When I was 13 a movie called Ride to the Hills was released, it was a part of an early movement of films that aimed to give validity to the word ‘freeride’, and subsequently changed the sport of mountain biking. In that iconic film was featured a trail in Utah called the ‘mullet line’, it was Dave Watson and Andrew Shandro monster trucking their bikes down multiple massive drops and steep faces and showing the world that Utah was the curator of some of the gnarliest terrain a freerider could ever dream of. The freeride movement had some growing pains, to say the least, but the spirit of it was burrowed into my core, no clocks, no competition, just ride bikes and get zesty. As the years rolled on and other kids traded their bicycles for basketballs, cars, or girls, I was chasing only one thing; freeride.
Its been over 16 years since that movie came out, in that time southern Utah has become home to mountain bikers from all over the world. As bikes and riders have improved, the size of the gaps, drops and technicality of the lines being ridden out there have reached mind-blowing proportions. Virgin, Utah is the primary destination for freeriders looking to test their skills and see how they measure up against the best in the world, but this fall, as I headed south towards Utah on a trip I’ve spent half my life dreaming about, I chose instead to visit a quiet little town called Green River.
You may know Green River as that place to buy watermelons and fuel on the way to mountain bikings other mecca, Moab. Or maybe you recognize it as the setting for ‘An American Tale: Fievel Goes West’ (watch this clip). It’s actually both of these things. It’s also largely deserted, built as a water stop for the railroad in the 1800s, which was later moved northwest to Price, Green River faded into the desert sun. It may be a small farming community, but you probably shouldn’t call it a one horse town, since I’m pretty sure the number of horses that reside there are equal to the number of people. Speaking of the people, they are among the friendliest and most welcoming I met in my ~40,000km traveled this summer. If you’re in need of some classic midwestern-glass-of-iced-tea-come-in-out-of-that-heat-hospitality I suggest a stop in Green River. I would also suggest obeying the no trespassing signs, because though many of the residents are friendly cowboys, cowboys tend to carry guns. And I respect that, from a safe distance.
Fortunately all my interactions in cowboy country were limited to smiles and handshakes, the only real threat to my health and safety were the towering mesas that overlooked the town. They formed walls like castles and carried winds through the canyons that howled like demons in the night. These mountains were calling me, and with visions of glory from my boyhood heroes, Shandro and Watson, I succumbed to their siren song.
I setup camp in the valley between two canyon walls, at the edge of a range that meets the actual Green River river. Soon learning that the weather around here is unpredictable. Its hot in the sun, then freezing overnight, 80km winds for an hour, maybe some rain, and back to hot. On exploration attempt number one I made it halfway up my first ascent by the time I was fully cooked in the +35C sun. Defeated, I picked out some easy lines to get down, saddled up my bike, and retreated to the shady banks of the river to spend the afternoon reading under a tree with some American trail sodas. Dropping in on my half lap down I discovered something of pure legend: The unebelievable dirt. All the pro riders in all the movies attempting to describe this soil were as futile as my words right here. I dreamt about this dirt most of my life, but never actually understood what it could be like to set tires into. Its soft, but supportive, you don’t sink into it like sand. It provides cushion, allows you to carve like a snowboard, and when you do go rubber side up it feels like crashing onto a wrestling mat, there’s still impact, but it doesn’t quite hurt the same as crashing at home. What this soil did was give me an unhealthy confidence to ride faster and go bigger than someone on a solo adventure should.
On day two, with a fire in my belly lit by all my childhood expectations for this place being exceeded, I woke up with the sunrise, cooked breakfast, coffee (you know the drill), geared up, warmed up with a quick ride, and started hiking with hopes of reaching the top before the heat got the better of me. I chose the opposite side of the valley for attempt two, which meant I was shaded until midday. Hiking up on first ascents out here is different from the forests that I’m used to. Even though there was evidence of bikes here before, there’s no trail to follow. Its wide open with massive spines, deep gullies, terrain traps, and sudden drops that make your head spin. You get to choose your own line down, similar to back country snowboarding. Which requires careful and thorough planning. Scoping drops that look doable from the bottom and then seeing them as impossible from top. Memorizing corners, braking points and preload/landing combinations. Trying to put top to bottom runs together in my mind was becoming overwhelming, something that I’ve heard many times in movies, and was now experiencing for myself.
When it takes this long, and this much effort to get to the top, I didn’t want to waste a lap with an easy run down, but I also didn’t want to go head over tea kettle alone in the desert, 1000ft up with no cell service. Nearing the top of the mesa I came to a very steep section. At this elevation the mountain had narrowed considerably, as mountains do, and line choices to go around were limited. It was a triangulated dirt face, narrow at the top with near vertical drops down each side, I could tell it leveled off at the top, I just needed a way up. After some difficult searching I decided there were no other line choices. I had to hike straight up the middle and ride down the same way. It took half an hour to scale the highly exposed face, using my bike as a sort of pick axe, every step required 2 more to keep from sliding down the soft dirt.
