Monday, February 29, 2016

Bikin' Utah

Quaking Aspen.
-Guardsman Pass, Utah [USA]

It's 3 in the morning and I'm shaking... as much from nerves as from the cold.

There is that undeniable crispness in the air... The weather has taken a turn in the last few days and we are deep into a Utah autumn.  The mountains have put on her blankets of gold and crimson over the last few weeks as the quakies[1] and scrub oak begin to shed their leaves, creating a stunning contrast with the deep greens of Douglas fir.  Nature is preparing for the deep slumber of winter.

Two days ago I awoke to find the first frost of the season, typically the signal to clean out the remainder of the garden... squash and apples and carrots.  That cold snap causes the remaining plants to store the last bit of sugar in their fruits before the harvest is finalized.

Symbolically, I am also undeniably deep into a new chapter of life.  I have also been waiting for this day for a long time... waiting for the right time to harvest... waiting to maximize the sweetness.  That's the reason for the nerves.

And now, the day has arrived and I'm awake and ready.

I have arrived to northern Utah after living three years in China and two months of backpacking in southern Africa.  Now, I have just four weeks to prepare for a major expedition, a two-year bike tour of North and South America[2].  If I take more time, the penalty will be riding through the mountain passes of Utah, and even worse, Colorado, during winter storms.  It's too high of a price to pay for the luxury of a few extra days.  And so it is, four weeks... four weeks to put my entire life in 70 liters worth of panniers, the size of a garbage bag for the waste bin in your kitchen.

The task is terrific; terrifically grand, terrifically challenging, terrifically impossible.  There are so many possibilities and scenarios and unknowns, and I don't have any experience with bike touring... none...  It's incredible and daunting and exhilarating, and I love it.

Preparations include finding gear to traverse every type of climate; from the arid mountains of the US Rockies to the humid heat of the Central American jungles to the high-altitude cold of the Andes to the deserts of Bolivia and Chile to the wind-blasted regions of Patagonia to the ice fields of Antarctica to the immense rain forests of the Brazilian Amazon.  Everything imaginable will be encountered and gear must stand-up to the test.

I jump in, devouring the task at hand.  I find the bike that I want, not an easy task for a tall dude like me.  I order the largest frame they make, all steel. The steel adds a considerable amount of weight, but better handles the weight of gear and the abuse of life on the road.  Steel is also much easier to repair than aluminum or carbon fiber; any farmer, anywhere, can weld steel.

Simultaneously, I tackle sleeping and cooking gear.  This is easier for me... I have experience with this.  A bomber tent, warm bag, and dual-layer sleeping pad are quickly purchased.  I find a stove that can handle all types of weather conditions and fuels.  There is also the need for pots and utensils and food... lots of food!

Then I focus on clothing.  All clothing be usable for sitting on a bike for eight hours a day and then camping at night.  Also, I know that there will be a need to have some "fancy" clothes... one never knows where one will find oneself.  The entire wardrobe, shoes, jackets, shirts, rain gear, undies, has to fit in a 20 liter pannier, the size of that hand-held shopping basket at the grocery store.

Emergency plans must be developed.  Injury, kidnapping, visa problems, illness; all are considered and resolved.  Financial ramifications and access find a solution.  Interviews, web site, and back-up systems are finalized.

Space is incredibly limited.  There's no room for anything extra; everything must serve multiple purposes.  It's a constant struggle to balance weight with durability.  The bike weighs in at 20 kg, without any equipment... I'm a lean 85 kg, the gear is close to 30 kg, and then there's water and food... it's close to 135 kg (300 lbs) of man, metal, and meat moving down the road 100+ km each day.

There is no time for mental nor physical preparation, those will have to be tackled on the road... it's time to go.

The Adventure Begins
I've coincided my departure with two other events: my birthday (much less important) and a climbing trip in Zion National Park (much more important).

This is where it gets a little tricky... I would also like to leave from my surrogate sister's house in Heber.  I've spent my prep time here and it just feels like the right place to leave from.

So, I spend my birthday packing and finalizing and cramming in last minute items.  I pack past midnight, then go to layout my clothes for my morning wake-up, only two hours away.  Only now do I realize that I've packed everything but what I'm wearing, and, all my bags have been loaded at the bottom of a car that I will meet in Zion...  Damn it!!!

