A Swell Time in the San Rafael Swell

Through the arid silence, you could hear the past rumble and scream.

The clangs and grunts and dust penetrated time, a ghost of the hurried chaos of carnotite extraction, the very earth from which we amassed the mineral components of uranium to drop the bombs on Japan. Makeshift stone huts, left behind by the miners, could be mistaken for thousand-year-old relics from the relentless winds, sun, and sandblasting of central Utah.

We stood upon jagged rocks so cinematic you expect a martian or a western gunslinger to appear from the sun lines. Dead center in the middle of Utah, the San Rafael Swell is a giant section of earth turned on its side in repeating angular layers, and the route is so varied and interesting, it’s hard not to stop as you roll over each new vista.

It’s one of those desolate stretches you marvel at on a cross-country flight, head squished against the double-layered plastic window peering down at an exotic and bizarre desert, your imagination projecting no one, nothing, emptiness endlessly for miles. Getting eight friends together for an actual weekend adventure seems like an unobtainable future, looking back on this trip while situated in our current pandemic. At the time, we were giddy, apprehensive, as the first day of 5th grade. Little did we know that in a matter of weeks, we’d all be locked down.

The Mad Max mining wasteland of the San Rafael Swell was just apocalyptic enough to set an ominous tone while offering an escape from each of our responsibilities. And escape it provided, as a few hours into being out of cell phone range and chatting around the fire with friends, the nervous buzz of the world, the web, lights, all floated away.

We were a medley of college athletes, bike racers, mountain town bike fiends, and industry folk. A few riders and employees of the new bike brand Revel, and a group of friends who helped birth the technical denim upstart Ripton & Co.

Everyone was fast, either Giant Factory Team fast or just faster than a lot of your friends fast. When the idea was thrown out to do the whole bike-packing route as one push, it self-selected folks who weren’t intimidated by the 70 mile, 8K vert day on a mountain bike. None of us had seen the terrain so we guessed it could take as little as 5 hours and as much as 10+. Similar to the profile of the original Grinduro in distance and climbing, we knew it would be tiring, but manageable.

The ride was well, amazing. We stopped frequently to take photos, hide in the shade, soak in the river, and bask in the purity of being in the saddle all day with friends, realizing there was nothing better to be doing.

Back at camp, the conversations bounced around what was to come next, and where and how this adventure would fuel excitement for the next. Even for pros, there’s no racing this season now, so it offers a unique challenge. How can you explore your relationship with bikes and place, and your community? What adventures can you do that you never would have in your old life? Several of us are now unemployed and we have since commented on the freedom and fears joblessness has provided, the unstructured time as an adult in your 30’s you never expected to get.

All this culminated in the reading we’d been doing, the ideas that had been bubbling up from the stillness of life. A good reminder that always our real asset is time, and often the best way to spend it is outside, sharing a passion with friends you enjoy. There will always be periods of economic collapse, uncertainty, fear; but the bicycle reminds us of the power of subtraction. One bike, one weekend, a few friends, becomes much greater than the sum, a poetic reminder that we need almost nothing to live happily, laughing, covered in dirt, sweat, and the spark is lit for the next escape.