Day One: Fly to Salt Lake. Stay with Rob at his friends’ house; we go out for fish tacos at Rob’s favorite Mexican place in SLC. Stories of their past glories and spectacular crashes.
Day Two: Pack up borrowed road and mountain bikes, stock up on groceries on the way out of town, head south. In Provo, stop at the bike shop Rob’s same friends have recently taken over. Pick up supplies, ogle bikes, chitchat. Head south for real.
Mountain passes. Huge skies. Long, long roads, stretching from out there to nowhere. Then, suddenly, huge red rock cliffs, tables, spires. Then lots more. I am home – this is the doorway to my spiritual home on planet earth. This is the part of the world I dream about when I am in the east.
Moab: A little town, retaining the feel of a small outdoorsy place. Good juice and coffee joints, and something like 13 bike shops, almost all dedicated to mountain biking. If anyone has told you in overzealous terms that mountain biking is dead, send them to Moab. The place is overrun by people under the age of 30, and every one of them lives, eats and breathes hardcore M TB. Fashionably puffy beards over surprising baby faces, pre-weathered t-shirts with gear brands all over them, baggy shorts. Ultracool, giving off that faint aura of hangover, exhaustion from yesterday’s epic ride, and hyper-caffeination. Most everyone is friendly.
Mid-afternoon. Set up camp fast as possible. Set up the road bikes as fast as possible. Drop like stones down the “hill” Rob warned me about, which runs up to our campground. Ride north a tick to the place where the Colorado crosses the highway, and turn right… into the most beautiful road riding I’ve done in a long time. Supposed to go out an hour to test my legs, I’m recovering from pneumonia. Hypnotized by the slowly passing walls and stately spires of earthy brown and brick red, we hit the hill to the campground two hours later. Wheeeeeeeeze up the hill. Stop in the middle. Almost throw up. Rob asks, “You have that metallic feeling in the back of your throat?” “Don’t make me talk!” I wheeze.
First campfire of the trip. Rob makes killer foil dinners in the white, glowing coals, possibly to make up for nearly making me throw up. The firewood is juniper or piñon, and smells like incense. A million stars unfold across the rich, dark sky. As close to heaven as you can get on planet Earth.
Day Three: Up at 6:30 out of habit. No light. Climb up the swooping red rock behind camp, walk to view of the La Sals, popping up out of the high desert plains about 20 miles from here. Do yoga, watch the sky light up and fill with sun. Good start.
Sit in café with Rob while he puts in obligatory work hours. He apologizes every day for this; I couldn’t be happier, sitting in a beautiful place with a good book and happy folk all around. 20-somethings flirt and boast with each other.
Quick lunch. Set up mountain bikes. My first time on a real MTB trail. Rob insists Slickrock is a great introduction; we can see the entrance from our picnic table. We roll over to the parking lot. I am very disoriented, figuring out the gear levers (so different from a road bike’s), the feel of disc brakes, how to handle a tiny 22-tooth chainring. Begin Slickrock. Just the entrance to the trail feels overwhelming. Huge sign says something like, “Warning: Advanced skills required.” I excuse myself and tell Rob to go on. He coaxes, promises, persists. I continue. Feel like I’m riding a bike on the moon – except there’s far too much gravity. Bicycles were not meant to be ridden on curvy, hilly rock with jumps and turns and… a 12-year-old in flip-flops sails past me. I tell Rob, No, really. I really am turning around. I turn around. Head for trailhead.
Take a short, steep downhill too fast, try to make the quick right turn at the very bottom. It’s me versus momentum. Momentum wins. Bike and I go over to the left, I go down plenty hard on my hip, then, WHANG, helmet follows. I am conscious, but lose radio contact for a minute or so.
I am not well. Walk the bike out, Rob follows, increasingly worried. I do not curse him. Rob wants to take my bike, but I can’t walk without leaning on it. I return to camp, drop bike, ice hip for rest of afternoon. Rob rides Slickrock and goes on to a longer, harder trail. He is a monster. He is gone three hours. I am filled with a combination of envy and wonder. I find out days later he is a Cat 1 mountain bike racer. I never knew this. It would have helped to know this.
Day Four: Another 74-degree day, no clouds. I drive to Dead Horse Point. Rob rides up the 12-mile hill to the overlook and meets me there. I am busy being awestruck and deeply still. I stare and stare, drinking of the endless vista of enormous, gouged rock features, every color in the earth-tone rainbow. Whole snow-capped mountain ranges with charming names are visible in the distance. Most of all, silence, occasionally broken by a raven's caw! Hot sun bakes out my tension, questions. The dust in the air begins to blur out the vista at a certain distance. An awareness emerges of the very energy of the earth, a palpable thing all about me. It’s like being on the edge of Creation as it’s being created. I could stay here all afternoon. We go.
