BUNYAN VELO The Bikepacking Journal Issue No. 07
BUNYAN VELO ISSUE No. 07 – OCTOBER 2017
The Bikepacking Journal
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Mike Riemer, Tanner Warnick, Mark Sirek, Theresa McDevitt, Sophie Jefferson, Scott Felter, Jerry Bowles, Martina Brimmer, Jason Goodman, Randi Jo Smith, Tim and Odia Krueger, Devin O’Brien, Peter Discoe, Lynn and Mark Speral, Vince Asta, Pat Murphy, Whitney Ford-Terry, Neža Peterca, and Brad Cole. CONTRIBUTORS
Mikkel Soya Bølstad Joel Caldwell Joe Cruz Olivia Cuenca Zach Dolinaj
Colt Fetters Alex Gandy Dakota Graff Marius Nilsen Ben Page Jona Riechmann
Sarah Swallow Tom Swallow Morgan Taylor Eric Timmerman Franziska Wernsing
Cover: Ben Page Opposite: Eric Timmerman Following: Lucas Winzenburg
All content copyright 2017 Bunyan Velo. Contributions have been used with permission and are copyright original sources. No unauthorized reproduction without written consent.
MADE IN MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA
EDITOR’S NOTE We’re back? We’re back! Phew, it feels damn good to be able to share another issue of Bunyan Velo with you today. This time around, Zach rides his first 100-mile day, then does it again every day for a month. Ben struggles to traverse the land of the horse on two wheels. Sarah and Tom are among the first people to pedal the new Baja Divide route. Alex is repeatedly inspired by the kindness of strangers he meets along the road from Istanbul to Bangkok. Joe, Joel, Logan, and I can barely process the intense beauty we find while riding (and sometimes pushing) our bikes across Kyrgyzstan. All of us ultimately find our lives enriched by the places and people we encounter from the saddle. It’s now been nearly five years since I had the idea to create a magazine dedicated to experiencing the world by bicycle, and what a ride it’s been. If this is your first time opening Bunyan Velo, welcome! You’ve got some catching up to do, and I hope you’ll stick around. To those of you who have been patiently waiting for this new issue, thanks for coming back. It’s good to see you again. Please consider supporting this independent publication by sharing it with a friend, making a small donation, or purchasing a copy at bunyanvelo.com. Onward, Lucas Winzenburg Founder and Creative Director
CONTRIBUTORS BUNYAN VELO 07
MIKKEL SOYA BØLSTAD Mikkel Soya Bølstad is a Norwegian photojournalist, author, and public speaker. His latest book, Villmarkssykling (Wilderness Biking), aims to bring the bikepacking wave to Norway and to highlight and explore the vast possibilities of trail riding there. Mikkel is a columnist and regular contributor for the Norwegian mountain bike magazine Terrengsykkel and has published articles in most of Norway’s outdoor magazines, as well as several pieces in Sidetracked magazine. Follow his adventures with family, friends, and Banjo the bikepacking dog on Instagram @mikkelsoya.
COLT FETTERS Colt Fetters is a bicycle enthusiast, mediocre climber, wannabe photographer, connoisseur of baked goods, and averagely stoked young male. He grew up exploring the Cascade Mountains of Washington State and has recently been converted to a southern gentleman by nature of a move to Auburn, Alabama, where he works as an outdoor educator for a large university. Colt is at his happiest when he is riding his loaded bicycle through the woods with a camera and a canned beer stashed deep in his frame bag. You can follow along with his travels on Instagram @coltfetters.
JOEL CALDWELL Joel Caldwell is an expedition photographer and writer based in New York. He uses outdoor adventure to tell conservation stories. Hailing from the mighty Toledo, Washington, Joel lived in Montana and Colorado before heading east. Lately, he’s been working in Central Asia, documenting snow leopard conservation in the Pamir and Tian Shan Mountains. See Joel’s work at joelcaldwell.com.
ALEX GANDY In 2013-14, Alex Gandy cycled from Istanbul to Bangkok, documenting the journey on his blog at cycling-east. com. He’s now settled back into life in the UK, but still pines for those footloose days out on the road. He fills his time exploring the roads and trails of Devon and Cornwall, seeking out surf and wild camping. Alex will soon be self-publishing a (very) limited edition, hand-bound book of photography that examines and celebrates the many acts of hospitality he was fortunate to experience on his journey across Asia.
JOE CRUZ Joe Cruz is a professor, writer, and expedition cyclist. He teaches Philosophy and is Chair of the Cognitive Science program at Williams College. Joe has toured and raced bikes the world over for almost 30 years, and he has always preferred culture and people and conversation over adventure for the mere sake of daring. Joe splits his time between his native New York City and southern Vermont. Find him on Instagram @joecruzpedaling and at joecruz. wordpress.com.
ZACH DOLINAJ Zach Dolinaj grew up on the crushed limestone roads of the Driftless bluff country of eastern Iowa before moving to Minnesota for school. He departed the USA, got hooked on bikes, and spent years cruising the hutongs of Beijing before coming home to explore the lesser-known routes in and around Minneapolis, his home base. He enjoys excessively long rides, sleeping under the stars, and racing cyclocross around the Midwest. He’s been photographing and writing about adventure, bikes, and other stuff under various aliases for the better part of a decade. He posts on Instagram @insta_zach.
Dakota Graff is a young coffee professional who spends most of his time traveling and thinking about his next fresh cup. He combats the caffeine jitters by long bike rides with his best friends and copious amounts of tacos. As a reformed BMX bike rider, he now rips through the Ozark Mountains on big bikes while sleeping outside as often as possible. His camera tags along for many adventures. You can find him speaking broken Spanish wherever the cerveza and tacos are flowing. Find him at dakotagraff.com.
Marius Nilsen is a photographer and brand strategist based in Oslo, Norway. Having growing increasingly fond of multi-day, long-distance riding, Marius finds himself leaving the city more and more often, riding further and further each time. This summer, Marius and a friend rode 2,300 km over 12 days with 27,000 meters of climbing, starting in Kiel, Germany, riding southeast through Europe and across the alps into Venice, Italy. See some of his work at mariusnilsen.com and on Instagram @mariusnilsen.
BEN PAGE In 2014, Ben Page set off to cycle around the world. He quickly discovered the joys of bikepacking and has since pedalled his fatbike across five continents, hunting down as much adventure as he can. Along the way he has been documenting his experiences through photos and films. To follow the journey, head to anotherhorizon.org or check him out on Instagram @another.horizon.
ERIC TIMMERMAN AND OLIVIA CUENCA Eric Timmerman and Olivia Cuenca are artist/designers based in Austin, Texas. After completing both the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail on foot, Eric had the brilliant idea to ride his bike around the world. After having met Eric just twice, Olivia had the brilliant idea to join him. They’ve since been cycling throughout Asia for a year and will be continuing on through Europe and South America. Check out ridingwild.org for their blog or follow them on Instagram @ridingwild.
SARAH SWALLOW In 2015, Sarah closed her bicycle shop in Ohio and set out to pioneer the Dirt Road Trans America Trail (TAT) by bicycle. After the 5,000-mile journey was completed she continued to bikepack through the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, California, and Baja California. Now, as a professional adventure cyclist for Specialized Bicycles, Sarah lives nomadically by way of her bicycle, van, and the generosity of friends. She makes and tests new routes and shares her experiences in an effort to inspire more people to engage with the world by bicycle. Follow her travels on Instagram @sarahjswallow.
FRANZIKSA WERNSING AND JONA RIECHMANN In 2012, Franziska Wernsing and Jona Riechmann left Germany to travel the globe for five years. Their passion for the outdoors first took them on a 3,000 km walk across New Zealand. After that, they wanted to change things up, so they traded in their backpacks for bikes and rode from the bustling streets of Iran to the open steppe of Mongolia. Their second ride took them from Alaska to Chile. Half way across the USA, they sold their panniers and road bikes, opting instead for bikepacking rigs. Since, they’ve explored many routes across Mexico and South America, always on the hunt for wild and remote places.
LUCAS WINZENBURG Every now and then, Lucas Winzenburg publishes an issue of this very magazine. When he’s not doing that, Lucas spends his time working on photo projects, a handful of which have recently been featured by Adventure Journal, Leica Camera, and elsewhere around the web. Lucas only has a single photo published in this issue, but he likes seeing his name in print. He’s currently making his way toward the Balkans and Middle East for long ride on his mountain bike. See some blurry black and white photos on Instagram @lucaswinzenburg.
Tom Swallow spent a lot of time on a bike as a kid. He would ride around town with no real aim, making good use of curbs, gutters, and other man-made terrain for fun while exploring. Tom sees riding bikes as one of his best modes of self-expression. He keeps riding because it’s useful, healthy, fun, cheap, and limitlessly open to creative interpretation. He has spent months at a time camping and riding dirt. Tom likes to connect the dots and ride without a rigid route, just following the most fun line. If he’s in your town, let him sleep on your floor, share some coffee, or show him your favorite commute. MORGAN TAYLOR Morgan Taylor is a writer and photographer from North Vancouver, British Columbia. He tinkers with bikes as much as he tinkers with words, coming up with ideas for both while spinning pedals. He’s a bicycle generalist and a big proponent of helping others find their ideal experience on a bike. You can keep up with Morgan, his wife Stephanie, and their four-legged sidekick Denver on Instagram @foundinthemountains.
CONTRIBUTE Interested in sharing your work here? We’re always looking for compelling essays and stories from the world of bicycle travel. To get started, send a short pitch and a few sample images to firstname.lastname@example.org, or submit them using the contact form on bunyanvelo.com. We’d love to hear from you, really.
