Salt, Sand, and Stagecoach Trails

Posted by on Mar 30, 2017 in Bike, Bikepacking | 4 Comments

Sand. So much sand.

Hills marred the horizon. I could see no low point, no saddle, no obvious exit. Only sand, rock and scrubby, steep slopes. I felt trapped and lost. The trail was no trail at all, but a desert wash, wide and winding. Impossible to ride. The sun rolled lazily across the clear sky, pushing light and heat onto my shoulders.

“This is absurd!” I yelled into the dry California air. “How did I get I here?”

I sat on a slab of stone in a small patch of shade. I ate the last of my melted gummy bears, and slurped down what little water I had left. I looked at the cue sheet, wrinkled and dirty, “the route gets very western through here”. I laughed out loud. That’s one way to describe this. Another would be: “…absurd, really stupid, and impossible to enjoy.” Very western, indeed. I waited for an ambush.

I pushed on. A dialogue ensued between the rational part of my brain (what’s left of it) and the other part – the part that thinks bikepack races are a grand adventure.

“You’re here because this is what you do. You are a bikepacker.”

“Yeah. I’m a bikepacker. Not a backpacker.”

“You’re here to kill demons, remember.”

“Whatever.”

I trudged onward, upward, through the sandy wash. Every now and again I’d try to pedal, only to be thwarted by the taunting, mocking wash.

And how did I get to this place?

Easy.

I lined up for the 2017 Stagecoach 400.

All the usual things that lead me to the start of a bikepack race had happened. Someone suggested we go. We waffled a little, checked the schedules, the weather, and ultimately decided “why not?”. And so, there I was, in Idyllwild, California on the morning of March 17th. A big group of riders gathered, anxious and energetic. All the planning and studying and second guessing were done. All that was left, was the ride itself. Minutes later we were all rolling underneath the pines and over the bumpy trail. Another race had begun.

The crowd thinned quickly. I rode alone mostly. I climbed over small hills, followed by longer drops in to the valley and the small town of Anza. So far so good. But the sun was warming up, as were my legs. Ahead, 100 miles of rugged and rolling trail separated me from the coast, and the “easy” part of the course – 60 miles of pavement. I put off the climb into the scrubby hills with a brief stop for ice cream. I never regret stopping for ice cream. By the time I was riding dirt again, the sun was warm and the sandy road was bouncing the light of day into my face. After a long winter of cold, snowy rides, riding in the heat was a nice change.

The road rose and fell with the mountains. I climbed and descended. Climbed and descended. Rural, mountain neighborhoods came and went. A bull terrier chased me down the path, despite the cries of “home, now!” from the powerless owner. The morning disappeared, and soon the afternoon heat and light were flexing their might. And still, the rubbly route climbed and descended. Up a hill. Down a hill. Hills that were pocked with loose stones, ruts, and sand traps. This was not the gravel tour I anticipated.

Eventually the road fell into the small community of Warner Springs. The Resource Center, preparing for a long summer of Pacific Crest Hikers, had cold drinks. I filled my water stores, and sipped a Coke in the shade.

The nearby highway – the next 10 miles of the route – was busy with weekend traffic. Everyone was rushing to Borrego Springs, and the surrounding desert to witness bloomageddon. The wet winter and spring had created a wildflower bonanza. I was also on my way to Borrego Springs, albeit on a more scenic, indirect route. Indeed, Borrego Springs, just 25 miles from where I sipped that Coke, was 300 miles farther down the trail. “I’ll get there when I get there.”

I sighed in relief when I turned off the busy highway. I climbed a lonely 2-lane road. I met Pete, and we pedaled together. Up the big hill. And then down an even bigger one. Down, down, down. All the way to the outskirts of Escondido. We pedaled through lemon groves and meadows on urban singletrack. The sun was dropping into the west. I was hungry. I wanted french fries, but settled for potato chips and a turkey sandwich from a gas station. I sat on the sidewalk like a vagabond. 110 miles were done. I wanted to ride another 70 that night.

I left the warm glow of the city behind, and rode into the darkness. Pete materialized. We rode more singletrack, making a wrong turn here or there, fixing our mistakes, and moving on. The night was cold. Salt was in the air. The ocean was close. “Taste that salty air!” I said. The singletrack ended. Pavement began. Ahead of us were 60 miles of bikepath, highway shoulder, and downtown sidewalks. It was getting late. The traffic and crowds had thinned. The UCSD campus was quiet. As were the restaurants and bars. Except for a few homeless people sleeping on the bikepath, human encounters were rare. Downtown, a few clubs were still open. “You guys are losers!” yelled one winner, as we pedaled by.

