~15 years ago my longing to be in unpeopled places was every bit as strong as now, even if I lacked partners, or gear, or a chunk of the needed skillset.

That didn’t prevent me from going deep in those days, but any trip I did back then had two things in common: At least some part of the route would have been done before: A known quantity, as it were. And once out there I’d be overcome by aching loneliness: I missed the people in my life, and desperately wanted to share these places with them.

Enthusiastically shared stories, illustrated with snapshots, had to suffice then. And that was good, for awhile.

Nowadays I have Jeny, an adventure partner without parallel, and we’re learning to go deep together.

fat n happy

It wasn’t meant to be a spring break trip. It was a trip that just happened to coincide with the arrival of spring on the Colorado Plateau.

All winter we’d batted ideas back and forth: The coastal crux of Alaska’s Iditarod? The southern ~half of the Arizona Trail? A singletrack smorgasbord loosely surrounding St. George? A traverse of Canyonlands? Maybe an over-snow tour of Rocky Mountain National Park?

Nothing really stuck. Weeks passed, the discussion would be reinvigorated, we’d half-heartedly check current and forecasted weather for each possible objective, then momentum would fall by the wayside, lost in the immediacy of our day to day existence.

It was Daniels that shoved us off the fence. Even if he didn’t mean to. Even if he ultimately couldn’t make it. His emailed inquiry was the catalyst, like a seeded cloud, that initiated a flurry of mapgeeking.

fat n happy

Once we’d set a start date it didn’t take long to rule out most of the options. RMNP? Too snowy, at a time of year when we crave the texture of dirt and rock.

Iditarod? It’s just been done so many times and so many ways already, and the ITI races were already happening during our alloted window. Plus it’s both far away and expensive to execute.

AZT? Gorgeous and challenging, just not currently compelling. Partially because it’s such a known quantity, and so popular.

St. George had it’s merits, but we were both feeling decidedly caged, and only extensive immersion into wide open spaces can cure that particular affliction.

Ultimately we wanted something without a guidebook devoted to it, without a GPS track to follow, without signs pointing the way to the obvious. Something that we weren’t even sure was doable, whose secrets were ours to discover.

Looking back now, that uncertainty might have been the most compelling aspect of our chosen route.

