I awoke to complete darkness in the unfamiliar bedroom in a rented condo in St. George, Utah. I looked at my watch: 4:01 AM.
“Dang,” I said to myself silently. “It’s not time yet.”
My alarm was set for 4:30. I had an ambitious day planned with my shiny new Warbird. The students in my Field Methods in Geology class had the day “off” to finish their second mapping project. That meant I could sneak away and ride until the afternoon.
I nestled my head back into the pillow and slept for another 30 minutes before excitedly getting up, putting on some needlessly warm clothes, hastily drank a cup of coffee, and slipped out into the silent, still morning.
My aim was northward, up along the Santa Clara River on pavement, past the Beaver Dam Mountains on dirt roads, through the tiny community of Motoqua, and then into depths of the completely unknown (to me) Bull Valley Mountains. For years, I’ve spent time riding in St. George and wondered what was hidden in these mountains.
An hour in, my Warbird was silently gliding up toward my turn off pavement. I haven’t had a skinny-tired bike in years, so it was a delight to be on one again.
Two hours in, I was bumping along a rolling graded dirt road watching anxiously as the first light of the day began to illuminate the mountains and valleys around me. The views were huge. The road was deserted. And I was making good time.
Edging closer to the Bull Valley Mountains after three hours, I found myself among scattered Joshua trees and looking into a deep drainage. It was the type of valley you don’t realize is ahead of you until you suddenly find yourself staring down into it from the edge. According to the GPS track, my route dropped down into the depths of this valley before starting a climb that would continue for many miles. Skittering down through loose river cobbles, I laughed. I no longer had any idea what to expect about what lay ahead of me.
The few houses comprising Motoqua, a community devastated by several major floods in the last decade, disappeared behind me after four hours of pedaling. The road quickly deteriorated into more of a Jeep trail. I began to get a bit nervous as I traveled deeper into the mountains. As I commonly do, I expected the dirt roads to be two-tracks in reasonably good shape, hence my choice of riding the Warbird. Perhaps I bit of more than I could chew with this loop. But for the time being, the little road was still rideable.
After five hours, I was cranking up steep climbs, struggling to turn over my pedals while navigating ruts and rocks. Along ridgelines, the “road” was in good shape, but climbs and descents were becoming interesting.
Far below me, I could see cottonwoods in a wash. Six hours of pedaling planted me squarely in the heart of what was apparently some very rugged and remote country. Descending steeply down a trail on which a Bucksaw would have been far more appropriate, I struggled to find and hold a rideable line. My Warbird slid and bucked around. Finally reaching the bottom, I paused under a cottonwood to eat some almonds before beginning a long hike-a-bike back out of the drainage. It was that old game again…steeply down, steeply up, repeat. But every high point delivered spectacular views, and I hadn’t seen any sign of other people in hours. There were not even tracks of any sort on the road.
Each climb made my legs burn, forcing me to hike up the steepest parts. And some sections were too rubbly to even attempt to pedal up. My pace had dropped notably in the seventh hour, but according to the map, I was only four miles from the graded dirt road that would carry me out of the mountains. This brought a sense of relief as my legs were wearing out, it seemed like my luck with avoiding a sliced tire on the sharp rock would likely end soon, and I was nearly out of water.
Just after eight hours of riding, I cursed myself for hitting a big pothole as I descended quickly down toward the river canyon far below. I had made it off the rugged old mining trails and onto the graded road, but in my exhausted haste, I pinch flatted. Well, I couldn’t have imagined a much more scenic place to fix a flat. I sat down in the road, ate the last of my cookies, and swapped out a new tube for my punctured one.
Pavement felt delightfully smooth after so many hours of rough dirt. The mile markers along the highway passed by rapidly. I watched my new friends, the Bull Valley Mountains, disappear behind me. I now knew what they hid among their many little peaks and isolated valleys. Looking around as St. George came into view, I wondered if there was a good way to ride around Pine Valley Mountain, the peak that towers over town to the north.
My Warbird seemed to laugh: “There’s always a way”, it said. “Maybe this weekend?”
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After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. www.krefs.blogspot.com