Unapologetic. Relentless. Persistent. A Machines for Freedom Expedition in Utah
Words by Aimee Gilchrist, photos by John Watson
The Utah desert, or desert in general, does not often offer comfortable accommodations to outsiders. High winds, isolated vegetation, sun-soaked and shadeless valleys, rapid nocturnal cooling and infrequent precipitation. The desert can feel like a bitter and unforgiving stranger. Lucky for us, Utah was well-behaved. Late March riding and a window between April showers painted the varying landscape with fragrant sage and spring blooms. Barren mesas were glowing with red and gold dust. And instead of the reliable, wind-blown silence often found on these remote roads, our Machines for Freedom team shared conversation and laughter that could be heard echoing in the canyons for miles.
A few months earlier, Jenn Kriske from Machines for Freedom gathered a group of ladies to ride an aggressive route mapped by John Watson. Our MFF riding team consisted of seven badass, hilarious, strong athletes from Santa Barbara and LA to Portland by way of Bozeman and Durango: Jessica Baum (Santa Barbara), Gritchelle Fallesgon (Portland), Mason Griffin (Bozeman), Stephanie Ortega (LA), Ginger Boyd (LA), Sarah Swallow (Durango) and I (LA). Heavy winter snow and rain this Spring impeded the original route and last minute adjustments were made exchanging knee-deep mud for pavement. Our goal was to ride 350 miles from Tropic, Utah to Green River, Utah in 4 days. We were well suited for this undertaking.
Let’s talk geography. Eastern Utah is drained primarily by the Green or Colorado Rivers which carved winding canyons that meander hundreds of miles. In 1869, John Wesley Powell and his all-male crew pushed 3 boats and gear into the Green River to be the first Americans to research, document, and map these watersheds. Powell’s team was one of 4 research crews exploring the Western territory at that time. In my opinion, Powell’s crew was somewhat bohemian. While the other crews were heavily staffed by professionals and the military, his crew included hard-working family members, a young cartographer, an aspiring artist, and a wet-plate photographer to visually document their discoveries. Their goal was to map and document the unexplored watershed and geology of the Colorado River in order to show the viability of American life in this region to Congress and the Smithsonian.
Following in Powell’s footsteps was not something I nor any of the other women in our ride contemplated before our bike adventure across Utah. Instead, we were motivated by the idea of an all-female immersive experience into the forgotten corners of the Paiute desert. We desired something you can’t acquire with technology or within the comfort of your own familiar backyard. We were making an intentional commitment to break away from the predictable. It’s the discipline of saying “I commit to riding with new partners, no matter the forecast and how much my body might hurt” because this is what adds nourishment to life. So, our band of seven women mounted up in the one horse town of Las Vegas where we acquired last-minute provisions before setting course on our Utah expedition. Spoiler alert: Although we may have followed a similar route as John Wesley Powell and his crew, none of our riders would drown or be carried off by Native Americans never to be seen again (high fives to John, Cari, Hannah, Liz and Jenn for that).
Day one started just outside of Bryce Canyon in the small town of Tropic, Utah, population 500, situated along the Paria River, a tributary of the Colorado River. Conditions were far from tropical as we clipped into our pedals for our first day. We woke to find a dusting of snow on our cabin steps and the thermometer resting consistently at freezing. Eager, fed and caffeinated, we snapped a few quick photos to commemorate our first day and swiftly pedaled onto HWY 12 to warm up our legs, dipping straight into the breathtakingly stunning Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Grand Staircase is an eroding sedimentary formation continually revealing new layers that expose rich plateaus and deep valleys full of age-old flora and fauna remnants, fossils and sand. Bitterly cold but not discouraged, we traversed, stopping to snap photos and observe our new surroundings. We climbed steep inclines followed by somewhat flat ridges, essentially stair steps, for miles. Finally, we reached the Aquarius Plateau and Boulder Mountain. The Aquarius Plateau happens to be the highest tectonic uplift in North America where the earth’s crust has been pushed upwards over millions of years. It was warm and sunny when we finished and were beyond overjoyed to arrive in Boulder, Utah for dinner and a night of rest at Hells Backbone Grill. Smiles, laughter, and a feeling of satisfaction overwhelmed us. Day 1 was completed successfully.
