Not much science* in today’s post, just a ride through an interesting, lightly visited desert range. But I’ve covered much of the science in this area, including inversions, Junipers, Sagebrush, Rabbitbrush, Prickly Russian Thistle, Cheatgrass and clay in previous posts**.
*”Not much” in this instance being a synonym for “None at all.”
**So what I am saying here is that I have built up plenty of science-cred already in this area- specifically the Cedar Mountain range of the West Desert- and now I just want to goof around and have fun.
Lately I’ve been going a little stir-crazy. I’ve been so crazy-busy with work and other stuff that I just wanted a mental break, a chance to clear my head, to not think about work, or the future or, well really anything. In ordinary times, a quick solo-desert-break would be just the ticket, but schedule and responsibilities have lately conspired against such an escape. So I’ve been biding my time, wearing my game-face, hoping quietly that an opening would present itself. As it turned out, Sunday came together with great weather and a full-day Kitchen Pass. Early in the morning I threw the bike in the car and headed West.
Over a year ago I blogged about trying to do the Cedar Mountain Loop but getting shut down by mud. Over the course of last week I’d glanced several times from my commute along I-215 at the distant range ~50 miles to the West, and noticed it looked largely snow-free. With the break in weather and schedule, I went for it.
I parked off the Aragonite exit, by the Aragonite incinerator. I always ride the Cedar Mountain Loop* clockwise, to enjoy the more expansive views and prevailing downhill grades on the return leg, coming back up along the West flank of the range. I park on the West side of Hastings Pass so that if I misjudge the mud conditions, I’m bailing only a few miles into the ride. If I parked on the East side and rode the same direction, I’d be coming up the pass at the end of the day, after 50+ miles, and could be in a pickle if I’d misjudged conditions.
*Which isn’t often- Sunday was my 3rd time over the last 7 years.
For an early-ish start (~9:30) the temp was already pleasant in the mid-40s, and I dressed lightly*, loaded up with food and water, and started rolling East up Hastings Pass. Within minutes, as the road sloped upward, Junipers started appearing on either side, indicating my transition out of the winter-inversion level.
*But I packed a light jacket, skullcap, and… bic lighter. On a solo ride this long, in an area this lightly-trafficked, I have to assume that if I have a non-field-reparable mechanical further than about 15 miles from the car, I will be spending the night out-of-doors. If such an event occurred it would be a hassle, but not life-threatening. On this ride you’re never further than a ¼ mile from Juniper, which burns fast, hot and easily.
For as long as I can remember, daily life has seemed a bit of a balancing act between towing the party line and getting to do what I want to do. Towing the party line used to mean pretending I was interested in and engaged in whatever was happening in school; later in life it meant doing so at work. Sometimes you have to tow the party line socially- say with extended family or your social circle- but mainly it’s been school and work.
All About School
I was never into school. I never liked being there, and always looked forward to being done with it. When I graduated with a 4-year degree I walked out and never even considered returning. To this day, while I rationally understand why adults return to school for advanced degrees, on an intuitive level, I could never even conceive of wanting to do such a thing. Going back to school as an adult feels to me emotionally akin to moving back in with your parents, or going to work as a teacher in your old elementary school.
It’s strange because I did reasonably well in school. I was an A/B student until college, and even there managed to get an engineering degree at a tough school with a B average. And clearly, I like learning and understanding things. But I hated school. It would be easy to blame it on the structure, the authority, the teachers, etc., but really, that wasn’t it. It was the lying. Not them lying to me, but me lying to them. My having to pretend to be onboard and engaged, to act as though I enjoyed school*, and the various activities associated with it. You can’t get As and be admitted to a top college if you say, “Hey, I hate school, I’m just here so I don’t end up working a gas station…” You have to make like you’re into it.
*A process that peaked during college applications/interviews. What an exercise in spin that it is. We take nice normal 17 year-olds and pressure them into becoming these self-aggrandizing little activity-junkie showmen. Know when you get flashbacks of those times? 15-20 years later when you’re taking your business plan to VCs, trying to round up venture funding. I’m not kidding.
The ride up Hastings was just fine. Though the North-facing slopes were still partly snow-covered, the road was dry and open. At the top of the pass I stopped for photos and a pee before rolling down into Skull Valley, bounded on the far side by the Stansbury range, peaking out at 11K+ Deseret Peak. I rolled down, down, keeping a lid on the speed to avoid washing out in the gravelly turns. The road wound its way down through a shallow canyon, then broke out onto an open bench, leaving the Junipers behind, before angling South and paralleling the East side of the range.
Side Note: Deseret Peak is a wonderful hike, as good as any peak in the Wasatch, but requiring only about ½ the effort. If you’re local and haven’t hiked it, mark a weekend now in July or August to go do so. You won’t regret it.
