Sojourn in Jerusalem, Israel

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Journey to Jerusalem between solar powered weeks in the Negev and the rising tide of spring in the rest of Israel, unfolding new layers of riding to the north.  Arriving in Eilat on the first of February, we cordone ourselves to the south for a few weeks, making circles in the desert to join Ilan and Danny for a fresh piece of the IBT.  We finally pass north to the Dead Sea, and out of the deepest natural basin on Earth, in a sandstorm.  We continue toward the north– just to the center of the country– to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Jerusalem: an ancient modern city amidst a series of steep hills, bounded on three sides by Palestine, one of the highest densities of religious Jews in the country, rich in culture and beauty and diversity.  Tel Aviv, I now know, is quite the opposite.

Rain arrives in tandem with our arrival to Jerusalem, 2500ft above sea level.  Cold weather sees us into a cave for the night, one of hundreds or thousands in these limestone hills.  But this cave just happened to find us on a dark night on a terrace just below the HLC route, just out of town (GPS coordinates here).  We push onto a narrow track to set up our tent in the pines.  A dark hole in the yellow glow of the evening catches Lael’s attention– just a mile from the edge of the city, properly– we literally walk into a warm dry cave out of the rain.  This becomes our home for the two and half days in Jerusalem.  This place, we promise, remains on the list of places to revisit.

On our first morning in the city, we meet Louis in the souk.  Dates and nuts and Euro-chocolate pastries take center stage, next to olives and piles of pita and fruits and vegetables.  It is a nice market, probably stunning if you come from Iowa, but nothing compared to Cairo.  Cairo tends not to be a popular topic of discussion in Israel; instead, I tell people we have come from Eilat.  That’s nice.

Louis comes from Iowa.  He first traveled to Israel at the age of 18.  Ten years later he has just completed six months of mandatory military service, now awaiting his Israeli passport in the post.  He will maintain dual citizenship, but plans to live in Israel.  He finished with the military last week, and begins work as a music teacher on Tuesday.  After a cold shower and several cups of hot coffee, we walk all around the city to the tune of every thread of information our impromptu tour guide can offer.  His knowledge and passion for the city is contagious, passing secret alleyways and favorite eateries.  He rides a Brompton and without hesitation, asks us to coffee at his apartment as soon as we meet.  Thanks Louis!

We meet Julian on our second evening in town.  Julian comes from Philadelphia by way of a semester in Jerusalem a few years ago through Eastern Mennonite University.  He came back to volunteer time to develop the Jesus Trail.  He now works for the Abraham Path, an international walking path projected (and growing) across the Middle East, from Sinai to Turkey.  Through the development of local walking resources, the organization aims to empower governments and people to welcome visitors, and in return, to hit the trail to discover other parts of the Middle East.  This is grassroots diplomacy, although the organization claims to be “non-profit, non-religious, and non-political”.  Most staff members come from the USA and the EU.  The Abraham Path relies on the vast network of existing trails in Israel, yet charts a new path through the West Bank (Palestine)  The Jordan Trail is now complete.  A projected route is in development in Sinai.  Scouting trips have been made to Eastern Turkey.  Syria is on hold for the moment.  There is talk about extending the path into Iraq.  Julian has been a valuable resource to us, even before we set foot in the country.  He has suggested routes and contacts in Israel, and proposes a trip to Jordan later in the month.  He rides a secondhand Surly Pugsley.  Thanks Julian!  

Yuval stands outside staring at our bikes, locked under the sodium glow of a street lamp.  We exit the coffee shop with Julian, a stack of 1:50,000 hiking maps in his hand.  Yuval is in awe of our bikes, “they are beautiful” he repeats over and over.  Immediately, he offers a place to stay for the night.  He invites us to the small bar where he works, for a round of Goldstar lagers.  We talk until late in the night about bikes and travel and Jerusalem.  He has recently completed his three year military service and has begun to study animation at Bezalel Academy.  He rides a finely appointed Surly Long Haul Trucker which he acquired in Germany and has taken to Iceland.  There, he ran into a guy that wrote a story for Bunyan Velo.  “You know Bunyan Velo?” he asks.  

Yuval asks if we know Poppi, aka @UltraRomance.  I don’t, but I point the question at Lael, knowingly.  You know a guy named Benedict?  “You mean Jeremy’s buddy from Texas?”  We’ve both heard that name while camping with Jeremy.

“I drew a picture for him.”, Yuval says simply.  “He said he would send a patch.”  

He never sent a patch, despite the massive popularity of Yuval’s pencil work, including a recent feature on The Radavist.

I’ve been carrying a Bunyan Velo patch in my wallet for the last eight months.  As I pass it to Yuval, he reaches for an envelope from Matt Whitehead, Patagonia-sponsored traveler, fatbike rider, and surfer.  The envelope contains a small stack of patches, a white background with a line drawing of a bicycle and a bundle tied off the back.  The bundle is a heart.  He hands one patch to me, and another to Lael.  Thanks Yuval!

Bike, electric bikes, and pedestrians; signs warning not to enter religious Jewish communities dressed in pink shorts and cutoff sleeves; an Ethiopian Orthodox church, lions everywhere in there; the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and a big line to visit the Temple Mount, normally closed to nonbelievers; hummus, dried fruits, sweets; Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, lots of English; vineyards and INT singletrack and farm tracks and a dirt road entrance all the way into Jerusalem; a mosaic showing Jerusalem at the center of the world; Louis, Julian, and Yuval; an IMBA certified trail out of town and a signed route to Tel Aviv; and of course, our cave.

