Mountain Biking the Maze

By David Noland; Adapted from Travels Along the Edge
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The Mushrooms rock formations at Canyonlands National Park

Edward Abbey, the revered and irascible chronicler of the American Southwest, offered this opinion about the ideal way to see Utah's canyon country: "You can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you'll see something, maybe."

Abbey wrote those words in 1968, about six years before a California bicycle tinkerer named Gary Fisher found a rusty one-speed clunker in a chicken coop and cobbled on a fifteen-speed gearshift and some junked motorcycle brakes. He took the odd device out on the dirt roads of nearby Mount Tamalpais and had a blast. Fisher called it a mountain bike.

Would Abbey have approved of the mountain bike as a way to see what he called "this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space"? Probably. Mountain biking, like walking, is a muscle-powered, wind-in-the-face, sweaty, dusty mode of transport. Ed would dig that. Like crawling, mountain biking can result in bloody knees and elbows. He'd love that, too. Best of all, a strong, skilled rider can easily outdistance a goddamned car—even the four-wheel-drive kind—over the hideously rough dirt roads typical of canyon country.

In the spirit of Abbey, then, we're standing astride our mountain bikes on the edge of a precipice 60 miles from the nearest paved road, looking out over a juniper-bush valley sprinkled with buttes and ringed by burnt-orange cliffs. At the end of the valley, 20 miles distant, lies a labyrinth of sandstone canyons that Abbey called "closer to anything else in the 48 United States to being genuine terra incognito": The Maze.

Amid this stupefying vista, I am thinking about how much l love uranium miners. If not for these erstwhile merchants of death and rapists of Mother Earth, the journey from here to the Maze would require wings. Or at least a sure-footed mule train. But in the mid-1950s (remember the Cold War, the missile gap, the arms race?), mining companies began to snoop around these parts for deposits of radioactive bomb material. They carved out what might loosely be called a road down the steep talus slope below us and on into the valley, so that prospectors could bring in their Geiger counters on jeeps instead of mules.

They didn't find any uranium, but the road is still here. I thank you, God.

We mount up and begin to pick our way down the road, now known as the Flint Trail. Forty years of erosion have turned it into a tortuous avenue of rocks, ruts, and switchbacks. I lower my seat, stand spring-kneed on the pedals, and shove my butt back until it practically rubs the rear tire. We'll soon see how far my very modest technical riding skills—and my new Quadra 10 suspension fork—will take me. I try to remember Todd-Dude's three rules of technical riding.

Todd our assistant guide, is a long-haired kid in his early twenties who looks like a cross between a surfer and a rock musician. He tends to address others as "dude," apparently without irony or sense of self-mockery. He rides a mountain bike the way Stephane Grappelli plays the violin, with a consummate ease and playful abandon that leave mere mortals gasping in awe. He has already disappeared from view down the Flint, hopping smoothly over the ruts and around the rocks. Earlier this morning, rather than blast through a long mud puddle in a rooster-tailing, sunglass-spattering, yee-ha plunge like the rest of us, Todd casually leaned back, lifted his front tire to waist level in a flawless wheelie, and pedaled the 20 yards through the quagmire on the rear wheel alone, emerging dry and spotless.

Here are Todd-Dude's Three Laws of Technical Mountain Biking:

  1. Pick your line early. The sooner you know what you have to do, the better you can do it.
  2. Pedal smoothly. Don't pump the pedals, spin them. Rapid changes in the power stroke cause loss of traction at critical moments.
  3. Learn to use momentum. Instead of powering up a short, steep grade or over an obstacle, build up speed in advance and use the bike's momentum to finesse the bike up and over.

"The Big Mo will change your life, dude," he tells me. I apparently have not yet come to a full understanding of the Big Mo, for my life on the Flint Trail is unfolding pretty much the way it has unfolded on all the other difficult, technical terrain I've tried to ride: haltingly and with scant pleasure. I'm still too cautious, too scared, unable to get into that Zen-like zone where one puts aside the fear and simply rides without thinking. Downhill mountain-bike racers refer to this exalted mental state as "No brakes, no brains."

Equipped with both brakes and brains, however, I can't help but notice a particularly steep, rocky section coming up. The front tire shudders over the ruts, and the rear tire skids intermittently in the dust as I try to stay in control. My hands clench the bucking handlebars; my mouth is dry. I'm scared. I think how, at any moment, I may inadvertently follow Abbey's recommendation about marking one's trail with traces of blood.

Enough. I stop, get off, and walk the bike through the rough, steep section. It is a scene that will be repeated a number of times on the 4-mile descent of the Flint. Sorry, Todd. Sorry, Mo.

The sun is low in the October sky as we round the corner of Flaterite Butte and approach our camping spot at the Maze Overlook. There's no hint of what is to come; as we pedal through rolling juniper country, the ground simply falls away without warning into a surreal jumble of geology that stretches to the horizon: deep, narrow canyons twisting and turning and branching off and doubling back onto each other so tightly that it seems there's more air than rock down there. In the middle distance looms a line of four dark monoliths. On the horizon, at the far edge of the network of canyons, is a smattering of spires and needles. It is a tableau, intimate and richly textured, that makes the Grand Canyon seem lackluster by comparison.

Not even Todd-Dude could ride a mountain bike down into the Maze, so the next morning we begin our descent on foot. At first glance, the idea of getting to the bottom without a helicopter or a very long rope seems preposterous. To the untrained eye, there is no break in the canyon walls anywhere. But our trip leader, Anne-Clare, knows the way; she has explored the Maze for years and spent ten months living in a trailer as a volunteer ranger in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park, often going out on five-day solo foot patrols into the heart of the labyrinth.

A consummate outdoorswoman who guides rafts down the Colorado during the bike-tour off-season, Anne-Clare is fiercely protective of the desert. If you ask, as I haplessly did, whether it's okay to fling an apple core out into the infinity of sand and rock, you'll get a steely-eyed "no." (Hey, an apple core is biodegradable, right? And at least I asked.) Comment on the beauty of Waterhole Flat, a sweeping grassy plain two days' ride south of the Maze, and she'll respond that it looks that way only because cows and sheep have long since grazed out the native desert species. "What you see is mostly cheat grass and Russian thistle, both exotic species." She spits out the word exotic with a special venom. Well, okay, but Waterhole Flat still looked mighty pretty to me.

Whoever laid out the foot trail down into the Maze was either a route-finding genius or very lucky. The descent hinges entirely upon four or five freakish geological features—a tiny slot, through which one can slither down to the next level; a certain handy arrangement of knobs and outcroppings, over which one can clamber down to a ledge; a fortuitous fan of dirt, down which one can slide on one's fanny-that allow a reasonably adept hiker to pass without the aid of ropes or rock climbing skills. If not for these quirks of geology—and the perceptive fellow who first linked them all together—the nearest unaided route down into the Maze would be a 40-mile ride from here.

A snapshot taken from the Maze floor would appear little different from one taken in thousands of other canyons around the Southwest: red sandstone walls and cottonwoods. It's not the here that makes the depths of the Maze remarkable, it's the getting here. We've been rolling and bouncing and walking and scrambling for nearly three days. The nearest permanent human habitation is perhaps 60 miles away. Some of the side canyons that twist about us may not have been gazed upon by any human being since the Ancient Ones, hunter-gatherers who lived here two thousand years ago. Abbey makes a modest claim that he and a companion, scrambling down into the Maze in the mid-sixties, could have been the first humans to set foot in the labyrinth since the Ancient Ones.

But thanks to uranium miners and that guy Fisher, here we are. It's enough to change your life a little.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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