For eight years running, around the time of the Summer Solstice, Swift Industries has put out a rallying cry for cyclo-touring enthusiasts the world-over to strap some bags to their bikes, head out for a couple days of pedaling and sleep on the ground. It’s a call to go out and have a memorable experience. The collective Swift Campout was this past weekend, but with some free time surrounding the actual Solstice, my partner Tony and I decided to ring in the best season for bikecamping a little early.
Despite having the best laid, albeit ambitious, plans to embark on a three-day loop from our home in Boulder, CO to Steamboat Springs and back—along a route that would include a double-crossing of the Continental Divide and a stint on the GDMBR course—I felt physical warning signs on some steep climbing early in the ride that implied my body wasn’t up for the task. We’d both lined up for the Unbound XL a little over two weeks prior, and even though I’d ended up dropping at mile 300, the persistent tugging in my calf I’d been feeling all day on the upward half of the pedal stroke seemed to (strongly) hint that my legs hadn’t yet recovered from the effort.
By late afternoon we were soaring down a fast descent into the grandeur of the Estes Park valley while a stiff crosswind blowing off the divide tried to toss us off the road. After catching views of the mighty and majestic Longs Peak just a few miles earlier, I had become increasingly dismayed at the idea of bailing on our plan, but I knew that Estes was a crossroads in the route and a decision needed to be made.
The season to access Colorado’s high alpine is a narrow one—once most of the snow guarding high-altitude passes and trails melts off, it feels like there’s an eight to ten-week window to revel and romp in the mountains. It’s a glorious, frenetic and exhausting time of year. Our planned route would travel across two such iconic alpine passes that were inaccessible by bike the majority of the year. I didn’t want to miss out, but with other summer plans brewing, I also didn’t want to spend the rest of that tight window injured by pushing through on what was only meant to be a high-volume pleasure cruise. We cooled our feet in the Big Thompson River, bikes parked on a bench right off the town’s bike path, and I shared my doubts.
We came up with an alternative plan that would still prioritize getting into the alpine, without requiring two more days of heavy saddle time in which to exacerbate the warning signs of an impending overuse injury. After hitting the local mountain shop to pick up running shoes and microspikes and supping on some slices at an impressively decent American-style pizza joint, we pedaled ten miles back up the hill to camp. We were turning this year’s Campout into a multi-sport experience in the form of a two-day Longs Peak duathlon.
The next, roughly, 24 hours did indeed prove to be a memorable experience. Riding back towards the mountain, we were treated to golden hour’s retreating glances off Longs’ proud east face and suddenly the doubt I’d been feeling about the trip was, physically and proverbially, reframed. I’d never seen the mountain at this time of day, and that moment in itself made the preceding hours of pedaling loaded bikes feel worthwhile. The tawny light faded to a dusty rose and then periwinkle, as we pushed our bikes through sections of deadfall and steep trail on the Fish Creek cut. Cool alpine air kept us alert as we followed our headlights on the final paved miles before tucking into the trees to camp for the night.
The next morning held both feelings of fresh excitement and routine ritual. We always bring the same brand of instant coffee on tours and the smell has an immediate Pavlovian effect, conjuring nostalgia for trips gone by, even as we’re in the midst of being on a new one. Going up the mountain itself proved to be a somewhat comical exercise in adaptability—as neither one of us had much storage capacity, we hiked up—me in bibs—with pockets bulging and spikes for the lingering snow tucked into our waistbands. Below treeline, the perfume from the pine tree canopy mixed with the crisp air seemed, in the moment, like the freshest air I’ve ever breathed. Higher up, we drank cold water straight from springs, traversed tundra and talus, and negotiated frozen rock to the summit, while the lethargy of toiling at 14k’ gradually took hold. The summit was windless and unpeopled (except for us) and the sky stretched clear and blue to the far reaches of the horizon. A rare treat at 14,000’ in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We took a fairly adventurous route down—in part for the novelty, in part to avoid the ice we’d encountered on our way up—and the hours at high altitude were just beginning to feel like a slog when we at last regained the established trail. Easy, bumbling, jogging across rocky ground brought us back down below treeline and then, finally, back to the bikes.
We rounded out the afternoon with a stop at a nearby convenience store for Klondike bars and potato chips, then took the scenic way home over a new-to-us road that some friends had told us was “sneaky nice.” It certainly had sneaky climbs, and probably would have been nice on a hardtail! The new cut—with its rutted out ATV tracks, steep techy descents and “dreamy baby powder grav” (Tony’s description of the deep, silty churn left behind by countless OHV’s) over embedded rock—kept the tone spicy until we reconvened with pavement. A ripping descent into Lyons brought us to familiar dirt roads, and from there, it was autopilot cruising home.
I’ve recently been making my way through a collection of essays by the New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl. Essays are, increasingly, becoming a genre I turn to more and more for their digestibility in short chunks of time. The best, I find, blend the most compelling elements of memoir and reflections on the current zeitgeist with personal reflection from the author. With our shared southern origins and (her) impressive reviews, it wasn’t hard for me to seek out a copy of Renkl’s latest release, Graceland At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South. In the second essay, “Eagles of Reelfoot Lake,” Renkl recounts the near extinction of the bald eagle—and how invested some people became in the species health (one famous nesting pair in Iowa could be observed via a webcam that, as of publication, had seen over 370 million views). It seems now that a collective sigh has been exhaled on the eagles’ behalf, as the species population has regained a sustainable level.
I recently read that findings from current research estimate that Colorado may see a reduction in annual snowpack by up to 80% by 2080, a climatological shift that would make the landscape more akin to today’s Arizona. Statistics like these—while undeniably anxiety-inducing (for myriad reasons), and devastating if you feel personally and existentially invested in the mountains—also, I think, can serve as a distraction from something more frightening, that we already know is guaranteed: mortality. Even without the looming threat (though, it’s not really looming since the effects have already arrived) of climate change, we are all mortals and by definition that means time is not on our side. Even without the urgency of diminishing snowpack and ever-lengthening wildfire season, it’s all too easy to let days and weeks and years slip through our distracted and overly busy grasps, without making time for the experiences that feel meaningful with the people and in the places that matter to us most. Renkl’s words give hope that there’s still something yet to be done to slow our changing environment but the acceleration of the calendar is actually a force whose course we can’t do much to slow the pace of.
As we finished out the ride, trading podcasts for easy conversation, we both laughed at how going up Longs Peak that morning already felt like it had happened last week—it had been quite a full day. But that’s what happens on these trips; the density of living increases exponentially as compared to everyday life. So even if you didn’t make it out for the actual Campout this past weekend, I’d encourage you to make the time to get out there and have an experience, sooner rather than later.