“It’s smoky up this way, too,” I said, gazing out the jeep window.
Boberts and I were driving northeast, through one of those long, linear valleys the Appalachians are known for. Patches of smoke drifted over the ridge tops and spilled across rural farm fields. It was fall 2016—the weekend after the presidential election—and massive forest fires were finally contained around our originally-planned route through Nantahala and Chattahoochee National Forests. Even though the trails were re-opened, a hoot and hollerin’ ride through a clean-up zone seemed uncool, plus a respiratory nightmare.
We’d scrambled to find a plan B. Boberts only had Friday off, while I was just passing through between projects. We needed a three-day ride, with moderate mileage and elevation—maybe 90 miles and 6000 feet of climbing—within a few hours’ drive of Chattanooga. Scanning the map, my eyes locked on Big South Fork Rec Area. A beautiful place, which I only knew from kayaking years before. An internet search revealed a slew of gravel roads and multi-use trails, plus river viewpoints and forested slopes that might still have some fall color. There was even a recently designated Epic ride.
I couldn’t find much online info about previous bikepacking. One guy in a forum said he was riding in with a sleeping bag to avoid campground fees—about ten bucks, about ten years ago. The guy was never heard from again… on this particular forum. Boberts and I had spent a month preparing for our first foray into cold-season bikepacking, and we were itching to go somewhere. I suggested, why not stick to our roving rider approach and explore. What could possibly go wrong?
“We’ll see,” said Boberts.
After stopping by Bandy Creek Visitor Center for info, we packed up and started around noon. The gravel Duncan Hollow Road led through fields and forests. The colors on the trees were, well…there were two: evergreen and brown. Sure, there were hints of crimson and pale orange. But, overall, it looked like the heat and drought had sent most leaves straight to brown and ground.
We shrugged this off and focused on the route, which soon dropped off the plateau down a ridiculously steep dirt trace that made our brake pads sing until singed. In a shady landing, midway to the bottomlands, we stopped to cool our bikes and warm our hands beside the rotors. Continuing, we forded a pair of creeks with bare feet, and soon we rode next to the Big South Fork of the Cumberland. The trail was as scenic and flat as we’d hoped, but some spots were just roots stripped of topsoil by previous high flows. Other sections were pocked by thousands of cobblestones churned up by horse hoofs. We rode when we could, but often walked.
“Baby heads,” mused Boberts.
“Bowling balls,” I muttered.
We dismounted to chat with a friendly woman on horseback, the only person we saw that afternoon. But after she passed, we scowled at her horse—which left us a little present dropped onto the choppy trail in reply. When the riverside trail ended, we turned up the ominous No Business Creek and followed that to the Kentucky Trail. This rugged singletrack, described as popular for hiking and biking, shot upward with almost as steep a gradient as our previous descent. We pushed until we could ride under remarkable hard-rock slabs through shady forests pocketed with great color.
But, when we reached the next junction, it was time to reevaluate. The first 12 miles, involving only 700-feet down and back up, had taken three hours. Slow going. If we continued on Kentucky Trail, we faced at least six more miles of similar terrain—through pleasant watersheds named Difficult and Troublesome Creek—before returning to guaranteed water at the river. Could take hours more than daylight offered.
We’d have to plan C to a back-up campsite, with nine miles on gravel roads. On our way, we stopped by Peters Mountain trailhead to inspect what could work as a camp. But with broken glass and trash strewn around a picnic table and outhouse, it looked like a sketchy backwoods hangout. Instead, we zipped down Peters Mountain Road into Rock Creek valley. The temperature plummeted as we descended. We were shivering as we rolled into Bell Farm Horse Camp—locked for the season, but fine for us to use according to the ranger.
This was our first cold season multiday bike trip, after years of milder season rides. We’d come prepared with highly packable layers, shells, puff coats, hats, gloves, and socks. When the long-term forecast announced dropping temps throughout the weekend, I’d called Boberts in a mild panic.
“I have a foot crisis,” I’d blurted, explaining that my increasingly poor circulation had led to near frost-nip situations on recent winter paddling and skiing trips. Extra wool socks no longer cut it.
“You have a foot crisis,” Dr. Boberts expertly diagnosed.
“Thanks, doc. And there’s no magic pill for that? Maybe something that can’t be transported across state lines?”
Boberts suggested shoe covers, so I now had a pair of those, too.
