I bought a bike, and it is the most expensive object I have ever purchased. The bike however, is an investment into a new way of living. It is my ticket to a new form of exploration, allowing me to cover more ground than on foot and experience the landscape more than if I were in a car. The bike is a freedom machine.
When I considered buying the bike I wasn’t thinking of the wheels or frame, I was dreaming of a bike packing adventure. I fantasized riding from my home in Colorado to the Pacific Crest Trail in California. I imagined pedaling across vast desert expanses, loaded down with bags of food and water for days. I saw my future self riding the road section between the Smokies and the Atlantic on the Mountains to Sea trail in North Carolina. My dream of thru-hiking the Hayduke transformed into biking the barren sections, riding blissful miles instead of having to backpack with 80 miles worth of water on my back. I considered selling my car and transforming into a commuter, biking the twelve miles into town for groceries and back. I wanted all of those dreams to come true, and I was willing to pay whatever the ticket cost to attain that lifestyle.
My first ride off the couch was minutes after I purchased my new bike baby: the Surly Troll. I rode twelve miles uphill from the bike shop in town to my home in the country. Strapped to my handlebars was a rubber chicken, which helped me feel infinitely less alone on those stretches of road. No route home offered a bike lane, and I was terrified when cars passed.
The only thing I could think of while riding was: fuck pavement. I need dirt. I want a county road. I prefer a forest service road, barely maintained. Get these wheels on the scenic route. Maybe I will keep my car, so I can drive this baby to the backcountry.
My partner and I planned my first 3 day bike packing trip to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument for some sweet desert biking.
Buying the bike was not enough for this dreamy adventure to become a reality. I needed a whole bunch of bullshit for this overnighter: bags and racks and bags and tubes and rear rack and straps and front rack and lots of cash. The bitch of a bike demanded accessories, so I started with a rear rack and two bags to attach to it. I went the thrifty route, buying second hand, and soon regretted it because the stupid rack was a waste of a rack, not broken but too small or too big…either way it didn’t fit my bike and I was out of $50. Without a rack, I could not carry things for the sleepover. We had less than 30 hours until our planned departure.
“Don’t worry,” my partner Ian said. “I have a magical solution that will fix all of our problems. My friend has a rack that pulls behind a bike that you can borrow for free. It will definitely hold all of your stuff, and he said you can borrow it for as long as you want.”
So we drove thirty minutes to the next town in a snowstorm for the magical rack solution that didn’t work, it didn’t fit, my bike was too small or the rack was too big- either way it’s wasn’t going on my bike.
Bikes apparently do not come with kickstands, which is some consumerism conspiracy bullshit designed to make you buy, buy, buy! So I went to the Great Walmart, and purchased a kickstand for seven whole dollars. It didn’t work, it wouldn’t fit, we couldn’t get it to attach: the screws were too small or my bike was too big- either way that shit was not going on my bike.
Cancel everything, we’re going backpacking.
Ian did not give up as easily. He went to the garage and did not come out until that rear rack was attached to my bike.
“How did you make it work?” I asked, excited again. He told me he’d tell me when he was done, but he never told me how. Some wizardry, or Youtube.
Cancel the backpacking trip, we are going bike packing!
Grand Staircase Escalate National Monument called to our desert blazing souls. The landscape is freaky, obscure, remote and wild. Due to its remote location and rugged landscape, the monument was one of the last places in the continental United States to be mapped.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton designated 1,880,461 acres as protected land. The monument is in a state of controversy now, when in 2017 President Donald Trump shrunk the monument in half, opening up more than half a million acres to energy extraction, expanding grazing and permit casual fossil collection. Within hours of this declaration, five Native American tribes filled a lawsuit, declaring the act as unlawful. Ten additional groups filed a lawsuit against the stripping of land in Grand Staircase Escalante including: Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice, The Wilderness Society, The National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The district court had not yet ruled on this lawsuit.
As of January 2021, President Biden announced an executive order declaring his plan to restore the boundaries of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument as well as Bears Ears and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, other public land scaled back by Donald Trump.
Following the back and forth bullshit of the President’s doing and undoing is exhausting. It fills me with a general distrust for the system we have in place. How can land that is protected so easily be taken away? Not even the environmental laws in place seem final or effective. There is not peace in protected land if it is reversed years later.
