Wednesday, May 27, 2015

We all try harder as the days run out

For days the Santa Cruz Mountains were enveloped in a freight train of fog, as apparently thirsty inland winds sucked moisture from the coast. I climbed into it each afternoon, Tuesday through Saturday, in a two-dimensional world where I had to squint to discern the blurry silhouettes of trees from flickering clouds. There was no context or familiarity; vertigo pulled at me as I descended through gray tunnels. I would shiver, even with a puffy coat and mittens, which was such a treat here in California in late May. The cold makes me feel alive.

I had this goal to put some hurt in the legs. Seven moderate to long days, with at least 3,000 feet of climbing each day, on up to 9,000. I felt so strong on Wednesday, chopping a minute off my PR of the mile-long, 800-foot ascent of Indian Creek trail, without even breathing hard. On Thursday I attacked Redwood Gulch on my road bike and imploded in spectacular fashion, heart beating 195 while snot and tears streamed down my neck. Near the end of this mile-long, 800-foot ascent, the fog hit my searing lungs like water on a skillet. "I have no top end, no top end at all," I thought with a smirk. I knew that single mile was going be the only reason my legs hurt at all the next day. Friday had 5,000 feet of climbing, but I took it at a more reasonable effort, and was fully recovered for Saturday's 13-mile run.

As Beat and I ascended Black Mountain into a white ceiling, I listened to the new Sufjan Stevens and Lord Huron albums and imagined I was doing something relaxing, like laying in the sauna. Cold wind licked at my clammy skin and I settled into a soothing rhythm, a place of deep breaths and dreaming about riding a motorcycle across Africa (which is what I frequently imagine when I listen to Lord Huron.) I was happily sedate, and yet I was running up a mountain. "Resting in motion," I thought. "This is resting in motion." I wondered how effectively I'd be able to employ this meditative technique when motion really became difficult. The wind-driven clouds roared past, enveloping me in their paradoxical calm.

Sunday morning we were up bright and early to drive to Oakhurst for an overnight bikepacking trip that I planned. Oakhurst is a town near Fresno, in the foothills of the Western Sierras, which I effectively chose at random. I found a vague recommendation for a touring loop, and drew a GPS track over unknown squiggles on Google Maps. I had no idea how difficult this route would be, whether it would be scenic or bland, and what the percentage of pavement to jeep road to faint forest track might be. Most people would probably do more research for weekend tour where they were effectively guiding their friends through a new place, but that is not necessarily my modus operandi. I prefer a little ignorance in my explorations, with all of the surprises and disappointments.

 I warned Beat and Liehann that I knew nothing about this route beyond some interesting topographic lines on the map and the fact it was just south of Yosemite, and hoped they didn't set their expectations too high. The initial climb was a tedious grunt, climbing 5,000 feet in 18 miles into a gray pall of storm clouds that looked lightly threatening. Air is thin at 7,500 feet for sea-level-dwellers. Still, I felt peaceful and relaxed, refusing to hurry up the hill while I rested in motion. The guys seemed to interpret this as crawling, and based on their demeanors, I was worried they were going turn around and race back to low-elevation sunshine. Slowly, the paved road began to break apart and wind its way out of the dense forest, to more open views of granite domes and jagged spires. The Sierras.

 For lunch we went for a short hike to better views on a granite ridge. The guys carried their bikes part-way for Freedom Challenge training. The wind up here was almost winter-like in its briskness, and we huddled against boulders to eat lunch.

 After riding chunky dirt, climbing some more, descending a whole bunch, and collecting many liters of water from a stream, we climbed after dark to camp on a sandy knoll where we hoped the views would be nice in the morning. I was trying out my new Outdoor Research Helium bivy for the first time, as well as a new pair of nylon three-quarter running tights (I found the bivy cozy and slept well, better than I usually do when bikepacking, actually. I also decided I prefer no chamois during longer rides, and did not miss the wet diaper feel and occasional pinching on sensitive parts.) We used up four liters of water (which Beat carried) making multiple hot chocolates and dinner. Liehann raved about his Mountain House lasagna, declaring it as delicious as anything he could eat at home.

 "I challenge you to try one of these meals at home, and tell me what you think about it then," I teased him. Then we all told stories of the most amazing meals we'd ever experienced, which all shared the theme of mediocre food eaten after a long, difficult effort. The sky had cleared to a palette of stars. A thin film of flowing mist, illuminated faintly by moonlight, made the stars appear to wobble. It was strange to watch stars dance about. I imagined fiery orbs rocketing through outer space as planets spun around them. Rest is the illusion; everything is always in motion.