We had a fun night, catching up fireside. We rehydrated with water, dehydrated with whiskey, rehydrated with Mountain House meals. The ground was frozen by the time we called it quits. We were feeling lazy, and what with the season well over, we didn’t string a bear bag. Instead, we hung our food from the lantern post at an adjacent site.
It was around five a.m. when I awoke to the huffing sound of nostrils near my head. Like a curious dog, but louder, deeper, throatier. And that would be a bear. It was probably only feet from my tent. I held still, determined not to startle it and end up with a few new openings in the tent or me. I heard leaves crackle as it moved off, hopefully away from Boberts’ hammock and not toward.
“Boberts!” I whispered. “There’s a bear in our camp!”
“Yeah, no shit,” said Boberts, fully awake.
“We need to make a lot of noise to scare it off,” I said, slightly louder.
“No, we need to be quiet, so it doesn’t come back.”
With increasingly loud voices, we argued about strategies, until the bear became frustrated by our poor interpersonal communication skills and ran off through the bushes.
The next day, we filled water and took off on the gravel road that followed Rock Creek. We passed a few homesteads but more collapsed cabins. Tiny graveyards, with bright plastic flowers offered by gravestones, reminded us of Appalachia’s booms and busts. Our goal was to use our lone full day to loop back on the Kentucky Trail and explore south toward the epic ride. Gravel led to a paved but steep climb. On the desolate ridgetop, one old and small Baptist church stood just down the road from another massive and newer Baptist church.
At the bottom of the hill, we entered a tiny hamlet with a dozen cabins and trailers. Most yards had a handmade sign, with similarly-themed questions, which made the whole town feel like a pop quiz. Things like:
“How will you meet THE END?”
“Can you welcome him into your heart?
“Jesus is coming. Are you ready?
“I forgot,” said Boberts, slapping his forehead. “That’s the one thing we’re not prepared for.”
From Dick Gap trailhead, we rejoined the single-track Kentucky Trail. In some spots, it was steep yet passable. Soon the challenges and contradictions resumed. The forest was lush and gorgeous, but the trail included frequent bone-rattling erosion planks. We passed a remarkable waterfall, but had to descend several cliffs by wooden staircase. We even encountered a ladder over a down tree.
“A real bridge to nowhere,” muttered Boberts as we carried over.
Hoping to replenish water at the promisingly named Big Spring Hollow, we instead found an algae and bug-infested trickle. We climbed to the next creek, but no better. We couldn’t bring ourselves to treat this murky stuff, so now we needed a new plan. The river was hundreds of feet down a mossy cliff face. We were moving only 1-2 miles per hour. Despite temps in the low-50s, we were sucking water down faster than expected due to all the exertion. Thus, backtracking seemed out. We agreed to accept defeat, skip the epic ride, and return to the gravel ridge road. The easier riding would allow us to conserve water. And hopefully we could fill up along the way instead of returning all the way to Rock Creek.
Luckily, the climb to the road was gradual and soon we were on gravel, making good time. We passed a few settlements, but all were either abandoned or fenced-in fortresses, with no trespassing signs. We’d nearly resigned ourselves to returning to Rock Creek, when we passed a cabin with a three-generation family sitting on the porch. When I asked if there was a nearby water source, the grandmother stood up.
“Sure is,” she said warmly, pointing at the ground. “Got water right here.”
She explained they had a well and insisted we fill up in her kitchen, not with the garden hose. We spent a half hour visiting and chatting about our ride thus far. They had no phone, no TV, just a generator and probably a radio—though we didn’t see one. They seemed almost completely untouched by the circus of the 2016 presidential election. I wished we could say the same. Eventually, we pushed on toward an uncertain camp.
Clouds were gathering on the horizon. A stiff and icy headwind picked up, followed by drizzly rain. We squinted as we rode the scenic ridgeline between thick forest and periodic sandstone outcrops. When we passed the less-than-ideal Peters Mountain trailhead we’d spotted the night before, we doubled back. The smart choice was to build camp before the storm hit. Tent and hammock went up, and we rolled bikes into the outhouse. I cleared the kitchen area of broken glass and trash—a final pedal to the shins on a trip that hadn’t gone as hoped.
