Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Road Trip: Covered in red rock dust (Cross Country Road Trip Ep. 6)

After two days in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, we bid farewell to Colorado and returned to the road, finding ourselves crossing miles and miles of amazing landscape to reach Moab, UT. Here, we parked our road bikes and picked up a pair of rented mountain bikes for our first excursion in the dirt.

It was hot. Not quite a drenching-yourself-just-by-stepping-out-of-the-house-because-it-is-humid-as-all-hell kind of hot, but rather the fabled "dry heat" that is endemic to the western part of the United States. We had packed quite a bit of water and planned out a route using the local trail maps so we were feeling confident that this would be fun. As avid road cyclists, and having already ridden in the steamy conditions of Atlanta, we figured we were plenty prepared for a full day of riding out here. What we were not prepared for was just how dirty we would get and how much fun we would have.

This was genuinely our first experience doing any real mountain biking. The rented bikes we had, a Kona Process for me and a brand-spanking new Trek Lush for my wife, were equipped with full-suspensions, massive wheels, grippy off-road tires, and disc brakes, meaning we could confidently ride and enjoy ourselves. Since we are total newbies at off-road riding, we decided it would be best for us to familiarize ourselves with the bikes by starting on a small flat trail right near the entrance to the lot where our car was parked. The first few strokes felt normal enough and the super short gearing meant pretty easy pedaling, especially on such a flat surface. Then, about 50-feet in, we hit the first bit of loose dirt and a few small culverts, causing the rear tire to break traction and the rear of the bike to start to skid and slide on the mud. Chunks of red dirt flew up and splattered our legs as we rode on. This was going to be fun!

After getting out feet wet, so to speak, we decided to set out on the longer trail, following the signs that had conveniently been posted to help keep riders oriented. Pedaling fast, we transitioned quickly from gravel to more of the soft red dirt to the slickrock, a smooth rock face that makes up much of the landscape in Moab. The trail itself provided a fair amount of climbing, which with the super low gearing of the mountain bikes, ended up being significantly easier than I had anticipated. With a few strong pedal strokes, I found myself bounding up the climbs and over obstacles that seemed like they should have stopped me cold. Despite the weight of the bike, which clocked in at almost 10 pounds more than my road bike, we were having an absolute ball going up the climbs, and, more importantly, coming down the descents. Avoid losing too much momentum on the way up and the descents became absolute hair-raising fun. With the strong disc brakes at our disposal, we never felt like we were not in total control.

Completing the full 8-mile Bar M Loop, we rode back to the parking lot. The residual moisture had left much of the dirt a little wet, resulting in us being absolutely covered in a fine layer of red rock dust and whole clumps of red dirt, our shoes now semi-permanently stained a faint shade of orange. Add to that the sweat from riding in the hot weather, and we were pretty much soaked. Standing around under the hot noon-time sun, however, we dried off quickly and got slightly cleaned up to head back into town to grab some lunch, refill our water bottles, and plan out the rest of the afternoon.

Returning to the same parking lot where we started out in the morning, we decided we wanted to try a more difficult trail and set off to ride the Lazy-EZ, an extremely misnomered trail that was neither lazy nor easy. Comprised of much more technical sections of trail with much tighter corners and a number of blind turns that led to rather sudden descents, it was a much more heart-thumping ride and really got the adrenaline flowing. We found ourselves really pushing hard, spending nearly the entire ride right at the edge of the comfort zone and, occasionally, just beyond it. As we approached the end of the trial, we were both breathing hard, but with satisfied grins on our faces. Since the trail had dropped us out at an intersection with the Bar M Loop, we decided to run the back side of the loop one more time. More familiar with what to expect, we upped the pace significantly and enjoyed a fast ride, sometimes going full steam down the descents.

Exhausted, but satisfied, we returned to town, dropped off the bikes, and got washed up a bit before heading out again to head to Arches National Park for the evening hike to the Delicate Arch, one of the premiere sites in the park. A bit of digging around turned up many recommendations to do the short, but not brief, hike just before sunset to experience the arch at its absolute best. Along with at least a hundred people with the same idea, we made the surprisingly intimidating hike up the slickrock right up to the arch. Already gathered there were lots of people, waiting for the setting sun to reveal a majestic moment. Hanging out on the rock face, it was a chance to really appreciate just how impressive the natural world really could be. Within view were magnificent rock formations carved out of millions of years of accumulated earth, hundreds of miles of unadulterated terrain, and a brilliant brewing lightning storm off in the distance. As we sat there watching the sunset dazzle the crowd as light bounced off the canyon walls, we knew we were in a special place that we would hope to one day experience again with own family.

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