Category Archives: Southern Utah

New Zealand final days

I returned to the North island several days earlier than I thought I would.  After really having to search out rides, and weed out the good from the stupid, I think that I got to ride most of what I had come to the South Island to do, and felt like there were a few unchecked boxes back on the North side of the straight.

The big difference between the two islands for me, was the quality and concentration of the riding. There seem to be a smattering of good and unique rides on the South Island but spread out all over the place, not having the concentration that exists in the Taupo/Rotorua area. South Island riding also seems to place a lower value on good climbing single-track than anywhere in the North. I actually witnessed this from a rider in Christchurch who turned onto a paved road to get back up to a downhill trail, instead of riding what was a wonderfully technical but thoroughly rideable section of single-track. As I gave him the stink eye, he sheepishly yelled back, “I just can’t be bothered with the technical uphill’s”.  This seems to reflect a downhill or die mentality, and while I like to let gravity do the work as much as anyone, I find it to be much more rewarding to feel as if you have earned those moments.

Upon landing in Wellington, I drove up the stunning southwest coast towards the strato volcano of Taranki National park. I knew it looked similar to Mount Fuji in Japan, but I was unprepared to top a rise in the road and have it reveal itself all at once, suddenly there is a volcano in your windshield. Details eventually became discernable, but a low overcast was keeping the light from being worth photographing, and so I camped hoping for better conditions the next day. Unfortunately, it began to rain in the early evening and continued all night and into the next day. This is the best part of being here for so long, as a rainy day (or 3) is not the travesty that it would be if I only had two weeks here. After some rainy photos in a forest fit for gnomes and trolls I started to drive east.

tara3

The lost world road

There is often a bit of poetry to a place name. I can think of many places that I felt an irresistible urge to visit for no other reason than the beauty, mystery, or shear compelling nature of the name. The Cabeza Prieta desert, The Enchantment range, The Gates of the Artic, Valhalla Canyon, Druid Arch and the City of Rocks being a very short list.  Who among us would not feel a sense of curiosity at a road that traverses a part of the island with no towns and named the “lost world highway”? Not only could I not resist but it was taking me where I wanted to go.

I think that there is beauty to be found nearly everywhere on this planet, but these two islands have a concentrated, intense, and dependable beauty that lurks around every bend in the road and crest of a hill. It eventually becomes difficult to describe what I am surrounded by without resorting to the same superlatives over and over. It makes me wonder if there is a language better suited than English for the task of describing the jaw dropping landscapes I am constantly surrounded by. Do hieroglyphic languages have more expansive and nuanced depictions of beauty than the Arabic based system that we use?

The lost world road began in typical Zealandia fashion, meaning there were beautiful green rolling hillsides, tree fringed streams, and riotous vegetation along a narrow winding road, and all of it crawling with fucking sheep. Eventually the farms and pastures thinned out and the forest began to dominate, with that forest slowly giving way to what they call the “bush”, meaning lush, native, virginal and dense enough to hide tribes of undiscovered cannibals. Slowly the hillsides rise along the road, riven at intervals by bisecting drainages, which offered glimpses into the misty depths of what I could imagine to be timeless pockets of existence. I don’t know that peering into one of these brief windows and seeing a dinosaur standing on the fringe of the jungle would come as a complete surprise, in fact I started to keep an eye out for them just in case.   The road began to follow a contour high above the course of the river, yet uniquely in such a deep declivity, it was placid, languid, and a tannin stained brown, which is something I had not seen here until now. After several miles of staring into depths of a gorge that might as well been on the moon for the taunting inaccessibility that it represented, the road descended through a series of turns back downward and through a narrow and jungly canyon. Here the hills sharpened into peaks and differentiated themselves towards monoliths, taking on the karst limestone aspect, of sharp sheer cliffs, with spires and crenellations appearing where the stone was visible through the smothering vegetation. In the space of just a few miles travel the entire landscape had changed to something more reminiscent of South East Asia, than an island far closer to Antarctica.

Just before crossing the river for the last time, there was a small pullout and a short path that disappeared into the trees. A tributary of crystalline water slid down an s-curve of smooth limestone chutes before dropping over a series of terraces, and nosily joined the main stream.  At the top of this slice of Eden was a gravesite. A whitewashed cross and simple stone-work marked the grave of one of the original surveyors of the route through this seemingly impenetrable wilderness of leaf, water and stone. The small plaque gave few clues beyond name and occupation, leading me to wonder how he came to have the fortune to have such an idyllic resting place, and what circumstances would require burying a body in what must have been a howling wilderness. With no other information my imagination took over and created an epic story of months long hardships, danger, natives, warfare, and eventual miserable death. Hopefully my imaginations do justice to the actual story, and it doesn’t turn out that he choked to death on a piece of mutton or something equally prosaic.

At the head of the canyon the cliffs began to shrink back into steep hillsides and the first hints of civilization appeared in the form of fences, pastures and eventually sheep. I was not ready to rejoin the manicured and so I turned back a few miles, camped at the side of the river, and fell asleep to the smooth hiss of the water along the shore.

lost5

A misty morning, after a night of pattering to pounding rain on the roof of the van. Birdsong greets me each morning no matter where I raise my lids. It permeates the damp airwaves, coming from every direction at once with never a moment of pure silence. With constant tittering and talking over each other I wonder how any complete messages can be either sent or received. As I try to listen closer, most are simple chirps and squawks of their kind. These birds look like oridnary sparrows, small and furtive, living out their secret lives of safety among the branches, and not worth a meal if there was anything here to stalk them. I imagine their incessant chatter to be their version of frivolous gossip, celebrity innuendo, and the morning news.

How you doing?

Good, how you doing?

Good, find anything to eat?

Nope, how bout you?

Nope, hey if we got enough of us together we could eat that guy in the van.

Nahhh, he looks like mostly gristle.

The moist air carries the occasional song of what I have come to think of as the jungle birds. These range from a jungle sound track howler monkey thing, with another that sounds like a rusted door hinge, to one that I have christened the drippy faucet bird for its annoying and incessant plunk, plunk, plunk.  Yet the one that seems to stand out due to the bell like clarity of pure distinct tones, I believe is actually called the bell bird. Its song has the purest notes that rise and fall authoritatively above the inane background chatter and cicada hiss.  Never close, this one always arrives to my ear as from a great distance on the very edge of my hearing, like distant drumming coming faint on a breeze born deep in the jungle. It stands out from the typical in what sound like the precise pitch of each of its notes, neither sharp of flat. And while it begins with a sense of confidence, by the end of the few notes that comprise the song it becomes plaintive and longing, with the last note trailing off in what feels like despair. I have yet to hear any distant answer to it, and after three or four refrains it simply stops, unanswered and silent.  I find it strange to hear so much in a simple bird song, and yet besides the spring canyon wrens and the throaty cackle of ravens, the desert has few sounds to compare to such a daily cacophony.

In fact, the desert is perhaps the most opposite thing that one can conceive of here, and is perhaps the single environment that is not represented anywhere on either island.  At various times in the past two months I have felt like I was in California, Scotland, Ireland, Thailand, Switzerland, Alaska, Maine, Wyoming, England, Coastal Oregon, and any equatorial jungle where you would need a machete to step off the trail.  I don’t know that there is any other place on the planet that holds the diversity of terrain that occurs over such small linear space as these two islands.

Yet I am admittedly starting to miss the desert, its quietude, starkness, space and freedom. Moving over un-manufactured terrain here is difficult to impossible. If there isn’t a trail going to where you want to get to, good luck getting there. I struggled up a small hill off the roadside in Arthurs Pass to attain a viewpoint for some photographs, and it was a full-on battle to gain a hundred feet of elevation. I am still puzzled at the existence a bog on the side of a hill so steep and so overgrown with vegetation that I was at one-point squeezing between thickets of surprisingly un-supple branches, and yet my feet were sodden and squishing through saturated moss at the base. I can’t imagine the scope of the effort required to develop trails, tracks and eventually roads through most of this, maybe that is why they just set most of it on fire first. Though burning a bog must take a shit ton of kindling.

The Tongariro crossing

The scenes of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were filmed on the side of a volcanic wasteland along an eighteen-kilometer-long trail called the Tongariro crossing. Since its release, the country of New Zealand has worked hard to capitalize on people wanting to see where the Hobbits lived, even to the point of marking Mount Doom on many maps. The Tongariro crossing has now become as popular as any National park trade route such as Half Dome in Yosemite, and concessioners provide shuttle service to the start after picking hikers up at their cars staged at the finish.

I have an aversion to both hiking, and crowds, and combining the two is simply not what I imagine a vacation to be. One of my many versions of hell would be to be conscripted into membership in what is called a “Tramping Club” here, a “Hiking Club” at home, and in my mind the “walk of the living dead”. This is basically old people walking around with hiking sticks discussing: A. The Weather, B. How things used to be, (including the weather) or C. Body parts that either no longer work, or are no longer installed. I would be hiking along pondering possible methods of killing myself along the way.  So, when Jonny of 4B’s suggested that I should not leave here without experiencing the Tongariro crossing I felt compelled to take his advice since he was right about everything else, but loathe to cue up and make conversation about hemorrhoids and enemas.  As a result of my misanthropy, I hatched a plan to start at the finish, do the hike as an out and back, and begin at 4am. Those things would take care of the crowds, there was no way to eliminate the hiking.

Rain, thunder and lightning made sleep come in bite sized portions, and when the alarm went off at 3am, I was already up and brewing coffee. At first glance the sky was completely overcast, and I considered returning to the sleeping bag, but 10 minutes later it had cleared to a display of stars I cannot recall an equal to in all of my years outside in the dark. I stood slack jawed until the muscles in my neck began to rebel: if it was raining I would have drowned like a turkey.

I had camped about 15 minutes from the start of the hike, but the rain had apparently been heavier at the trailhead, because I soon had to veer around and drive over several mudslides and rock fall that had come over the road.  The trail was wet but only had about 50 meters where the rain had deconstructed it and I had to follow a still flowing water course.

Hiking by headlamp is always an adjustment over daylight as you have only a cone of perception to your world, but your awareness of everything outside of that cone is still present, and that everything else becomes the unknown. In the desert the light is rigidly trained on the ground in front of you to watch for rattlesnakes, you swing your head side to side of the path hoping to see them before they are too close. Here I could let the light play upon the walking surface but knowing that the most dangerous thing on the island is a parrot, I could swing it around and admire the way the light reflected off of certain leaves and watch it disappear into the dark forest. The trail here is completely manufactured out of plastic mats that conform to the surface, with wooden steps at every spot where the angle exceeded 10 degrees, and bridges over every stream, it went on like this for 5 miles, which was an amazing commitment to making a trail accessible to the masses but without creating an eighteen-kilometer-long ditch.

As I broke out of the tree line, a faint blue glow was just lightening the eastern skyline and the peaks of the volcanos became visible in silhouette. I have seen the Milky Way on countless occasions over this lifetime, but never have I been able to peer into the very heart of our galaxy as was possible in that moment. I am not at all versed in this type of photography but I spent 15 minutes trying to capture some faint version of what I was witnessing.

gal1

In a lightening sky, I continued upward as the plants worked their way downward, getting smaller with every foot of elevation gained until eventually only grass, flowers and moss lined the trail. Sunrise itself was uninspiring, with clouds having climbed up the slope from the valley below. This had an isolating effect, as the mountain peaks became their own world above the mists and I felt comfortably cut off, separated, and pleasantly remote from what I knew to be masses of feet that were approaching from both directions. Eventually the sun climbed up over the Eastern wall of peaks, throwing a harsh light onto scenery that was beginning to look like Mordor. After 2 months on the islands I had found the desert landscapes, they were hiding on the slopes of the volcanos. Suddenly I had the space and spaciousness that I had been craving with only the crests of the mountain ridges imposing any limit on where I could go. However, as it is an active volcano, staying on the trail seemed to be prudent especially as I was alone, and falling into a hissing fumarole or piss pot full of steaming mud would put a real cramp in my mountain bike plans.

I am not really a fan of vulcanism. It is an unseemly exposure of the entrails of the planet that I would prefer not to bear witness to. When I consider what the interface between the bowels of the earth and the outside world actually is in relationship to the human body, we are staring into one of thousands of the planets buttholes when presented with a volcanic vent, fissure, or crater. It amazes me how many people gladly endure the utter stench that emanates from various mud-pots, steam geysers, brimstone springs, or other passages to the underworld, and yet would be vociferous in their complaint if you passed gas in their closed vehicle.

My goal was called the Blue lake, and it was exactly as advertised, blue and a lake, surrounded by low hills, and some struggling plants and rocks. If you watch the movie, Mordor isn’t really the most photogenic backdrop and as there was no eye of Sauron, nor scurrying hobbits to entertain me I took a couple of photographs and began the long hike back to the van and a well-deserved cup of coffee.

