MISSION PLANET UTAH: STAGE 2

Ground Control to Major Tom….Ground Control to Major Tom….

Take your protein pills…

and put your helmet on…

Ground Control to Major Tom (Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six)

Commencing countdown, engines on (Five, Four, Three)

Check ignition and may God’s love be with you…

On Tuesday, we awoke in Sector Torrey to a motel room like a space wreck.

A chaotic detonation of helmets, boots, straps, cables, cameras, gloves, goggles, hydration bladders, maps, GPS navigators, bike tools, protein bars, rescue kit, and rain- and sweat-soaked gear. All of which would have to be reassembled, airlocked, and mounted to our waiting craft.

Unfortunately, atmospheric conditions weren’t particularly favorable; the satellites were calling for astral rain.

Still, it was time to get moving. Today was Stage Two of our Mission Planet Utah, and the great high desert beckoned. We’d logged nearly 400 miles the day before, but much of it—with the exception of our high-altitude traverse of Skyline Drive—on plain old road.

Today would be our day of Curiosity, our Mars Rover Mission, a journey into, onto and through terra indomita. We’d be riding through the rocky spacescape of Capitol Reef Park and the San Rafael Swellout of radio contact and into the void. Here’s our route, from the Basecamp waypoints.

Jonah and I had done some desert riding years before, but with a professional guide and chase truck. Today, we were on our own. Whatever carried us in would have to carry us out—bikes, arms, legs, water, fuel, tools, and tiny bit of fortitude.

Some preflight fueling.

Jonah had pulled into Torrey the night before on literal fumes, sputtering and balking his way into the parking lot. So he added just enough reserve to get him down the road to the Texaco on Route 24 for a proper fill-up. We also took advantage of the deli/bakery/donut shop in the back of Austin’s to caffeinate and fill our bellies, two space cowboys mingling with real cowboys, truckers, French tourists, and the local staff. (BTW, not a bad cup of coffee for the middle of nowhere.)

Our flight-plan called for a short blast east from Torrey on Route 24, then south on the fabled Utah Route 12 towards Boulder, climbing up to 9400 feet. The riding was wet and winding through a cool, strangely alpine eco-band, but gorgeous despite the rain, with thick stands of alternating evergreen and birch. Much of the ride was through open cattle range, and we found ourselves pausing to eye-check the roving herds; every now and then a few cattle would meander onto the roadway, as if they wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I don’t normally associate cattle with speed, but a few times, a cow and its calf broke into a run. Those beasts can move, and I really wouldn’t want to hit one. You’d be the road steak, not them.

Doing the alpine slide up Route 12.

And near the top.

Utahnauts.

At Boulder, and after temporary loss of visual contact (I went left, Jonah went right, and without any cell coverage, it took about 40 minutes to locate each other), we fueled up here at Hills & Hollows before breaking from Route 12 and heading east on Burr Trail Road.

Not quite Devil’s Tower, but the start of desert otherworldliness.

Burr Trail was a fantastic winding ribbon of road through the increasingly lunar landscape. It started with low Navajo Sandstone cuestas and outcroppings…

which give way to Martian-red petrified dunes.

We had to stop and climb one.

One small step for us…

One giant step for ADVenture-kind.

The only thing missing was a flag to plant. But that would have been hard without a power drill and masonry bit. It wasn’t just rock; it was petrified.

Here’s an out-of-breath Utahnaut describing the scene (maybe my air-exchange system wasn’t functioning properly, or maybe I’m just pathetically out of shape).

The view in 360…

With the Martian rock conquered, we returned to our spacecraft and pressed on.

About ten miles in, we approached the rim of—and descended down into—Long Canyon, a mind-blowing red-rock slash in the Utah desert. Long Canyon has an EPIC road threading through it (it’s actually a continuation of Burr Trail) which takes you on a horizontal roller-coaster ride for seven miles, caroming between sheer stone walls that tower hundreds of feet above either side of you. The optics and riding are spectacular.

Here’s the start of Long Canyon, where we paused to marvel.

A low-res reconnaissance video. Not the best quality, but what a ride…

Two observations (beyond shock and awe). First, it was threatening rain (or drizzling) during most of our Long Canyon ride. And although we made it through unscathed, in hindsight it’s become clear how dangerous it was to enter a desert canyon before any kind of storm. Canyoneeringusa.com has this to say:

• The storm drops a very large amount of water over a small area, in a small time. These storms commonly drop up to 4″ of rain in fifteen minutes. The desert soil, baked by the summer heat, does not absorb much of anything, and the water runs off. 
• Runoff collects in gulleys, which lead to washes that lead to canyons. Because water runs faster when deeper, the water collects into a bit of a leading wave. Downcanyon, we hapless hikers are trapped in the narrow canyon when the water reaches us, concentrated by the narrow canyon walls. Death or discomfort occur. (Credit and © 2015 Canyoneering USA.)

