A different approach to off-road in Moab Pt. 1

Onion Creek Road on smaller bikes.

It’s already March and both Dezso and I have been champing at the bit to get out on some rides. It has been a long winter with very little riding, not even when I could take the Ural out in the snow. Work and everything else seems to have blown up in my face and kept me out of my garage and neglecting my bikes.
So when Dezso proposed a trip to Moab to rent dirt bikes, I was all for it. I had taken a dirt bike class, using Honda 230s in a vain attempt to help me ride my GS through dirt, sand, and gravel. Sadly, only dirt had been present at my class, but I did get a better feel for riding a small bike off-road.
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We invited some friends, Dezso’s brother, Alex, and my wife, Deana, who were interested in renting ATVs, and struck out for the weekend, camping along Highway 128 and eating at Fiesta Mexicana like we usually do. In the morning, after a breakfast of habanero bacon, eggs, and coffee, we headed to High Point to rent a slew of machines.
The crew at High Point Hummer and ATV were friendly and charming, but as they went over the machines with us, noting every scratch, ding, and dent, we all became worried that we’d have to account for everything that touched the bikes and ATVs, including our butts. But that wasn’t the case, as they took our machines back with smiles. (Not that we tore the living shit out of those machines, but I’m sure it’s every rental agency’s worry that they won’t see their cash flow return, and it’s the customer’s worry that they’ll find something that only can be seen with the aid of a microscope)
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Photo Courtesy of Rachel

Since only one dirt bike (A new Honda 250) was street legal, we had to rent a trailer as well ( Which actually comes free with the rental as do coolers and a gas can). I rode the Honda 250 up to Onion Creek/ Fischer’s Tower and Dezso towed the rest with his truck. Dezso and I had ridden this road last year as part of the Utah Backcountry Discovery Route and I had wished I had been able to take photos, but also wished I could’ve shown the area to Deana. Now I finally got the chance.
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I had tried to sync our three helmets (Deana, Dezso and me), but couldn’t quite figure it out. Plus we were all ready to hit the trails, so talking to Deana trumps Dezso in this situation.
It wouldn’t have mattered; we unloaded the machines and Dezso immediately took off only to be spotted when he returned to see where we were.
Michael and Rachel brought up the rear as they had their two dogs with them, but the poor dogs lasted about 3 stream crossings before tiring out and they had to return to the car to let the dogs sleep it off. I stuck with Deana as she got the feel for her ATV and I got the feel for my Honda 230.
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This improved road follows Onion Creek and crosses it many times. For once I had on waterproof boots and had no qualms about splashing through each time. On such a small bike, I had no problem bouncing over hidden rocks in the stream bed, or going a little faster around turns, using the techniques I had learned in my class.

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The red canyon walls crept closer and taller as we wound our way through. There were other ATVs, dirk bikes, and cars on the road. Vehicles had parked all along and off the roadway, enjoying an overcast and slightly chilly day. The road dipped and turned, giving Deana the opportunity to practice shifting as well as turning while using the thumb accelerator on her ATV.
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Gradually the road led up a few switchbacks and put us (sort of) on top of things. We had the option of continuing on, or returning to the truck and trying another off-road trail. It was a unanimous consensus and we turned around. There was more to see out there.
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On the way down, we met up with Michael and Rachel who had dumped the dogs in the car to rest and sped along to catch up with us. We told them our plan and they were fine with it. By now we rarely saw Dezso who zipped along like a Labrador Retriever chasing balls.
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We made it back to the trailer and opened our coolers for meats and cheeses and crackers before trailering over to the next area.

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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.

Utah Back Country Discover Route, Part 2. Moab to Moab

The next portion of the BDR started in Southeast Moab and looped through the LaSalle Mountains before dropping into the Colorado River Canyon near Fisher Towers along Hwy 128. If anyone has just a couple of days in Moab, I’d recommend riding this portion. And when I return on my Ural, I plan to ride this part again.

We grabbed a quick smoothie for breakfast, meeting a Tenere rider who was out breaking in his bike. After swapping stories and destinations, we rode out of town on Sand Flats Rd, past the landfill, stopping inside the recreation fee area where high clearance 4X4s lined up to try their skills on sandstone ridges. I certainly wouldn’t ride it on my Beemer, but I would have considered it on the Ural. And I’m sure we would’ve made quite a sight since the Ural could have fit under most of those trucks.

Due to the silt factory we rode through yesterday, I wanted to bang out my air filter before we got any farther down the road. I pulled off the panel and opened up the air intake, but didn’t get a lot of dust out of it. I did find a seemingly large amount of oil in there which freaked me out, but after research on F650.com it turned out this will happen if you fall over. I sopped up as much as I could and replaced the panels.

