Zen On Dirt


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Three Days on the Kokopelli

Back in 2013, Semi-Rad.com wrote a blog post called ‘Make plans, not resolutions‘ which basically stated that instead of pulling the ‘Oh, I’d like to do this sometime’ or ‘Let’s get together someday’ BS that is so easy to do, one should make concrete plans, and then stick to them. The post really resonated with me, and since then, whenever someone says something along the lines of ‘I’d like to do this’ or ‘Let’s go on a trip together’ I don’t just say ‘Okay’, I say ‘Sure. Let’s set a date.’

And 9 times out of 10, once the date is committed to, the plan comes to fruition. Sometimes not in it’s original form, but something fun and memorable tends to happen.

So back in February when I was visiting 24-Hours of Old Pueblo and Rachel said, ‘Let’s go bikepacking’ and Beth said, ‘I’d love to do the Kokopelli’, I said, ‘Let’s set a date.’ We’d done three days on White Rim the spring before and had a blast.

After consulting with Alexis, we set a date for a three-day weekend at the end of April, ignored the direly cold weather forecast, took along our token male, Sean, and headed out from the Loma trailhead. Destination: Milt’s in Moab.

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I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Koko. After two completely disastrous attempts at going fast on it (Thanks mud, thanks stomach), I had a great three day bikepack on it with Bec and Becky last fall (Thanks friends!). But even with three days, it’s freakin’ hard. Billed as a “dirt road route” it never fails to hand my ass to me. Generally chaffed, hurting, and ready to never sit on a bike seat again.

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But I seem to keep going back. Because it’s beautiful. Because it’s remote. Because it actually is fairly entertaining riding the whole way, especially if you take single track options along the way. That’s another one of those added bonuses to not racing – taking the fun route is more important than taking the ‘real’ route. And largely because I have a quota of ‘Bad Life Decisions’ to make each year.

I jest. Koko is always a good life decision. Unless it’s rainy. Then it’s a very poor life decision.

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Our first day brought us through the fun single track of Loma, through the heinous hike-a-bike down to and up from Salt Creek, to Rabbit Valley where we picked up the first water cache that Alexis and I had dropped on our way to Loma, then onto Trail 2, Western Rim, up The Big Hill, and straight towards the La Sals until morning. Not really. Only until we found a nice campsite that was somewhat protected from the wind.

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The wind. The wind has the opportunity to make or break any Koko trip, especially in the middle miles from Westwater to Dewey Bridge. I’m not sure who had the Good Karma points stored up, but we got a ripping tailwind the whole way on Day 2. This is exceptionally amazing because the wind was blowing opposite of what it normally does in that area.

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We were very, very, very, very (very, very) lucky.

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Sand Canyon, I mean, Yellow Jacket Canyon, was beautiful as always. I love the contrast of the desert sandstone with the snowy La Sals. Surfing around in sand is always a lot of fun too.

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We picked up our second water cache at Dewey Bridge — so much better than trying to filter out of the Colorado River, and so easy to set up with a smidge of planning.

No one likes the next section of the route. It’s often called the Shandies, aka the Shitty Sandies. It’s a lot of up. It’s a lot of sand. And the bit of relief you get from the sand in Cottonwood Creek, you have to hike-a-bike out of. But it’s pretty?

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In my head, it’s the crux of the thing. Get up the Shandies, you get rewarded by a chunk-filled descent with amaze-balls views, and then you only have two more climbs which are even bigger to deal with before the final descent into Moab. (but we don’t talk about those climbs while trying to get up the Shandies)

Koko is rough!

We spent a freezing night camped above Rose Garden Hill and all had ice in our bottles in the morning. I’d spent the night rubbing my feet together trying to keep them from going completely numb. I don’t think any of us fared very well, and it was a relief when the sun finally made it’s appearance over the cliffs in the morning.

Water from Hideout, then heads down for climbing.

