Into to Self-Made Road to Hell and Back

The Self-Made Road to Hell and Back

Age is no guarantee of wisdom. The Zen Buddhists say you make a heaven or hell of the place where you stand. It's true for where you ride bikes too, though I didn't know it at the time

A couple years ago, I decided to go ride the first 20 mile stretch of the Kokopelli Trail, which starts a few miles out of Fruita, Colorado, and winds all the way to Moab, Utah, over 140 miles away.Kokopelli Trail goes up, over and through mesas, sand washes, canyons, slickrock and desert. It is well known in Colorado biking circles, though few people do more than the first few miles of it. I had never been on it. Most of my biking had been confined to high mountain single track or jeep trails that looped out and back. But one day the Kokopelli called my name to come ride it.

I ordered a booklet online called "Kokopelli's Trail: The Utah-Colorado Mountain Bike Trail System," written by Peggy Utesch in 1990. It described the entire trail, though backwards from where I would start because it followed the trail from Utah to Colorado. The book included distances in tenths of a mile to turnoffs and noteable milestones like cattleguards. The introduction consisted largely of cautions which I skimmed through to learn more about the route and terrain. Reading the book made me excited to hit the trail. The ride would be rugged,remote, solitary and challenging.

At daylight Saturday morning of the ride I gathered my gear, checked my tires and brakes, got a couple bottles of ice and water for the two cages on my bike, and put an energy bar and some sunscreen in a small rucksack hanging from the handle bars.

When my wife saw me packing the car, she asked, "You have plenty of water?"

"Sure, I'm only going 20 miles. I should be fine." I figured I'd be out there for three to four hours at most. I remembered running many times over the years in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona, where I got in serious water/heat trouble only once. I liked heat. And I'd biked way beyond that distance many times.

"How about some food?" she asked.

"I have an energy bar," I said.

"That all?"

"It's enough," I said, feeling stuffed from a large bowl of cereal and some grapefruit. I was carbo-loaded.

"Take the cell phone," she advised.

At first I didn't want to. It was going to be on a ride in desolate country. Why would I need a cell phone? There probably wouldn't be cell coverage out there. When I started to balk, she insisted. I tucked it into the rucksack. No big deal, it was lightweight.

She drove me to the start of the trail, near the Loma exit off I-70. We got there about 8:30 am. Our plan was that she would go back into Grand Junction, 25 miles away, to shop or whatever, then meet me in four hours at the Rabbit Valley exit, another 20 plus miles from where she was dropping me off.

I waved happily as she pulled away. It was a beautiful May morning in the desert. I had glanced at the temperature guage before getting out of the car; it was aleady in the high seventies. I took a swig of ice water, and started cranking up a dirt road to find the Troy Built Trail, the first leg of the Kokopelli Trail, which is actually a loose chain of single track, dirt and paved roads, deer trails (which I thought was a joke when I read about it) and, sometimes, a cairn here or there to indicate where there was no visible trail at all.

The trail started with a steep uphill, first over a wide section of loose rock, then onto slick rock with frequent layers of sandstone steps. I realized why this trail was considered "technical" and "difficult." You immediately dump lactic acid into your leg muscles because of the angle of ascent and the effort required to pull the front tire up and over the many long, irrregular rock steps.

When the trail leveled off, I was already sweaty and paused to drink some water. I knew I was generating a lot of body heat, but it felt like the air was waming fast too. The sky was clear and the sun was beaming down. While the scenery was fantastic, I couldn't spend much time looking around. In several spots, the trail followed along a sandstone ledge only a few yards from sheer dropoffs that plummeted several hundred feet into the Colorado River, flowing greenish-brown below.

The trail pulled away from the river and went up and down several rocky hillsides with more sandstone steps and loose rock. After cresting an especially difficult section, I stopped and finished off my first water bottle and started on the second.It seemed to get hotter and hotter as I rode for a long time over twisting, gnarly stretches of dips, climbs and drops. The clock was ticking. I had been out for at least two hours, but my odometer indicated I had only travelled a little over 5 miles. At that moment one of the cautions Utesch mentioned in her book nudged into my memory, something to the effect that the terrain could "cause difficulties estimating the time" it would take to cover a certain distance. At that rate it would take 8 hours, way too long.

I pedaled harder, as the trail shook my front shock and my body. Then I fell down for the first time as I tried to hump up a rock and caught my chain ring, tipping me sideways. I wasn't going very fast, so I just got a little scrape on my left arm. Another of Utesch's insights popped into my mind: that the rocky and sandy surfaces of the Kokopelli "diminish traction and speed, which makes climbing and descending ever more hazardous."

I stopped and drank most of the water in the second bottle; the ice had long since melted and the water was tepid. And I ate my only energy bar. I looked at my watch. I had been on the trail for almost three hours. The odometer read around 10 miles, but when I looked at the map, the terrain didn't match where I should be. Something was wrong. I had to be off course.