I'm not going to unpack everything.  I'll have to start biking at 3 am in shorts, borrowed jacket, and socks pulled up to my knees.  No time to worry about the cold; I lay down to get a couple hours of sleep.


And so it begins...
-Heber, Utah [USA]
The alarm goes off, but doesn't wake me... the anticipation has kept me from sleeping.

I jump up, make the bed, and go to the garage.

I feel like there should be something more ceremonial about starting, but there isn't.  So, I nonchalantly open the garage door and get on the bike, shivering as the chilly wind reaches me.  I roll down the driveway, pose for a quick picture, and start pedaling down the quiet residential street.

I gasp as the cold air penetrates deeper into my lungs; a result of the exercise.  I quickly make it outside the four-stoplight-town and start circling the reservoir that is at the top of the canyon.  I don't have a light (it was also packed with the rest of the fear), so it is difficult to see the road and the debris in the road.

I clear my mind to take a moment to enjoy the predawn stars and revel in the journey.  A few tears comes to my eye as I feel the weight of what is happening.  I understand that I'm jumping feet first into the deep end of the pool.  But it feels like I'm also blindfolded and wearing a straight jacket; like a Houdini act, but on a bike.

Rain, Food, Moab
-"Middle-of-Nowhere", Utah [USA]
After spending four days in Zion climbing, canyoneering, and hiking with friends, I start the true pedaling.  I get dropped in the middle-of-nowhere Utah, literally.  It's over 70 miles to the nearest human outpost.  There isn't a gas station nor toilet nor water until then.  I've also managed to start pedaling at the beginning of two straight weeks of storms.  Rain everyday, turning into snow at elevation.  This is absolutely unheard of in Utah.

I put on the raincoat, load the bike, and start.  I go for about 40 minutes when I realize that I've forgotten food...  It's been on my list, but in all the fun and excitement and craziness, I never bought anything.  I hurl a long string of cuss words into the air, several times.  How could I be so stupid?!?!?

I check my water.  Whew!  I have six liters, good enough for two days, my estimated time to travel the 70 miles.  I also remember that I have three stale birthday cookies; that will have to do until I can reach civilization.


I've been looking for a place to camp for the last hour.  But, with the rain and steep terrain, I can't find anything.  I come to quite a large hill and don't have the energy to keep pedaling.  I get off the bike and start pushing.  I'm soaking wet and cold and tired and hungry.  And I know that it's not going to get any better...

I decide to camp, no matter the terrain, at the top of this hill.  As I get half a mile from the top, a trucker pulls over.  A female trucker jumps out of the empty rig and hollers at me to put my bike on.

"I'm going all the way to Denver.  Let's go."

I had already decided to keep pushing on before she said anything.  But, as she speaks, I notice that she doesn't have a single tooth in her mouth.  It reminds me a little too much of a scene from really bad slasher movie...  I thank her, letting her know that I'd like to continue.  She gives me a bewildered look and shrugs.  She can't imagine why anyone would want to continue walking a bike, up a hill, in rainstorm, in the middle of nowhere.  Fair enough... I'm not sure why I imagine anyone would be doing that either...  good thing I didn't tell her that I didn't have any food.


I find a mediocre spot on top of the bluff to make camp.  I set-up the tent and tear off my wet clothes, climbing into my sleeping bag for warmth.  I try to slowly eat one of the cookies, to savor the few calories that I'll have today.  But, I can't; I devour it... and then another one of the two remaining cookies.  "Feast or famine."  I think to myself as I store the remaining cookie for breakfast.

Then I start hearing the thunder.  Out of habit, I count the seconds between seeing the lightning flash and the time I hear the thunder.  It's a way to calculate the proximity of the lightning.  Lightning strikes are a common cause of death in the nature and it's good to know the relative risk.  Anything under ten seconds is cause for concern; under five seconds is dangerous.

The first few counts are at twenty seconds... no cause for concern.  Over the course of the next 30 minutes, the timing gets down to 10 seconds.  It's getting close enough that I should be concerned.  At 5 seconds, I start cursing again...  It's getting close!  It's pouring rain and I don't want to move my tent and there's not anywhere to move anyhow and, moving doesn't really make me any safer...  I just sit and wait, hoping that I don't get turned into burnt toast the first day of my trip.