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Not really. We got a geology lesson from Alexis, found a fault line, spotted birds, and got our tired butts up to Polar Mesa. We knew the climbing for the day was almost over. A road closure on La Sal Mountain Loop Road would prevent us from doing the final climb to Sand Flats road. And in all honestly, I was pretty okay with that.

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Instead, we coasted down Castle Valley road (those towers are amazing!) and pulled together a fairly to mostly pathetic team time trial along Hwy 128, following the Colorado River straight into Moab. 15 miles, 1-mile pulls each, 3 pulls per person. At least it was entertaining for the most part…less entertaining when Rachel put the hammer down on her last pull and dropped all of us.

The Sand Flats finish to Koko is romantic for many reasons: the views, the massive downhill, but most importantly, because it goes straight to Milt’s. Our finish was less romantic, but still just as effective, landing us with a table full of milkshakes, fries, tots, and burgers in an incredibly reasonable (for Milt’s) amount of time.

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Scott and Denny met us with our shuttle vehicle that we loaded up with bikes and people for the trek back to Loma, picking up our spent water caches on the way. We schemed bikepacking routes for next spring. ‘Let’s make a spring bikepack an annual tradition!’

Yes. Yes we should. All we have to do is set a date.

Alexis and I were back in Moab before 10, thoroughly exhausted. I’ve never been so happy to have a warm and enclosed space to keep my toes warm all night.

Kokopelli. I always swear never again. But I’ll always go back. It’s just too special not too.


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Taking the Slow Road

We pulled up to a kiosk in Kodachrome Basin State Park in the middle of central Utah on our bikes, giddy with the discovery that the state park, which I’d spied on some advertisement in Kanab, opened many of its trails to mountain bikes. Another rider was there, loading up his bike into his truck.

“Have you ridden here before?” he asked us.

“Nope,” we relied.

“Well, me neither, but I just rode everything here as fast as I could. It took me about an hour and a half.”

“Oh.”

We really didn’t know what to say to him, so we left to go ride.

“Why is everyone in such a hurry all the time?” was all I could ask myself.

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We were surrounded by beauty, and I’m talking big beauty (they wouldn’t turn the place into a protected park unless it was far above average for beauty, and that’s saying a lot in Utah), and the defining characteristic of this guy’s ride was that he did it as fast as possible? I’m all for riding fast, riding fast is fun, but day-um, stop and enjoy the view sometime! Smell some flowers! Go skinny dipping in a creek! Take a nap! (Of course, I don’t know this guy’s story, and I should probably just be less judgemental about him, but I’m always skeptical about people who only measure their rides in numbers.)

Stopping to enjoy the view was our philosophy for getting across Utah on our migration to Moab this time around. While the fastest, flattest route is definitely through Monument Valley, we had three days before we had to be there, so why not see what there was to see on the way. So we took Hwy 12, Utah’s All-American Highway. Whatever that means.

It was a classic case of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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Once we left Hatch and our favorite alien diner, where we ran into a bike tourist who was raising money for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance by riding his bike to all of the national parks and monuments in the state (we traded him coffee and fries for his stories from his trip), we didn’t come into reliable cell reception until we were back on I-70 three days later.

It was great.

We spent the first night at Kodachrome Basin State Park, surrounded by towering red and white cliffs. Apparently camping at these parks is mostly by reservation, and we felt pretty lucky to get shoved into an overflow camping spot along with the rest of the Poor-Planners.

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Our drive the next day took us through miles and miles of stunning rock, including the Hogback which is a narrow strip of road with cliffs on either side and endless views of slickrock and canyons. We paused at an absolutely delicious cafe in Boulder City, UT, for lunch, just as a snow squall blew through the area. Every touring motorcycle group within 50 miles ended up there with us, and lunch was not a fast affair.

But who’s in a hurry?

We thought maybe we’d be able to sneak into a campsite at Capitol Reef National Park. Apparently national parks don’t reward Poor Planners, and we felt pretty lucky to escape the visitors center without getting run over/running over anyone.

Luckily, we were able to play I Spy and found a piece of BLM land not too far away to dump the Scamp while we went for a hike.

