Above my hometown beside the Colorado River, lies a beautiful trail with a history dark and true. The Portal Trail climbs nearly 1,000 feet, starting riverside and ending atop Poison Spider Mesa. From the alluvial plain, hikers and bikers ascend a layer of exposed sandstone, rising sharply with the syncline. Two-thirds of the way up, the adventurer gains a vista of the cockeyed Moab Valley, the La Sal Mountains, and Arches National Park where unlikely stone windows rest on the horizon like giant spectacles.
Cowboys once pushed cattle up the narrow Portal Trail to graze spring growth on the mesa-tops. According to a historian friend of mine, the ranchers ultimately lost too many head to the three hundred-foot cliffs. The herd would bottleneck. The cows would goggle at the dangerous footing, crowd, and finally surge forward to stumble over exposed ledges. Always a handful plummeted to the talus below. Unable to justify the cost, ranchers abandoned the trail to lizards, golden eagles, and rabbits. It lay fallow and lonely for years, except for the odd hiker and perhaps the ghosts of cows waiting for a herd that never returned.
Adventure sports and the outdoor industry revived Moab’s economy in the 1980s and 90s. Rafting, rock climbing, jeeping, and most importantly, mountain biking, became the lifeblood of the region. Mountain bike rental shops proliferated. Canyoneering guides vied for clients in the busy spring and fall seasons. And abandoned trails became popular once more.
It’s called the Portal because the Colorado River enters a narrow fissure in an otherwise unbroken wall of stone seven hundred feet high and seven miles long. 18,000 cubic feet per second of Colorado River enters as if running through a door. This gateway straddles the sky above Moab, cradling sunsets in its hard saddle.
Bikers popularized the old cattle route down from the mesa. It is a challenging singletrack trail (video) some call easy, others term impossible, and all agree is dangerous. David Crowell’s Mountain Bike Guide to Moab says, “The icing on the cake is the Portal Trail, which is a technical and mental challenge. Some difficult moves occur where there is no room for error. Fall here, and you won’t land for another 400 feet… If you have any doubt (sense?), carry your bike over this rock. The move itself wouldn’t be too bad if it weren’t for the 400-foot bunny hop on the outside. Even the best full suspension won’t soften that landing.”
I hike the Portal Trail half a dozen times every year. Last fall, I approached a dangerous spot on foot only to find one of those murderous, sloping rocks broken apart. Fragments lay about the base of the signpost as if chipped off piece by piece with a pickaxe and sledgehammer. Somebody had blisters her hands destroying this obstacle.
The following month, I found flowers in the trail margin.
This obliterated rock and these flowers were powerful reminders that adventure sports, though consuming and important (as discussed in a previous post), sometimes have consequences, often lasting for those left behind. A daughter or son, a widow or widower, mother or father – they come up here, what, every year? Every season? Every week? They come up to one of the most stunning views within a few miles of Moab to grieve. The juxtaposition of beauty and loss haunt me.
I believe we ride bikes and climb cliffs and raft rivers to be closer to the unknown, to dangle our toes over the edge of control, and in doing so, fill ourselves up. We aren’t certain what will come next, and this allows the natural world to act on us in meaningful – and yes, dangerous – ways. We balance and strive, and sometimes we make mistakes. Encapsulated in each adventure is the story of a human life:
Yet when things go wrong for a mountain biker egged on by his friends or a climber too impatient to replace tatty webbing, the laws of motion and gravity await. Though natural laws hold this world together, they are cold comfort to the woman whose heart doesn’t fill up quite so easily anymore, to the child wondering if his mother would have loved him.
I don’t think there’s anything to be done except look around at this amazing, beautiful world and wonder what’s going to happen next. Our toes are really never far from that precipice, whether on a bicycle or in a car.
So fill me up, mountain biking. Top me off, cliffs and rivers. Let me find that place of balance, for the only antidote to haunting is to live, live, live.