7:30 the next morning we rode north out of Moab and followed a paved road for a few miles before turning west into a vast expanse of empty desert. The first few miles went well, the temperatures were reasonable in the early morning air and haze obscured the breathtaking panoramas we would see later in the day. This enabled full concentration on the rock and sand trails as I followed Jon over a short rocky step out onto the first of a series of tilting plains.
Although I am no geologist I would guess that the main rock formations were of sedimentary origin, deposited by the sea millions of years ago. It was quite clear that later more water had played an essential part in carving the huge gorges and crevices and had finally left a cracked and broken landscape of mammoth proportions.
It soon became clear that heat was going to be the overriding impression left by this formidable place. It was only 9:30am and the thermometer on Jon's bike was already reading 110 degrees. The heat haze obscured the route ahead and huge pieces of rock buttress looked as if they were floating on the horizon like UFO's . After a few hours of following interstate 70 quite closely we began to enter ever more broken ground and were finally presented with a bare rock ridge which looked like the extended back of an armoured dinosaur. I had been waiting for this section all morning and was well aware of what was to come.
A series of deep narrow canyons criss-crossed under the interstate and eventually led to the open plains away to the south. These canyons were renowned for being twisty, tight, full of sand, and having steep sandy climbs out to the plateaux summit. I had known about 'The Sand Box' and 'Cat Canyon' ever since planning the trip three years previously. They had nearly proved the undoing of a fellow traveller called Russell Fisher who had become exhausted and fallen so many times in the rut filled canyons that he had been unable to lift his bike without unloading all his luggage. As we dropped into the canyon the heat eased and the riding heated us up...
We passed under a bridge carrying the interstate hundreds of feet above us as we weaved and slid down the canyon floor, the cool air fooling us into a sense of expansive volume as the first canyon closed in on us ever further. The end of the canyon was signified by a sandy climb up a steep sidewall with huge rocky steps. I slid the bike around the sandy hairpin base successfully and was too busy congratulating myself when the first rock step appeared. As the steepness of the step caught me unaware I eased my throttle momentarily to work out my route ahead, and stopped dead. The trail was already steep and starting with little momentum over this terrain was one of the trips more nerve wracking moments. The bike bounced ahead violently as my chosen route became little more than a pipe dream and the engine forced the bike through its perceived path of least resistance. I was lucky to make the top and was flung about like a rag doll until the bike spat me out shaking at the summit. Jon grinned and proclaimed it was a great day, I wasn't quite so sure.
I on the other hand, was pretty damn positive that this was not the best of days. It would appear that I am not destined to be a great desert racer, because I still can't stand sand. The various deep sand canyons were basically a miserable experience as far as I was concerned. I had no trouble at all with the supposed 'killer climb' out of Eagle Canyon, but Cat Canyon and Devil Canyon saw me spending much time shouting expletives at the top of my voice whilst I tried to pick up the bike, again and AGAIN! On the up side, the canyons with shallower sand or harder packed trails were quite superb and a joy to ride. On balance, the day was good despite my inability to stay on the bike and the bad moods it induced
The following series of ever narrower canyons provided three more memorable events. The first was my view of Jon stuck up to his sump guard in soft sand in 130 degree heat haze with a huge rooster tail ejecting from the back of his bike as he forced it through sand and rock, the second was Jon ripping his sump guard open on rocks after a mis-timed suspension bottom out (We stopped to effect repairs and Jon informed us of the merits of motorcross boots as he mercilessly pounded the base of the guard with rock and boot). The temperature continued to increase and was heading firmly towards the maximum 135 degress shown on our team thermometer as we entered memorable event three. Cat Canyon. seven miles of twisting, narrow, baking, rutted, deep sand track. We all fought our own battles through this section and I lost track of time, place, and the other riders. It was a little like passing my bike test. When it was over I couldn't really say what had happened or whether it had lasted for seconds or hours, I only knew that the grin on my face told me I had loved it! We regrouped and took stock of fuel, bike condition, and water. It seemed we were doing ok.
The final section of the day led us forward across more open desert through dust caked rolling hills and easier tracks. It seemed that we had escaped the canyons and that unusually we were going to meet our daily target with no mishaps. How wrong we were...
Fast roads and simple navigation led us unwittingly into a mistake that ultimately we could find no solution for. We were meeting all our navigational targets and were certainly not lost when we came across an unexpected 'river bed'. This bed was huge and clearly the result of a large flood in recent times, the road led into the bed, but it didn't lead out! We searched for ages along the silt coated bed, the bikes squirming as we occasionaly broke through the crust or rode through dust, scrub and vegetation.
After an hour we had searched the near bank, retraced our steps, and begun a search of the far bank and associated valleys. I heard a shout from Jon. Despite being in 130 degrees of heat in the Utah desert it seemed that he had found the only patch of mud in 200 000 square miles. His bike had sunk up to its battered sump and was clearly going nowhere without assistance. I immediately left Jon and Stef to extract the bike and headed to check the final sections of the valley floor on foot in an attempt to verify the existence of a continuing trail. After half a mile of sweat I could see no trails and concluded that our attempt to push through using a guessed Sat Nav point was probably doomed to fail, as all the rideable valleys seemed to lead us away from our required direction. I staggered back to the bike dreaming of cooling air flows only to find more bad news. The bike was now sunk beyond its rear axle and seemed to heading downwards into the mud not out.
The mud was rapidly pronounced quicksand and the great dig for victory initiative began. I wish I could describe the effect of the heat as I sat in an airless riverbed dressed from top to toe in full protective cordura jacket and motorcross boots digging and dragging furiously at 200+kg of motorbike. But I cant. The bike finally came out, but at the cost of our remaining water and time. We plotted a GPS course and headed for the road as quickly as we could, fully aware of the impact of waterless travel in these surroundings.
An hour later we sat in a Burger King outside Salina spitting up balls of dust phlegm (and getting some very odd looks from other customers) and abusing the 'as many refills as you want' drinks section. Another day nearly over.
We rode a further 17 miles on road after the Burger King to get us to our hotel for the night. Richfield allowed us to jet wash our bikes and spend a little time on maintenance. Jon had electrical problems and Stef and I needed to attend to the usual chain and air filter issues.