Julie Hotz

PHOTOS: Julie Hotz

LOCATION: American West

The bicycle ride across the American West began at my front door in Los Angeles in mid-May. I was on my way to the trailhead of the Pacific Northwest Trail to begin a thru-hike from Glacier National Park to Washington’s Olympic coast, and I decided to make getting there part of the expedition.

Growing up, adventure was an exotic philosophy to me; I associated the word with jungles, flights halfway around the world, and foreign cultures. While all that is worthwhile and desirable, I became obsessed with the idea of a human-powered expedition that started at my house instead: bushwhacking through the concrete jungle onto meandering roads and trails of every sort and eventually out into the open and across the continent. Perhaps this desire stemmed from my unconforming nature, as I relished the idea of bucking the traditional adventure, which only seems to begin once you find yourself in a new place. Or maybe it was the most traditional beginning conceivable, akin to that of a pioneer, pilgrim, or explorer of old. Part of the fascination, I knew, started with the idea of simplicity.

Bringing few things, going slowly, treading lightly and using fewer resources forces a simpler lifestyle. Within that simplicity lies a rich world of realizations, primal instincts, genuine gratitude, time to think, elimination of anxiety and a break from the societal confines of the Western world.

I knew about this sort of pared-down life from long distance hiking, and I was longing for it as my paranoia and anxiety stacked like poker chips in the city’s favor. I wasn’t yearning for it in the way one would long for a vacation (for this sort of endeavor is hardly a vacation; I find myself more spent and stretched, physically and mentally, than ever). But I wanted it in the way that some people need to work with their hands and sweat to produce something worthwhile.

There is a fine line between exploration and escapism. People have often tried to point out to me that gallivanting across the country, leaving friends and family for months at a time to walk in the woods, and partaking in a part of society that only revives one’s faith in humanity isn’t “the real world.” This hurts and confuses me – there is not one definition of the real world. It’s all the real world. If anything, I find these long stretches of time spent in the outdoors to be hyper-real. The days and their details remain so intact, vivid in my memory. I remember bends in the trails and the short conversations I had with strangers five years ago like astonishingly crystal clear scenes from my favorite movies. In my daily city life I can barely recall what I had for lunch the day before. I wish everyone could experience this stark difference. And I’m looking for a balancing solution, to bring such vivid clarity to every corner of my life. Maybe simplicity is one of the key ingredients.

For now I’ll search for this balance while delving into the West, and toiling down the trail.

Part 1: Los Angeles, CA to Park City, UT

Stepping out my door wasn’t easy. Fears clung to me like a giant beast of burden. “All the cars are going to hit you! You aren’t going to make it up those steep hills in a loaded bike! You’ve never even ridden up steep hills! Your ligaments and tendons are all going to rupture and rip! You’re going to fall apart!”

In the most literal sense, it was difficult to step out that front door because I was in a second story apartment and my bike was loaded to the gills. My roommate helped me awkwardly haul the bike down our steep set of stairs, and I was drenched in sweat before I’d even started pedaling.

Planning had commenced four months prior, when my new bike had been in my possession for just over two months. I was on a bicycle maintenance learning curve, and my training had been meager amidst constant work trips , moving all my belongings into storage, and taking part in my sister’s wedding.

In that moment of departure I felt ill-prepared. But what I didn’t have in preparation, I would try to make up for with gumption and grit.

Not even a mile had passed beneath my feet before I started googling bike shops open on a Sunday. The bag on my back rack was so top-heavy, unbalanced and garishly strapped in that I decided, quite unexaggeratedly, it would be the death of me. I needed saddlebags, so I got a mismatched but functioning pair as I exited the town. Then the miles started drifting into my rear-view mirror and the city began to fade into the distance.

