“Motherfucker!” I barked, my frustration muffled by the bike light I was clutching between my teeth… trying desperately to shine some modicum of clarity on the clusterfuck that was my mangled tent… My sleeping bag… My scattered belongings.
It was not going well.
Look…I’m no stranger to tents. Nor to clusterfucks. Nor to darkness. (So much…) But I was having one of those moments. The kind that makes you temporarily lose perspective. The kind that makes you look down at the ill wrought mass of poles and fabric you’re botching and say, “Fuck everything. I’m just going to drink this whole goddamned bottle of whiskey, wrap myself in the rainfly like a blanket, and pass out on the these fucking rocks.”
Though… is that losing perspective? Or gaining it? Because those rocks… I dream about them. Living in the east, I dream about those rocks all the time. Some people are enlivened and energized by dense canopies of green. Verdant and lush. Stifling and oppressive. And while trees will forever make me swell… press against my shorts in ways that make the squirrels blanch and owls blush. That place that makes me writhe and flop and say things like “oh god oh fuck oh fuck I love you oh fuck I love you” will forever be exposure. Vistas. Wide expanses of land and sky. Preferably red rock juxtaposed against refracted blue… the ocher hues of the desert forever necessitating the perpetual changing of my poor, besieged, boxer briefs. (Hanes, in case you were wondering, because they don’t have that tighty-whitey waist band that makes you look like a psychopath. (Or at least less like one.)) Forever feeling the call of the west.
And there I was…among my rocks. Trying to use one, in fact, to pound a tent stake into another one. Like a good monkey.
Monkeys and motherfucks aside… this was a good place to be.
There’s this tired trope in the bike business… (just one?)… of the jaded industry veteran who loathes Vegas more than everyone else. Certainly more than you. Like a “poor off” where middle-class suburbanites try their hardest to pretend they grew up with more nothing than each other. And on some level, maybe there’s something to that: the suburbs forever robbing everyone of their souls…perpetuating an emptiness and inner-poverty that will always outweigh the abundance of commodity.
And look, I get it… like being vegan, hating Vegas is the right thing to do. On every level. We all hate it. Fuck every fucking ear of that fucking place. And yet here we are. Again. And the fact is… I’d rather go to Vegas for the show than to Anaheim. Both are fake and terrible… but at least one doesn’t pretend to be Shangri La… the lush lawns of a thousand Rancho Generico developments peppering its landscape as everyone pretends their drinking water comes from the ocean. Vegas is like Disneyworld had sex with a peep show…in the sewer. (In the desert.) I would never go there on my own. But I would absolutely go to there to see all of my insane bicycle industry friends. In fact, in too many ways, it’s the perfect backdrop to do just that. Plus, I’ll be honest… If the show was somewhere else… somewhere amazingly scenic, I’d probably just fuck off and disappear…ride my bike by myself. Because that’s what I do.
Also, I hate that place more than you. (So I win.)
And I would jump, leap, launch myself bodily at the opportunity to get as far away from it as possible…if said opportunity presented itself. And it did. Blackburn invited me to go bikepacking with them and others on Monday night, the first night of Dirt Demo…the preamble to the shitshow that is Interbike. And while there was a part of me that just wanted to get completely lost in Bootleg Canyon on some poor, hapless demo bike… running out of water over an hour ago… then sit in the Surly tent and drink beer with various friends and frenemies from faraway… There was every part of me that wanted to ride into the desert and sleep by a river.
So, at 3:30ish on Monday afternoon, a motley mixture of shop owners, food bloggers, journalists, industry movers and shakers, (… and me) met on the outskirts of Dirt Demo, and readied ourselves. Hurl, Jeremy, Greg, Mai, Jen, Aimee, Mark, Robin, Uncle Vernor, the Chads… The heat of the day had subsided as the sun hid behind a front of clouds. And while I don’t mind heat…that heat being part of the reason I love the desert so much… I liked this too.
And as my head was very much in the clouds, I also like that I had to think very little about what I was bringing. Blackburn had done all of the work for me… fully outfitting the Jamis Dragonslayers we’d be riding with everything we needed for the night: A full array of their Outpost bags, loaded with Camelback bladders, Big Agnes tents and sleeping gear, tools, foods.
We set off too late. I can’t say that I didn’t have something to do with that. But I totally didn’t. (I might have?) After descending out of Boulder City on the bikepath/drainage ditch, testing the mettle of our loaded bikes on every concrete burm and mini-launch we spotted, we turned onto a dirt path and headed our way toward Hoover Dam. I’d told myself that this year I was ditching at least one day of the show to head out to the dam. Or make the jaunt to Zion. The same way I tell myself every year that I’m ditching a day of the show to get blind drunk in Mandalay Bay’s lazy river… the “my friend has my key and he’s already in there and he won’t pick up his phone” somehow always managing to sneak my sketchy ass in there. This year, Blackburn made getting away a reality, so I skipped a day of the show for other reasons. (But srsly, next year can we go to Zion? Promise?)
Somewhere along the way, it was noted that we were nowhere close to where we’d intended to be by this time. I admit… I’d had dreams of sitting on the bank of the Colorado River with that bottle of whiskey I mentioned and watching the sunset. Surrounded by exploding tones of desert rock. Think about people. Complications. Perfect flaws.
But it didn’t quite work that way. At least the sky had exploded in to all of the amazing that I hoped it would.
Once we escaped the nightmare of the highway shoulder, a necessary evil for our intended destination, we descended a gravel road that deteriorated with every mile, until we were dirt-surfing in every turn and straightaway, trying our best to stay upright and on course…Laughing and hooting every time our front wheels threatened to take us places we didn’t intend to go.
Until we hit an impasse. Where we teamworked the shit out of it.
