Three Days, 180 miles, Muscle Power, Part 2
"I don't know," said Hanna, the afternoon clerk of the Landmark Inn. "It's just kind of weird. They all like dinosaurs."
Yes, they do. They are tourists, who over the years have added northeastern Utah to the Western national park circuit, and dinosaurs are why the come here, to Vernal, a small crossroads town close to both Colorado and Wyoming. Dinosaurs — most of them about eight feet tall and painted lime green or luminous orange — are more common in this corner of Utah than malt shops and walkup hamburger stands. (One of them along Main Street, this one about 12 feet tall, was holding a sign that read "We have Beanie Babies.")
But let's cut to the chase. I know why you are all reading, so let me just go ahead and answer the questions I posed at the end of last week's story: No, my legs held out and I did not have to hitch a ride home; Uh, even though my truck was parked at the Duchesne jail all weekend there was nothing wrong with it; There is not much of anything to eat in Lapoint, at least not on a Sunday morning.
I was in Vernal after 60 or so miles of riding, having begun Friday afternoon in Duchesne and biking about 30 miles to Roosevelt in the rain, and then another 30 miles Saturday morning coming from Roosevelt, across a painted desert and a few hills and into Vernal. Now, on a sunny dry Saturday afternoon with seven hours until sunset I was checking into the Landmark Inn, dropping off some clothes and my book to lighten the load on my bicycle, and getting ready to set off for Dinosaur National Monument to see the dinosaur bones. But, as I was saying, I was already seeing dinosaurs.
Hanna, the hotel clerk, said just this summer tourists from as far away as India, Japan, France and England come Vernal to see the dinosaur bones and stay at her bed and breakfast. She showed me to my room which, though it did not officially have a name, I quickly dubbed The Brahma Room because there was a pair of bull's horns mounted above the bed.
I pedaled out of Vernal and into Naples, which is kind of like a suburb of Vernal. In Vernal I stopped at the Country Grub restaurant, a walk-up hamburger and shake shop where they have what appears to be a petting zoo out back. There were sheep, goats, a peacock, a miniature pony and, well, I'll admit to not being an animal expert, but I'll be damned if there wasn't a miniature elk grazing out back of the Country Grub restaurant. As for Naples, notwithstanding the Country Grub, all I can say is the Italians did a poor job of copying it.
South and west of Naples and Vernal U.S. highway 40 straightened and descended gradually. I made good time, averaging about 20 miles an hour for the 14 mile stretch to Jensen, where I turned north on state Route 149 and was almost immediately nearly run off the road by a Toyota from Illinois and a Chevy van from Arizona — ardent fans of the Articles column, no doubt. The road dropped into a valley surrounding the Green River which, flowing from the Wind River Range of Wyoming to its confluence with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, is one of the nation's most significant rivers. The Green, a silty gray, ebbed through marshland, bordered by green fields that contrasted brilliantly with the red-cliffed mountains of the national monument behind it. Just before the official entrance the park was the hugest fake dinosaur of all — a Brontosaurus (I think that's what they are called) in the parking lot of the convenience and gift shop which had a leather saddle on its neck, which was bowed down. That's right, in Utah you can actually ride dinosaurs!
At the entrance to the monument I paid my $5 entrance fee and got the customary armload of pamphlets and maps, most of which I handed right back to the ranger. "Where did you ride from," she asked. I told her Vernal. "If you are headed back that way," she said, "there is a shortcut you can take, the Brush Creek Road, which will save you about two miles on your way back."
Inside the park, and I knew this already, which is why I gave the ranger back all the pamphlets, is one of the country's most impressive deep canyons. The Green and Yampa rivers plunge through red and gray-rocked canyons that twist and coil endlessly, and are punctuated by venomous rapids. That system of canyons is what I really wanted to see, but you need a raft, of course, and a quite a bit of time, since many of the river trips are multi-day affairs. Regardless, to see the canyons from above I would have to bike into the Colorado section of the monument, which was well beyond the range of my riding for the day. What I did instead was bike up a steep hill to the Dinosaur Quarry building, a very 60s-looking glass and brick building built up against a hillside where paleontologists have since 1909 been excavating Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus and Allosaurus (among others) bones from the sandstone hills. The dinosaurs, scientists believe, died near the Green River millions of years ago, and their bones where washed during floods onto a sandbar. That sand eventually hardened to rock, and later, when the Rocky Mountains began to rise, the bone-riddled rock buckled into hillsides and, due to erosion and, now, the work of the paleontologists, has been exposed.
