Hi we are Dakota and Chelsea. We like fun and adventure, frequently in the form of bicycling. We write about travel, our thoughts on work/life balance, books and people we meet and share pictures from our lives.
TAHOOOOOE! The word is fun to yell and the mountain biking there is even better.
When a blog reader asked for recommendations of California mtb trails, I pointed him at a past blog post about coastal rides. However, I didn’t have anything written about Tahoe trip Chelsea and I did last summer. Now I do!
I’ve ridden all these, with the list drawing from various websites and local friends who recommended their favorite trails. I’m an advanced rider (stop chortling, mtb friends) and these trails are blue or black difficulty. I linked to many of the trails on Trailforks to make it easy.
I love multi-hour rides that cover lots of distance, plus enduro-style descending. If you’re looking for tame, flat (cough boring cough) trails, this isn’t your list!
Without further ado, my favorite Lake Tahoe mtb rides:
Rolling down the TRT above Spooner Lake.
Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) from Mt. Rose to Spooner to Van Sickle: Starting at Mt. Rose, pedal the Tahoe Rim Trail up and down to the top of Van Sickle, then descend into the tourist loony bin that is the S. Lake Tahoe. Fantastic lake views, playful and engaging riding (ahhh, granite is so fun), remote riding, and a healthy dose of effort make this a must-do. The full shebang is 45 miles and took me about 5 hours, so plan for a full day of riding and bring a water filter.
Getting up there at High Meadows near Star Lake.
TRT from Kingsbury S to Star Lake, Freel Peak/Meadows, down Mr. Toads: A close second place for favorite ride around Tahoe! Starting from the Heavenly Resort (we stayed at Chelsea’s parent’s timeshare there), pedal south on the TRT Heavenly and High Meadows to a refreshing (cold!) dip at Star Lake and eat some lunch.
Monument Pass and Cold Creek – you’ve got to get up there somehow (I pedaled in from Kingsbury South trailhead on the TRT Heavenly), but once you’re there, it’s all fun downhill. Monument Pass is smoother terrain with lots of switchbacks up high; Cold Creek sports rocky sections with large boulders that are a) fun and b) dangerous when your front wheel disappears into a deep pit. #wreckingsucks
My sister-in-law on Sidewinder.
Corral/Sidewinder – I linked Monument and Cold Creek (above) with this ride, but most people do them on their own. FUN trails! Sidewinder is a natural granite playground into Corral’s flowy jump trail. Gotta ride it if you’re in the area. The climbing is on pavement so you can crank out laps if you want.
California Hangtown, baby! The climb to the top of Sidewinder.
Christmas Valley – a local Tahoe rider recommended this. Moderate-grade climbing that results in a low-flow descent with way more pedaling than I expected. Entertaining and the end makes it a worthwhile ride, but if you are only doing a couple rides in the area, I vote for skipping this one.
Chelsea’s bro enjoying the fruits of Tahoe.
Armstrong Pass – I linked this with Christmas Valley and it worked well. Similar riding to the rest of the Tahoe Rim Trail and it dumps you out right at the top of Corral/Sidewinder for more fun. A good way to get up to Star Lake if you want to ride Monument Pass and Cold Creek.
Hole in the Ground and Donner Lake Rim – Everyone loves Hole in the Ground…and I confess that I don’t know why! There’s a big climb up, lots of techy traversing (ok, that part is fun), and then it dumps you onto a FIRE ROAD for almost the entire 2,000’ descent.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t ride UP singletrack and DOWN fire roads without a lot of sadness… An out-and-back on Donner Lake Rim Trail was interesting purely for the tech-nasty bike handling required, but it’s mostly flat.
Sneaked a gratuitous van shot in after all!
Flume Trail – Ok, so I didn’t ride ALL of these. Everyone rides Flume Trail near Tahoe, but I opted for the Tahoe Rim Trail from Mt. Rose right above it. However, 12.7mm tourists and Instagram posts can’t be wrong…right? If you want a green trail with views of the lake, I hear it’s great.
Downhill to Downieville!
Downieville fun on Gold Valley Rim.
Downieville – my mountain bike friends speak of Downieville like it’s hallowed ground, a shrine of trails not to be missed. I needed to go there, so on the way back from Tahoe we detoured a bit to explore.
You can pay to shuttle from Downieville to avoid the ~3k’ climb up from the highway. NAH. Just pedal it! The fire road is steep, but the views are great. I added a bit to my day and did the climb from Sierra City, then rode Gold Valley Rim, Pauley Creek, Butcher, 2nd, 1st divide, which is (mostly) the route that the Downieville Classic follows.
Note: I considered riding up the highway, but it’s narrow and people are going fast. Hitchhike or catch a shuttle if your awesome wife isn’t available to meet you at the end of the ride.
The less fun, but good-for-ya route to the top at Downieville. Shuttles are overrated.
Getting up high on Mt. Elwell near Graegle!
Graegle – Say it like “Gray Eagle” and fly like… anyway.
This little town is COOL and geared toward mountain biking like Oakridge, Oregon. I did a double-whammy day of Mills Peak and Mt. Elwell, which is either a big ride or my legs were tired from all the Tahoe riding! Mills is the easier of the two, with climbing on the highway/fire road to the trailhead. From there, shred back toward town on well-built, varied trails.
As for Mt. Elwell… Pedal back up from town (or ride this on the second day if you’re wiser than me) and then huff and puff up the too-steep-to-ride trail to the top of Elwell. I knew it was steep when a guy on an electric bike couldn’t pedal it!
Why ride uphill when you can carry your bike?
From the top, buckle your shoes and don the pads cuz it’s game time. Rocks! More rocks! ROCKS. Be prepared for black diamond riding. Nothing is crazy and there aren’t any big gaps, but the riding is in your face and challenging. Disclaimer aside, it’s also suparad! At the bottom, jump in the reservoir and enjoy the laidback vibe in town.
Chelsea’s mom laying down a patch of rubber on the trail from Tahoe City.
Family Fun: we did two rides with C’s family on the paved trails along the lake. One starts west of S. Lake Tahoe and the other we started in Tahoe City on the north shore. Both were fun and bike rental shops abound.
The first is shorter (maybe 10 miles available), whereas the second one has ~30 miles out and back, which Chelsea’s parents crushed on their rental cruisers. Someday I’ll be that tough!
Fabulous lake views from the top of Ellis Peak.
Hike Ellis Peak – need a rest day (well, from biking)? This six mile hike ends with a full-on amazing view of Lake Tahoe. Highly recommended!
In a funny small-world moment, we picked up two PCT hitchhikers on the drive back from Ellis Peak’s trailhead. Turns out one follows me on Instagram and is the personal trainer for Portland friends. Her girlfriend Carrot is a well-known thru-hiker whose excellent book we’d read. I love that kind of random stuff!
That’s all I’ve got. If you have trails to recommend, fire away below in the comments. Happy pedaling!
One million feet: 35 trips from sea level to the top of Everest. Fighting gravity to climb that many feet uphill in a year without any motorized assistance is incredible and badass.
Well, my friend Paul did it. Props, kudos, congrats, and a standing ovation, you beast!
Annnd done! Paul at max grin capacity on Dec 31 after hitting 1 million near Bend.
On December 31, 2018, Paul wrapped up his year-long goal to log 1,000,000 vertical feet of human-powered ascending. To count, it had to be sweat, commitment and burrito-driven, all performed outdoors. No trainers or treadmills, no ski lifts, no shuttling, just old-fashioned oomph.
Paul’s words: “The goal was based on a few principles…
We are capable of so much more than we think.
Spend time in the mountains with good people.
We all have life goals in work and life, often imposed by others with no understanding of the individual. This was 100% my goal. Something I knew I could do based on many years of testing the body and mind.
It sounded fun!
Experience the mountains through a variety of outdoor human-powered adventures while learning how to ski, evolve the mountain biking, rock climb more, and trail run some bigger routes.”
Coffee first, then conversation. Then cold creek dip.
How Tough is 1 Million Feet?
For perspective, 1 million feet of vertical gain equals 3,140’/day (260 flights of stairs!) and 4+ hours with one rest day per week. You know those days when you wake up after a run or bike ride and take a rest day because your legs are tired? Nope. Get up, put on gear, and get out the door. My biggest year is 450,000′ of vertical, a piddly fart of an effort compared to 1,000,000′.
Factor in Paul’s job, injuries, sickness, our climbing trip to Red Rocks (bad for vert because climbing is slow) and what he was staring in the eye was one helluva challenge. I bet you’ve never thought this deeply about the nuances of vert accumulation. I hadn’t!
A “rest day” in Leavenworth with only 1,000′ of steep hiking to get to the climb.
