A few days before the start of the trip, an email arrived from the trip leader asking if we wanted to pay an extra $35 for beer for the week. My girlfriend’s immediate “Yes!” response was no doubt accompanied by a smiley face or a pint glass-clinking emoticon. I, on the other hand, began to do mental math. OK, how much were they charging us per beer? What if I only drank one instead of the allotted three? And, what kind of beer was it?
Then—was I a total control freak?
These were not the first of the Type A-type doubts that had been nagging at me before the trip—the trip being a seven day hut-to-hut mountain biking trip, from Telluride to Moab. I know, the fact that I was having doubts at all about a trip like that makes me a total ingrate. But we fear that which we do not know, and I usually ride alone, making my own decisions about how long I’ll be out and what type of terrain I’ll cover. On this journey over the Uncompaghre Plateau of southwestern Colorado, I’d be riding with others—four of whom I didn’t know—and spending a literal 24/7 with them.
For so many people, mountain biking is something you do with friends—with a crew, so to speak. I know this because I’m associated with a few crews, their solicitations for ride buddies lighting up my Facebook feed on a near-daily basis.
“Kid-free for three hours Monday, who wants to ride Hall Ranch?”
Or, “Supposed to be in the 60s down in Junction, who’s down for a road trip?”
If I, on the other hand, have a few hours on a Monday, I will probably use the time to ride alone, free to go wherever I feel like riding and with whatever mood I’m in.
Signing up for a seven-day, eight-person hut trip pushed the boundaries of my self-imposed solo riding routine, but in my defense, I didn’t start out riding my bike with a crew.
One morning, during the spring of my junior year of high school, as my friends were either sleeping off their Busch Light hangovers or studying for AP exams (I managed to straddle both social strata), I woke up, put on a pair of Patagonia baggies and a t-shirt, and had my mom drive me 75 miles upstate to meet the midway point of the 150 mile Tour de Cure. I have no idea how I heard about the race, and I’m certain I didn’t train for it (I didn’t even have my own bike and was riding my mom’s rusted Fuji hybrid), but that’s the kind of teenager I was. Bored with both hangovers and AP exams, I had already traveled to Honduras for 8 weeks the summer before, living on beans in an un-electrified adobe village, and I volunteered weekly at the Boys and Girls Club in my neighborhood because hanging out with people different than me made me feel alive.
After that one-off bike event (which I finished wearing an ear-to ear grin as I milled around the finish line festivities by myself), I asked my dad for a bike for Christmas.
On two wheels, the same route I drove to and from school each day suddenly felt like an adventure. I began to use the golf cart paths and the wide shoulders of the nearby roads to create my own long and loopy routes through the neighboring marshland and alongside tidal creeks. I was nowhere near the mountains, but my silver Gary Fisher Tassajara was the perfect vehicle for long lowcountry afternoons when the sun shone brightly on the saturated marsh grass. I inhaled the funky pluff mud-scented air and watched the tide at different stages in its ebb and flow. From the seat of a bicycle, my neighborhood was suddenly interesting, instead of a gated community of culdesacs and dead-ends.
From that beginning, my time on a bike was infused with this sense of the sacred, of being the way for me to push through a portal to a world more vibrant than the one where school and social events reigned stale and unstimulating.
But, as I’ve gotten older and gathered up a host of habits, some good and some bad, that sense of wonder on a bike may have gotten replaced with the quotidian I was once trying to pedal away from. Yes, the endorphins still leak into my brain, and the Vitamin D saturates my skin. And I feel grateful for the time to ride and nearby hills to climb. But, my mind sometimes hijacks my awareness, and I return from hours out on the trail without feeling like I pushed through any metaphysical doorways.
Riding with others was the antidote I didn’t think I needed.
During those seven days of togetherness on the hut trip, we met at the top of huge climbs to strip layers, ooh and ahh at the LaSals in the distance, and then jump at the count of three for timed photos. We passed giant bags of GORP around, trying to reduce the extra pounds they added to our panniers. Happy hour was always canned black olives and chips dipped in Rotel salsa, sitting around the picnic tables we would rotate to catch the afternoon’s last slivers of sunset as they shifted and sunk into the horizon. We hung our stinky chamois’ side-by-side on clotheslines inside the hut for chrissaskes!
When we arrived at the Spring Creek Hut, a few of us wanted more miles, and I was happy to share mine with two of the guys on the trip who I’d only met a few days before. The advertised singletrack that was actually baby-headed doubletrack was much more tolerable while the three of us chatted than it would have been had I been alone and silently fuming.
I loved being a part of this group, and I loved sneaking away to sit on a bucket-sized tree stump and mediate at dusk to the sound of dangling cowbells at the Graham Ranch Hut. Every night, after our evening meal and cleanup, I slipped on a headlamp and wrote in my journal. Being part of a group didn’t have to threaten my alone time; in fact, my little solo sojourns to catch the sunrise or stretch in front of the hut were sweetened by the knowledge that I had a group of buddies to come back to and cook breakfast with.
Turns out, I can ride well with others, and riding well with others turned the trip technicolor where it might have been grey. It’s hard to get lost in your own thoughts when you’re swapping stories of rides past or wondering how many sheep you’ve seen or calories from Spam you’ve consumed. Next time, I’ll pay for the damn beer, and trust that no one will care if I need to sneak off and drink it alone.
Betsy writes and rides from her home in Lyons, Colorado. She’s always scheming two-wheeled adventures, and dreams of one day living in a place where surfing and singletrack are a stone’s throw from one another. Betsy also loves harvesting food from the garden and spending hours in the kitchen, fuelled by espresso or locally brewed beer.