 Day two was a coaster of a day with mild climbs and lots of descending. We wove through a maze of forest roads in varying states of erosion, with almost no traffic on Memorial Day (a few motorcycles close to campgrounds.) Ah, relaxation. The guys seemed to enjoy this day's set of squiggly lines much better than the first, as I'd luckily chosen more dirt and more rugged terrain.

The scenery was not too bad either, even as we descended down, down toward the furnace of the Central Valley, where it was somehow, inexplicably, 90 degrees. (I'd almost convinced myself that we were having February in May, to match the May we had in February.) I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, but felt like I had failed in my goal to exact some punishment in my legs during this bulky training week. Still, when I think about my preferred state of fitness, relaxation and contentedness are better indicators than soreness and suffering. Isn't this how I'd want to feel, if I wanted to be nearly always in motion?

Week's totals: 227 miles ride, 13 miles run, 33,200 feet climbing
Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Week in motion

Some weeks seem locked in continuous motion, so much so that I feel the need to go out for a quiet run by myself, just to be still. As I drove through the freeway sprawl of Orange County after a day of mountain biking with Keith and Amber and then working at the Starbucks in Big Bear Lake, I thought about how much of my life I invest in movement. In 2014, I spent upwards of four months away from home. This year, the final tally may be more. Strava has already tracked 15 days' worth of self-propelled motion in the past 4.5 months, and the time investment of movements I don't track — flights and long-distance drives — adds up as well. What is it about movement I so value? I thought about this as I drove up and down the quiet streets of Laguna Niguel, ignoring a confused GPS and trawling the entrances of gated communities to find the one where my sister, brother-in-law, and new niece are house-sitting for an indefinite period of time.

Gated communities are a bewildering concept for me. I understand the desire for security, but I feel locked inside when visiting such places. I find myself wandering the maze of a spacious home and wishing there was a 7-Eleven nearby that I could just walk to, and sit on a curb while sipping a Big Gulp and watching the world go by. You don't really see people outside their homes in gated communities, and everything feels far away.

The purpose of the visit was to meet my niece, now 8 weeks old. She's a cutie, with a big-eyed stare and an occasionally bewildered expression that makes me feel envious — "This is completely new to her. She still has everything to discover."

My parents were in town as well, and I was able to go for a couple of hikes with my dad. I don't think either of us expected to find anything terribly interesting in Southern California, at least within a half-hour drive from Laguna Niguel. Dad found a trail idea on Yelp, Black Star Canyon. I looked up a route on Strava and got the impression that this was going to be a painfully easy road walk, winding up a gentle hillside to the top of a ridge. This was a good thing, as I was in taper mode before the Ohlone 50K, and anyway this was a good way to spend time with my dad (in the spacious house, we all tended to retreat to personal spaces, which is something else I don't like about big homes even though I'm an equal offender.)

The first mile after the gate was a flat paved road. I felt bad, like it was my fault that coastal California was a boring place for my Wasatch-Mountain-trekking father. We wound our way along a fireroad to a weathered post where someone had scratched "waterfall" with some arrows in the wood. So we followed them, dropping into a stream bed that was teeming with poison oak. I pointed out the identifying characteristics of the plant to Dad, and within ten minutes he was more attune to its presence than me. As the canyon narrowed we picked our way over and around increasingly larger boulders, until we were fully scrambling up stone walls. I came to one maneuver where I couldn't quite lift my foot into the only available foothold ($%!* tight hamstrings), and Dad grabbed me underneath my arms and pulled me onto the ledge. It instantly brought back a memory of being 17 years old and hiking with Dad along the knife ridge of the Pfeifferhorn, where he similarly boosted me onto a narrow ledge beside dizzying exposure. I was never afraid of the mountains back then; I always felt safe when I was with Dad. I still feel that way, at 35 years old, with two more decades of fearfulness and scary experiences in my memories.

At the end of the boulder-choked box canyon we reached the waterfall, which was dry (this is California.) The following day, we did a much more mellow five miles to a robber cave, where we ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches as rain poured down outside the sandstone cove.

I'd hoped to spend more time with my sister, who was understandably preoccupied, but I'm hoping we'll have another chance to visit before spring comes around again. I had to leave Friday morning for weekend plans at home. Traffic was demoralizing, from the parking lot of Los Angeles to the aggressive, bumper-to-bumper peloton of I-5. Driving in California makes me want to stab sharp objects into my legs, which is why I don't actually do all that much traveling close to home. But I persevered through the road rage and made it home just in time to join Beat and Liehann on our weekly training ride up the Black Mountain and Indian Creek climbs. By late evening our friend Roger arrived. Roger was visiting from Australia for a Hoka One One sales meeting and the Ohlone 50K, and planned to spend the whole weekend with us.