Spending days alone, and suddenly being confronted with other human beings who want to have vocal interaction is often awkward. It is somewhat embarrassing to have to remember to use your voice and not just think the thoughts. Unlike many solo travelers that I hear talking to themselves, I am content with only thoughts and so with disuse my voice seems like picking up an instrument that has not been played in a long while, and sounds creaky and out of tune.  Each of the hikers that I met coming up were happy to take a break from the uphill grind and have a little discussion. But as I am heading downward, stopping interrupts the flow of movement which I find both efficient as well as meditative, yet politeness dictates at least a moments hesitation and a few words of encouragement. I often have an urge to feign deafness, speak some kind of gibberish language, or just limp and drool to get them to leave me alone, but I never do.

Taupo reprise

I would like to say that going back to Taupo felt like going home, and while I had a sense of familiarity for the first time in 2 months, that dissolved when I ordered a hamburger at a cafe only to discover that they ground up beets and mixed them with the beef prior to cooking. Suddenly I was back in a culinary twilight zone being served the nastiest meatloaf I could conceive of.

There were several portions of the trails system around lake Taupo that I was unable to ride when I was here last month, but the sections that I did ride were so good that I allowed my expectations to grow, and fortunately the trails exceeded my admittedly spoiled standards. I really don’t want to call these cross-country rides, as the they constantly twist, turn, climb, dive, bank, and fall over root-fests. These aren’t groomed graveled bike path type of trails, but neither are they so manicured or manufactured to be specimens in a museum of IMBA trail features. They are the somewhere in between that we would call trail rides, back home. If you took the JEM/Crypto/Goosebumps system and ran it through a jungle this is the result. I am also very sure that these trails are the rarest kind of riding that exists on either island, and as far as I have discerned Taupo and the Craigieburn’s are about it. Everything else is either cross country, lunatic downhill, or mountain bike park manufactured. And when I think about it, this makes total sense when I remember that these are islands with limited square feet of dry land on the one hand, native Maori land claims on the other hand, and environmental moss hugger- don’t touch anything on the third hand. Large strips of clearing and digging are just not in the cards everywhere. However, the strips that have been developed here are simply the most delightful, fun, and beautiful trails, passing through stunning scenery and lush forest, I don’t know what you could do to make them any better.

I only left Taupo when I completely ran out of riding, and while the urge to begin repeating rides was certainly there, I also knew that there were new experiences to derive outside of this wonderful little region, so I headed to the north to fill in some blank spots.

Snookered Again

After taking the bait on so many trails that turned out to be nothing that resembled mountain bike rides, I have started to read the descriptions on trail forks with a large amount of skepticism, and so did not even consider the Rainbow Mountain trails to be likely to offer a good ride. I actually pulled in to the trail head as a place to spend the night on the way to Rotorua, but after reading the encouraging signboards that described the trails I again made the fatal mistake of believing what I was being told. Morning brought sunny skies, few bugs and moderate hopes. After breakfast I got ready for what I hoped would be, if not a great ride, at least something that was do-able. But before I could even get the bike out of the van, nature called as often happens after 3 cups of coffee.

The Outhouse of the damned

I have been trying to choose places to camp that have either an outhouse or full on flush toilet within a reasonable distance, and I have resorted to digging holes just three times over the past few months. I know that I would appreciate the thoughtfulness of people visiting my part of the world to not leave a trail of shitholes in their wake, and I have been trying to live up to that ideal.  In general, the facilities on these islands are as nice if not nicer than any on public lands in the US, but there are always outliers. As the trailhead where I was camping was in a sensitive natural area with a wealth of plant species found no where else on earth, (nor even in the entire galaxy that we know of) large menacing signs were placed along the side of the trail foretelling of certain damnation, likely ridicule, and possible prosecution, to anyone who would be so thoughtless to step foot off of the designated pathway. In fairness to me, there were no signs that said: “don’t dig a hole in the rare and delicate plant life that line the trail and shit in that hole” but I am not quite that stupid that I cannot make the connection. So, when nature “called” I simply headed for the outhouse with my roll of TP.

I should note that during my time in the Navy, I have been called upon to endure primitive and rustic facilities in many a backwards nearly stone age location, (places our president refers to as shit-holes). These are places where electricity, running water, soap, and a human body free of vermin are all novelties, or so rare that they are still the exception and not to be expected. So while I prefer a sanitary environment to preform the most unsavory of human needs, I am not exactly a squeamish, germ-o-phobic, pampered, suburbanite. Yet in considering the worst of the worst, the train station bathroom in Venice never had an equal, until this. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Smells in an outhouse are to be expected, we aren’t leaving behind flowers after all. The word “outhouse” itself is synonymous with, and can be substituted for, most words that imply a horrid smell (smell that induces horror). I have always thought that it would be difficult to be injured by a smell, but humans do require a fairly specific mix of gasses in our air to be able to function at an optimum level, and as far as I am aware ammonia isn’t one of those gasses. This particular outhouse offered up an ammonia level in the “atmosphere” that caused immediate flushing of the tear ducts and the kind of “wake the fuck up” sort of pain that smelling salts have on nasal cavities. Walking into that outhouse was exactly like taking a left hook in the face from Mike Tyson. Blinking back the tears, I fled towards an atmosphere lower in exotic gasses, to test how long I could hold my breath.

I figured that this situation was going to be all about timing, breath control, and limiting the duration of exposure. Waiting until I felt an “inner sense” that the timing was right, I took a few deep breaths and headed back in. Fighting through the thick Jovian atmosphere, I threw open the lid of the pit toilet and a massive black funnel of insets erupted out of the opening as if suddenly released from the stygian depths of hell, and literally filled what was now an outhouse chamber of horrors. For just a moment I considered complete retreat and capitulation, but at that point the die had been cast so to speak in terms of intestinal urgency, so with what must have looked like an entire choreographed but demented version of the Watusi, I pressed on. The subsequent 30 seconds were the purest form of torture ever devised that did not require the removal of living sheets of skin. I am not sure how it was possible to squat, dance, wave, twitch, and flail arms wildly about, all while doing the business and not breathing, mostly I tried not to think about it and just get it over with. But once I began to “contribute” a fresh cloud of flies exploded upwards, likely pissed that I had interrupted some essential aspect of their vile life cycle or perhaps it was just their way of saying howdy and thanks. I don’t really know how to describe a stream of insects banging into your nether regions, other than to relate that it is particularly unpleasant, and apparently capable of making a grown man scream like a little girl.  Rushing out coughing, slapping, waving and out of breath, I was thankful that the ordeal was over, and felt that whatever was going to happen today couldn’t be any worse than those few but horrific moments. I was correct, but not by much.

I have had a good deal of time to ponder the various factors that go into making a great mountain bike trail, but I have not really given much thought into all of the elements that go into the truly horrible. I think that for me a fundamental part of a shit trail is the trench. I have always described Broken Mesa Rim trail as a trench filled with boulders. So, to make a truly awful trail, start with trenches so deep and narrow that your pedals hit both sides concurrently, and with orientations that run either straight uphill or down giving the water the best opportunity to make the trenches adequately twisty. Next, I think that hissing fumaroles and boiling mud pots while a nice touch esthetically should also lend a certain rotten egg and dead possum odor to the air to really do the trick.  And of-course no shitty trail system would be complete without a really good slippery root network, perhaps with some added motor oil sprayed over the top for times when nature doesn’t cooperate. Upgrades would be literal craters in the bottom of the trenches exactly the correct diameter to trap a 27.5” tire, and a complete gauntlet of blackberry vines along the edges of the downhill portions to interrupt the flow and rip open any body parts not covered in chain mail. The best thing that I can say about Rainbow mountain is it was a marginally better experience than the outhouse of the damned.

Return to Rotorua

Sometimes it’s best to just go with what you know. After spending many hours in separating the wheat from the chaff, it seemed to make good sense to end the riding part of the trip with the best riding that I found. Every other bike park that I tried was a poor comparison to the Whakarera Forest trail system. The closest was Eskdale in Napier, which had very high-quality trails and really innovative and interesting trail features, but it was still just not in the same league as Rotorua, either in sheer size or in the variety of environments to ride in. I spent the last two riding days of the trip furthering my knowledge of this vast place, and revisiting some of my favorites from last month. I bought the five-trip shuttle pass for $40 again, and saved the final three trips for the last afternoon, spending about two hours that evening planning how to best utilize the final shuttle to the top of the mountain.

Corners is over two miles of constant turning with so many bumps and jumps that keeping the bike on the ground is nearly impossible. It goes for so long and requires so much focus and body tension that by the bottom I am usually happy that it is over. I overheard the shuttle driver passing out a piece of advice on how to ride the corners that was so completely counter intuitive that I wondered if he was just screwing around, until I tried it, and it completely changed the equation of how to ride here. Normally going downhill, leaning forward is a prescription for going over the handlebars, and so I have been conditioned to hang my butt off the seat and over the rear wheel, but on these hugely banked turns that really unweights the front wheel making control difficult. The moment I tried leaning forward as I came into the turn gave me the control to ride those features at least 30% faster and with more control than I had been able to before.  World changing.

The second trip down the mountain was a series of linked up trails that flowed beautifully together and yielded about 30 minutes of continuous downhill movement. The technique change began to pay off in an increased sense of control over the bike, making many of the features far less intimidating than previous rides, creating both better flow and a bigger grin as the bike spent more time in the air than I am used to or comfortable with.

As the shuttle unloaded for the final ride down the hill, I lingered around the map board, waiting for everyone else to depart on their rides, and for the noise of the bus and trailer to fade back down the road. I don’t know if I will ever come back here and I wanted a few moments to savor the feel of this place and to acknowledge the experiences that I have had the good fortune to have here. Somewhere off in the distant woods, the rusty hinge bird, and dripping faucet bird were taunting one another, the sun was just peeking through the overcast that had hung around all morning and the air had that rich musty scent of too many plants in one place. I took one last look around, sighed and started down Eagle vs. Shark.

There is no way for me to describe an experience like this last ride without just stringing together a list of superlatives that are really nothing more than shadows cast upon on a cave wall. It took over an hour of blissful riding to get to the exit, every moment of which was jubilant.  I hope that there will never be a time when I am unable to recall the deep sense of gratitude that this hour of ecstatic movement left me with. It was nothing less than the ride of a lifetime.

Last day

I am parked on a grassy shoreline watching the last sunset descend into the Firth of Thames out of the open back door of the van. The wind driven waves create a constant white noise making me hunger for the silence of the desert, though the approaching darkness has at least silenced the incessant hiss cicadas for the evening.  The sun touches the peak on the opposite peninsula and is slowly absorbed into that gray silhouette. A halo of light rims a single low hanging cloud for a few moments, but soon fades leaving a light purple bruise above the horizon. High cirrus clouds catch the last rays of sunlight and play the light scale from pink to salmon to orange towards red before fading to gray. Horsetail clouds mean a change in the weather and for me that change means heading home.

New Zealand 5 part 2

_DSC6543_4_5_Detailed-2

Christchurch

Pancake flat, with the mountains an hour’s drive west and the Southern Ocean at its doorstep, I did not think that Christchurch was a likely spot for great mountain biking. Yet south of town between a couple of harbors rise a range of grass covered hills called the Port hills. These offer a beautiful collection of well-crafted trails that climb and curve down around and over the hillsides, and remind me of the riding on the California coast at San Luis Obispo, including the offshore fog bank.  One significant difference is the prevalence of sheep and the singular lack of horses, and horseback riders; which I initially thought of as great, since sheep just run away from you, while horses want to kick the shit out of you, and the horseback riders tend to view you as a form of plague. On the other hand, sheep are, well, sheep, in that when one of them decides to run away from you down the trail that you are riding, the rest of them follow like… sheep. I discovered this on a trail called the Greenwood park track which descends from the top of the highest point of the peninsula via an awesome bit of single track that combined the aspects of rock garden technically, with flowy turns and banked corners, unfortunately it was also laden with sheep.