Since he’s a lunatic and wanted to make it harder, Paul focused on “interesting” vert. He wasn’t just logging big miles on a road bike, Everesting up and down the same climb. Gnarly mountain biking, big trail runs like the Enchantments Traverse, and backcountry skiing ( (hiking up a mountain on your skis before descending) in all kinds of conditions made the challenge even tougher.
His stats: 53% mountain biking, 23% backcountry skiing, 15% road biking, 7% trail running, and 2% rock climbing. Lots of classic cold and wet Pacific NW days riding muddy trails, skiing in stormy conditions at the crack of dawn (often when I slept in) and pushing to make a big goal happen.
Vert earns you views like this one on Cutthroat Pass in WA.
Hanging with the Vert-Seeker
I logged many days and 80,000’ uphill with Paul during the challenge and witnessed his willpower and stoke levels fluctuate. The immensity of the goal was sometimes a yoke around his neck and also propelled him to complete tough objectives like running the 40-mile Timberline Trail.
That fire burns for adventure, but Paul can also go deep. Around a campfire in the North Cascades, we talked about creating our personal ideal lives. The next day, we pedaled and pushed through snow on a remote, beautiful ride. As a finale to eight days of outdoor adventure, we dunked in a snow-melt creek, Paul’s favorite post-activity refresher no matter HOW cold temps are.
Digging deep bouldering in Leavenworth.
I saw him depressed and angry about a tweaked knee from a climbing fall in Red Rocks, talked about relationships and the housing market for endless hours (yessss, sell that house and be free, man!) and coached him through (mostly) plant-powered efforts as he strove for the lowest possible inflammation levels during his challenge.
Emotions whipsawed. Hooting and hollering on trail descents, worrying about incoming storms on multi-pitch rock climbs, staring from the tops of mountains at distant vistas, assessing avalanches in the backcountry…
We humans experience a lot in the outdoors: raw emotion from weather, exposure, fear, exhaustion, beauty, friendship. There’s power in pushing physical limits and magic in the simplicity of man vs. gravity in a natural setting.
What a guy! Hauls vegan pizza up an icy pass and shares it with me. Photo: Ben Groenhout
How the Challenge Affected Me
In the past few years, I haven’t undertaken challenges where finishing was in question. Even the Oregon Timber Trail, the hardest physical journey I’ve done, always felt achievable. Sure, I get tired, bonk, or feel bored and ready to be done, but even at my MOST tired (often with Paul!), I know a granola bar and one last hard push reaches the finish line.
Paul’s awesome effort reminds me that aiming for a goal where victory isn’t guaranteed is a primo way to feel alive. That and freezing lake dips!
Looking back, I suspect Paul will remember his 40th year on this planet more than others. Life isn’t just about fun, after all. From Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman: “Happiness is a momentary experience that arises spontaneously and is fleeting. Meanwhile, satisfaction is a long-term feeling, built over time and based on achieving goals and building the kind of life you admire.”
Snow, freezing temps, steep hike-a-bike…Paul’s kinda day out!
To a satisfaction-building, admirable accomplishment, I say CHEERS. Well done, my friend.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, did Paul sleep in on January 1st and read a book all day on the couch? NAH. After 10 straight days skiing to finish off the challenge, he got up early on New Year’s day and headed out for some more backcountry turns in the snow.
Follow Paul on Instagram. I always enjoy his varied, creative, rambling stream-of-consciousness posts. Plus he’s always in beautiful areas sharing photos to make you dream! Here’s his summary post regarding the vert challenge.
Here’s to the next adventure together, my friend!
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Map out the upcoming calendar year and fill in the big trips and bucket list goals first. The stuff for 2019’s highlights reel! Let’s call them Boulders of Awesomeness
Add a few smaller ideas – the Stones of Excellence. Still fun, just not as committing for time/money/planning.
Keep some flexible, close-to-home options for trips and day-to-day aspirations to pursue. Call these final items the Sand of Daily Happiness.
Boulders of Awesomeness, Stones of Excellence and Sands of Daily Happiness.
My favorite part about the Boulders of Awesomeness is that they anchor chunks of the year. Sometimes angst creeps in – “I haven’t done anything fun/exciting lately!” – and looking at the list helps me recenter. I can enjoy normal life without pangs of “time is running out!” hitting.
That leads to me relaxing and enjoying moments at home. I can look at my list and reminisce about recent fun and anticipate upcoming trips, experiences or projects.
This technique avoids the “can’t commit to anything” thing that happens to me occasionally. Especially for people who are flexible (van life!) or self-employed, this method gives structure to the year without getting too rigid.
Create a new document or Evernote file (my preference).
Flip through your bucket list and get stoked. These don’t need to be travel! One of mine for 2018 was “study blues guitar,” which I’ve focused on in December.
If you don’t have a formal bucket list, start one now! Think back on conversations you’ve had, Instagram posts you’ve seen, or online/magazine articles you’ve read (and maybe saved?) to jog your memory.
Since I have both a bucket list and my past year’s list, I go through each of them. What was fun/inspiring/awesome/fulfilling? I want more of that!
More road trips and cold lake dips perhaps?
From those sources, pick 3-4 focuses, trips, or other ways to focus your energy (“cook more dinners at home” or “one date night per week” or “volunteer for __”). Use a different or bigger font for these.
Put them in the document you created and add potential dates. (Don’t use spring break for cooking at home if you’re going to travel to visit grandma!)
For weather-dependent trips or activities, line it up accordingly. While planning to ride the Oregon Timber Trail this year, I considered snow levels and forest fire trends and BAM, mid-July popped out. I don’t like to focus on January, when so many resolutions start out and then sputter along for a few weeks before fading. (Forget goals; this works better!)
Don’t be afraid to aim high! As Norman Peale said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” There’s no air in space, so maybe that’s bad advice, but I still like it.
A perfect sunset on the Oregon coast during a beach weekend with friends.
Stones of Excellence: Filling in the Gaps
So there are the large chunks of time to take time off work or block out a time period to dial in or acquire a new skill.
But what about weekends that slip away because you haven’t planned something out?
Same process, just with smaller projects. For example, last fall I listed a 3-day avalanche class, a trip to the Steens Mountains east of Bend, the Cascade Lakes Relay, and a trip to the coast. Listing them got me thinking about logistics and soon prompted me to sign up for the avy class and Cascade Lakes Relay.
Seeing the list frequently helps keep fun weekend escapes or learning projects front and center. I keep it as a shortcut in my Evernote file, but you could print it out and add things just as easily
I think of this list as intentions to fill in the space around the Boulders of Awesome. These can be in support of the Boulders – train for cycle touring, learn First Aid, etc.
A perfect backcountry ski day trip on Tumalo Mountain near Bend.
The Sands of Happiness: Making Daily Life Fulfilling and Rad
From there, I try to fill in remaining gaps between major trips and weekend excursions. Ya know, the 50% or more that are work days, normal blips that don’t ping loudly on Life’s Radar Screen. How do you make those special?
Intention! Write down those things that make for a quality, engaged, fun daily life. Here’s a few of mine from 2018: weekly date night with Chelsea, playing guitar, leading GarageFit workouts with friends, and a monthly game night.
These can transform into a resolution-like concept (“30 min of guitar per day”), but don’t have to. Revisiting intentions is a powerful way to reset priorities without feeling like you failed on a resolution.
Annnnd that’s it! Hope that helps turn up your Awesomeness Dial for 2019. Happy New Year, everyone!
A chilly-yet-fabulous wrap up to a trip in the N. Cascades in September.
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No one arrives at the City of Rocks by accident. Perched near the Utah/Idaho border, it’s a remote, beautiful place an hour off I-84 that’s easy to miss. For rock climbers, however, the City of Rocks is a mecca.
For my first visit in summer 2008, I arrived at midnight via a rocky, wandering back road. Rutted dirt roads jousted with the Subaru’s undercarriage, but the car survived and a week of full-moon evenings by the fire and fantastic climbing ensued. I’ve aimed to return ever since.
This time, I skipped the axle-smashing entrance in favor of the main entrance. (Slightly further and worth it!) Fresh off fun in Hells Canyon, my buddy Sean and I rolled up and met my friends Martin and Donna.
Unlike Yosemite and its towering walls, The City creeps up on you. An unassuming, washboard dirt road scatters thoughts (and possessions) as the scene unfolds. First small boulders…then bigger… Then you’re immersed in a landscape where a giant alien dropped his granite marble collection and they shattered into shards of climbable stone.
Top of the park! Sean enjoying the birds-eye awesomeness from the multi-pitch Steinfell’s Dome.
Scattered among these rocks are hiking trails for landlubbers and climbing routes for the vertically inclined. A warren of twisting approaches and dozens of major features with names like Flaming Rock, Electric Avenue, Bumblie Rock or Steinfell’s Dome await you. Even for non-climbers, the City of Rocks is a worthwhile destination for hiking and trail running, not to mention the stars at night are incredible.