CONTENTS BUNYAN VELO 07
10 ZANSKAR Eric Timmerman and Olivia Cuenca
A DRESS REHEARSAL Alex Gandy
WHEN THE SKY Joe Cruz and Joel Caldwell
PINT DREAMS Dakota Graff
84 CRUST Mikkel Soya BÃ¸lstad
FOUR IS BETTER THAN TWO Ben Page
ONWARD TO A WILDFIRE Zach Dolinaj
FROM A TO P Franziska Wernsing and Jona Riechmann
TEA SHOP TOURING Colt Fetters
158 HOMECOMING Morgan Taylor
HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING Marius Nilsen
THE INAUGURAL RIDE Sarah Swallow and Tom Swallow
Zanskar Written and photographed by Eric Timmerman and Olivia Cuenca
andwiched between the Zanskar and Great Himalayan Ranges, a rugged road snakes through the upper Suru Valley, traverses the windswept 14,500-foot Pensi La, and eventually dead-ends in Zanskar. We pedaled there, to one of the most remote places in Ladakh, the land of high passes, deep in the Indian Himalaya. As the views intensified, the road crumbled into a sea of dirt and rock. We rattled down the road lined with simple mud-housed villages rich in grass, wheat, and barley. Families were busy in the fields slashing the harvest by hand using crude, rusted sickles. The grass and wheat they were cutting would be dried and stored to feed the animals through the barren months. Stacks of cow dung sat drying along the streets, soon to be kindling for a warm fire. Summer is a time of rejuvenation for the land and preparation for the impending winter. Seven months of inhospitable winter isolate the Zanskar valley from the outside world. The sole road closes and families live in the one room warmed by a stove with barely any electricity. The harsh conditions in this isolated region of Ladakh have kept its beautiful people, Tibetan culture, and stunning landscapes untainted for centuries. The small villages that dot the valley rarely see foreigners. As we pedaled by, children rushed to the streets, reaching for high-fives and demanding, â€œOne chocolate!â€? Finding anyone to speak English with was difficult, but we easily negotiated lodging and food through simple words and hand signals. Our basic meals of dal and rice and beds of thin pads with rugs on the floor were simple but adequate.
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For days, the road curved around the eastern side of two of India’s tallest peaks, Nun and Kun, both reaching well over 23,000 feet. The gravel ribbon bent around the massive peaks and rose up quickly. A few false summits, like bread crumbs, led to a pile of prayer flags and yaks munching grass and drinking from the shimmering alpine ponds at the top. Finally, we reached the official sign that falsely proclaims, “Pensi La, 14,000 ft.” Pensi La actually sits at 14,436 feet, and our legs demanded recognition for each extra foot. High winds had us escaping down the mountain just past the alluring DrangDrung Glacier, the second largest glacier in India. Exhausted from the climb, we still couldn’t help exploring the DrangDrung’s Martian edges. People from surrounding villages were gathering for music, prayer, and masked dancing in Sani, a humble village just outside of Padum. The most famous festival of the year was taking place just as we happened to be cycling through. Monks wandered about, merchants lined the roads, and Ladakhi
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women and children piled onto one another for the best seat to hear the Lama’s words. For two days, the faces of Tibetan Buddhist statues are unveiled and shown to the world in celebration. Villagers come to Sani to catch a glimpse of the unveiled statue of Naropa and to receive their annual blessing. A stupa in the backyard of the Sani monastery dates back to the second century, the earliest evidence of Buddhism in the area. Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have lived in the building next to the stupa for half a decade, where he spent many years meditating in the cave across the river. We left Sani through a steep gorge carved out by the rushing Tsarap River and continued our search for the end of the road. Jeeps were replaced by wild ponies, the sound of horns replaced by the roaring of the Tsarap below. The sharp rocks that were cobbled together to form a semblance of a road became rougher and the climbs grew steeper than anything else we’d encountered in India.
Our arrival in Anmo marked the end of the road. We were granted one of the most charming homestays with a family in a hundred-year-old mud home. Generation after generation had been brought up on the same dirt floor. Doorways barely stood four feet tall and an entire wall woven like a wicker basket bowed above the winding stone staircase, polished smooth from a century of use. Small rooms and balconies adjoined in every direction, as if designed from a childâ€™s imagination. Although antiquated in its materials, this home was one of the cleanest stays we had. The family agreed to watch over our bikes while we continued trekking further down the valley toward an ancient monastery, following a narrow ribbon of trail that hugged the cliffside next to the Tsarap River. Small â€œvillageâ€? indicators on our map turned out to be just handfuls of mud huts surrounded by patches of green grass dotting the brown, rocky hillsides. The valley was so narrow we could hear voices coming from the fields on the other side.
Passing a row of stupas, we caught our first glimpse of Phuktal Gompa, the ancient monastery only accessible by foot, built into a cave, perched on a cliffside, and perfectly illuminated by the setting sun as we arrived. One of the 16 original disciples of Buddha once meditated and blessed this cave. Phuktal is said to be one to two thousand years old. We climbed the stairs to the picturesque monastery in awe. Buildings seamlessly blended together with the side of the mountain. Ringing and chanting drew us closer to the center of the cave, the prayer hall, where a monk signaled us to enter. Removing our shoes, we entered through a haze of incense smoke. The walls of the prayer hall were covered in murals and photos of the Dalai Lama. Forty maroon-robed monks from ages 6 to 75 sat in rows. The elders in front chanted, rhythmically rocking from side to side. The little monks goofed off and fell asleep in back corners until the head monk rose to straighten them out. We were given salty butter tea, and we closed our eyes, breathing in the essence of such an incredible experience.
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The Zanskar valley is not easily reached, nor is it easily forgotten. The simplicity and difficulty of life we witnessed as we traveled through the valley made us question our own lives and the things we perceive as necessary. Though the road was challenging, the serenity we found at the end of the valley made it well worth the journey. BV Bunyan Velo 23
A Dress Rehearsal Written and photographed by Alex Gandy
roken spokes, upset stomachs, inner-tube melting heat, a dog bite, stolen wallet, malnutrition, and chronic exhaustion in environments that often seemed deeply opposed to supporting human life. The steady flow of challenges and predicaments I faced as I cycled from Istanbul to Bangkok were far removed from the convenience and safety of my everyday life. People often tell me how the thought of living like this, with the potential for disaster always looming large and out of your control, is the stuff of anxiety. Not to be pursued unnecessarily. On the contrary, those who have made the leap report finding happiness in these very same conditions. What should logically be a stressful way to live is found to be not just comfortable, but enlightening. The challenges of a grand adventure are, in many ways, an elaborate dress rehearsal of a lesson that normal life serves up with sobering abruptness and little mercy. When drinking the last of your water reserves under a scorching desert sun or clutching your tent as a winter storm tries to rip it from your grasp our frail, temporary and ultimately dispensable nature is plain to see. It is abundantly clear that no matter how highly we think of ourselves, we are limited by the same mundane necessities as every other living thing: food, water, warmth, and shelter. The universe does not care for our status. We are not deserving of special treatment, and it is more than likely that life will go on much the same without us. But instead of this knowledge being demoralising, inspiration can come from bearing witness to all that lies beyond us and seeing everything that lies outside our control.
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The knowledge that we are of little importance in the greater scheme of things can be grounding, and deeply relieving. It allows us to refocus our priorities with a better idea of what is meaningful to us, personally. Perhaps striving to earn great wealth doesnâ€™t seem of such relevance anymore. We can take ourselves a little less seriously or even find renewed determination to pursue what we really want from life. We can emerge from the experience better equipped to spend our time in a way that allows us to be who we want to be. I met many cyclists on similar journeys to mine, each trying to get something different from the experience. Some falling in love with finding the limits of their endurance. Others, like me, abandoning pursuit of miles and enjoying their time with the road as they would an old friend, having no intention other than to be with it and being open to anything or anyone they came across. I wouldnâ€™t spend long talking to the cyclists I met before theyâ€™d share a story of how they had been helped along by the instinctive care of a roadside stranger. Sometimes it felt as if the road was pepper-potted with attentive Samaritans waiting to see us trip so they could help us pick ourselves back up.
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â€œSometimes it felt as if the road was pepper-potted with attentive Samaritans waiting to see us trip so they could help us pick ourselves back up.â€?
No matter which country I was in, the caring stranger never felt far away, ready to offer food, water, company, and a place to sleep. In the process they motivated me more than they realised, helping me rest, lifting my spirits, giving me an insight into their lives, and perfectly contextualising the landscapes and scenery that otherwise filled my days. Now that I am back in the throes of normal life, experiencing such blind faith seems more difficult somehow, the need to celebrate their unassuming nature more pressing. When I look back on my journey, they are glimmering stars amongst the struggles and challenges. When I think about what person I would like to be and how best to spend my time, they are an inspiration. BV
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When The Sky Written by Joe Cruz, photographed by Joel Caldwell
hey’re tiny encouragements, those dust whorls in the heat and the bits of dung and trash, brake lights on the sprinter van we hired to transport us from Bishkek, a moment ago the firm handshake of the driver with whom we share no language. This dirt patch off the edge of broken asphalt contouring along deep blue Lake Issyk-Köl, our bicycles and gear and full plastic grocery bags in excitable heaps. Now we’re stashing a week’s worth of food into frame and saddle packs, the fruit of hours trying to puzzle ingredients from pictures on the outside packaging. Finally the perpendicular road wavy with children who say hello by putting their hands up and laughing, some chase us but most just continue playing as they were, adults smile and shake an arm with genuine seeming joy, early on we pass a few cars horns honking and occupants pressed against the windshield in grinning greeting. It will transform into a two track and then a path and then just our pedalstrokes rising towards a Tien Shan ridge line that points at the sky like tips of neatly lined up spears. Glint capped peaks inevitably further away than they seem. We see our first yurt even if it’s just another farm building, a woman leaning forward a wheelbarrow between fencing, a flat green pitch for ball kicking and used now for it by a hollering half dozen, an old Subaru. We’ve come because of the legend of Kyrgyzstan’s beauty, mountains and steppe, high meadow yurt camps, Silk Roads and Soviet history, Islam and horsemen and crashing cold rivers. None of the confirmed superlatives will match our wide-eyed skipping heart wonder in the place. The first giddy expectant revolutions were at five thousand feet, by the end of tomorrow we’ll have ridden to twelve through trees and subsequently none to grey rock moraine staircases, a narrowing canyon, limpid plateau lakes. Along the way curious unfettered horses standing in the way to get a steady look at us, a herdsman’s grin, a yapping shepherd dog, the sound of mud scraping in our tread, horse manure fires from afar until we don’t see anyone anymore. Our camps will be on grass as smooth and low as a fairway, and we’ll sit in our kitchen circle whiskey drinking marveling. And in our chests we’ll ride through the realization that, whatever we expected this place to be, it’s more than that in the way that the unfurling kilometers of green levitate us.
