By Claire (Curb) Burke
Prefer to listen? Here’s Curb reading her story.
September 24th, 2021, 6 AM – Salt Lake City
The 2021 Utah Mixed Epic, official description:
“A self-supported bikepacking adventure snaking through Utah’s alpine and desert regions. With plenty of high altitude climbing and long stretches without services. Favoring unpaved surfaces, be prepared for everything from smooth gravel roads to technical, rocky passages.”
In the heart of the sleeping city, the chill of fall made itself comfortable in the still dark sky. I grinned ear to ear about starting my first-ever bikepacking event, the Utah Mixed Epic, a 960-mile, self-supported, mixed-surface route meandering from Salt Lake City, Utah to Moab.
Poor thing, she had no idea what was coming.
Part I: Ignorance is Bliss
It started innocently enough, a couple of rad lady friends, Matilde (aka Mati) and Emma, told me about a cool bikepacking event called the Utah Mixed Epic (UME) coming up in the fall. No registration fee! Just a $20 donation to the bikepacking organization of your choice. Who could say no to that? We signed up instantly, talked about it incessantly and were so excited to do this big thing together. I bought a Surly Karate Monkey off Craigslist from a dude with incredibly tiny, round glasses during early summer. He recently toured the Baja Divide and was, at first impression, a shell of a human. He named the bike “La Tormenta”, had zero interest in bikepacking ever again and said his ass would never be the same. I didn’t mind, the bike had great components and a full suite of bikepacking bags for a screamin’ deal.
I spent the summer mountain biking with friends in my hometown of Durango, Colorado. I had no training plan. I simply loved riding my bike and did so as much as possible. In retrospect, a great use of time, but not the best preparation for the UME. I had done a couple bikepacking weekends before, back in college, and had a three-day (mostly flat) adventure planned right before the UME. Perfect gear test, I thought.
What could go wrong?
Early on the morning of the 24th, myself and 29 other brave souls waved goodbye to our friends, turned our headlamps on, and struck out on the empty streets of Salt Lake City. I thought things like “Wow I have to poop”, “Wish I had gotten more sleep last night” and “Did I remember to bring…?”.
I wondered if others were having the same thoughts. Mati, Emma and I spread out to chat. It became immediately apparent that we had the heaviest bikes on the block. Most of the other riders were outfitted with gravel bikes or lightweight hardtails and half the volume of stuff. Mati had a pair of zebra crocs dangling off her seatpost bag which garnered quite a few chuckles. It was bliss, to have made it to the start, veins coursing with jittery excitement and finally embarking on this journey with my friends.
The first climb was over 4,000 feet up Farmington Canyon into the Wasatch Mountains. It turned out to be one of the easiest climbs of the route, in terms of technicality and grade. We spent the remainder of the day hiking the beautiful, unforgiving ridgelines of the Wasatch, becoming ever more aware of the weight of our bikes and the fact that this was not what we bargained for. Emma decided to drop out of the race late-afternoon but still needed to get to a place where she could get picked up; so she kept riding with us. We joined forces with the Richmond, Virginia boys, Ben and Danny. They had also been coaxed into the UME by Mati who previously lived in and still fostered strong ties to Richmond and had done a past bikepacking event with them. They intended to ride faster than Mati, Emma and I, so we were surprised to have caught up to them in the Wasatch around sunset, looking battered. We set the goal of making it to Park City by nightfall. In total, our first day amounted to: 72 miles, over 14 hours of riding (and hiking), 8,560 feet of elevation gain, two people added to our group, one scratch and one extremely disgusting blister-like object on Mati’s back.
1 My experience doing this route with others is atypical. All other riders were solo, as is common for such an event. They have my utmost respect. I did have my share of solo riding on the route, which we will get into later, but not to the same magnitude.
