Life Lessons from the Fat Pursuit

After roughly sixteen hours of biking the 200 km Fat Pursuit in the Rocky Mountain winter, when falling snow began to rapidly accumulate during the long, dark climb up Two Top Mountain, the going got rough soft. So soft, in fact, that “riding” might be too generous a term for what I was doing. It was actually more like plodding, weaving, wobbling, spinning…and crashing. And, I’d say I got quite good at it. Especially the crashing part.

My front wheel, tractionless due to the growing pile of powder, would slip out from underneath, and I would ignominiously be thrown to the ground, my progress abruptly slowing from near 0 mph to true 0 mph. Surely the local Yellowstone fauna peeping through the nighttime woods were having quite a laugh watching the comedy routine. As my Sisyphean struggle drew on, each crash became an opportunity to rest just a little longer. I would lie where I fell and stare up into the night sky, my headlamp reflecting the falling snow as if I were on a gentle warp speed journey across a galaxy far, far away. I would close my eyes and allow myself to drift. Then, as my heart rate slowed, the cold would begin to creep back through my layers. I would open my eyes behind snow-covered glasses and remember that I wasn’t on the bridge of the Enterprise or anywhere else. I was, in fact, right here–right where I wanted to be–lying on a snowy trail in the quiet woods, enjoying a restful moment in the middle of a world-class adventure. And I was grateful.

Hikers invariably carry two packs on traveling into wilderness. I can adjust the straps of the one easily enough, but releasing the other is beyond my skill. The work of the trail looses my grip on this inner load, reminding me how little control I have of anything out in the wilderness. - Belden Lane

The inability to will ourselves to be conscious and appreciative of the moment that we are in does seem to be a peculiar and pernicious human condition. Most of the time, whether we are behind the desk in the office, behind the wheel in the car, or behind the sink in the kitchen we tend to let our minds wander away, lured by dreams of what we could be doing rather than appreciating, and fully experiencing what we are doing. Western and Eastern spiritual traditions alike have insisted for generations that true peace can only be found in reality, in the present moment, which, when you think about it, is the only place reality can be. Tomorrow doesn’t exist except in our minds and on calendars, and neither does yesterday for that matter.

Just like becoming adept at any worthwhile skill–fat biking on snow included–learning to draw our attention to the present moment takes practice. For those of us whose sport of choice requires us to be outdoors on trails in the wilderness, our practice begins when we take the first step–or pedal the first stroke. “The work of the trail,” as Belden Lane terms it, can give us insights into ourselves that we are unlikely to discover elsewhere. The trail is a sage teacher of humility, heartbreak, love, loss, grace, and of reality. It can work on us in powerful ways, and so we come to respect and trust it.

Laying on the snow in the middle of the trail up Two Top Mountain, I got a precious glimpse of that elusive present moment, and it was peaceful. I wasn’t fretting about my standing in the Fat Pursuit race and what it might (or might not) be like to cross the finish line, nor was I imagining a hot shower and a bacon double cheeseburger. I wasn’t plagued by worries of things left undone back at home and, although I was a thousand miles away from my family, I didn’t feel alone. The work of the trail had brought me to a moment in which I was simply content to be. If the peace of the present moment is available to me in the middle of a dark snowstorm in frozen Montana, surely it is available everywhere.

The Fat Pursuit is not an overtly spiritual event, despite my personal experience of it. In fact, on the surface it is quite similar to any typical bike race. Participants register and get a bib number and swag bag. There are the usual resume-revealing conversations among riders, allowing everyone to create their own pre-race pecking order: rookies, veterans, pros, and posers (me?). There is a gear check and a safety speech. Sponsors have tires, frame bags, and bikes on display, prompting last minute feelings of gear inadequacy (should I have brought studded tires?). And there is palpable free floating anxiety in the air.

One of the factors that does set winter ultra fat biking apart from other biking events is the sheer amount of logistical complexity involved. It is really an amalgamation of three sports: mountain biking, backcountry hiking, and camping. Add the possibility of sub zero temperatures into the mix and you’ve got a lot to think about. For example, energy bars and water freeze in the cold–as does chamois cream. It’s not enough to simply bring these items along, you have to know how to keep them edible, drinkable, and usable too. Snow conditions and weather are also a huge factor. It takes patience and experience to know how to balance tire pressure with snow firmness, and to know when pushing is more economical than riding. If you decide to bivy out, how exactly do you do that in three feet of powder? If you get hot, where do you stash all of your outer layers on your already overly-laden bike? If your beard freezes, how do you pull your neck gaiter over your face without creating “beard melt,” which just ends up freezing your gaiter!? Mind boggling indeed.

