“This is so stupid. Why do I do this? What was I thinking?”
I half-gasped, half-yelled these things (and other, more unprintable things) into the forest, slogging up the shoulder of a ridge on a gravel road beneath a bruised afternoon sky threatening rain. No more gears, no end in sight. Seventy-something miles already in my legs, over seven thousand feet of climbing. A loaded seat pack hanging like an anchor off my saddle, empty water bottles clinging to the frame.
I haven’t gone on a true bikepacking trip since last November when I rode out to Michaux State Forest the week before we somehow elected Trump and spent a lonely, somewhat scary night in the woods. I figured my first experience, the surprisingly overwhelming physical/mental/emotional wallop it packed, wasn’t unique. I figured future trips (in the summer, not near-winter) would be a lot easier. Less stressful, more fun. I’d be more confident, not intimidated by the prospect of sleeping alone in the forest. The daylight would be longer, the air warmer.
This weekend I found out that I was both right and wrong.
I put in time off for Friday and mapped a 130-mile loop out to Tuscarora State Forest. Mostly pavement to get there, gravel roads in the forest. Eleven thousand feet of climbing. I packed the night before, feeling that rush of excitement that comes before embarking. Tent and sleeping bad in the seat pack, spares and tools and a bag of dates in the frame bag, a loaf of banana blueberry bread and some polenta cakes in the handlebar bag. The heat made a sleeping bag unnecessarily, and the likelihood of rain made the tent a more sensible option than my bivvy. On Friday morning I woke up, lingered around the house, ate a big pancake breakfast. Then I lugged the bike down the stairs and out the door.
Almost immediately, the feeling of excitement morphed into something else. A kind of low-grade anxiety mixed with joy. Last time, it was mostly joy–the anxiety didn’t hit until darkness crept in. Maybe it was the heavy sky, or the knowledge of so much climbing ahead of me, or the desire to have someone to do these trips with. Maybe it was just the tedious act of getting out of the city to the actual ride.
From an airplane this part of Pennsylvania looks like a wrinkled sheet, the land bunching itself into ridges. They are snakes, rippling varicose veins. My route took me towards them and I climbed them one by one, trying to spin in my granny gear, breathing heavy. Miller’s Gap, Rambo Hill, Route 74 out of Ickesburg. They grew increasingly high, increasingly steep. Between them was farmland, rows of GMO corn scalloped into the land, big houses set back with long driveways and big SUVs. The miles ticked past in silence. I stopped a couple times to eat handfuls of sticky dates, once to refill my water bottles. The sky looked like rain but the clouds held back whatever moisture was in them.
You ride differently when you know you aren’t coming home that day. You can’t think about finishing, about halfway points and the other gimmicks that keep you going. You just put your head down and pedal and periodically check the odometer to see miles slowly piling up. A few times the thought of turning back crossed my mind, ending the night with a shower and warm bed. I didn’t seriously consider them, but I was leery of their presence. What did it mean that they arose?
I started bonking a few miles into the state forest, on a spongy gravel/sand mix that made progress slow and frustrating. The mosquitoes followed me when I slowed down. My legs were tired. The road seemed to keep winding uphill. On my Garmin it looked like New Germantown, the small village on the other side of the ridge that I thought might be a good stopping point, wasn’t too far away. I walked the bike for a while and the dot didn’t get any closer. I weighed the speed vs. comfort dilemma and climbed back on and kept riding. I just wanted to set up camp, eat dinner, lay down, relax in the comfort of the tent. But I didn’t know how long the gravel section would last and I didn’t want to have to confront that unknown in the morning. I hate procrastination; it makes me more anxious rather than less.
More gravel, more hills. My terrible brakes made the descents a white-knuckle experience. Each corner offered the hope of pavement, then dashed it. So on the biggest climb of the day, crawling up some unknown ridge with New Germantown still an invisible oasis somewhere below, I was forced to confront all the questions that had been lurking.
Why do I do this? Sure, these adventures are fun to look back on, but why don’t I thoroughly, completely enjoy them while they are happening? Why does gravel always sound like so much fun, and then sucks once you’re riding it?
I don’t really have a good answer. Why does anyone do anything?
I want to have an adventurous life. I want to push myself outside the comfort of warm beds and electronics, at least sometimes, if only to renew my appreciation for those things. I want to spend time in nature and gain confidence and be empowered. I want to know I am capable. I want to look back on a life spent breathing hard and racing nightfall.
Still, I can’t help but think that other people have more fun than I do on their bikepacking adventures. Or maybe Instagram and The Radavist just make it seem that way. Maybe I just need some friends to go with, and that would change everything.
After another bone-rattling descent I made it to New Germantown, where I camped on the edge of a cornfield. Darkness rolled in, followed by a massive thunderstorm. It rained hard for two hours and the underside of the tent was soaking wet but the seams held. I spoke to Autumn on the phone and she talked me down from my loneliness.
The valley was shrouded in fog the next morning. I woke up, feeling better at having made it through the storm alright. Stuffed the wet tent into my bag, ate breakfast, pedaled away from the sleepy winter-worn clapboard homes lining Main Street. I rode past farms tucked up on the hillsides, cows clustered by fencelines, my neon rain jacket flapping in the wind behind me. Later I was home, returned to the spread gingers of the suburbs and then the clench of the city. The whole trip was 24 hours, more or less. Only a day outdoors, a day away from routines and comfort. Really not much. Hardly anything compared to other adventures.
But I’ve grown a little from it, and I’m a little more confident now, and the memory already has a place in my mind. And I know I’ll do it again even if sometimes I can’t make out the reasons.