A satellite moved from right to left, right overhead. The milky way was about to rise. It was a perfect starry night on the white rim sandstones. A crescent moon had just set on the mesa table top in the middle of Canyonlands National Park, taking the last of the ambient light with it. We all lay on our backs, inside the sleeping bags, staring into the night sky, full of wonder like a bunch of ten year olds, spotting meteorites, constellations, guessing the exact location of the north star and occasionally pointing Suresh’s high powered DeWalt flashlight on a string of stars whenever we had a doubt. Our tents were empty. It was sleep-out night.
Earlier that day, the second day of our White Rim biking tour, we had biked through 27 miles on the white sandstones, through the hardest terrain we could have imagined. Emerging from Candlestick in the morning, we had coasted through the first 9 miles, waiting for Murphy’s Hogback to emerge. Mike and Anne, our guides had warned us about it. “It would be a little harder than Hardscrabble”, Mike had remarked, faintly underlining the degree of difficulty, just enough to keep it within grasp, just enough to keep us interested and encouraged. We had struggled through Hardscrabble. I had barely been able to bike 30% of the way to the top of that section, painfully hauling my bike up the rest of the way. Gasping for breath, gulping down electrolytes, chewing up energy bars and humping on the pedals like there was no tomorrow. It was excruciating. By the time we finally got to the top of Hardscrabble, going up, was the one direction I wished my mountain bike didn’t have to go. I could handle anything else – left, right or downhill, even backwards would be fine. But going up, please! Let there be another day, and another way to do it. Then I thought of skiing and chairlifts for a fleeting moment, but all that melted away quickly with the harsh Utah sun.
Well, all that was just Hardscrabble. Murphy’s Hogback was supposed to be a little harder. I wondered if its a good idea to give up even before you started. I’ll give it a go, I told myself.
And then I saw the unfolding ascent of Murphy’s Hogback emerge, quickly dissolving in its prominence all of my resolve, Mike’s faint encouragement, the memory of Hardscrabble, the alluring and haunting beauty of the canyons and all the easy and comfortable aspects of life in general.
Shit. No way!
So I ended up with another Hardscrabble like attempt. I pushed my pedals like there’s no tomorrow, gulped down electrolytes, gasped for breath, stopped, walked, chewed some energy bars, then humped the pedals a little more and then gave up at around 50% of the way up. Not to forget the blurry vision of Mike effortlessly riding past me on the way up, comforting me that it was OK to walk up the way. Then I found Mike, Rajiv and Suresh hanging out in the shade under a protruding rock face a 100 yards from the top, and promptly gave up, walking. It was tough. Vishnu biked much further up than most of us, but he too gave up eventually. So did our big rig. Anne had a tough time driving up the beast and had to stop and back track a couple times, before giving it all she’d got and revving it all the way to the table top.
We had lunch on the mesa with the most wonderful view we could wish for. Cold sandwiches, chips, soda and fruits served with views that went all the way to La Sal Mountains, the Needles district and much of the Maze district of the Canyons. With the mid day sun high up, and a lone big rock providing some scanty shade real estate, everyone huddled close together. I sat under a Pinyon Juniper tree and looked at the berries. They looked like small blueberries, and are apparently used in making some kind of local gin. All I cared was that they contributed to the shade in some miniscule way. Alcohol was the last thing on my mind.
As we ate lunch, we became a subject of the curiosity of a squirrel and a motorbiker from California. They both amused us no end. The squirrel left us in about 5 minutes, but the biker lingered a little more. As everyone got some much needed rest, Vishnu and I climbed up the lone rock at the top and treated ourselves to some Zen like moments. Mike joined us soon after and confirmed that it was his favorite sleeping spot at the Murphy’s Hogback campground. I experienced a pang of sudden jealousy. I could not be any place else in the world at that moment. The scale of the monuments all around , the raw & wild beauty of the rocks. eons of history in every face and layer, the vast distances my eyes could see, all that filled me with wonder. I felt insignificant, but complete, content and peaceful. The breeze flew through me.
I want to be an atom. An atom, of its own. Free. Free to fly deep into these canyons underneath, or just sit here on the mesa top and soak in the goodness of the universe. I wondered if there was someone standing on the summit of the La Sal mountains looking at us and thinking the same thing. Quite possible.
We were ready to roll in minutes.
An uphill climb almost always comes with a nice downhill, but the White Rim Trail had something else packed for us. The downhill from Murphy’s Hogback proved to be the biggest psychological test of the whole weekend.
“That’s a gnarly downhill you’ve got coming up” the Californian biker had warned us pointing towards the road ahead. “You understand gnarly?, do you.. yeah? It means dangerous.. You get it? It’s really, really steep. Better watch out with those bikes!” he followed, just to make sure we get the point. Mike and Anne ignored him. “It’s ok. Nothing you guys can’t do” they assured us. Just when we got to the edge of the imposing downhill, we found another well meaning old gentleman. He rose from somewhere behind the bushes and decided to offer some good advice right away, before we had a chance of saying Hello.
“I wouldn’t go down on one of those bikes if I were you! Too steep, that one” he said. Then he repeated the same exact sentence, maybe three or four times, much to our annoyance and adding to our anxiety. The right edge of the slope was pretty much a cliff, and the gradient just too steep for my comfort.
“Go for it” Mike quietly prodded, as I loosened by brakes gradually. I let the tires roll, my heart skipping multiple beats. I had to decide really really fast whether to bike it or walk it , as the gradient was taking over my balance. My indecision eventually forced me to stay on the saddle, and in a few sub seconds, it was already too late to jam on the brakes. I had to bike it. “You can do it. You can do it. You can do it..” I kept telling myself in a fast loop, going faster and faster as I picked up speed, rolling downhill in the most thrilling roller coaster ever, ultimately yoo-hooing to the bottom of the slide without any accidents. It was certainly the most thrilling 15-20 seconds of the weekend, or wait, maybe of 2017!
The rest of the day turned out to be some real fun mountain biking with rolling hills and pleasant down hills all the way to camp at Gooseberry. They were “free miles” as we called them – carry enough speed into the climbs and then roll downhill, and just repeat the sequence. Taking your butt off the saddle while you glided also gave some much desired relief to our ravaged behinds. We joked about needing “satin pillows”, with a marked outline of an adult human butt – a “x marks the spot” to aim for, so the worst affected areas can get the most plush treatment.
I remembered our camping night on an earlier trek to Mt Whitney. When the body is sore, the soul feels so complete, and relaxed. Perhaps they are related. The harder you work for something, the better you feel at having achieved it.
We had Pad Thai for dinner, followed by a freshly baked carrot cake, thanks to Mike and Anne, who were absolutely delightful and so kind hearted. We sat nursing our sore muscles, joked, sipped some whiskey and then decided to sleep outside under the stars. It turned out to be a great decision.
As the night deepened and the milky way emerged, I wondered when I may do it again. Spend a night under the stars and fill my life with amazement and wonder. Feel the whole universe around me, twinkling and shining in the stars over my head, flowing in the breeze over my body, in the warmth of the sandstone underneath me, rustling in the wild junipers and expanding into a whole eternity all around, miles in all directions.
I felt engulfed in the whole. Like a drop sinking into a massive wave.
A small atom.