One could build a career out of perfecting the logistical aspects of this sport and yet that would only address half of the challenge. Preparing for and managing what goes on in one’s mind during a winter ultra is an even more involved task. And that’s where rides like the Fat Pursuit tend to have a spiritual, or at least a philosophical component to them.

Husband and wife team Jay and Tracey Petervery host the Fat Pursuit, tirelessly shepherding participants from start to finish. They have a hand in everything from swag bag distribution, to volunteer coordination, to monitoring Trackleaders stats throughout the race. Accomplished riders themselves, the Peterverys are generous with their vast knowledge of the logistical dimensions of the sport, however, I would argue that those who return to ride the Fat Pursuit come for the Peterverys’ wealth of deeper wisdom.

During the pre-race dinner and meeting at the Ponds Lodge, riders connected with one another while carb-loading before the start the next morning. The Peterverys had ordered up a very digestible menu of salad, baked chicken ziti and garlic bread, and my dad and I shared a table with another rider, John, from Steamboat Springs, who was back for his third Fat Pursuit. The first time he completed the 200 km distance, the second time he was set back by a kidney stone (!) at the start of the 200 mile. This time he was aiming for some redemption, back for the 200 km distance. John said he loved his first Fat Pursuit experience so much that he and several other racers were inspired to organize and host their own winter century back home in Steamboat. Participants had the gear and plenty of road and mountain biking experience, he recalled, but the high number of DNFs was astounding. It turns out that road centuries and winter centuries really are different animals, the latter requiring riders to bring along another set of gear entirely, that of the intangible, internal variety. The Fat Pursuit is indeed a bike race, however, if you approach the event assuming you will be riding your bike the entire time, you are in for a rude awakening. There will be slipping, pushing, and crashing, and one must somehow learn to mentally endure this gauntlet of setbacks.

After Dad, John, and I had swapped a few tales, Jay Petervery (AKA JayP) stepped up to speak, quieting the room. In his characteristic laidback, unpolished style, he began by walking us through a digital map of the course projected on a screen behind him, noting a couple of last minute reroutes. We heard about gear essentials and safety (front and rear lights on at all times), how to prepare for the mandatory water boil test at the first checkpoint (8oz, rolling boil), and were also reminded of the origins of the Fat Pursuit. It was created as a safer, more contained way to learn about winter endurance riding than what one would find at the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska, the ultimate race goal for many. The strong emphasis on preparation and safety aimed to fill in the sizable gap between dreaming about racing the ITI and actually doing it.

JayP fielded a few questions about logistics and then segued into the more delicate topic of mental preparation, moving beyond the comfort zone of the concrete. The tangibles are measurable and objective–you either have the physical gear or you don’t. The mental gear, on the other hand, is intangible, requiring serious self-refection to answer questions about whether or not one is properly equipped. This is not a typical topic for a pre-ride meeting. Of course, we all leaned in, desirous of new weapons with which to combat the personal demons we would all encounter tomorrow. This guy knew what he was talking about, after all, with more Iditarod rides under his belt than anyone.

After a thoughtful pause he pointed to a portion of the route about 50 miles in and warned us that it would likely be the most psychologically challenging part for us. We would be nearing the top of the second of three large climbs on the route, the afternoon sun will likely have softened the snow, and the daily snow machine traffic will have rutted the course pretty severely by that point in the day. “Take it from a rider,” he said, “you’re going to want to throw in the towel, but just promise yourself that you’ll make the difficult decisions once you get to the West Yellowstone checkpoint. It gets better from then on, trust me.” And that was it. But it was a lot.

