Today we left Brian's with the plan to reach Lake Powell. This push from Monticello to Hite would be one of our longest stretches on the trip without services. From Blanding, Utah to the northern tip of Lake Powell we would travel 74 miles without access to food or water. This meant we would need to take the biking seriously.
The morning began humorously as Gen and I devised a strategy to keep our water bottles from baking in the afternoon sun. We wrapped them in reflective aluminum ducting tape in the hopes that they would absorb less light and thus less heat. The results of this test have proven inconclusive, and rigorous experimentation is in order for our return. At the very least our H2O situation is now very blinging.
We quickly rode the easy miles to Blanding. 21 blissful miles of downhill left us feeling great and energized when we stocked up on water and bars for our push through the Utah desert. Keen to see the Ancient Pueblo ruins that we missed in Mesa Verde at the Butler Wash, we pulled off in the morning heat to do the quick hike in. The ruins were located in a cliffside that once hosted a waterfall and lush hanging gardens but had been abandoned when drought struck the area. Eager to see them closer we searched for access to the canyon but eventually decided the precarious downclimb was ill-advised in our cleated bike shoes.
We returned to our bikes and got to work as the mercury continued to rise.
20 miles in we were beginning to understand the beauty and difficulty of Utah.
Let me reiterate first though. Utah is beautiful. Like the kind of beautiful that you see in a movie and think that can't be real. It's the kind of beautiful that fills magazine covers in waiting rooms, the kind that they superimpose tacky motivational phrases over and hang in mouldering, sad offices to taunt the staff. It is an alien beauty, rich with colors, geometry and scale that confounds the senses and it extends in every direction beyond the horizon. If you haven't been to Utah, this is me telling you to visit Utah; without hyperbole it is the most stunning landscape I have seen on this trip or in this country so far. It also makes for some killer biking.
The combination of incredible heat and unforgiving climbs was turning poor Genny's brain into soup and she was reaching a critical threshold where biking was barely a forward-moving endeavour. As she languished behind, blistering under the cloudless sky, I plugged away at the hill figuring her misery was momentary. The steep grades and unrelenting heat left us tacking up some of the more vertical climbs, occasionally straightening when the infrequent car approached from behind.
Ahead, our peak elevation of the day waited and we began our slow ascent as the sun continued to bake the ground.
"I don't think it's safe to bike in this"
"In the road? There're hardly any cars"
"No, the heat"
"It's only 98; it's uncomfortable, but I don't think it's dangerous"
"I don't think it's safe"
"Do you feel like you're light headed? Do you feel like you might faint?"
"I don't know, I feel a little lightheaded"
"Do you feel nauseous and queasy, like you might throw up?"
I knew that the day was only due to get hotter over the next 3 hours and I was reluctant to stop. I wasn't enjoying being cooked, but I knew that we could still bike safely, albeit slower. Stopping meant that we would only be exposing ourselves to more intense afternoon heat in an hour when we got back on the bikes after taking a break.
"Well, if you feel like you are going to faint or throw up, just stop and we will wait it out. We'll go as slow as you need"
We continued on and Gen's mood deteriorated along with her physical state
Eventually, she stopped her bike completely and got off, slumping over the saddle. The bike rolled out from underneath her and toppled eagerly on its side. Taking this as the last straw, she lay down alongside it and issued a resolute unwillingness to begin biking again. I did what any good friend and partner would do in a similar situation; I snapped a photo for posterity and waited silently for her to conclude the spectacle so that we could return to biking.
When she righted herself and the bike, I told her that we could take a break but I was unwilling to do so unless it meant that we would be stopping until at least 6PM when the temperature had begun to recede. This meant that if we weren't going to stop for 3 hours I didn't want to stop at all. I didn't want to go through the process of finding/making shade and sitting down unless we were committed to waiting out the heat entirely.
She assumed this was my method of guilting her into continuing. I assured her I only wanted to make sure we weren't going to be repeating ourselves an hour from now. Unwilling to give in under the assumption that I was trying to shame her, she started biking again. Less than a mile down the road we repeated the exchange, and I told her we were stopping but we weren't going to get back on the bikes for the next 3 hours regardless of how she felt in 30 minutes. Spotting a thatched canopy off the road I told her to hike the short distance through the sand and brush towards what looked like promising shade.
We reached what turned out to be a recreation of ancient pueblo ruins. A tower, two above ground ruins and a roofed ceremonial pit. Recognizing the advantage of being both underground and in the shade, I told her to jump into the 10' pit and started throwing down our sleeping gear. I operated under the assumption that anyone who happened upon us would be amenable to our trespass based on "medical concerns". Likewise, it was a recreation not a restoration or preservation of existing ruins and I felt no disrespect as we were not damaging the property in anyway. That's my disclaimer for sleeping in a ceremonial Native American pit. It's probably just better to say I am sorry. I am sorry. It was a good place to sleep though.
With 3 hours sleep under our belts, we'd seen no one. The day was beginning to cool and we made preparations to leave. As we were getting ourselves sorted we heard a car pull up. Gen hastily started throwing our belongings out of the pit as I scrambled to make it not look like we were doing what we were just doing (implicit sense of guilt for wrongdoing). Then a curious thing happened; they just drove off and left. Then another car did the same 5 minutes later, then another one 10 after that. I watched and realized that the historical site was used less to learn about the Ancient Pueblo and more for the convenience of its restroom.
Back on our bikes we finished the last four miles of climbing to the summit where we began another long coast through the beautiful Canyonlands. The day crept to its end, and we were treated to a beautiful sunset. We watched through our sunglasses as it gradually receded beneath the distant mountain range painting the sky in fabulous shades of burnt orange. As we continued down the road we passed two touring cyclists on their own uphill battle going the opposite direction. Our greetings were met with silence and scowls as their day was likely not going well and they were still 10 miles from the summit and 40 miles from services.
The waning daylight faded and we were benighted. Continuing into the darkness we lamented the missed scenery on either side that we were certain must be fantastic. Our road to Hite was almost entirely downhill at this point and the road swept us forward as the invisible beauty around us whizzed by. The temperature fluctuated greatly as we wound around the fronts and backs of canyon walls, the eastern sides cooler by close to 10 degrees, only to round the bend and be on the side of still hot rock that brought it 10 hotter. This continued for miles as we struggled to adapt back and forth.
Eventually, the missed scenery became too much for both of us and we elected to pitch our tent outside of Hite so that we could see some of the landscape in daylight during our coast towards Lake Powell in the morning. When the sun rises we will make our push for Hite and then start our next long stretch without services all the way to Hanksville.