Bikepacking: A First-Timer’s Experience
Bikepacking, to me, has long been this sort of mythological pilgrimage that people take during times of crisis or insanity. I've always viewed it as this unique and ultimate means of escapism through physical torture that cyclists get to tap into when life gets too tough to handle.
In stark contrast to my ridiculous and wrong belief, my life is really good right now. And I've decided that I could use a healthy dose of suffering. The time is ripe to dip my toes in and take on my first pedal-powered, multi-day, bike-packing excursion.
*cue existential breakdown and a flash flood of self-doubt*
Here's the thing about first times: you really have no idea what to expect. You can plan and anticipate and drive yourself nutty (or in my case, absolutely crazy) trying to over-compensate for lack of experience with preparation. But the truth is, “You just don't know until you go.” (That’s what we call a Perry-ism. They are a series of short, rhyming quips that can be pretty much used as someone’s guiding set of principles when it comes to anything involving two wheels. Some other great Perry-isms include “Shred it, don’t fret it!” and “Don’t hide it, divide it!” )
So, I spent days studying articles like "So you think you want to bikepack". I scoured Bikepacking.com for every tidbit of information, squeezing its archives for intel like a sponge. Ultimately, the reading gave me a sense of calm. Reading about other people's misadventures and mistakes made me feel as though I could mitigate my own.
I made a list of things to pack, largely based off the gear of the experienced riders. I laid out my bike bags and systematically began to shove what I could into said bags, attempting to group like-things together in hopes that my exhausted self would remember the formula, rather than deliriously tornado-ing through everything, searching for toothpaste.
Throughout this process, I anticipated the moment when all of my bags would be full, my bike unbearably heavy and fully loaded, while my table of "essential items" remained halfway covered with unpacked gear.
That moment never came. Everything fit into my bags and those bags fit onto my bike. My bike didn’t feel insanely heavy or difficult to handle. I was ready to roll.
*cue deep sigh of relief*
It was refreshing to look at my fully loaded rig and see how little I need to get by, how few things I require to feel comfortable, and to recognize the small number of material objects included in the equation of fun times.
There was a sense of pride that rushed over me as I looked at my bike all loaded up with nutrition, sleeping gear, a fresh change of clothes, toiletries and camera gear. It was my whole world compacted into a 45-pound mobile bundle, tuned up and ready for adventure.
My gear list was abbreviated and my bike was pretty light, largely owing to the fact that I had decided not to buy anything new. Instead I decided to test the gear that I already owned and use this initial journey as a learning experience.
I had absolutely no clue what I was getting myself in to. I came to terms with that fast. After all, my preferred type of adventure is one where I am entirely uncomfortable, neurons firing at maximum capacity to resolve problems that haven't even come up yet.
Anyway, the appeal of the whole trip was that it would be difficult and entirely new to me. Nothing worthwhile comes easy.
And boy oh boy, did I get reminded of that first hand.
- Day One -
After driving 7-and-a-half hours from Colorado Springs, I arrived in Spearfish at 1:30 a.m. the morning of departure. Once I got into town I made a quick pit-stop by the bank to pull out some mad money for the ride and then made a beeline for my mother's house where a warm bed was awaiting me. Thanks, mom.
Sleep did not come easy. My brain was running wild with ideas of what the next few days would bring.
A few hours of tossing and turning rolled the clock to 7:00 a.m. I stirred, brushed my teeth, put on my chamois and pedaled down to the local coffee shop in hopes that some caffeine would compensate for my lack of sleep.
The plan was to meet my former co-worker, an avid cyclist and experienced bike-packer, at the bike shop at 7:30 a.m. I planned to borrow his seat roll bag (as I have yet to get one for myself) and he would stoke my soul by giving me a few invaluable pieces of advice and perhaps a new pedal mantra before I embarked on this big journey.
Or at least, that's how I envisioned it going down.
7:30 arrived, and I waited at the doors of the bike shop, two coffees in hand, breakfast sandwich in mouth, reviewing all of the things that I still needed to do for my bike: air up my shocks, check tire pressure, lube the chain.
7:45 rolled around, two coffees in hand, and doubt flooded through me. Is this where we were supposed to meet? Did I tell him 7:30? Did I even tell him I was leaving today?!
8:00 came and I was truly nervous. I made a desperate phone call to another former co-worker who immediately walked out his front door and came to the bike shop. He was there within 10 minutes.
I was incredibly grateful for my friend Nick. In a way that’s uniquely his, he had single-handedly rescued my trip. I often refer to him as ‘Mr. Unreliable,’ because it consistently causes belly laughter from those who hear it. Nick is one of those friends who would drop everything to be there for his people. His act of kindness reminded me how fortunate I am to have found a community of people who set each other up for success.
I can do this! I was thinking as I spent the remaining 15 minutes fitting a roll bag to my bike for the first time and thanking Nick profusely. Kristi - the gal who invited me on the trip - promptly picked me up to leave by 8:25 a.m.
This unexpected element to my morning was frustrating at the time, but in retrospect, it was a much needed reality check before entering the realm of the unknown.