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To say that we lucked out with the campsite is nothing short of an understatement. National Parks campgrounds versus this…

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…I love me some amenities when Scamping sometimes, but we were pretty glad that the park camp site had been full for hours before we even thought about showing up. I’m sure there’s a ‘road less traveled’ lesson here.

And then on to Moab. Past Goblin Valley (next time!), past Green River (is it melon season yet?), and onto the highway that we know all too well, back to the campsite that is waiting like an old friend.

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We could have spent the rest of the summer exploring the sites of Highway 12, but Alexis was coming, there was a bikepacking trip to rig for. But I sure am glad that we took the slower route to Moab. It made all the difference.

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Grand Canyon, Buckskin Gulch: A Ten-Year Anniversary

Megan and I have been adventuring together for over ten years now.

Ten years. That’s a decade of life.

We’ve skied together, ridden together, run together, and from Day 1, there was no other woman who I’d rather play with in the backcountry. Before she came along, I pretty much only skied and rode with guys. Going out with only Megan (Oh did we have some good adventures! Like getting frost-nipped trying to ski 14,000+ ft Mt Bross on a windy day, or trying to link 100 miles of Nederland trails together during the YWRH 100) was the first time I realized that I could be just as strong and safe in the backcountry with another woman as I could be with men. Potentially more so. Women adventure partners were special, and Megan was the best of the best.

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10 years ago – 14,000+ feet. 40 mph+ winds. We froze ourselves. I don’t know if we’ve actually gotten any smarter since then…

Of course, my little mid-20’s brain didn’t fully absorb this lesson until years later, but I like to think that those first years of playing together laid the foundation for my current obsession with spending time in the outdoors with strong women.

When Megan mentioned that she had to be in Tucson for a week in late April, I immediately convinced her to spend a few extra days in the area for adventuring. Somehow, I also convinced her to come up to do a run in Paria Canyon, which happens to start in Utah…which is a long ways from Tucson, and when on the way to Paria Canyon, a Grand Canyon run on the way up seemed like a prudent idea.

We settled on a lollipop route down Grandview Trail and around to Dripping Spring. A trip report I read claimed 17 miles. Perfect. Scott mentioned something about the rationality of doing four nearly 20 mile runs in a week.

But who am I to think about such details?

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Down we went to Horseshoe Mesa.

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A little bit of extra credit mileage when we passed our turn because we were too busy gabbing.

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Down to the Tonto where the flowers were still spectacular.

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Around to Dripping Spring where we paused to give thanks for all that was good in our lives. And to drink some water coming straight out of the rock, too.

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And back up. When we finished the loop part, it seemed that no time had passed. I checked the GPS – only 9.5 miles, even with the extra credit. The look of sadness on Megan’s face when contemplating the fact that her Canyon run would be over in three miles was devastating.

Could we do another loop? Is that a good idea? Is that a real question?

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We dropped down to Cottonwood spring off of the other side of the Horseshoe Mesa, filling up on water on the briskly moving stream. The trail wrapped around the northern end of Horseshoe Mesa, and we ascended the same trail that we’d descended a few hours earlier.

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Now it was time to finish off the stem of our loop. Megan led, I struggled to follow. We paused in the shade to regroup. At the top Megan dumped a liter of water over my head to try to get me feeling better. It wasn’t until after I puked pretty much all of the water I’d drank during the run out over a wall (think drunk girl at a college frat party) that I started to feel better.

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Given that it wasn’t hot out, I’m blaming it on something I ate. Puking. Gross. Ew.

I spent the three hour drive up to Jacob Lake working on rehydration. We also stopped to see the nesting Condor that you could see from Navajo Bridge. The momma was sleeping in the cliff wall, volunteers from the Peregrine Fund had a spotting scope trained on her. This is the first time that Condors have built a nest and laid an egg in the wild in a location where humans could observe them without disturbing them. There was much excitement.

We met Scott up at Jacob Lake where he’d towed the Scamp while we were busy skipping around the Canyon. Scott’s the best.

