It has/had gotten to the point where I put plans on our calendar in pencil versus pen. Little if anything has/had gone accordingly since mid-March. As October crept closer, I couldn’t help but think what would derail a few days we’d been looking forward to since we spent Thanksgiving camping at Dead Horse Point State Park in 2018, devising how and when to check a box on our bucket list.
And while our plan to ride the White Rim Trail in celebration of our honeymoon had gone through several iterations over the course of nine months — including which friends would be able to join, the number of days we’d spend on the trail, what campground permits we could obtain as they sold out within seconds four months in advance, who could jump in as support crew — it all came full circle over the first Friday and Saturday of October 2020. A small yet mighty posse of friends and family partnered up with Mother Nature and dealt us the perfect hand.
The full harvest moon rose over the La Sal Mountains as we sat perched over the notorious Shafer Trail, so precariously carved into the cliffs of Canyonlands. The next morning we would roll out and down, down, down — seven tight switchbacks descending roughly 1,500 feet over five or so miles to greet the White Rim Trail. Seventy-two of the 100-ish miles ahead of us in the next two days followed the aptly named sandstone trail looping around and below the Island in the Sky mesa.
Morning greeted us with the glory of a desert sunrise, strong coffee in my Rebecca’s Private Idaho camp mug, and the anticipation of what the day would hold. We knew how far we would pedal, yet not how long it would take us. We knew we were ready to tackle the distance and yet also ready to accept help if needed. And we knew we’d picked a stellar day when Peter Stetina and Amity Rockwell, along with the Canyon Bicycles film crew, were toeing the line in their quest to set Fastest Known Times (FKTs) on the White Rim.
Insert juxtaposed ‘cow’ and ‘bell’ emojis here. Ring enthusiastically a minimum of ten times. #morecowbell
The sheer vastness of the landscape undulating with loose dirt, sandy dry washes and sandstone rock formations accentuated the contrast between feeling small in the alpine grandeur of home in the Wood River Valley, versus minuscule in the never-ending expanse of the desert. Deceptive was the nearly 3,500 feet of elevation gain over the course of our first day on the trail, covering 67 miles under bluebird autumn skies and with the wind remarkably and unusually holding its breath.
Somewhere ‘around mile 64–66’ (aka Potato Bottom C campground) was our destination for Day One. Our caravan included five of us on bikes, one Chevy Colorado and one Ford Raptor (driven by Matt Green and Bryce Foster respectively) — loaded with 26-ish gallons of water, camping gear, cook stoves, snacks, cooking accoutrements, beverages of the happy hour variety, more snacks, a portable shower — oh, and Guy and Meridith’s five and seven year old rockstar kiddos, Amelia and Aryton with their little bikes to race around the campground upon our arrival.
Maybe 40 miles into the ride, I remember saying to Jesse, “Now I see why they call it the White Rim Trail.” Insert ‘duh’ emoji here. I guess I hadn’t thought about it in such a literal sense before. I had envisioned riding in more of a canyon, with a river alongside, which is odd given the name of the trail — um, hello — it’s the rim.
But my decades-long vision came into view as 60-ish miles clicked by on the bike computer. We rounded a bend and… bam! There was the palette extending beyond just shades of sand — the blues of the river, the greens of the trees, the reflections of the spectacular and structural earth reaching to the sky.
As the skies were gently melting into gold, and my hands were ready to be rid of the steady vibration of the trail, and my feet were crawling out of my bike shoes, and my smile cramps were still in full force — we came upon our campsite. It had been the only campground available during the online luck of the draw, and thankfully so. It’s one of the only campgrounds with trees — which brought much welcome shade and the added pleasure of a few late-season mosquitos. And the walls on all sides came painted with cotton candy and unicorn skies, in what felt like a full surround sound experience… but for the eyes. Pinks and golds and blues and purples and then the sun set and the moon rose to greet a bright burning dot in the sky named Mars.
We knew that at some point, we would meet our friend called the ‘climb out of the canyon’ or ‘get ready for this’ or ‘whatever you do, don’t stop pedaling.’ You’ll be more likely to find it on a map titled ‘Mineral Bottom Road.’ What we didn’t know was how Bryce ended up solo in the 4-person tent last night and Jesse and I in the 2-person. But with breakfast and coffee on board, onwards we went. p.s. MFEG’s butter-pan-toasted homemade avocado toast with sea salt is da bomb.
Only 37-ish miles to go. Insert teeth grinning emoji here. There is a reason those who attempt the fastest times on the White Rim choose to ride it counter-clockwise. We soon understood their logic, as opposed to our choice to ride the 100-mile loop clockwise. Straight out of the campsite we went up. Hello, legs. The first 10–12 miles were what I might call almost epic. Short, steep, pitchy climbs. Sand, sand, and more sand. Canyonlands threw a little of everything our way. We were all full of stories, laughter, sand lines, tan lines, and the sunshine blessed us with another spectacular morning on the bikes.
I think we could all sense it coming and voila! The wall. Like Shafer Trail yesterday, but different. Shorter, but steeper. Not down, but up. We made a hard right turn and proceeded to put our heads down and each adopt our own pace to tackle the unrelenting switchbacks up, up, up to the mesa. Jesse and Erin put the hammer down. Guy pulled a wheelie mid-climb. My pace felt impossibly slow. I kept turning over the cranks until that final bend and my smile cramps crept back across my face. Dripping sweat blurred my vision. I had a little celebration dance going on in my head — perhaps prematurely looking back. Little did I know that reaching the mesa wasn’t going to be the hardest part of the day.
There is very good reason no photos were taken over the next 13-ish miles traveling east-northeast on Mineral Bottom Road. Just loose enough gravel to stunt your momentum, rolling over and over and over again, toward the horizon with false summit after false summit after false summit. Mind-numbing. Not steep by any means, just that perpetual uphill grind. Just enough of a headwind to rattle your psyche. Thank goodness for MFMG with more water and survival cookies at the junction before the final stretch.
Many who’ve ridden with me know that I often get this second wind several hours into a ride. On those days when I’m feeling it, it’s like I can reach down and push a booster button, put my head down, engage the quads god gave me, and put the hammer down. This was one of those days and with the wind in our favor and the gravel behind us for the last 10 miles, Jesse and I tucked in and closed the loop on the White Rim Trail.
There we were — gathered in the parking lot where we had set out just the day prior on this quest together — not one of us with an ego or an expectation other than to finish the loop in whatever fashion that might look like — and we were holding, and cherishing, the five cards that made up that perfect hand.
Friends, Family & Unequivocal Support & Camaraderie + Sunshine & No Wind + Awe-Inspiring Views at Every Turn + No Bike Mechanicals + Loads of Smile Cramps.
The royal flush: the hand of the highest possible value when wild cards are not in use.