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A man in fatigues on a small horse trots into the middle of our site, his tone curious greeting nodding he shakes all our hands and asks until we realize and say, “USA, America!” and he laughs and asks “New York City?” and Joel and I nod vigorously, point to my Yankee cap, he laughs nods more, we stand in a circle reckoning that we’re on this patch together. Lucas says that elsewhere we’d be happy to have reached this view at the end of two weeks of riding but here it’s just our beginning. Just a half day, that first one, so we sleep the swallows of labored breath and contentment, galaxy and shooting star afterimages and cricket chirp echoes. The earth is so soft under us that we hardly need inflating pads. Dream of the smell of sage and it’s there vivid and pressing when we wake, repack and off, climbing again.
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Sometimes we ride in twos and shuffle through to chat. Other times our line stretches, goes invisible, and when alone: every direction, even the valley behind, everything seems looked up at because your pulse is traveling its way there, reeling towards summits and sunbeams, glacier glint and falcon wingtip. Talk to the herds to use up the words that aren’t doing any good anyway. Lunch together again, afterward nap. The route we’re on goes fainter yet. To the left a cleft vectors away with just a cowpath on one side, that’s where we’re headed. No jeeps come through here, vertical walls clack echo funnel embrace. “It’s like we’re sequentially visiting all the US national parks but impossibly next to each other,” we laugh but Joel’s right and this is an entrance into a serene wildness
that we’re grateful for. We’ll be asked a few times over the thing of what beauty means, the aim of striving heaving coilnext weeks why here? and I can’t help but think our stammer- ing, the aim of aiming. ing incomprehension at the question is a snapshot of this very moment. We end below the pass but it’s in our sight, leaving it for tomorrow with the plateau marsh crossing that follows. Right I feel it like nostalgia, or like the whisper of a name on tongue now we’re too elated to wonder anything about that. Trapetip, that there is beauty here that is remarkable so that beau- zoidal and cubed rocks all round, crouch behind them to talk ty itself should be remarked. I want to make inquires of the over the wind and warm our fingers. After dark I’m in my blades of green, of the rust lichen, of the cloud tendrils that tent, Joel and Logan are reclining in their down bags and they reach around the highest pyramids but then grow tentative go silent to track in the black the sound of pebble fall along a and retreat, shadows and chilled air the groundlocked ana- route high up on the slope, rocks shifting sluffing left to right. logue. Shoulders tensioning and bobbing into the effort, the When they tell the story we’ll choose and hope that it’s a snow climb is at the limit of my traction and fitness, and I find the leopard that imagined it perceived the four of us transfixed ache behind my ribs is a kind of answer in that it says some- and wondered.
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2. Yesterday was a hard day and we slept a punished sleep. From the giant’s toy block strewn campsite, we’d ascended and climbed with forty minutes of pushing the bikes to a keyhole opening. Wending through lakes over marshland, horsetrack here or there but mostly just pointing the bikes and going. Above us, seems like right on the stitching of our pulled close hoods, rolling billowing grey boiling hissing wind. Takes us some time to find a spot to cross the river, we’re all shivering, I’m wearing all of my clothes and buttoned up lockdown. Scrolling through the track, it was a bit more south and then a sharp turn west along what should be a visible trail and it is, but just. The now gale flapping howling in our faces so we pedal the flat ground with the effort of a canted up but hardly walking speed, hail then rain then hail again. It may have been the main thoroughfare across the plateau forty years ago, you can catch its traces but not by looking for them, more the feeling of seeing the faintest stars from the peripheral corners. Too dark for sunglasses but they’re on to shield eyes and I’m inexplicably laughing at the stinging sharps against my cheeks. The effort has at least thawed my toes and a little bit of the icy instinct to isolation that I feel, my sense of sociality glaciated even though I rode shoulder to shoulder with Joel. Hours toward evening, pop out onto a wide mining road with giant steel utility line statues that we know head up valley toward a mine. We revel in the speed and ride for another while before finding water and pitching the tents in a basin. Rain again, cold and dinner is quick silent so sleep is the only last thing.
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Shuffle roll over in the tent, check time gather the quilt about, plat glack plat of drops on the fly a continuation of the sounds to which I fell asleep. Logan, whose tent is closest, hears that I’m up and asks whether I’d been outside yet this morning. I pfft at the rain and he suggests I take a look. Unzip the top of the fly, wet heavy snow shushes off, ground covered and the flakes are falling hard in orderly Euclidean slants. Twelve thousand feet or so, stuttering breath to laugh together through the thin layers of fabric. In about an hour we’ll pack our things, that grim accepting packing with hunched shoulders and hooded faces, leave tracks behind us to ascend, not just to another pass, but to our own forward glint. Kicking up these rooster tails of mud, I can feel every now and then a dirt turd flip around and land on the bill of my cap. But the insult is a last gasp, we’ve gone from a sludgy mist lid on the sky to blue cracks to pulling our hoods back. We know from the map that we’re approaching a precipice, a series of switchbacks down to a long river valley that we’ll hare straight west on. We didn’t know it would be an embrace, an assurance, a dreamscape that leaves us headshake clinging to those hours and telling stories about the track for days after it’s a wheel’s memory. I think that span, the morning snow, the frustrations of the mud slog up and past the high point, the clacking rollercoaster descent and then whooosh, silence of our big tires on green carpet doubletrack for days; I think that span snapped and adhered this place to us so here’s where we never want to have missed or ended. Joel carves off the track, finds a straight line toward the lone horseman who is herding cows. I see them in the distance grip hands, their silhouette somehow metaphorical. The handshakes here are hearty and intentional. Sometimes we see the younger boys light up when we offer our greeting, feeling older at regarding us strangers at close distance. But they’re already impossibly composed in our view, riding hard and skillfully, bundled against the chill. That evening we camp early because the setting won’t let us not. Tents in a line pitched into the gusts, but down low cross legged around the stoves it’s quiet enough for us to mark the long pauses between when we say anything. After sunset we’ll smell cooking from distant camps, tomorrow there will be unfettered horses concentratedly ignoring us as we pedal away.
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We talk about the close relationship between expectation and fear, the way that those naive images set the pace and landscape before you’re ever even pressed by the cold and colors. Invited into a yurt, bread and jam, my first fermented mare’s milk. Tastes like a thick creamy demented kombucha with the heavy essence of horse, we’ll drink a fair bit more of it over these next weeks and often chased by Russian vodka to make sure we wobble and squint on our way. As we leave we’re given a coke bottle that we think is more kumys but we find out later that it’s butter. We laugh, seems like it’s crazy but we’ll enjoy it in our soup. Naryn is our first resupply opportunity since setting out. We arrive on the sixth day, all of us digging at the bottom of our bags for a piece of candy that got loose. Finally eating those things that we’d been avoiding or that we bought by mistake. We spread the butter on stale flatbread, it’s a legitimately delicious lunch. We talked up the pizza and desserts we’d eat in town, but in the event it was the inevitable letdown. The day we spent in that urban setting, the trafficked streets and notably unhandsome Soviet architecture and art, the repeating sequence of shops—mobile top up, money change, liquor—the unromantic reality of it: our eagerness to head out again was axiomatic, but more than that I think we were sheepish and wanted to escape from our pretense that this is an uncomplicated landscape as if all one valence threatening to collapse into no meaning at all. In the south and moving west, the day of the grit sticking to our sweat and the cloying steadiness of our cadence isn’t our favorite. The only mistake would have been expecting it to be our earlier lifting valley, and fearing that it wouldn’t be. Two horses with their riders on a long slow traverse to meet us at our camp. Maybe a grandfather, father, son. They nod and smile, not effusively but companionably, we bid our happiness at being here, they continue on.
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3. Not wanting or wishing or chasing something else. I’m in stationary timestopped movement liberated from hoping for a better view or a softer light or a more ragged horizon. Kyrgyzstan is stasis that I know isn’t permanent but that I can at least be present in heat and contentment. Within this fixity we’re zigzag brownian motion through a depression in the round hills. See the vee of what we judge is the high point, each of us on his own path surfing tussocks and babyheads. The shepherd told us to stay left of the wash but Logan’s up above me to the right on the shoulder of the ridge. He’s moving pretty good, I think he’s grinning. Joel’s well ahead, steal a glance behind at Lucas swiping sweat from above his sunglasses, I start off again. It wants to be a bike push kind of section, we’re feeling stubborn instead, churning our easiest gears to float forward. We top out, shirts soaked from effort. The soft grassy tread and tall sky somehow absorb the ifs so that we’re left with now and here. Lowland sticky dust is behind us now, yesterday we visited Tash Rabat and found it shrugging unremarkable. At least the tourist yurt camp nearby had excellent food and beer that we chilled in the stream. The highlight was meeting and mingling with Kyrgyz visitors who beamed with pride at our truthful confessions of the unrivaled beauty of their home.Turned the bikes around to head back into the sparsity, a northern course traversing valley folds, back to altitude to a splendid nothing. Ascend into that sensory inversion where the sweep before us expands, bursts toward the sky and where your own self-awareness shrinks crowded out. This is the spatial analog to the frozen time of not waiting for something better, where there is no distance to cross because you fill all the corners of the universe, where the universe spans you and so you’re already a completion. The breathless work of straining climbing, the wet weather gear when drops turn to torrent, backtrack when a lone horseman on the quiet unused track we’re on emphatically assures us that the river crossing 50k down the way will be deep over our heads. We laugh when he mimes our bikes getting swept away and all four of us cartwheeling underwater in the boil and hydraulics. It’s a section on the map about which I had questions, we debate pressing on anyway, but we’ll be glad we didn’t because on the reroute the descent into Baetov rocket drops us down to transcendence with a red gold glow on the canyons like forever in front of our wheels.
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We’re fitter now, we’re faster, we see better now, we’re slower. In a day we reach lake Song Köl, subject of postcards and also popular with Kyrgyz tourists. The serenity of the place wrestles with trash and blowing toilet paper, our chests squeezed tight. Wind comes through indignant and a drop then another, we rush to put up our tents close to the shore and dive in. I eat raw ramen while listening to the lash and beating against the fly. Tomorrow we watch a game of kok-boru, a kind of polo, but a grimacing mythic underworld shadow of it. The primal raw striving, sweat and close contact shoulders that’s always present in sports but here is closer to the surface, the horses dancing for footing, surging, the jockeys bent low off the side of the saddle to grab the desiccated goat carcass then lifting it hip high to gallop fury and dust toward the goal. Later the horserider is on a line to intercept us, closer and I see that she’s in a boxy pink jacket, closer still and her socks
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match. Her feet don’t reach the stirrups but somehow she rides without so much as a bob of her cap, maybe nine years old and brimming with confidence. I convey that we’re headed to the pass out of the Song Köl basin, she wrinkles her eyebrows for a second, points, thinks, looks up at the sky. Points to me and the guys coming up behind, pantomimes that first we’ll go to meet her parents and brother to have chai in the yurt. We fall in in a line behind her, she helpfully waves us along. Fatima’s father is kind and welcoming, shows us photos of his champion kok-boru days, laughs easy and teases Logan for his beard. We can see the source of his daughter’s smart sparkling assurance, and the visit stays with me long after against the backdrop of a country where women’s lives in rural areas seem so little self-directed, a country where bride kidnapping is still a reality. We plunge down again, another swirling carving majesty downhill, we’ll camp half way down, roll onto startling tarmac and a string of towns before onward.
