Bikepacking the Dixie 170

Lynda Wallenfels on the long climb out of Hatch, Utah to the top of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
Lynda Wallenfels on the long climb out of Hatch, Utah to the top of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.

By Adam Lisonbee

On the counter of the Panguitch Lake General Store were items as valuable and sought after as gold: a snickers bar, red cream soda, chocolate milk, and a bag of Sun Chips. I was dirty—filthy dirty—hot and tired. It was Sunday, 10:30 am. I had been riding since 6:00 am, and had just completed a massive push from the flow of Thunder Mountain, through the barren tablelands of the Hatch-to-Panguitch ATV trail, and over the riddle of Rock Canyon. Thirty-five empty and lonely miles. It was day 2 of the 2010 Dixie 170, a 170-mile unsupported mountain bike race.

Elk, deer, and moose heads surrounded me in the store. Kitschy wooden signs, t-shirts, and trucker hats. Maps, wildlife art, postcards, and copies of a book called “Remembering Panguitch Lake.” The air was chilled, and so were the drinks lining the shelves behind the frosty glass doors of the refrigerated coolers. Endless options for cold, sugary, liquid replenishment and refreshment. I stared in wonder at it all. A feeling of acute displacement had engulfed me. It had only been two days, but already I felt detached from the everyday hum of society and civilization and from the vacationing weekenders and relaxing locals. I wandered up and down the aisles like a kid in a candy store.

Lynda Wallenfels and Fred Wilkinson on the Virgin River Rim Trail, just minutes into the Dixie 170.
Lynda Wallenfels and Fred Wilkinson on the Virgin River Rim Trail, just minutes into the Dixie 170.

The clerk behind the counter looked at me with blatant and quizzical curiosity.

“Any good mountain biking around here?”

My mind raced in disbelief. I thought about the last day and half of riding. The Virgin River Rim Trail. Chimney Rock. Thunder Mountain. The Paunsaugunt and Markagunt plateaus. The Grandview Trail. The endless miles of forest roads that criss-crossed the terrain like a bowl of spaghetti. Ahead of me still awaited the Spruce Trail. And beyond that, waiting to be ridden on some future day, Dark Hollow, Bunker Creek, Scout Loop… and so much more.

“Uh. Yeah. A little.”

Outside in the shade I swung lazily on a wooden porch swing. People came and went. Tourists, bikers—the motor kind—passers through, and road trippers with bored, sticky, restless children who seemed irritated at having to peel themselves away from their iPhones and PSPs. A small goat named Dizzy sat lifelessly on the porch. An odd pet, in an odd place. I lingered. And ate. I stared in terror at the mountain above me. The mountain I knew I had to climb. So tall. So far away. Covered in thick aspen and pine, I knew that once I did gain its summit, what followed was the deadfall laden mass once known as the Spruce Trail.

I closed my eyes and put off the inevitable ascension for a few more minutes.

Lynda Wallenfels climbs the Chimney Rock Trail near Tropic Reservoir.
Lynda Wallenfels climbs the Chimney Rock Trail near Tropic Reservoir.

In the weeks leading up to this ride, I had continuously tried to convince myself that I was unfit to participate. “You’re too busy.” “No legs.” “Unprepared.” “Next year.” I sent off my regrets to Dave Harris, who had designed the route, and invited anyone and everyone to come ride it, and resigned myself—with no small amount of relief—to missing the Dixie 170. “Not this year.” And maybe not ever. And why would I? One hundred seventy miles of rugged, dusty, remote, and self-navigated terrain is hyperbolic self-indulgence. Exaggerated, deliberate masochism, mingled with a narcissistic dash of overt confidence. Who do these multi-day mountain bike riders think they are?

I was feeling good about my decision to abstain. After all, I had a long list of long rides behind me. I had nothing to prove.

And then came Dave’s reply.

“Gotta start somewhere. This is the perfect time and venue. I know you want to, so…”

I resisted the nudge.

“I tailor made this route for folks in your position—just wanting to get into the game. You will love the route. It will challenge you… in a good way.”

And I knew he was right. I did want to ride. And any excuse I manufactured to do otherwise was artificial and superficial. In fact, the stars had aligned themselves in such a way that not riding the Dixie 170 would have been a shameful display of self-condemnation and cowardly avoidance. I could not have asked for a better scenario: Perfect weather. An amazing route. And fitness. What is the point of having good legs if they sit idly, itching and twitching to be throttled and flogged?

I was back in. If I was ever truly out.

“Dammit.” I muttered.