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Photo courtesy of Dezso Adai

With that taken care of we started up the road again, stopping to take photos and videos as we rode through a landscape that looked like a vegetated Martian surface. The campsites here made me want to camp the next time through, but the idea of needing to reserve a campsite then didn’t cross my mind. It turns out campsites in Moab fill up rather quickly, but we didn’t learn that until the end of the day.

The landscape was red sand dotted with low scrub and the occasional juniper trying to break rocks in half with roots and patience. Rock formations like the backs of monsters broke through the ground in arcs of sandstone and the tracks of 4X4s showed the recreation trails through this playground. We passed some cyclists and dodged sand drifts in the road, climbing further into the mountains and away from the crowds.

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No longer on the desert floor, the roads had gravel on them which required different skills to avoid slipping. Aspen and pine forests closed in with the occasional house or pasture coming into view. Somehow we missed the Kokopeli Trail, but didn’t mind too much since the roads we rode were still new to us. The next time we’re back, we’ll ride this missing section. We consulted the maps when we reached the Mountain Loop Road, turned left and headed back down the mountain until our next turn onto the proverbial road less traveled.

Despite Dezso’s warning that there would be more sand along this portion of the route, we had somehow forgotten to let air back out of our tires. Over the course of the day these gravel and dirt packed roads had started building my confidence (Seriously. Riding is a mind game. You want—need—a certain amount of confidence in order to tackle what’s in front of you, but not so much that you’re riding like an idiot.) I do know I lack confidence in many areas that can only be eradicated with hours spent riding. And I plan on getting as much hands-on experience as I can and follow up with a few classes also. But for now, I had hands-on experience right here in the field.

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At Castleton Road, we returned to dirt and gravel roads, once again passing a few cars and trucks out for pleasure drives, or dropping off cattle which had started moo’ving (Sorry) to higher pastures. We were still up in the mountains, but the topography had changed again. We returned to junipers, red dirt, and rocky outcroppings.

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We stopped a few more times for food, photos, and breaks, and two times in a row I (cough) experienced a sudden shift in Coriolis Effect. Each time I stopped, I would suddenly list to starboard and topple over. I couldn’t explain it. Perhaps I was tired; perhaps I thought I rode my Ural. But it only happened twice before I stopped doing it.

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The route took us on Onion Creek and Hideout Road, which dropped down into the canyons. We started to warm up with the drop in elevation, but the weather held and kept things perfect all day. We hit farmland, and returned to sagebrush country except when following creeks and other water sources where trees grew.

Continuing on Onion Creek Rd, we rode the spine of some of the erosion that happened in geologic time, able to look down from both sides of the road.  It was a great twisty, dirt-packed road that afforded lots of photos and videos, and we took our time, fearing the end of the ride was near and not really ready to let it go.

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The road dropped into a narrow, red canyon that had many small stream crossings. I got my boots wet over the course of splashing through, and soon enough my socks were soaked.

I really need better boots.

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Photo Courtesy of Dezso Adai

It’s times like these that I wish I had a camera mounted to my bike so that I could snap photos whilst I ride. Chances are the camera couldn’t capture the height and red of the canyon walls, but still wanted to try (just another thing to add to my wish list, right?). Campsites appeared full of campers so we rode on. We had talked about camping, enjoying a fire, and trying some night photography, but as we rode through each campground all we saw were reservation tickets posted before each site. Lesson learned, we road back into town and got our same room from last night and then went straight for margaritas.

The Utah Back Country Discovery Route. Pt. 1

Winter kept a tight hold on Colorado this Spring, But Dezso and I finally found a window of opportunity to get out for a trip. Granted we had both gotten some short rides in during the winter months, but it’s not the same as loading up your gear and disappearing into the back country for a week. We looked at our options. The Rockies still held an abundance of snow, but Dezso and I figured we could ride around a great deal of Utah without getting snow on our shoes.

We rode hard from Denver to get to Mexican Hat, UT, arriving at dusk and checking into the hotel. We wanted a good night’s rest before hitting the beginning of the Utah Back Country Discovery Route. So after an insipid dinner and a restful night we got started on the first segment through the Valley of the Gods.

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Located in the Southeast corner of Utah, the landscape is sandstone and desert flora—desert poppies, sage, and a few cacti. We got on the road and up to our turn off in a matter of minutes and began to ride through the dirt toward an escarpment to the north.

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Between Hwy 163 and the mountains to the north are stand-alone red sandstone towers.  We rode between these, taking our time and shooting photos and videos when the opportunity arose.

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We met one other Beemer rider headed in the opposite direction, and after a brief ride report about the road ahead we continued on.

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Still clean and uninjured!

Now, I hate to admit this, but this was the first time I got to try out my new(ish) knobbies. I took my time, testing my ability to turn, swerve, and stop in the dirt. Little did I know they’d get the ultimate test a few more miles down the road.

 We passed a B&B way out on the western edge of the Valley of the Gods that looked like a great place to stay. I can only imagine that without all the light pollution, this would be an excellent place to photograph at night.