Grand Staircase Escalante is a treasure. To be in the presence of such a diverse geologic playground was awe inspiring. This desert was a painted paradise of red rock, green mesas, white and black winding slopes.
Riding a bike through Grand Staircase was like riding a time machine through a picturesque paradise of color. This desert displayed the delicacy of time and water. While we pedaled through washes that were devoid of water, we could imagine the months of flash flooding to come in the summer that would fill the embankment, carrying pine cones from firs and ponderosas some hundred miles away. Water lines on the rocks marked past years of flood lines and the rocks themselves show the geologic history of ancient seabeds and river deposits forming what strange landscape we see today.
Our bike packing trip was a scouting mission for a longterm dream of backpacking the Hayduke Trial, an 800 mile off trail backcountry adventure through the public lands of Utah and the Grand Canyon. Over 200 miles of the Hayduke crossed through Grand Staircase.
On our first day of pedaling, we rode from Round Valley Draw to Paradise Canyon: 20ish miles of the Hayduke. It was a dreamy ride on dirt roads- we passed the Grosvenor Arch, summited the Cockscomb that overlooked Headquarters Valley and rode alongside the sage flats with divots of canyons springing up out of the ground, deepening and twisting out of sight.
Six miles into our ride, we passed a sign that said “ROAD IMPASSABLE IN 24 MILES” which gave me an uneasy feeling. We brushed it off by joking, “that sign means impassable for babies, cars and fat people. Not us, certainly not us.”
The route we chose was equivalent to an upside down question mark. We had a map, but it cut off some fifty miles into the loop we made up. Ian assured me “the roads would probably connect” and take us to the town of Escalante. The map did not display Escalante, but we figured we could also connect it to Cannonville, another town not on the map. From Cannonvill,e it would be 20 miles back to our car. How many miles were in between Escalante and Cannonville was also gigantic question mark. There were zero known water sources on our route. This did not worry us, for we carried at least two days worth on water on our bikes. We figured we could fill up at a gas station when we hit Escalante on day two. My first bike packing trip was well thought out and planned. It was intended to build a loving relationship with my bicycle.
Ten miles into our ride, a rancher driving the opposite way rolled down his window and stopped his truck to talk. With pursed lips and raised eyebrows he said, “Do you know where you’re going?”
“Yeah to Highway 12,” we said pointing in the random direction of the great unknown ahead.
The rancher rolled his eyes and we laughed. He looked down at our bikes and asked, “You got food and water? Well, good luck.” As he drove away we laughed and joked “He’s just messing with us. That guy doesn’t want any more people out here discovering how wonderful this place is!” He told us we wouldn’t be able to do it and we thought he doesn’t know how strong and capable we are. We pedaled our capable asses through rocky washes and over sage flats, enjoying our desert blazin adventure until we reached a gigantic hill.
Hill #1: DANCE FOR ME AS I TAKE BREAKS
The daylight was slipping away, along with my feet slipping out from under me as I pushed my bike up a rocky hill. My rear rack was dragging my bike backward, requiring extra effort to push up. My mindset was excited for the challenge. “We’re in it now!” I said, as I stopped to catch my breath 3/4 of the way uphill. Ian made it up the hill in one push, while I took five or ten breaks, huffing and puffing. He waited for me at the top yelling about how “it’s better to do it in one push and it’s harder to stop and hold the bike up” and I told him to fuck off and dance for me. As I crested the hill, he stood there shaking his ass and tapping his feet. I laughed and we high-fived successfully.
We pedaled a little longer until we found an incredible place to camp on a ridge that overlooked the valley we traversed. When I crawled into my sleeping bag, I was annoyed to feel my sleeping pad deflated, so I dragged myself back into the cold and blew that bitch back up. It was flat by the time I laid down and zipped up my bag. Well fuck, a hole appeared sometime between last night and now. Oh well, I thought. That’s that and that’s okay.
It was not okay. The ground is quite cold in 16 degree weather. My feet were blocks of ice and I tossed and turned all night as the ground stole my warmth from every angle. Let this set the scene for:
DAY TWO: BIKE PUSHING DUMB BULLSHIT DAY!
