Escaping Covid-19

by Carmen Freeman-Rey

It was  March 11th 2020, Hans and I were on board a flight from LAX to London Heathrow with a plan to spend time in the UK. The plane doors were locked and passengers belted, as we waited to taxi when the Captain announced news of a travel ban for people coming from Europe into the U.S. At this point it didn’t include the U.K, but for how long?

There were anxious rumblings from many passengers on board as permission to disembark was given people to those that wanted to. We had to make a decision fast, to stay on board or go, we chose to go.

It turned out to be the right decision.

By Friday the ban had indeed been extended to Great Britain, by Sunday California was ordered to shut down bars. Soon restaurants, offices, schools and non-essential travel would follow. Beaches were closed as well as local parks, trails and National Parks. Two days before Hans and I had discussed renting an RV and doing a working road trip. The plan was to visit some states with beautiful scenery and do some shoots along the way. Well that plan didn’t work out either. At least not yet.

Fast forward after several weeks of the “stay at home order”, we were going a bit stir crazy, so when travel restrictions were lifted, we thought that it was time for a change of scenery and to get away from crazyville. The beaches seemed more packed than ever and the trails the busiest we had ever seen them, there was little chance of socially distancing outdoors, so we decided to head to the wild west.

Our route would take us from California, to Nevada, then Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Utah again. We rode bikes, hiked National Parks and visited some friends in an ever-changing landscape with jaw dropping vistas.

I feel that we appreciated this sense of freedom, open road and change of scenery even more after being confined for so long.

Along the way it would turn out that we would experience extremes in temperature from 98F with searing sunshine at one end and sub-zero with snow at the other. Kobe our West Highland Terrier, having Scottish genes loved the snow, he wasn’t so keen on the high heat though, but fortunately we were rarely far from a natural water source, whether it be a stream, river or lake.

Loaded with bikes, gear, food and enough beer and wine to sink the Titanic, we set off for our first destination, Las Vegas. A quick overnight pit stop and we were on the road again headed to Monument Valley UT.

It was quite a long drive, but we managed to reach our first camp before the sunset on the magnificent monalyths poking up from the horizon. As the sun disappeared it was replaced with the most stunning orange moon, the landscape was washed in deep pink. A stunning sight, but it was so hot.

It was also Hans’ birthday, so we celebrated under the stars with a perfect dinner in a perfect setting.

The following day started with a stop at Gooseneck Bends, a series of horseshoe shaped rocks carved by the Colorado River. We stood on the edge of the canyon, which fell away steeply in front of us. We decided to take some shots, so Hans unhitched his GT Force from the back of the van. Honestly I was terrified as he rode so close to the edge, one false pedal and it would be game over. As he rode closer and closer and jumped from one protruding rock slab to another, all I could do was set my camera up, close my eyes and click. I couldn’t bare to watch him.

Because the stay at home order had only just been lifted, many of the National Parks were not fully open. But we were able to drive the Valley of the Gods loop, a bit sketchy in an RV, some warned us to turn back, but we made it along the rutted exposed switchbacks.

Hans decided to get his bike out and ride a few lines, we had spent a long time sitting and he was itching to spin his wheels, if only for a short time. The backdrop was majestic and so wide open with sandstone buttes rising like fingers around us.

Next we were headed to our old friend and fellow Rad, Bill Freeman’s abode, he lives in Mancos, Colorado. Bill is an excellent photographer and has worked with Hans many times over the years. He relocated from California a few years ago and here at the end of a long dirt road he built himself a house at the top of a hill with a huge deck that afforded a most incredible view of the mountains and Mesa Verde.

After a BBQ on the deck and an incredible lightening show, it was time for sleep with a plan for a ride the next day.

