As navigator I was rather concerned by the size of the paper roll that came out of the roll map bag the next morning. It was immediately clear that micro navigation was going to be the order of the day. A quick inspection showed junction following junction at minimal interval distances of 0.06 and 0.1 miles. A scan of the empty horizon and memories of last nights final few bare desert miles led me to believe (correctly as it turned out) that this was going to be a memorable day.
Stef led off with the remnants of the previous days maps and we were lost in minutes as Stef searched in vain for a highly unlikely 'track’ heading randomly into the desert. Discovery came after 20 wasted minutes we knew we didn’t have and after a few dusty miles we hit a road and the day began in earnest with me searching for our first tracks into the true wilderness.
We weren't really lost you know, we couldn't be, I could still see the motel! As it trurns out it was entirely my fault for measuring the first distance of the day from the end of the previous day's riding rather than from the motel, which meant that all subsequent distances were out...
The basic plan was to head south around a mountain called Chokecherry, and then north west into Cave Valley, and finally north into White Pine County before crossing a pass and dropping down to cross Highway 50 and riding into Eureka. In theory this sounded simple, practice was to prove a little harder!
As I tentatively picked out the first trail of the day my brain was still fuzzy from sleep and dust. We rose gradually on a recognisable track and began complex series of twists and turns to pick out a route through virgin desert. The trails were seemingly random and often purposeless as they followed no features or obvious landmarks and faded in and out. All navigation points were relative to the previous turn and distance meaning any slip would render the map user hideously lost. Strangely it always seemed to be these sections that lacked the ever comforting GPS points, I cursed Sam at the time but in retrospect I am glad for the opportunity he provided for getting lost and making an enormous balls up of the entire operation. As most of you reading this will understand it is the relief of success and triumph over adversity that provides the sense of achievement needed to drive these ventures. Any attempt to logically analyse any trip usually results in the conclusion that all participants must be barking mad...Hmmm.
We pushed on south with only one nervous track re-trace and passed Chokecherry in less than an hour. As our path turned west we started to crest a series of low rises and found ourselves with the now ever present sensation of being totally alone. The land looked strangely flat and I found myself feeling sorry for the early settlers who could well have been totally unaware of tens of thousands of hostile Indians hiding pretty much anywhere in these regions. Suddenly we rounded a slope and stopped in the middle of a field of cows. Except for the heat we could have been in a field in Sussex. I stopped amazed by this change of scenery as I watched a lovely little stream merrily bubbling by a hay bail. My navigation said nothing about cows or streams, nor did it tell me where to exit this phenomena, so I carried straight on and headed slightly north of west hoping we were not lost again.
More random trails and tracks led further north until a strange turn on the roll map led us to the middle of a stunted dead forest down a barely recognisable trail. At first I was convinced we were horribly lost and that I had made a major navigational error, but after a turn and recheck everything seemed in the correct place. It was to be the last turning I recognised on the road book for 15 miles as we fought uphill to 7500ft on a series of dry river beds, faded trails, scrub land and, rocky scree filled mountain sides. I was sure we were lost, but equally convinced that the low point between the two peaks ahead was our destination. Surely we had just strayed from the path... Actually we hadn’t, we were on the 'path’ and after crossing the pass and dropping a few thousand feet I was very happy to see a windmill on the horizon which was mentioned on the map. Stef had sustained a couple of falls and we were all sweating like maniacs (as usual) but were were not lost and had wasted little time...
We headed north and into another huge valley before exiting upwards onto a series of ridges overlooking Cave Valley. Navigating these trails and tracks safely could only be done at a pace which ensured 12 and 14 hour riding days (if you didn’t get lost), not great when you need to service bikes, eat food, sort maps, etc, etc every night. The obvious way around this problem was to pick up the pace a little on easier sections, and not to stop regularly when navigating each turn. The system of doing this was a little like plate spinning in its complex sequence of tasks to be completed in too short a time. There were GPS’s to check, maps to look at, distances to calculate, odometers to reset, scenery to look at, and finally the bike to ride. Needless to say these practices often came into conflict and eventually something had to give. Usually slowing or stopping the bike allowed the time necessary to sort out any problems, but sometimes there was no time.
