Friday, November 11, 2016

Conquerors of the Useless

A Dirt Road

Somewhere there is a dirt road
Long and narrow and traveled much, 
Where trees form a blanket, 
And branches lightly touch.

Shadows from the sun
Float down through the trees
Like patterns of light
Caught in a breeze.

Many footprints line this road
Left by travelers on their way
The road ahead promised more
The road behind begged them to stay.

Along this road in wild profusion
Berry vines twist along the fences, 
And growing in colored masses
Wild flowers swell the senses.

In the trees along this road
Songbirds spend their days
And in the roadside meadows
Horses quietly graze.

This road has all the feel
Of an old and trusted friend, 
And I could travel along this road
Time and time again.

Richard Netherland Cook 

Adventure cyclists, mountaineers, rock climbers, trail runners and backpackers. We are, in essence, conquerors of the useless. We go out searching for adventure. Searching for that place very few people know of or want to go. In search of the high that comes from summiting a mountain, descending a river or hiking as far as possible from civilization. Are we searching for a place per se, or are we searching for solace? And in that solace, are we quietly hoping to find a few answers? 

At this current period in my life, climbing, mountaineering and wilderness canoeing have fallen by the wayside. Sometimes I think I should feel bad about this, but the lifestyle I had to lead to get me on these trips was one I needed a break from. My roots were tired of being pulled up every year to move around the country, and I couldn't face the thought of working outdoor retail my entire life. So the camping gear got placed in my closet, and I ended up stumbling onto a form of travel I never thought I'd love (or even like for that matter). Yes, this skinny tire/high psi raised, baby bottom smooth road searching girl is completely hooked on gravel. I kid you not. I actually search these roads out now vs. sitting on the side of the road shaking and crying (as I did 6 years ago) after descending one.

No, these rural roads aren't really wilderness, and the chance of getting hip deep in shit is pretty low, but I do know people who have had to hike their bike out for more than twenty miles before they got help after having bike parts essentially explode on them. Try that in cycling shoes, through peanut butter like roads, while being swarmed by mosquitoes, and you may just consider this as challenging as summiting peaks. In fact, as I age, I no longer look for the "biggest", "best" and "least traveled". A backpacking trip on the Appalachian trail in Maine and New Hampshire, just after a backpacking trip in Montana, proved to me that a well trodden path can often be much more difficult than a wilderness path. That brief hiking trip out East wrecked me mentally and physically and made me see the world in a very different way. It isn't about the fame and glory about doing something which will cause others to "ooooo" and "ahhhhh". It's about doing something you love and doing it in a place you love being. I love the driftless area of the midwest. I love it so much I usually plan most of my vacation time around it now.

Please don't think I'm comparing what I do to what true adventures do. In fact, I'm barely dipping my toes in the water when I think of what adventure cyclists like Kelsey Regan, Steve Fuller, Greg Gleason and Joe and Tina Stiller do. But I'm out there exploring new roads, often having no clue what the next hill or corner will bring, and that satiates me (for the time being) and usually fuels my fire for life.

So why gravel riding vs. climbing/mountaineering or wilderness canoeing? Lack of time and lack of desire for copious amounts of gear is what comes to mind first. No longer are the days I can take off for a month or two at a time without losing my job, and no longer are the days when I want to spend weeks prepping my gear, knowing if I forget one thing, the trip could end in a disaster. No, I'm quite happy riding the endless hills of the driftless zone, admiring lone oaks in farm fields, trying to stay upright in sand barrens, finding pine stands in Northern Wisconsin which smell like Montana and sometimes rolling through bottom bracket deep water when the marshes have flooded. Call me weak, call me a quitter, but at the same time, call me happy. Kelsey Regan actually made a blog post explaining why gravel riders do what they do. I'll be honest, before I fell in love with this type of riding, I would have laughed my ass off reading this (while secretly I would have been queasy with fear), but those days are thankfully gone.

This year, with so many changes under my belt, I didn't get to many of the gravel events I would have liked to. I allowed myself, essentially, to be a bit lazy and complacent. I needed it. I needed to go back to a bit of adventure on my own terms, and so I opted to spend most of the spring and summer riding smooth asphalt. This, of course, got a bit boring, and by fall I was searching for my daily dose of vitamin G. Sadly, since I live in dairy country, almost all the roads are paved for the milk trucks, so I had to either ride the gravel rail trails (which honestly almost ride better than a lot of roads) or travel a couple hours to find some much needed dirt, sand and rock. I'm pretty lucky to have friends who are also passionate about this type of riding, so we'd pack up for day trips, or sometimes multi-days to go play. And now, since winter is knocking at my door, I feel a great pull to get one or two more adventures in with them.

A few weeks ago, on one of the day long jaunts into Southern Minnesota (Houston Co. to be exact), I remember looking over at my riding friend, after climbing a three mile long gravel hill to the top of a coulee, and feeling my heart swell. Honest. I actually felt so overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding us, and feeling so blessed to be where I was, I almost started crying. These are the moments I keep tucked inside pull out later when I'm cursing mother nature for dumping massive amounts of snow along with biting cold wind. Even now, just thinking about that ride and how many more roads there are to explore in the area, makes me giddy for spring.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong...
-John Denver

Exploring Northern Wisconsin near Lac du Flambeau

Riding to the IL border at midnight

Riding the Dairy Roubaix route in fall for the second time this year

Friendly farm dogs are sprinting

Dairy Roubaix

The famous B road on Ten Thousand

Ten Thousand

Badger State Trail

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