We found out late Friday afternoon that our race had been cancelled, supposedly because it had rained on Thursday night and the access roads were wet. There were also reports that lightning struck near the finish staging area and the power was out at the picnic area. Either way, a little rain on extremely dry fire roads, three fair-weather days before the race, seemed a strange reason for the park administration to cancel one of the Bay Area's longest-standing trail races. We were all disappointed, but promised Roger we'd show him a good time anyway. On Saturday we put him on Snoots for a five-hour ride up and down several steep hills. On a fat bike. For a guy who's mainly a runner. Because we're awesome friends like that.

Since Roger came here for a 50K, we schemed our own 50K, joining friends Steve and Ken for an all-day outing in Henry Coe State Park. Ken designed the route, and although I don't know Ken well, I do know he likes technical terrain and he's a fast runner, so I should have known better than to agree to what turned out to be an ambitious loop. My running has been limited lately, and although my base is good I'm a fit enough to put in long miles, I feel out of practice and a sense of imbalance has returned. Ken's route connected pieces of singletrack that were sometimes so faint it was difficult to discern the route from anything else, although bushwhacking across grassy hillsides and thorny manzanita groves was fundamentally no different than following the "trail." Roger took a series of photos that sum up this excursion well:

Navigation huddle.

"Running" on the "trail."

Picking burrs out of our shoes and socks. Roger had to leave his pair of shoes with us in California, because he was never going to extract enough of the plant material to get them through customs in Australia.

I rolled my ankle on a clump of grass around mile nine. The joint didn't swell, but it became increasingly more sore, and my footfalls felt even more unstable then before. By mile sixteen I was concerned about the risks I was taking with my summer cycling ambitions by continuing to attempt to run on this terrain, and also feeling guilty about the slowness of the hiking I was mostly doing. We let Ken and Steve continue on their epic, while Roger, Beat, and I made our way back to headquarters on an extremely steep, rolling fireroad. Compared to the more gentle grades of the "trails," most of the fireroads in Coe are gut-busters. Boring, too, when you consider that you're a person on foot and could be out blazing your own adventure through, as Roger calls it, "The evil poisony oakses." (Roger, like my Dad, also learned what poison oak was this week and became an expert at identifying it. "We don't have stuff like this in Australia," he said. To which I replied, "Yeah, but don't you have all those bad snakes and spiders and pretty much everything out there is trying to kill you?" "I'll take the sharks over this," he said.)

"I actually like fireroads," I thought. "Room to breathe. Room to move." We wrapped up 22 miles, which feels so much longer and harder in a place like Coe. But since it wasn't the Ohlone 50K, I think we all left feeling vaguely unsatisfied, quietly scheming our next chance for motion. 
Wednesday, May 13, 2015

So this is SoCal

On Friday afternoon, I got in my car and headed south for more than seven hours — through the traffic-clogged corridor of the South Bay, into the dusty fields of the Central Valley, over parched hillsides north of Los Angeles, and through the palm tree boulevards of Pasadena. Darkness set in, and my route climbed up and up this narrow highway called "Rim of the World." A thick fog enveloped the sky, ice slicked the road, and suddenly there were several inches of new snow draped over granite boulders and pine trees. Huh? What is this place?

 My friends from the Canadian Rockies — Keith and Leslie — have been in the state for several weeks. Leslie has been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and Keith has been vagabonding around southern California, vaguely training for a summer tour on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. His friend Amber was flying out from Montana this weekend, and Keith invited me to join them for a SoCal bikecation. The timing was good, as I'd been meaning to make a trip to Orange County to visit my sister and her baby daughter, my new niece.

"Sure," I said. I wanted to visit Keith, and I like to ride bikes. I proposed Idyllwild, as that's the only place in Southern California with which I have any trail familiarity. Plans shifted when a friend of Keith's offered up his cabin on Big Bear Lake. The resort town in the San Bernardino Mountains is stone's throw from Los Angeles. And 6,800 feet higher.

The snow fell fast and fierce on Friday. But in true Southern California fashion, it had mostly melted by Saturday, giving way to a beautiful, sunny, hero dirt day. This would be the beginning of a bike (and running!) binge weekend that left me gasping for air and reduced me to a wheezy, congested mess in three days — but with a newfound appreciation for this island of quietness surrounded by ten million people.

 We rode some singletrack and climbed to the top of Grey's Peak, at about 8,000 feet elevation. The pace remained mellow, and we took long breaks to take in the scenery and have multiple lunches.

 Amber went over the bars and was grateful for patches of snow to ice her knee.

 Although biking has been my main training focus, I do have the Ohlone 50K on Sunday, and didn't want two weeks of single-digit mileage leading up to the race. So on top of the day rides, I put in evening trail runs. This was a ten-miler up to Grandview Point and back. The altitude was annihilating; for a route that only gains 1,200 feet in five miles, I felt like I was ascending a steep mountain in the Alps. Trying to inject more oxygen in my blood only left my throat raw and my lips parched. By the next day, I'd have a cold, heavy congestion, and a sore throat. Thanks, SoCal.

