The Great Uncomformity: A crash course in riding the Canyonlands

I landed on my back at the bottom of the slickrock, a rented mountain bike slapping down across my chest. My friends swung over, swinging between chuckles and concern. Was I OK? And could they take pictures?

(I think so. I’d rather you not.)

I stared straight up at the clouds, taking inventory of my skin and bones. And I wondered: How on God’s tan Earth did I wind up here—a crumpled mess of a Nebraskan at the bottom of Utah’s Grand Staircase?

Moab’s Slickrock Bike Trail is … steep. (Photo, Ben Robator)

The short answer was simple: I’d fired up one-too-many of Slickrock’s famous mounds on legs too fizzled for the grade. I bailed about seven-eighths of the way up and unclipped to walk its last eighth. Instead, I slipped, toppled backwards and made great time bouncing back down.

That’s the shortcut answer. But gravel racers hate shortcuts. We want the full course. Not just my Wile E. Coyote crash, but the slow erosion of human strength that tipped me into it.

For that, we need to slide back three days in time and 30 miles in distance. It’s 3 a.m. in the Killeen family van. And after a gritty drive from Lincoln, we’re at our dusty destination: a patch of open sand beside a hibernating road grater along Mineral Canyon Road.

Marty and Addison Killeen and I will sleep maybe three hours here. As a mere honorary Killeen, I’m given the fancy-guy treatment, and am allowed to sleep on the floor of the van with our gear. The brothers, meanwhile, sleep in the dirt on the van’s either side.

Cold air, hard ground and the rumble of a nearby cattle guard were marks against our accommodations. But the stars were bright spots. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

Marty’s chosen camping spot put us at the start of one of Strava’s roughest cut gems: a glorious 100-mile loop of a segment called “White Rim in one night.”

Utah’s White Rim Trail is the outed secret of local jeep lovers and mountain bikers. Its sweaty fame wafted clear to us in Lincoln thanks to a publicized FKT (fastest known time) brawl between mountain biking and gravel super predators, Keegan Swenson and Peter Stetina.

Once Marty read about their canyon-scaling route and saw the brutally beautiful photos, he was like a condor on carrion. You couldn’t pull his face out of it.

Marty had a bone to pick with this white-striped beast of a route. (Photo, economist.com)

The segment made use of the infamous Shafer Trail. Roads like these have their rough history. And Shafer Trail’s story winds back at least to the late 1910s, when it was a horse trail helping connect rancher Sog Shafer and his cattle to greener pasture at the Green River gorge’s gorgeous bottom. I couldn’t uncover whether old Sog had carved this trail himself or followed the sketch of an even older path cut maybe centuries earlier by Ute, Navajo or Paiute people. (If I had a dollar to bet, I’d put it on the latter, but I don’t know.)

John Lloyd “Sog” Shafer was born, died and was buried in Moab. I do wonder how someone comes by the cognomen of Sog… (Photo, John Warnke)

In any case, this path was widened into a rugged road to support uranium mining in the 1950s. But the difficult access combined with underwhelming yields and a drop in uranium prices. The mines were abandoned after three years, and the roads were never further “improved.”

How could you improve on this anyway? Shafer Trail (Photo, Frank Gadarowski)

Our 3 a.m. arrival and planned 7 a.m. start left no time for renting bikes in Moab. So for this rugged century ride, we had to “rung what we brung.” In my case, that meant taking my gravel bike into MTB country.

I wouldn’t be the first to try White Rim on a gravel rig. I’d seen video of a bad ass over at Rodeo Labs riding White Rim alone on a titanium Flaanimal. And he didn’t die. So I fattied up my Niner RLT with some 50mm WTB Venture tires and figured every little thing was gonna be all right.

“Don’t you worry,” said Bob Marley. And I didn’t. (Photo, billboard.com)

But I failed to appreciate a couple differences between this Flaanimal’s setup and my Niner’s.

For one: suspension. I had none. And the Flaanimal sported at least a little soak in the form of a Redshift Shockstop suspension stem.

Also not helping: my tightwad tendency to run too much tire pressure. (What if I wind up needing that extra air?) With hard tires and no shocks, it’s no shock I felt every ridge and ripple of rock out there.

The Canyonlands’ loose rock is an oxidized shade I can only call saddle-sore red. (Photo, Marty Killeen)

Marty and Addison didn’t exactly float in luxury on their mountain bikes. It was plenty rough for them, too. But in some places where I worked just to keep my bike upright, they could hunker down and pedal through. And I couldn’t always hold onto their pace.

