Dirt, Dust & Stone

Southern Utah’s massive, never-ending mazes of ridgelines put things into perspective—and lead to some brutal hike-a-bikes.

Dirt, Dust & Stone The Joy of Less in Southern Utah

There are few ways to realize less is more than living out of a car, in the desert, for a few weeks.

Less gear means less clutter, which means more room to lay out in the backseat while being driven for hours down dusty roads. Less access to potable H2O means more appreciation for every sip of moderately chilled water from your hydro flask. Less cell service means more of the simple joys we often overlook: more actual conversation, more laughing, more stopping just for the sake of looking. More listening and soaking in the world as it was born, wild and whittled by wind, rain and sun. And more commitment when you rappel into a slot canyon, or when you drop in on the top of a narrow, unbroken ridgeline. 

We are in Boulder, UT, nearing the end of a two-week stint wandering the canyons, buttes, rivers and red-dusted trails of Southern Utah. Our crew consists of me plus friends and casually professional mountain bikers Carston Oliver and Joey Schusler. Our fourth companion, pro skier and adventurer Kalen Thorien, has just left us in the parking lot of the Hells Backbone Grill, her taillights fading in the hot summer night. 

The goal for the trip was to explore as much of Utah’s southern deserts by dirt road as possible, and we began the journey in Green River, a town famous for its perilous spine lines. The foot-wide ridges run down from the tops of mesas like the bony fingers of skeletons, and require speed and precision to keep out of the precipitous canyons between each. This visit was my introduction to such riding, a discipline Carston explained as a “composed form of chaos, always being halfway between falling and flying.” 

Joey Schusler stretches to greet the early morning desert sun. There are few wake-ups worse than an alarm clock, but early morning light is always welcome.

In the days since, we have spent four days rafting the Colorado River, used bikes to circumnavigate the White Rim Trail—a 100-plus-mile jeep road through Canyonlands National Park—and spent several days wandering the drainages and rock slots of Escalante. Now, as we drive along the dark roads from Hells Backbone Grill and our final destination of Moab, we feel fully adapted to this life of less. 

Dirty and tired, we make camp on the outskirts of the tiny town of Caineville, little more than a few double-wides, a greasy spoon restaurant and a Shell station to serve the truck route on Highway 24. The sound of semitruck compression brakes battles with the soft sounds of the desert. I peer through the down-edged viewing hole of my sleeping bag, watching from my bivy as the Milky Way dances across the sky above. 

Morning soaks the landscape around us in purple. It turns red, then orange, then gold as we brush the grit from our teeth and take in our surroundings. It wasn’t a mistake we’d camped here of all the patches of dirt between Boulder and Moab. Around us stand some of the highest walls of fluted dirt and stone I have ever seen, which is a bold statement considering our start in Green River. 

I have ridden spines before, but on skis and in snow, a potentially punishing but often soft medium. These sandstone formations are the earthen equivalent of Alaska’s infamous winter proving grounds, a literal maze of sinister ridgelines as unrelenting as the sandstone from which they’re carved. The clashing colors wash from deep red to brain-matter gray and back, seemingly at the whimsy of the Utah sand. 

We are completely out of water, so our foray into the twisted sandstone fortress will have to be a quick one—biscuits, gravy and hydration wait in Cainville. Joey and Carston begin the pedal deeper into the maze for one final morning adventure, as I follow with minor difficulty in the 4Runner. For a photographer, being in a new environment during the golden hour, camera in hand, is almost as exciting as doing the actual riding (if less frightening). When the 4Runner can go no farther, I saddle up and begin hiking toward the sun-licked peak of the nearest dune.  

Joey Schusler slashes his way down a sandy spine outside of Caineville. You got to earn those biscuits and gravy somehow.

I struggle through the ankle-deep dirt crust to gain a ridgeline, and look down on the line Joey and Carston are about to ride. The terrain in this part of Utah is nearly alien, the spitting image of what I imagine the surface of Mars to resemble. Red buttes stand monstrous and silent in the distance, great battleships cruising the desert’s horizon, and the dunes around me are packed close like a sea of undulating, gray and gold waves. In this immensity, the two bikers now standing at the top of one ridge seem nearly irrelevant, yet there are few ways to interact more beautifully with such a landscape. 

Joey drops in first, tearing down the slender finger and leaving a shimmering trail of dust. The sun is still low, and the floating dirt lingers between the distinct division of day and predawn shadow. Carston follows, his form cutting through the highlights of Joey’s dust cloud. 

Framed between a campsite on a dirt patch of nowhere and a greasy truck-stop breakfast, the context is completely underwhelming. But in that perfect, two-tone moment, less once again lends itself to more. I snatch some of my most captivating images of the trip, and as the dust settles we head off to toward Cainville and our journey’s finale, content to celebrate with ice water, weak coffee, and biscuits and gravy.