This spring, Andrew and I had the opportunity to travel to Austin, TX to pick up Andrew’s new titanium Sendero and meet the Chumba crew. Vince, Michelle, and their daughter, Charlotte, one of the amazing families behind Chumba hosted us in Austin. Vince took us on a chunky mountain bike ride on some of his favorite trails in town during the weekend and on Monday we got to check out the Chumba shop and meet the rad people behind the bikes that we ride.
While we were in Texas, we wanted to check out Big Bend State Park, the place that inspires the names for Chumba’s bikes and where prototypes are often tested. Our friend and fellow Team Chumba rider, Kody, helped us plan a 3 day bikepacking trip in the park. He got Vince on board, and when Alexandera and John heard of the fun to be had, they made plans to be there too.
This isn’t the first time we made plans to do a fun, chill bikepacking trip in a group with Alexandera, it’s just that every time we get together, we end up racing each other. Last spring, we planned to tour the AZT 300 with Alexandera and some other rad singlespeed friends, but the closer the date got, the idea of racing each other grew from a whisper to the obvious plan. We all lined up on that cold spring morning and raced our brains out (or in my case, my lungs, in another friend’s case his guts, and another his knees).
Alexandera set a new women’s singlespeed record on the course and we were all destroyed. Our post race quality friend time consisted of laying around, eating copious amounts of snacks, and enjoying the hot tub at Kirsten’s place.
We did some of the same races as Alexandera last year after that AZT 300: Pinyons and Pines and the Colorado Trail, sharing brief moments during and after the race. It’s definitely a bonding experience going through a tough race like that, but we still wanted more quality time where we could focus on being friends on the bike.
A similar story can be told of our relationship with Vince, Kody, and John- we’ve kept in touch remotely and spent time in person together briefly, typically at the end of a race or with limited time to actually ride and get to know each other better.
It was finally time to make a chill bikepacking trip happen. Kody made camping reservations and encouraged those of us who are last minute planners to actually pick a date ahead of time. He and Vince know Big Bend Ranch State Park well and helped with planning the logistics and route. Alexandera, John, Andrew, and I were along for the ride.
The morning of our departure, we got the permits needed to camp in the state park and packed up our bikes with our gear and food for the next 3 days. Kody and Vince got the water beta from a ranger and we all left with about 3 liters. Despite the dryness as we looked across the landscape, there was access to wells every 20 miles or so on our route. As we crammed the last of our snacks into our bags we started joking, “So, uh…What’s the FKT on this loop? Do you just wanna race?” We all laughed, grateful for the time we’d spend together riding and sleeping like normal humans.
We started pedaling from the ranger station and I was already impressed by the scenery. To be honest, I expected to be underwhelmed after spending most of the winter in the Sonoran Desert. Could the Big Bend area in the Chihuahuan Desert really impress me after that? The peaks and rock formations were larger and closer than I expected. And the riding, oh man. The singletrack in the state park was well maintained with just enough climbing to be challenging. Being the caboose on the descents was my favorite, because I got to watch the line of friends having a blast sailing downhill.
Living in our van, we have the luxury of following good weather. Once it’s above 80 degrees, it’s time to move north or gain elevation. For that reason, we were a bit intimidated by the forecasted high of 86 degrees. With an 11am departure, the sun was out in full force before too long. A lunch stop at an old wax camp provided shade and an opportunity to cool down.
Not long after lunch, we were roasting. I kept an eye out for shade and spotted a rock overhang that provided a break from the relentless sun. Rule #1: don’t pass up shade in the desert. We sat on the cool rocks for about an hour to let the heat of the day pass, chatting and speculating about where we’d make it to camp that night.
We spent most of our day on singletrack, with just a handful of miles on the park’s main gravel road to get to our first water resupply and camp. The gravel road had a few punchy climbs and I could hear someone mashing on the pedals behind me. John whizzed by and he and Andrew raced to the top of the hill. Inspired by their effort, I hit the gas too, inhaling John’s dust. They waited at the next scenic viewpoint overlooking the Solitario, catching their breath and laughing. That was the first of the mini races on our Big Bend loop. Even on this “chill” loop we could find times to challenge each other.
