Heaven and hell – a moody end to marvellous Utah

Forrest Gump eat your heart out! We pedalled roughly 120km out of our way to get this shot.

Forrest Gump eat your heart out! We pedalled roughly 120km out of our way to get this shot.

SOME blogs are easier to write than others.

Sometimes just too bloody much happens while nothing happens at all.

You see it doesn’t help that I’m writing this blog from Mexico, and it really doesn’t help that my last post was in Monument Valley, Utah.

I guess I’ve been a little distracted.

And here’s why:

The battle to leave Southern Utah

Spending almost four days in Monument Valley was a mistake. First things first it was pricey, secondly it was mildly depressing and thirdly – aside from dodging RVs while re-enacting that one scene from Forrest Gump – there wasn’t a lot to do.

And so after three days too many we finally cycled out of the Navajo Nation’s one cash cow before again cycling north to again get west to finally, finally turn bloody south!

It was during the ride towards the indecently steep Moki Dugway (a five kilometre gravel road etched into a cliff that looked like a toddler’s drawing of a boa constrictor) that I had a blinding realisation.

The Moki Dugway - a five km stretch of insane switchbacks that took roughly 1.5 hours to cycle

The Moki Dugway – a five km stretch of insane switchbacks that took roughly 1.5 hours to cycle

I was itching to leave Utah – maybe itching to leave the States. I wanted the chaos I’d simultaneously loved and loathed in Asia. I wanted street food, bad roads and worse wifi (actually it couldn’t get worse than Southern Utah). I wanted cheap hotels and the kind of daily language barrier battles that sparked anxiety-induced back sweats but an expert proficiency in charades.

I wanted Mexico – but we still had over 2000km left in the States. Shit.

There was nothing for it but to carry on and the next day we cycled into Natural Bridges National Monument and a couple of days after that we cycled back out with a retired German school teacher in tow.

Matter of fact and incredibly organised Elmar was pedalling his steel beast around the States and after agreeing to team up for a few days we hit the 80km rollercoaster road to Hite expecting a sweet mostly down hill ride that instead turned into a bitter battle against the sun and wind.

The plan was to camp at the Hite river just a few kilometres off the main road and according to the Natural Bridges Visitors Centre we’d not only find water there, but a little gas station with some limited food and drinks.

As the mid afternoon sun beat down just the thought of an ice cold beverage kept me turning the pedals up each climb and when we reached the tiny gas station I threw my bike up against a bin and bolted to the entrance with the intention of buying as many iced teas as my USD stash would allow.

Sarah celebrates finishing the last climb en route to Hite

Sarah celebrates finishing the last climb en route to Hite

But the shop was closed with a little sign on the entrance announcing opening hours were 10am – 4pm. I looked at my watch, it was 4.05pm.

Scott, who had walked up behind me, opened his mouth to say something but took one look at my face and backed away slowly.

He was just about ready to reach for his bear spray when something snapped inside me and a torrent of abuse flooded out.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck you Utah!” I screeched.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuk yoooouuuuuuuuuuu and your stupid opening hours you lazy bastards!”

I spun around looking for a victim but Scott had fled leaving me with just a few tumbleweeds and an alarmed looking snake that had been curled up near the toilet door.

So I kicked the gas station walls a few times and then plonked myself in the only patch of shade I could find and sipped on bath warm water in an attempt to cool off.

Camping at sizzling hot Hite "River". Actually 80 per cent of the river had dried up several years earlier!

Camping at sizzling hot Hite “River”. Actually 80 per cent of the river had dried up several years earlier!

It was too hot to sleep that night and the next morning we scoffed down a basic breakfast before forcing our weary bodies back on the bikes and uphill to Hanksville and its cheap little campground.

Hot gusts ripped through the town the next morning and while Elmar was happy to cycle on we weren’t so keen. So we farewelled our German friend and spent the day chasing shade around the little tent field and sipping coffee.

The wind wasn’t going to let us off so easy however and for the next two days we battled gusts of up to 80km per hour while facing every cyclist’s worst nightmare – pedalling downhill in granny gear.

Sarah poses at the entrance of Capital Reef National Park, which is sandwiched between Hanksville and Torrey.

Sarah poses at the entrance of Capital Reef National Park, which is sandwiched between Hanksville and Torrey.

