Monday, March 25, 2019

Four Surprises

When I suggested, in my last post, that I might provide preparation updates, I had no idea it would turn out like this.  What didn't happen is much in the way of preparation.  The prospect of going off on this bikepacking trip with so little preparation is humbling.  What DID happen is a change in destination.  The original plan was for a meet-up in Missouri.  But now, due to an odd series of events, the plan is Big Bend Ranch State Park.  Humbling, I tell you.  And that was my first surprise.

The next three surprises happened yesterday, just moments after the photo above was taken.  I was zipping along a gradual gravel downhill, heading toward a "T" intersection with a paved county road.  No traffic was coming in either direction, so I only trimmed my speed slightly to help make the right turn onto the narrow road.  As I leaned into the turn (slightly braking), I noticed several pot-holes and irregularities in the gravel interface with the pavement.  At that point, I sort of half stood to allow my legs to absorb the bumps, and I let off the brakes to roll through the turn.  That is when I experienced my second surprise.  Both wheels completely released their traction, and I was sliding sideways.

After the rear skidded about 6 feet laterally, and the front about 4 feet, those Compass 48s re-gripped the paved road, and we traced a perfectly smooth arc around the curve.  Coming out of that slide, that lasted about an hour, stunned me.  I recovered with no injuries whatsoever.  And that was my third surprise.

Of course, that slide didn't last "about an hour".  It was only a split second of terror.  So this fourth surprise might be the biggest of them all.  During that tiny slice of time, in which I was not in control, my mind was thoroughly analyzing the situation, processing options, and making decisions.

I remember recognizing that I was turning "right" because I've always been more comfortable power sliding on left turns.  I felt uncomfortable.  I also remember thinking, I'm sort of standing and both feet are on the pedals.  No foot down to sort tripod my way through this.  My center of gravity was too high, and I felt awkward.  Strangely, however, it was also apparent that my lean angle was pretty good, and the slide was fortunately balanced.  I was sliding at constant angle, neither high-siding nor going horizontal.  That was pretty good, I thought, but it was lasting WAY too long.  I wanted to grab my brakes and put an end to it.  Somehow, and I actually thought ALL of this, I reasoned that I have three possible outcomes.  If I brake, I'll absolutely go down.  If I don't brake, I might go down, and I should be ready for that.  But not braking is my best chance.  My tires might grab so I can recover...which of course they did.

After my heart rate returned to normal.  I replayed the slide in my mind, and all that mid-slide analysis gushed out.  So my fourth surprise was realizing all a brain can do in those extremely short, but high-emotion, moments.

Finally, I wondered how the slide would have appeared to observers.  I decided that it must have been fantastic.  Surely, I looked like an expert shredder, like that was how I always turn corners on gravel roads.  I was deeply remorseful when I realized that my rare display of excellence wasn't captured on film.  But nothing about that surprises me.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Spring Break Countdown

I am pleased that Tim and I are planning our third consecutive spring break bikepacking outing.  We've had some good times on prior editions to Arkansas (first) and Alabama (second).  We also, in spite of extreme heat, enjoyed an early summer return to Arkansas in 2018.  We seem to tolerate one another well enough to have penciled Missouri on the calendar for the first week in April this year.  

These spring break outings follow winter (duh).  That means the long nights, holidays, and cold, wet conditions that seem to limit saddle time has eroded my fitness.  So each year, I make a half-hearted, last moment attempt to prepare myself.  As usual, I've got about four weeks to get fit.  At my age, however, physical fitness is laughable.  Each year I meet up with Tim with excuses and apologies, but not so much fitness.  This year, I have a new strategy.

The new strategy is to ride a heavy bike uphill, on rugged ground, or (preferably) both.  How is that a new strategy?  Well...I don't do that because I think it'll make me physically fit in four weeks.  I do that because it makes me patient.  It is a sort of mental fitness, if you will.  So I load up one of bikes with lots of stuff, and ride.  I practice... slowly gutting it out.  My hope is that, within the four weeks between now and April, I'll be mentally over the hardness of it all.  Being exhausted will be so commonplace, I'll be able to notice the beauty of my surroundings.

So I loaded up my bike with more water, and gear, than I really needed for my morning ride.  I went out to the LBJ Grasslands, and rode on dirt roads and trails.  I pushed my loaded bike up a few steep places.

These practice sessions allow me to test my gear and packing options.  This customized Donut Sack Saddlebag works well for these self-supported outings into the backcountry.  The combo with the Nitto R14 rack is a good one, and I expect this will be part of my set-up.  I like it so well, that I'm pondering also using a similar bag on a small rack in the front one day.