I was riding along the top of a ridge line at around 40/50 mph, the navigation was tricky and the land was complex and broken. I was checking my GPS for general direction info, visualising the next turn, and checking its distance on the roll map and odometer. As I did all of this I was constantly glancing up at the trail and back to my instruments feeding in gentle alterations to steer the best course I could along the bendy tracks and trails. After one bend I glanced up and at the last minute double checked the route ahead as a glint caught my eye. By the time my brain had processed the relevant information it was too late to stop, I was about to ride into a barbed wire fence at around 40 mph. Even at this late stage I recognised my choices. Jump now and risk wrecking my bike, or lock the back wheel and lay the bike down with me underneath it. This would allow me to break the bikes’ fall and control the slide as I passed under/through the fence. At the time the process of thought wasn’t quite this clear, but this illustrates the basic ideas!
When Stef and Jon came around the corner they found the bike wrapped in a fence with me underneath. I had struggled to get out from under the fence and had succeeded in moving the bike a little but my right leg was firmly wedged under the rear wheel, and worryingly it was pointing the wrong way. Stef immediately got off his bike and ran to help me relieve the weight on my right side, Jon took a picture. As I squirmed free my foot twanged back into position and I was aware for the first time of how much it hurt. I rolled around on the floor for a while hoping for a bit of sympathy from the other two but my ploy was met with disinterest. I thought about a groan or two but dismissed it on the grounds of pride. I hobbled upright and waggled my leg about a bit. It seemed alright, but I couldn’t put any weight on it. Stef lifted the bike and Jon kicked it over. The fence was moved and progress continued. Albeit a little slower than before.
Not being able to put any weight on my foot meant no standing on pegs, or steering the bike with bodyweight. Without the ability to do this it was inevitable that I would fall again. I did, and if we hadn’t been about to discover ourselves on the wrong mountain pass, horribly lost, I probably would have made more of it and tried for the sympathy vote again. As it was we all had a little more than ankle problems to worry about (I limped for a few days, but the longest lasting bruise turned out to be on my left thigh where the handlebar embedded itself, if you ever see me and want to mention it...).
High on the wrong pass we reflected on what had gone wrong. Some dubious turns had led to a great fixed map point as the trail passed over some smooth rocks. Immediately after this we had dropped into Chimney Rock Springs and stopped at a stunning piece of secluded open grassland near rocks and a spring. We were certainly not lost there. After a short break I had followed a trail but never quite matched the map or instructions with our surroundings. Keen to make good time I had fallen for the oldest navigational error in the world. Fixing what you see with what you think the directions say. By this time we had become well acquainted with a herd of cows two miles down the track, entering and exiting their corral from many angles in the search for inspiration. To blank stares we roared, in and out, up and down in front of them. We were lost.
Luckily I was fully aware of my last definite known location and after a considerable amount of wandering we returned to the 'Springs. A careful read of the directions produced a different interpretation than my first attempt. The instructions read 'Leave the rocks to the left’, not 'leave the rocks on the left’, as I had thought. Such subtle nuances caused us daily navigational traumas and this event was to be no different. We set out following a search pattern around the rocks and finally located a faint trail leading to the left of the our original line. It differed by no more than 15 degrees of angle and looked identical for the first few hundred yard, but critically it cut a sharp left soon after and led us due west and down from the heights of the passes through steep walled canyons to lunch and a deliciously air cooled diner.
