By Brooke Larsen
I am five and my dad runs behind me as I rapidly pedal a hot pink bike that’s too big for me. We loop the Grant Village Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Towering lodgepole pines surround us and the bitter cold Yellowstone Lake glitters through campfire smoke as the sun sets. Normally my training wheels stabilize me, but today we take them off.
I walk on red rock for the first time. The rock appears slick, but below my feet it feels sticky, each particle of sand solidified to stone grips my soles.
It is Christmas morning, and in the corner of the living room I spot a pale blue, carbon-frame, skinny-tire road bike with perfectly taped drop handlebars covered in a poorly-tied red bow. The small pink circular pedals are clipless, an ironic name for pedals that you clip into. Next to the bike sits a box wrapped in snowman covered paper with a label that reads To: Brooke
I am fourteen-years-old, but my dad prefers to ignore that his oldest daughter is now a teenager. Inside the box I find the shoes I wear to clip into the clipless pedals. Snow and ice cover the ground outside, but I still strap on the shoes and push my new bike outside. My dad holds the video camera at shoulder height as he instructs how to clip in. I jump on the bike and cruise along the Foothills with the Salt Lake Valley laying as a white blanket in my peripheral vision to the west. When I return to our front yard and pull on my brakes, I forget that I’m clipped in and my body flails to the ground, bike falling with me like a new limb.
I walk up the stairs from the underground train station, and emerge into the city of Copenhagen for the first time. Cigarette smoke and my own breath against the harsh, cold air fog over my surroundings. My eyes fixate on the two-story bike racks surrounding the station. There are no parking lots for cars. Beautiful blondes dressed in all black ride by on elevated, protected bike lanes with their own traffic signals and rules. I stand in awe. In the evening my host dad finds a bike for me and shows me the route to the train station. I pedal over what seems like the one hill in all of Denmark. Coming from Utah, the hill is the least of my worries. Unlike home, though, people still bike in below zero snow storms.
I skype with Morgan Curtis, a fellow climate organizer someone connected me with because of our shared interest in storytelling as activism. In 2015, Morgan rode her bike from New England to Paris for the UN Climate Change Conference. Along her way she stopped to listen to people’s climate stories. And yes, she also took a few long boat rides. Morgan asks about my story and I think of the desert, the red rock of southern Utah, that feeling of sandstone sticking to my feet and the oil and gas wells that seem to grow exponentially along that road to the Dead Horse Point Overlook. I tell her I didn’t grow up with religion, but I grew up with trails that took me through aspen groves so dense you can’t discern one tree from another and million-year-old sandstone cliffs in hues of salmon, burnt orange, and rusted red that someone once told me make my eyes come alive. I tell her we’re killing these places.
My eyes keep blinking to wash away the dryness from staring at small lines on my MacBook screen for too long. I’m using Strava to map a route around the Colorado Plateau. Google Maps has a limit on the number of destinations one can include, so I instead use an app more useful for those trying to beat their record ride time rather than me and my slow, long bike tour. I spend at least thirty minutes trying to find the PR Spring Tar sands mine on the Tavaputs Plateau in eastern Utah. I compare the names of small BLM roads on Google Maps to what I can find on Strava. I look closely at the curvature of each road and wash until I eventually settle on a point. I have to move on. This point only represents Day 10 of 54. Mapping the rest of the route proves a bit easier because I at least have towns to guide me. I work my way down through Moab and southeastern Utah, traversing east to Durango in southwest Colorado, moving further south to northwest New Mexico, and eventually circle west across the Navajo and Hopi Reservation, reaching my southern-most point in Flagstaff before I journey north, ending in southwestern Utah. It’s far from perfect, but I have a draft route and that’s enough for today. I close my laptop and after brushing my teeth and settling in to bed, I begin reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. I cling to a line on the first page: a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.