Grumpy with sore legs, I packed my shit after drying my shit from the night’s ice and frost. I groaned when I saw the damn hole, punctured by a loose ember from last night’s fire. No duct tape was brought on this journey. Tonight’s sleep would bring the same pleasures. I dreaded the night, when I really should’ve feared the day. We had no idea of what lay ahead- we were blissfully blind sighted. Or as Ian called it: we sandbagged ourselves.
HILLS #2-10: THIS IS WHAT WE DO NOW
The road was full of loose rocks that rattled my titties and threatened to buck me off my bike. The smooth and hard dirt roads of yesterday were gone and they would not be returning. The road turned into a wave. It resembled the “parts of a wave” graph they show in school with steep troughs and sharp crests. Too steep to pedal up and too snowy to pedal down.
We started averaging six stellar seconds, or a hundred yards of riding, before we needed to get off our bikes and PUSH. The hills were arduous and long, winding up and out of sight to where you think you have crested the hill until you turn the corner and lay eyes on the next section. The muscles in my shoulders and neck tightened with pain.
Okay, I thought. This is some hard shit. I’m into it though. This is a test of mental determination and I’m strong and capable. This is what we do now, we push our bikes when we can’t ride them.
HILLS #10-15: MAYBE WE SHOULD TURN AROUND
Wet roads bog the bike down. In the sun, snow melted and left behind thick sand. Thick sand sinks and stops bike wheels. In the shade was still snow. Neither of our tires were fit for snow. I tried to be brave, or dumb, and pedal through it, but my back wheel fish tailed behind me and I fell off my bike once, twice, three times.
We pushed our bikes uphill and walked it downhill and waited for the route to change. We pushed through thinking it will become easier soon. We walked with our bikes wondering when the dirt would return.
The mysterious town of Escalante was more than twenty five miles away, and I began to doubt that we would make it there today. “I know I can do this,” I told Ian. “But I don’t know if I can do this all today.”
Ian said 25 miles is easy to do in a day and I shouldn’t doubt myself. “Do you want to turn back?” he asked in a way that sounded like, “Do you want to kill puppies?”
“We’ve hit that point in the bike trip where we are closer to what’s ahead than we are to what’s behind,” he said from the mouth that speaks out of his butthole. He had no idea close how close we were to Escalante, because Escalante was not on the map. Never mind the fact that once we hit Escalante, we had an unknown number of miles to go to get to Cannonville, then another 20 miles back to the truck. It seemed like the truck behind us was closer than all of that, but my self doubt was creeping up my spine like the itsy bitsy spider.
HILLS #15-25: THIS ISN’T FUN ANYMORE
Hours passed but the miles did not. My body was exhausted, my neck and shoulders were tight and contracted with pain from pushing. Yesterday we pedaled 20+ miles in four hours. Today we had pushed our bikes for four hours and maybe gone four miles.
I started to cry from exhaustion. I sucked my tears back in and told myself to be tough. I told myself to suck it up. My feet were sinking in the mud. I’d yank them out and they’d come with a brick of mud stuck to the bottom. Heavy breathing preceded no breathing at all.
We were moving like molasses, bogged down by bike pushing. Queen’s song lyrics: “I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike” played on repeat in my head because all we were doing was pushing our stupid bicycles, not riding them.
HILL #26: I’M OUT OF WATER
It was becoming more clear that we were not going to make it to Escalante that day to refill our water bottles. My annoyance for the hills was turning into fear. How much longer would the road be like this? What will happen if it really is impassable? What if we both run out of water? We need to stop.
“We should melt snow,” I said.
While melting snow for water, I eyed my food situation. I only packed enough food for three days, and I was hungrily devouring what snacks I had allocated for tomorrow. It would be okay if we hit Escalante today, then I could buy gas station food. With the road conditions like this, we weren’t going to make it today. I was sure of it. Maybe not even tomorrow. How many more hours could I stand of pushing my bike uphill?
“I’m scared,” I said. “I know I can do this, but I don’t think I can do it in the time frame we were thinking. I’m scared because that puts us in a dangerous situation- I don’t have enough food for more than 3 days, and we don’t know if there will be more snow to melt.”
Ian took the hardcore motherfucker mentor approach and told me that I could do it, that we were going to make it, and we would be okay if we just kept going.