Lucas went into the shop to get another couple of liters of beer sold in plastic 1.5L bottles, we like the kind that comes with a tiny packet of corn nuts attached to the cap. We’re sitting outside chatting and horsing around with the little kids on their bikes. Lucas has been gone a long time, but then again it’s easy to picture any one of us laboring over the selection of years old frozen solid ice cream bars trying to decide between them. He comes out grinning his ass off, red faced. “Yeah, one of the ladies in there, it’s her birthday, she’s turning 55. So they made me do shots with them.” We howl, jealous, decide to camp at the edge of this sleepy town. A shepherd, just a twentysomething kid, comes around to check us out. Trade tidbits, and eventually he reveals that his cousin lives in the USA in New York City. Shaking our heads in wonder, he calls her, it’s morning Eastern Daylight Time, speaks to her for a moment and hands me the phone. Nuri is
stunned that we’re in her mother’s village, that we’re talking to Tamerlan, that we’re riding bikes in her native country. She lives a fifteen minute walk from the neighborhood Joel and I live in. The phone gets passed back a forth a few times so Nuri can translate Tamerlan’s questions and our answers. He’ll come back in the morning, wants to see more of Joel’s photos on the camera, Joel rides his horse around and Tamerlan tries the bikes. We meet his siblings and mother, she gives us bread and equally warm waves. Last days in long valleys to passes, camps, whooping rides down, a detour to one more resupply before pointing the bikes endward. We camp part way up Kegety, sitting in the warmth to soak it up before evening and the inevitable chill. In the morning pack up, our last day on the trail so bittersweet and the agitation of the knowledge that we’ll have to shift into a different rhythm.
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The descent is so long that we’ve stopped worrying that we’ve reached the bottom. Passing through lovely parklands now, off to my right there’s a Kyrgyz family picnicking on a broad ornate blanket. I wave and they do back, then I realize that they’re waving me to join them. Point the bike off the track and descend, they’re smiling and gesturing that I should stop and eat and the spread of beautiful food and their close joy encircle me. The boys arrive and food is pressed into their hands, we sit on the blanket and I try not to get my muddy legs on it. There are a dozen members of a family there, sisters my age with their children, their smiling directing mother that they’re all deferential to, brothers uncles teenagers. We drink apricot flavored water, bread, heavenly jam, a stew with potatoes and tomatoes and tender meat. The rain starts to fall again and doesn’t let up this time, starts falling hard. We gather up the picnic and run to the van, all able bodied among us making several trips to put the food and picnic items into the dry. The grandmother is walking up the hill with her cane, she’s bent over it into the steep part. I’m the only one to see it so I skitter down and proffer my arm. She makes no big show of appreciation, no special acknowledgement the way one would if a stranger rushed over to help. She reaches to me and we slowly lift ourselves to the level of the road—eighteen footfalls that take a full minute—where I hand her off to her son but not before she squeezes my forearm once, harder than her frail frame might suggest is possible, maybe the grip of a simultaneity itself, without looking at me. I’m the one who’s been helped up right then by the implication that we’re all of us together at a picnic sharing bits of our happiness and hearts. I’m the one supported back to that road and so all the tracks that we’ve traveled here. Beauty is reaching this standstill while in motion. The last 40k run is on a dirt path alongside an aqueduct all the way to Bishkek’s edge. Rolling west and the sun setting onto the backs of our hands, heads down riding flat out. During a break all of our fingers are trembling, share the last cookies and I produce a Snickers bar out of a secret cache. Now there are people everywhere, dogs and tidy developments or a shanty or just an urban shepherd. Now traffic fumes cacophony, we turn on our headlamps to be seen on the city streets but the bright comes mostly from behind us, from where we’ve been. BV
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Pint Dreams Written and photographed by Dakota Graff
remember the first time I spoke my dream aloud. Iâ€™m not sure where it came from, but like all big dreams, it must have sat dormant for long, deep in me somewhere until something stirred it up to the surface. The day that happened, I sat at my local bar over a pint of beer and told my bartender I was going to ride my bicycle down the West Coast. Speaking something aloud like that was a big step for me because once I speak things into existence, I have to do them. Itâ€™s a pact I have with myself â€“ to always be a man of my word, even if the only witness to this strange contract is the bartender serving me another pint. Since, that dream I had in that small bar evolved. I continued to speak it aloud to people with a similar response as the bartender. Eventually I shared it with others who had the same dream. It morphed from a short West Coast bike tour into a three-month, cross-country tour with a social cause. Two acquaintances who were fairly new to cycling became my best friends (and pretty solid bike riders, too). Together, we spent a cold Midwest winter eating a lot of pizza while poring over the plans for the following summer. We stressed over gear. We were giddy as we planned our route. We booked tickets. We started riding.
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Seventy-four days later, my alarm went off. I reached for the pocket of my hammock, feeling around for the snooze button on my phone. The sun flared right behind the peak of the mountain, and a cold wind blew out of the southwest. It was chilly. During the night it had dropped into the high 40s, which is cold enough to wake you up at 3:00 am if you’re not adequately prepared for a gusty chill. I wasn’t, so my legs were numb throughout the night. Finally, the sun peaked and it began to warm. Zzziiiippp. I got out of my sleeping bag and began to prepare my breakfast. It was the usual menu of oatmeal and coffee, prepared while taking shelter behind a rock to keep warm and to protect the stove’s flame from the wind. We squatted down behind the rock in our puffy jackets, our hands moving slowly from the cold, our minds still waking up. We ate and packed up camp mostly in silence. Yesterday we climbed the Continental Divide, snaking our way up the switchbacks to the top of MacDonald Pass, where we set up camp. The wind made yesterday’s climb extra difficult, and it stuck around through the night and into the day. Our route was all set to make for an easy day, just 50 miles with 3,000 feet of descent. As we started our day, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be as easy as we thought. We battled the headwind as we rode down a 6% grade, which basically equated to us riding on flat ground. Bummer. What was supposed to be one of the most fun descents of the tour became a demoralizing downward pedal. The headwind rushed past my ears, creating a white noise that forced me into the rhythm of pedaling and thinking, that deep trance that is brought about by long-term bicycle travel.
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It’s an interesting thing, to choose this type of activity. There is a specific type of suffering, if I’m allowed to call it such, brought on by riding a bicycle 4,000 miles and sleeping in the dirt every night. Some would call it “living the dream,” and I’d have to agree. This was my dream, at least. I chose it all. I invited the world in, and it pressed in forcefully, through my eyes and pores. Bicycle travel thrusts you into the world, coercing you to be intimate with your environment. It seeps into your fabric, and you become a person built of the things you’ve experienced. The sandhills of Nebraska. The water of the Potomac. The mud of Maryland. The sun of the South Dakota Badlands. The people we met along the way. All of these had pressed in and become part of the story that I was telling myself, weaving an inexplicable dream. As I rode west down the Continental Divide, the same force that pulled the water toward the coast also pulled on me. Gravity. That’s what had brought me out into those mountains in Montana. That’s what forced me to tell people that I was going to ride my bicycle across America. Each pedal stroke was an affirmation, pushing along the narrative of my life on a bicycle. It became more of a force, and less of a choice I made. We persisted along our route. Following the Little Blackfoot River, we wound our way through the mountains, amazed at the beauty of the Montana countryside. We stopped and ate lunch at a small market. Cheap, fried food was appealing to us at the time, so we dined on corndogs and fried burritos. During lunch, we looked at our schedule and realized that we were set to be in Missoula on the 24th of July, a day ahead of our projected arrival date. It’s a rare thing to be ahead of schedule while bike touring, and we’d managed to do it twice so far. This eased our feelings toward the wind, relaxing the rest of the day quite a bit.
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We took advantage of our lax schedule and battled the wind just 16 miles past our lunch spot. As we rolled into town, we stopped at a small market where we bought some groceries and a six pack, then we rolled into the campsite earlier than expected. We set up our hammocks and made use of a little free time to do some reading and writing. I cracked a beer and sat back in my hammock. I sipped my beer as I looked off into the distant mountains, something I love to do at the end of a day spent on the road. My beer was cold against my palm as I thought back to sitting at that bar, telling the bartender about my dream of bike touring. I canâ€™t help but think of the power of sharing dreams and ideas with others. Once I let others in, this half-baked idea became a fullfledged experience. Adding my best friends to the mix is what made it come alive, animating a flat and linear idea. But that could all be bullshit. Perhaps it was gravity all along, and much like the water running down the Continental Divide, it was always pulling me toward this experience and into these mountains, even if there is a little headwind now and then. BV
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Written and photographed by Mikkel Soya BĂ¸lstad
ll winter, social media has been brimming with reports about fatbikers riding the ski trails in the local mountains, accompanied by photos of their smiling faces as they cheerfully roll along. Bogged down with work, I’ve tried to live vicariously through the bits and bytes of their twowheeled escapades on the interwebs. So far, it has worked fairly well. But only barely. And only until now. With spring hitting my hometown down in the valley and blowing a warm wind across the mountains, followed by frosty nights, the reports have changed. The fatbikers aren’t just riding the trails in the mountains. They’re riding everywhere. With thaw during daytime and frost at night, a crust has started to develop. One that’s solid enough to carry both man and bike away from the ski trails and into the wild. I know. Norwegians are supposedly born with skis on their feet. It’s the dirty secret behind these past decades of world dominance on the cross country ski trails. The obvious would of course have been to grab the backcountry skis and head for the mountains. But what if I could start the trip in my home town, then slip into a side valley, leave the green grass and budding birch trees behind, and crawl up into the mountains? To winter? And finish off by ascending the highest peak in the district? On a bike? Paradoxically, the arrival of the crust coincides with a total absence of time to take advantage of it. Instead, one day after another passes by in an ever greener Kongsberg. The nightly frost disappears in the mountains and eventually the crust collapses. My hopes of summiting the local mountain peak by bike dwindle like dirty snow in the sun. It’s not going to happen. I’m too late.