Most riders tend to avoid discussion of doubts or fears and instead choose to barricade themselves behind walls of optimistic bravado, regardless of what’s actually going on in their heads. There is certainly value to the “fake it ‘till you make it” mentality, however, hearing the Iditarod champion simply acknowledge the reality of the mental struggle helps. None of the pros are from Krypton, after all. They know pain just like everyone else, but they have learned to manage their fear of it. It is okay to struggle–normal, in fact. It is also quite possible to keep the struggle from becoming paralyzing. Yet another skill to be learned and honed.

JayP quickly wrapped up his talk, clearly more comfortable publicly discussing outer-gear than inner-gear, and he left us with his own particular kind of wisdom: hashtag mantras. “You’ve done your work,” he said. “Ride forward.” In his Instagram and Facebook posts, JayP often ends with a series of hashtags. Some, per contractual necessity I’m sure, link back to his sponsors, while others are pocket-sized kernels of wisdom suitable for top caps and tattoos, all offering inner-gear advice: #alwayslearning. #alwaysharing. #doyourwork. #rideforward. #adventureforward. #payitforward. #onedayatatime. #rideyourownride. Whether JayP knows it or not, part of what makes the Fat Pursuit so appealing, attracting riders from all corners of the country no less, is that participants don’t simply learn about getting through the ride, they also learn about getting through life.

A few hours before my restful moment in the snow on the trail up Two Top Mountain, the demons and I were in the throws of a full scale battle. George R.R. Martin would have been proud. Winter had come indeed. JayP had predicted the location of my breakdown correctly and the second major climb of the day had literally brought me to my knees. I had summited the climb according to my GPS, however, the descent was rutted and soft, and despite the overall loss in elevation, it seemed like the climbs just kept coming. I gently rolled into a snow berm, melted off my bike, and sat down for a much-needed respite from the fight with the evil minions of my unconscious. Surprisingly, I had a cell signal and decided to “phone a friend,” a well known and often used, but dangerous, coping strategy. Dangerous because, depending on who you call, you are just as likely to be talked out of continuing as pushing on. Will the “friend” fight for the demons or for me? At this point in my riding career, my wife, Kate, knows the drill. She has come to expect a desperate call from the wilderness pretty much every time I set out for a big adventure, and she knows exactly how to respond.

“You’re doing so well, honey! You’re making great time,” she said. “We’re watching your dot and are so proud of you!” Then she graciously listened to my complaints of aches and pains and fielded the verbalization of my mental mess. She didn’t respond with advice or solutions to my problems, letting me off the hook, rather, she reinforced the encouragement she gave earlier. “Keep on going! You’re almost to the checkpoint, and just behind a couple of other riders. You’ve got this.” It helped immensely to have her as a sounding board, someone who would offer unflinching support but also allow me to make sense of my own thoughts as I spoke them out loud. The echo chamber between your ears can amplify self-defeating narratives, but those narratives often evaporate once they make their way out as harmless steamy breath in the cold night air. We said our goodbyes, and I promised I would push on to West Yellowstone, my “phone a friend” strategy having worked. She was right. I had this … didn’t I?

Steeling my will, I climbed back on my bike and prepared to continue the trek only to be startled back off again by a light flickering from around the bend in the trail behind me. It was Jim, a 200 miler I had passed a couple hours earlier. He had been on the trail since Noon the day before, when the 200 milers began–about nineteen hours longer than me. I decided a temporary companion would be nice (another coping strategy) and he seemed to think the same, so we settled into a complementary hike-a-bike pace and talked for awhile.

It is amazing how mutual exhaustion can break the ice in a fledgling relationship, stripping away inhibition and opening the door for easy connection. The trail, once again, was doing its work. Jim was quite the veteran of winter ultra events, it turned out. He had completed the 350 mile ITI journey from Anchorage to McGrath three times and was now on his third attempt at the 200 mile Fat Pursuit. His pace today, however, seemed glacial for someone with those credentials. Most, if not all, of the 200 milers were long gone. During the next couple miles we swapped riding stories, talked gear, and enjoyed the gift of one another’s company. And I began to see the bias in my early judgement of his pace. While I was struggling to repair an inner-gear mechanical, it seemed that Jim was … actually having a good time. He may have been slower than the rest but he was embodying one of the most difficult hashtag mantras of them all: #rideyourownride. I didn’t detect an ounce of self-pity or doubt in him. He had his own personal goals and was passionately moving towards them, heedless of my or anyone else’s judgements. Jim was exactly where he wanted to be. Something I’m not quite sure I could say for myself at that moment.

