Finding enlightenment through suffering (aka bikepacking misadventures)Originally posted on November 2, 2017 at 1:13 am
Words and photos by Myke McNoldy
a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.”
A sandy recollection of images, craggy peaks and rocky singletrack. Jeep roads. Horse flies. The sound of rushing water. Tires crunching against ageless sediment. The trail continues to go up and up, then down, then up some more. Switchbacks taunt me and my brakes squeal in protest. The bags attached to my bike are heavy, making my nimble XC 29er more of a beast of burden than an efficient speed machine. As the lactic acid slowly and not without agony collects in my legs, I’m starting to realize I overpacked.
Bikepacking is a romantic endeavor. A koan of the bicycling world, perhaps more so in that it exists (mostly) outside of the confines of organized events, races, charity rides, and Sunday coffee cruises. It is a testament to the markedly personal, the melding between our humanity and earthly terrain, with a bike serving as the intermediary and with no direct binds to a perfect logic. Sure, it is something to be done with friends (preferably), and through such an experience can build camaraderie and in some cases, intimacy. On the other hand, many of my bike trips have been on my own, with nothing but the howl of a disinterested wind and the gliding of my chain across the chainrings to keep me company, my own thoughts be damned. If it is truly a koan, then this last misadventure was the equivalent to my Zen mentor tripping me so that I fell face first into the mud.
Before failure, there was a touch of success. In the early fall of 2014, I found myself on a short stretch of the Arizona trail just south of Flagstaff. I wasn’t doing the whole AZT, just utilizing a section of it to ride about 130 miles of a 250-mile route known as the Coconino Loop. I had no intention of doing the whole thing. I had never done a trip like it before. It was a virgin bikepacking expedition. There was an initial early stretch of the route cutting across a high plateau, which was more akin to a miles-long babyhead strewn rock garden than a smooth singletrack paradise. I made up a song about rocks in my head. The words went as such: “Rocks, rocks, there’s a rock, another rock, look a rock,” ad infinitum. I was only half a day into the ride and my brain was taking me to some interesting places. However, my body was with me, responding to the instinctual commands to navigate the bumpy terrain. I felt strong and in tune with the terrain around me. As I navigated the big rocks and little rocks and medium rocks that made their home on the path, a small gang of elk darted out from the treeline, startling me. Gigantic and the color of amber, there were about a dozen of them and they galloped almost perpendicular to the trail thirty meters in front of me before changing direction and penetrating back into the forest, barely acknowledging my presence. I stopped for a moment to collect myself. They’re herbivores, I thought, and they mean me no harm, but their sheer size and number intimidated me. I made myself small and as I stood there sipping water from my Osprey pack, collecting my thoughts, a straggler elk ran by and regarded me briefly, slowing its pace for an endless second before running into the woods to catch back up with it’s herd.
On this first trip, I was underprepared and naive. It was a planned failure, a stick in the eye of destiny, but I knew where I wanted to start and where I wanted to end. Through sheer stubborn necessity and a lot of hike-a-bike, I made it from Flagstaff to the tiny town of Cottonwood, where my dad picked me up (after all these years he’s still giving me rides). I was dirty and exhausted, of course, and swallowed my pride as I walked through the doors of a Chinese buffet in my sweaty, stinking kit to gorge myself on fried wontons, noodles and rice. My dad waited in the parking lot for me and nobody in the restaurant seemed to blink at my dishevelment. My goal achieved, the smorgasbord of fried food became my reward. I may not have done the whole loop, but I finished where I intended to. It was a good start. The sound of one hand clapping.
This past spring I made a similar plan, reasoning with myself that if I could do it once with absolutely no bikepacking experience, I could do something similar again with more experience, better equipment and this time actually finish a whole loop. With the internet awash with grandiose tails of successful bikepacking expeditions, a rabbit hole which I find myself diving down on an almost daily basis, I decided to pick a new one to try my hand at. I would count myself among the purveyors of these glossy, well documented experiences. I would return to tell tales of dancing with saguaro cacti and friendly, wide-eyed reptiles.