It must suck being a sheep. Imagine being so dim-witted that the exact same thing scares the shit out of you over and over dozens of times a day, with no consequence to your physical well-being at all.  Let me just state for the record that I am a solid believer in evolution and the science of natural selection. As I understand it, there should eventually be born a sheep that had a genetic mutation that allowed it to realize that it did not need to waste calories running away from something coming down a trail that was as absolutely harmless as the exact same thing that came rattling down the trail 10 minutes ago. Like “dude, just lay still and that speedy clunky thing will just pass by like that last one and I can continue my little nap”. That sheep gets to conserve calories that are then used to get funky with some ewe’s and pass on the “don’t freak the fuck out” gene on to future generations. But apparently the interaction of sheep and mountain bikes has not had enough time in an evolutionary sense to get to that point, and they all get on the trail and run in front of you. At first this was kinda fun, like I am a lunatic shepherd with a helmet, yelling “Whoop” at them when they weren’t going fast enough. I don’t actually know if “Whoop” is the appropriate term, nor do I know how you would pronounce it in Kiwi, but it seemed to have the desired effect as they put on a bit of wooly afterburner whenever I yelled it loud enough. At one point I visualized the headlines in the local newspaper “Former Navy Man Observed with Herd of Sheep Yelling Whoop- Livestock Psychologists Sent to Scene”.  As fun as it is to scare the shit out of dim-witted mutton, I soon discovered that sheep have an auxiliary defense mechanism which I had not accounted for, in that they have the ability to run full speed and shit at the same time. When I consider it, I don’t think humans could pull this off as the muscles required to run at speed are tensed, while the the muscles needed to curl one down are relaxed, so we are apparently a species of stationary shitters. This herd of fleeing sheep on the other hand began to vacate their bowels with malicious intent, that likely evolved to discourage pursuing but squeamish predators. It is also worth noting, that this wasn’t well formed solid banal sheep shit, but more like an emergency layer of sheep diarrhea laid down in their wake.   More importantly, I now understand why the Kiwi riders have fenders fixed over the top of their wheels, because once you begin to have your tire spray fresh sheep shit on your chest and face the quality of the riding begins to suffer, no matter how good the trail.  As I vigorously applied the brakes to end the facial that I was receiving the tires slipped on the freshly “paved” surface and I nearly went out of control and down for what would have been the most disgusting crash ever.  In the end I just slowed down, wiped off my face and began to wonder where I could find a shower. The sheep were off in the tall grass give one another hoof bumps and laughing their asses off. I hate sheep.

Trailforks

As with the Google maps lady getting me around towns and to laundromats, restaurants, and trail heads, I really could not do this trip without the Trailforks app getting me around the maze of trails that most of the major riding hubs have become. Yet a very large grain of salt is stuck between my teeth in this regard, as many of the alleged “trails” that I have been directed towards are in fact pieces of shit. I remember when I was researching this trip that when I looked at the map on Trailforks there were dozens if not hundreds of little red shields, each of which representing a trail or system of trails covering huge areas of both islands. You zoom in and little squiggly green, blue, black or red lines define the path and distance covered by each of these alleged trails, and my palms began to sweat in anticipation.  In and of itself this is hugely valuable information and would have required several volumes of bound guidebooks to depict, yet with a guidebook you have an author to either laud or loathe. The online applications are apparently user generated, but you never know what kind of user you are getting information from, and I have been burned just a few times too often to write it off to the “users” misunderstanding of what constitutes a good mountain bike ride. I suspect that there is a confusion on the part of the users, who equate quantity with quality.

I first learned the “grain of salt” lesson on the previously described “you’re the bug” ride, and again just several days ago on two separate rides outside of Christchurch, but this ride was the last straw. The Whites Bay Track is described in Trailforks as “A scenic cross-country ride which demands a good level of fitness and confidence when descending”. My description would be: “by no means is this a mountain bike ride, obscenely steep slippery rutted and root infested clay doubletrack leads up un-rideable hill for 1.7 miles- a good trail to take your mountain bike out for a hike” If Trailforks had a hike-a-bike index this one would be 94%, and they should institute just such a warning label. I realize that the downhill crowd does not mind walking their bike up hill, (who wouldn’t when it weighs 40 pounds) but the rest of us actually prefer to ride our bikes uphill, take pride in doing so, and feel jilted when we are shanghaied into something this un-rideable. I am coming to discover another facet of riding in southwestern Utah that I did not fully appreciate, that being that our trails are nearly all 100% single-track, and the uphill portions are beautifully crafted and intelligently thought out to gain elevation with the emphasis being on ride-ability, I have found that mindset to be almost totally lacking here. I know that I am taking the gloves off here, but the amount of pavement, forest road, gravel road, double track road, and jeep roads that I have been climbing on is completely beyond reason for a place that is billed as the best mountain biking in the southern hemisphere. Actually feels good to get that one off my chest.

The online Apps like Trail forks, also seem to permit the concept of anonymity in terms of authorship, which in the case of the guy who wrote the description of the White Bay Track is a very good thing, because by the top of the climb I wanted to find him, and kick him in the nuts. I think that if you are psyched enough to take the time to GPS your trail, describe the approach, parking, and rest room facilities, and then write up a description of the riding, you should also have balls enough to put your name and phone number on the information. Makes me think about publishing the next edition of Rock Climbs of Southwestern Utah under the pseudonym of Hassen ben Sobar.

Roots

I think that there may have been some misunderstanding in the distant past when the phrase “root of all evil” was coined, … I think that it was meant to be “all roots are evil” After 6 weeks I still have no clue how to ride on wet slimy roots. So far, the most reliable technique has been “hang on and go like hell”. However, that methodology has been reliable only in the sense that I reliably crash afterwards. Actually, many of the mountain bike parks here have thin rubber mats that they lay on top of the too rooty parts of the trails and then cover them with a thin layer of dirt or clay. Not only does it facilitate better riding, but is also probably better for the trees, we are after all riding over their feet and toes. Which is why I always have the feeling that they have intentionally tripped me when I crash. I rode a trail sometime in the past week, (don’t recall where) that was called GDR.  As I turned into the too dark forest I had to remove my sunglasses to be able to see, and as the descent began and I felt like I was riding over an uneven cattle guard, the trail name suddenly made perfect sense: God Damn Roots- GDR.

DSCN0272

Picton

This small village is the location of the ferry terminal on the South Island, so unless you are flying into Christchurch or Queenstown, every tourist on the South Island comes through here. I had planned on doing the first part of the Queen Charlotte trail, but after the debacle of bike pushing the day before I just didn’t have a 4000-foot ascent (with forecasted pushing) in me. Fortunately, there is a trail that traverses the peninsula on the opposite side of the sound from the Queen Charlotte called the Snout.  I have been burned enough by having expectations lately, so I began this trail by telling myself that this was not going to be a great ride, or even much single-track, but rather just something to provide a bit of exercise. Imagine my surprise as the gravel of the family bike trail turned off onto well groomed, and beautiful climbing single track that was everything that I could ask from a trail. Beautiful mixed woods, spots where you pop out onto view points, and perfectly crafted trail work that made the uphill riding joyful and transcendant. I was grinning from ear to ear in the feeling that I had discovered a little hidden gem of a trail, this despite the prevalence of numerous wasps, cicadas, and other flying bugs, I figured it was a small price to pay for such a high quality trail.

The Snout trail climbed towards the crest of a ridge and began a series of up’s and downs along what was a fairly narrow singletrack that contoured about 20 feet below the top. At times the drop off necessitated edge boards that kept the trail from washing off the ridge side when it rained, and as I came around a corner on a slight downhill there was a torso sized tree trunk that jutted across the trail at exactly one of these dropoff points, but it didn’t look like it was going to be any problem, just stay a bit to the left, and perhaps duck my head a bit. Little did I know about the 5 second drama that the universe had up its sleeve.

It is amazing to consider the number of events that do not occur due to simple timing, and how very few actually do occur only when all the disparate elements line up at exactly one moment in time and only then come to fruition as an event. I am sure that none of us would step foot in a car ever again if we became aware of the sheer multitude of deadly crashes we avoided through a simple bit of timing.  In this case the wasp that flew into my left ear at that critical moment could have been blown off course by six inches, or began his flight 2 seconds earlier, or have just not been a malevolent dick. But none of those things happened, and as I approached the tree trunk at probably 7 mph the wasp contacted my left earlobe at the exact moment when my instinctive reaction, (jerking my head to the right) resulted in taking a direct hit to the forehead portion of my (by now well tested) helmet. Imagine running at near full speed and hitting your head on a door frame, your lower body would continue forward, while your head remained behind (this probably looks funny as shit in super slow-mo) In my case, my lower body being attached to the bike continued forward, but because my right hand was knocked off the handlebar by the blow, my left hand pulled the bike sharply to the left and over the edge of the board that held up the trail. My head snapped forward after the impact just in time to watch the front wheel of my bike leave the trail and begin the descent down what was a 50- degree hillside, and of course pitching me face first over the handlebars in the process.

In moments of distress like this, time of course does actually not slow down, but your awareness of your physical situation seems to expand and at the same permit a kind of focus on what is really important, with every available neuron instantly recruited to deal with what is happening. Though weirdly, one little part of my brain found it amusing that the song on the MP3 player was Talking Heads- Burning Down The House, and at the very moment that I pitched off of the trail, the lyric “ Hold tight-, Wait till the Parties Over”  registered in the little piece of my brain that finds delight in the ironic. My life did not flash in front of my eyes, but I do recall thinking to myself at the moment that I disconnected from the pedals and was now flying face first, superman style about 10 feet above the hillside “Oh, this is how it ends” with a calm but surprised feeling. On the outside I do recall hearing “Ahhhhhhh !!!”  but (again surprisingly) no swear words that I can recall.  The next second of my life, and its obvious continuance, I can only attribute to a lifetime as an athlete. Flying face first down a forested hillside I soon ascertained that this was not going to be a sustainable situation for very long and reached out with my left hand and grabbed the closest tree that was whizzing by. It was about the thickness of a baseball bat, fortunately wasp free, and had a brown bark that felt kind of like sandpaper in my palm. As I moved past it, felt my hand pivot around it, and held on tight, causing my legs to swing around in an arc to the right, and were now heading downhill. This felt like an improvement from going in face first, and while it worked great to change the direction that my body was facing, when it came time to arrest my falling weight, the small dead tree snapped off in my hand. Fortunately, my right hand had already found an adjacent one to latch onto and this one held my weight.  I am now about 10 feet off the ground (the hill was that steep, more like a forested slab) dangling by a tree branch the thickness of the butt end of a pool cue, but quickly grabbed other limbs, that I used to climb down to the ground and then hiked back up the hill and basically mantled myself back onto the trail. After discovering that I did not even have a scratch, all I could do was sit and laugh my ass off for a bit. My bike had gotten caught in a limb that was just out of reach from the trail, so I needed to go back down and push the tree side to side before it slid down and could be hauled back up the slope. After laughing some more, I inventoried the bike, and found that like me it was undamaged. I can’t imagine ever having another crash that would be that spectacular without either injury or death being the result, and for the rest of the day I felt like I had dodged bullets from a machine gun, giggling at being both alive and unhurt. I hope that the next time I complain about having shitty luck, I will recall this little event.

The remainder of the trail was simply sublime, and perhaps one of the best trails on the South Island, certainly the most under rated. Cruiser twists and turns through the forest, over small rises, and constant corners that slalomed between the trunks, along exposed side cuts, and up perfect switchbacks to regain a bit of elevation so it could continue on in the same vein. The only disappointment was that it didn’t go on like that for another 10 miles. It was the perfect trail to finish off the South Island, and at the end of the Snout I sat and watched the sailboats keel and tack across Queen Charlotte Sound in a perfect sea breeze that nicely contrasted the warm January sun.

Back to the ferry, the North Island and some unfinished business.

castle rock

New Zealand 5- part 1

srthurs pass3

Things not to run into on a mountain bike:

  • There are a shit ton of trees here, and even the little ones don’t move at all. As a bonus some of them are covered with wasps.
  • Fern fronds. These aren’t your indoor potted plant variety; the leafy part grows out of a stick that you could give a serious ass whooping with.
  • I think it is an exotic plant because it only seems to grow along the side of trails where the penetration of the spikes into a fast-moving shin allow them to spread.
  • Blackberry vines. They prefer the sunlight of open areas, like along trails, and grow up to chest high which is perfect to rip open your arms and face
  • Tarzan Jungle vines: like hitting a clothes-line at 20mph
  • Nettle: I brushed some with my calf descending the Ghost Road and it burned for 2 days
  • Hikers: Most of them are old and brittle, with bones that could puncture a tire.

In a place that holds more fresh water per capita than any other country on the planet, and vast areas of temperate rain forest, it is unreasonable to expect nothing but sunny days for 2 months, and as I look back over the past 5 weeks I am amazed at how many days of riding I have gotten in.  Dealing with 3 continuous days of rain might not be what I had hoped for, but once I realized that the forecast was going to come to fruition, I was close enough to Christchurch that it seemed like a great reason to hole up in a hotel for a couple of days. Since I don’t have a TV at home I have discovered that whenever I am around one, I become a slack jawed primate, and can let hours pass while I sit rapt in drooling open-mouthed oblivion, watching the pretty moving figures in the box, so the time passes pretty quickly.

