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Singletrack Frame of Mind: Finding Freedom through Constraints

April 2023

The first signs of spring in the Western Slope are often the smallest. Out on the trails, members of the parsley family now creep back to life among the sandstone, and near the Colorado River willows turn green again and grasses emerge from winter mulch: all signs that we're finally emerging from a precipitous winter that pushed many of us outdoor recreationists towards either powder or pavement. In coming months, the grassy higher country will open, offering more avenues of exploration. But for now, the time for singletrack’s narrow ascent has returned to our corner of the Colorado Plateau.

If you’ve heard the phrase “don’t bust the crust,” you’re acquainted with the paradox of freedom and constraint that is mountain biking in the high desert, where wrong steps, detours, or heavy livestock presence aren’t easily undone. Cryptobiotic crusts, which are composed of webs of algae, fungi, and other microorganisms, are essential to the ecosystem as they all but prevent topsoil erosion. Since these organisms are only active when wet, just a little damage can take many years to repair as they lie dormant during dry conditions. One wrong step can increase erosion and undo years of crypto cohesion. What’s more, spring wind storms can carry this dust all the way to nearby snowy peaks, which collect the darker, red dust and melt quicker. A 2010 study suggests that “disturbed desert soils landing on mountain snow pack in the Upper Colorado River Basin has resulted in a net loss of approximately 5% of the annual flow of the Colorado River.”* Protecting these crusts by “keeping singletrack single” is clearly one of the top conservation priorities of high desert recreation. 

Overlooking the Colorado River from Mack Ridge or the Western Rim, it’s easy to feel the ache of all the places the trail doesn’t go. If we plan to mountain bike, rock climb, hike, or ride horseback on the Colorado Plateau long-term, we need to keep to the trail. But rather than focus on limitations, I prefer to think of singletrack the way a musician looks at 6:8 time, or a poet looks at the recursive form of the pantoum: viewing the constraints as a tool of revelation rather than one of confinement. Although limits rarely feel exploratory, they drive us to uncover new challenges in the apparently familiar. The singletrack frame of mind finds abundance in little, embracing the multitude of lines available in even a two foot wide trail. To borrow a phrase from Borges, a new and well-chosen line is “algebra plus fire.” For the ready mind, singletrack presents a meditation on velocity, geology, centrifugal force, deep time, and the whir of free hub pawls. 

It’s on singletrack that I’m reminded of the stubbornness of matter and smallness of my own life. Paradoxically, the delicate nature of cryptobiotic crust belies the long life of North America’s deserts; the desert will be here long after I’m gone. This desert is often described as fragile, but I prefer to think of it as revelatory: its face wears no concealer, and shows the damage of intensive use more readily than other ecosystems. Both extremely short and long life cycles share space here. Gnarled juniper trees offer shade to desert wildflowers, which burst into colorful flame and then die in the span of weeks. In the deeper time of the desert, we visitors and sightseers are the thin tapers prone to extinguishment, while the desert carries on, bearing the signs of our potentially intrusive presence. Our trails here are young still. How lucky we are to move through this place, each seeking our own victories at the center of this labyrinth of canyons and arroyos, but only by the narrow way of singletrack.

*Painter, T. H., Deems, J. S., Belnap, J., Hamlet, A. F., Landry, C. C., & Udall, B. (2010). Response of Colorado River runoff to dust radiative forcing in snow. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (40), 17125-17130. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0913139107

Megan Vorse works in sales at Over the Edge. She holds an MA in English from Montana State University, and rides a Juliana Joplin and Why Cycles R+.