We obvioulsly lucked out. We weren’t equipped for a tidal wave.

My second observation is that while the road was paved, in many places (as you can see in the video) it was covered with earth from previous washouts. So two-wheeled riders should spool-up with caution: just around that next red rock corner there’s often a carpet of sketchy red sand. Pilot accordingly.

After Long Canyon, Burr Road finally gives up all domestic pretensions and yields completely to dirt.

It does so here, at the front door of Capitol Reef National Park, a 400-square-mile treasure of out-of-this-world geological wonder, right here on our own earth.

To be fair, I’d heard of Capitol Records, but hadn’t even heard of Capitol Reef before we’d ridden it. But it’s up in the league of the Grand Canyon for spectacle and glory. The National Park Service couldn’t have said it much better:

“Located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles…”

Much of which, I might add, is best explored from the seat of a dualsport.

Burr Trail in the park concludes with a series of spectacular switchbacks that take you down several hundreds of feet, and through some incredible rock formations. Here’s the view from Google Earth…

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 10.24.32 AM

And part of the ride down on my KLR.

The switchbacks spill you out on lower, flatter ground, where we picked up the Notom-Bullfrog Road. We enjoyed hammering it after picking our way through the earlier muddy washouts. Great speed, making good time, with spectacular vistas. But no sight of Major Tom…

Here’s our best Charley Boorman/Ewan McGregor imitation:

The clouds finally yielded for a bit as we rolled into Hanksville for some food and fuel at Stan’s Burger Shak.

Kind of funny placing a fast-food order in a space suit. Still, while they were grilling (chicken sandwich, Liebe) I went back outside to de-gear and soak up some warmth.

The ride after Hanksville was probably the wildest and most aggressive of our trip. The sun was finally out, with puffball clouds and achingly bright Utah skies—for the time being, no threat of rain. We headed north on a freshly-oiled Utah 24. If you have to ride pavement, man, you wanna ride like this.

A ways north, we peeled off again onto the dirt, for a mad scramble around Temple Mountain. For the first time on our ride I found myself wishing for a roost guard. Jonah can really ride off-road, with much credit going to his mountain bike racing. I’m much slower (all I have is skiing to lean on, but it’s a useful MX reference— alot of the same balance and physics and instincts). We blasted around Temple mountain, spraying scree, sliding, hammering the uphills and dancing around the downhills—literally having the time of our lives.

When the trail flattened out, so did something else. Ruh-roh.

We’d been on a high speed groove for a couple of miles, getting up on the pegs through rocky, rutted sections. But after a while, my front started to meander. So I stopped, had a look and voila: pinch-flat in the desert.

The wounded mule. But a helluva picturesque spot to get a flat.

Thankfully we’d prepared for this, carrying everything from spare tubes to the right size axle-nut wrenches for both bikes to a Slime air pump. So while I balanced the KLR on its kickstand and back tire…

“DR” Houston performed surgery. Glad we watched a few YouTubes in preparation for this…

Axle nut off. Axle bolt off. Axle off. Brake caliper and speedo cable out of the way. A little bead breaking and pulling, and we’re on our way. Jonah, thanking the Flat Gods that he sprang for 3 tire spoons instead of 2…

In about 25 minutes, we were back, aired up, and on our way. Thanks for levering, Brother J. The rest of the afternoon was just one stunning outerspacescape after another. Buckhorn Draw Road…

the dramatic Water Pocket fold…

Interstellar, man. Simply interstellar.

Abstract sandstone Mount Rushmore. See whatever face you’d like. It sort of looked like a clustered pride of lions to me.

Then came the clouds again…

We pushed forward. And near Buckhorn Draw, we encountered this little pebble.

It felt like we felt pushing against this crazy weather…a Sysyphean effort.

It was begining to look a lot like Christ-what-the-hell-is-happening-above-us-mas.

Faster, Utahnauts, faster!

Even though the weather was really rolling in (again), we couldn’t help but to stop and dismount to admire the incredible, ancient Buckhorn Wash pictographs, painted on the canyon walls over 2,000 years ago.

They were created by ancient Indians called the “Barrier Canyon People” But I have a secret theory that they were actually Jewish. I call this one “Lighting Menorah on 6th Night of Hanukkah.”

Oh shoot. Here comes the rain again.

Canyon rock on Oil Dome Road. We hightailed it out of here.

Um, brother J, do those skies look kinda threatening to you?