There are many miles of equestrian trails in the LBJ Grasslands.  That means my practice sessions involve a lot deep sand, or hard clay, bumpiness.  What a wonderful patience builder!

Today's practice session involved riding the entire time in a heavy mist.  It wasn't exactly what I'd call "rain", but it was more than fog.  Poor visibility, I have learned, is another patience builder.

Even with poor fitness in honest-to-goodness rough stuff conditions, the Grasslands seems to always have its rewards.  The quiet beauty reminds me why I practice...and why I load my bike, travel to hilly places, and pedal (or push) it uphills.

Perhaps I'll have some additional preparation reports between now and then.  Four weeks, and counting...

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Rough Stuff Wannabe

I've been fascinated by the Rough Stuff Fellowship since I first learned about the club.  Although they seem to welcome all comers, it is a British based organization with a rich history back to 1955.  Unless, I can find a north central Texas chapter (anyone?), it isn't clear how much of a fellowship it would be for me, a lone rambler on the prairie.  

Until recently, I've been successful in my attempts to not dwell on my fascination with these adventurers too much.  Until, that is, the @rsfarchive instagram account arrived, and the Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive book Kickstarter project was launched.  With so many compelling photographs and anecdotes before me, I am more smitten than ever.  

Those pioneers were going out in rural areas, enduring challenging elements, and enjoying pathside brewups.  Without even knowing (until recently) about this previous generation, I somehow found myself following the same path.  I am not as hardy or skilled, but I am a Rough Stuff Wannabe.

I imagined myself as a Rough Stuff Fellow yesterday.  I rolled out under overcast skies, and temperatures in the mid-30s.  My plan was to trace a 35 mile loop west of my home, where the homesteads are more sparse, the terrain hillier, and the roads a bit rougher.  Besides general exploration, the outing objective included reconnoitering a new overnight camp spot.  The photo above shows the potential campsite.  The deep grass in the foreground is a great spot for a bivy.  Immediately behind the bike, the ground drops off rapidly down to the valley shown in the background.  A sunrise brewup here would be delightful.

My bicycle, with its fatter tires and lower gearing, was significantly more comfortable than those used by the original Fellowship.  If it weren't for the modern equipment I had, there were several places I would have been required to get off the bike and walk my way up.  I had no snowy mountain passes or knee deep icy rivers to cross.  But a serious looking Border Collie gave me that classic all business posture, nipped at my heels, and herded me down the road.  An over-playful Blue Heeler crashed into my rear wheel and gave me quite a jolt.  Other than the damp, chilly weather, maybe that is the best I can do to imitate my predecessors...well, except maybe for the brewup.  

I may not have epic terrain, and I'm not a hardy lad.  But I might be persuaded to admit to some level of achievement in my ability to bring civility to my outdoor conditions.

One of the keys for a keen path side brewup is location.  On this loop, there is an abandoned bridge, made of a rusty steel truss and wooden planks, that spans a large creek.  Getting through the barricades to the bridge deck required a bit of bicycle wrangling.  Rough Stuff?

The sound of the riffles immediately downstream, blended with the rustling trees, to fill the spot with song.  So I enjoyed the music, sipped from my mug, and warmed my cold fingers over my Trangia stove.

As the hot coffee went down, I reflected back on those who routinely pursued those challenging outings.  Then I noticed the mud splatters on my bike and bags.  Maybe my relatively tame outing could at least be considered in the same spirit of what they did.

Perhaps we all, whatever our own limits, have the ability to seek the edges of our comfort, and look across to the other side.  Even us Rough Stuff Wannabees can capture the moments that are available to us, and share our stories with those on the path behind us.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

What’s in Your Coffee?

What do you put in your coffee?

Many of us enjoy coffee, but many of us also seem to enjoy it more when we put something into it.  Some purists will adamantly reject anything that distracts from that pure black gold.  But the rest of us look to all sorts to things to put into it and match the unique cravings of our own palate.  I like it pure and black.  But I also like to put something into it.  Here's a rather complicated recipe that produces great results for me.  Here are a few things I like to put into my coffee.

A bicycle, outdoor air, a remote place, dirt road, miles of pedaling meditation, self brewing, and enough time and effort to make me feel like I actually did put something into it.

Cool, overcast day, temperature in the mid-50s, fog and drizzle, leafless trees, rolling ranch land, and four geese honking cheerily as they pass over my right shoulder.

This isn't the only way to enhance pure black coffee, and I don't always have the perfect ingredients at hand.  But my experience has been that these ingredients produce a fabulous, earthy cup of coffee.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Sweet Simplicity

What is it that makes simple living so sweet?

