There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”
― Yann Martel
“Time is not the great teacher. Experience is. A man may live a whole life, but if he never leaves his home to experience that life, he dies knowing nothing. A mere child who has suffered and lived can be the wiser of the two.”
― Lynsay Sands
More than once I have likened this experience to birthing a child. It requires just as much preparation, takes about as long as the average labor, makes you suffer physically and emotionally, and the typical recovery time is about the same.
Now that’s probably an exaggeration, I know, but I’ve birthed three children so I speak from experience. I have also done this ride before. Last year it was an incredible experience. The friendship and camaraderie, the exotic feel of the night, pushing myself physically and mentally, the immensity and passion of the sunrise… it was unfathomably cool. I was practically delirious when it was done.
When I came back to my senses last year I determined that if it was going to happen again, I was not going to miss. Little did I know how minor alterations in the circumstances could create an entirely different experience. And how this time I look back with fondness, not regretting a moment of it- and yet I am not determined to do it again. (A similar feeling I had after having my third child. I don’t have a fourth.)
The biggest challenge was not the 100 miles of trail, but the wind. The wind that seeped into every crevasse, sneaking into the arms of your shirt, and teasing your hair into a howling endless torment. The first ten miles on the dirt road were fast and fun, typically, but left Sara (my partner in this crime against our own bodies) dehydrated, withered, and scrapping goop off our teeth.
We quickly descended down to Mineral Bottom, and started looking for a place to take some nutrition. Sara was wise to determine our hourly need for nourishment right from the start. We were able to maintain this schedule fairly regularly throughout the ride and I think it helped us maintain our momentum.
We found a lovely spot as the sun was setting on the cliffs above us. It was out of the wind, for the moment, but that meant it was in the bugs. It was at this point Dennis caught up to us, and joined us for a bite to eat.
I love that man’s smile!
Forth we rode, climbing up into the National Park. I turned to ask Dennis how his legs were doing, since he was trying flat pedals, and he got quite angry. Stopped and threw the bike down. He said that his knees were hurting already (we weren’t even 1/5th of the way), and he was frustrated.
I’ll be honest, I’ve been with the man for 16 years so I know his strength. I know first-hand his frustration. But what could I do? Nothing. Sometimes you have to look at the person you love and acknowledge that you have no control over them- for good or ill. There was nothing I could do for his knees, little I could do for his temperament, and I was in far too happy a place myself to forsake my mood of light for his of darkness.
When he said, “Just go,” I did. I felt bad, leaving him there, suffering. But he had to decide for himself. He had to determine his own boundaries. I left him to it.
On Sara and I rode, through sand, over rock, crossing the water (I took off my shoes and carried my bike), until we came to the truck filled with supplies. We stocked up on food and water for the next long-haul. I had completely drained my 70 oz Camelback, and though the sun was setting, we didn’t know how long it would be before the next truck found us and provided us with more. We mounted our lights and started the climb up Hardscrabble in the darkness.
Rationing our strength for the long miles ahead, we mostly walked up Hardscrabble. The descent down the other side was steep, loose, and challenging in the darkness. A couple ahead of us had crashed and we nearly crashed into them!
Sara has done the White Rim three times previous to this experience- but always taking more than one day and going the other direction. Even still, she knew so much about the trail it was great to have her insights. We traveled fast, passing nearly every group in front of us.
Until we needed food. Then we stopped- on the edge of the canyon, or under a tree- prostrating ourselves on the rock, and contemplating the stars, counting them as they fell out of the sky. As we rested, others would ride past us, sometimes not even knowing we were there.
We talked. I sang. We rode in silence. We were companions in our suffering. And the wind made certain that we suffered. It had tapered off a little after dark, but still seemed to come at our faces, no matter the direction we traveled.
At one point we topped out a climb and there sat Jake- the journey organizer- who had run out of water and sat to await the arrival of the next truck. We offered him of our supplies, but he said to keep them for our own needs, so we did.