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To the Dead Sea on the HLC, Israel

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We complete a circle around the Negev desert with Ilan and Danny, connecting new singletrack from Mizpe Ramon with the now familiar HLC route from Tsofar back to Sde Boker.  Moving north from Sde Boker, we eventually descend 3700ft to the Dead Sea, over 1200ft below sea level.  We ascend an ancient Roman road into a forest along the border of Palestine, we cross paved roads teeming with inexperienced roadies pissing by the roadside on Shabbat asking for snacks from their group’s escort vehicle; we sleep in a cave in a forest park outside Jerusalem and push our bikes through the Old City market in the morning, deflecting questions from Arab vendors about “How much, the bicycle?” while we seek the earthy brown bread they make.  Israel, the Negev, Palestine, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, the West Bank, Area A, Area B, Area C; chalky lime wadimakhtesh, savvanafication and desertification, kibbutzim, fences, farms, forests, 4×4 tracks, and so many signs and trails, but one simple GPS track from north to south, or south to north.  That’s only a few days on the HLC. 

The HLC, as you well know by now, is the annual bikepacking race across Israel from north to south, although it really only becomes an annual race after its second running this April.  By now, you also know our propensity to follow existing routes through new lands, using them as backcountry highways and approximate touristic guides as we slowly peel away the layers of a place.  From scheduled off-pavement touring routes like the Traversée du Massif Vosgien in Alsace, France to rough and tumble footpaths across Poland and the multi-day stage race route across Greece, the Bike Odyssey, we like to know that even when our maps don’t entice us in one way or another, we can continue along a charted path.  These routes aren’t challenges to be accomplished and completed, but sometimes-challenging paths of discovery.  Most of the time, just as we set off across South Africa on the Dragon’s Spine, we don’t really know what we are in for.  Two weeks out of Cape Town I wrote about our growing understanding of strongly institutionalized racism only twenty years after the official dismantling of the Apartheid system, “and I thought I was just bikepacking across South Africa”.  There was a lot more to South Africa than dirt roads.  There are many things you cannot learn from the internet, or from others.  Those are discoveries to be made on the ground.

Seven years ago we looked at dirt routes with curiosity.  Several years ago, we pushed onto dirt almost full time, beating around the bush on an old Schwinn High Sierra and a Surly LHT, but singletrack and true all terrain biking loomed.  Our current bikes, a Surly Krampus and Lael’s secondhand Raleigh XXIX enable access to most of the riding we encounter.    Even so –and we have already spent lots of time on fatbikes– there is a proper fatbike tour in our future.  Places like Namibia, Jordan, Finland, Baja California, Australia, Mongolia, Bolivia, Egypt, and Alaska beckon.  How best to use a bicycle to reach new places?  I’m not ready to abandon the bicycle.  Lael talks about walking.  I think about fat bikes and full suspension and ultralight, perhaps not all at the same time.  Having a bike by my side is a strong habit.  Our current equipment is suitable for about 90% of the riding we can expect to find (including pavement, of course), which makes our bikes reasonable, and as close to perfect as one could ask.  But the other 10% is fascinating.  Maybe it is more than 10%, once the lens of a fatbike is properly focused.  A full-suspension bike is a similar extension, although more a difference in degree than in kind.

As for the HLC route, the riding ranks alongside some of the best explorations we’ve had in Europe and uses a similar mix of well-signed dirt roads and walking trails.  The chance to ride in the desert reminds us of the AZT, but is far less technical.  It is like the Divide, with much less climbing, yet more technical than the endless dirt roads which link Canada and Mexico.  The route includes a mix of recently built IBT singletrack, technical jeep trail, sandy wadi, mellow dirt roads, and just a bit of pavement.  

No, the politics of the region do not present themselves significantly along the HLC, especially not in the desert.  The entire route remains in uncontested Israeli territory, excepting the section in the north in the Golan Heights, which is under full Israeli military control.  Israel is extremely safe.  However, it is not uncommon to see young soldiers with automatic weapons over their shoulders, a duty of their combat training to keep the weapon with them at all times.  Otherwise, overpriced gas station snacks, smooth paved roads, an efficient bus system, and helpful but know-it-all Israelis welcome you as in Germany, or America.  

For anyone interested in a bikepacking challenge in the style of the Tour Divide or the AZTR, airfares to Tel Aviv are very well priced including roundtrip rates from NYC for just over $600, and the bike flies free with Aeroflot.  It is rumored that the great Scott Morris will be there, alongside AZ compadre Max Morris who returns for a second year.  Even Lael is thinking about a nice ten-day riding binge back to the Red Sea.  There may be no other bikepacking race in the world that pushes through the crowded marketplace of an ancient city.  The HLC starts April 9.

From Sde Boker to the south Dead Sea.

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Nearing the rim of Makhtesh Gadol, or the Great Makhtesh– The Big Crater.

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Into the makhtesh, a natural non-impact crater found only in this region.  The entire makhtesh drains though a single wadi at the southeastern end.  

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The HLC features miles of mellow dirt roads, sinuous lines of singletrack, and here, some chunky 4×4 tracks.

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The Tsin River at -200ft, and still descending.

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Weathered date palms and other salt-resistant flora.

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A short lungbusting climb to a high vista above the river, still only at -278ft.  The lowest point in the USA at Badwater, Death Valley, CA is just four feet lower at -282ft.  But I am still on top of a hill.