HILLS #27-33,000: WE’RE BREAKING UP
Pissed off now, absolutely pissed. Why are we doing this? Why are we still pushing our bikes uphill? This isn’t fun. This is downright dumb. Instead of telling Ian I was mad at him for being attached to going forward, I turned that anger inward. Darkness took over. I started picturing Ian at the top of the hill thinking, “why am I waiting for this slow person? I’m leaving.” Honest to Gaia, I imagined him riding away and making it to Escalante without me, taking our extra water with him without saying goodbye. I pictured falling off my bike and breaking my face and him thirty miles ahead never turning around. I pictured him getting back to the truck and driving away, leaving my ass stranded in the desert TO DIE. I literally imagined what it would be like to be broken up with through death.
I left my challenge zone and moved into my panic zone.
HILL #50: I’M FAT
The hill of despair hit me in the form of snow. It was a long strenuous stretch of uphill snow pushing. It was hidden in the shade where my darkness bloomed. My feet slipped out from under me and I fell down with the bike falling on top of me. I was so tired I didn’t even yell fuck or damn or shitfuck or any of my other usuals. The hill slapped me down and told me I was weak.
Laying in the snow, I did something I haven’t done since I was 13 or 14. I lifted up my shirt, looked at my stomach and thought: I’m fat. I can’t do this because I’m fat. Then I thought, I should do this because then I won’t be fat.
I am 5’3″ and 115 pounds. Most people describe me as “tiny.” By no means am I fat, but by gosh that’s what I honestly believed in that moment. How human is that? Why is that the worst thing we can think of telling ourselves?
These fat thoughts lie in the pit of panic. I haven’t heard them in ten years- I didn’t know they still existed. When I was becoming a teenager, I remember feeling generally unaware and confused. This is the time in a girl’s life when people started telling what I should change about my body.
“It’s time to shave your legs and shave your armpits.” Why? It seemed like no one could answer this question except with “just because” or “that’s what women do.”
Suddenly my brain was replacing thoughts like, “let’s go outside and ride bikes” to “what do I look like when I am riding this bike?” I remember going to basketball practice and suddenly feeling embarrassed, because I realized I was the only one on the team without shaved legs. Instead of thinking about my left hand layup form, I worried about wearing shorts and people staring at my blonde leg hair. I suddenly felt ostracized and naive, like I had missed out on hearing the secret everyone else knew about.
Then it was time to wear a bra, it was time to start experimenting with makeup. Instead of waking up and going to the pantry to make a bowl of Cheerios, I woke up and went to the mirror. I spent time looking and adjusting and judging. The face that reflected was a scowl with scrunched eyes and a frown; and that’s how I came to perceive myself. I didn’t know what I looked like with a smile on my face.
Everything the outside world was telling me was that my face and hair and legs and armpits needed adjusting. By the end of high school I started to reject all that bullshit. Girls my age told me “it’s brave” of me to not wear makeup, and they wished they could do the same.
It’s brave of me to wake up and do absolutely nothing but walk away from my bed? No.
What’s brave of me is pedaling into the desolate desert without any known water sources or a complete map set. What’s brave of me is push my damn bike uphill for ten hours and not give up when my body was aching and my eyes were tearing up. What was even more brave was expressing the dark thoughts out loud and advocating that we stop.
THE LAST HILL: “THIS ISN’T BIKEPACKING, THIS IS BIKEPUSHING.”
I lost it. I threw my bike on the ground. I let the tears fall that I’d been holding in for five hours. I yelled up to Ian, who was waiting at the top of the hill: “WE NEED TO TURN AROUND.”
I left my bike on the ground and approached him with a rant:
“This isn’t bike packing, this is bike pushing. This is DUMB. This is not fun. I want fun. I hate my bike, I hate my body, and I hate you. I don’t want to push my bike to Escalante.”
“We’re getting our asses kicked,” he said, looking around at the hills ahead. “I think we severely underestimated the terrain.”
The desert was pushing us out. It was not allowing easy passage and we were stubbornly fighting it. My own darkness clouded my ability to see the objective obvious: this route wasn’t working, it wasn’t worth it, and we weren’t prepared.
