cycling the moab

Searching for Ghosts in the Desert

The ideal conditions for human comfort are 72 degrees Fahrenheit, 50 percent humidity with partly cloudy skies and a 21-year-old beauty in the passenger’s seat. When I crossed into Utah on Old U.S Highway 50, the weather was 93 degrees, six percent relative humidity. An above ground worm would have sizzled into crispy bacon in less than 30 seconds.

The only thing saving me from a similar fate was a 16-ounce water bottle nestled in an aluminum cage screwed onto my cheap road bike. Moab, my destination, was 75 miles away. Was I as rugged as my Facebook updates painted me, I would have cycled the distance in six hours or so and spent the evening inspecting red rock petroglyphs and soaking my toes in the bucolic Mill Creek swimming hole.

Unfortunately, I was riding on 2 x 2.25 knobby tires, and I sucked down all my water soon after swerving off the highway to follow Scenic Byway Highway 128 along the Colorado River. Moab was still 60 miles distant. Highway 128 had more bends and twists than a Kama Sutra instruction manual. I was fighting a southwestern headwind. And I was thirsty.

Had I been as intelligent as my Facebook updates made out, I would never have departed without a minimum of two 24-oz water bottles. An active human drinks a gallon of water daily. Endurance road cyclists use 100-oz hydration packs that slip into specialized backpacks. Self-supported cross-country cyclists use collapsible tanks or foldable bags that can accommodate a gallon or more.

Unfortunately, all I had was a wet sock swaddling my water bottle to keep it cool. And I knew where that sock had been. That sock could have been on Fear Factor.

canyonlands national parkFor a time, the desert views held my thirst at bay. Moab, a vibrant tourist town of 5,000, had staked claim to the most memorable landscape in the American West. The landscape is as red as hell itself, soaked in iron oxides, carved into buttes, hoodoos, canyons, and arches by summer flash floods and 300 days of sunshine a year. Golden Eagles patrol the sky, surveying the clumps of sedges like a prison guard sweeping a spotlight, searching for groundhogs and young mule deer. The Colorado River irrigates the land. It is the sole umbilical cord of nearby Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.

Regrettably, even mild dehydration of two-three percent can ruin your mood. By six percent, you’ll be nauseous. By 10 percent, you’ll be partly blind and speaking in Mandarin to your great-great-grandmother, and by 15 percent, you’ll actually be with your great-great-grandmother.

Within an hour or two of skimming atop Utah Highway 128, the greenish meanders and brown rapids of the nearby Colorado River started to look mighty tasty. Why not, I reasoned, take a sip?

It took cavemen some 10 million years to properly evolve because of reasoning like that. Rivers catch everything in their basins: nitrogen-rich fertilizers, agricultural pesticides, highway runoff, urine, and poop. Too much poop. Thus, many rivers contain giardia parasites, which cause rancid diarrhea, bloating and abdominal cramps when ingested. Prescription drugs are available, but not everyone responds.

Did any of this salient science run through my mind? No. My thoughts, transcribed verbatim, were, “Me. Water. Uhg buhg.” So I ransacked my backpack and emerged with two water disinfectants: chlorine bleach and iodine pills.

Chlorine bleach (non-scented!) is easy to use. Drop two droplets of household bleach into one liter of strained water. Double the dose for cloudy water. Wait 20 minutes, cross your fingers, and drink. However, chlorine is not guaranteed to kill giardia parasites. Iodine works better, but the wait time is one hour, and as I said, I was thirsty.

Had I been as educated as I liked to believe, I would reached into my backpack and drawn out a LifeStraw Personal Water Filter. The LifeStraw costs less than a meal at Olive Garden, but it strains water through a 0.2-micron filter, removing Giardia, E. Coli, and Cryptosporidium. One straw filters enough water for one person for a year. It’s tremendously popular with humanitarian agencies and experienced backpackers. I, being neither, did not have one.

In such a case, I should have boiled the water on an alcohol-burning soda can stove and hoped to the good Lord above that it contained no chemical toxins. Instead, I gulped, swallowed, and pedaled onwards. My interim destination: Cisco.

Cisco, Utah had appeared as a pinhead dot on the Rand-McNally atlas. However, neither Mr. Rand nor Mr. McNally had informed me that Cisco is a ghost town.

Cisco Utah

Cisco, Utah

What I believed would be a desert oasis turned out to be an architectural graveyard where cowboy westerns went to die. Abandoned Fords, handwritten signposts, and oil pumps littered the former railroad town. Yet somewhere out there, I figured, was an old tractor tire with clear rainwater in its sidewalls, waiting for me.

Fifteen minutes later, I was gaping at a brood of chickens roosting inside a dilapidated garage, my quest for water all but forgotten. I had fallen into a wormhole and was exploring Cisco, circa 1977, picking through the rusty rubble of a forgotten home like sifting through seashells.

Whisper. Creak. Whisper.

I whipped around. In front of me was a blonde-haired girl, about seven years old, tanned skin, one hand on the door jam and the other in her front jeans’ pocket. “What do you want?” she said.

I paused. “Do you have any water?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll go wake up my dad.”

I saw my skeleton bleaching under a ruthless Utah sun, my sobbing family searching along Interstate 70 for my lost remains. I had been caught red-handed ransacking the untidy house of an overlooked Cisco resident, and his daughter intended to go and tell him. “Come on,” the girl said. She grabbed my hand.

“That’s okay,” I peeped. I hastily reached to stop her. Then the door swung, and a hairy, half-naked man stared at an unkempt teenager in his garage clasping the shoulder of his seven-year-old daughter.

Later, he told me he was a former Army Ranger. That evening, I scarfed down the best fried chicken of my life. I taught his children to play Rock, Paper, Scissors, and when I departed two days later, water bottles cold and brimming, I realized that the ideal conditions for human comfort are wide indeed.