One of the beautiful things about bikepacking is that you go out into the world with a rough idea of what you will be doing, but you have no idea what will happen between the ‘check-points.’ You have to be able to roll with the punches, accept the challenges, and keep rolling. If you let the small deviations from the plan hold you up, you'll end up calling the whole thing off. Or worse yet, you’ll be miserable the whole time.
The course we had decided on, a Bikepacking.com inspired route, Black Hills Pay Dirt, is roughly 130 miles of mixed condition riding. From reading online I knew that the route would be comprised of rough forest service roads, flowy Black Hills singletrack, some extended sections of gravel bike path, small sections of highway and, quite literally, everything in between. I decided to ride my full-suspension bicycle with a dropper seat post installed so that I could truly maximize my fun on the singletrack sections. Despite the fact that the majority of the riding on this route would be on gravel, I brought the full-squish bike specifically for the last 30 miles of trail we would end up on: The Centennial trail. The icing on the cake, if you will.
True to Ridge Rider tradition where 15 minutes late is right on time, our planned 9:00 a.m. start set us up for a 9:20 a.m. roll out. Our last minute preparations included airing up tires to a firm 30 PSI for the long gravel climb out of town, adding air pressure to our front and rear suspension to support all the added weight of our gear, rearranging the goods inside our bags to make food more accessible and generally building up the stoke required to get through a long day in the saddle.
And then, we were off, pedaling through suburban streets with bikes covered in bags, each carrying everything we could need for the weekend.
A few fluid rotations of the cranks later, we were in the shade of trees, climbing up an abandoned forest service road which must have been too rocky and steep for car traffic. The views were stunning. As soon as we got some elevation, we were surrounded by seas of vivid green, bursting from every canyon crack and cranny.
The sun had over-exposed everything in sight and at times it was difficult to see. The heat was oppressive, hovering somewhere around 90 degrees. I could feel my skin boiling in the direct sunlight. The climb was steep, too, and my hands were so sweaty I could barely grip my bars. The lack of sleep and stress from the morning weighed me down. My legs felt like lead, clumsy and heavy. We were maybe only 12 miles in when, for the first time on this trip, I doubted my ability to make it back full circle to the finish line.
It’s too early for thoughts like this. My mind must be in protest, or looking for ways to get out of something I’m afraid I can’t do. I pushed the thought out of my mind, then lathered a thick layer of sunscreen onto my arms and face. Only getting further and further behind, the little voice in my head chimed in.
I planned on day one being the longest day in the saddle. I was ready to push through the majority of the climbing so that I could enjoy the long, downhill stretch home over the rest of the weekend. This wasn’t an easy goal. The climbing involved 50 miles of mostly gravel and two-track forest service roads totaling nearly 7,000 feet of climbing.
No big thing, right? 7,000 feet of elevation isn’t that much, at least not over an entire day, right?
My riding partner, Michelle, said it best: “Riding a fully weighted bike is a lot like being hammered drunk.” For the first few miles, you wind up feeling clumsy and just plain stupid. My internal dialogue kept ringing, Why are you here?
It was only the first day, yet somewhere along a grueling climb maybe 25 miles in, I began to catalogue the list of things that I had done wrong.
(1) I had only gotten 4 and-a-half hours of sleep before setting out on this venture. My body was quick to remind me that I was sleep-deprived.
(2) I had replaced my 32 tooth front chainring for a 28 tooth in anticipation of steep, technical climbing on a weighted bike. What I didn't anticipate was a fast pace on almost exclusively gravel roads. I was desperate for more power behind my stroke.
(3) I had limited out my highest two gears, effectively turning my 11-speed into a 9-speed cassette in order to avoid any chain-stay damage that might be caused by chain slap on my fully-weighted bike. Basically, I was being a freak about damaging my brand new frame. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that by eliminating a few gears, I would lose the ability to keep up with my friends.
With all of these negatives at the forefront of my mind, I started to feel physically weak. For the second time that morning, I doubted myself and seriously questioned whether or not I had what it would take to finish the route.
But oxygenizing the brain usually provides some clarity. I took a deep breath, checked myself, and decided to make this moment a crux point (aka: do or die moment). I didn't want to spend the entirety of this trip on the brink of bailing out, potentially missing all of the beautiful moments of achievement that I could share with the gang.
I decided I would ride. One small pedal stroke at a time.
In order to keep morale high and sanity present, we had planned a lunch stop in civilization. Once we had pedaled approximately 35 miles and gotten the majority of the climbing out of the way, we reached the town of Lead and stopped for lunch at Lewie's Diner.
That meal was my saving grace.
Beer never tasted as good as it did that day. I relaxed fully into the support of my metal chair and reveled in the precious moments where my only concern was stuffing face.
We payed our dues at the bar and hopped back onto our bikes with roughly 15 miles of riding left for the day. The George S. Mickelson Trail, a 109-mile rails-to-trails, gravel bike path that winds through some of South Dakota's most scenic valleys, aspen tunnels, stream-sides and cliff faces, was like my end-of-meal dessert. A yet unexplored section of trail would connect us to the adjacent town, Rochford, where our friends and fellow riders, Amelia and Diana, would say their goodbyes. The two of them had only planned to ride day 1 of the trip, so this would be the end of the road for our friends.
