MISSION PLANET UTAH: STAGE 1

Image: Creative Commons

“Whether it was the ergonomics of the planes, the isolation, an individual person’s psychology, or the perspective of being up so high, break-off sometimes seemed to produce emotional extremes in pilots and others being prepped for space exploration. Some not only felt separated from Earth. They also felt like they had detached from reality.” — from The Break-Off Effect, Fast Company


“Mock Mars Mission Starts Saturday in Utah Desert.” — from Space.com, February 2015

There are road trips, and there are bike trips, and then there are…space trips.

This ride report resembles the latter, because after riding 1,200 miles through the great state of Utah—much of it in the southern Utah desert, Capitol Reef Park, and a lot of it up around 10,000 feet—I’ve had a hard time consolidating and describing the experience. Martian? Lunar? Interplanetary? Out of body? Kind of all the above.

Road trips—any kind of travel—can be transformative. This one went a little further. Maybe it was riding in the isolation chamber of a dual-sport helmet for 10 hours a day through otherworldly terrain and bipolar weather, while an old friend was doing ths same in his own space bubble, a throttle twist away. Or maybe it was the relentless psychic pressure of staying upright, especially across unnervingly remote, speck-in-the-desert miles: “Don’t make a mistake…don’t make a mistake…because if you make a mistake…you’re so beyond f*cked. Or maybe it was those disassociating moments of calm, hands still twitching and ears still ringing, trying to commune over bourbon and Cliff bars with my fellow astronaut about the day’s wonders and awes before sleeping it off and doing it all over again, for days straight without pause…

Whatever it was, this journey was transfiguring.

So if you’re curious about our deep-space riding mission on the good ship enduro as we set out to explore Planet Utah, I hope you ride along…


If—like me—you’re at all into dual-sport motorbiking or ADV-riding, you might have heard of the growing number of Back-Country Discovery Routes (or BDRs) that cover some of the most remote and beautiful parts of (American) earth. There’s a Washington BDR, a Colorado BDR, and an Idaho BDR. And then there’s this:

10140523416_d8ef5b74bd     UTBDR-cover

Like the others, the Utah BDR is an ambitious, sprawling, self-guided, mostly off-road route mapped through America’s western backcountry (thank you, Butler Maps) and designed to maximize scenic beauty as viewed from, well, the dirt.

In the case of Utah’s BDR, this encompasses 871 miles of the Beehive State’s finest sand, mud, clay and uranium tailings, from Arizona all the way up to the Idaho border. But what makes the UT BDR so special (IMHO) is the breathtaking variation—and otherworldliness—of its “spacescape.” You can ride through mushroom-capped sandstone valleys, across hours of Mad Max-ish, post-apocalyptic high desert, down into Martian-red canyons…and then up through the more earthly (but no less specatcular) Wasatch Front, enjoying the views from over 10,000 feet. The UT BDR is kinda outta this world.

Besides its creators’ intended designation, I’ve also discovered that “BDR” can also stand for several other things:

Big Diameter Rocks

Brotrip Done Right

Bourbon, Donuts, Ribs

Blustery Downpouring Rain

Blacktop, Dirt, Ridgelines

Backwheel Doing Razzamatazz

Boots Defending Respectably, and, umm…

Breaks Do Result. 

Yes they do, and thank you Curtis—but “these are the breaks” and those curious tire tracks above will all be explained later…

So this, then, was our Mission Utah, our take on the UT BDR, riding a lot of the Beehive State (and even a little bit of Planet Wyoming) in four rocket stages, some on dirt, some on road, some across mountains, and even a short distance on my ass.

Allow me to break it down for you, starting with this.

STAGE ONE: LIFTOFF—SLC TO TORREY

So me and my fellow UVM/Utahnaut brotherman (aka Jonah Houston) have been doing our “middle-age-going-on-16” adventure series for years now, even before we were actually middle-aged.

We’ve surfed Costa Rica and ridden Baja (the subject of a previous post), but this time we decided on a Stateside ride—cleaner water, legit law enforcement, and a vastly lower risk of encountering narco-mules in the middle of deep space desert.

I searched the web for ADV bike rentals in the Western US, but was surprised at how slim the pickings were. There were a gazillion outfits hawking Harleys to German Easy Rider fantasists, so they could get their kicks dressing up like pirates and discovering “die Zoul auf America” on Route 66. (It’s a lot easier to drive to Walmart, amigos).

