For my dad’s 60th something special needed to happen.
My dad turned sixty this past September, which I guess, is a big deal in that every decade that we get older is somewhat of a big deal. As someone who’s really big on enabling experiences versus giving things, I wanted to do something special. For my dad’s 50th birthday, I’d taken him and my little brother over Rollins Pass; an old railroad grade road that connects Rollinsville, CO, just west of Boulder, to Winter Park, by crossing the Continental Divide. It was a 40-mile trek that we talked about for years afterward, complete with bike-pushing, threats of thunderstorms, and donuts at 7-11 once we made it to Winter Park. As a bonus, afterward, my little brother turned from a video game playing kid to one who rode his bike to school nearly every day.
For my dad’s 60th, I decided to do something similar: The White Rim in Canyonlands National Park. With a shuttle to cut out the pavement and Mineral Bottom road, the route consisted of nearly 80 miles of jeep road cutting through the heart of the National Park. Scott and I set up it up as a three-day trip with the plan to haul all of our water in a BOB trailer.
Photo courtesy of Scott Morris
While this may not seem like a huge trip to many, my dad hadn’t camped in a tent since I turned into a teenager and pretty much ruined any family plans my parents tried to make. He’d wanted to take us kids backpacking for longer than I can remember. I was hoping that this would be my chance to show him my version of backpacking and maybe make up for some of the times that I was less than cooperative growing up. He hadn’t ridden a mountain bike for an extended distance since our Rollins Pass trip ten years ago. In fact, he showed up to Moab with my brother’s old mountain bike saying that he’d taken it into a shop to have a few things adjusted and then rode it for half an hour. His spring semester as a professor had been busy.
With a significant threat of rain throughout the weekend, we loaded up my bike with three days’ worth of food for three people and some sleeping gear. In the BOB being towed by Scott, we put two tents, three sleeping pads, two sleeping bags, and nine extra liters of water. We also carried a water filter so that we could get more water out of the Green River on night two.
And with my dad wringing his hands with nervousness, we set off down the Shaffer’s Switchbacks. “You’ll be fine,” I told him. “You can send spacecraft to Pluto; this is nothing compared to that!”
He didn’t seem convinced.
I watched with a very real level of fear, taking pictures, as he made his way down the 1,800 feet of downhill. Was this one of those really bad ideas that I’d grow to regret? But when I’d caught up at the bottom, he was smiling. “That was spooky!”
Spooky is better than terrifying, I decided, and off we went. Every time the massively overloaded BOB trailer hit a bump, it let out a thunderous boom, which left me laughing as the miles went by. My heavily loaded bike and the BOB attached to Scott were great equalizers to my dad’s bike, outfitted with a frame bag that carried his spare clothes.
We stopped for a snack a few hours in, a giant sandwich each that I’d made before the trip. “I’m not going to lose any weight on this trip, am I?” my dad asked, half joking.
“No way. This is luxury touring.”
Photo courtesy of Scott Morris
We arrived at the Gooseberry Campground in time to watch the sunset light up the La Sal Mountains in the distance. Cooking up a giant pot of mac and cheese with veggies, we ate well, watching the light dance off the surrounding cliffs. And at dark, we bedded down, and I could hear my dad’s breathing turn into snoring within minutes of zipping up his tent.
This was my chance to show my dad what I did with much of my life, to give him a glimpse into why I made riding bikes and being outside such a high priority. And for now, it was going beautifully.
Morning brought coffee and oats, and we were moving well before 8 a.m. We had 44 miles to cover to our next campsite, and I knew it was going to be a stretch for my dad.
Photo courtesy of Scott Morris
But the miles went along steadily. We all pushed up Murphy’s Hogback, though Scott, with a still massively heavy trailer, made a valiant effort to clear it claiming that it was actually easier to pedal than to push. We ate M&M’s and Swedish Fish at the top while pondering the massive view of the canyons.
A few times, my dad crashed in the sand. Once, I nearly ran him over as I was following way too close. He escaped with a slightly bloody elbow and an excessive fear of the road whenever it got sandy.
We stopped for a mid-afternoon coffee break, still ten miles out of camp.
My dad asked, “How long does this loop take you when you do it in a day?” We were nearly ten hours into our second day of three of pedaling.
“12 hours, give or take. But we don’t get to stop in the middle of the day and have a second cup of coffee; that’s for sure.”
We were learning the fine art of slowing down, and taking three days to cover a route that’s a long but doable day trip, was a great chance to spend an extended period in a place that deserves one’s full attention.
That night, running low on water and not feeling too excited about filtering out of the murky Green River, I wandered over to the campsite next door. It was occupied by a jeep full of guys that had passed us earlier in the day, and they were also taking three days to drive the loop. Scott and my dad came looking for me a half an hour later, after which I quickly drained the glass of wine that the guys insisted I take, and returned with an extra three liters of water ready to tide us over to the morning.
“You just went and asked them for water?” My dad was astounded.
“People in this world are generally nice and caring and more than willing to help others. Welcome to my world of people.”
In the morning, I told my dad that we only had 12 miles to go to the car.
“So the trip is almost over? That’s sad.”
We rolled quietly along the Green River and made our way up the Horsethief switchbacks to the parking lot where we’d left the van as our shuttle vehicle. After loading up, we headed back to the Visitors Center to pick up our second car. My dad found a poster and a postcard depicting a sweeping view of the Canyonlands with three mountain bikers riding up the road.
I’d like to think that it’ll find a place next to posters and mementos of other events that he’s done and been proud of.
Maybe, as a teenager, I totally killed any chance of family backpacking or camping, but maybe now, I can do something to make up for it.
“I’d love to do it again,” was my dad’s parting thought from the trip. “That was the best birthday ever.”
I’d be glad to make it happen.