 On Sunday we connected with a small group ride from Bear Valley Bikes. When the only other people to show up turned out to be three talented racer types, I got a little panicked (those social anxieties and inferiority issues run deep when they're directly connected to my passions.) But they turned out to be genuinely nice folks who were stoked to show three tourists around their local trails, and rode alongside chatting amicably rather than racing ahead and waiting impatiently at all the intersections. We followed them through miles of snow and mud, and then afterward the shop's owner, Derek, invited us over to his place and cooked buffalo tacos with fresh guacamole. Awesome folks. Give them your business if you're ever in Big Bear Lake.

 The Skyline Trail — it's okay I guess.

 Sunday night, I headed out for another run. I was really breathing poorly at this point, and aimed for a lower section of the Pacific Crest Trail to avoid long climbs. This is height of hiker season around Big Bear Lake, and I saw a dozen thru-hikers on my eight-mile jaunt out and back. They were all just babies — fresh-faced kids just out of college if not high school. I suppose that makes sense. Not many 30-somethings are in a place in their lives to take off and go hiking for five months. I like to imagine thru-hiking a long-distance trail as something I'll do when I'm in my 60s or 70s. I'd love to be a solo old lady with unruly gray hair and a trucker cap, chiseled calves and my trusty trekking poles, and maybe a huge pair of pink Hokas if those are still a thing. Dare to dream.

 On Monday the three of us all set out to do our own thing. I wanted to get a long ride in, but I was really feeling rough at this point, with my congestion, the altitude, and maybe just a touch of overdoing it. Amber was joining the bike shop racers for an epic, but my social anxieties got the better of me and I declared myself not fit to chase them all day. Instead, I drew out a rough loop on a map, and hoped it would take me somewhere neat and maybe not too punishing.

My loop featured a spur up to Butler Peak, which I included because it was a high point on the map (8,500 feet.) As it turned out, the track was fenced off and there was this fantastic fire lookout at the top. It just sat there, perched precariously on a boulder, looking as though a single dislodged pebble could send it tumbling 200 feet down the rocky face. 

 Fire lookout view to the southeast.

 Fire lookout view to the northeast. The wind was ripping up here and it was, like all of the spots I visited in Southern California so far, not warm. I ate a quick lunch and scrambled down the rocks to my bike.

 The rest of my route was tough, sandy, and disconcertingly lonely. I wheezed my way up and down and up and down a long ridge of steep rollers, before descending down, down, down into Green Valley Lake. The entire community seemed comprised of second homes, and there was absolutely no one around on this early season Monday afternoon. There weren't any vehicles parked outside homes, no dogs barking, no signs of life. It had a post-apocalyptic feel that didn't improve as I turned onto another steep, rolling climb back into the mountains, churning up a sandy jeep road and seeing not a single other human for hours. Somewhere not far away live ten million people, and this whole place was eerily empty.

The loop ended up registering 54 miles with 6,700 feet of climbing, but admittedly was tougher for me than the stats would indicate. I am going to go ahead and blame altitude, and hope a return to oxygenated air and recovery from my cold leaves me in better shape for the Ohlone 50K on Sunday. Of course I still got out for a quick spin up Pine Knot trail with Keith and Amber before taking off on Tuesday. Because this is what you do in SoCal — you ride bikes in the cold wind and snowy mud until your lungs hurt, and then you ride some more! 
Friday, May 08, 2015

Bikepacking gear considerations

Here I am near Island Park, Idaho, during the 2009 Tour Divide. I laugh when I see photos of the junk show I hauled around back then. Of course, I laugh at all photos I see of all of my gear set-ups, including my most recent winter tour in Alaska, which was less than two months ago. But this photo has some gems. The aero bars (never used them.) The LED headlight that was connected to a battery pack with eight AAs. Pedal cages. The cheap rain gear that I purchased in a panic in Banff, because until two days before the start, I thought I could get away with a thin softshell pullover. I probably had more than 15 pounds in that backpack alone, as I tended to hoard food and water. I had a 24-ounce aluminum water bottle that I filled every morning, threw in the pack next to my three-liter bladder, hauled around all day, then dumped all the water out and re-filled it in the morning. I don't recall ever actually drinking from that bottle. It was my water insurance policy. Oh, I had an 11-ounce filter as well, and it rained nearly every day of the trip. Although there are lots of ways in which I could still go lighter with bikepacking gear, my top goal is to not be quite as water-obsessed as I was back then. 

