Friday, May 15, 2009

My White Rim Fiasco, And All About Cryptogamic Soil

Note: This one has it all: biking, camping, backcountry (mis)adventure, scenery, botany, birds and tangents from everything from illegal camping to driving in Europe. Whatever you read this blog for, this post’s got it. But it’s a long one. So if you’re sneaking it in at work between emails, my advice is to come back when you can sit down with a cup of Postum for a few minutes…

Face-Saving Preamble

IMG_9938 Before I get into this post, I want to highlight that I’ve been doing solo backcountry adventures in remote places- on bike or foot- for decades. I’m a stickler for preparation and planning. I always know intimately the geography and topography of where I am going. I am not a hack. I know what I am doing in the backcountry and particularly in the desert.

Specifically, before Wednesday, I’d ridden White Rim several times previously, twice unsupported in a single day, one of those times solo, under much more challenging conditions (>100F temps) than Wednesday. So when I set out Wednesday morning, I was well-prepared and had a very good idea of what I was getting into. I thought.

The Story

So by now you have probably gleaned that something went wrong. What could it be? You probably have some clear ideas, so let’s have a little mock Q&A to address the obvious possibilities:

YOU: Did you break down? Have a mechanical?

ME: No, my bike was dialed-in and prepped thoroughly. I had tools and an array of spare parts, from spokes to cables to a spare derailleur-hanger.

YOU: Was it too much for you? Did you bonk/collapse/fatigue? Did you run out of water?

ME: No, no, no. I’m way fit, was eating and drinking well, feeling great.

YOU: Did you crash?

ME: No. I don’t ride crazy alone.

YOU: I give up. What happened?

ME: A German tourist driving a rental Hummer drove over my front wheel. At the time I was 63 miles into the ride, and 38 from my vehicle.

YOU: You’re shitting me.

ME: No I am not, as it were, “shitting” you. And stop laughing.

That’s the short version. Here’s the long one. My White Rim Fiasco included 6 Cool Things and 1 Phenomenally Sucky Thing. Let’s go through them. The first 2 Cool Things happened on the drive down Tuesday night.

First Cool Thing

Male BHC 5 12 09 I’ve blogged a couple of times about Utah’s native Brood Parasite, the Brown-Headed Cowbird (pic left.) I finally found- by accident- a great place to see them. On US 6 between Spanish Fork and Price, there’s a single rest area a few miles West of Soldier Summit where I almost always stop because a) it’s a pretty spot with a little stream to stretch your legs for a moment and b) I always start post-work road trips by drinking a 16 oz. “Rock Star” which means that I always need to pee like Niagara Falls by mile 80.

There’s a flock of birds that hang out in the parking lot, looking for handouts from travelers, and I noticed this time that they’re BHC’s, a dozen+, both male and female. (I didn’t dally too long, lest one of the females lay an egg in my car…)

Second Cool Thing

I had an incredible, out-of-this-world tailwind on the drive down. My gas mileage between Salt Lake and Green River was better than normal highway mileage by an astounding 40%. No kidding.

On the drive into Canyonlands I stopped at the junction of the paved road and the Mineral Road to leave a water cache.

Logistical Tangent: Here’s how to solo White Rim. First, ride it Counterclockwise. The conventional wisdom is that CW is easier, but this is wrong, and is caused by having to climb Shafer switchbacks at the end of the day. The right way to do it is to start at the bottom of Shafer, and climb the switchbacks before dawn.

Nested Tangent: The easiest way to arrange this is to camp at the outhouse at the bottom of the switchbacks, by the junction with Potash Road. Yes, this is illegal. No, you won’t get busted. Rangers pass that point only once- maybe twice- per day, and never at night. Don’t do it with a large group, and don’t do tents. Either lay out under the stars or sleep in the back of your truck. You arrive & leave in the dark, no impact, it’s like a tree falling in the forest.

