Photos By: Rugile Kaladyte
For most of us, most of the time, bicycles are an obsession. We are constantly thinking of places to ride, scheming new routes, imagining loops and point to point journeys where our bicycles are the stars of the show; they are how we choose to cover ground, and we celebrate their efficiency, their utility, and the way they enable our dreams, our aspirations.
But for some of us, they are also part of a more complex equation. For Erik Nohlin, bikes are admittedly an obsession. As a design leader for his longtime employer Specialized, bikes are his job. And also his chosen way of seeing the world. He has logged massive miles, from grueling marathons such as Paris-Brest-Paris to exploring Death Valley to regular overnight bike-camping escapes from his San Francisco home. Erik thinks way outside the box, though, and he follows a siren song that calls him to find the most desolate and empty places, to move through them under his own power, and in so doing find himself on journeys that not only test his limits but also help him further define his own sense of place. Sometimes, in order to connect the dots on the maps that he has been poring over, the bike becomes a single component in a bigger plan that also involves a lot of backpacking. In an instance like this, the bike is both a valuable tool for part of the journey, and an obstacle that must be factored into this bigger plan for the other part of the journey. A trip with Erik may be enlightening, but there will be suffering involved.
To illustrate that point, he recounted for us a trip he took last October in the Sierra Nevada range, as wildfires raged everywhere around his proposed route. The wildfires themselves presented a logistic challenge, forcing some last-minute route changes and ensuring that smoke-free breathing would be a concern for the duration of this four-day epic. Erik describes the route:
“It was supposed to be a double-crossing of the Sierras, but the Creek fire put a halt to that. We had to delay everything a couple of weeks until the Creek fire was under control. So we ended up doing a much smaller trip. What it was, was a clockwise loop from Three Rivers, almost in the Central Valley, up over to the Sequoia National Forest, down into Kings Canyon, almost all the way up to Whitney Portal, through Kings Canyon, then hiking back from there, back into Sequoia National Forest, then riding the General’s Highway down to Three Rivers again.”
To describe that in simple terms, this was to be a 375km ride, with 6000m of climbing, requiring loading the bikes onto backpacks, and involving days of hiking. This was not the kind of undertaking that sane people think of as recreational fun. But Erik thinks a little differently than most, sane or not. And he managed to find some like-minded partners in Lael Wilcox, Chris Burkard, and Rugile Kaladyte.
Full disclosure: It is illegal to ride a bike through a designated wilderness area, and there was plenty of wilderness involved. But from Erik’s perspective, if the bike is on a backpack, then it isn’t really a bike anymore. It’s just another dozen kilograms of stuff to put on your back and carry along with your food, your water, and your shelter. The bikes were rendered unrideable, then strapped to backpacks.
The riding was grueling. So was the hiking. “The first day was basically 12 hours of climbing,” Erik recalls. “I’ve ridden Stelvio Pass. I’ve done Letras in Colombia. This was the largest climb I’ve ever done in a day. And it was the first day, fully loaded. I cracked. It was hard as fuck... We started at 300’ above sea level in Three Rivers, and then went up to 8,500’.” Then they got shot at by some random locals ostensibly engaged in the cultivation of questionably illicit plants. And that was just the first day. Most of the altitude they gained on that first day was dumped the next morning as they rocketed down into King’s Canyon before they started climbing again until they reached the end of the road and started hiking. For the next two days.
“That’s where it started getting really exotic for me,” Erik relates. “There are so many people in California, and then all of a sudden they’re all gone. It’s you and nature and nothing else. Is it 1902 or 2020, or is it 400 years from now? Time is not relevant when you’re in there. It’s really cool. Hiking out of there took us a day and a half. We hiked almost 15 miles on the third day, and it was all gorgeous. Then we did another couple hours before sunrise on the fourth day to when we hit a pack station and found a road again.”
The quartet reassembled their bikes, popped out at General Sherman Grove, and tucked into a THREE HOUR, 8000’ descent back to Three Rivers. Done.
“I’m just starting to explore this,” Erik concludes. “I want to go way deeper into what this could mean for crossing states, and mountain ranges, and countries, and continents. It’s really exciting; some of it is just trailblazing. It truly is like dead reckoning, where there might not even be a trail, but you have your direction.”
Like we said early on, Erik thinks a bit differently than the rest of us. We love the way he thinks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khhIE-bC9Ao&feature=emb_logo
And please, check with local land managers first if anything is questionable, and respect the land however you choose to move across it.