For several years I have mused on the idea of starting a blog. My interests never seemed cohesive enough or poignant enough to share. What would it be about? Bikes, science, feminism, travel, health or other self-indulgent daydreams? Well I have decided to just say yes-- to all of the above. As I am days (countable hours) from quitting my first full-time job out of college and just returning from an incredible trip, I cannot think of a better time to start. The title is pending, the theme is pending, and my motives are unclear. Let's go!
This adventure is:
- A mountain bike trip full of discovery, compromise and cosmic brownies
- A travel guide for a weekend of mountain biking in Big Bend area
- A how-to guide for biking with those of differing abilities
My graduate school acceptance letter lay slightly crumpled next to a stack of maps and post-it-note lists. Both Friday and Monday have been scheduled as vacation on the work calendar. I felt my typical pre-trip anxiety creeping in as I realized my travel partner Aari hadn't looked at any of the links I had sent, I wasn't fully packed, and it was already midnight. This is normal for me. I'm working on it, I swear. The trip is a last hoorah for me in Texas before moving to Fort Collins, Colorado to pursue a graduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. I had already visited Big Bend National Park three times in under two years. You could say I am hooked on the region. While every trip was unique, they all left me dreaming of one thing-- mountain biking.
The national and state parks are some of the largest in Texas, which is saying something. Therefore, the best way to see all the sites is listed as a 4-wheel, fossil powered vehicle. The acreage is so vast you couldn't dream of seeing it all on foot, especially in a weekend. However, cars are cramped, hot, and create a barrier between you and the great outdoors. Bikes are the only logical compromise. Unfortunately, the trails in the national park are limited to foot traffic only. My sister and I did a little biking on the gravel roads, but end destinations didn't feel as secluded and epic as the hiking trails. Fortunately the state park and a private trail system near by allow and support a plethora of mountain biking.
With my impending resignation looming, a last minute invite was all it took for Aari's Suburu to be packed to brim with snacks and slime tires. Paul Simon playlists, cosmic brownies, and 6 hours of Texas Hill Country on I-10, we arrived in Marathon at an RV park. When leaving from Austin or San Antonio, take off a few hours Thursday afternoon and try to make it to Fort Stockton/Marathon/Alpine. Those cities may only be 60 miles or so from the park, but it can be another 2-3 hours before you get to your campsite. This worked out great except for our unexpected late-night shivers as it dropped into the 40s.
The next morning we drove through the national park on our way to Terlingua. We stopped at the only bike shop in region, Desert Sports. I finally felt like I could walk into this establishment with a little pride as I actually intended to mountain bike this trip. We were greeted by Mike, a tan, muscular, white bearded, desert creature if I ever saw one. Mike in his cut-off tee shirt was working on a pink children's bike and stopped everything to chat about which trails to do in the time we had. This is actually a rather daunting task as I don't really have an idea of my current riding ability and neither does he. Needless to say, I think we really nailed it. The perfect amount of adventure and views, without compromising safety or fun.
Our bike itinerary was as follows: that afternoon check out the Lajitas Trail system by doing 5-10 miles on the small loops to make sure the bikes are working properly; day two is for exploring the Contrabando trails in the state park (distance pending on how I feel); final day start from the west trail head and check out the new and challenging Fresno Divide trail and loop back on a trail that gives us the distance we want. My non-bike itinerary included a campfire with wine, a trip into the Ghost town, sunset viewing and Mexican food.
Aari, who made the perfect companion for this trip, deserves an introduction. He recently quit his stable, but soul-crushing job to pursue his own tech start-up. One look at this guy and you know he has a story to tell. His foot-long ponytail and wiry frame can be seen in a standing sprint and brightly-colored cycling kit on any given group ride in San Antonio. I was well aware that he was proficient on the trails. I, on the other hand, had only ridden my mountain bike a couple of times in the last year. Luckily, we both agreed that honesty and communication would make this an enjoyable adventure for the two of us. As Aari had biked some in the Lajitas trails, I wanted to make sure we got ample time in the state park while also doing trails and routes that wouldn't completely terrify me.