More pictures, less talking! What kinda photo essay is this? Last thing I’ll mention: check out Mountain Project for all the details you’ll need to plan your stay. Oh, and while the park is remote, it’s close enough to Boise and Salt Lake City that I recommend skipping spring or fall weekends when the park is buuuuusy.
Here are shots from our week of excellent fun in the City of Rocks and another day at nearby Castle Rocks. Enjoy!
Let’s start this photo series off with a well-composed, poignant shot! (Good grief, how much can two dudes eat in a week?!)
Martin styling the classic Tribal Boundaries. My FIRST rock climb, way back in 2005 (shout out, Keif!).
Sean taking in the park from a primo camp spot.
Me getting creative with body position while eyeing Quest for Fire. (Photo: Sean J)
The awesome Donna and Martin.
Van life pizza! Sean went next level and installed an oven in his Sprinter. #winning
A perfect starry night in the City.
Sean likes climbing! Or pretends to in pictures.
An excellent slab (aka use your feet!) climb in Castle Rocks. (Photo: Sean J)
Granite mattresses haven’t caught on for some reason, but the views can be good.
Sean showing Castle Rock who the boss is.
On the approach to Steinfell’s Dome, a solid hike in and then a long climb to the top.
Getting up high on Steinfell’s Dome!
Climbing: stressful at times, and yet so very fun.
OFFROAD! (And then immediately retreating to flatter ground. The Sprinter ain’t a Jeep!) (Photo: Sean J)
Through the looking glass on Flaming Rock.
Artsy fartsy with Martin in the background.
A “rest day” mountain bike explorer ride around Castle Rocks. Well-worth the spin!
Sean rambling about in Castle Rocks.
Me getting chomped by Loch Ness Monster. (Photo: Sean J)
Camp spot with a view! (Photo: Sean J)
Not a bad spot for dinner, if you ask me!
Calling it a day on Firewater. See ya next time, City of Rocks! (Photo: Sean J)
A couple excellent days of riding around Boise on the way home! The quick access from town reminded me of Bend.
Ten years ago, I left my safe engineering job and swam into the dark waters of self-employment. No steady paychecks, no health insurance, no 401(k) matching. Just me, a degree I owed money on, and adult anchors like a mortgage. I’d taken zero business classes and didn’t know a P&L statement from a TPS report.
Cooly, a steely-eyed Texas Gunfighter, I assessed my unique position based on my skills, what I enjoyed doing, and what the world needed. Success soon followed, along with a shiny Camaro.
YEAH. FREAKING. RIGHT.
Another day in the trenches of Office Space.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 10 years of self-employment, it’s that nothing is easy, but the end result surrrre looks nice. Whenever I hear “you’re living the dream,” it always makes me think: do you want the uncertainty and headaches of building a business, all with no guarantee of success?
Along the way, I went from coveting the lifestyles of certain people in my life and in the media to realizing that, whoa, behind that curtain in Oz lies so much work, worry, and stress. Trade offs, always.
To dispel any notions of overnight riches, here is the real story of my journey. It’s full of doubt, mistakes, inch-by-inch progress and plenty of setbacks. YAY! I begin as a morose engineer and (eventually) claw uphill to a place where I run my own business and am lucky enough to have the time and money to choose how I spend my days…but first, shit gets real.
Choosing to spend my time in places like Glacier National Park!
The Unvarnished, Damn-That-Sucked-Sometimes Path
After college, I strap on a backpack and leave the country for the first time, exploring the world for a year. Small-town Idaho boy on the loose! (I live on savings from working multiple jobs through college.) I gain more self-reliance than during my four years of college, plus traveling is FAR more interesting than differential equations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay much…(Ok, anything.)
Along the way, I meet Chelsea in Prague and follow her to Portland. I get a full-time job as an engineer. Two months into the job, I’m miserable. Forlorn in my cubicle, I stare at my pictures of exploits in 35 countries. Two weeks off per year?! If I’m lucky, I only get 4,680 weeks in my entire life!
The entitled millennial in me wants freedom and money, RIGHT NOW. C’mon world, I’ve done nothing to earn it, but I want it. No, I deserve it.
First date with Chelsea! If I can do a handstand, there’s no way working full time is necessary.
I start reading books like The Four-Hour Work Week and blogs about self-employment. (My reading list from those days is a study in cracking a code: real estate investment, entrepreneurship, The Millionaire Next Door.) The gears start whirring. I’m working long hours and downing Subway sandwiches at my desk. Meanwhile, Chelsea is starting a real estate career. Supportive partner to the core, she says, “Hey, talk to James, the finance guy in my office.”
James advises me to keep my sweet, secure engineering job. I’m earning $55k/year right out of college, far more than I’ve ever made. It’s 2007 and the housing market is teetering and everyone in the industry can feel it.
Advice be damned! (“All opinions are odious,” my Buddhist mom says.) I get a lending license. I have zero finance training, but I want to become the Green Lender, the sustainability finance dude.
I’d totally trust this guy with my money! I mean c’mon, he’s got a green shirt, rides a fixed gear bike and has big hair. #trustworthy
Friends are my first marks; somehow, I don’t screw things up TOO badly. I do a deal here or there on the side for a year, focusing on my own personal projects on my computer’s second monitor. (Alt-Tabbers out there, let’s just say I was quick on the draw.)
The condo market in Portland peaks. We’re sage investors, so we buy a condo. “We’ll flip this and buy a house next year,” we tell ourselves, toasting our good fortune. The condo drops 40% in value. #realestategeniuses
Mid-2008, I leave my engineering job. Adjustable rate mortgages explode like time bombs, flak spraying the markets. Whatever – I’m SO stoked to quit.
The market crashes. There are approximately zero point zero clients buying homes. Whaaaat am I gonna doooo?
I’m no dummy, so I focus on core business development strategies: rock climbing and biking. For months, I avoid doing the work to get started, living on savings. Road trips to beautiful places STILL don’t pay much, it turns out…
Thinking deeply about business development in the City of Rocks.
Hard at work on my business plan with my friend Don on a ride around Crater Lake.
A Journey to the Dark Side of Business
A college roommate and I are both casting about for business ideas. We start a tech consulting business (neither of us are qualified). One of our favorite biz names includes “Techasaurus Rex.” (Sigh.)
We shutter T-Rex when my roommate finds a multi-level marketing (MLM) business called LocalAdLink, which aims to compete with Google AdWords. With a failed MLM in college, surely I’ve learned there is no such thing as easy money and that MLMs are shady and sharky.
I jump into the MLM full-force. Craigslist posts, recruiting, “ground-level opportunity…” All the bullshit. We make a few dollars, mostly from other people joining. (Rule #1 about most MLMs: the product is secondary. It’s all about recruiting people to sell the product for you, a pyramid paying people at the top. Gimme a P, gimme an O…PONZI SCHEME!)
After a month or so of this BS, my biz partner finds another, shinier “opportunity” called Lightyear Wireless. It’s another MLM. Chelsea, the far more intuitive one in our partnership, sees right through it. No way am I jumping into this one – c’mon Dakota. Dean’s list engineering student, world traveler… Common sense says that…
Headlong, I dive into recruiting for Lightyear. This one goes well; recruiting is easier, money to be made. Ground floor opportunity again, baby! (It’s always ground floor.) It’s a cold winter and I’m working in our uninsulated condo. Curled at my feet is an archaic cat Chelsea rescued from the street. Her name is Annie and she’s the sweetest, most decrepit kitty ever.
Annie spends the last days of her life asleep by the space heater, croaking out meows for a pat. Her waning moments parallel the sunsetting of my MLM days. I read a professor’s article about MLMs and email him. He confirms my theory that I’m not actually putting efforts into a real business. That small nudge is all it takes.
Me and old Annie hanging out. (Side note: No way I’ve ever had so many pics of me sitting in office chairs in one blog!)
The Only Way to Make Money is to Create Value
I realize there is no easy way to make money without hard work and that it is time to buckle down and create value. It’s a hard lesson, and I feel stupid and embarrassed. Why don’t they teach these lessons in school instead of trigonometry?! I’m also lucky to only waste a few months of my life on MLM scams. To anyone considering them, here’s my odious advice: move on immediately.
My timing is unreal. The housing market collapses and the government rescues big banks. Not to worry: all my old engineering colleagues are pulling down great money. None of them will lose their jobs in the teeth of the incoming recession. (“How’s the new biz, Dakota?”) Remind me why my dumbass Millennial, want-the-world-on-a-silver-platter self left a solid, respectable job with upward mobility?
I scattershot my approach in mid-2009: selling search engine optimization, hawking website design for a company, learning web design myself and building niche websites, joining a couple teams pitching grants in the sustainability marketing realm, and teaching a class on sustainability at a local college. (Funny enough, I’d forgotten ALL of these until going through Gmail for this blog!)
