Durango to Moab 2020, the prelude

I am crying in a Tahoe motel room, a meltdown precipitated by the sound of someone coughing in the hallway and the buzz of a group chat update: with days to go before our scheduled departure from Durango, only half of us have COVID test results.

The delay presents a problem somewhere between moral calculus and an LSAT question. Are the negatives willing to travel with unknowns, if a positive result delivered en route would disqualify the whole car? What if someone’s still waiting on results by the time we’re supposed to head into the backcountry? Would a result even mean anything if it was—at that point—a week old?

This is my first attempt at going anywhere since These Challenging Times began. I’d pictured long weekends training at altitude all spring; instead I’ve hardly been more than riding distance from my one-room apartment in four months. I’m overwhelmed by the sidewalks crowded with tourists, bristle at the man who stands too close to me at check-in.

“If we go and someone gets sick it’ll be my fault because it was my idea,” I protest.

“You’re giving yourself way too much credit,” Ryan says. “Everyone’s an adult. Everyone’s here because they chose to be here.”

“I know,” I croak, “but still.”

Gas station purchase, apropros

COVID conditions were still excruciatingly uncertain at the point we’d had to decide whether to keep our reservation—muddled questions about transmission, ongoing shortages of PPE. In the Bay Area it was all grim headlines and hand sanitizer recipes, NextDoor pile-ons and neighbors berating each other for mask lapses on the street. But when I called the tour company in Colorado they had answered breezily that they were operating more or less as as normal. The dissonance rattled my skull.

The group met to discuss it it—over Zoom. We are all Good Citizens, or at least very much want to be, and so it was and remains difficult to separate actual fear of getting or spreading the virus from fear of appearing not to care. Two of the party are married to nurses. The rest know enough.

Was the situation so unclear that clearly we shouldn’t go, or clearly so unclear that we should? On the one hand the news cycle seemed to birth some fresh hell daily. On the other hand, next year things might be even worse. “Personally I am oscillating between fuck-no and YOLO roughly every three hours,” I write to the boys. “This is friggin’ crazy,” one replies.

My question but very much not my answer sheet

Now we pass through one-street towns in Nevada, shambling storefronts with angry Sharpie bans on entry to anyone with a mask on. I still don’t have a COVID result. Online, commentators wonder why we don’t batch test like the Rwandans. From the back seat I try to work out how you’d determine the optimal number of samples per batch, given a certain infection rate. The engineer in the car is initially amused by this, less amused when my remedial math questions make us miss the turn to Provo.

When we finally arrive there we stop for lunch at a city park. The other tables are occupied by big families of unmasked Mormons. I’m not sure if they believe in COVID, but I know they believe in heaven and so I stay as far away as I can. Hours later it’s orderly, distanced queues for groceries in Grand Junction, then onward to signed threats on the “fashist” governor’s life just a few miles down the road.

One nation, individuals.

‘Welcome to our world’

In Silverton at last we’re sorting gear in the motel room when there’s a loud crash and a panicked wail from the parking lot below. I turn to the window and see a big touring motorcycle down, the rider convulsing on the pavement. At first it seems he’s been hit, but his passenger, frantic, screams to onlookers that he’s having a seizure. A flurry of activity. Her hands to her face.

He is alright now, it seems, but my heart is pounding. I don’t want to make a habit of crying in front of my friends in motel rooms, but for a moment I think I might again. Empathy for the stranger condenses quickly into judgement as I gather myself. I think of the winding, shoulder-less mountain road up from Ouray, the sheer rock and long fall to the river below. It’s one thing to choose yourself to ride yourself, with such a dangerous condition, but to take someone else with you? How irresponsi—and the word comes screeching to a halt on my tongue.

The countdown to departure is all tradeoffs and squabbles. Garmin has been hacked, hilariously, and I can’t determine if my SOS device will still work. The weather is deteriorating and we’ve bought up all the gardening gloves from the hardware store. I’m shedding pack weight in ridiculous, desperate ways (do I need both spare socks?) at the same time that Ryan’s trying to convince me to bring canned oxygen and Jacob is distributing hand-carved spoons. Meanwhile Sean’s in the parking lot offloading mangos and yogurt to a party of four-wheelers in an attempt to clean out his car. “Hey, thanks, man,” they say.

I bark and nag and fret until we have all six of us assembled on time (!) at the shuttle pickup spot. The driver steps out of the van with temperature gun drawn. Six moments of truth.

CLEAR!

When we unload the bikes at the trailhead the actual clouds are gathering into grim gray fists—but the metaphorical ones have parted into sunshine. I know the week ahead is likely to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. We have 200 miles to cover—today’s opener all above 11,000 feet, with weather incoming, on a bike I’ve never even ridden fully loaded. But I feel, for a moment, weightless. “Here we go!” someone says, but “We made it!” is all I can think.

Water Canyon to Park City, 8/29–9/4

Water Canyon

Enormous black crickets burst out of the grass.

Winnemucca

The singletrack called “Bloody Shins” rides slow waves of sagebrush, to which I’ve only recently realized I am wildly allergic. (Because the plant’s range corresponds almost perfectly with places I’m interested in going, I had previously assumed that vacation itself was making me sick. This was perhaps a capitalist plot.)