All About Work
When you get out of school and go to work for a company, it feels wonderfully liberating- they pay me! I get nights and weekends off!- but pretty soon you realize that if you want to go anywhere in your career, and maybe buy a house and stuff, you need to wear your game-face there too. You can’t get promotions and job offers and bonuses and option grants if you say, “Hey, I hate work, I’m just here for the money so I don’t have to live under a bridge…” You have to make like you’re into it.
The road South along the East flank of the Cedars rolls up and down. As I pedaled Southward, a strong, steady South wind became apparent. This part of the ride would be more work than I thought. I backed off the pace, thinking to take it easy and not wear myself down too early. The road at this level, below the Juniper-line is bordered on both sides by open shrublands dominated by Prickly Russian Thistle. Broken off tumbleweeds rolled across the bench and the road, and in low dips they accumulated, occasionally blocking the road entirely. A big pickup- first car of the ride- came driving along from the other direction carrying an older couple- a rancher and wife maybe? I nodded, he one-finger-waved, and we each rolled on.
There are all sorts of companies, good and bad, big and little. I’ve gravitated almost exclusively to small ones over the years, and always assumed this was tendency was motivated by a big-fish/small-pond incentive: bigger role, more autonomy, more impact, more upside (options.) But I wonder now if something else I gravitated toward- or rather away from- was company culture. Big companies have distinctive cultures, to which successful long-term employees generally conform. Small companies have more malleable cultures, shaped more by the stronger personalities present at the time, of which I’ve usually been one. Maybe part the reason I’ve gravitated toward smaller companies has been a distaste for having to “tow the party line” of a bigger company, or the sense- rightly or wrongly- that I’d have to wear more of a game-face- or lie more- at a larger company.
The wind and the rollers continued, and while not too difficult, I was over the initial euphoria of just being out of the car and on the bike. The ride was starting to feel like a bit of grind, like something to get done.
In January my small company, where I’d worked for 8 years, was acquired by a big company. And while the big company is, in many ways, a great employer- good benefits, good pay, nice people, respectful management- it’s still a big company, with a well-defined culture, or party line. And as such, in a time when work has become particularly busy anyway, I find myself wearing a game-face like never before. This sounds whiny, but it isn’t meant to be- it just is. I’m a big boy, I know how to hold a job, and I know what I have to do. But it makes me value “breaks” even more than usual.
A solo getaway or long bike ride is a nice break for lots of reasons, but maybe most of all because it’s a break from the lying. For a few hours you don’t have to smile or spin, or nod sagely as if someone is telling you something important. It’s just you and your thoughts, and where your head is at at the end of the ride is largely a result of what you work out with yourself.
The wind grew stronger, the climbs longer. As I climbed a small nagging pain developed in my lower right back, and with each rolling climb it grew stronger. After a while it ceased to abate in between the climbs and was just aching all the time. My mood was foul. The ride was now a chore, and I just wanted to be done with it. Why had I come all the way out here? Why was I riding in a big circle alone? This was stupid, another one of my dopey, sounded-good-at-the-time ideas, wasting away a beautiful Sunday when I could be hanging out with the family or friends.
Most of us tell the Big Work Lie socially. That we love our jobs, and continue to toil away at them not because we need to the money, but because of the great satisfaction and fulfillment we derive from them. This has been on my mind recently, because I’ve been giving some thought of late to retirement. No, I’m not there yet, but like many men in my mid-forties, I’m starting to think about the latter years of my career, and when and how I might be able in coming years to stop working full-time.
It’s funny when the subject of retirement- and specifically, possible early retirement- comes up. People often tend to ask things like “What would you do if you didn’t work?...”, or they’ll make some sort of pre-emptive declaration along the lines of, “Well I can’t ever see myself retiring- I just don’t know what I’d do with myself all day…” I’m always sort of befuddled and saddened at the same time when I hear middle-aged men say these kinds of things. Really? You don’t know what you’d do with yourself if you didn’t work? Is your life, your span of interests and wonder and passion really that small and narrow? How sad. How terribly... empty.
Side Note: I was at the dentist* last month (whom I’ve known for over a decade, and like very much), and the subject of possible early retirement came up, and my dentist said, “Boy, I just couldn’t retire… I just don’t know what I’d do with myself all day if I weren’t working…” and I wanted to say, “Really Bill? Really? You’re a dentist. You’re not a rock star or a poet or a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. You spend all day with your hands in people’s mouths, and you can’t think of anything you’d rather spend the day doing?” Of course I didn’t say that… Not that I could have said anything at that point, because his hands were in my mouth. Which, BTW, brings up a skill I’ve always admired in dentists: their ability to carry on a complete conversation with you while they’re working on your teeth, which they accomplish by making sure they steer the conversation in a way that requires you to only say either “uh-HUH”, or “UH-uh”…
*If you’re a dentist, no offense meant. It’s an honorable profession, and I could’ve had the same thought about 100 other professions, including mine.