Is it cutting out all the clutter, and focusing on the basic essentials?  Does it somehow create more time out of a chaotic life?  Maybe it has a way of tapping into, and sharpening, our senses.  Perhaps there is something about a connection with the natural and elemental.

A cheery and crackling campfire is a comfort on a chilly night outdoors.  It is warm, gives light, makes a pleasing sound, and delights the eyes.  It becomes a gathering point for people.

The daily routine of waking up is transformed when it happens outdoors in a beautiful place.  It is a completely different sensory experience.  Emerging from sleep in direct sunlight is like coming alive every day.  It can create a certain energetic eagerness to leap into life.

But simple living can also be raw.  Unpleasant weather is real, and winter nights are long.  Food, drink, and entertainment options are limited.  Sometimes the sweetness is the ability to find something positive to enjoy in the midst of otherwise bitter conditions.

For me, however, the sweetest part of simple living is that it...for my life so far...has been voluntary.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Tarp Camp Overnighter

When I woke, the wind blew waves on the lake and whistled by the edges of my tarp.  It was as windy as predicted.  This most definitely wasn't the sound that invites one to leave a warm bed.  Conditions inside my open walled tarp configuration were actually quite still by comparison.  I was grateful to have my tarp oriented correctly, and to have a reasonably comfortable place to prepare breakfast.  I spent a lot of the morning contentedly under shelter.

On the afternoon prior, I had driven to the State park, unloaded the bike, and headed into the woods.  The afternoon was spent crawling along looking for a campsite.  Due to my recent scouting trip, I had a couple of options in mind.  But which would be the best for the conditions?  With the full lunar eclipse on the calendar, lake side with an east view was "option a".  After a couple of hours of scouting and weighing options, "option a" won out.  The only concern was the high exposure to the strong wind mentioned in the weather forecast.  Trusting the predictions, I pointed my tarp point southeast, and nailed it.

As the sunlight faded away, the woods turned darker, spookier...and colder.  Cooking my chili dinner had been scheduled for just this moment.  On one horizon there was disappearing red flame, and on the opposite horizon, a gold moon leap into the sky.  This is what some of us would call perfect dinner entertainment.

Most of the time, the lake looked like a black sheet of glass.  Where was the predicted wind?  Would it arrive later in the night?

I watched the moon rise into the sky, and lake surface ripples come and go.  With the activities of dinner completed, a lack of movement allowed a chill to seep in.  I crawled under my tarp, and inside my quilt.  Honestly, I missed a lot of the blood moon stuff.  I peeked out at one point to view a partial eclipse stage.  But lying down in a warm place, my relaxing body overtook me.  As if I were under some kind of magic spell, I was helpless.   

As usual, I was awake at first light.  The air had become rowdy during the night.  I recall waking up and being amazed that, even with an entire open side, I was protected from the raucous.  The view was both enormous, and somewhat immune to the elements. 

The real test would be preparing breakfast.  I was going to need to spend a significant amount of time brewing coffee, and frying bacon and eggs...and brewing a second cup of coffee, of course.  The original plan was to bring the bivy to this site.  But, after imagining spending my morning around camp with limited shelter, a tarp seemed like a better choice this time.  The ability to sit up, cook, store all the incidentals out of the wind, and still have a great view, truly was impressive.

I could sit on my pillow and sleeping pad for comfort.  Everything needed was within reach.  So there was no rush sipping that second cup of coffee, and watching the early morning light evolve fully into day.  The tarp shelter was the last thing packed away.  All clean up chores were done behind its protection.  Eventually, however, even it was gone.  I was fully exposed, and it was time to pedal away from this place.

Deeper into the woods, the conditions were fine.  It was such a pretty day, and pedaling kept me warm.  So I crawled along at a strolling pace, and absorbed the beauty of Texas winter. 

Saturday, January 19, 2019

A Winter Hobo Camp

The weather wasn't ideal for a long ramble in the country.  It was wet, in the low 30s, a few odd snow flakes, and a sustained 25-30mph wind.  But, with so many outings thwarted by circumstances lately, I was determined to get outside.  I needed to find a way to work with what was given.

There is a spot in the woods, reasonably protected from a north wind.  It is in a State park, a short ride away from the parking lot.  Even with the brutal headwind and muddy conditions, it wasn't bad.  Patiently crawling along in a low gear works fine when dressed properly.

I found my sheltered spot, and added additional shelter in the form of a tarp.  This approach reduced the wind chill almost completely.  Some of the larger gusts seemed to swirl around the side of the tarp at times, but is was surprisingly comfortable.  This spot was pleasant enough to leisurely cook some bacon, and brew some fresh coffee.  I considered spreading out on my ground sheet for a short snooze, but conditions appeared to be improving.  Maybe I could get a longer ride in after all.

