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Friday, July 29, 2022

Jessica's Great Divide

I just want to celebrate another day of livin'
I just want to celebrate another day of life.

I Just Want To Celebrate, Dino Fekaris & Nick Fesses (1971)

Even though I'm back in the Black Hills excited to be scouting roads for a new adventure, the Great Divide occasionally pops into my world. And it's great fun.

Last summer, Jessica Shadduck of Omaha, Nebraska rode the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route starting at the Canadian border with a friend, who stopped in Northern Colorado. Undeterred, Jessica soldiered on, riding solo for weeks to cross the rest of Colorado and all of New Mexico, finishing in Antelope Wells. In a recently published article, she candidly expresses her battles to overcome a host of physical and mental challenges. It's quite a story. Jessica's Great Divide.

For me, this is not just another Great Divide travelogue. I met Jessica on the Great Divide, leap frogging a few times across New Mexico. That girl has grit. And she knows how to celebrate.

Jessica packing up for the climb up Polvadera Mesa.
The Resort At The River, Abiqui, New Mexico.
I didn't realize she was in this picture until reviewing my Abiqui pictures for this post.

I met Jessica at the Gold Pan Cafe in Platoro, Colorado, a popular rest stop for Great Divide riders after the big climb over 11,910' Indiana Pass. I had arrived a couple of hours earlier, rented the Great Divide Cyclist Only cabin, cleaned and dried everything from a rainy day, and started a big burger meal when she dragged in sometime after 6 pm. 

Although looking every bit the trail weary traveler at the end of a long day in the midst of a very long journey, Jessica was in good spirits. She chatted a bit, but was on a mission to re-fuel, re-supply, and return to the route. In no time, she was back on the bike to pedal off a few more miles that day and maybe into the night.

At her pace, I never expected to see her again. But a few days later and 150 miles down the trail, there she was in Abiqui at the Resort At The River. I caught up only because she crashed and absolutely smashed her rim, rendering the bike unrideable. Take a look at that rim in her article. With no bike shop within carrier pigeon range, she didn't panic and she didn't call it quits. She somehow managed, with enough time and persistence, to straighten that rim enough to hold a tire under pressure on a bike under load. Trailside. Wow. That's self-supported bikepacking.

Jessica was still sorting through some minor mechanical issues the next day when I started the climb to Polvadera Mesa, which I consider the toughest climb of the entire route. See The Toughest Climb. Hours later, as I pushed my bike up a steep, rocky, loose pitch in the heat of the day, Jessica lightly spun by and cheered me on. Thanks, Jessica, go get that hill! She soon disappeared over a ridge and I certainly did not expect to see her after that.

Seven days and about 500 miles later, I'm on the home stretch to the Mexican border. As that reality gradually took shape, a crazy number and variety of thoughts and emotions bombarded my senses. But not one of them involved sharing the moment with another Great Divide cyclist. After all, I have not seen another cyclist in over a week and only 3 others since Platoro almost two weeks ago.

What happened next made my day and even landed on a short list of my Top 10 Moments on the Great Divide. I'll simply copy here what I wrote in the prior post Top 10

8. Jessica's Joy
As I'm riding the last few miles into Hachita, New Mexico, maybe 50 empty miles from the Mexican border, I see a dusty four door clunker approaching me from the south. The sketchy car slows, so I slow almost to a stop well ahead of it, peer into it, mind the doors and windows, and instinctively ready my bear spray. The car abruptly stops. The front passenger door flies open. 

"CRRAAAAIIG!!!!!" screams a woman, as she runs toward me, arms flung to the sky. HEY! It's Jessica, another south bound Great Divide rider whom I met 13 days ago in Platoro, Colorado. She rode to Antelope Wells today and was in a shuttle on her way home. Jessica is just bursting with energy. So excited. So happy. So enthusiastic. For finishing her big ride. For me about to finish mine. For everyone else out there. For life. She is pure, unrestrained, unadulterated JOY! I believe she would have hopped back on her bike to ride back to Antelope Wells with me, if her driver hadn't nudged her back into the car. Jessica, you are a gem.