By time we reached the little adventure town of Torrey Scott had saddle sores on his arse, our lips were bleeding and our tempers were frayed. While bitching over the prices in the little grocery store a cheerful looking man strolled up to us and explained he had just opened up an e-bike rental in town before offering us a place to stay for the night and a hot shower.

We slept like babies in Matt’s spare room that night and the next morning we pedalled out of town towards the Boulder Mountain pass on the famous Scenic Byway 12 feeling like kings.

As we cycled slowly up the 40km climb the desert disappeared in lieu of lush trees that were turning from a rich green to a vibrant, sparkling yellow.

Green - how we missed it!! The winding mountain pass that takes you over Boulder Mountain is nothing short of stunning.

Green – how we missed it!! The winding mountain pass that takes you over Boulder Mountain is nothing short of stunning.

Winter was coming – and we were finally high enough to see it.

With each pedal stroke my mood rose and by time we’d reached the summit I was grinning from ear to ear.

The next morning we flew downhill to the weird little town of Boulder and immediately back uphill again to the spectacular stretch of road that runs near Hells Backbone.

For 15km the road snaked along a narrow spine sandwiched between epic canyons that dropped down hundreds of feet.

Looking out over Hells Backbone!

Looking out over Hells Backbone!

Holy Hell's Backbone! What a view!

Holy Hell’s Backbone! What a view!

It was hard not to stop every 100 metres to take photos and gape at what was one of the most phenomenal views we’d ever seen from the back of the bikes.

By early afternoon we’d made it to the Calf Canyon campground (where we’d hoped to stock up on water) but after a few minutes a lovely Californian couple had invited us to share their site and a camp dinner.

From Calf Creek campground the road rose steeply towards Escalante and as we rolled into the main street a colourful looking burger joint caught our eye and we stopped to drool and play our favourite fantasy game of: “If you could order anything on the menu what would you get?”

Scott was reeling off a supersized fantasy meal when a friendly-looking woman wandered over for a chat. The teacher, traveller and Nicaraguan native insisted on buying us lunch before inviting us back to her home for a cool drink.

She was leaving early the next morning to fly to China and then Tibet and so emptied half the food out of her fridge and cupboards to give to us – insisting that we needed it more than her.

We were blown away.

Feeling high on good vibes we eventually headed back to the main road and as we prepared to hang a right we noticed two fully loaded bikes headed right for us.

It turned out Nami and Yohan (from Japan and France) were also heading for Argentina and they were doing it with their little three year old Yuna in tow (perched in a trailer behind dad).

It was the first time we’d met pan American tourers in almost a year and I nearly wet my pants in excitement. Bike travellers are a little like long lost family and we instantly clicked with the fabulous trio – quickly swapping stories before deciding to camp together that night at a shared site in town.

Nami and Yohan convinced us to stay another day in Escalante so that we could cycle for 20km along a hot and dusty washboard road filled with sand and gravel before hiking for four hours along a muddy river bed to some “nearby” slot canyons.

Hiking in the heat to slot canyons near Escalante with our fabulous new cycling buddies.

Hiking in the heat to slot canyons near Escalante with our fabulous new cycling buddies.

Yuna and Scott prepare to enter the slot canyons

Yuna and Scott prepare to enter the slot canyons

By 6pm we were finally back at the campground and I was just beginning to review my friendship with the sadist couple when Yohan announced he’d spent some time as a baker in France. All was forgiven. Instead of cycling the next day we faffed about the campsite making bread on the whisper lite stove and it was bliss.

From Escalante Scenic Byway 12 continues uphill to Bryce Canyon National Park and it took us a little over a day and a half to reach the tourist hot spot which sits at a chilly 3000 metres.

Bryce is famous for its swathe of red and orange hoodoos that look as though they belong on a Star Wars set and the next morning we jumped on a free shuttle bus to tackle the popular Queens Garden trail combined with the Navajo loop walk which takes about three hours (four if you stop for selfies) and plates up scenes so sexy you’ll wish for about 10 more sets of eyes.

We spent another half a day exploring Bryce with our three new friends, finally hauling ourselves out of the park at mid-afternoon to strike west for Zion National Park.

The next day we managed 80km to the outskirts of Zion National Park – camping in a ditch by the side of the road to celebrate what was to be our final Utah park – but little did we know it would end in tears.

Wild camping just after Bryce - stunning views without the price tag!

Wild camping just after Bryce – stunning views without the price tag!

