By Lukas Brinkerhoff — We had half a bottle of Tequila, 2 beers, ¼ bag of Funyuns and about 6 granola bars. There was four of us and two of us didn’t drink. We had hit the climb up Strawberry Pass much later than we had anticipated. The deafening cracks of thunder started as we began the climb. We had watched as the storm clouds rolled in the valley and hoped they would stay to the west of us. The thunder was not a welcomed sound.
The rain began close to the midway point of the pass. None of us were really prepared for a downpour and once it hit, our only solution was to get tents set up as quickly as possible as an attempt to keep our gear dry. The rain came down on us around 5:30 and continued for just under an hour. When we all emerged from our nylon shelters, we knew it was going to be a long night. The light had faded and was darkened by the storm clouds. We were a couple of hours from Montpelier and a couple of hours from Preston.
We discussed our options as if we really had any. It was going to be a hungry camp and a long ride the next morning. I pulled out the bottle of Tequila, might as well make the best of this.
There are three stages to the learning process of becoming a long-distance, multi-day bike rider (AKA amateur hobo): Desire, Suffer and Embrace.
Desire is the beginning. It’s also the easiest. If you don’t desire to go on long-distance, multi-day trips, then you probably won’t. Bikepacking has made these types of adventures accessible and more and more people are trying them. It’s easy to scroll through your Instagram feed, see Ultra Romance’s photos and think, yes, I want to go bikepacking. You might even attend a clinic on how to get started, feel the excitement, buy some bags and start planning your first trip. It sounds exciting and this is definitely the romantic stage. It’s mostly about dreams.
And then we get to Suffer. You’ve purchased the bags, read the blogs and you are ready for your first adventure. You can tell you’re ready because you are heading out the door. You will have some butterflies in your belly, but the excitement of doing what you dreamt about will overwhelm them and you will begin to have a good time. Mile 10 will click by. You might stop and have a snack, you know, eat before you need to. Mile 20. And then you are in the thick of it. You are too far from home for it to be easy to return and the end of the day is still at the end of the day.
All those pretty photos you dreamt about taking fade away as the sweat accumulates on your brow and rips into your eyes. The climb is stiff and having your bike loaded is making your legs feel like lead. This is the moment when you decide. You either determine that this was a horrible idea and after this trip you will be done or a smile spreads across your face because you are realizing what you had desired. Being able to do long trips has more to do with your ability to suffer than it does with your fitness level. I’ve watched seasoned cyclists, fit from years of riding, break down and lose it while the chubby guy on a bike he purchased a few months ago is smiling even though I know he is hurting, hard.
Embrace is a place that doesn’t come easy. It’s a stage that can only be achieved through years of suffering that has hardened your soul to the point that you no longer worry. The self-doubt is gone. You don’t think, I might not be able to do this. Instead, you are in the moment and you handle what is there with the improvisation that you have learned through all those trips. You planned on 50 degree nights and it dipped below freezing, ok, you are where you are. Instead of focusing on the fact that you can’t move your hands, you realize that the sun is coming up and in a couple of hours you will be fine.
We woke up hungry. We had saved a beer for breakfast, but if memory serves we didn’t drink it. Our tents were covered in dew, the ground was soaking wet and our bikes were cold to the touch. We didn’t talk about food until we were moving and then it became our motivation. We began our climb up the pass, reached the false summit, celebrated like it was the top only to realize we were wrong and suffer for another few miles before truly topping out.
We stopped and took some appropriate and other less appropriate pictures capturing our elation of being done with the climb. Despite our outward appearances, we were all past bonking and only had food on our minds. We took advantage of the kinetic energy we had earned and coasted for the next few miles toward the valley. The flat of the valley leading into Montpelier seemed to go on forever. And then there was the overpass to get over the train tracks which turns an otherwise flat ride into one that ends with a short climb right before you enter the city. One last obstacle in our search for food.
We raided the Maverick with the ferocity of Vikings, pillaging anything that had carbs or sugar. If memory serves, someone bought a bucket of red vines.
That year’s Slotoja taught me a couple of things. Firstly, being hungry and bonking are two different things. And secondly, there’s a freedom that exists in not having a choice. As we lay next to our hobo fire just off the road, sipping tequila and wondering what the morning was going to be like, there was only one choice and that was to embrace where we were.
Lukas Brinkerhoff blogs about mountain biking and life at mooseknuckleralliance.org.