There are two more strikes before the final strike hits.  I feel the hair on my head stand on end then a massive boom-flash that deafens and blinds me simultaneously.  I jump and curse again.  My heart is pounding in the back of my throat and my ears are ringing.  "Damn!!!  That was way too close!!!"

The storm moves on.  I'm sure that I'll find a giant lightning crater outside of camp in the morning.

Finally, my adrenaline stops and exhaustion takes over.  "Things have got to get better,"  I tell myself before falling asleep.


I arrive to town in the late afternoon and roll into Ray's Tavern, a well-known secret amongst the outdoors crowd that wanders through central Utah.  I am ravenous!  Actually, that doesn't even begin to describe how hungry I am.

I sit down, order a burger combo with extra fries, salad, and a beer.  Before the waitress sets the plate on the table, I have inhaled half the hamburger.  She comes back one minute later, to bring me the ketchup, and the plate is empty.  Without saying a word (because my mouth is still full of food), I make a circular motion with my hand in the air, indicating that I would like to another order.... of everything.

"One more?  Of everything?" she questions, to make sure that she understood correctly.

I nod my head and smile.  Swallowing the remainder of the food.

She brings the next full order and smiles.

This full order goes down at a closer to "normal-starving-wolf" speed.

After a few minutes, I catch her attention again.  Now, I have enough food in system that I can actually speak now.

"May I have another order please?"  I ask, somewhat sheepishly.

"Another one?!?!?!"

"Ya..." I'm not sure what to say.  I feel like I should offer some type of explanation.  "I've been biking across I-70 the last two days and I didn't have any food."

"What?!?!"  She gives me a look like I'm a crazy man.... a warranted observation.

"I started biking and forgot food.  The bike is out front."

She looks at me, and then the bike, then back at me.  She walks away to place the third order.

I thank her as she brings the final order and get started on my third hamburger.


Campin' next to a Juniper.
-Moab, Utah [USA]
I wake to a break in the weather, all most long enough to actually dry out the tent.

I start pedaling, trying to maximize the opportunity.  After a few big climbs, I'm on a nice gradual downhill slope, all the way to Moab.  The pedaling is more enjoyable and the scenery is stunning.

About fifteen kilometers outside of town, the rain clouds open up, dumping buckets of rain.  I'm soaking wet in a matter of seconds.  Soon, there are flooding streams where roads and ditches and sidewalks once existed.  The water is high enough that I submerge my feet with each pedal.  I continue, hoping to get on the far side of Moab and find a place to sleep.

I continue as long as I can

I go as long as I can... which isn't far.  I'm cold and wet and incredibly exhausted.  I turn down a residential road with the last bit of energy I have.  It isn't ideal, but I just can't make it any further.  I can barely walk, let alone pedal.  It's been 100 kilometers today.

I set my tent next to a juniper and hope that none of the neighbors will get upset.

Within fifteen minutes, a truck comes down the dirt road.  I keep hoping that it will turn away, but it doesn't.  It comes right towards me.  I mentally prepare myself for a confrontation.  I'm sure that I'm trespassing and will be invited to leave... I'm too tired to even think of moving.

A man gets out of the truck, with his young daughter.  He walks up to me and holds out a bag.

"I saw you from the house and figured that you must be hungry.  You can stop by in the morning for breakfast too."

I can't thank him enough.  And devour the pasta and energy bars that he so thoughtfully gave me.

I begin to tear-up as I think how much this small act means to me.

Southern Utah scenery
-Moab, Utah [USA]

1.  Quakies is the local name for Quaking aspen.   -return to the story

2.  This journey will include approximately 40,000 km (25,000 miles) of travel.  Roughly the same distance as traveling around Earth at the Equator.   -return to the story

Monday, February 15, 2016


A few days into "BIG" trip.
-La Sal, Utah [USA]

Four months ago, I began a major undertaking, arguably one of the largest of my life.