Mulling a limited list of gear, knowing I will have to live intimately with my choices for one to four weeks, is always a difficult chore. Some people are perfectly content with ripped T-shirts and sleeping in the dirt. I envy these people. They have an ability to go light without an ultralight mentality, which I admittedly lack. (The reason I continued to use my ancient and heavy Thermarest after Cady scratched up the newer one — because it worked. Most gear does work. Why fuss over it?) Luckily, Beat is gear-savvy and does the research, and because of this I still find my way to superior items that actually meet my needs. Otherwise, there's a strong chance that I'd be standing here in 2015 with a rusty 2008 Karate Monkey and a lot of other stuff I'd been forcing through the motions for six-plus years. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) 

My current bike is a Moots Mooto-X YBB 29" titanium softtail. I've been riding it long distances for three years now, and would be perfectly happy to still be riding this frame in 2020 if the fates allow. I love this bike. I'd still say the same about my Karate Monkey, though.

I use bags from Revelate Designs. I was lucky to get a custom frame bag for my Moots before Eric stopped making them. He always includes a few modifications to make them extra "Jill-proof," because I am notoriously hard on my gear. Revelate gear is durable and light. The frame bag is still holding up well after three years of near-continuous use. Can't ask for better than that. My packing habits are basic — sleeping gear in the handlebar bag, clothing and spare tube(s) in the seatpost bag, food in the frame bag, repair items and tools in a small top-tube bag, and water and small items in a backpack. 

Here are a few other items I'm currently considering. (Decisions are still being made in regard to all of this:)

Sleep system:

Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32 sleeping bag— This is the same bag I used in the 2009 Tour Divide, and on many summer camping trips since. It still feels perfectly comfortable in temperatures in the 30s, and I don't have a compelling reason to upgrade.

Outdoor Research Helium Bivy — Something I just ordered, but am pretty sold on. This bivy sack received good reviews for its waterproof/breathable capabilities. It also has the single pole that could vastly increase quality of sleep. I need something I can just throw on the ground and crawl into when I am exhausted, without fussing with a bunch of guylines and stakes (This pretty much applies to every camping trip I go on, not just multiday races.)

Thermarest NeoAir sleeping pad — Finally broke down and got one of these. I've been using some old-generation Thermarest for too many years now (think 2006 or 2007. I actually used a newer one during the 2009 Tour Divide, but my cat destroyed that pad.) The NeoAir is considerably more comfortable and warmer than my old inflatable pad, and quite a bit lighter. I suppose that's not a surprise.


Patagonia Capilene 2 Zip Neck — This shirt has become my go-to top/base layer for just about every long event I've completed in the past three years. It wicks moisture well, and the fabric dries very fast. It has good thermal capacity for cold, but it's also highly breathable, so it's reasonably comfortable in hot weather as well. The zip neck is good for venting, and long sleeves provide the kind of sun protection that I require. Although I'd like to go with short sleeves, my skin seems to absorb light in a way that leaves me feeling fried at the end of the day no matter how much sunscreen I apply. Over the years, I've learned I'm better off covering myself with clothing, and trying to vent heat as best as I can.

Pearl Izumi Aurora Splice 3/4 tights — Although I am as yet undecided, I am considering going chamois free for the long ride. It's a difficult decision, because while I like a bit of padding for my backside, I've learned I cannot wear a dirty or wet chamois for long periods of time without consequences that range from unpleasant to full-blown rash/infection. These consequences have nothing to do with my backside, which can actually weather the saddle spanking okay. I rarely have issues with chaffing, and I've never had a real saddle sore (at least what the Internet defines as a saddle sore.) I did, however, sustain a large and bulbous blister on my left cheek during the Freedom Challenge last year, after a particularly rocky stretch. I wore my thermal running tights, with no chamois, for about 75 percent of that ride. This solidified a belief that for me, chamois are nice, but not necessary on a long ride. I like the idea of 3/4 tights because, again, sun protection, and these have venting mesh behind the knee. I could combine these with calf compression sleeves and knee warmers for a warmer tight in cold weather.

North Face Thermoball Hoodie — Love this jacket. Warm when it's wet. Warm when it's dry. Warm when it's slightly cool and you're puttering around camp. Makes a great pillow.

Skinfit full-zip rain pants — I can't overemphasize how important full-zip is to me. I figure since I'm going fairly light on tights, I'll end up wearing these on cold days as well as rainy days. I also use these in winter racing and find them very capable in the wind-blocking department, which is really all that matters to me in a rain pant. (I don't think rain pants can keep you dry, especially on a bicycle, after many hours of pedaling through deluge and mud. No one will ever convince me there are non-imaginary pants that can do this.)

Skinfit primaloft mittens — These are just as light as any of my thin fleece mittens, they're warmer, more water-resistant, and have a flap that can be pulled back to expose fingers when dexterity is needed. They fit well over bike gloves. I'm considering combining these with a pair of Mountain Laurel Designs eVent shells for wet weather.