The Mickelson trail was truly stunning. Wide open valleys would lead you to the side of a canyon wall, over bridges, parallel to streams or through a field of wildflowers. For the first time since we had started pedaling that morning, I was starting to embody the adventurous spirit of our venture.
It was at this point in our journey that the weather began to take an ominous turn. We were expecting rain, but not until later in the evening. Quite suddenly, dark storm clouds began rolling in. Within 20 minutes they were over our heads. The cool wind was a summons to pick up the pace, and thankfully the course was predominantly downhill to the closest town.
Rain pounded down as we pedaled under the wooden patio of a seedy looking place--the patio of a lone bar in a once loved, South Dakota ghost town. There were bras hanging from the ceiling, and the distinct smell of damp, rotting wood coupled with cigarettes and a dog-to-patron ratio that would surprise most humans. I toyed with the idea of hanging my sweat-drenched, smelly sports bra from the ceiling, the fem-warrior-revolutionista inside me fired up by all the lace and frills. I restrained myself, having only packed one sports bra. I decided I would regret abandoning an essential piece of riding gear that early on in the trip.
We waited there for the storm to pass. We waited for the diesel-powered rescue chariot that would carry off two of our six riders. We waited for our clothes to dry. We waited for our energy to come back. And ultimately, amidst all this waiting, time slipped away for me.
We could have been sitting in that bar for 2 hours, 6 days, or a full year. It felt like nothing ever changed between the rotting walls of this time capsule. In a way, the simplicity of the town, mirrored by how I had arrived there and the severity of the storm had me feeling like I had slipped back to the year 1890. The town itself couldn’t have changed much since then anyhow. All of the buildings resembled old wooden farm houses in this one-road town.
I was glad for the mental reprieve of this place, and even more glad to be out of my chamois.
It was refreshing to not have to do anything for a little while. To sit and listen. To mentally shut out nearly everything and meditate on the beer in front of me.
I’d never enjoyed a Blue Moon more.
With the arrival of Diana and Amelia’s ride home came cautionary tales. A major hail storm had dumped from the grey clouds we just barely escaped and had caused major damage not only to the rescue vehicle, but to homes and cars all over the Black Hills. 2.5 inch balls of ice had been reported falling from the sky, and a tornado had struck ground just miles away from us, demolishing miles and miles of trees in its wake.
The news fell flat on me...we were safe. The worst was likely over. I just wanted to set up camp and get some sleep. I couldn't be bothered by the weather. Not while I still had pedaling to do.
The woman tending the bar kindly offered us the front lawn of the bar as a place to set up camp. We were strangely honored, but declined. It wasn’t exactly what we had in mind for our first campsite.
We said our goodbyes to our companions, just as the rain was thinning out. The 4 of us riders hopped back in our saddles and pedaled 5 miles up a gravel road to a heavily wooded flat-land just a few miles short of the nearest campground. This is where we would make camp for the night.
I strapped my hammock around a tree, brushed my teeth, draped my chamois over my bike to dry, then crawled into "bed."
I expected sleep to overcome me instantaneously, but it didn't. It was 15 degrees colder than I had anticipated and I foolishly hadn't packed a sleeping bag. I tossed and turned, chilled to the bone.
Eventually I forged a bivy by draping my hammock over my bike. I curled up on the ground next to a tree to retain some body heat. I floated in and out of consciousness, always on the brink, hyper-aware of the howling coyotes that seemed to be growing ever-closer.
A cricket chirped inches from my ear, something that normally would have annoyed me, but instead lulled me into a calm, relaxed state just as light began to break over the horizon.
- Day Two -
A new day brought renewed stoke for me.
I had not slept well, but I had crossed the barrier of full immersion. No longer was I out for a simple bike-ride. I had pedaled myself out into the unknown by the strength of my own legs, I had spent the night under the stars, made my bed in the grass, and I had full intentions to carry on.
I was starting to smell like nature.
I understood that I had not had a strong start. And I understood that a sleepless night wouldn't play to my advantage. But survival instincts kicked in at some point in the night and a kind of subconscious regenerative black-magic mechanism must have fired up inside me to make me functional.
I hadn't slept, yet I felt borderline spritely.
My camp-mates began to stir shortly after the light broke over the hills. Slowly, methodically, the morning maintenance began: cleaning chains, repacking bags, mixing electrolyte solution into water bottles, finding clean socks, airing up tires, scarfing down nutrition, and, the most memorable part of the morning: packing on some extra calories with a breakfast beer. (You're a brilliant woman, Michelle.)
We began our day two journey downhill, which came as a very pleasant relief. The air was cool and our path paralleled a creek, so we all layered on whatever dry clothes we had squirreled away in our bags.
The forest felt enchanted that morning as the wind howled in my ears. My body surged forward, ever-onward, dodging puddles, wet rocks and downed trees.