Jessica's Great Divide article is compelling, because of her and her journey. And it's more than that to me. Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your experience and bringing yet more smiles.

I Just Want To Celebrate, Rare Earth live on The Midnight Special (1973).

Friday, July 15, 2022

Bikepack Solo & Change Your Life

Well, I know what's right, 
I got just one life,
In a world that keeps on pushing me around,
But I'll stand my ground, 
And I won't back down.

I Won't Back Down, Tom Petty & Jeff Lynne (1989)

Somewhere in the Black Hills on Day 1.
(photo by Heather Heynen)

I recently read about a cyclist completing a 3 day solo, self-navigated bikepacking trip on a self-created route from home that covered 193 miles and 16,000 feet of elevation gain on every kind of surface. Depending on the cyclist and the nature of the route, those statistics could represent anything from a leisurely weekend to a hard earned best. Yeah, so what?

Look beyond the numbers. A self-created route. From home. Self-navigated. Bikepacking. Solo. Not so common, any more. This was not a pre-packaged, all-inclusive guided tour, not a celebrated race with "Grand Depart" hoopla and widespread social media coverage, and not even an event with a trophy t-shirt. Just a committed, self-sufficient cyclist out pursuing a passion.

Dispersed campsite somewhere in the Black Hills.
(photo by Heather Heynen)

On top of all that, what's really special about this ride is the story of this particular cyclist facing and overcoming her fears just to start, and then to keep at it. Along the way, she discovers that bikepacking solo repeatedly draws you into the present, pushing aside worries of past or future. Learning to truly live in the moment is life changing. Thankfully, she eloquently expresses her thoughts in a heartfelt blog post that deserves a wide audience. How Going Solo Will Change Your Life, by Heather Heynen

In today's insta-squawk world of video sound bites, her blog post may look long. Do not be deceived. Reading her message is well worth the time.

But be warned. You may be inspired to face your own fears.

I Won't Back Down, Tom Petty (1989) 
Backed by George Harrison, Ringo Starr & Jeff Lynne

Thursday, July 7, 2022

More Than Black & Blue

I wanna run, I wanna hide
I wanna tear down the walls, that hold me inside
I wanna reach out, and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name
Where The Streets Have No Name, Bono & U2 (1987) 

Nothing quite like a summer day riding in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

With some head space finally cleared of the Great Divide, I take to some favorite gravel and dirt road rides out in the Black Hills and surrounding prairie on my new Alchemy Ronin gravel bike. New Bike Day. What fun it is to ride an unloaded, light weight gravel bike!

All right! Nice shakeout rides on familiar roads for the new bike. Now, let's ride some new stuff!

But, where? I start with Lucas Haan's stellar Pringle Black route featured as the May Ride Of The Month for the 2022 Black Hills Gravel Series. Black Hills Gravel ROTM. Although I've not ridden that exact route before, I have ridden all of those roads several times over the years. So, I pull out a map containing the Pringle Black route, subtract a bunch of Primary Road miles and add more than a few miles of Low Standard roads.

There! 22 miles of Primary roads, 20 miles of Low Standard roads, and 0 miles of pavement. (For an explanation of forest road types, see The Good, The Bad & The Ugly). A new route with known and unknown roads. Shorter, but more rugged than the Pringle Black route. Call it the Pringle Black & Blue.

Innocent enough start spinning up Hopkins Flats Road, aka USFS Primary Road 315.

Parking at the Pringle Trailhead for the Mickelson Trail, I'm on gravel from the get go heading west out of town on Hopkins Flats Road. The Alchemy simply flies across these hard packed, barely graveled roads. When I stop at an intersection, a truck pulls up. Local rancher Ned Westphal is out checking on his cattle and stops for this solitary cyclist looking at a paper map in the heat of the day. 

"You lost? You need some water?"

No, thanks, I'm more than good. It's great to be out in the Black Hills on back roads. But Ned is in no hurry, either. He's curious to hear of my rides, just as I'm curious about his ranching life out here. We share stories for 15 minutes or so, maybe longer. As he slowly drives away, I smile remembering similar friendly encounters with locals all along my Great Divide ride. Ned makes my day.

Local rancher Ned Westphal shares a few laughs while out on his rounds.

