LAND FOR SALE: Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument

In 2016 I sent my pal Brody a question about his GPS. He'd been using the Delorme (now Garmin) Explorer and I was considering the purchase for a trip. He asked what I was planning and I told him I was going to ride across Oregon on gravel. His reply? "Can I come?"

And so it was settled. With a week's notice, knowing almost nothing about the Oregon Outback, and having never spent more than a few hours with me, he hopped a flight to Portland. We spent the next 5 days on a half-planned trip that included a train from Portland to Klamath Falls, 3 days of stunning gravel riding from near the California border to the Columbia River, and a bonus day of riding back to Portland.

So it came as no surprise this year when, with a similar lack of advanced notice, and having only peeked at the route in Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument and my asking "You in?", he expressed interest. What followed was several days of texts with a steadily increasing percentage of commitment. "60%" at first which was a simple stoke indicator. "70%" the next day, which meant calendars were being checked followed by "83%" two days out and now he was reviewing the status of his gear. By the time I started my drive it was "90%" and by somewhere around 95% he was standing in a bike shop sending me photos of a new bike saying, "should I just buy this?". When I picked him up in Salt Lake, he was fully loaded on a new Advocate Cycles Seldom Seen and we were off to Southern Utah. 

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Beyond being the consummate backcountry adventure pal, I was stoked Brody was joining me because this was more than just a bikepacking mission. Since the announcement of proposed reductions to many of our most treasured National Monuments, in one of the most repulsive acts of doublespeak ever witnessed by an administration, there's been a sense of urgency for me to see some of the threatened Monuments. GSENM has always been just outside of my travels, and I desperately needed some desert time. Adventuring with Brody, who plays a big role as an environmental steward through his work with Protect our Winters, HEAL and Winter Wildlands Alliance.....I knew there would be great discussion and idea sharing while seeing the Monument from a perspective few get to experience.

Day 1:

To say that it had it's ups and downs is a bit of an understatement. It was ALL ups and downs, literally. We spent the night bivied under Grosvenor Arch in the (sorry) "Day Use Area".

I FROZE!!! Not a good start for me and I was concerned my 32 degree bag wasn't going to be enough for Spring desert temps. But on the bright side, the stars!!! What an incredible canopy and then to wake up and make coffee with this view? Hard to beat it. The first turns of the pedals were full of optimism and excitement, to the point where our 3 mile downhill wrong turn bothered us not at all. It would be the 30 miles of endless steep climbs, snowy descents, and bentonite clay which gathers on anything it touches and instantly cements itself into some hardened mass equatable to the density of a black hole in space, that put us to the test. We were warned, don't get me wrong. DO NOT RIDE THIS WHEN WET. But with 10 days of dry weather before departure, we figured we were in the clear. It was the north facing snow fields that would get our tires wet, and consequently pick up the bentonite dust that nearly did us in. But alas, with many stops to scrape away the gunk, much pushing of bikes and even some alpine carries to keep the wheels dry, we prevailed and slept at lower elevations. Warmth, cow shit, no wind and some sweet sweet sleep. Day 1 was a test, but we knew the route was front-loaded, and we were stoked for tomorrow.

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The sky got bigger. 

The horizon stretched infinitely further than before. We crept higher and impossibly we could see less. The drama continued to steadily build in that one straight stretch of gravel and we pedaled into its abyss, like it had a gravity all its own.

Day 2:

Where day one was about the trials of physical exertion, mileage calculation, water usage, water sources, and contingency plans; day two was filled with inspired discussion, heart wrenching beauty, and hours of contemplation about what's at stake for our public lands.

We began our day in Little Valley and headed South toward the sunshine, crossing the mouths of Carcass Canyon, Sarah Ann Canyon, Right Hand Collet and Long Canyons. Then came a long, sustained but mellow climb in the Smoky Mountains on Missing Canyon Road.

The sky got bigger. 

The horizon stretched infinitely further than before. We crept higher and impossibly we could see less. The drama continued to steadily build in that one straight stretch of gravel and we pedaled into its abyss, like it had a gravity all its own.

Brody and I spent the morning talking at length about the importance of this space.  Our conversation seemed as expansive as the land itself and it would shoot off in unexpected directions like the countless game trails and double tracks. We spoke on the role and power of business in advocacy and how brands so often are really just talking to themselves without extending a hand to opposition. We talked about reaching the wider, unexpected audience. How to speak to the people we're supposed to be completely at odds with. I told him stories about my brother and his friends who are backcountry bow-hunters, public lands advocates, and potentially a group who have been shaken by the misleading promises of an administration. Brody spoke about being so inspired by auditoriums full of middle-school children who genuinely GET climate change and working to help their parent GET it too. We spoke about our collective role, our individual roles, and (most of the ride) we didn't speak at all. 

