Final instalment of the Utah Backcountry Discovery Route

By now we had passed the pinnacle of our trip as we rode toward the proverbial home stretch. This is the point where I start thinking of home, the next trip, and regret for not having more time. But we still had miles of dirt roads to ride today and thoughts can’t linger outside of staying upright and dodging the worst parts of the road.

Today we rode from Moab, crossing over I-70 and straight into the Bookcliffs (a mountain range that starts in Grand Junction, Colorado, and extends westward deep into Utah) then west to Green River, UT. Then there’d be nothing but pavement as we head home. This section of the BDR would be new territory and Dezso wasn’t too interested as he assumed it would be flat and boring. Thankfully he was wrong!

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I had regained my confidence by not falling in sand, dirt, silt, or any other road gremlins that pop up from nowhere, despite the two times I suddenly tipped over for no reason at a dead stop. In the hotel I spent some time reviewing online videos on how to ride in loose gravel. And again I was disappointed when no one remarked on riding whilst fully loaded.

We set off on Hwy 128 until a few miles past Dewey Bridge where we picked up the Kokopeli Trail. We had long since ridden out of the Canyon, so all we could see were desert hills dotted with low scrub brush. No more red rock walls, deep canyons, or pine-covered vistas. But we got to ride on dirt again and that was enough to make me happy.

The road twisted in and out of rolling hills, limiting our sight until we crested a hill. And I admit that the only joy of this segment of the trail was that I hadn’t been here before so I saw things I had never seen. Plus I kept the bike upright, bringing no more damage to my abused pannier!

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Not too far down the road we happened upon two old buildings made of railroad ties. We stopped to take photos, wandering around the site to see what secrets we could discover. Dezso continued snapping photos while I strolled around, trying to determine the age of the site based on trash and other artifacts lying about.

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My guess, based on the can dump*, was that occupation started in the early 1900s (based on a can I found called “hole-in-top” that dates from that period), extended through the 1970s (based on the pull-tab cans I saw and the lack of any of the types of soda cans we use today which started in the 1980s, and into modern day (based on a claim stake we found). Some of the older tins came from South or Central America based on the Spanish on the tins. But just looking at the area, I couldn’t imagine what anyone could mine out here!

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I circled farther out and found a deteriorated road. I followed it and found 4 mine entrances that connected to each other. I don’t need to tell any of you that going in alone is dangerous—so I went back and grabbed Dezso to share in my stupidity.

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Having escaped the mine alive (Seriously, nothing happened. We just looked inside and left), we saddled up and vowed to return to camp here one night.

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Duck!

As if this homestead was the gateway, we saw mines pop up all over the landscape, some old, some new. We saw more campers set up shop, and few ATVs and trucks roaming around. The ground grew more desert-like: stretches of sand, volcanic rock, and sparse vegetation. Different colored minerals leached out of the soil in thick striations dyed in the hills, changing from shades of tan to faded greens and reds. We took our time, scanning the landscape for anything unusual and man-made.

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In the distance we saw an old bus 100 yards off the road so we parked and walked over to it, finding a few more mine shafts and can dumps.

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I took a few hundred more photos before we rode on to the final stretch to I-70. As if suddenly tired of all the twisting it had done, the road straightened and headed directly to the interstate over some significantly flat prairie.

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photo courtesy of Dezso Adai.

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(To be fair, you can reach Moab from here. It just takes longer.)

On the north side of the interstate we took a feeder road for a tenth of a mile. A dog walked onto the road, wagging its greeting. I had no idea why a dog would be so friendly this far from any humans, but scanning the horizon revealed a man on horseback. As we got closer we saw he herded sheep and sat on horseback to survey his flock. I had visions of Don Quixote tilting into sheep, and then Dr. Vendicarsi riding full bore into a flock as well, so I wisely let Dezso go first, thinking I could be the first to flee and get help.

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I even idly though of ways of getting Dezso into trouble with this shepherd and filming the results for a book trailer, but I needed help completing this section of the BDR so I sidelined the idea until later.

