A Birthday in the Clouds
“Now that’s a water source right there,” said Sam as we sped over Bread Creek. That was the fourth or fifth creek that Sam had designated a “water source” after only twenty miles or so of twisting, turning, and climbing through the backroads around Lake Sylvia. It’s not that he was running out of water. We had only been out for a couple hours. No, like any good gear connoisseur, he was just itching to break in his brand new Grail water filter. So far it had only filtered water out of the tap at the bike shop, which is kind of an insult to the capabilities of such a fine piece of engineering. The Grail was practically begging to work its magic on the latest nano strain of water-borne bacteria. It was a “gear shakedown” ride after all, and each of us was sporting some untried bikepacking contraption.
Harrison, riding his trusty Surly Karate Monkey, had just put the finishing touches on a homemade “mountain feed bag,” made to complement his hand-stitched triangle bag. Fancy. He had loaded it up with Ritz, like you do. And Sam, in addition to the water filter, had a new Sierra Designs Flashlight tent, a Vargo alcohol stove, a couple Twofish bottle cages, some Junk Straps, and, oh yeah, a Surly Krampus (in matte black, no less). I was working on a relationship with my new Surly Ice Cream Truck fat bike. The ICT and I are currently negotiating which of us is the alpha. It’s complicated.
The plan was to tackle a 43 mile route on the roads around Lake Sylvia. Nothing crazy but definitely a workout. It was Sam’s birthday anyway so we wanted to keep it in the “adventure zone.” You know, right in that sweet spot between “a pleasant ride” and “a harrowing journey.” And a couple miles from the campsite, we found it.
It got dark and the bike lights came out. Our world became a small, softly lit bubble spreading out in front of us. Conversation became sparse as we each turned inward, concentrating on the rocks and ruts as they appeared out of the blackness. Continuing up to the ridge line, the wind grew in strength and the temperature dropped, putting a chill into the ride. There is a distinctive feeling when a cool, mountain breeze quickly evaporates the sweat produced from a hard climb. It can be unsettling — a physical reminder of how far you are from home, how late it is in the day, and how grateful you are that you decided to suck it up and bring the heavier cold weather sleeping bag instead of the lighter 55 degree one.
The campsite was just as I had left it from a trip a couple months back, and my tent-stake-pounding-rock was even there waiting for me. Harrison and I tried to get a fire going (which proved to be a little more difficult than usual for some reason) while Sam broke the seal on his tent and readied his Vargo stove. We eventually succeeded in our various unpacking endeavors and gathered around the fire for a drink to our hearty Surly steeds and to Sam on his birthday. By the way, Sam popped the cap on his frothy brew using his SPD pedal — a true bikepacker indeed.
That night we entered the adventure zone again with high winds and good deal of rain. “Hard Core” Harrison even toughed it out in a bivvy. Alas, none of us was assaulted by a falling tree limb—or a wandering Sasquatch—and we awoke to an eerie, quiet fog. Instead of the usual view of the valley below, we were treated to a bright white backdrop cut here and there by spiky, leafless trees. Truly beautiful.
This is the essence of bikepacking: When the beauty of your surroundings demands your attention more than anxieties in your head; when you are no longer worrying about your gear but simply using it; when the pain in your legs and hunger in your belly reminds you that you were created to be a physical being; when you realize that the people you are with “get it” too.
Our ride back through the fog was pure joy, each of us setting our own pace, disappearing and reappearing through the clouds as we navigated the ups and downs of the trail. You know, Sam never did use his new water filter. Guess he forgot about it.