For four years my friend Sam Rushforth and I wrote a column for Catalyst Magazine called Wild Rides, Wildflowers, Biking and Botanizing the Great Western Trail. We kept riding after we quit writing; but the riding finally came to an end with a crash. The photo of Sam's collapsed wheel and the hat he was wearing that day stands in my mind for rides over more than a decade.
Now I'm working to distill a book out of the 110,000 words we ultimately wrote. Here's a piece:
Lumpers and Splitters
26 February 1999, Mt. Timpanogos, Utah Valley
On the foothills of Mount Timpanogos, in February, it’s rare to find a dry trail. This winter, however, has been sudden, short, and moody and the jeep road at the mouth of Provo Canyon, climbing through dormant cliff rose and sage, skirting cliffs of muscular blue limestone, is passable today. Unfortunately, after three months of freezing and thawing the switchbacking trail is as soft as our bellies. Tough going for the first ride of the year.
Where the trail finally levels off, Sam drops his black carbon-fiber Trek to the ground and leans over to hide the fact that he’s sucking air. Even in extremis, he can’t take his eyes off the view. Utah Lake’s slate-grey waters slice the valley from north to south. The Oquirrh and Lake Mountains form the western horizon. Santaquin Peak and Mount Nebo dominate the southern end of the valley. Cascade Mountain is a massive snowy presence to the southeast. Provo Canyon cuts abruptly through the folded limestone to the east. And directly, even abruptly above us rise the snow-covered escarpments of Mount Timpanogos, 11,749-feet high at the peak.
I lay down my red Specialized Stumpjumper M2, a bike much heavier than Sam’s (as I point out often), and take in the view myself.
“Damn!” Sam exclaims.
“Damn!” I cough.
A flock of mountain bluebirds (Sialia currucoides), their color an exact match of the brilliant sky, bursts out of the sage. The birds call to one another as they sweep across the gibbous moon that hangs heavy over the canyon.
“Gibbous,” Sam notes, “means swollen or humped.”
“Etymology from a botanist! No small feat,” I note.
“Up yours,” Sam replies.
Overlooking the final hills above the City of Orem’s last orchard, we first hear and then see a motorcycle and a four-wheeler screaming across the rocky terrain. Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) break in waves before the maniacs, retreating, splitting into smaller groups, rejoining, bouncing up hills, breaking through oakbrush. Maybe two hundred of the animals.
“You bastards!” Sam yells, and speeds down the hill toward them. I join the breakneck descent, ready to protect Sam or the maniacs, whoever needs it most. The infernal combustionists see us coming and disappear around a switchback. On the flat, the two big man-boys (Homo erectus, obviously not yet Homo sapiens) have stopped to wait for us.
“What the hell are you doing?” I shout, getting in the first word.
“It’s a misdemeanor to harass wildlife,” Sam bellows, “I’ll have you sons of bitches hauled into court.”
“We weren’t hurting them,” the four-wheeled maniac says flatly.
“The hell you weren’t,” Sam blusters. “It’s the end of the winter and they’re in poor shape. You’ll kill them.”
The steely eyes of the motorcycle rider reveal only disdain. His bike spits dirt as he leaves us standing. His buddy follows, blatting a foul exhaust.
We head home through an apple orchard, then cross busy 8th North into the Orem neighborhood where we both live. “Those boys will find it hard to discount our well reasoned arguments,” Sam deadpans.
2 March 1999, Mt. Timpanogos
Sam has a rough ride up the steep track near the mouth of the canyon. In the early going he falls twice, both times into oakbrush (Quercus gambelli) that embraces him with a brittle crackling. At the top, mounting his bike after standing for a while on yellow winter-matted grass to admire the view, he falls again. “That ties our record,” I tell him, “three falls in a single ride. But neither of us has ever done it in a hundred yards before.”
I point to tiny green tips of new grass that have been drawn out of the earth by lengthening days and new angles of sunlight. “Harbingers of spring.”
“Harbingers my ass,” Sam mocks. “Who talks like that? You’ve spent too much of your life in 18th-century Germany. This ‘new’ green grass has been here since mid-fall, waiting under the snow for an early start, aiming to bear seed before the heat and dryness of summer.”
6 March 1999, Great Western Trail, Mt. Timpanogos
Today we ride along the Provo River into the canyon, turn up a dirt road that leads to a snaky green aqueduct, and then follow the pipe to where a single-track trail bisects the road. Erosion this winter has left the trail narrower than ever, but this section of the Great Western, an ambitious trail projected to reach from Canada to Mexico, widens some as it makes a double dog-leg up over a bed of what we call shale but that is really quartzite. If you’re still on your bike when you reach these loose rocks you have lost much of your momentum and your legs and lungs are burning but since you have made it this far you power your way up onto the rocks feeling for that tricky point beyond which your efforts will make your back wheel spin out, fight for balance, dodge the larger rocks, and finally, the bike gods willing, you make the sudden steep climb up from the quartzite onto the gentler trail that skirts the hill until it can swing away from the precipitous edge into a beautiful little bowl of grass bordered by scrub oak.