Hans and Bill rode the trails at Ramparts whilst I took the Kobe and Bill’s dog Jasmine for a hike on the same route. The hike/bike was along a stunning trail, starting from the top of a Mesa and circling down before heading back up again. Miles of Aspen tree forest cut through by clear sparkling streams that meandered along with the switchbacks. The delicate leaves dappled in the sunlight as the tall slim trunks swayed in the wind. There were a few obstacles thanks to the storm the night before, many trees had fallen and quite a few lay across the trail. No problem for Hans and Bill, they just popped over them. They had a blast and Bill took some great shots along the way.

Another day and another ride, this time the renowned Phil’s World trails system near Cortez. Hans and Bill had arranged to meet up with a couple of local riders and trail dog Honzo. Hans was incredibly impressed with Honzo, the way he kept up and kept out of the way and figured out how to make up time by cutting the course and taking a straight line at the switchbacks. The trails had something for most level of riders, from rocky and loose, steep and technical to smooth dirt with flow.

After two nights with Bill it was time to head to Telluride CO. This former mining town is now a famous ski destination in the Rocky Mountains. During Covid “shut down”, Telluride closed itself off from the rest of the physical world; it was easy for them to do since t

hey are at the end of the valley. They had opened the road to visitors again a few days before.

Our day ended at the Sunshine Campground, we slept like hibernating bears and woke up to a gloriously sunny day. Two fun rides followed, the first was up Bear Creek Trail, a wide multi use track, this ran parallel to the river most of the way, along with meadows and minor waterfalls, the riding required some concentration since the ground was a mass of fist sized loose rocks and wet slicked slabs.

The next was a switch back heavy ride up towards Trico Peak and Ingram Falls. The falls were really spectacular, we ended up pretty soaked through; the ride back down to town offered us another incredible view. For me one of the highlights of the day was mastering my phobia of riding through rivers, I did it several times and managed not to fall off my bike. Of course Hans can wheelie them, I complain that he has helium in his front tire.

From there we headed to the next valley over and there the sunshine was replaced with snow. Our destination was Ouray, which turned out to be the most quaint and lovely historically preserved town on our whole trip. The next day the sun burnt through the fog and gave us white snow caps along the horizontal ridges of the red mesas. Particularly pretty against the now bright blue sky.

We were headed back to Utah again, this time Moab and a visit with Greg Herbold, known to most as HB. HB is a former downhill world champion and he calls Slick Rock his home trail. Hans and HB were known for their comedic roles in the classic MTB movie Tread that was partly filmed here in 93’.  Slickrock is world famous, a trail on solid rock, the way marked by dots of paint. It is not for the feint hearted, with steeps, sudden dips and exposure, it requires skills as well as stamina. Hans took his e-bike, the GT E-Force, since e-bikes are allowed there they figured a little help on the endurance side would leave more energy for extra fun challenges. It’s a bit of an oxymoron, but the rock isn’t slick at all, it’s actually super grippy.

That morning we had visited Arches National Park and hiked out to Delicate Arch, here riding is absolutely forbidden, but the drive through the park was one breath taking view after another and the hike was pretty special. I couldn’t believe just how much traction the terrain had, you could walk at an almost vertical pitch, which I found extremely useful the next day.

We said goodbye to HB and his wife Deborah and drove out to Wilsons’s Arch. This huge golden natural arch is not in the park and so Hans decided it was time to pop out the trials bike for an Instagram moment. We hiked up the incredibly steep grade, me struggling a little under the weight of my camera pack, which pulled me backwards.

The spectacle was so worth it and I took some of my all time favourite shots there. When I was lying on my back, or teetering on the edge and trying to keep my balance, I was so grateful for the grip of the rock.

Hans never ceases to amaze me on a bike, he is fearless and nothing seems to faze him, whether riding on a precipitous edge, hopping from one jagged rock to another with hundreds of feet below him or pulling 180s on a skinny spine high above the valley below. When I looked at the photos afterwards, I was very chuffed that I had a “model” that could pull the moves that did justice to the immense, unique beauty on our road trip.