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Or at least that’s what I think. A couple of weeks of warm weather later, a brief period of cold nights in the mountains refuels my hope to the extent that I consider giving it a go. To top it off, my buddy Håkon is game to come along. He opts for a more leisurely approach, though, and chooses to drive up to the ski trail just below the tree line. I roll out of town early one morning in late March, pedaling into the local side valley on buzzing high pressurised fat rubber, carrying tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, some food, a weather forecast that predicts freezing temperatures during the night on the local mountain, and a solid chunk of optimism. My shape can’t be too shabby after the long winter, I’m thinking to myself as I pass a young woman out training on her bike. We exchange discrete smiles as I rumble past with my shit show of gear strapped onto the bike. Birch trees lightly sprinkled with tiny, fluorescent green leaves give way to birch trees with naked, black branches strutting into the grey sky as I muscle chunky steel and oversized rubber up the hills and into the mountains.
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“Have you seen the latest weather report?” asks a red-bearded face from the car window beside me, half way up the hill. “Yup! There’s going to be frost tonight, but only barely,,” I reply. “Nope,” Håkon says. “I’ve just learnt that it’ll be seven degrees Celsius.” “You’re kidding, right?” He isn’t kidding. We adjust our tire pressure, roll off the gravel and in between the last few pine trees, and onto the snow. And sink right in. Immediately. Our fatbike winter summit attempt comes to a staggering halt in a whopping five seconds. Sensible outdoor people would most likely have found a patch of bare ground free of snow, set camp, gathered wood, lit a nice little campfire, and told tales under the starry sky. We obviously aren’t sensible outdoor people. “Er, it might get better a bit higher up,” I suggest. “Mmm,” says Håkon. So we push on a little higher, but still sink in. “Err, it might get better a little later in the night,” I try. “Mmm,” says Håkon. It doesn’t get any better. “Err, we might get lucky after a couple of hours of sleep,” I reason. “Mmm,” says Håkon, and rolls out his sleeping bag beside a tiny, solitary spruce and goes to sleep. After two hours of sleep, I check the early morning snow conditions by carefully stepping onto the snow, only to realise that it will hardly hold the weight of a starved lemming. Ever the optimists, we still decide to push on, hoping to reach solid crust higher up on the steep mountain slopes. But there’s no way of hiding the fact that the snow gets sloppier and less cooperative the further we push. “We better get down before we’re stranded in this mushy slush,” says Håkon. We turn around, retrace our steps, and do what we should have done in the first place: find ourselves a patch of bare ground free of snow, set camp, gather wood, light a nice little campfire and tell tales under the starry sky.
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The story could have ended here, by the sparkling fire. A totally worthy finish to the trip. But it doesn’t end here. The following week, weather reports spark the hope of a last attempt to scale the mountain on a fatbike. Whether it’s due to an overly positive mindset or an onset of selective memory is hard to tell. In any case, I find myself rolling up the valley with a high frequency cadence on an early April morning, buzzing with optimism and the usual gear and food for a couple of days. The only negative is that Håkon is stuck at work, unable to take part. I decide to try my luck from the north this time. True, it’s a huge detour, but by heading into the mountains from the north, there is the slim possibility that the snow-covered slopes might be slightly more protected from the sun’s snow-eating rays, and, hopefully, topped with a crust that can carry me and my bike to heaven. After climbing close to a thousand metres from my hometown, the moment of truth greets me after a lung-bursting push up an alpine ski slope. And it works. It. Works! Even though the snow crust barely keeps me floating on top of the snow, I can more or less ride wherever I want, stopped only by the occasional nose dive when my front wheel digs in. A couple of kilometres later I hit the slopes of the Blefjell mountain range, rolling out of the shade and onto the sun-exposed flanks of the mountain. My wheels break through the crust immediately, disappear into the coarse snow, and the bike comes to a full stop. Four hundred metres of vertical bikepushing later, I top out on the peak. Snow-covered mountains are littered throughout the horizon and the unmistakable feeling of winter creeps under my skin as I make ready to spend the night on the roof of the world. The next day, I wake up to a layer of crust on top of the snow. Solid crust. Real, solid crust. I take down camp as fast as I can, wanting to get a head start on the sun. I quickly attach all of my gear to my bike, turn around, look at the mountains surrounding me one final time, and eagerly pedal off. Today, I don’t have to sneak my way along shady slivers of barely supportive snow. I can ride wild. Ride wherever I want. And instead of five percent cycling and ninety percent bikepushing, it’s the opposite today. No wonder my face is covered by a smirky smile all the way back home to Kongsberg. BV
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Four is Better T h a n Tw o Written and photographed by Ben Page
ongolia, the land of the horse. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, it’s the land where horses outnumber people. Ever since the country’s formation in the early 13th century by chief Temujin, later immortalised as Genghis Khan, horses have been intertwined with the Mongolians. The clichéd image of wild horsemen roaming the great, empty steppe still holds true for much of the land, and the cultural significance of the horse remains as strong as ever. It’s a common thread connecting generations. I found that conversations with men in Mongolia often included the phrase ‘we are strong like the horse,’ and, given their prowess in wrestling, I wasn’t about to argue. But Mongolia is still a country of the modern age. It holds huge regional, and perhaps global, significance, a result of having two very powerful neighbours. The end of Mongolia’s communist chapter in 1992 led to an incredible land grab, as mining companies from around the world sought to gain access to its rich natural resources. In the face of this modernity, it is all too obvious that the horse is slowly being overtaken by the 4x4 and trusty Honda motorbike. My trip was a simple one, cycling westwards across Asia with three friends. Mongolia was hot property on our map of places to explore, and we wanted to go traverse the Khangai and Altai Mountains. The plan was to find some exciting, unridden parts of the country, and in the process make a film while mapping a route that would put the lowly bike on a level pegging with our four-legged friends. We cycled here from Beijing with no knowledge of the land, putting our faith in the hands of trusty old Soviet Military maps, connecting up a series of dotted lines that indicated footpaths. But, as we later found out, a dashed line on the map often means nothing out here. If the motor is really overtaking the mare in Mongolia, it’s only so in the lowlands and the steppe. Enter into the mountains and the horse still holds top spot. The four of us on bikes, however, had a little more difficulty. The summer rains swelled small streams into raging rivers, torrents of water that would need crossing multiple times a day. We’d shuttle gear and bikes across, hoping we wouldn’t lose our footing. Each time we were successful, we’d take a greater risk on the next one. Eventually, we met our match and had to accept the help of two local guys and their horse. Clearly, where rivers are concerned, horses trump bikes.
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“We pushed our bikes for three full days, too stubborn to turn around and naïve enough to keep on trusting that the elusive line on the map we’d been seeking could be found somewhere in these mountains.”
Away from the water, the great steppe and valley floors were easy, smooth two-track connecting one yurt to another. Bikes skipping along, affording a chance to take in the surroundings of the world’s wildest country. The culture in Mongolia is to welcome in all travellers, a tradition that echoes the history of nomadic living in the region. Father and son will travel for days to reach small villages, getting supplies and sharing conversations. As oddities here, we were similarly welcomed into people’s homes and presented with the traditional brew of kumis, fermented mare’s milk, aaruul, solidified milk curds, and some high percentage Mongolian moonshine. Three or four yurts into the day and we’d begin to feel a little worse for wear, particularly since three really is the magic number here. We’d use broken Mongolian and games of charades to ask families if bikes could continue over the terrain ahead. Perhaps we mistook their exuberant responses as signs of encouragement, rather than warnings of the route ahead. Either way, as the final yurt turned into a white spot in the distance, we discovered that there was a reason why bikes hadn’t been taken here before. Over time, tracks had faded into faint paths, eventually fading into nothing. Pedalling ceased and pushing began. We pushed our bikes for three full days, too stubborn to turn around and naïve enough to keep on trusting that the elusive line on the map we’d been seeking could be found somewhere in these mountains. Down steep river valleys, through boulder fields, and over tussocky moorland, we pushed and pulled, cursing and carrying our bikes onwards, wishing we’d just stuck to the lower routes. It felt as if we’d gone on a walking holiday, opting to carry bikes instead of rucksacks to haul our equipment.
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There were fractions of fun, however. After a couple of days of non-stop pushing over passes, gravity ceased to be our enemy, quickly becoming our friend. Vegetation in Mongolia is pretty friendly to the big tyre and we found that with a little bit of momentum we could roam free, chasing each other down mountainsides, each of us trying to find the best line. We rode through wildflower meadows, finding the lines of least resistance, even stumbling on segments of fractured singletrack that buoyed our spirits. It’s rare to feel truly free on a bike. The nature of cycling means we are confined to trails, tracks, and roads, following GPS routes like they’re the Holy Grail. But out in the vast Mongolian steppe, we found that rare chance to truly go wherever our wheels took us. Setting our sights on the far away horizon, we would let our bikes roam free, thrilled by those occasions of pathless riding. But were these rare moments of freedom really worth the pushing, the hauling, and the multi-day hike-abikes? Probably not. We certainly proved to ourselves that bikes can indeed take you to the remote corners of this incredible country, but I don’t think that Mongolians will be swapping four hooves for two wheels any time soon. BV
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Onward to a Wildfire Written and photographed by Zach Dolinaj
he glow of an early summer day is brushing away the darkness and painting the sky orange and yellow as I say goodbye to home for the foreseeable future. Three thousand miles of road and dirt and sweat and finally Los Angeles lie ahead, all slowly illuminated by the same rising sun as I get dressed in the growing light. I’m trading my apartment for a tiny nylon dome for the next month. I’ve ridden the bike I’m taking cross country just once prior to today, never weighed down. I’ve never ridden a century and we’re planning on averaging that every day. I’ve never climbed a mountain pass. I keep telling myself I’m mentally prepared; that’s about 80% naivety. The grogginess of no sleep and too much caffeine has me on autopilot as I pedal a familiar route south from my place in downtown Minneapolis, riding toward my friend Devin’s house to meet up with Jen Whalen and Alex Gutierrez. They’re these two Hyperion figures who’ve been pushing west for two weeks and have made it all the way from Times Square to Minneapolis with only a single day of rest. We’ve never met, and I’ve only got social media and its tale of ones and zeroes to rely on for everything I know about them. I feel the stale, warm summer air as I walk into the house. Jen is brushing her teeth, Alex is filling his water bottles, Devin is on breakfast duty, and I’m the new kid in school.