I thought about it. A few miles back I had come to a three way intersection. Although the Kokopelli is supposed to be well marked, that is not always true, and sometimes when you have your eyes locked on the trail, you miss signs even if they were there. I looked at the map again and realized that I had probably left the Kokopelli and was on Mary's Loop or Horsethief Bench. I doubled back to the intersection and, after pedaling a few yards in each direction, found a small Kokopelli sign pointing north, which felt right.

Off I went, pedaling even harder, but going slower because real fatigue was setting in. I just concentrated on turning the crank, rolling the tires. Finally, a half hour later, I came to a long downhill. It was steep terrain and dropped quickly. I knew I was on course, descending into Salt Creek.

The trail narrowed to a notch on the mountain side, and footwide mix of sand and loose shale. As I braked a little too hard to slow my speed, my rear wheel skidded off the side of the trail. I flipped and slid down the side of the slope for about twenty feet in a mini-avalanche of loose rock. Slowly I scrambled with my bike back up to the trail then glided slowly the last quarter mile with my foot down and rolled up to the bridge across Salt Creek.

Finally on a flat spot, I paused to survery the damage. Not bad. I was bleeding from abrasions on my right arm and leg. Also I felt something warm on my scalp. Just below the back of my helmet a rock had grazed my scalp and blood oozed there too. Nothing serious. I biked across the bridge and short sand flat to the ascent on the other side, then got off the bike to follow a steep switchback up through rocks. Then the trail went almost straight up. It was unmarked and just a feint line in the rocks. I remembered a reference to the a deer trail that rose steeply. Maybe this was it, maybe it wasn't. My odometer was no longer useful for navigating because I had deviated off the trail for an hour.

I laid my bike down and sat down to assess the situation. I had been out for just over four hours. I was out of water. I remembered Another Utesch caution: "It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of taking and drinking enough water when riding in the desert." I felt stupid, but that was no time to grovel in self-criticism. I know what it is like to be very tired, but this was different. I was totally exhausted and dehydrated. My muscles were trembling. My glycogen and electrolytes were depleted. I had bonked. If I miscalculated my next move, I could get in trouble.

According to my watch, by then my wife would be waiting. If I had guessed my location corrrectly, I still had 8 or 9 miles to go. If I didn't show up in a couple hours, she would go to try to find help. I decided right then to abort the trip. I looked at a map and saw that the Rio Grande railroad, which was only one hundred yards away, would lead back to I-70. I got back down the hill, and walked my bike through the cheatgrass and willow, and climbed onto the trestle.

I biked a couple of bumpy miles over railroad ties, the black creosote sticking to my tires in the heat, out to the freeway, luckily without encountering any trains. When I climbed onto I-70, I tried the cell phone, but there was no signal. So I biked on the side of the freeway back toward the Loma exit. At the top of a slight rise near the exit, I picked up a signal. I called information and asked them to connect me to a bike shop in Fruita. When the bike shop picked up the phone, I told them about my situation and told them I would pay $60 if someone would come pick me up and drop me at Rabbit Valley.

Thirty minutes later a college kid in a shiny silver Audi showed up. He gave me a funny look and asked if I was ok. I told him I was just tired and thirsty. I guessed I wasn't the first he'd seen beat up by that trail. He sped me up to Rabbit Vally, where my wife waited, hot (she had turned off the AC to conserve gas) and worried. By then it was just under 95 degrees, over five hours since she dropped me off. I thanked the kid, paid him, and off he went. My wife looked at me and said very little. She didn't need to.

We went back into Grand Junction and stopped at Starbucks. I was covered with dirt, streaked with rivulets of sweat, and, here and here, trickles of blood. I went into the bathroom and washed the worst of it off.

Then we ordered some drinks. I got something iced and sweet. It was a Venti.

Postscript: Two weeks later I returned, after having studied a couple more books, including Dan D'Antonio's "Mountain Biking Grand Junction and Fruita" and David Crowell's "Mountain Biking Moab," which has a good description of the Kokopelli. I also was armed with a GPS, plus I had two water bottles (one with a sports drink loaded with electrolytes), a camel pack, and several energy bars.

I doubled back down the trestle, and continued up the deer trail that connected to an easy jeep trail at the top of the mountain, just a few hundred feet up. I finished the first segment, then completed the second segment a week later. Someday I will return for more of the Kokopelli. If you are interested in finding out more about it, go to the Colorado Mountain Biking Association at or Colorado Plateau Mountain Biking

Kokopelli's" Trail : The Utah-Colorado Mountain Bike Trail System : Route 1 : Moab to Loma (Canyon Country Series Number 22) (Canyon Country Series, 22)

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