At the tail end of the storm I headed west towards Arthurs pass hoping to ride a couple of trails on the way to the Craigieburn’s. The first one was called Coopers creek, and as I pulled into the parking lot a large group of mountain bikers were just leaving looking like they were dressed for battle. They were fitted out with pads, body armor, full face helmets, and I suspect a sword or two. I always wonder what I am getting myself into when I see people with so much protective gear on, and begin to wonder if I am just stupid. Yet I have to believe that even this well protected, falling off the bike whilst plummeting down the face of root, rock and tree infested mountainside would still hurt like hell, and while the protection may keep the skin, bones and teeth intact they would do little to prevent the connective tissues and ligaments from becoming disconnected, with the prospect of MRI’s, surgery, and rehab being the next thing that comes to mind. I don’t know where they went, but their tracks weren’t anywhere discernable on the “trail” that I was supposed to be riding, though as most of it was a running stream of mud and clay it was hard to tell. I backtracked several times to make sure that I didn’t miss something and wasn’t riding in the creek bed, but this was apparently the trail. As I continued I began to feel guilty and think about all the shit I have given people riding and ruining our trails when they were too wet to ride, and eventually this thought alone would have made me turn around. That decision was expedited however, by the number of wasps that were covering the trunks of the Beech trees which comprised about 99% of the forest that I was sloshing through. I found out later that they eat an insect that lives under the bark, and use these calories to do nothing more than make more wasps. If hitting a tree going fast isn’t bad enough, running into one covered with pissed off wasps is a pretty damn good reason to stay on the trail no matter how wet.  As I squished along, the level of nervousness at the low drone coming from everywhere around me, turned to mild alarm as I began to have to swat them off my bare legs. This was not exactly producing the calming effect that I intended it to have on them, and soon enough, the low hum became an angry buzz as word got out that apparently, I was the one being an asshole. At that point, I decided to bail.

I should have taken such an unpleasant experience as a sign that this was not going to be a riding day, but I have been known to be a bit stubborn and found the start of the next “trail” at the foot of a tussock covered hillside.  After 3 days stuck inside I was determined to make this ride happen, but it turned into an interesting battle between frustrated determination/stubbornness, and a combination of unreasonably steep double track road, thigh deep tussock grass, and gravity.

I have always had this concept that pushing the bike represents one of several aspects of failure. It is either a failure of fitness, determination, skill, or decision making in choosing the wrong direction to ride a trail (clockwise on the Zen trail). Or it can be that the trail itself is not really a mountain bike trail that anyone in their right mind would want to ride, like getting hoodwinked into trying to ride something you’d never do again. We have several of these trails in St. George that the unsuspecting visitor could easily mistake for an actual mountain bike ride; Broken Mesa Rim, Rusty Cliffs, City Creek and nearly everything on the Arizona strip all spring immediately to mind. In this case I stoically pushed the bike uphill for 1.8 miles before I finally gave in, admitting defeat.

My normal reaction to being denied a desired outcome, would be to pout, swear, throw and kick some things or, more typically, a combination of all of the above. Yet here I am in the middle of one of the most stunning places on the entire planet, I have just had a great workout, and I am now surrounded by peaks just emerging from the mist of a storm, and everything has that fresh washed, new day feel to it. It would be stupid to get pouty, especially as 5 downhill minutes later there was a cold beer waiting in the in the van.

Craigieburn’s

One of the websites described this area as offering “old school” trails, and as I began climbing up the Hogback Trail I wondered what constituted the distinction. If it was the way that this trail was cleared of low branches and spiky vegetation, the switchback turns at a reasonable radius and pitch, or the way it gently flowed from one contour line to the next, then I am a huge supporter of more old school trails. Perhaps it is the lack of berms, jumps, table tops or other exotica and a trail system that lacked a shuttle, gondola, helicopter, or other means of conveyance to the top other than leg and lung power. Whatever the definition turned out to be this was some of the best riding I have found on the South Island. The Hog back trail gained elevation with such grace, that I was surprised to abruptly pop out of the tree-line to a 360-degree view that will probably end up as my mental screen saver for this entire trip. The trail followed a tussock covered ridgeline, into and out of pockets of native beech forest, and was completely surrounded by peaks, snowfields, waterfalls, and meadows of moss. It was the ride and riding that I had come all this way to do, and as it dove into and out of the woods I tried to savor every nuance, from the sound of rushing streams and distant waterfalls, to the musty smell of the woods, and the feel of the bike crunching along the path. I kept stopping with the excuse of leg and lung recovery, but in truth I just wanted to soak in the experience of being in that place in that moment of time, to reflect on how fortunate I am just to be able to do this, and not take any of it for granted.

The trail topped out at a triangular rock tilted at the perfect angle and direction to use as a back rest for an hour-long break and sun soak. As usual I had chosen to ride this trail in what was probably the wrong direction, but it was so awesome that it really didn’t matter, and as I descended steep switchbacks from the lunch rock to the next trail link I was pretty happy not to be climbing it. (and commented as such to the riders who were) At the bottom I turned onto Dracophyllium flat trail, which continued the up and down “old school” theme with perhaps a bit more in the woods riding and several wet and cold stream crossings. This trail dumps out onto a graveled forest road, which loses all of the elevation that I had gained on the Hogback. I began to appreciate the accidental wisdom of the direction choice as I cruised down 2 miles of relentlessly steep gravel, passing numerous laboring, breathless, and clearly miserable riders.  The highway was at the bottom, where 6 miles of pavement got me back to the van, mostly down, all smiles.

I left the Craigieburn’s for no other reason, then I had run out of trails, food, and water. I had even consumed the ramen noodles and cans of tuna that I bought as both an emergency backup as well as for old times sake. Eating these still remind me of being a dirt-bag climber, waiting tables, and living in a travel trailer in the Green valley gravel pit with John Czinczoll in the early 90’s.  As I drove east towards Christchurch there was a palpable sense that I had passed through what I had begun to think of as a zone of expectations. Taking this much time away from Paragon, and committing so many resources (dollars) to making this happen, actually had been creating a sense of stress for the last few weeks to find and derive all the experiences that I expected this place to provide. After the awesome rides and scenery of the Craigie’s, I seemed to have a sense that I could call this trip successful in the experience that I wanted to get out of it, and a further sense that anything else was going to be icing on that cake.

to be continued…

arthurs pass5

matheson2

New Zealand Blog Entry #4

South Island

31 Dec 2017

I woke up on the side of the road next to a set of train tracks.  A steady rain started sometime in the night, and everything in the van felt wet, and my feet itched uncontrollably from the sand fly bites. My plan to drive over Arthur Pass and ride in the Cragieburns was dismissed about 5 seconds after regaining consciousness. There comes a point in the dirt-bag lifestyle when it stops being fun, and you realize that literally everything that you have to do for yourself involves far more effort than living in a house. Just staying reasonably clean with baby wipes, and a pot of warm water is pretty miserable when it is raining in your bathroom, the sand flies are biting, and the ground is too hard to dig a hole to poop in.  In a house we have an entire room dedicated to cleaning ourselves, with everything laid out ready to go, temperate water at our instant demand, a complete absence of sand flies, and a miracle device that magically takes the poop away. I could tell it was time for a hotel stay.

I drove back to Greymouth looking for a café with internet access so that I could look into the hotel options. I have come to realize that Cafés are like breakfast/lunch/coffee places with bathrooms, and fairly dependable wireless internet. Cafés typically open around 9am and close around 5, when the Bar/Restaurants open and serve drinks and dinner. I had about 30 minutes to kill and was driving around in the rain and suddenly, like a beacon on a stormy sea, there it was… the golden arches. They call it “Macca’s” here and I was immediately consumed by an irrepressible urge to eat something that was not exotic, new, or weird in the way that carrots and beets are on a hamburger. Traveling is a wonderful opportunity to explore new tastes, textures, and flavors, but when you add anything to a hamburger patty that is not in the cow family, it is no longer a hamburger, it is meat loaf, and meat loaf is fucking disgusting. I was at the point in this trip where I just wanted to eat something that was what I expected it to be. Those were the best sausage mac-muffin with egg sandwiches I have ever tasted, expressly because they were exactly what I expected them to be, standard issue McDonalds, no surprises and no beets.

While on the subject of weird culinary things, the coffee here is weird.  I know that most countries that are in the commonwealth and descend from the Brit’s have a fondness for tea over coffee, but that isn’t the case here as there are cafés nearly every block. The strange thing is that they don’t drink brewed coffee, everything starts as an espresso. The closest I can get to a basic cup of Joe is called a flat white, and it’s basically a latte, all frothy and fancy with fern leaves drawn into the cream on the top. The first place I went into and ordered a large brewed coffee, they looked at me like I was from Mars. Again, the recipe really isn’t complicated: hot water over coffee grounds, and I know they have both of these ingredients. I have this crazy urge to just get behind the bar and show them how it’s done.

I stayed in Fox Glacier Township at a beautiful hotel room completely devoid of sand flies, the view would have been superb if it wasn’t raining, cloudy, and grim. It was a great decision. The next day dawned clear and I got up before the sun to revisit Matheson Lake, where I remember there being incredible reflections of the Southern Alps first in the morning. I guess it isn’t surprising that things change over 30 years, but when I was here in ’87 it was a dirt road to a pullout and some informal trails around the lake. Now a visitor center, gift shop, and café (The Reflection) ringed a huge parking lot that lead to graveled trails and a system of decks around the lake. It would be easy to go all Edward Abbey at this point, and complain that everything is being dumbed down and homogenized for the masses, but in truth if people are going to come, trails need to facilitate the foot traffic, parking lots need to be built, and limits need to be created to keep idiots at bay. I hope they sell a million flat white coffees and someone gets to retire early.

haast river1

The Haast River

 

It is a testament to the ruggedness of the terrain on the southwestern side of the island that they were not able to completely finish a road through it until 1965. Between the mountain chain and the Tasman Sea are waves of lesser peaks that are basically forested cliffs, made of silt, mud and clay. Without the vegetation to hold it together it would all have melted along time ago and be a flat tidal plane. There is one small town in about 100 miles and nothing else other than the strip of roadway, and complete wildness. At the crest of the pass the road begins a series of downward spirals and suddenly tangled moss-covered forest gives way to grassland, and eventually to the deep blue of Lake Wanaka.

 

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Lake Wanaka

I found a holiday campsite at the outlet of the lake that sat right between the 2 mountain bike trails that Wanaka had to offer, got situated and went out for an afternoon ride on Deans Bank.  This trail follows the bank of the Chutha which is the outlet river of the lake, and ridiculously emerald blue. The trail climbed up a hillside, then followed along the top of a hill along the riverbank which provided beautiful views of the river, lake, and mountains, then made a nice loop through some pine forest, before heading back via groomed single track with some nicely bermed turns and a few jumps that seemed reasonable enough not to end up in the hospital.  This was a unique trail for here in that it was not a mountain bike park ride with constant features and short trails, but much more than the typical cross-country riding with no flow, few features but exceptional views. It was much closer to the type of rides that we have at home in that it was both a mountain bike ride, while riding a mountain bike… Stuki springs in an alpine setting.

The other ride here is called The Sticky Forest, which wasn’t very sticky; more of a rutted, dusty, rooty forest with very short, compact, and densely interwoven trails. I am coming to realize that the mountain bike park thing is more of biking version of Chuckawalla wall where you can go out for a couple hours and get in some riding and develop your skill set, while a ride like Deans Bank is more of a long day of climbing in a more remote and beautiful location, but you are still climbing close to your limit. I have also figured out that like Chuckawalla, when the variations and off shoots, and combinations on these trails reach a certain level, that I become disgusted and just want out.

For me, the biking in Wanaka took a backseat to the scenery, weather, and the complete lack of insects, biting or otherwise. I realized once I arrived that for the first time in a week I had a sense of relaxation and leisure that had been absent over the previous week.  I could sit in the sun, relax, and walk along the lakeside without constant waving and slapping. It was possible to sleep with the windows open in the van, which would have left me with zero bodily fluids in the western part of the island. Hopefully Queenstown will offer a similar environment but with more biking options.

Todd says he never gets excited. Look at this picture and judge for yourself.

Todd says he never gets excited. Look at this picture and judge for yourself.

Jan 3rd

Some days you’re the bug.

Fio has a euphemism that goes: “Some days you’re the bug… some days you’re the windshield.”  He has stopped saying it around me because I heard it one too many times when I was in the middle of being frustrated and I probably threatened him with physical violence.  But he is right, some days you are going to smash everything that comes in front of you, and other days you are that thing to be smashed, and when you are on a trip that lasts months it is unreasonable to expect every day to be more perfect than the day before. Sometimes you need a reset day.

After a couple of uninspiring days of riding, I started the Mt. Rosa trail with a lot of energy and high expectations of myself. Literally 3 minutes after clipping in, I was pushing the bike uphill, and I actually needed to stop and rest from pushing several times, if that is any indication of how relentlessly steep this thing was. You know that it is steep when your triceps get tired before your thighs or calves. There actually came a point where I just put the bike over my shoulder to give my arms a break. After at least a mile of type two fun, it relented to the point where I could just barely crawl along in granny gear. As I huffed my way up what was an expected 4 mile uphill I came to a fork, and my lactic addled brain just assumed that the less steep path was the correct one, after all I was supposed to come to a saddle and I could see one in the distance. Another mile of alternate riding and pushing I arrived at the saddle, only to discover that I had taken the wrong turn and it was literally nothing but cliffs (up and down) every direction but the one I came by.  Marlene would be very happy to discover that not only did I go in the wrong direction, but that I now had no fuel in the tank to rectify my mistake. Fortunately, after 2 hours of uphill riding/pushing, it was only 10 minutes back to the van. Sometimes you’re the bug.