Fiasco Map I cache water so that I can climb Shafer with just a camelbak. At the water cache, I top off the camelback, pick up another 4 bottles (2 on bike, 2 in pockets), and chug another liter or so from another bottle which I pick up at the end of the day on the drive out. When I leave this point- at mile 13 and the Shafer climb out of the way- I am carrying 164 oz. of water. I also eat a Pop-Tart at the cache, which I duct-tape in a baggie to a Juniper branch the night before.

I awoke at 4:45 to a fairly bright moon, bike & gear ready to roll from the night before. I ate, dressed, applied sunscreen (hard to remember in the dark) and was pedaling by 5:30, when there was just barely enough light to make out the road.

Third Cool Thing

IMG_9929Climbing Shafer alone in the dark before dawn is just way, out-of-this-world cool. It’s like being Orpheus climbing up out of Hades. The gloom slowly lightens, and as it does, near the top (pic left), you see the spectacular switchbacks you’ve just climbed and the orange glow of dawn behind the La Sal Mountains.

IMG_9933 When I started, I could make out the path of the road in part by white spots along the roadside. These were Tufted Evening Primroses, opened in the evening to be pollinated by moths. When I returned up this way by car ~11 hours later, the blooms were long gone, wilted away under the sun.

I stocked up at the cache and rolled down Mineral Road. This part is wonderfully fast in the CCW direction, averaging 20+ mph for roughly 10 miles.

Fourth Cool Thing

IMG_9937 As I flew down Mineral in the cool morning air I repeatedly smelled flowers. Blooming Cliffrose (pic left) lined several stretched of the road with a scent so strong you could smell it at 20+ mph. Cliffrose is a wonderful smell- so sweet and honey-like as to be almost but-not-quite sickly sweet, so that you can smell it over and over without tiring of it. As long-time readers know, I have a soft spot for Cliffrose, in part because a decade ago a Cliffrose bush saved my life. (It was not a Bitterbrush, and I need to get around to fixing this graphic.)

And this is where I get to the science part of the post. Yes, that’s right, I have some science for today’s post. Hey, I had a day from hell Wednesday, and goddamnit I am getting some science out of it.

All About Cryptogamic Soil

Crypto Shot If you read almost any article or guidebook about the desert, or stop into a ranger station/visitor center in Canyon country, you’ll inevitably be subjected to a preachy lecture about the fragility of cryptogamic (or “cryptobiotic” or sometimes just “soil crust*”) soil (pic right). These lectures are almost always full of drama and void of any real explanation. “The soil is alive!” they say. “If you step on it you’re killing it…” and so forth. These lectures sometimes border on new-agey, with their holistic “Living Earth” mantra, invariably delivered in a tone reminiscent of that used by people who don’t actually know anything about Buddhism when they talk about the Dalai Lama.

*Sounds way gross, like something you’d get on your underwear at the end of a 2 week-long backpack or something…

And that’s a shame. Because cryptogamic soil is cool, it’s not hard to understand, and there’s a very simple, clear reason why you should avoid stepping, riding or driving on it. And I’m going to give it to you right now.

I blog a lot about plants, mosses and other things that photosynthesize in the desert. But the most important photosynthetic creature in the desert, the very foundation of the desert’s flora in Southern Utah, is none of those things. It’s Microcoleus vaginatus, a species of cyanobacteria that provides the basic support and hydrological infrastructure of the soil itself.

I’ve mentioned cyanobacteria a couple of times previously, way back when talking about the evolution of chloroplasts, and again more recently when explaining how lichens work. Basically they’re single-cell bacteria that photosynthesize, like plants. Only they’re not plants, because bacteria are non-eukaryotic, meaning that the structure of their cells is fairly loosey-goosey compared with the structure of cells in things like people, frogs and pine trees.

Crypto1 M. vaginatus lives in/on open soil in the desert. As it does so, it exudes a protective, mucilaginous (fancy word for “mucus-y”) sheath. As more grains of sand/soil accumulate on top of it, it works its way upward, trying to stay close to the sunlight, which it needs for photosynthesis. As it moves upward, it leaves behind a thread-like past-sheath, and with bazillions of these little guys constantly moving toward the light, the soil becomes filled with bazillions of thread-like sheaths.

