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The Desert Ramble Day 1: Bikepacking the Kokopelli Trail

In Blog by Eric Benjamin Comments

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After everyone arrived and Erik reassembled his bike, we rode to Fruita’s Hot Tomato eatery for some delicious pizza and beer. Bikes, cameras, beer and pizza would be a common theme throughout the week. We ate and geeked out over cameras and bikes throughout dinner. I’m not sure if I salivated more for the food or the camera gear my friends were packing. There were Leica’s, Canons, a new Panasonic LX100, the see-in-the-dark Sony A7S, exotic lenses and even film to mention some of the bits.

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We slept at the campsite in Fruita. It had a restroom, running water and nice gravely pads for tents. It was posh compared to what we would see in the next few days.

There was rain in the forecast but I held on to the hope that it would miss us. But that never happens, not at the 2010 Flint Hills Death Ride, the 2011 DK200, the 2011 Gravel Worlds, the 2013 Land Run and definitely not at this trip.

My mind wandered about the happenings we would experience the rest of the week, but I somehow finally fell asleep as the temperature dropped and the winds picked up. Rain was inevitable. It started sometime in the night, testing the integrity of our sleeping shelters. I had an ultralight tarptent that needs to be set up perfectly with tight walls or water will leak inside. Starting the trip with a wet sleeping bag, tent, pad and everything else did not seem like a great idea. Luckily I only needed to tighten up the walls with the pull of a couple of cords in the night. Only a few drops got inside the tent. So far so good. I thought about the condition of the roads. “It’s desert,” I thought. It should dry up quickly. If we didn’t get any more rain, it shouldn’t be too bad.

The morning was cool and cloudy. After drinking coffee, we began loading our bikes with food, water and equipment for a week in the desert on bikes. Everyone packed and some of us had bike mechanicals to attend to before we were ready. Bobby installed a new bottom bracket on my bike (yes, on the morning of the big trip) and I added one more anything cage for storage. We were a group of busybodies readying our bikes, packing our equipment and deciding what could be left behind. We wanted to be as light as possible but we also needed two days of water and three days of food.

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 Bobby installing a new bottom bracket on the Beargrease

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 My bike had 250 oz of water, food three days and supplies for the week

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 Lelan looking toward the mountains

Before heading into the desert, we went to an amazing local coffee shop to fuel up. As we finished, the skies grew dark in the direction of where we would be riding. We took off and rode pavement that would take us to the Kokopelli Trail. It didn’t take long before the rain started and the first mechanical occurred. Right off the bat we had a tire that wasn’t holding air. Bobby shot some sealant into the tire and it was good. If that was our only mechanical for the week, we would be in great shape.

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The sky was growing dark

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 Last minute map check

Pavement turned into gravel, gravel turned into double track and double track became single track. Soon our bikes, bags and us were covered in mud and grit – a perfect way to start a week-long trip with cameras and bikes. On a technical downhill, covered in big rocks and small drops, I crashed as my tire lost its grip in the mud. These were no Kansas hills. Soon I was riding scared and had to begin hike-a-biking the unrideable-to-me downhills. But this was nothing. Soon the steep uphill hike-a-bikes would start.

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Muddy gravel soon would turn into muddy singletrack

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The Bikepacking Beargrease

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Gathering the group

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We had to carry our bikes down an unridable section, helping each other down, next to a caution sign. Our bikes were heavy – fully loaded for a week of survival and this first leg would be the hardest, having the most hike-a-bike sections of the trip. We got to ride a bit and then we started the uphill hike-a-bikes. They were like nothing like I have experienced. I was soon grunting and cussing as I pushed my bike up the steep, rocky climbs. My upper body was getting a workout as I muscled my bike up mountains that seemed impossible to climb with 75 pounds of bike and gear. Soon I was gasping for air, stopping and leaning over my bike with my head down. It was tough, physically and mentally. More than a few times I thought about just backtracking and spending the week in Fruita, enjoying the nice campground and trails. But I pushed on. There were three terrible uphill hike-a-bikes, each one worse than the previous. When I finally made it up the third and final one for this section, I was exhausted but greeted with a view of mountains lit up brightly in the distance against a backdrop of dark clouds. “That was worth it,” I muttered under my tired breath.

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Finally making it to the top and getting to ride when the mountains came into view

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We began to make better time, but the day was so tough, I was wondering why in the world I was on this trip. I didn’t want to hike-a-bike for seven days. I didn’t want to be wet and dirty. I didn’t want to be the slow one of the group. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I could barely push my bike forward many times. I entered the pain cave and my attitude dipped into a dark place and this was only day one.

The sun was setting and we needed to make camp. We came to a camping area and saw a beautiful rainbow. We all thought it was so cool, because it was, but that damn rainbow was the calm before more rain would pour on us. I needed to set my tent up deliberately, making sure the walls were tight to keep the rain out. I did my best. I find that if I move slow and deliberately I will go just as fast or faster compared to when I rush things. I learned this when I had to do timed dressouts for fire brigade training when I worked at the nuclear plant.

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The sun began dipping under the mountains

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Before I shut the Garmin down I dared to look at our daily mileage. I think we were planning on doing 40 miles that day. Sixteen. With the mud and tough conditions we only rode 16 miles. I let out a sigh of disbelief as the Garmin beeped its shutdown alert.

I tried to keep my wits about me as I set up my hiding place from the cold rain, but I was tired as hell, wet, and was setting up my tent on muddy, yet rocky ground while attempting to keep mud and water out of my tent. It took longer than I wanted, but I erected a nice taunt shelter. I carefully got in, keeping the mud out, blew up my sleeping pad, threw out my bag and decided what to eat. Surprisingly I wasn’t even hungry. Some of us brought whisky to drink when we had a roaring campfire to sit around. The atmosphere was nothing like that. Even Bobby was quietly holed up in his tent. Everyone was huddled in their tents or bivys, eating on their own, staying dry and recovering from the hardest day we would experience on the trip. I was so frustrated that I decided whisky was a good idea. I unscrewed the lid on my Adventure Monkey flask and drank. I ate some trail mix and drank all my whisky. Wouldn’t you know it, the little flask didn’t have enough in it to make me feel any better, but it did take the edge off.

The rain finally stopped, for a bit, and I went outside to pee. The night was extremely beautiful and I was reminded why I was there. I attempted to capture some images of the scene.

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I had no idea those rolling clouds were overhead as I shot this

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My bike and tent in the moonlight

This all sounds terrible, but it was bad because I made the decision to see everything as shitty. The next morning Glen was as happy as a clam. Jason laughed at all of it. I have found on and off the bike, hard times end up creating the best memories, make me stronger and teach me the most. The attitude I choose in each moment is powerful.

I slept fitfully on and off that night and hoped for a better day. It could only get better from here.

Feed Your Monkey!