As big views open on Pleasant Valley Road (USFS 715), I excitedly turn onto Richardson Cut-off Road (USFS 276). This sweet 4 mile Low Standard Road is a long time favorite that I feature at about Mile 387 of my Black Hills DoubleBackBone route. It's a little rough in spots from spring run-off and vehicle traffic due to popular ATV/UTV trails in the area. But it's great fun on a great gravel bike.

Too soon, I pop out onto Pass Creek Road (USFS 273) to climb about 1,000 feet over 5 miles to Hawkwright Trail (USFS 275), a Low Standard road plummeting down rocky S&G Canyon. All hands on deck! Spring weather and motored tires have substantially torn up this road since I last rode it several weeks ago. I navigate a random series of rocks, ruts, pot holes, standing water, and mud, while bouncing down the canyon.

Rolling along Richardson Cut-off, aka USFS Low Standard Road 276.

I emerge smiling and unscathed back on Pleasant Valley Road (USFS 715), which could take me back to Pringle on about 15 miles of hard, fast, smooth Primary gravel roads. Nope. That's not why I'm out here. It's time to ride an Unknown Road With No Name.

So, I cross Pleasant Valley Road to turn onto unnamed USFS 309, which looks like a solid Secondary Road. And it rides like one, at the start, as I pass some ranch buildings and side roads. However, for most of its 5.5 mile length, Road 309 is every bit a Low Standard road while gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation. For this challenging stretch, I'm grateful for the 20 gear inch granny gear on my 2X drivetrain, 45 mm tires, and 18 pound, unloaded gravel bike.

As I top out that climb on a ridge line, the road basically disappears, replaced by a bewildering array of logging equipment tracks and piles of timber. I negotiate the obstacles and navigate along what seems to be a way through, but am not excited about dropping down a sizable hill on little more than a tractor track. If this is the wrong way, I'll have to ride up that thing.

Fortunately, the short hill ends at a fence line with a gate, which appears to be the end of Road 309 and an intersection with Road 308. At least I think so. The only sign simply says No Motorized Vehicles. Yeah, this must be Road 308. 

Dropping down S&G Canyon on Hawkwright Trail, aka USFS Low Standard Road 275.
No pictures of the rocky steeps, where I worked to stay upright.

I cross through the gate and face another decision. About a half mile east lies Carroll Creek Road (USFS 313), a Primary road to take me back to Pringle. Nah. Instead, I turn south on Reservoir Road, which rides like a Primary road for about a half mile downhill to a residence, before it erupts into a full bodied Low Standard road.

Abruptly, I'm navigating on, at best, sketchy dirt dropping downhill fast. Possible roads and paths spin off randomly into the forest. There's very little signage and no evidence of recent vehicle traffic. There's nothing but Low Standard roads, near-roads, and wanna-B roads that are mostly unmarked, at least on site. Some navigation is by map. Some by sun. Some by dead reckoning. I miss the Stem Captain compass installed on my Jones mountain bike.

I won't admit to being lost out there, but I did stop more than a few times to sort out where I think I am on the map. I certainly backtrack some. In the language of Black Hills Bounty veterans, I call a few audibles. And take plenty of time to make decisions, especially before going further down a hill.

In the end, and near the end of my water and food supplies, I find and then drop down Low Standard USFS 314.2H to connect with Carroll Creek Road, pretty much as originally planned. More importantly, I rode a route that turned out to be great fun. I could even ride it again, probably without the backtracks. Probably.

USFS Low Standard Road 309 meets USFS Low Standard Road 308.
Some navigation is required through here.

Back at the Pringle Trailhead, I revel in the simple pleasure of a day well spent exploring back roads on a bicycle. But it's been a long day, my longest day riding since finishing the Great Divide over 9 months ago, and I'm exhausted. I pack for home.

Sounds of a softly strummed guitar drift by. Oh, that's nice.

I walk around the Trailhead shelter to find a young man playing a guitar. I apologize for interrupting, say that I'm shelled from a bike ride beyond my conditioning, and ask if I can just sit at the picnic table and listen. He graciously allows me into his space.