I eventually pulled ahead and struck out on my own again, feeling the need to mentally regroup with the help of a cup of hot soup as soon as possible. The last few miles to the West Yellowstone checkpoint seemed to take forever. I had developed a persistent case of nausea awhile back and was beginning to fear a replay of my Eagle Quest Lodge episode during last year’s Susitna 100 in Alaska, when I had a near-fainting spell after trying to get down a breakfast sandwich–a fate I had been desperately hoping to avoid this year.

After a final slippery descent in the dark, I reached the town of West Yellowstone and rolled up to the checkpoint. The Peterverys had rented an Airbnb apartment and turned it into a cosy oasis for beleaguered riders. The fat bikes haphazardly propped up among loosely hung Christmas lights signaled to me that I had indeed arrived. Upon entering, I was enthusiastically welcomed and was told to add my outerwear to the various piles of boots, jackets, and half-thawed neck gaiters strewn about. Tracey was the host, accompanied by several volunteers, all generously ready and willing to do a little trailside maintenance. Several hands pointed me to a place at the kitchen table whereupon I was presented with my long-dreamed-about cup of soup, along with a grilled-cheese waffle and a Coke–comfort and calorie delivery devices all. My nausea still wasn’t quite under control, so I chose to take it slowly and stick to the soup.

As my body began to warm and my sprits began to lift, I became more aware of the activity around me. Other riders with far away looks on their faces also stared into bowls of soup. There were some volunteers on the couch poring over mobile phones trying to decipher the Trackleaders data, and I heard someone say that Jim wasn’t too far behind. A 200-miler sitting across from me was claiming to be actively hallucinating. She had recently called it quits, claiming that this was the most difficult ride she had ever done. To her left, a fellow 200 km rider was contemplating making this the end of her journey as well. She hadn’t been able to get any food down for the entire ride and was worried that she was on the verge of bonking. I overheard her discussing her situation with Tracey who convinced her to head back out, take a nap in the woods, and then come back to the checkpoint if needed. It was obvious that Tracey had had this conversation before, instinctively diagnosing the rider’s physical and mental state and then prescribing just the right advice to help that rider achieve her goal, or, were she to decide to end her ride, to feel like she had given her all. This sounded like good advice for me too. If I could beat this nausea, refuel, and get back out there, I could really have a shot at this thing.

That was about the time Jim arrived. He found a spot next to me at the table and seemed just as high-spirited as he was when we parted company. Unlike the three zombies along side him, he gregariously shoveled down his grilled-cheese waffle and began to plot his next move on the trail, no hint of nausea problems or hallucinations. Man, this guy knew how to ride his own ride! His enthusiasm was contagious and it seemed to lift all of our spirits. We came out of our stupors and actually shared a few laughs, as if collectively remembering that this was supposed to be fun after all. I asked Jim and the other 200 miler for wisdom about camping in the snow and both had plenty of good advice. Seeing as how I had never bivvied out in these conditions before, I was anxious to get whatever tips I could. “First of all, pack down a large area of snow,” they said. “That way you can crawl into your sleeping bag without bringing a bunch of snow inside with you.” Jim advised putting boots and outerwear into the sleeping bag stuff sack and setting it outside. The other rider said she preferred to bring her clothing and boot liners inside her sleeping bag so they would thaw while she slept. Water, as well, needed to be brought into the sleeping bag to keep it from freezing. Great advice, but like everything else with this sport, it sounded like personal preference, born from experience, was a big part of the answer.

Mood bolstered by conversation and body refreshed from food, I felt the call of the trail again. However, during my rest the weather outside had been growing restless. Fat flakes were rapidly creating a blanket of powder on the ground. And, as I suited back up and headed out the door to begin the climb up Two Top, I recall hearing someone say that six to eight inches of accumulation was in the forecast. Sounded like a world-class adventure to me.

