Bikepacking the Kokopelli Trail Helped Me Grieve

Still reeling from the loss of my father in February of 2020, I was in the depths of grief and drowning in the weight of his absence when I decided to accept my friend Jalen’s offer to go bikepacking for the first time. In his youth, my father loved spending time moving across mountains, and since I loved being outside too, I felt like going on this bikepacking trip was less of a pure adventure (although adventure would ensue) and more of a way to honor him by doing something that he enjoyed when he was young. I felt like doing something productive with my grief, to move my body forward and look back on all our memories together while observing how much he shaped who I am. In his youth he rode through Mexico on horseback transporting cattle between ranches and, while I was pedaling my bike on this trip across the land, I often thought about similar experiences we might have shared. As I rode through the Kokopelli trail on my first bikepacking trip, I took in the scenery and imagined what my dad felt when he was in the Sierras of Mexico every time I stared off into mountains or observed the star-filled night sky. I envisioned him looking at similar things as if we were sharing a moment.

When Jalen heard I’d never been bikepacking before, he wanted to change that immediately. He knew firsthand the transformational experiences that bikepacking provided; how it puts you in those experiential situations with nature. He essentially told me we had to go on a trip because he knew how much I was struggling. Since this was my first foray, he suggested a short introductory weekend trip that would show me a biking experience that minimized interactions with people, but would strengthen bonds with those sharing the trip. I love solitude, quietness, and camping but – more than that – Jalen wanted me to feel a connection to the land that went beyond a few hours on the trail. It was an easy sell.

After throwing out some ideas, we decided to meet in Fruita, CO, and ride the first 50 miles of the Kokopelli Trail. Fruita is a great halfway point between Denver (where Jalen lives) and Salt Lake City (where I live). As we drove into the parking lot, my excitement grew; I didn’t really know what I was in for but I was ready. As I parked at the busy trailhead I noticed it was full of mountain bikers who either started their rides or had just returned from them. Getting out of my vehicle, a guy who just finished his ride saw me getting my bags out. He asked me if I was camping with all the equipment on my bike and I excitedly told him “YES.” I initially thought he was genuinely interested and excited for me, but those hopeful thoughts vanished quickly when he replied with: “It’s gonna suck.” He went on to say something about sandy roads, but he could tell I didn’t want to hear it. I have a terrible poker face. I was so confused as to why someone would be that annoying to someone who is literally getting ready to experience their version of fun. Suddenly, the idea of getting away from people during this trip became even more appealing.

I moved positions from the front of my car to the back of my car, closer to Jalen. He gave me a face, like yeah , let’s get away from those people. We immediately switched gears and began laughing about random things. I started to pack my bags and immediately gave him a shout that I needed his help. Jalen gave careful instructions on how to pack things, which really meant packing things inside of things that fit into, well, inside of other things. I was learning from someone with a lot of experience, and someone who was a friend – a homie–who was willing to teach me. While imparting little tricks of how to carry all our equipment, it was also amazing to learn from another male of color who made the learning process feel really comfortable. When you’re first learning something, it matters how you learn it and the conditions in which you absorb that information. How many people have taken their first mountain bike trips with awful teachers, only to never want to try it again? Before I headed out, I revised my bags again and made sure they were held securely onto my bike. I took my first pedal stroke with all my equipment and I noticed the weight immediately. As we biked onto the trail we began to talk about our excitement, and Jalen told me he was excited for me.

The trip was a way to reconnect with my friend Jalen, who I have meaningful conversations with and we always enjoy riding together. I feel comfortable being myself around him. He is always excited and hyped to be on his bike. The first time I met him was in Crested Butte, and he passed me on a long climb with a joyous smile (I’ve never met someone that happy going uphill, by the way), which I found to be kinda disgusting. I even told him, “dude I like you except when you’re going uphill.” He laughed. Jalen is extremely high energy and, when on his bike, he exudes a joyous vibe. He’s constantly smiling and checking in to see how others are doing. I love riding with him and he’s a great outdoor skills teacher. On the trail, I told him that he should be a guide, and he replied, “I’m trying brotha’!” I was definitely in need of a friend, especially thinking of my dad. I don’t have to hide my grief from him, which is nice, nor do I have to put on a facade that I’m in this great headspace. I’m grieving while pedaling- and that’s okay.

