It was March 11, 2020. Hans and I had just boarded a flight from LAX to London/Heathrow with a plan to spend time in the UK. The plane doors were locked and passengers belted in when the captain announced news of a travel ban for people coming from Europe into the U.S. At this point it didn’t include the UK, but for how long?
There were anxious rumblings from many passengers on board, as permission to disembark was given to those people who wanted to abort the trip. We had to make a decision fast, to stay onboard or go. We chose to get off the plane.
It turned out to be the right decision. By Friday, the ban had been extended to Great Britain. By Sunday, California was ordered to shut down bars. Soon, restaurants, offices, schools and non-essential travel would follow. Beaches were closed, as well as local parks, trails and national parks. Two days before, Hans and I had discussed renting an RV and doing a working road trip. The plan was to visit some states with beautiful scenery and do some shoots along the way. Well, that plan didn’t work out, either—at least not yet.
After several weeks of the “stay-at-home order,” we were going a bit stir-crazy, so when travel restrictions were lifted, we thought it was time for a change of scenery to get away from “Crazyville.” The beaches seemed more packed than ever, and the trails were the busiest we had ever seen them. There was little chance of socially distancing outdoors, so we decided to head to the Wild West.
Our route would take us from California to Nevada, then to Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Utah again. We rode bikes, hiked national parks and visited friends in an ever-changing landscape with jaw-dropping vistas.
We appreciated this sense of freedom, open road and change of scenery even more after being confined for so long.
Along the way, we experienced extremes in temperature—from 98 degrees with searing sunshine to subzero with snow. Kobe, our West Highland terrier having Scottish genes, loved the snow. He wasn’t so keen on the high heat, though. Fortunately, we were rarely far from a natural water source, whether it be a stream, river or lake.
Loaded with bikes, gear, food, and enough beer and wine to sink the Titanic, we set off for our first destination, Las Vegas. After a quick overnight pit stop, we were on the road again, headed to Monument Valley, Utah.
It was quite a long drive, but we managed to reach our first camp before the sunset on the magnificent monoliths poking up from the horizon. As the sun disappeared, it was replaced with the most stunning orange moon. The landscape was washed in deep pink—a beautiful sight—but it was so hot.
It was also Hans’ birthday, so we celebrated under the stars with a perfect dinner in a perfect setting.
The following day started with a stop at Gooseneck Bends, a series of horseshoe-shaped rocks carved by the San Juan River. We stood on the edge of the canyon, which fell away steeply in front of us. We decided to take some shots, so Hans unhitched his GT Force from the back of the van.
Honestly, I was terrified, as he rode so close to the edge. One false pedal and it would be game over. As he rode closer and closer and jumped from one protruding rock slab to another, all I could do was set my camera up, close my eyes and click. I couldn’t bear to watch him.
Because the stay-at-home order had only just been lifted, many of the national parks were not fully open, but we were able to drive the Valley of the Gods loop, which was a bit sketchy in an RV. Some warned us to turn back, but we made it safely along the rutted, exposed switchbacks.
Hans decided to get his bike out and ride a few lines. We had spent a long time sitting, and he was itching to spin his wheels, if only for a short time. The backdrop was majestic and so wide open, with sandstone buttes rising like fingers around us.
ON TO COLORADO
Next, we headed to our old friend and fellow “(Laguna) Rad” Bill Freeman’s abode. He lives in Mancos, Colorado. Bill is an excellent photographer and has worked with Hans many times over the years. He relocated from California a few years ago, and here at the end of a long dirt road he built himself a house at the top of a hill with a huge deck that gave him the most incredible view of the mountains and Mesa Verde.
After a BBQ on the deck and an incredible lightning show, it was time for sleep with a plan to ride the next day.