I pedaled a bit further into the park, stopping to see some rock art and get a better look at Split Mountain, one of the park's most noticeable landmarks, then turned around. I took the ranger's suggestion and took the shortcut — the Brush Creek Road — back, which turned out to be a mistake because the pavement was in such poor shape and arrived in Vernal by about 5 p.m. It was an 18% humidity afternoon, 68 degrees says the revolving bank sign, and Main Street Vernal was bereft of the tourists who usually fill it in the summer. I strolled down Main, admiring some of the old architecture that has been preserved and the plaques that tell their stores, enjoying the flowers that filled their planters and getting whiffs of what I though was espresso. Turns out it was espresso. Vernal has four coffee shops in five blocks of Main Street, a ratio that would be a feat in Seattle and which in Utah is nothing short of a miracle. "I think they started them for all the tourists who come here," said the barista in Spoofs, a coffee shop in a small store next to the Vernal Theater, which was attracting a steady stream of customers for the 6 p.m. show. "But it is mostly locals who come in here, though," she said, handing me my double mocha. I sat outside the shop for nearly an hour drinking and reading a Jose Saramago book and after a while realized that, despite all the people who were walking by, I had not seen anyone talking on a cell phone all the time.
Coffee done, I walked down to La Cabana and had the cheese enchiladas. It was typical for Utah — a "Viva Mexico!" poster on the wall but country music in the jukebox. A man sang a country song to his wife. The waitress refilled my chip basket. Outside, restaurant signs blinked in the twilight. It was suddenly cold. Full and wobbly I walked back to the Landmark, sprawled out on my bed and fell asleep.
Saturday afternoon stats:
Trip distance: 41.0 miles
Average speed: 15.4 miles per hour
Maximum speed: 35.7 miles per hour
Elapsed time: 2 hours, 39 minutes
Highlight: rock art in Dinosaur, coffee on Main, views to mountains
Low points: Bumpy endless road coming back from Dinosaur, not getting to see the canyons
This morning I was up early, stuffing my face with orange juice and toasted yummy bagels and Frosted Flakes, which I had not had for eons. I was on the road by 8:30 in long sleeves, heading west from Vernal towards Maeser in state Route 121. Maeser is a suburb, sort of, and the last town of any size I will see until I get back to at least Duchesne. Today is the biggest day of the trip, which admittedly is the dumb way to do it, saving the biggest day for last when you are the most fatigued. West of Maeser the road left farmland quickly and climbed up on to plateaus, diving quickly into dry ravines and hopping back up again. In the clear morning sunlight I could easily see the Uinta Mountains, some of which are more than 13,000 feet tall and a few of which still had spots of snow. This part of the road again was in a desert of mostly red buttes and hills and scrub or, higher up, pinyon. After an hour I made it to Lapoint where, and I've said this already, I had a small breakfast which, frankly, I did not enjoy. But what do you expect from a gas station in Lapoint?
West from Lapoint I pedaled into what is really the heart of the Uintah Basin, and perhaps its true claim to fame, dinosaurs notwithstanding. For the next 20 miles I was continually crossing streams, rivers and creeks, each hugged by moss and mist and sheltered by cottonwoods whose leaves were turning yellow with fall. Such an abundance of water is a rarity in the West and for many people in Utah, the braided streams and marshy bogs of the Uintah Basin is a special place. Waterfowl flew from the water at my approach, and small birds sang from the tops of telephone poles. Closer to Neola the water put to use in farms, and fields of alfalfa, hay and corn glistened in the still-cool morning. In Neola SR-121 took a left turn south and for almost 10 miles dropped steadily, and once again I was averaging 20 miles per hour without having to pedal much at all. Such moments are ecstasy for bikers, and on such a long day affords a luxury where I could make good time and still look around casually at the farms, the irrigation canals that ran along the road, the horses and mowed lawns and ranches fat cows. Coming back into Roosevelt from the north I stopped for a quick sandwich and cookie and getting back onto the bike with about 32 miles to go I suddenly felt the weight and uselessness of my fatigued legs. I got off the bike and spent a while stretching but to no avail. The next two hours would be difficult.
West of Roosevelt I turned on to state Route 87, which would take me back to Duchesne but would take slightly different route than U.S. 40 would. I pedaled laboriously, now not impressed with the view, up onto another low plateau and through Ioka, which before I saw the "Welcome to..." sign I had never heard of, and onto to Upalco, where I took another left and coasted off the plateau into a low desert of gray and brown hills. I passed Arcadia, which appeared to be little more than a cemetery, and went through Bridgeland, which once again brought me to the Duchesne River. Along the river, sprinklers were for one last time watering the fields, and cottonwoods and weeping willows along the river were turning yellow, and closer to Duchesne families were walking home from church and a police officer cruised slowly, not looking for anything, and a final breeze kicked up and pushed me into town. My truck, which I said earlier, was just fine, afternoon visiting hours at the jail were just wrapping up and, legs a bit wobbly but otherwise OK, I took the long way home, climbing over Wolf Creek Summit to Kamas and Park City and arrived home in time to read the mail and take out the garbage. Days later, as I type this, the sunburn on my thighs and arms has faded to tan but my lips, for some reason, are still chapped.
Trip mileage: 75.07 miles
Odometer: 10,514 miles
Average speed: 15.5 miles per hour
Maximum speed: 36.5 miles per hour
Elapsed time: 4 hours, 49 minutes
High points: rivers and creeks between Lapoint and Neola, long downhill stretch coming into Roosevelt, birds chirping on telephone poles Low points: Heavy, useless legs the last 15 miles
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