Crypto2 These sheaths do 2 really important things. First, they help lock the soil in place, which is significant in the desert of Southern Utah, as unanchored sand tends to get blown away. Second, they enable the soil to retain moisture. The bacterial sheaths absorb water like sponges, expanding up to 10 times in volume when wet.

Crypto3 With the soil anchored and moistened, moss spores, fungal spores and lichen spores/diaspores can all take hold, which in turn serve to further strengthen and build the soil, eventually enabling true plant seeds to root and grow. In addition, many of these fungi and mosses fix nitrogen in the soil, also serving to make plant growth possible.

Crypto4 BTW, this moisture-holding characteristic of crypto-soil is what accounts for much of its craggy, even appearance- frost heaves.

And it all starts with this little cyanobacterium. M. vaginatus isn’t the only species of its kind in cryptogamic soil, but it accounts for something like 95% of all such cyanobacteria.

Crypto Shot2 The problem with all this is that the structural strength of the basic thread/sheath infrastructure is nowhere near strong enough to stand up to the concentrated force of a foot, hoof or tire*. Once crushed, the soil doesn’t hold water (it’s basically sand) and is easily blown away. It takes a long time for the soil to rebuild; the sheath-structure starts rebuilding after about 3 years, but the full structure takes more than 10, and true, “old-growth” crypto takes anywhere from 50 to 250 years to re-form.

*The tire of oh, say, a Hummer H3 would be an excellent example.

So there you have it. Crypto is important, it is cool, and you shouldn’t ride/step on it, and now you know why.

Fifth Cool Thing

IMG_9942 After descending Mineral switchbacks, the trail/road, which is shaded in the early morning, follows the Green River (pic right). The Green is swollen with runoff now, deep, smooth and fast. This may not be a big deal to mtn bikers in other parts of the country/world, but here in Utah one almost never mtn bikes next to a true river. Not a stream, but a river. I love it. It’s a novel, wonderful feeling, and as you’re pedaling downstream, it feels like you and the river are traveling together.

IMG_9945 This stretch, along the Green, has tons of blooming Prince’s Plume (in foreground, pic left) right now, which I talked about when I was down in the desert with KanyonKris 2 weeks ago, and indicates that the soil here is rich in selenium.

Sixth Cool Thing

IMG_9948I was riding great. I had that feeling you get when you’re riding smooth and strong, when you’re covering ground fast and clean. The day was going great and I was dialed in and confident. After a quick snack, water-transfer break at Candlestick (mile 53) I started the series of rolling climbs up Murhpy’s Hogback.

The Phenomenally Sucky Thing

I rounded a bend and began the final pitch up Murphy’s. A vehicle was just starting to descend- a Hummer H3. I kept climbing, he kept descending. As we closed, I expected him to stop as cars/trucks usually do for bikes on White Rim, but he didn’t. So I stopped (annoyed to break my climb), and hoisted myself to the very, very edge of the right/high side of the single-lane road, the bike between me and the Hummer. The Hummer kept creeping forward. He had probably a foot and a half to 2 feet on the left/low side to swing out and miss me, but amazingly- stunningly- he didn’t. He rolled over and onto the lower rim of my stationary front bike wheel.

Hummer Graphic I screamed and yelled like crazy. He stopped and I screamed for him to back up. He was all flustered and it took him about 10 seconds to get the thing in reverse, whereupon it initially lurched downhill another 2-3”, further crunching the rim.

The driver got out and was immediately apologetic. In the first minute he started some babbling some agitated explanation in a foreign accent as to why he had thought there was enough room between us. I was trying to focus on the wheel. Finally I turned to him and said quietly but firmly, ”Stop. Talking. Just be quiet for a minute.” He did.

I examined the wheel. It was done, though I didn’t accept it for a bit. I spent the next 30 minutes standing, leaning, even jumping on different parts of the rim in a hopeless effort to make it wheel-like again… The driver, a German tourist on vacation, assisted me in my attempts, serving as a counterweight during several jumping attempts. Finally, when it became clear it would never roll again I told the German he needed to turn me around and drive me 38 miles back to Shafer switchbacks.

He asked incredulously, “You’re not with anyone?”