I pick up a bike from my friend Adam who started a bike company a few months ago in Ogden called Why Cycles. I can lift the bike with one finger. He tells me on the inside of each super light, sturdy titanium frame they engrave a quote. I examine my long-term loaner and find
hidden on the inside of the frame near the real wheel
“IT ALWAYS SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE UNTIL IT IS DONE.”–NELSON MANDELA
My grandparents drive me and my friend Kailey from Salt Lake to eastern Utah’s historic coal mining towns so I can avoid biking through the endless suburbs of the Wasatch Front. For the past month my grandma has broken down in sobs every time she thinks about me biking 1,500 miles in the rural Southwest. During the drive, she distracted herself by recounting memories of camping trips in southern Utah when I was small enough to comfortably sit between my grandparents on the front-row bench seat. “Brookie has always been our little adventurer,” my grandma said. I tried not to roll my eyes. Kailey bellowed her contagious laugh. She would join me for the first two weeks of my ride, helping settle any nerves with her humor. As we approach Price and the surrounding historic coal towns, a billboard advertises Utah’s tallest coal miner. From the backseat of my grandpa’s old tan and white Ford pick-up, I stare at the image of the giant coal-black statue. I imagine transforming the figure into the largest environmentalist, painting it green, crowning it with flowers, and placing a Keep it in the Ground sign in one hand and seeds in the other. I’m not going to Carbon County to engage in direct action, though. I’m going to listen.
My friend Kailey and I bike .1 miles and stop. My bike feels wobbly and I think something is wrong but really I just need to get used to riding while fully loaded with gear. We bike another .2 miles and stop again. We see the Utah Department of Natural Resources and think they may have the map we need for our ride through Nine Mile Canyon the next day and our adventure through the Tavaputs Plateau next week. They don’t, so we keep biking and eventually reach a big yellow sign that says “ELECTRIC CATTLE GUARD: PEDESTRIANS AND THOSE WITH ANIMALS USE THIS GATE.” Fearing that the rubber on our bike tires may not be quite as good of an insulator as car tires, we hop off our bike and steer through the pedestrian gate (a couple weeks later I will stop doing this and just stay on the bike). At the north edge of Price, we get on Route 6 heading north towards the historic coal mining town of Helper. A mile later, we exit the highway and weave through neighborhood streets, past yard signs that read “Proud Union Home.” A dog runs towards us and Kailey nervously tells me to get off my bike. I stop, and the dog slows its run and greets us with a wagging tail and friendly kisses. After giving it a few good pets, we jump back on our bikes and continue our 6.5-mile bike ride from Price to Helper—the first ride of my tour and by far the shortest. The dog follows, running with us for at least a mile as we pedal through the south edge of Helper. “Do you think it will find its way back home?” I ask.
We bike three miles between Roosevelt and Vernal, and Kailey asks me how many oil rigs I’ve counted. Thirteen, I say. Counting starts out as aa game, a distraction from our burning thighs and sunbaked arms. After so long though, the game turns into hysteria. The machinery shows up as pawns on the checkerboard of Ute land, state land, and private land most likely owned by descendants of Mormon settlers. The rigs blend into the politics but stand out against the snowcapped Uinta Mountains rising in the background. I stop thinking about the disturbance on the land today, and instead the climate projections for this region run through my head on repeat. 99% chance of megadrought. As early as 2050. 20% of the Colorado River will dry up. 3.2- million-acre shortfall of water. 99% chance of megadrought. Unless we keep all remaining fossil fuels in the fucking ground.
We pedal uphill all day. We are in a desert of double desecration. The earth is barren from historic overgrazing. There’s frack pad on frack pad on frack pad. The air smells of tailing ponds and the suite of chemicals flared with odorless methane. The pavement ends right as we approach the biggest monstrosity yet—the PR Spring tar sands mine. Fences decorated in no trespassing signs line the side of the road and giant black piles of stolen land sit alongside scraped earth. So far, U.S. Oil Sands has failed to prove the economic viability of the mine. As I bike past I raise my middle finger, a pathetic expression of my rage.
It is 100 degrees today, and I reach a town in northwest New Mexico corrupted with hopes that the oil and gas boom will never bust. I pull over in the grocery store parking lot where I’m meeting a rancher who is driving me to his land that has been overtaken by wells. I go inside the grocery store to splash my face with cold water and see the worst sign ever: “Attention Customers: We are sorry but there is no cold water going to the sinks so if you wash your hands be very careful it is very hot water. Thank you, Safeway Management.” Everything is very hot.