My shifting intentions force me to refocus and buckle down on my real estate finance business. I brainstorm ideas about green building and sustainability, reach out to build relationships, and finagle presentations to Realtors who are listing efficient, green homes. The federal government offers a first-time homebuyer tax credit to rekindle the swooning economy and people start buying homes again…but I still have zero clients.
I’m freaking out. My savings are dwindling and my meager stock investments are cratering. I’m a saver by nature and hate living without a safety net. That cubicle and monthly paycheck sound miiiiighty fine. Free lunches and a Christmas bonus? Sign me up. (I’m in The Dip, as Seth Godin calls it.)
I’m somewhere in the trough of sorrow/crash of ineptitude…
Momentum! Chelsea refers me some clients and I build relationships with Realtors. Two of them are a progressive team that sense opportunity with a review platform, Yelp. I’m intrigued (and desperate).
Referrals trickle in. I finally start making some money. Not a lot, and it feels unstable, shaky. Still, we’re frugal and it’s enough to cover my expenses. (Mostly because I’m not into the expensive sport of mountain biking yet.)
Ohhhh but I WILL be into this sport… (Photo: the talented Scott Rokis.)
So much trial and error. Does this marketing work? Can I offer classes about technology and a paper-free office and get referrals? (Yes.) Some business relationships blossom, others dead end, time wasted for no pay.
I’m learning the hard way that efficiency and effectiveness are different beasts. I can spend all day working efficiently on things that don’t deliver revenue! (“Maybe I’ll sort my contacts into groups and delete old archived emails.”)
I’m working hard, harder than I EVER did as an engineer, and the payoff is uncertain at best. Still, Yelp reviews are coming in and I’m seeing a glimmer of hope. (Essentialism is a great book that helped me focus on what mattered.)
Curveballs, Always Curveballs
I receive a job offer that is too good to refuse and become the Sustainable Finance Director for a local nonprofit. I’m tasked with developing relationships with organizations to push forward the green building market. Do I land my fledgling mortgage business? Hell. No. I double down and work harder.
Adding fuel to the fire, I commit to a budget of $200 per month to invite engaging, curious business professionals out to lunch or coffee. I build my network and meet dozens of driven people who are creating and contributing to what makes Portland a fantastic city. (The book Never Eat Alone is a significant influence on my approach.)
For 1.5 years (early 2010 to fall 2011), I’m pinning it, full throttle. Flights all over the country presenting on sustainable finance, meetings, work work work. My mind never rests, stress cascading off me in waves. I’m thinking about work from eyes open to head on the pillow. I lie awake at night thinking over difficult conversations, tactics, possibilities, risks. I’m so much fun to hang out with…
Kauai vacation (to elope!) in 2011. Not shown: me working half of my freeeeaking wedding trip.
It’s an exciting, exhausting, unsustainable pace. Only my morning bike commute, lunch runs and the climbing gym keep me sane. Chelsea is also working nutso hours on her business, so our time together is limited. Trail mix dinners over the kitchen counter, yum.
Breaking point. I have to choose. (Choose Yourself James Altucher says!) I leave the nonprofit and invest in my own business in fall of 2011.
Own or Be Owned by A Business
Positive reviews of my work on Yelp continue to drive new clients my way. My work is gaining steam and 2011/2012 are insanity. I’m pulled in 700 different directions. In no way do I own my business; it owns me.
Chelsea and I get married. Even though we don’t have kids and her business is booming, she leaves paid work, opting to support my fledgling business and focus on creating an awesome life for us . (Check out Radical Homemakers.)
We joke that she’s our Ambassador of Fun, but more accurate is that she’s consciously making our lives well-rounded and deep through community building, travel planning, and (eventually) a focus on veganism. To this day, it’s the best decision we’ve made to improve our quality of life, forge new paths and ways of thinking.
Chelsea brings the fun while I rethink cycling and ride two rental bikes in Arizona.
In many ways, we have it so, SO good. However, like a dam overloaded while cranking out electricity, the cracks are starting to show. I’m stressed and edgy. Is this effort worth it? We start dreaming about living smaller and dig into the tiny living movement. What if we live in a mother-in-law unit and rent out the main house? I could dial back my work and stop thinking about money all the time. Wait, wasn’t that the plan four years ago?
We take a roadtrip in fall of 2012 to “decompress.” I spend the entire time working and more stressed. (Where’s a wifi signal?! We’re losing reception!) It. Is. Miserable. We spy a Vanagon on that trip and almost buy it on a whim. Instead, we start researching camper vans. Four months later, we spring for a new Sprinter van. A new chapter opens.
Two contract employees I rely on are yanked out from under me. I’m terrified, but make the leap and hire my first full-time employees. (My guiding principles stem from the book Let My People Go Surfing by the founder of Patagonia.)
We’re in contract on a new house. WAIT. I realize I want to break free, to roam, to feel that footloose feeling of travel from my days in New Zealand, Russia, Laos…
An all-time travel moment: we switch boats on Inle Lake (Myanmar) and learn how to paddle like the locals.
Hanging off the back of a tuktuk in Laos in 2006 with my buddy Eric!
The Life Pivot
We turn on our heels and hatch a new plan: a 4-month van trip from Portland to San Diego. I focus on finishing our van buildout, of planning and execution with freeeeedom as the goal. At the end of 2013, we drop our kitty Oliver off at the in-laws and head south.
The van doesn’t have any running water and there aren’t any interior lights. We are ecstatic. Nature and creative time fill our days. Chelsea and I spend more quality time together than we have in years. We decide four months is wayyyy too short a trip…
I’m working remotely. It’s flexible, but not enough. We crunch some numbers and make another leap: I’ll refer all my clients to my staff. The goal: trade time for money. It’s time to..
Sometimes I visit a new destination carrying expectations. For rock climbing in Hells Canyon? Nope!
I van tripped there on a passable rumor from a guy (who knew a guy) claiming the existence of hundreds of bolted climbing routes. The interwebs proved less helpful: “There is no guidebook – hike up and climb stuff.”
SURELY there is a route somewhere around here. (Photo: Sean Jacklin)
Heading Into the Canyon
For the uninitiated, Hells Canyon forms the border between NE Oregon and Idaho. The Snake River separates the two states and cuts the deepest canyon in the states. Steep trails head uphill from the many pullouts along the road.
The road from Baker City heads east, cell signal weakening. Around Oxbow, a tiny town on the border, no signal is the name of the game. Put that phone on airplane mode and enjoy the serenity.
Pulling into the campground with my compadre Sean, right across from the routes!
Do campgrounds get any better than this? Right on the river, quiet, with a magic tree. (Photo: Sean Jacklin)
Miles back on the east side of the Snake River is the Alison Creek pullout. From the parking lot, a half dozen hulking limestone formations loom just a short (steep) hike away, most stacked with bolted sport routes.
Every climbing area has its own ethics. In Hells Canyon, the local route developers keep new projects under wraps and suppress any guidebook or online route guide development. Having climbed frequently at the zoo that is Smith Rock, I appreciate their perspective! Hey, they’re nice enough to bolt the routes, so I’m not going to complain.
Sean scoping out routes at the base of the Flatiron.
The canyon lies in national forest with prime free camping next to the river. We chose a perfect spot shaded by arching cottonwoods that framed views of the water and our climbing destination. Not gonna lie, the pull to hang in a camp chair and read a book was stronnng.
All Alone in Hells Canyon
Somehow, we rallied. Hiking in to climb on day one, we met a couple from my hometown (shout out to Moscow, ID!). They told us two things: 1) an irritated rattlesnake lay poised just upstream and 2) “The route on the left side of that wall is an 11c; the ones to the right are harder.” No dummy, I sent Sean ahead in his long pants and hung back yelling “HEY SNAKEY SNAKEY,” a variation of my ultra-effective bear repellent song (heyyy bear!).
Those vague tips were the only beta we received in three days. In fact, those were the only other people we saw the entire time. Hells Canyon is a remote, untrammeled area of the world, and I bet it stays that way. With few amenities, no guidebook, and GASP no possibility of posting Instagram Stories while there, it won’t turn it into a Yosemite Falls gridlock, don’t worry.
Heading down to the vans for a well-earned dinner!
Some steep, entertaining approaches to routes in the canyon.
This isn’t a climbing blog, so I won’t bore you with tales of glory and the excellent fun. (A small victory, I did onsight the aforementioned 5.11c.) Beyond the climbing, my favorite aspect of Hells Canyon was the remoteness and discovery aspect. Every route offered panoramic views of the canyon.
After two days of shredding our fingertips on sharp limestone, we opted for a rest day trail run. Sweaty uphill work brought us to a ridge traverse through wildflowers, a rollicking jaunt with sweeping views of the canyon. The route finding and downed trees stayed right in line with the rowdy spirit of the canyon.