Jan 4th to 9th Queenstown

Take Jackson Hole, and combine it with Springdale on their busiest weekends and you have downtown Queenstown. Yet instead of the focus being hiking national parks, make that focus adrenalin fueled adventure activities, like bungee jumping, canyoning, king swings, skydiving, parasailing, paragliding, Heli-skiing, Heli-biking, (probably Heli-hiking) and jet boating up crazy rapids for the least fit. Queenstown seems to promote itself as the place where a shot of adrenalin is added to every latte and croissant, and you could not swing a cat without smacking at least a dozen nose rings.   While I am at least in theory a member of this “tribe” I can’t help but find this level of promotion a bit over the top, and to see it all so concentrated in one place and displayed in all its overly vivid hyperbole is a bit…overwhelming, embarrassing, and nauseating, or at least without any sense of higher purpose beyond just the thrill that may be involved. I know that for many of our guests, this is what they expect when they book a program with us, but I fervently hope that at the end of the day, each of them get something more substantial out of their experience than just a temporary rush of adrenalin.

I started working hard to find the better aspects of being in Queenstown, and really trying not to be disappointed. But it turned out to be really difficult to find good flowy fun trails that didn’t require a shuttle, gondola, helicopter or the willingness to bike up a thousand feet of asphalt. One of the early rides was up a trail called “gold digger” which was really good as an uphill and probably would have been awesome as a downhill, but getting to it, to ride in that direction would have been 3 miles of steep pavement and… well, fortunately I didn’t get that desperate.  The rest of that ride was a lot of steep pavement, a bunch of gravel road, some bike path stuff around Moke lake, and then fence line sheep pasture which eventually lead to another lake and finally about a mile of pretty good flowy twisty single track. This actually turned out to be the theme of the riding that did not require a separate conveyance to access, I assume this is attributed to the downhill focus of the riding here.

I had done a fair amount of research on the helicopter serviced mountain biking here, but like everything else on the internet you have to read between the lines to get a focused picture.  The videos show riders coming down single track trails that weave between the tussock grass down ridges with steep slopes on either side and carving turns through alpine meadows. While these things do in fact exist on the Heli-bike rides, they are in fact incredibly brief snapshots of select portions of the ride, and by far the majority of the rest of it are long straight fast descents on double track 4wd roads, through pastures, or just across the moon-scaped tops of mountains across tilted fields of rocks and moss. I think that since it is so costly and unique that we want to imagine that it was the experience of a lifetime, but if you did that kind of a ride without a helicopter you would clean the sheep shit off of your bike and swear to never do it again. It was a cool experience and as I think about it in hindsight it is crazy to expect people to be up that high with picks, rakes, and shovels making (and maintaining) flowy single-track. That just isn’t the world we live in.

In the US most of the pure downhill stuff is summer lift serviced riding at the larger ski resorts. Only there can they charge mountain bikers enough to pay for both the infrastructure, trail work, and maintenance that highly featured and crafted trails necessitate.   Having ridden the lifts at Park City last summer, I decided to see how it was done in the Southern Hemisphere and drove the hour to Cadrona mountain resort, paid the $89 for the day pass and then put on nearly every piece of clothing that I brought with me to stand the 48-degree temp and 20 mph of wind.

The trails were typically steep, twisty, and flowy, and also pretty long when you descended to the lower of the 2 operating lifts. It was even possible to continue down past the lowest lift about a third of the way to the bottom and then catch the van shuttle back to the base lodge which made for 15-minute descents that at least warmed me up with the deep burning in my thighs, and forearms. It made for a fun change of pace from the short glimpses of flow amidst miles of drudgery that I was finding elsewhere in town, but in the end, it was just too cold and windy to stay more than a few hours.

It would be difficult to talk for very long about the mountain biking in Queenstown without the subject of Rude Rock trail entering the conversation.  To be fair it is an iconic part of the mountain biking in New Zealand, and probably appears in more advertising and promotional material that any single other trail, to say nothing of the number of YouTube videos. So, for my last day in town I made an appointment with Queenstown bike Shuttles for a Rude Rock session.

When I emailed them about the location of the meeting point, the reply I received was “between the primary school and the fire station”. Coming from 8000 miles away, I was hoping for something with a bit more specificity, or at least a link to google maps, but after a brief stop into the Bike-a-holic shop I found it, and we started up the long, paved road to the top of Cornet peak ski area.

The trail is in fact awesome, and when it is in good condition I doubt that there is a better 1.8 miles of riding on the entire South Island. I had 4 companions on the shuttle and we rode it a total of 4 times, each of which got better and better, so that by the end I actually had the bandwidth to look around a bit at what an amazing piece of the planet we were rolling across. But with fast descents and speedy turnarounds we also had time for 4 descents of another shorter trail called Zoot, and then best of all a final ride down Rude Rock with a turn off down what is called the Pack and sack trail.

As a mountain biker who spends about 99% of the time riding alone, I am pretty cautious and try not to push my limits in remote areas.  The Pack and Sack trail was rated an expert trail (black diamond) and I have yet to be confident enough to define myself in those terms, so it was with a bit of trepidation that I brought up the rear as we started to descend the Pack and Sack. Five miles of stunning scenery, disconcerting exposure, and narrow twisty single track, lead us along a slope and eventually down to the bottom of a canyon with cliffs and distant ranges at every turn. It was jaw-dropping for the entire ride, and I would be happy to call it the best single ride in Queenstown, and impossible without hiring a shuttle to make it possible.

I have been making it a point to ask everyone who seems to know anything about the biking here for their recommendations, and so far, I seem to get nothing but mumbling and shrugs about the riding further south of here, so I am going to start heading north and east up the coast, still looking for flow.

Link to Todd’s awesome photos:

https://1drv.ms/f/s!AtD6c7fsBXcOZ63ISzFV3UNszrs

 

DSCN0126

New Zealand Blog Entry #3

Dec 26 2017

South Island

Things I have noticed:

  • Words that sound the same: lift- left, peace-piss, wrist-rest, beast, best
  • Hot and cold-water knobs on opposite sides, and even more distressing, shower handles that freeze you when you turn them in a direction that would lead you to believe you will receive more hot water.
  • Every power outlet also has a switch associated with it, so it takes an extra step for kids to electrocute themselves with a fork. But then again, the size and heft of the plug itself make me wonder if I should be standing on a rubber mat whenever I plug something in.
  • Salad is eaten after the main course is finished and space on your plate is available
  • Roads that are two-way, but one and a half lanes wide and with allowable on street parking (most of the side streets of Wellington)
  • The non-existence of ice cubes, I don’t get it, the recipe is pretty simple.
  • Toilets where the pool of water is first of all a teeny tiny target, and more importantly in a location where human anatomy precludes the deposition of turds into said pool. Possibly designed by someone with a monopoly on the toilet brush concession.
  • I have not been able to discern if the water swirls in an opposite direction, because due to the retarded design, the force of the flushing water is just less than the flow of Hukka falls, and you have to stand the fuck back. Note: do not flush while sitting or it is a really nasty bidet… pretty much an anti-bidet.
  • Odd things for breakfast on a ferry crossing, like chicken curry, beef burritos and lasagna.

Things for which I have no explanation at all:

  • A sign advertising livestock psychology services? WTF??
  • A road sign with a blue disk with a red border and X through the middle when coming into a town, meaning… don’t even think about doing anything here?
  • White or yellow triangles painted on the roadway at seemingly random intervals with the top pointing randomly either left or right, but never straight ahead: Possibly locations where people have died due to the road being too damn skinny?
  • Why in God’s name would you even consider putting beets, and carrots on a hamburger

The ferry crossing was uneventful, which is pretty much what you want to experience out in the middle of the ocean. The final part of the route was up through the Queen Charlotte straight and the mountains on the north side hold one of the more famous ride/treks. I may look into doing it on my way back, since it was barely even discernable due to the driving rain and fog as we entered Picton harbor. It is supposed to be incredible, but also very difficult to get good conditions for the entire 3-day ride.

Up in Taupo on one of the shuttle drives, Jonny mentioned that all of the place names were changed in the early 90’s to Maori place names for the land forms. Which suddenly made sense since when I was here in the 1980’s I don’t remember so many places that started with a W. This led me to thinking… what would I do if an oppressive colonial government came to me and said, “Hey we are really sorry that we took over your country, and forced you out of the stone age, but to make it up to you we want to change all the names back to what you were using before we showed up, so would you mind writing them all down?” I bet these guys got together and said “Let’s tell them that every place name starts with a W, and let’s tell them that ‘Wh’ is pronounced ‘fuck’ that will screw them up for years” it certainly makes many places unpronounceable in polite company, or at least accounts for the large percentage of people here who look like they are blushing.

Nelson Dec 26-29th

I am coming to realize that there are a couple broad categories of riding that I need to keep in mind. There is going out “mountain biking”, where the primary purpose is the riding itself. The trail, the surface it consists of, the grade of the climbs and any technical features, and the quality of the descents, their length, obstacles, turns, features etc. The landscape can enter into these rides and enhance the experience exponentially, but landscape is not as important of a factor as the trail and the feeling of the bike moving efficiently and beautifully along the trail are paramount. The mountain bike parks here would broadly fit into this category, and yet so too would some of the better thought out cross country rides like the W2K.

The other category would be “riding your mountain bike” where the purpose is to use your bike to get out onto the landscape. Riding your bike vs. slowly plodding along on foot allows greater amounts of terrain to be covered in a limited period of time, and the landscape itself is the purpose for being out there.  In these types of rides the mountain bike is simply one means of several that facilitates your being in a place on wheels where other people are on their feet, horses, motorbikes etc.… These trails may be wonderful rides and provide a beautiful flowing experience, but generally that would be the exception and not the rule, the trail today was a perfect example.

Able Tasman

Along the northern coast of the South Island this national park is better known for walking treks along the coast, and a good look at a map would show a very mountainous and densely forested interior that probably has a few spots where no human has ever stepped. Normally mountain biking is as forbidden an activity in national parks in New Zealand as in the states, but this particular area is an old logging area that was not included in the park, and so biking is permitted. Unfortunately, I discovered sheep are permitted as well, and though I understand that the number of sheep exceed that of humans on this island, the primacy of their population does not make riding through their shit any less unpleasant, though in fairness I guess I am riding through their bathroom. I rode a brief evening trail when I arrived that passed through pastures, and then across a creek several times before diving into the forest for a couple clicks. The woods here are already way different than the jungle of the North Island. It is more open to begin with and yet nearly every square inch of “ground” is covered by a thick blanket of moss, which also grows up the trunks so it looks like the entire forest is erupting out of a moss carpet. The riding was short and left me looking forward to the longer trails.

DSCN0122

The Rameka track

When I left Taupo one of the last questions I had for Jonny was, what he would recommend in the southern part of the island. His response of “well unfortunately you have set the bar pretty high” should have been a bigger clue than I took it for at the time, meaning that I may struggle to beat those experiences. I had high hopes for the Rameka track, as it runs into a national park, and several Nelson  locals directed me out that way, but perhaps just to get me out of their shop.

One thing that living and riding in the desert does not prepare you for is tree roots. We have plenty of rocks, lots of cactus, and even a version of soil, but few trees and fewer roots. These particular roots were covered with moss, slime, and water, and pretty much covered every square foot of the trail.  Angle these bad boys in every conceivable direction and range them in size from a pencil, to an anaconda and mountain biking suddenly becomes a game of Russian roulette with a greased pig.  The trail slowly descended through numerous stream crossings then up the other side, and now the roots made just a wee bit of room for big slimy/mossy/slickery limestone boulders that thankfully were not sharp because I fell over into veritable nests of them. After descending about a thousand feet and falling over more times than I can recall, I decided that I did not really want to play anymore, and began the climb back to the trail junction. I would like to say that this trail taught me new skills, and a new outlook on possible surfaces to ride on, but in truth it was pretty hateful, and by the end I was wishing for a forest fire.

DSCN0124

I turned onto a loop trail that added about 6 miles onto the ride back to the parking thinking that it couldn’t be any worse… but this was not the day to start another ride with that as the standard because when you build a trail straight down a hillside in an environment where it rains a lot, the water is going to adopt your trail and create a trench right down the middle. In and of itself this wouldn’t be terrible, but water has a tendency to change its mind all the time, and once you get into the trench and it then makes a right turn beyond the ability of your wheel to handle, your body mass tends to continue while the bike remains behind, and this generally sucks for you. Once the trench warfare reached its version of Versailles, the alleged trail began a series of turns through meadows of trees that were cut down a hundred years ago. I feel bad complaining, but if your going to make a “trail” there should be more involved than nailing some orange plastic triangles to some trees and fence posts and then let the bikers create the trail through the waist high-grass. In fairness there were some pretty cool sections where they used fallen logs as trail liners and filled the space between with gravel, and the views were impressive, but in the end, I decided that I would rather be back in the van having a beer, so I found a junction to the sheep shit trail from the day before and had a couple of beers and a nap before going back to Nelson.

