Just Say Yes to Bikepacking
Words by Jen Abercrombie, photos by Brian Vernor (unless otherwise noted)
“Why do I keep saying yes?” That’s the thought I had, sitting in the San Jose airport heading to Las Vegas to meet up with the folks at Blackburn to embark on a two-day “InterbikePacking” trip in the desert, organized to coincide with Interbike, the giant annual American bike trade show that attracts, in decreasing numbers it seems, exhibitors, retailers and cycling enthusiasts from all over the world. I hadn’t looked at a map and knew only the vaguest details about the trip, one of the most concerning being that there might be a kayak involved. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly an expert on the bike, but compared to my proficiency in the water I’m Greg LeMond. I also heard there would be sand…a LOT of sand. None of this was making me excited, but when asked if I wanted to go, I just said “yes”.
So that’s how I found myself strapping a few essentials to a borrowed Jamis Dragonslayer with 3” tires in a parking lot next to a U-Haul in Boulder City Nevada on the last day of Outdoor Demo. Luckily, I had some friends along for the ride. Around ten of us set out on the road to a flat trail that overlooked beautiful scenery and snaked through old railroad tunnels. We rode over the breathtaking beauty of the Hoover Dam, somewhere I’d only seen in pictures, and I thought “This is so awesome! Maybe this won’t be so hard…” (cue ominous music)
Lit by a gorgeous sunset, we rode up some steep hills on a freeway shoulder with 18-wheelers thundering past us. Darkness descended, though it felt like we’d barely gotten started. The riders strung out and I heard that one of our number had succumbed to the heat and gotten in a car. I found myself riding with my new friend Aimee from New Belgium Brewery, my dear old friend Jeremy Dunn from The Athletic, and all-around good guy and sometimes bike model, Greg Johnson. Between bites of cinnamon bears and swigs of Coke, we screamed jokes at each other over the din of traffic. A hot wind was blowing us back and I had an intense hit of joy, thinking “How is this my life?” Riding down a freeway with my friends in the dark, on a ninety degree night in the desert is not something I’d ever envisioned. I appreciated the weirdness of my life and the good fortune that brought me to that moment.
Still, in the back of my mind I was apprehensive. I knew this wasn’t the terrain the bikes were built for. Finally we made it to the turn, when we left the highway for gravel, and that’s when shit got real. No more “playing bikepacking” on loaded mountain bikes on the pavement. This was it. Now, I may not have mentioned it earlier, but this was only the fourth time I’d ever been on a mountain bike. I ride on the road, I’ve dabbled in ‘cross, but I am not a mountain biker. Still, here we were. The only way to go was forward, or more precisely, down. Loose gravel descending, the kind that thrills dudes and dudettes in baggies the world over, is terrifying to me. I freeze up, I lean on my rear brake, and I am basically a total spaz. Oh also, remember the thing about total darkness? So, with my front light now attached to my helmet via a pivoting mount (good work, Blackburn), we begin the descent. It wasn’t long before I fell, and again, and then again. We pushed on, skidding and sliding and grinding in the rocks for what seemed like miles, which I think it was. Prickly branches reached out and snagged my shirt and stuck into my skin when I managed to fall onto a cactus-y bush…
At some point, I was dead last. I told myself that someone always has to be last, but why is it so often me? This was a consequence of saying “yes”. Sometimes it works out and I am pleasantly surprised to find that something that I approached with trepidation is actually well within my skillset. This was not one of those times. I was reminded of the title of a collection of essays by the late David Foster Wallace: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”
I caught up to the group as they heaved the bikes through a cut up high in the rocks that our bodies barely fit through, passing them hand to hand, bucket brigade style. Our camp lay somewhere beyond this obstacle. Assured we were “almost there”, the remaining mileage stretched on. I’d gone to that crazy place in my mind that I’ve visited on those occasions where I am out of options, totally gassed, knowing I have no other choice but to continue forward. In these situations, my mind presents me with a phrase, often nonsensical and pseudo-philosophical. This hot dark night was no exception. I repeated over and over in my head “I’m surfing in the ocean on a wave” imagining that the deep, coarse gravel under my tires was actual a shifting sea of water, and I was floating on the surface, not bogging down and tipping over as I had done many times already.
