By Loren Hettinger, May 2011
The Kokopelli symbol guides the traveler along a trail of ~ 140 miles between Fruita (Loma actually) and Moab. The dancing flautist caricature is now common throughout the Southwest, possibly embodying carefree adventure. That is how we set out on the COPMOBA Tour de Bloom ride in mid-May. However, Kokopelli’s Native American origin has other meanings such as: a fertility deity and among Hopi, a humped-up Kokopelli carries unborn children on his back and distributes them to women; and for this reason is feared by young girls. Another aspect is that Kokopelli’s flute playing chases away winter and invokes spring, or in Zuni culture, is associated with rains. For us thirty mountain bikers, the symbol was the more modern aspect of a person adeptly skipping from rock to rock while playing a light melodious tune. Anyway, that’s how we hoped it would be. Reality quickly set-in however, as we laboriously started the ride, trying to defy gravitational pull in climbing the ridge on single track of Mary’s Loop, and then across on Lion’s Loop to Troy Built Loop, and onto a descent to Rabbit Valley.
If one reads the guides for the ride, it may dissuade a journey, as most descriptions indicate moderate to strenuous riding with a lot of “steeps.” The riding is diverse, however, ranging from technical ledges and steps, to long, steep climbs, slickrock, sand, gravel roads, and pavement. So, because of the varied terrain and length, the journey is not for the unprepared or unfit. Yet it is an adventure to be on the “list” of every diehard mountain biker—a cherished ride.
The Tour de Bloom is aptly named, as in mid-May the hillsides are decorated with flashes of red desert Indian paintbrush; scarlet claret-cup cacti were not in bloom this cooler and wetter-than-normal year, but usually also adds to the colorful backdrop. Not to dismay however, as scarlet globemallow, indigo blue larkspur, symmetrically pink sego lily, splashy white Townsend’s Easter daisy, orange-yellow wallflower, royal lavender milk vetch, snow-like carpet phlox, stately yellow prince’s plume, white and pink evening primrose, and the pure-white Fendlerbush and yellow bitterbrush blossoms took up the slack to provide a colorful mosaic as the trail cuts through the hills and canyons of the lower elevations. At higher elevations, skyrocket or scarlet gilia and an occasional blue bell, Rocky Mountain and blue-mist penstemons edged the trail and provided a visual respite from the reality of the steep climbs.
Day One -
The first day’s objective was a campsite on a mesa in the Bitter Creek area, which was attained after 31 miles and a total of 3,000 feet of elevation gain; of course, what goes up, must come down, or is it the other way around in the case of trail riding. A person should always be aware of a likely climb after a fun descent. A serious, often dust-laden headwind bedeviled us for most of the afternoon. The last section includes a steep, maybe ½-mile climb. I love my 29er and Sram XX, but really needed a “granny gear” for this pitch. It was a relief to see the camp and to kick back with a cold beer after setting up the tent among junipers and partaking of the portable shower provided by World Wide Outfitters (yes, quite cushy by some standards, such as the gnarly, non-supported riders, but hey, some of us have already had hard lives). Of course I always forget something, even after packing from a list; I used one of my long-sleeved mesh undershirts as a towel. The raptor-like view from this mesa across Ruby and Horsethief Canyons that have been carved by the Colorado River is awe inspiring. We were called to dinner of fajitas, followed by cake with strawberries, as the fatigue of the ride settled in. We appreciatively piled seconds on our plates–the outfitters commented that they could feed us anything.
Day Two –
Morning came quickly and after pulling on fresh shorts and shirt, packing the gear, a quick breakfast of French toast, the tire pressure was checked and chain lubed for a second day’s riding. The day’s distance was relatively long at 48 miles, but the track was mostly easy, but with 2800 feet of climbs. The descent from the mesa on double-track was fast, but one needs to be attentive to the divots and rocky drops. We fled the upper elevation of the pinyon juniper like a herd of deer, finally stringing out through the sagebrush flats according to riding abilities and objectives. Bitter Creek was crossed by a road after the trail goes under a bridge, a ford later was guarded by an inflatable shark; bikes were mostly handed across to another rider (although there were tracks indicating someone had ridden the ford, but it was deep) and then a narrower area of the creek was jumped. The trail follows the main road to Fish Ford and a lunch stop (near the Cisco Boat Launch on the Colorado River).