It's truly amazing what a few miles of downhill can do for the general disposition.
The trail took us over wide wooden bridges, around hillsides and up a forest road that we very easily could have been the only people to ride in years. At one point, the ladies all stopped to filter water, and I decided to pedal on, glad for the chance to not be holding the group for the first time. I enjoyed the slow grind up the two track. The ground was absolutely drenched from the rain and the two track had transformed into a trickling mudslide turned waterway. It was tricky to keep traction, a little extra mindful than most of the riding thus far had been, and I enjoyed the challenge.
I crested a large hill, maybe 20 minutes after pedaling ahead from the crowd, when the trail became almost unrecognizable. My GPS showed some singletrack veering off to the right, but the tall, prairie grass had grown thick over the trail. I got off my bike to scout. I didn’t want to stray too far from the trail, but I also hoped to be productive by providing a good guess at which way to head once the rest of my troop showed up. But after 10 minutes or so of scouting, I couldn’t find the trail.
This, it would turn out, was the start of what was the legendary Trail 40.
Tall grass, nettle and thistle eventually parted way into a once-heavily-ridden section of trail. The singletrack felt heaven-sent to me. Despite my bike being weighted with gear, it felt like my bike snapped into play once it felt the course thin up underneath its tread. It was game on. I found myself weaving around tight corners, pedaling for speed, ducking for overgrown branches and all around feeling giddy and effortless on a trail I’d never ridden before.
I was having a ball. THIS is what bikepacking is all about, I thought to myself as I yelled out some hoots and hollers, letting my fellow rippers know that I had found my stoke.
The flowy, easy going trail came to a startling end, however, when we came to our first creek crossing. I hoisted my bike up onto my back and walked the knee deep water while the rest of my group untied their shoes, took off their socks and tossed them across the water.
I was amused, taking photos of the crew amiably when they reached the other side, sat back down to dry off their feet and reassemble the proper sock/shoe combination. But when, a quarter mile later, we found another creek crossing standing between us and riding more bike, I was a little less excited to have to wait up for the dry shoe clan.
After four or five creek crossings, the whole group agreed that maintaining dry shoes would just be too arduous on this particular trail and together, we all braved the water, shoes and socks finally drenched in the current.
Ironically enough, it was at this point, or shortly thereafter, that the trail began to have two-foot wide bridges built over the creek, just wide enough to shuffle across with your bike.
The further in that we got, the more marshy and soaked the trail was becoming. I started to wonder if Trail 40 had been named for the number of creek crossings spanning its course.
While I was doing my best to stay outwardly positive, internally, I felt like a fool. My shoulders were worked and exhausted from lifting my weighted bike across the many bridges. My exposed legs were scratched up from brush that had overgrown on the trail, some of which we confirmed was poison ivy. I had failed to bring any rainproof gear in my packing for this trip, and thus I didn’t have a pair of good pants that I could throw on to protect my legs. The few wispy clouds that were in the sky when we began the trail had evolved into a much darker mass that was slowly creeping overhead. The singletrack had turned into thick mud and rock at roughly 8 miles into the trail, and at this point, my willpower pretty much broke. Another thunderstorm? While wading through poison ivy?!
The entire time that our group had been pedaling on wide forest service roads or the gravel of the Mikelson, I pushed through. I endured the mundane riding, knowing with sure confidence that when my tires hit Black Hills singletrack, my stoke would be restored. I knew that all of my silent suffering on roads and park path would be made well worth it once I found some flowy, shreddy trail.
So, at this particular moment, when I found myself on singletrack hiking my bike in mud slightly thicker than pudding and poison ivy up to my shins, I just about lost it.
Michelle and I had been hiking/riding together through the swampy Trail 40. My more experienced trip mates, Kristi and Heather, had both endured this trail before, on a bikepacking race that they had entered the year before, the Black Hills Expedition. The two of them had been riding partners for years, knew each other's’ strengths and weaknesses, and for those reasons (among many more), were able to hold a much faster and more efficient pace than I was. Fortunately for me, my riding partner, Michelle, was also on her first bikepacking trip along with me and was happy to ride with me.
At this moment of near panic, however, I was walking alone.
I had put myself into a weird place mentally, and my physical exhaustion was definitely weighing into it. I hadn’t had a solid hour of sleep in over 36 hours at that point, and my mind had become quite the frivolous guardian of acceptable thoughts to entertain. I was feeling all sorts of down and out on myself, and had begun to feel out of place among my fellow riders.
‘They’re out of my league in strength and fitness,’ I thought while pushing my bike through the latest patch of mud, formerly trail, ‘I’m slowing down the pace and making these bad conditions even harder on everyone.’ I sunk deeper into my pout and seemingly, the mud.
My next few steps were completely void of purpose. I felt defeated.
I was abruptly distracted from my sad mental state when I realized that I was standing on a 4 foot crest of rock and mud. My next few moves would need to be craftily delivered if I wanted my belongings and my drive-train to remain largely mud-free. One wrong move could mean me and my bike would be swimming in mud.