“Johnson’s Hollow,” Sam says. It’s easier for me to nod than to use my lungs for speech. Notch one up for him.
8 March 1999, Great Western Trail, Mt. Timpanogos
Yesterday’s rain and snow are long gone by the time we reach the trail late on this Monday afternoon. A new storm is blowing in from the south. Streaks of rain shroud Mt. Nebo. Utah Lake is a troubled slate. Far to the south the sun breaks through to spotlight the valley floor.
“Did you see the Zigadenus paniculatus?” Sam asks.
“Huh?” I respond.
“Death camus, in the middle of the trail.”
I had missed it, but alerted to the possibility I spy a second one thrusting its sharp leaves up through the loose dirt of the trail.
“Zigadenus,” Sam says, “is in the family Liliaceae, the lilies. Most of the members of this family are non‑toxic and several are edible—onions and garlic for example.”
“Why ‘death camus’” I ask.
“The generic name,” Sam explains, “refers to the active agent, an alkaloid called zygadenine that makes this the second most poisonous plant in the west, after hemlock. It causes a quickening and irregularity of the heartbeat, slows respiration, and brings on convulsions. Because it is one of the first plants to appear in the spring, livestock sometimes eat it. Lois Arnow, author of Flora of the Central Wasatch Front, says sheep are the only animals she knows of that are routinely poisoned by Zigadenus. That makes this a fine selective sheepicide.”
Sam gestures at the gully-slotted hillside: “Greys, browns, and yellows. Colors that match my mood over the last month.”
12 March 1999, Great Western Trail, Mt. Timpanogos
Bright sun this afternoon, but still too chilly for the shorts we both wear.
A shiny black deposit on a rock in the trail proves to be relatively fresh fox scat (Vulpes fulva). “A touch of diarrhea,” I observe.
“Here’s a set of paw prints.” Sam points to small, rounded depressions in yesterday’s mud. Around the corner we pass the scat of a more regular fox, a tight twist of black tobacco, also deposited conspicuously on a rock. Two years ago we surprised a pair of red foxes dancing circles, rising on two legs to paw at one another. A few weeks later we looked down on a golden-brown fox backlit by a brilliant sunset, lighter hair marking a cross down the length of its back and across its shoulders. And that fall we stood and watched the same cross-phase fox trot slowly away, watching us constantly as it traversed a draw and bounded up a hill. At the top it sat back on its haunches and watched us pass.
Since then, over the course of more than a hundred rides, we have seen many signs of foxes, but no actual foxes. Scat and tracks have had to serve, as do all signs, as the presence of an absence. We have come to relish the indirect, mediated relationship, to respect the intimate distance. Whenever we top a rise from which we have seen foxes in the past, our eyes scan the landscape hopefully. And when no fox appears we breathe a sigh of relief.
It’s complicated, but maybe we’re relieved because we recognize ourselves as forerunners (foreriders) of the human wave encroaching on Utah’s wild places. If the foxes can slip our sight they will be better off. Grass is beginning to fill openings between the oakbrush. Shoots of death camus dot the meadow, a few of them cropped by browsing deer, we surmise, although that perplexes us. I try to dig up a bulb.
“Careful,” Sam warns.
It’s a double warning. There is the poison, of course. But he is sensitive as well to intrusion, to human hubris in the face of nature. I’ve heard him argue that we would have a better world if we accorded legal standing to trees. Last summer when I plucked a blooming stalk of hound’s tongue to take home to draw, Sam couldn’t suppress an “awwww!”
The leaves of the death camus rise a couple of inches from the ground. I dig for more than four inches and still don’t reach the bulb. When I pull on the plant, it breaks off.
“The bulbs will be deep,” Sam explains, “maybe a foot down.”
I wipe my fingers carefully on my sweatshirt.
“Look at this little umbel,” Sam says. “The yellow buds in the center are already open.”
The inconspicuous plant hugs the ground, the yellow mass of tiny flowers surrounded by almost fern-like green leaves, streaks of purple along the triply forked stems. “Maybe a carrot,” Sam surmises, “or a parsnip. Some sort of umbel.” The first flowers on the foothills of Mt. Timpanogos in 1999. It feels good to have witnessed this.
Dear Editor, I can’t believe you let Sam and Scott misspell camas (‘death camus’) numerous times. It wrecks their credibility and yours. The column they write is interesting to me. People are trying to extend the Great Western Trail in Cache County, and I worry about Terry Tempest Williams’ “bikers lycra siticus” – people who zip by the botanical beauty without seeing it. Now I know some see it, but I hope they do their homework next time before they write it in the paper. Star Coulbrooke of Smithfield, Utah
“Abbott, what happened? You misspelled the word in the first draft, and I corrected it. How the hell did it end up back at the French existentialist?”
“Sam, I saw your correction when I was going through the final draft, but I changed it back. Must have been a subconscious indication of how I view your intelligence, or maybe the death part of the name triggered the existential part of my brain.”
“Brain?” Sam asks.