Words and photos: James Murren
Originally published in Issue #191
Shakedown in the Storm
The evening light wanes, but we ride on into it. Carlos’ German shepherds weave and dart between our bikes, never dragging tail. I am on a shake-down ride in preparation for the big one coming up two days from now. Singletrack to doubletrack and back to singletrack some more, pumping my heart faster. The bike feels good. Everything is working just fine.
The sky darkens. Thunder echoes. We carve turns to the watering hole as the storm churns above us. The dogs relish the respite, submerging their bodies and lapping up a thirst-quencher. Thick-to-thinning air is blown on us by a mountain storm that descends down the slopes. Is there anything more present tense than a first ride on unfamiliar trail as a menacing sky envelops the eye’s periphery?
Soaked to the bone in less than five minutes, we are. The trail tails keep running as all of us seek a dry porch, which is a couple of miles away from where we are. Lightning flashes and booms, its earth strikes resonating close by.
It is less than 70 hours after the shake-down. The midmorning Zapotec sky is clear. A hardy, and hearty, group of us roll out from Carlos’ mountain bike center slash home. The day’s agenda is an hourlong climb—mostly more and never less—up into the Oaxacan sierra, followed by easier riding and then a fast, steep, rocky downhill, which can be especially bone-jarring if you miss the side loop turn. Some of us, me included, will end up missing the turn.
Here is what we know: The initial section of the ride is mostly a climb that covers more than 5 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain. It is not all up all the time, though. The final push up the forest road, however, is all up with no sustained flat section to take a breather. Before that, there is some singletrack and rocky, rural “campo” roads that are characterized by somewhat strenuous cross-country riding. The way back to the village is mostly downhill that spans 7 miles in remote southern Mexican mountains, followed by a few workhorse miles of riding to the house.
I see bones. Million-year-old rocks, aka earth’s bones, laying in a scatter in front of me. Jorge Guadalupe Posada skulls, aka calaveras, laugh with each other. Teeth fastened to jaws of my fellow riders chuckle while jokes sound out around the trail side. I feel my own teeth shaking in my mandibles. The mood is light. Everyone seems to be enjoying the camaraderie of the ride. We drop in and roll along a creek, rocks keeping us honest before a gut-punch climb that pops us out on a narrow, rocky trail. I roll them bones fine, along a small stegosaurus spine situated above the waterway.
Climb to Pines
Up and up and up we go. The turn-in to Carlos’ Flume Trail, which lives above the pueblo of San Pablo Etla, is a patience-testing leg and lung burner. Jokes subside. Tired, scattered human bones stop along the doubletrack. The forest road tries to beat us down.
“You OK?” I ask.
“How much to go?”
“Not too much more.”
Up we go some more, two-track lying behind our wheels. I am happy. Climbing is a mountain biking joy for me. We have reached the high point and are pleased in knowing so. Pine forest scents the mountain air that floats, endorphins pop and smiles emanate.
I drop in on Flume and hit a baby armadillo shell. My front wheel knocks awkwardly, and I fall into a mattress of pine needles. I feel no pain; only my ego is bruised. Carlos is out in front, on his home turf. The trail is really tight, not permitting any unbalanced line. It’s barely wider than my tires if they were doubled in size.
At a stop to regroup, I get the Cliffs Notes version of the trail-building history from Carlos: He studied maps. He talked with neighbors. He secured the local permissions and the paperwork to ride in private areas.
Years ago, Carlos walked one foot after the other, connecting map lines. Then he built trails where they were needed, starting at both ends and then joining them in the middle, fulfilling his mountain biking vision. Then he rode it, the dream coming alive. High in the sky, I watch his bones move in the motion of his dream.
I care less about the other riders. My eyes and mind’s eye are focused. Again the singletrack is tight and narrow and does not allow for looking off the trail. I roll rubber up and down the deep, dark forest trail that drips sunlight from the tree canopy.
Ghosts live in the shadows: What scurried there? Did I hear something? And on and on my head flows, no longer focused on the trail. I tell myself to let go of the ghosts so that I do not wreck my bike. I do not, and at one point I clean a creek crossing followed by rocks and a hard right turn that immediately ascends a ridgeline. Carlos lets out a jubilant whoop.
They are a motley crew. I see them in the forest, bones sitting on bike saddles. Riders merge into memories. They have wings and long white beards, feathered caps and top hats and sparklers are festooned on their heads. I laugh; my calavera chuckles like a content Posada.
“What do you think?” Carlos asks.
I do not know what to say. My cliche brain wants to say, “I am not thinking.” Instead, I offer, “This is a great ride.”
I continue on commenting about how remarkable it is that he had the vision to build this trail, to link up the connections to make this a big loop. He smiles. I wish that I knew how that smile feels.
The peek-a-boo vistas of Oaxaca are not unlike the East Coast of the U.S. where trails twist under the tree canopy and then suddenly turn out to long views situated along Mother Earth’s ribs. I revel in them. Out there, far below, humans work fields of corn. I taste “tacos de cabeza.” A thought of the greasy meat that hangs from steer faces and is cooked and then wrapped in corn tortillas gives me the mid-ride munchies.
I daydream for a few seconds of a taco stand coming up around the next corner. Alas, some dreams do not come true.
Dropper post is down. Still, my stomach graces the seat. My shorts are not far from the rotating rear tire. The terrain is that steep, and probably steeper. My calves burn like the rocks up on Monte Alban—the famed Zapotec ruins—that sear in the afternoon sun.
Pines blend to oak, and darkness opens up to more light. A bed of pine needles and tree leaves turns to rock and dirt and sand. I hear a yipping dog in the trees behind me. I squeeze the brakes less. Worn human bones stand off to the side of the trail, needing a break from the intensity. Yipping dog bones blast down the trail. I ride on, not stopping, slaloming down the mountain. Suddenly, I come upon more human bones that have dismounted their bikes. Skeletons are intact; none appear broken.
We regroup at an opening, the descent not yet complete and not yet past the turn for the extra side loop. Bikes with riders arrive with dust and dirt and sand flying into the air.
“Burros! I heard the burros and they made me go faster!”
“I heard the dogs!”