After a bit of research, a loop entitled the “Gila River Ramble” presented itself via one of the better known bikepacking websites and I decided to give it a go. I knew what I was doing now, knew what I needed to prepare for. I had access to all of the latest in camping gear, resources and shared knowledge. The loop was my oyster and I would conquer it with the greatest of ease, proving to myself after a crappy end to 2016 that I was better than the experiences of the year before. I needed this trip to be successful, to become one with my metaphyscal self through physical effort. I would transcend time and space, I would reach bikepacking Nirvana. My brain would melt into the ether of the void and all would be as it should…
My bike crashes into the dirt as I stumble off the saddle, panting and aching. I throw my pack down beside me and collapse at a cross section of trail and steep jeep track. At least the view is nice, but I’m seriously wondering how I’m going to make it into town, much less the full hundred mile loop. I still have twenty or so miles to go before I arrive in the tiny mining town of Superior and f**k me, this is some of the hardest riding I’ve ever done. I know I’m better than this. While my hometown of Austin doesn’t have this type of elevation change, I’m a relatively competent rider. I’ve climbed endless ascents in Colorado. I’ve navigated the unforgiving limestone minefields of Central Texas. I found myself in the stark nowhere-ness of Big Bend Ranch State Park for four days. I can finish this, right? The short, craggy peaks of the Superstitions offer nothing by way of response to my queries. Pulling another pemmican bar from my bag, I reason that if I just keep eating I’ll summon the energy to make it. It’s only another twenty miles. I can do that in an hour on my road bike. Esteban, my loyal two wheeled companion, lies on his side like a sick horse, handlebar bag askew and frame bag heavy with burden. I turn around and look towards the trail ahead. It winds up and I follow its line with my eyes. Switchbacks layered on switchbacks hug the side of the short and jagged mountains. I sit for a few moments longer as the hum of invisible insects direct a monotone symphony, then stand up, brush the dirt off my legs and pick my bike back up. With all of my bags packed to the brim and my muscles rebelling against me, Esteban is pure dead weight. I lift the front wheel and shift Esteban into a low gear, orienting my rig in the generally correct direction as I swing my leg back over.
This was supposed to be a three day excursion. Everything I studied before suggested this would be a springtime walk in the park, with wildflowers and birds singing in praise of my arrival on the trail. I discarded the warnings of a few of my family members about the nature of the terrain I would be encountering, to say nothing of the “Lost Dutchman Mine” lore (if you’re not familiar, you should look it up. It’s spooky). After months of reflection and analyses of what went wrong, I now see where it began to unravel. Fate lined up quite an unfortunate combination of timing, impatience and mechanical/physical failures that led to the inevitable decision to call the loop at barely the halfway mark.
For a side job at the time, I drove a rickshaw through the clogged downtown arteries of Austin, Texas on weekend nights. I made part of my living by way of giving fast, quick rides from watering hole to hotel and back again for tourists, bachelorette parties and frat boys. The week before I left was the “world famous” music festival known as South by Southwest, by far the most important week of the year for pedicabbers in Austin. After six straight days of pushing the cab eight to twelve hours a day, with only two days of rest in between, it became rapidly apparent on the trail that my legs had nothing left to give me. Then there was the matter of the saddle sores I acquired during the veritable hell week. I could hardly hike where I couldn’t ride, and pushing my bike was an exercise in misery with each uphill step.
About four hours into the first day, my heart sank as I felt the tire pressure in my rear wheel begin to drop slowly but surely. I stopped and pressed the rubber of the tire with the palm of my hand, only for my suspicions to be confirmed. I was losing air. I hoped against hope that I simply ran over a cactus needle and that with a little shaking, the sealant would do its job and I would be on my merry way. Detouring into a low lying wash, I inspected the situation closer. With no signs of tears or holes or a stray thorn residing in my casing, I began to remove the tire (ask me sometime about the compatibility issues between WTB tires and Stan’s NoTubes rims, by the way). Upon inspection, my worst fears were confirmed. My rim tape was splitting around the valve hole, creating a gap that was too loose for sealant to fill in. I had one spare tube with me in the bottom of my bag, which I installed. In the initial process of trying to reseal my tire, I used both of the C02 cartridges I had brought, and those attempts ended in failure. I sat there for what seemed like two hours fixing this ridiculous situation. While I sat upon a rock, pump in hand, a gang of old men on four wheelers careened down a nearby slope. I waved to make my presence known. One of them stopped, seeming somewhat surprised by my presence out here in a random wash in the desert, but still inquired politely, “Everything good man?” “Yeah, nothing I can’t handle,” I responded, feigning confidence that I had it under control.
