Thrills and spills in the USA

25 January 2007

Woke up with an absolute monster of a hangover. Way too old to live the rock star life, so pleased that I’m off to Denver today. Last night was good though, and we spoke endless crap in between all the vodka and Bull. Also connected with some of the editor/judges, especially Eva from Sport and the dude from the American surf mag. (I know his name, but right now my brain seems to be fried on Taurine).

The flight from Aspen to Denver is short, but intensely beautiful. Below us the Rocky Mountains snap and crackle in glorious mid-winter relief. Billows of snow blanket the shadier slopes, while craggy outcrops occasionally rip through the shimmering snow to gnash at our jetstream.

The weirdest moment of the trip so far is when I glance across the aisle to see what my fellow passengers are up to. A happy couple are reclining there, two guys, obviously long-time partners, and nothing wrong with that, I might add. What does however get me right in the funny bone is that the one guy, probably somewhere in his mid-thirties, is happily knitting away. I’m sure my jawbone clunked against my chest as I watched his needles clicking away, but he did not once look up from the dove-grey scarf he was busy creating. Where else but in America?

Mike picks me up in his Volvo cross-country, with Nadine, an extremely friendly and floppy-eared Wiessler bitch, riding shotgun in the backseat. Home for him and his wife Tammy is Stapleton, a hip development on the outskirts of Denver’s urban edge.

I’m knackered, but decide to go for a short run in the adjacent park. Snow turns out to be way too deep so I end up braving traffic along
Martin Luther King Avenue. Not the most scenic run of my life, to be sure.

January 26th 2007

Been a solid night’s sleep and it is great not to have major deadlines looming. Nadine sneaks in to wake me up, then bounds off into the garden for a romp in the snow.

After breakfast I head into Denver with Tammy to check out the camera shops. I need new equipment and America is not a bad place to buy it, I suppose.

The city centre reminds me a bit of Joburg, with mirror-glass high-rises booming skywards. There’s also a slight sense of urban decay, but obviously to a much lesser extent than in SA. Inside the shops, however, one is blown away by the amount of choice. It is not so much a matter of the consumer is king, but rather a rabid despot held hostage by rampant materialism.

Despite some of my preconceived ideas about Americans, I find the Denverites easy-going and likeable. They’re not as snooty as the northerners, less loud than the Texans and don’t have the whole image thing the Californians have genetically embedded within their brains.

End up not buying any cameras as it would be a lot cheaper to order from BH Photo off the web. So end up just cruising some of the shrines to the gods of retail, shelling out greenbacks on gifts for the kids and Cathy.

Mike and I hit the streets later that evening, klapping a selection of handmade beers at the Wynkoop micro brewery in Lodo, Denver (by the way, that is Lower downtown in American Acronymese). It’s a good night and we’re well fortified on beers and a staunch buffalo burger by the time we head home.

January 27th 2007

Time to get a solid run in, so I thump along the icy roads of suburban Stapleton. It is a well-off suburb and, although the houses are not ostentatious, it is extremely clear that the inhabitants here are very near the top of the consumer food chain.

Spend much of the morning putting the bikes together, readying them for our trip to Moab, the holy grail of mountain biking. I’ll be riding Mike’s second bike, a rocky mountain Slayer, so not too shabby!

We’re short a few bike odds and sods, so Mike makes the call to head through to Boulder. This is another one of the globe’s MTB hotspots and the bike shop we visit brims with Santa Cruz, Yeti and Elsworth models of totally droolworthy proportions. Makes my i-Drive back home look decidedly back-of-the-bunch.

Even more mind-blowing is a visit to REI, America’s largest outdoor retailer. The mind does not as much boggle as go into a triple backflip. A five-storey indoor climbing wall, MTB test track and a blizzard room give you carte blanche to test what must amount to more than a million gear items they carry on their shelves. In fact, they probably have more items on the Clearance racks than any branch of Cape Union Mart I have ever been to.