In two days I made it to Victorville, CA. I checked into a quaint but questionable motel with randomly-matched furniture, improperly placed door frames and generally poor construction. I was quizzed outside the lobby by a man, whose occupation was given away by the paint speckles in his hair and on his arms. He could hardly believe what I was undertaking. “You’re a wild one! That’s for sure,” he told me. I might be considered square in some respects – I don’t smoke, I hardly drink and I rarely party – but I guess he’s right, I make up for it by concocting and executing plans for harebrained adventures. When he asked me what my daily average was, I told him that if I never took a day off I’d need to go at least 50 miles a day to get to Glacier in time. Obviously, the average would have to be higher if I wanted days off. He shook his head, saying, “You’ll never make it!” He was just stoking the fire. Now I had to make it.

I raced through the California and Arizona desert, feeling the oppressive summer heat burning my heels. Every pore was completely topped off with my own sweat and I drank enough icy-cold sweet tea at every gas station that my gums had begun to ache. By Day 4 the flesh beneath my sit bones began blistering, and as I pedaled along the shoulder of I-40, I would howl in pain every time I repositioned on my bicycle seat until I could tape my skin in a truck-stop bathroom. I allowed myself a couple more motel stays. I remained until check-out each time with the drapes drawn shut, hiding from the sun like an overcooked bat. But most of the time I found myself on the bike or lying in the dust of a stealthy camping spot found hours after dark, for I couldn’t resist getting a few miles out of the way under the cool of night.

On the climb from Needles, CA to Oatman, AZ, I drank all my water and cussed up a storm under my breath. I thought I was going to completely wilt and wither away in the breezeless 100-degree heat, but I was revived by the wild donkeys that roamed the streets of Oatman and a trip to the post office, where I mailed home at least 4 pounds of gear. The next part of the climb to Kingman became a test of heat resistance, determination, and the ability to find the smallest slivers of shade that became my cooldown rest stops.

I had climbed up from sea level in Los Angeles, finally reaching a plateau in Flagstaff 525 miles later, on Day 9. A few tears slipped out of my tear ducts before arriving because, as my grandmother would say, I was just plumb wore out! Nine days with no rest and I hadn’t even started the trip well-rested. But here in lovely Flagstaff I took a break and was filled with two days’ worth of wholesome food and cycling advice from a biking couple I’d reached out to through Warmshowers, an online network of touring cyclists and cycling hosts.

From Flagstaff I rode through my longest day – 110 miles, followed by my steepest climb – from the low-lying Colorado River at 3500 feet to lofty Jacob Lake, AZ at 8000 feet: straight uphill, straight into a headwind, and straight into the beginning of my period. All three elements drained me in equal parts. Sections of the road were steep enough that I felt no shame in walking my fully loaded bike uphill for miles while blasting podcasts in my ears. I struggled until I could neither walk nor ride further and collapsed in the darkness onto the soft piney floor of the Kaibab National Forest.

The next day, I only rode a few miles: partially because my quads felt like piles of Jell-o from the previous day, but also so I could lock my bike and spend the day hitchhiking to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and back. A highway patrolman on duty, a beer delivery guy, and a FedEx driver all helped me achieve my goal for the day by providing either long or short rides.

After my successful side trip it was time to head north, and I began my slow, almost masochistic progress again.

Another border was crossed and I entered Utah, but not before I had the chance to revel in the soft toilet paper someone had stocked in a national forest outhouse, and to stop in an unexpected natural grocery store in Fredonia, AZ, run by a woman who had a big map on the wall with colorful pins placed neatly throughout, representing her patrons from around the world. She put a pin through Los Angeles as I drank my apple cider vinegar drink.

My race with the stifling heat was over and more wildlife began to seep into my peripheral. I passed pastures full of curious cattle. Cows that paid no attention to cars were utterly startled by my bicycling presence. They would look up mid-chew, grass hanging hilariously out the sides of their mouths, and run as a herd away from my threatening yell, “Hi friends!”

