Thursday, May 19, 2011

Maah Daah Hey Trail, days 3 and 4

I love living outside. It's an interesting kind of love, because I don't really go camping all that often any more. Truth be told, I can be downright lazy about the prospect of shoring up the gear, food, water and logistics necessary to live on the trail. I can be intimidated by long days under the hot sun, possible hours in the rain and nights curled up in a damp sleeping bag with a chilled wind whipping through my tiny backpacker tent. I'm discouraged by the fact that, no matter how diligent I am about sunscreen, I will return home with lips so chapped they're bleeding, wind-dried eyes and pink patches of sunburned skin; that no matter how much clothing I carry, I will at times be deeply chilled or uncomfortably wet; that no matter how much DEET I bathe in, the bugs will find me. But sometimes, through serendipity or necessity, I forget all that, and I get out there anyway. Every time, without fail, I find myself rolling out my damp sleeping bag beneath a star-soaked sky and smiling at the beautiful simplicity of it all.

In the midst of our relaxed evenings in camp, my friends and I once found ourselves discussing "dream vehicles." For many in the group, it was some kind of RV, big truck or van — something you could use to travel around and serve as living quarters away from home. When pressed, I insisted that I have no interest in big flashy vehicles. In fact, I want the smallest, most insignificant vehicle possible — my 1996 Geo Prism came to mind — that I can just leave without concern at random roadsides and set out for weeks on foot to actually travel, to actually live outside. When pressed further I finally just decided that, actually, bicycles are my ideal vehicle. You can pack everything you need to live on a bicycle and travel to far-away destinations, experiencing everything the world has to offer in between.

But it's true that lately, I've deviated from pure bicycle explorations and become more interested in what the world looks like on foot. The requisite shuttle around the Little Missouri River (flowing at flood stage) turned out to be a 96-mile van ride all the way back into Medora, across the Interstate bridge and back to other side of the river a mere 10 trail miles from where we took out. The logistics of gravel roads and trail intersections led to us being dropped off eight miles from where we planned to camp that night. Everyone else in the group decided to indulge in the relief of a relative rest day. (Even though we were only traveling about 20-25 miles each day, the trail conditions usually resulted in five to six hours of solid effort, more than most of us had bargained for.) I decided to take advantage of the short day to pack my bike back in the van and set out for a long run. When everyone headed north toward camp, I turned south toward the river.

The sky was clear and the direct sunlight on white-baked clay made the 75-degree afternoon feel quite a bit hotter. My legs felt strong despite two long days in a row (five hours of biking plus two hours of running.) I took fast strides along the rim and dropped off the plateau into the wide valley of Little Missouri River, hoping to connect the missing link of the trail (my run the day before had taken me within two miles of the river.) The valley bottom had been saturated by recently receded flood waters, and the surface varied from wet mud to grass swamps to nearly un-walkable bogs. It certainly wasn't fast or easy running, but I enjoyed the adventure. At mile four, I came to a fast-flowing, potentially neck-deep waterway called Whitetail Creek. I waded in and quickly sank to my knees, then decided to turn around. The river was still nowhere in sight. I expressed silent gratitude for Dakota Cyclery and their efforts to whisk us around this partially collapsed, mud-bogged, half-drowned and undoubtedly dangerous section of the Maah Daah Hey.

I felt good for the 12 miles back up the plateau and into camp, so I refilled on water and announced I was setting out to make it an even 20. A half mile down the trail, I came to another waist-deep stream I just didn't feel like crossing, so I veered up to an oil rig access road and put in three miles of slogging hill repeats at the end of a four-hour run. Silly, I agree, but it just felt good to complete a full 20-mile run.

Day four was a long day, 26 miles, and to top it off, we woke up (again, frustratingly early) to 30 mph winds gusting to as much as 55 mph. I'd already warned the group about the deep stream crossing first thing in the morning, and combined with the unknown terrain ahead and fact they had to travel 26 miles no matter what, everyone was anxious to get out of there. I was barely out of bed by the time half of the group was grinding up the trail, and with Dave and Ryan, I was the last to pack up and go just after 8 a.m. The wind was thankfully favorable, blowing from the south, but that didn't stop the battering from crosswind and headwind gusts on the winding trail. I cranked hard to catch up with the group and didn't even pass the runners until mile 6.5.