About half a mile into the Kokopelli I’m already in awe of the beautiful scenery. The geological formations and the Colorado River down below created an inspiring scene. The desert is profoundly beautiful. The trail is flowy and overlooks so much beauty. It’s hard to keep my eyes strictly on the trail. I start to think about how the Ute People protected this land and what the area used to look like before colonization. The trail opened up and you can see what looks like a grazing meadow down below. This is one of the most beautiful sections of singletrack I’ve ever experienced and we’re literally only 3 miles into the trail by that point.

The moments of enjoying the singletrack are interrupted by flashes of grief. I began to think about my dad and I felt the loss of my father deeply. As I coasted around a bend on my bike, I thought of my dad as a cowboy in Mexico, about how he would spend multiple days transporting cattle across large mountain ranges with only a few essentials. I thought about how many bends he might have gone around to then suddenly see such grand vistas.. A lot, I’m sure. How many mountains was he moved by because of their beauty? While I was on this trip, I had the spirit of his outings and his soul with me. I felt like the reason I needed to be outside was because of who he was and where he was from. Regardless of our mode of transportation, we enjoyed the outdoors and being a part of something bigger. This trip had painful moments because I missed my dad, but they were mostly overshadowed by beautiful ones. It felt like more of a celebration of life because he’d want me outside, joking and biking– my dad loved to joke even in difficult times, that’s until his pancreatic cancer got really tough. Regardless, I was saddened by his absence, but felt his presence on every twisty and flowy part of the trail. While I felt sadness I also felt anger, why is he not here? Why did this have to happen to him and me? But he didn’t like me to go that route. He’d want to see me smile.

There’s something really amazing about riding flowy singletrack with the fully weighted bags. I loved it and I felt like I had to concentrate and absorb sections of the trail that provided an exciting challenge. Normally I can auto-pilot sections of singletrack, but balancing my bike with loaded bags provided another layer that made me focused. Not only that, but I was hyper-focused on taking in the environment since we were only out there for a protracted amount of time. I honestly thought every part of the trail could make for a great photo. But after about 25 miles fatigue kicked in. It was spring and I hadn’t been biking much because of the snow in my hometown of Salt Lake. I wasn’t in the best shape, especially compared to Jalen, but I think my excitement was propelling me forward. After a while, the excitement wore off and my legs started to feel the burn. Luckily, by then, we were close to the campsite and I remember feeling relieved when Jalen pointed it out.

Once we arrived at the campsite we had about another hour before sunset. It was a really beautiful spot with views of Colorado River below. I noticed the cold intensified and I switched into my nighttime base layers. I placed my riding clothes out on a rock to dry. Jalen heated some water for cooking. We saw the full moon peak out and it seemed huge; massive in that wide open space. I had a bit of battery left on my phone and I played some oldies you’d find at a Chicano carne asada. With the music in the background, it was nice to talk about vulnerability and future goals with Jalen. At that point I hadn’t become a full-time creative freelancer yet, so I told him it was a dream of mine and he talked about how he wants to start a program to get more men of color in the outdoors. It was nice eating, talking and even feeling the cold while War’s Slippin into Darkness was playing. It was nice to be away from the pressures of society where the burdens of bills, rent and emails can be overwhelming. It was also nice to see no one else on the trail or the campsite; to feel free outside without judgement.

The next morning I woke up to frost on my sleeping bag. I didn’t bring a tent, because we didn’t think we’d need it, plus I slept so well anyway. Jalen was worried that I’d be cold but luckily I stayed pretty warm. While I had really nice gear – including a 10 degree sleeping bag – I did think about my dad’s experiences, as he’d only camp with a rifle, a pot, some tortillas, food prepared by my mom, and a blanket. He was from the rancho, so he did a lot with a little. I wish I knew half the things he did and I hope I’m half the man he showed me to be. After packing up and eating breakfast, we had a few more steady but strenuous climbs out over about 20 miles or so. I loved every bit of it. I’m thankful that Jalen took me on a trip like this. I needed it. Heading back to the car, I was still on a high from the experience. I thought to myself: I can’t wait to do this again. Contrary to the guy’s comments in the parking lot, it the ride was far from “sucking.” Quite the opposite, in fact. More than anything, I can’t wait to ride again with the feeling that my dad is with me and that I’m being like him in a way. That’s why I now love bikepacking and I’m glad I can share that with my dad.