Isolation Archives: Our All-Time Favorite Bikepacking Stories
Presenting the second installment of the Isolation Archives, our roundup of highlights from our deep well of bikepacking content. This time around, our editors share their favorite bikepacking stories of all time. See our picks here…
While most of us continue to self-isolate to slow the spread of COVID-19, our editors have been busy digging into the BIKEPACKING.com archives and rounding up some the most memorable and meaningful things we’ve shared over the years. Last time, we looked back at our favorite bikepacking films of all time. Today, we dive into our favorite stories. Enjoy this carefully selected collection of what we think is the best writing and most stunning photography we’ve published on the website to date. Just click on the title of any story to read it in full, and be sure to scroll down to the bottom of this page to vote for your favorite after you’ve read them all.
Joe Cruz: Let me acknowledge head on the fact that my pick of Across Cuba the Bad Way will seem self-aggrandizing, since I was on this trip and Logan—publisher, creative director, and editor-in-chief of BIKEPACKING.com—is technically my boss. But it is my favorite story on the site in the memories it evokes, the broader reflection on the relationship between USA and Cuba, and the personal way it makes me think about contingency and history.
In January of 2017, Logan, Virginia, and I packed our kit and flew to Havana. Our plan was to scout a bikepacking route that would span the length of the island from east to west. Along the way we’d meet up with our friend Daniel, who joined us from Camaguey to Sancti Spiritus. Logan relates the paradox of the kind of travel we aimed to do in Cuba. There are plenty of stories of bicycle travel in that beautiful country since non-USA bicycle travelers know it to be the extraordinary place that it is, and they haven’t faced the travel restrictions that we had faced. But there were vanishingly few accounts of traveling off-road into the untouristed parts. We didn’t know what to expect by way of terrain or reception or our own emotions. What we met was an outpouring of shared humanity, of thoughtful conversation on politics and what makes life good, and of hugs and welcoming. Daniel approvingly quipped that we were visiting places where no one goes and nothing happens. And the richness there stays with all four of us.
My parents grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to New York City in the 1960s. Cuba and Puerto Rico followed radically different historical paths in the 20th century, with Cuba finding independence after the Spanish-American War and Puerto Rico claimed as a US territory. That difference has yielded worlds that are apart in a thousand ways for the two peoples, but for me visiting Cuba was an invitation to a deeper commonality. We rode through sugar cane fields and therefore through my father’s stories of his childhood. I could hear the echoes of my cultural horizon in the embrace of people we met in small towns and in farming villages. Sitting in the shade drinking beers and playing dominos was my youth in Brooklyn (well, the adults drank the beer), and I found that resonance again in Cuba.
The political and cultural relationship between the USA and Cuba is complicated, and passions can run fiercely in debates about it. But all that disappeared for us when we were in Cuba, and Logan’s photos and story capture it perfectly.
Lucas Winzenburg: I’ve always enjoyed the rich descriptions Huw Oliver pens about the places he travels. He reliably paints a vivid picture of the usually unnoticed sights and sounds that come together to create a unique sense of place. I often feel transported by his writing, and Boundless is no exception. Originally published in the first issue of our printed publication, The Bikepacking Journal, it chronicles a fatbiking and packrafting trip he took across Greenland with his partner, Annie.
As much as Boundless is a story about an astounding adventure through inhospitable terrain, it’s also a celebration of Greenland’s singular flora, fauna, and environment. I love the many contemplative passages like this one, on a subject as simple as the quality of light: “I had never before perceived a landscape so defined by its light. It filled the air, unalloyed, from when we woke until we slept, and seemed to come from every point at once, reflected by water, rock, and ice.”
Give this one a read if you think you could benefit from an opportunity to slow down and appreciate the natural world around you, both while immersing yourself in the story and after you’ve stepped away from your screen.
Logan Watts: When I first started mountain biking, it wasn’t the thrill of the ride and the rush of adrenaline that drew me into it. In fact, it was the meditative quality of it all. Afternoon rides turned into long day rides through unknown places. That was a gateway drug that eventually lured me into bikepacking. Cass Gilbert’s meandering solo journey through Central and South America was part of my inspiration, and something I could relate to from my time on a bicycle as well as trips I’d spent solo backpacking sections of the Appalachian Trail. Naturally, many of my early multi-day bikepacking forays were in fact solo outings. I have a deep appreciation for the time, clarity, and fortitude that I gained during such journeys.
El Silencio, Cass’ perfectly formed story about his time in the forgotten and stark corner of the Peruvian Andes of the same name, explores these unequivocal layers of pontification that happen when immersed in a landscape, alone. Here’s a passage from the story that sums it up: “I dwell. I ponder. Solo riding is meditative and I’ve always felt it acts as a pathway to a clarity of sorts. Out there alone, I contemplate my actions and clear my mind, like a monk shuffling around an infinite and silent monastery.”
