Nowhere, Canyonlands, UT
Words and photographs by Daniel Wakefield Pasley.
The apocalypse—my apocalypse, your apocalypse, the apocalypse—is, according to The Road, populated (mostly) by bands of rapist-cannibals in rags and improvised footwear who roam the lifeless, leveled and perma-smokey earth scouring devastated architecture and broken car-choked roads for various life-or-death resources, pretty much one-day-at-a-time-style, indefinitely. In preparation for this or any other apocalypse, which some-kind-of-apocalypse I continue to believe imminent yet for reasons of personal weakness no longer actively train for, I collect self-sufficient men and women suited to frontiers and risks and the edges most of us avoid. I’m in the market for various Guides/Instructors/Survivalists who know what to do and when to do it. For dudes who, unafraid of becoming marginalized and forgotten and irrelevant in the eyes of us the mainstream world, are already as in currently and regularly surviving various gnarly albeit self-imposed apocalypse-like adventures. Like, say, BMX-banditing fat bikes around Canyonlands from one beer cache to another for 3-4 days at a time.
Steve Fassbinder, also known as Doctor Doom, is a rangy, hairy, lizardy ectomorph living in Durango, Colorado. For three years now he’s been sending me links to photo galleries featuring images of feral-looking vagabonds covered in dirt, sunscreen and sunburn, carrying pistols and rifles, using drugs and alcohol and riding oversized mountain bikes off the edge of maps into deserts on no discernible trail or road, some of it legal, some of it not. And I think, after the fourth email in as many years, three things: (1.) They’re Apocalypsing. (2.) They’re good at it. (3.) I need to get in on this.
Steve, I’ve called him and we’re talking on the phone, says, Yeah sure, call it the Apocalypse or whatever you want but if you come this year it’s three days in Canyonlands and so be sure to bring a bike with gears and a snake-bite kit.
From: Steve Fassbinder
Date: Tuesday, April 20, 2010 9:21 PM
To: Daniel Wakefield Pasley and 13 others
Subject: <no subject>
ok gang this is going to be so rad!!i know this is not a complete list of people coming please forward this to the others if you can. People,
first and foremost darren(alltime)stankeclaw, will be having his 40th birthday on the 11th! that’s the day we leave, so we are going to party him into the ground! i've buried some supplies out in the sand at our first camp site for this purpose, but don’t skimp on all things hydrating or dehydrating. water and beer bring plenty. Daniel Wakefield
Pasely will be attending from portland OR, and he will be shooting alot of film for Surly and Icebreaker and something called Yonder, so look tufff out there! Rachael and Damien also hailing from Portland will be along for the ride; lets make sure they receive plenty of hazing! and then there are the usual suspects, that’s the rest of us guys.........
a few important details. snakes they are out there, don’t get bitten! driving out there….i know we all want to get there fast but, do not for any reason SPEED in utah! if you/we get pulled over and searched we will be fucked!! DON’T DO IT. just bringing beer into the state of utah will get you totally fucked with by the Man. they don’t take kindly to our types. they just like to take our money and throw us in jail, and they will do it! guns; we will be on blm and national forest lands during the first two days, so shooting is no problem. day three we will be entering a national park, there will be NO shooting! bring your guns folks but they must be 100% invisible, and unloaded when we enter the park. i don’t plan on having any interaction with rangers, but if we do, passing through the park on the route we are taking is perfectly legal and cool, and they will be loving us for doing it!
so the first day we will get a late start due to driving out and doing a car shuttle. i'd like to be there and ready to ride by 2 pm (in the heat of the day) the first camp is only 15 miles out, but its all up hill.
second day will be around 30 miles – [author’s note: this is an understandable but inaccurate lowball estimate] - with some good climbing to start, a big dh (downhill) in the middle and rolling sand at the end. there will be a water source near the end of the day and a spring at the camp site.
