Grand Staircase-Escalante Loop

I woke up in the cab of an abandoned dump truck in the middle of the forest and assessed the situation.

Priorities:
– 1) Find water.
– 2) Get back on route.
– 3) Bike 80+ miles back to the van before dark and eat everything in sight.

I guess it wouldn’t be an adventure if something didn’t go wrong. At least that’s how I consoled myself as I watched a full water bottle launch into orbit off my frame and tumble off a cliff. A third of my water gone. At least it was a fun downhill.

The route links up 160 miles and 11,900 vertical feet along sandy dirt roads that meander through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was mid-November, and local bikepacking season was drawing to a close.

On Saturday morning  I kissed my wife and hound goodbye and rolled away from the house at 07:50. The gear list was pretty standard for an overnighter, although I did pack a luxurious, inflatable sleeping pad instead of the car sunshade. I stuffed my frame bag full of clearance Halloween candy and oatmeal raisin cookies, and filled half of my three-liter water storage.

Leaving a despondent gote-dawg

It was a chilly morning, low forties or so, but there was lots of pedaling to be had. I settled in for the long haul. Dirt roads in the desert provide an incredibly meditative experience, if you let them.

Cottonwood Creek

At the “Paria Box,” I grabbed some relatively fresh water. I had recently discovered that the violent bout of giardia I picked up while bikepacking the Colorado Trail two months ago was due to an expired bottle of betadine drops. Armed with a fresh bottle, I double-dosed for good measure and filled up.

The good stuff.

I turned on Handel’s Messiah and spun some more flat, sandy miles. “A voice of one crying in the wilderness …” was particularly apropos here.

Just when things were starting to get boring, a side trip presented itself at Cottonwood Narrows. I busted down some canyon singletrack and snagged a quick photo from some Polish tourists. (I saw maybe ten people that day, and all within the first forty miles).

Ten feet of gnar!

Easy pedaling, good views, sixty degrees and sunny. Without the “focus high” of demanding, technical singletrack, my mind floated off into the clouds. I call it my “nothing box.” Every now and then I’d land on a topic and expend a couple mental megabytes, but mostly it was roaming. Remember that screensaver from Windows 98 (SE) with the transparent glob that pinballed lazily off the perimeter of the screen? “This is your mind on dirt roads.”

A few punchy hills to snap out of autopilot for.

Eventually I hit Grosvenor Arch and a couple of motorized tourists. I politely declined their offers  of water because I was mostly full. Apparently it was too early in the day to offer beers (NB: if you see a bikepacker, it’s never too early). One elderly gentleman said that I looked pretty “squirrelly” coming down the last hill. Trading one non sequitur for another, I told him that I always eat nuts on trips like this because of their high calorie-to-ounce ratio.

“Hey, who’s squirrely-lookin?”

I do have to admit that I was a bit miffed that nobody asked the usual ego-stroking questions, like me how far I had gone / was going / do you own a car / where is your tent / do you need a ride / how do you get the rope up there / etc.

I soon had bigger problems to confront than my vanity, however.

My favorite place to stash a bike bottle is on a bottle cage that I ziptied to the intersection of the toptube and seatpost. I’ve been using that mount on various bikes for years on much more technical terrain, and never had a problem with it.

Until this day. On an uncharacteristically-chunky-but-still-not-heroic downhill, my water bottle decided to free itself from the loving constraints of friction and explore the great abyss beyond the road.

Losing a third of my water presented a quandary. Instead of drycamping as originally planned, I would need to ride late into the night to reach to the next source, twenty extra miles. That source, however, was marked as “possible water at Last Chance Creek” and the only remaining supply on the route. It was late fall and extra dry — gambling on that source and coming up dry there would be dangerous.

My other option would be to continue the loop for several hours, head ten miles off-route to get to the town (?) of Escalante, fill up, and then backtrack or alter the course. This option included the possibility of onion rings and flavored Utah water at a theoretical local dive bar, assuming I made it before last call.

I pondered this decision for the next thirty miles until the road split. By which I mean, I fantasized about plunging a fistful of glistening, salt-encrusted onion rings into a bowl of full-strength ranch dressing …

 

Ent vs.Progress … hikeabike wins.

So yeah, I cut hard north for Escalante at sunset. Ten miles, even the most backwater bar should still be open in an hour.

Or so I thought. Problem is, my GPS wouldn’t get a location fix. (I later found out that the SIM card slot on my phone had apparently decided that since the trusty water bottle cage was taking a day off, it was entitled to malfunction as well). I had a backup map, but most of the side roads weren’t marked, so I couldn’t tell how far I’d come. As best I could tell, I was at the junction to turn off for Escalante.

A few miles later, I found myself in a spiderweb of unmarked powerline roads. I’d take one and ride for a half mile, and then it would dead-end into some sort of power station with a meter. I hit about seven or eight of these and would have to backtrack each time.

End of the road.

