by Maureen Gaffney
Riding the Kokopelli, the 150-mile trail between the esteemed mountain bike destinations of Fruita, Colorado and Moab, Utah for a second time is like childbirth. Your mind neatly erases the painful bits, assembles a sparkly highlight reel, and there you are, doing it all over again. But if you’re going to endure the labor involved in 30-mile days in heat or rain or wind or snow or some combination thereof, you’re gonna want to do it with Rim Tours. While it won’t ensure the survival of the species like childbirth, it will be much more fun.
One of the many joys of supported mountain bike camping, aside from the obvious euphoria of having someone schlep your crap and then cook for you while you sit around a campfire at the end of the day, is the mash-up of strangers gathered from far-flung lands like New Jersey, North Carolina, California, Texas and Minnesota. The telltale lilt and drawl of Texas and Carolina, the up-looping and ever questioning Minnesotan sing-song had me mildly entranced throughout. Accents and dialects have long been a fascination for me, particularly those from within our own 50 states—the Minnesotan song reflecting Norwegian and Swedish roots, the southern twang its very own universe—equal parts Spanish, Creole, mesquite, and pluck.
So it was with these eight guests and two guides that we set out on the Kokopelli Trail on a Monday morning in May, temperatures mild, no wind to speak of. Having flown from San Francisco, I was on a Rim Tours rental, an army-green Santa Cruz Bronson that looked well up to the task at hand. I was delighted to find that we would not be strictly adhering to the Kokopelli proper, for while it is lovely, it is, alas, mostly fire road. We would be detouring here and there onto singletrack—the Western Rim Trail, Lion’s Loop, all of Porcupine Rim.
Despite forecasts topping out in the high 80’s, the temperatures did climb, at one point spiking a 102° fever on my Garmin. The edges of things appeared rippled and wavery, the need to drink (drink! drink!) more water made challenging by the liquid in my Camelbak hose having been super-heated. It was like sipping from a hot tub. The hottest day was also the longest—30 dirty miles with lots of elevation gain, much of it through a three-inch layer of red, puffy/sandy dirt that sucked at my tires like some demon from below, the sins of my past clawing at my fancy nobbies, making camp an unattainable mirage.
During long rides, my mind often procures a relevant soundtrack. This day started with U2’s One Tree Hill (“…the sun’s so bright it leaves no shadows, only scars….”), but as the miles grudgingly added up, the theme song changed to a more spare, eerie one with no words, Calexico’s Pepita, an instrumental best described as “desert noir.” While spinning out several long, straight miles in a vast open plain, animal prints in the path ahead caught my attention. “Hmmm, dog…” I thought, offhandedly. But wait. Nobody’s walking a Labradoodle out here, no Feefie, no Fluffy—these are wild animal tracks to be sure, coyote being the most likely candidate. It thrilled me that despite my pesky presence here, this and other largely wild places still exist, that leash-less things rule the roost out here. My internal turntable played the chorus to “Wondering Where the Lions Are…” for a bit, and this distracted me through the next six miles or so. Then it faded and I felt myself slowly descend toward a virulent strain of pissiness. Fortunately, just when my mind threatened to bring in the screeching violins of a horror flick soundtrack, I caught a glimpse of the Rim Tours truck, the shade canopy, the tents of my fellow riders dotting the desert floor like colorful spilled jewels. And was that a halo floating above the heads of the guides? A rainbow that ended in the ice chest where cold beers sang a tiny siren song?
It seems a universal truth that camping, backpacking, and bikepacking meals are inordinately awesome. I don’t know what makes them so—the extra effort? The fresh air? The dirt in your food that adds that special je ne sais quoi? I’m here to tell you that (there’s no dirt in Rim Tours cooking) having someone else cook it for you at the end of a long day in the saddle does not reduce its magic. These folks have mastered the art of camp cooking and if reality TV knows what’s good for it, we’ll soon be seeing “Top Chef—Trailside Throwdown.” Steak, potatoes, Miso slaw, Greek salad, pasta with meatballs and tomato sauce, strawberry shortcakes, Dutch oven apple crisp. Every single one a culinary artwork.
A fellow rider from Austin commented that the landscape at one of our lunch stops looked like a fake Hollywood backdrop, a red-arch and orange-mesa green screen. The desert was in bloom for our 5-day, 4-night trip, and the wind was blissfully absent (until it wasn’t, but we only had involuntary dermabrasion a handful of times. Besides, some people pay a lot of money for such things). The stars on display for the midnight, 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. pee adventures were stunning and ethereal. The annoyance of the bursting bladder while tent-bound is one of the few things that makes me wish I were a man. However, a Minnesotan camper reported the next morning that his annoyance at the multiple sleep interruptions led him to try kneeling and shooting it out the door of his tent, but that a massive leg cramp sent things comically and messily awry.
Three of the four nights of camping were in classic Southwest desert climes: all scrub, cactus and cryptobiotic soils. Our last night was among the shimmering aspens on the shoulder of the La Salles whose snow-capped peaks had been a constant beacon during our 150-mile journey. The evening was chilly and everyone enjoyed sitting around the campfire, readying for the last and toughest day of riding—the Porcupine Rim Trail.
If I was a musically inclined, I’d write a song for this trail. I love this trail. It makes me really happy. I’m no good at climbing. I’m no good at fast, loose fire road. I’m no good at wicked steep (up or down). Porcupine Rim Trail fits perfectly into the ever-narrowing window of things I am good at. It’s just the right amount of down, just the right amount of technical—the kind of trail that offers choices: Would you like to A) go over the bars and potentially plunge to your death on the pointy rocks of Castle Valley below, or perhaps B), pursue a nice one-foot drop to sloping sticky rock that makes you look like a hero? Time and time again I chose the ‘B’ line, and of course still walked some bits. As Austin-John commented, this trail will kick your skills up two-to-three notches in one go.
Some dinner table discussion among guests and guides debated how the Kokopelli trip should be described to potential guests. To be sure, there are many parts that are beginner-suitable—long stretches of dirt road with soul-soothing views, and even some singletrack suitable for the townie tourist. But these soothing songs of serenity are punctuated by rowdy riffs of rock ‘n roll. All Enya and Mazzy Star for miles, then comes the Rose Garden and Porcupine Rim and it’s all Marilyn Manson and Metallica. No matter what tune you prefer to hum, Rim Tours surely has a song that’s right for you. But if you sing as bad as me, maybe use your “inside voice” so as not to scare the coyotes, lizards, and guides.