Bikepacking Diaries 009: You Can’t Trust Every Rainbow As A Good Sign

Read Day One:(Bikepacking Diaireis 008) to catch up on our bicycle trip so far.

After a sleepless night of cold rain, we woke up to loud wind rattling the tarp above us. It annoyed me to no end, all I wanted to do was sleep. I took the tarp down because the sun was shining and I couldn’t stand the noise any longer. When the tarp was on the ground, a beautiful rainbow exposed itself in the dark morning sky.

We didn’t see a full arch, but perhaps we were looking at a symbol of peace, or a sign that the storm had passed. We felt lucky to wake up warm with gear that ranged from damp to soaked.

At first we only saw the end of a sparkling rainbow. Like a beautiful omen for better times ahead, it’s arch disappeared into the sky. I noticed a second, fainter line to the left of the first rainbow. A double rainbow must be bringing us prosperous peace! The sight of the rainbow brought me out of my sleeping bag.

“Beautiful!” I shouted at the rainbow. I felt like Julie Andrews twirling around with my arms outstretched to the heavens. I ran to the edge of the canyon to see if a waterfall was cascading off the cliffs, but it wasn’t.

“If you’re freezing, sprint your ass around!” I shouted to the shivering boys standing still in the sun. They laughed but didn’t join me.

When I saw the patches of sun on the dirt surrounding us, I began assessing just how wet everything was. I laid my sleeping pad out in the sun, weighed down with a heavy rock. I strung my clothes up in the sage around us, hoping everything would dry out soon.

Jackson and I were motivated to use the sunshine time to pack and pedal to the Visitor’s Center, where we dreamed of making coffee under the covered pavilion.

“More rain is coming,” Ian said, eating a burrito in his sleeping bag as Jackson and I packed as fast as we could.

“Shit,” I said, looking at the dark sky and feeling the wind blow toward us, not away.

The last time Ian and I saw a double rainbow was a good omen. It was the sign we needed to kick off a seven day glorious bikepacking adventure. This double rainbow however, was a sinister sign. Dark sky loomed behind the beauty of the rainbow.

When is the right time to move through a storm and when is it safer to sit?

Ian moved toward packing, but slowly. Half way through shoving our damp sleeping bags in our wet bike bags, it started raining sideways so hard it hurt when it hit my skin. I turned my back to brace the worst of it, and hastily packed the rest of my wet clothes.

The only piece of clothing that remained dry was my puffy and rain pants, which I was wearing but still shivering in.

“I don’t think it’s safe to go anywhere,” Ian said, as the rain became clear it was only picking up, not passing over. “I don’t think it’s safe to sit,” I said, rubbing my hands together, which were beginning to burn and sting. “I just packed up my sleeping bag,” I said, anxious and unsure what to do.

“Why did we take down the tarp?” Ian shouted over the roar of the wind.

“So we could pack up and leave,” I said, exasperated. “We need to get out of here. Let’s get to the Visitor’s Center and get warm.”

Yesterday when we rode past the Visitor’s Center at the Needles, it was closed.

My plan was to go to the Visitor Center’s outdoor bathroom, which isn’t warm but is sheltered from rain and wind. I was going to pull my damp sleeping bag back out of my wet bike bags, blow up my sleeping pad, take off all my clothes and lay there until I was warm. I was going to make the boys do the same. My plan was to put my thumb out on the road after my clothes dried, only to get them wet again, and I was going to ask someone to drive me to the car. My plan was to leave my bike with the boys in their bags and bring back a heated car for us to sit in. We needed to be warm and dry, fast.

We started pedaling into the harsh wind and cold rain. The sandy dirt road turned into a flowing two track stream. My tires skidded out when I tried to pedal through the thick mud. It was easiest to pedal straight through the pink water. Deep enough holes splashed water up to my knees. After a few minutes, my feet and socks and shoes were soggy. Another few minutes passed, and my feet were wet and cold, then eventually went numb. My poor, exposed hands were unable to grip my bike’s brakes. I had to tell my hand to move five seconds before I needed it to move. I couldn’t shift one gear with my thumb like normal, I had to punch the lever with my fist.

