When is the right time to take a ride beyond your comfort zone? When you are stressed? When you are bored? When you are tired of getting invited to ride in uncomfortable weather? When Zwift becomes your status quo riding buddy?
Perhaps the best time to roll around on the desert floor, is when you are cold and tired of doing the same old thing. It's not a knowable threshold, as each person has a different tolerance for the banal. My valley floor of boredom definitely gets taxed about once a month, but really comes to bear every quarter -- and at that point I have to flee someplace where I don't know the outcome specifically. I think that being uncomfortable, unsure, and unrealistic is a coping strategy for boredom. As you run your tongue back to your molar to clear a nagging scrap of fast food, it dawns on you that it's been nearly a year since you sustained yourself on GORP, and Dry Meals. It's been nearly a year since you woke up cold, and as a reflex smiled to be chilly on a crisp morning watching your exhale dissipate as steam. Camping can close a nagging gap in your palate for adventure. Spring is a great time to stray toward the desert.
When in the Desert, water is rather important. But being in the desert without the right outerwear may be just as critical. Paramount in the planning is to take steps to ebb thirst, starvation, and exposure just like we do every day; But somehow in the strange environs of the Desert, which is not my native terrior, One becomes keenly aware that "We" are not in Kansas any more.
So... What do you bring if you are Bike-Packing for a week someplace strange? You need the typical cadre of fix-it stuff, from bandages, to spoke keys... But you need a few bags more full of gadgets to make things comfortable.
If one is to travel light, then the list simplifies to the following:
Sleep: A Bivvy Bag, and a Sleeping bag, and Pad if you like to sleep well.
What you won't need:
Enter JT anyway you prefer, but be aware that Water is available only at a few entrances, and that you will need to check-in to civilization for provisions, in particular if you are on a bicycle. When it comes to deciding how to thin out your kit, it's not advised that Water be one of the things you leave behind. For those of us not from 'round here, it's good to think of oneself as a large loaf of Wonderbread, to underscore just how dainty even the most hardened athlete may come to feel exposed in the heat and dryness of this desert life. Double down on the fact that every surface seems to be either sharp, pointy or scratchy, and you can better grasp how fast a doughy bag of soft fluffy whiteness will crenate into a crouton. Bring Water, in spite of your other provisions, and use the caution that is posted at the ranger stations: There is no point saving water, as it doesn't do you any good unless you drink it, or rather have drank. At 8.4 pounds per gallon, you may carry 18-20 lbs of water with you and still not have enough, so be smart about both exhaustion, use, and consumption.
Just as the sun shines brightly in the daytime, the moon seems to do the same at night, and it isn't a bad strategy to bring an eye-shade for sleeping soundly when the moon comes around to nudge your sun-baked soul out of bed like a zombie. In case you are a bit of the "wimpy type" tuning out the nighttime may create a more restful evening, and that said -- a pair of ear-plugs can be a blessing and a curse. The Good is that dropping 30 dB to tune out someone's f'cking generator, at an RV campsite can save you jail time for sabotage? The Bad is that you may not hear the desert rat, or coyote stealing or chewing through your food bag. This is why I've included a Tent (I prefer this to a solo Bivvy) and 10-30 feet of Paracord or tent-line. This is great for bear-bagging food out of reach of critters, (I bring night-ize Reflective line). Nothing is quite as frustrating to a good night's sleep symphony, interrupted by a duet of chewing sounds near your head in the tent or bivvy. This happens when you assured yourself that your tooth-paste, and GORP was safe in your tent space. The trouble with the interruption isn't the missing oral care or snacks, but the hole in your bag, tent or worse, the whole bag stand-off with a midnight pack of dogs.
Lets focus on the good stuff. It's all good stuff, when you plan for inconvenient contingencies. Bag your food up high and away from your slumber. If you hope to be worth-a-shit tomorrow, then let whatever be, BE, farther from you as you sleep. A critter may come and go, and you'll be happy that you didn't notice them, when you awake to find your stuff exactly where you left it.
I like to make a campfire, but in most bike-packing, lugging a cord of wood isn't practical, so if you cannot source it locally, and it's half-past freezing by 9:30 P.M. then you can snuggle in your bag with a magazine, or some Pink Floyd.