That instant, something in my brain kicked into action and muscle memory took over. In one fell swoop, I leaned the bike to one side and launched myself both into the saddle and in forward motion. I shifted my weight back behind and engaged both my core and shoulders. I weaved the bike between the rocky, jagged features and avoided the pool of mud just to my left.
In another instant, it was over. I was beyond the mental and physical hurdle and back on my bike. I was smiling from the unexpected fun I found myself having and was impressed by how quickly I had opted to ride that tricky section rather than awkwardly try to walk it with my bike.
It seemed that all I needed to regain my stoke was a small reminder that being in the saddle of a bicycle was MY choice. I needed to be reminded that there really wasn’t any thing that I would rather be doing.
It came over me like a flood, how exciting it was to even be out in the woods, exploring new areas, pedaling through the mud. I realized how wonderfully absurd my life was at that moment, how silly I am for doing the things that I do. But all-the-same, I realized how wonderfully privileged I am to be able to make those sorts of choices. I decided that, since I had made up my mind to partake in this bikepacking trip in the first place, I really had no option but to follow through.
To be able to finish the course, I knew that I needed to keep a tighter leash on what dark alleys my mind was given the liberty to wander during this journey.
I pedaled hard to catch up to Michelle. The trail and rocks remained thickly coated with mud, rendering it all pretty much unride-able. When I caught up to her, we were yards away from what would be our last creek crossing on Trail 40. Our other two companions had just finished crossing and we waved and smiled to them as they got back in the saddles of their bike to finish out the trail.
It quickly became apparent to me that Michelle must have had a similar mental battle to mine while we were separated. She was still moving fluidly on trail and with great bike control, but she didn’t have her normal spark of electricity to her riding. I could tell she was pretty burnt.
“Mols, my knee is really bothering me,” Michelle finally said to me after a few minutes of pedaling in silence together.
“Yikes!” I said in response, “I’m sorry, Chelly. Do you want some Ibuprofen?”
“No, I think it’s past that point,” she said sounding defeated. She then told me that she’d already taken an anti-inflammatory earlier that morning.
Something in my very freshly developed new sense of mental fortitude crumpled and cracked right then and there. ‘I guess we’re bailing then,’ I thought. I began to daydream of a warm bath at home and sleeping in the comfort of my bed.
However, a few moments of silent reflection reminded me that her dropping the course did not necessarily warrant mine. I was immediately torn.
I wished that I could split her knee pain in half in that moment. Honestly, I would have gladly bore the pain to put me out of the decision making dilemma that I found myself in. My strange understanding of loyalty to my riding partner made every instinct inside me scream that my own desire to finish the course no longer mattered. My loyalty to my friend was the trump card to my own wishes, apparently. ‘We’re in this together,’ I thought.
“Michelle, if you’re going to bail, I think I’ll go with you. Where do you think you’ll get picked up?” I said, spurring the conversation further along the escape plan route. And while Michelle began to craft the details of our departure from the expedition, my internal dialogue continued. ‘She’s undoubtedly a stronger rider than I am. If she’s cracking, there’s no way that I’m going to make it.’
Everything inside me was ready to end the trip. Clouds were starting to gather overhead and the world was shaded by a continually darkening grey hue as we moved further out of the swampy green woods and towards the highway.
Michelle and I pedaled the last grassy stretch of the unforgettable Trail 40 just as the rain began to come down. The four of us, covered in mud and soaking wet clothes, took over the trail head as we re-organized our bags and searched for any article of clothing that reminded us of freshness. We stuffed food in our faces, took numerous deep sighs of relief, and gave occasional soothing self-massages to our tired and sore shoulders from lifting weighted bikes across dozens of bridges.
Michelle spoke up, “Ladies, I’m going to call for a pick up as soon as we pedal into cell reception. My left knee is killing me.” Understanding poured out of the mouths of our fellow riders. They’d been there before, they knew exactly how she felt. “It’s always smart to take care of your body!” said one of the ladies, as they proceeded to solidify the logistics of her pick up.
All of the while I was silent. Silent because I felt numb with indecision. I would now either have to betray myself and my honest desire to finish what I set out to do or I would have to betray my loyalty to my friend.
I wanted to vomit.
We pedaled a mile up the road, toward another South Dakota ghost town. The rain was really coming down at this point. I was soaked, cold, exhausted and now sick to my stomach with indecision.
We found an old school house with a covered porch under which we took temporary shelter from the rain. We refilled water bottles from a pump and continued to munch while Michelle found reception and made her SOS call. She made plans to get picked up just 8 miles down the road at a burger shop. The whole group was glad to have a warm destination to eat and dry off for a while. But as for me, despite how excited I was by the prospect of a heater and warm food, I dreaded our arrival at the Sugar Shack.
Under the porch of the Sugar Shack, I laid out every article of clothing I had brought with me atop my bike to dry. Everything was soaked, so I was thrilled at the idea of having something dry to wear in the near future. Warm food arrived and it seemed like clarity and good feelings poured back into me with every bite. Soon after, Michelle’s partner arrived with their two dogs. Her elation at their arrival was incredibly gratifying to see. For the first time in hours, she looked happy, and I knew in that instance that bailing on the trip was the right move. For her.