After a fuel and food stop I led us out once more and in keeping with the days traditions got us lost within the first 2 miles. After some advice from a well meaning local we found our trail and set off over fast open tracks through grassland and forest. The riding was blissfully easy and allowed full appreciation of the scenery and atmosphere of the surrounding hills. Real green grass sprouted as far as we could see and we passed through such memorable places as; 'Hamilton : Pop 7’. Another big town! By 5:30 pm we had only 30 miles to go and were full of self congratulation for a job well done under adverse conditions. By 6:00 pm we were hopelessly lost on an expansive plain with no track or trails in site. Jon had ridden to the top of a nearby mountain for inspiration and Stef and I were confused and scratching our heads as both our GPS’s put us at least fifty miles north of our last known map position.
We could only assume a latitude map misprint, but that really didn’t help. Our map comfortingly told us not to stray onto mining tracks in the area and we were horribly aware of the effects of trespassing having accidentally transgressed earlier in the trip.
Whilst in Colorado a wrong turn after an 11 mile stretch had finally led to us to riding through someone’s garden. A very irate house owner called us to task as we tried to explain our predicament. All the usual excuses and hopeful whines tumbled out, 'we’re English you know’, 'our maps are wrong’, 'could you help us please’, etc. Unfortunately this did little to placate the offended parties, and I thought that getting off my bike and showing them a map, whilst being polite in my best English would help stem the bad feelings. It wasn’t a great plan. My stand sunk into the garden as I un-weighted my suspension and caused an inevitable bike drop. This could possibly have been forgiven had I not hit Stefs bike on the way down causing a similar effect. Rather than having three bikes riding over their garden the owners now had two bikes and bikers lying on their garden leaking petrol and oil all over their flower beds. I could see attitudes soften a little as they realised that we were probably insane and in need of all the help we could get. As I struggled to lift my bike Jon explained that we were riding 5000 miles across their fair country, unassisted, and that we were all competent and responsible riders. Cursing under his breath Stef started to turn purple as he tried for the 50th time to kick over his flooded XR. I brushed off some dirt and flowers from my jacket and helpfully waved a map as Jon’s comments faded. After a short conversation it turned out we were on a road about a mile to the south of our intended route and that should we make a mistake again we would probably be shot at. By 'old timers' with a shoot first, ask questions later policy.
At this comforting piece of information Stef’s bike finally coughed into life again and he rode onto a sloping piece of earth to turn it around. I thanked the owners for their advice assuring them that this was all a huge misunderstanding and that as responsible and expert riders this would not happen again. As I finished my sentence I heard an unmistakable crunch. I put on my helmet, smiled sweetly, and rode off as fast as I could leaving Stef to pick up his bike again whilst he covered over more petrol and oil leaks and furiously tried to start his ever failing XR. Oh yes, we knew not to trespass!
A little old fashioned compass work, some guessing, and an undisclosed amount of good luck saw us hitting highway fifty only twenty miles from Eureka. It was 7:30pm and a hotel called. It had been another day on the trail and after a short road ride and some food and beer, we slept. Very vell.
Eureka was a fascinating little place, more reminiscent of an old wild west town than anywhere else we had seen on the trip. Genuine old buildings from the last century (19th !) formed a striking main street and included an old opera house and saloons. The mountains of the US desert regions were clearly well endowed with both mineral and gem stone deposits as we regularly rode past Emerald/Opal mines, disused iron ore mines, and gold mines. Like most small desert towns Eureka had been funded by mining since its conception in the late 1800’s, but was now suffering heavily from mine closures. As we sat in the bar I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation between the barman and another tourist. It seemed that from 20 operating mines in the mid 1900’s there were just two left operational, one was due to close in the next year. Desperate for money most towns have turned to tourism, and time after time we saw many advertisements for a small town only to arrive at a desolate ruin with less than 25% of its main street store fronts occupied. These small towns are simply too far apart for the mass tourism market to support them. I wonder what will happen to the people whose future has depended on ranching and mining operations. It seems clear that the economy of small town America is collapsing, leaving little choice but a change of location or the ever visible destitute housing of the displaced and poor.