I took my last sip of water just as we arrived at the first well. We filtered enough for the night and planned to camp nearby so we could ride back and refill in the morning.
Less than half a mile down the trail, we found a relatively flat spot to set up camp. We cooked our dinner as the sun set and ate under a sliver of the moon. The stars started popping early in the evening and I could tell the sky was going to be amazing that night. Andrew and I considered bringing a tent, but left it behind knowing that Big Bend Ranch State Park is located in an International Dark Sky Park. When the weather is dry, I much prefer sleeping in my sleeping bag with my bivy open and unzipped so I can take advantage of those brief moments of consciousness in the middle of the night to watch the stars before drifting back to sleep.
I woke up to the sunrise and Alexandera and John’s chatting and giggles. It was a slow morning of cooking breakfast and brewing coffee as we waited for the sun to hit us. We compared our coffee setups- a collapsible silicone pour over setup, a mesh pour over setup, and instant coffee. We noted the differences in our kits as we packed up our gear, ready to refill at the well for another warm day.
Today we’d head into the Solitario, a depression in the Earth 10 miles in diameter. The rangers informed our group that there are black bears in the Solitario- we didn’t see any animals or their tracks, but did find some poo!
Just after finding the bear excrement, we saw a hole in the mountain above us, an old magnesium mine, and decided to check it out. We rode halfway up the steep hill and hiked the rest of the switchbacks. The remainder of the mine was a small cave about 10 feet deep. It hosted some kind of animal at some point based on all of the poop that was in the cavern. We stopped and sat in there anyways because as rule #1 says, you don’t pass up shade in the desert. After a quick break, we bombed back down to our route.
We completed the Solitario loop and made it back to the main park road by late afternoon. We looked at the time and realized we’d have to push to make it to the ranger station before they close at 5. We were hoping that they might have some cokes or a candy bar to buy. We made it by 4:45, but the door was locked and nobody was there. Instead we took a self-care break to air out feet and pick out cactus spines. One luxury of the ranger station was the drinking fountain with filtered water.
Each snack stop and meal, we checked out each other’s food. Vince won the award for the most appetizing ingredients. He carried avocados, sambal hot sauce, and ghee. We all agreed that potato chips always sound good and oatmeal cream pies were a popular choice in our group. At dinner that night, Andrew and I realized we didn’t plan as carefully as we should have and were a bit short on food. We opted to eat more of our food for dinner to promote recovery and hope that we wouldn’t be too hungry the next day.
Post breakfast on our third day, Andrew and I each had around 500 calories each. Vince and Kody were prepared of course- they offered us some of their food, but I wasn’t about to take someone else’s food because they planned better than I did. At lunch, I split my last almond butter and banana chip tortilla roll up with Andrew (because I’m really nice). Aside from that I had 4 sour patch kids left. Fortunately the rest of the ride was mostly downhill and way too fun to get hangry.
I’m always learning when I ride with other people, not only about their gear and food, but their riding style as well. I tend to be a more timid descender so it’s good to follow more experienced mountain bikers. I often ride much faster following the line of a rider I trust.
Our last hour went by fast and I spun my legs as fast as I could trying to keep up with Kody’s blazing pace down to where we left our vehicles. The end of a trip for me is always left with mixed feelings about being grateful for the food and water waiting for me at the end, but wanting to keep pedaling my bike loaded with everything I need.
There’s something special about the friends you make on the bike. My deepest and most lasting friendships are the friends I met through cycling. A bikepacking trip with no outside distractions means the time you spend together truly is quality time. As we went our separate ways, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the beautiful people I had the opportunity to get to know a little better and the connectedness we experienced over those three days. So thanks Kody, Vince, Alexandera, John, and Andrew. Let’s do it again soon.