Manic in Moab

Seven years ago, I stumbled into Moab on Easter weekend with a loaded bike rack and a pocketful of greenbacks. Call it bad luck or blind ignorance, but I had no idea that the annual jeep extravaganza was taking place that weekend. That is, I had no idea until we accidentally joined a parade of nearly 500 four-wheel drive vehicles on a slow-speed trip through downtown Moab.

Unfortunately, we stayed with part of that parade for the rest of the day, when we foolishly went to ride Poison Spider, where the danger of being run over was greater than that of spilling off the deadly Portal.

The following morning got no better after a bad breakfast at Arches Diner, a bonus case of the runs and an afternoon of uncomfortable hiking with a group of German tourists in Arches National Park. When it was all said and done, my pocketful of greenbacks was history, my bike had barely been used, and I swore that my longstanding love affair with Moab’s trails and surroundings was over. About that same time, Schwinn put the Moab tag on a bike, Nike put it on pair of shoes (with a slightly altered spelling), BF Goodrich stuck it on a set of tires and Samsonite even christened a garment bag with the four letters.

While everyone else was zoning in on the former uranium boomtown, I looked elsewhere for my desert fix. I would identify random squiggles on maps and push deep into the San Rafael Swell and the empty quarter west of Blanding in search of slot canyons. I would drive across dozens of miles of washboard following a labyrinth of spurs created by uranium miners. I would traverse places with names like the Mussentuchit Badlands and the Moroni Slopes in search of remote canyons. And there’s no doubt that I found magic in some of those forgotten folds of the Colorado Plateau.

I also started listening to ridiculous urges, and at one point seriously considered packing up my wife and possessions and moving to the tin-shack town of Hanksville. When people asked if I’d ridden Slickrock on my recent trip into the desert, I’d huff at them. “Moab, hah, I haven’t been to that tourist trap in years,” I would say, doing my best Edward Abbey imitation.

A couple weeks ago, my Abbey imitation was nowhere to be found as I stumbled, head down, back into Moab. Not only was I making a boomerang trip to the tourists’ paradise I’d sworn off of, I was making it in fairly high season. I’d also agreed to a family-style getaway, doing hikes that the infant could handle. Worst of all, I’d submitted to spending the night, not in a motel room, but in the affordable confines of a “cabin” situated in an RV park. When we arrived, we saw that our cabin consisted of a wood-paneled modular that was still on wheels.

The following day, I broke out the maps and selected a fairly rigorous hike up the steep escarpment of the Moab Rim Trail. We rounded the first bend, and my worst fears were chokng the redrock trail. While it was no Easter weekend parade, a chain of jacked-up cars was struggling near the steep edge of the rugged trail. As they pushed against gravity and geology, the strain of engines, scrape of metal and hoots and hollers of passengers could be heard.

A father and son pair passed us in matching jeeps of different colors. The good-natured pair waved as they crept by and up a four-foot shelf of rock. The next jacked-up vehicle was not so kind. Our waves were not returned by a stern-faced man in flannel behind the wheel of a tricked-out Willy’s. Just then, any notion of remoteness was dispelled when he reached for the ring of his cell phone. As he climbed the same ledge, a painful scrape gave way to a pop, and the car began squirting motor oil all over the area’s rock and flora. Too raptly engaged in his phone conversation, he paid the pop no notice and instead left a black smear much of the way down the “trail.”

I was still shaking my head as I tried to salvage the day on a different nonmotorized trail. With the sun sinking, I unloaded my two-wheeler at the Amasa Back trailhead and started pedaling. The little Abbey on my shoulder was still chuckling as I made my way up the long-technical climb through a fairly steady stream of descending cyclists. But roughly 100 yards from topping out, it was as if a switch flipped. I passed a couple from Ontario walking their bikes down the trail and at the same time, I crossed the threshold. Suddenly, I was all alone on Amasa Back, climbing a sparsely vegetated ledge, hundreds of feet up a flawless wall of Wingate sandstone. As I crested the top of the climb, the sun was setting on an impressive canyon complex. Island in the Sky, the Maze and the White Rim were all visible, and somewhere out there the Colorado and Green rivers were meeting for the first time. The trail took off down the Amasa Back, a narrow sandstone formation falling nearly a thousand feet on each side. My front tire eagerly carved a course through a sea of petrified sand dunes, humping up steep sprints and gliding through bowls and chutes of slickrock. I rode until I couldn’t ride any further. The sun had dropped, and I had long since seen my final cairn.

It was well after dark when I rolled back to the trailhead and returned to Moab. I was never so happy to be back in that town. Instead of shivering in the base of a canyon and heating bulgar over a white gas flame, I capped the day off with a pitcher of 3.2 microbrew and a couple slices.

And to be honest, crawling back into that modular cabin never felt so good. In fact, I’m hoping they’ve got a vacancy in coming weeks. I’ve got a date with the Slickrock Trail. And I’ve been waiting about seven years to make it.

-Will Sands




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