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!

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