The Abbiest Place on Earth

Laura Winberry  /  5 Min Read  /  Culture, Mountain Biking

Portal Trail, the final descent of Mag 7, where the earth and Abbey both ask: Are you present? Photo: Laura Winberry

I can’t help but say or think or feel it: this is Abbey Land. Despite the various crusts that have formed over the years since Abbey was alive and well in the Moab area, this is still his place. Of course, it is the earth first, shifting and sliding and tectonically galloping—and not giving a damn about who you are or what you do, or how good you are at shimmying up a crack or descending technical single track—but it is also Abbey’s essence. Or at least I have reason in his writing to believe so, and to believe he’s still here, if you can find him.

I know it’s cliché, and that the rad little bookstore along the main street in town has a wall dedicated to him, a wall that I felt like a sucker for even browsing but did so anyway, but it’s true this is Abbey Land. I look for him in the sandstone bulbs and hollows as I move beneath them, in the shimmering Colorado to my left, in the ways this place, soon enough, will make me feel. I’m also looking for my own way in, my own encounter with a wild place that, rightfully so, keeps persisting in its wildness, regardless of whether or not I’m here to encounter it.

Photo: James Williams

I’ll leave this one to Abbey: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” Photo: James Williams

I am here with my husband and a newly acquired campsite friend. It is the first evening before our first day mountain biking in these yawning canyon lands, and we are on the outskirts of it all. Meaning we are close to town and bedding down inside our luminous tents. Right now, I am one of those tourists standing on the outside looking in. Thinking of this makes me itch. It itches to be safe and bolstered in a blue tent by the side of the road, seeing what everyone else sees, gaping at the same things, snapping photos for record, and not yet placing my cheek and my chest and my hips against the heart of this place. I am here in Moab, where the town itself feels like the outpost, and the expanses over which the sun is violently setting are the center, and I cannot wait to find a way in.

All I know about this area I know from the man himself. I see his sinewy and tanned body, ducking and surfacing the Colorado as we glide alongside on two wheels each. Where is Bonnie Abzug? I want to meet her. And Hayduke? I wonder if we could share a gritty kiss beneath the sliver-moon, before he slips back into his world and I into mine.

Photo: James Williams

Chin up and eyes ahead on the final section of Portal—an exposed and stunning and altogether grounding trail. Photo: James Williams

In the belly of Mag 7—which is short for Magnificent 7 and encompasses seven linked trails in one long traverse—I can’t stop smiling or hooting or tearing up from the oh-shit moments, the search for the rim we’re not sure is actually there, the cairn-following, the built-up and then eventually dissipated fear of exposure. Here, where the clouds mimic the rocks that mimic the clouds, I witness how the earth had been running at full speed, towards the blue above or to catch Icarus mid-tumble, and then just sheared off. Limbs dropping out from under her mid-run. Then I watch as she rests in her dramatic way, the length of her sprint behind her in one long, low-angle swath of stone.

Somewhere along Gold Bar Rim, we enter the Thunderdome. For the brief section of this trail where we share cascading double-track with motos and Jeeps and rock crawlers, I am Furiosa in a sandstorm, evading my pursuers by pedaling up and up. I am Mad Max avoiding silvery spray paint. And, of course, I see the Monkey Wrench Gang in the distance below, pouring sand into crankcases. My thoughts meet with: What does this kind of commotion and access mean for the wildness, the wilderness of a place? They crawl and pick lines and we crawl and pick lines. Are we not complicit in this, too? Yes, we are much quieter and use peanut butter, bananas, and bread for fuel; we tread lightly, look up and out often, take deep breaths, get even quieter still. But we are still treading, no?

I remember. The mountains and the rocks and the dirt and the canyons, they don’t care how awesome we think we are. We have to be on it, aware. To move with respect and always keep one eye and one ear to complicity. And even then, sometimes we get swallowed.

Photo: Laura Winberry

My husband descending Captain Ahab, a trail that oscillates between single track, sandstone notches and abandoned riverbeds. Photo: Laura Winberry

Our last night we camp in the Sand Flats. There is a windstorm, the gusts of which intermittently compress our blue tent into our nylon- and down-swaddled bodies. Even with the rainfly secured, by morning we are covered in a fine powder of sand and dirt. Like a nocturnally applied layer of cosmetic foundation or unsweetened cocoa or cinnamon, only grittier. We pack up, brew coffee over a cook stove and sip in silence. We descend into and then depart Moab, a chalky amalgam of pestled tourist piss, spat toothpaste, and Abbey’s bones covering our bodies.

