Careening through Canyonlands (October 2020)

Sunday, October 4, 2020

We were finally going to make it this week to Moab, Utah, the former ranching and uranium mining concern recast in recent decades into a mountain biking mecca. Although we’ve mountain biked (at least intermittently) since the 1990s, somehow, we had never ventured to this corner of Utah, known for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. This trip would be the third of our pandemic trifecta of mountain biking three famous Rim trails.  The first was the Virgin River Rim Trail, in Southern Utah in the back country of Bryce and Zion in late June with Rimtours, the second the Rainbow Rim Trail on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim with Western Spirit in early September and now, we were embarking on the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands.

With the car loaded up with a bike rack and our recently acquired pedal-assist Specialized Levo SL mountain bikes, we headed north from Sedona today, a few days in advance of a Western Spirit mountain biking and camping trip on the White Rim, in the northeast section of Canyonlands.

Our escape through Oak Creek Canyon was enlivened by an unusual Sunday morning sighting: a trio of skateboarders,  hurtling at top speed down Oak Creek Canyon on the narrow and steep road, just south of the switchbacks leading up to Flagstaff. 

Crossing through the Navajo Nation, we were thwarted at every turn in our search for that staple of long distance car travel: a restroom.  Our first foray, the Cameron Trading Post, was closed.  And so was our second attempt further on, and the third.  Covid-19 had prompted a series of 56-hour weekend shutdowns. Gas stations were open, but only for pay-at-the-pump gas.  Even my attempt to breeze through a hotel lobby was politely but firmly rebuffed.  I spied an older Native American couple in front of a pair of Porta Pottys, one of which they had just cleaned.  Relief! 

The name of the local high school team caught Steve’s attention: the Tuba City Warriors.  The first time I came to Tuba City was as a medical student, on my 3rd year mandatory family practice rotation, when our entire team helicoptered in to staff a University of Arizona clinic for the day.  All I remember (this would be in 1984 or 1985) is that the wind was gusting and blowing sand and I thought it seemed a miserable and abandoned outpost.  The town we drove through today seemed more prosperous than that incomplete memory.

We made it to Moab by late afternoon, a drive of 6+ hours.  Our home for the next 3 nights was a Purple Sage flat, a few blocks from Main Street, with bike storage and a hip vibe. The concrete block was decorated with an interlacing painted mural of floral shoots, bicycle chains and gears, my kind of place!

A pandemic choice: a Purple Sage flat, with its own entrance, a full kitchen, bike storage room, even laundry room for guests.

Our evening’s destination was that most iconic of arches, Delicate Arch, the veritable symbol of Utah, embellishing the state’s license plates. After admiring it from the upper and lower viewpoints, we strapped on our packs and tripods for the trek to the arch itself. Although only 1.5 miles, it was a hard hike uphill on a steep slickrock slope, at least when trying to go at top speed to catch the sunset.  Plenty of company already awaited the sunset on our arrival.  A steep bowl-like formation forms a natural amphitheater trained on the arch.  

As the sun set and the sky darkened, the crowd thinned.  A smaller group awaited sufficient darkness to see the stars and the Milky Way.

The iconic symbol of Utah, Delicate Arch, with the Milky Way, with the lights of Moab outlining the horizon.

By the time we left, there were few people on the trail, which we had to pick out by headlamp and occasional cairns.  A few backtracks and a timely appearance of another hiker kept us mostly on the right track back to the car.  Just as our course was straightened out by a Good Samaritan, a lost guy with a “freaking out girlfriend” appeared looking for direction to the Arch.  Our Good Samaritan headed back up with him to show him the way, while we continued to pick our way carefully down in the dark.  

Monday, October 5, 2020

We rose in the dark to make it back into Arches to the North and South Windows by sunrise.  Steve headed the opposite direction, toward Turret Arch, while I hung for a few minutes with a workshop group before moving around the Windows to watch the sun rise.

Heading back out of the park, we stopped near the turnoff to scout Balanced Rock for a later shoot.

Another icon of Arches National Park, Balanced Rock.

Back in Moab, we ordered breakfast via the phone from Moab Garage.  Steve preferred my substantial breakfast burrito over his Croque Madame.  We recovered from the early hour, the late night and the prior day’s drive with a pre-emptive nap in the middle of the day, before organizing ourselves for an early dinner. We had brought Blue Apron ingredients with us in our new Yeti cooler, making for a savory meal of pork and jalapeno Korean steamed buns with sautéed shishito peppers with ponzu sauce.

