Empowering The Bicycle Traveler

Sifting Ashes from the Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400

So, what happened out there? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure. Even after nearly three days back at home and two glorious nights of sleep in my own bed I’m still sifting the ashes. All the oversaturated visions of rivers, mountains, valleys and canyons I had out there in the Idaho high country are swept into a continuous blurred mental replay that rolls to the soundtrack of fat tires rumbling over rock and gravel. I’ve been digging back through the artifacts – the empty wrappers and dirt-crusted bottles, the filthy clothes and foul-smelling socks, the crumpled maps and GPS tracks and the photographs and the journal entries – looking for answers. The excavation stirs the cooling embers of the fire that burned bright for four days but only a pale glow is left, barely visible in daylight. I can feel it in my still-tingling toes, swollen ankles and healing saddle sores. The photos are there, all 354 of them, but they don’t look quite like I remember them… There they are, the hot springs, the sheep herd, the hairpin turns, the bald eagle, the endless road. Depending on shutter speed, all of these photos account for somewhere around six seconds of total time over the course of 84 hours out there in Idaho. What happened in between?


For those on the outside of this event, Trackleaders’ ride tracking page offered a God’s-eye view of the action that feels something like a game of Pac-Man played in super-slow-motion. Through the miracles of satellite photographs and map overlays, the casual spectator had access to a wealth of information about the event as it unfolded in real time. Much like Santa Claus, they knew when we were sleeping, knew when we were awake and could probably make an educated judgement as to wether we were being bad or good. But while the race replay feature can show you who won and who slept and where we got lost, those little tracker pins racing around like deranged slot cars don’t really tell you much about what happens out there.


Despite all this recording of ones and zeros, there are massive gaps in the record: moments that went wholly undocumented or recorded in any way. These moments could hardly even be called memories as they were experienced in a state of no-mind.

After a couple of days, the routine of pedaling ones bike from sunup to sundown becomes natural. Time begins to distort. Sometimes hours fly by and you note the passage of time only when your shadow appears on the right rather than the left. Eventually – like a circumambulating pilgrim – we find a mental space in which we move through the landscape just as it moves through us, leaving only a faint track and puff of dust. A vague trace is all that is left of our passage, each through the other. No GPS data, no pixels or POIs on a map can tell those stories. The times of most complete focus make the greatest impact but leave us with only a vague notion of what happened, like a smeared painting or dream forgotten upon awakening.


So why do we go? What pulls us from of our comfortable lives out onto the trail where we are at the mercy of the elements and forces of nature that we could never understand?

Sometimes we need a challenge put to us. We need a test to pass, an opportunity to excel, to show our abilities and prove ourselves. Prove ourselves to who? Ourselves, mostly. To prove to ourselves that we can do bigger and better things that perhaps we ever thought we could.

Sometimes we need to escape. Escapism is a natural reaction to conditions that offend our spirits so we seek an escape into a simpler world to restore a sense of balance. Finding this balance point isn’t easy, however. Tip the scales too far and you might be gone for good.

Sometimes we’re chasing. We’re looking for something – we’re not sure what – that we lost along the way. Or we’re striving for a goal, driven on by the desire to acheive, conquer and win. Looking for one more fix, one more thrill.


No matter what drives us out into these places, out on our bikes over mountain passes and down harrowing descents, through darkness and blinding sun, frost and fire, we all end up finding something. It is different for all of us and that is what keeps us coming back. To get one more taste, to draw the cold, pre-dawn air into your lungs and feel it purify you as you round a bend on a high mountain pass. We go as explorers of the world within us and without us, to adjust our sense of scale and reckoning of our position. We go to be put in our place. To be awed and humbled by the majesty of the world outside the narrow tunnel we often see through.


We go to lose our minds, to find our no-mind, to forget everything except the essential: food, water, clothing, shelter and forward progress. Always forward. The mountains, rivers, pairies and gorges of central Idaho are the perfect place to outrun whatever chases us and find whatever we’re looking for. Out in this wide-open country there is room for us to grow and expand beyond the normal bounds that we exist in. The clear, blue air and cold, crystalline streams carry our hopes and dreams. We just have to carry enough food.


Upon returning, our charge is to carry the clarity of vision, simplicity of purpose and purity of drive found on the road into everyday life. This isn’t easy. Reintegration into a world that scarcely understands what we’ve lived through is not a simple matter. How does one explain the deeply-felt but inexplicable meaning of such a journey to friends, family or co-workers? To those who haven’t experienced something similar, it’s just a long bike ride and you’re just crazy for doing it. The truth is, they’re right on both counts. But there is more beneath the surface of a long bike ride.

To leave the lessons of the trail behind is to decline a great gift. Our daily lives can be hurried and complex, filled with a paralyzing array of choices or possibilities. With no cue sheet, route map or GPS track to guide us, we have to make our own way and find our own path. We must continue to seek moments of no-mind, break free of old patterns and habits that keep us trapped in a stable, predictable but ultimately unsatisfying existence. If we get it right, we’ll look at our familiar world through new eyes, see everything always for the first time, dream, chase and dream again.



See my pre-ride entries about packing and planning for the Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400.

Thanks for reading.

All photos ©Ryan King
5 comments… add one
  • norb dekerchove September 16, 2014, 10:27 pm

    Hey Ryan,
    Great write up and account of your Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 experience. Love your passion and your philosophical description of your bikepacking experience. It is truly not only the external wilderness we battle, but the ‘internal wilderness’ as well. Great images as well to go with great writing!

    • Ryan King September 17, 2014, 8:53 am

      Thanks for your appreciation and for putting the event together. Sometimes we need a push to get out the door and explore those worlds and you’ve given that to a bunch of good people. I’ll look forward to seeing what other schemes you and Tyson have up your sleeves.

  • JD September 17, 2014, 11:16 am

    Great review!

  • j wheaton October 6, 2014, 12:12 pm

    From a point of view as a spectator of the “moving pins on a map” during the event, I could only imagine what it was like. Great write up Ryan! Bikepacking, the next personal frontier.


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