ME: No, I’m solo, and I can’t walk 40 miles.

GERMAN: Maybe it’s quicker to keep going around the way I was going…

ME: No. We turn around, and you drive me back to my car.

GERMAN: But your bike, I don’t see how it will fit.

ME: It’ll fit fine. Come one already- wir fahren*.

*I have a working German vocabulary of about 50 words, gained over the course of several business trips to Germany, nearly all of which are related to cars/planes/trains or ordering food/beer. I should say that the German’s English was outstanding. I stumped him only once, when I referred to his vehicle as a “rig.”

And so I spent the next 3 ½ hours of my oh-so-perfectly planned day off 4-wheeling in a Hummer across the desert with a German tourist.

Tangent: Besides wrecking my day and my wheel, there were 2 other things about this episode that really pissed me off. First, I have a pet peeve about drivers- any driver- who can’t figure out where the wheels and fenders of his vehicle are at all times. I’ve driven thousands of vehicles- I worked as a hotel parking valet in college, had a brief summer job moving cars around a lot for Hertz, and today rent a couple dozen cars a year, and have never misjudged a fender/wheel placement on any vehicle.

eur_autobahn But more to the point, it drove me absolutely crazy that he was German. Over the past decade I’ve been to Germany at least ½ a dozen times. Although I’ve never driven there, I’ve been an automobile passenger dozens of times, and overwhelmingly, Germans are outstanding drivers. They drive quickly, seriously and efficiently. They don’t chat on the phone, do their make-up, eat Big Macs or even drink pop while driving. In fact it was only within the last decade that they started selling cars in Germany with cup-holders. So out of 80 million Germans, how on Earth is it possible that I meet a Lousy German Driver out in the middle of the Utah desert??

The German tried to make the best of our time together, making several attempts at small talk, but I was on the whole rather cranky and monosyllabic. Ironically, he works as journalist for a German magazine (I forgot the name) and has long covered bike racing, including the TdF 5 times.

IMG_9950 Here’s some trivia about me: I hate 4-wheeling. I love mountain biking and hiking, but sitting in an SUV on rough roads for hours is torture. After a couple of hours I was exhausted, far more so than if I’d been pedaling. Finally, we arrived at my Toyota. We unloaded my bike and gear, and then I picked up the wheel and walked through damaged components with him, giving my best estimate of the parts/labor cost. Without argument he opened his wallet and handed over the cash- the better part of $200.

And there you have it- my White Rim Fiasco. I was pissed off and he ruined my day, but he did the right thing. He got me back safely and paid for the damage he caused. No one got hurt, and I have a couple of spare wheels to use while the shop rebuilds this one. And I’ll do White Rim again.

Special Note: Herr Kassenvolk, you know that I have a blog and that I’ll be writing about our encounter. Should you ever google yourself and come upon this post, know this: Although you are a horrendous driver and should be forever banned from ever piloting any vehicle larger than a Smart Car, you are an honorable man. We all make mistakes, and you made amends for yours at significant inconvenience and cost to yourself. Though I was upset when we were together, I bear you no ill will. I hope that you enjoy the rest of your vacation, and you’re welcome here again in Utah in the future. Just not in a Hummer.


WheelDancer said...

I'm glad there were many cool things on a day that ended up with overwhelming suckageness (I'm sure native English speakers will take that word in stride but suspect it will be a speed bump should the offending tourist ever wander by).

Thanks for the explanation of Cryptogamic soil as I have heard the warnings (and headed them!) but understanding the impact really helps.

KanyonKris said...


After your teaser comment on Wednesday's post UtRider and I tried to guess what happened. UtRider guessed you had a head-on with the Hummer. I guessed your bike was laying down at a stop and the Hummer ran over it. Neither of us got it right, but the truth is a twisted combination of our guesses. Sorry this happened to you.

But thanks for the post. I've been dutifully avoiding the "cryptocrud" but never really knew why - thanks for the clear explanation.