day three 25 to 30 miles, - [author’s note: this is a shameful & possibly deliberate boldface lie] – fill up with water for the day before we leave and ride into canyonlands killer riding, those on pugs will shine on this day, lots of sand traps......killer killer section! finish the day at the needles outpost store, and drink lots of cold expensive/cheap 3.2 beer!
if anyone wants to camp that night and see jon and i off on the rest of the ruess tour1 we'd be stoked to have ya. i have a camp in mind just outside of the park, for this purpose.
ok i think you all know how to do this: bring food for three days,
lots of water carrying capacity (three water bottles is not alot!), warm clothes for the night, lots of sunscreen!! your bad selfs and the kitchen sink if you want. those driving please send back an email with your vehicular details. and do we have a total head count?
see you all soon!
ENTOURAGE CALENDAR : ALL DAY EVENT, MAY 9th - MAY 14th, APOCALYPSE TRAINING WITH DOOM IN CANYONLANDS
1:00 PM May 11, 2010: We drive in four cars from Durango. It takes three hours, the highlight of which is a trampoline in a front yard next to an uneven, poorly made wooden fence in a town of pop. 436. We head north and west past Newspaper Rock into the park where it’s sunny. And because this is a desert in bloom in a wet year and because most of us have only ever seen brown, red and red-brown deserts, it's surprisingly verdant. Gradually we swing around south and east to face a wide, adventurous-looking dirt road ramping up-and-off into the distance, disappearing several thousand feet above the valley floor into the horizon, which is a solid black meteorological event steadily advancing behind a curtain of wind and sand. We park and unload.
Including Steve I know 4 of the 15 or so people exploding like warrior gypsies into the sand at our feet. The rest I’ve met in the last 24 hours or haven't yet met because they’re currently unloading mountain bikes with remarkably fat tires designed to excel in snow and sand, and/or slathering hairy knees and ears and backs-of-the-necks with white primer from a tube of SPF 90. Or hopping from one foot to the next, crushed shoe to crushed shoe, undressing, swapping out cut-off cords, high performance cargo-shorts and jeans for garish spandex and various wool whatnots. One dude whose name is Russell adjusts his hip-holstered Smith and Wesson Magnum .44 while he takes a piss, it looks like, onto the side of his truck and a cactus. Damien is already packed and organized and sitting on the tailgate of Russell’s truck, finishing his penultimate Pabst Tall Boy while simultaneously starting his one-more-for-the-road ultimate Pabst Tall Boy. A dude I don’t know is swapping out yellow lenses for orange lenses (is there a difference?) in his bootleg Frogskins. I fill-up my reservoirs, bladders and water bags, and attach my over-loaded panniers to my borrowed bike.
With everything on it I need to eat and drink and provide shelter, my borrowed bike, a battleship-grey Pugsley, weighs 97 pounds. As I do my own last minute preparations: more loading, fastening, unloading and reloading, I remind myself that Steve has ridden most of this route several times before and flown over as recently as last week the sections he hasn’t. Beer has been buried in the sand next to the tree by the rock miles ahead and is effectively waiting this very minute our thirsty arrival—an inspired, cold-blooded act illustrating a commitment to getting fucked-up like I’ve never seen or experienced before. Water from rivers and springs will be available along the way to filter and safely drink. We have a map. We have bikes and guns and each other.
I’m not worried but I am lite-anxious about crying and dying and but then I remind myself that these people are Next-Level, though infinitely humble, Outdoorsmen practiced in the art of Apocalypse. Plus everyone here is calling this thing a Booze Cruise. Perspective, perspective, perspective.
Lining up shoulder to shoulder across the road and straddling our bikes, our path and the next three days trundling off into the distance behind us, we take a photograph. It’s the kind of photograph I think, as it’s taken, meant to accompany a story concerning the missing. Here he is (the missing dude), heels on the edge of nowhere, his eager, expectant and smiling face looking back at the camera. A final moment, a last record to be clutched, weeks from now, in the hand of someone’s sobbing but still-hopeful-that-he-will-be-found mother. Then someone shouts it’s time to shred and so we do.