After fixing the flat and running a higher pressure than I preferred because of the tube, I carried on for the rest of the day. Later that afternoon, after the sound of a rattlesnake in the trail side shrubbery snapped me into a sprint, I became distracted by the search for hidden reptiles amidst the igneous and neglected to check the route on my GPS. At the top of a long hike-a-bike climb, I took a left. A familiar feeling crept over me after about half an hour of downhill riding. The old sensation that I wasn’t going the right way, which has saved my ass many times in my years of mild wandering, began to fill my stomach. I double checked the GPS and sure enough I was off course by about five miles. Five miles in the desert, on destitute double track upon a rock strewn ridgeline, is really about ten miles. I sighed, swallowed some food and water and turned my bike around. In an effort to make up the time I lost, I took a “shortcut” through a wash I found on the map. This turned into the longest hike-a-bike of the trip as I pushed my bike through the soft, sandy gravel of the dry tributary for more than a hour. After an exhausting push, I met back up with the trail. Daylight drifted off over the western horizon as the sun began its late afternoon descent. There were still another ten miles to go before the campsite I wanted to make it to that day.
I wasn’t going to make it. The shadows in the valley below me grew long. After another hour of narrow, rocky and technical singletrack hugging the side of the Superstitions, I decided to pitch camp at the next place I came across that appeared big enough to pitch a tent. No sooner had I made that decision than I turned a corner and found exactly what I was looking for. At the bend of a turn a small patch of ground just large enough for a man, his bike and a tent presented itself. “Yes,” I said aloud, “this will do nicely.”
The spot was almost enough to redeem all the efforts of the day. It overlooked a small valley, descending about two hundred feet below me. The mountains wrapped around the valley in a horseshoe shape, their sharp peaks poking into the dusk-lit sky as the setting sun orchestrated a delicate dance of light and dark. Silent Saguaros stood like sentinels draped in stillness. The earth settled into night around me. I stretched, made dinner, stretched some more and climbed into my tent. I left the rainfly open that night and listened to the world breathe.
That following day, after my collapse at the jeeptrack crossroads, I decided that I would end the ride in Superior. I pushed on through the last fifteen to twenty miles. If my legs had anything left in them, it would have been a relatively simple finish to the ride, but then again if my legs were in better shape, I would have tried to finish the whole loop. But my gut was screaming at me to call it and after a lifetime of my instinct saving my ass probably much more than I care to think about, I gave it the credence it was due. I limped into Superior and found a small Mexican restaurant. Filling myself on cheap coffee and ordering a strange combination of french fries and tacos, I called my father to come pick me up. A mild disappointment in calling it quits early caused me to hesitate for a moment before dialing him. Why wasn’t I as much of a badass as all of these bikepacking heroes I’ve read about? Why wasn’t my strength enough to take me? Had destiny conspired against me to lead me into failure? Thoughts and questions of this nature took turns occupying my mental space over the next few days as I recovered at my mom’s house. My family gave me no grief for calling it and in hindsight, if I had kept going, I’m relatively certain I would have created my own perfect storm of catastrophe through physical exhaustion and mechanical issues. My bike creaked and groaned along with my body on those last few miles. No, neither of us would have made it.
I came home. Summer flew by and I took almost a month off the mountain bike. I worked and played soccer and when I could I relived those two days in my mind over and over again. After falling into the metaphysical mud, over time I pulled myself up and cleaned myself off. Wisdom was not instantaneous but a slow crawl. I forgot, then remembered, then forgot again. Now I am left with more of a sense than a knowing, more of a feeling than a fact. Through failure, I know my body and spirit better than I thought I could. At night, when I endeavor to sleep, I search back to that campsite perched on the ridgeline above the valley. Alone, alive, exhausted. I wouldn’t trade that failure for a hundred victories.