Suffice it to say, the emergency alarm goes off in my bank manager’s office as I crank up the spend on my credit card. Who said men do not succumb to a good old session of retail therapy?

28 January 2007

Sunday and it is time to explore the foothills of the rocky Mountain. We pile into the Volvo Cross-Country (with Nadine, the Wiessler bitch) and head up the Interstate 70 to the Matthews/Winters park adjacent to the world-famous Red Rocks concert venue.

We start off on snow-shoes, but soon decide to dump them as the snow is relatively hard-packed and shallow. It’s a stiff climb, but it is great to be outdoors and working up a sweat. The temperature is in the low teens, but the winter sun shimmers off the snow and it is most pleasant.

Nadine is like a Duracell Dog, zipping in and out of the powder like a canine dervish. We take it slower, slugging it out with gravity in a landscape super-sized with contorted spruce and great amber cliffs shucking up from downy-white slopes. It is truly beautiful, sort of like a fairytale Cederberg dotted with emerald-green Christmas trees and dusted with a glitter of snow.

We hike for around 2-3 hours, stomping back into the car park as the sun begins to lose its power. Good timing, because we’re all hungry as hell. Closest diner is in Morrison, a tiny cowboy town languishing in the shade of Red Rocks. The helpings are man-sized and the 16 ounce beers just shy of a litre per mug.

I pig out on a meal named “The Burrito that ate Juarez” and all I can say is that it hits the sweet spot. Then we travel into Starbucks to juice up on Americanos and chunky choc-chip Brownies before cruising home in a cornucopia daze.
The rest of the evening is spent packing and doing the final prep on the bikes and gear. By the time I switch of the light it is nearly midnight, but it doesn’t matter – tomorrow we’ll be in Moab and cranking up the trails.

29 January 2007

OK, it’s official – mountain biking is better than sex. I’ve just come off the Slick Rock practice loop and nothing I’ve ever done on a bike comes close to it. In fact, I can’t remember many instances of absolute thrill since first bombing along the farm roads on my little red tricycle.

It took us a while to get to Utah from Denver and car trouble with the Volvo Cross-country damn near scuppered our trip. The vehicle kept losing power along the Interstate 70, to such an extent that we eventually had to pull of at a dealership in Glenwood Springs.

Fortunately the techies were very helpful and my nightmare of missing out on Moab at the last minute faded away in a flash. We pass Vail and some of Colorado’s prime ski resort areas as we head for the Utah state border. The landscape changes from snowy peaks and dense fir forests, morphing slowly and irrevocably into a desert resplendent with red rocks and rugged cliffs.

Just beyond the state border we turn south to meander along the green, crushed ice course of the great Colorado River. We stop off at historic Dewey Bridge and then continue into the utterly jaw-dropping landscape of castle Valley. Grand buttes, mesas and rock towers shatter the distant skyline, with amber sandstone fins routing the landscape below the distant Le Salle peaks.

We cruise into Moab in high spirits and I feel as excited as a young boy as we pass a rout of bike shops named for legendary trails like slick rock and Poison Spider. This is, as my mate Steve Hood from The Bike Hut grudging acknowledges, “living the mountain biking dream”. He also chucked in a few swear words and mutter something along the lines of “you lucky bastard” and I certainly don’t blame him.

We whirlwind in and out of Allan and Di’s house, dumping duffel bags and shucking on MTB gear in order to get in a quick ride before sunset. Fifteen minutes later and we’re unloading our bikes in the slick rock parking lot. All around us, an Entrada sandstone rockscape stretches for as far as the eye can see.

Knobs and spurs and fins and outcrops and gashed canyons and dips and berms have been frozen in time. It is as if the outdoor gods got together during the early Cretaceous period and decided to shape a mountain biking playground and finally came up with the concept of Slick Rock.

It is a perfect riding day and with only about an hour of sunlight left, Mike and I decide to get a couple of practice loops under the belt. For the uninitiated, you have to understand that MTB routes are graded on a number of criteria, from distance and terrain to technical ability required by the riders.