This is pretty serious. I can do this, keep pedaling. Don’t get off and push, pedal. Stay on the bike. You’ll get to the Visitor’s Center soon. I told myself over and over: I’m safe. I’m strong. I will be safer soon.

Less than a minute away from the parking lot, a sudden panic hit me and I punched the break. I threw up off the side of my bike, not because I was sick but because I felt anxious. Ian was behind us somewhere in the rain, hopefully pedaling toward us. Jackson and I left before he was done packing. His fat tires were the most adept to biking on the wet, sandy wash of a road. It was likely Jackson and I were going to need to push our bikes up sections, so we got a head start.

Suddenly I felt incredibly dumb and worried.

We shouldn’t have separated in this weather. We need to turn around.

My worst fears bubbled up and pictured Ian curled up in a puddle having a seizure and falling off his bike. He has epilepsy and the conditions were ripe for a lower threshold: not enough sleep, not enough water, not enough food, anxiety, and hypothermic conditions. I pictured him a mile back, shivering and disoriented and I almost threw up again. Instead, I took a deep breath and tilted my tires to turn around.

All of a sudden, Ian popped into view, pedaling his bicycle around the corner.

“Fuck yes,” I exhaled, turned around and kept biking. “We’re all okay,” I assured myself.

The parking lot was in view and I needed to get off my bike. My head was spinning, I felt confused and sleepy. I was surprised to see clusters of people standing at the doors of the Visitor’s Center. It was open. I walked inside, hoping it was heated, but it didn’t feel any different. I was still shivering and dripping and on the verge of passing out.

I sat down on the floor and closed my eyes, inhaling four deep and slow breaths. Jackson walked in and drank water next to me, breathing heavily. When Ian walked in, he was laughing. He said something like, “That was fucked up!”

I smiled with my eyes closed and took another two deep breaths. My heartbeat slowed and the spinning in my head settled. A strange clanging sound distracted me from my next inhale. High pitch scratching on a window pane convinced me to open my eyes, and Ian was standing there with his chest pressed up against a window with a thousand eyed stare.

“He’s about to have a seizure,” I said, leaping up from the ground with my arms outstretched toward his head. I guided his fall to the ground, his head landing in my lap and his body starting to seize on the floor. I remember it feeling really smooth and gentle. I think I actually smiled when I noticed he was still wearing his helmet. I’ve never been happier to see a helmet on his head. My hands went to stabilize and protect his head, but it wasn’t needed with the helmet protection. There was nothing in his airways or in his body’s way.

“No! Don’t restrain his legs,” I yelled at Jackson, who immediately crouched down next to Ian’s shaking legs with his hands on them. “Let him do his thing, he’s safe,” I said.

All around me people swirled into a sea of action.

“It’s okay, he has epilepsy. He’s okay, he has epilepsy,” I repeated to all of the faces that suddenly loomed over us, looking concerned and confused.

“We need to get warm,” I told the empathetic faces.

Everybody did the most helpful thing they could think of.

“Close the doors,” and a man stood up and the wet wind on my back ceased. I felt instantly warmer.

“Get his sleeping bag,” I told Jackson, and he ran back outside into the rain. Before he returned, a woman laid a wool blanket across Ian’s seizing body. After tucking the blanket around his shoulders, I curled my fingers underneath a corner in hopes of warming them up.

“We need water,” I said with chattering teeth into outer space, but someone responded.

“We need to get him out of those wet clothes,” the old man who closed the doors said in my ear.

“I know,” I said, ignoring him and counting in my head 13, 14, 15, 16. Ian was seizing curled up in child’s pose, but his thrashing was minimal and slow, unlike other seizures I’d seen.

“We’re not really keeping him warm with this blanket if he’s wet,” the old man said, crouching beside me. He was thinking smart. He put hypothermia on my radar. My thoughts were quickly sharpening. The seizure was the first priority, soon getting warm would take precedence.

