Leaving Cortez - The luxuries of getting away from the city by Jill Homer

One of the most difficult aspects of bicycle touring in the rural southwest is the way slow travel spaces points of civilization so far apart. Every service station becomes a necessity rather than a luxury - if you miss one, the next could be more than a day’s travel away. It almost echoes the sentiment of the exhausted pony express rider in the 1860’s, galloping into a remote mail station after a full day of riding only to have dirty, well-drawn water and a thin blanket awaiting his arrival. Their journal entries show how they relished in these barren conditions, if only because it beat the weary road. Day 7 of our 14-day, 600-mile trip through Southern Utah and Colorado brought us to the only distinguishable “city” we would pass through during our entire trip - Cortez, Colorado. A week through the rugged and rural San Juan mountains had nearly exhausted most of our resources, so with the destination came the unavoidable chores of shopping, buying supplies, and filling up water for the long stretch of desert ahead.

The entire morning had brought us mostly downhill, away from the San Juan mountains and the beautiful Dolores River valley. The motion of traveling downhill had become so fluid that we scarcely glanced off to the side as we flew through the busy streets of Cortez. We stopped at a large supermarket for food and supplies, and decided to get water and lunch on our way out of town. We passed a dilapidated downtown area and several uninviting chain restaurants before the rows of buildings started to stagger away from the highway, and we realized we had already passed city limits.

“Should we go back?” I asked Geoff.

“No,” he said. “There’s got to be at least a gas station on the edge of town.”

And there we were, headed out into the reservation and the desert. It would be at least two full days before we’d reach the next town we were sure existed, at least two full days before we’d ever see another gas station or any type of business, at least two full days before we’d have any chance of getting water, and there we were, bicycling away from the last signs of civilization.

We reached the edge of a long downward slope toward the open desert below, marked by two tiny truck stops. Geoff indicated we should go to the furthest one, because of pizza symbol on the sign. We were starving. But more importantly, we needed to get water for the next 48 hours. I parked outside and tore open all of my panniers.

One by one, I pulled out an assortment of empty bottles I had collected over my travels - Nalgenes, 32-ounce gatorade bottles, spring water bottles, tall bottles, short bottles, fat bottles, and finally, my 100-ounce camelback pouch. Inside the gas station was a single bathroom with a tiny sink. I twisted and angled the bottles in every direction, to no avail. Nothing fit underneath that dingy faucet.

I gathered up my assortment and walked outside. “I’m going back to that last gas station,” I announced, and left Geoff sitting in the parking lot.

In quiet defiance, I rode the two and a half blocks back to the Chevron on the wrong side of the road, facing traffic. The blur of vehicles rushing by almost seemed to brush my open panniers, but I didn’t care. The extra effort to cross the street just wasn’t worth it.

I walked into the second-to-last gas station in town with nine water bottles pressed beneath both arms. I bee-lined to the bathroom, again a tiny service closet with a toilet and a cracked sink so small I could barely fit my hands, let alone nine bottles, beneath the nozzle. My groans echoed off a maze of pipes that ran above the nonexistent ceiling.

Head pounding, frustration coagulating in my stomach, I gathered up my bottles and the last few ounces of my dignity, walked to the drink coolers and grabbed two gallon-sized jugs of spring water. “Just these,” I told the clerk, and handed her three dollars.

And with that, we set out into the desert, the sagebrush and sand universe of the reservation, precious water safely tucked inside our panniers, without a glance back at civilization’s shadow. I left the gas station angry at the world, at the tedious chore of surviving, of having to gather and carry resources where none exist. I pedaled away from Cortez as if the city were reaching out to pull me back in, afraid that it might. I had no desire to go back to the city. But the unknown desolation ahead had to be worse.

Oddly enough, with each furious pedal stroke I found myself becoming more and more relaxed. The dimming light of sunset unleased a blaze of lights behind me, and it felt good to move away from them. The landscape ahead was dark and unfocused, fading into two-dimensional black shapes against the muted orange sky.

“It feels good to get away from there,” Geoff said. And it did. But it didn’t make sense. All week I had been looking forward to the supermarkets and Pizza Huts and running water electrified convenience of the city, only to find myself feeling better about getting away. All I had to look forward to now was a simple dinner of spaghetti and canned sauce and sleep beneath the clear, star-drenched sky.

Funny how a bicycle can so easily, so completely draw time and space backwards. My panniers sagged from the weight of food and water I was forced to carry, but at that moment I would have happily doubled the weight if it meant another two days away from the city, into the sweet, simple luxury of the open road.

Note: This article is part of a series chronicling a two-week, 600-mile loop on bicycle around Moab, Utah.


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