Finding Common Ground

I’m not at all accustomed to talking about my love for backcountry mountain biking within the confines of a stale hotel ballroom. In a past lifetime as a geologist, I gave plenty of ballroom presentations about glacial erosion, cosmogenic radionuclides, and Arctic climate change – it’s easy to get academics to connect to your words in such a bland setting. But how do a couple of mountain bikers get an audience of equestrians to connect with a shared passion for the backcountry from within the confines of a suburban cube?

My Bikepacking Roots co-founder, Kait Boyle, and I had been invited to give a talk at the National Equestrian Conference on behalf of mountain bikers as backcountry trail enthusiasts. Despite the cordial invitation and smiling audience, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t apprehensive beginning our presentation. The relationship between the equestrian and mountain bike community has not always been cordial. In my home town of Prescott, Arizona, I had served on the board of directors of the local mountain bike advocacy group in the aftermath of a collision between a cyclist and a horse rider. It took many, many months for the rift between the two communities was mended. But that healing process resulted in the formation of a couple collaborative working groups involving representatives of the two groups (as well as others), and a few years later, the local mountain bike and horse rider communities have become actively supportive of one another. I found that evolution of relationships particularly inspiring.

Anyway, Kait and I had talked at length about how to best connect with the equestrian audience right from the outset of our presentation. As long-time educators, we both recognized the need of getting any audience to connect on a personal level before delving into more complex topics of any sort. So we began with short introductions and a description of just what bikepacking is before initiating a conversational survey of the audience, hoping that they would be willing participants.

“How many of you would prefer a backcountry experience to riding front country trails?” Kait began.

A hand went up from nearly everyone in the audience, some also nodding their heads emphatically.

“How many of you enjoy exploring landscapes? The physical challenge? Traveling in remote areas? The stress release of riding? Covering landscapes more quickly than you could on foot?”

After each question, most members of the audience raised a hand.

We flashed a blank graph up onto the screen that had each of these criteria listed on the horizontal axis, and then a series of vertical orange bars with heights that more or less represented the audience’s response to each inquiry.

“Does this look about right to you all?” Kait asked? The audience nodded in agreement.

I clicked the button on the remote, adding a title to the graph: “Why do you bikepack?” What this graph actually showed, I explained, was the results of one question from Bikepacking Roots’ 2018 Bikepacking Community Survey.

A mildly surprised reaction passed across the faces of nearly everyone sitting in the ballroom. I breathed a sigh of relief as our point was well received by the equestrian audience – the reasons that so many of us relish the experiences of riding backcountry trails are pretty dang similar whether we choose to ride horses or mountain bikes. That common connection resonated deeply, and much of the dialogue that followed the presentation revolved around collaborative trail efforts and backcountry access rather than any sort of user group conflict mitigation topics. I left the conference quite pleased that we had had such an opportunity to share with the equestrian community and excited for future engagements.

Why is this vignette relevant now? Because as recreationalists, as outdoor enthusiasts, as advocates of the wild places and public lands where we opt to spend time, we all have so much in common. While individual politics or land ethics or chosen means of exploring and adventuring may be very different, we still seek experiences that share something in common. Similarly, communities and land managers and conservation organizations may struggle to agree on particular issues, some shared goals can often be identified. This common ground offers a foundation for connections, for collaboration, and for moving forward with everything from increased recreational opportunity to economic development to landscape protection to increased cultural understanding of one another.

Undivided is a new column that Bikepacking Roots is excited to contribute to The Radavist. As an advocacy organization, we will use this series of articles to explore issues that affect outdoor recreation and public lands in both positive and negative ways – access, conservation, stewardship, and more. We’ll highlight examples of inspiring collaborative efforts embracing diversity and bringing many stakeholders and cultures together to forge shared visions. We’ll provide background on our public lands and management agencies, both contemporary and historic. And although cycling and bikepacking will offer a common thread, we’ll share a much broader perspective. A myopic view rarely offers any insight into a better path for moving forward, and we’ll be stronger when connected with and supporting others beyond our immediate sphere.

So please stay tuned – there’s a lot more to come on these topics and more . . .

All photos in this article are from along Bikepacking Roots forthcoming Bears Ears Loops, mostly within the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. The Monument was illegally reduced in size by more than 90% by the Trump administration, a move currently being litigated.