I Quit My First Solo Bikepacking Trip

Since the close of 2021 (The Year of The Bike!), I have been sitting next to the wood stove in my house, reading through all of my journals over the last year. Occasionally pausing to trudge through my yard, which is sparkling with a foot of snow on the ground.

While reflecting on my Year of the Bike, what memory stood out to me most was the solo bikepacking adventure I pursued only three months after buying a bicycle.

Solo trips have always allured and frightened me. There is a dreamy appeal to being alone in the wilderness. In my mind, I picture hard hills to pedal up with rainbows coming out of my butt propelling me forward to a free ice cream stand at the top of the hill. There is quiet and blue sky and challenge that I face with my big muscles.

My fearful mind has also conjured up creepy men looming over me as I sleep. Exploring the world as a solo woman comes with warnings.

“Carry pepper spray.”

“Never tell someone you are alone.”

“Don’t get in the car with strange men.”

“Aren’t you afraid of being lonely?”

I was absolutely afraid of feeling lonely, and that’s exactly why I wanted to pursue the adventure by myself.

The first time I drove across the country alone, I learned more about myself than I could have imagined. I discovered what kind of person I was when I was alone, and I had fun with myself. I learned that most people in the world were helpful and pure intentioned. I learned that hiking was my favorite way to spend a day because it helped me feel connected to living creatures and it kept my mind off loneliness.

So in May 2021, I set off on my first solo bikepacking trip. I didn’t carry pepper spray, I told every stranger I met that I was alone and they congratulated me, I got into a truck with a man I didn’t know, I felt lonely and I quit after two days.

After a few days in Moab dressing up as a banana and giving out free lemonade, my partner, his family, and my best friend left town and I stayed.

In the red sand outside of Arches, I parked the truck and turned the engine off. Silence flooded the dusty desert air, loud and lonely. I filled the silence with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the consecutive sound of cracking open La Croix cans.

Before pulling my bike out of the truck, I sat on the bed and stared at the freaky formations of rock and sun. The tears started falling from a place of deep love and gratitude for the beautiful desert, for my badass self and for Ian, who told me that bikepacking would change my life. He helped me pick out a gravel bike, he dropped me off in town to pick it up and drove past me on my first ride cheering; he took me on my first heinous bike pushing trip and he introduced me to the idea of the bicycle as a freedom machine. It was strange starting a bike trip without him.

Packed for my first solo trip

With dried tears on my cheek, I exploded everything out of the back of the truck and onto the red dirt. I attached my front wheel onto my bike and tested the brakes (not that I would know how to fix them if they were broken).

Singing, I began the act of stuffing my bike bags with only the essential stuff: a sleeping bag, rain layers, M&Ms, water, GPS, fuel, apples, nuts, flip flops, a JetBoil, sleeping pad, solar charger, map, my journal, ten pens, and a book. No underwear and no hula hoop this time. When my bike was fully loaded, I strapped Rubber Chicken onto the handlebars to feel less lonely.

Perhaps I do like alone time, perhaps I just don’t practice enough, I told myself.

In my classic wing it style, I started an hour and a half before sunset with no agenda, no route planned, no campsite reserved, and no idea where I would fall asleep that night. It occurred to me that I had no known water resupply sources. All I wanted to do was follow the Colorado River upstream, but as I got on my bike I wondered if it was safe to drink out of it’s murky waters, even with a filter. I wondered if I would pass enough gas stations to fill up my bottles. I wondered if I would have enough water every day.

Leaving the truck was the first difficult step. It was the I’m not joking around planning this trip I’m really leaving now.

The more legitimate fear to pedaling alone was not being a woman, but being a woman without any bicycle tools or knowledge of how to fix any bicycle related maintenance and no service to Google anything. Blind optimism is a strength…until it’s not.

When I started pedaling and left the red dirt and red truck, the first thing I heard was a train blowing it’s engine. Immediately, it felt like my nephew was with me. I could hear his toddler voice screaming, “TRAIN,” so I screamed “TRAIN” as an adult on my bicycle. I laughed and pedaled faster, trying to race the train but eventually giving up as it sped out of sight.

Feeling infinitely less alone, I pedaled south into the fading daylight with rubber chicken on my handlebars.

