On day three of my bike tour across the Colorado Plateau, I learned that a route created on a computer won’t always make sense on the ground. I thought I found a way to go from Price to Helper to Nine Mile Canyon without retracing our path through Price. However, person after person in Helper made it clear that unless my friend Kailey and I wanted to climb a steep, sketchy road, we needed to retrace our pedals. As I fretted over this realization, Kailey said, “Sometimes to go forwards you have to go back.”
As we biked our path between Price and Helper in reverse, I passed buildings with a new understanding. On our way into Helper, I took a photo of Kailey jokingly filling her bike from an old gas tank. During our time in the old coal town we learned that someone recently restored the building. The fresh paint on old machinery brought us back to the 1940s. In some ways it felt a bit like Disneyland, but the restoration of the past also created the town’s charm. Maybe Helper understands that to go forwards, sometimes you have to go back.
To reach the Nine Mile Canyon Scenic Byway, we biked along US 6 from Price to Wellington. I noticed myself pedaling faster as I passed speeding cars and breathed the fumes from semis. But then the wind blew a whiff of sage and I slowed down. From a bike, I smell scents and hear sounds that a car shields.
Before turning up the scenic byway, we stopped in the newly renovated gas station in Wellington. Well it once was a gas station. The old convenient store now appears as a mixture of a food court and grocery store. The scale of it all felt overwhelming as I stepped off of my bike next to giant trucks. But then people greeted me. Stranger after stranger asked about my bike trip and responded with shock and admiration when I shared this was just day three of a 54 day, 1,500-mile journey.
After refueling we began our journey into Nine Mile Canyon. Full of over 1,000 rock art sites, Nine Mile is known as the world’s longest art gallery. It is also a contested place. Dennis Willis, the president of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, said, “Nine Mile is a way complicated place. Every resource conflict you could imagine is there. Archaeology, critical wildlife range, endangered species, wild horses, you name a conflict and it’s up there.”
Despite the canyon’s name, our route would take us two days to complete. The road started with a steady ascent, the kind of slight incline that is even more draining mentally than a steep climb. The road appears flat but I have to work twice as hard. We reach mile nine, and Kailey frustratingly shines her GoPro on the mile marker and then pans across the open landscape. We are still not in the canyon.
A few miles later though we reach a climb. Cliffs rise and I hear the trickle of a creek. I pull out my first GU of the trip, an unfortunate substance that I can only describe as goo. Since my days running track as a teenager, my dad has shoved these in my hands. Before I left on my trip, he gave me more GUs than I thought I'd ever have to consume in a lifetime. As a triathlete, he swears by these quick energy pouches. Even though slime in the flavor of strawberry kiwi will never win my praise, GUs are light weight and fast acting, two desirable characteristics for a bike tour in the desert.
When I summited the hill, the wind blew the scent of sage again and I saw water flowing over burnt orange rocks. The elements fueled me in a way a shot of slime never will.
The climbs continue for another fifteen miles. As I pass oil rigs and no trespassing signs I feel confused about the Bureau of Land Management sign at the beginning of our journey. None of this land feels public.
Some of the no trespassing signs are remnant from homesteading years. However, some also protect the oil and gas corporations drilling in the canyon. Dennis has battled with the industry on multiple occasions, continuously fighting to protect the rock art and wildlife in the canyon.
He said, “There’s all kinds of proposals going on. It’s too much of a job to keep up with all of them. There’s multiple proposals to bring pipelines through the canyon. There’s a proposal to upgrade Gate Canyon Road, not just pave it but build an interstate. You wouldn’t even recognize it as a canyon. It’s a crazy degree of construction and there’s no justification.”
Dennis also highlighted an additional complicating factor: jurisdictional boundaries. Nine Mile is split between four counties and two BLM districts. He said, “Jurisdictionally it is a nightmare.”
We try to constrain ecosystems to our politics, and we value land as property rather than life. As I bike up the canyon, prairie dogs greet the setting sun and a creek winds past straight fences.
In Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams shares her observations of the endangered prairie dogs in Bryce Canyon National Park. Among the field notes she includes poetry:
The fight for community resists imposed boundaries.