The night was misty and dark. The ocean was obscured behind the thick layer of fog. The only evidence that it was there at all were the crashing waves and salty air. San Diego came and went.

It was 3:30 in the morning when we arrived at Sweetwater Campground. We rode 1 more mile, found a flat place under some trees, and slept. The alarm was set for 6:30.

I thought about the heckler from the club. “You guys are losers!” Maybe he was right. But then, I wasn’t the one heckling bike riders outside of a club in a run-down part of San Diego. No, I was the one riding a bike past the club in a run down part of San Diego. And now, I was lying in the dirt. I laughed at the absurdity of it all. What would I being doing at home? Sleeping in a bed. I’d spent the last 20 hours riding through rocky, sandy, rolling mountains. Idyllwild was 180 miles behind me. Or, conversely, it was 210 miles ahead of me. It was a day well spent. Better than being at the office. Better than doing chores. The elegant simplicity of life on a bike was manifest.

The poor soul at the club was trying to impress someone. A girl, maybe. His tough-guy friends, maybe. Probably both. His complicated insecurities expressed in a single, unoriginal insult. “Losers!” Good luck with the ladyfriend. As for us? All we had to do was ride our bikes. Easy. Uncomplicated. Nobody to impress. Just miles to ride. Worries drained away like a flowing river. The demons I came here to kill had suffered grievous wounds. I had just ridden longer and farther than I ever had in a day. And though I was tired, I was anxious to get up, and do it all over again.

6:30. Get up. Get up!

Pete disappeared in the morning fog. I struggled through the rocky singletrack. “Who’s idea was it to ride drop bars?” Mud puddles and stream crossings interrupted the tacky line of dirt. Tall, wet grass lined its edges. I was soaked. And hungry. I reluctantly went off route to find something hot and salty. I settled, once again, for bad gas station fare. But it was hot and salty. And soon enough, I was spinning easy suburban trails and roads through the quiet Saturday dawn.

Like yesterday, the route did what it does. Up a hill, down a hill. Like a slow-motion roller coaster. Alpine. A bike shop. I cleaned my creaky drivetrain, and found a shady place in front of another gas station. The vagabond life was becoming routine. More ice cream. More Coke. More Doritos. And afterward, more climbing. Up a shadeless dirt road, and past remote homes that looked like something from a kidnapping movie.

Memorized names of unknown places came and went – Viejas, Descano, Oakzanita. More climbing. Singletrack ahead. Singletrack that had been weather-beaten, and turned into ditches. Hike-a-bike, ensued. Some of it the worst kind – downhiking. “Drop bars?” It was clear that the Cutthroat, versatile and speedy as it is, (and more accurately the drop bars) was ill-suited for the steep, rubbly trails. “Oh well. You are here. This is your bike. Run what ya brung.”

Thick, golden light washed over the world when I finally found the Sunrise Highway. I paused at the top, feeling beaten, cold, and doubtful. And then Pete was there. “I thought you were well ahead of me.” I said.

“I was, until I had a feast in Alpine.”

Pete had Jacob with him. Jacob was quiet, focused. And the the best descender I’ve seen.

We tumbled off the high hilltop, and into the low desert below.

The sun was gone now. The RV parks at the bottom of the hill were closed. Eyelids were heavy.

“I’m going to sleep for a couple of hours at Aqua Caliente. Then cross this desert overnight.”

Good idea.

Minutes later I was sprawled on the ground, dozing under a starry sky and large trees.

Can bikepack racing be rationally explained? Is there really a good answer to “why do you do this?”

No. But that is also why we do it. The routine things that everyone does for this reason and that, are why those things are routine. We work so we can earn a living. We vacation to take a break, see something new. We ride bikes for exercise. But racing 390 miles on limited sleep, over rugged ground, and without support isn’t explained away through expediency. There’s no good reason for it at all. But that’s the point. How else would any of us find out what our mind and body is capable of? Why would I ever go to Aqua Caliente? How often do I get to watch the sunrise over a record-breaking wildflower bloom?

Jacob was up, and quietly packing his things.

“Good morning.” I said. It was 12:30a.

“A couple of riders passed through a while ago.”

“I noticed. It looked like the Colorado Twins.”

The Colorado Twins were not actual twins. But Ben and Brad might as well have been. We’d yo-yo’d with them through much of the ride so far. And now they were riding somewhere in the desert while we slept in the dirt.

“We’ll catch them. They gotta sleep too.”