Twenty minutes later, I’m averaging six miles an hour steadily toiling uphill into a violent windstorm. We are repeatedly assaulted by gusty disorganized sand squalls ripping in irregular intervals off the hills above. Each is 30-45 seconds thick and each brings with it a tornadic blast of sand into our moist bits and orifices and, as it turns out, our everything else. I’m wearing a straw Stetson secured to my head by a stampede strap, from inside my hat it sounds an like a squadron of airborne dump-trucks are tipping load after load of framing nails onto my head. It’s easier and safer at this point to navigate head down and squinting-style by following the many 4” wide tire tracks criss-crossing the road at my feet. I expect, any moment now, to see out of the corner of my eye free-range cows and bikes and palm trees spinning by mid-air in the khaki maelstrom presently and decidedly opposing our progress.
I pass Rachel wearing a bank robber bandana over her nose and mouth, and some dude named Thad smiling and grinning for no apparent reason, and some old guy in pink (Oakley, circa 1988) blades and a conquistador goatee, riding, incidentally, an unpainted homemade titanium bike.
We are spread out like a wagon train pilgrimage or exodus for a mile, maybe more, on what feels like a dusty ramp into the bottom of the sky.
For three maybe four hours we climb, regroup and climb until finally we reach the top of a mesa at which point we leave the main road for a section of improvised single track, which single track twists for a mile or two through cliff brush, pinyon pines, tuffts of galleta, indian grass and junipers until finally we reach the edge of the mesa, which mesa, since the Paleozoic tide’s been out for like millions of years now, resembles a jigsaw puzzle piece-shaped island in the sky . And it's here where we stop for the night.
Upon arrival at 6:30 PM:
- Beer is dug up.
- Camp is made. Most of us in tents and bivys; some of us in primitive shelters constructed of tarps, handline, tree branches and next-level Boy Scoutery.
- The howling wind picks up.
- Paul unpacks a piece of children’s rolling luggage from his bike, extends the handle, fills it with beer and some melting ice, ice he’s been carrying from the start, and goes door to door spreading canned, slightly cool joy.
- It begins to rain and sleet.
- Dinner is made, mostly in aluminum bags, though an avocado is spotted.
- Parties form around various activities, interests and competencies – rock climbing, scouting, sunset watching, drinking.
- It begins to snow.
- It stops snowing.
- It starts getting dark.
John Bailey and Mark find nearly all of a cow skeleton, arrange it on the ground to resemble a dinosaur, surreptitiously lead several of us over to it, act surprised like they’d never seen it before when we find it, convince Thad who is drunk and stoned that it is a dinosaur and happily watch, along with the rest of us, Thad pretend it is Falcor from Never Ending Story.
Later that night in the sand, tentless and lying on a nearly lame as in flat and leaking mat, I’m in good-but-tired spirits. Then it starts snowing again and the wind pouring into my generic-down bag compels me at once to un-wrap my space blanket and use it: your average 4oz., waterproof, windproof metallicized polyethylene terephthalate space or emergency blanket is 56 inches wide by 84 inches long when completely unfurled. Once unfurled, I cover my bag and “sleeping area” and line the edge of it with rocks and piles of sand, slow my breathing and settle back into what I hope is the last five minutes of consciousness for the day.