In that same instant, I decided to stay and finish out the trip. That sense of loyalty that I had felt - to not abandon my partner - I realized was pretty misplaced. Cycling is an individualized sport, and while, yes we have people we ride with and those we go so far as to deem our ‘riding partners,’ ultimately, we learn our own lessons out there in the saddle. We can share experiences, and moments, and trail, but that’s as far as it goes. We can’t truly share personal successes. To Michelle, her great victory was getting out there, enjoying the company and experiencing new trail. But for me, the goal was to do something I didn’t think I was capable of. I would be failing as a riding partner if I wasn’t loyal to THAT.
We said our goodbyes to Michelle and waved as we watched her car fade out of sight. The three of us remaining were all quite somber in that moment. I think we were all somewhat jealous of the warm clothes and bed she was about to go home to.
The rain started to let off, and we decided to make the most of that by continuing onward and seeking out a place to make camp for the night. The gravel roads were soaked through but still much easier to pedal than the trail had been.
We pedaled maybe another 4 miles before finding our place to stay for the night: a secluded hill-top, just above the little-trafficked highway we would be pedaling up the next morning. The three of us each unpacked our bags again, set our belongings out to dry further, and began to set up camp. Both Heather and Kristi had brought their own light-weight tents, sleeping bags and weather resistant tent covers. Originally, I had thought this to be over-kill for a short weekend trip. ‘I’ll just rough it,’ I thought, choosing not to borrow or buy additional equipment to what I already owned when I agreed to go on this trip. What I didn’t realize at the time of making that decision, was that it would literally keep me up at night, deeply craving sleep.
Shortly after the sun went down, it started to rain. I laid in my hammock, very awake and frozen from the wind breezing past underneath me, listening to the rain smack hard against the tarp I had strung mere inches above my face. Every raindrop felt like a personal taunt. ‘You REALLY think you can handle it out here, huh?’
Again, I felt my mental fortitude being compromised. I really wasn’t prepared for this. What the hell have I gotten myself into? I felt on the brink of something, like at any second my sanity could snap and I would break out into a scream, unable to bare the sound of another raindrop. And then, as I was cold and shaking with frustration, the weight of the water pooled on top of my tarp caused it to tilt to one side, drenching me and my sleeping bag with nearly frozen rain water.
I wanted to cry, but all I could manage was a laugh. I couldn’t believe that I had gotten myself into this mess. I laid there for a minute, water soaking my clothes further and further through. You’ve made it this far, Molly. This has to be the worst of it.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get any sleep by pulling my trick from the night before: the ground was soaked. It was either spend another night awake, exhausted and alone with my thoughts of self doubt, or do something drastically different.
“Kristi…” I called out into the darkness, in hopes that somehow, she was still awake too.
I waited a minute before I called out again, this time louder, “Kristi…”
Something stirred in her tent. I got out of my hammock and walked over, unzipped the tent just enough to stick my head in. “Kristi, I’m freezing out here. Any chance you’d let me come sleep in here with you?”
“Of course,” she said groggily, yet still in her characteristically cheerful tone, “Come on in.”
Wet but warm from the collective body heat, I felt sweet relief. I felt overwhelmed with the kindness of my friend and humility from how drastically I had underestimated the conditions we had faced. But I hardly had but a few moments to absorb these feelings, because very shortly after taking shelter in Kristi’s tent, I fell fast asleep.
- Day Three -
I woke up warm for the first time on this trip. It was quite a feat of mental strength that I crept out and left the warmth of the tent when I did. Nature or nurture has evolved me into one of the best sleepers known to man. And playing catch up as I was, I felt I could have slept forever.
The ground was peanut buttery from the rain that lasted through the night. From what I could tell, it must have only stopped an hour or so ago.
Every article of clothing that I had brought with me was soaked through and cold. My dry bags had failed and each of them, despite hanging from a branch of a tree, had a small puddle of water in the bottom of it. Fortunately, none of my technology was destroyed.
My hammock was soaked through. My shoes let off a steady stream of water when I went to put them on. The outside temps were pretty chilly too, but I was thankful for no wind. Again, I was angry at myself for how poorly I had prepared.
Fortunately, we were beginning the final leg of the trip, and I knew that as soon as my rear was back in the saddle, my anger would melt away and I could channel all of my energy into efficiency once more.
We packed up our tents as quickly as we could, because the morning air was cold and we knew that shortly after we’d start pedaling, we’d arrive for a warm prepared breakfast.
Once everything was back on our bikes and ready to roll, Kristi offered Heather and I both a shot of something out of her flask. Both of us glanced at each other searchingly. Morning shots are quite unexpected from our friend, Kristi.
“Another year wiser, or something like that..” she cheers as she raised the flask up and took a swig, and suddenly it all clicked for me. ‘Today is her birthday, that’s probably the whole reason we’re out here, to celebrate her way.’ I thought. Then I took my swig, reveling in how glad I was to be in the company of women who choose to spend their weekends expanding their horizons on pedal powered ventures.