Green is generally for beginners, while Blue expects you to have moderate ability. Red means “difficult” while black should set off the alarm bells, as we are now entering extreme territory. And Slick Rock is rated as an undiluted, 100% Black. In fact, the signs at the trailhead warn you explicitly to stay off the trail if you have any doubt in your technical skills. Which I do, but damned if I’m going to miss out riding on this legend of a trail. Mike’s been on it a few times before, so I follow his line as we attack the two-mile practice loop with gusto.

“You’ve got to trust your rubber, boet” are his parting words as he cranks his Ellsworth onto the curvaceous sandstone and then immediately drops down 3 metres into a rocky chute. “Shit,” I think, but there is nothing to do but bomb down and stick to his rear wheel.

This is a ride unlike any other ride I’ve done and the only way to describe it is to imagine having a multiple orgasm while riding the Cobra at Ratanga Junction. Visualize a 1000 Paarl Rocks welded together, with a dotted white line coasting and berming and dipping and zigzagging along the never-ending slalom slope and you should start feeling a familiar stirring in your cycling shorts. The secret is to keep your weight way back off the bike and we blast through the two practice circuits by the time the sun smooches down on to the horizon. I feel a bit like a schoolboy after his first kiss, and scream full tilt downhill into Moab with my blood roaring in my ears.

30 January 2007

OK, so this is the real deal. I’ve loved and survived the practice loop, but now it is time to test my mettle against the full might of the menace of Slick Rock. I’m on my own this morning as Mike has some serious work stuff to finish off, and the plan is to meet later on somewhere along the trail.

In the cold light of dawn, the loops and whorls of Entrada sandstone looks daunting, especially with the occasional dusting of snow coating some of the shadow slopes. “Shit, I wonder if I can really do this,” hammers through my head as I tentatively pedal onto the rock.

Tentative is not a good thing. Any mountain biker knows that when doubt creeps in balance goes out the window. And so it goes for the first half hour – dab, dismount, check out the slope bucking along the side of a yawing canyon and shake your head in disbelief.

I must have said “NO FUCKING WAY” in capital letters at least two dozen times, but then I started getting pissed at myself and the rock. And then I started riding some of the impossible lines. And surviving them. And shouting Yeehah!! at the sky and the little scudding white clouds until my voice ricocheted around the canyons tripping down to where the Colorado did its river thing. And it was good!

It got even better when I spotted Mike cranking towards me with the snowy peaks of the La Sal ranges backdropping him like a multi-million dollar movie set. Mountain biking is just one of those sports where it is good to share the elation and suffering which contributes in equal parts to this amazing sport.

The other good thing about riding with a buddy is that you commit more. “Trust your rubber,” he would holler as we track a fine line along a 45 degree slope edging precariously above iced ponds glittering menacingly along our trajectory. And I would offer up a silent prayer as my knobblies bit into the rock and held fast.

On the impossible climbs I’d listen to Mike exhorting himself with a “come on, you fat bastard,” and watch as he cranked the rock into submission. Then I would go, trying to copy his line, beat him in the climb. And so we slogged it out on the beautiful Slick rock, which it turns out, is not slick at all.

Ninety nine percent of the time our tyres bit and held fast, but that does not mean one never comes short. The Rocky Mountain slayer bucked like a beautiful beast beneath me, climbing and descending like a thoroughbred, but sometimes I overplayed my hand and even this brilliant bike could not save me.

Strangely enough, both my wipe-outs happened on ascents; once because a wrong line became too steep and I slid down-slope and once when I powered up too soon and flipped the bike over backwards.

Three hours later I could tick off Slick Rock on my mental Legendary Rides list. I had a bruised hip and elbow to show for it, but the most obvious sign was a smile that could swallow a 29 inch fat tyre.