Despite two days of wind and sun, the trail was still gooey and bikes were beginning to protest loudly. My Rocky Mountain Altitude (generously loaned to me by Keith) had a bar on the seat stay that collected mud and stopped the rear wheel from turning on a regular basis. Despite multiple lubes, my chain seemed to dry out in seconds and the entire drivetrain squeaked and groaned with increasingly volume. Since it wasn't my bike and nearly new to boot, I tried as hard as I could to keep it out of water and really wet mud, but still the hubs and bearings were beginning to make strange noises. Dave is a talented mechanic and even he couldn't anticipate a realistic solution short of pulling everything apart, deep cleaning and replacing several pieces. "Let's just limp these bikes to the end," he said.

We were only seven miles from the finish when we came to a trail junction, the Maah Daah Hey Trail or the newer Cottonwood Trail. Dakota Cyclery had highly recommended Cottonwood and Dave and Brenda remembered it as being fun, so we set out that way thinking we might be able to wrap up the ride in an hour. Our bikes were mud-battered, we were wind-battered, and I think everyone just wanted to be done. I expected a focused hammerfest. But the Cottonwood Trail dished out something else entirely.

That is, what was left of the Cottonwood Trail. What hadn't been completely stomped out by cows or washed away at the valley bottoms had tumbled off the hillsides. Entire sections with multiple switchbacks had crumbled. Tree-protected section of singletrack were bogged in shin-deep mud.

The Cottonwood Trail was slow riding at its best, hike-a-bike if we were lucky, and bike-carrying frequently. The runners passed us, smirking just a little as they hopscotched the cow postholes while we trudged with our bikes along the grassy sideslope. "This is why they call it adventure biking," Dave said, and I grinned.

Yet another section of completely washed-out trail. The singletrack once went straight toward that post. Now it simple drops clean off a 25-foot-deep unstable trench. We had to bushwhack the long way around the gorge.

In spite of my efforts to soft-pedal when I could pedal, my chain continued to become caught in unworkable ways. Even when I set my gears in a workable singlespeed and vowed to no longer shift, I'd whisk some brush or bounce hard along the cow postholes and get chainsuck again. Eventually, I sustained such an epic chainsuck that Dave had to pull the crank to alleviate the jam. My bike was officially beginning to fail.

Still, those final miles of trail were absolutely gorgeous, my favorite of the entire trip, and I was OK with the prospect of taking it even slower. Luckily, I did keep my chain spinning even though I still had to drag my bike down more landslides and around more washouts. My favorite part of the day's ride happened two miles from the finish, when Ryan and I climbed up onto a narrow rim and shot down the other side with the 35-mph wind directly at our backs. Suddenly the loud roaring world turned completely silent as we rocketed down the grassy slope in perfect harmony with the wind, hair whipping and tears streaming as the canyon bottom spread out below us. As it turned out, we weren't even on the right trail. We had taken a wrong turn, and by the time we realized it, we had to turn and ride more than a mile back into that same hard wind. It was unbelievably slow and difficult, but worth it.

In the end, it took nearly three hours to cover that seven-mile Cottonwood Trail. An adventure indeed. We had to wait for the shuttle for more than two hours. There was nowhere else to hide from the increasingly chilly and powerful wind, so we ended up huddling against the campground outhouse (i.e. "North Dakota Hilton") napping and watching for snakes in the grass. That night, I would end up taking the midnight shift on the rainy drive into Lewistown, Montana, where we took badly needed showers, scraped away four days worth of hardened mud and salt from our bodies, and then crashed out for four hours before continuing onto Calgary the next day to catch my flight to San Jose. A lot of travel, but again, worth it. There's the easy and practical sides of life, and then there's exploring a remote corner of North Dakota for four days with good friends. It's like living outside — difficult to transition to and from, but worth it.