Hats and mittens are two areas where a little bit can go a long way in terms of keeping one warm and happy in wet weather. I have no idea what the weather will be like this year, only my memories that despite a multitude of winter endurance experiences, my closest brushes with scary hypothermia during an endurance event happened during thunderstorms in the Tour Divide, in Colorado and New Mexico, respectively (so no shipping stuff home from Montana.) I'm thinking about my go-to Mountain Hardwear Dome Beanie for a hat.

I haven't decided on a rain jacket — whether to bring my go-to Outdoor Research Mentor Jacket (like the Capilene top, it's a winter thing that's followed me everywhere for more than four years) or something lighter. It's hard to justify the heaviness of the Gore-Tex shell, but I know it's going to keep me happy in wet and windy conditions, and sometimes that's what matters most.

DryMax socks — These are like gold. Pure gold. For your feet. They really do hold away moisture, which is just as important for cyclists who want to avoid trench foot unpleasantness, as it is for runners trying to avoid blisters.

Acorn fleece socks — For cold days, and camp.

Integral Designs vapor barrier socks — Every since I recovered from frostbite six years ago, I have to be careful with my feet. Even if temperatures are not below freezing, I can sustain more nerve damage if they remain too cold for too long. These are a lightweight insurance policy against bad feet.

Montrail Mountain Masochist trail-running shoe — I know I've addressed the reasons why I don't use clipless pedals on this blog before. It has to do with the aforementioned frostbite damage that limits my tolerance of tight or stiff shoes. Also, I like to move my feet around on the pedals. It's another technique I use to relieve pressure from other areas such as my knees and calves. Long-distance cyclists are always raving about their multitude of hand positions on their handlebars, while locking their feet into a single position for the duration. This, I don't quite understand. The best way to relieve any nagging issue is to try moving in a slightly different way.


Sawyer Squeeze water filter — This was recommended to me by Mary, and seems like a great option for fast water treatment. Only three ounces, and the pouch can be used for reserve water storage. (I'm hoping to maintain a carry capacity of 5-6 liters, for a couple of long, hot, and dry stretches.)

Salomon Agile 12 backpack — This is a low-profile pack that's large enough to pack six liters of water if necessary, comfortable, and has huge side pockets for easy access to miscellaneous items such as sunscreen, salt tabs, snacks, the occasional comfort bottle of Pepsi, and camera.

Buff — Has so many applications, from blocking sun on the neck, to keeping ears warm, to mopping up water that's pooled on a sleeping bag.

There are of course other small items, tools, spare parts, and bits of clothing, not included in this list. I don't consider myself a gear expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I know what keeps me happy, and what's going to give me the courage to approach a mountain pass when it's dark and cold and raining. It's still a tough decision to make.

As always, input is appreciated. 
Monday, May 04, 2015

260-mile getaway

Despite all of their (understandable) busyness, I finally coaxed Beat and Liehann into a weekend bikepacking trip. My idea was to ride one of the few bike-legal sections through the Santa Lucia Mountains, from the Arroyo Seco Gorge to Cone Peak and back. The route was 60 miles each way through sparsely traveled country, often surrounded by "big W" wilderness, big scenery and tough climbs. I've been to all of these places before, but when I consider all of my favorite aspects of bike touring, I can't think of a better overnight route close to home. There isn't a single compromise mile; it's 100 percent awesome. 

 Since I still have the Tour Divide on my mind, I decided to extend the shakedown trip by leaving home on Friday morning and riding to the trailhead. I packed quite the luxury set-up: Big Agnes Seedhouse 2 tent, brand new Thermarest NeoAir (love), a puffy coat, and a stove. I froze three liters of water to a solid block of ice, and put a large ham sandwich in my backpack "cooler." I was satisfied with my creature comforts until I set out into the muggy morning air with temperatures rising into the 90s, and felt my legs balk on the first tiny bump of a climb up Mount Eden Road. I reminded myself that the transition to touring weight is the hardest part — after just one day of it, I forget what it's like to ride unloaded and stop caring. But those first miles ... ugh. As I crawled up the John Nicolas Trail with a million flies buzzing around my face and drowning in pools of sweat on my skin, I considered turning around and just driving out to Arroyo Seco with Beat and Liehann on Saturday. "You don't need to practice being miserable," I reasoned. (But actually, for best mental fitness, I believe you sometimes do.)

