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!


  1. That starry sky picture is incredible. Also, you should feel beyond proud of what you've managed to put yourself through.

    1. Thanks dude, much appreciated as always! I certainly owe you a beer when I return for cheering me on!

  2. I love the "drizzle castles" of Bryce Canyon Again, a wonderful account of your journey, not sure how you are going to top this trip!! xx

    1. I reckon you & Dad should make a trip out this way sometime, you'd love the camping x

  3. Definitely the best blog yet! I found myself cheering you on as I was reading it! Congrats on the centenary!

  4. Wow what an adventure! You are a tough guy. I grew up in Southern Utah and man it is definitely hot there and yet so many cyclist pass through. Did you get to see Gunlock? That's my hometown!
    You must have seen many beautiful sites!

  5. Hi Jaesi thanks for the comment - this stretch of Utah was definitely one of the most memorable things I did on my trip! I didn't get to see Gunlock unfortunately, I rode the I-15 out of Vegas, through the Valley of Fire (amazing!), then Mesquite, St George, Hurricane and then off out on route 9 through Zion. Really beautiful part of the world - the passes up on the Veterans Memorial Highway were awesome to cycle through!