But El Silencio isn’t just about self introspection. Cass uses this vantage to weave in succulent details about the experiences he gained along this 1,000 kilometer stretch of the Peruvian Pampa. The story explores broad strokes of the region’s mining operations, as well as pointed details about particular encounters with hearty individuals and a dog he named Cuy. “For what is travel but tangible proof that everyone in the world can connect, no matter where they may come from and what their background may be… if we only make the effort to put ourselves out there. Such travels can serve as a valuable reminder that each connection, as small as it may seem, has the power to create a lasting impression and ripple ever outwards.” And as a good travel story does, El Silencio wraps up with a reflection on the perspectives gleaned along the way, as both an outsider and one who shared a deep connected with the place.
Virginia Krabill: End of the Road: Travails from the Trans-Ecuador is Franzi Wernsing’s story of the difficulties she and her partner, Jona, faced and the lessons that they learned as they cycled a stretch of the Trans-Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR) during monsoon rains.
Through her words and photographs, I was transported to the trail. Perhaps it’s in part because I have been in similar situations myself, but I swear I could almost feel the weight of thick mud on my shoes and taste the tears of frustration as I read this story. Franzi makes the point that the challenges we experience on our bicycles are far less “complex” than the hardships we often face off the bike, in our day-to-day lives. While I couldn’t agree more, there are parallels that can be made between the two, and there are insights to be gained, even from the self-imposed and temporary struggles that often come along with bikepacking.
In these trying and uncertain times, the lesson Franzi learned during her trans-Ecuadorian journey seems particularly poignant. Whether you’re pushing your bike up an Andean peak, homeschooling your kids, or were just barely able to drag yourself out of bed today, “The [only] thing that matters is that we are out here, trying.”
Neil Beltchenko: RJ Sauer’s Highland Insomnia tells the incredible story of his Highland Trail 550 race experience, one that eerily mimics the experience I struggled to define after I came off the trail. RJ does a wonderful job of laying the groundwork of his childhood experiences and talking about how they relate to his insomnia during the race. He also does a fantastic job of explaining the time, effort, and energy it takes to even get to the start line, as well as how important yet simultaneously trivial it can all be. Once the race starts, once you start enduring the mental and physical pain of a race like the Highland Trail 550, all of those thoughts and decisions quickly go to the small dark corner of your brain in exchange for grit, efficiency, and most importantly, survival.
I identify with much of what RJ spells out in this piece, and he posed a question I often ask myself about my abilities. Time and time again, year after year, I wonder, “Am I doomed already? Am I a fraud?” It’s been in my head often, especially while enduring a route for the first time. All you can do is ride, alone or with “fast friends,” as he calls them. They help get you from town to town, you make new friends, see old ones, and leapfrog one another as the race progresses. This is the beauty of linking up 50 deep at the start. Oftentimes, you find yourself alone, and RJ explains why these moments are so important. My experience of sandwiching travel between highs and lows, hallucinations, frustrations, and panic are all too familiar. RJ’s writing reminded me that growing is accepting what’s present to you.
His story is a reminder of what it’s like to not only line up for the Highland Trail 550, but for any race, especially those that take time to get to. The Highland Trail Race is hands down one of the most memorable experiences of my life, not simply because of the race, but because of the people, the food, the terrain, the rain, and of course, the insomnia. Thanks, RJ, for sharing the dark and light of the Highland Trail 550.
Miles Arbour: Written and photographed by Skyler Des Roches, Life On Mars tells the story of his group’s 23-day trip through the Puna de Atacama desert along the Chile-Argentina border. Travelling with Rick Hunter of Hunter Cycles and Porcelain Rocket’s Scott Felter, Skyler offers a sobering look at the harsh realities of ultra-remote bikepacking. He doesn’t sugar coat his story, nor label his team as fearless explorers—creating something I found easy to connect with.
Having had conversations with both Skyler and Scott since first reading this story, going back for another look has been that much more enjoyable. Don’t be fooled by the clear skies and generally warm photos: those guys had to pack like they were on a winter expedition in Alaska!
Cass Gilbert: I’m not a racer at heart, but for some reason I’ve always been drawn to Alaska’s 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational Race. RJ Sauer’s stunning feature did little to curb this enthusiasm. When the Trail Goes Cold is masterful storytelling, gripping in every way.
RJ’s words capture the introspection of such an undertaking, framed within the context of racing across such an unforgiving environment. Even his race tactics are described poetically and ethereally. RJ finished second; the fact that he still found moments to record it photographically in such a beautiful way elevates this feature into so much more than a race report. “Bivvied out beside the diminishing fire I stared up through the tiny window of my sleeping bag and watched the shimmering dance of the northern lights playing Pong with the starry sky. With every small shift of my body weight a delicate cascade of ice particles, crystallized on the rim of my sleeping bag, showered down onto my face like pixy dust.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to experience magic like this?
“Several hours later, I rolled down the pavement towards the northern seaside town of Nome and the Iditarod Trail Invitational finish line. I could have been floating. By now, the turn of the pedals and my engraved position in my saddle was as common and comfortable as the fetal position. It was a final moment of isolation and reflection – an astronaut penetrating the outer atmosphere back into the world of reality.” I salute you in every way, RJ!
Want to read even more great writing from bikepacking trips all over the world? Join our Bikepacking Collective and we’ll ship you two printed editions of The Bikepacking Journal in the mail each year, plus a whole host of other benefits.