Related Stories

Life of Pie: How Hot Tomato Pizza Unites a Mountain Biking Paradise
Friday night at the Hot Tomato is not for those in a hurry. Hungry customers grip pints of beer and compare notes on the day’s rides in lines that spill into the parking lot. Music pumps and the staff whirls behind the counter, tossing floury dough, yelling requests to the kitchen, giving each other shit.…
Friday night at the Hot Tomato is not for those in a hurry. Hungry customers grip pints of beer and compare notes on the day’s rides in lines that spill into the parking lot. Music pumps and the staff whirls behind the counter, tossing floury dough, yelling requests to the kitchen, giving each other shit.…
Diane French
4 min Read
Mud, Sheep, Fish, Trail: The Raw Potential of Iceland’s Westfjords
Mud and rain speckled my lenses. I squinted at the mucky, rock-strewn road in fading light and gripped my handlebars tighter. Focus. Exhale. Let go. At the next corner, Carston and Eric are stopped. Odd, I don’t usually see them until the bottom. Brakes shrieked in damp protest as I pulled up to a gooey…
Mud and rain speckled my lenses. I squinted at the mucky, rock-strewn road in fading light and gripped my handlebars tighter. Focus. Exhale. Let go. At the next corner, Carston and Eric are stopped. Odd, I don’t usually see them until the bottom. Brakes shrieked in damp protest as I pulled up to a gooey…
Mary McIntyre
7 min Read
The Fun/Suffer Divide
The Continental Divide Trail is not often traveled, and rarely by bike. The sheer remoteness makes access tricky. With this in mind, Scott Rinckenberger, Justin Olsen and I set out for 11 days on our bikes, pedaling northeast from Chief Joseph Pass. We wanted to shed some light on this beautiful area. The second night…
The Continental Divide Trail is not often traveled, and rarely by bike. The sheer remoteness makes access tricky. With this in mind, Scott Rinckenberger, Justin Olsen and I set out for 11 days on our bikes, pedaling northeast from Chief Joseph Pass. We wanted to shed some light on this beautiful area. The second night…
Chris Shalbot
3 min Read
Singing and Paddling for a National Park in China
Words often fail us. If their basic goal is to generate understanding between human beings, let’s face it: they fall short with epidemic frequency. News headlines around the world are riddled with conflicts that are caused by the breakdown of communication and the inability to compassionately understand differences. This thought plays heavily on my mind…
Words often fail us. If their basic goal is to generate understanding between human beings, let’s face it: they fall short with epidemic frequency. News headlines around the world are riddled with conflicts that are caused by the breakdown of communication and the inability to compassionately understand differences. This thought plays heavily on my mind…
Kai Welch
12 min Read
How Ugandans are Saving the Nile with River Sports Culture
When the Bujagali dam was erected on Uganda’s White Nile in 2011, the World Bank hired local witch doctors to relocate the river’s spirit gods. The deities that dwell in the Nile’s massive rapids were moved to cataracts on different, unaffected stretches of the river. This struck me as remarkable: the entity responsible for funding…
When the Bujagali dam was erected on Uganda’s White Nile in 2011, the World Bank hired local witch doctors to relocate the river’s spirit gods. The deities that dwell in the Nile’s massive rapids were moved to cataracts on different, unaffected stretches of the river. This struck me as remarkable: the entity responsible for funding…
Chandra Brown
6 min Read
Rose Marcario: Our Company Policies for Families
To support our families, Patagonia provides company-paid health care and sick time for all employees, paid maternity and paternity leave, access to on-site child care for employees at our headquarters in Ventura and at our Reno distribution center, and financial support to those who need it, among other benefits. In particular, offering on-site child care,…
To support our families, Patagonia provides company-paid health care and sick time for all employees, paid maternity and paternity leave, access to on-site child care for employees at our headquarters in Ventura and at our Reno distribution center, and financial support to those who need it, among other benefits. In particular, offering on-site child care,…
CEO Rose Marcario, CEO
6 min Read
How Can We Inspire Children to be Stewards of the Planet?
Patagonia has offered corporate-sponsored on-site child care since 1983. The Great Pacific Child Development Center, GPCDC for short, is where infants and children spend their days crawling, running, climbing and exploring, mostly outdoors, while their parents work. We wanted to tell the story of GPCDC, so last year we published Family Business by Malinda Chouinard and…
Patagonia has offered corporate-sponsored on-site child care since 1983. The Great Pacific Child Development Center, GPCDC for short, is where infants and children spend their days crawling, running, climbing and exploring, mostly outdoors, while their parents work. We wanted to tell the story of GPCDC, so last year we published Family Business by Malinda Chouinard and…
Patagonia
9 min Read
Nature and the Opportunity to Build Diverse Coalitions
In 2013, as a member of the Expedition Denali team, I had the privilege of flying over and around a tiny splinter of the six million acres that make up Denali National Park and Preserve. The park contains what seems to be limitless rough terrain, some of the largest wild animals in the world and…
In 2013, as a member of the Expedition Denali team, I had the privilege of flying over and around a tiny splinter of the six million acres that make up Denali National Park and Preserve. The park contains what seems to be limitless rough terrain, some of the largest wild animals in the world and…
Scott Briscoe
6 min Read
Popular searches