This was also a common theme in our excursion- we would come across someone needing food, or water, or a tool, or doing a repair- and we would stop to help them- or offer to help them. One man sat with his up-ended bike before him, staring angrily at the hub. He said he couldn’t get it to go back in after changing his flat tire. We subdued him, and Sara got the wheel back on and working for him. I don’t think I even remembered hearing a “Thank you” before we sped away. A few miles later we met his travelling companion, who had been waiting impatiently for half an hour. I don’t know why, but that was funny to me.
I know that if I had gotten a flat, Sara would have waited and we would continue on together. If she had fallen and needed recovery time, I would have waited. Maybe she didn’t feel the same, but I felt that we were in this together. We’d been in it 40 miles together and we were going to finish it together.
The climb up Murphy’s Hogback was interminable. I turned off my lights, feeling better about not knowing what was coming, and letting the fear of things lurking in the darkness drive the adrenaline that drove me forward.
When we reached the top (48 miles in) I had a strong desire to vomit. We took our reprieve far enough from the road we couldn’t count the others who passed us. I think it was at this point I decided that I would probably finish the ride. It was at this point Sara was no longer sure she would finish the ride. She had pulled me through the first half of our journey, though, and I wasn’t about to neglect repayment of that favor.
We opted at this point to put in our headphones. She was listening to a Stephen King novel, and I to the playlist my kids and I collaborate on. We kept one ear open for our own communication, but that’s when we started to fly.
The next few hours passed in a blur. The cliffs were lit with moonlight to our right, and on our left, the rim, pale and dangerous, snaked below us. We knew another water/supply drop was set at about the 60 mile mark, but my Garmin battery had died and in our sleep-deprived, caloric-deficient, night-riding frame of mind it was hard to gauge the miles.
We caught and passed people- there were 29 of us riding- and we lost count of where everyone was. I was repeatedly concerned about Dennis, and Sara about Eric.
I was surprised at the couple of experiences that were almost identical to those I had last year- like coming down a descent to the edge of a cliff- stopping short of the 700+ foot drop, then seeing how the trail made a sharp turn. Sara and I both started at it, and we stopped to try and find something to mark the trail better.
Further on, the couple that was ahead of us had turned and headed back our direction, lost. I knew exactly where we were then, because I had been lost in the same place the year before, and had turned back to find someone to show me the way. It was pretty fun to respond to there query of “Where does the road go?” with a confident ‘Follow me. It’s this way, just tricky to spot in the dark.” And find the way, we did.
It was at this point that the wind started again in earnest. Unlike the breeze of the night before that had punished us over long miles, this one was bitterly cold, and gusting the sand into our sore eyes. At one point, as the sky was light enough to turn off our lights, the wind was at our back and kicked up enough dirt of the road so as to completely obscure the route, though it was laid before us. Sara put out her arm and let the wind push her forward- like we were two ships sailing on clouds of red sand.
At the 80 mile mark we found another supply drop. We chatted briefly with the couple before they headed off into the sunrise. Then we laid there, eating our Twinkies, I drinking my Mt. Dew. The view was stunning. It’s called Canyonlands for a reason- the walls of each canyon stacked on the last- and from here it seemed they continued on into infinity.
We were tired. We were sleepy (not the same thing as tired, and you know what I’m talking about). We were hungry and starting to get cold. The beauty was breathtaking, but our bodies were ready to be done. But as Sara said, “We still have a whole big ride in front of us.” We had another 20 miles to go. And something like 1 million feet of climbing.
But what were our choices? Sit there and freeze and wait another couple hours for the truck to come? We couldn’t count on someone finishing in front of us to turn their sleepy bodies around and come to the rescue. I guess we could walk all of that way- but why? Our bikes were fine. It was our bodies and minds that were done.