I like your plan, but I found CW from Mineral Bottom to work very well. The climb out of Mineral Bottom is shorter and easier than Shafer, the boring riding up the mild grade of the Horsethief road is done early, the descent of Shafer is in the stunning morning light, more of the sandy sections are downhill, and the last miles along the Green are fairly easy. But the climbs up Murphy and Hardscrabble are more difficult (so I've heard, I haven't done White Rim CCW). I cached water the night before near the fee booth - easy to get to and doesn't take much time. If interested you can read all about the ride here -

KanyonKris said...

No photo of the crushed wheel? Too painful?

Watcher said...

Kris- when he backed up off the wheel, I remember thinking, "I should take a pic of this..."... my camera was right there on my shoulder strap, but I was just way too upset. The other thing I wish I'd had the presence of mind to get was a video of the guy apologizing, in his thick German accent. He would've done it, and it would've been a great addition to the post.

Phil O. said...

Unrelated question for the Watcher: My friend was flying over the Rockies this week, and it appeared to him as though there was more snow than normal. Is the snow line at a lower altitude than is typical for this time of year? Any ideas?

Watcher said...

Phil- Actually I think the snowpack both here and in CO is a bit below average for mid-May, so I don’t think he was seeing unusual snow cover. But in mid-May huge stretches of the CO high country and the Uintas here in UT are still covered pretty deep, so if he’s from back East it might’ve seemed like a lot.

Tell your friend I commend him for looking out the window. I’m always amazed when I’m in a plane flying over something amazing- Grand Canyon, Yosemite, ice floes in the Newfoundland strait- and people are lowering their shades so they can watch the bad movie…

Sally said...

I'm very sorry to hear that playing hooky didn't work out for you this week. I think you need to count, on the plus side, the fact that you got an outstanding post out of it, missing wheel photo notwithstanding! Maybe blogging is the 6th Axis of Life, eh?

Terrific job explaining crypto-crust. I've worked on some of those guys a little, and I never knew all that. Not to go new agey on you, but when we totally screw things up, they will be the salvation of the planetary biosphere (again).

With luck, my "hooky" post will get up this weekend... no misadventures, but then I stuck closer to what passes for civilization, and encountered no German tourists.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any idea why there is no cryptogamic crust in the Sonoran desert? I've never seen crust there like you have in Utah.

Watcher said...

Sally- thanks and looking forward to your hooky post!

Anon- there is crypto-crust in the Sonoran; you can see pictures and descriptions here and here. But you raise a great point- why doesn't it look the same, or specifically, why doesn't it have the same uneven craggy surface as the crypto here in UT?

I don't know for sure, but I'll hazard 2 (related) guesses: First, the Sonoran doesn't get the consistent winter freezing temps we do, so the incidence/effect of frost heaves would be far less. Second, Nearly all of the moisture in the Sonoran happens in Summer (monsoon season) when there's not a chance of freezing, whereas much/most precip in Southern UT is in the Winter months, when temps are sub-freezing most every night.

Anonymous said...

You've seriously missed your calling - you should be a writer - I'm still smiling... I was searching info on giant sequioa growing in Utah when I found your blog. You might be interested to note there is another tree just around the corner from you (we live in the neighborhood too). It's on 1300 South about a block or so up from Foothill, on the north side of the road, across from the cemetary in someone's front yard. Just look up - you can't miss it. I'm not great with heights but it must be 70-80' tall.

Incidentlly, I agree that riding the White Rim trail is amazing. If your kids are into biking like you are, you might consider taking them - one at a time is great. We took our 8-yr-old (one of our boy-girl twins) with us and the little guy road the entire trail - even the switchbacks at the end (we went CW).

Thanks for the blog, great fun...

Watcher said...

Anon- thanks for stopping by and for the Sequoia beta- I know exactly where you're talking about (it's on one of my regular running loops.) I noticed it later in the winter, after that post, and you're right, it's a biggie.

I'm way impressed your 8 yr-old pedaled around White Rim; you've inspired me to take the biking up a level with my kids- thanks!

michelle p said...

Contemplating a solo White Rim trip (for full disclosure on my dirt bike) and just found this. I have to say it's a really great blog post (esp the diagrams) to document a super crappy scenario.