We cleaned up with a dip in the brace-yourself cold river, then ate lunch sitting by the side of the river. (Mega burritos for the win). The serenity, lack of cell service, and excellent options for adventure made it hard to peel away so fast, but it was time to point the vans south to meet some buddies. Onward to the City of Rocks!
Cruising along a ridge traverse 3000′ above the river (after some hard work getting up there!) (Photo: Sean Jacklin)
Nomnomnom. Final lunch in the perfect campsite before hitting the road.
All the Logistics:
Hells Canyon is hot (as hell) in the summer. Spring and fall is the best time to go, with fall better because the wet limestone can seep water in the spring, especially on the steeper routes.
Pack plenty of water and food for your trip because the campsites are no-frills-just-an-outhouse style. Last stop for food is the town of Oxbow at the bridge crossing from Oregon into Idaho. Copperfield Campground is a big, well-appointed one (we opted for free, remote camping up-canyon).
There’s an RV water fill a few miles up canyon from Oxbow. (Lowest water pressure ever, but it’s free!)
There is zero cell service in the canyon. You’ll lose it before Oxbow. Enjoy the silence!
To find the climbing, use the Mountain Projects app and find Hells Canyon, then use the “get directions” feature. It’ll take you right to the trailhead. (Or just go to this Google pin.) Any of the pullouts from there bring you to fantastic river camping spots.
If you want amenities close to the climbing, Hells Canyon campground is about 5 miles south of Alison Creek and has water, electric hookups and freshly mowed grass to roll on.
SO much undeveloped rock in the canyon. (Photo: Sean Jacklin)
The rock is featured limestone and the routes we climbed were vertical to overhanging. Not a ton of steep caves, but routes are steep enough that you are working – this isn’t slab climbing.
Onsighting is tough because there aren’t any tick marks on the holds. Search and destroy!
The orange rock is lose/sketchy; the best rock is blue in color with pockets and water runnels.
Rumor has it there are multi-pitch climbs up the 400-600′ walls, but as newbies to the area, we didn’t attempt to find any.
There are reportedly hundreds of routes to climb. We did maybe a dozen of them. If you can find someone who has climbed there before, listen to them!
Since routes aren’t marked and there is no guidebook, you never know what you’re getting into. Bolts are close together and you can basically aid the routes, but I recommend feeling solid leading 5.11s outside if you’re making the long drive out here. At the very least, bring a bail biner with you.
The routes are long! Bring a 70m rope and lots of quickdraws; many of the routes are 17 draws. That said, the bolting is closely-spaced (WOOT) and you can skip a bolt or two or downclimb to grab one a draw on many of the routes if you are running low.
My favorite routes were on the crag high on the left drainage (30 min steep hike uphill from Alison Creek TH). Apparently it’s called the Flatiron. Otherwise, we just jumped on interesting-looking routes all over the canyon.
It appears this van life trend is sticking around. We’re sucking up wifi bandwidth at your library and stealth camping in your neighborhood…watch out! At most trailheads these days, I count the number of vehicles that aren’t vans.
I’m certainly not innocent. In fact, since I think all humans (and some dogs) need a van, let’s talk about how to make them Super Awesome Sauce. I’ve talked about my initial build, but never said “this still works” or “I’d change this.”
While I currently don’t plan to buy a new van, reader feedback and many weeks of van travel this year prompted me to make a list of:
Things I still love about our van
Things I’d reconsider, modify or do differently if I endured…err, engaged in a new buildout project.
My aim is to help your quest to design the ultimate adventure mobile to retain the comforts of home while exploring places like this.
Sunrise on the Alvord Desert.
Why Should I Listen to You?
Hold on: why the heck does your opinion matter, Dakota? Do you even USE Snapchat? (Got me…)
Here’s all I’ve got: due to my writing about vans, I’m constantly awash in questions, comments, and thoughts about van life. Since 2013, my Adventure Mobile post has received hundreds of thousands of visitors and dozens of comments. (I’ve updated that article over 100 times with new info.)
I’m also lucky to have met many readers around the country during our travels. “Hey, I know your van…are you Dakota from Trapezing, Tripping, er Thrashing About?” (The name doesn’t matter, right? Next blog I’m using a word people know.) Trailheads, libraries, laundromats, grocery stores: Sprinter vans and their cool occupants are everywhere.
Van lifers everywhere except this empty trailhead in Utah. There’s still solitude to be found!
Keep in mind that my goal for the van was a low-stress, relatively low-cost buildout that wouldn’t consume months of my life. I aimed for a practical, simple, cost-effective design doable with basic power tools and a bit of chutzpah (over-confidence). Five years into our relationship with the Sprinter, I still love the van travel experience.
First off, things I’d do again!
I’d Do This Again If I Built Out Another Van
Buy the 144” high-roof Sprinter: I’m sticking to my guns on this one. The longer vans I’ve seen often leave more (wasted) interior space and are tougher to maneuver on the bumpy fire roads that I frequent. Throw in easier driving around cities and I vote for going shorter if you’re a couple with the standard van life hobbies of ride, run, ski, climb. (Caveat: if you have kids or travel with gear – e.g. dirt bikes – that need a separate gear garage, then a longer van may make sense.)
Bike racks on sliders: No better way to maximize space for vans that are hauling bikes. It also makes managing other gear easier. I vote for 2-3 slide-out drawers/storage to handle the entire gear compartment!
Big side windows on both sides: we love having the light and visibility from the CR Lawrence windows. Extra bonus is that the crank-out small windows allow great airflow when the vent fan is turned on.
Lunch break with a view on the Oregon Coast.
Cabinet in sliding door space: I’ve heard the arguments here: space for yoga, you can sit on the stoop… Meh, sorry… The extra storage and counter space, plus the ability to have a sweet drop-down table for post-activity snacking with friends or easy food prep, beats the piss out of your downward dog pose. I vote for folding chairs and a mat outside the van for sitting and stretching. But that’s just me…
Large fridge: I’m sticking with a big, side-entry fridge (4.6 cubic feet). Having space for a ton of food is key for travel over a few days; for a weekender rig, maybe not so much.
Swivel seats: must-have for the passenger seat, but maybe not for driver. I traded my driver swivel to a friend for a bike rack, in fact, and haven’t missed it at all.
Alternator wired to charge house batteries while driving: a must-have! Solar often isn’t enough to keep things fully charged, and just an hour of driving will top off most battery systems.
Diesel heater: unless you only travel in the summer at low elevation, this is a key component of any van build. I still stick by what I said in my install post: “With 20/20 hindsight and many sub-freezing nights logged, it is officially one of our favorite things in the van.” Given feedback from others, it seems worth it to get the high-altitude kit, though our heater has worked fine.
Door stop for sliding door: years into having this on our van, we still love it! My brother-in-law Jesse continues to manufacture and ship these and has a ton of satisfied customers.
Drop-down side table: as I said in my favorite upgrades post, this is so handy for cooking or food prep, putting out snacks post-ride for friends, and general staging area for all activities.
Breakfast a la side table!
Solar: not mandatory if your batteries charge while driving, but still handy. Given how cheap they are now, putting solar panels on a van is practically a no-brainer these days!
WeBoost wifi extender: if you work while you travel, this handy device is destined to be your best buddy. It’s not a magic device that turns No Service into LTE bars, but often allows me to stay parked way out in nature and still get enough of a signal to check email without driving somewhere. We have the WeBoost Drive 4G-X, which ain’t cheap, but it’s worth it for us!
Propane hot water shower: I wish I’d done this earlier! For $100 and a couple hours of plumbing, a hot water shower off the back of the van is an easy upgrade totally worth doing. I bought an Eccotemp L5 heater as an open-box deal, but they’re on Amazon also if none are available.
Hot water rinse after a long, awesome ride in Oakridge (full ATCA, no shuttle!).
Things I’d Do Differently
There’s all the stuff I’d keep. What would I change? With the benefit of many months traveling in the van, both for short and long trips, I’d make these modifications:
No rear windows: The way our design evolved, only the top section of our rear windows are usable. (Most designs with bikes or outdoor gear under the bed will end up like this.) If I did it again, I’d skip the rear windows and install a small port window above the bed.
More power: related to the next item, instead of ~200 amp-hours of battery power, I’d double it to 400 amp-hours via lithium-ion batteries. This provides a week of power with zero driving or solar, which is when a) I’ve eaten all the food and we need to restock or b) it’s time for new horizons (because we’re moving on, not due to police suggestion).
No shore (plug-in) power: In four years of ownership, we’ve only used the shore power a handful of times. I wouldn’t bother next time. With 400 amp-hours of power, you definitely won’t need it unless you’re planning to pay for electrical hookups and run A/C in a KOA campground…which is antithetical to van life, so you may need to just buy an RV or risk community shunning!