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 7.41.00 AM

But there was shockingly little in the way of dual-sport rental offerings, despite the sport’s booming popularity. I suppose part of the “adventure” of adventure riding is riding your own bike to the far corners of your imagination—including Utah. But for those of us with jobs, families, mortgages, and time constraints, it’s better to ride there than to ride to there.

That’s why I was happy to stumble across this site:

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 10.39.43 AM

No pirates? Check. No fat, belching, bedazzled roadchrome? Check. No overwrought appeal to self-discovery through leather, gas, endless horizons, and tassels? (For chrissake, who decided that tassels should be attached to machinery? Who?! Why?!) Check.

Great Rides Utah is a fledgling ADV-rental operation out of Salt Lake City (West Valley City, to be precise), run by a pair of enterprising young friends—Patrick and Raphael. It’s conceived to serve ADVenturenauts just like us. You can fly into SLC with your space suit, take a 12-minute taxi to their shop, load up your bike, and be riding out to the desert or mountains as soon as you can buckle your helmet. (Just take it out of the bag first, J).

Great Rides Utah rents a number of two-wheeled, all-terrain exploratory vehicles: Suzuki DRs, Kawasaki KLRs, Triumph Tigers, and a BMW or two, as well as Wolfman soft luggage and Garmin GPSs. At home I pilot a Yamaha Super Ténéré, which I suppose you could consider the Fat Boy of ADV bikes. For a rental, I opted for a KLR because I’m fatter than Jonah, and wanted some mechanical weight to better convey my body weight. (Alas, unlike in outer space, in Utah space you’re still subject to the laws of gravity). Here’s my spacecraft:

Jonah, on the other hand, flies a sprightly KTM 690 at his home in NorCal. So he opted for the lighter, more lissome Suzuki DR. But what it achieves in off-road ability it significantly sacrifices in exploratory range; the DR holds about a teaspoon of gas, so you have to carry extra fuel in a tail-mounted rotopack. (And an MSR fuel bottle, if your co-pilot is kind enough to schlep one for you in his pannier.)

The Wolfman soft panniers take a few minutes to figure out, but once you get the hang of them, they’re great. They hold ample bikecrap, and form a perfect space-seal. I can attest to this after dragging the left one some distance through Utah dirt and clay on the only lowside of the trip (again, more on that later).

Here’s Rafael, one of the Great Rides owners (and a super guy) helping us batten down the hatches. Note the double-sheepskin for extra-strength buttitudinal prophylaxis; in space no one can hear your ass scream, but it will still most definitely hurt. The Kriega tailbag is my own (truly excellent kit, too), and carried an ample first aid kit, along with t-shirts, extra riding shorts, and our re-entry parachute.

We filled out insurance forms (a good idea whenever you leave the planet), left our duffels and other earthly belongings in a corner of their shop, suited up, shook hands, and headed out.

It felt a little weird to don full ADV-suits for a 1 mile ride to the Staybridge Suites where we were overnighting before early AM liftoff. But there was no other way to portage them. Halfway into this shakedown flight, we landed at Chilis for some dinner. (Did you know you can get gas at Chilis, too?)

Guess which one of these two Utahnauts had the longer (originating) flight?

After gassing up on beans and cheesy artichoke dip, we cruised to Staybridge for some pre-ride route consultation, a nightcap, and sleep.

A note about navigation: while we both had (and had been studying) Butler Utah BDR maps, our friends Raphael and Patrick were kind enough to pre-load our GPS units with 4 days’ worth of exploration, based on our discussions leading up to the trip. I wanted us to cover a good part of the BDR, but with a few qualifications:

TIME  Given our work and family obligations, we had 4 solid days of riding time (in addition to the 2 days we needed to get to and from SLC)—which is still ridiculously tight for a Utah BDR run, especially if you encounter weather. And you will encounter weather.

DISTANCE  The BDR runs South to North from Utah’s border with Arizona to Idaho. So in order to just get to a starting point (like Mexican Hat in the south) requires a 360 mile ride—a lot of it on slab. That’s an entire day’s “pre-ride.” No time for that.

