“The more time I spend alone the more I feel comfortable being alone.” – Lael Wilcox
That quote really resonated with me as I watched Fast Forward, the short film about Lael Wilcox’s AZT attempt, for a second or third time at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Not only did it resonate with me but it shocked me. You see, I have a tendency of putting other endurance athletes up on pedestal and projecting super human qualities onto them, in the process I often ignore the fact that they are regular people just like me. While their accomplishments are impressive they do not achieve such accomplishments without facing the challenges that I face myself. When I actually listened to Lael say those words instead of just hearing them I knew it was time to stop making excuses. If I really wanted to get into ultra-endurance racing I needed to start making myself uncomfortable.
With a new found determination to check one of my New Year’s resolutions off the list I started to think about my first solo bikepacking trip. After picking one of the last available weekends left in 2016 I had a few constraints to work around which made planning easier.
- I only had Friday night available
- I had to work Friday morning
- I did not want to set up camp in the dark
- I wanted to ride my Salsa Cutthroat
- I wanted plenty of options for riding on Saturday morning
All of these things made the choice easy but I still wasted several hours looking at Google Maps and Strava on Thursday and Friday before I finally decided to ride out to Seven Springs Recreation Area in the Tonto National Forest. It’s close to home, I know the route and the riding is easy. The weekend was more about camping then riding so there was no reason to make it more difficult than it needed to be.
Thursday afternoon I started packing up all of my gear. Usually Ryan carries the tent, bike repair kit and first aid kit and I carry odds and ends that don’t fit on his bike or some of the kitchen and photography equipment. I typically put my sleeping bag in my handlebar bag and carry everything else in the saddle bag or on my back. However, with all the extra gear, particularly the tent, that set up was not going to work. To save some space I opted to take Ryan’s Mountain Hardware Hyperlamnia sleeping bag because it packs down really well and takes up about a third of the space that mine does. After laying out all of my gear I started carefully securing everything on my bike. Ryan usually does this for me so my test in self-sufficiency started before I even left the house. Luckily the tent fit perfectly between my handle bars so I decided to strap it directly to the bars instead of using the handle bar bag. I kept tugging at the straps and quickly became frustrated when I kept pulling them in circles around the tent instead of actually tightening them. I let out an exasperated moan and then Ryan stopped observing to graciously show me a little trick! With the tent snug on the bars I started to cram everything else into my saddle bag. I was fairly confident that Seven Springs would be flowing with plenty of water but decided to load up my Osprey day pack with two extra liters just in case. I try to avoid carrying water on my back whenever possible because it is extremely heavy but the inconvenience outweighed the risk and gave me piece of mind. All of my gear weighed in at about forty-nine pounds, over ten pounds lighter than past trips even with the extra gear. Thanks to trading in my Surly Pugsley for the Cutthroat.
Friday afternoon arrived and despite my nerves I left the house to drive out to the Bronco Trailhead. The trailhead is only five miles from the campground so it was a quick ride from there. As soon as I started pedaling I was amazed at how well my bike handled under all of the gear. I loved it! The ride to the campground was quick and easy. The skies were blue, the air was clean and the temperature was perfect. I enjoyed the fall colors in the canyons, the flowing water in the creek and arrived at the campsite around 4 PM. The campground is relatively small with twelve sites along one road that dead ends at the end of the canyon. When I got there I pedaled all the way to the end of the road scoping out the available sites and taking note of the other campers I’d be spending the night with. At the end of the road there was group of nonchalant looking older men who were a little rough around the edges [one was taking a piss on the side of the road as I rode by]. I figured they were harmless but decided I didn’t want to camp next to them so I rode back towards the front of the campground passed another group of three older women and one man excitedly setting up at two campsites near the restrooms. The women were singing and laughing while they set up their tents and played fetch with their dog so I figured they would make good neighbors. I scoped out the sites near them and after riding back and forth between two sites on either side of the road about five times I finally picked the one that was on the banks of the dry creek bed with a beautiful Sycamore tree in the center of the site. I was a little unsure with my choice because I thought the creek bed might be a good place for animals to hang out at night and I wasn’t sure if there were any kind of rules about not setting up your tent under a tree. Despite my lingering doubts it looked like a nice flat spot for the tent so I parked my bike and got busy unloading my gear. It didn’t take long to set up the tent and with each task I completed I felt a sense of accomplishment. I must have had a subtle but smug grin of contentment plastered on my face the entire weekend.
