Discovering Aloneness on the Arkansas High Country Route
Facing anxiety about her personal safety and a forecast for heavy rain, Jessica Alexander set off on a six-day solo bikepacking trip along the Arkansas High Country Route. Find her story of overcoming fears, finding unexpected companionship, and pushing herself through challenging conditions here…
Words and photos by Jessica Alexander (@jealexphoto)
“At least you can say you saw me when I was happy,” I said boldly to my friend Kevin as I nervously tightened down a few straps that had jostled loose during my first gravel section off of Sugar Creek Road. As luck would have it, I would have an escort out of town as I began my 242-mile bikepacking voyage on the Arkansas High Country Northwest Loop.
Kevin, a pro cyclist turned bike shop manager, happened on me a mere 10 miles outside of Bentonville. I had stopped on the top of the first gravel climb, aptly called “The Hardie Boys Climb,” and I was already wondering what I had gotten myself into. I glanced over the side of the summit of the 3.6 percent, 126-foot punchy climb and closed my eyes for a moment, exhaling slowly in an attempt to center myself. As I wearily brought my attention back to the present, I caught a slight movement out of the corner of my eye. It was Kevin.
“Well, you didn’t get very far,” Kevin said matter-of-factly. He had every reason to do so, as I had mentioned to him earlier that day that my goal was to leave The Meteor Cafe in Bentonville by 10 a.m. and now it was closer to 1 p.m. I guess you can say I was running “a little late.” I found myself fumbling for words, though. I wasn’t quite sure what to say, because I knew the real answer as to why I was still standing there at the top of the climb wasn’t to take in the view, but was to procrastinate on actually starting this adventure.
I hopped back on my bikepacking rig and reminded myself I could handle this trip. I could overcome the anxiety and fear regarding my personal safety I had buried deep inside. I had friends in Bentonville and Austin who knew where I was going at all times. I had my SPOT tracker clipped to my daypack, ready for an SOS call at a moment’s notice. I even had convinced two friends from Austin to come meet me two nights out to keep me company while I was deep in the Ozarks.
I knew if I trusted my safety net, I could actually manage this trip, and maybe even enjoy some Type 2 fun while I was at it.
I also knew, based on other friends’ recollections, that the Arkansas High Country Northwest Loop would not be a walk in the park. Its 242 miles with 18,000 feet of climbing can test the strongest riders, especially when factoring in the weight of a loaded bike. I had decided to really test myself by running a 36/46 11-32 gear ratio on my carbon bike, which was my normal cyclocross race setup.
After this first climb, I knew I was going to regret my decision to not gear more appropriately for the long gravel climbs I would be facing. Kevin reminded me I would probably feel it in my knees and I acknowledged his comment, adding that I had planned to walk at times. I also turned down the offer to use his Garmin 1000 for its far superior navigation to my older Garmin 520. I guess you can say I’m stubborn about certain things in life that I just have to experience for myself, and this trip would be no exception.
It’s worth mentioning that despite making a few mistakes in planning for this trip, I’m an experienced bikepacker who loves an unconventional challenge; I had spent two weeks this summer bikepacking from Little Rock, Arkansas, to my hometown of Austin, Texas. Seven hundred miles of primarily road travel in July and August is not for the faint of heart. I travel well in our brutal Southern heat but my travel companion struggled with the 100+ degree rides we faced daily.
The previous year, I bikepacked across Switzerland and Belgium, opting to ship my bike from Texas. I primarily stayed in hotels to make my own meals and to avoid having to carry a tent and sleeping pad. I had chosen to travel around Europe in early September for more mild temperatures but the seasons were already changing by the time I arrived and I faced near-freezing rain more than once, wearing every layer of clothing I had to keep my body warm enough to pedal from town to town without stopping.
Back in Arkansas, I had opted to do the NW Loop (clockwise) over six days to keep each day under 50 miles. Because I was doing the trip in early October, the days were getting shorter due to the sun setting around 5:30 p.m. every day. The “X” factor for this trip became the weather though, as two days before my ride began, while I was getting my bearings riding around Bentonville, the forecast changed from 70s in the day and 50s at night to 50s during the day and 40s at night for my six-day stint. Oh, and rain EVERY DAY. My safety net felt as though it was tightening and I suddenly felt mentally unprepared, especially as I’d barely even packed the appropriate rain gear.
The first day went as smoothly as it could, despite the fact I couldn’t get the route to load in my old Garmin. It was chilly and rained almost the whole time. I did the best I could with less-than-ideal cold-weather rain gear. I placed dog-waste bags over my socks to keep my feet dry-ish and had latex gloves under my normal full-fingered gloves in an attempt to keep my fingers warm-ish.
I had missed an important turn toward my campground early afternoon and as the weather dropped and the rain began to fall in sheets, so I opted for a hotel room to dry all of my wet gear and get my head right for the remaining five days. The motel clerk stared at me with a look of disbelief through a plexiglass shield around his desk as I dripped water on the floor of the tiny lobby, mildly shaking.
Much of day two was climbing, with lots of walking and not a single soul in sight. Kevin once said about my favorite local gravel race, “Everyone walks the sand.” I maintained that reminder when I found myself in a gravel section that started at 10% and pitched to around 18-20%. And the rain never really stopped. It seemed like it would be hours of walking with cold rain and me slogging along with my weighed-down bike. Still, I reminded myself, “This is actually happening and this is the adventure. Embrace it. You are forever ramblin’, Jessica.”