Back in Arches, I left Steve at Balanced Rock for the sunset, while I drove on to the end of road to Double Arch.  The sky was lighting up in the most colorful sunset of the week as I hurried down the short path toward the formation. 

Back at Balanced Rock, I managed to locate Steve in the dark on the backside of the imposing natural obelisk, where we settled into our folding chairs to await the Milky Way, which we knew from our earlier scouting mission with PhotoPills should line up nicely with the formation. 

The Balanced Rock is close enough to the major road traversing the park that it was a constant challenge with changing light from passing cars, as well as a hiker passing through with a headlamp.  

Occasionally, a car with a nice headlight color came by to light paint Balanced Rock for us while shooting the Milky Way in Arches National Park in Utah.

Tuesday October 6, 2020

Since our bike trip later this week would be entirely within the Canyonlands National Park, we had decided to devote the majority of our preamble days to Arches, with one major exception: the iconic Mesa Arch. I knew from a call with our photographer friend Phil Colla the week before that if we wanted to go, we’d have to go early, very early. Mesa Arch is a signature sight in the Island in the Sky section of the Park, but I knew our bike trip along the White Rim Road would not take us where we’d need to be to see it light up with the morning sun. 

We set the alarm for 5 am.  It was a longish (50 minutes) drive in the dark to the Mesa Arch trailhead.  The road was empty, so deserted I imagined for a deluded moment that we’d have the place to ourselves, at least until we pulled into the parking lot into the last space.  As Phil had warned, the Arch itself is not large. By headlamp, we made the 1/2 mile mostly level, sandy walk to find a crowd of elbow to elbow photographers aligned in front of the relatively small formation. 

The blue hour: Waiting for the sun to rise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, Utah.

I managed to partially elbow my way in between two taller men, dodging an arm on one side and a tripod leg on the other.  Steve, with his bigger rig, was shut out looking at the backs of the lineup. Once the sun rose high enough to be hidden behind the arch, the crowd quickly thinned. 

Mesa Arch, an icon of Canyonlands, not a solitary nature experience.

Back in Moab, the Garage was closed and I didn’t have the patience for to wait in line at Moab Coffee Roasters.  At 4 pm, we attended (virtually), our New York co-op’s annual meeting for the first time.  In prior years, they were in person during weeks we weren’t in New York.  Thanks to Covid-19 and being on vacation, this was the first one we were able to  “attend”. 

Heading out after the meeting, I looked up the number of Mobilla Quesadilla to call in an order and was dismayed to see it listed as closed. It was only a few minutes after their 5 pm closing time, so I called anyway, hoping they were still finishing up and we might sneak in an order under the wire. It worked and we both were wowed by this gourmet concoction, a tortilla stuffed with shredded chicken, sautéed peppers, corn and refried beans. 

Back we tracked into Arches, headed this time to the Double Arch for sunset and then to Turret Arch to shoot the stars.  This was far enough away from a road that light pollution from passing cars was less of a factor than the prior night’s shoot. 

Turret Arch, in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, with an October Milky Way and the lights of Moab.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020 

We had an 8 am meet up at Western Spirit’s headquarters, where we would leave our car for the next 4 days.  The parking lot was a bustle of activity, ferrying bicycles and cycling gear, camping and photography equipment, back and forth to be loaded up on the truck which would be our support vehicle for the trip.  Since we had just done another Western Spirit trip over Labor Day, we had assumed there would a van with trailer, as there had been with Rimtours and our earlier summer trip to southern Utah near Bryce and Zion.  It now became clear why the website indicated we’d have to load our bags into large waterproof dry bags: the bags would be loaded daily on top of the truck, exposed to dust, sun and potentially rain.  I had brought 2 small duffle bags, divided between cycling and camp clothes, but Steve had more of a struggle attempting to ease his larger rolling duffle into one of the dry bags.  The two photo backpacks were somehow coaxed into another dry bag, along with my down coat for extra padding, and carried in the truck’s interior.  We loaded into the van, masked, and headed into Canyonlands to begin our multi-day ride on the Shafer Trail Road.

There was a certain symmetry of this trip’s composition to our most recent at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Instead of 4 female friends dubbed The Beavers, we had a married male cohort of 4 friends, consisting of college friends from Rhode Island (Steve from Pasadena, known as Flagg to distinguish him from my Steve) and a chocolate maker from Park City, Mark, known as Rhody.  Also from Southern California were Flagg’s friends, John (aka Ewan) and Joey, an animator with an unbridled enthusiasm for the Juliet Binoche film Chocolat.  This quartet, like the Beavers on our prior trip, were an amusing, enthusiastic and unstoppable group of riders.

