by Emily Brown
It was mile 4 of my first bikepacking trip. I had fresh legs and a cocky attitude. My husband and I got a late start, but the hard dirt trail rolled effortlessly with gradual elevation gain. In my head, I was already planning the next trip, feeling stoked about this 3-day adventure on single track trails in the Black Hills of South Dakota. As it turns out, a few more short miles down the trail and my entire demeanor would alter drastically.
When discussing the trip, the goal of a 24-mile day seemed totally manageable- unimpressive even. Now, just 12 miles deep into the trip, I began to question the obtainability of even that goal. I totally wanted to throw in the towel at this point. The weight of the packs on my bike paired with the fact that I wasn’t, let’s say, at the top of my fitness game made climbing out of the canyon before us provoke tears. Yes, literal tears. The problem was that we were in the middle of nowhere. We could either go 12 miles back the way we came, or another 12 miles toward our goal. Seriously, had there been a road nearby, I would have ditched the guy and the bike and thrown up my thumb for a ride home.
But I kept going, and eventually we made camp. After reflecting on the day, I decided I needed to make some adjustments as to how well I fueled myself. We lit the stove, rehydrated some kind of pasta dinner, popped an Advil, and hit the sack. Day 1 down. As I lay awake in my sleeping bag, I wondered if I would be able to make it another day. That wondering was quickly followed by the realization that it had been years since I slept in a tent thrown up in the middle of the woods. How was I feeling simultaneously terrified and overjoyed?
It turns out that adventures like these are filled with seemingly opposite feelings. One minute you can feel weak and totally helpless, on the verge of a meltdown, and the next feel tremendously strong and immeasurably powerful. You can feel at once absolutely physically uncomfortable and yet so at home in your body. Spending several days in nature can leave you unnerved and exposed, yet totally safe and connected to something bigger. Your thoughts are totally focused, consumed with just one freakin’ pedal stroke at a time, and then suddenly you’re pondering what you want to do with your life and why you are on the earth. People often ask why we choose to put ourselves through trips like this. These are the very reasons why.
It turns out that managing my fuel intake, paired with the gift of a huge breakfast burrito in a small town we were passing through, would make the trip overall a little more manageable than the first day. It was still hard- like, really hard. But I discovered, even after that first day when I have never wanted to bail so badly in my life, that I wanted to do this again and again. I knew that my relationship with my husband, my perspective on life, and even my spiritual practice needed bikepacking.
The third and final day ended in another small tourist town in the Black Hills. It was hot, my legs ached, and the sweat and dirt must have added a few extra pounds to the total weight I was pedaling but, when I turned the next corner, what I saw was close to seeing Jesus Himself. It was not actually Jesus, or the face of God even, but it was a brewery! HOLY SHIT! COLD BEER just ahead. We launched off our bikes parked at the side of the building, threw on our sandals, and went inside to order. Sitting outside on the porch, stinking it up like a couple of dirtbags, we discussed the last few days. The mood was light. We simply felt happy. We weren’t in a hurry; we didn’t need a five course meal or nice clothes, even. We hadn’t reached all of our mileage goals and subsequently adjusted the trip as we went. Human beings have tackled much greater feats, but we were utterly satisfied.
It turns out that all we needed was our bikes, a few days, some challenges, some victories, and a couple of cold beers- that’s it. We had connected to our aliveness, our love, and the simplicity of what it takes to feel content and at peace. Here’s to many more bikepacking adventures!