That first day I pedaled eighteen miles, mostly on the Moab Canyon Pathway, a 12.7 mile paved bike path. An absolute gem to riders and runners, the path avoids the busy highway and instead weaves through tunnels of rock and sky with views of the La Sal Mountains. The path drops down into the Colorado River Valley and ends on Highway 128, which turns into a narrow two lane heavily trafficked highway.

The sun set behind the canyon walls long before dark. For my first night’s sleep, I found an empty rock by the Colorado River. As I unloaded my bike bags, I tuned into the sudden noise that accompanies life by desert water. Frogs croaked and jumped in the water before I stepped onto the sandstone, birds were chirping in the juniper’s branches, and the flap of the raven’s wing brought my gaze to the sky. The constant flow of water interrupted the typical silence of the desert.

Occasionally, a car drove by and lit up the wall of rock on the other side of the river, which loomed over me like a dark shadow until the rock touched the sky.

Getting off my bike was a relief for my butt, which I worried would have a bruise by the end of the trip, whenever that may be. My calf and thighs were red and burnt from the sun and my throat was dry from thirst.

I stretched my hamstrings and crawled happily in my sleeping bag with my journal. Laying on my back, I noticed a slight ache in my jaw where my wisdom tooth was coming in.

The last thing Ian’s dad said to me before I embarked on this solo journey was, “I had a friend die from a toothache.”

I laid there, hearing his voice in my head and wondering if I was going to die right there under the milky way on that rock. Sighing heavily, I got out of my sleeping bag and brushed my teeth twice.

My favorite thing to do on bikepacking and backpacking trips is to set my morning self up for success by pulling out the Jet Boil, stove, mug and coffee and putting it next to my head so I could enjoy a cup of joe from my sleeping bag in the morning.

Hurriedly, I checked my pockets and bike bags twice before accepting the fact that I forgot to pack a lighter.

Annoyingly determined, I put on my sneakers and ran to the nearest campground down the road. Three sistas and a dog happily gave me a lighter to keep. They asked if I was biking alone and I told them yes. They whooped and whistled and told me I was a badass. I thanked them, they wished me a happy trip and sweet dreams.

As I jogged back to my campsite, I reflected on my fears of being alone. It dawned on me that it felt quite impossible to be truly alone. The mighty Colorado flowed past me, creating an oasis of life for human civilization, birds, trees, shrubs and animals. I was sleeping next to a sanctuary in the desert. Humans were close by and willing to help if I needed it. I went to sleep with gratitude in my heart.

I expected to feel afraid of sleeping alone, but my sleeping bag and the night sky was my comfort zone. It was familiar and friendly. The hardest part was choosing when to close my eyes, knowing that I was willingly missing stars shooting across the twinkling sky.

“Our sense of community and compassionate intelligence must be extended to all life forms.”

Terry tempest williams, REd

Day 2: I’m A Happy Quitter

I woke up before the sun and watched it’s rays creep down the red and orange walls across the river. My sleep was shallow. After three nights in the quiet desert, sleeping on the bank of the Colorado with water lapping toward me was unsettling.

My dreams entailed the rock I was sleeping on detaching from shore and floating down the river. My mind pictured Old Greg lurking underwater and asking me to see his downstairs mixup.

Glad to greet the morning, I journaled, drank coffee, stretched my legs, and enjoyed my own company. When the sun kissed the river, my bike was packed and I was pedaling toward a trailhead. I hid my bike in the bushes and hiked five miles before 10AM through a majestic canyon with water flowing straight into the Colorado River.

The trail engulfed me in red sand and red walls and a diverse canopy of green trees, draping over the creek. It reminded me of Appalachia with low hanging branches dipping into the water and sandy shores. Cottonwood and birch trees casted a shady shadow over the banks of the cool, wet creek. Dozens of wildflowers I had never seen before were dancing with the desert. Emerging out of bare rock and shimmying in the wind.

As I followed the creek upstream, it grew in size. I wondered where the water was coming from. Hours were lost to squatting next to the creek, discovering seeps from rocks where groundwater was emerging and joining the flow. I was determined to walk until I found the source, forgetting momentarily about my bike. The creek deepened and I avoided rock hopping and opted to walk straight through the ankle deep water. It was brisk and cold, perhaps from the winter’s snow melt.

