Devil’s Backbone Road
I struggled to park in the dirt lot at Hell’s Backbone Grill, Boulder, Utah. The spaces here sloped down and away, loose gravel canting down at odd angles to a railroad tie perimeter making it difficult for me to let my bike down onto its side stand. It would have toppled onto me here if I tried to lower the stand down onto the uneven, low ground. Given the weight and height of my bike and the length of my legs – my legs are long, but my GS is very tall for off-road clearance over rocks and branches – these kinds of maneuvers have always been tough for me.
As I wrestled with my bike and tried to back it uphill, my tiptoes slipping on the loose gravel, a tall blonde woman expertly commanded her loud, gigantic, shiny metallic cobalt blue Harley into the spot next to me. Next to her ferocious iron horse, my 650 looked a small, dirty, gentle pony.
She dismounted and towered over me. Everything about her spoke of hard-earned experience: her stately carriage, her deliberate gestures, the lines at her eyes, her well-muscled body, the extra pounds around her middle. Even the bandana around the wrinkled skin of her neck was purposefully positioned for show and a modicum of protection from the elements.
She must have been 60 or so and probably six feet tall. She wore blue eye shadow and dark, menacing eyeliner. Her tall, high-heeled leather boots came up over her fashionable, strategically ripped jeans to her thighs. She wore a black leather vest over a form-fitting white t-shirt. Her long braid was tied back in a leather sheath bound by leather cords. Curtains of well-groomed fringe draped from the elbows and shoulders of her black leather jacket.
Her Harley was similarly adorned: fringed, black leather saddlebags and black leather fringe dangling from the handgrips, which incongruously made me think of the fringed handlebars of the banana-seat bicycle I rode in third grade. Despite the handlebar fringe, her big Harley had a predacious look about it; she was definitely its master. I felt small and weak next to these two. The third grader in me prayed I wasn’t their prey.
She silently glanced at me sideways as if I was a bug squashed on her windscreen. Like Eastwood’s character in the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, she turned her back on me and slowly adjusted the straps of her saddlebag. Her gaze was every bit as intense as Clint Eastwood’s in that movie. After a while, she glimpsed my license plate and softened her posturing a little; it was obvious that I’d ridden further than she had on this particular journey.
“Getting’ blown all over the road on that little thing, are ya? We had a guy once riding with us who was blown so bad in the wind, bouncing all over the place, I thought he’d eat it.”
I nodded and meekly smiled back at her wondering to myself, “Is my utter lack of experience so visible?” Any sense I had of the great accomplishment it was for me to get this far wilted and withered under her gaze. We had ridden more than 2,500 miles to this particular destination, and yet I felt like a punk-ass tenderfoot.
It gradually occurred to me, though, that I could learn something from her. She was a potential guru and not necessarily my antagonist. I lifted my eyebrows and waited. Trying not to look like an abused attention-starved puppy. As she sauntered over, I trembled imagining I heard spurs jingling in the dust and hoping her gun wasn’t loaded. Her gaze registered my not-leather armor, my dusty little bike, my brightly colored waterproof gear, and me.
“You’ve been out a while,” she observed. I nodded. She moved closer. I held my breath and tried not to wiggle or shy away. She came closer still and leaned in. Conspiratorially she confided, “You’ve got to just let the wind blow through you. Just be easy. Soften your arms, hollow your chest, get low in your saddle, and be easy. Let the wind blow through you, like you’re a part of it. Just be easy about it and you’ll keep the rubber on the road.” She nodded sagely, walked slowly back to her big blue bike, then headed into the café.
I’d soon test her theory on the Devil’s Backbone Road (Utah Highway 12). This is a road we’d been hearing of for days. (One woman said it was the most terrifying road she’d ever been on—and she was in a car!) It is called the Devil’s Backbone because it is a naked spine of a high road with a 10-12% grade from which everything has fallen away but the wind. On each side of the narrow road, the land plunges into deep canyons. The devil in this case is some kind of Dimetrodon, that hostile dinosaur with the sail on its back. We rode along its spine, trying to avoid its croc-like teeth.
Devil’s Backbone Road passes between two wilderness areas. From its spine, you can see Box-Death Hollow Canyon Wilderness to the northwest and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the southeast. (A box canyon is a narrow canyon with a flat bottom and steep, vertical walls.) Death Hollow gets its name from the great number of livestock that plunged to death trying to cross the canyon. I will not plunge, I told myself again and again.
The road sign warned: Steep Grades, Sharp Curves 25 MPH. This was the road in front of us. The only road. My options were to go with gusto or turn back. I’d not let my son down. We’d come this far. The fear of the indignity I’d suffer if I turned back was greater than my fear of being swept off the back of the wind-blown Dimetrodon. And besides, the Kid was amped to ride the dinosaur. I had to muster.
I let my weight sink into my seat; I rounded my back, hollowed out my chest, softened my arms, and tried to let myself be easy. I tiptoed gingerly around the sharp curves, but on the straightaways, inspired by my fringed guru, I hunkered down, hollowed out my chest, softened my arms, and howled into the hot wind. It worked! I felt my center of gravity lower just a little bit; it gave me more connection with the road below me! Thrilled at this epiphany, I raged and postured and gestured like a real badass, flipping off the Devil. My false bravado gradually morphed into something just south of delight. Go ahead, Devil, make my day.