I found Nelson to be a nice town, with a lot of tattoos, nose rings, flannel and Hitler haircuts, thus, a bit more of a hipster vibe than any place I have been up to now. While not as bad as hippies (at least they aren’t whiney unemployed socialists) it makes no sense to me to place value on obscure uniqueness and then express it by conforming to the exact same standards of dress, hairstyle, body art and adornment that every other member of your tribe have adopted.  I also find a lot of hyperbole in hipster-ism, where things that are outside of the mainstream are suddenly elevated to exalted status expressly due to their mediocrity, and banality. It should more accurately be called spinster-ism.

The Old Ghost road

The story is that a couple of dudes got this idea to resurrect a long-abandoned trail (and nothing more than a trail idea) through the gold mining mountains of the northwestern part of the South Island. I love the concept that once an idea is born, it sometimes takes on a life of its own, or in this case takes over the life of it progenitors. Apparently, these guys worked on the trail for years, slowly improving it from something that was barely hike-able to barely bike-able, and then concurrent with the governmental push to create a nation-wide mountain bike Mecca, the big money of the government came in, along with hundreds of volunteer’s labors, and made it ride-able for more than just the zealots. It is also really cool to realize how many things in life that are successful, depend on luck and timing at some critical juncture of their development, and this trail is certainly an example of that concept.

Flower New Zealand

I started at Lyell, which is basically the site of the ghost town (no structures, just artifacts) at one end of the trail, with the other end nearly 50 miles away (and 16,000 foot elevation change), at Sedonville near the coast.  Unlike the Timber trail on the North Island the distance of the ride is made feasible by several huts instead of a full-service lodge. Apparently, the difference is that with a hut, you bring your own food, and sleeping bag, and if you are mountain biking you have access to stove/fuel/cooking items (backpackers bring all their own supplies). This turns a normal mountain bike ride into a semi supported Bike-packing trip.  With limited web access, and even less patience with reservations, club memberships, user names and passwords I decided to just ride up as far as I could and then come back to the van when I had enough, and as this was the fourth day in a row of riding, I did not have any huge goals beyond just seeing what the trail was like.

One disadvantage of a second summer is the second summer of insects that go with it. Years of living in the desert have made me forget about the absolute horror of being committed to being outside (like teaching a survival class) and having to deal with literal clouds of insects, each one of which, with a suicidal desire for a share of my bodily fluids. We keep these on the inside for several good reasons… they stink, they are sticky, and we need them to function normally.  They call them sand flies here. We called them black flies in Maine, and we call the same basic species Cedar gnats back in Utah, but in reality, they are evil incarnate. It is said that Mosquitos have killed more human beings than all the wars combined, through the diseases that they spread (dengue and malaria being the worst) But at least mosquitos are surgical in both their approach and extraction, a bit of buzzing around then a hypodermic needle inserted, fluid taken and off they go. Mosquito bites are itchy because they inject an anti-clotting agent (as well as various viruses) into your skin so they can get the goods and piss off.  Black flies are different in the way that Freddy Krugger is different from your local red cross, they both get blood but with wildly different approaches.  Black (sand) flies have a set of serrated scissors for jaws, and once they land they begin to flay your flesh apart until the blood starts flowing which they take away to make more little horror machines, by the billions. All of this trauma leaves a welt the size and shape of a lentil on your skin, and they hurt and itch like mad for several days. I now remember why we never wore Chaco or Teva sandals in Maine, as I have so many bites on my feet at the moment that sleep is hard to come by. Strangely they don’t seem to like the woods as they did in Maine and so grassy places where I am prone to camping in the van are actually much worse than in the forest on a ride.

Knowing that going outside was going to be a lesson in misery, I spent an hour preparing everything in the bug free (ish) zone of the camper van. All I had to do once outside was put the front wheel into place and ride off into the woods where the flies didn’t go. I was covered head to toe for the dash into the woods as I jumped out and grabbed the bike, only to discover that the rear tire was flat. Ten purely hellish minutes later (and a few swear words) I rode into the woods across the swing bridge and up the Old Ghost road.

It is 18 km (10 miles) to the first hut at Lyell saddle and as every inch is uphill, I figured that it would make a decent turn around point, however once there it seemed a bit anti-climactic, just a junction in the forest. I mean the riding was a spectacular series of bends, narrow paths across rock slides, and open forest that is so steep, if you fell off and did not leave your bike behind they would never find you. As I still felt like I had some legs left I continued on upward, thinking I would go until I ran out of uphill or leg power, which ever came first. Shortly after the Lylle hut, the trail comes to the end of what is called the Dray road, with the remainder being handmade and in many places running across layered platforms of split logs then covered with gravel. These run for hundreds of yards where it looks like it would be too wet to have a dirt trail. Eventually I came to a couple benches at a lookout that seemed a likely spot for lunch and a turn around.  I had been playing leapfrog with a father and son on the way up, and as I finished lunch they arrived and while chatting, Jason mentioned that they were heading to “heavens door” before turning back. This was supposed to be “a couple of kilometers” further on, and how can I not want to know what heavens door is all about after all this climbing. It was an additional 4 kilometers or so and several hundred additional feet, but a totally amazing trail cut right across the side of an exposed mountainside, ending in a view that made every uphill inch worthwhile, and all in warm sunshine and no bugs. This made the name even more fitting, and as I turned to descend I realized that although I made it to heavens door, I got no further before turning my back on it.

The truly heavenly part of the day was the 26 kilometer (17 mile) downhill ride that followed. I have never had the opportunity to do such a long downhill ride, and I realized that it is a good thing I looked around and enjoyed the views on the way up, because I don’t think my eyes strayed from the (seemingly much skinnier) trail for more than a second over the next 2 hours it took to get back down to the van. I swallowed 3 bugs (protein) and took 2 breaks to let the feeling come back into my hands, and had just enough feeling in my fingertips to twist the top off of the cold IPA at the finish.

Further south.

Link to Todd’s New Zealand Photo’s:

https://1drv.ms/f/s!AtD6c7fsBXcOZ63ISzFV3UNszrs

 

 

DSCN0047

Mountain Bike New Zealand

More Proof that Todd is actually riding on his vacation, not just sipping Negro Modelo on the shore.

 

New Zealand Mountain Biking

New Zealand Blog Post #2

Taupo (“Toe-paw”)

December 18th to 22nd

Waihaha to Waihora

I woke up in Kinloch to the sound of rain plinking off of the top of the van, along with an angry and ragged wind that was trying to drive lake Taupo into town. One look outside and I imagined a day hiding out from the elements, and started to consider alternate activities. I sent Jonny the shuttle guide an email asking if they really rode in these conditions, expecting to have my views of the crappy weather validated, but instead got back a reply of “oh its fine you will be sheltered” This sounded like a bit of stiff upper lip sort of stuff (ie: don’t be a baby) but I dubiously got myself ready and loaded up into Jonny’s van when he arrived. He handed me a hot coffee (I like this guy already) and assured me that both the ride and the boat pick up would be no problem in these conditions. Ten minutes later as we were heading towards the drop off point it occurred to me that the wind was dead calm and the sky was completely clear, which was a good lesson on listening to the local guide.

We passed an upside-down car with no wheels on the side of the road and he showed me where it hit the earthen road cut (that constantly seem inches away from your mirror) careening off and flipping over in the process. Apparently, it is not uncommon to have your car stolen and taken for a joy ride, and either wrecked or set on fire if it makes it through the joy ride part intact. I had noticed 3 other burned out cars on the side of roads in the past 2 weeks and just stupidly assumed cars were prone to simply exploding here, but I guess the northern hemisphere does not have a monopoly on criminally evil adolescents. Then, as we pull into the trailhead lot, right in the middle is a burned-out Nissan sedan! I understand all too well how embarrassing it is to want people to think well of where you live only to come around a corner and ride through a pile of redneck beer cans and diapers.

There really isn’t much of a preamble to the riding here, from the parking lot you literally disappear into what I am coming to consider a temperate jungle. One turn and your world becomes trees, moss, fern, birdsong and dappled sunlight, and if you didn’t know the car was 50 meters away, you would have no reason to suspect. The trail is a superb feat of workmanship and knowledge of the landscape. The climbs were aerobic without being lactic, the corners perfectly parabolic, and I simply lost track of how many bridges they built over the incessant streams that tumble into Lake Taupo. At intervals you pop out of the forest to viewpoints that give you a sense of the amazing wilderness that you are riding your bike through. Four hours of complete solitude later I began a series of switchback descents down to Waihora Bay, yet even the finale of stepping onto the beach took an additional 30 minutes because I had to keep stopping at the series of waterfalls that the trail crossed and re-crossed via yet more bridges and ramps between them, it was a seemingly endless series of delightful surprises.

At the beach there is this end of the world sense of “Ok now what?” It is about 50 meters long, a cliff on one end and more jungle on the other, and nothing but very blue choppy waves for as far as you can see. I didn’t see a boat or even where a boat would come from, and, because I forgot my cell phone, had no contact with anyone or even an idea of what time it was. Prior to leaving the van, we discussed what time my pick up was scheduled for but I could not remember if it was one thirty or three, and I now began to wonder if I may have missed the boat… literally. I amused myself for a while throwing the pumice rocks into the waves only to watch the waves float them back onto the beach. I also tapped into my survival skills and set up a shadow stick to get a sense of cardinal directions since I knew that the boat would come from Kinloch and that was to the north, and now I knew where to look for it to arrive from.  After about 2 hours I heard the click of a derailleur and hiss of tires, and a couple from Calgary arrived to share my misgivings about the lake being too rough for a boat retrieval, and the unpleasant prospect of reversing the 19-mile ride. There comes a point when you either have to commit to staying the night or riding back the way you came… for me I figured that point would be four thirty. Fortunately, the boat was only about 30 minutes late, unfortunately with the high waves, getting aboard was going to be a struggle.

They run the boat bow first into the beach, and you wade out and hand them your bike. Then you jump up, hopefully timing it when the boat isn’t doing the same, and grab the inflated rubber gunwale and try to mantle yourself into the boat with no footholds. It isn’t the most graceful maneuver, and everyone took a couple of tries but we all eventually ended up on board and reversed away from Waihora beach.

The lake was completely deserted of other vessels and Captain Wally confided that if we weren’t waiting for pickup he had numerous better places to be than on a lake that seemed determined to break his boat in half. Wally had the thickest Kiwi accent I had ever heard and between puzzling out what the hell he was saying, bracing myself against the kind of impacts that would make a chiropractor see dollar signs, – and now that we were out in the lake in a rolling pitching cork, trying not to succumb to the nausea that would inevitably cover Wally with my lunch.  If we had been out there another 15 minutes longer I don’t think I would have made it without chumming for… whatever the hell lives in the bottom of a collapsed volcanic caldera that blew itself to smithereens 1800 years ago.  None of us actually kissed the ground, but you could tell that we were all glad to be on solid ground.

The Timber Trail

I am pretty sure that there is no member of our government in a higher position than our local BLM officials that even know what mountain biking is. Therefore, it is hard for me to imagine a Prime Minister of a country saying to themselves, “you know what we need in New Zealand is more mountain bike trails” and then throw a few million tax dollars at making it happen. I doubt that Senator Hatch is lying awake at night scheming over getting the votes to build Utah some bitchin, cool single-track to attract the visiting mountain bikers from all over the world. Yet several years ago the previous administration here wondered exactly that and then began a project to construct 10 world class trail systems all over both islands.

The Timber trail is pretty much what mountain biking could be if you spared no effort, manpower, materials or expense in its creation. 82 kilometers of non-technical groomed trail through some of the most remote, lush, pristine and exotic forest I can imagine being able to ride through. Jonny of 4B’s guiding service made all of this happen on a logistic level, and as we walked into the woods at the beginning of the trail we were met by a life-size Maori carving that seemed, if not threatening, at least not welcoming in the traditional “let’s have a beer afterward” sense. What it did impart was that this trail and especially the first 3 kilometers were extraordinary in a deeper sense than just a cool ride.

Environmental organizations will often object to uses of wilderness areas that don’t fit into their particular ideal by asking if an activity qualifies as “roller skating in the Sistine Chapel” suggesting that only pursuits (and the sanctified individuals engaged in those pursuits) that engender a proper sense of reverence should be permitted.  Well if I was ever to have the opportunity to roll some knobby tires across the Sistine dance floor this was that chance, and it was awesome in exactly the sense that word really means, it inspired awe.  Every living thing was wrapped in a mossy, misty, muffled shroud of greenery. Light filtered down in thin rays that danced through the understory and created a sense of movement everywhere, where there is none, because trees this big don’t move around. Trunks draped in moss erupted from the unseen ground and plunge straight through the various canopy layers only to disappear upward in spikes of sunlight. Birdsong was incessant, exuberant, exotic, and seemed to come from every direction at the same instant. For perhaps the first time on a mountain bike I felt a strong urge to linger, and to allow this landscape reveal itself to me at its own pace and via its own contour, and as if in understanding the bike seemed to roll along at a properly reverential speed, it was sublime.

