water in the desert
A few years ago now, my friend Joe Parkin guest-edited Dirt Rag magazine, and he asked me to write a story for it. With Dirt Rag sadly gone and the story likely to disappear into my magazine pile forever before long, I decided to put it here for safekeeping.
This is a story about bikes and friends and recalcitrant trails, and the ways that our worlds collide in ways we never quite expect.
I have included Joe P’s original introduction, because it made me laugh at the time, and it still does. I reproduced this thing from my original file, so any errors belong to me. Don’t blame Joe. He’s totally innocent. The Oxford commas, for example, all mine.
My friend Jen See has a big brain—as in Ph.D. big. Despite that, she writes a lot of stuff about bikes. When she’s not writing about bike-related things, she surfs. A couple of years ago, she gave me a copy of Chas Smith’s Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell, which is a totally awesome read, by the way. [Jen: Heh, that’s where my copy went!] Recently, she went on a media trip that included a trail that I don’t like at all. She didn’t either. Mostly. Though she ended up finding something positive. I asked her to write a piece that felt like Chas Smith [Like I could really ever ghostwrite Chas!] but was still completely Jen See [That part, I can do, for better or worse]. I think she did it. —Joe Parkin
We’d driven out to the desert with mountain bikes and beers, the necessary ingredients for a weekend of trouble making. Up a muddy road, the campsite sat high on a mesa overlooking the torrid landscape of southern Utah. We pitched tents and pulled cactus thorns from our fingers. Clouds billowed overhead, promising a future storm. I didn’t like the look of that, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Sometimes I regret my life choices.
Then it was time to ride bikes and we rolled down a winding dirt road to where an old windmill stood. Someone had painted it white, but that was a long time ago now, and it looked like it was trying too hard to be interesting. We dipped into a hardscrabble singletrack marbled with loose rocks. A creeping annoyance set in. The trail was all sharp angles and hard accelerations. A good trail flows like water, switchbacks falling into rock gardens in a blur of speed and joy.
This was not a good trail. Sometimes when I go to the salad bar, I start tossing things in the bowl in no particular order. I do not recommend this approach. It rarely works out well. This trail was like that, a rock salad. There were no sections to romp, no jumps to huck, no stretches to pedal and feel that sweet release of speed. Everywhere I saw rocks upon rocks upon rocks. They formed awkward shapes and unweidly obstacles. Lift the fucking bike over the fucking rock. Then do it again.
There were no downhills in sight. Who builds a trail without descents? I’m not the kind of person who really likes rules or following them. But if you’re building a mountain bike trail, I feel like it should eventually descend. Ideally, it should descend for a long time. I don’t feel like I’m asking for too much here.
But no, this trail was mostly flat with lots of stupid rocks. Did I mention the rocks? I think I mentioned the rocks. It reminded me of vacuuming, a repetitious chore that takes way too long and that I inevitably put off until I have a story to write. Or like cleaning the toilet. That’s another thing I do when I have a story to write. Pedal a few feet, yank the bike over a rock, roll back down the other side. Continue doing this until you lose your mind. Tell me why this is fun.
The other problem was—it was cold. I have feelings about riding bikes in the cold. Look, I’ll do it, but I don’t have to like it. I’ll pile on all my clothes and try to pedal. I’ve done plenty of stupid rides in stupid weather. And you know what? Most of the time, it totally sucks. Riding in bad weather makes “epic” magazine photos, but it’s not that fun to do in real life. Looking over the edge of the canyon out across the desert, I could see black clouds roiling. The weather in southern Utah is drama like prom night. Sure I had rain gear, but I didn’t actually want to have to use it.
I hadn’t paid much attention when we’d looked at the map. I remember the guide had traced out the route with the blade of a knife and I’d been mesmerized by the way the light gleamed on the blade. Now, looking around, I noticed we were riding roughly in a circle. I also saw a dirt road that wasn’t a circle. I started to think this dirt road and I could be friends maybe. I could quit riding over an endless succession of rocks. I could race the storm and win. I like winning.
I found the guy with the map and the knife. I pointed to the road and asked him where it led. As it turned out, my guess proved right. The road was a stake through the heart of this horror show and I could ride it straight the hell out of here. I waved good-bye and promised that yes, I could find my way home, and I set off to race the storm.
The following day the rain was gone as though it had never existed at all. We faced the new day, our sins washed clean. Or something like that. I can never quite keep these things straight. All I know is that the rain was gone and we were going to ride bikes some more. Riding bikes in the sun is a pretty fucking good way to spend a day. Even better, we were leaving this wind-beaten mesa in the sky for lower elevations. Someone mentioned the magic word “shuttle.” Maybe we’d get to ride our bikes down a hill even.
We piled out of the van at the trail head and performed the required rituals. We pumped up shocks and tires and peed behind scrubby desert bushes. There was talk around a map, but I didn’t really pay attention. You are not surprised by this, I suspect. The trail meandered along until we came to a crossroads and we were supposed to go left. I live in the land of right-hand point breaks and always go right when I surf. I don’t go left. I’ve taken to following this rule on land and it hasn’t failed me yet.
Looking left, I followed the sight lines of the trail carved into the side of the canyon until it bent beyond view. It was all acute angles and tight corners, like a beach break blown to shit on a spring afternoon. I turned around and behind me, a winding singletrack ribbon unrolled. It traced the outline of the mesa conceding to the terrain’s tantrums rather than attempting to tame them. I didn’t know where it led — the map thing, you recall — but I wanted to ride it.
By this point in the trip, I’d gained a reputation for being bad at riding bikes. I didn’t like technical riding and maybe, I couldn’t actually even do it. I can’t say I really cared too much about this. It takes a lot of effort to care about what people are thinking all the time. It’s a good idea, sometimes — like at the coffee shop when you’re sharing a table or in the line-up when it’s not your turn to catch a set wave.
I stole a map, figuring I might want to read that thing at some point. I swooped through the curves and ancient red rock towered overhead. I dropped down a steep chute through millions of years of geology smashed together by the weight of time and circumstance. The trail whipped through a wash then exited to open desert. And there I surfed the contour lines of a prehistoric sea, dancing and twisting through arcing corners and flying weightless across a wide-open landscape.
This was mountain biking as it was meant to be. The sun caressed my skin. I felt the warm wind on my face. When I surf a wave, I can feel the water move beneath my feet through the thin fiberglass of my board. And as I rode across the desert, the terrain whispered through my wheels, confiding wild stories of prehistoric seas and grand upheavals. From a distance, a memory of salt water tickled my senses.
I think to understand a place you have to ride it. Once you have, you’ll know it for all time. Wherever you go, you’ll carry its story with you. Maybe that’s also true for the people we meet. We carry them with us as we travel through our lives, restless and searching. As my wheels turned faster, the sagebrush blurred and all around me, the red rock reached high into the cerulean sky. I rode spellbound through a fluid landscape and felt the desert’s secrets become part of me forever.
Words and photos by Jen See. Thanks for the memories, Dirt Rag, love you forever.