Next I took on what turned out to be one of the harder tasks of the weekend, inflating my sleeping mat. At first it inflated quickly but then all my huffing and puffing became futile, it seemed like every time I stopped for an inhale the entire thing deflated again. I tried to channel my inner yogi and use some pranayama breathing techniques but that did nothing. After a while I felt light headed so I decided to take a little break and come back to it later. I changed into some warmer clothes, talked to my neighbors for a few minutes and got my kitchen supplies out for dinner. After trying a few more attempts at inflating my mat I still had plenty of daylight left and wondered what I wanted to do, there was no cell service so I wouldn’t be wasting anytime on social media. After a short internal dialogue I decided to ride my bike back to the tree filled canyon near the Seven Springs road crossing to look at the fall colors. I passed some time there and then rode back to camp to make my dinner before it got dark. Dinner was uneventful but as the sun started to set the temperature quickly dropped. I finished eating, made a cup of tea and then crawled into my sleeping bag to read and warm up. It was only 7:30 PM, but one of my favorite things about camping is letting my internal clock follow the sun.
Restful sleep eluded me for most of the night because of the cold temperature, it got down to about 36 degrees in the canyon. I bundled up in all of my clothes including my puffy jacket, hat and gloves, but my feet and legs froze. The tent was a huge desolate and boreal space without the extra body warmth from Ryan and Charlie. I tucked myself into the fetal position and tried to wrap the extra fabric tightly around me with my head completely submerged into the bag. There was no wind and without Ryan or Charlie’s restful, rhythmic breathing I had only silence and the freezing cold to lull me to sleep.
I awoke with a jolt and searched for the mummy hole with my arms freeing my face from the bag when cars with loud music came plowing into the canyon. The music was so loud. I made sure my pepper spray was still within reach and looked at my watch and it was already 12:30. It was hard to tell how many cars had come down into the canyon, but it I counted at least three or four. Two came into the campground and I worried they might run me over or try to set up camp on top of me since my tent and bike hardly occupied the space. After loudly passing through the cars turned around and drove back out of the campground passing my tent again. One of the cars stopped and someone got out, I listened as the person made a few paces in the dirt, then got back into the car as it took off as loudly as it came. I began regretting leaving my backpack on the picnic table several feet away from my tent. I wondered if my backpack had been stolen but I wasn’t about to get out of my sleeping bag to check. A few minutes later the cars must have found a spot to pull over because the sound from the engines and gravel crunching under the wheels was replaced by yelling and laughter with loud music still buzzing in the background. My vivid imagination started running wild as I envisioned demonic and frightening scenes from the book Dark Places. What were these meth heads doing out here, I thought. As quickly as those thoughts came I started telling myself to stay calm and convinced myself that these people were just getting a late start to their weekend, maybe they got stuck working at their professional and respectable jobs late, after all how many times had Ryan and I set up camp late at night after a day of driving?
The next time I looked at my watch I was pleasantly surprised to see it was already 4:45 AM. It would still be a while before the sun came up so I fired up my kindle and read another short story. Finally there was enough light for me to walk to the bathroom without the use of my headlamp so I quietly crawled out of the tent. My plan was to start boiling some water and crawl back into my sleeping bag to try and stay warm. My thumbs were so numb that I could not turn the jet boil knob to let any fuel out. I rubbed my hands together to warm them up, disassembled the jet boil so I could have better leverage on the knob to loosen it and then put it all back together. After completing that simple task my hands were freezing again and I could not get my Bic Lighter to ignite. I kept spinning the sparkwheel until my thumb felt raw, no luck. I shook the lighter to make sure there was still fuel, there was. A panicky feeling of defeat started to wash over me so I decided to start cleaning up camp to warm up my hands and then try it again. This worked and when I came back I finally got the jet boil going. Unfortunately the flame was pathetic. I felt like I was trying to boil a pot of water over a candle on a birthday cake. I’m not sure if the weak flame was due to low fuel, the cold temperature or the burner setting. I kept turning the knob in either direction trying to adjust the fuel setting but it made no difference. I set a cup of water above the flickering flame while I packed up everything from my tent. When I returned, the water was barely lukewarm but I was loosing patience and decided to pour the water into my oatmeal. I did not want to wait any longer because Ryan planned to meet me on Seven Springs Road during his four hour ride that morning and I was determined to pack everything up and leave camp before he got there. I did not want him to get there and start helping me. Besides my stubborn fixation on accomplishing my goal, I was absolutely freezing and desperately wanted to start riding my bike to warm up.
I rolled up my tent on the first attempt as my neighbors walked by on their way to collect some firewood. They congratulated me on surviving the night and said they worried about me when it got so cold. They also said to tell my husband that he has an awesome wife. They were so sweet! I was surprised how easy it was to get everything back onto my bike and set out shivering in the direction I had come to look for Ryan. It didn’t take long to run into him, I pedaled a half a mile up the road and saw him as I rounded a corner heading back toward the creek crossing. A huge smile spread across his face as he shouted “Alright!” I turned around and rode with Ryan filling him in on the details from my night. We stopped for a break at the top of a long climb an hour into the ride so I could eat my breakfast. As I dismounted off of my bike Ryan climbed up the hillside and I coarsely asked him what he was doing as he tossed a large rock back down to the road. “Getting a rock for you to sit on,” he kindly replied. As I walked over to take a seat I looked at him and said, “but Ryan this is supposed to be a self-supported trip!”