I have long dreamed of visiting Moab, Utah, ever since I saw an article on mountain biking there in Outside magazine over 15 years ago. I would glare at the images of bikers negotiating huge slickrocks and confidently riding the tops of 50-foot arches. At the time I was dating an artist who was also an avid mountain biker. He introduced me to the sport, taking me up long and sometimes grueling rides through the Santa Monica mountains near Los Angeles where I lived.
On those first rides, I remember tearing down hills in an adrenaline-rich zone between control and free-fall; changing gears fast and pedaling even faster to scramble up steep and tricky paths; going up over a narrow trail on which if I fell the wrong way, I would drop 20 feet to the rocky creek below; and once pushing so hard up a grassy, steep slope that I almost cried, but kept the anguish to myself, not wanting to show weakness. What I remember most, though, is the shot of pure exhilaration and confidence that came from nailing a gnarly section.
I fell hard for the sport. So hard, that I let my boyfriend talk me into buying my own bike. I had to use two credit cards to purchase it. At the time, I had never spent over a $1,000 for a bike, or much else for that matter. I was committed.
I didn’t get to ride it much, though, because soon after, while on a 5-hour ride with that same boyfriend, my knee blew out. Permanently. Aside from the pulled ITB which eventually healed, something else in my knee stayed injured. I saw numerous doctors, had MRIs and exploratory surgery and chiropractory, endured years of hopeful physical therapy and acupuncture, but I had no definitive diagnosis and my knee would not heal. For years, the most I could do is walk, swim, and eventually (strangely enough), inline skate. I became a fast inline skater.
During that long, frustrating decade, I kept my Gary Fisher bike. I hung it on a hook in my tiny Santa Monica apartment. I dragged it up to Northern California when I moved there with my new boyfriend. After we married, I stored it in the basement of our flat in San Francisco. After it got stolen from that basement, my husband, Pierre, seeing me devastated, replaced it with another almost exactly like it, even though I couldn’t ride. I kept my bike as I visited doctor after doctor and specialist after specialist. I kept it because I believed, in spite of all evidence, that I would ride it again some day. I was determined that my knee would eventually get better, and that bike was my carrot, keeping my hope alive.
A couple years after my son was born, around 2008, 10 years after I originally injured my knee, I saw doctor # 8. She gave me a new approach to my physical therapy and sent me to a particular deep tissue massage therapist with specific instructions. What did I have to lose? It took months, but I was able to work up to 40 minutes on the elliptical machine, and about a year later, I could ride the bike. I was filled with fresh promise.
It would take a couple more years to be able to ride at a decent pace and for more than a couple of days a week, but eventually I did it: I was riding my bike without pain or breakdown! By then, however, life had become busy, with a second baby born in 2011, work, and family life in Silicon Valley. My bike rides were tame: I didn’t seek anything tough, I just got my exercise.
Flash forward to the present. My husband and I decided to take a break from our hectic suburban lives to travel the world with our kids. As part of that trip, we decided to spend the summer driving through western U.S. and Canada, with my old Gary Fisher strapped to a small trailer in the back and the kids’ bikes piled on top. On our list: Moab, Utah.
Driving from Canyonlands, we pull into the small, dusty town of Moab. It has one primary road, Main Street, which is part of the 191 highway, and just a few traffic lights. Yet, adventure bursts from its sides. Mountain bikes, ATVs, 4WDs, jeeps, and rafts spill from the patios of outdoor stores. I see bikes on backs of dusty cars, fit people riding or stopping to fiddle with their bikes, and two ATVs passing us by.
Along with City Market, the main grocery store, there are also a few hotels, laundromats, outdoor restaurants with spray-mist, souvenir shops, cafes, bakeries, a few fast-food places, and the Moab Brewing Company. I notice a number of outdoor stores, including Canyon Voyages, where we later sign up for a rafting trip, and the Gearhead Outdoor Store, which sells gear for camping, rock climbing, biking, and more, plus you can refill your water bottles and tanks there. I really want to visit Gearheads!
Standing gloriously behind the town are the tall, red canyons and rocks for which the region is famous, including Arches National Park, which is just north of town.
Filled with excitement and anticipation, we stop at the Tourism Center, which we quickly realize is not the city’s Visitor Center. But no matter, the person there, Sean, answers all our questions and sets us straight. He pulls out a map and shows us where we can find camping with shade nearby (down Kane Creek Road). He lets us know about the Aquatic Center, where for almost the same price as a shower, the kids have the added benefit of going down the water slides and splashing in their pools. He then addresses our third question. Where to go mountain biking.
“It’s been a long time,” I tell him.
We’re a lot older now, too, I think but don’t say. Fifteen years ago, if I fell off my bike or did an endo, I’d brush myself off and get back on. Now, my body is not so robust. If I fall, I’d likely snap into pieces.
“I don’t think we can do anything too gnarly. Maybe something intermediate? Or even easy to start.”