Hans and Bill rode the trails at Ramparts while I took Kobe and Bill’s dog, Jasmine, for a hike on the same route. The hike-a-bike was along a stunning trail, starting from the top of a mesa and circling down before heading back up again. Miles of aspen tree forest were cut through by clear sparkling streams that meandered along with the switchbacks. The delicate leaves were dappled in the sunlight, as the tall, slim trunks swayed in the wind. There were a few obstacles, thanks to the storm the night before; many trees had fallen and quite a few lay across the trail. No problem for Hans and Bill; they just popped over them. They had a blast, and Bill took some great shots along the way.
Another day and another ride, and this time it was the renowned Phil’s World Trail System near Cortez. Hans and Bill had arranged to meet up with a couple of local riders and trail dog Honzo. Hans was incredibly impressed with Honzo, the way he kept up and kept out of the way and figured out how to make up time by cutting the course and taking a straight line at the switchbacks. The trails had something for most levels of riders—from rocky and loose to steep and technical to smooth dirt with flow.
After two nights with Bill, it was time to head to Telluride, Colorado. This former mining town is now a famous ski destination in the Rocky Mountains. During the COVID shutdown, Telluride closed itself off from the rest of the physical world; it was easy to do since it is at the end of the valley. The town had opened to visitors again a few days before our arrival.
Our day ended at the Sunshine Campground. We slept like hibernating bears and woke up to a gloriously sunny day. Two fun rides followed. The first was up Bear Creek Trail, a wide multi-use track that ran parallel to the river most of the way, along with meadows and minor waterfalls. The riding required some concentration since the ground was a mass of fist-sized loose rocks and wet, slick slabs.
The next ride was a switchback-heavy trail heading towards Trico Peak and Ingram Falls. The falls were really spectacular; we ended up pretty soaked through. The ride back down to town offered us another incredible view. For me, one of the highlights of the day was mastering my phobia of riding through rivers. I did it several times and managed not to fall off my bike. Of course, Hans can wheelie through rivers. I complain that he has helium in his front tire.
From there, we headed to the next valley over, and there the sunshine was replaced with snow. Our destination was Ouray, which turned out to be the quaintest and loveliest historically preserved town on our whole trip. The next day, the sun burnt through the fog and gave us white snow caps along the horizontal ridges of the red mesas. The scene was particularly pretty against the now-bright blue sky.
HEADING TO MOAB
We were headed back to Utah again, this time Moab, for a visit with Greg Herbold, known to most as “HB.” HB is a former downhill world champion, and he calls Slickrock his home trail. Hans and HB are known for their comedic roles in the classic MTB movie Tread that was partly filmed here in ’93. Slickrock is world famous—a trail on solid rock, the way marked by dots of paint. It is not for the fainthearted. With steeps, sudden dips and exposure, it requires skills as well as stamina. Hans took his e-bike, a GT E-Force. Since e-bikes are allowed there, he figured a little help on the endurance side would leave more energy for extra fun challenges. It’s a bit of an oxymoron, but the rock isn’t slick at all; it’s actually super grippy.
That morning we had visited Arches National Park and hiked out to Delicate Arch. Here, riding is absolutely forbidden, but the drive through the park was one breathtaking view after another, and the hike was pretty special. I couldn’t believe just how much traction the terrain had. You could walk at an almost vertical pitch, which I found extremely useful the next day.
We said goodbye to HB and his wife Deborah and drove out to Wilson’s Arch. This huge golden natural arch is not in the park, and so Hans decided it was time to pop out the trials bike for an Instagram moment. We hiked up the incredibly steep grade, me struggling a little under the weight of my camera pack, which pulled me backwards.
The spectacle was so worth it, and I took some of my all-time favorite shots there. When I was lying on my back, or teetering on the edge and trying to keep my balance, I was so grateful for the grip of the rock.
Hans never ceases to amaze me on a bike. He is fearless, and nothing seems to faze him, whether riding on a precipitous edge, hopping from one jagged rock to another with hundreds of feet below him, or pulling 180s on a skinny spine high above the valley below. When I looked at the photos afterwards, I was very pleased that I had a “model” who could pull the moves that did justice to the immense, unique beauty on our road trip.