Also analogous to our prior trip, we had a married single man, who had driven cross-country all the way from Maine (!) to make this trip.  Thomas works in the pharmaceutical industry.  Our group was further rounded out by several couples, including Barb and Adi from Bend, Oregon and Tim and Diane from Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. The final pair were former college and current roommates from Houston, Texas, Becca and Ashley.  Our two guides were Casey, in her second year with the company, and Adam, originally from London by way of New Zealand and Puerto Rico, in his first season.

Once the bikes were unloaded, we plunged down the Shafer Trail, which switchbacks downward to the White Rim.  Our route over the next 4 days would wind through the northernmost section of Canyonlands, a broad mesa called Island in the Sky, which is defined by the V-shaped convergence of the Green River on the west and the Colorado River on the east. The White Rim itself is a nearly continuous sandstone bench 1200 feet below the Island in the Sky mesa, with the rivers another 1000 feet lower.  Over our trip, we would descend down to ride along the Green River and would have to climb back out again.  

Panoramic views of Canyonlands, carved by the Colorado and Green Rivers, rewards the White Rim cyclist.

For company on the way down, there were occasional trucks and motorcycles on the road, which varies from sand to dirt to slickrock. 

We lucked out with the weather on our mountain biking and camping trip in Canyonlands, never having to break out our rain gear.

As the trip progressed, the further we moved from pavement, we encountered fewer and fewer other people or vehicles. 

The Canyonlands scenery insists on periodic stops!


We made stops at Gooseneck Overlook and Musselman Arch on the way to our camp, riding a total of 20 miles, mostly downhill or level. Lunch en route was a couscous salad with pickled vegetables.  Our campsite for the night, Airport C, was named for a tower like formation.

Surprisingly, there was just enough reception for us to watch the VP debate after dinner, huddled around a propped up I-phone.  Our guides were visited by emissaries from an adjacent campsite, including a former Western Spirit guide.  I thought I was seeing things at first when disco ball lights later began oscillating from their campsite.  

Star trails at our Airport C campsite, White Rim Trail in Island of the Sky section of Canyonlands, Utah. One day I will figure out how to eradicate the satellite trails crossing through.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Benefits of rising early: seeing the landscape lit by moonlight.  Our first campsite, Airport C, is so called for this distinctive formation. Many stars were still visible.

Heading out of camp, Casey pointed out the Monster and Washer Woman formations.  Adam drove the truck, meeting us at a lunch stop near an extra spur to White Crack, with a nice view.  Thanks to the judicious occasional use of the bike’s motor, I had enough energy to make the extra excursion while lunch was being prepared, a first.

Adam was more formally attired than the riders, wearing a pineapple print shirt.  When we complimented him on it, he mentioned that he’d been called out on it by a former client.  We thought he meant that pineapples have some sinister symbology. This was news to us, as the only association we were aware of is with hospitality.  It seems that perhaps pineapples are not the problem but the Hawaiian shirt style he was wearing-apparently white supremacists have been co-opting the summer style for their protests, usually paired with riot gear and guns. Adam pulled up his pant leg to display another potentially controversial sartorial association: his striped socks, with a single blue line.  Again, we were lost.  He explained that “a thin blue line”, most commonly associated with police and initially expressing solidarity with law enforcement, had also been more recently associated with white supremacy.  My only reference point for this phrase was the 1988 Errol Morris film of the same name.   Like a lot of symbols, the history is convoluted and ripe for co-optation. The blue refers to the police uniforms and the line, at least in the film, depicts law enforcement as the demarkation between “the public and anarchy”.  The association with white supremacy derives from appearances of versions of the US flag incorporating a thin blue line alongside Confederate flags at events such as took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. 

You learn a lot of interesting cultural currents on this trips, which throw you in with people from other worlds. From Mark, proprietor of Millcreek Cacao Roasters, we learned the difference between a chocolate maker (which he and his wife are) and a chocolatier (someone who uses chocolate to make confections).  Our conversations with Mark about the ins and outs of the chocolate business were amusingly and frequently punctuated by interjections from Joey, professing his obsession with the Juliet Binoche film, Chocolat. Mark had brought samples along, which amazingly lasted in the cooler for more than one day, with one notable exception.  Joey was behind the mysterious early disappearance of the only milk chocolate offering Mark brought, most of their offerings being dark.