Temps were in the low thirties by the time we sat down at the picnic table for dinner. Snow flurries fell from a thick black sky. On the road below, truck headlights rolled through the junction and began ascending the sideroad to our clearing. The truck stopped, possibly spotting my headlamp as I burned water on my alcohol stove.
“Got company,” I said.
Boberts glanced around. With cinder block shadows and moonlight glistening off broken bottles, the clearing had all the charm of an impromptu car camp or an Appalachian meth shop.
“Turn your light off,” whispered Boberts.
“Turn yours ON,” I countered. “Let them know we’re here and this space is taken.”
While we argued about strategies, our headlamp beams swung around the clearing in spastic movements. From a distance, they probably looked downright meth-induced. The truck occupants must have become suspicious of our behaviors, because the truck reversed down the sideroad and sped off into the darkness.
Our only remaining challenge was the dropping temperature. Boberts is a burly fella who doesn’t usually get cold, yet also doesn’t like the cold—his nickname isn’t Dr. Boberts Hawaii M.D. without reason. So, he never anticipated wanting an under-quilt for his hammock. I gave him all my extra clothes for insulation. Plus, I told him that if it came to it, we could turn my 1.5-man tent into a 2.5-man emergency shelter by lying straight as boards and holding our breaths all night. I was relieved when Boberts said that wasn’t necessary. And I slept soundly through the night, while Boberts was absolutely miserable and developed his own circulation condition.
After hot coffee the next morning, we rode out along the Divide Road, plus a series of trails, steeps, and creek crossings. We were pushing up another insane slope, when Boberts offered an unsolicited compliment.
“You know,” he said. “When you’re on your game, you’re really on your game. But—”
“There was a forest fire,” I interrupted. “Should we have just ridden laps around your block a thousand times?”
“Just saying,” said Boberts, with a laugh.
“Well, thanks,” I replied, chuckling. “I mean, I did put a lot of effort into this plan B.”
“Can you imagine what might have happened if you hadn’t?”
We went on like this for a while, so busy joking about lessons learned that neither of us noticed we’d reached the top of our last push. Despite it being a few degrees above freezing, neither of us was cold anymore. And as we rode the remaining miles through a pit of sand—okay, who put that here? Are we being toyed with?—we started talking about where to ride next.
“Some place where we ride more than sixty percent of the time,” said one of us, can’t remember who, while the other said, “Agreed.”
Photos by Boberts Hawaii and California Mike.
Mike Bezemek is a writer and photographer of books and blogs for Adventure Cyclist Magazine, Canoe & Kayak, Falcon Guides, Skyhorse Publishing, and more. Please find links to his work and contact info at mikebezemek.com.
The Terrapin System 8L is based off the proven concept of the full size Terrapin System, which boasts generous 14L capacity. The original Terrapin was released five years ago and was the first production holster style system with a fully waterproof drybag on the market. Later the drybag was updated introducing air purge valves for proper compression, another Revelate first. All along, tires have been getting bigger and there’s been a clear need for a slimmer, lower volume version.
We took a “from the ground up” approach when designing the 8L system. Many new ideas were tried, hardware and webbing were torture tested, then field tested, and we could not be happier with the results.
A key feature to the holster is its new attachment system. Instead of using a center mounted webbing point, we developed an “indie-rail” style attachment where side mounted urethane coated loops wrap around each saddle rail individually. We combine this with a trucker’s hitch style, 2:1 mechanical advantage webbing system with an auto locking active cam. To release, you simply pull outward on the pull loop to unload the cam buckle. This system, combined with a fully rigid internal structure of the mount, eliminates side to side sway. Without any added hardware components, it offers best in class stability.
Additionally, the holster features an external HDPE bottom sheet. This exposed sheet prevents accidental damage should you graze a tire on it and acts as a guard for the drybag. As our product tester and ambassador Joe Cruz found out in Tasmania, it also works great for carrying tortillas!
I have a brand new bicycle! Or rather I have an old bike made new again. I had this frame built 10 years ago as a 29” singlespeed touring bike, greatly inspired by Pat Irwin who I heard refer to himself once as a “dirt roadie”. This was long before gravel bikes had been “invented”. Surly’s red Crosscheck was out then, and Pat rode one with flat bars and I rode my current bike with a 42:20 ratio on a 200km brevet around the Homer, AK. Ten years later, I still can’t call myself old, but my knees are older and singlespeed touring is still the best thing ever but sometimes there are cool mountains that are easier to ride up with camping gear on your bike if you have a rear derailleur. When I was in Portland, OR, last fall I hand-delivered the frame back to Vanilla and the kind folks there gave me wicked nasty new dropouts, cable stops and a new coat of paint.