There I was, laying on the trail up Two Top, the snow coming down and betraying no hint of letting up. The prospect of making it much farther was looking slim. Fighting the snow was exhausting, and my reserves were once again nearing empty. Yet, unlike the last ascent a few hours ago, I could honestly say that this time I was right where I wanted to be. And I was grateful. I was grateful for my family’s faith in me–even when my own was lacking. I was grateful for Jay and Tracey’s invaluable hashtag wisdom. I was grateful for Jim and his inspiring example of self-reliance and perseverance. I was grateful for a body that could carry me out into the Yellowstone night. I was grateful for the steady hand of the trail, my teacher. And I was grateful for this divine wilderness, at once unforgiving and life-giving. What a gift it was to be on this path–a path not unlike the larger one we travel beyond the Fat Pursuit–journeying together, facing challenges, and sharing our strength with one another.

I pushed on a bit further and decided it was time to sleep. It was 2 a.m., nineteen hours into my ride. I still had roughly forty miles to go, having ridden eighty, and I figured I would reevaluate the conditions after a couple hours of shuteye. So, taking the advice I had been given, I found a break in the trees off the side of the trail, waded out in to the three-foot deep powder and did my best to flatten out a section to sleep on. Despite my best efforts, a little snow did find its way into my sleeping bag, but I was so tired that I didn’t really care. It was warm, I was horizontal, and I slept hard. The next thing I remember was squeaking brakes and someone saying, “hey, you ok?” After a couple a couple seconds of disorientation, I managed to unzip my bivy, only to be greeted with a layer of fresh snow falling onto my face. I told the rider that I was fine–just taking a break. The rider, having descended from Two Top, let me know that he was heading back to West Yellowstone. He reported that over a foot of snow had accumulated higher up making the trail virtually impassable. Two more riders followed, with similar accounts of of the conditions ahead. I thanked them, crawled back into my bag, and quickly decided that West Yellowstone would be my destination as well. Although I wouldn’t make it to the finish line, I felt like I had accomplished what I had travelled all this way for: I had discovered the peace of the present moment in the deepest, darkest woods–something I never found during my ride in Alaska last year–even though I had finished that ride.

I loaded up my bike and pushed it the eight miles back to West Yellowstone. It took four hours in the calf-deep snow. My dad, having deduced my decision by interpreting my SPOT data, met me at the checkpoint with a warm car and some coffee. And as we drove through the blizzard back to Island Park I knew that I was leaving inspired, not defeated, and with a wealth of experience I didn’t have a day earlier. I was right where I wanted to be. And I was grateful.

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Fat Pursuit!

Just a quick note to give the tracking links for the Fat Pursuit ride. Trackleaders is monitoring the race here. And my personal track is below.

The race is a lot like the Susitna 100 I did last year (see my Rolling on the River post) but about 15 miles longer and has quite a bit more elevation change. The Fat Pursuit takes place in the “Yellowstone ecosystem” right on the border of Idaho and Wyoming, so it’s bound to be beautiful. Looking forward to this adventure!

Update 8 p.m. - Dad and I just returned from the pre-race meeting and dinner. It was encouraging and inspring to meet the fellow riders–adventurous spirits all. Jay and Tracey Petervery are fine hosts, and you can tell this is a labor of love for them. It’s an honor to be among this crew.

Update 10 a.m., 1/6 - An incredible ride! Although a significant snow dump beginning around 10 last night prevented me from completing the ride, I feel like I gave this one my all and am satisfied with the outcome. I bivvied out from 2 to 5 this morning and hiked back to the West Yellowstone checkpoint (a feat in and of itself) to find my dad ready with the car. Always grateful for the support crew!

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Follow my "Spot Dot" on the Arizona Trail

On Saturday, September 22 I’ll embark on a bikepacking tour of the Arizona Trail. That morning, the map below ought to begin to track my progress every five minutes. It’s always energizing (and a comfort) to know that I’ll have some friends along for the ride – albeit via satellite. For more detail about the terrain I’ll be traveling, and my likely stops along the way, download a map of my route and the corresponding elevation relief.

Update 9/24 - Alas, it seems a thru-bike of the AZT wasn’t meant to be. After two days mostly hike-a-biking the fifty miles from the Mexico/US border to Patagonia I decided to come on home (I’m in the car now, nearing the TX/AR line). My mother, who dropped me off at the trailhead on Sunday was still in the area and was able to pick me up in Patagonia. Thanks Mom! The scenery was gorgeous – I found one of the greatest campsites of all time – and yet the midday heat and the extreme exertion involved in pushing a seventy pound bike up the loose, rocky hills cancelled out the fun factor fast, and I’m pretty sure I was close to heat exhaustion. It was a tough decision to call it, but also an easy one once I realized what would be safest. Although the experience was shorter than planned, there’s still a good story in it – I just need some time to sort it all out in my mind.