Riders are worked over to the point of dehydration. A human skeleton lies on the ground before me, where he wrecked his bike in a controlled fashion. He smiles, signaling that he is OK. Skulls laugh all around, heads back and teeth dancing.
The campesinos arrive with their donkeys strapped with pieces of pines and oaks. I think of fuel wood, cooking, the felling of trees, dead Ents and the need for people to eat.
Mountain bikers out of water are very thirsty. Some are in desperate need of H2O. The Oaxacan farmers, people of the land, have 1.5-liter Coke bottles filled with water that hang from a string rope of sorts that hangs from the burros. A few requests are made, and in a Polaroid instant, Coke bottles are untied and the bikers drink cool mountain water. Liquid passes teeth and runs down through rib cages.
The forest transforms into desert scrub. We all regroup again and then set out in troops. I am in the first one, about halfway back in the pack. No lines exist. It is rock. It is loose scree. It is ledges and drops. It is straight down and the kind of descent where you do not want to follow the person in front of you. With each heavy rainfall, the ride looks different. It is a technical mountain biking Zen moment that can be described as “tight-gripped and hold-on” riding.
Rocks are airborne. Black ones. Brown ones. Striped ones. Hippo vertebrae. Hip bones from burros and bears. Sea turtle shells. Jaguar toes. Whale tail slabs. Deer and coyote calaveras. Feline femurs and pig knuckles. Earth’s bones slide and tumble down the path, resettling somewhere, anywhere until disturbed again by donkey hooves, human shoes, rain and mountain bike tires.
A couple of riders are stopped on the trail. Apparently, we have missed the turn. The hootin’ and hollerin’ is no more. In the hot, dry air, we seek shade. There is little to be found. Spent, all of us feel a need to be done with the ride. We wait for the other group of riders. And wait. Cell phones are checked. No connections. We wait some more.
I look out and feel in my bones that if we go down quickly, all will be OK. I hear humans and cars. That, usually, means hydration and food.
More waiting and then Carlos appears. He leads the other troop out from the side loop. He asks how we missed the turn; we got caught up in riding the gnar and blasted past it. He goes on to tell me that I missed one of his favorite sections. I am bummed. He talks of other ledges, rock slabs and drops that do not descend as quickly as the “trail” some of us just rode down. They are other bones that I did not get to ride. His entire vision is not complete in my mind’s and rider’s eyes.
“Next time,” I tell myself, a little disappointment in my inner voice.
To get back to where we started requires grit. Cross-country trails that scratch my legs, test my endurance and bore a hole into my psyche want to knock me down. I want to be done, but I am not. I pedal on, turning over and over. From a foothills vantage point that I stand on, I think of the Flume Trail and look back to the mountains.
When all is said and done, it is a loop ride that leaves me with sore muscles and my MTB appetite satiated. I am thankful for being able to ride the rough, dirty, raw trails that wander through remote mountains that see few mountain bike tires.
Back on the porch, I sit on a chair and drink water while Carlos rides around the yard on his bike. His German shepherds follow him, getting a little exercise for the day. The ride was too big for them to join us. In the backyard, they seem like they are ready to head out on a shorter ride. Carlos seems, too, like he could ride a few more hours.
Not me. Tiredness fills my bones, but they are happy and they smile.
Words and photos: Jay Goodrich
The City: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai is a city built upon a city. A place where history totals many hundreds of years instead of the mere 100 that my current home in Wyoming has under its belt. It’s a place in northern Thailand that boasts the highest mountains in the country, and I was going there to ride them.
I was told that the city also possessed some of the best food in the country and that Chiang Mai was considering applying for creative-city status from UNESCO (a project that celebrates, maintains and protects cultural diversity and past industry).
This area has not been without its conflicts over the course of history, though. The current, or “new,” city has essentially been built upon the foundations of the old. You can still see the walls and moats that were part of the city’s defense during the days when the Burmese and Mongols continuously attacked the location.
From the standpoint of population, Chiang Mai is rather small compared to other Asiatic regions I have visited. The main city boasts a population of a mere 140,000—just over a million if you include the surrounding urban sprawl. Believe me, though, after getting off of the plane, I definitely knew that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I mean, Wyoming.
Andrew Whiteford and I met our guide, Win Jalawin, and our driver for the next week, Mr. Sak, almost immediately after exiting the airport, and the heat hit me like running blindly into a brick wall. I almost had to drop a knee. Shooting photos and keeping up with Whiteford in this environment felt like it just became a bit harder.
The Jungle: Downhilling Doi Suthep
Whiteford was a famous skier and mountain biker from the mountains south of Yellowstone. One look at him and you wouldn’t believe he ever threw a backflip in his whole life, but he definitely has the scars to prove it. Win—Mr. Win Jalawin— was from Chiang Mai, and the light and space of Thailand really put the helmet on his head and the hardtail between his legs. Then there was Mr. Sak, the driver. It might have been our trip, but it sure as hell was Sak’s pickup truck.
After assembling bikes for about an hour, getting eaten by about a thousand mosquitoes, sweating out a gallon of water and realizing that Whiteford’s rotors had somehow been tortured so badly on the flight over that eventually he was going to ride brakeless, we got into the truck: a fairly new, standard-issue Toyota Hilux diesel that I have seen in force in every other country but the U.S. Our goal was to drive up to the Doi Pui Summit of Doi Suthep at 5,400 feet above the city and get in our first shuttle-assisted downhill jaunt.
We immediately noticed how many people were cycling on our exit from town. And I am not talking about those people riding the beat-up townie bikes you might think would be commonplace in an Asian city. I was seeing riders motoring around on full carbon road and mountain bikes dressed in shrink-wrap Lycra matching that of Tour de France racers.
The twisting switchback road had me ready to let go of my lunch thanks to my backseat location and sightseeing out of the side window, but within a few minutes of unloading bikes and standing on terra firma, I was ready to chase Whiteford down the beat-up doubletrack used by local hill-tribe people to harvest coffee, mango, tea and lychee.
Loose limestone marbles, super-packed sand, river and stream crossings and high-speed descending were all served up to us on this 11-mile descent. It wasn’t 10 minutes into our ride that my worst jungle nightmares came into focus. I set up against a tall embankment along our ride to shoot some photos when the frightening discussion began.