Both offer single track trails that include mostly intermediate and easy rides with a few expert options thrown in, and both provide the chance to ride over slickrock and through an amazing landscape of canyons and boulders. My heartbeat quickens at the thought.
I study both maps carefully, trying to decide which set of trails to bike because I know we won’t have time for both. Our schedule permits only a couple of days in Moab, and there is Arches to visit and a rafting trip promised, and mostly, kids to watch and entertain. Pierre and I can get one long bike ride in each, separately, of course. (Because someone has to watch the kids.)
Eaten but not Beaten
After the Tourism Center, we head to Moab Brewing Company for lunch, enjoying the outdoorsy décor, and then find camping at King’s Bottom. Although it’s next to the Colorado river and flanked by gorgeous, red canyon walls, there is no shade and no water, and the heat is an intense 94 F degrees, as is typical for June.
We also have one other unfortunate problem: apparently Moab got an unusual amount of rain the previous month and hundreds of mosquitos seem to have just hatched from their eggs, hungry. Every accessible piece of flesh gets devoured. I count more than 30 bites on my ankles. My son’s back and his friend Liam’s legs look the same. Bites also dot my young daughter’s face. Only my husband Pierre, who smartly dresses in impenetrable, head to toe coverage in spite of the heat, escapes most of the feasting.
The heat and mosquitos get me down, but I decide not to let them interfere with my Moab dream. Eaten but not beaten I keep telling myself.
We see Arches National Park the next day, hiking with the kids to popular view points, such as North and South Windows, Turret Arch, Double Arch, and Delicate Arch. It is the most the kids can do in the heat, especially with their itchy insect bites, and so we retreat to Moab for a late lunch. We schedule the rafting trip for late morning the next day, so that I can bike before and Pierre can bike afterwards, with both of us hoping to beat the heat.
The morning comes for my ride, the one I had been dreaming about for over 15 years. I don’t feel so great: my bug bites itch and I was up half the night moving kids back to their sleeping mats. But I am thrilled to be doing this. The night before I prepare: filling my camelback with water and stuffing its pockets with energy bars. The bike is oiled and ready to go. I wake at 5:30 a.m., as planned, eat breakfast in the car to avoid the mosquitos, and head to Moab Brands. As it turns out, there isn’t time to do the extra drive to Dead Horse Point State Park, not if I want to beat the heat and also be back in time for our rafting trip.
I drive up the 191 highway, past the entrance to Arches National Park, and look for the sign for the Chuckwagon dinner show restaurant (now closed) on the right, which Pierre and I had scoped out the day before. I find it, turn onto the dirt road, and drive down to the gravel parking lot for Moab Brands. At 6:30 a.m., there are only two cars in the parking lot, one still with the bikes on top.
I study the map, then strap on my camelback, get on my bike, and ride. The path from the parking lot leads to a point where you can do the EZ-Lazy loop to the right or the North 40 and Maverick trails to the left. I choose the former, which is a combo of easy and intermediate terrain. I’m excited, but also afraid. I can’t afford to fall.
I start on the narrow, single track of the EZ trail, which include boulders on both sides, climbs over slabs of rock, plenty of twisting turns and sudden, short upgrades, some gravel, a little sand. Every time I make it through a narrow, technical section, I’m hit with that familiar shot of exhilaration and confidence. I get too close to a boulder and it knocks my foot out of its toe clip, I scrape my shoulder on a rock while passing it, I have to walk up two short sections of trail, but I don’t fall. The ride is thrilling, although I wouldn’t have called any of it “easy.”
I stop to drink and look for the Lazy trail back. I can’t find it (note: just go in on the trail a bit more, away from the 191, and you will find the sign that I miss), so I accidentally end up doing the EZ trail again, in reverse.
After that, I need a break from the adrenaline. I return to the parking lot and head south toward Moab to pick up the longer, 7.8-mile Bar M trail, designated as easy. Along the way, I take on Rusty Springs, an open, beginner trail that crosses over beautiful, deep red dirt. Although easy, the trail still takes you over slabs of rocks and up hills to give a minor technical ride. I get back on the Bar M trail and follow it in one large loop around the entire bike park. The back of this loop is truly scenic, with a landscape of rocks and canyon. I have to stop at some intersections, though, and study the map to ensure I stay on the right trail.
I finish riding at 8:30 a.m., completely elated. The parking lot now is half full, and includes a cycling company with a truck full of bikes. I watch a pack of ten tourists make their way to the EZ-Lazy loop and smile, wondering how they might handle the tricky parts. The sun is becoming intense, and I’m glad I came early to ride. Pierre would ride later, at 6 p.m., while the sun still beats down too hot; but he has a great ride regardless.
My only regret is that we are not staying longer, so that I can explore more of the hundreds of mountain biking trails Moab has to offer, and practice my technical skills. Pierre promises that we will come back again some day.
In the meantime, we head to Southeast Asia, and when we do we will need to sell our camping gear, our car, and my Gary Fisher bike. It has served me well over the years, giving me hope when I had little. Now that I can ride again, really ride, I think I can let it go.