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Packing for the Arizona Trail

Writing out the details of my bikepacking gear is just as much an exercise in thoroughness as it is an opportunity to share knowledge. Plus, I’ve always wanted to take one of those pre-bikepacking, OCD-esque gear layout photos. Readers, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email if you see that I’m missing something!

 

 

Bike For transportation along the AZT I’ll be peddling my trusty steel Surly Krampus. It’s a fully rigid mountain bike with “plus size” 29” wheels. The rims are 45mm WTB Scrapers mounted tubeless with 3” WTB Ranger tires – built ‘em up myself. The 1x drivetrain is geared with a 11/42 cassette and a 28T chainring. I have great confidence in this bike’s ability to endure the rugged AZT terrain, however, its heartiness comes at a price – its heavy. Hopefully that 28T chainring will make up the difference. Oh yeah, it’s red.

Bags I have a full set of well-loved Revelate Designs bags that performed flawlessly on the Tour Divide. They’ll keep me company again on the AZT. The harness and pocket will carry my sleeping pad, sleeping bag, tent poles, and other quick-access gear. The frame bag will hold my bike repair kit, first aid kit, bathroom kit, and pump. The gas tank will hold snacks. The mountain feed bags will carry water bottles. I’ll load up my nano panniers with food and electronics, draped over my Old Man Mountain rear rack. On top of the rack I’ll have a lightweight Seal Line dry bag containing my tent, extra cloths, cook set and stove, all strapped down with two Surly Junk Straps. In a Salsa Anything Cage on the fork I’ll strap an Anything Bag stuffed with my rain gear and wool jersey. And finally, I’ll wear a JanSport fanny pack for my GoPro, phone, glasses, and sunscreen (Yes, the family is having lots of fun ribbing me about the fanny pack).

Sleep System and Shelter I’m going vintage on the sleeping bag this time around and digging out my purple, synthetic North Face 30 degree bag. I used it on the AT a bunch of years ago so it’s probably no longer good down to 30 degrees, but it’s pretty light and very compressible. It also comes loaded with a nasty smell – something you can’t buy from REI. My Ridgerest pad is also from my AT days, but I’ve chopped it down to 3/4 length. It will double as something to sit on while I’m cooking. And my shelter is a solo Big Agnes Fly Creek UL tent. It was bomb proof on the Tour Divide.

Water and Filtration Getting the water system right is paramount on the AZT. I’ve opted to go with water bottles, as I’ve never warmed to bladders and hoses. I’ll have four bottles strapped to my bike (one on the underside of the downtube, one on my fork, and two in my mountain feed bags). That gives me almost three liters. I’ll also carry a two-liter Platypus bladder in reserve. This system worked well on the Tour Divide, but I’m anticipating needing to fill the Platypus more than I did then – it just means extra weight. For filtration, I’m trying out the MSR Trailshot. It’s just “so hot right now” in the bikepacking crowd that I couldn’t pass it up. This is a switch from my Polar Pure iodine mixture, but I understand AZT water primarily comes in the form of mud pools and cow troughs, so, yeah.

Clothing I will have two lightweight Smartwool t-shirts, two pairs of Pearl Izumi bike shorts, two pairs of wool socks, one pair of Patagonia capeline boxers (for sleeping), one pair of cool weather bike pants, one long sleeve Ibex wool jersey, two pairs of bike gloves, one bike cap, one bike helmet, and one pair of prescription sunglasses. My rain gear will consist of a pair of lightweight GoreTex Patagonia pants and a lightweight Marmot Jacket. My shoes are Shimano XM7’s – also all the rage with the bikepacking crowd these days. They’re rugged and flexible enough to serve as my Grand Canyon hiking shoes as well.