From the darkness, over the sounds of teeth being brushed and well-considered tents being zipped-up, I hear Thad, whose real name is Thaddeus, talking about Nemo (not the fish) and Everett Ruess, a writer, artist and explorer last seen at the age of 20 leading a burro into Escalante Canyon in 1934. Nemo was Everett’s handle, something he carved into the walls of various caves in the middle of Utah’s otherworldly nowhere. In Latin, Nemo means no one or nobody, and it’s believed by some that Everett was referencing Homer’s Odyssey when he chose it.2
Whatever he intended, Ruess, whose body has never officially been discovered,3 and whose death has never been satisfactorily explained, has over the years become a western myth & legend. It makes sense. Ruess, who while seeking to lose himself and become nobody, literally disappeared in the middle of nowhere, which middle of nowhere is now the Maze district of Caynonlands, Utah, which Maze District is still (today) the middle of nowhere. Edward Abbey writes about him in Desert Solitaire, Jon Krakauer writes about him in Into the Wild, and now Thaddeus is talking about him on the mesa while I’m trying to sleep.
7:45 AM May 12, 2010: I wake up, walk four-hundred yards into the Utah juniper, find a fallen tree, dig a regulation 10” hole behind it, take a shit, fill the hole back in, pack it down, pick up a handful of fresh sand, rub it between my hands to wash up, and walk back to camp. On the way I think about how while a lot of what we’re doing out here could technically, I suppose, be interpreted as apocalypse practice, it’s not. The mood is good, even great, but it’s not a party. The drugs and drinking are copious and nearly ubiquitous but somehow secondary; like water and food, they’re simply fuel, and not, like I’d imagined, a focus or prominent theme. And more than survival these people seemed to be focused on as little as possible.
I think what for me is Apocalypse Practice (AP), which AP is really just a metaphor for self-sufficiency and self-reliance and the ability not just to survive but maybe actually thrive in a more primitive and basic natural world, is for most of the gang here about transcendence, I think. Into what exactly is only just beginning to dawn on me.
9:39 AM May 12, 2010: We are currently several hours into an overcast morning, climbing a series of 4x4 roads around the edge of a number of canyons, passing through a few cattle gates and pedaling through an unexpected and eerie stand of Juniper, and dropping precipitously into an ancient, hardly navigable horse trail on the way I’ve been told to a lower mesa whatever the fuck a lower mesa is. At some point Steve passes me, I can’t look up because the trail isn’t a trail anymore, it's just some sand in a sea of jagged rocks, and but I can hear him smiling in the direction of the fall-line. In the bottom of the canyon where the trail is wide and paved in slick rock, and where it’s snowing and science fiction quiet, I stop to photograph a small round cactus the size of softball growing in a patch of soil in a crack in the rock between my feet. John Bailey on his way past slowly comes to a stop in his corduroy shorts and a jean jacket to join me, together we wordlessly rapture in the middle of a high-plateau, mid-spring snow storm.
I think I collect people like this because I’m scared of the Apocalypse, which Apocalypse I'm beginning to suspect is more personal, more trite, more cliché and worst of all, more mediocre than I had ever imagined. Instead of roving cannibals and leveled cities I think I might be more concerned with;
- Diminished/Waning Fitness
- Low T
- Weight Gain
- Dying (see above)
- Finding my Special Purpose
- Sharks and Grizzly Bears
Later, I’m pushing my bike up a fairly steep, un-rideable hill (I’m sure there are snakes in all this sand and rock), and a few minutes ago it was snowing and now it’s 90 degrees in the blazing sun and finally I come to the top to where everyone is straddling their bikes in the middle of a sandy road, politely waiting for me. To the left a set of bicycle tracks lead off down the road into what's probably a red brown abyss and there are no tracks to the right. After 20 minutes Steve returns from his reconnaissance foray with news: that way (he points left) is the way I know but it’s tough and long, this way (he points to the right) I’m not sure about but I flew over (in a bush plane) it the other day and I think it will work out, but I also thought the last section was rideable too. As acclimatized to long miles and mercurial if not clinically schizophrenic weather as I am now, winging it at this point on these roads in this country is, I think, seriously Western. Even for this crew.
Maybe I’m preoccupied with "vagabond frontiersmen" because they represent a connection to a real world, a more raw world that I both fear and long for; a world without contrivances; without all the shit we invent to fill ourselves. These guys, out here in the middle of what is, let's be honest, a desert, are on a quest to just let go, to transcend self and ego and become exactly what I feel like right now: nobody, nowhere.