“Win, I have been to Costa Rica, and there my guide pushed a long stick into some embankment holes just like these to pull out some of the biggest spiders I have ever seen.” Win, laughing: “Yes, Andrew, that is the same situation here.”
As I looked into the hillside that was supporting my leaning arm and camera, I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of web-covered holes. Snakes, spiders, plants, lizards, frogs and insects all seem to carry the moniker of “very dangerous, you go first.” Maybe I will just choose a faster ISO that doesn’t require me leaning into the hillside for support …
The Never-Ending Road: Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao
It was on this day that I began to worry that I wasn’t going to have a story to tell, but that is when stories always seem to form. We rode 32 miles in 100-degree heat and 100 percent relative humidity. Mostly on pavement, which seemed to be uphill both ways, or maybe it was just my lack of tolerance for heat that made it seem that way.
They say when you are given lemons it’s time to make some lemonade. Although I was disappointed by the lack of mountain biking on my mountain biking tour on this day, both Whiteford and I realized something that we never have in years of traveling: By being on a bike, you get to see, experience and immerse yourself into the local culture like nothing else you have ever experienced. Bus, car and plane just don’t allow it, and it was at our lunch stop where the lemonade came pouring out.
A local ranger who was in charge of protecting the surrounding forest from wood poachers decided to make himself a meal in a kitchen that was outside next to our open-air lunch table with only a roof to protect him from the elements. There was a small Singer refrigerator, a bucket of water, lots of dishes on a shelf and this little clay thing (for my lack of a better word) with ashes in it. Since there was no door or windows, we quickly became engaged with our new friend.
As he cooked, I began to see a scene unfold. The ranger was going to cook everything over fire; he was making chicken, eggs and crickets. The aromas coming from his very basic cooking scenario and kitchen was amazing. Whiteford was, of course, about to become the guinea pig for tasting our local menu. I personally coined him my coal mine canary from this point on.
So what do crickets taste like? Sautéed onion, garlic and Thai basil, with a crunchy texture. That’s what the canary told me, anyway.
From here we rode more pavement in the same 100-degree heat and humidity to the Chiang Dao Cave. Although this cave is a bit touristy, it was a welcome additional cultural experience for the lack of the singletrack I was craving. Even though the cave was out of the elements and in complete darkness, I think it was hotter and more humid within this heart of darkness. We did get to see some amazingly ornate and detailed Buddhas within the cave and in the jungle surrounding it.
Finally, there was a trail to end our day. It was short, but ended in a rice paddy right as the sun set over the prominent peak we were circumnavigating on this trip. Whiteford and I then thumbed a ride on a sidecar motorcycle with one of the locals, who brought us right to the elegant resort we were going to be pampered at for the next 24 hours. We decided that we needed to return to northern Thailand and rent one of these things for each person on the trip to create our own personal mountain bike shuttle system.
Squeal Like a Pig: Doi Buak Ha Descent
I woke up at 5 a.m. in that dusky darkness before sunrise to the sound of a rear hub clicking. There was a moment where I thought I was going to be chased for my two dollars, but Whiteford was already up fixing what seemed to be the 10th flat of our trip so far. Remember, the jungle is full of things that bite, squirm and generally freak me out at night, and along with that comes plant life full of spines and thorns. All of our tubes had been patched, re-patched and then patched again. All of our wheels were now spinning with the help of Stan’s NoTubes sealant.
As Whiteford fixed his flat, we began to realize that his warped and bent brake rotors were about to finish off the pads that were mounted in his calipers. We couldn’t head down to the local bike shop and solve the problem, even if there was one in town. His brake rotors were about to rear their ugly head on one of my top rides of all time.
We left the Marisa Boutique Resort with a mascot dog sharing with us his basket of swept-up flower blossoms collected on the resort’s grounds. On the way out of town, Mr. Sak told us he needed to stop to get dinner for this evening: KFC. We were staying in a hill-tribe member’s home somewhere in the mountains. Both Whiteford and I didn’t understand the KFC connection that Mr. Sak kept talking about for dinner. I was interested and worried; there are many things in the jungle, and none of them are connected to the KFC I knew.
After about two hours of fairly difficult 4×4 driving, breaking through multiple cattle herds and getting our insides bounced around like the chrome ball in a pinball machine, we arrived at the 5,200-foot summit of Doi Buak Ha. Fir trees, fog and finally cool air surrounded us. I almost felt like I was home in the Tetons. This trail was the golden nugget that Whiteford and I had been looking for.
We rode a short but steep ascent, then reached a screaming downhill totaling 4,800 feet in 15 miles. Whiteford rode multiple passes along our upper-elevation singletrack while I shot composition after composition. I could see that our guide, Win, was getting worried about time, but I could spend all day on a trail like this one. We found air after air, rock transition after rock transition and even a section of washed-out hillside that made a perfect wall ride for Whiteford. As we descended, the environment began to heat up, but the trail was so steep and fast that we didn’t care.
This is when the brakes on Whiteford’s bike decided they’d had enough. His pads were now significantly worn in such a warped way, just like his rotors, that in every braking section they squealed like a stuck pig. Everyone now knew we were coming down the trail, including the spiders.
We were really late getting back to meet Mr. Sak, so I took the reins and changed our scheduled afternoon ride to the next day and decided to ride only a section of the amazing Bamboo Tunnel Trail, which was supposed to happen the next day as well. This allowed us to shuttle to our homestay instead of riding to it. This took, again, more bouncing around for hours, but the scenery along the way had us drooling for potential singletrack descents in amazing evening light diffused through thick humidity.
A Meal to Remember: KFC
It was nearly dark when we pulled into the tribal village for our evening stay. We were truly about to experience how the locals live: little to no electricity and running water only to the individual cisterns that held water for flushing the toilet and taking a shower.
I was pretty much as sweaty and disgusting as they come after riding for 20 or so miles in moderate to extremely hot temperatures, so I became the canary for the shower. Even though the outside temperature was still hovering in the mid-80s, when the first bucket of cistern water hits the body there is considerable shrinkage for most mortal men, but not me. Never me. Refreshing nonetheless after a long day.
