Four Days of Higher Education in the Utah Desert
Story and Photos by Dave Zook
Pits and Despair
“Up ahead the trail cuts downhill and narrows and then you hit the sweetest exit move in the whole world of mountain biking.” Gregg Davis, our de facto leader with a photographic memory of the intricate trail networks, frequently pedaled forward while looking backward to narrate. Impressive.
This was day three of a camping and biking trip in southern Utah, now on Little Creek Mesa. As per Gregg’s beta, thick junipers, firs and Manzanita clogged the rider’s right side, and a fat slab of orange sandstone, like a large troll, blocked the left side. Barely threading these natural barriers was the intended route, which seemed to drop abruptly into nothing.
But no. It went left via a choke that passed through a small tangle of rocks, the troll-wall only a few inches away, threatening to knock bike and rider off the edge. Then came a ten-foot length of rock and a 90-degree right turn to a downhill rock-ladder to the flats. Shawn Jensen, an experienced rider, dropped in, but lost balance through the choke and plummeted into the pit of despair, leaving a crimson streak on the emery.
Blood—or at least from my perch in a tree, scouting from above, it looked that way. But it was only the skid-mark from his biking shoes.
A good crash, he was unhurt. Still, my exit move would be walking through the obstacles. Sheridan went next, slithering through the turns, and accelerating down the ramp, clattering her way to safety unscathed. We hooted in support and then kicked smoky brown clouds of dust into the blue air and pushed on to the next challenge, drop, feature, or obstacle ahead.
Hoping for the Best
Six friends and I had booked four days in October to the Gooseberry Mesa region, the popular slickrock five hours south of SLC. An infrequent biker, I joined an experienced and hard-riding group. Maybe I’d humiliate myself, maybe I’d get better. I figured the odds were about 99 to 1.
Gooseberry Mesa itself offers 18.3 miles of trail, with Little Creek and Grafton Mesas nearby, offering more slickrock and a rowdy downhill, respectively. On the return to the city, we planned to pass through Thunder Mountain for a ride, two hours to Gooseberry’s north. It would be fine autumn riding.
I rented equipment as a new bike of quality retails for around the same price as an early-2000s Subaru Legacy (the Big Mac Index for thrifty outdoor enthusiasts). I got dialed in with a brand new Giant Anthem 27.5’er, a demo that had yet to be demo’d, therefore clean and shiny and very breakable looking.
With my new, albeit temporary, bike, I zipped around my neighborhood the evening before the trip. Finding a dry walking trail, I acquired two flat tires in as many minutes thanks to the needle-sharp goatheads, and walked the bike home, dejected. A foreboding omen, to be sure.
Monday evening, Gregg, Sheridan and I arrived on the Mesa. Knotty pinyon pine, gooseberry bush, and sage rooted sporadically in flour-fine red soil. We set up camp, then Gregg and I took the aptly named Practice Loop, with Sheridan resting out a cold. I rolled up and down the contoured terrain but felt hesitant to take speed or do anything risky. I knew I could hang with these guys on any ski slope since we were all of similar backgrounds, which led to thinking sharp contrast in mountain-bike experience, and what that may mean. A few butterflies fluttered.
Later in the evening Ketner, Rusty and Scott joined up, and even later, Shawn. As we lost light and the desert sky turned popsicle hues to black, I thought of Edward Abbey, the environmentally-minded rabble-rouser author who spent years in the Utah wildlands. I guessed he might have some tack-sharp words to describe such an event. In Desert Solitaire he proved me right.
“The sun is touching the fretted tablelands on the west. It seems to bulge a little, to expand for a moment, and then it drops—abruptly—over the edge. I listen for a long time.”
Lap a Goose
On Tuesday morning, we prepped for the long technical jigsaw puzzle of a ride on the mesa. Caffeine trickled down our throats. Rusty and Gregg rattled on about multi-contact point suspension technology and the debatable merits of composite metal alloys. “Alloy huh? Well shootdang, you can’t mess a classic, eh guys?” I chuckled a confident chuckle, knowing zilch about bike metal. The guys stared into their coffee cups.
Starting at the White Trailhead we took Cattle Grate Trail to South Rim. Almost immediately, I found myself grunting up step-ladder inclines, off small ledges, and down near-vertical ramps which opened up to a mélange of bowls and smooth moonscapes. My head was relentless-learn through repetition…keep pedaling…attack the hill…don’t fall off the cliff. The spectacular, austere terrain opened up for me.
South Rim led to The Point, the end of the plateau with over 1,000 feet of sheer vertical relief to the valley floor. We lunched and stared. The ruler-level mesas truncated the tops of the spines with soft striations of purple and vermillion while the lower mountain transitioned to a shade like that of a juicy cross-section of medium rare filet. The bulbous contours of earth meshed with the flat valley and stretched on for miles.
Gregg scouted out part two of the ride, initiating Team Clean—a partner challenge to maintain a no-fall quota on the one-mile Yellow Trail. We began shouting the finer points of the trail to our partners. “Short right turn to loose dirt on a banked left turn,” and “Cacti encroaching the trail!” Or “Quick rolling section!” The incessant exchange made obvious how many quick and often consequential decisions are made every minute. Somehow my friends had learned to make mind and body merge beyond all these instructions.