I became familiar with the scent of death and decay as I took pictures of roadkill and logged them on my iPhone each day as part of several research projects for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit organization for which I’d volunteered for the duration of my trip. I also made my own unscientific observations about road speed, highway shoulders, animal populations and the fleeting nature of life.

I drew water from a river as I began work on a freshwater microplastics survey for the same organization. All this time on the bike gave me time to think about the many problems we have created for our own environments. What is one of the solutions? Embracing positive technology to fix current problems and become more efficient, but it also comes back to simplifying our lives. More than ever, I believe in making fewer, wiser choices, not making life easier with a million disposable products.

For a day I picked up a group of companions, three other cyclists, and we took turns leading and falling behind, ate at the most unappetizing restaurant in all of Utah and wished each other safe journeys. The night before, just north of Kanab, UT, I’d camped with one of those cyclists, Node, in a cave. We’d tried to build the perfect cave fire, but we chose a poor position for the bundle of wood and flames, too deep into the cave. We nearly smoked ourselves out, realizing that the first rule of cave fires is: put them near the entrance! We just laughed about it over and over and migrated to the mouth of the cave for gulps of fresh air.

The unappetizing restaurant food I’d shared with my cycling friends left me wanting to vomit all night, but after making it through a fitful sleep, I was treated to glorious Utah scenery and empty roads the following day. The red rock, green hills and blue sky made me want to weep with joy. I felt like my investment – physical suffering and moments I questioned whether I could continue were being paid back twofold in rewards! “I love Utah!” I shouted aloud while riding.

I began to take in more details. As the rhythm of cycling day-in and day-out began to feel normal, the physical pain became secondary and I began to feel stronger. Flying over the pavement felt like riding the road to meditation. I still had to play games with myself climbing up steep hills and set cadences. 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, etc. But I didn’t feel like they were sucking my entire life force dry like the climb to Oatman and Jacob Lake had.

I flew with the birds, and rather than seeing their flight patterns from a relatively static position or whizzing by in a car, I often went at a similar pace. I could see them dip and sail, up and down, as they lead me by a few feet.

I saw the sky slowly accumulate clouds each day, and I found that my favorite hiking time is also my favorite biking time, dusk. I reveled in the monotonous colors of evening and would savor the majestic lighting that dipped the tops of the mountains in an ombre of alpenglow. A simple array of salty and sweet gas station snacks became my nightcap, and I would mull over the short but kind interactions I had had with strangers, my daily dose of human interaction.

In Sigurd, UT, I stopped at a little general store with a meager selection of cold drinks and ice cream, a table full of old men chatting in the corner, a sweet lady named Norma behind the register and a lady with a bright, weathered face named Sharon sitting along the counter wearing a happy red gingham shirt and a straw cowboy hat. Norma was quiet and kind but seemed genuinely worried for my safety. But Sharon was the one who’d called me out and asked me what I was doing when I walked in wearing extraordinarily bright colors. She beamed when I told her and said, “I just LOVE what you’re doing!” I found out that she and her husband were about to drive their cattle up to the high meadows around Fish Lake on horse the following day. A real cowgirl and a kindred spirit! I wanted to stay and become BFFs with her – she was just who I needed to meet in a long line of people (mostly men), who would warningly ask me if I was carrying a gun. Frankly, I was getting tired of that question and of people acting like I couldn’t take care of myself.

I kicked my stealth camping habit for a few nights in the Salt Lake area, staying with a car-free family in Provo and a dear hiking friend in Park City, my halfway point, where I would rest for a few days before beginning the second leg of my bike ride. 19 days in and over 1,000 miles ridden, it felt good to be in the company of someone who has lived in the woods for months at a time and shares the same desire for simplicity.

Things were becoming simple again: I ate, I rode, I slept, I breathed. I forgot to look in mirrors, or even notice if they existed in bathrooms, and some of my vanity began to fade and was replaced by natural confidence. The few storms that I rode through brought a welcomed relief of change, a respite from the baking sun of the open road, and cooling rains that enticed me to press on.

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