Hot Ride for a Hot Topic: Bike Touring the Colorado Plateau...in Summer
The day after the Fourth of July, 25-year-old Brooke Larsen was somewhere between Flagstaff and Tuba City, pedaling as hard as the relentless sun would allow. The temperature read 106 degrees. Hot water sloshed in her bottle. She was alone. This was the moment - over a month after she'd started her 1,500-mile bike tour across the Colorado Plateau - when it finally struck her how crazy of an idea it was.
The trip started on May 24 in Price, Utah, and ended in Torrey, Utah, on July 14. Supported by grants from the University of Utah and other donations, Larsen used her summer break from graduate studies to set out on a sweltering passion project to raise awareness about climate change by collecting stories about environmental injustices in Colorado Plateau communities.
She rode as an organizer for Uplift, a youth movement for climate action supported by the Grand Canyon Trust. Uplift just held their 3rd annual Uplift Climate Conference September 15 through 17 in Moab, Utah. Larsen’s served with Uplift since its debut in 2014. At the time she was finishing up a degree at Colorado College and wasn't technically on the Plateau, but felt the pull to get involved.
Recognizing a storytelling gap in their work, Larsen's bike tour idea presented a fresh opportunity for the group to hone their collective voice. The Colorado Plateau is so much more than beautiful national parks, says Larsen. Rather, there are communities that live and breathe environmental injustices in these "energy sacrifice zones."
"For a long time, the narrative [of the Colorado Plateau] has been the wildness of the region," she says. "But a lot of stories have been silenced over the years."
To her delight and minor surprise, Larsen was welcomed with open arms by people across the region who were excited to share their experiences, ready with food and shelter when she needed it. She interviewed river runners, tar sand activists, retired Bureau of Land Management rangers, tribal members, local food advocates and others whose livelihoods are affected by a warming world.
Larsen says very few days went by when she didn't bike past oil and gas rigs. This transformed how the Salt Lake City-native thinks about the region where she grew up exploring the national parks and monuments.
"We can't even keep our national monuments protected," she says of current policies.
But hope is not lost, she adds.
"Hope resides in these [Colorado Plateau] communities because they'll act out of passion for their place," she says. "Our power comes from these ignored places. If we want to act, we have to elevate silenced stories.”
Besides exposing the relationship between protecting public lands and securing a stable climate, Larsen also enjoyed a grand adventure with friends and family who met her along the way. Her dad, an ardent triathlete, joined her for the toughest stretch between Kanab and Bryce National Park, a grueling 80-miles with 5,000-feet of elevation gain. Larsen says with pride that it was the first time she was able to keep up with him on a big ride.
Of course the expedition would not have been possible without her noble steed. The bike was a lender from a college buddy who started Why Cycles. On the frame was a Nelson Mandela quote: "It always seems impossible until it is done."
While she hardly scraped the surface of how to save the planet, Larsen rode away from the epic empowered to further shape this story into a powerful medium that’ll resonate with locals and policymakers in Washington alike. Stay tuned to her website, Layers Exposed, as she updates with tales from the road and reflections on potential solutions.
One thing’s for sure: her scorching pedal across the Navajo Nation on July 5 reinforced the notion that this region will only get hotter - and chances are real low she’ll ever again choose to embark on a summer cycling adventure across the desert Southwest.