The next few hours passed in a overnight haze. There were canyon walls. Some sand. Something called Diablo Drop. The desert smelled like an over-zealous perfume owner. Though invisible in the black of night, the vast bloom filled the air with a sick-sweet fragrance.  Jacob and Pete were gone. My head bobbed in sleepy disarray. 5:00a. Pavement. A closed gas station. I stretched out on the porch, left my helmet on, and closed my eyes.

5:30a. Go! Get up. Go!

Pedaling the lonely highway in the predawn was surreal. Was I moving? Hard to tell. Pale light climbed into the sky, slowly, slowly. The sleepiness was gone now. Replaced with a burrito-driven determination to get to Borrego Springs. The small town was 11 miles away. I thought back to Warner Springs, and the road sign there. “Borrego Springs 25”. That was almost 300 miles, and a lifetime, ago. The light sparked the desert to life. Colors peppered the desert floor. Flowers, everywhere.

“I’ll have a sausage, egg, and potato burrito please. And a large Coke.”

The little town was busy, even at the early hour. I slowly ate the sleeping bag-sized burrito. Finally, a proper hot meal. I looked over the cue sheet and tried to do some rudimentary math. “Something like 60 miles to the finish. 60 miles. That’s nothing. I’ll be done by 3 in the afternoon.” I looked more closely. “It’s almost all uphill.” “No big deal. I like climbing. 60 to the finish, about 30 to Sunshine Market. Go!”

I bobbed and weaved through bumper-to-bumper traffic. For 10 miles, the dirt road was clogged with flower-lookers. People were on their knees looking at the desert floor through camera lenses, magnifying glasses, or just their naked eyes. And who could blame them? The flowers were spectacular. “I should stop for a photo.” “Yes, do that. Stop for a photo.” “But. The race. 60 miles. Gotta go.” I never stopped. Which was regretful. And typical of the irrational place that bikepackers can get to. After all, I wasn’t moving very quickly.

I crossed a stream. “Was that willows? I don’t think that was the willows. But what if that was the willows?”

It wasn’t the willows.

No, those took an hour of wet bushwhacking and route finding to get through. But it was shaded and cool. When I stumbled out of them and back into the desert I was hopeful that the worst of things was behind me. “I think Anza is just over the hill. I’ll be eating ice cream by noon!”

I wasn’t eating ice cream at noon. Indeed, ice cream was still 7 hours away.

Sand. So Much sand.

Hills marred the horizon. I could see no low point, no saddle, no obvious exit. Only sand, rock and scrubby, steep slopes. I felt trapped and lost. The trail was no trail at all, but a desert wash, wide and winding. Impossible to ride. The sun rolled lazily across the clear sky, pushing light and heat onto my shoulders.

“This is absurd!” I yelled into the dry California air. “How did I get I here?”

I sat on a slab of stone in a small patch of shade. I ate the last of my melted gummy bears, and slurped down what little water I had left. I looked at the cue sheet, wrinkled and dirty, “the route gets very western through here”. I laughed out loud. That’s one way to describe this. Another would be: “…absurd, really stupid, and impossible to enjoy.” Very western, indeed. I waited for an ambush.

I pushed on. A dialogue ensued between the rational part of my brain (what’s left of it) and the other part – the part that thinks bikepack races are a grand adventure.

“You’re here because this is what you do. You are a bikepacker.”

“Yeah. I’m a bikepacker. Not a backpacker.”

“You’re here to kill demons, remember.”

“Whatever.”

I trudged onward, upward, through the sandy wash. Every now and again I’d try to pedal, only to be thwarted by the taunting, mocking wash.

And how did I get to this place?

Easy. No. Not easy.

I’d ridden 350 miles to get here. I’d slept 5 hours. I was thirsty. Hot. And frustrated.

“Brendan” became a curse. “Brendan!” I hissed. “what were you thinking, routing us up this wash?”

There was nothing else to do however, and so I kept moving forward. Over rocky steps, across sandy washes. I pedaled when I could, but it was useless. Instead, I hiked, head down, morale, down too. “Bailey’s Cabin is just around the corner. I’ll rest there.” Corner after corner came and went, and no cabin appeared. “One more bend in the wash.” No cabin. “Ok, one more bend in the wash.” Still no cabin. My water was gone. I’d vastly underestimated the time and energy this segment needed. Maybe there was a water cache at the cabin. If there really was a cabin.

As miserable as I felt, I had been worse before. Yeah, it was hot. I was thirsty. But I was healthy. The bike was working well enough. Even if I didn’t find water, I had drunk enough to live for a few more hours. Dire, yes. But not dire. Nevertheless, I contemplated looking for a shady tree to die under.

“Are you a Stagecoach racer?”

Huh? People? What?

“Yeah, I am.”

