Five Lessons from the Slickrock Trail

Dry Camping in Castle Valley

The weekend before Pedro’s series of unfortunate events that resulted in a trip to the trauma room and a two-hour surgery to repair his shattered clavicle, we had an epic Memorial Day weekend in Moab, UT.

It all started when one of our students—I’ll call him Rodrigo—ran away from school about a week before the end of the school year. When we finally located him, he confessed to Pedro that the pressures of relationships, worries about family, and insecurities about what would happen over the summer had piled up in his mind like a thundercloud and rather than burst in an unhealthy way—he just took off running.

At lunch the next day, Pedro came up to me and quietly said, “I should have talked to you first, but I invited Rodrigo along on our camping trip to Moab next weekend. I told him he could bring a friend who likes mountain biking along with him.”

I nodded. “No problem.” I grew up in a household where my parent’s breathed hospitality—and so Pedro’s random invitations have never bothered me—it’s just what we do and who we are.

Taking two teenage boys along on a camping trip would be a first, though, and I confess I felt a little insecure—not only do I have zero experience feeding two teenage boys for more than a meal at a time, I knew I’d be the weakest link on our bike rides. What I learned surprised me.

We left campus by eight thirty on Friday morning and headed north to pick up Rodrigo’s friend, Alex. By the time we pulled into Moab six hours later, I realized that we should have left earlier, because our target campsite had a “Campground Full” sign out front. We grabbed a BLM map and headed up the canyon along the Colorado River looking for an available campground.

Sixteen miles and eight campgrounds later, I had started to feel a little like Mary and Joseph searching for an inn in Bethlehem. Eventually, we found an area with could set up a dry camp in Castle Valley. By the time we finished supper, sheets of rain danced across the lightening split sky and we all decided that we might as well head to bed.

After discovering the next morning how much boys eat for breakfast (more than I expected), we loaded the bikes up and drove to the Slickrock Trailhead. The trail travels 9.7 miles over, well, rock—a giant Navajo sandstone formation that sprawls over BLM land on the outskirts of Moab.

Despite the low-hanging clouds, the parking look had almost filled by 10 in the morning when we started out. Pedro and the boys were in mountain-biking heaven. Me, well, I was in a quiet sort of heaven surrounded by a healthy amount of trepidation.

In situations where someone else takes the lead, I contentedly follow along at the back of the pack and make all of my mistakes in private (I prefer it this way when mountain biking). The advantages of riding at the back of the pack include having time to think and contemplate whilst waiting for others to make their moves. Here’s what I learned along the way.

1. Everyone has a different style of using a guidebook. We had a guidebook. That’s how we made it to the trailhead. I read it over before hand, and knew that the trail was both strenuous and challenging and it’s exact length. What I didn’t have was a precise way to track the mileage, so I could never tell if the precipice in front of me was ‘The Abyss” or just a really steep rock. My knowledge of the guidebook did come in handy when we had to decide whether to do the loop clockwise (easier) or counter-clockwise (harder). We have a guidebook for life, too. I’ve read it through a time or two, and I tend to go back to certain sections over and over again when I need comfort or direction. Other trail newbies had their guide out constantly, and that’s ok, too. The important part? No one gets lost.

Follow the white lines
2. Keep your eyes on the lines. I’ve never ridden on a trail that’s marked by a dashed white line over miles and miles of rock (with the occasional sand trap). It’s disorientating. But as long as I kept my eyes on the lines, I knew I wouldn’t get lost and I wouldn’t accidently ride over a cliff (I’m not joking. The trail goes pretty close to some giant drop offs). At one point, the white lines led across the face of a rock with a decent slant to it. I made the mistake of looking down and to the left and almost wet my pants when I saw that nothing stood between me and the tree tops hundreds of feet below. Putting my feet down at this point didn’t feel like an option, because I didn’t want to upset my balance and slide over the edge. I snapped my eyes to the white lines again and made it across.

3. Cheering other people on gives me a chance to rest. When I make it to the top of a steep climb, I can hurry on, or celebrate by cheering someone else as they climb. Cheering gives me a chance to catch my own breath and soak in the solidarity of conquering (whether by pushing my bike up or ‘cleaning it’) a giant obstacle. Maybe I don’t do enough of this in ‘real’ life.

Cheering other people on gives me a chance to rest. #TellHisStory Click To Tweet

4. I can’t let someone else’s skill level intimidate me. At one point (we may have been headed back down into The Abyss), I approached the lip of a canyon descent and paused for a moment to enjoy the view. Another biker bounced past me and did a cute flippy trick with his back tire (he put on the front brake and flipped the back wheel into a better starting position) before zooming away down the hill. I decided that my skill set probably didn’t include riding down this particular section and I’d better walk my bike do. Bad move. My shoes aren’t constructed the same way as a mountain bike tire, and I ended up slipping and sliding and almost falling. I would have had an easier time descending using my usual method—hanging my backside off over the bike, using my brakes to prevent high speeds and taking it slowly.

rain keeps things interesting5. Rain makes the trail more interesting. At one point, the rain turned to sleet—but that didn’t matter because when riding a strenuous trail, one gets pretty hot. We welcomed the clouds and the moisture because it kept us from overheating.

I learned in my first ‘outdoor school’ experience of the summer that those biking lessons apply to my spiritual life as well. I need to keep my guidebook handy—but I should never look down on someone else’s walk. I need to fix my eyes of Jesus—especially during the times that terrify me. If I spend more time cheering others on, I’ll feel more rested. I need to have faith that God will help me through the difficult times and not feel intimidated by how much better I think other, more experienced Christians might handle a trial. And most of all, the most memorable journeys aren’t the ones where nothing goes wrong. Rain and trials and hand times increase our trust in the One who leads us.

What have you learned in ‘outdoor school’ this summer?