The body wilts before the spirit does, so it didn’t occur to two 41-year-old men that they might not be able to pedal 155 miles in three days through southeastern Utah on bikes loaded with the essentials: water, food, bedroll … tobacco, coffee, beer.
The plan was simple. Pedal from Nizhoni Campground to Elk Ridge, down between Bears Ears, across Cedar Mesa, through Valley of the Gods, pause to jump in the San Juan River, then hightail it up U.S. Route 191 to Blanding and thumb a ride back to Nizhoni campground. It was a perfect plan on paper, hatched three days before launch. The two middle-aged men—myself and Jeremy—would refill canteens and bladders from the creeks and springs scattered across the high desert.
Nizhoni sits 7000 feet above sea level. We enjoyed our first night sipping onion soup and lukewarm ale. Ponderosa pines towered above us as somber watchmen. Their discarded needles, dry as cabernet, provided a natural downy mattress.
We set out the next morning, and for 25 miles over the course of eight hours, we wended along a dusty dirt road. To the north we could see the peaks of the Abajo Mountains, to the south, Comb Wash yawning toward Arizona. We intended to measure our trip not by miles, but by landscapes. After all, the value of travel is found in diversity, not distance. We’d circumvent the stark Chippean Rocks then bask in the hellish heat of the cactus-covered badlands. So far, so good. We put Chippean Ridge behind us by midafternoon.
Around 7pm we reached Duck Lake, our refill point.
It was dry.
Jeremy’s hamstrings cramped and his stomach turned—signs of heat exhaustion. My back throbbed—a sign of old age. A hermit thrush trilled thoughtfully. We did the logical thing and cracked a beer. We also flagged down a camper and bummed a liter of water.
That night we ate heartily and drank half our beer. We’d earned the right, by god, gaining 7000 cumulative feet. Besides, we reasoned, indulging would lighten the load. My evening cigar tasted of cedar and nuts. An elk trudged through camp before dawn, chomping at the forest floor.
After granola and coffee for breakfast, we did old-man yoga in the sun, which is another way of saying we tried to stretch our inflexible bags of bones. Then we deliberated: if Duck Lake is dry at 8700 feet, what of water in the desert? Our maps indicated washes, springs, reservoirs—but would they be wet?
We began pedaling and again hailed a couple in a truck. “You have beer but no water?” they queried. “My kind of men.” They shared three liters and news that the route ahead was rife with campers, but not water. We decided the responsible choice was to stop imposing on others’ goodwill and ride to Blanding along Cottonwood Creek and then drink more beer. Bears Ears and Valley of The Gods would have to wait.
From Blanding we hitched a ride in a van back to the Subaru, then bathed in a reservoir and ate a steakhouse burger. But we had to see what might have been, so after dinner we drove out on the desert floor near Mexican Hat and laid our beds on a wind-bitten expanse. Sand grains gathered at the corners of my eyes and mouth. Moonlight drenched the scene in silver.
After driving and exploring another day, we discovered we probably could have completed our bike route. We found reservoirs and stale puddles. Next time when we’re a little older and more mature, we will plan better. For even when the body is full and tired, the spirit is hungry and eager.
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