After one last climb, the road bent to the Southwest and back down toward the mountains again, Tabby Peak coming into view on the right. Tabby isn’t the high point of the range, but it stands out easily as an extinct volcanic cone, and marks the Southern extent of the wilderness area. I rolled to a 4-way junction with a vandalized wilderness sign, turned right, away from the wind, and started climbing up Rydalch Pass.
The Cedar Mountain Loop borders, and completely encircles, the Cedar Mountains Wilderness, Utah’s most recently-designated wilderness area. Wilderness is a contentious issue in Utah, and for decades millions of acres have languished in a never-never status of “Wilderness Study Area”, lands clearly worthy of protection, protection consistently opposed by Utah’s congressional delegation.
Tangent: I’ll be clear here on my bias- I am absolutely pro-wilderness. There are all sorts of tortured-logic arguments against wilderness involving everything from school trust lands to handicapped access, but when you cut through all the BS, it comes down to this: trash the land or don’t trash it. It’s not rocket science. These are beautiful, unspoiled places, and if we’re trashing them so someone can make a quick buck drilling, mining or cutting, or get a passing thrill tearing it up in on an ATV all over the place, then our values clearly suck.
Yes, I know mtn bikes are banned from wilderness- that’s a non-issue. When I think about wilderness, I think about the movie Road Warrior. There’s a scene early on, when the good guys are surrounded in their oil refinery/compound, and the bad guys have offered them surrender terms. The good guys are conflicted, they have different views and priorities, and they’re all arguing about what to do; some want to compromise, to give up. But the good-guy leader* speaks up. He acknowledges the bind they’re in, how they have conflicting desires and goals, but reminds them that the one thing they must do, regardless of their viewpoints or preferences, is defend the fuel.
*Played by Michael Preston.
That’s how I see wilderness. We may quibble about whether bikes or trails or signs or campgrounds or hang-gliders should be allowed, but in the end, that’s just background noise. What really matters, what we really need to do, is defend the land. Everything else comes after.
Ironically, while lands far more threatened and more spectacular remained in limbo, the Cedar Mountains became wilderness in 2006, not out of any sudden green change of heart on the part of our delegation, but as a maneuver by to prevent the construction of a rail line that would have enabled the nearby Goshute tribe to import and store nuclear waste.
With the wind at my back, the climb was easier, but that nagging pain in my back was still there. I tried shifting around on the saddle, standing, changing gears, riding one-handed, but it still ached. Finally I just settled in and looked around to try and distract myself. There are only a few shrubs up in the Cedars, and one tree- Juniper. As you start climbing, the Prickly Russian Thistle gets left behind, replaced mostly by Sagebrush and Rabbitbrush. Cheatgrass is still everywhere, but it doesn’t form vast, uniform expanses like it does down on the benches below.
As I climbed I thought about how different the Cedar Range is from the Wasatch. As you head West into the desert, the flora of each range is a progressively fainter echo of that of the Wasatch. The flora of the Oquirrhs is almost the same, with plenty of scrub oak and maple, and Fir, Aspen and Spruce higher up. By the next range out- the Stansburys- the oaks have disappeared*. And by the third range out- the Cedars- almost everything’s disappeared; it’s like any one of hundreds similar-elevation of ranges clear across Nevada.
*Professor Chuck and I picked up a rumor last Fall of scrub oak in the Stansburys North of Johnson Pass, but we haven’t had a chance since to check it out.
When you travel a few ranges and valleys West of Salt Lake, you begin to appreciate why the Mormon pioneers stopped when they did; there’s no better place to settle down and start farming till you get to the Central Valley of California. When Brigham Young was carried* into the valley on July 24, 1847, gazed upon it, and declared, “It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.” he made a great call.
*He was ill at the time.
Only, that’s probably not what happened. The “right place” quote ascribed to Young never appeared anywhere until 33 years after the Mormons arrived in Salt Lake Valley. What actually happened, as pieced together based on journal entries and related by Wallace Stegner in Gathering of Zion, went more like this:
On July 23, the Mormon advance party entered the valley, and later that same day, diverted City Creek and began plowing soil. Young joined them the following day, and 3 days later, on July 27, held an all-hands meeting. By this time scouts had reconnoitered the valley and continued as far West as Skull Valley, reporting no sign of better water or soil. Young put it to the group, recommended stopping, and asked for feedback. All present agreed, excepting one lone dissenter*.