Building 82 kilometers of mountain bike trail through “Heart of Darkness” level jungle, was apparently not enough of a challenge for these guys, they also decided that they had to make it smooth enough that your granny could ride with you.  I was actively scoffing at the idea that anyone’s nanna would be riding over 50 miles in 2 days, when one of them passed by, giving me a grizzled and blood shot stink eye in the process. As I lagged back in utter stupefaction, the entire bunion brigade passed me by like they were late for tea and biscuits. Worse yet, here I sat on a modern carbon fiber miracle of modern engineering, while they were creaking and wheezing along on these 6 speed steel behemoths likely manufactured in the Pleistocene. I started earnestly pedaling out of both embarrassment and admiration and caught up just as the terrain began an uphill trend. As I rode up on the last in line I hear “Who the bloody hell is behind me? Just pass ya bastard,” coming from a woman who, as I complied, looked as if she knitted tea cozies and saved the wrapping paper off of Christmas presents.  The hill was taking its toll on them, eventually I passed by several pushing their bikes up, but with the kind of dogged determination that only 70 years of fighting gravity would impart, and made me believe that I would definitely see them at the lodge 40k later.

With about 2 miles of gentle uphill between me and what I was to find out later was a septuagenarian tramping club, I came to a side trail where you can hike up out of the forest to a 360-degree view of the surroundings. At the top I was barely above an ocean of trees, and yet snow-capped mountains and an active volcano of Tongariro national park floated on the sea of green off to the south.

Back on the trail the riding was a beautiful variety of bridged stream crossings, gentle switchbacks, and gradients that were neither leg burners nor downhill romps, just a steady pace through a forest that closed behind me in a way that made it seem that I was riding into an embrace… or a trap depending on the level of daylight that penetrated the particular section. Eventually I came down to long downhill section rounded a corner and was confronted by a 200’ long suspension bridge high over a literal chasm of tree tops with the sound of rushing water far below. The surface was 3’ wide and there was netting on the sides just in case you had a stroke, but the thing bounced and swung as you rode across it, which most trails don’t do, at least when you’re sober. Amazingly this is one of what seemed like a dozen suspension bridges built expressly to make this mountain bike trail possible, elements of which had to be facilitated with helicopters.

After three weeks of pretty much continuous riding I thought that 40 kilometers would not be too difficult, but by the time I got to the lodge I was ready to sit on a surface larger that the saddle of the bike, and the Timber Lodge provided just that opportunity. It is hard to wrap your brain around a facility in the literal middle of the forest that is completely off the grid and built expressly to cater to people mountain biking on this trail. As I dismounted and stepped inside I was handed a cold glass of orange juice by Trish who is one of the two managers, and shown to my room where Jonny had left my overnight bag. 30 minutes later, post hot shower, I was sitting on a large deck in the warm sunlight of my second summer solstice of the year, enjoying a cold beer and listening to the still riotous birdsong coming from the forest that surrounded the lodge.

The lodge is brand new and at a cost of several million dollars, is a huge bet on the part of the owners on the viability of providing a top-quality experience to a group of recreationalists as diverse as mountain bikers can be. Though not as prone to the dirt-bag lifestyle as climbers, there are certainly mountain bikers who are too cheap to indulge themselves in an experience this comfortable, (yes Erik I am talking about you). Yet without a facility like this, 82 kilometers of trail would not be a reasonable or worthwhile investment, as few people want -or have the fitness- to be in the saddle for that distance in a day.

Eventually all of the bikers doing the first section of the trail managed to drag themselves in, and a dinner of roast pork tenderloin, potatoes, steamed vegetables and salad was served followed by some kind of cheese cake thing for desert. I saw nothing but empty plates at the end of the meal, and most of the 30 or so guests for that night headed off to soft beds and clean sheets almost immediately, even though the sun was still low in the sky. I grabbed a glass of wine and sat out on the deck with the intent to watch the sun drop below the tops of the trees, but must have dozed off at some point because it was dusk as I stumbled into my room and soft bed.

The following day dawned as a light mist, and over a breakfast of muesli, fruit, quiche, and coffee the discussion at my table centered over whether it would clear or turn to rain. I eavesdropped on the tramping grandpas discuss the quality of their bowel movements and various prostrate issues, and all things being equal, their conversation had more substance. I departed the lodge, and rode into a misty jungle.

After a few miles of intermittent forest road mixed with single track, the trail climbed over a gentle ridge to reveal the longest suspension bridge of the ride. Nearly 300 feet long and over 200 feet above the cascades below I was again stunned at the level of development that has gone into this mountain bike ride. This one seemed to buck a bit more than the others as I rode across, and of course as any good red blooded American male would do, I had to stop at the half way point and spit into the abyss, as if to give the grim reaper a finger poke in the eye socket.

At about the half way point of the ride the trail begins to follow the pathways of the rail lines that were built in the early part of the 20th century to extract the logs cut from the hillsides. Ordinarily I would be disappointed to be mountain biking on a rails-to-trails sort of thing, but here the rail bed was so overgrown that it had become a fun, fast single track with nice wide bends, and suddenly I found myself flying through the woods thoroughly enjoying the sense of flow, speed and gravity. I realized at the end that this typified the nature of this trail, often it was not so much about “mountain biking” as much as traversing the landscape and appreciating the remoteness, isolation and wildness that I was moving through. Then, at the next corner, a mile of mountain biking would present itself and my focus would narrow to the bike and the trail. Granted there were no 8- foot tall bermed turns or table top jumps but I am finding that to be one of the beautiful aspects of this pursuit… the vast range of experiences that it offers, seem to be endless.

Off to the South Island.

Sunset in New Zealand

New Zealand Blog Entry #1

I have been mountain biking in and around St. George since John Czinczoll (builder of the JEM trail) took me down the Green Valley loop in 1993, on a bike with no suspension, and operated by a rider with few actual skills, and a basic ignorance of the physics of inertia. I only really got the mountain bike bug after coming back from a climbing trip to Thailand in 2003, which sort of burned me out on traveling to go rock climbing.  While climbing will likely always be a huge part of my life in St. George, that piece of pie has gotten gobbled up by a growing love of the quality and diversity of the biking that we have in this part of Utah. Yet even down in the low desert of Utah our winter biking opportunities are limited by the reach of the northern snow pack, and cold of the higher elevation rides, which made for great excuses to head to southern Arizona over the past few years. After sampling the pain levels involved in riding into most of the cactus species in the Sonoran Desert, I decided that this year I would forgo winter all together and sample what the best mountain biking in the southern hemisphere had to offer. I left for New Zealand in early December and will not return until early February.

Travel; even in the year 2018, is tedious, uncomfortable, frantic and stressful.  The very idea of packing up a small version of your possessions and then moving via multiple methods of conveyance to a different locale on what is still the same planet; in order to obtain a new perspective on the value of where you live, (and your life in general) seems on the face of it a huge waste of time and resources.  In the process of moving across landscapes and datelines you are forced to schlep, carry, lift, and cram your meager (but still fucking heavy) possessions through enough security checkpoints that your toothpaste should glow in the dark from the x-ray radiation. From there you manhandle it into overhead bins, under your feet, and into or out of shuttles, taxis, conveyors, rickshaws or camels for the remainder of your travel.

Yet it is said that travel makes us grow, gives us new frames of reference by which to see the world and appreciate how differently other people attempt to solve the problem of living and how to create a good life, given the climate, natural resources, traditions, and societal organization that they are born into. Yet it is worth noting that these aren’t your climate, traditions or societal organizations, and so in seeking differences do we merely discover a gulf of such exponential scope that they become nothing more than a series of interesting facts intended to impress people you already know. I mean that the shape of penis gourds amongst the tribes of New Guinea, probably makes for very unique dinner party conversation, but that knowledge will do nothing to address your erectile dysfunction, beyond disguising it.

 

December 11th

So I made it and have 4 days of riding under my belt so far. I have been trying to get a sense of the trail networks, gain some biking fitness, and so far, seeing just how lost I can get.  One problem I had not considered is how screwed up just being in the other hemisphere can be. The shadows all point in the wrong direction, driving is on the wrong side of the road, I have no idea what most of the road signs mean, like what the hell would a silver circle with a diagonal black slash mean? No moving diagonally? I try not to do that in general in a moving vehicle, I don’t need a fucking sign to remind me. The people here are in principle speaking the same language that I am, but it is hardly understandable, the words left and lift are pronounced exactly the same, I mean if we are going to go to the trouble of spelling them differently, I think that you should make an effort to try to speak them with a discernable difference. I had a dude on one trail tell me that a particular trail section was a piece of piss, which came out piss of piss.  I had to ask 3 times what he was trying to say to me, and even when I did understand him it didn’t make any more sense than when I didn’t understand him.

I honestly don’t know how this would be possible alone without Google maps, fortunately it is an island and you can only get so lost, but I am pretty sure that I would be pinging from one coast to the other without the Google lady talking calmly and patiently in my ear.  I miss a turn and she simply figures that I am a moron who needs alternate directions and provides them without any attitude at all. I have found myself wishing that she would occasionally validate my frustration at myself with a timely… “Where the fuck are you going now? I said left you idiot.” Fortunately I have her speaking normal English or I wouldn’t understand a thing she was saying.

The riding has been pretty good with glimpses of awesome at times.  I have admittedly been exploring the areas north of Auckland and these probably aren’t the premier rides, but I am hoping for a broad sense of the riding rather than a tick list of the world renowned trails.

I rode an area outside of the town of Wangari (they all start with a W and look the same to me, like someone is trying to talk to you with a mouth full of marbles) This trail started at the top of the hill that you drive up to the top of (for a change).  It was about a mile of 6’ bermed turns, rollers, and pumps that careened down the face of an improbably steep hillside.  It was scary fast and amazing fun until I came into a turn a bit fast and low and started to carve hard to make the turn without flying off the trail and down the face of the mountain. Clay has an unfortunate tendency to get slippery when wet and as the bike flew out from under me that tendency was made apparent as my head smacked into it. I saw whirling little kiwi birds for a few seconds, and for the second time in the past 3 weeks got up gingerly to see if I broke or tore anything. Beyond a sore wrist and a nice covering of clay it was just a good lesson in trail conditions, but I seriously need to stop testing the limits of my helmet.

Rotorura Dec 13 to 15th

This place: If they had a tag line it would be “living up to the hype.” First impressions are of a tourist destination built around the geothermal activity of the region (the whole town smells like brimstone). A second glance would reveal logging on a pretty massive scale with clear cut areas of bleached-out stumps on many of the surrounding hillsides. A closer look at these would reveal tan strips of clay dug out of the exposed hills in the form of berms, rollers and jumps. What is unapparent and completely invisible altogether is the immense wealth of single track that weaves between, along, amongst and through a forest that can’t seem to make up its mind to be tropical, temperate, coniferous, or otherworldly.  These are not your typical single tracks.  From the first moment that the bike departs the access road it seems to adhere to the trail as though after years of artificial substitutes, it was finally entering its most natural environment, the bike feels at home on this surface, like they were made for each other, and I guess in a sense they were. Both the bike and trail seem to work together as an efficient mechanism whose purpose is to plunge the seemingly redundant human operator down the hillside in the most beautiful manor achievable, … or at least intact, it often feels as if I were to depart the bike that it could just continue on without me.

bike tree stand

Proof that Todd is actually out there, literally working his ass off, and not just drinking on the beach while sending us random images from the internet.

This island seems to be constructed out of clay, and the trails feel as if made on a pottery wheel with the bike following the parabolic curves planned by the potter and mandated by the physics. You really feel this on a trail called Corners, where without the 8’ tall berms to redirect your inertia you would find yourself flying at precipitous speed through the forest for the briefest moment imaginable only to have that speed arrested one painful instant later by an oblivious redwood trunk. Twisting and falling at the same time one corner flows immediately into the next one and you begin to suspect that the bike is spending more time horizontal to the earth, than vertical. All of this regal silliness ends abruptly at a clear cut.  I was curious about how I would feel about going from such a magical setting to such a devastated one,… but in reality the riding was the same, only more discernable from a longer distance away, and so you have more time to set up for the turns or jumps, whereas in the forest they come at you unaware (and very fast). You are also moving fast enough and the features are coming at you with such alacrity that you hardly have the available bandwidth to even notice what you are riding through, beyond it is sunny and not shady and green. Corners alone justified the 8000-mile journey, so I rode it twice.