In the last 10 years bikepacking has exploded and now all I have to do to get maps for a new and interesting area is plug my GPS into a computer and download some GPX files. Bikepacking.com is an amazing resource and I took the New Mexico Off-Road Runner and Monumental Loop tracks from here and called it good.
The NMORR route is awesome. By early afternoon I was far from any city and in the Santa Fe National Forest on chunky jeep roads that could suddenly change into swoopy two track through big meadows bordered by pine trees. I dabbed on some of these initial roads but was able to ride almost everything. A spring, which should be a good water supply, had an oily sheen and was murky and skuzzy.
I hemmed and hawed and decided not to take any water from here: there’s always more water in the desert than you think there is, and this was a forest not a desert, and besides, there were tons of cows here and they needed to get a drink somewhere. A few miles later I passed a spinning windmill churning out beautiful clear water not on any map. Camping on the NMORR is easy. Even if you’re not on BLM or National Forest land — which you usually are — there’s always a wash to duck down into or a big juniper to snuggle up next to as a wind block. Get water, make hot food, get your crossword puzzles and headlamp and get in your sleeping bag, because there’s 11 or 12 hours of darkness this time of year and it’s too cold once the sun goes down to watch the stars with only have a few thin layers of nylon and wool to keep you warm. At night, until south of Magdalena, it would be in the 20°Fs and I would sleep in a down jacket and rain pants inside my 32° bag to stay kind of warm.
Usually if I had big winds on this trip they were from the west, and the following day was no exception. I crawled towards the Very Large Array along the pavement but did not take the detour to go there given the headwind I had. Instead I cruised up Mt. Withington and saw a huge bull elk cross the road right in front of me.
There were tiny sections of snow in the shadows but none of them were deep. Eagle Spring on the backside of Mt. Withington was almost frozen solid. I used the lid of my cook pot to skim a 1/4 oz of water at a time from the surface to fill my bottles. Later on a creek bed paralleled the road and it was running with what I assume was snowmelt. I chugged and refilled bottles from a pool in seconds whereas at Eagle Spring this took hours.
The Chloride loop was a highlight of the route for me. Instead of going straight to reach Winston and Chloride directly, you take Highway 59 west for a few miles, delve into the magical Gila National Forest, and cruise deserted roads until sneaking onto the CDT and then bombing through Bear Trap and Chloride Canyons. The graceful swooping downhill trend in Chloride Canyon was a delight, and I saw some thin 700c tracks in the dust ahead of me (700×32? 35?) and I was so happy this wasn’t me. Because I have ridden most of the rest of the CDT in New Mexico, it was extra special to be on this new section of it, if only for a mile or two. Winston has a great general store but the last hot dog on the hot line had been swimming in there for a little too long. Mayonnaise on dogs is always good and I wish I had had two regardless. In T or C the next morning I had a Big Az chicken fried chicken sandwich from a gas station and this had 720 calories. Riding above Elephant Butte dam is spectacular, almost as much so as that sandwich, and the powerline roads that follow this are initially big chunky rock moves but quickly become fast two track riding. Coming into Hatch along the railroad tracks and then the levee roads reminded me of cutting across Anchorage — or any city, really — on the informal social trails that crisscross it. It was early Sunday morning and Sparky’s was closed and I wasn’t going to wait for an hour just to have a famous cheeseburger, so I left Hatch with more gas station snacks and rode the climby gravel roads in Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument. As (usually) always, there was more water here than expected, and I was able to resupply my water easily. One packet of Orange Crush singles powder works for 2 litres of water flavoring. Scenic Canyon and Broad Canyon are magnificent. Maintained dirt roads led me to Corralitos Ranch road and then I went left on the powerline road, camped, and then made it into Las Cruces the next day. Pablo at Outdoor Adventures offered me a place to stay, and if anything the friendship I made there was equal to or greater than all the amazing riding and camping I’d had in the eight days prior. That’s warm and fuzzy, but it’s true.