No shore power in the free waterfront campgrounds in Hell’s Canyon. Rock climbing just a a few steps away in those hills!
Easily washable floor: Due to time constraints before our trip, we kept the stock floor that came with our van. It’s served us well. Still, I wish we’d had the time to put in a swath of colorful Marmoleum to create a durable, fun, more easily washable floor.
Less sound deadening: The stock Sprinters, ProMasters and Transits suffer from vibration and sound transfer. Bare metal walls create an echo chamber worse than my nephew destroying his drum kit. (Ok, maybe that isn’t possible.)
I’m glad I used sound absorbing material below the floor to limit road noise. I’m less sure about the vibration damping for the walls and ceiling – after insulation and interior paneling, half as much is probably fine. Thanks to the heavy damping in our sliding door, it is a shoulder-breaker on slight uphills. If I did it again, I’d put a couple pieces of vibration damping in there, but not coat the entire door.
Going wayyy back on Route 66.
Modular storage tray: We don’t always carry four bikes, which means one tray isn’t used or is under-used, especially for shorter trips of 1-4 weeks. I’m planning to make a modular/removable rack for carrying climbing gear, skis, paddles, or whaaatever.
Design for fitting skis: We weren’t skiers in 2013, so the separation wall between the storage and the living area doesn’t allow for long skis. Some simple mods to cabinets would allow this.
Wire/plumb up front: Not knowing exactly how we’d use our van, we didn’t plumb or wire before most of the interior was installed. I put in overhead lights halfway down the CA coast, and sink plumbing didn’t happen until 2.5 years of traveling in our van. (Chelsea is tough!)
If you have the time and confidence in how you’ll use your van, map out as much of this stuff as possible. Given the in-depth resources, floor plans, and designs now kicking around the ‘nets, this is way easier now.
Good to have extra water when you’re in the Mojave!
Backup camera: I can parallel park the van like a boss. However, the visibility is limited and stress levels are lower in crowded parking lots or kids playgrounds if you’ve got a backup camera. I’ve only bumped a stealth motorcycle behind us once (it didn’t tip over).
Insulated blackout curtain: New desire: an insulated curtain that snaps up to seal off the cab from the main living compartment for insulation and easy light blocking. It’s also a good way to look innocent while stealth camping, if we ever did that…
Skip the awning: This one came as a surprise. I pictured sunny afternoons lounging under an awning, fizzy water from the Sodastream in one hand and a book in the other. It rarely worked out that way. Usually there was a tree for shade, or gusting wind turned the awning into a large kite, or we weren’t in one place long enough to set it up. Plus it’s worse for gas mileage. Geez, I might go put it on Craigslist now!
No awning needed during a lunch break in Washington Pass.
Maybe I’d Add These
Here are a few items I’d consider if I was feeling flush with skrilla and planned on living in a van long term:
Flares: One downside to the Sprinter vs. other vans (ProMasters, Transits) is that they taper toward the roof. This results in a width that isn’t sufficient to sleep crosswise. Flares, while still expensive ($2k/each installed), free up space in the van and (maybe) are worth it.
Buy a 4×4: apparently everyone wants a 4×4 these days. While I think this is at least 30-80% because they look bold and badass, there is certainly utility in owning a 4×4 if you spend a lot of time skiing. However, I know tons of folks that ski all over in 2WD rigs with no issues. All in all, I think vans are not meant for rallying and that 4x4s just get you stuck further out.
The rough roads on the way to the start of the Oregon Timber Trail were no problemo in my 2WD mobster van!
Cabinet over sink: We have tons of storage space in the cabin, but an overhead cabinet would spread things out. The con is that it feels tighter/borderline claustrophobic and Chelsea is a big thumbs down on upper cabinets. Van lifers often comment how open our van feels. Trade-offs! For the shorter trips we’re doing now, upper cabinets don’t feel necessary. For four-season, full-time travel, probably worth it.
Hydronic hot water: I’d give this some serious consideration next time around. From what I’ve heard, the aftermarket hydronic systems are excellent. Still, it’s an expensive, fairly complicated system, and our hot water boiler and propane on-demand shower work great. Maybe someday…
Diesel cooktop: The magic of flipping on a burner without having to setup the stove is not overrated. (Weird, it’s like amenities from home are nice to have in a van!) However, it’s great to have the flexibility to cook inside, on the slider door dropdown table, or on a picnic table.
What it’s all about! (Well, other than the outdoor adventures, exploring awesome places, meeting new people…)
No Matter What You Do, Vans Are Awesome
All that said, if there’s anything I’ve learned in five years involved in the world of van life, it’s this: a basic setup is all you need. Put a bed (or sleeping pad!, plastic lantern, cooler and outdoor gear in ANY vehicle and you’re equipped to experience all the stuff folks in $100k van builds do.
Case in point: Today an employee at a local bike shop told me she spent $72 on zipties and crates for her van build. Then she went dreamy-eyed and talked about a recent, amazing five-month trip. This past weekend at a van meetup, a dude named Andrew showed me his basic setup that allows him to roam the United States working as an artist.
Don’t feel like an expensive build is the only way to go; there are many..
“Go to the Enchantments!” said half the people I know. Words like “circle of mountains” and “endless alpine lakes” reinforced their exhortations. I didn’t need much convincing.
Where is this magical outdoor palace? A few miles outside Leavenworth, WA, nestled in the peaks of the North Cascades. The Enchantment Lakes traverse is a 19-mile trail, usually completed as a multi-day backpack. To do that requires scheduling ahead to get a permit (pffft, planning?).
That left us one alternative: run it in a day. So, as part of a fall finale roadtrip, my friends Paul, Ben and I did just that.
Larches, me, and a whole lotta beauty. Photo: Ben Groenhout
The trail is a point-to-point requiring either a shuttle or 11 miles running back to the car cursing people who don’t pick up hitchhikers. Luckily, some van life buddies hauled us up a bumpy, windy dirt road to the Stuart Lake trailhead on a frosty October morning.
Miles to go: 19. Elevation to ascend: 5,500′. Temperature: 31 degrees. Stoke level: 10.
The trail follows a creek up up up, gently at first, then so steep that “running” switches to speed hiking. The freezing temps keep us cool; steam sizzles off our backs. A few views peep through the trees, but we keep our heads down and motor toward Colchuck Lake, four miles in.
A frosty morning on the way up to Colchuck Lake!
Most day hikers turn around at Colchuck Lake, a jewel of water dropped at the base of imposing Asgard Pass and Instagrammed far too much. We pause at the lake to gobble some food and eye the pass.
My friend Jono’s Asgard summary: “I’d rather go up it twice than down it once.” Picture gaining 2,000’ in a mile on loose, chunky rock. For our ascent, a dusting of snow and ice adds the fun of slick stone and frozen creeks (aka dangerous slip’n’slides into boulder fields). Avoiding becoming a human pinball pinging off rocks keeps us focused, to say the least.
A backpacker heading down Asgard Pass the wrong way, knees aching for SURE.
Huffing and puffing, we hit the top of the pass. BOOM. Hellllo mountain views! Peaks, lakes, and boulders surround us. Bright yellow larches fire in their fall glory. Ah, this is why people all say “go to the Enchantments” like mindless zombies! (I am immediately infected with Enchantment’s Fever.)
Paul, master of food munitions, busts out leftover vegan pizza. “It’s a four-slice day,” he grins. The wind whips across the lakes and we shelter against a large boulder, refueling. Only 14 miles to go.
Only true friends share their pizza at the top of a pass! Photo: Ben Groenhout
Me running through the boulders at the top of Asgard Pass. Photo: Ben Groenhout
If you look at the elevation chart for the Enchantments run, it trends downhill for the last 2/3 of the trail. Asgard marks the start of the gradual descent toward Snowy Lakes trailhead. Time to run.
This isn’t buff, flowing singletrack. The running is rocky and technical, with route finding via cairns and sections of granite slabs with no trail. My GPS watch thinks I’m a stumbling drunk as I careen left and right, stop to take pictures, filter drinking water, and retrace my steps looking for the trail. (Here’s my meandering route on Strava.)
Down a steep granite section on the trail. Photo: Ben Groenhout
Me picking my way through a boulder field. Photo: Ben Groenhout
Even though hundreds of people a year enter the Enchantments, it’s still a remote, physically tough zone to reach. For me, perspiration to move through a landscape deepens my appreciation, be it bike touring or this run. I’m lucky to have the privilege to enter such a serene, untrammeled zone that most will only see in pictures, far away from cell signals and the tumult of modern life. The U.S. has its problems, but the sheer amount of wild, protected public land is simply fantastic.
What Goes Up, Gets to Run Down!
