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Across a lonely plateau

Paul Andersen

We set out on an old Mormon wagon trail carved by the saints through sand and slick rock more than a century ago. After turning up a side canyon, all tracks disappeared and the walls closed in as the canyon narrowed to the width of a car. Suddenly, the brush parted before us, and a wild-eyed longhorn steer stepped forward and blocked our way with a 6-foot spread of pointed horns. The steer took one good look at us, turned and vanished like an apparition. The gatekeeper had allowed our entry onto the lonely plateau.That night, camped on the rim of an arroyo, the silence was as welcome as our fried tortillas and refried beans. We sat on a sandstone outcrop, still warm from the sun, and watched a fat, round moon sail over the rimrock, casting our shadows upon the earth.Crossing a lonely desert plateau on bicycles is akin to what Thoreau described at Walden: “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Touring with two friends and still finding that solitude is indicative of the nature of our bike tours-together, but separate.In her book “Gift From the Sea,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh explored quiet time with friends who didn’t need words to translate their feelings. Unspoken meanings materialize, she said. “Then communication becomes communion and one is nourished as one never is by words.”In the barren desert reaches, sometimes only a jet contrail shows man’s existence-that and the faint dirt track we follow. At night, as a small campfire scents the air with pinion, a slow-moving satellite hints at the presence of man. Sublime seclusion in an immense Western landscape offers retreat and renewal far from the noise of human society.My wife often asks what “the guys” talk about. Our central theme is appreciation for time and place, the here and now. We weigh the practicalities: our route, water and where to find it, a good campsite. We speculate about the Indians who traveled here before us and explore for tangible evidence of that past. We try not to dwell on the warp and weave of our lives or current events for fear of contaminating the sanctuary. Instead, we rib each other mercilessly. We are methodical in doing what needs to be done-we ride, find water, set up camp, cook, eat dinner, sleep, dream and wake to a perfect desert dawn.Dry Camp, Cool SpringsWe were up when the bright yellow sun hit the high cliffs above the arroyo, and in the cool of morning we climbed a steep grade to the cresting summit of the lonely plateau. The sun shot over a horizon of distant canyon rims and the sky was a clear dome of powder blue. We followed the map to the nearest spring, lost in our thoughts and lulled by the rhythmic cadence of our pedals and the sigh of bike tires on sand.The spring was in a small canyon where a cluster of cottonwoods marked a rusty stock tank shot full of holes and oozing a scant flow of water into a grassy bog. There was only an inch of water in the tank, but that was enough to cover the tip of our water-filter siphon and allow us to fill our bottles. Topped off, we pedaled down the winding road toward a narrow arm of Lake Powell that glinted in the haze before the hulking shape of Navajo Mountain and the spires of Monument Valley.Our dry camp that night on the edge of a deep canyon forced us to conserve water, and I slid into my sleeping bag with a nagging thirst. Despite the moon’s street-lamp luminosity, I slept deep and long. An owl hooted me awake at first light as the moon and sun exchanged places. Water was the first thing on my mind, and it stayed there all morning as the desert sun broiled and the landscape rippled in heat shimmers. In the midday heat, after 20 miles of riding, we exulted to find a thin flow of water in a crooked little canyon.There was a big cottonwood on Last Chance Gulch where the water made lovely music as it rippled over the rock in cool channels alive with squirming tadpoles. The water tasted brackish, but we drank our fill, soaked in warm pools, then lay beneath the rattling cottonwood leaves, fanned by a breeze. Sardines and cheese on Grana Bread rolls made for a sumptuous lunch.The next morning, we hiked five miles down the serpentine canyon to the big mud puddle that is Lake Powell. Where the lake level has fallen due to the drought, we navigated miles of mud flats, avoiding quicksand and crunching over dried plates of cracked mud. The zone between canyon and lake festered with tamarisk and tumbleweed. A bathtub ring rimmed the canyon walls with a thick white crust.Camp was cool and pleasant after sunset, and a streamside frog concert that night featured diving divas warbling impossible arias and bullfrog baritones croaking with bravado. This pulsing, contrapuntal chorus was truly amphibian, and we slept to the serenade.Up before the sun, we rode with full water bottles and heavy bikes. Our road matched the squiggles on the map and took us to a canyon where three springs were marked. The first two were disappointing seeps, barely enough to wet a finger. The last spring was flowing, and saved us from a desperate bailout to a highway 40 miles away.Water pooled cool and deep in a reed-choked sinkhole where the spring issued and flowed through a jury-rigged pipe into an old corral trough. No salt, no minerals, and a good aftertaste-this was champagne! We guzzled until our bellies bulged. We soaked our heads, hats, scarves and shirts. We cooled ourselves in the shade of a twisted cottonwood where the remnants of an old cow camp lay strewn about in ruins. Before we left, we filled every vessel, including an empty scotch flask and salsa bottle. Sacred Places, Cool BreezesWith the first cool breeze of late afternoon, we spun in our granny gears up to a vast mesa riven by a dozen canyons. At dusk, we camped in a wash at the head of a canyon where we hiked to a meager spring, enough to bathe in and fill our bottles. A lone coyote woke us that night with a piercing yodel that carried to the highest mesa tops.Morning came and we choked down the requisite instant oatmeal, washing it down with strong, black coffee. Simple fuels are often the best, and we burned breakfast pedaling up and down canyon crossings, gradually climbing back toward the top of the lonely plateau. The day evaporated like water in a desert pothole, and we made our camp that night in a sublime canyon with a cool, clear spring, a cluster of rustling cottonwoods, and another resident frog chorus to serenade us. Places like this, idyllic and unspoiled, are natural oases for the soul. This canyon wrapped me in solace, comfort and security, a place to think about when the need comes to tap a wellspring of peace.I was up the next morning at dark-thirty, lit the stove, and banged a pot a few times to get the other two up. By then, the water was boiling for coffee and oatmeal. We ate a quiet breakfast in the deep silence, filled our water bottles from the spring, and set off toward the top of the plateau. By mid morning, we encountered a guy driving a pickup. He was the first person we had seen in five days.A cool breeze blew at the top of the rim, and we felt the breath of the desert and looked down over the sloping plateau. We needed a few more days, another week, ideally a month or two. That’s when you really dial into another realm, another rhythm. Gravity, not desire, propelled us off the plateau and back to what we knew, a return to the predictable, to expectations, schedules and fragmentation. We rolled down a series of long, steep hills, our bike tires whining on the hard-packed dirt.We coasted into the quiet little Mormon town on the river late that afternoon. Riding three abreast, we drifted in from the open range like prodigal sons. We found a place where the burgers were good, but not as good as tortillas fried around a fragrant campfire. The lemonade was good, but not as good as cold spring water out of a pipe. The shaded porch was cool, but not as pleasant as the murmuring cottonwood on the creek. The sound system was good, but paled in comparison to the frogs and the lone coyote and the soulful, precious silence that graces the lonely plateau.Paul Andersen is a contributing writer for The Aspen Times and an occasional outcast.


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