Emma’s knee was toast as we made our way to a hotel in Park City, well after dark, feeling rough. This made sense, given she had the heaviest bike by a good margin and the least amount of pre-trip miles ridden. Luckily, the friends who came out to support us at the start were still in the area and scooped Emma in the morning. It was heartbreaking to see the rad-lady-squad dream shatter so soon, but Mati and I were determined to forge on and Emma made the best possible decision for herself.
Part II: Grime, Grit and Gas Stations
With our updated group, some decent sleep and still-strong determination, we headed out of Park City, eager for more. We were already at the back of the pack, so the goal wasn’t to win, but simply to finish. We were optimistic following a beautiful climb out of Park City and a gorgeous road descent into Midway, complete with a gas station second breakfast. However, as the afternoon heat relentlessly beat down, peaceful country roads metamorphosed into a heinous, baby head-infested forest service road that probably inspired Road to Nowhere by the Talking Heads.
I’d like to take a moment to better depict my setup: Steel Karate Monkey, 29-inch wheels, rear rack with panniers. I brought a stove and fuel. Mind you, it was not the small canister of fuel but the BIG boi, because: a) I honestly didn’t know how long a fuel canister lasted at that point and b) I was imagining hot dinners and morning coffees. I had a pair of sandals. I bought my bivvy the day before the Grand Depart. I borrowed a friend’s definitely-not-ultralight sleeping pad. To be fair to my prior self, she did expect to be biking all day in all conditions and brought a proper complement of bike and human repair materials. Apart from that saving grace, I was the village idiot.
We continued through the gorgeous and demanding wilds of southwest Utah, frequently dealing with water scarcity, long miles between resupplies, headwinds and huge shifts in temperature. We encountered stunning sunsets and rises, desert expanses and aspen groves that were so bright they made you feel like you were yellow, too. Sometimes, Ben, Danny, Mati and I chatted, but we primarily pedaled in silence. It was brutal and beautiful. We cursed Tim Tait, the route organizer, often and with enthusiasm. We careened towards valleys and slogged up mountains in what seemed like the physical manifestation of a cruel twist of fate. A true masterpiece of Tim’s masochism and sadism. Even given the difficulty of the route, I felt empowered at this stage. Here we were, the Virginia kids, despite all odds, getting it done.
2 I am connected to Virginia as well, as it was where I was born, raised and fell in love with bikes. We were the underdogs of the route, due to our inexperience and shambly setups.
I fell in love with the strength of my legs, the ever-accumulating layers of grime, the breathtaking scenery and the impressive amount of gas station danishes my stomach could evaporate in mere seconds. Granted, it was not all butterflies and rainbows. The West Desert was hard, with little water and dozens of miles to the next oasis (aka gas station). There were moments when I wanted to chuck my bike down, starfish on the side of the road and fade into blissful sleep. Luckily, the thought of a good gas station overcame the desire for rest. Biking with Mati was a joy; she also craved pure challenge and has a phenomenal sense of humor. I think we both recognized that bikepacking, actually all recreational biking, is a silly, self-imposed sufferfest that is ridiculous to pursue in a myriad of ways. Yet, there we were, carrying our bikes up and over the Mineral Mountains in Who-the-fuck-knows-where, Utah.
Then it broke. Then another. And another.
After losing three spokes, Mati scratched at mile 500. There were no spokes of the type she needed along the route (shame on I9 and their proprietary spokes). Ben and Danny also deliberated scratching and catching a ride to Moab instead of continuing down the route, waxing on about the prospect of doing “actually fun” riding. Mati gave me her Wahoo GPS device and said that I should go on. I went. I was afraid if I listened to Ben and Danny discuss anymore, I would scratch too. I cried as I crossed into the red-rock-strewn river valley of Dixie National Forest. Tame tears were replaced by big, ugly gasps as I rolled onward. Losing Emma was hard, the dream died there, but losing Mati, that was too much.
