Ryan "Dirtmonger" Sylva: Backpacker to Bikepacker
Gossamer Gear Brand Ambassador Ryan "Dirtmonger" Sylva has logged thousands of miles both on long-distance hiking trails and routes of his own design. Here's his story about how an injury forced a change of perspective from backpacker to bikepacker.
Dirtmonger at the finish of his 5200-mile "Poop Loop" bikepacking trip
The last thing I will do is wait, to wait for time to pass, for time spent in the outdoors to slip on by. After all, this is not a part-time passion fueled by what others think nor any popular trend. This is what I do. And the thought of me not doing it seems unfathomable; the thought just brings pain to me. So, how can I do things differently, to experience and enjoy life differently while feeling like I had accomplished something and spent what I considered enough time outside?
At some point this past winter I had to come to terms with the notion that I wouldn't be able to hike due to an injury. My left foot suffered from plantar fasciitis, not only in the heel but also where the smallest metatarsal bone meets the fascia. My whole foot felt handicapped with pain. I recall thinking that you can love something so much that it can hurt you, that I simply did not rest my body and mind enough from last year's 6000 miles and 6.5 months of hiking.
I stymied my emotion, refusing to heal and/or feel anything during this time, solely looking through one side of a murky prism that dimmed any hope of striving for something. But that unending, perpetual muck grew deeper. I took a hard look at myself after making an announcement of a planned hike for this summer, which was something I instantly regretted because doing something like that is not me although I felt it was the right thing to do at the time. However, because of that announcement I had to look at my injured foot realistically. I mean, despite some intestinal issues last hiking season, my legs felt great at the end, like I could have kept going. Then, I looked inward honestly and I had to ask myself: What's next and how am I going be happy in my life without hiking?
Grateful for my experience in the outdoors from long distance hiking- the harsh humility, the patience, the gift of flexibility and malleability- I knew deep down inside the storm would pass and I had to reassess my situation and not make a decision on what I wanted to do but rather what I needed to do. I feel I see things differently, that I have very different motivations than a typical person, that my problem of not being able to hike due to an injury and spending that down time working was not going to cut it.
In very many ways I live a self-centered life. Walking thousands of miles, not getting paid for it, drifting back into society only to work for a short while just to save up enough money only to go hiking again. I mean, does my long-distance hiking in faraway places do any good in the world? No, I don't think so. However, long distance hiking is my life entirely. With that in mind, I knew my problem would be difficult for another person to comprehend. And, the only way for me to get out of my emotional bogging was for me to take control of my own situation. I really tried to change my perspective, to look through a different edge of the prism, while maintaining a strident positivity, one that would bully my emotions and steer them towards a solution.
In my changing of perspective I prioritized my goals for being outside. My thoughts boiled down to the fact that hiking is simply a medium, a canvas to paint a picture, for my time outdoors. Yes, the action itself provides fulfillment within me, but the landscape, the skies, the rivers and mountains, the deserts, the trees, the dirt; that was all I wanted. If I cannot walk, I will do something else to be outside.
If I cannot walk, I still need a way to push myself, I still need a way to burn my skin, to lay in the dirt, to feel thirsty under a hot sun, hungry within a frigid environment, and endure miles upon miles. After the de-announcement of my long distance hiking endeavor I went down to the local mountain bike shop and after about an hour or so of conversing about my needs and my idea, I bought a bikepacking rig. During the two weeks to order and build the bike, I was filled with anticipation and excitement, and I began to put a plan of a bikepacking route together.
To preface, my experience in this bikepacking realm is scant, none whatsoever. However, I have so many hours and field days in the wilds. A tremendous advantage for me before embarking on an unknown bikepacking adventure was my endurance level both physically and mentally. I know what pain feels like, my comfort level is very low, I know what being cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, feels like; I had a gear system from backpacking that was supremely dialed in to my needs and the harsh environs I had hiked through, and, most importantly, I had an immense desire to be outside exploring and a deep familiarity with the open land of the vast western U.S.
My lack of knowledge in the bicycle maintenance realm would only be bolstered by my backpacking and route planning experience. These aspects left me room to build a route in places I otherwise hadn't seen by foot before. I started route planning with a notorious >bikepacking route already in place that I knew would be challenging while being safe for a first time >bikepacker. The Arizona Trail, with a designated mountain bike route, had a safety net in place with bike shops near the trail, towns not so far apart, and I had friends near the trail. What I have also neglected to say so far: my left foot did not hurt while riding the bike.