After my shower, I was ushered into the kitchen area and into complete darkness (no lights, remember). There, Mr. Sak was cooking up dinner in dueling woks over an open flame created by the wood he’d chopped. Think of Mr. Sak as a much younger, much happier Thai version of Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid.”
As soon as he noticed my presence, his face transformed into that special Thai smile that I had witnessed from almost every person we had met on this trip. “Jay … KFC!” as he handed me a plate of beautifully presented and cooked chicken wings that were deep fried in wok number one. I couldn’t believe it, freaking KFC, only free-ranging, killed this morning, served at the perfect temperature and amazingly seasoned. I toasted Whiteford with opposing chicken wings. Dinner was going to be simply amazing.
I sat at the dining table, again in the open air, with a bunch of candles and a single lamp off in the distance, drinking ice-cold beer as Mr. Sak brought up the courses of his meal of green curry, fried chicken and rice. All made on an open flame in a kitchen without any lights, and to this moment in time I can safely say that it is in my top five meals ever. And I am a snobby foodie akin to Anthony Bourdain. It was that good. In addition, for the record, every meal that I had in Thailand was absolutely amazing. Just make sure you don’t drink the water.
Squatting in the Bush: Ban Sop Gai
What started out as a cool, overcast, bridge-jumping, singletrackriding perfection of a morning quickly turned into a bit of a brush with hell. The sun popped out on our climb to the top of our extraction point with a force that left me breathless. The heat decided I was going to lose today once and for all. I started seeing stars. I couldn’t focus on pedaling. I could barely push my bike.
Whiteford noticed, grabbed everything he could of mine and forced gallons of water down my throat as we made a painful push to the top of a peak that was going to take a bite out of me. After a 15-minute session of squatting with diarrhea in the bush I, remarkably, felt much better and ready for another insanely fast downhill.
This one, though, was full of loose rocks the size of baseballs in the steepest section and choked with some crazy shrub close to the bottom that liked to rip the skin right off our arms. I was totally stoked that I decided to roll with flat pedals on this trip; it completely kept me alive on this little nugget of trail and out of the shrubs that would have left me a bloody mess.
After lunch, we rode the lower piece of the Bamboo Tunnel Trail. It was section after section of firm, sand-lined singletrack through tunnel after tunnel of bamboo. Once we finished giggling like schoolchildren, we headed back to downtown Chiang Mai for two days of riding that, although slower, was going to completely change my perspective on riding in Thailand.
“Spiders. Why’d it have to be spiders?”
“Bird-eating spiders, very dangerous. You go first.”
We arrived back in Chiang Mai in early afternoon, right as shopkeepers were setting up for the Night Bazaar. Whiteford and I decided to throw our tiring legs over our bikes and explore the goingson. I can only say the size of the Night Bazaar is nearly overwhelming. You can buy anything from shoes to food to pieces of art. We found everything but brake rotors and pads that Whiteford desperately needed. As we finished exploring the Bazaar, we headed back to our hotel and spent the evening sitting in the pool drinking cocktails constructed with all types of exotic fruit and topped off with those obligatory little umbrellas.
In the morning, Win and Mr. Sak shuttled us up to the top of the Mae Wang trail. There is typically a bunch of climbing to get to the top, but since we had a 4×4 truck, we made Mr. Sak take us all the way up for another wonderful piece of Thai singletrack without any of this climbing nonsense. This trail went right past a massive waterfall where we saw one of the biggest spiders I have ever seen on the planet. It definitely ate birds and I still get goose bumps talking about this thing. I most certainly made Whiteford go first; he was still the canary or guinea pig, your choice.
The dirt on this ride was very different from what we’d experienced up to this point. Red and packed between what seemed to be sharp and crusty volcanic limestone, it rode amazingly fast and super grippy. We ditched the spider and screamed back down to the valley floor, where we both agreed we wanted Mae Wang again.
Back to the pool and more umbrella drinks.
For our final day, we dropped another downhill line off of Doi Suthep, right where this whole journey began. This day was the only one where we encountered a lot of water from a rainstorm the night before, so not only did we get hammered with the usual sweat from the humidity, but we also were covered in mud from our watery surroundings.
Northern Thailand is one of those places that every person needs to experience. I am personally not built for heat and humidity, and am completely freaked by snakes and spiders, but I would go back in a heartbeat. Maybe in December rather than October, though, when this destination is at its coolest. The food is great and the people will become your best friends with nothing more than a simple smile. The riding covers every gamut I have ridden to date in my 30-year mountain biking experience, but in general the trails ride way tackier than they appear on first examination.
Lean into your turns and your bike will hook up. This place is not the new-school manicured, groomed descents we are becoming accustomed to here in the U.S. They are old-school, super-steep, hardcore doubletrack and singletrack of years gone by.
There are people who love mountain biking, and there are those who love it so much they dedicate a vehicle to mountain biking. Chris and Leslie Kehmeier are two of those people, and Henry Tan Van is one such vehicle.
The Kehmeiers live in Golden, Colorado, and have each worked at IMBA for over six years. Henry is a 170-inch Mercedes Sprinter van with four-wheel drive, about 10 inches of clearance and a four cylinder turbo diesel five-speed automatic.
Before Henry, the Kehmeiers had decidedly less space. Their IMBA tenure began with living out of a Subaru Outback as members of the Subaru-IMBA Trail Care Crew. During that two-year stint, they criss-crossed the U.S. several times teaching sustainable trail building classes, among many other things, and mountain biking on most of the country’s greatest trail systems.
Since coming off the road and returning to domestic life in 2012, they haven’t quite been able to shake the itch of the road warrior. I should note that they live just three blocks down the street from me and, when they bought the van, I felt relief. It means they aren’t going to buy a house somewhere else and move away.
Traveling has been a shared goal for the Kehmeiers for a long time. “As I get older, I realize what makes me tick. Traveling is re-charging for me, not being at home,” Leslie said. “Traveling is the best thing we do together. You know, all that relationship stuff. We learned that on the Trail Care Crew. Now we have the van and can continue our adventures.”
The pair travel often in their roles at IMBA. Chris is Associate Director of IMBA Trail Solutions and Leslie is IMBA’s mapping manager (mapping as in GIS) and a professional photographer. Henry offers the pair a “self-contained adventuremobile,” as Chris put it. “We can bring bikes, but we can also bring everything from climbing gear to yoga stuff,” he said. “We’re no longer limited like we might be in a car or even a truck.”