Entering the desert from any angle is sure to make an impression upon you. If you are not from around here, you may comment how out of place you feel, or wonder how countless people with a bit more resolve than you have survived it for millennia. Entering Joshua Tree proper, will increase that effect, as the surreal nature of it's unique topiaries is something out of a Bosch or Seuss illustration. Many have entered the desert to find themselves, salvation, gold, or something lost in their city life. As parks go, Joshua Tree, is still unique, but not alone in the majesty of it's odd topography, and vegetation. Unlike Painted Canyon below it, Joshua Tree is scattered in it's exhibits, as though it was created to persuade the visitor to stay and roam and make a week of it. Surely one can visit from the coast in a day, and be back in the Santa Ana Hills for a sunset, or back in Newport for a Beach campfire singalong. Whatever your time-frame, or agenda, something here will make you feel humble -- if a bit edgy. This place imparts the sensation that you have entered a special place, a bit monastic, or parochial in nature. As with all astonishing architecture, JT creates a wonderment in the most jaded and conceded adults. It is a place where you can just give in and recognize that you don't know everything yet, and this is validation. I tend to enter a Cathedral, Bridge, Tunnel, or Ship with a similar sense of amazement, and I wonder how it is that anyone ever conceived of such a task, let alone see it through.
Joshua Tree's majesty is in it's juxtaposition of smooth plateaus, and washes with haphazardly stacked rocks. The sense of playfulness of round boulders the size of houses precariously poised upon one another lording over a sandy basin with nothing more than spiky dead vegetation, would lead any outsider to wonder.
Nothing is actually dead here, although it is far from a verdant fairway. It does feel as though everything was created spiky and formidable to protect some secret treasure.
Rock climbers love it here, although the granite boulders are rough, their gnarly abrasion is a bit gentler than it's neighboring cactus, but not by much. This is why climbers tend to repeat key sites where use has made the cracks more manageable, and less brutal to the hand. Softer seams of basalt erode between layers of Granite, splitting entire mountains, into manageable slabs, and then into giant boulders, and eventually this seemly sea-bed, polished down these massive bits to balls, which look assembled by a kindergarten of giants at the beach. The talc soft seams appear to span miles, so where a boulder is split, looking down that line will reveal the pattern repeated until they crumble into sand. The effect of following a tilted seam to it's vanishing point is a Zen meditation in itself. Climbing at Joshua Tree can be crowded, and this again is merely because there are preferred stomping grounds, whose charted routes, and anchored bolts are more manageable and less life threatening. If you come to boulder, bring great shoes, and expect them to get a bit shredded, and bring a tick pad, and some gloves. Anyone can wander along paths, and routes, leaping from rounded rock to the next takes some skill, balance, and stamina. Enjoy a hike, and some scrambling regardless of your age, but use caution. The granite here can be slippery, and sharp as barbed wire. As crowded as mid-day in the winter may be, hold on -- most guests will be gone well before night-fall. A menagerie of creatures, and a monumental payoff in scenery and shifting colours happen when the desert quiets, and most day-tripper have left. At Dusk sleeping rabbits, spring to action devouring flowers, which may have only opened a few hours earlier. Fox, Sheep, Coyotes, and Mountain Lions all prefer Dusk, and dawn, when it's cool, & still.
Coffee is important to me, and I am a snob in this dominion as with Bikes. A such, I have in-fact found the proverbial Holy Grail of Coffee kit for the bike-packer, and it comes in two forms. Both begin with spectacular grounds and boiling water, while one is a Convenient French Press in my Reactor Camp Stove -- The other is the miraculous Nano. The Former is simple. It is a long screw stick plunger and a flat disc made by your camp stove preference to press away the grounds to slowly reveal golden black coffee. I like MSR's, but Biolite, Jet-Boil, and others all have Press-pot kit options. The real magic begins at dawn with a great cup of coffee, and for me, I will sacrifice one pair of socks, and ExOfficio briefs for the Nanopresso ultraportable Espresso maker. This is simply the most essential piece of Bike-pack/Backpacking gear since the Flashlight, and Pocket-knife. I don't endorse leaving these two essentials behind in favor of the savor of a shot of Espresso, but one does have some decisions to make. What do you find to be essential travel gear? Bear with this indulgence.