“Do you have an EMT on site?” I asked into the air. All of my questions were answered. I didn’t know who I was talking to, I wasn’t making eye contact. Answers somehow floated back to me.

“We called him, he’ll be here any minute,” a woman said, then disappeared.

“No, we don’t need an ambulance,” I responded to someone in space.

A different woman came with an emergency, shiny space blanket. I watched her rip it out of the packaging and quickly wrap it around his waxy, red feet. Ian’s sandals were caked with thick pink mud and dripping rain. Jackson returned, holding his wet sleeping bag, but dropped it on the floor when he saw Ian covered in a dry wool blanket.

The old man with white hair was still crouched beside me. He reached his wrinkly hand underneath Ian’s rain jacket and patted around. Then he said, “Oh, he’s dry on the inside. That’s good.”

I nodded and continued to count in my head 26, 27, 28.

On the floor by my side was a gallon of water, three different sized cups, and two extra jackets. At some point, someone cleared everyone out of the Visitor’s Center and I noticed the room was quiet and calm.

45 seconds had passed.

Ian’s body stopped seizing. He was now gasping for air, trying to bend his right fist with wild confused eyes. A woman passed me three jackets and said, “Put this under his head.” I obeyed blindly, sliding the jackets under his neck for padding. Three times I tried unbuckling his helmet, but my red and white fingers were too numb and too stiff to curl around the clasp.

“Unclip his helmet so he can breathe better,” I said to the old man who was still crouched at my side, feeling defeated after unsuccessfully trying to break the buckle free. I watched the man’s wrinkled fingers reach toward Ian’s neck. Ian’s eyes bulged for a second before relaxing with a deeper breath when the helmet was removed. The helmet and hat disappeared out of my awareness.

Everybody did the most helpful thing they could think of, and then they left. This was the next most helpful thing to do: clear out and not over crowd us. The atmosphere was calm and safe and slowly warming.

At some point, the old man clasped my shoulder and said something like, “You got this,” and I never saw him again.

The EMT arrived after three or five minutes, replacing the old man at my side. His eyes were calm and he patiently watched as talked to Ian, who was slowly trying to come back to reality by mumbling and attempting to sit up.

“You’re safe, Ian. You had a seizure, we’re in Canyonlands at the Visitor’s Center. You are safe, you don’t need to sit up yet. Lay down and take a deep breath,” I cooed, repeating that he was safe until he nodded.

Ian couldn’t respond verbally yet, but he would nod or grunt and his body stopped resisting. His chest would lift with a deep breath. Eventually, Ian pulled himself up to a disoriented sitting position. He was rapidly blinking but slowly taking in information.

“What do you need?” the EMT man asked me.

“He needs time. It’s going to take him awhile to recover. We need to get warm and stay warm. We need a ride back to our car,” I said.

“No problem, I can take you all,” he nodded. “I have a truck we can put your bikes in.”

“Thank you,” I said looking into his dark and warm eyes. “We’re parked about twenty miles outside of Canyonlands.”

“No ambulance?” he asked.

“No ambulance,” I shook my head and looked Ian over again. “He didn’t hit his head, he doesn’t have any injuries. He just needs to rest.”

The woman who brought the fire blanket suddenly reappeared into existence. She had short hair and was walking fast. She looked at us and said, “The amphitheater is empty, we can move him there. It’s quiet and warm and out of the way. Can he stand?” she said, looking at me.

“No, not yet,” I said, pouring water into a tiny mouth wash cup. Ian both sipped and gulped it down. His hand fumbled to hold the cup and was unable to raise it up to his mouth. Not out of pain, his bodily-brain connection links weren’t quite back up and firing.

“I’m going to call off the ambulance,” the EMT Park Ranger man said, and disappeared.

After another few minutes, Ian was able to stand and walk. Jackson was taller than me and able to guide him through the gift shop safely. I was immensely grateful for the empty amphitheater, a room with stacked chairs and a TV mounted on the wall. I was thankful to be away from doorway with concerned people staring through the glass. It was away from cold windows and bright light. It was quiet and safe.

