Words by Kyle von Hoetzendorff, photos by Daniel Wakefield Pasley
It may be accurate to say that in terms of actual on the bike, pedal-powered propulsion, the first day of our adventure was the most productive. It may also be accurate to say that this large amount of pedaling was accounted for during the beginning of the ride, in the early morning as we pedaled along the paved roads of the MSOJ towards our trailhead. Hawks buzzed us; cows mooed as we passed, grizzled men in worn out trucks waved us on. It was warm, as if the sun itself had turned up to wish us, "bon voyage!" Yes our spirits were high; we were moving quickly and covering ground. At a bridge crossing we took off base layers and jackets, it was that nice. Things seemed to be going our way. At an abandoned pay phone Jon Bailey placed a call to the spirits of the region. Ahead of us lay the trail: it appeared steep, but surely wouldn't last, the steepness was just the path's way of getting us up off of the valley floor.
What you need to know at this point in the story is that the path we were taking was made by miners and their mules, and that these miners weren’t out here to take in the great outdoors. We were taking a route from the interior to the sea over a ridiculous number of mountains. This route was as direct as possible and traced on a map looked like freshly plucked body hair, jagged and frazzled.
Miners would pack their gold aboard mules from their claims in central Northern California over the coastal mountain ranges to the Pacific port located at Crescent City. This is the path we would be following for the remainder of our trip.
For those familiar with mules, please bear with me. Mules are a hybrid of the horses and donkeys. They are sterile. They are sure-footed like donkeys with a manageable temperament like horses, and they can walk up and down almost anything you put in their way. This then is counterpoised with our chosen method of transportation, the bicycle, a mode of transportation that is definitely inferior to the mule in terms of ascension capacity. (You can argue the temperament.)
Being that we were going to be spending our journey on a mule trail it so happened that our progress quickly devolved into walking and pushing. It was here, during the first day of our expedition, that a valuable insight would dawn on me. One that would not be useful for this particular expedition but will be applied to all future bikepacking trips: that the performance benefits of a clipless pedal system are far outweighed by the comfort benefits of a regular walking shoe when faced with a 85/15 split of walking vs. riding. A stiff carbon sole can either help you eek the most out of your pedaling power or act as a powerful fulcrum, levering the weight of each footfall against the sensitive and unexpected quarter size section of skin that exists at the most posterior point of your heel. Given enough time and friction this section becomes a tender, angry blister that will announce its presence at every step for the remainder of the trip.
At this point our spirits were not yet broken and each rider tried over and over again to remount and ride as we climbed, only to quickly flail against the unrelenting grade—each rider save one, Jon Bailey. It seems that Jon, in a learned combination of fitness, finesse, and equipment was always able to ride where the rest of us couldn’t not, easily clearing section after section while riding wheelies, cracking jokes, and shooting pictures.
Hours after we had begun the terrain started to level off and with an unpleasant interaction with a rancher’s wife behind us we ventured into the mountain's shadow, the quickly setting sun illuminating spots of snow and ice that had gathered under the dried grass and at the base of trees. According to our map we were still very very far from our first night's camp, and it was here that we had our first mechanical. Stevil is a mighty pedaler and one of his cataclysmic down strokes wrenched his single chainring into pieces. This was a "Fuck." moment because, you see, the rancher and the rancher’s wife were packing heat. And it seems that one of the members of our expedition delivered a few choice expletives to the woman. So with our nerves on end and the shadows stretching out like black tendrils of a macabre octopus, most of us just worried while Steve, Jon, and Chris “Rally” McNally came up with the ingenious solution of using the middle ring from McNally’s brand new loaner IBIS on Steve's bike.
With Steve’s bike fixed we continued on, past a deer camp of drunken cowboys who cheered us along but were stingy with their drinks. Upwards we went, passing a little stream dotted with an impressive spackling of cow shit. This stream was to be our final resting place for the evening. I put on every stitch of clothing that I packed and crawled into my tent, what else was there to do?