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Thirty-six hours later, we’re huddling in a ditch in the flat north-middle of America, 170 miles from Minneapolis. The wind is blowing at 30 mph. The air is hot and dust from the fields is hurling across the landscape. After having a snack and grumbling among ourselves about the conditions, Devin and I walk to the farm across the street. We might have been looking for a way out, a ride to the next town. Maybe one of us will ask if we can camp on their land for the night, I know I’m thinking it. We forget that it’s Father’s Day, and quickly realize we’re interrupting their dinner. What I don’t expect is the kindness with which our tired inquiries are met. They offer to fill our bottles, even offer us food, though we politely decline. It’s fucking tough hitting your emotional low on the second day of your first big bike tour. Not knowing whether or not things were going to get even worse out there over the next 30 days feels alarming. Yet I feel buoyed by the direct, honest kindness the family offers. I’m sure if we ask, they’d let us stay the night. Instead, we get enough of a boost in confidence to push on that last 15 miles, landing us at a fine BP gas station for dinner, where the warmth of a microwave burrito, a decent campground, and an awesome overnight thunderstorm round out what started as an utterly terrible day, getting us back on track. In weathering that low, I started to piece together what would eventually become the imprint of this trip. This trip could never really be confined to the pages of a report on where we went, our route maps, our overall mileage, or our elevation gained. We did some pretty incredible stuff, saw innumerable epic – and just as many mundane – places the likes none of us had ever witnessed before. And, in many cases, will surely never see again. That’s all important. It’s beautiful. The peaks piled up on the horizon, the desert, the endless seas of grass stretching 360 degrees around you as the sun sets on another day. But if there is any reason to get out and experience the world at large, it is human.
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“...if there is any reason to get out and experience the world at large, it is human.”
The road west is made up of the interactions that connected our nervous little traveling enclave to the greater whole we found out there. It’s not counted in miles. Rather, it’s counted in more human figures. It’s the number of diner coffee pots consumed in a one-month period (I literally couldn’t fathom a guess). The color-coded warning system you can apply to the level of annoyed mumbling from someone whose tent door has been hastily unzipped and a call to, “get up!” has been issued. It’s in how many times we farted in each other’s faces while drafting into the perpetual westerly winds. In the luck of striking up a conversation with a guy you meet at a gas station who’ll offer to cook you a fresh caught fish dinner, buy you beers, smoke you up, and let you sleep in beds after days on end sleeping outdoors on the ground. It’s the spontaneous dancing, the roadside karaoke, the swim we stole in an alpine lake when we knew it meant we’d be arriving late at our destination and would put us behind schedule. It’s the angry barbs we throw around when we get lost and have to hop a fence into a very much in-operation Air Force test range, getting to camp in the dark and struggling to pitch your tent, tripping over one another in a tangle of tired limbs. The reality that you’re really eating off the gravel turn-off like it’s your dinner table, and the highs of sharing a meal with the most incredible collection of wayward passers-through who just happen to be on a beach in Marin County for the night. Watching from the end of the dock, clinking spent bottles of beer to the wooden floor as the marine layer engulfs the end of the sound and inches ever forward as the night carries on into guitar picked tunes and the kind of slumber that only follows a good drunk.
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All those moments, all those long days crossing the vastness of this country, and finally, the Pacific Ocean. We’d been moving consistently forward the past few weeks on the road, and all of a sudden everything came to a grinding halt when we hit the coast. Maybe reality set back in with the overnight fog. Our group began to splinter the following day, as we rolled along the Pacific Coast Highway south of Half Moon Bay. One of us wanting to get home to his new family, one wanting to take the last days of the journey slowly, savoring mythic Highway 1, the remaining two of us riding on somewhere in the middle. The last days were perhaps the most beautiful, the most quiet. Hours went by where we didn’t need to say anything, our moves were synchronized. Everything became gestures or anticipated stops, we knew when the others were tired or needed to pee. Time slowed back down to a crawl. I was finally able to think back on what I was about to finish, and just what that meant. We rolled into LA while the wildfires burned the hills above the city. I stood on the beach in Santa Monica and saw the same sun I’d watched rise up over my departure fall into the water. It cast a pale, otherworldly hue up through the smoke as it fell. I saw the past month burning and the last 30 years along with it. I left my home ready to say goodbye to what I had known all my life, to see what all was out there beyond. There on the beach I saw it brightly glowing in my memories of everyone I’d met on the long road west. BV
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Written and photographed by Franziska Wernsing & Jona Riechmann
e had a plan when we left Vancouver, Canada, on a cold, damp February morning last year. We were going to ride our bikes from Alaska to Patagonia. We’re now a year into that journey, and we’ve come a long way, in terms of miles pedaled and in what the journey means to us. Halfway through our trip, we made the decision to swap out our bikes and gear from a traditional touring setup to something lighter and better suited for off-road touring. With nearly 2,200 miles behind us on our new rigs, we started to feel something else undergoing a change as well. Our plan. After riding the Baja Divide route, a 1,700-mile off-road track along the Baja California Peninsula, we headed over to mainland Mexico. During the last six months we’d been riding on existing routes, and the thing about those is, someone else has already done all of the work for you. Once you download the GPS track online and print out the resupply list, the sole task left for you to do is to push the pedals. Easy, comfortable, and fun. Well, more or less. While attempting to make our way through Mexico, we were confronted with the challenge of making our own off-road route across a country for the first time in our trip. The many toll roads and highways we passed weren’t an option for us. We wanted to continue doing what we’d come to love, pedaling along the roads less traveled, and sometimes on no roads at all.
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There were no limits to our creativity. Riding relatively light bikes capable of traversing off-road routes, we’d cut through old river beds, share trails with donkeys and cattle, or end up bushwhacking along mountain ridges. We’d excitedly plot the next day’s route each night, eager to explore new ground. We used cached satellite maps on our phone to draw lines over mountains and across valleys, sometimes unsure of what we’d find when we got there. As a consequence we got used to dead-ends and riding that was anything but straightforward. Our days were often filled with failure and errors, but also with success and a rewarding sense of exploration. We didn’t mind the physical effort it took to avoid pavement or the moments when a trail that looked promising at the beginning ended up leading us nowhere. Charting our own route felt both exhilarating and refreshing. But the further we progressed south into Mexico, the more we encountered areas where one village was immediately followed by the next, only separated by fields of corn or fruit. The people we met there were kind, greeting us with big smiles and warm welcomes, but we nonetheless started to feel trapped and overwhelmed by the the increasingly urban environments. Finding places to camp became impossible, resulting in our having to ask locals for a place to sleep or needing to check into nearby hotels. Moving back toward less populated places felt hopeless, because we kept finding the same thing each time we’d try setting off in a new direction. The initial buzz we were feeling on our trip was slowly being replaced by the sobering question of whether or not we were still enjoying ourselves. The idea we had in our minds of a bicycle ride around the world was starting to feel like some other mysterious thing, unlike what we’d set out to experience.
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“The initial buzz we were feeling on our trip was slowly being replaced by the sobering question of whether or not we were still enjoying ourselves.” If we were going to make it the rest of the way across Mexico by bike, we knew we’d need to accept our new surroundings. We’d need to sacrifice our desire for solitude, our longing to be camping in the woods. And so we pushed on, at least for a few days, but we couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. Over the last 11 months, we’d spent so much timing riding through the backcountry that we simply no longer had a tolerance for noisy, crowded environments. It hadn’t just happened overnight. Rather, it had slowly made its way into our minds. As much as we enjoyed some elements of the route, we craved the silence and solitude we’d been missing since we came off the Baja Divide. Stubbornly continuing no longer felt worth it. As with all the great plans we make in life, sometimes letting go can be really hard. Giving in can leave you with a feeling of weakness, and it’s difficult for us not to see our experience of abandoning the ride through Mexico as a failure in some ways. Maybe Confucius had already figured this out 2,500 years ago when he said, “Roads were made for journeys, not destinations.” As for us, we’re learning not to get too set on attempting to cross countries from point A to point B, and we’re doing our best to stop focusing on the destination. BV
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tea shop touring Written and photographed by Colt Fetters
n Annapurna, regarded as the godfather of mountaineering tales, the late Maurice Herzog recounts his team’s first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak in Nepal. Their target was Annapurna, the 10th tallest mountain in the world. It was barely visible on the horizon as I lay atop the roof of a teahouse on a cold Himalayan night. Flipping through my tattered copy of Maurice’s book, I reflected upon the stark contrasts between our two adventures. Our trip would most definitely be considered a cakewalk to Maurice. We were bikepacking along the now well-established jeep tracks and trails of the bustling Annapurna Circuit, while his team had slowly bushwhacked through the dense jungles and unexplored wilderness of the lower Annapurna region just to access the same terrain. Maurice was one of two climbers who reached the summit of Annapurna on that expedition, a feat made possible only after months of reconnaissance. Their team had traipsed up and down many of the same paths we’d explored on our bicycles, though their account of these trails seems to have fewer teahouses and apple cobblers than ours. I can’t say that I’d trade experiences. The paths along the now popular Annapurna Circuit have seen a great deal of development since Maurice’s time. Towns along the circuit offer simple lodging, complete with small bunks, hot tea, and steaming bowls of dal baht, the local dish of lentils and rice. All these amenities sounded too cushy as we were planning our trip back in the States, where we longed for the simplicity of sleeping under the stars and cooking our dinner over a cheap alcohol camp stove. But, after a few evenings of sitting inside, sipping hot tea and watching the pre-monsoonal rains through the window, we fell into the rhythm of it all. Sure, we weren’t going to garner the same recognition as Maurice and his team, but he also lost all of his toes, and I quite like having mine.