Mostly, I stayed on groomed fire roads.  I did, however, get on a few trails.  Strict trail nannies might have disapproved.  But the areas I rode were firm, and I was watchful (while creeping along) for any signs of damage.

So what was originally planned to be an experiment in finding a tolerable place outside to spend an hour, turned in to a second breakfast outdoors and a decent ride.  As a bonus, two excellent camp spots for future outings were found.  With a little good fortune, I'll be back in a few days to provide a report on one of them.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Nest of Refuge

Lifeless trees and tall brown grass engulf an abandoned ranch house.  Enshrouded by a sky of textured grey, and cold like a granite tombstone.

A cold, gusty wind whistles across the prairie, and views are sacrificed for shelter.  This tiny spot, squeezed between a barbed wire fence and a gravel road, is pleasant because it is a refuge.

A stove doing its one simple job, warms me.  Even though invisible, the flame lifts my spirit like a campfire.

Burrowed down low, and surrounded by tall grasses, I settle, relaxing into the spot as if it were a nest.

Peeking over the grass tops to the road, there is no activity.  Nothing passes by but wind, roaring in fury.

My coffee cup is held directly above the stove.  The invisible flame warms my hands, as the coffee warms inside.  For a few minutes, this desolate place is a cheery, warm cabin.  Then both fuels are consumed, and I am left shrouded in grey with nothing but wind. 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Hold Tight To Local Adventures

It's funny how wild imaginations of grand adventure can sometimes interfere with so much opportunity that is already in our hands.  As soon as we see what others in other places are doing, we think perhaps they are living a life more fulfilling than our own.  Their videos and photographs are compelling.  Their stories sound so enticing.  So we seek those experiences for ourselves.  We imagine visiting the places they've been, seeing the vistas, riding the routes, camping in wild places, and overcoming the challenges.  We'll come back with our own amazing stories, we say.  We lay aside what we previously held as precious so we can pursue the vision in our imagination.

We prepare, and we plan.  Our current gear will not suffice.  The grand adventures of our imagination require bicycles, camping gear, clothing, and what-nots that are not required for our local pleasures.  So we sell off a few things to help fund and equip this rare objective.  We are unfamiliar with those distant places, and spend our free time reading travel accounts, learning new skills, and scrutinizing maps.  The logistics required to make the most of what the imagination promises takes significant time.  It is time invested well, we say.  Look at what we'll be able to do!  Those hours of free time once used for local exploration, and making homegrown adventures is lost to something beyond.  Suddenly, we find ourselves unprepared and unable to do what once came so naturally, and brought so much joy.

Sometimes our lofty dreams create a context that is unrealistic and intangible.  Most of us do not have the gumption to completely upend our lives.  Those who do, will create a new context.  For the rest of us, maybe we should not lose sight of our current sense of our place, our current commitments, and how we live our lives.  We should think, perhaps, in terms of anchoring our bicycle adventures within the practical limits of our situation.  The wisest investment is there.  If those grand adventures come our way, so much the better.  But let us never let go of the precious gifts that we already have for those temporal, unsustainable ever enticing.

Friday, January 4, 2019

To Be Outside

My reason for the bicycle has come full circle.  As best I can remember, the beginning was all about play.  The bicycle took the natural freedom of the outdoors and magnified it tremendously.  Even in my teen years, it was a sort of escape from the chaos of life into the quieter places outside.

As an adult, I wandered into a more commonly recognized reason for adults on a bicycle.  For years, I pursued athletic achievements.  I worked on going faster and longer, and monitored my performance improvements.  I dabbled in racing to test my abilities against others.  I trained.  In the winter, I trained indoors, staring at walls as sweat poured off onto the floor.  The bicycle was about sport and accomplishment.  Seeing the progress was addictive, and exploring and expanding personal limits was the goal.  It was a goal that required focus, energy, dedication, and commitment.  It had become work.

Somehow, life steered me back.  Maybe it was family needs, spiritual insight, or simply an aging body.  But I had found my limit.  I simply didn't want to work at cycling any longer.  It was sad and frightening to think about letting go of something that had consumed an investment of so much time and energy.  I figured something very precious to me was lost.  Then, without consciously thinking about it, I climbed on a bicycle and rode circles in front of my house.

I rode slow, meandering, circles just to be outside.  It was a kind of meditative movement.  Without realizing why, a sense of freedom began to grow.  I had escaped from the chaos of not only life, but achievement cycling.  It was about play again, and it was about seeking those quieter places outside.  It happened more than ten years ago.

These days, it most definitely isn't work.  Often the bicycle is for camping, exploring, picnics, or a cup of coffee.  Always, it is to be outside.