An early morning and shuttle set up had all three of us moving just shy of 10 at the Wire Pass trailhead. We made it down the chockstone drop with some level of grace. (#alternativefacts) and we immersed ourselves in the depths of the earth for the day.

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The canyon varies between tight, tall, walls…DSC06871_resize

And wide openings where the sun warmed our chilly arms and legs.

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Megan said that it was a cross between walking through a sculpture and a cathedral. I think the description is pretty spot on.

We knew that there’d be water in the slot. Reports from a week earlier indicated that the deepest were only waist deep.

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Scott contemplating the Freedom Step. The step where you finally give up and get your shoes wet. 

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The pools started out ankle deep, then knee deep, and then finally we hit the waist deep ones. Jackets went on, feet went numb. Running the dry sections felt like running on wooden stubs.

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It was almost unbearably beautiful.

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Eventually, we emerged to Middle Earth, an open area after the “cesspools” where the sun shone strong. We welcomed the warmth to eat lunch by.

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We arrived at the “Boulder Jam” where “technical climbing skills may be required” shortly after leaving Middle Earth. Caroline, my beta provider, had said that it wasn’t too bad, and that there were fixed ropes attached. I think she may have also said that she would have climbed down the Moki steps even if the rope wasn’t there. Caroline is a badass.

We had two options for ropes. One with a smaller drop but a landing on a slanted rock and no steps carved in, and the main Moki step route. We futzed around at the top comparing the two options for longer than I want to admit. Finally, after watching Scott look all sorts of sketchy exploring differing body positions for going down the lower drop (we’re not climbers, clearly) I decided that the safest option would be the steps.

It was the scariest thing that I’ve done in a long time, and I was still shaking with adrenaline long after I guided Megan and Scott down. It was like teaching a yoga class. “Now left leg down, just a little farther, swivel to the right, now right leg down, reach around to the left…and now you have to jump.”

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Photo from Megan

It was exciting. It made me excited for more scrambling.

Relieved to have made it through the crux, we trotted our way out to the confluence of the Paria River and Buckskin Gulch and turned upstream.

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It was a long seven miles back. Lucky for us, it was real purdy as well.

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When things turned sloggy, we stopped in the shade to eat snacks. I try to minimize the suffering.

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We emerged at the White House trail head late afternoon, exhausted, exuberant, shoes and socks packed with sand. What an amazing place to spend the day. It was quite possibly the most beautiful day I’ve ever spent in nature, so it’s only fitting that I got to spend it with Scott and Megan.

I would have been real sad to see Megan drive down the road, pointed towards Tucson where she was headed to a conference to help save the world, or at least public lands, but I knew that I’d see her in Moab in under two weeks, and that made me feel better.

Ten years of adventuring. And each big one only gets better.


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Canyons, Condors, Toads, Lizards, and Running

 

One of the most common questions we get asked is ‘Where to next?’

While on some level, we do wander around aimlessly and see what adventuring falls into our lap, there generally is a method to our madness. Or at least some event in the near future at a faraway place that we’re aiming for. In this case, we had about nine days between when we left Tucson on a hot-as afternoon and a date with my Best Bad Idea Adventure Buddy up in southern Utah.

Clearly, the most logical pit stop between these two locations was the Grand Canyon because cell reception is awesome, and it’s a great place to just chill and rest my legs in preparation for my big running date. #alternativefacts (Cell coverage stinks, WiFi is horrendously slow everywhere, and I can’t resist the allure of the Big Ditch)

We started with a little bit of a Big Ditch run warm-up the afternoon we rolled in. Scott forced us to turn around long before I wanted to citing rational reasons such as: I don’t want to get sore during my first afternoon at the Canyon. He’s a smart one, that boy. Still, a sunset run down below the rim is always a special event.

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We went on a couple of exploratory rides from our campsite. The entire area is crisscrossed with lightly trafficked dirt roads. New connections were discovered, and we saw a horny toad, which is always a noteworthy experience. Little dinosaurs, they are.