We ducked into the foothills of the Bookcliffs and things got technical fast. The road varied between gravel, hard packed dirt, and rock-strewn twists that climbed and fell with abandon. Sight grew limited to the next turn or hill that creeped Dezso out. We joked that this was prime ambush country, suspecting a western could be filmed here.

Concern crept into our consciousness on whether we’d make it to Green River before nightfall. Dezso had an appointment at the BMW dealer in Grand Junction for 11am tomorrow, and we needed to be close enough to make it. It didn’t help that we now rode into the setting sun. Also it is hard to determine how long a trail will take due to the quality of the road and how much we might decide to dawdle. We had taken our sweet time in the morning, so it was time to stash our cameras and focus on riding.

We came to an unclear fork in the road. To the right a sign posted on a fence said, “No Trespassing.” The road to the left headed vaguely toward a waypoint and definitely toward I-70. We consulted our maps and GPS, but there wasn’t enough information to go on. We chose left, entering a small canyon and after half a mile, decided we went the wrong way when pavement started back up.

We pulled over, and as Dezso examined the map, I scanned the canyon for anything interesting.

“Holy shit,” I said.

Dezso glanced up. “What?”

“Look around. Tell me if you notice anything.”

“What is it?

“Keep looking.”

“Where?”

“The canyon walls.”

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Soon enough Dezso spotted the red, humanoid pictographs from ancient Native Americans. We rode over for a closer inspection and discovered a small recreation area named Barrier Canyon. As if on cue, a few cars and trailers pulled into the parking area.

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We snapped a lot of photos, then saddled up and moseyed back through the canyon. As it turned out, the no trespassing sign was intended for the land and not the road. I verified this once we passed the next GPS waypoint.

I think what surprised me most was that this was cattle country. We passed rain collection cisterns, fence lines, and the unfortunate discovery that cows had used the road as their own path the last time it was muddy. Their solid hoof prints rattled our bikes as we cursed their tasty bones. Dezso vowed to eat a steak if he made it to the end of the day, and I promised to drink a glass of milk at every pasture I encountered on my next trip.

But after a few miles of dodging hoof prints, we went back to wishing we could ride over them from here to Tierra Del Fuego as we hit the soft dirt scraped up by a road grader that must’ve cleared the road only a day or two ago. It’s disconcerting to ride on hard pack, then suddenly have your front tire dig in, your rear tire float in every direction but straight, and your balance just fly out the proverbial window completely.

We were tired, exhausted even, and had the sun in our eyes. We weren’t the most aware to navigate the soft soil, but it was the only option to get to Green River before sundown (in theory. Who knew what lay ahead of us!) I rode 300 feet behind Dezso, waiting for any curses or instruction, plus the tell-tale rooster tail of dirt.

We talked strategy, and most things worked, most of the time. When Dezso cart-wheeled over his bike, I duck paddled my legs through the tricky section. When I suddenly found myself in the thick of it, I’d lean back, stand on the pegs, and let the bike go where it may. Sometimes I’d gas the throttle, or let up depending on what was going on. Basically, I still didn’t really understand the physics of riding through soft sand or dirt with a loaded bike.

It goes without saying that I fell many times. After the easiest fall, I dusted myself off and got back on, but during the worst I somehow managed to land directly on my left shoulder. I don’t know exactly what I did, but since I could still rotate my shoulder I suspected it wasn’t broken. That shoulder hurt for weeks afterward.

14 miles never took so long, and by the time we reached pavement, I knew we’d be getting a room in Green River. Covered in dust, we blew mud balls out of our noses, and created our own whirling tornado of dirt trailing behind us that could be seen in bordering states. I used hotel points to reserve a room and surprised the hell out of the front desk clerk as I hobbled in, leaving a trail of dirt on their freshly vacuumed carpet.

We unloaded our panniers, leaving the hallway looking like a Texas-sized stampede had commenced to take up residence, and rode into town to get steaks.

*Despite this being a trash dump, Federal law states that anything over 50 years old is an archaeological artifact. When you see even what looks like a pile of trash, don’t destroy it because archaeologists can determine a lot of information from these dumps—from the time of occupation, economic welfare of the site (Are there champagne bottles, or beer cans? Or neither?) to what kinds of foods and where they came from. And yes, I was an archaeologist for a while.

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