The van is not yet complete, but the Kehmeiers can be hard to pin down and I’ve been dying to see the inside since Chris started hacking away at it last summer. Henry was bare bones when purchased: no windows, no insulation, no nothing. So far, they have put about $3,000 into it—far less than paying an adventure company to pimp out the van.
“I never thought I’d find myself at a Mercedes dealership,” said Leslie. “It’s funny being there among all the luxury cars and saying, ‘I’m here to buy a van!’”
With help from a few family members, the pair have done all of the customization work themselves. Chris started with soundproofing the floor, installing windows, insulating the walls and adding a few interior lights. The siding is blue pine harvested from trees devastated by a pine beetle infestation currently ongoing in Colorado. The platform bed holds a queen-size mattress to accommodate Chris’s 6’8” frame. The three-drawer dresser is more space than Leslie has at home.
One of the coolest features is the slide-out bike tray underneath the bed that keeps their rides secure and doubles as a pull-out picnic table. A rear bike rack will allow them to haul passengers.
Still to come is a two-person bench seat with a camp toilet hidden underneath plus a sink, solar panels, water storage and a stove. A rooftop platform will allow for sleeping under the stars and a new perspective for Leslie’s photography work. Chris cleverly laid the whole thing out on an Excel grid and can virtually rearrange the pieces to accommodate future needs and stretches of imagination.
The Kehmeiers chose a van instead of a truck pulling a trailer because they wanted to be completely self-contained. “Whether we pull up in a WalMart parking lot or a campground and it’s near freezing and raining, I don’t want to have to step foot outside to transfer gear,” said Chris. “I can just swing out of the driver’s seat and be in my living room.”
And what of the name? “Henry” was randomly bestowed by another Sprinter-owning, mountain-biking friend. “We talk about the van like he’s part of the family,” said Leslie. “He’s just Henry, even to our parents. Like a grandkid.”
So far, Henry has been to Fruita and Pueblo in Colorado; Bozeman, Montana; Lander, Wyoming; and Moab. He’s headed next to Austin and then Arkansas to check out a few IMBA Epic trails.
“The van opens up a whole new thought process of where we can go and for how long,” said Leslie.
Follow Henry’s adventures on Leslie’s Instagram page, @thewideeyedworld.
Got a rad rig that you think we should feature? Let us know: [email protected]
Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, but is often overlooked by mountain bikers passing through on their way to other areas. Renowned Kiwi riders Rosara Joseph, Kieran Bennett and Craig Pattle set out to take on Wellington’s Mount Victoria and show you just how good the locals have it.
Photos: Caleb Smith
On the Road With Bama
Words and photo: Chris Milucky aka Bama.
From Dirt Rag Issue #188
The first time I quit climbing the ladder of public opinion, I moved into a house with six other people, three dogs and a cat; the cat was smart enough to soon skip town and live someplace less crowded.
I needed a houseful of roommates in order to afford living given my new occupation as a bike messenger: Work was physically exhausting and I soon fell into a poor-man’s land of tent camping in the backyards of Boulder, Colorado. It was a colorful, romantic lifestyle with solid friends and lots of youthful, wild fun—if you know what I mean.
The second time I escaped from the dreams my mother once held of my success in corporate America, I bought and moved into a 1970s-era Airstream. I painted over the rotten wood and mildew and called it good. I picked up a job building trails east of Portland, Oregon. Sandy Ridge was the name of the place, and the weather was awful. It was cold and wet and the Airstream didn’t have any heat. After some time, the Airstream made a stop in Sedona, Arizona, and shortly thereafter I took a traveling job with a major bike company, resulting in three years of “van’er life.” After that, I was a mountain bike guide and moved back to the tent. I’ve been traveling for more than five years now, full time, year round.
It’s like this: If you’re going to work in the mountain bike industry, eventually you’re going to end up in a van or camper or something that will make your grandma cry tears of disappointment. I’m not sure how the “tiny house” movement started, but I’m pretty sure ski bums are at least 30 years ahead of us. Before skiers, circus clowns like Emmitt Kelly roamed the West. Before the circus, they were cowboys. The “Indians,” whom I’d rather refer to as Traditional Nomads, lived in campers they called teepees, which leaked horribly.
Everything leaks. Teepees, tents, campers and vans—live in one long enough and you’ll find yourself sleeping under an unavoidable, unfixable leak. They’re all cold, too. Life in a mobile shelter isn’t always glamour and gold, and the sedentary sects of society have always cast judgment against the nomads.
In modern times, we’re fined and ticketed; for the traditional nomads, death, violence and the Trail of Tears were lifestyle treats. In recent times, this affliction, if you want to call it that, is known as wanderlust. But it’s not a counterculture thing, and it’s not strange. The life of a nomad is beyond normal; it’s historical.
Think about that: every day on the road, every day on the trail, every day at the mercy of the wind, the wildlife and the solitude of the sun and stars. A day in the plains, a day in the mountains and another in the desert. That is the traditional way of the West. As humans, many of us have the same wandering spirit of the wolf, the wolverine and the eagle.
Give it a try sometime. Or don’t, but don’t think of me as any less. I may be dirty, but I’m always honest with myself. I don’t know if it’s something in the sand, or perhaps a curse placed by the demons of the desert, but for thousands of years people like me have been fighting to maintain our lifestyle. And this isn’t a lifestyle I chose, but rather it chose me; I cannot escape from it. At times I wonder if I’m running away from my problems or running directly toward them, but I just can’t stop.
Chris Milucky (better known as “Bama”), his wife, Tanesha and their dog, Larry, once logged more than 50,000 miles a year driving across the country. They are now building a new home in Colorado. All they ask is that you keep singletrack single and support your local bike shop. Read more from Bama.
Words: Mary Dishman
Photos: Adrian Marcoux
Trails are the basis of everything in mountain biking. They’re the arteries that flow life into every ride. They’re the blank canvas, the empty sheet. They’re the beginning, middle and end of every mountain bike story.