To reach our second evening’s campsite, Murphy A, we had first to ascend Hogback, a wickedly steep hill, even for the truck. Thanks to my motor-assisted steed, I was able to ride up most of it.  Up top, there was a stone throne from which to watch and cheer on the ascents of the rest of the group, followed by the truck, lurching up. 

This was our longest mileage day, a distance of 29.5 miles, ridden over 4 hours and 22 minutes with an average speed of 6.7 mph.

Our campsite was crowned by large mushroom rock and had a panoramic view. 

The quartet of Flagg, Rhody, Ewan and Joey atop a giant mushroom rock anchoring our second campsite, Murphy A.

After a dinner of chicken and vegetables stir-fried over rice, there was chocolate fondue with strawberries, pineapple and angel food cake for dessert.  On our prior Western Spirit trip over Labor Day, it had been so unseasonably cold that the earlier version of this dessert resulted in the chocolate freezing instantly to the plate.

A panoramic view from our campsite in Canyonlands on the White Rim Trail (Murphy A).

I shot the stars over a  Canyonland scene from a relatively sheltered rocky ledge by our rim-side tent. One day I hope to actually process them.

Friday, October 9, 2020

I set the alarm for 6 am.  The moon was out, bright enough to easily navigate by, not so bright that the stars weren’t visible. It was warm enough to be out in flip-flops without gloves or a coat.  Before I could shoot, I had to make my way out to the road, where our camp’s pit toilet was occupied, as I could tell by the light emanating from within. Although not pleasant, we probably preferred the occasional availability of these toilets along the route to the Groover of our Grand Canyon trip, although the Groover definitely had the edge in terms of view and olfactory freshness. 

Morning creeps across Canyonlands, from our second campsite on the White Rim Trail in the Island of the Sky region, Murphy A.

As chipmunks darted around our breakfast remains of french toast and bacon, fruit and granola, it was time to pack up again.  Today’s ride included several scenic stops.  The testosterone-fueled quartet blasted past the first, dubbed Black Crack, a narrow but deep crevice traversing the stone leading to an overlook of a  sinuous loop of the Green River. 

After a death-defying leap (OK, step) of 2 feet over the Black Crack, we were rewarded with this view of a horseshoe bend in the Green River (Canyonlands, Island in the Sky, Utah).

The Black Crack had to be stepped or jumped over in one leap, which although not physically difficult, was a bit of a mind game for me.  With Adam’s reassuring hand, I surmounted it without falling to certain death or at least, severe dismemberment. 

We met up with the truck and lunch at a slot canyon.  The early arrivals were taking refuge from the midday sun in the welcome shade and cool of the narrow slot.

Barb and Adi enjoy a respite from the mid-day sun in the shade of a slot canyon along the White Rim Trail in the Island in the Sky region of Canyonlands, Utah.

Our third excursion was a short hike, to see a hard to spot Native American granary, tucked under the eaves of an isolated formation.

On the White Rim Trail in Island of the Sky, Canyonlands: Hard to spot granaries, presumably used for storage by Native Americans, are tucked up under the shelter of a natural shelf.

Made it! Tim and Diane take a well deserved rest in the shade of the natural alcove sheltering Native American granaries, on the White Rim Trail in Island of the Sky in Canyonlands, Utah.


According to Mission Control, the Specialized app which communicates via BlueTooth to the e-bike, our mileage today was 21.9 miles, riding 3 hours 8 minutes with a 7 mph average speed.

Our final campsite was along the Green River, at Potato Bottom C.  Everyone took advantage of flowing, fresh, cold water for a welcome rinse off of the day’s accumulated dirt from the dusty roads.  Up until now, we’d been managing mostly with Huggies wipes.  

A welcome sight, the Green River, one boundary of the Island in the Sky region of Canyonlands. Our third campsite (Potato Bottom) was down by the river.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Moonlight exposure, with the stars still visible, in the early morning hour at our Potato Bottom C campsite on the White Rim Trail, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands, Utah.

Blue hour before the sun rose at our Potato Bottom C camp in Island of the Sky, Canyonlands, Utah, with our new, tall-enough-to stand-in tent from Big Agnes, which we dubbed The Taj.

Becca and Ashley’s color coordinated tent and artfully arranged mountain bikes, sunrise at our third camp, Potato Bottom C.

Our guide Adam, hard at work on breakfast prep, while steam arises from the griddle in the distance (morning at Potato Bottom C camp, White Rim Trail, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands, Utah).

Morning at Potato Bottom C camp, White Rim Trail, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands, Utah.