Two miles into the Loop #3 in the Lajitas trails, my nerves had cooled and I was finally feeling stoked on the scenery as opposed to fretting over my lack of biking abilities. THUD! My seat pops back nearly sending my rear to the back wheel. I yell at Aari to stop and I notice my seat is angled to nearly 45 degrees, a fearful sight to men and women alike. Turns out the metal ridges on my seat post were completely worn down. I finished the next 4 miles standing and/or putting as little pressure down on the seat as possible. I was sure glad to try the Lajitas Trails first as they are a short distance from Desert Sports. With a new seatpost, we knocked out another 6 miles and decided we really could use a break from the heat.
While the first day was confined to a small private park, the views were still incredible, not a soul was out there, and the routes were manageable-- although I walked my bike over most of the technical stuff. The second day, we didn't get on the trail until 1 pm. MISTAKE! Start your rides early! Luckily we brought a lot of water, snacks and good attitudes. Starting from the East Contrabando trail head, we took every side trail except for rock quarry (sounded hard, turns out it's super fun) until we got to the waterhole and then we would head back skipping those side trails. The pictures speak for themselves. Cliffs, mountains , mesas, cacti etc. Everything was so untouched. We only got lost trying to stay on the Waterhole trail which was very sandy, loose and sometimes indecipherable from the dry creek bed. The ride doesn't have any extended climbs but is full of dips and jagged, loose limestone. Piles of rocks and drops with limited views had me off my bike. Aari never showed any signs of impatience and any embarrassment and frustration was that of my own. It was important to take turns leading to enjoy each other's company as well as to not leave the slower rider (me) behind. This only works if the slower rider calls out anytime he or she feels uncomfortable or nervous. Yell "watch-out" and "slowing" to warn the riders behind that you may have to dismount of take your time over a feature. Although we tried to abide to this, there was a moment were I failed to say he could pass by after I had moved to the side. Confused and thrown off balance by a considerable ledge, Aari toppled into a pile of rocks marking the trail. I tried to take the blame but he concluded we were both at fault. He shrugged it off and dealt with the soreness the next day. By the end of the second day, I was feeling more confident on my bike and that I wasn't holding back from Aari having any fun. However, we were both very certain that we should get on the trails much earlier tomorrow.
The final day was perfect. The weather was cooler and we got on the trail earlier. I knew that the day would easily be the hardest as all the trails we had planned to ride were rated Advanced/Expert compared to our last to intermediate/easy routes. We took Frenso Divide to the Dome Singletrack Loop with West Contrabando back to our car. The Fresno Divide trail was exactly what I wanted. This new trail was created just a year ago and offered dirt and redder, rounded rocks in comparison to the sharp, rocky piles of limestone we had been trudging through the last couple rides. This change of terrain gave me confidence. Aari swears it was just as hard if not harder than the previous day. I think I finally had a boost of confidence. When the terrain dramaticly switched back to the limestone, I got a little nervous. It didn't help that the Dome trail had steeper drop-offs that I avoided making eye contact with. But the views and zig-zaggy trails made the last 5 miles glorious. Besides Aari having to sprint back to the car for personal digestive concerns, the final sprint back to the canyon felt triumphant and a little sad. I wanted more now that I felt I could do it. Maybe that is the best way to leave a trip.
I forced Aari to cross the Rio Grande so we could say we touched our toes in Mexico, and then we relaxed with some enchiladas in town. In search for the best sunset view we returned to the Terlingua Ghosttown. A very private looking gravel road spiraled to the city's water tower. We ask a young guy who worked at the hotel what was on the hill. He shrugged with raised an eyebrow and said, "A nice view?" and with that we took the liberty to potentially trespass. He was spot on.
Aari and I both learned a lot on that trip. Communication is the utmost important when riding with someone who has completely different skill set than you. Voice your opinions if you are uncomfortable and be prepared to take advice and constructive criticism. Always know where the bike shop is, don't forget the cosmic brownies, and know that spicy Cheetos are not for everyone.
West Texas may not have the highest peaks or the craziest formations but it has that kind of magic that makes you dream of settling in to be one with the desert and calling the rugged terrain your home. You'll start picturing yourself in the adobe houses with leathery skin knowing what's at the end of each and every gravel road, the unmarked single track and all the secret watering holes. I assume one can guide tours or sling enchiladas, but it still seems a mystery to me what the daily life would look like out there if you weren't chasing itineraries. We didn't stay long enough to be truly tested by the heat or the isolation that region has to offer, but we know it's there. I'll be back. Maybe for the bike fest in February or maybe when I get lost and need a place to search for my soul.