As we push deeper into the dust I am forced to accept two things: 1) I’m only committed up to a certain point in changing and transforming my geographical, mental, emotional, and existential particulars through pain, distance, and experience. 2) Friends like these, this crew, can help me get past that point, and I need to get past that point.
The second night, after disassembling the luggage from our bikes in an anonymous sandy switchback, and hiking a once-rideable, recently re-designated one-mile trail with our bags and motley luggage in hand, and setting up camp in the dirt between big swaths of cryptobiotic crust, and shooting a rifle into the side of another Post Card-looking canyon from the edge of the top of the world just to hear the bang and watch the sand kick up, and eating once more from an aluminum bag, this one labeled Louisiana Rice and Beans, we build a fairly large fire in a hole dug for the purpose, drag a massive log to the edge of it, sit on it and yarn for hours.
John Bailey, Steve “Doom” Fassbinder’s sidekick/partner/right-hand-man, is sober (not literally though), proud, outspoken and in possession of rock star hair and an easy comportment. He’s skinny and fast on a bike but more importantly, he’s been successfully living on less than $5,000 a year for years. For most things he trades and for everything else he humbly, stoically, artfully and confidently depends on the universe to provide. With potatoes in the fire and a flask going around, John, wearing a black homemade waterproof duster and pink hospital scrubs, tells campfire stories about bike touring—roughly 100 miles a day—with his full-size acoustic guitar, and experiencing the world at roughly 18 miles per hour.
8:15 AM May 13, 2010: We climb through a tight crack and traverse several hundred feet of broken rock down into a canyon in search of water. We pump (properly filtering water is important) and chat and pump and chat and pump and chat until finally we climb back up to our bikes and begin day three in outstanding spirits. Two hours later and with Beef Basin behind us, we roll our way into Cayonlands Park proper. The next five hours is painful but beautiful: Imagine riding slightly downhill through a doorway-sized hole in a cleft in a massive sandstone wall as tall as the sky itself into a canyon as big and wide as the world itself in which everything is natural except a magic dirt road which extends from one end of the horizon to the other. Over and over again.
Under a sunset in some corner of the park at place called The Outpost, we relish ice-cream sandwiches, Kettle Chips, Pabst, Coke, energy bars, chocolate, and day-old muffins. Meanwhile, with most of the park’s viewpoints and restrooms closed for the night, we’re entertained by a sporadic but steady stream of out of state Economy, Standard, Full-Size, Mini-van, Premium, SUV and Luxury cars headed down the road and back into the real world.
I thought I was preparing for a dystopian apocalypse—which is it turns out more of middle-age apocalypse—but instead, I learned that with good friends you can be nobody, nowhere.
- 14 days of packrafting and mountain biking through The Maze, a district in Canyonlands that Everett Ruess, a mildly mythical and slightly historical figure once explored and eventually probably died in [↩]
- After the Trojan War, Odysseus sets off for home, crossing the land of the Cyclopes (the one-eyed giants). One of them, Polyphemos, takes Odysseus and his crew captive. Odysseus begs Polyphemos to let him and his crew go. When Polyphemos asks his name, Odysseus replies ‘Nemo’. Instead of letting them go, Polyphemos eats two of the prisoners. Odysseus then thinks of a clever way to escape. He gets Polyphemos drunk on wine and while he is sleeping off the intoxication, Odysseus sticks a glowing pole in his eye. Polyphemos screams. The other Cyclopes hear the noise and come running. They ask if someone is trying to kill him. Polyphemos cries: “No one is trying to kill me, friends.” “Then deal with it on your own,” the other Cyclopes think and Odysseus is able to make his escape. – Taken from somewhere on the internet. [↩]
- Some maintain, after a contentious debate involving dental records, that it has. Most sources/scholars however disagree with this assessment based on the available forensic evidence. [↩]