Scott laps up the bike lane that runs for a pretty good distance from Bryce towards Zion

Scott laps up the bike lane that runs for a pretty good distance from Bryce towards Zion

The morning started like no other. We woke up, brewed some coffee, scoffed down some tortilla wraps with banana and peanut butter, packed up the tent and climbed onto the bike.

Every park in Utah had proven different and epically scenic in its own special way and after reaching the park entrance it was clear Zion would be no exception. A park ranger warned us there was a tunnel closed to cyclists smack bang in the middle but assured us the ranger there would help us secure a ride through. The tunnel ranger, however, was an embittered woman who’d missed her calling as a morgue attendant and told us to bugger off and find our own way through.

Sarah cycling into beautiful Zion.

Sarah cycling into beautiful Zion.

After an hour of hitchhiking Nami, Yuna and Yohan managed to score a lift with two blokes in a pickup (who warned them to mind the gun in the back) and another hour later (after countless rejections) a cheerful bloke from a supported bike tour company offered to throw our bikes in the back with the others and ferry us across. The group of middle aged cyclists were a cheery bunch and after many selfies and slaps on the backs they deposited us a kilometre shy of the tunnel on the other side and took off. Soon we were reunited with Nami, Yohan and Yuna and we all took off downhill towards Springdale.

Three switchbacks later we realised the little family had fallen behind and so we swung into a narrow pull in to wait.

Eventually they came into view (what the hell had they been doing?) but as they drew closer I realised something was very wrong. Yohan’s face was pale, drawn and a map of pain. Nami looked close to tears.

“I’ve got some bad news,” Yohan said.

“I had an accident. I think I’ve broken my collar bone.”

Blood was running down his face from a gash on his head as he pulled down his shirt to reveal an enormous lump on his chest. It looked as though he hadn’t just broken his clavicle, but not so neatly snapped it in two.

There was little to do but keep cycling to the visitors centre and attempt to get help from there and so with superhuman toughness Yohan pedalled on.

He was almost shaking with pain when we stumbled across the little medical centre and its ageing doctor who quickly confirmed it was broken (along with the centre’s X-ray machine apparently) and asked if our support vehicle would drive us to the next town for proper medical treatment.

“No we’re on a bike tour,” we explained.

“Yes but you have a support vehicle right,” the baffled looking doc insisted.

“Nope, it’s self supported,” i reiterated.

The doctor gave me a long look that told us we were a few beers short of a picnic, before handing over the bill and bidding us farewell.

We were on our own.

It turned out Yohan had lost control of the bike in some soft sand and landed badly – very badly – and to rub salt in the wound the family’s travel insurance had expired just a couple of weeks earlier.

They’d have little choice but to try and hitchhike to St George – some 70km away – and so the next morning Scott and I jumped on our bikes to ride the distance while Yohan, Nami and Yuna scored a lift.

The trio were taken straight to the hospital where Yohan was x-rayed (yep the clavicle was neatly snapped in two with the bone “tenting” into the skin) and told he needed an indecently expensive surgery.

That night we sat around the table of our Warmshower hosts Judith and Pete and discussed the not very appealing options. To get the surgery in St George would mean forking out $20,000 USD for a one hour surgery (WTF). To leave and return to his home country of France would mean driving two hours to Las Vegas, boarding a 16 hour flight to Paris and then taking another train to Nante – all with a bone sticking into his skin.

The couple were understandably devastated. Nami wanted to end the trip there and then and have them all fly back to France but Yohan wanted to continue. Flying the three of them home just for the surgery would be a huge cost and yet Nami didn’t want to stay on her own in the States with Yuna while Yohan flew back solo and underwent surgery.

We didn’t want them to finish their trip and give up on this incredible dream and so we proposed a new plan. Why didn’t we drive Yohan to Vegas, get him on a flight to France and then stay with Nami and Yuna until Yohan returned. It would mean skipping the last chunk of the States (we didn’t have the visa time to wait it out in St George and Nami couldn’t cycle with the trailer and all the panniers as the weight was too much (she also didn’t want to fork out a few hundred dollars in insurance to ensure her and Yuna were covered for the remaining weeks).

And so – after tears, talks and many cups of tea we helped our broken friend get back to France, packed up our bike boxes and helped Nami and Yuna take two buses to reach San Diego.

I didn’t feel sad at all about skipping the last two weeks of cycling because somethings were too important – like helping friends continue their trip of a lifetime.

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