Slightly different format for this post, as my buddy, Bird, and I tell the story in tandem. Warning: There’s some more than usual adult language used in this post — what Dee refers to as my “Camp Voice.” Apologies in advance to Sister Myra, Sister Brid and Sister Michele. (Yes, I think about who might read this stuff).
Bird: Our plan was to sneak in a 4-day late-summer/early-fall adventure bike ride into Utah, following the Utah Backcountry Discovery Route, making a large loop that started and ended just outside of Salt Lake City. We got a little more adventure than we bargained for.
This was a unique trip from the start. Our patriarch, Tom Milan, had recently broken his wrist in a mountain bike accident and had to back out. His fill-in was the youngest on the squad, Dan Shaw, Hank’s son, who had recently purchased a Honda XR 650 L. Garth, Scott and I were going to fly into Salt Lake City where Hank and Dan would pick us up and take us to the condo in Heber City. Unfortunately, the night before our flight, we were alerted that Hank’s truck (with bikes in tow) had broken down outside of Las Vegas.
The breakdown delayed Hank nearly seven hours. Luckily, there were several bars and a movie theatre in Park City that held our attention that afternoon and we all got to the condo late Friday night and prepped for the coming days.
Hank: If you wanted to avoid the details and jump to the end of this report to see how it all ended, the two words you’d read would be, “Shit Happens.” That’s a good metaphor for life and an even better description of our adventure. So, with that in mind to set the stage…
Shit Happens #1: Yep, Tom broke his wrist 10 days before we departed for Utah. Crashed on his mountain bike. I’d like to point out that Tom Milan is 69 years old and a certified Badass. I’m 14 years his junior and won’t ride a stationary bike in front of the TV. The implications of not having Tom along were big. Tom, being the senior man and all, is our unofficial, unelected leader. More importantly — and this plays into “Shit Happens” starting around #4 or #5, Tom is the crew’s secondary navigator. I do the route planning and mapping. Tom carries the backup GPS device, plus 69 years of not-getting-killed-experience, so we rely on Tom. We missed him before we left.
Shit Happens #2: The alternator on my truck — the one with the trailer hauling the five bikes — decided to melt down about 20 miles east of Las Vegas. Dan and I had stopped in Sin City to do required maintenance: refuel, down Red Bulls and, well, shoot machine guns at Guns n’ Ammo Garage. It’s a guy thing. Dan had no clue that this little side trip had been carefully planned out on the schedule for the day. I had set it up with Bird in advance. What made it even sweeter was that for the last hour of the drive into Vegas, Dan was harping on me about how it was actually possible to “shoot real machine guns” in Vegas. Thank you, outdoor advertising. I just played dumb and responded with dad-like lines such as, “My goodness, that seems ridiculous and dangerous!” And, “Who’d want to do something as pointless and wasteful as that?”
I would, for one.
I could barely contain my snickering glee. I’m not known for containing testosterone outbreaks. I planned it so we’d stop for fuel next door to the shooting range. As we drove past, Dan pointed it out and I slowed the truck. Then I stopped suddenly and said, “You know, Dan, you’re right. Let’s do this!” His jaw dropped. We went in, selected our weapons of choice and then blasted away with dangerous fully-automatic weapons at targets so close Stevie Wonder couldn’t have missed. The smell of cordite on our hands and clothing was so strong that we probably caused a security lock-down at McCarran Airport just by driving past. I gotta admit, as a father-son bonding event, spewing 30 rounds of hot lead in five seconds is right up there.
On our way out of town, the truck started acting up. No advance warning or starting problems, just a swift and complete systems shut-down. At sunset. In the desert. 20 miles from town. Awesome. I pulled off the freeway just in time to watch everything go dark on the panel. After fiddling with stuff for 10 minutes, we called AAA and had the truck and trailer towed back to Vegas to a shop recommended by the tow truck driver as capable of pushing other customers aside and getting us out early-ish the next day to meet Garth, Scott and Bird at SLC. We found a hotel off the strip that was mostly populated by “People of Wal-Mart,” if you get my drift, and bedded down for the night, smelling of cordite and testosterone.
The next morning my definition of early-ish conflicted with the repair shop’s, but we finally hit the road for the six-hour drive to SLC. The guys arrived on time and, true to form, were eventually located outside a bar in Park City. We made it to my buddy, Jimmy’s, borrowed condo in Heber City after a quick stop for, wait for it, more beer.
Bird: The morning started great for the first mile. Then Garth’s bike was having obvious problems. We rode into nearby Heber City to fuel up and assess the situation. Luckily, the gas station was next to a Yamaha dealer that was able to re-jet Garth’s bike and that somewhat fixed the problem. At least enough that we could continue. We rode out of town and picked up the off-road trail, trying to make up some lost time. The fall leaves and smooth roads were great. Somehow in the enjoyment of it all, we missed our turnoff and ended up adjusting our plans and camped at a small lake with great views. It was great to be camping again. The first time for most of us since Idaho.
