Desert Wanderer

Words  & Photos by Tyler McCaul

The first time I went to Virgin, Utah was back in 2003 to watch my brother, Cam competing in his first Red Bull Rampage. I was only 13 or 14 at the time and I couldn’t comprehend that people actually rode bikes down that kind of stuff. I thought I was a pretty good rider at the time, but out there I was a pussy. I couldn’t even walk on those ridges without feeling like I was gonna die. Cam took a huge crash during the event and I was devastated. I said I’d never ride Rampage and that the whole thing was just stupid and crazy.

Here we are almost 15 years later and Virgin is my favorite place on earth to escape to. What’s more, Red Bull Rampage is my favorite event to ride every year. I guess my 14 year-old self would call me a hypocrite as I’ve come so far from my first experience there. There’s just something about the desert there that just draws me in. You can do whatever the f*ck you want out there without anyone bothering you, and from a big-mountain riding perspective, there’s no place in the world that compares to it.

A couple of weeks ago was the first time I did a trip out there with absolutely no agenda. Usually when I make the 11-hour drive through the Mojave Desert east-bound for Utah I have a lot on my mind. I’m either going for a video shoot on a crunched timeline and know that I have to scare myself in order to get some good enough clips, or I’m going out for Rampage. The stress of that event alone makes the already long drive that much more unpleasant.

This trip was a different story though. I literally just went out there to have fun. A buddy was supposed to come with me but he bailed out last minute, so I decided to make the drive out anyways. My camping setup is pretty on point these days so I knew I’d be okay and pretty self-sufficient out there.

I made the usual stops on my drive. In-N-Out Burger in Kettleman City off of I-5, Jack in the Box in Tehachapi, Bass Pro Shops in Vegas and the massive truck stop at the Indian Reservation just outside of Vegas. That place is amazing! They have the biggest fireworks section I’ve ever seen and it’s also the last chance to buy real brews before you enter Utah – the land of 3.2% beer.

By the time I got to my destination there was only about an hour of light left. I was taking in the views of the desert sunset and the golden light that I swear you can only find around these parts of Southern Utah. I spent the waning moments of daylight searching for a pin on Google Maps that my brother sent me. It was leading me to a stepdown that he built out in the hills a couple years back for a Mitsubishi commercial.

That’s the other cool thing about Utah. There are hidden riding gems all over the desert and if the “owners” are willing to share them with you, they can draw up a little treasure map that gives you the perfect two-wheeled scavenger hunt. Cam has been filming out there for over a decade and knows the place better than anyone I can think of, so I was stoked he was willing to share this little gem with me.

Desert Campfire

I wanted to practice flipping stepdowns for this year’s Rampage and this one was perfect. By the time I got there it was pretty much dark, but I started digging on it anyways. Just as dusk’s last light faded I picked up my tools to head back to camp, but before I did, the moon rose and it sure was full. The desert moon lit the ground like an old miner’s lantern and I spent another couple hours digging away in the dark.

Exhausted and tired I returned to my truck and realized I had completely forgotten to stop for groceries on my way in. I was hungry and covered in dirt and sweat. No dinner supplies and no shower – that night I ate pistachios and beef jerky then took a shower with baby wipes. Desert life at it’s finest. I camped right underneath the step down that night and I think it was my first time camping that far away from civilization by myself. Coyotes were close by and the stars looked insane. I made it through a decent portion of my Indian res beers and called it a night.

In the morning I went back into town and met up with Ethan Nell and Reed Boggs. They both live in the area and kill it on two wheels. We rode some King Kong laps and had a great time. Reed had to leave for a contest the next day so Ethan was my riding buddy for the remainder of my trip.

Ethan’s a 19 year old from St. George Utah, and is one of the few up and coming kids carrying on the big-mountain legacy. He’s insanely talented and I’m positive that he’ll win Rampage one day if he keeps with it. I was stoked to ride with him and watch how motivated he is to do rad shit. He showed me around to a couple different spots and we even got some rain one of the days, which is hard to come by out there. When it rains in Virgin, there’s nothing that compares to it. The dirt turns from powder to hero dirt and makes digging and riding 10x better.

A few days went by and I still hadn’t gotten to ride the stepdown I cleaned up when I first arrived. I wanted to get a clip of me flipping it on my new little camera, but I wanted to do it at sunrise while the morning light was still good and before the wind picked up. It’s not something you wanna hit by yourself in case something goes wrong, and I was hoping to ride it with Ethan because he said he was down to possibly flip it too. Getting him to crawl out of bed and come meet me out there at sunrise ended up being a challenge though. He sold his truck the day before we planned on meeting, so finding a way out to the spot was tough for him.

Ethan Nell

I spent a couple nights camping by the jump hoping I could get him to cruise out for a sunrise session, but he just couldn’t get a ride. I contemplated hitting it by myself a couple of the mornings, but I knew better. It was a hard decision to make but I knew that any miscalculation could be disastrous. The thought of getting hurt in the middle of the desert without any help around was the only thing that kept me from taking the leap.

Motivated after spending the last few mornings camped beneath the jump, I spent my last night at Ethan’s house. I scooped him outta bed in the morning so we could go out there and ride. When we got there the wind was calm. I put my pads on and hit the stepdown twice. I wanted to hit it one more time to feel it out before flipping it, but then the wind came.

Wind and heat are the only downfalls of riding in the desert, and the heat isn’t that big of a deal because you know when it’s coming, but the wind comes and goes without warning and there’s nothing you can do about it. It turned from dead calm morning to a constant 20+mph side wind in a matter of minutes. Ethan was set up on another ridge waiting to hit record for when I flipped it, and I was stuck up on the roll-in for about an hour just waiting for the wind to die. It never did, so I decided to give up and Ethan and I started packing the truck up. I was bummed. I really wanted to ride this thing because there’s nothing like it at home and this was my last chance to ride it before I left. All the time I had spent out there by myself I had gotten a bunch of set up shots because I wanted to make a little mini-edit out of this jump. I had a whole edit filmed except for the part that really mattered, the jump. It was all a waste of time and energy.

About halfway through packing up, the wind just died. We looked at each other and thought it was just going to be a short break. After a couple minutes of calm Ethan said he’d go back to the ridge he had been standing on to film if I wanted to try again. I rushed to put my pads back on and ran to the top of the roll-in. It was still dead. I got to hit the gap one more time and that was all I needed. By the time I caught my breath at the top the wind was starting to come in again. I knew I had to go quick. It took me a bit to get myself to go and tackle the nerves, but once I finally went it all worked out and I was stoked. I had never really flipped a step down on my downhill bike and it scared the shit out of me, but it worked. I felt like that was a big step towards feeling more confident going into this year’s Rampage and that was a good feeling. We watched the clip and we were both fired up on how it turned out. And just like that the wind was back. We looked at each other and knew that was our cue to leave.

Perhaps this unpredictability is what we love about the desert so much. It’s such a crazy and unique place. It can play tricks on you and frustrate the hell out of you, but if you’re willing to wait it’ll usually give you an opportunity to do what you’re there to do. You just have to be there and be patient. It makes the times that everything actually lines up that much more rewarding. Even the downtime I spent out there while I didn’t have anyone to ride with was enjoyable. I just cruised around the desert with my camera and took pictures of things that looked cool. I didn’t know how to use the camera at all and the pictures probably suck, but they’re cool to me. There’s no place like the deserts of Southern Utah. It’s impossible to be bored when you’re there. Just writing this story has me wanting to go back.

Desert Campfire

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