Few things in life can improve on a day that starts off as well as this, but if you’re in Utah, you better believe it can get even better. Especially if you’re heading into Arches National Park. We’re all squashed into Allan’s Toyota Forerunner and the plan is to explore this red rock wonderland by car before hiking to the famous “Delicate Arch”.

If you thought the Great Karoo’s “Valley of Desolation” is an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare, you have not been to Utah, dude! This place is huger than anything to the nth degree of “oh my fuck”, and Arches National Park brings home this vastness within a relatively contained space.

Here, from red and dusty plains dotted by contorted cedars and stunted cypress, gargantuan rock formations surge skywards like organic skyscrapers. Tourists stop and gawk, while climbers and canyoneers go ballistic within this extreme playground created by Mother Nature.

We drive past park Lane and Balanced Rock, then do a short hike into “The Windows” to grab a few pix. Then we hightail it to the trailhead for the “Delicate Arch”. With only 2 hours to sunset, it is going to be touch and go to get there.
It’s a stiff hike, with a final steep and icy ledge heading up to the natural amphitheater surrounding the arch, a windstone structure a good 30m high. It is beautiful in the light of the setting sun, and it is a great pity when a cold front scuds some clouds in front of the horizon to spoil our fun.

It is a chilly hike back, but there is an incentive; supper at Eddie McStiffs, a local eatery with an extremely phallic rock tower in their logo. Who says mountain biking towns are low on sex drive? Buffalo wings, rib-eye steaks and a bevy of Provo Gim Pilsners put the seal on a perfect day in MTB heaven.

31 January 2007

Yesterday was a big day with a total of 5 hours of mountain biking plus at least another two hours of hiking. So a short break is in order with a walk around town to take in the famous bike shops, local cafés and odd characters making up Moab.
Here’s a bit of history just so you have a perspective of the town. The town “Moab” is a Biblical place name for the country of the Moabites and was given to the town by the Mormons who settled here to forge a strict religious community amidst the red rocks of Utah. (In fact, they settled here twice, but were ousted by the Ute Indians the first time a hundred plus years ago.)
Although Moab is no longer a Mormon town (an anomaly in Utah, really), much of the initial settlers’ character remains. The architecture is unassuming and earthy and the streets are wide enough to turn a full team of 16 oxen.

These days, however, one is more likely to see mountain bikers rather than ox wagons and the many bike shops lining the streets offer ample proof of this. The Rim Cyclery, slick Rock Cycles and Poison Spider Bicycles’ the names mirror legendry trails of the same name in the immediate vicinity.

I buy myself a Tee-shirt at poison Spider Bicycles, wittingly setting my fate for later that afternoon. I mean, you can’t wear the shirt if you haven’t ridden the trail, can you? So it is with a relative amount of trepidation that Mike and I set off for the trailhead just after lunch.

It immediately becomes clear that this trail has a more venomous edge to it than Slick Rock. And no wonder : it is rated as a Double Black and described in the official trail guide as “grueling” and “life threatening”. A rider died two years ago, losing it coming down the portal section (apparently he plummeted 400 feet to his death, while another rider managed to self-arrest, but lost his bike over the precipice).

Even worse, the dude from the bike shop says that it is even more dangerous to walk your bike down in winter because of the ice … “Man, is this really a trail I want to do?” I ask myself as we gear up at the trailhead. Mike, as usual, has a pearl of fat tyre wisdom to share : “You’ve got to commit, man – attack, attack, attack!”. Yeah, right!

The first mile or two is okay (if you like a grueling incline mashed together with fist-sized rocks and stretches of calf-crunching sand, that is). But then you start hitting ledges, which is basically like riding up 4 or 5 steps at a time.

I follow Mike’s advice and attack with a vengeance and see my ass with a vengeance. The Poison Spider zaps me on the right hip, dead centre on the purple bruise dealt out by Slick Rock the day before. I swear at the rocks for a while, then make friends with The Slayer and continue up and up.