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The Annapurna Circuit is known as the Holy Grail of treks, ever popular since it opened to tourists in the 1980s. You’d think it’s popularity would fade with time, or that the backpacking elitists wouldn’t be impressed with its crowds and ongoing development, but hardened trekkers and travel writers alike still gush about the pure magic of this trail. The diversity of landscapes along the circuit is remarkable. The beginning of the route weaves through dense, jungle-filled canyons, steep cliffs towering above, lined with flowing waterfalls. As the canyon widens, the terrain gives way to rolling hills dotted with pine trees, oddly reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. Near the top of the route the skyline is filled with dramatic 20,000-foot snow-capped peaks, the trail cutting into the mountainside as far as the eye can see. Our mornings were spent sipping hot milk tea, usually produced from one of the many yaks roaming through town. Our stomachs never quite acclimated to the unpasteurized milk, but the rich, fatty drink was too delicious and the smiling Nepali faces were too friendly to deny. After several cups of tea we would eventually get around to packing our bicycles and setting off down the bumpy jeep track, searching for the bits of intermingled singletrack that leapt from village to village. The jeep track was definitely more than Maurice and his team had available to them when they were trekking back and forth between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna in 1950. And Maurice certainly wasn’t the first one to travel the area, either. The Kali Gandaki River Gorge lies between the two towering peaks and is an area that’s been used as a trading route between India and Tibet for centuries. The Kali Gandaki is said to be the deepest river gorge in the world when measured from the summit of Dhaulagiri on the west to the summit of Annapurna on the east, five times deeper than the Grand Canyon. Old suspension bridges covered in prayer flags connect the two sides of the wide riverbed. Giant scree slopes climb thousands of feet into the clouds, where the peaks are only visible on clear days. The jeep track along the Kali Gandaki Gorge leads to the illustrious Mustang Region of Nepal, famed for its alpine desert landscape, before it rises up to the holy Hindu village of Muktinath, the last village before the famed Thorong La Pass.
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Being a trekking route, the Annapurna Circuit isn’t always great for riding bicycles. We were left hiking our bikes through certain sections of the route, usually due to the steep, technical trail and our seemingly deflated lungs, owing to the thin mountain air. There were moments of pure brilliance along the trail that came to us in the form of sinuous singletrack. Roughly half way through the 150-mile slog, we arrived at Thorong La Pass, the highest point of the route at 17,764 feet. The backside of the path revealed a thin ribbon of singletrack, winding off into the distance in between the maze of talus-filled slopes, beaming white glaciers, and craggy peaks. We wound our way along nearly 6,000 vertical feet of pure singletrack bliss before we finally arrived in the quaint village of Manang, where hot apple cobbler and stiff mattresses were waiting. The landscape was wondrous, but even more wonderful were its inhabitants. Popular for always wearing a smile, the locals were quick to give directions or invite us in for tea. A typical day’s end on the circuit was spent eating a bowl of dal baht and sipping rhaksi, Nepali rice liquor, with the locals in their teahouse. The locals nodded knowingly as we recounted the beauty we’d seen along the trail. Surely they hear the same reminiscence from travelers nightly, but they never showed boredom, instead expressing genuine enthusiasm and pride for their land. “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men,” Maurice wrote in the closing line of his book. In other words, everyone has their own big, hairy, audacious goal. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Annapurna. Our audacious goal was to live off our bicycles for a month while touring around the Annapurna Massif and Central Nepal. It wasn’t nearly as hairy as Maurice’s undertaking, but it was our own adventure, one we were proud of. We can’t all start with Annapurna, but that doesn’t make our individual goals and dreams any less important. BV
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Homecoming Written and photographed by Morgan Taylor
e’re pushing our bikes, again. The deep, powdery moon dust underfoot is a bit of déjà vu after dropping down into Sisters, Oregon, for a resupply earlier in the day. Last night’s climb out of Bend began inspiringly enough, the sun setting through towering pines a dramatic and welcome change of scenery after a month on the parched California coast. The creeks rush with clear water, a sight we haven’t seen in what seems like forever. The pine forests remind us of those in eastern British Columbia, where a couple months earlier we set off on this great journey. Another perfect wild camping spot reveals itself around every corner in this latticework of national forest roads. Just give us some water and that’s all we need. We immediately feel at ease on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Maybe it’s knowing we could be back home in ten days’ riding if we wanted to be, or knowing we’re closer to where our hearts reside, in cooler and less populated places. Or maybe it’s just that we never really felt completely relaxed during our time in bustling California. Yet it’s only our second day in Oregon, and we’re already scheming how to get off this route. We didn’t set out to suffer, and after 60 days of meandering around British Columbia, Montana, Wyoming, and California, we’re doing just that. We’re on a modified section of the still-in-progress Oregon Timber Trail, a route admittedly more suited to bikes with larger tires and lighter loads, but we’re keen to give it a try.
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A question arises for me: what level of discomfort are we willing to endure for the experience of being alone in far-off places? I’m not just talking about the usual discomfort of bike travel, the things that come to mind when family and colleagues back home think of us out here: sub-freezing wake up calls, bugs, lack of showers. No, those things are wonderful. I’m talking about the moments where you’re pushing – in this case literally pushing – only to come up short of your intended camp spot, to struggle to find a place to hang your food in fading light, to clear a spot for your tent amongst logging slash, to shovel what you can into your mouth before collapsing into your sleeping bag, exhausted. Just like yesterday, the road surface is ankle-deep, unrideable. We trudge toward a dot on the map. This time, we’re even pushing on the flats and on some downhills. Just a few more miles to the oasis promised on the other side, but forward movement is agonizingly slow. The day’s last light progresses through soft pastels of pink and purple. Beautiful. Night closes in on us, the flickering beams of our dynamo-powered lights surging with each step forward. This is what we wanted. Out of drought-ridden California, back to familiar climes. Right? As we draw nearer to the forest service campsite we’ve been aiming for, every pullout along the way is occupied with RVs, ATVs, and gas generators. Unbeknownst to us, we’ve happened upon a popular recreation site on the last Saturday in August. Any chance of wild camping here is out the window, so how we happen upon an empty site at the end of the campground in complete darkness is beyond me.
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We wake in the morning to learn that our neighbors had booked two sites, not knowing how big they were. We had quietly made our way in there, as bicycle travelers can so easily do. They’re happy to have shared the space and pass on some strudel, which we gladly accept while we pore over maps, looking for an escape route. After two days traversing backcountry roads through incredible volcanic landscapes, we lay our options out on the table and make a decision: off the route, back to pavement at the nearest opportunity. We linger in the warmth of the morning, enjoying another coffee. Have we accepted defeat, or simply pushed off in a different direction, hoping not to fight another uphill battle? Thinking back to my first experiences with bicycle travel, now more than a decade ago, I’m comforted in knowing there are many reasons people deviate from their planned course. In this case it wasn’t solely mileage or elevation, but the unexpectedly soft road surfaces that slowed our pace. We’ve admittedly made the common mistake of biting off more than we can chew. Departing from the campsite, we follow a flat and sandy doubletrack, eventually coming to a gate with an idyllic road stretching beyond it. “Closed to all motorized vehicles,” the sign reads. Is this our promised oasis? Within a couple hundred yards we’re pushing our fully loaded bikes downhill, tires cutting deep into grainy sand, no other tracks to be found. The mellow gradient then gives way to steeper, chunkier terrain, with sharp rocks protruding into the only rideable line. In the moment, our struggle is all-encompassing. An hour and a half into our riding day and we’ve covered less than five miles. We’ve got to get off this route. The opportunity presents itself when the chunky trail drops off a shelf and onto a dirt road. We take it. Our questions about whether going off route was the right choice are quickly dispatched when our deviation takes us right into an ancient cinder cone, an amphitheatre of porous red and black rock. The cinder cone is an unexpected chapter in this story, an experience even outside our imaginations. We make lunch, surveying the changing landscape from the summit and shooting photos for fun rather than for documentation for the first time since our arrival in Oregon. Bunyan Velo 165
Back on the shoulder of a four-lane highway heading toward the coast on a Sunday afternoon, the traffic noise reminds us why more and more bike travelers are seeking routes that keep them off roads like these. Fortunately, the shoulder is wide and clean, the grade mostly descending, the road surface clearly displaying its origin as volcanic fragments. Easy miles are energizing and refreshing when you’ve been struggling for days. It’s late afternoon when we arrive in the small town of Detroit, splitting up to suss out the store that seems ravaged by the weekend’s crowds. A half-gallon of chocolate milk and a bag of chips right now, makings for burritos later in the evening, a half-dozen eggs for breakfast. This is the life. Tracing the paved roads that parallel our scrapped off-road route, we leave the main highway and begin our climb along the Breitenbush River. The sun disappears early in this deep valley, and it feels more like home than anything we’ve experienced in the past two months: lush sword ferns, blankets of salal and moss, towering hemlock, fir, and cedar. We’ve crossed to the west side of the Cascades and it’s more than just a homecoming. It’s a confirmation that we’ve gone in the right direction. Despite being off the route we’d planned, we happened upon one of our favorite types of roads. Over the course of this trip we’ve come to find that the roads motorcyclists flock to are also ones we like to travel on: decent road surfaces, nice corners, and a distinct lack of heavy vehicles. We began our journey on BC’s Highway 31a, and more recently found our way to California’s Highway 33. Now, here we are on Oregon’s NF-46. They’re out there, though you usually have to go out of your way to find them. Empty camp spots line both sides of this winding road, but we’re once again fighting for the last shreds of daylight and keep turning the pedals, looking for just the right refuge. When we finally make our choice, with the river rushing in a canyon below and the road just out of sight, we’re greeted by a neat pile of kindling and a few splits of dry wood. Something feels different when morning comes. There’s a magic about this place, an unmistakable character we knew existed but had forgotten about after so much time on the road. Soaking it in, we enjoy the cool Cascadian morning, finally feeling a sense of completeness we hadn’t realized was missing. BV
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Hall of the Mountain King Written and photographed by Marius Nilsen
mid the land of fjords and steep mountains lies the plateau of Rondane, the oldest national park in Norway, spanning around 963 square kilometers and boasting ten peaks above 2,000 meters. Its barren, wide-open landscape is uninhabited by man but is home to one of the last herds of wild reindeer in Europe. Nomadic hunter-gatherers would have wandered these areas some 3,500 years ago, and old tales will tell you that this is the home of trolls. Weâ€™re not here to trap wild reindeer or get surprised by three-headed monsters, though. Weâ€™re here to pedal our bikes along Rondaneâ€™s network of rugged hiking trails. Given the remote nature of the area, gravel roads are sparse to non-existent, and few connect with each other. Despite the occasional bout of hike-a-bike over rocky paths and across rivers in freezing temperatures and rain, the solitude and natural beauty we find is a breathtaking reward. Over the course of 30 hours, we traverse the Rondane plateau from top to bottom, West to East, and back again, piecing together 230 km of trail on an unforgettable overnight loop. BV
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the inaugural ride Written by Sarah Swallow, photographed by Sarah Swallow and Tom Swallow
anuary 2, 2017. Nearly a hundred cyclists gather at Ruocco Park in San Diego for the grand depart of the Baja Divide, a 1,700-mile bikepacking route through the backcountry of Baja California, pioneered by Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox during the winter of 2015 and spring of 2016. The Baja Peninsula separates the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California and the Sea of Cortez by a series of mountain ranges and several distinct ecological regions, making the terrain and scenery very diverse. The route zig-zags down the Baja Peninsula, crossing the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur and ending with a loop at the southernmost cape. The route repeatedly intersects Highway 1, making it very easy to take a bus or hitchhike to any other point on the route. The group departure was organized to establish the presence of bicycle travel along the route for years to come. The logistics required to show up at the start are a challenge. The terrain necessitates a fairly purpose-specific bike capable of handling rock-strewn roads through the steep mountains, dry arroyos, and deep sand in the thorny desert. Bikes must be equipped with food and water storage for 160- to 225-mile stretches with no substantial resupply or water options, encouraging minimalism in shelter, clothing, and non-essential amenities. Weather is a worthy source of fear. Roads can be dry and fast one day and impassable the next, forcing riders to choose between staying put or pushing on through tough conditions. Cyclists likely have to be self-employed, unemployed, seasonal, or taking leave to have the time required to make it through the route. At a 25-50 mile per day average pace, the route takes about 1-2 months, although a motivated rider could shave some time off. Lael Wilcox holds the fastest known time at a blistering 11 days, 13 hours.
