“What’s the point of only going out for one night?” Ian grumbled as we sipped hot coffee from the comfort of our couch.
“There might be lessons for us. Who knows!” I grinned, eager to get outside. “This could be the trip where I get my first flat tire and figure out how to fix it. There’s beautiful red rock and bears and rainbows to see!”
I continued to harp on the magnificence of the desert that awaited us.
“The point of a one nighter is that we love riding our bikes, we love sleeping in our sleeping bags and we love the desert. It’s worth doing that for any amount of time,” I said with a grandiose gesture of the arms.
Why would we not go? I couldn’t think of a single reason not to leave the comfort of our orange couch.
Our friend Jackson was waiting for us in Moab. It would be his first trip loading up his bike with bags and testing out his bikepacking system. Four or five years ago, Jackson’s actual first bikepacking adventure was in the Outer Banks of North Carolina with his partner. When they left the peace of the island, they hated the highway pedaling with eighteen wheelers and the roar of the road. They hitchhiked hundreds of miles to get away from the traffic of doom. We wouldn’t be catching any rides on this desert trip. It would be Jackson’s first taste of a backcountry bikepacking trip, sailing on our human powered time machines through outer deserted space.
This bike trip was first intended to be 280 miles over five days for my Bikepacking Birthday Bash! Gradually, the days and the route shifted and shortened and I was eager to get out for any amount of time.
It would be Ian and I’s first taste of a bike trip with another person. It would be Ian’s second overnight trip with his new fat bike, the Ice Cream Truck, and his first bike trip attaching a rack to the bike.
Jackson, Ian and I met up, all down for whatever. Our attitudes were ripe for adventure. None of us had any attachment to how many hours, miles, or days. In the red dirt, we parked, unloaded our cars and began loading up our bikes.
Silently and separately, we blasted into preparation mode. I finished first, my packing system dialed. I laid on the hood of my car with my journal and a La Croix while Ian fiddled with attaching his back rack. Periodically Jackson would pick up his bike and ask us, “Is your bike really heavy?” or “Is your bike hard to lift?”
I nodded and smiled. “Yep, it’s heavy. Yep, it’s hard to lift.”
Reassured, he’d nod and keep stuffing things into his panniers.
Ian adjusted his rack five times before being able to ride without his ankles hitting the back panniers. Jackson attached a beer to his frame, ready to drink at any moment. I pumped up my tires for the first time since buying my bike ten months ago. I am a bit of an oblivious idiot when it comes to bicycle care and maintenance. I wondered if this would be the trip where everything blows up and I had to learn to fix it. Part of me hoped it would be. Part me hoped absolutely nothing would ever malfunction on my beautiful bike.
Three La Croix’s later, all of our bikes were fully loaded. We had no plan except: pack bikes, ride bikes. All we had to decide was which way to pedal.
None of us packed a map. Ian found one, but intentionally left it in the car. No one packed a first aid kit. Only Jackson packed underwear. I didn’t have any tools, but the boys did, so I was helplessly reliant on them. Between me and Ian, we had twenty two pre-made burritos stashed in our bags. The real plan was to come back to the car whenever we ran out of burritos.
It didn’t matter if we chose left or right to leave the car. Both directions had reliable sources of water and bright sun. Turing right would take us immediately uphill to the Needles, which had a spigot. Pedaling left would take us downhill into an expansive valley of sage in between red sandstone towers, which had a flowing creek. We pedaled left toward flowing water, whooping and hollering for the start of our adventure.
Choosing to pedal left was dumb. For thirty minutes we busted our asses against the strongest headwind I’ve ever experienced. I had to continuously pedal just to stay upright on the downhill. The wind was screaming, “Go the other way!”
Eventually we pulled over and laughed at our sore muscles in mere minutes of pedaling.
“This sucks!” Ian said, and we laughed.
“Why are we going this way?” Jackson asked, and we all started laughing harder.
“Let’s turn around,” I said, still giggling as we pushed our feet off pavement.
We reversed direction to head uphill toward the Needles. The tailwind was glorious. I didn’t pedal once for a whole five minutes. We soared through the open air, breathing in blue sky and exhaling red rock.