Hank: One of the many things I like about riding with this crew is our adaptability. Things usually go right, but when they go wrong, nobody whines about it. We assess the situation, develop a plan, get consensus and execute.
Shit Happens #3: Garth’s fuel problems weren’t #3. That got mostly fixed in Heber City. #3 turned out to be the first of our navigation errors. I say “our” errors, but what I really mean is “my.” The Utah Backcountry Discovery Route — from here on called UTBDR or just BDR — is a well-mapped route created by ADV riders for Butler Motorcycle Maps. Currently, there are four published BDRs, with six more under development. A feature of the BDR series is the ability to download the map tracks directly into a GPS device, like the Garmin Zumo 550 I have mounted on my BMW R1200 GS.
I don’t think it’s a good practice to rely solely on electronic devices for navigation. The ability to read a map is critical. That said, I left my copy of the UTBDR on my desk at home and also failed to download the map routes into the Zumo. Instead, I opted to write down directions like, “Turn right on FR094, then left on FR437,” and put those slips of non-waterproof paper in the map case on my tank bag. Old school. Like Donner Party old school.
The end result was I knew where we wanted to go, which general direction to head and where to turn (assuming there was a sign post, like in Idaho, which there wasn’t), but I didn’t know how far it was to each turn vector. So I missed a key turn on Day 1 that put us 30 miles off course and missed our target destination. By 5 pm we were three hours behind schedule, tired, hungry and thirsty. We decided to camp near Duchesne, UT at a place called Starvation Lake. Again, Donner Party old school.
Bird: Although the weather was cool, the day started out great. We locked onto the trail and took off into the countryside… only to find out we weren’t on the trail. It was more of a cow path. So we turned around, and looked for the real trail. After about an hour or so, we got on the real one and headed into the mountains.
Hank: Shit Happens #4 – See Shit Happens #3
Bird: We had some AMAZING views in front of us. The fall colors on the trees, the sun hitting the mountains, etc. etc. etc. It was awesome.
Hank: It was awesome and it’s called Timber Canyon Road, a major section of the UTBDR. There had been some rain earlier and we hit a few ruts and puddles. It’s always good to get a little mud on the bike and boots so people don’t get the wrong idea about ADV riding being all cushy.
Bird: After several miles, we reached a small summit just as it started to snow. We all rejoiced. It was gorgeous. The weather wasn’t even cold. My thermometer registered 35 degrees. We knew, however, that motorcycles and snow don’t mix, so we were anxious to get to the next point. The road was a T at the point, and we went right, as the GPS said the next town was 7-14 miles away.
Shit Happens #5
Hank: I did not rejoice. I was struggling with navigation at this point and looking for our next turn when I saw the heavy rain clouds in front of us. We monitor weather using web-based services like Weather Underground and had been proceeding under the (now) mistaken assumption that the rain was supposed to hit well after sunset, when we were either safely in our tents or at a motel 25 miles south of our current position on Strawberry Mountain. We (I) made a wrong turn and we (we) headed into Shit Happens #6.
Bird: About a mile down the road we ran into trouble. Hank’s front wheel slipped off the path and folded on him. His 600 lb. bike came to a stop…in a deep mud puddle with his right leg under it. We parked as fast as we could and ran over to get the big bike off him. He got out from under the bike, full of mud, able to stand. However, his ankle was pretty hurt. He shook off the pain, as we righted the bike. The snow continued to fall harder and harder. After several minutes, Hank manned-up and we pushed on, knowing the roads were getting worse with the heavy, wet snow falling.
We immediately started running into trouble. The roads had already started to turn bad. It had hardly been a half hour since the start of the storm, but that’s what it was – a storm. Some could even say a blizzard. And we were solidly in it.
We traveled about another mile, slipping, sliding, cussing and contemplating. Finally, we reached a point where Hank had to stop because of the pain, and we both had to stop because of the problems with traction. (Hank and I have the heaviest bikes, which don’t do well in muck and slick conditions. And they are heavy as hell when they fall!)
The storm was in full effect. Hank’s ankle was hurting. After a tough conversation and decision, it was decided to make the call to the Wasatch Sheriff for a Search and Rescue (SAR) team to come get us. At the same time, Scott and Garth, whose bikes were still nimble and moving, made a run for the next town. Shortly after they left, they returned to let us know that an elk hunter’s camp was just around the bend, about 300 yards up the road. Dan walked up to the camp and convinced one of the hunters to come get us in his side-by-side. Eventually, the three of us (Dan, Hank and I), made it up to the camp and warmed up around a blazing fire. We were told it would be about three hours before the SAR team would arrive. There was nothing to do but relax, stay warm and hope that Scott and Garth made it out, or were at least safe.
As the time wore on, the well being of Scott and Garth became worrisome. Somehow, we had cell reception in the area, but we didn’t know if they did, wherever they were. Finally, after a full two hours, they arrived back at camp. (Ironically, right after I sent them a text, telling them that they may have to bed down for the night – we all carried our tents and camping gear – and we would send SAR after them once they arrived at the hunter’s camp).
After three hours and near dark, Wasatch SAR arrived in two side-by-sides with six people. After getting Hank organized, they agreed to take all of us down the hill. Since we had five people, this meant some pretty cramped quarters. Everyone but me went with Hank in the first side-by-side. Scott had the craziest ride, as he was seated on the elevated back seat, where the paramedic would normally sit next to someone if they were using a stretcher. I’m sure it was the ride of his life, all bundled up and sitting above the center of gravity for that vehicle.
I went down with our gear in the second vehicle that held three people. Unfortunately, we had four. We were so cramped, I had to have a guy sit on my knees, cramped against the front window. Ironically, this same guy was the mechanic that fixed Garth’s bike a day before in Heber City. And as it turned out, we were lucky he was a mechanic, because our vehicle broke down…twice.
But wait, there’s more….
The side-by-side also turned over… twice. This was a 22-mile trek out of the mountains, during a snowstorm, through VERY rough terrain. It definitely wasn’t a high-speed rescue. At one point, after the first breakdown, we started a fire, because we thought that a Second Response SAR team was going to have to come get us. The guys in the first vehicle could hear the radio calls of us breaking down and were probably wondering what the hell was going on.
Eventually, we did get down off the mountain. It was about a three-hour ride in all. From there, we had to get back to the condo and then get Hank from the hospital, as they had transported him there by ambulance once off the hill.
After we retrieved Hank, we swung by 7-Eleven for beer. (Side note: it was Sunday night at 11pm, we were very concerned there wouldn’t be any, even if it was 3.2% alcohol.) While checking out, a 20-something kid came in and announced to all inside, “Do NOT go up Strawberry Mountain. There is a huge storm up there! We just came down from there and it took us forever!”
We felt validated.
Hank: It’s hard to add to Bird’s account of the second day— he pretty much nailed it — other than to say three things.
1. My day was over when I went down. I knew it the minute I tried to put weight on my right ankle. It was sprained pretty badly, but not broken (at least I didn’t think it was broken). More to the point, I knew my ride was over. After trying to ride a few hundred yards I could feel myself flirting with going into shock, which called for fluids, sugar and calm. Making the call to the SAR team was hard, but not as hard as the call I made to Dee back home. It went something like this:
Hank: Hey! So, ah, what ya doin’?
Dee: Shopping. How ‘bout you guys?
Hank: Hm. Well… I’m okay and Daniel is okay. (Pause) Repeat back to me what I just said.
Dee: You’re okay and Daniel is okay.
Hank. Right. I’m okay and Daniel is okay. I’ve crashed my bike on the top of a mountain in a snowstorm and hurt my ankle. I can’t ride. We’ve called for Search & Rescue. We have winter gear, shelter, food, water and emergency equipment. Might be stuck up here for a while, but… we’re… okay! Repeat back to me what I just said…
At that point in time, we didn’t know if SAR would make it there before dark, or even risk jumping into the storm. What I did know was that we were prepared for the conditions and safe at the hunter’s camp. They showed us their recent hunting “kills” and seemed a little concerned when we said the sheriff’s SAR crew was on the way. Concerned in the way poachers would be concerned if they had a few too many kills stored in camp.
To help with mobility, I fashioned a cane — more like a staff — from a fallen tree branch. I would hold it up and bellow, “You shall not pass!” I thought it was hilarious. I brought the staff back home as a souvenir.
2. I won’t make the same navigation mistakes again. Ever. I’m committed to learning from this (mis)adventure and sharing what I learn with the Smooth Crew. I hate the idea that I put my guys in jeopardy because I didn’t do enough prep work. Yes, they’re adults and chose to take the risks. I can’t control the weather and we had the proper equipment and training to survive in adverse conditions. But I committed us to three wrong turns, which could’ve been avoided by better planning and situational awareness. Lesson learned.
3. Choose wisely. I remind Bird, Scott and Dan — the three single guys in our crew — about this General Rule when it comes to seeking long-term romance (Garth, Tom and I are married). But for me, it applies to riding partners, as well. These guys, and that certainly includes Tom, have my back, as I have theirs. We operate as a team — and it was truly gratifying to see my son, Daniel, step up and carry his weight — and the weight of his busted-up old man. The very nature of motorcycle adventure travel requires competence and trust. I trust these guys with my life because… Shit Happens.
I chose my friends wisely.