Part III: Breakdown
I rode into the night with my limited battery supply, one bike light and one headlamp. I was constantly paranoid about being dropped into darkness. The previous days, I rode by the dim light of Mati, Ben and Danny’s dynamo hubs to conserve my lights. I hit the Great Western Trail past dark where the route became singletrack and alpine. Riders ahead reported mountain lions and huge washouts on this section. I felt panic grip my lungs as I rolled up to the major washout. I straddled my bike across the gap and almost slipped as I lunged to gain purchase on the opposite slope. I fell, face first, into the eroding slope and flipped over just in time to drag my bike up by the bars. I realized if I had fallen, I probably would have broken something, at best, an arm, at worst, back or neck. I laid on the slope and hyperventilated, trying not to think about Mati and Emma and how much I wished they were with me. I gathered myself as best I could and continued until I reached a forest service bathroom, locked for the season. I set up my bivvy in front of the door. The solid wall at my back allowed me enough security to fall asleep, along with the tiredness that seemed to seep into my bones.
I awoke to the pale light of early morning, a frost covering my bivvy, and what, to my best guess, was a coyote killing a bunch of turkeys. The air burst with a cacophony of screams and squawks. I packed up my bike faster than I would have thought possible and moved away from the din. Hours later, I discovered that Ben and Danny had continued when they rolled into Escalante just as I was leaving. I continued alone, stubbornly holding on to a sense of pride and sadness about the loss of Mati. That day, I climbed over 10,000 feet in 75 miles. I did times tables in my head to make it up climbs. I had a breakdown on a hike-a-bike when I panned my light through the trees and caught eyes reflected back at me (probably cows, but my brain wouldn’t accept that as the only option). I called my partner, crying incoherently into the phone, with one bar of service until the call dropped. I rolled up to the top of a plateau, the terminus of my climb, but also above 10,000 feet with temperatures dropping fast.
The plateau seemed to go on forever. Every photon of fading light was replaced by feelings of anxiety and hopelessness. My GPS read 22° F. I started down a painfully gentle decline and edged towards desperation. Up ahead, I spotted an idling truck. Despite a tiny replica of my mother pounding on my prefrontal cortex, screaming “DO NOT TALK TO STRANGERS”, I knocked on the window. A “Trump 2024” hat materialized, perched atop the weathered face of an older, white man wearing full camo. Yes, even the hat was camo.
Regretfully, I do not remember the man’s name, let’s call him Stan. Stan was as surprised to see me as I was him, perhaps more. I told him I was doing a bike race, and asked if he knew of a campground, a cabin, or any structure in the vicinity. My voice wavered when I asked him. I was scared, tired and must have been quite the sight. Stan told me he had an extra propane heater back at his hunting camp just up the road. It was partially packed up, as he had already gotten his kill. That was why he was idling there, to take advantage of the sliver of cell service at this particular spot to send photos to his family. He asked if I’d like a ride back to his camp. I said “Yes, sir” and proceeded to heft my bike into the bed of the truck.
Stan turned out to be a kind man, with five daughters, from Salt Lake City. Upon arrival at the camp, he apologized for its half-packed state, which included many hunting rifles. He showed me the head of the 12-point bull elk he had brought down that morning. I was too tired to experience anything other than awe at the pure size and magnificence of the head. Stan offered to let me stay in his pop-up camper, but I politely declined, due to the thought of the tiny replica of my mother disintegrating in a poof. He seemed to understand and lent me a portable propane heater. I set up my bivvy under the cover of some low-hanging pine boughs, relishing the warmth of my miniature sun and passed into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Stan fed me raisin bran and bananas while we warmed up in his truck. He told me about his family, career and passion for the outdoors. We had a civil conversation about our differences in politics. Finally, I thanked him profusely for his kindness and went on my way. I trundled along with a thin veneer of happiness stemming from the kindness of this stranger.