On trail, I met many folks who wanted to talk. I met a man who’s daughter completed the wilderness therapy program I work for. He shared gratitude for the program changing both of their lives. I met a man who rappelled down into the canyon I was walking, and he shared a banana nut Clif bar with me. A woman passed me singing and humming and smiling.

Never alone, I told myself. This became my mantra of the trip.

The canyon split in several offshoots but I followed the path of water in hopes of finding the source.

Where was the water coming from?

How do we know when we’ve found the source? Water tricks. It hides underground, it bends and twists and spurts out in seemingly random directions.

What is it like to follow the path of water? To walk to the mouth of canyon and discover a piece of earth’s origin. It is nothing short of magical, majestic and awe inspiring.

When I found the source of the creek, I was shocked. I ran toward it, giggling in awe.

The creek with large pools, boulders and ripples was coming out of a tiny crack in a rock.

Bewildered and amused, I sat on the rock for a long time. I listened to the quiet water trickling out of the crack and sliding down to the sand, joining eventually with the creek and then the mighty Colorado River.

The mystery to me was not solved. Where was the water coming from inside of the rock? How did it break through the rock and out into the air? When did it do this? How long has this trickle been feeding the Colorado?

With the sun rising higher in the sky, I decided to hike back to my bike content with not knowing.

Ignorance and bliss and that bliss for me was about to be shattered. I left the comfortable familiarity of my two feet on the ground and entered the terror of a two lane highway without a bike lane.

Busy, bustling and loud. RVs, trucks, Sprinter vans, trailers pulling rafts, busses, and Subarus passed me. Some slowing down, others swerving into the other lane to get around me. I winced when seconds saved a head on collision. Sideview mirrors were inches away from my helmeted head. My knuckles were white gripping the handlebars. After two hours, I stopped to stretch my shoulders and jaw, which had been clenched shut like my life depended on it. I jumped into the chilly Colorado River to reset my nervous system.

My optimism began to wither away. There were moments of solitude and silence on the road, where I could hear myself singing and laughing on the downhill. But mostly there was cursing and jumping out of my skin every time a car passed too close for comfort, which was pretty much every time.

My afternoon pedaling thoughts turned to thinking that the world needs more bicycle lanes.

“Sharing the road” isn’t reasonable when there isn’t enough space to share. This picture shows a thin white line with no shoulder. There was not enough room for myself on a bike and a car to fit in one lane. The law technically says a bike can take up three feet of space in the road. The law technically puts the responsibility on the car to move over and slow down. But this leaves it up to moral and ethics of the driver. Many cars did slow down and move over and it felt generally safe. All it takes is one driver to not abide. It’s technically the driver’s fault if I get hit, but I don’t care who’s fault it is if I have a broken leg, brain damage or dead.

The American road systems were not built with bicycle travel in mind. What would it take to change this? How would our communities operate differently if our roads were safer to ride?

With anarchy in my heart and mind, I continued to pedal through the afternoon slog of heat. Feeling weary and wondering why I still pedaling on this terrible paved road instead of a lovely forest service road of red dirt, I approached a long hill that seemed to disappear into the sky.

Half way up, two road bikers passed me on an uphill. Their bikes with tiny wheels and no bags to weigh them down propelled them up the hill quickly. When the first man passed me he yelled, “Yes! You are doing great!” I smiled and kept pedaling ten times slower than he was riding. He looked free. A second road biker man passed me and said, “You are kicking ass!” And then they disappeared over the hill and I was left with the sound of my huffing and puffing and pedaling. Their encouragement stayed with me and I repeated my mantra of the trip: Never alone.

On a whim, I decided to see what Castle Valley was all about. I exited the main highway and road up a less trafficked paved road that seemed to be uphill the whole way. Exhaustion was hitting hard by the late afternoon. Several times I got off my bike and stood there, breathing and staring and slowly getting back on the bike. Thoughts of resting soon and finding a campsite were settling in. Two bikepackers passed me going downhill in the opposite direction. They had front rack bags and looked lighter than my rig still.

The woman who passed me on the downshill shouted, “You’re a badass!”

“You are too!” I yelled back, and they zoomed out of sight into the valley of the Colorado River.