Through a stream of snot and tears, I puzzle over the name: out here, no rocks, no exposure, no bad sight lines, nothing technical at all … what gives? It’s the sagebrush, I discover, with my shins, as I gather speed—or rather, that it doesn’t.

The Rubies

I first came to Liberty Lake in the snow and the evening and it felt like a faraway secret. This time I share the hike up with screaming kids and pairs of women in yoga pants, men with speakers in one hand and coffee in the other. I’ll have to work a little harder for some space.

I find it the next day in the talus fields below Snow Lake Peak, pushing past slabs and scree and the usual crescendo chorus—turn back, turn back, turn back, you’ll fall, you’ll fall, you’ll fall—until I can at least and at last peer over the spine into Thomas Canyon on the other side. This moment of unveiling is 90 percent of what I wanted. I will be back one day for the rest.

The only people I encounter up here are a pair of grouse hunters in their 70s. One is in vintage teal Polartec and a deerstalker, the other head-to-toe camo and a Wyatt Earp mustache. His eyes are lost in the somber folds of his face. “See any big birds?” he asks me. I shake my head. “No birds and no friggin’ goats, either.”

He raises one furry eyebrow and I’m immediately ashamed for swearing. I want to move on from this and so I ask the best way down off the ridge. I could retrace my steps but it’s going to scare me. He swaps his rifle to his other shoulder. “Well, it’s hard country,” he says.

Bonneville Flats

I arrive close to midnight, following GPS to a pin dropped in BLM blankness. I pass turnouts occupied by what appear to be semi-permanent family compounds, pavilion tents and rifle stands, big men watching the road from camp chairs. Peering through the dust and dark for another option I nearly dump my little 2WD RAV4 in a three foot-deep pothole the size of a bus. Enough, I think, and pull off into the darkness. Play it where it lies.

When I open the door in the morning it’s into a sandy wash at the base of a mountain I didn’t know was there. I wander the lower slopes and tell myself the summit is choss so that I’ll continue on to Salt Lake City. How is it even now there’s not enough time?

Park City

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate a Henry Coe bushwhack, our EBRPD fire-break hike-a-bikes, the Sierra suffer-fests and ego-checks, and every minute spent lost in the woods in Santa Cruz. But I’ll admit, every now and then I just want to follow signs to the summit. I want to cruise perfectly buffed and graded traverses, make every effortless switchback like I know what I’m doing, take a roller coaster down, nice surprises only. Eat pizza, take a hot shower, sleep in a bed. For that, Park City and a big bike. Let ‘er rip. 

Reno to Elko, 10/7-10/8

It’s a 12-hour drive from Berkeley to Ketchum, and I’m dreading it. I fantasize about relocating Nevada to the other side of Colorado. I complain the whole state is “in the way of the good stuff.” I say this to people, out loud!

I’ve rarely been so wrong about a place or so glad about it.

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The pleasant surprises start the moment I kick open the car door and stumble into the light of Water Canyon. I rolled in late, frazzled by gas-station coffee and hours winnowing through semis on dark desert highway. I didn’t know where I’d landed, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this: a crystalline morning, creekbed aspens rattling and fluttering in a fresh breeze as if animated by spirits à la “Colors of the Wind.” There’s nobody else here and the sky’s enormous. I feel drunk but need to keep driving.

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… things you never knew you never knew.

In Elko some hours later, I found the Folklife Museum—contrary to its name—rather too slick for my taste. But across the street at J.M. Capriola Co. (“Rancher and Cowboy Headquarters Since 1929”) the same glass cases of bits and spurs are for sale and therefore, in America, real. I have lunch next door, in a dim diner with a low ceiling, between a construction foreman and an old man in baggy fatigues. There is a sweating gray slab of meatloaf behind the counter and this is exactly what I wanted. (For atmosphere, I mean, not to eat.)

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Left: Look, don’t touch. Right: Buy, don’t look.

I drive to Lamoille Canyon on the recommendation of a photographer who shot it for the cover of Via (of all things): to be clear, I’m saying I literally found this place on Instagram. Despite this, it is so outstanding and so empty that I confess my first impulse—raw hypocrisy—is to keep it a secret. It takes me nearly two hours to cover the 12 miles to the trailhead because I can’t pass a single turnout without stopping to gawk at new iterations of snow and sagebrush and granite and sky.

lamoillecanyon

Consequently it’s late afternoon before I actually start hiking, and I quickly lose the trail in snow. Per usual, I’m solo, map-less, and paranoid; I’ve just given up—in fact, am scouting out a tent spot—when I spot mule tracks switchbacking up the slope. The sun drops below the cirque at the exact moment I glance down at my watch; the chill is immediate. I dither.

But in the end I make a run for it. I crest the pass snotty and wheezing, but the roar in my ears is angels singing, surely, because I am just in time for this:

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To pay it forward I will in fact disclose that this is Liberty Lake. However, know that if you go there on my beta and leave trash (I found lots) I will see you in hell.

When I get back to the parking lot the next morning, an older couple is packing up their rental car. They are the first people I’ve seen anywhere in the canyon not wearing head-to-toe camo and they approach me smiling instead of staring. “We saw your California plates,” they say, by way of introduction.”Would you like some pizza?”

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