You buy a ticket for a number of shuttle trips up to the top of the mountain.  The shuttle is a small bus (bigger than a special needs bus but smaller than a city bus.) and it pulls a home-made trailer that holds 25 bikes. It looks sketchy at first but nothing ever fell off. The ride up takes about 20 minutes but the calorie savings are very much worth the $6 per trip fee.  I bought 5 rides, and over 2 days I kinda got the gist of what this type of riding was about, and after doing Corners for a second time I was trying to figure out what could possibly be a grander finale to this visit. Every time I got to the top of the shuttle I looked at this trail called Eagle vs Shark, but it seemed to go in a direction that had few other options, and no option to regain the shuttle stop. So, I decided to try it on my last run down the mountain. I don’t expect to ever have the opportunity to ride anything as good in this lifetime. It was 2 miles of pure flowing bliss. I wanted to stop to savor it, but the features, turns and corners, come so fast and blend together so beautifully it would have been sinful to interrupt such an amazing feeling. Someone could have murdered me at the bottom with a machete and I would have been fine with it, there is nearly no point in continuing to ride after that…. But I will.

Taupo December 17th

The drive from Rotorua to Taupo is about an hour through rolling hills, cattle, sheep and typical Zealandia utopia.  Apparently, lake Taupo is friggin big, has one outlet and hundreds of water sources constantly pouring into the lake, and what that means is that the sole outlet has to get busy with getting rid of all that water. Hukka falls is where the lake becomes a river and that river moves a literal shit ton of water downhill, like right now. Oh, and its blue, I mean really blue, not glacial till aqua, I mean clean water dawn of time blue, this water looks brand new, I keep looking around for dinosaurs.

Clear water New Zealand

This is what water is supposed to look like!

I didn’t have high expectations of what is billed as one of “the great walks, and oh you can mountain bike it too” but once I saw the terrain that the W2K trail was going to travel over I raised my expectations a bit, only to have them exponentially exceeded by the actual experience.  The trail starts at some place called Waipo (how they ever keep them distinct I will never know) and rides up 2000 feet over a headland to a town called Kinloch, thus W2K. As a solo rider I did not have an option to get a shuttle return so I rode it as a halfway, out and back with a bonus loop around the top of the headland.  I am going to have to start rationing my accolades, or inventing new superlatives because for a cross country ride, I cant think of a comparison. I am getting the sense that there is a premium on trails that traverse “native bush” (not what you think those of you with dirty minds). It means that it isn’t a planted forest or second growth tree farm terrain, but the thick jungle-like, fern-infested stuff that was the original cover of the hillsides. The trail was just steep enough that you had to breathe, but never so much that your legs started burning,… so perfect?  Not for the first time I had a sense that I was riding a bike through a magical forest. Thousands of shades of green, moss and lichen covered trunks, fern fronds the size of Buicks that whack you in the face with significant malice, I am sure that there were fairies and leprechauns lurking just out of sight, fairy dust and shillelagh at the ready.  The loop around the headland offered a beautiful mix of climbs and downhills as well as numerous points to digress to lookouts where the idea that you are looking at a lake seems absurd. Recovering all of that elevation was like a five mile long dance with the ferns. You actually can’t let it all hang out because it is a two-way trail and with tight corners you could kill someone or find yourself flying off into the woods getting cudgeled by a leprechaun. An absolute world class ride that makes me wonder about the utility of having a quality scale for mountain bike trails similar to rock climbing routes. This would be five star.

I have reservations to do the final section of this ride which is a 19 mile point to point ride that finishes on a remote beach, where you are picked up with a boat and returned to your car.

 

Van camping life

Not quite dirt-bagging it!

Here is the link to the Onedrive account where you can view or download Todd’s photo’s from his trip. There are way better pic’s here than we have put on this page. Check it out!

https://1drv.ms/f/s!AtD6c7fsBXcOZ63ISzFV3UNszrs

New Zealand Mountain Biking Blog Announcement!

Hello, followers!

Some of you already know, but Todd Goss, the owner and founder of Paragon Adventures has ventured off to boldly spend 2 months mountain biking in New Zealand this winter. ( 2 months?! I feel bad for his bike seat!)

After one week on the other side of the planet, Todd has realized that he has had to overcome many challenges just to get off of the ground and start riding. He will be sending you tips on how to plan your own trip to this magical part tof the world, and hopefully help you be prepared for some of these unforseen obstacles you may encounter. So stay tuned!

mountain bike

Todd’s winter office…

rock canyon rap

Exploring Canyons ofSouthern Utah

As an avid hiker, explorer, and outdoor lover, living in a place like Saint George Utah can be overwhelming. Amazing hikes surround us here, to the point where even after fifteen years of exploring the area, I still get to find new adventures every year. The BLM wilderness Southeast of Zion National Park is a massive, wild, backcountry area full of slot canyons, 4×4 roads and mountain lion tracks. This year I finally stepped foot into this area to explore some canyons I had never seen before.

At Paragon Adventures, we always strive to give our guests a unique experience, and as some of the areas we use become more popular, we find new ones. For months, owner and lead guide of Paragon, Todd Goss had his eyes set on a few canyons in this area, as possible remote canyoneering routes for our guests, and the weather was finally warm enough to go see it for ourselves.

We drove to the trailhead and loaded up onto the Honda Pioneer: a 1000cc ATV that seats five people. Now the adventure begins. Riding on the soft sand is almost like boating over mid-sized waves, except on a boat, you don’t have to dodge trees and navigate the network of confusing trails, marked only by thin, brown, numbered posts, which are hard to read as you speed past them at thirty miles per hour. Some trails were so narrow, we had to duck away from the edge of the ATV so as to not have our ears scraped off by the trees we swiped. Upon finding the parking spot, we quickly hiked downhill through the sand, as the terrain gradually became sandstone. There was still ice on the ground, which, on such a steep slope, could have sent us on a long, fast descent to the bottom of the canyon, had we slipped on it. The drainage we followed turned out to be the exact one we hoped for: Joe French Canyon. We reached a 200+ foot drop off with an incredible view of the Parunuweap river ahead. We found the easy hike down and descended a steep trail full of loose rock and deer tracks. This was clearly the only way down without rappelling. At the bottom we looked up at the big 200+ foot wall we bypassed to see it had a sheet of frozen ice on its lower half. Todd’s expensive camera was immediately deployed and put to good use.

As we worked our way downstream through Joe French Canyon, we quickly encountered flowing, clear water. We put on our wet suits and canyoneering shoes. The first step into the shallow water was met with surprise and laughter as some of us sunk up to our knees in quick sand. Now, even more cautious than before, we passed through the rest of the thickly-vegetated canyon, marveling at the unique plants growing flat against the canyon wall, as if glued there. Even Kenn “the Biologist” couldn’t identify this plant. The canyon quickly ended at the Parunuweap river which is the east fork of the Virgin River, and due to the snow melt it was flowing more heavily than expected. We tucked our cameras and phones into dry bags and began hiking downstream through waist deep water. This can be tougher than most would think. Three out of the four seasoned guides we had out there that day all fell into the water at one point due to not being able to see what we were stepping on in the murky water. This is good though, as it gives us something to laugh at throughout the day.

Our goal was to get to the narrow and technical portion of the canyon, called Fat Man’s Misery. Fat Mans is not in Zion National Park, which means we CAN guide here. We hoped to find the way in, through, and back out of this part of the canyon. After about three quarters of a mile through the deep, gorgeous canyon, which required countless waist-deep river crossings and a few unplanned falls/baths, we reached Poverty Canyon. This is a side canyon that feeds into the Parunuweap River. We hiked up the short tributary about a quarter mile until it suddenly became very narrow. Todd’s eyes lit up and again, out came his camera. These deep, narrow sandstone canyons are a nature photographer’s dream, especially with “canyon light.” This refers to the way sunlight becomes more and more colored as it reflects off of red and orange canyon walls on its way down to you at the bottom of slot canyons. We could easily have spent hours here but we had a goal. After several quick photographs, we moved along, back to the Parunuweap river.

We continued downstream, encountering a series of large mountain lion tracks that followed the river, and seemed to cross in some spots where we would not. This was one big, bold cat that left these prints! We reached a spot where we could not go any further without some serious down climbing on wet boulders through a raging waterfall. We decided this was not the time of year to be going through this section of the canyon. If it is too rough for us, then we would not be taking guests down it anyways. We would have to return when the river was lower, later in the year. We continued to eat snacks and make fun of each other on our long hike back to the vehicle.

We had seen three amazing canyons in one day, all of which most visitors to the area will never see. We had a world class adventure in our own backyard, and after re-ascending the long, steep hike out of Joe French Canyon and looking back at the network of slot canyons, slick rock, green trees and blue skies, I realized that I had barely even scratched the surface of this area. We had just explored one tiny hair on the head that is Southwest Utah. That’s alright. I like feeling small. We will definitely be back. Finally we reached the Honda Pioneer, changed out of our wet suits, and sipped cold water. As we climbed back into the Pioneer, and realized that Todd was now in a hurry to get home,  I thought “I better buckle up. This adventure’s not over yet!”

White Pocket

Marbled sandstone

White Pockets

It is difficult to get the term “sedimentary chaos” out of my mind as I wander across the jumbled convolutions of White Pocket Arizona. The normal explanations for the colors, striations and crossbedding of the Navaho layer seem fantastically inadequate for the geological craziness that stretches off in every direction. It feels like I am walking around in an Escher painting and at some point I begin simply attributing everything to leprechauns and stop trying to imagine how all this rock got so geologically befuddled, which is not to say that the amazement factor is diminished in any way.

White pockets is a long way from nowhere, and mid February road conditions start at terrible and degenerate from there.  Turning off of highway 89A onto House Rock Valley road is a transition of time traveling proportions, from the predictability of 21st century asphalt to the frozen rutted clay of the 1850’s. Nine miles never seems very long at highway speeds, but when your head is being smashed into the driver side window with regularity, it makes me realize that thirty miles per hour is actually pretty damn fast after all.  Turning off onto the “sand roads” of the Paria Plateau are actually a relief until I realize that the violent bashing has simply been replaced with being sucked into the earth, as we traverse through the softer portions of the “road”.  So the stress of being bludgeoned is simply replaced by the stress of being buried alive.

Fio Antognini standing in for the  big guy in white pocket

Fio Antognini standing in for the big guy in white pocket

Arriving at the combination parking / camping area of White Pockets is both a stress relief and anti-climax at the same time. Perhaps I am jaded from twenty five years of tramping around some of the more remote and spectacular corners of the region, but at first glance it does not really live up to its billing, and I begin to regret the punishment that both body and vehicle have endured in getting to what appears to be basic blanched polygonal sandstone dune deposits that are easily visible, and with far less travail, five miles from my house. A brief stroll through the barrier sand dunes leads onto a lichen speckled, white gray sandstone that rises towards a ridge. Here my usual expectations are simply decimated, as the boring wash that I expect to find on the other side is actually a small valley simply alive with a universe of inexplicable stripes, swirls, whirls, and some kind of geologic marbling that resembles nothing more than a fine steak. While I am visually overloaded and stand slack jawed at the sweep of color and texture extending in 3 directions, the silence that this landscape lies steeped in, gives it a sense of drama that no theme music could improve on. A frenetic landscape marinated in a stillness so complete that the blood running through your ears becomes so obviously audible that you begin to wonder if others can hear it as well.the kaisers helmet

The desert southwest is renowned for landscapes that epitomize the word “grandeur” and yet so many of these are vast vistas which the human mind is ill equipped to grasp, the prime example of which being the Grand Canyon.  White pocket is intimate and intricate with few areas so steeply inaccessible that human fingers have yet to caress the textured stone, and offering a new delight around every turn.  It is an area that lends itself to an aimless saunter across bowls, through drainages, over ridges and around reflecting pools of water in the right season, the fringe of soft sand lapping against the edges of stone like waves at the shore.the golden alcove

Venturing out on the surrounding sea of sand, landfall is made at the surrounding mesas that rise as islands of color and texture. Switch backing up the millennia is to follow a rising seam of deposited stone, eventually moving to the next younger cross bed in a new direction, climbing an exposed slope in the process. The north end of the seemingly insurmountable White pocket mesa is approachable with this technique, and with each foot of elevation gain new wonders begin to reveal themselves. Pristine piles of sand lie in the wind shadows next to deep pools of winter rain. Alcoves hide multi hued bands of gnarled and eroded stone fins with so many variations on the color of gold, that an actual nugget would be unnoticeable, and comparatively banal. Few places offer this wealth of wonders in such a compressed area, and are still free from the odious permits, online lotteries, group size limits and law enforcement typified by the popular Coyote Buttes areas to the north.

It is worth hoping that the difficulty of the driving approach through the deep sand will continue to leave White pocket as a place that attracts a kind of explorer looking for the less traveled and untrammeled.last light on wihite pocket

Directions:  Best approached from the south via highway 89A  turn onto house rock valley road and travel north for 9 miles to road 1017 (there is a coral near this intersection)  Follow 1017 for 6.1 miles (going around the ranch house in the middle of the road) and turn left onto 1087. stay on 1086 for 9.3 miles to the parking and camping area on the left.

Roads:  The soft sand roads necessitate 4wd and good tires. Lowering your tire pressure may permit passage when the surface gets deep. Consider a means of re-inflation afterwards.

Preparedness:  No services, no gas, no water,  no cell coverage,..nothing. Bring everything that you will need.