Before there was Ansel Adams, there was John Hillers. Hillers was Powell’s 4th photographer; he along with his travel comrades would spend years visiting the Aquarius Plateau. In 1871, Hillers found a seat as a boat-hand on Powell’s 2nd expedition to explore the Colorado River (the first ended short due to catastrophic failures). Showing an aptitude for laborious endeavors, Hillers eventually proved both his eye and skill for photography to Powell and in 1874, he earned the role of expedition photographer. Just as rivers carved the canyons of the West, the early photographers of unexplored America extracted the first visual images of our sacred places. Much of the land they touched during their journey would become protected public land. The role of expedition photographer was actually an arduous and experimental profession at the time. The equipment alone weighed thousands of pounds, including the glass plates, chemicals, camera equipment and “dark room” tenting required. It was almost impossible to carry this without breaking, let alone securing a quality photograph. Hillers was able to achieve over 1300 usable images over the 20+ years he spent photographing the West during his career, showing the world some of the first images of Grand Staircase, Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, and numerous native tribes for the first time. In 1876, a selection of images was exhibited at the World Exposition and for the first time, eyes from across the globe saw a typewriter, telephone sewing machine, the Grand Canyon and Native Americans, all in an afternoon.
After a good meal and hot tub soak, our Utah riders hit the hay preparing for another big day in the desert. When we rolled out of Boulder the next morning, we jumped onto the scenic Burr Trail. I think we all needed our helmet chin straps to keep our jaws from dropping wide open at the raw, natural beauty of it all. Towering sandstone cliffs were adorned with cascading water stains as eroding sand dunes collapsed into rolling grassy hills. Vibrant reds contrasted with juniper greens. Hawks flew overhead taking advantage of Spring’s bounty. The Burr Trail began with smooth pavement for 30 miles before becoming gravel at the Capital Reef National Park boundary. Once hitting gravel, we had no idea what was in store. Nothing quite prepares you for seeing the Burr Trail switchbacks for the first time. All we could see was a twisted and curvy gravel line through rugged Navajo sandstone. This section of road drops 800ft in one mile through an iconic and unique geology formation known as the Waterpocket fold. We gathered at the bottom wondering if we had time to climb and ride it again, but forward we rode. From a distance, we saw a white-capped mountain range rising and peaking above the sandstone cliffs as our elevation increased. Known as the Henry Mountains, this was the last mountain range to be added to the U.S. map. It turns out, they were identified by Powell’s team and named for the 1st secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who helped fund his expeditions. Were we following Powell or was he following us?
We rode 70 miles before arriving in Bullfrog, Utah just in time to catch the sunset over Lake Powell, named after… guess who. High fives, hugs and beer-thirty came next. Mason, Steph, Gritchelle, and Hannah, still riding high from our day, provided the evening entertainment with their skilful bike tricks. It was impressive to see they still had energy, as I struggled to stay awake long enough for dinner. Riding with this crew of women was encouraging and supportive and we were soaking in all Utah had to offer.
Morning arrived too soon on day three; we were overly optimistic with the early morning sun so we peeled off a few clothing layers that we would add back on within the first 15 miles. Chilly winds kicked up and we were all hoping and wishing it would pass but it lasted all day. I was impressed how seamlessly our crew initiated a give-and-take procession to draft the increasingly unpleasant winds which were swirling from all sides (except the rear coincidentally). The hills got increasingly taller along with the winds and morale was becoming beaten. Short roadside dance parties and snack breaks ensued to boost spirits. We stopped to snap photos. We pointed out geological oddities and interesting plants. There was no complaining. We stayed together and powered through as a team. We took it all in. There is a bit of cycling yin-and-yang where the mind convinces the legs to keep pedaling as the legs respond in return to encourage the mind by continuing to keep up. It’s like the body is required to accept the challenge imposed by one’s inner mind and you must begin looking into all the nooks and crannies within yourself to find what it takes not to buckle. These ladies did not buckle.
