White Rim Blues
The White Rim trail of Canyonlands National Park is a mostly dirt road loop of one hundred miles along a dramatic shelf of pale stone beneath the more accessible Island in the Sky plateau, but above the maze-like terrain created by the Green and Colorado Rivers. It is typically ridden in a few, heavily inebriated days of camping with cyclists enjoying twenty to forty mile rides each day between designated campsites as trucks shuttle camping gear, food and water. Before dawn on a crisp spring morning in 2002, two friends and I planned to mount our bikes and ride the entire trail in a single day, unsupported.
My friends and I broke camp with little fanfare, got back in our car and headed to the starting point near the Island in the Sky visitors' center, just beyond where the Shafer trail climbs its way back onto the plateau. The plan happily bouncing around in my head as we were making good time in the crisp, cool early morning hours was to head counterclockwise around the loop in order to get the (boring, less scenic) section of paved and improved road out of the way early. Then down off the plateau at Horsethief basin, past the sand and trudgery of Hardscrabble before climbing onto the rim. Then yada yada yada, you know, some riding, triumphantly cresting the arduous Murphy Hogback summit at great speeds, then a coast back to the middle ring-easy Shafer trail climb.
The hardest part would be the final half-mile of road before downing some cold drinks at the truck, one hundred mountain bike miles the wiser. Water replenishment was to be taken care of by the stash at White Crack, filtering from the Green and the Colorado Rivers, and from supported groups along the way if need be. The birds sang, we rode, and the sun streaked brilliantly as it rose higher into the sky.
More: Follow a Tour of Moab's Famous White Rim Trail
While we were resting and filtering the silty waters of the Green River something occurred to me: "Why hadn't we passed any groups along the way?" By this point in the ride we should have seen a few supported trips stirring in the passed campsites. Their absence was strange for this time of year when the weather is usually perfect for outdoor partying. The answer became clear to me after we began the surprisingly long climb out of Sandy Bottom toward the rim: they had checked the weather report and it was grim.
You see the sun had come up, the birds had gone into hiding, and we had started on our journey with Thursday's weather guiding our plans. Deserts are not to be trifled with, this we knew, but we were still caught unaware by the sudden twist in the weather outlook. Our expected high of 80 degrees Fahrenheit had somehow risen to 105 degrees. The calm, partly cloudy skies were replaced with skin-scorching heliocentric clarity and record winds. Dust storms were likely. This was, of course, reported on Friday as we headed obliviously south. —Bryon White
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