It was approximately a 6 mile downhill pedal to the breakfast joint. When we arrived, we thought the worst: the place looked abandoned and closed. But upon further inspection, it was open, just empty. The three of us unpacked our bags full of wet clothes and hung them on the rails on the porch of the restaurant, hoping they might catch some sunlight soon.
When I walked through the front door of the building, warmth hit me like a wall. It felt heavenly. I stopped dead in my tracks just to soak it in. I will never take the warmth for granted again, I thought to myself while I basked in it.
Heather, Kristi and I sat down with warm mugs of coffee in our hands and enjoyed a slow start to our day. When Kristi’s breakfast burrito arrived, Heather brought out candles that she had packed and ridden all 80+ miles with. She lit them for Kristi to blow out. It was a sweet gesture and an honest display of their friendship.
I was so glad to have found myself in the presence of two women who encourage each other, empower one another to do hard things (like embark on a 500 mile singletrack race together), and who have maintained an intimate friendship for decades. Sitting across the table from the women who had invited on this bikepacking trip, I was inspired. I felt so appreciative that I had this pair of rad women to show me the ropes. I couldn’t help but miss Michelle in this moment and to hope that our friendship would lead us toward epic adventures like Kristi’s and Heather’s had.
We decided not to linger after breakfast, so we packed up our now nearly dry clothes and pedaled to the gas station across the highway for a snack refill. Then it was back to the grind. 15 miles of steep uphill highway grinding, then 20 plus glorious miles of (mostly) downhill Black Hills singletrack! This was the cherry on the cake that I had been holding out for. Just 15 quick miles on the highway to get through first….
Well, those 15 miles felt more like 40. My legs felt like pure grade lead. Each pedal stroke required complete devotion, otherwise I would have hopped off my bike and walked most of it. Sometimes, I would. The highway would climb to above a 13% grade, and I would think I couldn’t bare another rotation. For 20, maybe 30 seconds max, I would stumble up the asphalt, slumped, pushing my weight into my 50 pound bicycle. Then, I would feel ridiculously inefficient and start pedaling again. My friends, Kristi and Heather may as well have been light years ahead of me, way beyond my line of sight.
About 10 miles into the highway, the two of them had waited up for me to let me know that the singletrack would likely be too muddy to ride, and we would be pedaling further up the highway to get to a section of trail that sees more direct sunlight. “That might be ride-able,” said Heather skeptically.
Great news, I thought as, exhausted, my eyes rolled into the back of my head. I breathed deep and then thanked my friends for waiting up for me.
I learned from Heather that there was another trailhead up the road about 8 miles. I looked at my computer, Right, 8 miles. That will put me at 106 miles. I can count it down while I ride. Head down, I got back on my saddle and chased the two of them up the road. It was just a handful of minutes before their pace had taken them well out of my line of visibility, and again I was pedaling alone. My legs felt so tired and heavy, that on some of the steeper climbs, I was hiking my bike. I felt pathetic and completely depleted of energy. Nonetheless, I craved the moment when my tires would meet the dirt and my ride stoke would be amazingly regenerated by the singletrack.
Seven and a half miles to go.
For those seven and a half miles, I barely broke my gaze away from my cycling computer. My only distraction from my achy legs was watching the digital transformation of the metrics on my screen. I knew that the 8 mile estimate that Heather had given me to the trailhead was exactly that, and estimate, but I had needed SOMETHING, some end point of my highway-grinding-achy-bodied-misery to latch onto.
Eight miles came and I saw nothing. No trail head. No cyclists. Nothing. I must still be short of it, I thought. Any minute now.
Nine miles passed.
Then ten. Still no sight of my friends. I imagined their bikes leaned up against a wooden trailhead post, themselves splayed out in the shade of tree-canopy, waiting for me to catch up so we could begin the singletrack together. A mile more and still I couldn’t find them.
At mile 11 there was a turn off, and I wondered if I had missed an instruction to find the trailhead. I pedaled past the road, then quickly doubled back. This must be it.
The road descended quickly and before I realized it, I had dropped 500 feet in a little less than a mile. My eyes were searching, but found nothing that even slightly resembled a trailhead. I quickly realized that if Kristi and Heather were looking for me, they wouldn’t think to pedal down this side road. I decided to book it back to the highway.
I began retracing the route up which I had pedaled. I maybe went a mile before feeling my efforts were futile. Still no sign of Kristi or Heather. It was hot outside and I was sweating. I felt defeated in so many ways. I also felt guilty for putting a major kink in our plan. I hated being a problem. Why couldn’t I have just kept up?!
I stopped on the side of the road for 5 minutes and just waited. Maybe they’ll find me. But mental images of the two of them flowing down singletrack with their weighted bikes eventually convinced me to just keep moving. Sooner or later, I’d see them again.
And that’s how I found myself bombing down a highway at 25 miles an hour, miles away from the singletrack I had hoped to ride, descending back into the town of Sturgis to end my weekend adventure.
Every pedal stroke was filled with minor panic. I’m freezing, I would think, I wouldn’t be this cold if I were actually working for my miles on the Centennial Trail.