Quickly, I took off every wet layer I could without getting naked. Then, I took off Ian’s rain jacket and my soaked shoes and socks. I nuzzled my body underneath a dry park service jacket and passed over care to our EMT Park Ranger man.

Clark or Mark, I can’t remember now, took us into our care. I remember his dark eyelashes and quiet, calm tone. I remember the relief I felt when he took vitals and gave Ian hot water to warm up faster than any blanket could warm him. I focused on sending deep breaths to my belly and warming up my hands. Jackson disappeared again to load our bikes into the park ranger’s truck.

I thanked Gaia, God, whoever was listening that Ian had a seizure when we got to the building instead of ten minutes back on the dirt road in the freezing rain.

Clark took over and our situation quickly became stable. After some time, he walked us outside to his warm truck and dropped us off at our car. We drove home and slept warm in our beds that night.

What I witnessed that day was the power of collaboration. Humans are creative problem solvers with huge hearts. Without question, we were loved deeply and taken care of by strangers. Every one who was there did the most helpful thing they could think of, and I was grateful without the ability to express it.

Not one person received a thank you from us that day, because I never saw any of them again. No one lingered about, waiting to see how the drama unfolded. It seemed like everyone was content with doing their part and moving on with their day.

We naturally fall in love with deserted, open space. We crave solitude with the land more than anything. This trip, I was caught by surprise with how easy it is to fall in love with humanity.

Humans are innately empathetic toward each other. That day at the Canyonland’s Visitor Center, a bridge was built without words. All the walls that separate park ranger from bicycle tourist from Utah citizen from day hiker from van dweller from old man to young woman suddenly dissipated when Ian hit the floor.

No one knew our names. No one needed to know our history, income, preferences, hobbies. Nothing mattered except a human body was in crisis and the able bodied folks stepped up to help.

We saw the human in each other’s eyes.

For people like us who spend more time outside than in, the trip was a good wake up call. Nature humbled us. It was the first time in a years that I can remember feeling truly afraid of the elements. We were reminded that we always have more to learn, there’s always room to tighten our risk management decision making skills, and not every rainbow is followed by sun. The rain and wild and hail also gave us strength and confidence to push through discomfort and try our damn best to look out for each other.

When Ian asked, “What’s the point of a one nighter?” and I responded, “Who knows! There could be lessons for us,” I didn’t quite expect these lessons. We can never predict how the wilderness will challenge us. This is my favorite part of going on adventures. The wilderness will always challenge me more than I could possibly challenge myself. I leave every trip knowing a bit more about who I am and how I chose to show up. I am grateful for the opportunity to face challenge.

Jackson never did drink that beer that he attached to his handlebars. My tires never did pop and I still don’t know how to fix a flat. Jackson’s second bikepacking trip also ended in us a hitching a ride back to our car. Ian and I finished the trip with eight burritos left, and ate them in the car on the way home. We never made it to the confluence of the Colorado and the Green River. We did however, satisfy our plan of “pack bikes, ride bikes.”

A lot can happen in 24 hours in the desert on a bicycle.


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5 Comments on “Bikepacking Diaries 009: You Can’t Trust Every Rainbow As A Good Sign

  1. Pingback: Bikepacking Diaries 008: What’s The Point Of A One Nighter? – Beth Henshaw

  2. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the 2nd part but I am glad I did. Nature is always in charge. You are a strong person and it sounds like you kept your wits about you. Ian is a lot to handle, but so worth the effort. Warmly, Laura

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  3. Beth, you have a gift with your words. Wow, what a crazy adventure you all had. I’m so glad everyone is safe, what a scary experience. I’m glad Jackson was able to join you on one of your inspiring bike packing trips. Thanks for sharing and sending all the hugs your way!

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  4. I can only imagine what all that was to endure. Really not sure which riding buddy is Ian by your picture, but it’s thankfull that he pulled thru. Used to be a Medic many years ago. Be Safe out there, Beth.

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