Ride and Retreat: One Long Day in the Saddle.
When my headlamp flickered one last time and everything went inky black, I wouldn’t say I panicked, but I was definitely not stoked. I stood in the darkness and looked up, the edges of the canyon walls made visible only by an outline of twinkling stars. No moon. It was damn dark.
I plucked the batteries from of my GPS unit, put them in my headlamp, and turned it back on. The low power light burned red indicating I had bought myself another few minutes of light, but not enough to get me back to the car. I scanned the sides of the road for a flat spot, found a tiny plot just large enough for my tent, and set up my camp. I was only 10 miles from my car but knew I couldn’t get there in the dark. Time was ticking. I wasn’t feeling terribly safe.
Only 17 hours earlier, my three-day bikepacking trip into the deep canyons of Southern Utah had begun in earnest. It was a trip several months in the making, but one I struggled to get on the books. Initially invited to complete the route last fall with Andrew Wracher of Bedrock Bags, his departure date didn't mesh with mine, so I had to while away the winter months waiting for dry conditions. Then in March with a rare window of warm temps I finally had my shot, and I took it.
When Andrew first told me of John’s Canyon in Southern Utah, I was instantly intrigued. A place of rugged natural beauty within view of Monument Valley, it was once the scene of a gruesome set of murders and mysterious disappearances. In the 1930s, a nefarious drifter from Texas named Clint “Jimmy” Palmer arrived in the area with a teenage girl named Lucille Garrett. Palmer had killed her father in a gambling dispute and took her has his captive bride. In the winter of 1935, Palmer’s murderous inclinations came to a boil once again when he butted heads with local cattle ranchers over grazing rights.
The abridged story places hapless locals William Oliver and his grandson Norris Shumway in the canyon with a riled and armed Palmer. Within hours, both Oliver and Shumway had been dispatched, their bodies dumped over a cliff. Palmer quickly fled to Texas where he was captured and imprisoned until his own death in 1969. Other bodies where found in the John’s Canyon area in the years that followed, ostensibly more victims of Palmer’s cold blooded wrath. I was riding within spitting distance of where many of these ill deeds were done.
As the sun hit its high point, I found myself scrambling over one of two major rock slides, which decades earlier had pinched off the old road leading along the edge of the San Jan River to the confluence of Slickhorn canyon. Overgrown and only faintly delineated from the desert flanking it, the road is in many places less of a definitive track and more of a directional suggestion.
In the late 1890s, the road to Slickhorn was built to service an oil well which had been abandoned shortly after. Since the rockslides, the only visitors to reach the area traveled there on foot, and I doubt there were many of them. It wasn't until the advent of the mountain bike, particularly modern versions fitted with high volume tires, that this part of the desert had seen much in the way of humans. In various places I could still clearly make out the tire tracks left by Andrew and his crew some five months earlier.
The further I traveled to the far point of my route, the rougher the terrain became. My tires sank deep into the sand as I maneuvered around rocks and scruffy patches of vegetation. It was a fatiguing section with my average speed slowed to a near walking tempo. It was taking a toll on my body, and I knew it.
Those who know me are aware I am tough as nails, maybe too much so for my own good. Call it determination or plain old stubbornness, I don’t back down from a challenge without a fight. My most recent battle, one I have made known to all, is my continual contest with type 1 diabetes. In the last year I have made my condition a daily sparring partner and have faired well to prove my dominance over it. I have used places like the Andes and the summit of Mount Washington as the anvil on which I have pounded type 1 into submission. A year in, I think I might have started to get too cocky.
For those new to type 1, my body requires multiple daily injections of insulin to maintain a normal blood sugar level. Insulin forces my blood sugar levels down, but if too low, consuming sugars (or carbohydrates), helps raise them. It’s very much like balancing a ping pong ball on your nose all day––every day.
When I finally arrived at the terminus of my route at the mouth of Slickhorn Canyon, I set up camp, crawled into the shade of a boulder, and for the tenth time that day, poked my finger to test my blood sugar levels. The digital readout on my glucose meter revealed what I had feared. I was getting dangerously low.
For anyone with this condition, such setbacks are common and nothing to fret, but given my location, a day’s ride to civilization, it was an issue. I ate a small handful of jelly beans and settled back into my shady refuge. Another test 30 minutes later elevated my concerns. My blood sugar was still very low. I continued to eat more sugar, test yet again, only to realize nothing was improving. Then I realized just how much of my sugar supplies I had consumed during the day––and it was an alarming amount. More than I had consumed ever before, and by a multiple of ten.
It was clear action had to be taken. I set out all of my remaining supplies, calculated my estimated consumption, and conceded that I was in trouble. While high blood sugar levels are no fun, they are often of little immediate consequence and stabilized with insulin. Low blood sugar levels on the other hand, can culminate in seizures, coma, or worse. I could have become one more casualty of John’s Canyon, Clint Palmer reaching me from his grave.
With the sun well past its highest point I made the decision to pull the plug. It had taken all the energy I could muster to get to Slickhorn Canyon, but I knew I had to reset my mental trip meter, and start riding back. How far could I get, I didn’t know, but after a hasty pack-up I had my gear mounted on my bike and I was retracing my fresh ruts in the sand. I glanced at my watch again. It was 4 o’clock. To get to my car, and more sugar, I had to tackle the 7-hour ride I had just completed.
On the way back, my muscles aching and tired, I let my mind drift off to the 1930s and to the tragic events that took the lives of Oliver and Shumway. I thought about Lucy Garrett, forced to live under the heavy hand of her father’s killer. I tried to imagine how hard it must have been for the oilmen who came so far to carve out such a rugged road, the remnants of which were barely visible under my wheels. With the day’s light fading, I rode past a giant boulder scratched with petroglyphs, ancient communications left behind eight centuries prior by the now absent Anasazi. With sweat pouring down my face, my eyes fixed on my GPS unit as I counted down the miles, I broke the silence of the desert and said aloud, “This place is brutal.” Two hours later, with more than 50 miles behind me and in the dark of night––my headlamp crapped out.
Over the course of the night, I continued to test my blood sugar level, consume more fruit snacks and candy, and did my best to recover from a 15 hour bike ride. The next morning I packed up my kit, rode the last ten miles to my car, grabbed my extra bag of emergency snack foods and held it tight in my arms like a newborn. I had made miscalculations, tempted the fates more than I should have, but once again overcame my setbacks with little more than good backcountry judgement and––dogged determination. With my bike loaded on my car, the dust of 72 miles crusted on my face, I broke the silence again, “This place is brutal.”
My trip wasn’t a total bust. I covered most of the miles I wanted to travel, but didn’t get to spend the time I hoped to visiting the old haunts of Oliver, Norris, Lucy, and the drifter turned cold killer known as Palmer. I had been chased away by my own villain, the disease within. What I realized on the way out of the desert and turning onto pavement, was that only tough people filled with conviction can survive places like the high desert, and type 1 diabetes. I like to think I’m one of those people. So, before my car ever rolled into my garage five hours later, I vowed to return to complete the ride. - CN