“Do you want some water? You look like you want some water.”

Trail angels.

The bikepacker’s boon. The living aiding the grateful dead.

The cold water was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I reached out and poked the arm one of the angels. “Are you real? Or did I die back there, and you are here to take me to heaven?”

They were real. And so was the water.

“We saw Pete and Jacob too. They are not so far ahead of you.”

I passed Bailey’s Cabin. It really does exist. For a little while I pedaled. But soon the road turned upward, steep and unforgiving. I hiked again. But Anza, and ice cream, were getting closer. Only a few more hundred rollers (so it seemed ) separated me from a gentle paved road, and the relief of a small town store at an RV park. I looked back at the valley I had crossed. It wasn’t big. It didn’t look daunting. But the small number of miles I had covered since emerging from the swampy willows were as tough as any I’d ever done. Hot, slow, and demoralizing. But they were behind me. Far below I could see two figures slowly pushing bikes in the sand. The Colorado Twins? It had to be. “I must have passed them in the dark of night.”

“You don’t look so good.”

“I don’t feel so good.”

“Well, have a seat.”

And I did. A seat. A Coke. And ice cream.

Bikepacking can make unremarkable, forgettable places – like a cramped store at an RV park – into the greatest places on the planet. Sitting in the shade, enjoying cold, sweet things (followed by some hot, salty soup) was far more than mere resupply. Making it to the store was salvation. Life prolonged. It meant that I was going to finish the bike race. It meant that I was not going to die under a juniper bush in Coyote Canyon.

The Twins arrived. They looked better than I did, though not a lot better. But they were talking. I didn’t have the energy for much of that. I grunted a greeting, and held up the Coke in salute. The three of us ate and drank, and shook our heads in disbelief at what we had had to do. “I’m so glad that’s over” one of them said. “So glad…”.

We still had work to do. More climbing. More weather-beaten singletrack. More hike-a-bike. But Coke! And ice cream! I left the store in the tawny light of the late afternoon. I felt bloated, a little sick. But happy. Or, at least, happier than I’d been before I arrived there. The Twins vanished up the road. “Maybe I will catch them.” I didn’t. I didn’t catch Jacob or Pete, or anyone else either. But I kept riding hard. I stayed in the moment. I swore at the trail a little bit too. Mostly to scare off the mountain lions that I was just certain were stalking me. “Easy meal.” they must have thought.

The sun was long down. My lights were dimming. But I didn’t need them. The street lamps in Idyllwild provided all the light I needed. One last corner. One last small climb. And it was finished. I signed the clipboard. “Sunday 10:23pm”.

It’s been a few days. The food monster has finally been appeased. My hands and feet are coming back to life. Slowly. I’ve even been back on the bike – a bike that is still covered in California grime. In the moment, out on the trail, I said “never again.” But that route, like most bikepacking routes, needles its way into your blood. “Probably not ever again. Probably.”

The Stagecoach is unlike anything else I’ve ridden. There are no high-altitude passes. No aspen groves. No slickrock or world class singletrack. But there is everything else. Mountains, and desert, and ocean. City streets, rural neighborhoods, hiking, swooping, and grinding. The Stagecoach 400 is a geological bikepacking buffet. It’s certainly not the gravel road tour I thought it might be. Most of the dirt roads are 4×4 roads. The singletrack is rocky and narrow. The desert, long and unforgiving. And the city is busy and loud. But in between the geological oddities there is beauty and silence and hospitality. There are friendly shop owners, solid racers, and trail angels. There are eye-candy beaches, vast desert washes, and crumpled mountains.

The Stagecoach 400 is everything bikepacking is, and should be.

Oh. And sand. So much sand.

4 Comments

  1. Jim Bob Pipes
    March 30, 2017

    Love your writing Adam… and I’m in awe of your grit. Life is about the experience, eh?

    Reply
  2. Paul Gweon
    March 31, 2017

    Great write-up Adam.
    I finished around midnight on Monday.
    The nice trail angel who helped you is Laura, my mtn bike friend in Orange County. I know how she must have looked like your guardian angel out on that desert!!!
    (I wonder if you are the Adam whom I sat at same table in the pizza place the evening before the ride. I was the asian guy who was haplessly trying to get his garmin to work. Lol)
    Enjoyed your writing.

    Paul

    Reply
    • Grizzly Adam
      March 31, 2017

      Yes, that was me. I’m glad to hear you finished the race. Well done.

      Reply
  3. Tom
    April 17, 2017

    Amazing write up. I just finished the route and was looking online to see how other people felt about that wash and found your article. It’s so perfect. Thanks for the great read!

    Reply

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