Sunrise over the Thunder Mountain Trail.
Sunrise over the Thunder Mountain Trail.

I spiraled into the tunnel vision of preparation. Maps, gear, food, and pesky, taunting ambitions dominated my thoughts for the next several days. In my sleep I saw GPS tracks and singletrack. And in my waking hours I plotted, schemed, and planned. As I did so, the buzz and mojo started to build and materialize into tangible, thick anticipation. Butterflies fluttered in my gut. The bike bags came together, and then, suddenly there I was, lying in the trees at Woods Ranch near Cedar City, Utah staring up at the stars and moonlight, tossing and turning. Sleeping. Waiting.

Waiting for dawn, and the Dixie 170.

The night faded into morning. The sky was clear, the trees still and unmoving. I was too nervous to eat. Another car pulled into the parking lot. And then another. And then one more. A few minutes later, the handful of riders so ambitious and masochistic to attempt this route were busily prepping bikes and making last-minute adjustments to packs and saddlebags and expectations.

My thoughts whirred. “What have I done?” I considered getting back in my car, and driving home. Escaping. Fleeing. But I’d shown my face to the others. I couldn’t run away now. Not now. No, there was no way back.

The nervous energy bouncing from rider to rider was contagious. We greeted one another with handshakes and hugs and mutual admiration. Old friends. And new ones. All bound together by the audacity and ambition of what lie ahead. Singletrack. Dirt. Rock and forest and fear. Hunger and elated euphoria. The electricity was absolute and undeniable. Each of us was hiding our apprehension with toothy grins.

June 2011 – And then, it was time to ride.

The preparation and the planning and the speculation were over. “Run what ya’ brung.” No more scheming. No more wondering. Only pedaling. One hundred seventy miles and 24,000 vertical feet of pedaling. The butterflies gave way to quiet determination and an optimistic thrill. “This is going to be amazing.”

We left our vehicles and our doubts behind, and began climbing through thick evergreens and into the aspen wonderland of Deer Haven. The gnarly, white and green trees grew like a wall, tightly knitted and bunched. The trail wound and snuck through the gaps in the wall. The morning sun was a brilliant ball of optimism and light. The morning air, crisp and welcoming. It was, at long last, summer in the high country. The enormity of whatever it was we had each set out to accomplish was dwarfed by the natural and ebullient potency of the moment. The wide smiles of the parking lot were still plastered on our faces—molded, goofy Halloween masks.

Narrow and primitive at its origin, the Virgin River Rim Trail begins high in the aspen forests of Black Mountain. Wildflowers cover the forest floor and natural meadows interrupt the thick density of the aspen groves. The trail snakes and winds through the trees, quiet and unassuming. Like the trickling headwaters of rivers that become mighty and wide, eventually the trail becomes well-marked and well-traveled. But in the shadow of Black Mountain, it is pristine and silent and beautiful. Sunday evening, as the sun started to sink behind the western wall of peaks and trees I would find myself on this same stretch of trail. Elated and worn and still—improbably—wearing that same idiotic grin that I had some 35 hours before. I sang an impromptu line, tone deaf and delirious as I was.

“Up, up the mountain side.”

“Smilin’ smilin’, smilin’ wide.”

The car, food, and that sweet satisfaction of a journey’s end were right at my fingertips. Only a matter of time. In fact, riding once again that brief and elegant section of trail was like a homecoming. A return. It, rather than the parking lot, felt like the ride’s finish. It’s Grand Finale. The pain and exhaustion and the dirt and grime were forgotten. Eclipsed by the grandeur and unexpected spontaneity of the moment. I stopped. Briefly. And listened to the wind and the leaves. I drank the thin air deeply and deliberately. I did not want the moment to pass. I wanted to stay indefinitely among the trees and flowers of Black Mountain and Deer Haven.

The first hours of Saturday were spent tumbling through the forests of Ponderosa and red rock. The views into Zion National Park and off Cedar Breaks were inspiring and breathtaking. I eagerly gulped the panoramic, wide-angled wilderness, while trying to navigate the bumpy, dark singletrack. As the day wore on, the riding became faster, even easier. Long stretches of remote dirt road passed through red and black and brown patches of southern Utah high desert country. Tawny rock pinnacles and castles appeared randomly in the midst of scrub or pine or aspen. In the distance, Brianhead Peak touched the sky. The sun was high and hot. Some of its friendly sheen of the morning had faded into the stillness of the heavy afternoon. The silence of the forest was broken by the constant buzz and song of some unknown insect. Their whirring chirp became a consistent companion throughout the endeavor. The sky gleamed a deep blue.

