Aspen trees are my favorite. Especially many of them together, endless and crowded. When the wind waves through groves of aspen it creates a sound that is the very definition of peace and solitude. It is impossible not to feel alive and whole and wonderful when surrounded by the quaking leaves and wind of an aspen forest. And so, what better way to begin, and end, an odyssey like the Dixie Lite?
Nervous energy bounced from rider to rider. We greeted one another with handshakes and hugs and mutual admiration. Old friends. And new ones. All bound together by the audacity and ambition of what lie ahead of us. Singletrack. Dirt. Rock and forest and fear. Hunger and elated euphoria. Some were setting out on a journey of over 300 miles. And others, a mere 170. But the electricity was real and tangible. And each of us was hiding our apprehension with toothy grins.
It was time to ride.
We left our vehicles and our doubts at Woods Ranch, a small recreation area outside Cedar City, Utah. The morning sun was a brilliant ball of optimism and light. The morning air, crisp and welcoming. It was, at long last, summer in the high country. The enormity of whatever it was we had each set out to accomplish was dwarfed by the natural and ebullient potency of the moment. The wide smiles of the parking lot were still plastered on our faces—molded, goofy halloween masks.
Narrow and primitive at times, the Virgin River Rim Trail begins high in the aspen forests of Black Mountain. Wildflowers cover the forest floor and natural meadows interupt the thick density of the aspen groves. The trail snakes and winds through the trees, quiet and unassuming. Like the trickling headwaters of rivers that become mighty and wide, eventually the trail becomes well marked and well traveled. But in the shadow of Black Mountain, it is pristine and silent and beautiful. Sunday evening, as the sun started to sink behind the western wall of peaks and trees I would find myself on this same stretch of trail. Elated and worn and still—improbably—wearing that same idiotic grin that I had some 35 hours before. I sang an impromptu line, tone deaf and delirious as I was:
“Up up the mountain side.”
“Smilin’ smilin’, smilin wide.”
The car, food, and that sweet satisfaction of a journey’s end was right at my fingertips. Only a matter of time. In fact, riding once again that brief and elegant section of trail was like a homecoming. A return. It, rather than the parking lot, felt like the ride’s finish. Its Grand Finale. The pain and exhaustion and the dirt and grime were forgotten. Eclipsed by the grandeur and unexpected spontaneity of the moment. I stopped. Briefly. And listened to the wind and the leaves. I drank the thin air deeply and deliberately. I did not want the moment to pass. I wanted to stay indefinitely among the trees and flowers of Black Mountain and Deer Haven.
The previous day seemed a lifetime ago. The views into Zion National Park and off of Cedar Breaks were inspiring and breathtaking. Saturday morning was spent gulping down wide-angled wilderness and navigating bumpy, dark singletrack. As the day wore on, the riding became faster, even easier. Long stretches of remote dirt road passed through red and black and brown patches of southern Utah high desert country. Red rock pinnacles and castles appeared randomly in the midst of scrub or pine or aspen. In the distance snow-covered peaks touched the sky. The sun was high and hot. Some of the friendly sheen of the morning had faded into the stillness of the heavy afternoon. The silence of the forest was broken by the constant buzz and song of some unknown insect. Their whirring chirp became a consistent companion throughout the endeavor. The sky gleamed a deep blue.
I rounded a corner and there was Lynda Wallenfels, resting the shade.
We rode the remaining miles into Hatch, Utah together. A few minutes later we were staring in wonderment at the plates of food that had been placed in front of us at the quaint, but surprisingly busy, Cafe Adobe. My turkey sandwich arrived first. It was the size of a football. Cheese. Bacon. Turkey. French fried potatoes on the side. I wondered about the wisdom and prudence of trying to eat such large and copious quantities after eight hours of riding. And with at least another 4 ahead of me, I wondered even further. But after a bite or two the voracious hunger that I did not know was gnawing at my gut roared its head in ferocious manifestation. Meanwhile, Lynda was going to work on the largest hamburger I’d ever seen—aptly named “The Gambler.” I struggled to finish my turkey and swiss. She on the other hand, devoured the The Gambler with the utmost ease.
Like the ride itself, those sandwiches began with each of us biting off more than we could chew. But little by little, the miles and the hours and the doubt crept into the shadows of happy legs, good conversation, and the majestic Dixie tablelands of red and pink and brown. A land shaped and eroded by time and weather and volcanic expression. We flittered and rolled across the top—and youngest—step of The Grand Staircase.
The sun started to droop into the west while we spun the easy miles along the Fremont ATV Trail. Both mental and physical fatigue had started to ware away at our enthusiastic outlook. I was craving the relative comfort of my bivy and the ethereal escape of sleep. Overlooking the famous Thunder Mountain singletrack, we laid out camp and crawled into our bags. Tired. Sleepy. Dusty. In the distance the Tushar Mountains interrupted the horizon, and the Sevier Plateau loomed dark and purple. My heart raced as I tried to unwind from a 13 hour day. 90 miles behind me. 80 more to go.
Apprehension and doubt crept back from the darkness as I drifted off to sleep under the stars of Thunder Mountain.