On the way, Rob and I have an involved conversation about the possible ways the all-star roster on team Astana will play out in the Tour this year.
Day Five: I’ve been testing my hip and doing some gentle rehab. Certain movements hurt like fire, but riding seems possible, it’s going to be another beautiful day, and you know what that all means. Despite the start of a head cold, I will try to ride.
I limp over to the parking lot for Sliprock (as it will hence be known in my household), scuttling slow as a seven-legged scorpion. Rob walks my borrowed road bike over. With some doing, I manage to get a leg over the frame. I clip in and ride around the lot. It doesn’t hurt. Might even feel good.
In this moment, I know for the umpteenth time that I am a road-biker.
We drive to the road heading down the Colorado River (the opposite direction from the first day’s ride), kit up, fuel up, roll out. Rob rides his mountain bike, to keep from pushing the pace too much, in deference to my injury. Flat-to-rolling, scenery even more breathtaking than ever. My spirits begin to lift. Other roadies pass us, two on stylish De Rosas, one of them a skinny guy dressed in impeccable Euro style, no helmet, just a Rapha-esque cycling cap matching his spotless black and white jersey. His elegance, so different from the frumpy mountain bikers I’ve seen for the last few days, further lifts my mood. We amble down the road, my hip loosens, the day’s horizons expand, and time disappears. At the turnaround point, we lay out on blazing hot flat red rocks by the timeless river and bake in the heat. I discover that the fresh tortillas with which I filled my jersey pocket have now become crispy, delicious corn chips in the superdry heat.
We turn around, pick up the pace, TTT back to the FourRunner. For ten glorious minutes, I am pulling Rob, I am the roleur I sometimes can be, I put us at 26 mph, aided by a felicitous tail wind. We disappear into our work. Rob, who we both know is a world stronger than me even when we are both at our fittest, says he had trouble holding my wheel, a nice note, but absurd, since he’s on a mountain bike, and has been hammering out epics twice a day lately. Yet I know the pulls were good, and they nourish me inside.
We eat at a restaurant for dinner, a rejuvenating taste of civilization, and we toast a good trip.
Day Six: Pack up camp first thing in morning, and with heavy hearts, bid adieu to our perfect home. Try to squeeze in a ride up the hill to Dead Horse Point. My head cold is setting in, sky is overcast, wind is tenacious and temps are way down. Not fun. We climb about half-way up, take a break at yet another breathtaking scenic overlook. The only other person around for miles is a cool, funky photographer, so I strike up a conversation. He’s an older guy, living in Kansas, but he’s from all over, a student of life, talks to people, gathers stories, does some marketing and commercial work. We talk about Kansas and the Dust Bowl. Good conversation. Time to leave. The descent is wonderful, I hit 50 mph, enjoy the wide, sweeping turns, it’s great fun.
Long drive up to Provo, reunion with bike shop buddies, drop borrowed bikes, thanks and goodbyes. I play DJ with Rob’s iPod as we drive and we discover we have huge overlap in musical tastes. We rock out to good tunes and talking songwriting.Continue north past Salt Lake to Rob’s parents in Logan to drop off camping gear and a bike and stay the night.
Meet the fam. First shower in a week. Quick dinner of good steak. Head cold sets in. Sleep hard.
Day Seven: Laundry. Clean and detail the borrowed FourRunner with Rob. Sunday dinner, get to know Rob’s delightful family, all kinds of incriminating stories I can now hold over him. Drive an hour south to Rob’s sister-in-law’s house. She happens to be one of the best female snowboarders in the world. She is back east, winning a major competition. We stay in her interesting, well-appointed house, but bum out because her hot tub has been drained and Rob’s friends can’t make it over. Last-evening-itis. Head cold is now for real. But I cheer up at the chance to use all my leftovers to make a nice little dinner in a lovely kitchen.
Day Eight: Up at 4:30 a.m. Fly across America in a Bonine-and-NyQuil-induced haze, limp around the Baltimore airport marvelling at the power of narcotics. Baltimore to Hartford, shuttle from Hartford to Western Mass, and a long, hot shower. Rest the painful hip. Await the return from work of my wonderful wife, who I haven’t seen in eight nights.
Turn the page; tomorrow is a workday and I look forward to returning, refreshed.