The Monumental Loop route leaves from Las Cruces. The NMORR is mostly fast, non-technical dirt road riding, whereas the ML is mostly sort of fast, semi-technical rarely-maintained dirt road riding mixed with a good amount of tiny cattle trails, swoopy flowy singletrack, and some rocky mountain bike trails. I had a blast on the ML! From the University where the ML starts, you immediately enter an area which locals refer to as “The Sandbox”. Let some air out of your tires, unweight your front wheel and try not to turn your handlebars! I had a 2.1 tire on my front wheel and did alright, but a 2.5 wouldn’t have hindered anything. Going around A Mountain and then Observation Mountain on those rocky trails was slow going for me, and I was happy when I got back to the sandy cattle trails and then the swoopy flowing trails leading to Leasburg State Park at Radium Springs. The key to the first day’s riding was to consciously avoid any fast, easily-ridable dirt road you crossed, and instead look for the faint singletrack leading away from that nice road.
Heading towards Hatch
I was in Hatch (again) by early morning on day two, and (again) Sparky’s was closed so I did not get a world famous green chili cheeseburger. I didn’t climb Mt. Tonuco for the special uphill and downhill hike-a-bike; instead I walked the sandy powerline road for a mile or two until I got to the levee roads and biked into Hatch that way. After Hatch eventually the ML meets up with the NMORR route, and the two overlap for several miles. But the two meet coming from two opposite directions, and I at least had no idea this was happening until recognizing the same stock tank from a few days prior. Once I also recognized my own tire tracks from three days earlier, I stopped toggling in on the GPS so much and was able to cruise a little easier for a while. The clouds started doing what they’d been promising to do all day, and I woke in the middle of the night to a drizzle that turned to rain as the day drearily wore on. Eventually my brakes clogged with enough mud that I could no longer spin my wheels. At all. Even when pushing. So I detoured to Highway 70 and came into Las Cruces that way, missing the final route miles in Prehistoric Pathways National Monument. There are dinosaur tracks out there. It poured all day the following day, and I was happy to sleep on Pablo’s fold out couch again like so many previous cyclists and enjoy a day off.
Monument Loop singletrack
Looking down to White Gap
The ML is shaped like a figure 8, divided into a northern section and a southern section. The southern section is more stark and austere than its northern counterpart. Remove the volcanic rock, change the mesquite to spinifex, and lots of its two tracks could easily be from central Australia. The Sierra Vista Trail was an all morning downhill cruiser run that ended in Texas in Franklin Mountains State Park. I camped near the northern edges of El Paso’s farthest suburbs and bought food in Vinton early the next morning. In Las Cruces I’d gotten ahold of Ray Molino, who lives near the route, and he was gracious to offer me a place to stay and tell me where the potable water was in his house. Unfortunately he was in Alaska when I called him, getting ready for the Iditasport, and so I didn’t meet him like I had high hopes of doing. The route past Vinton traces the rim of Kilburne Hole, a maar volcanic crater, and the views into this big hole are amazing.
The rain that had fallen while I was in Las Cruces was still plentiful on my third day of riding. Unexpected mud and puddles were very much in effect all morning, and I carried my bicycle over these frame-clogging messes more than I expected to. Not as bad as some of the clay roads in Colorado, but nonetheless not ideal. Chloride Canyon was the highlight on the NMORR and the woolly mammoth stones were the highlight of the ML. On a small spur from the main route, there is an ancient volcanic remnant called Providence Cone, and on an even smaller, one mile spur from this is a rock outcropping were mammoths used to scratch their prehistoric itches. These rocks were a power spot: wind and rain sculpted mini-monoliths set in a sea of sand and mesquite. Super amazing! It was surprisingly sandy after Providence Cone, and I pushed more than I expected to in this last section of the trail. Eventually I reached county roads and was able to pedal into Las Cruces with the help of huge tailwinds. I took my shirt off on the final downhill to the Mesilla Dam, not because it was incredibly hot, but more because I’d been wearing it for three days straight and it seemed like a good time to air out. I thought of my friend and fellow shirtless biker Nicholas Carmen while I did this, and waved gleefully at the first vehicle I’d seen in 24 hours while I bombed down to the dam. I had a bison burger with green chilies and cheese in Las Cruces and everything was grand.
Dylan Kentch is a decade long ambassador and friend of Revelate. He’s currently guiding trips for Adventure Cycling. You may find him eating oatmeal or drinking cold coffee somewhere along the southern side of the states.