And maybe that's the most important part. Being able to be out there with someone who challenges and inspires you, but also being able to make your own head space to process it all too. 

We'd both been pedaling at our own cadence when this happened...

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I don't know what the hell I expected. I mean, I'd seen some pictures online and I knew we were headed for Lake Powell and all, but my god! Maybe it was the day and half of riding it took to get there, maybe it was the importance of our discussions, or maybe it's JUST THAT SPECTACULAR, but I felt like I got kicked in the chest by size of it all. I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me well up just a bit, but then, I saw the road. Yeah, you see it. That road. The perfect ribbon of dirt that seems to have fallen from the heavens to gently skirt those sheer escarpments. I saw that road and the only thing I could thing to say was "we really get to ride that?" 

BEST, DESCENT, EVER.

Oh man, it just kept going and it kept getting better. But our photos and certainly my words will do it no justice. So the journey moved on to new vistas and so shall I . But let me say this, I'll relive that descent, and that day, in my mind for years to come.

6 miles of valley riding through ranch lands brought us to a drainage and three miles of steep and growing sandstone canyon walls that would serpentine to the shores of Lake Powell. Now I don't know about you, but in my mind Lake Powell is this conflicting thing that I don't know enough about. I know it's stunning, and I know it's over-run by recreation, and I know it's a man made and that the Glen Canyon Damn is of great importance from an energy perspective, but still, damn the dams. So we spent a little time educating ourselves on the Lake, and relishing in the early spring solitude that our very remote point of entry provided us. We camped alone with relentlessly breaching fish, wood ducks and other water fowl. The night was perfectly clear and afforded us a little atmosphere setting campfire during dinner and then a solid sleep. Well, some of us slept solidly. 

You see, in my eyes, the wind that night was absolutely ripping for about three hours, rattling my tent (whose sides make a sound like a Snickers bar wrapper made taut with guylines) to the brink of collapse, howling down canyon and blowing waves of dust through micro screen walls. (in my mind) We were lucky to survive. Seriously, don't listen to Brody. He's just a really, really, sound sleeper.

Day 3:

It was slated for another 60 miles or so and I was excited to get back out on the valley floor on some fast rolling gravel beneath the shadows of monoliths, rolling hills and plains of cryptobiotic soil. We began to see shreds of civilization in the form of ranchers driving their rigs out to grazing lands and even a family blasting through washboard roads on four-wheelers. All friendly and shared a wave, they headed off in a very different direction to what I can only imagine is a very different life. We passed through (quickly) the town of Big Water, which is basically a giant storage unit for house-boats that have been pulled for the winter from their slips on Lake Powell. There's also a lovely Park visitor center, but we skipped the tour.

The climb out of Big Water is sand. Brody's new rig was PERFECT as he was rocking 3" tires, but my traditional XC setup with narrow 2.1"s was the WRONG choice for this section. Hike-a-bike for days as we climbed up and away from highways along jeep roads and dried stream beds. "Good practice" I kept telling myself as I tried to keep pace as Brody spun away, drifting the tides of loose, auburn powder.

With 20 miles to go, I was feeling a bit of stress. We were entering a stretch of road that was heavily advertised as Impassable When Wet. There was 20% chance of rain and the clouds on the distant horizon were doing nothing for my confidence. Not knowing desert skies well enough to anticipate what may or may not come our way, we pegged it, and once again, it was just staggering beauty of a completely different sort. Perfect riding with roads that stretched winding off into the distance and just pulling you forward mile after mile. Punchy climbs around the backside of jutting rock formations followed by flowing banked descents, and then this final pass. Our own pearly gates before the route released us back to where we started.

This trip, like adventures of all sizes tend to do, has left an indelible mark on me.

I come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the treasure of Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument. Like many other Monuments which have come under threat in recent months, it is something to be cherished and protected, not carved up and cashed out. If the proposed changes, which would reverse the protections enacted through the Antiquities Act, went through, Brody and I would not have ridden through a National Monument. We would have edged our way through three or four disjointed ones, broken apart by what? Mining? Drilling? No one's telling us for sure. But I guarantee it will change this beautiful landscape forever, and not for the better. 

 

*all photos by Brian Anthony & Brody Leven

 

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Brian Anthony