Refueling on pickles and trail mix before the sunset session on some playful rock features near camp, we heard Scott say: “I’m gonna freeride my face off!” A downhill expert, he meant it if he’d be seeking face-melting action, but immediately after the announcement he spun around and cracked his skull on a corner of the Subaru’s open rear hatch. He reeled, we snickered, complete assholes that we are. But during the ride, in the soft light of the setting sun that splattered a golden hue over the desert, he hit drops and tricked off features no one else went near. I watched and tried to envision the long and lengthy (and more than likely painful at times) process to get to that point.
Around the fire with lukewarm beers and hot fish tacos, our unique demographic of six-year-round Alta residents (plus me) bantered and compared notes on the intricate controversies of one of Utah’s most romanticized slices of land: Multi-land usage, development and true community feel, which segued into musings on the cosmos and the sobering extrapolation of planet to solar system to universe to galaxies to whatever is bigger than that and the collective assertion of our infinitesimal occupation on the time and space continuum. The boggling scale made places like Alta or Gooseberry seem more miniscule than ever, though paradoxically, no less significant.
I’ve Got This! Do I? Well…
The next day, south a few miles to Little Creek Mesa, we rode terrain much like Gooseberry, rolling sandstone with little elevation gain. I focused on changing gears less, and averaging a higher gear to increase speed going into obstacles.
Sheridan, well enough to take her first ride, claimed the most technical problems on the trail. She was eager to repeat a failed challenge a second or third time and to cheer on everyone else. “Yeah, yeah, you got this! You’re killing it! Strong riding bud!”
Friendly competition is a certain by-product of camaraderie. Eyeing a narrow patch of loose, haggard stones leading to a two-foot step up, to another one-foot step up, I thought “no chance,” but then saw Ketner and Rusty hanging out, watching. Scraps of pride colliding with a fledgling’s dubious sense of worth, I grunted forward, clunking up and over the obstacle. Graceful synergy between bike and human be damned, I had made it.
So why not make it really sketchy to celebrate a small gain? After Little Creek, we shuttled the Grafton Downhill, a wild, wooly, and fast ride that started near the campground on the same landmass as Gooseberry. Here I was burned repeatedly, my previous spike in confidence flamed out. But the guys were bombing, tearing up the rocks and roots and plowing through what looked unrideable. Meanwhile, I contentedly observed a clinic in how control could be kept at eye-watering speed and humbly walked around the zones I didn’t feel good about, as should any rider on trails above their level.
At the bottom, when it seemed the day was done, a 20-foot road gap bookended the dirt road and beckoned-Scott. He pedaled off to eye it up, the rest of the crew thinking “yeah, save it for Rampage,” the annual mega-huck downhill event staged nearby.
But he kept poking around, his determination demanding we shout our opinions about height, requisite speed, landing odds, mental blockades, and situational philosophy. All except Rusty that is, who took a seat, looking away. “I just don’t think he should do it,” he said flatly, with a nervous laugh.
Scott hiked up the hill and dropped with barely a warning. He came into sight from behind a rollover with a full head of steam, and locked into the takeoff strip with a roostertail of fine desert dust trailing him. Boosting across the divide, he was an ET-esque silhouette against the dusky Zion backdrop. “Whoo!” he said mid-air and landed on the side-angle transition, coming to a halt in the shrubbery, grinning and wide-eyed. Yup, he had freeridden his face off.
Northbound and the End of Everything Hot
The team disbanded the next morning. Gregg, Sheridan, Shawn and I went north through Zion (then closed for the government shutdown, an unattractive scene) and up to Thunder Mountain in Red Canyon; the others stayed south for a final ride. To access Thunder Mountain Trail, we rode to the goods via an eventless seven-mile uphill. Now on day four of hard riding my legs were trashed.
The area’s famed hoodoos were a forest of inflated Cheetos-colored drip sand castles, interspersed with fast, smooth ridgelines. We plowed through the mutations and across deep and steep canyons, floating along the ridges and into the trees below.
Physically depleted, I tried to channel my mental resources. While clipping through the trees, my awareness locked into the focal point of the trail. The trees and boulders to either side became a lazy smudge of green and grey. All I saw were two rocks in the middle of the trail 30 feet ahead. Which one was larger, which one held more danger? How to make the fine-tune adjustments to get by safely? Was this improvement? This acute seeing and sensing? Thunder Mountain had put the cumulative lessons of the trip into perspective: utilizing speed, selecting the right gears, feeding off others, and pushing hard. Even if all we learn is how much farther there is to go, it’s fine, because being a hapless enthusiast can be a great time.
Dark, rain-laden clouds doused the blue skies as the temps dropped. We ended the ride on a low-angle smooth section, two miles that gifted us the unfettered joy of going fast without dire consequence. Back at the car, we threw on hoodies and gorged on queso dip, salami and pretzels in the parking lot. It was the end of the trip and likely the end of biking season. We would drive into the cold front begetting the ski season. Twenty minutes later on I-15, frantic snowflakes were whipping across the freeway, and mixing with a skim of sand.