“You can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the goddamn contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you'll see something, maybe.”
There's something unnatural about hurtling overland at 75 MPH, particularly when one is still recovering from the physical and psychic journey that is days of self-propelled travel. It's a feeling I've experienced often but never grown used to: throwing a pack in the bed of a truck after a long backpacking trip, settling into a cracked leather seat in an International truck in the Utah heat with six other salty river guides, and, of course, stripping down my bike and returning from a bikepacking trip. It's the sensation of motion sickness on a spiritual level. Deeply unnerving. Driving toward Marathon with James McMurtry on the radio and snoring from the backseat, basting in nearly a week's worth of grime, I was still taken aback at how time had slowed for a few days; a few days which contained seemingly as much life as some months did in the past year that escaped so quickly.
I planned this escape to Big Bend National Park for my birthday. Without getting into the platitudes about what a year this has been (we're all well aware at this point), I decided that given the occasion of my 31st birthday, this should be a celebratory, shared event rather than a solo trip. Two people naturally came to mind: my boyfriend and fellow impractical bike enthusiast, Bradley, and my longtime friend Ben.
We're all geologists, with Ben and I going back about a decade now to the University of South Carolina, where he was a TA over my structural geology course and later, in my sedimentary geology research cohort. We've had many misadventures over the years, from South Carolina to New Mexico to Antarctica. Earlier in the summer, he reached out to me looking for advice on a bike for beer runs and bikepacking, and I happened upon a Surly Ogre that had been listed minutes earlier on the Houston Craigslist--and just his size! Ben bought the Ogre, and jumped at the opportunity to properly break it in.
Ben arrived in Midland on a Sunday evening, and we spent Monday as a layover day, installing the rear rack on his Ogre, cleaning bikes, chasing down the odds and ends we knew wouldn't be available once we were beyond Odessa.
Arriving in Terlingua around sunset on Tuesday, we had all of the essentials: a couple of cases of Tecate and bikes. We settled into the lawn chairs in the driveway of our AirBNB, tucked up against an arroyo downhill of the ghosttown as the first stars appeared, and promptly got to work on the Tecate, bundled in fleece and down, trading stories and rehashing old memories well into the night, ensuring a later start than I had planned.
As the sun rose the next morning I scrambled down the ladder from the loft in the house and dumped coffee into the percolator, fired up the stove, and crossed the yard for the last hot shower I would see for the next four days. We shared the first round of coffee outside again, blearly-eyed, as songbirds flitted around us, and agreed that breakfast was in order. At Espresso y Poco Mas we healed our self-inflicted wounds with breakfast burritos, beans, and coffee and took in the scenery, bathed the low-hanging morning light: the Chisos, Mule Ears, and distant Mexico. Back to the truck for the deceptively long drive to Panther Junction, checked in with the backcountry permit table, topped off water, and made the last leg of the danged drive to Rio Grande Village. About the time we crested the hill at the Old Ore Road turn-off heading toward the tunnel, I heard Ben's incredulous laugh from the back seat as he peered downhill to our first climb of the ride.
We got to work attaching bags to bars and divvying up the shared food: avocados tucked gingerly into fleece layers within seatpost bags, a jar of PB in Bradley's frame bag, tortillas in my hip pack, hard cheeses and preserved meats on Ben's bike. Water, water, everywhere: we all sipped while we worked and topped off every receptacle we were carrying before rolling out. I had about 8 liters on my bike: two tall Purist bottles on my hip pack, a 1.5L Nalgene "silo" bottle on either side of my fork, and a 3L dromedary bag in the bottom of my hip pack. It seemed like overkill on the bike, but looking at the blue clear sky, feeling the noon sun and last night's Tecate, I really wondered if it would carry me 44.2 miles to our water resupply at Panther Junction via the Old Ore Road and Persimmon Gap road.