I did eventually make it to the top, the exposure of the narrow spine I was sitting on gave me sort of playful vertigo. I was nervous about that steep face, but also excited and confident in my line choices. I was ready to make sure that this run would count. I had found some smaller features to warm up on in the morning, I trusted the dirt and myself. I caught my breath, relaxed, downed a couple of cliff bars for lunch, and commenced with some photo taking. If any selfies are justified, it’s these ones. Sitting high above the valley floor, I can barely make out the little grey dot that is my truck, I’m soaking in the sun, relaxing on top of my run, waiting until everything feels perfect before I drop in, when I hear a howl from behind me, deep in the canyons.
Until this point in the day there had only been slight breezes, a welcome relief from the desert heat, but I recognized this sound from a previous day. This was going to be more than a slight breeze. I got up to collect my gloves, helmet and backpack, but before I could reach my bag the wind gusts hit. It blew me off-balance so I dropped to my knees and watched my bag being blown into a gully, my next attempt was for my helmet, I crawled towards it with wind blowing dirt in my eyes and face, I missed it and it also blew down into the gully. The wind was pummeling me, it was strong enough that even my bike had started sliding as it lay on top of the peak. I was fully exposed, there was nothing for cover, so I grabbed my bike, and hunkered down. At least it was warm.
The wind didn’t last long, 20 minutes maybe. But it took me an hour to climb down, find my bag and helmet and get back to my bike. Stoke levels had dropped slightly, and I was hesitant if I even wanted to ride down anymore. But of course I had no choice, I had to go down somehow. I often say that the most important skill you can have on a bike is knowing when to back down. Its one thing to challenge yourself and expand your abilities, but knowing when you’re in over your head, or maybe your head just isn’t in the game, is a crucial skill to living a long healthy life as a mountain biker. The mind is a powerful tool, when you learn how to use your adrenaline to heighten your focus and sharpen your senses you can accomplish great things, but adrenaline can be dangerous as well. It’s often mistaken as false confidence and can used to make up for a lack of skill. Keeping your head in the game means knowing the difference between crazy and calculated. I took a few minutes to dig deep, focus, and get my mind right before dropping in.
Those that follow my adventures will know that I left Utah with a knee injury. I know what you’re thinking, and no, that did not happen on this day. I made it down no problem. It was an incredible feeling. Slashing corners in the pristine dirt, sending blind drops and jumps, and rolling some of the steepest faces my tires have ever seen. The endorphin and adrenaline rush from stomping the gnarliest line of my life had me pulsating back at my truck. What an incredible feeling, what a rush. A truly great moment in my riding career. But the tripod with my camera on it had blown over in the wind storm. And my gopro only captured about 10 seconds of the lap. And no one was there to see it.
But the feeling was powerful nonetheless, and that’s what drives me to keep riding. To keep learning and adapting my skills on a bike. The thousands of hours I’ve spent hitting dirt jumps, riding the same corner over and over again until its perfect, laying a 2×4 in the grass and balancing on it, goofing around on stair sets and wheel chair ramps, it all adds up to abilities I can call on when I’m sitting on top of a heart pounding run, or staring at a chunky section of trail littered with wet rocks and roots. Everyday you get out on your bike is making you a better rider, even if it’s just a rip around the block jumping over curbs.
The remainder of my time in Green River was largely uneventful, the wind and the heat made it difficult to attempt anymore epic lines so I spent a lot of time playing on the smaller hills in the valley, out of the wind. Or napping on the river’s edge, or hiking around the canyons, trying to imagine what it would’ve been like 200 hundred years ago to be a cowboy in a gun fight over some stolen horses.
Green River stole a piece of me, partly because of the riding potential, partly because of the untapped adventure around every bend in the river, and partly because of the slowed down attitude of the desert, a complete contrast to the oil and gas race of my home in northern Alberta, where people often use money to try to buy their way into a cowboy lifestyle. Nobody is pretending out here, this is the wild west, the original cowboy country. Small farms, dirty boots and torn wranglers. I love the nostalgia of the old west and the cowboy code, life on the trail, sleeping under the stars. Maybe that’s why I enjoy traveling with my bike, a sort of neo-modern-cowboy. Maybe I romanticize. Or maybe the cowboys had it right the whole time. I’ll leave you with some old west wisdom, and you can decide for yourself.
Code of the West
(from “Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West” by James P. Owen)
- Live each day with courage.
- Take pride in your work.
- Always finish what you start.
- Do what has to be done.
- Be tough, but fair.
- When you make a promise, keep it.
- Ride for the brand.
- Talk less and say more.
- Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
- Know where to draw the line.
Words and photos by Tim Friesen