We spend the next few hours engaged in quintessential technical trail running. It’s slow and entertaining, with roots, rocks, steep slabs, scrambling. The best! We drop down an exposed “ladder” section with rebar sunk into the granite, waltzing by a backpacker who is freaking out at the potential fall on snowy rock.
Ben and Paul heading down the steep rebar staircase, Snowy Lake in the distance.
Paul heads past a cairn into the spectacular larches.
At Snowy Lake, 15 miles in, my energy levels are low. I haven’t run much in the past few months and my legs are talking to me. Annie’s Gummy Bears boost my spirits and we hit a consistent pace along the lake on smooth forest singletrack. All there is to focus on is the clicking of trekking poles and foot placements. Trail running as a meditation, switchback after switchback.
A mountain goat interrupts my flow. Grizzled, inquisitive, staring at me. He can run straight up this mountain side, trail be damned, but this is his home and he’s lounging on his rock armchair. Only crazy humans drive hours and invest in outdoor gear to spend fleeting hours in the mountains before returning to their safe, comfortable shelter. We’re a strange species. I bid him adieu and move on.
The end of the trail. Dozens of cars, a group of backpackers with stoke levels cresting. They’re heading in for a couple nights in the wild.
As a newly minted Enchantment’s Parrot, there’s only one thing to do. I squawk, “You’re going to love it!” Zombies run in packs, after all.
Til next time…
First off: for more of Ben’s excellent shots, go here!
When to Go: I love fall and that is my vote for fall colors, no crowds, and the best temps. The mountains won’t be clear of snow until summer, so the window is small! To dodge 12 million day hikers, definitely hit the trail on a weekday if possible.
Gear We Carried: trekking/running poles, Katadyn BeFree water filter (my new favorite possession), medkit, vest, rain jacket, beanie. Nada mas except pizza!
Bikepacking the Oregon Timber Trail:
Broken Bikes and Other Trials
We’d bikepacked a week on the Oregon Timber Trail (OTT) while it hurled curveballs. This latest one seemed insurmountable: Brady’s old aluminum bike sat next to us, top tube fully snapped off. Clearly, his trip was over.
Or was it? Tipsy on margaritas, Zach eyed the bike and declared, “We’re fixing that frame. You’re not quitting this trip.” Suuuure…
Seven days earlier, JT, Brady, Zach and I converged at the starting point on the Oregon/California border. The OTT marked our first trip together. Gear was dialed, spirits were high. A local we joked with brandished a large pistol and yelled BANG to cue our departure. Welcome to rural America!
Stoked, we pedaled off. Two miles in, a stick kicked up and destroyed Brady’s derailleur. Seriously?! He headed back to catch Chelsea (our ride to the trailhead) before she headed home.
A auspicious start, to be sure. Two miles down; only 702 to go!
Will pedal for singletrack descents… Photo credit: Brady Lawrence
Kicking Things Off
Every day on the Timber Trail left me thinking, “All that happened today?” or “We started there?” I’ve road toured thousands of miles, but riding trails on a loaded mountain bike is far more physical and committing. There were few resupplies and lots more potential for things to go awry. (It’s difficult to hitchhike off a singletrack trail.)
As the OTT guide says, the first four days and 200 miles (the Fremont Tier) are the toughest. After Brady broke his derailleur on day 1, Zach, JT and I pedaled onward on the remote Fremont National Scenic trail.
Reflecting at Lava Lake after a day on the OTT.
An expected water source was merely a trickle. Zach, Experienced Bikepacker, brought a syringe, which we used to summon water and fill our bottles.
We eventually popped out to HEY, MY CAMPER VAN. (Brady rendezvoused with Chelsea, fixed his bike in Lakeview, and rejoined us.) The dehydrated meals stay packed, and we get to eat like kings. Fajitas, watermelon, lemonade, ice cream… Brady should break his bike every day.
Dinnertime – thanks Chelsea!
Days on the Trail
All days will unfold in a similar fashion. (Minus Chelsea, who packs up the van and abandons us to the Oregon wild.) Wake up, eat breakfast, stuff sleeping bag and gear in my handlebar bag, smear chamois cream on riding shorts…
It’s a ritual – simple, easy. Bikepacking is straightforward: eat, pedal, drink, eat, look at view, crack jokes, eat, pedal, sleep. Repeat.
Brady waking up on the trail.
We see zero other riders for the first four days, though a couple cars materialize way back on fire roads. (Are you lost?) Maybe we’re just a few hours drive from Bend, but it feels like another state.
Day 2: Some of my favorite riding of the trip from Mills Creek to the Chewaucan River. Ridge trails with big views of the Summer Valley, no downed trees, and a feeling of spaciousness and exploration on new terrain. Brady enjoys a good day and only snaps his chain twice. (We carry Quick Links for an easy fix.) Zach’s suspension pivot bolt is loose, so he fashions a shim from a plastic fuel canister cap. We’re making it happen.
Brady hard at work fixing his chain.
Day 3: Smack down on Winter Rim. Cairns mark our path as babyhead-size rocks punish bike, body and spirit. Thoughts of bailing to ride smooth fire road to Fremont Point arise, but we push through. Are we trail-blazing pioneers or martyrs? Hours into the punishment, it’s not clear…
I wait at a cattle fence. Brady pedals up: “Dude, I just peed blood.” A bicycle seat shot to his nether regions… Luckily, we have a cell signal at Fremont Point. With a stunning view behind us, the internet informs us that Brady will soon hallucinate, bleed out of his ears and eyes, and die. Hmmm. A call to a couple doctors leads Brady to decide to simply monitor the situation. (Stupid internets.)
High on Winter Rim overlooking Summer Lake.
What I Ate (Plant-Powered!)
I followed a vegan diet (as always) for the OTT and found it quite easy!
-Oatmeal with PB, nuts, and dried fruit
-In towns, I asked cafe chefs to whip up a hashbrown, veggies and veggie burger combo. Delicious!
–Picky Bars (Bend local company, so good!), Pro Bars, Lara Bars, Kind Bars (3-4/day)
–Primal Vegan Jerky (mesquite lime is my favorite)
-Gummies (Annie’s), Sour Patch Kids: plenty of vegan (non-gelatin) options exist at any convenience store. Next trip, I’ll buy less sugary snacks and go with savory as much as possible
-Chex Mix, Trail Mix
-Fruit (grapes, cherries) – worth carrying an extra pound.
Zach winning at the snacking game mid-ride. Photo credit: Brady Lawrence
-Snacks from above
-PBJ burritos with nuts and whatever other calories (dried fruit) I could find
-Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried dinners (Pad thai and Kathmandu curry are both vegan); many other brands have vegan options as well.
-Tasty Bites dinner pouches
-Big meals in Chemult, Oakridge, Sisters, and Breitenbush. Fuel up!
-Nuun electrolyte tablets in water (1-2 per day) – available in Oakridge and Sisters
-Hammer enduralyte pills (2 a day) – light and small, easy to keep in a small plastic baggy
A Day to Test the Spirit
We kick day 4 off by pushing our bikes uphill through overgrown brush. It’s an omen to come for the hardest day (for me) of the entire trip.
Miles of uphill to the top of Yamsay Mountain follow. This is a new, uncleared addition to the Timber Trail; big downed trees frequent the trail. Summing it up, a joker carved WHY in giant letters on one.
We push/carry/curse our way over ~1,783 trees (who’s counting?). A scifi audiobook entertains me, but JT and Zach push on, cheery and accepting our circumstances. I’m a positive person but I HATE THIS CLIMB.
Usually the up is worth the down… Photo credit: Brady Lawrence
After eight hours and 20 miles (I can crawl faster…), plus gallons of sweat, we summit Yamsay Mountain. The valley unfolds below us and I post “time for the DOWNHILL” on Instagram.
Nope. Sorry, suckers. Miles of downed trees await us on the other side of the mountain, followed by 25 miles of sandy, tire/soul-sucking fire roads. This is a Sisyphean day, a grind to test our will.
Onward. Loree’s Chalet in Chemult rewards our 8:45 pm arrival with hot food. Delicious vegan burgers in a highway diner whaaat? We celebrate by sharing a $59 motel room. It’s cozy.
The wonderful Loree’s Chalet in Chemult. Photo credit: Brady Lawrence
The Price of Admission
I’m not complaining. Really. We expected tough days – it’s the price of adventure, the entry cost to go somewhere most people won’t. I can wax poetic about finding our edge, pushing our spirits, blah blah blah, and (maybe?) some of that is true. However, it’s easy to rationalize difficult physical trials with promise of future toughness, so I guess I’ll continue!
Who knows. Too much time to think on trips like this. I need more audiobooks.
Into the (Mostly) Type-1 Fun Zone
From Chemult, we start the Willamette Tier and lakes and streams appear. Swimming! At first, we’re mildly shy (except for JT, the Nudist). Soon, we’re stripping down with aplomb and racing to the water.