The veneer faded quickly as I traversed alternating sections of gravel and chundering, singletrack descents. I was a Russian roulette of anger, sadness, fear, pain and numbness. I didn’t know why I was biking. I thought about all the places I’d rather be. I was my own enemy for hours on end. Just before Torrey, the landscape opened up into a stunning, striated desert. I remember feeling despondent despite the scenery and the downhill. Why couldn’t I just enjoy this? I rolled up to the back parking lot of a Mexican restaurant and posted up against a dumpster, feeling ill due to leg soreness and lower back pain. I checked the route tracker. Ben and Danny were only 10 miles behind me. I texted my partner to tell him I was going to quit. He told me to hang tight, get some food and call him in an hour while he figured out logistics.
Part IV: Equal Parts Pain and Beauty
I met up with Ben and Danny. They were happy to see me. They were extremely tired as well, but in better shape overall. It felt like years had passed since I had seen them, even though it had been barely over 48 hours and even less since our brief passing in Escalante. We sat down for food at the Mexican restaurant. I felt better with a proper meal in my body. I told them about my decision and they asked if I would consider not dropping and riding with them instead. I obliged. I let my partner know that I was going to keep going and he reinforced my resolve with flattery (an effective technique).
While using the restaurant bathroom, I discovered that I had started my period, more than a week early. I felt a wave of relief to realize that my tiredness and deteriorating mental fortitude had some degree of hormonal influence. The realization was freeing. I had a reason for the atypical pain and emotion. I wasn’t weak, if anything, it was a testament to my strength. Things got better: I pounded Midol and felt more optimistic. We had a bomber road descent into red rock country. We waded through miles of calf-deep sand with a group of weekend warriors in the evening. We made camp and shared stories. I felt warm and safe and remembered why I chose to ride in the first place.
Riding over the next few days had its ups and downs. Although it was better mentally, resupplies were scarcer and my body deteriorated rapidly. The landscape was insanely beautiful. In memory, it fades into a trance-like blur with brief moments of lucidity: a secret valley under a bridge, a wave-like canyon wall, a sunrise of the softest pink, stars extra-sprinkled and the familiar peaks of the La Sals standing sentinel on the horizon. We met a friendly group of sisters on a reunion trip, who gave us all their snacks, including a garden tomato one of them had grown herself.
Then I crashed, big time.
We were 40 miles away from the finish line, I clipped a gnarled branch with my left arm, twisted and slammed into the ground. My left forearm flared with pain, but it was nothing compared to my ovaries feeling like they were being attacked by a crazed lumberjack and the effects of the previous ten days on my limbs. I kept riding. Every washboard caused my arm to twinge, but at that point, I could care less. The landscape was familiar again, and I knew I could do it. Ben kept glancing back with concern, as I rode, with one arm, down Sand Flats Road. We rolled into Moab Rotary Park 11 days and 11 hours after leaving Salt Lake City, completing 960 miles and 74,551 feet of elevation gain. Emma and Caroline were waiting for me. They hugged me and told me I smelled. The next day, my arm was very swollen. I went to urgent care and they put me in a soft cast. It turned rainbow colors and forced me to rest. I got COVID immediately after. I ate everything. I vowed never to do that again.
It took me until March to go bikepacking again (for Mati’s birthday, a very healing experience), until April to enjoy riding by myself, and until August to enjoy riding after dark in any context. It took me until now, well over a year later, to have processed enough to write it down. Despite all the struggle that my UME experience wrought, I want to try again. I am ready to experience the beauty of a less-traveled route, a well-stocked gas station, confidence in my abilities, the kindness of strangers and the deep, visceral feeling of smallness that only seems to sink in when you are way the fuck out there. This time, if nothing else, at least I’ll know what I’m getting into.
Thanks to Bill, for taking me on my first bikepacking trip ever.
Thanks to Emma and Mati, for inspiring me to sign up.
Thanks to Ben and Danny, for being the reason I kept going.
Thanks to Joseph, for helping me love bikes again.
Finally, thanks to Tim Tait, you evil mastermind.
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