Riding in the afternoon again was more technical as we climbed out of the river valley, and there is a section of slalom riding through the tamarisk (the scourge of the West) and then a hike-a-bike climb out and onto a long section of hilly double-track, and then gravel roads, but then the route follows Highway 128 to a juncture with the Yellow-jacket loop. A person can opt out of the rough doubletrack and sandy descent by continuing down to the Dewey Bridge, but this misses some awesome climbs and fun as well as dinosaur tracks (probably Iguanodon, a bipedal herbivore) in the sandstone at the top. We stopped here and took in some carbos and regrouped for the ride back to the river, but on the descent, which had some interesting drops over ledges, there was an “endo” and a possible broken hand. We tried to offer advice, but an EMT, of which there were several on the ride, took charge. It’s difficult to ride rough terrain with one hand, even if it is the right for managing the rear brake. We all made it to a rendezvous at the Dewey Bridge with the outfitters and took on more carbos and water. From there the trail is uphill for 4.5 miles to the Cowskin Campground.
This site is situated in a partial amphitheater of Navajo Sandstone cliffs, and is protected from the winds that had our attention a day earlier. The downside to this protection is that no-seeums can be pesky, depending on weather. This year was pleasant, and I had little use for the hefty DEET-laden repellent I had brought after being ravaged several years earlier at the same camp site. I found a great spot for the tent near the cliffs in the shade of a juniper tree and then waited in a long line for the shower, again drying with the shirt and a cloth I found in the duffle that I think was intended to shine high-end carbon wheels.
One of the interesting phenomena of this campsite is the acoustics provided by the amphitheater-like cliffs. During the night, I had slipped on my running shoes to protect my feet from prickly pear and shuffled out from the tent for a much needed pee. I gazed into the sky, hoping for a view of the constellations; the Milky Way. The tranquility of the night and my reverie were shattered like a huge rock thrown into the middle of a pond by a mighty fart; this from a tent farther along the small wash that angled across the site. The sound was amplified as it echoed off the sandstone walls. I was quite amazed by this achievement, saying to myself, “Wow!” and hoped I could identify the creator of such an acoustical masterpiece. I wasn’t sure exactly which tent the sound had emanated and by morning I forgot to follow-up on the sleuthing. The episode though reminded me of an old joke, of a prospector in the early days who would yell out across the wide canyons and rocky towers, “Get outta bed,” upon retiring and have the echo come back in the morning as his alarm clock.
Day Three –
This is a long day with nearly 6,000 feet of climbing over 29 miles, so I packed in a few more “Gu” packs and energy bars than normal in the pocket of a nearly full “CamelBak.” We climbed up into Cottonwood Canyon, including a long section of hike-a-bike and veered from the Top-o-the-World Trail to descend in a series of drops through broken rock of a doubletrack that has seen its share of four-wheeling activity. A second climb took us to Big Cottonwood Canyon and a broad, scenic vista across red towers, buttes, and deep canyons. I continued to ride the ledges, but had the rear tire slip out and suddenly tried to spear myself on an upright handlebar end. After catching my breath, I checked the damage; it left a circular purplish tattoo-like bruise on my abdomen—thank God my appendix was no longer part of the picture or it may have been plucked out as a sort of grisly trophy of technical ineptitude! After another long climb from here, we dropped in a gnarly descent on broken rock called the rose garden. Caution is urged in trying to ride this section or instead of roses, a person more likely will end up with raspberries on any protruding body parts. Most of us walked.
After another several miles of climbing on double-track and a fast descent of the Cottonwood Canyon Trail, we arrived at the Fisher Valley-Onion Creek Road and a lunch stop. Everyone seemed hungry and we were offered mixed Mexican salad as well as the usual peanut butter and jelly or meat sandwich fixings. But what I remember best is the bacon that everyone seemed to relish. I added water and topped off the “CamelBak” with Gatorade for the long climb of the afternoon. By now my crotch was feeling every small seam of my shorts; I had a vision that they had been baseball-stitched with wire, and made sure to again smear Chamois Butter onto tender places—this somewhat discreetly to avoid any smirks. At the same time, I had another look at the circular brand to make sure nothing was bulging. It didn’t feel real great, but my abdomen looked intact.
The afternoon consisted of about 3,000 feet of climbing into the Fisher Valley and the Thompson Canyon Trail mostly on ledgy double-track or Jeep road, and this was so steady that every mile or so, I would get off the bike and stride along for a few hundred feet to feel some alternative body parts—like feet. This seemed to be a common mode of motoring among the group—except for the younger hard-body guys on the ride that were of course long gone. Most of us stopped at the Hideout Canyon viewpoint and posed for photos. The abyss into the valley here was vertigo-inducing with drops of approximately 1,000 feet, to be offset by several tall, narrow reddish towers. We continued climbing and the trail became smoother. One of the guides (Russ) made sure everyone stayed on course. He rode along side for a time, but my responses had been reduced to monosyllables by the long day, and he veered away to find someone more conversant. Riding time (wheels moving) by now was nearly 5 hours and we were still climbing. I suddenly had the out-of-gas feeling so stopped and sat on the side of the road sucking on energy gels, not realizing the campsite was only about a mile farther up the road.