fat n happy
We settled on an omniterrain traverse spanning a healthy chunk of eastern Utah, using fatbikes and packrafts. The meat of the route was terra incognita: We simply had no way of knowing if it ‘went’, and the possibility of getting shut down deep into it, necessitating a time-and-energy consuming backtrack, seemed more likely than not. With great risk comes great reward, or so the saying goes. fat n happy
Our first camp was perched airily atop a red rock amphitheater overlooking a silty river hundreds of feet below. As the sun touched the horizon and we started prepping dinner, two dudes wandered past “looking for a cliff to jump off”. Jeny and I shared pad thai chased with Mike & Ike’s as base jumpers flung themselves into the abyss. Once across the river we saw no one, nor any recent evidence of people having been there. The jeep tracks were shandy yet the washes seemed firm. When the grades were within reason the riding was near effortless on our plump tires, despite the heavy loads. When the grades got steep — as they often did when piercing cliff bands — we put our backs into it and pushed. fat n happy fat n happy
For 40+ miles there was simply no surface water, anywhere. The scenery could sustain you for days if you suddenly found yourself foodless, but mere hours without water in this desert environment would leave your husk withered to the point that food became irrelevant. An off-route detour led us to a wash, down which we walked until the sand became damp and eventually oily puddles appeared. It seemed so insignificant and easy to miss, not to mention gross, yet provided the literal lifeline that allowed us to continue. fat n happy We’d spent many collective pre-trip hours chimping aerial maps and imagery to find a weakness that would allow us to penetrate the canyon systems. And while we were quietly confident in our route, we simply couldn’t know for certain that it ‘went’ until it actually did. Stacked contours on the maps meant cliffs, impassable with bikes and no climbing gear, and the resolution of the maps simply wasn’t good enough for macro-level routefinding. Which meant we committed ourselves to hours of rough work with no guarantee of success. Lingering snowpack was a welcome obstacle, allowing us to tank up on water where we’d expected none. fat n happy
fat n happy
Once into the canyon bottom we’d ride 98% of the next ~25 trailless miles, using fat tires and decades of experience to ‘read and run’ the engaging terrain therein. Descending this canyon felt like nothing if not running a river, with each horizon line presenting a new and novel jumble of challenges. Without discussion we forewent stopping and “scouting”, instead relishing the on-the-fly challenge of blending body english, skill, faith in friction, and momentum to find or force a way when no clear line was present. fat n happy Steady rain 2 days before our departure lingered in the form of puddles in potholes. Finding water in the desert made us feel unaccountably wealthy. fat n happy Eventually the walls drew close and we found ourselves stemming through eroded slickrock gullies and handing bikes down successive pourovers into the tight confines of a slot. The brief gymnastics of downclimbing and manhandling our bikes served as reminder that they’d gotten us this far, into this ethereal place. The handful of boulder chokes that we carried the bikes over and through were a welcome reminder to slow down and enjoy the moment. Plant feet and remain motionless long enough to catch breath and in that short time our brains could start to ‘catch up’ to where we were. The walls had been polished by eons of floods, yet the nature of scoured sandstone is anything but smooth. Wind tumbled sand has accentuated the flutings, whorls, stripes and striations, creating patterns both intricate and tremendous to inspire awe in us. Not just awesome in the moment, but powerful, memorable beyond the ability of words to convey. fat n happy Eventually and somewhat regretfully the walls recede and we ride out into bright sunlight — light that we hadn’t noticed missing within the intimate cathedral of the slot. Canyon walls give way to tumbled car and house sized boulders, an apron of sand wide, long, and untracked, and then a desert river. I am never not amazed at how quickly and easily we can transition to amphibious mode — done here to exit the canyon system. 20 minutes or so to remove wheels and bags from bikes, stuff ‘em inside boats, inflate boats, stack bikes onto bows, place refreshments close at hand, then shove off and let the current do the work while witnessing differential erosion, on both a grand and macro scale, happening right before our eyes. A few hours later we leave the river, gently climbing a dry wash under late afternoon sun. Light breezes are pushed aside by gusting winds, necessitating more careful scrutiny of our campsite for the night. fat n happy We snuggle into a somewhat sheltered pocket with a level sandy surface, dead and down cottonwood nearby for fuel, and narrow walls framing the celestial sphere. Fire is kindled at sunset, water boiled at twilight, dinner eaten at moonset, and dessert shared as the milky way edges into view above the southern rim. fat n happy fat n happyStereo owls converse overhead on matters unknown to us, but sleeplessly imagined in terms of newspaper headlines (”Cultivating local rodents: Quality vs. Quantity?”) academic papers (”The fine line between whinny and trill”), or op-ed’s (”Why eat other birds? It’s not you, it’s me.”).
Windy nights out induce a fitful sleep dictated by the vagaries of it’s strength, direction, and implied malevolence. Eventually some semblance of real sleep finds us, not long before songs of house finch and canyon wren filter through the hoods of our sleeping bags. Their clear cascading notes bring smiles to our faces before eyes have yet opened, alerting us to impending dawn and cementing the reminder that immersion in ‘the nature’ is so much more than visual. fat n happy Tired, sore, and stinking we break camp one last time then diesel up the wash and back above the ledge. We’re intensely grateful for the respite this wilderness has bestowed. We’re also wise enough to understand how much more exquisite and rejuvenative this journey will feel once we have burgers in bellies, sand dumped from ears and scrubbed from between toes, and clean sheets to burrow into. Every bit of our traverse was legal to the letter of the law, and we pulled necessary permits before leaving. On top of that we followed strict LNT etiquette for the duration — taking only photos and leaving only footprints and tire tracks in the sand. However, the regulations for some of the public lands we traversed are many, byzantine, and often nonsensical to anyone versed in any level of backcountry travel, often intended only to keep the lowest common denominator of the general public from killing themselves and leaving an unsightly scorch mark on the earth in so doing. I respect the mission of the land managers but am tired of being treated like an incapable, ignorant imbecile when what I want to do is see vast swaths of land in a light and fast style that said land managers fail to recognize as legitimate. If they recognize it at all. As such I am leery of publicly sharing the exact routing we devised, knowing that someone desiring to repeat it could easily cause an access kerfuffle if they embarked without knowing every last detail of why we went where we did, when, whom we approached for permission(s), and which gray areas we consciously tiptoed around and over en route.  

6 Comments

  1. Fantastic, inspiring, report as usual. Thanks for taking the time to bring us along with you through story and pics. Tom

  2. Cool report, Mike. Now if I can find the gumption and confidence to do something like this…

    Thanks for sharing, sir.

  3. Tom Work in NorCal

    Thank you. Inspiring as always.

  4. Pingback: Deep desert off-grid amphibious adventure | One Motorcyclist – 1 Motor Cyclist

  5. Great video! Awesome trip. What you say at the end of the article, about being careful about revealing locations, for fear that someone with less ethical considerations for treating the land properly might screw it up, is very true. I have an area that I’ve been fat biking and bike packing in for several years. It’s such a great location, and I have spent some very nice times there (for just the day, or overnight). I used to talk it up a lot among acquaintances, ETC. , but then I got to thinking about how easy it would be for others to mess it up, or create “official” condemnation, and so I’ve dried up about talking about this place any more! I think I’ll just go lightly (and silently!) there myself for the time being, and take only photographs (or videos) and leave only a few faint tracks! Thanks again for sharing your trip with us! Fantastic.

  6. Great report ! Thanx.
    One question please: what kind of packraft do you prefer
    best regards from good old germany
    Stephan

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