I felt powerful and strong on my bike that day. No hill was too long or too hard. No downhill was too scary or too steep. I didn’t push my bicycle once. Grinding uphill felt exhilarating and cruising downhill brought me a blissful peace. It was a glorious day on the bicycle. The wind was strong, but I didn’t mind. There were a few sketchy moments where I thought the wind might knock me over sideways, but I leaned into it and kept pedaling. I didn’t want to take any breaks, I didn’t want the sun to set. I wanted to ride forever.
We decided to camp before it got dark. We pushed our bicycles past a sign that said, “Exposed cliff edge. Keep your children close.” We pitched camp next to a lone pinyon pine near the edge of a sudden canyon. The wash we’d been pedaling next to for the last mile suddenly dropped 100 feet into a narrow ravine. From the walls, a wet seep dripped water onto the canyon floor. It was incredible to hear the silence of the desert broken by a drip, drip, drip.
Ian and I lazily lounged on top of our sleeping bags eating banana bread. Famously, we decided not to set up a tarp. Jackson’s stand alone tent wouldn’t stand alone without the footprint to clip the poles into it.
“Oh well,” he shrugged. “If it rains, I’ll just wrap this tarp around me.”
“Solidarity! We’re all risking it for biscuit!” I cheered as the sun disappeared and darkness settled into the quiet and calm evening.
The biscuit hit hard. The rain started around 2AM. Foolishly, the three of us laid there in silence, taking rain the face. My bivy was draped over my head. Months ago, I lost the poles that stand it up away from your face. Ian’s poles were tucked in the bottom of his bivy, but he didn’t bother setting them up. We let the rain hit our the bivy on top of our faces. Jackson was wrapped up in his tent tarp, also letting the rain fall on top of him.
After an hour of falling in and out of sleep, Ian asked, “Beth? How ya doing?”
“Mmm, okay,” I chuckled. “Annoyed by the wind.”
The wind was aggressive and loud. I couldn’t sleep from the sudden gusts that whipped against me. It was roaring all around us, smashing into rocks and gathering speed through the exposed valleys.
“Jackson, how ya doing?” I heard Ian ask from the inside of his sleeping bag.
“Uh, doing okay,” Jackson responded with a snort of laughter. Then, more forcefully he added, “I’m just fucking mad! I want to sleep.”
I laughed with my head buried inside my sleeping bag. A chorus of giggles echoed from nylon and down feathers. I could feel the exterior part of my sleeping bag getting damp, but the inside was warm and dry. Finally, I nudged Ian and told him it was time to set up the tarp.
The three of us sprung into action. We emerged from the inside of our sleeping bags and were shocked into a sudden and violent world of wind and sideways rain. Even with my rain jacket, I was soaked and dripping. Almost immediately, my hands went numb from the cold. It was difficult to tie knots with stiff fingers that wouldn’t curl. I couldn’t find my headlamp, so I tied down two corners with muscle memory and secured them tight. Ian tied a corner to his bike and one to Jackson’s bike, while Jackson stood there with a limp piece of tarp, looking lost and soggy.
“Uh, I haven’t set up a tarp in a long time,” he shrugged and I laughed, taking the tarp out of his hands and securing it to the strongest pinyon branch I could find. We scooted our sleeping bags close together and dove under the tarp, dripping and shivering.
“Take off your wet clothes,” I repeated to both boys when they ducked underneath the tarp. I was already naked in my damp sleeping bag, rubbing my hands together and warming up quickly. Sadly, my hair got wet which would extend my shivering time.
“Fuck it’s cold,” Ian laughed one of those “everything is fucked up but somehow still fun” laughs.
“This is the danger zone,” I said, nodding. Rain just above freezing temperatures is more dangerous than snow. Wet and cold is the perfect recipe for hypothermia.
“I’m so glad we set up the tarp,” Jackson sighed in relief.
“Now we’re at a base level wetness, and not going to get more wet,” I smiled.
We laughed at our own idiocracy. We talked at random intervals and I began dozing in and out of funny bedtime stories until finally, I was nuzzled in and warm with the tarp dancing above us, rising and falling with the wind.
If anyone asks, we pedaled the whole trip wearing wigs and set up a tarp before it started raining. We are both fabulous and excellent risk managers.
Find out what happened next. Continue reading: Bikepacking Diaries 009: You Can’t Trust Every Rainbow As A Good Sign
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