Stone Age

The crash was as unexpected as a lightning strike and just as violent.

One moment Jen was trying a step down that looked innocuous. The next, her front wheel kicked sideways and she was careening toward the slab of red sandstone far below like Sandra Bullock pinwheeling toward the space station in Gravity.

In hindsight, the rock step may not have looked entirely innocuous. Our friend Gary, who had suggested we ride Amasa Back that day, had goaded us on with the promise of an obstacle so techy and intimidating that he’d never worked up the courage to try it. This ride, a lasso southwest of Moab above a sharp crook in the Colorado River, is a series of rocky steps and ledges that’s probably better suited to the region’s desert bighorns than to mountain bikes. Gary had ridden most of the features on the trail. But, he said, this short series of steps had always made him grab the brakes.

Jen loves dramatic storytelling like this. All mountain bikers—in fact, all athletes, all competitors—are compelled by it. Name your new fast time on that Strava segment at your local bar, and you can bet that somebody will be out there trying to best it before the week’s over. It’s an innate human instinct to be stronger, go faster, shred harder. So even before we’d left the car, I knew somebody was going to roll the damn rock step that day.

Ordinarily it would have been me, for better or worse. But I flubbed a two-foot step-up a mile or so into the ride and bashed my left hand so hard it was swollen and bleeding. Not one to ruin the day, I swallowed the pain, jammed my mangled digit back into my glove, and kept climbing, steering with only my right hand. A few miles later, I whispered to Jen that my palm was throbbing and I was ready to turn back. But by then we were just a quarter mile from the main event.

When I saw it, I was sure that on any other day I’d ride it. I knew Jen could ride it, too. She was always better on the technical than me. Then Gary, following several tenuous abortive attempts, rolled through. After him, another rider in a full-face helmet and pads blasted past at full speed as if he was hopping off a curb. Innocuous. Jen queued up right behind him. I didn’t even worry when she set up for it.

Lightning struck. She landed on her left side, and her body bounced back a few inches. For a moment I thought of one of those crash test dummies in auto safety trials, though the single, sharp whip crack of the impact snapped me from that vision. I assumed the noise was Jen’s helmet caroming off the stone. She hit with such force and finality that everyone watching, myself in included, immediately wondered if she would get back up. A puff of dust rose around her like a mushroom cloud.

Jen and I have a long history in Moab, which is strange because we don’t go there often. The way we tell it at cocktail parties, the place brought us together.

One of the first times we met, in my office where I always parked my prized steel Fuji Professional, Jen harangued me for still riding a fully rigid mountain bike. “You couldn’t keep up with me on that pathetic old thing,” she chided. She rode a hard tail Schwinn Homegrown with a yellow Rockshox Judy SL fork, which was high tech at the time. I was a Luddite with a chip on my shoulder, and I didn’t even realize she was flirting with me. We bantered and parried for awhile, though she had the last word.

road2“We should ride Porcupine Rim sometime,” she said. “You wouldn’t even keep me in sight.”

A series of coincidences took us to Moab a few months later, and we ended up racing that 15-mile plunge to the river. Accounts vary on who won and who could see whom, but it’s true that, facts aside, Jen did a victor’s jig that was part River Dance, part Can-Can. And in that moment, I realized that she was more than just the average bike tease. We’ve been together ever since.

In the ensuing years, we’ve ridden the White Rim together in a night, which after about an hour we realized was a stupid idea because you couldn’t see anything beyond your headlamp. But it was summer and too hot in the daytime, so we carried on anyway out of sheer stubbornness and slept it off the next day with a good tale in the pocket. We once lost Jen’s yellow lab, Stella, in the desert out by Canyonlands and spent hours tracking through cryptobiotic soil until we finally found the poor panicked hound. And I also celebrated my version of the bachelor party in Moab, a one-day ride on the Kokopelli Trail from Fruita to Moab with my best friend, Steve. Jen met us, dutifully, at the Slick Rock parking lot finish and all but peeled us off the simmering pavement with ice-cold beers and chilled watermelon.

And then Moab doled out another decisive moment in our lives. Deserts are like that. Walk into them, even if for a minute, and they can transform you. The emptiness allows the human experience to play out unimpeded, and the heat and severity magnifies it. But all those earlier memories were frivolous and youthful and vivacious. Jen on Amasa Back was a turn down a different trail.

It sounds trite to say it, but when you are young, you don’t consider that you could crash on a slab of sandstone, smash in your brain, twist up your spinal cord like a Slinky, and never walk away. I went ass-over-tea kettle once while riding alone up in the woods by Black Hawk, Colorado. And though I blacked out and was seeing Looney Tunes when I came to and was so dizzy that I had to push my bike two miles to my car, I didn’t really think anything of it. That was just “mountain biking.”

But when Jen went down, I immediately thought of everything that was at stake. Had she just destroyed the hands that had made her a successful photographer? What if she could never ride again? Would we be able to continue to travel the world, collecting countries like coins and riding together into unknown desert nights? And where the hell were our insurance cards?

I’m not sure if as you get older you think about these things because you have more to lose or because you’re closer to your mortality or both. Maybe after so many crashes you realize that the odds are stacking up against you. Or maybe one of those impacts knocks some sense into you. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. But I do know that as I looked at Jen lying there in the fine red Moab dust, when I thought about a day without her and her desire to shred harder and her silly little victory dance, it didn’t seem like a day I wanted to wake up to at all.

And then you have to ask yourself: Should she have rolled that drop? Should I?

The sharp crack I’d heard wasn’t Jen’s helmet on the stone. It was the head of her left humerus snapping off the length of the bone like a dandelion from its stem. Before any of us could reach her, Jen was up, jacked full of endorphins and adrenaline. She stamped around and laughed maniacally and howled like a coyote at the moon. After we calmed her down and stabilized her arm, she walked herself some two miles to the car. I pushed my bike with my right hand and hers with my left, and I smudged the top tube with blood from my swollen palm.

Jen had to sleep upright for months, and often she would awake screaming in pain when her body inadvertently twitched as she was drifting off. She spent months in physical therapy, and it took years before she was back to really riding the bike. Even now she’s more cautious on tricky moves, as am I.

But one morning over breakfast, when her arm was still in a sling and she was six months away from riding, she suddenly said, “I’m going to ride that step one day. I know I can.” Then she turned back to her egg and toast, which slipped around on the plate as she tried to butter it with one hand.

We haven’t been to Moab since the crash, not out of angst but lack of time. We will return, and I know that we’ll go look at that step.. We will go back, and I know that we’ll go look at that step. And if I line up to ride it—and I probably will because, after all, it’s hard to shake years of conditioning—I’ll first think hard about how Jen and I crashed into middle age together at this very spot.

But the desert is a powerful place, so I might just shoulder my bike and walk it.

Aaron Gulley is a contributing editor for Outside and a competitive cyclist.