From Moab to Marble Canyon and Lees Ranch, which lies beside the San Juan River, our original plan had been to go to Vermillion Canyon, but as it turned out, the road was unsuitable for anything but a 4×4. It turned out to be fortuitous because that night a terrible brushfire raged in Vermillion, and that road, as well as the main highway, were closed; fate gave us a lucky escape.
Historic Lees Ranch is now a museum. It was once the site of a chain ferry that crossed the San Juan River before being replaced by giant steel bridges. Approaching the ranch, we walked through an orchard full of trees overgrown with fruit. From there, we followed a trail to the Paria River, passing abandoned machinery and an ancient truck. Kobe was hot and decided that the trail wasn’t for him, so he jumped into the river and stayed there, forcing us to do the same as we waded through water and mud. The reprieve from the heat was welcome.
That night we parked just before the Paria River joins the San Juan River at a place where it was as calm as a mill pond and so clear you could count the stones on the riverbed. The water was a perfect temperature, so we sat and splashed around, enjoying another gift from nature. We sat outside as sunset gave way to dusk and dusk merged into the moonlight. Another perfect ending to another perfect day.
ON TO ZION
Our final destination was Zion National Park, Utah, which was another long drive. We decided to break up the journey and camp out at Lone Rock Beach campsite on Lake Powell, Arizona. We arrived just as night was about to fall.
The next morning we were ready to head on to Zion, which is not far from Virgin, home to the Red Bull Rampage.
That night was one of my favorites. We found a dry site on BML land on top of a mesa, a stone’s throw from the Rampage location. Again, we could park anywhere, and although there were other people there, they were so far away that we felt as though we were totally alone. Bliss. I had wanted to camp somewhere in the wilderness with zero light pollution to diminish the stars, and this was it. It was awe-inspiring; the sky was littered with the brightest stars and planets, creating a blanket of lights that seemed so close you could almost touch them.
In the morning, we headed to Zion. On the way, we dropped Kobe off with another old friend and fellow Rad from California, Steve Peterson. He and his wife Linda have an absolutely stunning home on the banks of the Virgin River with a view from their terrace of the highest peak in Zion National Park. It is hard to describe in words the absolute beauty of the light as it set on those red rocks and cast a rose-colored glow all around.
We headed to the park on our e-bikes, Hans on the GT E-Force and I on the E-Verb. It was recommended to us as the best way to see the park. It was ideal.
Our day was full, with a hike up to Emerald Pools and then the Narrows, a slot canyon, which was a challenging trek through the Virgin River the whole way. We thought that the hike would be alongside the river and not actually in it. Luckily, we found two driftwood sticks, which aided our balance as we waded on slippery rocks in waters sometimes waist-deep. It was so much fun, and again, we were so glad for the refreshing cool waters as the temperature hit 95 degrees.
That night we parked our camper at Steve’s house and enjoyed another sunset in another beautiful location.
Hans has always wanted to ride the Grafton trails around Zion but never had the opportunity. Now he did, and what better way than with a local as a guide. He and Steve set off after making the difficult decision about which loop to ride when there were so many to choose from.
In the end, they decided on Wire Mesa to Grafton, with a few extra side loops along the way. Hans described Wire Mesa as a fun, technical singletrack with slickrock and, in places, sand. It isn’t for beginners, requiring skills and experience, but it was not as difficult as Gooseberry Mesa. Grafton was similar but with quite rocky sections in places, mostly moderate, but also with some difficult sections.
When Hans returned, I can honestly say that I have never seen him so exhausted after a ride. He stumbled into the RV, his face black with dirt, dizzy, dehydrated and wobbly-legged. He said he was so close to bonking. My quick fix in these circumstances is Coca-Cola. This he took, along with an ice pack on the back of his neck, followed by more water and pasta. He started to feel more human again, but not human enough to drive. He left that to me as we set off again for the home run back to California.
It was a working road trip, but also a much-needed break from being closeted at home and the tensions that a pandemic brings to the world. We felt a million miles away from all of that as we traveled the wide-open road and allowed the landscape to swallow us.
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.