Casey donned a distinctive sartorial flourish for the final ascent, a tutti-frutti colored multitiered tutu, over her cycling shorts. The male quartet had already headed up the final, switch-backing ascent by the time we made it to the regrouping spot.  Already we could sense our impending return to civilization, as our proximity to the Green River and the kayak launch meant there was more traffic on the road, as well as a group of riders setting out on an equivalent trip, albeit in the opposite direction, with an outfit called Magpie. 

Our final day’s ride included several wildlife sightings.  A trio of deer bounded across the road in front of Steve and me.  Later, momentarily alone for a segment, I was startled by a small black sidewinder slithering off the road.   

Our final ride, along the meandering and peaceful Green River, before switch-backing up Mineral Bottom.

Our final series of hurdles was the Mineral Bottom switchbacks, a grueling grind of a climb up to Mineral Bottom Road, where a Western Spirit van met us. For the first time, I used the full turbo capacity of the bike for the final sustained switch-backing climb out of the canyon (multiplying my effort by doubling it). Occasionally trying to drop back to the mid-level of pedal-assistance felt like dragging a sea anchor behind me. It would have been an exhausting climb or walk with a traditional mountain bike.  Diane smartly elected to ride up in the van for this last leg.  She had taken a couple of falls on prior days, leaving her fair skin mottled with bruises.  As for me, this was the least scratched or bruised I had emerged from the summer’s mountain biking trips, thanks to my electric steed, which definitely enabled me to ride some climbs I otherwise would not have cleared.  As I panted to the young women from Houston, as they trudged up a difficult-to-walk hill, “Better living through electricity!”   Of course, it would have made a lot more sense to have done these trips in reverse order, as this was the lowest elevation of the three destinations and the easiest terrain (mostly double track, no single track, although some of the climbs were memorable). Both Steve and I thought this was a perfect match of bicycle to terrain. 

As seems to be a Western Spirit tradition (n=2), our sendoff lunch was a taco salad.  On our van ride back to Western Spirit’s headquarters, we finally were caught up in Moab’s currently awful traffic slow-downs, thanks to extensive road construction.  Going to and from Canyonlands prior to the bike trip, we had seen this gridlock, repeatedly, but our photographer’s early and late departures always seemed to have us going against traffic.  Until now. We inched along, certainly doubling our time back.  Finally, we made it there and the unloading of the truck and reloading of the cars began, the goodbyes were said and the Western Spirit sock parting gifts were distributed.  

We had a long drive back ahead of us, as far as St. George, breaking up the 12 hour drive back to San Diego over 2 days.  Bur first, we had one Moab moment more to savor: one last enchanted chicken quesadilla (green chile chicken, corn, refried beans and red bell pepper with cheese on a griddled tortilla) from Mobilla Quesadilla, conveniently on the way out of town.

The drive across Utah, through the San Rafeal Swell, was stunningly scenic and our passage was in beautiful late afternoon golden light, prompting us to make a series of stops before getting down to the serious business of driving.

Even the drive west across Utah was scenic! (San Rafeal Swell)

My upcoming bookclub selection helped immensely to speed the way home, with Ayad Akhtar reading his semi-auto-biographical novel Homeland Elegies.  He draws on his and his family’s experiences as Pakistani-Americans and Muslims in the US, before and after 9-11, with tremendous discernment, insight, candor and humor. I had loved his play The Who & The What which premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014 and Steve and I had more recently admired his play Junk: The Golden Age of Debt on Broadway.

With this trip, we doubled our e-bike experience (we had done 4 rides up to this point, all in Flagstaff) and I learned some new techniques.  I always struggled trying to start riding again after stopping on an incline, trying to push off hard enough to gain enough momentum to hoist myself onto the seat and my foot onto the peddle.  Riding with Adam, he pointed out that I now had a motor which I could employ to start riding and that I was working against it by continuing to push off.  The trick was to lower the seat enough that I could actually sit, enabling me to start peddling with an assist from the motor.  Peddling with the seat down meant I had to raise the seat immediately thereafter to continue peddling with any power, but with some practice, I was on my way to unlearning my customary start and making more use of my electric steed’s capabilities. I also relearned some basic mountain biking capabilities I had forgotten about, namely locking out the front and rear shocks when facing a formidable climb. The White Rim was a scenic, confidence-building training ground for adjusting to the new world of pedal assist, which we both were thrilled to enter.

Back home, we’re already perusing next year’s offerings from Rimtours and Western Spirit, looking forward to more explorations on 2 wheels!

Canyonlands: best on a bike! So long Utah, we’ll be back!



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