Slowly but surely I get the trail’s rhythms and I feel strong by the time we crest onto the alluvial plain an hour later. We’re cruising along the sandy flats when Mike points to the south; dark clouds have gathered on the horizon and below them billowing trails of snow. And they’re coming straight for us.

We shuck on more winter gear, then try to outcrank the approaching snow clouds. No chance, and soon we’re right in the middle of a fresh powder dump. It is weird, riding amidst a flutter of snowflakes, while two miles away the sun is shining on Amasa Back’s amber cliffs.

The snowfall is fortunately temporary but we’re starting to run out of daylight fast. Only an idiot would attempt the portal section in snowy conditions and under failing light, so we decide to ride another day and turn around. Going back down is a blast and we bomb the ledges and sandtraps in a blast of a ride.

1 February 2007

Get coerced into a day out of the saddle by the option of a day trip to Canyonlands National Park. Bigger by far than Arches, this wilderness area is situated approximately an hour from Moab, and rates as one of the premier hiking destinations in Utah. It is like Arches NP, a desert wonderland brimming with buttes and canyons of jaw-dropping proportions.

We head for the “Island in the Sky” section of the park, a mesa lookout point boasting beautiful views across both the Colorado and Green River courses. Over the ages, the water action has gouged deep into the earth’s crust, shaping gargantuan cataracts and giant free-standing pillars.

We follow a narrow footpath hugging the high mesa top, taking in the vertiginous views across Buck Canyon and the White Rim Canyon Trail far below us. This is another of Utah’s popular mountain biking routes, with riders traveling from around the globe to crank along the 120 mile long route.

A further short hike takes us to Mesa Arch, a natural span offering a picturesque panorama on the landscape below. Mike and I pose for a photo atop the Arch, and I can feel the 1000 foot drop snapping at my heels as Tammy takes the picture. It’s freezing so we decide to head back to the relative civilization of Moab.

After a quick latte at the local coffee shop cum bookstore, I crank into town on the Slayer just enjoying the laid-back attitude of the locals. I chat to the dudes at the bike shops, check out the various adventure operators and generally act like a 40-something teenager not a care in the world. Sure, I miss Cathy and the kids, but this has been a few of the best days of my life.

2 February 2007

I put together a good old South African braai for everyone last night and it went down well. It started snowing halfway through, which was “kinda cool”, as the Americans would say. This dusting of fresh powder was bound to turn the landscape into a fairytale wonderland and I therefore decide then and there that a dawn expedition to Slick Rock is in order.

Mike is a bit doubtful but I hear him muttering about in the pre-dawn light while I gear up, and he soon comes stomping down the stairs. It is bitter out, with the temperature around -14 degrees Celsius, so we pad up with foot covers, thermal longs and balaclavas before we crank into the climb up to the Sandflats Recreation area.

We reach Slick rock just before sunrise and with the full moon hanging over the amber Moab cliffs. It is a breathtaking site as the first rays rake in across the snow-dusted Navajo sandstone mounds, sparking the fresh powder into a shimmering light show for as far as the eye can see.

There’s one problem though – the dotted white line denoting Slick rock has become invisible under the snow, which means we’re riding on gut feel alone. Also, as the sun melts the snow, it sets in icy patches on the freezing rock, thus turning the ride into an extremely dodgy prospect.

We decide on a strategic retreat, instead cranking further onto the plain along the initial stages of the 5-day Kokapelli Trail. This is also where the Porcupine ridge MTB trail starts, and it is heartbreaking to think that we have to leave Moab today while there are so many rides left to explore.

We’re back at the house by 10 am ready to start the packing and take on the daunting trip back to Denver. It has been snowing heavily there, with record lows of around -27 degrees Celsius recorded the night before.

It’s not a good trip and an accident near Winter Park slows traffic down to a painstaking 5 mile progress in an hour. It is well past 9 pm when we eventually make it back to Stapleton, but the riding in Moab is a memory that made the suffering more than worthwhile.