Her encouragement helped me up the final hill until I sped down into Castle Valley. What a strange place! A green valley with trees and grass in the middle of a collision between red rock desert and snow capped mountains. I pedaled around the town and quickly realized there were absolutely no services, for real. Not a single gas station, restaurant, spigot, coffee shop. There were houses spread across the valley and closed public library with a swing set. Swinging on the swings, I wondered what kids thought about while looking out over the green valley of. eroded red rock and looking up at the majesty of the mountains. As an adult, my imagination felt limitless.

What stood out to me most in the valley was the sheer enormity of the trees. Off the side of the road was the biggest cottonwood I had ever seen. I stopped, got of my bike and stared at the many limbs and thick trunk. Later, I would look at a map and see that particular tree was labeled on the map as the largest tree in Utah.

I pulled out my sleeping pad, cheese and crackers and leaned up against the tree for a picnic. An hour later, I woke up from a sudden nap confused and surprised and amused. Stretching and yawning, I felt unmotivated to keep pedaling. There in Castle Valley, surrounded by red rock and white snowy mountains, I gave myself a reality check.

Where am I going? What’s my route going to be? Where is water? Where should I camp tonight? How many days will I be out here?

Looking at a map, two options were apparent: I could ride up into the La Sals and complete a 40 mile mountainous, cold, snowy loop back into town. My goal was to avoid going up to 10,000 feet. The other loop option would be 100 more miles on the pavement, which would take me up to highway 70. The thought of sharing the road with 10,000 eighteen wheelers seemed dreadful. The noise and risk of death was undesirable.

It was dawning on me that I rode my bike thirty miles into a bad plan. What I wanted was a quiet desert wilderness experience. Instead, I pedaled into the world of pavement, trash and highway. Foam cups, hubcaps, plastic coffee cups, discarded flip flops and t-shirts, old license plates, banana peels, and an assortment of plastic and paper bags. What kind of person throws trash out the window as they drive? Apparently this is a popular thing to do.

The goal of the trip was to face solitude, enjoy the quiet desert and use time creatively. My trip was not geared for that experience, and I was tired of sharing the road.

Laying under the largest cottonwood tree I had ever seen and looking through the branches at the blue sky, I began laughing. When I stood up, packed my snacks back in my bike bag and pedaled away, I knew I was going home.

At 6PM, I raced against the setting sun. I soared down all the uphill grinds of the day, laughing and cheering as I picked up speed. I was not going to make it back to the truck that night, and instead of accepting that fact, I stood on the side of the road with my thumb out.

A man I didn’t know pulled over in a truck. He looked to be in his fifties when he rolled down the window and asked, “Are you hurt?”

“Nope, just a quitter!” I said.

He laughed, loud and deep. “Do you have anyone else with you?” he asked.

“Nope,” I shook my head. “Are you going to Moab?” I asked.

“Sure am, need a ride?” he asked.

“Yes I do, thank you!” I said.

He got out of his truck and opened the flat bed of his truck. When he lifted my bike, he looked at me like I was crazy and said, “You’ve been riding this heavy bike? Geez.”

I chuckled and said, “Well I had to bring my hair dryer, three books, and four pairs of shoes for twenty four hours.”

He laughed and looked at me like he didn’t know if I was kidding or not, but didn’t bother to ask. I got in the car with a stranger and we listened to ACDC and didn’t bother with small talk. He kindly dropped me off in Moab and asked for nothing in return. I rode the rest of the ten miles uphill in the dark back to the truck.

Relieved to be back in the red sand away from a main road under the quiet milky way, I fell fast asleep, a happy quitter.

While reading through my journals from this trip, I notice myself smiling. I still consider this trip a success. Not because I was out for a week or rode 500 miles or accomplished anything really. Mostly because I love riding my bike. I am proud that I even took the step to get outside by myself. I enjoyed the blue sky and red walls and finding a creek coming out of a crack. Next time I venture off on my own, I’ll make a better plan and bring a better map and plan out a quiet wilderness experience with water sources. At least that’s what I am telling myself.

Thank you for reading and following along. I will leave you with my musings on resilience…

Resilience
The ability to perceive opportunity.
The desire to accept discomfort.
The motivation to keep trying.
The confidence to know that trying will eventually yield results.
The hope you give to time.
The trust you put in yourself to make change.
The intelligence to see past expectation. 
The creativity needed to pursue options.
The perseverance to push forward with pain.
The recognition of limits and
The humility to ask for and accept help. 
Resilience is love.
Love of life,
Love of self,
Love of growth. 

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