Racing for the water! Photo credit: Brady Lawrence
These are long days, 6-8 hours of pedaling, but there’s plenty of time for cooling off and even kicking back. With temps hitting 95 degrees, a cold shock to the system is a magic reset. As a bonus, soaking our shirts makes us (slightly) less stinky.
Ferocious insects descend at picturesque Timpanogas Lake. Mosquitoes, camper’s bane! A sprint to don full rain gear ramps into building a smoky fire to ward them off. The thought of spending 10 similar days haunts our dreams, but the bike gods smile on us and the rest of the trip is free of bugs.
I’m rolling out the next morning (dodging mosquitos) when Brady shows me a small problem: his top tube is totally snapped at the weld to the seatpost. He skips the huge trees of Middle Fork trail and takes the fire road to Oakridge. His trip is over, or so it seems…
Regrouping on the Metolius-Windigo. Photo credit: Brady Lawrence
Trail Repair 101
Operation Rescue Brady is engaged. Chelsea arrives to scoop him up, but Zach gets a harebrained idea and rolls up his sleeves… We stand back – always respect mad scientists, especially ones wearing underwear covered in cartoon turtles.
TA-DA. Ski straps and duct tape victory. We stand around discussing the situation; Brady is skeptical. I throw a log on ground: “Ride over that to make sure.” (Least effective test ever.)
Peer pressure works: Brady rejoins us and we set off around Waldo Lake. His seat post flexes dramatically and the frame is toast, but he’s a gamer. Magically, held together by enthusiasm, high fives and ski straps, his bike will survive another 350 miles of punishment.
A professional bike fix.
Hitting a Routine
The second week is more straightforward. There’s hard work, lots of it, and we’re tired with sore bodies, but it’s also strangely easy to push on. Having a group of four means if someone is down/tired/slow, they drop back and take it easy, eat some food, then rejoin the team.
After a big 9,000’ day of climbing in the Old Cascades Crest zone, we roll into the the Promised Land: Breitenbush Hot Springs! We descend upon three incredible unguarded buffet meals, returning for 2nds, 3rds… We stuff ourselves and lounge like anacondas after a feeding, napping in the library.
Cheering Andrew up the What the Hell climb to Mt. Bachelor.
It’s a crazy recipe… Load people into decorated vans. Add a couple hundred miles of running. Toss in a dash of sleep deprivation, a splash of after-midnight running, and a crap-ton of laughing and team spirit.
Voile! You’ve got an overnight relay race. Let the fun begin.
The Cascade Lakes Relay (CLR) forms a giant S-route from Diamond Lake to Bend. If you’ve heard of Hood to Coast, this is Central Oregon’s equivalent. The most popular approach is a team of 12 split between two vans, with each runner taking three legs totaling around 15-20 miles. The total distance is 216 miles.
Sound complicated? It’s not. People run. And cheer. And run. And try (/fail) to sleep. And run. Did I mention running?
Extra points for dancing by the side of the road and forming enthusiastic power tunnels. I wore my ridiculous retro spandex tights; Chelsea rocked a cow costume. Wrangler, Fat Brad and Wayne sported Hawaiian shirts to win style points. Lauren dressed as Thor (carrying an enormous hammer) for the costume leg. We don’t mess around.
Dancing and cheering like fools along the Cascades Lake highway.
Wait, Why Do People Do This?
You’ve got to be a bit nutty to stay up all night and run at random times of day. Surely not many people run these?
Wrong! There’s something alluring about these relays – Hood to Coast draws 20,000 participants each year and turns away another 40,000 (!). All for the opportunity to drive overnight in a van with buddies and their cramping quads, all wearing sweaty socks. If that’s not a good time, I don’t know what is.
Cascade Lakes Relay attracts 3,500 people and is capped by event organizers, resulting in a quieter, less crazy, less sit-in-traffic experience. I ran Hood to Coast years ago and highly recommend CLR for anyone looking for a lower-key, more scenic relay with fewer logistical headaches (traffic, traffic, traffic).
Chelsea instigated the idea (of course). The suckers she talked into it? The Plant-Powered Runners, the vegan running group that Chelsea and her buddy Emily started last year, are always game for the adventure. Sadly, C sprained her ankle 10 days out, but our friend Fat Brad jumped in to replace her.
Fat Brad and Chelsea
Our genius organizer, Lauren, managed to herd the team into two groups: Van 1 and Van 2. Let’s just say that Van 1 bought food in advance and planned a lot, and that Van 2, ummm, knew there was a race… (Yes, fine, I was in Van 2.)
All the Antics
The night before the race, our team downed a pasta dinner, painted our nails slime green, and decorated our vans. Rather than focus on logistics, Van 2 came up with nicknames (Shiv, Fat Brad, Lil’ Yeasty, Waffle, Wrangler, and Taco).
Meanwhile, Van 1 loaded their vehicle with carefully planned gear and shook their heads at our van and the STUDENT DRIVER plastered across the windshield. Whatever – we got this.
Loading van 2. (Ok, screwing around.)
Van 2 with game faces on.
“Wait, what time are we meeting tomorrow?” Waffle asks. Captain Lauren shoots small puffs of smoke out her ears. Van 2 huddles and sorts it out.
Race day dawns. Van 1 is at the starting line at Diamond Lake early and ready to rip. Van 2 slowly assembles at my house at noon and packs up. Medkit, water, enough food for a week backpacking to Everest Base Camp. Relays are easy.
Text message: “Lauren and Emily, Van 2 is mobilized. ETA 3:45.”
“Juuuust kidding, we’ll be there as planned at 2:15.” (Is there anything more fun that flipping shit at organized people?)
Van 1 and 2 debrief in Silver Lake.
Running Through the Night
So it began: Van 1 ran six legs and handed off to Van 2 for our six, then flip, flop, a flippity flop…for 36 hours. There was heat, dust, scenic views, a cold night, quad-pounding downhills, and one consistent theme: at all times, we had a runner smacking rubber on earth, moving us toward the finish line, step by step.
To make things more interesting, Lil’ Yeasty suggested our van do 25 penalty pushups each time we used given names rather than nicknames. Sure! Sounds easy. Hundreds of pushups later, we weren’t so sure…
He didn’t do enough pushups, but Fat Brad cranked out some 6:15 miles!
My favorite leg came after midnight in the middle of nowhere east of La Pine. First, we pretended to sleep in a floodlit high school parking lot with 500 other runners. People set off car alarms, stage whispered at 120 decibels (HEY SARA, WHERE’S THE SLEEPING PAD?!), and so, despite earplugs, I caught about 1.2 seconds of sleep before it was time to run again.
Somehow, it all worked out. We made it to the dusty exchange, where bleary-eyed runners wandered in from their race leg, hoping to see a team member. I heard someone yell DAKOTA and then Andrew zoomed in, slapped the bracelet on my wrist and sent me off into the night.
Andrew rolling in to hand off to me at 1:30 am. (Shot: Fat Brad)
Blinking lights bobbed in the distance. Nothing to do but track them down! They call passing other runners “roadkill,” and people keep track of the tally on the side of their van. That 7.3 mile run yielded 16 for me, as I couldn’t ignore the incentive of catching the beacons in the night.
We continued, on and on through the night, into the morning, and around Mt. Bachelor. Our van snagged an amazing 7 a.m. nap in the shadow of the mountain, then rallied for our final legs down the Cascade Lakes highway all the way to Bend.
Lil’ Yeasty getting some power tunnel action (and a slap) heading down toward Bend.
Out of 165 teams, we placed 13th overall and 5th in the co-ed open division. Not bad!
The Plant-Powered Runners
It took us 28 hours and 22 minutes to run the 216 miles, a 7:53 min/mile average pace.
Andrew coming in hot and a cold stream of water about to cool him off… (Photo: Fat Brad)
Van 2 tallied a couple thousand pushups. Lil’ Yeasty and I each ended with 500 (all completed during the race, ow). Fat Brad did only 50 of his 550 (the karma police will find him). Taco banged out a few hundred, whereas Waffle and Wrangler each demonstrated remarkable mental control and kept their totals under 100.
Taco sneaking some winks in a high school parking lot to get ready for more pushups.
Across the board, even though the event wasn’t easy, the team stoke after the race was high. There’s already talk of racing again next year. (Too soon, my aching calves say. Next time, I’m not doing a bike trip right before.)
For anyone considering an overnight relay race, I highly recommend Cascade Lakes Relay. The lack of sleep, the organizing headache (thanks, Lauren and Emily!) and of course the running are entirely worth it for a cool experience. What cements friendships faster than sleep deprivation, bumping loud rap and cheering suffering runners up hills, after all?
More pictures below!
Waffle during downtime between legs.
Lil’ Yeasty doing his best walrus impersonation.
Fat Brad and Waffle hanging in our (well-decorated) van.