Fortunately, I did find water. Or at least liquid. It was a cow pond with no inlet or outlet. I skimmed my hydration reservoir across the top to get a half a liter before the mud rose, then moved around the pond and repeated the process.

Iodine: tripled.

I found lots of industrial junk and signage, but nothing to indicate how to get to Escalante. After so much backtracking in the dark, I became totally disoriented and couldn’t find where I came from.

Just hold your breath for the next couple miles ….

It was also getting cold at 7600 feet, so I finally decided to call it a night and orient myself to the sunrise. I set up my cushy pad, ate a couple of instant mashed potato burritos smothered in Cholula — good, but not quite onion rings — and settled in for a long, dark night. It was about 8:30pm.

A few hours later, I awoke on the cold ground atop a completely deflated sleeping pad. (I carried sixteen ounces for this?!!) It was 2:00am. It was too cold to stay put, so I ate my breakfast of six oatmeal raisin cookies and started trying to backtrack. Oh, and my Camelbak was frozen, too.

Morale was at an all-time low.

After an hour of wandering up and down dead-end powerline roads, I stumbled across a couple shacks and a vintage, abandoned dump truck. Now we’re styling. The shacks were locked but the truck was open, so I curled up on the bench seat and got a couple hours of quality shuteye (aside from dreaming about serial killers who lived in the shacks).

Primo bivy spot.
Truck sweet truck.

With the sun up, I started to get an idea of how to escape the spiderweb. Looking at Google Earth after the fact, I had gone a total of about ten miles off route in the dark, and the Escalante turnoff had been another five miles down the road. Turns out it was beautifully marked, too.

Anyway, time to ride.

I ran into a surprise cow spring and got some “insurance water” in case Last Chance was dry.

How many drops of cow spring do you add to iodine?

The next thirty miles were pretty uneventful. I was kind of ready to be done with this dirt road.

Last Chance Creek had a couple small puddles. It would’ve been hard to scoop them without a bottle or pump hose, so I stuck with my cow spring coffee. Food was running low, so I set a timer on my phone to go off every hour and ate a funsize Snickers or cheese stick at every beep. (Talk about operant conditioning … I love that ringtone now.)

Last Chance Creek

At long last, I hit a sign that indicated thirty miles to Big Water. So close and yet so far … it was around 2:30pm, the doldrums of the day. Clouds everywhere. A long, flat, sandy road ahead. One last mini Snickers, a bite at a time. This was going to be tough.

In desperate need of a kick in the aural pants, I cranked up the album “Deliverance” by Opeth. (Just the iso of the kick drum track on the first song is brutal enough to wilt a nascent geranium). It was just what I needed. I fired off a quick prayer for stamina — Jesus did forty days without food; I should be able to do thirty miles — and pedaled like hell.

Apparently God was amused at my sudden burst of NFG, because just as I was tearing through the barren wasteland, game face on, racing the sun and calorie deficit and lactic acid onslaught, screaming Swedish death metal under a bleak sky … I came across a surprise.

CAN I KEEP IT?!

Somehow, in the middle of capital-N Nowhere, a yellow, polka-dotted helium balloon had snagged onto a sagebrush. Lest I continue taking myself too seriously, I tied it onto my seatpost with a figure-eight followthrough and brought it along.

They say the desert is the last refuge for crazy people …

Of course, after a few miles, the balloon popped off its yarn and floated back to Astaroth. I was sad to see it go — I thought of Wilson the volleyball — but it served its purpose.

I soon found solace in Smokey Mountain Road, an incredible, fast descent down a narrow shelf road. Honestly, I was pretty unimpressed with the entire route up until this point, but that segment made it all worthwhile. It’s probably the most scenic desert road I’ve ever ridden. I didn’t feel like pausing the magic to take pictures.

Before

 

After

Fourteen miles to Big Water. I squeezed out the last few drops from my reservoir and settled in for some soul-crushing gravel rolling hills. That was probably the crux of the trip right there. It was comical on my 1×11; I’d shift into my highest gear at the top of each hill, crank a few strokes, hit a sandbox at the trough of the hill and lose most of my momentum, then shift all the way back into my granny (30:42) and barely clear the next hill.

At long last, I reached the visitor center and got tackled by a 105-pound puppy. I ate a pita with homemade blackberry jam and a couple of oranges, then we hightailed it to Page, AZ for the main event. By the time the dust settled, caloric equilibrium was restored thanks to a double bacon cheeseburger, curly fries, Oreo shake, half a liter of eggnog, a kiwi and a fresh pineapple.

180 miles and 12.5k vert in 34 hours. I felt pretty good about that, all things considered.

In other news … this may have been the last bikepacking trip of Beatrice the Karate Monkey. She’s carried me faithfully with nary a complaint on many adventures this year, but it’s time to lose some weight and get a frame that fits a bit better. To that end, the masterminds at Kokopelli Bike Company are designing me a custom-geometry titanium 27.5+ hardtail … eight weeks and counting …

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply