to get to. I then super-glued the plug back into place and got out of Blanding about lunchtime. Success!

The next day I crossed the border into Colorado. I’d made it though the Utah badlands, got my touring century in the process, and felt pretty good about things. People are often impressed about the length of this trip, the mileage covered, the camping, the weight of the bike etc. I tend to laugh that off with genuine modesty - if you enjoy cycling, it’s not so hard. But anyone who rides those Utah roads in summer and gets through without problems is tough, including me. I just geek it up a bit with my solar panel!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Utah and Arizona - to the Grand Canyon

I'm poised at the start of a route that will take me east through the Canyonlands of Southern Utah; to Bryce Canyon; Escalante National Monument; past the wonderfully named 'Box-Death Hollow Wilderness'; through Capitol Reef National Park; so basically high, dry and lonely but beautiful roads almost nothing on them. Route 12, which I'll follow for a while, has the following dubious honour:

"Be warned: this waterless region was so inhospitable that it was the last to be mapped in continental US." (Lonely Planet)

I'm really excited about this section of my trip, and feel like the last two months has been training for it in some way. I'm going to do some careful route planning and map checking before departing, there are long sections with no food or water, so I'll be carrying extra supplies. It would also be an unfortunate place to run into bike trouble.

I'm writing this post from the campsite at Red Canyon a day behind my planned schedule, because of bike trouble. The delay is because in the afternoon of the day before I'd noticed a large kink in my back wheel. This is bad news for any cyclist, and spells out quite serious problems. If the wheel is no longer running true, it won't be strong enough to ride on, especially the majority of a full touring load plus me. Luckily the problem was with the tyre, not the wheel itself, and I could still ride after adjusting the brakes. I'd probably hit some large rock which had damaged a section of the tyre, which then grew worse until I noticed it.

Thinking back, there was a moment when I was checking my mirror and trip computer, took my eye off the road, and went straight into a rubble-strewn ditch at the side of the road's shoulder, which could have been the cause... So I needed a new tyre, especially with this awesome section of South Eastern Utah was quickly approaching.

The nearest bike shop was 45 miles the wrong way. Worse than this, 35 miles of that was straight up a mountain - the bike shop was based at a ski resort at the top of a peak called Brian Head, which stands up at 11,296 ft. If they didn't have a tyre I could use, I'd have to get to Cedar City, another 26 miles from the top of the mountain pass. To climb that mountain twice in order to get back on route would take 2 or probably more like 3 days, time which I can't afford to lose now I'm in my last month.

With little else in the way of options, I started the climb and got halfway up by 8pm, where I camped in the Dixie Forest. The next morning I got up early, took a bath in Panguitch lake, and went to a resort cafe where I met a cyclist here who bought me coffee and said there was a store a mile up the road that sold bike parts! Unfortunately the store didn't have any bike gear after all, but the owner - the very awesome Jerry Owen - helped me out by 1. establishing that the mountain bike shop had nothing I could use and 2. finding me someone who could collect and deliver tyres from Cedar City on the other side of the mountain. I paid the bike shop over the phone, and sat around for a few hours waiting for new tyres to arrive - courtesy of Beth, wife of Tom who works in the store. Again I'm grateful for the practical friendliness of people over here.

I sat and read in the meantime - and finished my Kerouac book (The Dharma Bums). Some people say they have a specific author who speaks directly to them, or so it feels - who writes in such a way that they can identify with them and say 'that's exactly who I feel' or 'I used to do that too!'. Kerouac was always that author for me and I got that feeling renewed in the part of Dharma Bums where he's having a hard time of it hiking on a trail in California, and starts fantasising about a Hershey bar with nuts in it, which he gets bought for him at the end of the hike with a bottle of port, which turns out to be his favourite wine. Port and nut Hershey bars have been two of my favourite things on this entire trip.

The tyres arrived and I fitted one and packed the other (a folding tyre) away for emergencies. I rolled back down to rejoin my route with best luck wishes in my ear from Lindsay, a 9-yr-old girl who'd befriended my while I was working on the bike. I get good luck wishes often, almost daily, from strangers. But Lindsay's somewhow meant more, as she said it with such gravitas - she came up to me while I was pouring out a coffee in the store and said "I'm going to do something very special for you: I'm going to wish you luck". Typical of a child to realise the value of best wishes when they are meant sincerely.

My mission to get a new tyre was successful, and the detour only cost me 35 miles, and I got the chance to do some nice wild camping, and a few hours reading, and the chance to meet some great people. Speaking of great people and detours, I should probably mention that time I cycled the Grand Canyon. I 'cycled to the Grand Canyon', I still have trouble digesting that sometimes. I went through Zion national park, which looks a bit like this:

Zion was cool, I camped in the park and made friends with neighbours who were up drinking beers after dark. I'd been putting a new bike chain on while wearing disposable nylon gloves to keep the crap off my hands (which takes hours to get off) and wearing my headtorch for light. I'd bought a beer to drink afterwards. My new friends asked "are you performing surgery on your beer?". So I joined them when I'd finished and they gave me more beer. I overheard some people in the park comparing Zion to the Grand Canyon: "In Zion, you stand at the bottom and look up at it, at the Canyon, you stand on the edge and look down into it". This is a nice way of comparing the two places, and gave me an idea of what to expect from the Grand Canyon. But it still blew my mind when I actually looked off the edge and in to it.

Everyone who goes there says it and it's true, it's hard to get your head around the scale of the immensity of what is in front of you. What also took me by surprise is how green the north rim is, you are riding up in to forests until you get to the edge. This was lovely after all those miles of desert riding. Trees - shade! Imagine how good it feels to camp in some shade after you've been pitching your tent spots like this:


I can't mention the Grand Canyon without mentioning Diane. She walked up to me the morning I left the Canyon I was drinking a coffee around 6:30am. She asked me very politely if I was happy to have a chat. I said sure although I was half asleep - I’d got up at 4:45am so I could pack up my tent and get over to a viewpoint for 6am to catch views of the north rim just after sunrise, and was making up my mind whether to set off or wait for the the grocery store to open at 8am to get supplies for the road.

Diane lives in Portland, where I started my trip, with her husband Harry who is a retired post office worker, - she’s a nurse, still working, who takes various contract jobs around the country. She’d seen my bike lent against the wall round the corner, and had obviously had taken a good look at it as she asked a few questions about the make of the bike, who made the wheels, and so forth, and didn’t lose interest when I answered in to some detail about the various quirks of my rig.

Her bright-eyed and wistful smile when engaged in bike talk meant I wasn’t completely surprised to learn that she and her husband are in to cycling, but I was surprised and impressed to learn that she’d toured solo from Portland to Alaska in the 70's (I think) on her Trek bike. She's also done some cycling in the UK around Cornwall from Penzance. We had a great chat about cycle touring and the benefits of travelling alone, and Harry joined us, bought me a refill of coffee, and we talked about cameras, blogging, the national parks, MOT laws in the UK, work, travelling and other stuff.

It was by now 8am so I said goodbye and made to head off to the store. Just as I was leaving Diane caught up with me again - she said that when she did her big tour to Alaska, people she met would sometimes offer to buy her a meal and night in a motel. She then put a $50 note in my hand, saying I’d be able to pass it on to someone else at some point in the future. I'll make sure to.

So I'm rested, refreshed, and about to head out to Bryce. I also took my stove apart and cleaned and fixed it up, as it was acting up. I should be ready for the challenges that this section will offer. I camped last night with a Brit called Adam - we shared the cost of a pitch. He's cycling for charity so check out his blog here: He's going the same way so we swapped contacts in case one of us gets in to a fix.

Time I got moving!