GNARLINESS  Much of the BDR is totally rideable, even by modest off-road standards—well-graded dirt or gravel roads that allow you to make fairly good speed across huge distances. But some of the BDR sections can be pretty technical. I told Raphael and Patrick that I had no problem with a little mud or some scrappier trail riding, but no single-track or deep sand for me. I wasn’t interested in increasing the odds of a medical adventure.

So Raphael prepared a nice dirt and back road route for Day One, which would get us to our first overnight spot down south, in Torrey.

First, we helped ourselves to our STAYBRIDGE SUITES FREE BREAKFAST! prepared in part with technology used on the International Space Station. All I know is someone’s getting a Nobel Prize for this.

Then we packed up…

Sacked up…

And suited up in search of adventure. Liftoff at 0740.

Now, I happen to have the same Garmin Zumo navigational device on my bike at home that Great Rides uses, so I was pretty familiar with the technology. I simply tapped in “ROUTES,” twisted the throttle, and started following the first one that came up on the screen.

It took us down some spectacular roads leading to higher elevations, including Utah’s own beehived-variant of Route 66.

Pretty soon we’d climbed into the mountains, and stopped at this a scenic vista. A nice older couple in an immaculate Austin Healey offered to take our picture. As the gentleman commented, “we’ve all got our toys, haven’t we?” Amen, earthling, amen.

Spacemen with space toys. Mountains and rayguns not included.

Now, partly due to either Day One adrenaline or altitude euphoria—but more likely to my own stupidity —we were following a route that was taking us north, despite the fact that our destination was decidedly south. For some odd reason (uh, idiocy?) this had failed to register with me, even though the GPS, road signs. and rising eastern sun clearly indicated that we were travelling in the exact opposite of our intended direction.

I recognized this navigational error somewhere around here:

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 9.59.48 AM

Oh. Gee. Ogden. Oops.

After a quick call to ground control (Raphael), it became clear that I was following a route, but not the route. He’d stored our waypoints under the My Trips app on the unit…but I was following some random route leading us north. Upon entering the proper Day One coordinates, it became obvious that our Mission was already critically behind.

It was 10 o’clock in the morning when I realized the error; and at this point, Raphael’s GPS route (which included quite a bit of dirt) would be getting us to Torrey at close to 11 pm, over 400 miles later. We’d just added 100 extra miles to the day.

Spacemen, improvise!

So we found our way to I-15 and then headed south on the hot slab, back through the entire urban sprawl of Salt Lake City, intent on making up time. But we got stuck in construction traffic for a good hour just south of Salt Lake, broiling in our spacesuits, and watching the hours trickle away. When the traffic finally eased, we made some better time, but hopped off at Spanish Fork to get gas, and forge a new plan.

While we gassed up at Texaco, we sought the counsel of this earthling known as CC, aka “Crazy Cow,” a local trucker who also works part-time at the fuel station. CC knew his roads, but more importantly knew the times and epic distances of southern Utah.

CC’s counsel? Scrap the GPS route, and take Route 6 down to Tucker, where we could pick up Skyline Drive—a 100 mile off-road route along the ridge of the southern Wasatch plateau, at altitudes between 9,000 and 11,000 feet.

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 8.38.36 AM

We figured we could head south on Skyline for as long as seemed reasonable, then peel off from the mountains down to “oil road” in order to make better time towards Torrey. So we thanked CC, filled our tanks and Camelbacks, and headed out.

Route 6 takes you up and into the Manti-Lasal National Forest and ultimately to the Skyline trailhead.

A little bit of our ascent.

By the time we reached Skyline, the skyline was looking kind of like a solar death storm.

But we were up, and there was only one way out— south, along the trail. So off we went. Being a dirty snowpile enthusiast, I must say that it warmed my heart to see this patch of frozen filth at the outset of our Skyline journey…

A bit of video from the start…

As you can see, we were riding into some kind of weather event. For some crazy reason, every time I’m doing something with the Brotherman, we seem to wind up dodging electrical storms. We’ve surfed in electrical storms, ridden Baja in electrical storms, and now here we were at 10,000 feet, doing our best to have fun without being reduced to a pile of smoldering cosmic dust.

The calm before the storm.

The good news (I guess) is that when the skies finally unleashed, it wasn’t with lightning, but with hail. Dime-sized hail, pelting our helmets and tanks like little frozen asteroids. The hail didn’t seem to collect on the trail, though. It just melted, which only made the riding muddier and wetter and more…adventurous?