I was asked by a fella from Portland, "What key piece of gear could you never take another adventure without", and as absurd as this may seem... I'd find it tough to leave the Nano behind. I told him my Axe, was also high on my list, for which We received another roll of the eyes; More on that later.
What is the Nano, from Wacaco? have a look at it? it is barely larger than a rolled up pair of socks, and weighs about as much a large swiss-tool. It's magic follows:
For Me it's important to begin the day with very good coffee. The Process is part of the experience. Can you justify the space or weight when you are counting grams?, I think so... But I also brought an axe with me. The genius of this product's design is it's completeness in being self-contained. Within it's pill shapes design and matched case is the Unit, the water reservoir, the removable grounds capsule, A tiny measuring tamper, and even a small brush to clean the grounds and the mechanism. No one likes stale coffee in a fresh pour. Every part is contained in the main unit, and there is also a small Russian doll style demi-tasse cup so you need not bring a cup. There!, we actually conserved a few grams. You will find these at Wacaco, and they sell through Amazon, (of course, right?, sorry.); but here they are. Nanopresso Compact Espresso Maker
The Gransfors Bruk Hand Axe is more than handy for all things bike-packing. In fact if you leave a silly hammer for your tent-stakes behind, and compare the hatchet's utility -- you may soon travel with one as well.
Here is another "handy list" of uses for a small hand Axe:
Mine weighs barely less than a Pound, Fits in my frame-pack, and proves indispensable when Backpacking, Car Camping, Bike-Packing, and for general chore crap. Here is a link to a fantastic resource for these gadgets:
WesSpur Tree Gear
Carbon, aluminum, wood, composite, all drive easier with a bit of encouragement. Regardless of local conditions, driving a stake into the earth or into a vampire, should be simply done with the Hand Axe.
When Camp is set, it's time to make new friends, and enjoy a meal, and a sunset. When day breaks, it's the late sleeper who trades a few more moments of blissful rest for a gorgeous sunrise. Whatever your choice -- it's off to Niland, Salvation Mountain, Slab City, East Jesus, and West Satan, to explore alternate lifestyles, and some so called "tiny homes".
Salvation Mountain borders the edge of a false inland sea, and is a mirage of sorts... One which no doubt was created with the intent of surprising visitors with the ingenuity of it's odd resourcefulness. Sand isn't scarce here, so pushing tons of it into a mound, shouldn't be a real big deal, and you could work on your monument to the Bible, at any time of day or night without anyone taking notice. If you mound enough sand, hay bales, and concrete together with some Whole trees and Branches, you can make quite a monument before anyone even knows what you've been up to. The tan heap would still be camouflaged by the austerity of the desert, until you begin to polychrome the sculptured earth with thousands of gallons of paint.
Perhaps it began with a few junked trucks, being decorated to defy their age. Once these relics became emblazoned with scripture, and fables, a larger endeavor mounted to ramp up the story of the Bible as an immense Mound running with Rivers of Blue Paint, and a yellow brick road. The Main Mound faces rutted road like a plaque, made of cake frosting. Beside it is linked an interior not unlike a shelled out cathedral, or La Sagrada Familia during construction. It's all very welcoming, with a bit of shade, and various verses emblazoned in 3 dimensional letters, like piped icing on a sandy cake.
Slab City as it has become known, is a figurative oasis. A nearly 50 foot glop of paint, straw, branches, and concrete, built to celebrate a folk-art fascination with Jesus, is surrounded by pretty much nothing but scorched earth. This Historic Monument draws from Southern California and Arizona a barrage of tourists, and some lingerers have resigned themselves to an alt lifestyle living in an amalgam of campers, tents, sheds, and sheet-metal in the bordering encampments known as East Jesus. This neighboring community is a tiny dirt road winding through about a half-mile of sturdy folk, who have chosen Mad Max encampments and solar panels in lieu of running water, a power grid, and sewer or septic. Beset atop the desert a few miles NE of Niland CA, is an off the grid shanty town filled with colorful people, and their "Homes". There is no gift shop to speak of although many locals sell crafts, and lemonade. Visiting in the winter is advisable, and although you cannot exit through the gift shop, the grocery/liquor store on the corner before you turn off the coastal road for the eastward drive in, is a great place to pass through for a cold beer, and a bag of salty crisps. Arrive and leave without fear, and you will make memories, photos, and even some friends which will be tough to forget.