Comfort levels increased substantially as I traversed the Santa Cruz Mountains and dropped toward Monterey Bay. Thick fog engulfed the coast, and a strong west wind aided in my swift transition from sweltering to shivering. It was actually quite cool, but instead of adding layers, I decided to relish in the sensation of "just being cold." Fog reduced visibility to a few hundred meters, and I made another decision to keep my mind in the present and observe everything around me. I pedaled hard against the buffeting wind, feeling warm blood surge beneath cold skin and watching the world go by. Near Sunset Beach I contemplated the ornate adornments on luxury homes and the austerity of Steinbeck-era farmhouses next door. I avoided Highway 1 as much as possible by winding along coastal farm roads, where I watched beach grass, lupine, and stalks of unidentified produce dancing in the wind. Busloads of farm workers were scattered across the fields, huddled in hoodies. I know little about farm work, and I wondered about their lives. Did they feel tired and cold and hungry right now? Where will these buses take them tonight?

 I arrived in the town of Marina in the late afternoon, where I ate half my sandwich and contemplated my next move. I thought rather than travel up the Salinas River Valley, I could cut directly into the mountains via Fort Ord National Monument. It was a strange decision to make, because the west wind was now directly at my back and would have carried me almost effortlessly most of the way to Arroyo Seco. Instead, I turned an about-face at the trailhead and pedaled into the wind toward more distance and a lot more climbing.

 There were already nearly a hundred miles on my trip odometer. "Just going out for an evening ride," I thought as I powered up the first steep climb. Often I have the normal reaction of feeling depleted after a long day in the saddle, but occasionally I'm able to draw stamina from my efforts, and feel more energized as I go. These days are rare, and are almost entirely based on attitude, but the effects are exhilarating. I feel like a perpetual motion machine built to ride bikes, generating energy and observing the world as it goes by.

 Since I didn't know a best route through Fort Ord, I mostly followed Sandy Ridge fire road, which was steep and relentless but promised to lead me to the other side. Even with a hundred miles on my legs, some of the singletrack diversions were too enticing to pass up, and I found myself flowing through the manzanita with no idea where I was going. Steep ascents pulled at my tired legs and sand gobbled momentum, and I was smiling. "Just out for an evening ride."

 I reached a dead end at Laguna Seca, where there was some kind of car race happening on Friday night, and the routes out of the park were closed. A trail runner gave me directions to descend a few miles out of the way. Once I was back on track, I found myself in a renewed battle with my legs, which balked at climbing Laurels Grade Road. In their defense, it was a busy road with rush-hour Friday night traffic, and my attitude was not feeding them the energy they needed. This all turned around again after I escaped the tempting aromas and chairs of restaurants in Carmel Valley, and pedaled into the quiet canyon. A nearly full moon rose into the pink sky, and soon I was riding through spooky oak forests shimmering with silver light. It was a beautiful evening and I was as happy as could be — almost disappointed to finally arrive at my destination with 138 miles and 12,600 feet of climbing behind me. No matter, I still had tomorrow to ride all day, again. Yay for bikepacking!

 Overnight, I awoke in my tent, drenched in sweat, heart racing, in an involuntary panic because I was so desperately thirsty. I've never had a midnight thirst quite like that. It was intense. I drank most of the water in my Camelback, and then I drank all of it, even though it was probably more than a liter and would cause me to get up two more times in the night to pee. Even though I felt great for most of the later miles of my Friday ride, I did not take good care of my body — didn't replenish the salts, and didn't drink nearly enough water (I basically quit after the ice water ran out, and consumed fewer than three liters total.) I'd pay for this on Saturday, waking up with a swollen face and feeling a bit like a desiccated piece of road kill.

Liehann and Beat met me at the campground just after 9 a.m., when I was still trying to choke down a package of instant potatoes and pack up my stuff. We finally hit the trail just before 10 a.m., and it was already a scorcher of a day. Beat would see 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 F) on his thermometer later that afternoon. I felt rough, but I'd done my best to rehydrate and was still filled with enthusiasm. I couldn't wait to see what Beat and Liehann thought of this route.

"Wow, this route pays out right at the beginning," Liehann exclaimed as we pedaled beside the steep drop-offs of Arroyo Seco Gorge.

 "I love the Ventana," I said multiple times as we rounded corners to bigger views. The Ventana Wilderness is a rugged and remote place that is filled with things that scare me — rattlesnakes, poison oak, mountain lions, ticks, stinging nettle, thorny bushes, a million trillion sticker burrs, limited water, loose rocky terrain, and largely unmaintained trails that put you into the thick of all of these things, bushwhacking and scrambling. It's a place where rip-resistant fabrics and sturdy hiking boots are mandatory, in my opinion, and not a great place for delicate trail-runner types who like flow trails and gobbling up miles, and are allergic to all sorts of insects and green things. (I'm describing myself.) For these reasons, I mostly just love the Ventana from afar while scheming about backpacking trips that will be made "someday."