Whether beaten into submission by machines, carefully sculpted with blistered hands and simple tools, or worn into being by centuries of animal traffic, each trail is as varied as the people who ride it. The trail’s story changes with each passing rider — every one of them having their own distinct perspective and definition of speed, space, time, adventure, danger and awesome — and each is another “One of Many.”
The following is one in a collection of short stories from three different trips to three different trails. If presented as simple trail beta, these pieces might detail the dirt — and a turn here, a climb there, a drop after that. But seen through the eyes of each of these riders, these stories represent unique experiences — one of many stories that happen each day.
You are one of many. What is your story?
Every June, my trail map emerges from winter hibernation and finds its way back onto the coffee table, where it will live until the snow starts to fall again. And each time I unfold the accordion and focus in on the trip I’m planning, I start getting antsy. It has been three seasons since I last pedaled in these parts on the map, and my patience for snow melting has run out.
The San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado are a rugged, stunning and very high mountain range that is heavily concentrated in minerals. One hundred and fifty years ago, these mountains separated the booming mining metropolises of Telluride, Silverton, Ouray and Durango. Today we are able to access and ride in the San Juans because of the old mining infrastructure. The trails that used to connect these towns, which were simply carved into the sides of the mountains, are now popular scenic roads that take you deep into the backcountry. The old mule and horse paths have transformed into the most perfectly pitched, 18-inch-wide flowy singletrack that fluently contours the topography.
The trail that attracts the most mountain bikers to the San Juans is, without a doubt, the Colorado Trail. Completed in 1987, and connecting Denver to Durango, the Colorado Trail is 486 miles long and passes through eight mountain ranges. This long-distance trail provides easy access to miles and miles of some of the country’s best alpine singletrack.
I’ve lived in Durango for more than 10 years now and have found that the CT running through the San Juans to Durango acts as our highway, an artery that breathes seemingly unlimited riding possibilities into the area. When I say “highway” I literally mean high way. The CT winds through the region at elevations of between 11,000 and 12,500 feet above sea level for about 60 miles on a ribbon of singletrack that you can usually see for days in front of you. Our tree line is around 11,800 feet, so you might imagine the high alpine panoramic landscape.
Cascading off this main artery into the adjacent drainages below are dozens of trails that act as the veins in this equation. There is a lifetime’s worth of riding in this mountain range alone. But the window we get every year is short — three months, maybe. When it’s time, you motivate.
The cycling community in Durango is filled with a passion and history I have yet to see anywhere else. Among all the sport’s old legends is a mix of younger pros ranging from XC to Enduro riders. The local youth mountain bike development program, called Durango Devo, has grown from just 8 participants to over 700 in just 10 years. The program even offers a pushbike group that has more than 50 little munchkins per school year. The Explorers group is comprised of about 40 mini “Magellans” who tackle multiple-day bike-packing trips each spring, summer and fall. And alongside all of the kids and pros riding around town, there is a plethora of locals that just get after it.
Riding around on the local town trails with friends is always a hoot, but I feel there is something about riding in the high mountains that strengthens friendships. It could be the task at hand: It’s not always fun to pedal uphill for hours at a time, or to get caught in a lightning storm. Sometimes a little suffering can get the best of you, but your buddy’s contrasting attitude — and a bit of humor — can really pull you through. It could also be the dirt. The dirt you find in and around the Colorado Trail is some of the best I’ve pedaled on. It’s the icing on the cake. It makes those high-fives sting. Quality rides makes quality friends.
This summer, I had the chance to take some fine Canadian folks on some of the most quality riding I have ever found. I was a little scared, at first, because of the unusually wet spring and unknown trail conditions. I was feeling the pressure to show them our best rides because they were coming from the mountain bike meccas of Whistler and Squamish.
After scheming for endless hours with the map, I came up with a three-day itinerary. But there was still a problem with the plan: I had no idea exactly how much snow and debris we would find. The local consensus was that there would be a blanket of snow covering the trail. But the temperatures were rising rapidly and, as I mentioned earlier, my snow-melting patience was gone.
Downed trees, high creek-crossings and snow were to be expected in the early season obstacle course. The drifts and other snowy patches not only added a remarkable contrast to the scenery, they also gave us an awareness of our presence in this rugged vastness. Raging waterfalls now cascading off cliffs will be mere trickles by late summer, baby skunk cabbage that will soon be taller than your handlebars and the spastic, curious, chirping marmots that were just waking up: It all added to the vitality these mountains emanate.
Every June, the first big high-country ride brings me a boost of energy and ear-to-ear smiles, because it rekindles my passion for mountainous adventure. We were all feeling the electric mountain buzz as we pedaled in, around and through this main-artery trail, laying down fresh tracks in the dirt and snow.
We gathered, about ready to start a descent off the artery, dropping into one of its mind-melting veins. The anticipation was killing me. You could stare at this trail all day long on the map and understand that it drops down a steep ridgeline. You can see that it descends 2,500 feet in just under 4 miles. And I could talk about the most perfect aspen grove the trail winds through till I’m blue in the face. But to experience it again, with friends, and watch their expressions as they began to understand what I had been talking about, and showing them on the map, was like being there for first time all over again. Maybe even better.
Sometimes you just have to go to know.
More in this series: One Of Many – Della Creek Dog Fighting
Words and photos by Logan Watts
Originally featured in print in Dirt Rag Issue #181
“I’m about ready for that beer,” Dustin bellows as we plummet the last downhill of the day. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that statement echo down a ribbon of singletrack, I’d have a sizable collection worth every bit of four dollars, at least. “Me too,” I shout as I haggle with an awkward loaf of granite.
I had actually been pining for a proper brew for about six months or so. I was just completing a long bike-packing odyssey through Africa when the seed was planted for this trip. Needless to say, the post-ride selection of watery pilsners on the Dark Continent fell flat, sometimes literally.
It’s remarkable how a hankering lasted half of a year. But it wasn’t only hoppy beer that I craved. No matter where I am in the world, as soon as April rolls around my mind begins to wander through the rhododendron tunnels of Pisgah, North Carolina.
My muscles start to weaken at the thought of the unrelenting ascents and knuckle-bleaching descents that make up the epic trail network in the heart of the Appalachians. It’s kind of like I am being called back home.
