Nothing triggers the wanderlust quite like daydreaming about a springtime road trip to the desert while you’re still stuck in the endless throes of a long, cold winter. The real yearning sets in as you mindlessly scroll the Gram, where every post seems to somehow find a way to reference that thing that’s missing in your life. The real trick, of course, is to transcend all the daydreaming and the scrolling, to put an actual plan, with your actual friends, actually into motion. This past winter, as we began to see a tiny light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, convening a small group of friends in the Southern Utah desert felt like the best way to emerge from that long period of collective isolation. Our crew has a long history with the annual springtime trip to ride bikes in the desert, so finding a couple willing accomplices wouldn’t be too difficult, especially after the stay-home sacrifices we’d all made for so long. Like the faint glow of a distant lighthouse on the horizon, the revived annual desert trip became the beacon of hope and group adventures toward which we were all now pointing our bows.
From a long list of previous trips and a fascination with the geological and historical significance of this part of the world, I had a general location in mind for our trip. But this past winter afforded me plenty of time to really study the maps and get lost down online rabbit holes researching remote, overlooked adventure-gravel possibilities. The relative quality of any ride or route is commonly judged on a variety of factors, which can differ from group to group, but often seem to revolve around what the route doesn’t include — i.e., lack of vehicular interference, lack of hike-a-bike sections, lack of washboard, lack of water crossings, etc. — which ends up leaving you with a definition of “great” being something like, “uncrowded, consistently sort-of smooth surfaces, with plenty of elevation gain, but not too steep, and make it scenic, please.”
Then, of course, there are the many folks who love to focus on pace, distance, and elevation gain above all else. Our crew, on the other hand, likes to focus on mind-blowing scenic value in really off the beaten track zones, historical and geological points of interest, random roadside ephemera, photo ops galore, and generally just rambling about while finding cool things and creating and rehashing endless inside jokes along the way. Hike-a-bike and on-route strife aren’t exactly sought-after features, but neither are they necessarily frowned up during or after the adventure. Sometimes those phases are simply the price of admission, and they are always just temporary phases. For this trip, I centered route planning on things like claustrophobic slot canyons, Ancestral Puebloan rock art panels, desert springs, turn-of-the-century mining ruins, massive slabs of rideable slickrock, and more. I didn’t have to plan for jaw-dropping scenery. If you’ve ever visited Southern Utah, you know that part is just a given.
On this trip I would be joined by recently re-transplanted Coloradans Todd Gillman (of Swift Industries) and Justin Patti (of Oveja Negra) — two brands that really exemplify the spirit of cooperation and friendly competition in the adventure cycling space — for a few days of what we hoped would be great camping, not-too-strenuous adventure, and generally tapping into, and becoming one with, the vibrations of the desert. We got all of that and then some, including the wildly fluctuating weather that’s typical to the Colorado Plateau that time of year. Shorts and short-sleeves weather turns to down puffies and beanies in the blink of an eye, before whiplashing back to scorching heat with a dust storm. Headwinds are to be expected — always — as are face-melting sunrises and sunsets. We were all well-versed in the moods of springtime in the desert and showed up mostly prepared for whatever was in store.
As luck would have it, a blustery cold snap that we’d been tracking, and which was forecast as having a slight chance of sinking down into Southern UT, did in fact reach Southern UT, and did so concurrent with our arrival. This made for a low-motivation, 2-cups-of-coffee Day 1 and the ol’ crack ‘o noon start. Couple hours into the ride the wind dropped to barely a breath and the temps soared as we immersed ourselves in the vastness and awe-inspiring beauty of our surroundings. We took our time observing centuries-old petroglyphs and fun slickrock side hits along the way. The grand plan included following a canyon route ever downward, dropping all the way to a river crossing where we’d then head up the other side to check out a super-secret slot canyon. Sadly, our morning dilly-dallying didn’t leave us enough daylight. Didn’t matter. The joy of this type of adventure cycling exists precisely in the freedom to take your time to appreciate the nuances of the adventure itself and not giving AF about mileage logged, average speed achieved, or how you show up on Strava when you finish.
The next day we woke up to even worse weather, stiff unrelenting winds, and cold temps. None of us was able to summon the motivation to suit up and fight the conditions in the name of fun or otherwise. We decided to pull stakes and relocate to another zone offering some better cover from the elements while we waited for the forecasted improvement in weather. After a bit of poking around backcountry roads, we located a tucked-away spot that would be our home for the remainder of the trip, which brought generally better weather trends, save for a surprise snow squall that sent us briefly scrambling for cover. Our days became a blur of lonely red clay, cobble, and bedrock; of canyon rims, sheer walls, and sandy floors; of traversing the endless contours of desolate beauty that comprises the Colorado Plateau. We logged miles and vertical enough to fill our days and get us back to camp right at dinner time, on our own pace, on our own terms; nothing to brag about on the Social apps, but that was never the point. The simple pleasure of being back in the good company of best buds for the first time in over a year, doing the thing that we love the most, was the KOM title we each returned home with…