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Our route crosses to an adjacent valley, where we ride a gravelly wadi, recently compacted and cemented by rain.  The jeep tracks in the center are softer than the surrounding riverbed, which is often less smooth than the softer tracks in the center.  It is a riddle often without an answer, except perhaps a fatbike. 

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Into a precise and narrow canyon of soft limestone, down to Ein Tamar at the southern end of the Dead Sea.  Looks like rock, but is soft like fragile dry clay.  Really fun and easy downhill riding, especially when a clear drainage presents itself.  This section is signed as a local MTB route.

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We arrive in Ein Tamar just after dark and discover a public camp in a spacious town park featuring fresh water and pit toilets.  The local grocery is well stocked and open late.  We often dream about free, legal camping and cold beers at the end of a long day.  The combination usually remains a dream, but is not uncommon in the Negev.  In most communities in the desert you may ask for a place to camp, while some even have simple established places for camping.  Just ask.

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About a kilometer from the town is the southern terminus of the Dead Sea, which is exclusively cultivated for salt production in the south, separated into evaporation ponds.  No floating in the water down here.

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Additional spoils of our free campsite, and of traveling in a wealthy country.  I find 22 strawberry yogurts in the trash at the park, obvious remnants from a picnic on the previous day, discarded alongside plates of Israeli salad and paper coffee cups, and a persimmon.  How many yogurts can we pack on our already loaded bikes?  Well, about 22.  There is always a way.  I ate 14 that day.  Lael insisted on counting.  

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Salt ponds, land mines.

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Shade.

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The HLC follows dirt tracks to the west of the Dead Sea for some time, crossing drainages at the base of the mountains before turning sharply upward and away from the valley.

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More chalky wadi riding.  Sublime when dry, miserable when wet.

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1000ft up an unrideable hiking trail away from Nowe Zohar begins our ascent out of the Jordan Valley.  Toward the center of the country, forests and flowers, and Jerusalem!

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A bus on the Jordanian border, Israel

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A night on the HLC and IBT routes, which for a time follow adjacent tracks along the Jordanian-Israeli border in the Aravah Valley.  No plan for camp and too much time spent inspecting sandy dates and pomelos on the ground, night falls too soon.  The desert expanse is without features for miles, and a north wind blows.  A bus resides between and beneath two communication towers, within sight of a disused observation structure on the Jordanian side.  Russian and Hebrew graffiti color the outside of the bus.  Passing from Egypt to Israel, we are no longer wealthy tourists but experienced opportunistic dirtbags.  I swear, we haven’t changed.

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From Eilat on the IBT and HLC, Israel

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No culture shock, except two-thirds of every road sign is illegible, and one-third is in English.  And, for the first day we don’t know the exchange rate from shekels to dollars, so Monopoly rules apply (try not to spend, but it is not real money so who cares).  The other two languages are Hebrew and Arabic, with Hebrew on top.  

Leaving Egypt, border agents rigorously inspect a few chosen items, ignoring most of the rest.  They seem most curious to fondle the sack of flatbread in my framebag, ignoring the conspicuous 2L steel bottle on the underside of my down tube.  Israeli border agents are far more professional, interviewing each of us separately to determine how we manage to travel with so little luggage, for so long.  “Don’t you stop to see the sights?”  Lael informs her that we are always seeing sights, all the time.  Our bikes are loaded onto the conveyor and sent through the x-ray machine.  

Public bathrooms with sit-down toilets and paper and hot water, and they don’t cost two rand.  Free sugar packets from every roadhouse.  But cane juice is gone and the bread isn’t as good as Egypt, and everything seems really expensive except it’s really just like America.  Local kibbutz communities do produce organic dates, olives, goat yogurt, and wines; although expensive, they are worth the money.  The biggest homecoming to the first world?  Some schmuck who asks too many questions he already knows the answer to, while I am eating.  Don’t interrupt my meal to be a schmuck.  I’m far too familiar with this practice.  Americans do it well.

We connect signed dirt trails straight out of Eilat, linking to the Holyland MTB Challenge race route and the Israel Bicycle Trail the next morning.  The Holyland MTB Challenge took place for the first time last April, connecting the southern border at the Red Sea to the Golan Heights in the north, near Syria.  The Israel Bike Trail will also connect the country north to south, and is currently complete from Eilat to Mitzpe Ramon, included miles and miles of freshly signed and graded singletrack through the mountainous desert.  Thus far, in two days of riding, the two routes coincide for much of their distance.  Thus far, the riding and camping is Israel is great.   

Leaving Eilat and the Red Sea.

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Hiking and cycling trails, signage not seen since Europe. 

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Designated camping areas minimize impact on the land.  Often provided for free, they do not have water, but offer space and fire pits.  So far, I’ve seen only drive-in sites on dirt roads.  

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Technical riding on rocky sandy footpaths, trying to find our own way through the mountains.

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Easy cycling routes, mostly on dirt roads.  Camels on wheels are cool.

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The colors of the Israel National Hiking Trail.

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Which provides a shortcut up a mountain.  We choose to hike our bikes to avoid a $12 per person park fee, required by way of the main dirt road and the HLC/IBT route.  

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Nice trail.

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Which opens up to a rideable plateau up top and a playground of trails.

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Eventually connecting to the IBT and the HLC route.

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Israel Defense Forces (IDF) property and nature reserves cover much of Israel, I’ve been told.

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Incidentally, IBT signage only routes from north to south– no signs coming from the south.  Hopefully the northbound signage is forthcoming.

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Fresh trail.

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And an unofficial wild camp on an east facing ridge.  A campground listed on my GPS turned out to be a commercial quarry.  Instead, we take the opportunity to camp up high, overlooking the Aravah Valley and Jordan.

