First Bikepacking Trip

We boarded the train in Rensselaer, New York and dug into our paperback novels and paper sacks of sandwiches, ahead of us forty-two hours of rumbling clacking where first we’d see rust belt towns inside out through neighborhoods where the tracks pass through, then, after dragging our bike boxes across the station in Chicago to make the switch to the Zephyr, where urban density fell away to plains to the pearly grin of the Rockies. We had booked a stop in Thompson, Utah, which at the time you could do. I have an image now of stepping off onto that concrete platform at 2am, being handed my gear, then the train evaporating, leaving darkness, crickets and an electrical hum from the one courageous bulb overhead. My first trip out west, my first cycling vacation.

Over the preceding year New England woods riding had become our after class escape and we couldn’t get enough of it. We had two weeks of Spring Break and KH wasn’t on the hook for US National Nordic team stuff,  I don’t remember why not. We wanted to do something in the spirit of our backpacking excursions, but in a way that would involve bikes. Our friends at the shop lamented the unceremonious demise of bike touring in the late 70’s, but shared rumors of people headed to the backcountry with their knobby tires. This confirmed what we suspected, that there were people out there who’d figured it out. And, of course, there were people doing this stuff long before there were mountain bikes. But we didn’t know the details. There was no internet, the first issue of Dirt Rag hadn’t been published yet, we had few channels for sharing information and thus little context. We were simultaneously conceiving and articulating and inventing the constraints of our ambitions, our florid naivete and ignorance so deep that it swallowed even the possibility of a suspicion that there were crucial things we didn’t know.

Moab was still in the early days of its legend — for cyclists, anyway — but somehow we’d heard that there was a dirt road or track called the White Rim Trail that might be the raw material for a cycling adventure. I called information to get the number of a bike shop there, was given the Rim Cyclery’s info, then phoned and asked what the weather would be like at the end of March, and whether I could send a check, we didn’t have credit cards, for a map of this White Rim. They were incredibly friendly and said that I could do that. We borrowed touring panniers from the college Outing Club and racks from friends in town. I’d packed a couple of t’s, a flannel shirt, jeans and some shorts, didn’t have any chamois, some bits from our backpacking trips, dried food, a sleeping bag and tent. We had a Coleman camp stove, spare tubes, tools including a small vice grip. The map came in the mail. Had a friend drive us to the train station.

The roll your eyes cliche of there being more stars that night than I’d ever seen took on a new viscerality once we found a place to camp far enough from Thompson “Station” to be in the desert but close enough to feel the abstract security of its presence. The next morning we built bikes and rode to the Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park. At near ninety miles it was over twice the longest distance I’d ever pedaled, suffering in the dry, by far the less fit of us, but mesmerized by the desert rock formations, the sky, the canyon walls. We ended our first day at the Shafer bottom campsite, I gaped at the slow alien grace of the Colorado while pumping water after using my bandana to get the sediment out.

The next three days are just a murky collage seen through the filter of all the times I have been back, but I knew that I was doing something that I liked better than backpacking and that I’d want to do more of. I can see KH riding her laden bike to the top of Murphy Hogback and running back down to ride mine, which I was miserably pushing. I remember somewhere on a descent finding one of her panniers forlorn on the trail and cradling it all the way to the bottom, picking my way gingerly clawing the front brake, and being irrationally furious that she’d lost track of it when one of the cheap connecting hooks broke. I was just tired, we repaired it with half a lace from a boot and carried on. We begged water from some sympathetic Jeepers.  I felt vertigo at the edges of those wide streaked bowls. We ended each day early enough to scramble around and marvel and gesticulate, to quote like young people do from Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Monkey Wrench Gang, to insist to one another over and over, “this is what bicycles are for!” We didn’t see any other cyclists. Our ignorance and incompetence were a part of the broader landscape in which we were traveling and I can’t now help the conceit that it was substantially better that way.

At the end of the WR we had almost a week in Moab, we coasted downhill to town and set up our tent at the newly opened Up the Creek campground from which we could do day rides to Poison Spider, Porcupine Rim, Amasa Back, Slickrock: the classics, or what were then sort of classics and later to become rides that are unfairly looked upon nowadays as blasé. The West was so funny to me, low rough buildings and wide boulevards and relaxed people. We found others to ride with. One day our friend Derek, who was driving his hand-me-down beat up Volvo wagon back to school from California, passed through. We were expecting him, but for the life of me I can’t imagine now how we hooked up without mobile phones or email. He borrowed my mountain bike to do Slickrock and we borrowed his car to drive out to the end of the road in Arches. After that, we took a day to pedal up to Thompson to wait for our train to materialize out of the heat and dust and haze to take us back east.

I’ve done some trips since then. Nostalgia makes that one one of the best.

Oozing bikepacker style on the White Rim trail
Oozing bikepacker style on the White Rim trail