My mental dialogue continued, I wonder if Heather and Kristi are freaking out right now. How could I ruin the trip like this? This is crazy.
20 minutes later, I was in the outskirts of town. It felt wildly bizarre --- how abruptly I had gone from ‘in the thick of it’ to ‘all over.’ This feeling of course was highlighted by the glaring section missing from my roster, the trail that I had most been looking forward to.
A mile to Kristi’s sister’s house. A half-mile.
Will they be there waiting? Are they still up on the highway searching for me? Where are they?
I laid in the grass while the sun licked every inch of my exposed skin. I buried my face underneath layers of unworn clothes from my bike while I shut my eyes and a neighborhood dog barked at me.
I was flooded with emotions. I was sad for the adventure to be over. Bitter over having had missed the fun singletrack descent. Excited at the prospect of sleeping in a bed relatively soon. Anxious to learn how my companions had fared through the confusion. But mostly upset at myself for allowing this to happen.
I was mortified for the trouble and stress that I must have caused them. The singletrack could no longer be that long awaited bliss we had all hoped for. Not with your mind plagued by the unknown location of your friend. How could I possibly have messed this up? I thought.
I tried to close my eyes and clear my mind. Both proved difficult. Instead, I put my eyes into a squint and focused on the way that the sunlight filtered through my lashes. An hour must have passed, just laying in the grass outside of a strangers home, dogs barking at me, bringing attention to my trespassing.
Maybe an hour passed, laying in the grass on the same suburban street we had first pedaled on to start our adventure. “There you are!” I heard Kristi laughing as she got closer.
“Ah, Kristi, I’m so sorry..” I started before she interrupted, “You have nothing to be sorry about. That kind of stuff happens!” I still felt so much shame.
“Where’s Heather?” I asked.
“She’s riding the singletrack back into town. She hired a nanny for the weekend and she didn’t want to squander the day. So I pedaled down the trail to catch her and told her that I would be chasing after you.”
“Aww, Kristi,” I said, genuinely moved by her concern, “You didn’t have to do that!”
“I know, but I didn’t want you to finish out your first bikepacking trip on your own. That’s just not right,” she said smiling at me. I leaned in to give her a hug.
I knew immediately how lucky I was to have a friend like her. She had invited me on this journey in the first place, acting as a guide into the unknown. She welcomed me into her tent when I was cold and soaked out in the rain: a protector from the elements. And even on her birthday, when things went awry on the trip, she sacrificed the most fun part, just to make sure I didn’t feel alone.
“Thank you for coming for me,” I finally said as we were loading up our bikes onto her car rack, “It means a lot, Kristi.”
“Oh,” she said, almost blushing, “You’d do the same for me, I know.”
And then we silently loaded into the car and began the drive back home. Back into the world of the known.
It's not every day that we truly get to say that we pushed our limits a bit further out.
As a woman, I have to say that this trip had a special sheen of magic for me. It was inexplicably rewarding to be surrounded by fully capable and strong women. I had every bit of confidence that if something had gone wrong majorly for us, we would have had the means to handle the situation together.
This trip was a learning experience. And as cliche as I know that sounds, it's true. It didn't drastically change the course of my life. I didn't have any "AHA!" moments on trail, and while the conditions felt tough enough to give me a mental beating, I knew that I had made it tougher on myself by being stubborn and not bringing the appropriate gear. I would never make that mistake again.
The most important change or mental shift that happened for me on this trip was my realization that I need to reframe the way I think about my bicycle. It's so much more than a toy, a plaything or a means for recreation. It's more than my trusty steed. It's an enabler for BIG adventure. It is a tool for sharpening and bettering myself and my own capabilities. Moreover, it's so much more capable than I had been treating it.
In reflection on the whole experience, it would be so fulfilling to be able to look back and say, 'Yes, bikepacking has changed my life, and here's how...' But rather, I find myself changed in subtle, less identifiable ways.
Nowadays, I see my bike less as a trophy to be maintained and cleaned to perfection. For as long as I've been biking, I have fostered a deep, all-consuming, anthropomorphizing, entirely rapturing, one-sided relationship with this object that would never love me back. Or miss me when I wasn't riding it. Or return my loving gaze.
Now, I have been initiated into a (perhaps) more healthy projection where my bike is seen as my most valued tool--maybe even as an extension of my own body--to get used and abused, scratched and worn, each blemish telling a story of trial and triumph.
Often times now, I opt to ride my bike to work, to the grocery store or to go hang out with friends. This may seem small and insignificant, but I never considered urban cycling an option when I was growing up. Now, I realize that suffering on the road is significantly more fun from the saddle of a bike than from the seat of a car. And now, the world of bike commuting is wide open for me.
Bikepacking doesn’t have to be everyone’s thing. And while I don’t think I’ll be planning once-a-month overnighters from here on out, I do, with certainty, know that I will try it again. Next time, more humble and better prepared. On the next trip, I’ll challenge myself a little more, and hopefully come out the other side a little stronger and a lot more in love with my bicycle.