When I finally rolled into camp, I was elated. I lay on the stony bank next to the Colorado River and enjoyed the relative coolness of the air coming off the water. I was too exhausted to eat, which was good because the cache of food for our dinner that was stashed in advance had yet to be found. After a few slugs of whiskey and some conversation, I set up my tent near a wall of rock, and heard clicking sounds a few feet away. I shined my helmet light at several mice scurrying around nearby. I was too tired to care. I zipped myself into my tent and slept a fitful sleep.
The next morning was mercifully overcast and cool as we gathered around stoves for coffee and oatmeal prepared by Mai, our badass camp chef of DirtyGourmet fame. Apparently, the rumored kayaking had turned into a boat that was going to pick us up and take us to our next starting point for the climb back to Boulder City, though no one was sure exactly when that might happen. I packed up and enjoyed the stillness of the scenery, congratulating myself on getting to this point, and optimistically anticipating the day’s ride.
The boat ride was a fun change of pace. We bantered and relaxed, and marveled at the beauty of the Colorado River, snaking through the red rock canyon. We pulled close to a rocky beach, unloaded our bikes and waded to shore. After a few adjustments and last-minute route questions, everyone set off. Except me. I could barely get the bike to roll beneath me. Friend and photographer Brian Vernor valiantly tried to help me, literally running behind me and pushing to get me going in the sandy red gravel that seemed knee-deep, though I may be exaggerating a little. My secret tiny hope that today’s ride would be easier than the night before dissolved and floated away with the boat that left us there.
I got the bike moving at a very slow pace, apologizing over and over to the people who rode with me. Not a good look. I worried about holding up the other riders I imagined far ahead of us, either waiting angrily for me to appear at a turn so they could go on, or already floating in a pool somewhere with umbrella drinks wondering when I might finally show up. My body was fine but my ego was in the red.
Instead of surfing in an ocean on a wave, I was spiraling to a dark place, questioning why I even rode bikes in the first place. Did I even like bikes? What was the point of all this? I thought “Maybe my cycling days are over….” as I bogged down again and again, I accepted that some spots would be faster if I was walking. I adopted a triage of sorts: Riding is better than walking, walking is better than standing still. I reminded myself that every step or turn of the pedal brought me closer to finishing and kept moving forward.
Eventually everyone rode away and I found myself slogging ahead alone with Robin from Blackburn. He would ride a little ahead, then wait for me to catch up. I was touched by how nice it was that he was hanging back with me when I was clearly having a tough time. More cynically, I considered the idea that as the organizer of the trip, it was his responsibility to see that I made it out alive. Ok, so I get dramatic when challenged, and when I’m embarrassed, sometimes I talk too much. Depending on other people’s humanity and being vulnerable is not something I’m terribly good at. I joked and chattered, trying to be entertaining to make up for the inconvenience my slow speed was causing everyone.
In response to my self-deprecating comedy routine, Robin assured me me “I’ve got nothing else to do today. This is what it’s all about”, indicating the gorgeous scenery that I’d failed to notice, so focused was I on keeping my bike upright. Eventually my inner voice quieted. I embraced the idea that this was going to take as long as it would take, and stopped worrying about the finish line. I thought about how popular Bikepacking has become, and understood the appeal. I hadn’t looked at my phone all day. Maybe this is what it’s about: spending time outdoors, camping with friends and getting to places you couldn’t otherwise, faster than you could hike there, albeit not much faster in my case.
One of my favorite things to do as writer is interview people, so that’s what I did. I told my stories and asked Robin for his own. Hours went by as we talked and pedaled, and that’s when it all started coming back to me: This is why I ride bikes. I like the gear, the clothes, the culture, and I like mastering new skills and being outside, but mostly I love the stories. I’ve read that when Steve Jobs wanted to have a meeting with someone, he would take them for a walk, and often that’s what cycling is to me. It’s a meditative activity that facilitates communication.
I know a lot of people don’t feel this way. They want to go fast and win a race, they want to shred the gnar and get rad, and they call themselves “adrenaline junkies”. I respect those reasons. I even aspire to them, but it’s really not me. I want to see beautiful stuff, get stronger, and explore my limits, but mostly I wanna hang out.
Eventually the trail got more packed and I was able to ride it, tentatively gaining confidence and trusting the bike over rocks and ruts. I know for some of the group, this was just another day in the saddle and perhaps the riding was challenging for them, but certainly not the monument that it seemed to me. Still, when Robin and I reached the paved road and rolled into the hotel parking lot late in the afternoon, reuniting with our fellow InterbikePackers, I felt relief and genuine satisfaction. I was glad I’d said “yes”.
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