The prairie dogs and wandering thoughts distracted me from my burning thighs and sore wrists for a while, but eventually my speed slowed and I began counting down the miles to our campsite at Nine Mile Ranch. As the exhaustion weighed heavier all of a sudden the road reached a summit and a descent lay before me. My speed went from three miles per hour to thirty.
After twenty miles on Nine Mile Canyon Road, I finally approached a sign that said Nine Mile Canyon. The irony would have irritated me more if it weren’t for the descent.
A couple miles later I reached Nine Mile Ranch. Cowboy hats lined the walls of the check-in office and outside men donned their own wild west flare. The canyon was recognized for its Native history yet this ranch celebrated settler colonialism. The juxtaposition felt off putting, but familiar. The place emulated the cowboys and Indians stories too often told in the American West, the stories that hide truths of stolen land and genocide, and frame western landscapes as places of conquest. Now as oil rigs take over previously grazed lands, the cowboys themselves have been pushed out by the next prospectors. The Colorado Plateau is a place of preservation and adventure, but it is also a national sacrifice zone.
After I checked in, Kailey and I biked to our campsite among large trailers and motor homes. Some of the campers passed us on the road. I assumed they were annoyed by us, but I was surprised when some greeted us with praise. One couple even bowed to us. They had retired and sold their house seven years ago. They bought a motor home and now spend their lives on the road. From southern Utah they were headed north to escape the high temperatures of a desert summer. I joked that they were going the right direction as opposed to my southern trajectory.
The next morning Kailey and I hopped on the bikes again, singing as we weaved downhill through the canyon. We reached a fork in the road and turned left to head towards Myton, our entrance into the Uinta Basin. A few minutes later we hit the dirt road of Gate Canyon. As we pedaled past washes and stared up at the cliffs towering above, I remembered Dennis informing us of efforts to pave the gravel road into an interstate. His words sting: “You wouldn’t even recognize it as a canyon.”
I’m beginning to feel a bit like Ed Abbey, admonishing roads and “progress.” But I can’t help but question our capacity for restraint. I’m on this journey to listen, to try to understand perspectives I’ve antagonized in the past, but where do I draw the line?
Existential questions turn to more immediate needs. My muscles fatigue, my skin burns, and my mouth dries. It’s going to take us longer to get through the six-mile long Gate Canyon than it did to go down the previous fifteen miles. As the exhaustion dampens our spirits, a familiar face rounds the corner. Eric, Kailey’s partner, parked his car in Myton and biked up to meet us on the road. He filled our hands with Mike and Ikes and revealed a PBR as our reward for finishing the climb. He told us the top was just around the bend. Two miles later we reached the summit.
As the road transitioned from gravel to pavement, the Uinta Basin appeared. In the far distance rose the Uinta Mountains with peaks blanketed in snow. Kailey and I chugged the PBR and snacked on everything we had that wasn’t GU.
The next fifteen miles were more similar to the first fifteen. Kailey, Eric, and I took up a whole lane as we zoomed down the paved highway together. Oil and gas rigs started popping up more frequently and we began counting. As we approached the end of our ride we came atop a small hill and all of a sudden the town of Myton appeared. Within immediate view I counted fifteen rigs.
I realized the initial disturbance of the drill pads no longer shakes me. I am moved to anxiety by what the rigs symbolize: climate chaos.
A side benefit of riding my bike across the Colorado Plateau is transporting myself with my own energy. But I have never believed the solution to climate change is found in individual action. My ears ring with the chant “systems change not climate change.” But the understanding that we need systems change not individual solutions doesn’t mean I lack feelings of guilt or complicity.
Shortly after the town of Myton came into view I spotted Eric’s car. Rather than camping in the field of extraction, Kailey and I decided to throw our bikes on the rack and drive an hour into the Uinta Mountains. We fully felt the irony. As we drove away I joked, “Thank god for those oil rigs.” It wasn’t a very funny joke.
Often when I talk about dismantling systems (capitalism) with those who have a different theory of change, there’s an assumption that I think we should and can go back to the Middle Ages. I don’t think that. At all. But we have crossed lines. As I entered Uintah County I felt the lure of progress in the air, false hopes of booms that will never bust built on ideals of endless growth. Sometimes progress takes us in false forwards.