Words and photos by Sofia Jaramillo
The hot desert sun beats down on us. Sand whips around as the wind picks up speed. We follow a narrow path that hugs the base of prehistoric cliffs. They have contrasting layers of sandstone, each representing a different geological epoch. Birds fly in and out of small “huecos”, holes carved into the rock high above. Glove Mallow flowers sway in the wind. My friends Franny Weikert, Torie Lindskog, Suzy Williams and I are approaching the steepest climb of our bikepacking trip through the San Rafael Swell in Utah. We’re weekend warriors and set aside a few days to bike the route. We fled to the desert in hopes of a break from the stress of our everyday lives. What we thought would just be a 3-day bikepacking trip and a chance to make some new friends, turned into an unexpected adventure full of memories we’d never forget.
It’s my first time visiting the desert and I am glad to be going with these three women. Franny is a warm-spirited baker, owner of In Season JH, yogi, and all-around wonderful human. Suzie is a fierce mountain biker and storyteller. She has a tough outer shell, but underneath she’s a sweetheart. Torie is one of the cutest humans I’ve ever met. She has nurturing energy and a smile that comforts everyone.
There is something very unique about adventuring with a group of all women. Throughout the trip, I feel a sense of empowerment riding with them. We are strong. We are powerful and unafraid. There is space to be ourselves, mess up, and learn. By the end, I find that together we can overcome any obstacles.
The first day of the trip is by far the most challenging. Within seven miles from the start, my chain breaks. I fall behind the other girls and call ahead. Holding my dangling chain up in the air, I yell, “Uh Franny! I think I broke it.” The girls turn around and we immediately spin into action. I am embarrassed initially, but my companions make me feel supported. None of us have ever fixed a bike chain in our lives. If we can’t fix it, this is where my trip ends. Franny supports the chain, Torie mans the tool and Suzy gives an additional hand. Within minutes it’s back to normal and we high five each other gleefully. The accomplishment forges a bond between us that holds for the remainder of the trip.
A few hours later, in the heat of the day, we arrive at the most difficult climb of the trip. Following a narrow winding trail that parallels towering cliffs, we ride our bikes until it becomes too steep to do so. Our bikes are each loaded with all of our food and water for three days. I carry about nine liters of water. After a few miles of hike-a-biking, we arrive at the crest of the climb. We have only a few minutes to take in the view before strong gusts of wind force us to seek shelter. Under a small rock alcove, we wait for the wind to die down before we can descend into the plains below us.
After an incredibly rewarding downhill ride, we find ourselves searching for a spot to stay the night. It’s about 4pm and we are desperate for shade. With sweat dripping from our foreheads and our skin radiating from the sun, we reluctantly keep pedaling to find a camp spot. A perfectly sized juniper tree stands tall next to a dried-up river bed below us. We meander down a faint double-track road, hop off our bikes, and roll out our sleeping pads below the tree. Before we know, we are all zonked out and deep into an afternoon siesta.
Later that night, we sleep “cowboy style” with just our sleeping bags and pads. Millions of stars twinkle above us. Coyotes howl and the wind picks up again. Although the night feels eerie, none of us are scared. We feel akin to a pack of animals, settled in for the night, resting for the next day’s adventure.
The next day we wake up early and ride off for what we expect to be our second to last day of the trip. The gravel road is forgiving with mellow rolling terrain. Yellow, orange, and white desert flowers are sprinkled between the sagebrush surrounding us. We pass the skeleton of an abandoned sedan. The elements have rusted out the shell to iron and blue hues, transforming it from an industrial work of man into the desert’s work of art. On the horizon, monolithic rocks appear to wobble, warped by a desert mirage. As if the desert is tempting us with mystery, every mile or so we find evidence of large animals. There are hoof prints and droppings along the road, but no sign of anything.
The mystery distracts us and we miss a crucial left-hand turn. We hop off our bikes, examine the map and realize we are off route. We are faced with two choices: backtrack, adding about 8 miles, or continue along the road we’re on, but cut our trip short by 25 miles. We lean into the unknown and pursue the path fate has set for us.
Soon enough, our decision to continue is rewarded. We round a bend and I start to smell animals.
“There they are!” Franny exclaims loudly with joy.
We stop for a moment and scan the landscape. A few miles away, we see a herd of about 20 multi-colored wild horses. In this area, they call them “burros,” the Spanish word for donkeys. The herds have been here for nearly two centuries, first introduced to the area by settlers. Some escaped while traveling on the Old Spanish Trail in the early 1800s and ranchers likely released others.
The horses are controversial because they are non-native, but they are a team like us and we view them with empathy. As if a desert painting is coming alive, they start to run toward us. Their bay, brown, black and pinto colors blur. We’re all stunned by the scene. Like us, with their unique attributes, make them stronger and more beautiful when they are together.
They aren’t supposed to thrive here and, according to societal norms, as a group of women on a solo mission, neither are we. But, like the horses, the desert has transformed us into wild beings. We ride off into the distance like the pack we’ve become.