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Haven’t found alcohol for our stove yet, so a fresh cup of singletrack will have to do.  The imprint of the trail-building machines can still be seen.  Jordan in the distance.

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Switchbacks and countours– modern trailbuilding, durable trail.

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Old trail, and new bike-specific trail, both apparently in use.

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Some sand, not too much, but just enough soft stuff to think that now would be a good time for 29+.  Are those Surly Dirt Wizards available yet? 

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Fresh goat yogurt at our only resupply point for the day, the cafe at kibbutz Neot Semadar.

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More fresh trail.

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Arroyos, called wadi, which is Arabic for valley, usually a dry desert valley.

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We plan to ride a few more days of the HLC/IBT before turning west to meet a group of riders over the weekend, which will lead us back south toward Eilat.  Thereafter, we shoot north to meet our friend Christina in Tel Aviv, who is flying from Alaska for ten days of sun and sand in the desert.  Cool nights, warm days; dry, not too hot, fresh trail– nothing not to like.  

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Grassveld, Battlefields, Timberlands, Swaziland

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This route is a composite from the Dragon Trax website and our own adventure compass, connecting the border of Lesotho at Monantsa Pass through Swaziland at Bulembu, passing through part of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga Provinces in South Africa. The riding mainly consists of wide open gravel roads, railroad service roads, and forest roads, as well as some tar.    

Monantsa Pass (Lesotho/RSA)- Phuthaditjhaba- Kestell- Aberfeldy- Harrismith- Colling’s Pass- Elandslagte- Wasbank- Dundee- Utrecht- Knight’s Pass- Paulpietersburg- Piet Retief- Emahlatini Border (RSA/Swaziland)- Mankayane- Lusutfu River- Bhunya- Thembisa- Ngwenya- Maguga Dam- Pigg’s Peak Gold Mine- Ntabeni River- Bulembu- Josephdal Border (Swaziland/RSA) 

Only a week ago, I was happy to be leaving South Africa for Lesotho.  But we’re pleased to be back.  We look forward to a proper shower, an internet connection, and vetkoeks.  The thing we crave most is the mental space to relax.  I’ve never considered myself an especially private person– and I’m not in my own culture, I don’t think– but Lesotho has shown me how much personal privacy we have built into our lives. 

In time, South Africa is less and less challenging.  And while we are still learning and questioning and understanding, we begin an unconscious process of acceptance.  We know what we will find in local shops and what we like to eat.  We know how and where to find places to camp or who to ask.  We know which tar roads might have wide shoulders, which will have little traffic, and that the endless gravel roads are our home.  That word– “home”– is something which comes up infrequently while on the road.  It is only through the impassioned love of a place, such as in Albania, or with time that we might think of a place as home.  Here, it is time which has worked to make us feel this way.  That, and the shared cultural elements which make South Africa so much like America.  I have to laugh when South Africans ask knowingly about America, to point at the faults which Hollywood and media have so effectively spread to their shores.  Yes, we eat a lot of junk food and drive big cars and get fat.  It’s true.  

“But so do South Africans”, I say.

“Is it?”, which is the universal response for anything agreeable or disagreeable in South Africa.  Lean you head to the side, and ask calmly, “is it?”  It means as much or as little as “really”, which is as much a habit in America as “is it” is in South Africa.  But to me, the accent which Afrikaners impart on English is beautiful and charming.  Is it?  

We define newly discovered cultural similarities daily.

Coming from Lesotho, we shoot north to Kestell to camp for a night at the Karma Backpackers

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Vintage South Africana is everywhere in these old towns, which reminds me of the American West and the history of westward migration.  Voortrekkers left the Cape Colony to settle vast tracts of land in the interior, c. 1830-1840.  Many people traveled overland by covered wagon into sometimes challenging climates, to face attacks by the displaced or defensive native people, to eventually establish farms and communities such as the capitol city Pretoria, named for Andries Pretorius

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Vetkoek, literally meaning fat cake, is common in small town shops.  The fried dough is like an unsweetened donut, and at 1 rand apiece, makes an affordable packable snack.  Lael puts salt on everything.  

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The Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, or the Dutch Reformed Church, is a feature in many South African towns, although Anglican churches are also common.  Toyota trucks are a favorite of South African farmers.  Ford has recently entered the market.  Other Asian brands such as Mahindra, Isuzu, and Nissan are present to a lesser degree, as a lower priced alternate to the revered Toyota.  

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The greeting of wide open roads and rolling topography is refreshing after our time in Lesotho.  Each time we leave a country and return, it feels more and more like home.  

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Harrismith.

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Stretch the legs.

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This is a continuation of the Drakensberg, which are featured more prominently to the north and the south.

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This is the kind of riding, much like the karoo, that makes the Dragon’s Spine route like the Great Divide.

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Dropping off the edge of the Escarpment, from 5000ft+down to about 2000ft.  Trees, heat, and humidity are more abundant down low.

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The Dragon’s Spine route takes us along the railroad tracks from Elandslaagte to Wasbank, a once-great town that is now an impoverished shadow of its past.  Trees are growing through the windows of the old train station.  A hotel is advertised, now home to a single pool table and a bottle shop.  Some old towns are charming, but not Wasbank.  We are grateful to meet a shop owner who calls his parents, who offer us a place to put our tent for the night.  Inevitably, they invite us inside, feed us a traditional Indian meal, and offer showers and a bed.  Their family has owned the petrol station in town for many years.