Up ahead, we saw a series of dry, rolling hills. Each one provided a nice downhill and we crossed our fingers and toes, hoping not to be blown off course by the heavy crosswinds. I glanced off to my left at the snowy peaks of the Henry Mountains and thought about their remoteness. We were now pedaling in their foothills and I considered if I would ever make it here again. On the road shoulder, I caught a glance of a historical marker and peeled off from the group to read it. Holy s*#t! It indicated “Mount Hillers” the highest peak in the Henry range, named for John Hillers in 1872. I had seen a collection of his photos at the Thunderbird Gallery outside Zion years ago and I needed to share Hillers’ story with the ladies, hoping to excite them with some history. I knew he was Powell’s photographer it wasn’t until this article that I learned his full story.
Back on course, we took turns in the lead and pushed on to Hanksville, Utah. One tire flat and a full day of crazy wind didn’t stop this Machines crew. As always, the diner food and Fat Tire beer never tasted so good. Our 4th and longest day still awaited us. We all rushed off to bed to replenish our tanks.
Our final day will always be known as the first time any of us saw a goat in the driver’s seat of a car. That is how our morning started. We had 80 miles of gravel and dirt ahead of us passing through an open range and I think we all felt a mix of hope and apprehension. We had consistently pushed a fast pace, arriving ahead of schedule before dark and our bodies started to creak and moan. But this was a part of the life that we had each curated for ourselves. We weren’t forced into the Utah highlands, we chose to be there. We shared the aches and pains but we were committed.
As we traded sage and asphalt for cowpies and dirt, I began thinking of the women in the early years of exploration in comparison to now. I would have jumped at the chance to join one of those early expeditions, but that was not an opportunity that could be considered, let alone granted to a woman of the 1860s. The freedom we felt on our bicycles cranking through the Utah backroads, was not likely a feeling shared or experienced by women back then. The role of the modern woman of that period, if married, was in the home. Most families lived in rural areas. Single women had slightly more opportunity, finding themselves as teachers or office clerks, but very few found themselves exploring the landscape of the American West. A group of adult women adventuring together would have been practically impossible. I’d like to think this ride was a tribute to the women that came before us that never had the chance as much as it is for those who will come after us, building bridges that expand more freedoms for the next generation. We are all linked together over time.
It was the pursuit of natural resources for America’s growing population that gave cause for the research and exploration into the West in the 1850s; manifest destiny at its finest. The pressure to find new land to run cattle, plunder timber, and extract minerals coupled with the need for mapping and the development of wagon trails would propel Congress to fund four exploration teams in the 1860s-1870s. These became known as the Four Great Surveys of the American West. Of these four, John Wesley Powell, a self-taught geologist was awarded the expedition to explore the Rocky Mountain Region. Powell’s assessment of the area would open it up to ranchers soon after. Perhaps the cow dung we wiped off our calves and bikes was due in part to Powell.
The dirt riding brought about lighter moods and smiles on our faces. Or maybe it was just that we were nearing the end of our journey. Climbing up and over mesas, the dirt evolved to gentle gravel. The path was wide and we never saw another human outside of our crew. We were way out there and it felt like it. This allowed for unrestricted time to ponder life. We were getting closer to Green River and we could see it looming in the distance. I was incredibly proud of our band of ladies for keeping it together and staying strong. The ride ended on the banks of the Green, early, and just in time for sunset. The same river that Powell and his team had commenced each of his expeditions 150 years ago, and right at the base of Powell Butte. We dipped our toes in the frigid water, some going up to their knees, and I looked around at all of these smiling, happy faces on these incredible women. We had made it.
Over the miles, we had spent just as much time together as we did in our own heads. We talked about places we’ve explored. We discussed our careers, upcoming travels, and training regimes. We shared nutrition tips and stretching techniques. We introduced tricks to push through strenuous days. We drank beers. We practiced wheelies and skids. Being away from our normal lives provided some needed perspective to help feed our identities. Pedaling these miles gave us time to make sense of life as best we could in 4 days. Defining our identity is a never-ending process. We eventually find who we are by eliminating who we are not and this trip is a great example of that. At this moment, we saw we were capable machines for freedom and we were grateful for the opportunity to learn from each other. I think a little piece of each of us was left in the Utah desert: unapologetic, relentless, and persistent.
Afterwards: A Collection of John Hillers photographs can be seen on display now at the Thunderbird Gallery in Mount Caramel Junction, just outside Zion National Park. In addition, a book titled ‘The People’ containing many of the Utah Paiute tribe photos has just been published and is worth a purchase.
See our route at Ride With GPS.