Then we were there. Twenty Three Miles in… 6 hours? There I was in the dark with my scattered things and a confounding mess of poles and debris. Tired and hungry. Trying to convince myself that my insatiable craving for a beer didn’t mean I was an alcoholic. Someone had allegedly dropped some goodies for us at our campsite. Firewood, chocolate and (please say beer, I’m not an alcoholic, but please for the sake of everything good and decent in this world, say beer…) cookies. (sigh…) But we couldn’t find it.
So we filtered water, ate trail mix and salami, laid on the rocks. Took pulls of whiskey and the beer (!) that Aimee of New Belgium graciously brought (my heroine). Took in the sounds and smells of the river. And finally stumbled our way to our tents… sweating on top of our sleeping bags and listening to the mice scramble around our heads.
We awoke to ants. All of them. Everwhere. Their epicenter focused somewhere in the vicinity of Hurl…Who, for reasons known only to himself, had brought a sandwich into his tent. Cowboy coffee and oatmeal. Finally getting to look at where we were. Walls of rock surrounding us and the slow moving behemoth of river. Mark and I followed a path into the hills where we uncovered the lost stash. (Also overrun with ants.) And while the chicken was not salvageable, (and was now 50% ants) the chocolate bars, cookies and berries were relatively intact. I rinsed them in the river and brought it all to the campsite. Where it was consumed. Along with other things.
Blackburn has been around forever; started in the mid-70’s by Jim Blackburn with its roots making racks and accessories. Always solid. Always understated. And that understatement, since their inception, has always both been their appeal…and their Achilles heel. The fact is, Blackburn is not a particularly polarizing company. People attest to its longevity and strength… but rarely get misty eyed about the aesthetics. And by the same token, no one out there froths at the mouth whenever the name is mentioned. (“Blackburn?! FUCK Blackburn!!!) For a while they were happy to play that game -Not on everyone’s radar, but not OFF their radar either. But in recent years, they’ve made a push… focusing on the “design” side of their name a little more, and gathering a core group of personalities to effectively pimp the brand. And as we all know.. pimpin ain’t easy. (Or so I’ve heard.) Since such a big part of their history was touring racks, and utilitarian accessories for life on a bike… it makes all the sense that they would delve into bikepacking equipment… And that they’d do it in a functional, strong…and understated way. Like the Blackburn lights and racks anyone riding for more than five years has likely owned… the foray back to their touring roots will likely be much the same; accessible gateway bags and gear for those people considering getting lost on a bike. Rightly so.
The boat came to pick us up… and we made our way down the river toward our point of egress, stopping at a point to grab an assortment of whateverthefuckwewanted at a marina store.
Standing in the knee deep water, unloading our bikes from the raft, the candy I’d eaten a while before hit. I’d felt nothing to this point, save for the two Pacifico tallboys I’d procured from the marina store and pounded a bit too quickly… but the moment I said something out loud, it was a cascade of echos, trails and commentary in my head. Things started to move in cyclic squares, with an inner monologue about every single one of those squares beginning to occasionally and inadvertently burst out… like tourettes. “Fuck” I thought (out loud), a bit annoyed with myself. “How long is this going to last?” And then, once again out loud and with too much volume, “I’d better try to keep my mouth shut.” More echoes and squares and commentary. And likely a wild glaze to my eyes.
Working as silently as I could, we got everyone’s bike off the boat and started the long and arduous 13 mile climb out of the canyon. The gravel was just as loose as it had been on the descent, and the only stable lines were the channels left by flash floods, which meandered where they would meander. Which almost led to a few wrong turns to whoknowswhere. The big tires of our bikes did their best and we all stopped talking as we fell into our respective cadences. Meanwhile, I was having an argument with myself about how I needed to shut up with the pedal stroke counting, (323. 324. 325…). I pulled ahead a good bit, and with my chemical focus, just rolled straight back into Dirt Demo in time to meet some faraway friends and drink beer in the Surly tent. Like I’d planned. Once we were all back in Boulder City, we met at the hotel pool, cleaned up and ate tacos… and headed to a dinner with Blackburn and a showing of their short film, Roll With It… a well done piece of bike-packing propaganda. New Belgium beer. Chicken Satay. Live music. New and old friends. Desert air.
Bikepacking…is all the rage these days. And while it’s easy to be snarky about that when every brand in the world is suddenly into it… or when the kids who just bought their first bike couple of years ago are suddenly interwebs experts about it… Fuck it. I’ll take it. Because more people getting outside on bikes is always a good thing. Even the neophyte dipshits and the sycophantic fanboys. (You know… as opposed to the jaded and mentally unbalanced hacks.) And while there’s a part of me that fears that the pioneers will get lost and forgotten in the melee… a part of me thinks that more bags on the market will let the cream rise to the top. Less dilution and more…evolution. I hope? And in so many ways, that neophyte enthusiasm it’s what’s breathed new life into the bike. It’s what’s making it accessible, as opposed to a daunting cool-kid club. Yeah, faux-earnestness makes me nauseous… But so does the mirror. So when I feel that bitterness well up inside… the “Pffft. I was into this shit before anyone” bullshit… I just give myself a friendly reminder. Somewhere between a Henry Rollins show-must-go-on fisticuff and a Ian Mckaye show-stopping “Sir… a word with you, if you please?” (but kind of more the former than the latter. The right side of my face can attest to that.)
The point is… bikes are cool. We aren’t.
Watts is the owner of Revolution Cycles in Greensboro, NC… freelance moron for BikeRumor… scrivener of shop-life at Dirt Rag… and the misanthropic trainwreck behind the Revolting Cogs, a biannually updated blog and anarcho-collective/wealth management consulting firm specializing in self-immolation and bombast.
Follow him at @revoltingcogs on the InstaFace (or like…don’t).