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This is not the first time we’ve ridden RR lines in South Africa, but it cements the concept.  Most RR service roads are ungated and seem to be pretty reliable routes to travel by bike, although interruptions in continuity are possible, which add to the adventure.

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Dundee, where we are interviewed by the local newspaper, the Northern KwaZulu-Natal Courier.  

We speak with two very nice young woman, a reporter and a photographer, and the next week they publish an article titled  “Living young, wild and free from Alaska”.  

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Everyone describes the failing school systems in South Africa.  Most people have to pay to go to school, and options for high-priced education is available to those that can afford it.  The poorest children can attend school for free, and there are food programs as well.  I’m not certain of the quality of a free education in South Africa.  I’ve met some promising youth, but a lot of young people are slipping through the cracks. 

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RR lines are awesome in South Africa!  Johann, our host from Prince Albert, described a trip he made many years ago following RR lines for a great distance across the country.  We’ve only seen freight lines thus far.  

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Railroads, like canals, show you life away from tar roads.  We meet a farming family for the night.  We tour the farm and the irrigation system, which provides just enough water to grow maize in this semi-arid climate.  They prepare a braai.

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Near Utrecht, the only town in South Africa within a game reserve.

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Riding the RR line toward Piet Retief, and Swaziland.

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The quantity of productive timberlands increase around us, all the way across the border.

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We immediately notice the nice roadside bus stops.  The absence of now-familiar South African economic inequality is obvious.  That is, people are more uniformly poor in Swaziland, which to us, makes the county feel wealthier.  There is a calm to the country.  There are few fences.  People smile.  People speak English really well, and have ideas and opinions.  These are our first impressions.   

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That’s how you source local food.

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As in Lesotho, Swaziland is also the beneficiary of foreign aid.  New schools are a common project, as are improved toilets and rainwater catchment systems for the schools.

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The timber industry is healthy in the mountainous west of Swaziland.  In the eastern lowlands, sugar cane and bananas are the main production crops.  Agriculture and other industries are partly organized through the monarchy.

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Eucalyptus is a common hardwood resource.  It appears to be fast growing, resulting in tall, straight pole-sized trees

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Pines produce pulp and other low grade products such as fencing and palettes.

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The Coca Cola Company dominates the market in South Africa.  This cold grape-flavored Fanta is 40 rand, or about $0.35.  The currency in Swaziland is also fixed against the South African rand, as in Lesotho.

Beer and soda sold in both Lesotho and Swaziland is made in country, licensed from the South African parent company. 

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No need for coins, I watch these kids play round after round of ‘The King of Fighters” by coaxing the tines of a plastic fork into the coin slot.  This is outside a rural shop.

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Timber mill and timberlands.  

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Shoot me!  The kids are relaxed and kind, a little less maniacal than in Lesotho.  I really enjoyed this group.

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While taking a series of obligatory portraits, I try to organize a group photo before leaving.  They stop me as I begin packing up, “you must shoot him”.  

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They are referring to this young boy, who has been slowly making his way from down the road ever since I arrived.  All the other children quickly arrived at the road.  It just took him a little longer.  

All smiles.

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Mostly, the children don’t treat him any differently.

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Summer nights are nice, as long as the heat sets with the sun.

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Tracing the western border of Swaziland on our brief tour of the diminutive kingdom, we camp near Ngwenya for the night.  

Sunday night party outside the General Dealer and bottle shop.  This bar is bumping tunes to a small crowd of men, children, and older woman.  It is not uncommon to hear Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album in between classic African artists and more modern electro-pop.  The song “Koze Kuse” by DJ Merlon featuring Mondli Ngcobo is the most popular song in South Africa right now, if the stereos of local taxis are any indication.  The music video captures some classic South African scenes.

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Steps Over Swaziland, a film project advertised on the side of the road by this LP-sized sign.

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Swaziland claims the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world.  Public service announcements, free public health services, and free condoms are common.

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Diving back into the Timberlands on a series of tracks in the area near Pigg’s Peak.  This northwestern part of the country is prime for explorations, folded with mountains and laced with logging roads.  There are several MTB races in the area, mostly attracting South African riders.

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This route connects us back to the border of South Africa at Bulembu, now famous as the home of the Bulembu Emasi dairy.  Called mass, amasi or emasi, this cultured milk has a bright fresh yogurt taste, much like the yogurts we enjoy in Eastern Europe.  It is the best energy food in South Africa (sorry Coca Cola and Nik Naks).

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Bulembu is an old mining town revitalized by the dairy and a small stream of tourism.  Asbestos was once shuttled to Barberton, South Africa by an aerial cableway (like an alpine gondola), a distance of over 20km through very mountainous terrain.

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Back in South Africa.  While the roads turns to tar across the border, the ride from Bulembu to Barberton is epic.  The road rides high ridgelines until a blazing fast descent drops us into Barberton, 3000ft below.

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The road is punctuated by geology lessons, funded by the state.  Called the Geotrail Route, the new roadside facilities don’t seem to get much use.  The road is deserted.

This academic paper provides a fascinating overview of the mining history in this region, with maps and images.  This is one of the most significant gold mining regions in South Africa.

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Descending to Barberton, we once again meet hot and humid weather, as well as mangoes and bananas.  We’re about a week away from the border of Zimbabwe, and the end of our ride across South Africa.