Electronics Honestly, dealing with electronics in the wilderness is kind of a pain. Back on the AT I had a cell phone but hardly ever any service. My parents and I had a scheduled Thursday evening phone call each week, if I recall, and all I had to do was give the phone a charge at a restaurant here and there and everything would work. My camera was a Kodak with regular film and I’d just mail home the exposed rolls. Today, on the other hand, some serious thought has to go into these things! I’ll bring my iPhone which I will use for calls, texts and the occasional photo. My GoPro (with mini tripod) will serve as my primary video and still camera (three SD cards and three rechargeable batteries in tow). My bike headlight, a Scalfano special, is accompanied by two lithium ion batteries and a charger. My Garmin eTrex 30x needs spare lithium AA’s and my Spot Tracker needs spare AAA’s – and I’ll be carrying several of each. Finally, I will bring an Anker PowerCore 20100 which will serve as my on-the-trail charger for everything. It’s fairly high capacity (and therefore heavy) and so I’ll likely have to charge it just a couple times during the trip. Unlike my ride on the Tour Divide, I will not be using a generator hub. I anticipate slow, uneven speeds on the AZT, which makes a generator hub fairly inefficient. Plus, I didn’t want to drop another $200 on a boost-size generator hub!

Cooking and Food My cook set, also a repeat traveler from the Tour Divide, is a GSI Soloist, and my stove is an MSR Pocket Rocket. I have a purple titanium spork as well. I plan to fire up the stove for breakfast and dinner, as I’ve always enjoyed taking the time to cook meals when I can. It’s a reminder to slow down and take things in. Breakfast staples will be rolled oats, brown sugar, walnuts, and coffee (Starbucks Vias). Dinners will generally consist of pasta, tuna, mac and cheese, and other quick prep meals with high calorie counts. I’ll be snacking throughout the day on various energy bars and goo shots, salty chips, and candy. I plan on supplementing my trail food with the occasional restaurant stop whenever I go through town. As always, I’ll be on the lookout for the ubiquitous gas station fried pie. At 1500 calories per pie, those things are bikepacking gold.

Bike Repair Kit Aside from the standard two tubes, pre-glued patches, chain scrubber (toothbrush), chain lube, zip-ties, multi-tool, rag, spare cleat/bolts, and quick links, I always bring along a set of quick link pliers as well – a little heavy for the road, but always come in handy when you have a chain problem. #beenthere

First Aid Well, I’m still a certified NOLS Wilderness First Responder, so I’ll take my brain with me – and maybe my certificate to inspire some confidence. (o: Aside from that, I have some band-aids, gauze, moleskin, Neosporin, a bunch of ibuprofen, and some athletic tape. I’m counting on my knees acting up around day three, so I’ll need to get tape underneath my kneecap and work out that IT band. My Spot Tracker SOS button is always with me as well, albeit a last resort.

Bathroom Kit TP, hand sanitizer, chamois cream, Dr. Bronner’s (for washing clothes and dishes), and a stylish orange titanium cat hole shovel. ‘Nuff said.

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Gazing at the Moon from the Arizona Trail

I’m currently wrapping up a read of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a poetic chronicle of the Mercury Seven astronauts. If you haven’t read the book you’ve probably seen the 1983 movie of the same name. Who can forget Ed Harris’s portrayal of John Glenn, the “Boy Scout” astronaut and first American to orbit the planet? How about Sam Shepard’s swaggering Chuck Yeager, the first man to scream through the upper atmosphere and break the sound barrier (while recovering from a couple of broken ribs and nursing a hangover from the night before no less)? The right stuff, writes Tom Wolfe, is something “a man either had or didn’t! There was no such thing as having most of it.”

These two and many others involved in the early days of NASA are lauded by our nation as some of the most adventurous individuals to ever live, risking their lives for a greater cause. It’s likely that the national focus on a “greater cause” is what actually gave rise to this age of national heroes. Beyond simply beating the Soviets into space, we wanted to test the limits of humanity – scientific, intellectual, creative, emotional, and physical. Collectively, we wanted to see if we could turn our wildest dreams into reality. And so we strapped those who had the “right stuff” to the top of roman candles, lit the fuses, and held our breath. We were bold and courageous, and the payoff was no less than a “giant leap for mankind.”