In October, 2015, I began cycling from my home state of Utah (in the USA) to Argentina, and back.  Really, not much more to it than that... go south until there is no more south, and then turn around and go north, staying on the bike as much as is possible.  In the process, I anticipate that I will visit nearly every country in North and South America[1] and cycle over 40,000 km... the equivalent of circling the globe at the equator[2].

My goal is to meet new people, share experiences, and enjoy the journey.  I view myself as a fairly average guy that is trying to live life to its fullest, one day and amazing experience at a time.

What follows are the stories along the path.


It's been exactly four months... four months down to the second.  In the most unexpected and surreal way imaginable, I find myself in precisely the same place, time, and surroundings that I was in four months ago... an unfinished basement at 3 in the morning surrounded with odd pieces of bike gear and dirty clothes and thoughts.

But this time, it's different... I am different.

Last time I was here, I was anxious.  It wasn't the nervous, annoying kind of anxiousness... the emotional equivalent of a barking Chihuahua, jumping and pulsating and shaking with angst.  No, last time it was the anxiousness of being at the start of the climb, knowing that there was work to be done and experiences to be lived.  It was untested resolve and certainty that difficulties would come, swirling like eddies in a long series of rapids; each unable to overturn the boat, but waiting to grab and twist and change its course.  It was that feeling of foreshadowing that churns from deep within the gut, the knowing that "something-big-is-about-to-happen-and-all-I-can-do-is-hang-on-and-hope-for-the-best".  That, that was the feeling... that inexplicable draw of unknown that has pushed humans for centuries to leave the comfort of home and family and routine in search of something new, something that inspires... the search for discovery and living past the mundane.

Most noticeably, I am physically different.  I have lost weight.  It's not that I've ever had a lot of weight to be lost, but now, now, I can eat five full meals a day, devouring 4,000+ calories without a thought and I remain more lean than I have ever been.  My body has become transformed and tuned to moving a 20+ kg bike with 25+ kg of gear and 80+ kg of flesh and bone over 100+ km a day.  Rain, snow, heat, wind, it doesn't matter... that's the task at hand.

I have also lost emotional and mental weight.  In a daily struggle of living life on the edge, the things that do not matter, the things that don't better support me or my task, have been discarded.  It is different than anything I've experienced before... unsurprisingly liberating, but oddly unexpected.

Now, it's a different 3 am, and I've already made the jump.  I have dipped my cup in and tasted, and I want more.


As my thoughts swirl, I search for a way to distill my experiences... to crystallize events and put them into coherent words... but I can't... I lose my tongue.  I search for words that convey thought and emotion, but it is difficult to find them; they are elusive, and I feel that they should be that way.

It has all been so big, so raw, and yet somehow still so ordinary.  Some days, it feels like I just wake-up and sit on a bike, like it is any other 9 to 5 job.  Other days, the most extraordinary events take place... things that I couldn't possibly create even with the most vivid imagination.

The most unexpected sensation is that it all somehow feels like a lifetime has passed in no time at all.  This juxtaposition of extremes creates a feeling that perhaps it just hasn't happened... like someone just decided to rip off four pages of a calendar, or maybe, the universe just hit the fast-forward button, or perhaps, it's been a bizarre case of déjà vu and I've just awoke.

But all these feelings are betrayed by fact.  I have lived, I have cried, I have laughed, I have been humbled... I have hurt, I have ached, I have danced, and I have worked.  I have experienced highs and lows that I couldn't have guessed.  I have found new friends in the least expected places and amongst the least expected people.  I have been the recipient of kindness beyond belief.  I have pushed my physical, emotional, and mental limits.  I have seen humanity, marveling in its beauties and lamenting its shame.

Slowly, the stories are beginning to emerge; stories with wonders and quirks, reflections and locations.  It takes time to let details congeal and thoughts marinade... it takes time for the stories to find their place.

Tellin' stories.
-Guaymas, Sonora [México]

1.  Sorry Canada and Belize, it's nothing personal.  I really do like you guys, but.... it just didn't work out this time... can we still be friends?!?!?  I promise that it's all me and my baggage, it has absolutely nothing to do with you.   -return to the story

2.  The distance around the Earth at the equator, is 40,075 kilometers (24,901 miles).  The Earth's diameter is widest at the Equator, creating a phenomenon called an equatorial bulge.   -return to the story