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AZT: Grand Canyon to Flagstaff

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The Arizona Trail is one of the newest additions to the scene of long-distance hiking and bikepacking routes.  Originally conceived by Flagstaff resident Dale Shewalter in 1985, it was officially completed in 2011 with many volunteer hours and the assistance of federal National Scenic Trails funding.  Dedicated signage is now present from the northern terminus at the Utah border, to the southern terminus at the Mexican frontier.  Counting nearly 800 miles of trail along the way, the trail will continue to change as trail designers and trail crews sculpt better routes across the rugged Arizonan backcountry, including more durable singletrack trail with greater natural and scenic value for all user groups, including hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders.  The trail is technically done, although it will continue to change and improve.

For cyclists, the Arizona Trail is not as straightforward as if hiking the route.  Aside from some tough climbs and technical trail, several logistical challenges affect cyclists.  Wilderness sections of trail must be circumnavigated, as bicycles are prohibited; the Grand Canyon stands in the way as either a long hike-a-bike or a multi-day paved detour from the North Rim to the South Rim; and several challenging sections of trail promise additional hiking and pushing.  Add the challenges that all trail users face, such as sourcing food and water along the way, and the AZT becomes an epic undertaking.  Section riding lessens the challenge, and is a good way to enjoy a slice of Arizona and the AZT.

There is no single, definitive resource when planning to bikepack the AZT.  First published in 2002, Andrea Lankford’s book Biking the Arizona Trail suggests one possible route, which favors rideable dirt roads in place of the actual AZT at times.  To experience the state of Arizona on rideable off-pavement routes, this would be a great place to start.  More cavalier cyclists, with ultralight loads and racer’s legs, often choose to stick to the actual AZT as much as possible.  Back in 2005, Scott Morris and Lee Blackwell set off to ride, hike, and push through as much of the route as possible, bringing home valuable perspectives and GPS data for the rest of us to ponder.  Scott had previously ridden Andrea’s route in 7 days, while this effort consumed 25 days.  As a part-time Arizona resident with a handle on conditions of the changing trail, including newly-built sections, Scott says:

No one AZT trip has been the same. New sections are built, old ones rerouted, and the biggest question an AZT thru-rider should ask themselves is, “how much do I want to stick to the trail?”

There are two extremes of this route choice. Staying with the trail can lead to some long hike-a-bikes (but also amazing terrain). The other extreme is the route described by Andrea Lankford’s book, which is often comprised of dirt roads.

The current recommendation is to go with a route that is somewhere between the Lankford route and the “trail-no-matter-what”. There are several key sections of beautiful trail that simply weren’t built when Lankford wrote her book. There’s no need to spend so much time on dirt roads.

As such, we set out from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon last week to take a look for ourselves.  Along the way, we’ll follow some of the actual AZT, the best recommendation for cycling routes around wilderness, and on occasion, we’ll choose the easier of several options, especially to avoid prolonged hike-a-bike.  Our intention is to experience the state of Arizona by bike, for the first time.  As always, our intention is to live well and have fun.  In the coming weeks, we hope to bring more transparency to cycling the AZT.

The best resource for history, inspiration, and routeplanning a tour of the Arizona Trail is Scott Morris’ website Bikepacking.net, with a page dedicated to riding the AZT.

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At the Grand Canyon, we pick up a package shipped to us General Delivery by Big Agnes.  Our first night in the Fly Creek UL2 proves our new shelter to be a cozy place to spend a 19 degree night.

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In the morning, Lael looks for a way to keep her fingers warm.  She slides some spare sil-nylon stuff sacks over her wool mitts.

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Setting off for good from the town of Tusayan, south of the Grand Canyon Village, we enjoy an afternoon ride along meandering singledoubletrack along the Coconino Plateau.  The trail is well signed, and makes for a pleasant afternoon on the bike.  Carpets of pine needles and dappled sunlight are most of the reason we came to ride in AZ.  Riding amongst Arizona pines has been alluring for a long time.

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Signage on this section of trail indicates distances to trailheads and major road crossings, as well as stock tanks along the trail, which are potential water sources in season.  Lots of tanks are dry by this time of year in the high country.

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From atop the firetower, overlooking the Grand Canyon to the north, at sunset.

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The next morning, we rise to more rideable singletrack.  There are a few short pushes, especially as we acclimate to loose, rocky Arizona riding.  As a matter of habit, I will not mention these short periods off the bike, as they are a natural part of bikepacking.  Longer, more memorable pushes, however, will receive attention.  All nice riding here.

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The GPS track downloaded from Bikepacking.net indicates a waypoint, with text: “Sign says walk bicycles, but rideable”.  These little nuggets of information are invaluable when staring at a 2 1/2 inch LCD screen, chasing a pink line across the state.

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These high county forests are cattle country, with numerous cattle gates of various designs.  This one gives me a photographic perch as Lael rides beneath.

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Fire also plays an important role in these seasonally dry pine forests.  While mature ponderosa pines typically survive the fires, the understory remains open and airy as a result.

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Not here, but almost anywhere else.  Camping on the AZT is a dream.

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Only a day away from a proper grocery store, with generally cool weather, we enjoy fresh vegetables along the trail.  A bag of washed kale makes for a hearty salad trailside.

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Stock tanks come in many shapes and sizes, containing water from nearby surface water collection ponds.  When the ponds flood, gravity forces water through underground piping to fill the tanks with water.  Many tanks are fully-contained to limit evaporation to the atmosphere.

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The large tanks can then be used to fill water troughs for cattle.  Almost no water is present at this tank, called the Russell Tank, except for some lightly-frozen water in the smaller covered reservoir.  It smells alright, and we treat several liters with our UV pen.

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The central section of the route from the Grand Canyon to Flagstaff includes a series of dirt roads, some of which trace an old wagon route to the Canyon.  Just before 1900, the ride cost $20 and took about 12 hours.

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Out of the forests and into more open country.

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Crossing a large private land tract.  Gaining passage across such properties is essential to the success of long-distance routes such as the AZT, or hiking routes such as the PCT.

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Federal funding is also essential, in addition to countless volunteer hours.  Join the Arizona Trail Association to support the trail and to gain access to guides and trail resources.

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Open country en route to the San Francisco peaks above Flagstaff.  The route south of the Grand Canyon makes its first major climb up to 9000ft along the flanks of the Snowbowl ski area north of town.  The highest point, Humphrey’s Peak, reaches to 12,633 ft, the highest point in Arizona.

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Fast dirt road riding comprises about 30 miles of the AZT across the Babbit Ranch.  A nice place for a sunset ride.

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Shooting for some cover from the wind, we ride back onto USFS property.  Trail signage commemorates the official completion of the trail in 2011.

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Arizona promises memorable sunsets, clear nights, and warm days, even into November.

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And crisp mornings.

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Clear skies all around, save for some lenticular clouds looming over the San Francisco peaks.

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Back into the pines, we find some cover from strong winds this morning.  At singletrack speeds, winds are not a huge issue.  Still, a calm day makes for better picnics.

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Up into aspens above 8,000ft, better cover from the wind and some meandering sections of trail marked “new AZT” on the GPS are worth writing home about.  This is one of the nicest, most durable sections of trail anywhere.  With such high standards of trail building, the AZT is soon to be a premiere long-distance bikepacking route.

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We’ve just missed the golden hues of fall, as these trees now await frosty mornings and snow.  Looks a little like Anchorage in the winter.  We’ll be there soon enough, just in time for Christmas and the fatbiking season.

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Out of the aspen and back into the pines, we top out near 9000ft before beginning a nearly 15 mile descent into town– all on singletrack.

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Mexico, only 611 miles away.  Gone are the days of touring a hundred miles a day on pavement.  Bikepacking on singletrack is a whole other world.

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A bit of snow up high reminds us to keep moving south.

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Down, down, down…

Not a bad place for big tires, or suspension.  For those contemplating the new 29+ (29×3.0″) tire platform available on several new Surly models, Andy (aka Big Dummy Daddy) has written a thoughtful ‘reckoning’ of the E.C.R. from a recent ride aboard one of these bike camping beasts at a Surly-sponsored bike camping event in Colorado.  However, trails like this lead me more to the higher bottom bracket and descent-oriented geometry of the Krampus.

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Lael lands hard on the sharp edge of a rock– on her rear tire, that is– pinching a hole in the thick rubber of her 2.25″ On-One Smorgasbord tire.  A few minutes and some Stan’s sealant do the trick.

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Singletrack all the way into Flagstaff.  This is a great introduction to any town.

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We find a home for the night with Cosmic Ray, a local cycling legend and Warmshowers.org host.  Ray publishes a series of mountain biking and hiking guides throughout Arizona.  He has been riding and touring for decades, recently making passage along the EuroVelo6 Route across Europe.  Note, the TA 50.4BCD chainring in the mobile.

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Details from drafts of the 24th edition of his mountain biking guide.

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An airstream trailer houses the two of us for the night, plus a particular tattooed Pugsley rider from Santa Fe.

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Ray has been at it for a minute, having co-owned a bike shop in town back in the 80’s.  These days he rides, and edits his guides, which are updated annually.

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A nice collection of bikes mark various points in his cycling life.  This repainted Ritchey is a gem.

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Although he also spent a lot of time on an early Stumpjumper, back in his bike shop days.  He claims to have modified balloon-tire cruisers with gears and brakes prior to mass-produced models.  Marin, Crested Butte, Flagstaff…

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Now, his tourer and daily rider is a custom Coconino Cycles frame.  Macy’s coffee shop in Downtown Flagstaff is his usual morning hang, and a great place to enjoy an espresso in the morning.  It is a great place to get a feel for Flagstaff as well.  Thanks Ray for the hospitality, and the intel on Arizona Trails.  Check out the legendary “Cosmic Ray” guides at bike shops all over Arizona, or online at Amazon.

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Leaving Flagstaff towards Sedona, Jeremy joins us from Santa Fe for a few days of riding.  Step number one when leaving town on a fatbike, let some air out.  We plan to ride some AZT, and some of the Coconino Loop route towards Sedona for a few days in the sun down near 4000ft, before returning to Flagstaff.  Be back soon!

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News and updates:

The computer:  Moving on from the financial heartbreak of a waterlogged computer, I replaced the old machine with a new one.  Apple quoted $800 for repairs, and was unclear about whether data recovery would be possible.  There are a few days of photos that weren’t backed up anywhere else, although most of my files are safe.  Best Buy was offering the computer for $50 off the full retail price, although the price listed in the store (from last week’s sale I presume), was a full $100 off the full price.  I jumped at the chance, they honored the price– I insisted– and then put some of the money saved towards a full warranty against drops and spills for the next year.  I am handy with used bikes, free camping, and cooking healthy food on the road for cheap.  Computers, unfortunately, have been an expensive habit.  I’m learning; I promise to do better.  Time to move on.

Bunyan Velo: Bunyan Velo is offering a stack of stickers for $5.00.  Issue No. 4 is due out in January.  A printed anthology has been discussed, in addition to more affordable printed goods in various formats.  Support the future of Bunyan Velo with a few stickers.  Other BV paraphernalia coming soon.