From Moab to Marble Canyon and Lees Ranch, which lies beside the Colorado River. Our original plan had been to go to Vermillion Canyon, but as it turned out the road was unsuitable for anything but a 4 x 4. It turned out to be a good omen, when we changed our minds last minute. That night a terrible bush fire raged in Vermillion and that road as well as the main highway was closed; fate gave us a lucky escape.

Historic Lees Ranch is now a museum, here was once the site of a chain ferry that crossed the Colorado River, before being replaced by giant steel bridges. Approaching the ranch we walked through an orchard full of trees groaning with fruit. From there we followed a trail to the Paria River, passing abandoned machinery and an ancient truck. Kobe was hot and decided that the trail wasn’t for him, so he jumped into the river and stayed there, forcing us to do the same as we waded through water and mud, the cool reprieve from the heat was welcome.

That night we parked just before the Paria River joins the Colorado River, at a place where it was as calm as a mill pond and so clear you could count the stones on the river bed. The water was a perfect temperature and here we sat and splashed around enjoying another gift from nature. We sat outside as sunset gave way to dusk and dusk merged into moonlight. Another perfect ending to another perfect day.

Our final destination was going to be Zion National Park, Utah, which was another long drive. We decided break the up journey and camp out at Lone Rock Beach campsite on Lake Powell, Arizona. We arrived just as night was about to set in.

The next morning we were ready to head on to Zion, which is not far from Virgin, home to the Redbull Rampage.

That night was one of my favourites; we found a dry site on BML land on top of a Mesa a stone’s throw from the Rampage location. Again we could park anywhere and although there were other people there, they were so far away that we felt as though we were totally alone. Bliss. I had wanted to camp somewhere in the wilderness with zero light pollution to diminish the stars and this I got. It was awe inspiring; the sky was littered with the brightest stars and planets that created a blanket of lights that seemed so close that you could almost touch them.

In the morning we headed to Zion, on the way we dropped Kobe off with another old friend and Rad from California, Steve Peterson. He and his wife Linda have an absolutely stunning home on the banks of the Virgin River with a view from their terrace of the highest peak in Zion National Park. It is hard to describe in words the absolute beauty of the light as it set on those red rocks and casted a rose glow all around.

We headed to the park on our e-bikes, Hans on the GT E-Force and me on the E-Verb, both with the Shimano Steps drive units; it was recommended to us as the best way to see the park. It was ideal.

Our day was full, with a hike up to Emerald Pools and then The Narrows, a slot canyon, which was a challenging trek through the Virgin River the whole way. We thought that the hike would be alongside the river and not actually in it. Luckily we found two driftwood sticks, which aided our balance as we waded on slippery rocks in waters sometimes waist deep. It was so much fun and again, we were so glad for the refreshing cool waters as the temperature hit 95F.

That night we parked our camper at Steve’s house and enjoyed another sunset in another beautiful location.

Hans has always wanted to ride the Grafton trails around Zion, but never had the opportunity. Now he did and what better way than with a local as a guide. He and Steve set off after making the difficult decision about which loop to ride when there were so many to choose from.

In the end they decided on Wire Mesa to Grafton, with a few extra side loops along the way. Hans described Wire Mesa as a fun technical single track with slick rock and in places, sand. It isn’t for beginners, requiring skills and experience, but not as much so as with Gooseberry Mesa. Grafton was similar, but with quite rocky sections in places, mostly moderate, but also with some difficult sections in places.

When Hans returned, I can honestly say that I have never seen him as exhausted after a ride as he was after this one. He stumbled into the RV, his face black with dirt, dizzy, dehydrated and wobbly legged. He said he was so close to bonging. My quick fix in these circumstances is Coca Cola. This he took along with an ice pack on the back of his neck. Followed by more water and pasta, he started to feel more human again. But not human enough to drive, he left that to me as we set off again for the home run back to California.

It was a working road trip, but also a much needed break from be closeted at home and the tensions that a pandemic brings to the world. We felt a million miles away form all of this as we travelled the wide-open road and allowed the landscape to swallow us.