We exited Garden of the Gods Rd onto Hwy 261 and climbed the Moki Dugway—a narrow, gravel road full of switchbacks and, oddly enough, an RV or two. On every horseshoe bend you could look down over the edge at the road below. Looking up, you can’t even see where the road goes next.

At the top, we turned left and took a dirt road toward Goosenecks State Park. Now the best part of this ride is that I’ve let Dezso go first. The downside is that when there is dust getting kicked up, I’m usually eating it. The upside, as I learned on this segment of road, is that when the road suddenly changes, I get to hear about it first hand over our intercom.

Dezso soon disappeared ahead and I was left to ride dust free. Then the silence broke as Dezso’s voice crackled in my ear.  “Whoa!” A pause. “Watch out. There’s sand up ahead.” I slowed down and saw a wobbling line of tire tracks.  I’m not that good at riding in the sand and silt. I know I need to learn, and I am trying to learn, but damn! It’s one thing to watch a video, another to take a class using small Honda 250s, and a whole different galaxy when you’re on a fully loaded F650GS! Where are those classes?

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Having safely ridden through the sand, we made it to the edge, looking out over the San Juan River and the vistas afforded from this view. We took some photos and moved back onto the UTBDR. It was just a short jaunt up the paved road to Snow Flat Rd. Once we started down the lightly sandy road we had to stop and let air out of our tires. A trick first developed by early pioneers crossing the plains in Conestoga wagons* and later used on motor vehicles to give better grip on tricky surfaces.

The road quickly deteriorated into more technical riding, but that’s what we wanted. And since I hadn’t fallen, life was grand. We went from dirt to bare rock, and all variables in between. Brush and juniper grew high on the sides of the road which contrasted nicely with the red sand we rode on. Aside from the tail end of jack rabbits, or the shadows of crows overhead, we didn’t see much wildlife. This was fine with me since I wondered if I was capable of avoiding little critters as well as sand pits and chunks of rock in the trail.

True enough, the road started throwing rocks our way and just after one engine-guard-scraping occurrence, I took my first spill right over a rocky ledge that turned into deep sand. I had lined the bike up to go over a few rocks, made it, then noticed the sand drift creeping onto the right side of the road. I tried to correct, turning my handlebars and slowing down (you know, all the wrong things to do), but with my weight forward, the front wheel dug in and I was down in the dust. It is because of such (cough) unscheduled “dismounts” that I am a firm believer in ATGATT, and the pinnacle of such events was still two days away.

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My left pannier had busted off (I abuse the hell out of that left pannier) and a little gas had leaked out making me think the incident was much worse than it actually was. Luckily it turned out just to be the gas tank overflow. We picked the bike up and moved it to a more level place. I tried to reattach the pannier, but laws of physics-of which we are bound to-had tweaked the mounting bracket and bolt and it wouldn’t go back on. We found a good-sized rock and banged on both until the mounting bolt would fit.

Photo Courtesy of Dezso Adai

Photo Courtesy of Dezso Adai

As if a precursor to the road’s deterioration, it soon became nothing more than sections of bare rock, interspersed with large chunks of rocks as we moved off the escarpment. Each time a rock jumped up and twanged against my engine guard I was happy to have it in place. We continued down onto the desert floor and the roads turned to dirt which soon enough turned to silt, often in the most unexpected placed. Again, Dezso tested the road ahead as I heard exclamations and expletives once he found deep sand. This is where I fell the second time.

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After a rather large stretch of deep and rutted sand, Dezso turned around in time to see a big puff of sand: My second ejection from the saddle; this time to the right. News flash: It turns out if you fall over, oil can run into your air intake area. I busted the lens cover off my turn signal and bent my rearview mirror.

This was the beginning of 5-10 miles (I am still hesitant to count) of off-and-on deep rutted stretches of silt. Not quite dirt, not quite sand, but fine enough to kick up clouds with each passing, and deep enough to make travel through it highly questionable.  Dezso would lead, I’d hear a curse, and he’d ask if he could film me going through the sand trap. As I write this and reflect, I should’ve had him film it so that I could possibly learn from what the hell I was doing and to give you, gentle reader, something to laugh at.

There’s a theory about your mentality and riding. You can easily psyche yourself out and after a few more falls I felt myself improve, but I also started to second guess my abilities. I rode slower, hesitated on curves and rocks, and even though I knew this was bad, I couldn’t change it. Only more practice and experience gets rid of this feeling and I got a lot of it the following day.

By the time we hit pavement again I was beat. The area holds lots of archaeological ruins, but I no longer felt like riding down long stretches of sand. I was covered in dust from the inside of my helmet down into my socks. After a brief discussion, we beat a hasty retreat to Moab for Margaritas and showers.

Stand by for Part 2!

*this may or may not true. Oh wondrous internet! The things you can make up!