We came together that night around the fire. Ian’s iron will and love for physical challenge momentarily blinded him from seeing how much pain I was in. He is a badass and a classic sandbagger. His intentions were to encourage and challenge me to push through discomfort. Instead of driving me to determination, we drove ourselves into the ground. Exhausted and fatigued, we started to laugh at how ridiculous our day had been so far.
“It seems so obvious now,” he laughed. “We sandbagged ourselves.”
We learned how stubborn we can both be. We learned how tough we are and how much we are willing to persevere through the unknown and the gritty. He learned that when I go into my panic zone, I shut down and become quiet until explosion. I learned that when his mind is set on a goal, he will not give up no matter how arduous the task. We learned that we have a tendency to make things way harder than they need to be, and we also learned how easy it can be to change our minds.
DAY THREE: TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK
We turned around. We started out the day with a world record three straight minutes of riding down a hill that took us half an hour to push up. Instead of waiting impatiently for me at the top of the hill, Ian would run down the hill and help me push my bike up. For the long snowy sections we would team push one bike at a time up and go back to retrieve the other.
The desert was urging us to leave and celebrated when we listened. Coyotes chanted in the forest around us. A golden eagle soared over us when we were team pushing one bike. A raven squawked and flew from tree to tree while we pedaling for an earth shattering ten minutes straight before coming to a hill we needed to push up. That day the desert revealed itself to us as a place teeming with life, when yesterday it was unyielding and still. It was stubbornly silent except for my heavy breathing and tears. It displayed itself as barren and unforgiving, perhaps because that’s how we were treating ourselves.
We covered two days worth of distance in a few hours. My first bikepushing trip was over.
“Do you want to break up with me?” Ian joked.
“Nah,” I said.
“Do you want to ride your bike ever again?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I nodded.
The bicycle brought out fears and pains I didn’t know I had. The magic of the wilderness did its work on me. Speaking the negative and ridiculous thoughts out loud helped me release them. I left the desert with a deep look into my own dark side. I left Grand Staircase feeling both exhausted and strong. I can push through some stupid hard shit. I have grit and resilience. I have a pattern to believe in the worst case scenario as fact.
Next time I want to tell myself: I am strong and I am intelligent. Turning around is not defeat, it’s not giving up, and it’s not weakness: it’s smart. I wish I had told myself: I am strong enough to do this, and I don’t want to. I wish I had the self acceptance to see the misery I was putting myself through was not worth anything. I was stubbornly obsessed with proving that I could push my bike uphill for 10 hours. For what? Why?
The bicycle is a freedom machine. I pedaled for three days carrying all the clothes, shelter, food and water I needed. I carried with me a stove to melt snow when I ran out of water. The bicycle gives independence to the rider. Only I could control where it went and how fast it got there. The bicycle allowed me to ride a road that was impassable to cars. It gave me the opportunity to feel every pebble and shift of the wind, things I would not notice inside of a car. I felt the burn in my legs from each incline and the wind on my face from each decline. The bicycle connected me to a vast wilderness that I had never seen before: Grand Staircase Escalante. The time I spent on my bicycle not crying or pushing it, I spent looking around. I watched the birds fly above me and I could smell the pinyons. I noticed coyote tracks and mountain lion prints in the sand and I stared into the endless rolling hills of sand and rock. The bicycle allowed me to feel like I was a part of everything around me, not simply moving through it or past it. It allowed me to be immersed in the wilderness, to join it and stay in it. It filled me with love and appreciation and most importantly an overwhelming desire to protect the beautiful landscape.
We need wild spaces like this to exist. We need the wilderness to stay wild and to remain remote. We need to immerse ourselves in what is still considered natural. For our mental clarity, emotional health, spiritual growth, and physical release: we need wilderness.
Like what you see? Subscribe to Empathic Adventurers:
Get involved & Get Outside:
Click here to support the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance: an organization that “promotes local and national recognition of the region’s unique wilderness character through research and public education; supports both administrative and legislative initiatives to permanently protect the Colorado Plateau wild places within the National Wilderness Preservation System, or by other protective designations where appropriate; builds support for such initiatives on both the local and national level; and provides leadership within the conservation movement through uncompromising advocacy for wilderness preservation.”
Learn about the issues they are working on to protect wilderness in Utah.
Take Action and Support the Organizations Who Are Fighting To Protect and Reclaim Land in Grand Staircase Escalante: