Southwest Furnace on Two Wheels: A Bicycle Tour From Provo, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado

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By Chris Blinzinger and John Monroe — John and I like to do a couple of local tours every year and have open invitations to anyone who wants to accompany us on the proposed adventure. We have a Facebook group; Wasatch Overland Bike League (WOBL) for coordinating our trips and creating discussion posts about future rides and planning for current rides on our calendar. We have interest and input from our members but it usually ends up as the two of us. We have come to know each other’s habits and personalities well so we make a good partnership on tours. We have similar ideals about our ability and both understand that all plans are in pencil and subject to modification up until we arrive at our destination at the end of our tour.

Stopping in the Desert. Photo by John Monroe

Provo to Helper, Utah

We planned to ride to Grand Junction, Colorado, the 3rd week of June, 2017. John rode the Frontrunner down to my house on the evening before our departure to go over final planning and meet with Paul who would accompany us on this ride. I always get nervous just before a trip. We headed out the following morning and met up with Paul at the Frontrunner station that we would ride to Provo to begin our journey. The benefit of using the Frontrunner eliminates a full day ride between mine and John’s house so we use is regularly to meet up for our tours.

Heading down to Helper. Photo by Chris Blinzinger

We were pedaling toward Spanish Fork Canyon by 9:00 enjoying the sun coming over the mountain and getting used to the extra weight. Spanish Fork Canyon had been one of my concerns during the planning process. The road is pretty narrow in some places while plenty wide in others. Cars are traveling fast and the narrow shoulder at the mouth of the canyon leaves little room for mistakes. We had our first flat several miles before the canyon. Flats are to be expected but they have been few and far between on our rides. I hoped this would be the case on this ride as well but we were starting off a little early.

John Monroe at the Summit. Photo by Chris Blinzinger

There is a great little “Historical Railroad” rest area just before the climb to Soldier Summit. It’s a great place to rest, refill water, eat lunch and see the old trains. Our next stop; Soldier Summit. The pass was discovered in 1776 by Franciscan Priests, but it was probably used by Native Americans for centuries. It got its name when soldiers were trapped there during a storm on their way to meet the Confederate Army. Several soldiers died and were buried up there. The climb was easy. We had the assistance of an awesome tailwind to get us up the pass. About a half mile before the summit sign we stopped for a break and pictures when a motorist pulled alongside and told us that our companion was possibly lying dead on the side of the road back behind us. They observed him tangled up in his bike on the side of the road and not moving as they passed. We were concerned but assumed he was fine. We could see him a ways back riding our way. Shortly after we parked our bikes, he pulled in. When he pulled up his hands were black and greasy. He reported that his chain had come off the cassette and wedged in between his spokes. He was trying to leverage it out with putting the feet the on the rear stays pulling with all his might. He laid in the same position to rest from exhaustion. It took a lot of pulls to get it out. That is what the motorist observed when reporting our dead partner.

We ended our day in Helper. It was a fun ride down the other side of the summit. It was sketchy in several places where we had to ride on the road in the absence of a shoulder. Big trucks were barreling past us. We made good time. In Helper we ran into a Helper Police Officer and asked for a permissible place to camp. He directed us to the park nearby advising that it would suit our needs. Within a couple minutes we found a nice, grassy, shaded park next to the creek. Grocery was within walking distance to provision. It was great, the bugs weren’t bad and we had power in the pavilion to charge our electronics. We turned in early and the sound of the running water put us quickly to sleep. John and Paul had tents and I had a tarp that I drape over my bike and sleep under it. We awoke at 2 AM to sprinklers popping up underneath us. The tents were in much better shape for dealing with the sprinklers than my set-up because it didn’t have a floor. I used every bit of strength I had to push down and hold the sprinkler that was directly under me trying to minimize the damage. My bag is in a bivy so it had protection underneath but it was still very wet. The sprinkler cycle lasted 20 minutes. It was a rude awakening but once they turned off, it was back to sleep. My tarp is homemade and I was pleased that it did keep all of the water from the outside off me. Paul’s tent was least impacted because it was out of the sprinkler zone.

Helper to Green River

We continued on to Green River the next morning. Again we enjoyed a tail wind but it was hot. This tailwind was strong enough that we rarely shifted out of the “big chain ring”. Anytime that happens on a tour is a good day. Touring in the desert requires carrying a lot of water. It’s best to drink it rather than pour on your head. We carried 9-10 liters each and at times used most of it betwixt stops. We considered wild camping next to the Green River but I was feeling a bit paranoid. John was insistent that we would be fine as soon as the sun went down. He wanted to stealth camp and me and Paul wanted a shower. After my recon ride we decided on the state park and slept on the grass and had a shower.

Green River to Moab

We pedaled out on the Old Spanish Trail (Hwy 5 & 50) toward Crescent Junction. It was a beautiful, peaceful ride and was far off from the sounds of the freeway. The landscapes were so relaxing. The road was checked and rough in places but the solace of the ride trumped the road conditions. We’ve ridden hundreds of miles of dirt road on our trips so this was normal for us. Looking back at the desert we admired the colorful display the rising sun created behind us. We rode side by side with no traffic. Those opportunities are some of my most favorite. John’s pedal had been cracking and popping since the previous day hoping to make it to Moab for a replacement. He finally stopped to investigate the worsening problem and determined that his crank bolt was coming loose. That was an easy fix. Good to go and we pedaled on.

Hwy 92 from I-70 to Moab is a sketchy ride. After stopping at Papa Joe’s Stop and Go, with a 1 star Yelp review and cold drinks we pedaled intensely to get down the road and off the highway. We stopped several times to wait for Paul but he eventually told us to not wait for him. He said he would get to Moab at his own pace. Traffic was flying by from both directions. We pedaled on anxiously looking for the Bar M Trail (bike path) 10 miles north of Moab. We had a relaxing break at the Archview RV and Resort for a bite to eat and another cold drink. When we reached the Bar M Trail, we slowed to enjoy the colorful ride all the way into Moab. What a great path. We stopped in the shade at the river’s edge to contact the VFW. John is a member because of his military service. We contacted them for directions and headed into town. It was difficult to find because the phone was so hot it wouldn’t work. We stopped at a laundry for help with directions. The owner insisted on giving us cold water. She almost held us hostage until we finished the water and then offered to drive us up the hill to the VFW. They weren’t open yet but we didn’t turn down the ride. It was hot so waited in the shade until they arrived.

Chris and John at Arches. Photo: Chris Blinzinger

When we heard from Paul he was stopped at the airport north of Moab and decided to head back to Green River and take the bus home. He had enough of the heat and traffic. He messaged us just as we arrived at the VFW. We intended to camp in the yard of the VFW. John carries a folded up piece of corrugated plastic on his pack that is used to either flatten out the ground or use as a table or under his air mattress. It also doubles as a movie screen and we propped it up against John’s bike and used his small projector to watch Hacksaw Ridge. It was a cool relaxing evening. The guys at the VFW were great hosts and good ole boys.

Moab to I-70, Exit 221 Via Dewey and Cisco

Our route up the Colorado River was cool in the shadows of the canyon and enjoyable while we were on the bike path but eventually we ended up on the road. It was a nice ride along the river. The red rocks are amazing and provide a nice view. We stopped at Dewey Bridge which is on Utah’s Historical Registry. It was the state’s longest suspension bridge until it caught fire in 2008. There is a campground there and we pumped water out of the river to top off after we let it set long enough for the sediment to settle before filtering. We had no idea what we were in for from here.

We had plenty of water, or so we thought. It was a hot day and we pedaled toward Cisco. We had no specific destination in mind but wanted to get as far as we could on this day. We are careful about managing electrolytes on our rides and were especially careful on this hot day. It was over hundred degrees and we were losing a significant amount of salt through sweating. After hours of riding in the increasing heat, we decided to look for shade to wait for cooler weather in the evening. We were a quarter mile from Cisco when we spotted our first option for shade. We parked our bikes under a couple feeble looking trees to get out of the sun. It was still hot. The sun still broke through the sparsely arranged branches so I tied up my tarp to block the sun’s encroachment. We pulled out our mattresses hoping for a cool nap, but it was still hotter than blazes.

Our water could have made a nice tea without having to heat it. John had started our trip with an insulated bottle of ice. It was nearly depleted and wanted to enhance our warm water so we tried taking a mouthful of the warm water and adding ice to provide a cool swallow. It was better than straight warm water but there was a severe shortage of the refreshing ice. We tried to nap but the heat was miserable. There were 15 passenger vans pulling raft filled trailers past our shaded spot and creating dust. There is a put-in 10 miles southeast of Cisco. I decided to take a walk into the town just to stretch my legs when one of the van drivers told me to be careful because the folks there were not fond of strangers wandering around. There was some hand painted signs on the side of buildings that confirmed that. We hung out there for 4-5 hours.

Escaping the heat. Photo by Chris Blinzinger

A breeze kicked up and clouds rolled in which cooled things down and was blowing the direction we were heading so we packed up and headed off. We could see dark clouds in the distance and hoped that it would be some welcomed rain. We made it out to I-70 and had a helluva tailwind pushing us along. Riding the freeway is easy, wide shoulders and allows a comfortable distance from traffic. We hardly had to pedal. This was short lived though. After 8 or 10 miles the wind changed 180 degrees and blew right in our face. It was crippling wind. We had been at traveling 18-20 mph with the tail wind and now we were working so hard to get 6 mph. Boy had things changed for the worse. There was no end in sight and would learn no services until Loma. We pedaled on for another hour and found a ranch exit.

During the stop in the shade we drank more than we realized. When we inventoried our water, there was a bit of panic that our supply was severely depleted. It was bad enough that we considered not using any water for our dehydrated dinner. We set up camp on the lee side of the ramp.

That was short lived as the wind changed again and blew our whole setup down. We were chasing gear and bedding as it was carried away. Luckily the fence stopped it and we gathered it up just in time for the wind to stop. Reality of our water crisis set in.

We sat there on the guard rail feeling a bit helpless. John considered writing a sign on his corrugated plastic, “Need Water”. We were both nervous about how we would make it to the next town. I posted a status on Facebook about our dire situation. A friend from work had family in Fruita and offered to send us help. It was a generous offer. As we considered our options, we heard a vehicle coming up the ramp in the distance behind us. As we turned a semi-truck had pulled half way up the ramp and parked. Didn’t think much of it at first, but then he let his dog out of the truck and we realized that he may have water.

We walked fast toward him. It was difficult not to run, we were feeling anxious. I can’t imagine what he thought seeing 2 dirty, unshaven and unshowered vagabonds walking toward him. As we approached the truck his dog barked aggressively at us. I tried to explain our situation but my voice could not be heard over the barking. The driver looked us over with an abundance of caution and I had to yell for him to hear us over the dog. He was trying to understand but still being cautious. He got the dog calmed down and we explained our plight. He looked at us as though we had a different motive; like we weren’t telling the truth. Our camp was set up on the other side of ramp and was out of his sight. We asked for some water and offered to pay him for it. This is when he took us serious and not as a threat. I think I know what Oliver Twist must have felt like. He asked about the details of our journey to vet our story and then offered us water he had for his dog and reached into the truck. He pulled out an unopened 3 liter bottle of water. He wouldn’t take any money. He called his dog and climbed in the truck. We walked back to our camp ready for dinner. We ate like kings and it felt good to drink as much water as we wanted.

Camp at I-70 Ranch Exit. Photo by John Monroe

Exit 221 on I-70 to Fruita, Colorado

We were on the road by 5:00 am the next morning. There are a lot of hills getting in to Grand Junction. We are used to them but after a hard and stress filled previous day, it was wearing on us. We were looking forward to a huge breakfast in Mack only to be reminded that it was only a ranch exit. Our next option for breakfast was Loma. Not what I would call a savory breakfast. High sugar content, preserved convenience store food. It got us enough energy to Fruita. We arrived at the campground early afternoon and were happy to relax.

Chris and John at the State Line. Photo by Chris Blinzinger
Colorado Fix-a-flat Flat. Photo by John Monroe

I was welcomed to Colorado with a flat tire. We stayed at the Monument RV park. It had a shower and plenty of water and local restaurants were close by. We enjoyed another movie night and chilled out for the evening.

Fruita to Grand Junction

Our last full day in Grand Junction we had arrangements to stay at the Grand Junction VFW. We arrived and were offered the elevated stage in the game room that the band plays on to sleep. It was next to the bar and seemed to be a great option. The folks at the VFW both in Moab and Grand Junction wanted us to keep them posted on our progress when we were close. It was nice to have them poised and ready to deploy if we had problems. That was much appreciated and it gave us a feeling of security. They fed us dinner and we enjoyed good conversation. I appreciate our military men and women who have served valiantly and who continued to serve 2 scraggly bike tourists.

Colorado National Monument Ride

We wanted to ride through the Colorado Monument the next day just for the ride. We ended up loading our bikes in JD’s truck at the VFW who offered his back yard and was closer to the National Monument so we accepted the offer. John had communicated with JD prior to our arrival and its great that he was our trusted agent. We slept out on his back patio and started off early the next morning. The Colorado Monument ride required a good climb but since we left all our gear back at JD’s, the climbs were much easier.

Overlook at Colorado National Monument. Photo by John Monroe

This is a popular ride for local cyclists. It definitely gets your heart pumping and can be completed in a an hour or two for those training for a race. For us, we slumbered up the road.We were easily passed by grey haired cyclists on the uphill while we stopped to enjoy the sights and excellent views once it flattened out.

Tunnel at the Monument. Photo by: Chris Blinzinger

Grand Junction to Salt Lake City via Amtrak

This was our last day and had to get back to catch a train home. We took advantage of the Roll-on service provided on Amtrak. My wife and I had used it on our Pacific Coast trip and you really can’t beat the convenience. The train was delayed a couple hours but we arrived back in SLC at 2 am on Sunday morning. Our wives had to pick us up. We will use it again.

This tour was much like every other one we have completed. With its highs and lows, triumphs and challenges. But in the end, it is fun, provides great campfire stories and lets us enjoy the beauty of this awesome planet.The last few days of our ride we talked about touring in a different region than the mountains and deserts of the West. We have organized a team for the RAGBRAI. That is the ride across Iowa (about 450 miles) in July. It is a lottery system so we are hoping to get in. We have a four person team registered and will know by May 1st if we got in. It’s the next WOBL adventure and I am excited for our 4 member team. There are endless options for taking a vacation on a bike.

Trip Log:

Day 1, American Fork to Provo on FrontRunner train, then Provo, UT to Helper, UT via US-6. 70 miles

Day 2, Helper, UT to Green River, UT, 70 miles

Day 3, Green River, UT to Moab, UT 52 miles

Day 4, Moab, UT to Exit 221 on I-70, 60 miles

Day 5, Exit 221 on I-70 to Fruita, CO 30 miles

Day 6 Fruita, CO to Grand Junction, CO 15 miles

Day 7 Colorado Monument ride approximately 30 miles, then Amtrak train ride back to Salt Lake.

Know before you go:

This ride requires carrying larger than normal quantities of water because of the distance between resources. It would be best to do in the Spring or Fall. We completed this ride the middle of June last year and temperatures were already over 100 degrees in the middle of the day. There is no water between Wellington and Green River, Utah. The rest area in between doesn't have water. Matrimony Spring is 1/4 mile up River Road from Moab and is a great place to top off your water. You can fill up/ top-off at the Dewey Bridge but must have a pump and let the sediment settle before pumping. Once crossing the river at bridge, 32 miles outside of Moab, the next water is nearly 100 miles away. I recommend carrying a total of 7-9 liters of water and pay close attention to electrolytes if traveling in hot weather. 3 liter bottles travel well and are easy to refill. Refill when ever you can. Sleeping out on the ground proved to be optimal for my comfort and did not encounter any critters. The Amtrak has a roll-on bike service. The cost is $20/bike and well worth it. They will not drop a bike off in an unmanned station like Provo. It must be a station where employees are present (Salt Lake). You will love the views and the adventure will provide plenty of stories to tell around your next campfire.

John Monroe is an all around cyclist. He is a cycling advocate and road safety nerd. He has a YouTube Channel called Pedal Traffic where he posts about cycling and road safety for all users.

Chris Blinzinger is an avid cyclist, commuter and tourer. He is a member of the Provo Bike Committee and advocate for active transportation. He tours with friends and family and hopes to ride back to his home state of Indiana in the near future.

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