PASS/FAIL

Triple the mileage with next to noth­ing on your back? A long­time hiker tries two-wheel camp­ing to fig­ure out the catch.

Backpacker - - Contents - By Casey Lyons

GO BIKEPACK­ING

A long­time back­packer takes his long-dis­tance as­pi­ra­tions on wheels.

IHAD ONLY two cri­te­ria for a last-minute trip this past March: I wanted to go some­where new and I wanted to try some­thing new. A friend of mine had been singing the praises of bikepack­ing and sug­gested a route in cen­tral New Mex­ico’s Lin­coln Na­tional For­est, where the desert rises into rust-col­ored moun­tains just be­yond the town of Rui­doso. It was far enough south for good spring con­di­tions, the net­work of mostly dirt roads wouldn’t out­match my com­muter bike, and trip re­ports praised both area’s nat­u­ral beauty and his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. Bingo.

Bikepack­ing has got­ten more pop­u­lar over the last few years—even gear com­pa­nies are get­ting on board with ded­i­cated bikepack­ing tents and equip­ment. Plus, as cy­cling has grown to be a daily part of my life thanks to my 10-mile com­mute, it seemed like a nat­u­ral fit: Here was a way to com­bine a bike I al­ready had with all the camp­ing gear I al­ready had and lever­age the new col­lab to see a lot more wilder­ness.

My bike: a steel, all-pur­pose, drop-bar cy­clocross ma­chine equipped with the widest tires that would fit (in my case, 41 mil­lime­ters—wide enough for bet­ter trac­tion, but not wide enough to smooth out a bumpy ride). With­out my usual overnight pack to dump my gear in, load­ing up was a lit­tle messier. Tent poles fit on the top tube, wrapped in place with a cou­ple of ski straps. I stuffed food and clothes into the bot­toms of two pan­niers and onto the rear rack and put my sleep­ing bag on the front rack. I added a few ex­tra wa­ter bot­tle cages from the parts bin, and my friend and I were on our way to the mid­dle of the Land of En­chant­ment for a two-night, 100-mile route.

Af­ter a night spent in town, we rolled out of the ranger sta­tion and were soon ad­just­ing to our newly laden steer­ing.

There was only one prob­lem: Our first stretch fol­lowed a high­way. Semis passed within an arm’s length of us at 70 mph, weaponiz­ing the wind. Af­ter five min­utes and ap­prox­i­mately five years of my life had elapsed, we pulled onto our first dirt road and stopped to let the stress sweat dry from our armpits.

“Geez, dude.”

“Right?”

“That road did not look so big on the map.” Rolling again, we passed a shoot­ing range, re­flex­ively duck­ing when echoes made the rounds sound in­com­ing, as we switch­backed up the first ma­jor hill. There, we rested amid the tire tracks in the flour-fine dust.

Some­how, I never put it to­gether that cars and their pas­sen­gers shed more than a dog in spring­time—and that when you’re pick­ing a bike route on shared paths, it’s worth check­ing how traf­ficked they are. Bits of glass, cig­a­rette butts, shards of cans that looked like shrap­nel in some scorch-theearth bat­tle that ev­ery­one for­got about, Lego pieces, hub caps, junk food bags—this is what cars leave be­hind, salt­ing the earth to bi­cy­cle tires, and leav­ing us with flats.

Noth­ing a patch kit and some pa­tience couldn’t solve— and un­like hik­ing, with a speed that en­cour­ages tun­ing into in­tri­cate, un­der­foot vis­tas, cy­cling is all go-fast and big-pic-

ture, which is to say you think ahead 50 feet in­stead of 5.

Af­ter a few hours, we stopped notic­ing the de­tri­tus as our eyes filled with desert land­scapes where yuc­cas spiked the fore­ground and low, pur­ple-hued moun­tains mashed the hori­zon. We trun­dled over rocks and around ruts. I could feel my wimpy tires get­ting tossed around, but I didn’t care—the sage­brush desert felt born out of sun­light. We rested in the shade of ju­nipers where my rid­ing com­pan­ion gave me a know­ing look and handed me a small sa­chet of some­thing called Chamois Butt’r, then reached el­bow deep into his shorts to ap­ply the stuff. We were sun­baked, wind-whipped, and hav­ing a blast.

We joined the Billy the Kid Trail (he roamed this area, as did Kit Car­son) and camped on the bank of a small creek that fronted Fort Stanton, where Ger­man sailors and Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans had been locked away dur­ing World War II. The wood ceil­ings of the main build­ing had been left to col­lapse in­ward, as if the ev­i­dence was too shame­ful to save yet too im­por­tant to de­stroy.

The next morn­ing, dirt roads joined with pave­ment, then gravel where our tires gave off a sound like chew­ing let­tuce. We lounged in the shade wher­ever we could find it, nav­i­gated rut­ted dou­ble-track across windswept scrub­lands, and took pho­tos with a life-size, road­side Smoky the Bear.

On our last day, we climbed dirt roads high up the shoul­der of 9,957-foot No­gal Peak, and coasted along­side a creek and its clutch of tall cot­ton­woods.

There was magic out there in the miles, but I had to strain to see it. Look­ing back, what I did was the equiv­a­lent of wear­ing sneak­ers to a class 4 scram­ble. As a back­packer, I ought to know that match­ing your gear to your ob­jec­tive is more art than op­ti­mism. Next time I will.

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