We had about 40 miles or so to make before Price, but it became clear that we were never going to outrun the storm. So we stopped on a section of Oil Dome Road to put on our rain liners, just before or the skies unleashed. Biblically.

The next twenty miles were pure white-knuckle terror riding across the flats; we could see lightning, and on this final stretch we were easily the tallest objects around. On metal. Compounding this was the round, wet, widely-spaced gravel on the road, which was way sketchier than riding grooved pavement. The bikes took on a mind of their own, and even at 20 or 30 mph, it was hard to keep them tracking straight, and not wobbling, floating or slipping sideways. I kept watching the miles tick down on the GPS and telling myself “don’t fall…don’t fall…no mistakes…don’t fall.” Oh, and “don’t get hit by lightning. Please don’t get hit by lightning…”

After an hour of this, with my neck and limbs stiff like kevlar, the rain finally let up. The road ahead was drying, my shoulders relaxed, and we picked up a bit of speed.

But 20 miles outside of Price, despite a mostly dried dirt road, we started hitting random patches of wet adobe clay. It is legendary among Utah riders, and lethal. Adobe is just like the clay used to spin shapes on pottery wheels; add a little water, and it is slick as snot. Against knobby motorbike tires it is no more tractable. Like the mug you’ll soon become, you just hit it and spin.

My first patch of this was completely unnerving—instant loss of traction, violent sliding back and forth, and a battle just to stay upright. I rode it out, probably because I was tipped off first; Jonah was in lead, and I saw him hit it and power-wobble. So I had a moment to back off the throttle and try to finesse it out, but barely.

Then, a a few hundred yards later, my adobe luck ran out.

This time I didn’t have the same visual lead, since I’d slowed down and let Jonah ride further ahead. He hit it and almost bought the farm when he simultaneously course-corrected to stay upright and avoid hitting a surprise deer. (Surprise, Dear!)

I hit the same patch moments later, around 35 mph, and was quickly thrown into a violent tankslapper, pitching back and forth until gravity, physics, and the slime did its thing. This ended as all bad things do, sideways, in the earth.

Looks like karma just took a space-poop on you, Astroboy:

I bounced up pretty quickly, but in the flailing tankslapper I think I dragged my left foot at speed, torquing it nicely. Ouch. But other than this and having my bell rung, I felt reasonably okay. GIANT props to my Leatt neck brace. I felt my helmet hit the mud but remember it actually feeling not unpleasanant—the Leatt keeps your head from moving more than a few degrees in any direction other than side to side. Worked like a charm. Also, a shout-out to my my excellent boots (Sidi Adventures) which couldn’t have prevented the twisiting, but otherwise took incredibly good care of my legs and feet.

When I tried to climb back onto the KLR, it became clear that I’d done something to my ankle. most likely sprained it. I had to mount from the right side, and once in the saddle, couldn’t upshift with my left foot. So for the next 20 miles I improvised, using the little plastic bump on the inside heel of my boot to up-shift. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. (See the SPOILER ALERT at the very bottom if you want to know what ultimately happened to my ankle.)

Thus, after about 280 miles and most of the day on dirt (total orbit now close to 700 miles), these two Utahnauts churned through their reentry sequence back to civilization, but Mission Planet Utah: Stage Two came to a bathetic end: lumping into the Price Holiday Inn Express in rain and pain.

Jonah did a hero’s job with the bikes and our space-kit, and even hooked me up with a WalMart ankle brace and a chicken pot pie (thank you, Brotherman). I just hobbled to the elevator, got to the room, peeled off my spacesuit…

…Took a hot decompression shower and 800 mg of ibuprofen, licked my metaphorical wounds, and reflected on the moons we’d just visited. Oh, and I had a small dose of mankind’s oldest medicine.

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles 

I’m feeling very still…

And I think my spaceship knows which way to go

Tell my wife I love her very much (she knows)

I have to say that I had second and third thoughts about calling Liebe (my awesome wife) and sharing anything about this little stumble.  But I did call, and it was great to hear her voice, chat about the kids, and mention “a little ankle twist” —she just weighed in with her usual sane, level-headed refrain: be safe, have fun, and don’t push it too much. I told my wife I love her very much. She said she knows. 

Looking at my ballooning ankle, I hoped I’d be able to resume our Mission again tomorrow, even with compromised systems. But Planet Utah has a way of urging you on.

SPOILER ALERT: after riding for the remainder of the day (and over 500 miles during the next two days to complete our trip), I redeyed home on Friday and went straight to the orthopedist. Managed to gimp through two airports with luggage, and drive myself to the doctor (in an automatic), but here’s the breaking news. Minor fibia fracture (hairline, really), 4-6 weeks to heal. Those are the breaks, astronaut.

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