One last mental checklist: sunscreen, water, SpotX, map, food, permit--and we rolled out. I took off ahead of Bradley with Ben bringing up the rear, briskly spinning along the flats, getting my legs warm to climb to the Rio Grande Overlook tunnel. Up, up, up: the hill steepened, my chain moved up the cassette, my butt got up out of the saddle. My REEB Sam's Pants is a drop-bar mountain bike with a few custom touches, but with the 2021 Shimano GRX 40x11-42T configuration rather than a proper MTB gearing. Not ideal, though not impossible, but Bradley soon spun by me with ease on his 1x11 Kona Cinder Cone hardtail with a 30-something chainring. I laughed and waved him on--what else did I have to do today, the first day of my 31st year, besides get over this hill?
At the crest of the hill we paused to reconvene, laughing and cursing and hydrating. A few more pedal strokes and we turned onto the Old Ore Road and our first short, punchy climb. Approached from the southern terminus, the Old Ore Road is an uphill slog with some brief, exhilarating downhills. Around mile 22 or so, things flatten off. Given our late start and the topographic challenge ahead, I was somewhat anxious that our camp was at McKinney Spring, 21.9 miles from our starting point.
The Old Ore Road terrain is by far the least forgiving in BBNP; the rock gardens interspersed with sand traps make for frustrating riding, as every time you find yourself spinning at a good clip, you're suddenly fishtailing across sand or navigating through rocks that would slice your tire open with surgical precision (there's a reason an awl and heavy thread are always in my repair kit for desert travel!). As the afternoon sun intensified, our average pace slowed and I heard the first of many "man, bikepacking sucks!" from Ben, my eternal Pollyanna.
At the peak of a hill about 6.5 miles in, I surveyed the horizon for the notch in the rocks, Cuesta Carlota, where we would take our first proper break from the bike: a hike up to Ernst Tinaja. I popped a few Sour Patch Kids in my mouth and waited for the boys, telling them the story of the Juan de Leon gravesite that they had passed without noticing, and noting how much water we were all drinking, made the well-received proposal that we go find some shade.
We stashed our bikes behind some creosote bushes at the Ernst Tinaja campsite and headed up the trail through the wash. The further we walked the more we could feel the enticing cool air coming from the shade, and finally, slipped into the shade along the limestone walls. Scrambling along the tilted rock up and around the Tinaja we all collapsed in about the same spot overlooking the Tinaja, sprawling out to maximize skin to cold rock contact. Time passed quickly on our siesta, after an hour, I broke the news that we had around 15 more miles to cover, camp being definitively uphill from our current location, and it was nearly 3:30 pm.
Back at the bikes we ate quick snacks of dried mangoes and dates, slathered on sunscreen, and assessed what was already aching and what might ache later. Turning back onto the Old Ore Road I immediately fishtailed out into sand, laughed loudly and remarked that I hoped it wasn't a sign about the evening ahead. I knew that sunset was at 5:55, and as I pulled and pushed with my suddenly lead-filled legs along the gradually steepening road, I was grateful for my dynamo-hub powered light and additional headlamp.
The next few hours are best re-hashed by my RideWithGPS stats: 3 hours and 43 minutes total, 2:23 riding and 1:20 stopped. As I told Bradley when I flagged him down about five miles into the second leg of our day: "I ain't got no go". Between climbs and with the late afternoon sun still beating on us, we dug out the peanut butter and tortillas, smearing and greedily ate the snack we should have had at Ernst Tinaja. I refilled my pair of 22-ounce bottles from one of my fork bottles, and taking a proper chug I started thinking about the recovery drink I planned for while setting up camp, the couscous that would need to be cooked, the instant coffee, the uphill paved miles awaiting us the next day...then realized that was not my first refill, and the pounding in my head was definitely dehydration.
Type II fun had officially set in (at the time, it seemed like type III, as it often does), and wanting to rip the Band-Aid off and get moving, I hurriedly repacked, chewed a Tylenol, and discussed water and the next 10 miles with the guys. We were all in about the same place: beat down by the sun and rationing carefully until Panther Junction. Rolling past the turnoff for the Willow Tank campsite, I cursed under my breath, referencing in my head the map I had practically memorized, and realizing that we hadn't traveled as far as I thought.
Like I said earlier: nothing to do that day but climb that hill. Soon enough, I was finally too tired to be mad, and the rapidly falling sun turned the landscape and the sky tones of gold and pink and purple that I'm convinced don't exist outside of the Big Bend. We laughed at the absurdity of impassibly deep sand as we pushed our bikes and scouted just the right line to chase from side to side of the road, sticking to the harder packed surface when we could, triumphantly making progress.