The idea was to piece together a five-day bike-packing route that would traverse each of the four major trail networks in the area and enable us to sample some of the finest beer in the country. The principles were simple: It was required that we pack lightly so that we’d be nimble enough for the burliest downhills that the Blue Ridge has to offer; it was mandatory that we tackle a tough route that would kick the crap out of us; it was compulsory to treat yo’self in between; but most of all, we had to dig deep into the remoteness of the forest.
After dropping a car at the route’s end and driving a little more than an hour back to Old Fort, my clock reads 7 p.m. We intend to climb the Old Mitchell Toll Road, a rough and steep doubletrack also known as Hella Rocks. We’ll crest Heartbreak Ridge, camp, and follow the Pisgah enduro route tomorrow morning. Afterward, we’ll pause for a cold glass of Pisgah Pale Ale at the brewery.
A scant five minutes into the trip, plans derail. We choose to start at the Pisgah Brewery (with a cold glass of Pisgah Pale Ale, maybe three). Pedaling commences at dusk and it immediately starts spewing rain, a soaking rain; we ride up a hill and abruptly stop at the gate of Ridgecrest, a private community that owns the property at the base of the ridge.
“Well, unfortunately I can’t let you pass. We don’t allow cyclists through here after dark. It’s just a rule; I didn’t make it up,” kindly states the elderly gatehouse attendant who emerges from a dark doorway smelling of tobacco smoke. Who knew? We could bail, then try and sneak around through back roads and several dark dirt-road interchanges almost guaranteeing that we get lost.
Instead we rethink, adjust, and climb up the switchbacks of Kitsuma Peak. We can camp there for the night and descend Young’s Ridge, a classic screamer of a downhill, the next morning. As soon as camp is pitched, a dry front passes through and clears away any lingering sentiments of our botched plans.
The next morning, I wake to a muffled rumble from a nearby sleeping bag and a bluebird sky filtering through the canopy of trees, the latter being somewhat of a summer rarity in this deciduous rainforest. Autumn is knocking.
After brewing some stout black coffee and rolling up camp, Dustin proceeds to pull on his right glove and discovers a giant black millipede emerging from the dark recesses of the thumbhole. I scream like a grade-school cheerleader—referred creeps, I guess. You’d think I’d have a little more grit after camping in the African bush for six months. Then I recall waving my hands and running in circles as I was chased around the tent in Zimbabwe by a 5-inch camel spider.
“What time is it?” I ask. “I would say around 8:15,” Dustin responds. “OK, let’s get a move on.” I guess we haven’t fully unmoored from time and the daily grind.
Watery eyed and grinning, we shoot out the bottom of Young’s Ridge and begin the paved portion of our journey toward Asheville. There we are forced to choose amongst a dizzying array of 14 craft breweries. Our first stop is Wicked Weed Brewing, named after a quote from King Henry VIII referring to the pernicious hop plant. At barely more than a year in operation, they are already turning heads with their Funkatorium’s barrel-aged sours; their Serenity Wild Ale won gold this past year at the Great American Beer Festival. From there we pedal a few hundred yards, saddle up to the bar at the lauded Burial Beer Co., and sample the epic Wrecking Bar Black Saison.
A lot has changed up here in a year. Sierra Nevada opened a brewing facility and tasting room, New Belgium is well underway with building its East Coast facility, several new restaurants have taken root, magical breweries out the wazoo have set up shop…and it all seems to be flourishing. I ask Tim Gormley, Burial’s head mad scientist, if he thinks that there are too many breweries opening at once.
He lets us in on their little secret to success: “The craft-beer community here is kind of like a bunch of friends, people who help each other out; we are all working hard on our own passion [to create and share beer], but it’s kind of like a group effort to make Asheville a unique place to live. As tourism grows, every brewery seems to find its niche.”
The area mountain bike scene seems to share the same qualities. It’s like an ultra-happy summer camp where everyone is sharing ideas, team building, and pitching in for the greater good. Tim hands us a bomber of Cemetery Gates, a Belgian IPA born from Burial’s collaboration with Pisgah Brewing. Named after a song by the band Pantera, this complex concoction will be a perfect post-ride beer for whatever rock-strewn widow-maker trail we’ll inevitably be tackling.
Next stop, Bent Creek, Asheville’s most accessible singletrack, located about 10 miles from town. For most Ashevillians, it’s the good ole backyard place to ride above-average loops and downhills, but to us it’s the eastern gateway to the Pisgah Ranger District—the foyer of my home, so to speak.
As daylight fades, we continue our trek southwest, leaving a vapor trail of hops and any remaining stress particles we had harbored from our almost-forgotten workaday routines. That’s the thing about bike-packing: It feels like all strings are severed when you set off on a packed bike not knowing where you’ll sleep that night. Everything is stripped away except the pasty-white core of what you absolutely need in order to sleep, eat, and ride—the essentials of a long-term adventure, the kind that requires you to pedal for days in order to reach a place that will change your mindset.
My first “freakout” was a little more than a decade ago. I had a handsome job in marketing, I bought a house, and everything was swell. After 9/11, the recession sunk in and the world changed a bit. Life seemed shorter; maybe I simply got tired. I was living in a town I didn’t care for, and my dirtbag dreams had all but faded in the proverbial rearview mirror. So I quit my job, leased our house, and my girlfriend (now wife) and I took off on an extended trip through India, Thailand, and Tibet. The freedom to move, cultural immersion, and beautiful places made us swear that we wouldn’t get sucked back into the American Dream.
Then our wallets ran dry. I was quickly funneled back into the real world, eventually started my own company and commenced to work my ass off. Almost two years ago, despite having even more trappings to anchor us in place, we did it again. Handed over the keys to my small business, had a massive eBay selloff, stuffed a storage unit like a sardine can, and set off by bike. We cycled from Mexico to Panama. I was addicted to the freedom of traveling by bicycle.
A year later, we decided to bike-pack southern and eastern Africa via dirt roads and mountain passes. After each one of these trips, the pull only seems to get stronger. Each of these freakouts work like a magical reset button—a detachment from the grind. I’ve been home (my in-laws’ attached suite) for just a couple of months and the pressure of American life has already started to sink in again. Rental-property issues, finances, family matters, insurance, IRS, etc.
