Get the app

Bikepacking Canyonland's White Rim

Moab, Utah , United States
103 mi



ft elev +


This post isn't going to be about bikepacking gear. Having the 'right' gear is essential to bikepacking, but it also isn't. Humans have been sleeping outside for awhile now. I forgot to pack a few 'necessities' and things turned out alright. Let's save the gear talk for another post.

This isn't going to be about the physical demands of long, fully-loaded rides. Long bike rides can be overwhelming, and that's interesting to talk about. Let's save that discussion for another blog on another day. We'll call it The Snacks They Carried.

This isn't going to be about mileage or navigation or logistics. We weren't the first group to bike the White Rim, and there are many sources for that kind of information. All you might need to know is that we rode seventy-five fantastic miles on day one and thirty splendid miles on day two, and that I'm grateful these kind folks let me crash their trip.

This isn't going to be about the weather.

Nor is it going to be about omens. At the trailhead I surprised a hawk that was devouring a dead bird it held in its talons, and it tried and failed to fly away, the payload just a little too heavy. She continued to eat while keeping her eye on me and I continued to eat my own cold donut with my eye on her. What kind of omen was that? I have no idea. Having to defrost your chamois over the heater in your car--is that an omen? Who cares. Best to just leave omens out of it.

This isn't going to be about the terrain. It's all desert doubletrack, and it's rough and gouged and compressed into a pumice, except for where it's sandy to a degree that can only be described as malicious. 

This is going to be about a song that was stuck in my head for a majority of our two-day ride.

The song appears on an album that I have loved deeply for decades, and during the ride it seemed odd that this particular song should be on my mind. Neither its tone nor its content are at first glance appropriate to bikepacking in Moab. When I returned home it continued to play like a soundtrack over memories of the trip, and the more I thought about it the more satisfied I became that it was exactly the right song. 

The song always struck me as slow and sad and not at all appropriate for sunny days or bicycle rides. The album on which it appears is antithetical to being in the wilderness (and perhaps to being happy). I am almost always indoors in the dark when I listen to it, as I at this moment am.

I didn't even remember the title the song of until I got home and looked it up. Of course it sums up the nature of the trip perfectly. This blog is about being a tourist. The song is Radiohead's The Tourist.

David Foster Wallace describes being a tourist as well as anyone in his essay Consider the Lobster:

"To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing."
Wallace's sentiment is similar to mine, but not the same. I've always experienced tremendous rejuvenation in the wild, and it turns out there's some science that substantiates that experience (see The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier by Florence Williams and Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris). Canyonlands is very much alive, and getting out of town for a couple of days to ride as deep into the canyons as possible is very much what the sport--and this blog--is about. Wandering along lazy double track in the sun, allowing one's mind to wander, spending time with some delightful people but also a great deal of time alone--that's my kind of tourism.
Shafer Trail is the faint, plummeting zig-zag in the middle distance.
I first went to Moab when I was nine, and what is now a definition of 'tourist town' then felt remote; the land itself was totally empty. It doesn't feel like that anymore. There are tourists everywhere. As the area gets busier, Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire gets more and more depressing, as if the open landscapes Abbey wrote about in the sixties will soon read more like science fiction than history. The White Rim gets busy, too, but early on a cold April morning it felt like the Moab that stirred me as a kid. It felt vast and desolate, the way I want it to feel. 
Honestly, Utah is so pretty that when I observe that desert I know who I am.

We camped at Potato Bottom, a lush and leafy contrast to most of the ground we covered that first day. Setting up camp as the sun set and the leaves rustled was cinematic. I ate almond butter using a chocolate bar as a spoon, enjoyed the banter of my compatriots, and was content to an extreme.

I woke in the middle of the night to a sky so awesome that I forced myself awake fully to watch it for an hour. Lying in a warm sleeping bag on a chilly night under a starry sky can calibrate a person.
Note the local dude ahead of Sarah pulling a kid in a trailer up this hill, which is steeper than it looks.
The story is that Jonny Greenwood wrote The Tourist after watching Americans in gaudy garb rush frantically through Paris in such a hurry to see the city they were amidst that they were missing the beautiful city they were amidst. This sentiment is similar to Wallace's but not quite the same. Neither sentiment is quite my own. Mine has proven difficult to convey. Perhaps it can only be spelled out by the arabesques of the canyons. 

Maybe if you open this video in another window ( while scrolling through the photos below you'll get a sense of the hauntingly elegant, serene, and unspoiled landscapes we traversed. The trip could've been a dream--traveling in a fugue state with friends I might've known forever across alien terrain that felt like home.