Essay by Sarah Rawley
Photos by Robin O’Neil
All summer I sat daydreaming at my desk about my upcoming fall adventure – bikepacking the 250-mile Coconino Loop in Northern Arizona. After a long and bustling season of event planning, knee surgery, and racing myself back into shape, a week of riding my bike without any attachments or responsibility sounded like a true vacation. I craved being so utterly tired at 8:30 p.m. that I couldn’t muster the energy to scroll through Instagram or answer an email. I craved the simplicity of not thinking about what to wear or what I needed to pack for the day since everything I could possibly need would be with me, or found at a gas station. I craved the miles that would eventually beat my legs into submission and make meat sticks, Swedish fish, and dehydrated dinners feel like sampling the Whole Foods salad bar. I craved the idea of not knowing what experiences lied ahead, the twists and turns that the trail would take, and the dynamics that would unfold riding in a group of four over eight days.
Although the Coconino Loop was not my first bikepacking experience, this one left me craving more. There are some things you can’t learn until you experience them for yourself, but here are my top five takeaways to prepare you for your first, or next, bikepacking adventure.
Less is More
Bikepacking, at its core, is a practice in minimalism. There are certain things you should skimp on (excess toiletries, duplicate clothing, non-calorically dense foods, or multiple bike tools/parts within a group) and certain things that you should splurge on. My compadres all packed two chamois. I packed one. After eight days in the saddle, I realized that they made the right call. My nightly indulgence was dry, long underwear under a hooded down jacket, a splash of lavender essential oil, and mood lighting in my tent. But yours may be a small inflatable pillow, a bar of chocolate, and down booties. Whatever it is, prioritize.
To help with prioritization, lay all of your gear out in advance, and not just for your pro influencer Instagram post that will take you an hour to tag, but to get a visual layout of everything that you intend to carry for every mile of your journey. Pack your bags as you would for the first day on the trail and try them on for size. If every cubic inch is packed to the hilt, go back to the drawing board and see what you can eliminate. It is critical to have space available in your packing system to shift weight and volume around as the demands of the trail and wear on the body wax and wane. You may also need to increase food rations and pack out garbage, in-between layovers in civilization.
Redefine your Food Groups
As a connoisseur of kale salad, superfood smoothies and all things turmeric, I knew this week would be far from my routine. I started by selecting dehydrated meals that included vegetables, gnawed on a few bars that snuck spinach flakes and vegan protein into their ingredient list, and tried to snag a fresh salad on the Hillside in Sedona. By Day 4 when we faced the biggest obstacle of the route ahead of us, gaining 4,500 feet in just 12 miles up and over Mingus Mountain, it would be sacrilege to waste any fraction of a calorie – be it a nut butter packet, Slim Jim, Coca-Cola or the leftover pizza from the night before. We were warned that we would be camping in bear country at 7,800 feet and I was advised not to keep food near the tent. I was too tired to stash my foil-wrapped snack high in a tree, but I was already tasting the salty goat-cheese and sun-dried tomatoes pizza that would be crucial to getting me through no man’s land the following day. I decided to roll the dice and keep it zipped up in the front pouch on my handlebar bag five feet away. We were not visited by bears overnight but awoke to a half dozen javelinas (Arizona’s wild boar) circling our tent. Thankfully, the quadruped creatures couldn’t reach my handlebar bag to tear into it with their snouts, and I enjoyed every lip-smacking bite that afternoon as we rolled away from all of civilization for the next 80 miles.
Moral of the story – leftover pizza is the ultimate reprieve from taste fatigue after too many sugary snacks. Know your wildlife and what they can reach.
Mind Over Matter
The human body is far more capable than the limits our mind places on it. When the stats begin to add up against you, your Professor brain begins to come up with the logical reasons why you should stop pressing forward through fatigue, hunger, thirst, pain, and sub-freezing temperatures – especially when this is supposed to be a “fun” bike trip. But, your Chimp brain can bully your Professor brain into submission, and all perceived threats to your basic needs become a matter of life and death. Even with nagging injuries, frozen fingers, and the ten extra miles that weren’t calculated on your Trailforks route, you will always muster the strength to push past your perceived limits.