Today I bike alone. No support vehicle. No friend. 106 degrees. 80 miles. Zero shade. When I reach the sole gas station in the middle of my ride between Flagstaff and Tuba City, I fill one water bottle up with ice. Why didn’t I put ice in all four? I buy a shitty piece of pizza that probably would taste half as good if I hadn’t just biked 40 miles. I sit against the wall of the gas station and a middle-aged man comes over to talk to me. It’s always the middle-aged men. He asks what I’m doing and tells me he and his wife are going mountain biking in Flagstaff, gesturing to the bikes strapped to the back of his car. He tells me he always wanted to do a bike tour. Afterwards I think either the pathetic sight of me gave him confidence to go on a tour or showed him how seemingly un-fun it could be. I eat the shitty pizza and then get back on the bike. I turn towards Tuba City and still have ten more miles to go. It’s all uphill. My water bottle I filled up with ice a few miles back already tastes hot. I pour some of the water on my hand to test if I’m tasting it correctly. It feels like I scooped it out of a hot tub. I want to sit down to rest, but when I sit down, the ground burns. I take a deep breath. I can’t mentally lose it. Just ten more miles and I can pour ice all over me. I just think of the ice. Five miles later I’m barely inching my way up the hill. A man driving in the opposite direction pulls over on the side of the road and yells across, “Are you OK?” I wave and say yeah, even though I feel like I might fall over any second. I keep pedaling and the man drives away. A couple minutes later the same man drives next to me and is more direct this time, “Do you want a ride to Tuba City?” Yes, yes I do. I throw my bike in the back of his truck. I open the passenger door and am greeted by three huskies laying across the backseat. He tells me he used to be a professor at Northern Arizona University but now lives in Crestone, Colorado. He’s a musician and he gives me his card. I think he’s really some kind of miracle.
My stepmom, Sam, bikes with me from Page, Arizona to Kanab, Utah as my friend Mason follows us in a support vehicle with a cooler full of ice. The ride is long, and yes, hot, but we stop every ten miles to dump a large Nalgene of ice water on our heads. On the big climb of the day we pass a yellow diamond-shaped sign that reads “Icy Roads.” I laugh, and as I look down, I notice speckles of salt on my arms, remnants of sweat that instantly evaporates off my body. We eventually make it to Kanab, and I go into a 7-11 to get a cold drink. Sam is already in line but has nothing in hand. “I’m getting four bags of ice,” she says. After grabbing the ice from the cooler outside, she rips open the bags, pours two of them on the sidewalk, orders me to sit on the ice, and pours another bag on top of me. We sit on the ice sipping slurpees, and I think how I’ve never been more grateful to be cold.
My family and friends join me to celebrate my last ride. I and three friends leave Boulder, Utah at 6 a.m. with my grandpa driving a support vehicle full of boxed wine and champagne bottles. Devin and I speed up Boulder Mountain in a time that surprises him. I on the other hand have gotten pretty masterful at knowing exactly how long a ride will take me. We wait for Kailey and Eric near the summit that overlooks Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the water pocket fold of Capitol Reef National Park. We continue on the last few miles to the summit. The only better feeling than passing those summit signs is flying on the descent. Devin says we reach 50 mph at one point. I used to fear going so fast, the first week only letting myself get to around 30 mph, but by week two I began avoiding pressing on my brakes at all costs. Earlier that day my mom had told us to meet them in the parking lot of the gas station as we enter Torrey. We arrive, but I don’t see my family anywhere. I call my mom and she tells me they’re in line buying sandwiches at Subway. I end my 1,500-mile bike tour around the Colorado Plateau at Subway.
I go to Rio Mesa to write. Rio Mesa may be the most special place in the world. A research centered donated to the University of Utah, it sits along the Dolores River just east of Moab and Castle Valley. Giant sandstone cliffs hug the little village of canvas tents, research cabins, and writer shacks. A black bear roams the surrounding canyons, coming down to drink from the cold Dolores. I go to write, to be alone, to reflect on the past two months. But it’s so fucking hot and I realize that sitting and writing in the heat may actually be a lot more difficult than biking in the heat. The deer flies attack me every time I try to go on a walk. I feel like the desert is telling me she’s had enough of me, go home. I wander outside the gate of Rio Mesa and find some shade near a rock that looks exactly like a vagina. Cracks in the rock form the labia and grasses shoot out at the top of the folds. I step on crypto to reach the rock. I sit on the bumpy, white-grey-pink surface. No flies bite me. I sit there and stare at the blush, salmon, and burnt orange cliffs towering over my head. A lizard the size of my palm appears next to me. She stares at me and I stare back. It sits there staring for what seems like forever but in reality was probably only 30 seconds. But for the first time in a long time everything feels still.