I’m no historian, and it’s certainly possible Stegner’s account is wrong as well. But I like this tale more than the traditional folk-myth for 2 reasons. First, it provides a glimpse of the pioneers not just as devoted handcart-robots soldiering across the plains, but as thoughtful, careful explorers, assessing their options and making rational, measured decisions. And secondly it shares a hint of the true, historic Brigham Young- not just a larger-than-life Primary* tale- but a resourceful, prudent and inspiring leader, who engineered one of the great pioneer epics in American history. I don’t know why they don’t tell this story in Primary.
*Primary= Mormon kids’ equivalent of Sunday School.
About halfway up the pass, a mid-sized SUV came around a bend- car #2, 30 miles into the ride- carrying another older couple, but these seemed more city/suburban folk, out exploring desert back roads and by-ways. The driver pulled over, and with his window open as I passed by, smiled and called out, “You’ve got your work cut out for you!” I managed a smile as I pedaled past. My back still hurt, but the horizon ahead had that getting-near-the-top feeling that lifted my spirits. The road wound up a shallow, wooded canyon with snow and mud lingering I the shade, but I easily threaded a mud-free line up. Moments later Tabby Peak re-appeared on the right, and- my back practically on fire- I reached the pass.
I took my only break of the day there, dropping pack and helmet, shooting photos and eating a sandwich. I lay flat on the ground and stared at the sky for a while. The air was warm- low 50’s now- and the sun bright. I day-dreamed for a while, and then thought about how where I was now was so worlds-away totally different than 24 hours earlier.
Side Note: 24 hours earlier I was skiing at Brighton with AW and the Trifecta. Quick clip here:
After a while I sat up and noticed my back didn’t hurt anymore. I pulled out a rag and some lube, cleaned up my chain* and packed up.
*The tiny clay particles of West Desert roads make a fine talc-like dust when dry that works its way in everything. On longer rides it’ll even work its way into the headset and cause an irritating, repetitive crackling/creaking…
The Cedar Mountain Loop is all double-track, but the descents are still a blast. Here’s the first 10 minutes of the descent off Rydalch Pass. As I descend you can see the trees thin, and then, as the canyon opens up, disappear entirely, at an elevation roughly coincident with the upper limit of the wintertime inversion layer. At around 4:45 you’ll see a snow-peaked range dead-ahead in the distance- that’s Pilot Peak in Nevada, a landmarks for Westbound nineteenth-century pioneers using the (ill-advised) Hastings cutoff, and which I climbed in 2002. At around 8:00, you’ll see- way, way out- the Newfoundland Range dead-ahead, capped by pointy Desert Peak*, which I climbed- and blogged about- in April, 2008.
*Not to be confused with DeserET peak, which at this point is behind us, to the right/Southeast, on the other side of the Cedars…
The descent continued for another several minutes, but without much more change in scenery. When the road finally leveled off, the same strong wind was present- only this time at my back. Over the next dozen miles or so, the road rolled and wove in and out of shallow draws, and up and down small, Juniper-studded benches, but always with the wind at my back, and me rarely moving less than 20 MPH.
Looking around I could easily see 50+ miles to the North, West and South. I picked out Pilot Peak, Desert Peak in the Newfoundlands, Ibapah in the Deep Creeks, the rolling humps of the Grassy Mountains to the North, and later, even a glimpse of George H. Hansen Peak in the Fish Springs range- all peaks I’ve climbed in the past decade. And as I rolled fast and nearly effortlessly across the bench-steppe of the West Desert, it seemed like the world unfurled around me not just as a view, but as a map, a map of which I was a part and which was enriched and fleshed out by my own experiences and adventures across it over the past decade. And for the first time in months I felt balanced, level-headed, fully awake, and… in the right place. Somewhere I belonged. Rolling fast across my land. A landscape I knew as well as or better than anyone.
In the big picture, this is the stuff that matters. I can’t remember what I did a month ago at work, but the memory of summiting each of those peaks is burned in my mind. I remember what each one was like- the weather, the wind, the rocks underfoot, what was growing around me.
From time to time I slowed or swerved for clumps of tumbleweeds or meandering cattle, but I rolled on and on, feeling better and stronger, until the incinerator finally peeked back into view. There’s a feeling on long rides- and an all backcountry adventures- of relief and reassurance when you spot your car on the return. Water, food, shelter, a way home- really everything you need is in your car.
A good long solo ride is one where you pedal hard, think hard, and come back clear-headed. And if you can do it in a beautiful place, one that you know, and across which you can tie your experiences and memories together, then it’s even better. Sunday was a fine day.