Want to know more about your inner primate versus your voice of reason? Check out The Brave Athlete by Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson – a great audiobook for when you’re suffering and wondering why you do it.
When you spend that many hours in the saddle every day, you begin to rediscover the depths of the cavernous expanse of your headspace. Sometimes this results in a flood of creative ideas. And at the shift of the wind, a moment, or a memory, it can unleash a wave of emotions. Expect to go there. Be present and accept where your mind takes you and allow yourself to slow down and honor those moments while they are happening.
Five days behind us, we had the “Queen Stage” looming on Day 6. We had camped down by the Verde River, watched a skunk tango with our gear under the moonlight, and woke up with everything, including my one prized chamois, damp. We saddled up quicker than the previous days and hit the road. It didn’t take long for the group to spread out. I found myself chugging along solo. My body hurt. Still. Even though I made it through the previous days, keeping the pedals in motion for the next nine hours felt insurmountable.
I needed the reinforcement that it would all “be okay.” When I began to think about hearing those comforting words, I cried. I rode my bike and cried aloud as I pedaled. It wasn’t because I was past the point of exhaustion, or because I was frustrated with injuries that I had worked so hard to overcome leading into this trip. It was because I faced the stark feeling of missing someone so deeply, and never being able to hear that voice again. I missed my mom. I missed Tricia. I missed the fact that nearly seven years later and experiencing another sudden loss just a year ago, the emptiness was still there. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone could hear me. I closed my eyes so I could picture them and feel their energy. Despite never meeting in person, they were cut from the same cloth. The breeze picked up, and I felt a push behind me. I know it was Tricia pushing me towards the mountains where she knew I belonged.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link
The four of us each brought a different strength to conquer the Coconino Loop as a collective whole. Robin O’Neill had the strength of an ant carrying a camera pack on her petite frame while pedaling an equally loaded bike, all the while cracking jokes at every peak and valley. Even in some of the darker moments (i.e., relying on dim headlamps while descending off of Bill Williams Mountain in the pitch black), Robin had the ability to make everyone crack a smile and feel like a rockstar on the bike. Chris Clark had the endurance of an ostrich and the keen eye to magically fix mechanicals overnight and find space in his bursting pack for the entire group’s garbage. He probably rode the Coconino Loop at least 1.25 times checking on everyone throughout the day and off-loading extra weight. Mike Raney made riding up and down chunky red rocks look easy on a loaded bike; he had the local knowledge and smoothness that can only come from years riding in a vortex. Oh, and he’s one of those humans who can push themselves physically all day, pop into his bike shop to take care of a few customers while the rest of us awkwardly gaped at the selection of energy bars on the shelf, and carry on for another 20 miles whilst keep the conversation flowing the entire time.
Nicole Formosa was the brains behind this whole ordeal. Without her stumbling upon the route and convincing us all it would be a desert vacation with only a little bit of roughing it, we would not have spent these 240 hours all together and have this experience to reflect on. We would have also opted for the Days Inn on the final night when our fingers were frozen, our bellies growling, and instead we trudged 5 miles up a logging road, slick as peanut butter, to cement the trip with a proper conclusion. As for me, it can be difficult to self-congratulate. I’d like to say I was the Jane Fonda of the trip – sharing PT exercises at every opportune occasion – pumping pop music out of my side belt and making sure everyone got their piece of the social media pie.
Without these varying strengths, there may have been moments when we’d singled ourselves out and question our ability to keep forging ahead (well… maybe except for Chris. Pretty sure he could have ridden the loop in three days tops). But when you felt at your lowest, the group encouraged you. Took care of you. And made sure you made it to the finish line.
Where to next? Time will tell. My gut says somewhere tucked away in San Juans, right when the brown pow strikes its prime.
About Sarah Rawley: Currently based out of Keystone, CO, Sarah owns and operates Mountain Grown Marketing, LLC and Vida Events, Inc. While not on her bike or skis, Sarah can be found actively involved in her community, or seeking out the next adventure around the corner or cornice.