By mid-August I was ready for a mini-freakout. Dustin was ready to get away from it all too; he self-reports that a “mini midlife crisis” of his own was long overdue.
THE REAL PISGAH
After a beer-fueled sleep and breakfast of grainy bars that don’t quite curb the hangover, we gingerly attack a 1,200-foot climb to reach the crown jewel of Bent Creek, Greenslick. Formerly known as Mo’ Heinous, this 2-mile, ridiculously fast downhill is complete with big berms and plenty of rollers. We relax the wind-peeled grins from our faces at the bottom and start up Lower Sidehill. Another quad-wrenching climb puts us on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and after a couple miles of being sideswiped by Harleys in blind corners, the Trace Ridge trailhead appears. There we drop into a 4.5-mile rugged descent that wrangles us into the hearty embrace of the real Pisgah.
Just before I rode these trails for the first time, back in the late aughts, I stopped by The Hub, an aptly named bike shop (complete with taproom) that’s conveniently located at the junction where Highway 276 enters the forest. I sheepishly asked some folks at the service counter to recommend a good 10- or 15-mile loop, not having a clue what I was getting myself into.
The mechanic heaved a glance of concern at another employee, then they voiced in unison, “Have you ridden up here before?” “Er, no,” I replied, “but I’ve ridden in Bent Creek once.”
“Well, now you’re in the real Pisgah,” the wrench croaked. About an hour or so later I was wide-eyed and careening down the raw and technical rocky face of the Black Mountain Trail. I was hooked.
A lot has changed up here since then, and a lot more people have figured out the draw of these trails. Oskar Blues helped build the REEB Ranch; DuPont State Forest added a couple masterpiece trails; the bottom of the Black Mountain trail got overhauled. When I first heard that last bit of news, a wave of fear reverberated down my spine. These trails are raw and the Black Mountain Trail is my special place—the figurative kitchen of my home.
GAZING INTO NOTHING
We break our riverside camp the next morning at the bottom of Trace Ridge and catch the gravel fire service road up to the Laurel Mountain trailhead. The Laurel Mountain/Pilot Rock ride is one of my personal favorites—a gradual and technical climb followed by a heart-in-throat descent. About halfway up Laurel I hear a loud scraping sound and look over just in time to see a fairly large black bear shimmying down a massive poplar. He crashes to the forest floor and is out of sight before I can say, “Hey, bear.” The moment reminds me that Laurel is notably “out there.” For me, this trail is a long meditative traverse, kind of like a therapeutic massage via roots and rocks.
There are basically three types of trails in Pisgah: 1. ones that were originally created by the timber trade for rail-bound logging carts, back when the land was owned by Rockefeller himself. These are characteristically long, sweeping routes with moderate and fairly technical climbs; 2. trails that go straight up, then straight down. These are extremely rugged, raw, and full of drops, boulders, steps, and deep ravines where they have been weathered over time; and 3. endless rock gardens.
Pilot fits into the #3 description, a 1,600-foot drop over a 2-mile boulder field. The kind of ride that inspires high-fives and requires a shot of whiskey to calm the endorphins after you clear it. At the bottom of Pilot we decide to take the inner Pilot Cove loop and camp on a giant, exposed granite overlook about halfway through the route. It is an amazing place situated in the middle of a giant bowl of forest. We arrive late afternoon and are greeted by the shed skin and severed torso of a copperhead.
Dustin reassures me, “Don’t worry, I think copperheads eat millipedes.” Within minutes our asses are parked on the side of the mountain, our minds staring into nothing. It’s not often you can find a view where there are no signs of human impact—no cell tower, no ridge-perched million-dollar homes, no roads.
We wake the following morning and have a breakfast of sweet-and-sour pork, curry chicken, and rice that should be enough fuel to push us over Buckhorn Gap and then up the arduous hike-a-bike to the top of Black Mountain. A couple hours later we crest the overlook on Black Mountain and I am hungry. This is the spine. If the measure of a place’s wildness is based on how much it makes you forget the rest of the world, this ranks pretty high up there, especially for the Southeast.
The Black Mountain Trail is one of the most brutal that Pisgah has up its sleeve, especially the top section. They definitely didn’t redesign this part. There does seem to be a little more room on the sides of the washed-out trough that runs a significant percentage of the downhill. It had developed a sizable V-shaped ravine and had become difficult to ride after last year’s record rainfall. It turns out that some of the underbrush was cleared to allow riders to skirt the ravine, in turn promoting good erosion to help push dirt back into the gap—quality-over-quantity trail maintenance. The bottom part has definitely changed, and in my opinion it’s been reworked perfectly—new undulations, better-tracked berms, rollers, and a new bridge. We fly down the fast lower section and it seems as if it’s twice as long as it was in its previous life.
As we spill out into the parking lot, a fellow cyclist offers us ice-cold beers and asks about our trip. We pour the beers through grins, share some small talk, and wave goodbye. The local bike path leads us over to The Hub, where we pony up to the bar (their in-house “Pisgah Tavern”) overlooking the twirling Allen wrenches in the service area. We make a couple friends over a Wicked Weed Freak of Nature Double IPA and jump back on the bikes for a quick ride to Oskar Blues for one more round. After poking around their facility, dusk is settling in, so we head out to our final camp, the Bike Farm on the edge of DuPont State Forest.
We arrive at dark, pitch camp, and get some rest. The next morning, we’re greeted by the friendly proprietor, Cashion, and his blue-eyed dog, Mya Surlsmith. He tells us about the newly constructed Red Bull Dream Line on the property, the relationship with Oskar Blues, which helped make his dream a reality, and the future plans of this unique mountain bike base camp that beer helped build. Then Cashion bids us farewell and heads out to guide his Peruvian guests, who’ve also come to experience the raw trails and rugged wilderness of Pisgah.
We have one more ride. DuPont has a new loop called Hickory Mountain, and we’ll finish with the fast flowing blitz of a trail called Ridgeline. We leave the farm, pedal to the top, and pause before the tear-jerking descent. “I wish we had one more night to ride out to Squirrel Gap and soak in the forest,” I utter. Dustin replies, “No kidding…that’d be nice. I’m about ready for one more beer.”
Find the route here on Logan’s website, Bikepacking.com