Learning Through Doing

Today's Guest Blogger is Aysha Robinson, one of the students in Prescott College's first ever Bikepacking Through Geology class. The class was led by sponsored rider Kurt Refsnider, who also just happens to be a Geology professor. -Kid

It is 4 AM. Somewhere upriver from Moab, tiny spots of light are flitting around a large white van in the dark. Come closer and you will see a scene of organized confusion—bike bags being packed, bike bags being loaded onto bikes, bikes being loaded into the trailer, people being loaded into the van, people eating Oreos, Oreos with whipped cream shots on top. After all, it is very early. The great white whale rumbles to life and they are off—off to the rim of Canyonlands National Park, where the sun has yet to rise, and their adventure has yet to begin.

If you were to zoom in even closer you would see the words Prescott College emblazoned on the outside of the van and eleven sleepy-eyed people looking out into the pre-dawn dark. This was me a few weeks ago near the beginning of our Geology Through Bikepacking class; before I had ever ridden 45 miles in a day on a mountain bike; before I realized that a bicycle is the most rewarding means of transportation known to humans; before my second spectacular endo in one week.

We arrived in the parking lot on the rim as pink began to fringe the sky in the east. Schnaedlefest began again as bikes were unloaded and re-checked over. By the time we mounted up the sun had breached the horizon, a harbinger of the ensuing heat of the day. For a moment we hovered on the rim and before dropping into one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The red walls of the Wingate Sandstone surrounded us, towering above our heads and filling our view of the sky. There is something so irresistible about the sight of red rocks against the sky, and the sight of endless canyons to the east. Combine this with zooming quickly downhill on mountain bikes and you have found something very close to heaven on earth.

We flew forward across the long flats as the sun climbed higher. Have you ever wondered how the expression “the sun beating down” came into existence? It has to do with rhythm: the beat of your pulse, the rhythm of your breathing, the consistent up and down of feet on pedals. Life becomes a rhythm of heat where beauty and suffering are combined in one glorious experience.

The day wore on and the heat increased. The miles counted down: 45, 30 to go, 20, ten. The final climb to camp was a brutal struggle against sand, dust, and gravel. At the top we didn’t look at the view, but went and huddled under a large rock. As the sun sank towards the west, the shade grew and we stretched out on our high-tech Tyvek ground sheets, too hot to move.

I have left out an important detail: We are all very experienced bikepackers (and geologists to boot). We have been doing this for a whole four days already and we are experts on ultra-light. To show an example of this expertise, none of us brought a sleeping bag. Who needs one of those, right?

After watching the sunset on Canyonlands, we all laid out our high-tech ground tarps with our ultra-light sleeping pads and even lighter weight (non-existent) sleeping bags. We were pretty proud of ourselves. It was cooling off and it felt good to just lay in shorts and a T-shirt under the stars.

Let’s fast-forward about six hours. Temperatures have been dropping, as it tends to do at night in the desert. I am wearing every layer of clothing I have with me and I am curled up under a trash bag. Nicole, Bobby, and Hattie are all in the fetal position. Nicole has her shorts on her head. Bobby has his feet in his stuff sack. Zack is shivering in his light sleeping bag liner. All at once we convene in one smooth motion, becoming one long row of big-spoon/little-spoon. Warmth is more precious than we could have ever dreamt of the day before. Luckily, none of us were in any danger of hypothermia. It was more of a learning experience, as well as a good example of how your body temperature drops when you sleep or aren’t being active. The next morning we welcomed the sun with joy. Ironically, we again would find ourselves huddling under a rock for six hours waiting for it to disappear later that day.

Most of the time when I tell people what I do for school, they look at me like I’m crazy. I can see the cogs turning in their brains: You went bikepacking for credit in a college class? What the heck is bikepacking? Who are you? The reality is that we worked harder both mentally and physically when we were doing that strange thing called bikepacking—not to mention learning ten times more—than any university geology class in a lecture hall. We were in class pretty much 24/7, and when we weren’t in class, we were reading, writing, and doing research about geology—or sleeping. I think we deserve our college credit.

The bicycle enables humans to cover much more ground than we could on our own two feet. The mountain bike, specifically, is capable of handling terrain that a car cannot. The combination of these two positive attributes has the result of making it the ideal vehicle to see a lot of backcountry in one day, something you can’t really do in any other way. Your relationship with the landscape changes. It broadens and lengthens your mental imagery of that particular place, giving you a greater understanding. Can you see why it is the perfect way to learn about geology?

While we developed our minds and our understanding of geological processes, we also developed our mountain biking skills, our stamina, and our strength—not to mention our tolerance of cold and heat. The result was an intensive experience of self-growth and the creation of an intimate relationship with the land. No longer do we look at the hills and see just hills; we look and we see ancient oceans and deserts. No longer do we look at a trail and see just a trail; we look and we see where we want our wheels to go through the maze of rocks. No longer do we look at ourselves and doubt our ability to ride 480 miles on a bike. We have changed, grown, and become more than we were. We are not the same people we were at the start.

I find myself in a strange dream state. Did that really happen? Did we really do a trip with no sleeping bags? I sit and look at my bike—naked without frame and seat bags. When I lift it up it feels too light. When I ride to school I marvel at the strength of my legs, the effortless rhythm of my pedal strokes. Then I sit in the classroom and look out the window, wondering how in the world I am going to be able to sit and focus. If we have to have class inside a building, couldn’t they at least provide stationary bicycles? People ask me about Geology Through Bikepacking and I am at a loss for words. I say it was great class, but the truth is it was the experience of a lifetime. This is merely a weak attempt to describe the indescribable. There are no words for something like this.

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Read more about the first-ever Bikepacking Through Geology class...

Bikepacking Through Geology: Part One

Bikepacking Through Geology: Part Two

Ode To Bikepacking by student Hattie Tehan

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Guest Blogger Kurt Refsnider Mountain Biking

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