The 1960’s was a golden age of big ideas, and that same larger-than-life energy that fueled the space race was also at work in the minds of others. With the sky no longer the limit, literally, it seemed that anything was possible. In 1968, caught up in the electrifying spirit of an impending moon landing, Congress joined together to pen some large-scale, gutsy bills a little closer to home. In October of that year it passed the National Trails System Act “to promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the Nation.” The act immediately named the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail and the 2600-mile Pacific Crest Trail as National Scenic Trails, offering them protection and maintenance akin to that the National Parks enjoy. Since the act was passed, over 50,000 miles of trail have been added to the national system. And, in the spirt of the age of their inception, they encourage patrons to hike a little farther, to climb a little higher, and to dream a little bigger than they thought they could.

In a sense, there is a little bit of the moon in these trails, I think. To journey along one is to join with other daring souls in that unique American desire to test limits and break barriers. The National Trails allow everyone the opportunity to discover the “right stuff” within themselves.

Since I doubt I will walk on the moon anytime soon, I might as well get as close as I can by gazing at it on a clear desert night from the Arizona Trail, one of America’s eleven National Scenic Trails. It’s been seventeen years since I completed an end-to-end journey on one of its oldest cousins, the Appalachian Trail, and I have been feeling the need to return. This time, though, I’ll be riding my bike instead of hiking (easier on the knees), I’ll be out for two and a half weeks instead of five and a half months (easier on the job and family), and I’ll be in my forties instead of my twenties (easier to find my way home at the end). No, I’m not looking to risk my life for a greater cause like those early astronauts – the rescue team is only as far away as the button on my Spot Track device – but I am hoping to glimpse a bit of the view that John Glenn had from his small capsule window, a view that might gain me some perspective. How can one not be changed by seeing the swirling, blue-green Earth zip underneath while in rapid orbit around it? How can one not be moved by the grand scope of it all? I realize I won’t be speeding in a spaceship at 17,000 miles-per-hour, but rather chugging along on a bike averaging somewhere around 7. I do hear, though, that the desert, like outer space, has been known to bring a kind of revelation all its own to those who make the journey. I’m counting on it.

A little more about the journey. Unlike the AT, the AZT permits mountain bikes – but that doesn’t mean it’s all rideable. I’ve been told the trail offers some of the best mountain biking there is – and plenty of equally impressive “hike-a-bike” to keep the ego in check. In fact, through the Grand Canyon, hikers are asked to either strap their bike to their back and hike the nineteen miles down and up or shuttle it around the canyon via local motorized transport!

The Arizona Trail spans the entire state, from its southern border with Mexico to its northern border with Utah. For hikers, the trail distance spans just over 800 miles. Bikers get a bit of a break at 750 miles due to reroutes around National Wilderness areas, which don’t allow bikes. There are a number of bikers who have carved out the trail in recent years, some soloists like myself, and others as participants in the annual race, which usually takes place in April. Much like the Tour Divide from Canada to Mexico, the AZT race asks that competitors ride self-supported, carrying all their gear and food, resupplying along the way or via prearranged maildrop, and that they stick to a generally accepted route, of which there are several. Although I won’t be racing with the pack, I plan to follow the rules with one exception. After some serious soul searching, I’ve decided to have my bike shlepped around the Grand Canyon instead of packing it down myself. I’ve disassembled and hoisted the steel Surly beast and all it’s gear onto my back several times and no matter how much I balance and re-balance the weight, 70 lbs is 70 lbs. Of course, I’m still planning to hike through the canyon and camp at one of its historic campgrounds (if I can secure a walk-up backcountry permit, which is apparently something the National Park Service offers to thru-hikers/bikers).

Other than the rugged terrain, and water being somewhat scarce due to the desert climate, enduring the heat can also be a challenge. I will begin my ride on September 22, the beginning of one of two acceptable seasons for a thru-bike (the other being April), however, despite it officially being fall at that point, the weather gods in Arizona won’t necessarily follow suit. It’s predicted to be in the 90’s during my traverse of the Tucson/Phoenix region, but it will most certainly get cooler the farther north I go as the elevation increases. Here’s to sunscreen and a high carrying capacity for water! If all goes as planned, the entire trip should take me seventeen days. That’s approximately fifty miles each day with the exception of the two leisurely ten-mile days I will be in the Grand Canyon.

Download a map of my route and the corresponding elevation relief, or play with the interactive map below.

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