His name is Jacob and he's a college student from Texas working this summer for the U.S. Park Service at Wind Cave National Park. Jacob says that his grandfather recently gave him this guitar, which he plans to learn to play during breaks from training for his collegiate triathlon team. He apologizes for not being very good, but it sounds heavenly to me. We talk college, triathlon, cycling and even some music. Jacob is on a fascinating journey and he's just beginning. How exciting.

This route is deceptively straight forward on the computer.
Know that Miles 27-38 are navigationally challenging on the ground. At least for me.
Also, the "Paved" Surfaces notation above is wrong. This route is 100% gravel, dirt, and rocks.

I planned to ride my bike most all day today on roads that I enjoy. And I did that, to the fullest. Every bit of that long day of riding was exactly what I love to do.

But the highlights of the day are my encounters with Ned, at the beginning of the day, and Jacob, at the end. They remind me of many similar experiences with good people all along my Great Divide ride. Another reminder that it's not just about riding a bike.

I don't need to ride an epic route or destination to have a memorable day on the bike. Or to meet memorable people along the way. Just get out there and ride, with an open heart.

Where The Streets Have No Name, U2 (1987)

Friday, July 1, 2022

Back From The Great Divide

Back in black, I hit the sack
I've been gone too long, I'm glad to be back
Back In Black, Brian Johnson, Angus Young & Malcolm Young (1980)

A familiar vantage on a favorite road.
Looking toward Buffalo Gap in Wind Cave National Park.

Drifting a bit these days, I'm still adjusting to the reality that my ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is over. Although I stopped riding back in September, I didn't really return from that ride over the fall and winter. Instead, I immersed myself into the experience, re-re-reading my journal, analyzing maps, and sifting through photographs to create 30 blog posts. I took the time and effort to do it my way. It was hard to do, but harder to stop. Just like the ride. Great Divide Mountain Bike Route Post Index.

I think that's it, finally, and it's time to come back. Then Paul Brasby sends me hundreds of images for a Photo Gallery series of blog posts covering his ride from Roosville to Rawlins. Every one of those pictures tells a story and brings a smile, or a grimace. But the real kicker is Paul, and many others, asking questions and preparing to ride the Great Divide in 2022. Spring arrives, and I'm still out there.

Dane Church and Cemetery out on the prairie east of the Black Hills.

Out of the blue, I hear from Jeremy Kershaw of Duluth, Minnesota, the event director of Heck of the North Productions and a Tour Divide finisher in 2017. See Heck of the North. Jeremy and some friends plan to bikepack a chunk of the Cloud Peak 500 course in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming and seek some intel. Sure thing. I know that I found less information about the route than water on it. That's why I wrote all those Cloud Peak 500 posts in 2020. Here you go. Cloud Peak 500 Ride and Logistics Reports.

Then Paulette Kirby, a legendary Black Hills endurance athlete, contacts me with questions about riding the Black Hills Backbone gravel route, my original 310 mile cross-state remote road route along the spine of the Black Hills. She even drives to Rapid City to go through maps and cue sheets with me. Similarly, endurance cyclist Andrew Miller of Steamboat Springs, Colorado tells me that he plans to ride the Black Hills Backbone continuously over the course of a long day in July and works through a few questions. Cool. Here you go. Black Hills Backbone & DoubleBackBone.

Of course, there's also the Black Hills Bounty, a 5 day bikepacking tour of the Black Hills that I created in 2021 for some out-of-state friends. 2021 Black Hills Bounty Wrap. They're wondering about a new route for 2022. Alrighty then. What do you have in mind? Let's open up some maps and get out to scout some roads.

In addition to those interested in longer rides, I regularly receive inquiries from people that just want to ride for an hour or two, maybe an afternoon, in the Black Hills. Thankfully, Lucas Haan created a nice library of creative, fun gravel rides. Black Hills Gravel. And the Mickelson Trail is always popular. Mickelson Trail. Let's sort through some options.

I wonder where this goes.

Just like that, with the help of new and old friends, I find myself out there again, but now not solely on the Great Divide.

As Bilbo Baggins once said, "I think I'm quite ready for a new adventure."

Back In Black, AC/DC (1980)