The North Beaver Mesa campsite is at 8,200 feet and on the shoulder of the La Sal Mountains. We had started out in the high desert canyon landscape of sagebrush scrub at approximately 4,500 feet, but now had ascended to the Montane Zone of ponderosa pine. I looked for a tent-site near some of these stately trees. The long ride had taken its toll and the fly of my tent, which I found complicated under normal circumstances, completely bamboozled me. I spun it one way and then another. Finally, my cousin, Tom (whom I had talked into the trip or . . . wait a minute, I think it was his idea) came to my rescue, wondering if I had gotten stoned somehow without including him.
The group was slightly raucous before and after dinner. Did I say, shrimp Louie as an appetizer with beer in hand? After dinner and after donning warm clothing, we circled the fire pit for a fun benefit auction and thanks to Bill, a glib and innovative auctioneer; everyone seemed in a good mood. The accomplishment of finishing the longest day of riding added to the celebration. However, many of us soon staggered to our tents, fatigue having won the day.
During the night it turned cold, and I heard rain hitting the fly on the tent. I burrowed deeper into the down. At twilight, I heard a change in timbre, and looked out to see white. I had placed my trusty shirt-towel on a shrub to dry and it now seemed frozen, arms outstretched as if a half-man impaled. I took my usual early morning pee and quickly climbed back into the tent and zipped it tight. I burrowed back into the sleeping bag and luxuriance of sleep, not worrying if or how we would ride the last 35 or 40 miles.
Day Four –
I was woken by a shout of “Breakfast” from the outfitter’s area of the camp. I thought I smelled bacon as I slowly woke, but figured it could be a sensory remnant from the previous day’s lunch. I hurriedly pulled on a pair of tights and some wool socks, and then pawed through the duffle bag for a long-sleeved undershirt and finally a long sleeved jersey, heavy jacket, and hat. I had garnered a pair of rubber gloves—advertised as “cyclocross ready”–at the auction the evening before. Now I thought they would be ideal for the weather, and would now be seen as a wise purchase after the derision and comments earlier that I could use them for cleaning latrines, or the kitchen. Pancakes were being served, and I grabbed a plate and stood at the back of the line, fingers quite toasty. I couldn’t believe how the younger guys had gotten to breakfast so quickly. By the time I arrived at the serving table, the bacon was gone but at least the pancakes were tasty. I topped these off with strawberry yogurt and downed a cup of strong, cowboy coffee.
The organizers were discussing whether we could ride the roads and trails, as it was obviously muddy. The decision was to ride the first gravel-road section to the paved Loop Road and descend to the Castle Valley Road; not riding the rest of the off-road sections to the Sand Flats Road. This seemed like a good compromise after riding the first approximately 5 miles of muddy, slimy terrain. We all shed clothes as we descended the pavement into warmer air, peeling the outside layers and stuffing our back pockets and crannies of the “CamelBaks” until we resembled the silhouette of Kokopelli himself. The rest of the ride on paved roads and along the majestic and now roiling Colorado River was anticlimactic—except for a persistent headwind–and we rolled into Moab in the early afternoon.
Having ridden the highways back to town increased the distance and the time of our arrival into Moab. We jettisoned showering after linking up with the outfitters and fresh clothes from our duffle. Most of us changed by crouching down somewhat (or not so much) behind a retaining wall placed to restrain Mill Creek from inundating the town, uninterested in the nearly unimpeded view that tourists and town’s people had from the other side. Bare asses and torsos seemed strikingly white in the afternoon sun compared to the rest of the ride-exposed flesh. By-passing showers was to keep a reservation at Zak’s for pizza and beer (I mean it’s all new sweat anyway, isn’t it?) before the vans took us back to Loma.
Well, maybe we skipped among the rocks a little, if only in our minds. And if Kokopelli is a symbol of adventure in this area of canyons, rim-rock, desert-like sand, and towers, we were well served and the trail is aptly named. Selective memory already has me wanting to go again.
Thanks to the guides and organizers of COPMOBA; Bryce Palo, Rod Fitzhugh, Mike Steele, Whit Smith, Jim, and Russ Folger, for a great journey and for keeping us on the trail (and also World Wide Outfitters for great food and the hot water!)