No big deal. We just slowed down. Enjoyed the views. Enjoyed our lunch. No FKT brawls here…

Even without calling ahead, we got the very best table rock for our lunch. The PB&J is highly recommended. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

A bigger problem than my shocklessness was my flatland gearing. I run 2x with 50/34 chainrings and a 32/11 cassette. That put my low gear at a burly 34:32, or 1.06 revolutions of the wheel for each turn of the crank. The 1x Flaanimal, meanwhile, sported a 40:50 low gear, or a ratio of 0.8 revolutions per crank.

If those gearing numbers are Greek to you, that’s fine. It boils down to this: On the steepest stuff, the Flaanimal pedaled. And I walked.

You can just see a couple heads peeking over to the left of this crest. These jeepers saved me with a Gatorade at the top. Every driver we met was AMAZING in their patient deference for our safety. One pulled over and waited several minutes for us to descend a narrow stretch. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

Even on the hills I could climb, my Nebraska gearing made sure I paid a steep Utah energy tax. And both my legs were overdrawn by the time we reached the Shafer climb at mile 87. I walked half this monster.

I’d love to try this again someday with less foolishness and more gears. (Photo, Marty Killeen)

Our leisurely meals and merciful pace meant we climbed Shafer at the day’s tail end. The sky cleared just as we crested. The canyon yawned, tipped its red cap goodnight and nodded off.

After a cool and grey day, a little sunshine. (Photo, Marty Killeen)

Our loop finished with some highway miles, and it was well after dark by the time we reached the van. An 11-hour beating on three hours’ sleep left us pretty shelled. And all I wanted was to lie down. But our itinerary had other plans.

It was a four-hour night drive to Escalante where we punished our hotel room’s poor shower, slept little, then devastated the free breakfast. Then it was back out for Marty’s version of a “recovery day” at Peek-a-boo Slot Canyon.

A slot canyon is just what you’d think. And hiking this one often meant doing our best impression of a coin.

Like gravel roads, slot canyons are constantly changing. Rains reshuffle the deck, pushing water and sand (or even trees and boulders) down the slots. Debris creates new obstacles, and sediment and erosion are always fiddling with the depth.

We drew a day with several pools to navigate. And I didn’t have the ninja skills to get through it all with dry socks or unskinned knees. But oh, it’s beautiful in there, and well worth the squish and scrape.

Some stretches were too narrow to slide through wearing a backpack. (Photo, Marty Killeen)
Sometimes you even got to leave the floor and scoot up high using the walls. (Photo, Marty Killeen)

Peek-a-boo cost me a little skin. But the rest of our recovery day did more to restore. I understand if you lose respect for me when I admit this. But I’ve been to Italy; and I contend my life’s best pizza came from this Escalante camping outfitter.

Escalante Outfitters: PIZZA / BEER / CABINS / GEAR! (Photo, escalanteoutfitters.com)

Bellies full, we headed south for Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest. Our next day’s ambitious aim: A 26-mile “rim-to-rim” Grand Canyon hike.

“Kaibab” is a Paiute word meaning “mountain lying down.” It’s also the name of the Grand Canyon’s top layer of limestone. (Photo, allgrandcanyon.com)

We arrived late, and all the hike’s necessary prep work left us with (I’m detecting a theme here…) about three hours to sleep. We meant to hit the North Kaibab Trailhead at about 3:30 a.m., figuring that would make for easy parking at the trailhead and put us among the first into the canyon. We figured wrong.

We got the trailhead’s last parking spot and watched multiple groups heading down ahead of us. And we lost maybe 20 minutes to a broken hiking pole while Marty and Addison MacGyvered a fix out of trashbag drawstrings and medical tape.

All the single ladies missed this sultry display of practical ingenuity under pressure. But I saw it all, single ladies. I saw it all. (Richard Dean Anderson as “MacGyver,” 1985)

Even with the delay, we snaked our way into Roaring Springs Canyon with plenty of night left. And I rocked between my terror of stumbling off a dark cliff and my excitement to be already well into the canyon for my first sunlit look.

All along the trail strung dozens of headlamped hikers coming down behind us. (Photo, Marty Killeen)
It was 34 degrees when we set out, but perfectly comfortable walking almost immediately. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

Tucked inside the canyon, we missed whatever colors dawn spilled at the top. Instead, the light simply amped up and revealed where we were. And I felt like a kid opening the very presents I’d been aching for: Ping-pong paddle cacti, unspooled red ribbons of stone, the prints of my very own ponies.

Walking south along Bright Angel Creek kept us in the merciful shade longer than I had right to expect. (Photo, Marty Killeen)

By the time we reached Phantom Ranch at the Colorado River, the day had risen nearly 70 degrees to 102. At this temperature in Nebraska, I’d have been well on my way to corpsehood. But at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I was doing OK. The Arizona cliche is true: It is a dry heat. And my sweat did me the favor of evaporating.

