I made a great discovery during this Porcupine ride.
Historically, at this point in the season, I would have a month of riding under my belt, but it’s turning into “one of those years” where life’s obligations have taken over the normal hedonistic pursuit of fresh air, leaving tire tracks in the dirt, and sleeping under the stars. Or maybe I’m just getting old. I barely had four rides in before heading down to Moab, and my confidence was shaky at best. What is my deal?! I’ve ridden this trail countless times with nothing but a grin on my face. There is no excuse for this.
The highway miles melted away as the mountains of our high desert gave way to high desert mesas and eventually the classic slickrock and red rock formations around Moab. The isolated, triangular, and anomalous mass of the white-capped La Sal Mountains rise behind all that amorphous-looking slickrock and red desert, making for one of the most interesting juxtapositions of geology across North America (in my humble opinion, at least).
Stepping out of the car in town, it was hot, but it sure beat sitting in an office. We grabbed a few last provisions: some firewood, extra ice, and water for the 5-gallon jug, and then left as much of civilization as we could to set up camp for the next few days. It was a welcome change in home life and mental space. The passing sun, guesses about the cloud formations and the weather, sparks from the campfire, finding a perfect tree for the hammock, and good conversation became the entertainment of the day.
With so much snow still in the mountains, it wasn’t a surprise to find the Hazard County Trail was still closed. We would have to start our Porcupine shuttle ride at a slightly lower elevation on the Kokopelli Trail, but this would still give us a good 18 miles of riding, and around 4500 feet of overall descending. And let’s not be confused here… while this is technically a downhill shuttle, you will do plenty of pedaling. And while you will do plenty of pedaling, you will also encounter many ledges, drops, and high-speed teeth-rattling descents.
I find the full-on downhill bike to be overkill for my tastes and especially inefficient for the “pedal-y” bits and the lower-speed twisty and techy bits. On the other hand, I find your average 5-inch trail bike still on the “weenie” side of things when it comes to some of those downhill ledges and speeding through a pile of loose baby-head-sized rocks. My ideal bike is what I call the pedal-y downhill bike, or I suppose you could call it “the ultra-beefy trail bike.” It has a few slacker angles, but just a single crown fork. It has 6 to 7 inches of travel, but can get the job done when you need to pedal uphill for a minute. Speaking of pedaling, I would also swap the clipless pedals for some flats and sticky shoes (I know… this debate rages on…). And if you don’t have a seat dropper yet, put this on your birthday wish list and take out a birthday cash advance to install one immediately. Stop being stubborn about this. Your sanity, your crotch, and your knees will thank you.
The view of Castle Valley from the trailhead is distant, but still a classic. There is a slight breeze at this elevation, a nice reprieve from the all-out desert heat. The welcome protection of full to ¾-length sleeves are fine in these temperatures, and the breeze from cruising on the bike helps, too. Don’t forget the water, though. It’s still a desert, and this will become imminently apparent as the elevation drops. I always start with a full 100oz hydration bladder and pack an extra 750ml Platy Bottle for good measure (it packs easier than a round bottle, and rolls up smaller as you use the water). It’s even better if you were able to freeze some of it ahead of time and let it melt as you ride. Cold water all day! Pack that in there with two spare tubes, a patch kit, multi-tool, maybe a Leatherman, spare brake pads, first aid kit, a couple spare chain links, some emergency bars or trail mix, and the peanut butter, jelly, honey, and banana sandwich that will taste infinitely better the more it gets squashed in your pack. Or just take sliced veggies, cheese, and salami if you’re off the glutens. Everyone else with nothing but gels will be jealous.
I slide my kneepads up into place wishing that I had my afore-mentioned “pedal-y downhill bike,” but instead I have my 5-inch trail bike (which, really, will do just fine… but, oh, the mental games). I try to channel the skills of my better friends and the bike sensei that taught me everything I know. What would Teresa do? What line would Connie take? What would Jackie suggest?
The wide and fast-cruising doubletrack of the Kokopelli passes briefly through an other-worldly burn zone of short charred junipers along the edge of the mesa. The route forks right to UPS (the aptly named Upper Porcupine Singletrack) now marked by a miniature brown UPS truck attached to the trail sign. I do love the mountain biker sense of humor.
Tires bank left and right in the red dirt, still tacky from the spring snowmelt, and up and down over the interspersed slick rock sections, sometimes rolling, sometimes full of ledges at odd angles, or sections that roll, but you’re never sure they go until that last second. Anticipate. Shift gears. Shift weight forward. Stand for a second. Pedal. Weight back. Let it roll. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
The rhythm continues on LPS (sure enough, that’s Lower Porcupine Singletrack). Castle Valley is getting closer and the La Sals more distant. There’s the stump that scarred my left shin last summer. There’s the ledge that claimed Austin’s shoulder. There’s “The Notch” ride-around that I have seen people cartwheel over. We’ve been leap frogging with a large group that looks relatively new to this trail. I’m seeing a lot of spandex, no armor, and quite a few endos. Ouch.
The time rolls by, and I have an epiphany. We are cruising. I have not crashed. Sure, I might have dabbed a foot here or there, but I feel awesome! I am welcoming each techy section as a fun challenge to throttle through. I have effectively left those work and life woes back in Salt Lake City. I have nothing to think about but riding my bike. And the beauty of this? I don’t actually have to think about riding my bike. Now that I’m in the moment, every skill I have ever learned in the last 15 years of riding is free to engage as needed and by instinct. I can focus on the fun! The view is awesome! The dirt in those corners was perfect tack! This section of trail feels like a super-sized pump track. That section of slickrock looks like dinosaur skin. I found the perfect route down that section of ledges. I rode that stupid ledge that always gives me trouble. And okay, I did walk another one, but I don’t care. I don’t even care that 27 off-road vehicles just drove past us.* We are out for a day of awesome and it’s living up to the intention. (*This is certainly not the norm; usually one might encounter one or two jeeps at a time.)
After downing the PB&JHB, smashed to the perfect density of texture and taste in my riding pack, and enjoying the quintessential Castle Valley View, we are on to the Jeep Trail. Some purists may try to make you feel inadequate for riding jeep trail instead of single track, but to me, it’s like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books. You want to take the bigger drop? Turn to page 43, or head down the left side. You want to ride something you can roll the whole way? Turn to page 67, or head to the right. It lets you get creative with your line choices, and you don’t have to stress about riding off trail and killing the crypto.
The last section of singletrack down Jackass Canyon to the Colorado River rolls by as smoothly as it ever has. There are some sections I may never ride in there, but I am pretty sure those are for crazy people, trials riders, World Cup downhillers, and I’m sure a few extremely seasoned locals. I finish my last sip of water as we hit the parking lot, and look up with an awesomely stupid grin on my face.
The night sky in central Utah is truly a thing of beauty; the Milky Way streaking the sky like a natural light show impossible to see from the confines of a city. The fire dies down as we relax around camp, replete with a gourmet meal cooked in the coals. The cooler opens and an ice cold beverage is tossed my way. Crack. Sip. Ahhhhhh. Happy place.
So it turns out that my lack of riding days leading up to the trip didn’t hurt my confidence. The missing link was a shift in mental space. It was a long ride, in a different town, away from the ordinary distractions and everyday stresses. It was 18 to 21 miles and a net loss of 4500 – 5500 vertical feet with postcard scenery of desert towers and almost every trail type and obstacle imaginable in one fell swoop. It was nothing else to do but ride my bike.