The Shape of your bike and your winter form may both be in tip-top, as you tell yourself..., or they may be a bit rusty, like mine, but the Bike is the easy one to fix. Your own form takes a bit longer to bring up to speed.
Everyone has a favorite ride, and some lucky few have a ride for each condition, uniquely suited to every outing: e.g. Gravel, Touring, Fat, Gnarley, Ultra-Light, Full Springer, Cruiser, Stoner, Lock-up, Electric, who knows how many one needs. I know that my focus has mostly been upon permutations of the Road Genre. I have a favorite bike for club-rides and fondos. I have a favorite bike for Gravel, Cross, and the less well paved. I also have a bike that I thought I'd love for both, and don't care much for either.
For this Trip I brought the Swiss-tool of bikes, in fact we both did; We brought the Specialized Diverge. Mine was the S-Works, with a Future-shock, and his was the Comp Model without. If you looked at it in a store you may notice that the S-Works appears race or Sport suited, rather than a thoroughbred Pack Bike... But don't be fooled. It is surprisingly well suited to long haul trucking over questionable terrain. The tires are fat, the ride is plush, and the hi-fi is on in the background. The S-Works Diverge does not have a complex when it gets looked at sideways. The frame carries water like a camel, the Wheels are well built and strong, the Stance feels planted and the steering holds a line in a loaded down-hill as though on rails. In fact I think the brilliance of this bike was just such shone through the lens of this particular Desert Sojourn. The gearing was wide and varied enough to be effective at speed, and torquey at Climbs. The two present questions as I decked the bike out with the full kit of bags was the dread that something dainty and glamorous such as the shock, stem, saddle or post would snap in half. Nothing catastrophic such as that occurred, in fact neither bike sustained a "Mech" (technical issue) whatsoever. The Dropper seat-post and stock carbon railed saddle held the full measure of the loaded seat-bag, the Medium frame pack mated to the frame with space for bottles, and the Handlebar bag, did not destroy the Future-shock. In Fact the Future shock performed even loaded with a Sleeping bag, Camp stove, Puffy Coat, Bivvy, and Sleep Pad, and of course my Nanopresso. The rebound was silky the whole trip, in flats, drops and hoods. Descents, and Climbs were cheerful, and well guided. Modification Note: I asked Apidura for clips to match my Expedition handlebar bag, and then I created a Y-shaped webbing to tether some light bulky crap atop my bag, and it worked brilliantly. I suggested to them to include this or sell it as an accessory; but just the same they obliged me with a full set of clips to create more stowage on my front end, and this dollop atop my bag had no ill-effect on my control. Further Modification: I used the single fork braze-on to mount the top bolt of two water cages to each side of the fork, (this holds the gravity of the load) while I used a stainless zip-tie to strap the bottom of the cage to the fork, (a bit askew), which made the Cage perpendicular to the ground rather than following the fork rake, and I placed two 22 oz Bottles (full for the duration) to my forks, and this operated flawlessly. It's amazing to me that we rode for a week without breaking something. The S-Works Diverge is a champ, and despite having some legit complaints which I'll address in another article... The Bikes performed as well as we could have expected, in spite of glaring holes in my preparedness.
Here is what I forgot to bring:
Chain Lube, Chain Pins, & Links -- Brought 10, not 11 speed.
Torx Wrench for Caliper alignment --Small Ratchet didn't fit.
Spare Tire -- We brought the usual Park-Tool Boot Kits.
Full size sun-block -- We brought the small stick roll-on.
So Besides these holes in my preparedness, ...Anything that could have gone wrong, did not.
Full disclosure, the Stock bike was not modded whatsoever except, the Spec Carbon Hover-Bar was swapped for a flared Easton Carbon Bar to impart stability and clearance in the drops and hoods. I don't think the Hover bar's upright position benefits me much, and as such I don't see returning it to this bike.
If you listen