by Dug Anderson
We were young, inexperienced, and enthusiastic. Alright, we weren’t so young, but we were younger than we are now. And we were all new to mountain biking. So new that we were all still riding our first bikes. In fact, Brad was so new, he was riding on a borrowed bike. And not only were we new, but we were not exactly in the best of shape. Bob was only a couple of weeks out from a broken hand. Tracy was as accident-prone as Jackie Chan on steroids. But boy, what enthusiasm.
If you look at a map of the cliffs and trails surrounding Moab, things seem pretty simple. For example, Gold Bar Rim looks like a ride that simply traverses the top of, you know, Gold Bar Rim. Seven Mile Canyon appears to be a gentle trail through, well, Seven Mile Canyon. And everyone knows the Gemini Bridges trail is easy. Descending Poison Spider Canyon? Cake, right? It’s downhill after all. To four intrepid, yet galactically stupid mountain bike neophytes, it seemed a simple affair to string all four of these rides together to form an all-dayer, a mega-ride. An Epic ride. And while the ride turned out to be indeed epic, simple it was not.
First problem: late start. After leaving Bob’s truck near the bottom of Poison Spider Mesa, we didn’t get to the Gemini Bridges trailhead until close to 10:00 am. We didn’t get underway until nearer 11:00. It was a beautiful morning in early November, which meant darkness would fall around 5:30 pm. Leaving at 11:00 am also ensured that our big breakfast had plenty of time to wear off.
We started, as I mentioned, enthusiastically, down the Gemini Bridges trail. After 6 miles of rolling downhill, we stopped off at the bridges for a quick peek, backtracked a few miles, and headed over toward Seven Mile Canyon, which none of us had ever done. Which brings up the next problem: our complete inability to choose the right path. It only took a mile or two before we’d lost the trail. This adventure took place many moons ago, well before the organized efforts to clearly mark the Moab trails for mountain bikers. And I can only describe our route finding skills as inept. In a sequence that was to become very familiar during the coming long day, we’d reach a fork, spread out, and discover the dead ends of several spurs (many of which provided excellent riding) before regrouping to continue on the “real” trail. In this stumble bumble way, we finally found our way to the lower junction of the Seven Mile Canyon and Gemini Bridges trails. Stupidly, we’d already eaten our lunch, thinking we’d accomplished the hard part, and now we simply had to ride up to Gold Bar Rim, cross it, and quickly descend Poison Spider Mesa back to the car. Stupidly, our entire lunch had consisted of Lunchables and water. Yummy, but hardly sustaining.
Turns out, the climb to the top of Gold Bar rim is complicated. You climb a steep jeep road for several miles to a preliminary “mini rim.” That’s were things really began to fall apart. Wait. No, things were just starting to crumble here. Things would really fall apart much later. While we collected ourselves at the top of this “mini rim,” Tracy, a fine fellow who would probably cheerfully try (and, or course, die trying) to ride to the top of Mt. Everest if someone invited him, began to have trouble with his elbow, which, due to a straight-over-backwards fall on Slickrock the day before (par for the course for Tracy), was now the size of a large grapefruit. After Tracy lost what remained of his breakfast to Montezuma behind some rocks, he discovered a powerbar and some honey-soaked bread in Tracy’s seatpack. Tracy, sacrificing himself, offered the victuals to Bob. Not only does Tracy look like Jesus, he acts like him too. Ignoring the powerbar, which he thought disgusting, Bob started in on the bread. I demanded half. Bob sized me up, decided that in his present condition he probably couldn’t take me, and forked the bread over. And thus we discovered our third problem: bad food decisions. As in, not enough food.
We dropped into the valley preceding Gold Bar Rim, and began the painful climb up. We reached the top in what seemed like no time at all. Dancing around, pointing down the other side at Arches National Park, generally having a good time, we celebrated our tremendous achievement. But to our dismay, instead of heading directly across the top of the rim toward Poison Spider Mesa, the trail immediately left the rim and descended at a steep angle back down toward the valley we had just left. “It must just drop a bit and will regain the rim after just a smidge more,” we speculated. And so we went down. At the very bottom of the valley, the trail turned just as steeply upward, back toward the top of the rim. Go figure. And so we went up. Before we were done with Gold Bar Rim (many hours later), we would repeat this little exercise no less than ten times. Ten times we descended from the rim to the valley floor, and ten times we climbed to the top, each summit a seemingly insignificant measure closer to our goal of Poison Spider Mesa. Which neatly summarizes our fourth problem: no topo map reading skills. We had ignorantly assumed the trail would just trace the rim. What kind of sadist would create a trail that would do this? Well, nowadays, we would design it that way ourselves. Back then, we cursed the route layers.
When we finally reached the end of Gold Bar Rim, after having bushwacked the last mile in order to avoid yet another descent and ascent, we discovered our fifth problem: poor time management skills. It was 5:00 pm, and darkness was falling fast. We were tired, hungry, and getting cold. So now we had to choose: descend the infamous Portal Trail, a singletrack which follows a cliff edge for a mile or so before descending to the Colorado river over some of the most technically demanding terrain Moab has to offer, or quickly find the jeep road that would zip us down Poison Spider Mesa to the waiting truck. Choosing curtain number two, we went down looking for the road. Little did we know we had entered the labyrinth. This terrific area is criss-crossed with sandy jeep roads and slickrock dunes, covered with large juniper trees. An adventure on any other day turned into a grisly death march.
Since it was now almost entirely dark, we pushed, carried, and dragged our bikes over hill, dale, and everything in between. After a very long time, we fought through a stand of junipers, threw our bikes down, and began to rudely debate the options. We could simply collapse, hope to survive the cold night, and find our way down in the morning, or we could continue. Over the years, the hostility and vitriol of that encounter have faded a bit. At the time, it seemed that once the nightmare was over, some of us would never speak to some others of us again. Anyway, after we had insulted and implicated each other sufficiently, we continued. After a time, we began to discover mysterious trail markers, which resemble jeeps or spiders. In our weakened mental state, we even threatened each other’s lives over this: was it a jeep or a spider? A horse or a mule? Who cares? I can’t explain it, we were delirious.
Miraculously, Tracy had a penlight in his seatpack. Using this dim little tool, we followed the breadcrumb trail of jeep/spiders to the proper road, and headed down. Much of the descent of Poison Spider Mesa is fast, smooth dirt road. Other parts are technical, rocky drop-offs. It was late and dark, and we were in a hurry. So we took turns leading. If you heard a crash in front of you, you were to lock up your brakes and shout to whomever was following, after which it was assumed (perhaps fallaciously) we would all administer first-aid to the point man. Somehow, we all made it down alive. The twizzlers and cheese popcorn in the truck were consumed, I think, in a manner resembling a program I saw recently on National Geographic.
While the ride was over, and we were, after all, alive, we still had miles to go before we could sleep. Namely, we had to go into town and eat Poplar Place pizza before the kitchen closed, we had to retrieve our shuttle vehicle from the top of Gemini Bridges, and, and I am not making this part up, we had to drive the three and a half hours back to Salt Lake City. That’s not really part of the ride, so I’ll leave it at this: some of the trip back involved driving side-by-side on I-70 at 2:00 am, windows down, 70 mph, screaming at each other to somehow stay awake until the next driver exchange. Apparently we survived that too. There may not be much to that whole Darwin business after all.Â