3 February 2007

Day of grafting, really. Get stuck in to answering emails, downloading and categorizing photos and finishing off one or two quick articles.

One of these is for the Cape Times and I can’t help but rave about the adventure sport opportunities in this little town in the middle of Utah. Now if only I could get the parks officials in Cape Town to catch a wake-up as far as mountain biking in wilderness areas goes …

4 February 2007

Two days ago it was Groundhog Day, but none of my American connections could completely explain to me what this meant. Two most plausible explanations rattled on about a groundhog (some kind of hole-dwelling prairie critter) being able to see his own shadow when popping out from underground. This meant that it was not night presumably and that it signified the end of winter.

There are no groundhog flags up or groundhog songs on the radio or nubile cheerleaders prepared to lead me off on a merry old groundhog romp. So what I am trying to say is that, as an important day on their calendar, it was a bit flat. But, for today, I harbour higher hopes, indeed, because the Yanks are celebrating two significant events.

First up, it is Super Bowl Sunday, so there has got to be some cheerleader action somewhere in the mix. Secondly, it is Black American History Day, which I suppose is the one day out of the year that the rest of America acknowledges the contributions to society by their Afro American brethren (and sisthren?).

Weirdly enough, Mike and Tammy do not appear for breakfast decked out in their ball game best. No Indianapolis Colts shirts or Chicago Bears baseball caps. Nope, we’re not going to do the Super Bowl thing. We’re going snow-showing in the mountains above Boulder instead. I’m obviously tongue in cheek about this, but in a way it would have been interesting to experience mass Yankee hysteria within an enclosed public space.

So be it. We tootle off to the town of Boulder, a pretty place with flat-iron rock slabs rising high above the shi-shi suburban sprawl. (Shi-shi means sort of trendy and a little affected.) Our destination is Lake Braynerd, a high mountain tarn set amidst snowy peaks and bristling pine forests and we’re accompanied by AJ and Laura. Close friends of Mike and Tammy, Laura is from Boston while AJ hails from the “Land of the Long, White Cloud”. They’re a great couple and we had met before when they visited Cape Town with Mike and Tammy in 2006.

The hike is not very far, probably around 6 – 7 miles, but it is good to be out in the mountains. The wind is howling though, throwing up flurries of pelting ice crystals so the experience is a bit like a route march to the Russian Gulag. In fact, I’m exaggerating, it is not entirely unpleasant, but I would have liked to attempt maybe cross-country skiing instead of another snow-shoe tramp. Somehow I’ve got to get past this lack of snow sense, but when, is the question.

What I am getting into is a total bloody Starbucks addiction. I am inherently against the idea of fast food chains and formulaic brews but their lattés are darn good and I pant in a sort of Pavlovian response every time we pass the sign of “Our Lady of the Heavenly Brew”. I guess what I am saying is that I do not complain when we pull over for yet another double shot skinny latté with a blueberry muffin on the side.

Right, time for Super Bowl. We’re watching it on Mike’s 6 foot by 4 foot flat screen Sony which is apparently small by American standards. Some more friends have come by though, and we end up drinking Californian red wine and munching Cuban Sloppy Joes (don’t ask) instead of doing the rah-rah thing in front of the screen. If anyone’s really interested, the Colts ended up thumping the Bears and both coach and captain praised God for being on their side. Poor God, he’s got a tough one here, because the other coach was also steaming in from the religious right field …

5 February 2007

Time to fly. I miss Beth and Robert and Cathy and I need to get into the working groove again. It’s been nearly two and a half weeks, and I’m finding it difficult to connect to the primal love that I felt when I left the kids behind. I don’t like the fact that distance dulls this edge of my emotions and my mission now is to get back, and soon.

Too many time zones to even consider right now. All I know is that I’m leaving Denver on a jetplane at 5:25 pm for a far away Frankfurt. After a blitzkrieg negotiation of this Teutonic airport, another 12 hours of airtime awaits me en route to Cape Town. As I said, it’s time to fly ..…