 Still, Indians Road is a great place to explore the periphery of the Ventana. Indians "Road" is former jeep track that was closed several years back, and is now in the process of being swiftly reclaimed by the mountains. This makes for great mountain biking terrain.

 On some maps, Indians Road is still a road. Beat told me that our Subaru's navigation system directed him to take this road (with frequent sections like the rockslide pictured above) into the campground. "Subie gave you some bad information," I said.

 It took some time, but the more food and water I got in my system, the better I felt. That's basically how it works. Fuel in, energy out, with attitude as the catalyst — assuming all of the moving parts are in good functioning order. I know there's more to it than that, but it helps to cling to such simplifications when contemplating something like the Tour Divide.

 The guys work their way around a landslide. This section served to remind me how terrible I still am at carrying my bike, and feel grateful that I'm not headed to South Africa for the Freedom Challenge.

 After Indians Road we made a long, hot, thirsty, hairpin-shaped bend through Fort Hunter-Liggett. From this point (pictured), Cone Peak is less than six miles as the crow flies, and more than fifty miles by road and trail.

 I still maintain that this route is 100 percent awesome, as the paved roads of the military reservation have their charm. There's almost no vehicular traffic, even on a beautiful weekend in May, except for the occasional motorcycle or Humvee. The route rolls through golden hills and the dappled shade of oak forests. And there are interesting sights, such as an urban warfare training area with full-scale model buildings and mangled cars. Dirt routes do criss-cross the military reservation. However, it's not only illegal, but idiotic to venture onto them. I wouldn't want to stumble into a military exercise that results in mangled cars.

 From Nacimiento Fergusson Road, we veered onto the Cone Peak fire road and reached the trailhead about an hour and a half before sunset. The timing was ideal for hiking the remaining 2.25 miles of wilderness trail to the peak beneath a full moon and the best light of the day.

 After spending a scorching day inland, it was nice to return to the coast and cooler evening air. We were too high for the sea breeze, though. Cone Peak rises 5,155 feet above sea level, less than three miles from the ocean. It's one of the steepest grades of ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. Big Sur is directly below, and I wonder whether people driving along Highway 1 ever think about the wild landscape beyond those famous cliffs.

 I enjoy imagining myself as an unstoppable bike machine, but I have to admit, it sure felt good to get out of the saddle and stretch out the legs for a while. My hamstrings felt compressed after so much time on the bike, and my left Achilles and another tissue on top of my left foot where quite sore from what Beat calls "extreme forefoot pedaling" (apparently I pedal the way I run.) I think I developed this style as compensation for knee pain, but I need to adjust my saddle and spend less time pedaling on my toes. Shakeout rides help me learn this stuff.

The view north from Cone Peak. Indians Road is along that ridge to the far right. In fact, I suspect you'd even see the road cut if I had a better zoom lens. Because we're not crows (or sturdy-booted backpackers) we had to ride and walk 60 miles with nearly 11,000 feet of climbing to connect these two points.

On Sunday morning, we reversed our roundabout route, enjoying a long descent into the upper reaches of the coastal fog, and then back into the hot inland valley.

 I still took many more photos. I favor loops but enjoy out-and-backs, too. It pays to see the same route from both directions.

We faced a long, steep climb in the early afternoon. I felt much better Sunday than I did on Saturday. The route was easier in this direction, but I also think I managed my recovery much better on Saturday night than Friday. I have Beat to thank for this, as he shared some of the water he hauled up from the valley to our dry camp at 3,800 feet. (I only had a three-liter capacity, and did have extra in the morning, but I used his water to make hot chocolates and dessert, which he also shared to supplement my 500-calorie Mountain House meal.) The whole self-care dilemma can be a difficult puzzle to solve. Carrying unnecessary weight is not ideal, but at the same time it's probably worse to slowly fall apart from inadequate fueling and recovery. I usually overcompensate, but lately feel like I've come up short in my planning. I could use a refresher before Alaska next year. Tour Divide could be a good teacher in this regard. :)

 We'll see if I continue to dream up justifications for the Tour Divide, or talk myself out of it because I'm a 35-year-old "grownup" who shouldn't aspire to a game where I pretend I'm a perpetual motion machine, quietly observing the world as it goes by. Recently I've read books and essays addressing the notion of finding meaning in "The Age of Productivity," when much of what we call productivity is an illusion. There's a lot I could say that doesn't really belong in a trip report, but as the wonderful Carrot Quinn mused, "What is a life?" I could sit in my apartment and string together words into products that people might give me small amounts of money for, or I could ride my bike and absorb the richness of an experience that requires not much in the way of words or money. What is a life? It will always be a puzzle.

All I know is that riding my bike all day, with the man I love and my friends and by myself, makes me happy. Maybe that's all there is, and maybe that's okay.