It also didn’t help that we had no time to put on our rain liners, so we got soaked, and were starting to freeze. I didn’t anticipate needing winter gloves for this ride, but my hands were quickly turning to ice blocks. After about 43 miles of Skylining it (at a ginger 20 mph pace), we decided to descend to lower elevations.

On the way down through the atmospheres, beautiful Utah wildflowers…

We popped out in a small town called Spring City, named after the fresh mountain spring in the center of town. Down here it was warm and delightful.

We washed up and filled up. Every ten minutes, another carload of locals stopped at the public spring to do the same. Jonah, supplicating before the Water Gods.

One of the locals approached to ask how our journey was going, and offered to provide us with directional assistance. How can you turn down a man who’s wearing a flying saucer on his head?

I can’t remember his name, but he was hoot—sort of a local goodwill ambassador for Spring City, and he certainly earned ours during our chat.

We met some other friends along the way down into the valley, too. Sadly, his one didn’t make it through reentry.

So it was gas up, wipe up, and suit up for the oncoming rain. As you can see, I shifted to a one-sheepskin setup because they start acting like giant man-pons in the rain, attracting and retaining water and I was sitting in a cold wet pile of sheep.

Since it was already late afternoon, we hopped on 89 to make some better space-time towards our destination. We headed south through Ephraim, and then Manti. South of there, I saw my front tire clip something as we motored along, and went back to check it out. It wasn’t one of those squiggly road tar snakes; it was an actual snake-snake (by my Googling, a gopher snake). Still alive and moving, although part of him clearly got clipped. I picked him up and put him back in the grass where all snakes belong, and wished him Godpeed.

We proceeded through Centerfield and ultimately Salina, where we switched over to Route 24…the final flight to Torrey. Around Burrville, we stopped to check out this collection of spacerocks.

The marker commemorates a meeting between Brigham Young and Chief Pah-Ga-Ne-Ap in 1873, establishing a peace between the Mormon settlers and local Indian Tribes. It was sealed with a handshake, and the peace was never broken. Why doesn’t that degree of simplicity, intention, and agreement ever seem to happen on earth these days? As Jonah would say with one of his verbal emoticos, “sad face.”

Finally, after nearly 400 miles in the saddle (100 more than we’d expected), and enough rain to reconstitute a sheepskin into a living, breathing sheep, we rolled into here—Austin’s Chuck Wagon, General Store, Bakery, Deli…

Motel…

Cabins…

and showers…

But mostly motel.

Which, if you don’t mind me pointing out, has a faintly scatalogical logo (it was really an incredibly clean and friendly place…why have branding that makes it look like a neon dump?)

Since it was 50 degrees and still raining, Jonah needed some head cover other than his space helmet. So he opted for a Utah Route 12 cap in KTM Orange. A little matchy-match, but I guess he’s a brand-loyalist.

When you’re travelling by motorbike and arrive at your destination after 400 miles in the soaking saddle, de-helmet, unsnap, unzip, de-Velcro and peel yourself out of your waterlogged riding kit, and take a hot decompression shower, the last thing you want to do is get back on the bike in search of dinner. I’d sooner eat sugar packets from the in-room coffee service.

So we donned civvies, reacquainted ourselves with gravity, and hoofed it up the road to the Capitol Reef Cafe.

One thing you can say about the menu art—it’s honest.

Not the greatest dining optics; half the restaurant opens up to a gift shop filled with bad earth-toned sweatshirts, dream catchers, and “tribal motif” tchotchkes.  But the chow was fresh and delicious. Look, Liebe! Like Dr. Steve Brule says, “For your colon health!”

After dining with Southey, Travis & Dusty, we shuffled back to Austin’s in the wind and rain, made sure our spacecraft were securely tethered to Austin’s hitching post, rolled out our spacefoil motel bedrolls, reflected on the day’s ride by the light of our handheld electric campfires, shared shots of Bulleit from a gravity-resistant Nalgene travel flask, and fell into a saddle-sore, deep-space Planet Utah sleep.

Little did we know that we’d wake up to Goblins, moonscapes, a red clay planet, and something other than dawn breaking…

Next up, Planet Utah, Stage Two.

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