In the up-is-down world of a Grand Canyon hike, the Colorado River is both the pinnacle and the low point. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

At this depth, we walked on the Grand Canyon’s oldest rocks, inside its “Vishnu Basement.” The rocks here are some 1.7 billion years old. For perspective, the canyon itself was only carved within the last 5 million years, or back when the Vishnu Basement was a spry 1.695 billion years old.

Walking this basement put us beneath a confounding ribbon of rock geologists call “the Great Unconformity.” This is the layer at which geologic time quits making sense, and Proterozoic rock kisses cheeks with Tapeats sandstone some 1.2 billion years younger. And whatever happened in the meantime either failed to leave a geologic mark of any kind, or those layers were uniformly wiped out by erosion or glaciers or we’re just not sure what.

The Great Unconformity as seen on a human scale… (Photo, Mitchell Gerber)

This was also the point in our trip where the mountain of our activity and the valley of our sleep forged their own unconformity. And time got weird.

For one, my feet seemed to age inside my boots at a far faster rate than the rest of my body. And our toe-cramming descent toward the Colorado River had left the junior-most four of my 10 little piggies screaming like old stuck hogs.

As the clock ticked faster for my feet, the heat did its best to stop time entirely. On hot rides, I can check the clock (1:17…), pedal for an eternity, and recheck it (1:17!). I didn’t wear a watch on this hike for the sole purpose of avoiding this madness.

Geologist Wayne Ranney geeks out at the line where the Earth’s heart skipped a billion-year beat. (Photo, Jack Share)

Still, I felt hopeful at our hike’s literal and figurative low point. Our downhill was about to turn into a climb. And this new tilt would tip the pressure from my bloody toes to my healthier heels. Higher ground would likewise push the thermometer down. And I pulled motivation from those twin promises of happier feet and cooler air.

With 13 uphill miles to walk in bloody socks, I can’t tell you if this optimism was foolish or practical. Yes, my feet hurt. But what difference did that make? And what choice did I have? Walk out on my hands?

The only choice endurance athletes often have is in the attitude they wear. And we’re used to dressing in unconformity with our bloodiest circumstances.

(“The Laughing Jester,” possibly Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, circa 1500)

So why not play the cheery fool? Why not hum Marley along the way and tell myself, over and over, that every little thing is gonna be all right?

And it was all right. We climbed and walked and pulled ourselves back above the Great Unconformity. And a year full of long voyages meant that we never once looked up at the high South Rim and felt defeated by the work still ahead.

Onward and upward through the last few switchbacks… That paler layer at the top? That’s Kaibab limestone.

The rocks got younger and younger as we walked. And while our soreness got old, that oldness was nothing new. We reached the top in our own good time.

What followed from there was another bleary-eyed drive back to Moab on too little sleep. There, we rented suitable mountain bikes and headed for Slickrock.

I whined about how I could barely walk. And the Killeens met me with trademark cheer. “Great news!” they said. “We’re not walking. We’re biking!”

And we did bike. And it was roaring fun. And partway up the umpteenth mound, I cracked. And toppled backwards. We laughed at my splat. And called it a day.

What goes up tips back down. (Photo, Marty Killeen)

“Great news!” they said on our drive out. “Cutting Slickrock short gives us time to check out Arches National Park!”

But my bloody feet, I whined. They’re swelling up.

“Great news!” they answered. “It’s a short hike!”

And it was short. And we had roaring fun. And we got to see this.

Utah’s Delicate Arch, as seen atop my Delicate Feet.

It’s something rich and strange to live your life with friends like these—brothers who’d sleep in the dirt so you could sleep in the van. Friends who’ll take your gear and carry extra water because they know full well you’ll drink yours dry. Friends at the same time who don’t give a damn whether your toenails number odd or even. Friends who far prefer you adventuresomely cracked over dully pristine.

It’s rare to have friends who can wear you out, to the point of failure, without ever once wearing on you.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A cheery dentist, a cheery dentist and a broken-toothed man bike up a mountain… (Photo, Marty Killeen)

It’s likewise something special to find yourself this empty at a canyon’s cracked lip. I had always paired this worn-out feeling with losing, with weakness. With an ugly, bonking unfitness. A canyon changes this.

A canyon asks: What’s not beautiful about wearing away?

The slow pouring out of ourselves is a canyon’s natural state. Here, giving up carries on and out and down. A canyon is willing to lose and lose in a thousand landslides. It scours itself in this losing to the point of a hard-won serenity.

And now that I’ve stood on that rim and seen for myself that full-on emptiness, that upside-down victory, I’ll tell you this: I’d gladly tip over for it. I’ll lose sleep. I’ll lose skin. I’ll lose toenails and time to win for myself just a little gritty bit of that same intense serenity.


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