I rounded a corner and there was Lynda Wallenfels resting in the shade.

We rode the remaining miles into Hatch, Utah—population 127—together. A few minutes later, we were staring in wonderment at the plates of food that had been placed in front of us at the quaint, but surprisingly busy, Cafe Adobe. My turkey sandwich arrived first. It was the size of a football. Cheese. Bacon. Turkey. French fried potatoes on the side. I questioned the wisdom and prudence of trying to eat such large and copious quantities after eight hours of riding. And with at least another four left ahead of me that night, I questioned further. But after a bite or two, the voracious hunger that I did not know was gnawing at my gut roared its head in ferocious manifestation. Meanwhile, Lynda was going to work on the largest hamburger I’d ever seen, appropriately named “The Gambler.” I struggled to finish my turkey and swiss. She on the other hand, devoured The Gambler with the utmost of ease.

Like the ride itself, those sandwiches began with each of us biting off more than we could chew. But little by little, the miles and the hours and the doubt crept into the shadows of happy legs, good conversation, and the majestic Dixie tablelands of red and pink and brown. A land shaped and eroded by time and weather and volcanic expression. We flittered and rolled across the top—and youngest—step of The Grand Staircase.

The sun started to droop into the west while Lynda and I spun the easy miles along the Fremont ATV Trail. Both mental and physical fatigue had started to wear away at our enthusiastic outlook. I was craving the relative comfort of my bivy and the ethereal escape of sleep. Overlooking the famous Thunder Mountain singletrack, we laid out camp and crawled into our bags. Tired. Sleepy. Dusty. In the distance, the Tushar Mountains interrupted the horizon, and the Sevier Plateau loomed dark and purple. My heart raced as I tried to unwind from a 13-hour day. Ninety miles behind me. Eighty more to go.

Apprehension and doubt crept back from the darkness as I drifted off to sleep under the stars of Thunder Mountain.

The Sunday sunrise was inspiring. I crawled out of my bivy and into the morning twilight. The first light of the day was only beginning to touch the bronzed dirt of Thunder Mountain. The trees were indifferent. There was no wind. No sound. I packed my gear back into bags, now covered in fine dust, and watched the sun stretch over the mountains. It was with some reluctance that I climbed back into the saddle, and started to pedal down the trail. Lynda opted for a more leisurely start that day and as I left camp she wished me luck.

Thunder Mountain was all mine. There were no other riders. No other people. I sped and swooped and contoured over the roller-coaster trail. I smiled, in spite of the lingering fatigue and sore extremities.

Day 1 had gone much better than I could have anticipated. I had strong legs. I was focused and motivated. The bike and the packs all held fast. “I could get into bikepacking,” I found myself thinking. “This is unbelievable.”

Indeed, the entire enterprise became a revelatory discovery. The old limitations of mountain biking no longer existed. Bikepacking, like backpacking, is not bound by space and time. The possibilities become legion and myriad and breathtaking. As I pedaled through the gleaming morning, I thought of the Tour Divide riders. Riders that at that very moment were somewhere in Wyoming or Colorado. Pedaling. Conquering. Discovering the deep dark secrets of human doubt and triumph. I thought of Dave Blumenthal, the Tour Divide racer that had been killed in an accident on the Divide route just a two days before the Dixie 170. I had never met Dave. But his tragic death stung. I read about the news at home, surrounded by my own scattered gear, maps, and packs. The doubt and fear I had held at bay surged and flourished.

Why do any of us ride our bikes in these improbable displays of grandiose self-indulgence? To what end? Is the reward—whatever it might be—worth the pain and the loneliness and the inherent risk? It must be. It has to be. Doesn’t it? And yet, every year, more and more mountain bike riders find ways to challenge the boundaries of normalcy and sanity. Pushing limits and breaking through the barriers of distance and mountains and deserts. Why? Who can say, exactly.

I was back where I had started. My feet and hands were swollen and throbbing. My legs numb. I struggled into a change of clothes. I sat idly for a moment, and looked around at the surrounding trees and sky and mountain. I had done it. 170 miles. 24,000 vertical feet. 35 hours.

I pulled into a drive-thru restaurant, and ordered the biggest chocolate shake they could make. I sped into the waning light, northward, homeward. The last light of the day lit the peaks of the Tushars in a brilliant, warm gold. And already I started to plot and plan and scheme… “Next year, I’ll be faster…”

The 2011 Dixie 200 (yes, it’s 200 miles this year) will take place June 25th. For route information and more details, click visit http://2-epic.com/events/dixie200.html

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