I rolled into my day two housing site, a bed and breakfast above a tiny small-town cafe, which was literally the only place to stay in town. I realized I was already struggling to keep a positive mindset after two days of riding. I wasn’t used to riding in these conditions day after day and I definitely wasn’t acclimated to the cold yet. I looked at the forecast for the next day and saw it would be another long day of rain, cold temperatures, and a lot more climbing. I had a hard time falling asleep that night.
As morning came, so did the rain. I sat on the balcony of my little retreat after eating my complimentary breakfast downstairs and watched a beautiful golden retriever running up my stairway to also escape the chilly, wet morning. “Oh, that’s Ginger,” the cafe crew told me. “She’s harmless and just pops into town every day from up the mountain to say hello to the locals.”
Ginger, being a good steward of the community, must have felt my distress. She walked over to my outstretched legs and laid her head on my legs as if to comfort me. I couldn’t help but begin crying. I think I mostly felt sorry for myself for being in this situation. I must have sat on the balcony for an hour with her on my legs, contemplating a good start time that didn’t involve an entire day of riding in these dire conditions.
I finally sucked it up as the rain abated, zipping my lightweight rain jacket all the way up to my chin. It was time for me to own this trip and to reset my mind; I needed to learn how to embrace the loneliness I was feeling, the cold I felt in my bones, and push out the fear I felt about not finishing the trip. I had taken on tougher challenges before and knew I could handle this adventure if I could just get my brain and body to agree.
Ginger had no plans to leave my side. I dried my eyes and began pedaling up the first climb and much to my surprise, Ginger kept up the pace just fine. At first, I was worried about her getting hit by a car or getting soaked by the rain or even getting lost, but after about 15 minutes I realized I had a new traveling companion. I took GoPro footage of her as she kept up a 10-12mph running pace, tongue hanging out of her mouth and tail wagging happily. She would run in front of me every once in a while to remind me, “Yes, you are good and safe. I’m still here!”
I had an epiphany moment just then and it was truly one of the most joyous moments of my life:
I am never truly alone in nature.
Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about the rain, the cold, or even my loneliness. I realized I was experiencing what this trip was really about; I had reached my trip nirvana.
Ginger turned off a while later to go enjoy the rest of her adventure, and by that time it had stopped raining. The sun even started coming out, which was much needed, as the gravel segments were now peanut-butter-thick and super slick. I had even opted to take a less-than-ideal road segment to avoid the mud that was now coating most of my bike and bags. By the time I reached my campsite that afternoon, I couldn’t believe my rear derailleur hadn’t seized up.
Enjoying dinner and drinks with my friends that night filled me with extreme gratitude. We gathered around the campsite and drank delicious hot toddies as I shared stories from my first three solo days of adventures. I was sad to leave the next morning but knew I needed to take advantage of the sunny skies as it would be the hardest day of riding yet. A fast and greasy 18-mile descent followed by a 30-mile climb up to White Rock Mountain awaited.
There’s no need to sugarcoat the gradients of the climbs in the White Rock Recreation area. Nearly the entire day of riding was on hero gravel but it seemed as though every climb started at 12% and continued to pitch from there. Oftentimes, I would walk for 15 minutes and then try to ride for five. This happened on and off for hours, it seemed. I still smiled and reminded myself how far I had come in a few days. I had started my trip with worry in my gut, but that feeling had now been replaced with joyous wanderlust.
Finally, I summitted White Rock Mountain with a total of about 4,000 feet of climbing for the day. I bought all the ice cream I could find in the tiny store at the top and my friends were able to get there just in time to join me in watching one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen in my life. Also, the stargazing was beyond comprehension. I would fully recommend not skipping this day of riding in the Ozarks; you will never regret the magic of this mountain and the breathtaking views this part of Arkansas has to offer.
There was no rain the following day, but I didn’t expect such high temperatures in the mountains after numerous days in the 40s. Now, it was in the 80s and the sun was as bright as a summer day. Go figure. I knew I just needed to pedal toward Fayetteville and back into civilization. That night, I opted to stay with a Warm Showers host in town; it was nice to have a real shower, an amazing home-cooked meal, and a bottle or two of wine with a fellow bike traveler.
I wasn’t out of the rain completely, and the final leg of my trip back into Bentonville was full of more rain, headwinds, chilly weather, and the most extensive network of bike paths I had ever seen in the Southern US. I was very thankful I was able to borrow a working GPS unit from my car-camping friends to avoid getting lost once back in the urban jungle.
The best part of finishing the trip was returning to The Meteor Cafe, ready to devour an entire vegan buffalo cauliflower pizza, with a huge smile on my face and feeling real elation from the true happiness this trip brought me. I can’t wait to plan another solo trip.
About Jessica Alexander
Jessica Alexander is a full-time photojournalist, writer, bike racer, and rambler based in Austin, Texas. Jessica has been published in Rolling Stone, Modern Drummer, SF Weekly, Triathlete.com, E! Magazine, Texas Monthly, Bicycling.com, BET, as well as Esquire Magazine. Jessica is an agency shooter for Getty Images and Futureimages and is also represented by Wireimage. Find her online at JEALEXPhoto.com and Instagram @jealexphoto.
Want to see more from the Arkansas High Country Route? Find our complete route guide here. And don’t miss Ted King’s video from the Arkansas High Country Race or Ashley Carelock’s written report from the same event.
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