The Moab Portal – A Decent Descent

Moab, Utah, was a place that I always knew I must one day visit: a virtual Mecca to anyone who has ever claimed to be a mountain bike rider. My recent pilgrimage there was fraught with suffering and thirst in unbearable heat, clearly discernible perils, and tremendous rewards. Moab overwhelmed my every anticipation of what I would find there, and sent me pondering deeper things; battered me to pulp while testing my insignificant skills, then spit me out an enlightened, and better rider.

Yeah, it was worth the cash, the sprained ankle, and the broken rear-linkage on my bike. Although, I must confess that the sprained ankle was inflicted PRIOR to any riding, rather than during. In an act of insurmountable grace and dexterity, I tumbled down the stairs of my house on the way to the airport, luggage in hand, ending up in a writhing pile of pitiful agony at the base! Believe me, more than anything, I’d like to fabricate a better story than this, but personal integrity (and the several witnesses who would call the bluff) prohibit me from doing so. And it wasn’t a very minor sprain: observers had christened it everything from “Oprah-foot”, to “Purple-Baby’s Butt”. Only through sheer determination to complete my journey, (and copious athletic tape) was I ever able to arrive at our ultimate destination: mountain biker bliss.

Some things are overwhelmingly obvious when riding Moab, even in Spring: such as a heat which permeates absolutely everything, like a new red sock in a load of whites. Dry heat, which vetoes any attempts to soothe sore throats through hydration, and seemingly causes time itself to slow. At one point, about two hours into the ride on the first day, I inquired into our distance traveled, assuming we’ve traversed 10 or so miles. I nearly peed myself (as if my body could spare the fluid), upon learning that we had migrated only 3.1 miles! To encourage our adventurous spirits a bit further, we checked to find that more than half our water supply was already consumed! Tact, as an afterthought is unfortunate, yet often provides valuable education: we doubled up on water for future rides. Or, to quote a Navy-Seal mantra that somehow came up: “Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance”. Sweating like Mike Tyson on Jeopardy, and sore ankle throbbing, I was beginning to wonder if being a Navy Seal wasn’t prerequisite to riding Moab’s harsh landscape.

Poison Spider Mesa is ranked an 8 in the trailguide (from 1 to 10), and considering Day One’s “easy” ride’s 2 rating, we took the author for legit, and opted for this trail over the rest of the 10’s, taking injuries and recommendations into consideration. (Stu got intimate with a tree only less than a week prior to this, and was pretty beat-up also). As a group, we were as wounded, arthritic old men attempting to compete with Gladiators. We were exquisitely aware of our limitations that day, and agreed to try to “take it easy”: a familiar yet hollow promise, professed ritualistically by all of us whenever we smell any fear at all before a ride…

Poison Spider Mesa offers two distinct paths: one “out-and-back” – basically, a long climb through some slickrock, and ridiculous, long, deep gobs of sand, with a unidirectional return path. The trailguide promises this to be the preferable route for anyone less than a “half-insane, Canadian back-country hucker”, and vehemently recommends all other mortals to coward from whence they came. The second option was dubbed “better than us” (basically), and at the time, we thought it not really an option at all, but all mentally noted where the entrance would be, just in case. And although it was our original intention to do the out-and-back, in full compliance with our “take it easy” gameplan – as often is the case, the moment dictates the outcome much before any plan ever does, and at the top, we opted to take “The Portal” back into Moab.

We were greeted with several friendly signs on the beginning stretch of the Portal Trail: “Dismount Now: NOT suitable for biking, 200 ft cliff. THREE RIDERS HAVE DIED HERE”, which compelled (most of) us to walk the following sections. I must say, however: this sign is a bit inaccurate and misleading – the Portal cliff is at LEAST 500ft in some sections, and the trail is, in places, absurdly gnarly; like the two-foot wide, sharp *right* (cliff on the left) around a boulder replete with, well, Death on the left.

Someone once said: “You can’t have a decent cross-country ride without a decent descent.” And so we descended onto Moab, via the most technical section of absolute nastiness and madness we’ve all agreed we’ve ever seen; we marched on, walking / riding, dragging our bikes behind us like recently slain carcasses, pondering our mortality, life, and where we were, what we’ve just seen, and what it all could possibly mean… This was the Portal; which, as a title for this trail, is abundantly befitting, as it represents a path which is not outwardly obvious as an intended route to anywhere, yet which transports one through great distances, via a seemingly non-navigable route, while simultaneously delivering your spirit to another realm of introspection and self-ponderance; a personal descent through consciousness. One cannot help but ponder their own mortality, and subsequently life’s other mysteries while riding the Portal Trail – if you’re one who is at all capable of either vision or fear, it’s just impossible…

Day Three’s ride through “Bartlett Wash” was the perfect, relatively casual finale to the trip – a sublime, surrealistic slickrock voyage to the moon. This was a welcome divergence from the previous day’s mind-blowing, circus-ride-on-LSD. Selected for it’s lowish difficulty rating, and abundant exposure to a “slickrock playground”, that day we truly rode on alien terrain. It is markedly and beautifully different to observe your buddies jibbing along side, above, and below you along Moab’s vast, amoebic slickrock landscape, instead of the accustomed fore and aft, such as is typical on trail rides. This truly inspires one to Zen out, gel, and to take risks with their chosen lines. I’ve said this before, but again, it is moments like these that bring us to ride another day; battered, frustrated and hurt, insane in our stubbornness, and content in our conviction to always seek out and ride new and exotic terrains. Moab over-qualifies this precondition, and I wholeheartedly recommend riding it to anyone who is brave enough – with one small piece of solemn advice: For God’s sake, be careful on those stairs…!

Donna Morgan

Donna Morgan

Crank It is where inspiration, aspiration and solution converge to make things ‘happen’. Turn on your life or turn it around and see where it takes you!

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