Nine miles in: the road veered toward the Alto Relex scarp, a near-vertical, 1000' high fault scarp (essentially the face of a fault, revealed by the motion: here, it presents as a cliff) with rock faces that give it the character of a fortress, concealing whatever one's imagination can conjure. I stopped, alone, with Ben and Bradley somewhere ahead of me and dusk wrapping around me, taking in the colors and textures and smells and details that are out of reach until you're on two feet, two wheels, moving at human speed.
The McKinney hills closed in around the road as the three of us reconvened. None of us felt fresh, but we were eager to keep moving. Dusk, which had lingered so long, suddenly slipped away, just as the road became littered with big, round, babyhead kind of rocks (geology to blame, as always: Big Bend is host to a few laccoliths, sheet-like intrusions of magma that leave behind hard, igneous rocks that weather down into the kind of cobbles that lie in wait to fling you over your handlebars). The grade, finally forgiving, would've made for a fast ride to camp with an ideal surface; but the chunky rocks, thin patches of sand, and rutted Jeep-road nature of the road called for conservative riding.
In the cool air with stars appearing, I flipped on my stem-mounted light and my headlamp; finally feeling good again, I pushed past Ben and Bradley on the flat sections, nimbly descending the short, steep downhill sections. We jockeyed back and forth, riding closer together the darker it got, the more the desert scrub rustled and the exhaustion toyed with our eyes and ears. Walking our bikes down a steep, deeply rutted hill, we noticed the stain of a drained oil pan. Yeah, riding a bike ain't so bad.
A junction in the road: Roy's Peak Vista camp. Two more miles. The road was gently uphill, wide, close to ideal desert gravel. My chain was in the middle of my cassette, I was moving at a decent clip, the stars were popping out, headlights silently floated by on Persimmon Gap road far ahead (and above). The road began to curve like the crook of a staff, and glancing at my Wahoo, I realized we were practically there. Three tenths of a mile. Ben was ahead of me, and coming down a hill into a wash on a weathered rock surface I skimmed along the edge of a rut smoothed by water and Jeep tires, like the edge of a dome...
I went down doing about 12 mph, which feels much faster when your bike is fully loaded and on top of you. The rear wheel simply slipped out for under me into that rut, the front wheel followed it to the ground, and I kept going forward, hands out in front of my head, sliding toward the arroyo, dragging my handlebars with my knees, flopping down hard on my ribs and gasping for air I couldn't get.
Scrambling up, I had two concerns: my collarbone and my derailleur. Assessing both as adrenaline pumped through my body and realizing they were fine, I threw my leg over my bike and yelled something laced with expletives about eating dinner.
Rolling into camp with a wide range of emotions and my right leg seeping blood from the scrapes I didn't notice, we started stripping down the bikes and throwing things where they belonged: sleep over there, eat over here. Atop the bear box food locker I roughly chopped pistachios and dried apricots as while the water heated, sipping on a recovery drink mixed with so little water I practically had to chew it. Ben and Bradley were in far better spirits and sliced up summer sausage and cheese to tide us over the excruciating minutes until dinner. Couscous in the water with the pistachios, apricots, and Ras el Hanout seasoning, lid on the pot, gas off--finally, I relaxed and looked around. Pulled on my wool longjohns and fleece, inflated my sleeping pad, Wet Wipe'd my face, dinner time.
Hunger is the best sauce, but even on a far easier day, it would have been a damn fine dinner. I tossed a packet of chicken in, and ate far slower and far less than I expected, saving the last few bites for breakfast. I briefly fretted over water before tossing an electrolyte packet into a half-filled bottle to take to bed with me to sip on through the night. I don't think it was even 8 by the time we javelina-proofed camp and called it a night. I slipped into my bivy, cinched the baffle of my sleeping quilt, and took in the night sky; the Milky Way, Aries, Perseus, the waning crescent moon, Jupiter and Saturn about to set.
Legs cramping, bruises forming, eyes heavy-I was grateful that we had dragged ourselves across the desert that day, dug in and saw something, and had many miles to go.