Zippers, zippers, zippers!:  Zippers are dying everywhere, mostly from extended use and now, from gritty southwest sand and clay.  Framebag zippers are joining the fate of windbreakers, layers, tents, and rain jackets.  There is an inexpensive repair shop in Flagstaff that repairs zippers.  The result isn’t pretty, but it is cheap– a six-pack of beer and “at least five bucks” was the charge.  I offered $23 for two new sliders, one new zipper with slider, and some basic stitching on Lael’s torn sleeping bag.  Look for the small shop on San Francisco St.

This winter:  We plan to return to Anchorage for the winter.  As soon as we get back, we’ll be looking for work, fatbikes, and friends.  Any help is appreciated.  Due back mid-December, most likely.  Wanna ride fatbikes?

This color dirt only found in Sedona…

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Awake to Cochiti

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1:46 PM, Railrunner train in Albuquerque.  2:45, Kewa/Santo Domingo station.  3:15, Peña Blanca; 3:45 Cochiti Pueblo and grocery.  4:15, FR 289 or St. Peter’s Dome Road, gated dirt.  Rain.  5:30, dark.  Climb.  6:15, camp.  Wind and rain and wet clothes.  7:30 AM, awake.  Cochiti Canyon.

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The Denali Park Road: Riley Creek to Toklat River

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In a search of exceptional bike rides in this country, several results turn up.  The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is the longest dirt route anywhere; the GAP/C&O trail and the KATY trail are some of the longest rail-trails around and offer pure traffic-free riding.  The paved TransAmerica Trail (TransAm) is historic, winding along America’s backroads, while the Pacific Coast route is ever popular.  Every state has it’s hallmark routes, and the western states feature an incredible network of public roads on USFS and BLM lands.  Even, other National Park roads such as Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive and Glacier’s Going-to-the Sun Road are conversation pieces of places people like to ride.  However, nothing compares to the 92-mile Denali Park Road.

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Climbing from the Nenana River at the park entrance, the road travels westward along the northern side of the Alaska Range over a series of low passes, crossing several major rivers to achieve banner views of Denali and the range.  Riding high above the braided rivers– the Savage, Sanctuary, Teklanika, Toklat– several passes are carved from mountainsides to avoid the ever-changing floodplains below.  The effect is otherworldly; at least, roads like this are known only from snapshots of Himalayan and Andean roads.  In this part of Alaska spruce forests give way to sub-alpine shrubbery at about 2200 ft, and to a mossy alpine tundra further up.  The main section of the road from the Savage River entrance at mile 14 to Wonder Lake at mile 85, is mostly above treeline except when at river level.  Aside from the scenery and the wildlife, the lofty peaks and the wildflowers, it is the “atmos” of Denali that is the most engaging.

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Incoming air masses are regurgitated by the highest peaks.  The result is a witches brew of weather, with blue skies and thunderclouds competing for space.  The feeling is electric, and as Denali comes into view, shocking.  Clear blue skies are not unknown here, but are uncommon for any length of time and many visitors to the park never actually glimpse the Denali, “The Great One”.  The occasional views to the north or south of the range, toward Fairbanks and Anchorage, often show uniformly calm skies.  But these are big mountains rising from a broad flat landscape– they make their own weather.

Day 1: RIley Creek to Toklat River

I rode the full length of the road from the park entrance at Riley Creek to the gold-mining district of Kantishna at mile 92, and back.  Wishing to spend less time riding, many visitors combine a green shuttle bus with some riding and camping.  The green “camper buses” can drop off or pick up anywhere along the road, space permitting– simply wait for the next bus and flag it down.  A BRC (bear resistant container) is provided for storage of all food and scented items to hikers and cyclists.  I wasn’t sure how to pack it at first, but the Carradice Camper swallowed it up, thanks to the “longflap” feature.  I’ve been abusing this bag for almost two years, and it’s due to receive a little TLC.  Repairs are simple, and a durable needle and upholstery thread do more than solve the problem.  When I’m through, the bag will be better than new.  That’s the beauty of a durable canvas bag– it wears in.  An plastic Ortlieb-style dry bag wears out.

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Above, the Park Road is shown by the dashed yellow line as it passes the Muldrow Glacier near the Eielson Visitor’s Center at mile 66.  The Muldrow Glacier (the blue lights are at the foot) was the first route used by climbers to ascend Denali.  The impetus for Mt. McKinley National Park (renamed Denali NP in 1980) was not only to encase North America’s highest peak, but to preserve the Dall sheep and their habitat that were in danger of decimation by market hunters.  Charles Sheldon championed the Dall sheep as a unique species worth preserving, and assisted in the formation of a national park in 1917, several decades before statehood.  These days most visitors come to see the brutish bears, but it is the Dall sheep that are the most regal and unique.  From craggy perches they survey the land around them, enjoying the respite of the summer season.  Their snow white coats are camouflage in winter but make them highly visible this time of year; thankfully, few of their predators can approach their rocky dwelling.

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From atop Polychrome Pass, look a little closer:

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Descending down to the Toklat River, I made my camp on a gravel river bar.  A glacial bath washes away the dust and sweat; clean wool long underwear and a down jacket are a rare treat after a cold swim.  At 8 PM, it’s as bright as day.  Over twenty hours of sunlight right now, and we’re still gaining.  Looking south from my camp, the freestanding interior netting of the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 keeps mosquitos at bay, while letting in some midnight sun:

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Looking north, about 3:30 AM.

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