So we hoped on our bikes and onward we rode. The sunrise began to warm us a little, and we started to play a game (Stephen King becoming too creepy in the night anyway). I would call a competition, and she had to come up with two people- famous or infamous, real or imaginary- to play that competition. We’d have a good laugh, then it would be her turn to name the competition and I would pick the players. It may sound juvenile, and it was, I assure you, but it was what we needed to get ourselves up and out: thoughtful laughter. Breakfast of champions.
About 3 miles later we saw a car coming down the road toward us. It was Sara’s car being driven by her husband, Eric. He HAD reached the finish, and turned around to come find us. He was adamant that we didn’t want to do this. It was getting worse. We had the big climb and the cold wind would be in our face. And then the worst of all the worstest worsties: the 10 mile stretch of rolling road. Pavement. On the top of the plateau, into the wind. On the plus-side, he had suspected we would have been much further back, perhaps had run out of lights, and were suffering far more than we truly had been. Strong women, we are.
Thus we waived him on with a “come check on us in an hour.”
Why? Why on earth would we do such a thing? We had the opportunity to be relieved, immediately, of suffering. Every joint, every muscle, was taxed and wasting. Our hearts had been stretched with exercise for nearly 12 hours straight. Our minds were almost silly with exhaustion. But we didn’t quit. Yet.
Sara and I had talked in the night about why we were doing this. Why, when we knew what suffering awaited? And we determined that not only was it a unique experience- to take this length of a journey over this time of the night, with this bright and low of a moon, with this kind of support- an opportunity not to be passed up. But more than that, it was how we could conquer that suffering. How we could push our bodies and minds and hearts beyond the reach of emotion and pain. Yes it hurt. We did it anyway. Because we could. We suffered and with each stroke we overcame that suffering. Each muscle fiber becoming stronger even as it was weakened.
And how many people do that these days? How many of us are content to sit in our comfortable homes on our comfortable couches or in our comfortable beds eating foods that give us comfort and watching television that only reminds us of how comfortable we truly are. Suffering isn’t something that we honor. It isn’t something we seek out. It is something to avoid at all costs, and when it comes to medicate ourselves beyond it.
Well what about strengthening ourselves beyond it? Embracing the struggle, knowing that the challenge is what defines us. Even those living in comfort suffer. But only those that suffer can truly appreciate comfort.
Okay- editorial over- we rode on. And for awhile we were able to ride up the Shafer Trail climb as it stretched and wiggled up the cliff before us. We would walk a little, then ride a little….talking and laughing….basking in the morning, and the pain that kept us knowing we were alive.
Eventually Eric crept up behind us again. We had ridden 90 miles of dirt beneath our wheels. We were done. And as we drove over the pavement, up and down over what felt like endless hills, each with the promise that it might be the last, and the wind blasting the car- we had no regrets.
We got back to the cars, unloaded our bikes, and took care of our bodies. We washed and slept and ate and slept and waited.
But this was not the end of the story. We weren’t the first group back, and it was fun to chat with those that had made it back before us. Gary, Tappin, Robb…all good friends and great guys. Fun to share stories and laugh at Gary making pancakes. Waiting and waiting for the others to arrive.
The first and second sag wagons showed up, but no sign of Dennis. They said they had left him climbing up Shafer Trail. I was a little bit upset at this news, that he had that horrendous ride of the road still in front of him. I was immensely proud that he had determined to ride the entire thing- and he did- pushing himself beyond what he even thought he could do at 20 miles.
So in my sleepy state, I angrily drove back down the road, looking for my husband. I found him, and said, “Hey. You want a ride.” It wasn’t a question. At first he hesitated- how much further is it- too far, get in- you don’t want to do this-you’ve come far enough. When he relinquished I gave him a huge hug and we both wept like babies.
That’s where it ended for me. We both finished- in our own ways- each overcoming struggles and challenges and finding strength we maybe didn’t know we had.
Given a little more recovery time, I might consider doing it again.