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Then Danielle and Nancy showed up from PHX. The goal: Lemonade from Phantom Ranch.

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I’m not all that sure why I have such an obsession with running to the bottom of the Big Ditch for a $3.75 cup of ice-cold lemonade, but I do, and I’ve accepted it as such.

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It might have something to do with the massive views on the way down South Kaibab Trail.

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Or the semi-well manicured trail that is oh-so-runnable, most of the way down.

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Or the chance to people watch at Phantom Ranch and on the trail.

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Whatever it is, it was awesome to get to spend a day with Nancy and Danielle, and when we emerged from Bright Angel trail back on the Rim, none of us were wrecked. Which is always awesome.

But I was sore the next day. Doh! But luckily, I’m also a bit dumb, so when Scott proposed a 24 mile run on the Tonto trail a day later, descending the Hermit Trail, diving in and out of three drainages on the Tonto Plateau, and then climbing back up Bright Angel trail, I immediately agreed.

Because tapering. I was resting up for my adventure later in the week.

We woke up long before we’re used to waking up and took the Hermit’s Rest shuttle out to the far end of the road. If all went according to plan, we’d emerge from the Canyon just feet from the van. I love it when shuttles are easy.

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We made quick work of the descent to Windy Point, down the Cathedral Steps, and onto the Plateau.

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The Tonto was absolutely exploding with flowers and devoid of people.

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The miles went surprisingly easily and quickly to Monument Creek, our first water stop for the day. Birds chirped. Lizards posed. Water flowed. Wind blew gently through the tress. Quite idyllic, if I may say so myself.

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On to Salt Creek (too salty), Horn Creek (radioactive from Uranium), and Indian Gardens where we once again joined back in with the crowds of the Canyon. 20+ miles in by this point, we stopped to soak our feet in the spring, cool the core temperatures, and partake in my favorite Grand Canyon activity: People watching.

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I’d love to say we walked out of there in a spirited manner, but really, it was more of a slog. But it was okay, because we were surrounded by other people who were equally on the Suffer Bus, so we had plenty of company.

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We went for burgers and cake as the Maswik Lodge afterwards to celebrate. I was so impressed by Scott. He’s definitely spent a lot less time running than I have, and aside from nearly letting the wheels fall off the Suffer Bus near the top (I gave him my walking sticks, that helped), he pulled the route off with grace.

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Then I committed myself to resting. Megan was showing up in two days and had decided that she also wanted to do a Canyon run before our main objective. Part of my resting routine is to take care of all of those pesky life chores that have to be taken care of even if you live in a Scamp. Chores like laundry, which can actually be done incredibly cheaply on the South Rim of the Canyon at the campground.

Laundry was also a good excuse to take a break from work that day, but when it was done, I was ready to get back to the computer screen to earn Fun Tokens. But Scott insisted that we go wander around at the rim for a little bit. We were at the Grand Canyon after all.

I relented, and I’m so glad I did.

Condor #87 was sitting at Mather Point putting on a show for any one who wanted to watch. With sub-500 condors alive, it’s a true treat to see this gigantic bird. I’d never had the pleasure, and here was one seeming to be completely content to sit on a rock and have it’s picture taken.

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Except of course, since we’d only come to the Canyon to do laundry, the only camera we had was my iPhone. (There’s a life lesson here: always carry a camera, even if you’re just going to do laundry) Lucky for us, there was a #birdnerd who happened to be there with a spotting scope, and we got to get an up-close and personal look at the head of this giant bird.

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He stretched. He dried his wings and let the UV from the sun kill bacteria on his feathers. He preened. And eventually he took off, dropping straight into the Canyon, not to be seen again.

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What a special, special experience. Pretty glad I wasn’t actually that motivated to work that afternoon. I could have left the Canyon that night, completely content with the experience. But it turns out, I have a Best Bad Idea Adventure Buddy who was having FOMO from afar and wanted some Canyon time for herself.

I wasn’t about to object.