The goals I set up with >bikepacking:
- Set up attainable goals and a plan to help me enjoy the >bikepacking endeavor and the summer, as well as making a huge effort to lower my expectations to focus on fun more than making an endurance adventure like the previous year.
- Ride the AZT using my >thru-hiking ethics, assess and take care of my foot by working my way into riding shape, and stretching and icing the foot.
- Hike across the Grand Canyon. This would be the first huge hurdle to test my foot, to see where the next step of the trip would take me.
- Plan a next-step-route tree. For example, if my foot feels great after the AZT, I would go hiking. If I did not feel comfortable and/or confident with my foot after the AZT, then I would continue riding one state at a time. Every state, then, became a goal. My foot and the pain ultimately dictated the route north.
- Not only would my time on the saddle help me get familiar with the bike, watch as much YouTube videos on bike maintenance, as well as research >bikepacking set-ups and tips before heading out.
- Try not to dwell on the foot and embrace a different type of experience.
The biggest pitfall during an injury seemed to be the perpetual waiting. The healing process, the non-hiking season ending and the pressing urge of my established routines as the hiking season neared, the pain itself, among many other factors, all seemed to bog me down. One way I ">bided my time and emotional turmoil was to continue with route planning, to keep my brain occupied with what makes me curious and hopeful. Frankly, I love maps. Digging into maps and routes fascinates me, makes me happy and keeps me dreaming. So, to plan a ">bikepacking route didn't seem too far-fetched, especially having hiked and explored so many western areas. All I needed to do was ride.
When the bike became ready I took 2 training rides, before a week long Spring storm put my riding training to end. During that storm, I prepped my gear and got my ">bikepacking carrying system set up. In fact, I practiced every day to load and latch the bags on the bike and to the frame. To me, this habit is similar to testing out your backpacking systems, like setting up your tent before you go out, loading and unloading your backpack until you get things down pat. This whole process took my mind off my injury, and, suddenly, my mindset became focused on the ">bikepacking adventure. Essentially, I became committed. And I began to move past from my injury-plagued situation.
On my drive down from Colorado to the AZT terminus at the AZ/Mexico border I had some nerves. I truly did not know what to expect. But, again, my ">thru-hiking experiences kicked in. I had been in moments like that before. Plus, with the bike set-up being relatively simple, all I really had to do was pedal. Day by day, riding progressed, just like ">thru-hiking. Mountain biking the ">Sonoran Desert and the Sky Island Ranges brought a different perspective to my mind. I liked it because it WAS different than ">thru-hiking.
Start of the AZT Bike Route at the Mexico Border
I liked it because I saw the landscapes I loved while still being human-powered faster and powerfully, roughly at 15-20mph rather than 3mph. My mindset focused and narrowed between 30-50 feet in front of me, holding on to the bike feeling strong and in the moment. To be honest, my incessant thought of my injury quickly exhumed itself from the bog it had been in in my head. I became free from that stranglehold.
My eyes widened and heart opened and I saw the big ol' West from the saddle of a mountain bike. State after state, Arizona, then Utah, Nevada, Idaho and eventually Montana, I went, I pedaled, I had fun, and I experienced a new adventure only to get to the Canada border at ">Roosville, MT and decide to turn south and ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route back to where I started.
The 5200 mile Poop Loop is a creative adventure built on an injury, created whimsically north because of my enjoyment of being outside. That is what matters to me: just to be outside. I called it the Poop Loop because it didn't mean shit to anyone but me. Sure, I will be honest with you, I am very happy with myself for what I accomplished. Probably because the new ">bikepacking adventure helped me start over and provided me with a blank slate.
Why weigh myself down and pout about my situation because of a debilitating hiking injury that prevented me from hiking when I can experience a life differently if only for a moment? My advice, and I know everyone reading this has been injured at some point, is to turn the lens of one side of the prism, to see your ">situation from a different perspective, find the will power to be staunchly positive, and utilize your experiences and the lessons the out-of-doors has given you. We all have the tools to conquer an obstacle.
For the full details on the Poop Loop, visit Dirtmonger's blog.