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The inaugural ride of the Baja Divide is not a competition. The amount of time each cyclist can spare determines much of the rider’s trajectory. Some choose to make haste, riding every mile for 1,700 miles with the goal of getting to the end before their allotted time is up. Others take it slow to soak it all in. Some make it and some don’t. Some hitchhike, some bus, and some take a boat. From nearly 100 riders, we break down to a big group of 30. Between our luck, weather, and susceptibility to communicable diseases, the unpredictable is inevitable. Entropy ensues. After two weeks we’re down to 14. After a third week we’re just six. Then, we’re two, but a quick bus ride changes everything. We see people we haven’t seen since the start. We ride together, then we ride alone. Priorities, pace, and lifestyle dictate the longevity of our little riding groups. We gather in big towns to rest, use wifi, eat, repair, and explore together.
ing to catch a ride on a local fisherman’s panga boat to gain passage to Los Hornitos, a remote peninsula on the other side of the Bahía de Concepción. Finding a ride has proven to be more difficult than we expected. High winds are causing dangerous water conditions, and most of the local fisherman are hunkered down until the conditions improve. After three days we are eager to move on. We roam the streets of Mulegé in search of a fisherman willing to take on the passage. Finally, we meet Francisco in the town square, and he agrees to take us across the bay the following morning during a small window of opportunity when the wind and water conditions will be less dangerous.
Our friends Joe and Leia have also arranged a boat, and a group consisting of Rafa, Justin, and Ryan want to squeeze in where they can. Colleen and Brett are also in town, but foreseeing an eventful boat ride, they opt for the paved alternative out of town. We pack our bikes the night before in anticipaTom and I have been in the coastal oasis of Mulegé for two tion of our boat trip and the next 225 miles of riding with limdays, waiting for the 40 mph winds to die down. We’re try- ited resupply. Those of us going to Los Hornitos make plans
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as a group to meet and ride to the fisherman’s beach together to ensure everybody has a ride, but Rafa, Justin, and Ryan are still eating breakfast when it’s time to leave. Not wanting to miss our chance to cross the bay, we ride to the beach without them. Joe and Leia’s skipper, Alex, is there. His boat is in the water and is ready to launch. Our boatman, Francisco, is nowhere to be seen, and neither are Rafa, Justin, or Ryan. A rushed and confusing five minutes later, we find ourselves in Alex’s boat with Joe and Leia. In the madness of cramming his small boat with four mountain bikes heavily loaded with food and water, I don’t take the chance to grab my rain jacket, a decision I questioned after noticing that Alex is dressed head to toe in waterproof skivvies. “For the way back against the current,” he says.
water. As four- to six-foot waves come crashing against the boat, Alex pushes the throttle to climb the next set. With every thrust to climb the wave, there’s a release to land on the other side and a consequent thud, jump, and bang of the boat and everything and everyone in it. Wave after wave comes spilling overhead and into the boat, soaking us in salt water. Tense and wide-eyed, we hang on to whatever we can wrap our arms around for what feels like the longest 30 minutes of our lives. The urgency of our skipper and the severity of the conditions that delayed our travel are now obvious to us. We’re so overwhelmed by adrenaline and relief that we could kiss the sand when we land on Los Hornitos. We graciously tip and thank Alex for getting us safely across and push him off to make it back across the bay against the current, which apparently is more dangerous than than the direction from which we came.
We see another boat heading toward the shore just as we begin The first few minutes of our boat ride are relatively calm, until to navigate our way down the deserted peninsula. It’s Franciswe pass the rock jetty of the lighthouse, where we learn just co’s boat with Rafa, Justin, and Ryan, heading our way. We rewhat 20 mph winds feel like in a small, open-hull boat in big group and laugh at the confusing and eventful chain of events
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that got us all here and ride some miles together before separating when the three of them go to visit with a local rancher. By 3 p.m., Tom and I are content to stop for the day and camp beneath a vacant beachside palapa, while Joe and Leia opt to keep pushing forward in search of a hot meal. We spend the night at the beach, looking for clams and mussels to add to our soup and enjoying a driftwood campfire and easy life under the palm frond lean-to. Over the following days Tom and I ride alone from the gulf coast into the mountains, stopping at small tiendas to replenish our food and water supply with whatever we find. Some stores have juice, chips, and cookies, but no water. Others can make us a meal and replenish our water. We find a bag of chips and a sleeve of cookies at one store and a few cans of tuna at the next, which tops off our food supply as we move along. Tuna becomes less appealing the further we go, and strong cravings for a simple bag of refried beans, fresh vegetables, and tortillas are creeping their way into our psyche. The heat intensifies with each day, and my Garmin reads 95 degrees. We dive for shade when it’s there. The hills grow steeper and more rocky as we climb into the Giganta Mountains, a system of canyons dotted with freshwater and date palm oases throughout which relics of old missions are the center of tiny communities where people live a simple life. We take time in these places, sitting in the water and cleaning our salty clothes. We’re out of real food and our fatigue is evident. It’s been five days since we left Mulegé when we finally reach the small mission town of San Javier, our last minor resupply for the next 100 miles. Over beers, we deliberate over whether to fill our empty bottles with the only available drinking water in town, 24 individual 12 oz plastic bottles. San Javier is a popular tourist spot,
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and we linger in conversations with vacationing tourists and indulge in another beer, delaying any decision-making. By the time we peel off, it’s the heat of the day, and the prospect of riding another 27 miles of off-route pavement to the coastal town of Loreto for some real food, culture, and a shower sounds good to us. What we assumed would be a 27-mile descent to town is in reality a roller coaster of steep, hot tarmac that forces us to dig deep for the “easy” way. Loreto is a whole new environment, a low-key coastal mission town surrounded by comfortable middle class Mexican life. We spend less than 24 hours eating, exploring, and resting up before catching a bus back to the next town on the route, Ciudad Constitución. A day later we’re back on route and in the middle of the desert, headed to La Paz along another long, tough stretch between resupply opportunities. The steep and rocky terrain continues to challenge
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our tired bodies, while the heat demands a slow pace and many siestas in the shade. During one of these siestas a shepherd joins us, offers us a cigarette, and boasts of the strawberry ice cream and beer that could be found in the small fishing village of San Everisto, slightly off route. The detour sounds worth the reward, considering our diminishing water and food supply. Tired and desperate to make it to town before total darkness, we make the final climb into town just as the sun drops behind the mountains, casting a shadow over the coast of the Sea of Cortez. To our disappointment, we find that the only tienda in town has no water and mostly candy, cigarettes, and potatoes for sale. Are we in the right place? Where’s the ice cream? Where’s the beer?! We leave the shop without purchasing anything, and just as our patience starts to diminish, we see two people waving at us from across the beach. We’re shocked to see Col-
leen and Brett, who we haven’t seen since they opted for the paved alternative out of Mulegé. They had taken a day off here after struggling through the brutal heat and terrain of the last mountain segment. We catch up at Lupe and Maggi’s restaurant, where the host has an endless supply of cold beers and fresh fish, and an idyllic spot available to camp on the beach, though the strawberry ice cream remains a mystery lost in translation. We eat, drink, exchange tales of woe, and are merry to be in one another’s company again in such a beautiful setting. Over coffee the next morning, we talk reluctantly about the washboard roads and steep hills of the route’s next segment. Colleen and Brett had ridden a significant portion of it, but had to turn back to San Everisto when they realized they needed the resupply. Sensing our mood about the ride ahead, Lupe enthusiastically offers to take us in his boat to our next waypoint, Punta Coyote. Within an hour we’ve launched on the second panga boat ride of our tour. The shortcut saves the day, not just 17
lumpy miles, unexpectedly turning a temporary low to a euphoric high point of our Baja Divide experience. In this case it was a calm boat ride, showcasing pastel ribbons in the sandstone cliffs along the shore, with energetic dolphins guiding our way. On the Baja Divide you may get stuck in the mud, you may have to hitchhike, or you could come close to falling off a panga boat. A coyote could steal your sunglasses, a skunk could bite you in your sleep, and you could get diarrhea for 10 days in the desert. You could also swim with whale sharks, snorkel with exotic fish, witness bioluminescent algae, or live on your own private beach for a while. Your bike could get stolen, but you might even get it back. There are as many unique Baja Divide stories as there are individual riders. Come find adventure in Baja, welcome the unexpected, and return to tell your story. BV
Bunyan Velo 199
issue no. 07
Published on Oct 3, 2017
Bunyan Velo is a collection of photographs, essays, and stories celebrating the simple pleasures of traveling by bicycle. In this issue, Zac...