The Cardinal Challenge East: Reflections

Click here to read the first post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge: Origins

Click here to read the second post in this series – The Cardinal Challenge South: Slipping Away

Click here to read the third post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge West: A Different Angle

Click here to read the fourth post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge North: An Escape

Written by Brett Davis

With our lights on we turned out of the driveway and began riding up the deserted pavement. Chasing the beams of light, we quickly passed the houses, apartment complexes, church, and fitness center that were all shrouded in the shade of night. Conversation was nonexistent as each battled to gain complete consciousness after the early morning start. Drowsiness still dominated the body and mind.

It was the heart of an already too-warm summer, which warranted a before-dawn departure. The National Weather Service was calling for yet another day of temperatures in the mid-90s. Before us was the final adventure of my self-created quest to explore and learn more about the wonders of my backyard. To do so, we had 160 miles of blacktop, trail, and gravel to ride. With the heat of the summer upon us, this last challenge would be a daily race to beat the heat and find cool relief in a body of water along the route. With the first rays of the day emerging over the eastern horizon, Diana and I increased our pedal cadence.  

Diana rides her bike down an overgrown two-track as the sun hits the tops of the surrounding trees.

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the world as I knew it changed. It will be a day that is imprinted into my memory, just as the attacks on September 11, 2001. I arrived at my office that morning to a buzz from students as spring break was nearly upon us—beginning at the close of the day on Friday. Six students, a staff member, and I were slated to fly to Baja, Mexico on Saturday morning to bikepack the Cape Loop of the Baja Divide route. Two months of preparation in the form of early morning workouts, team meetings, and skill clinics were behind us. All that remained was boxing our bikes that evening and 48 hours of jittery anticipation until the getaway.

By 1 pm, the first fractures of a world coming undone were starting to appear. Colleges and universities across the country were abandoning their on-campus semesters and replacing them with Zoom classes and virtual programming. At 3 pm, my college joined the fallen and my office phone rang indicating that our trip of ocean breezes, rocky double track, and cheap tacos was cancelled. The disappointment flowed freely.

Habits govern our lives. For the most part, my hardwired reactions to a situation are typically positive in nature. Whether from genetics or my upbringing, I usually respond to challenge with action versus passiveness. When things seem to be falling apart, my innate coping mechanism is to seek out adventure and explore the unknown. Confined to work and existing within my 983-square foot home, I quickly reverted to my habit of gazing at maps and letting my imagination wander among their lines. The idea of the Cardinal Challenge began to emerge…

We arrived at the gate of the monument before it was open. It was 8 am on day two of the East Route of the challenge. After the previous day’s early morning start, Diana and I maximized the cool morning air by pedaling 60 miles of dirt and gravel to the refreshing waters of a local reservoir. Arriving at our reserved campsite by 11 am, we spent the rest of the day floating in the aquamarine waters of the 15,000-acre swimming pool. With boats of all types zipping by, it wasn’t the most peaceful experience but it was a great stopover to keep the scorching temps at bay. Plus, the marina store had a full selection of ice cream treats, which are a welcome addition to any summer bicycle tour.

A cow peeks out from the shadow of a small red shed, escaping the heat from the beating sun.

Diana pedals up an incline on a long gravel road through farm country, the hot sun beating down.

Small, cobble rocks make up the narrow shoreline of a long reservoir.

A bright yellow flower stand in the sun on the shoreline of a large reservoir.

The mission of riding toward the rising sun was to explore and learn more about a prominent cultural landmark. The twin sandstone spires of Chimney Rock National Monument stand as proud sentries above the Highway 160 corridor in southern Colorado. Since living in the area, I have passed by these proud features many times on my way to the southeast side of the San Juan Mountains in order to backcountry ski, paddle, or visit the famed hot springs of Pagosa Springs. I had yet to ever turn off the highway and visit the monument.

Diana rides the edge of a paved road, the twin sandstone spires of Chimney Rock National Monument in the distance.

The twin sandstone spires of Chimney Rock National Monument stand under blue skies atop steep sparsely vegetated slopes.

While finishing breakfast under the shade of the monument’s entrance wall, Diana and I looked up to see a monument volunteer unlock the closed gate, thus opening the door to exploration. Though the monument encompasses seven square miles, the bulk of the area allowed for public visit is at the top of a three-mile gravel road climb near the spires themselves. Since it was early, we had the road to ourselves and enjoyed the solitude of the morning, letting our minds wander across the landscape.

Entrance sign reads: Chimney Rock National Monument - San Juan National Forest

While walking the pathways of Chimney Rock, the passing of seconds, minutes, and hours went unnoticed. Before I knew it, the low morning sun had risen across the sky and was now directly overhead. It was time to descend to the treed valley below and find some more fresh water in which to cool off.

A Puebloan structure made of carefully placed bricks, stones, and mud at Chimney Rock National Monument.

A Puebloan stone mortar and pestle on display at Chimney Rock National Monument.

A centuries-old mud and brick wall stands with a sandstone spire of Chimney Rock National Monument in the distance.

Our evening’s camp was the perfect place for our final resting spot before pedaling home the next day. Twenty feet away, the Piedra River flowed gently, continuing its work of shaping the landscape and providing sustenance to all beings that call its banks home. Looking to the southeast, the monoliths we visited that day stood diligently, as they have for 25,000 years and most likely for just as many years to come. To the west, the sky was entering that divine moment when twinges of pink signify the sun’s parting good-byes from a day of illumination.

The setting sun turns the clouds pink and yellow against the blue sky as the hills fall into shadow.

A stack of small rocks form a cairn along the bank of a shallow rushing river.

My mind reflected on the pursuit of my Cardinal Challenge. Four unique human-powered trips. One in each of the four cardinal directions. Moments from each route began to flood my consciousness: coasting down a lonely gravel road; pushing a bike through talus to reach an alpine pass; banking through a corner and around a time-worn ponderosa pine; carrying a bike down a seemingly impenetrable hillside of scrub oak; paddling both placid and churning river currents; hiking across a field of mountain wildflowers; reaching for and testing each hand hold while scaling a steep face at more than 13,000 feet; crouching to walk through doorways of old; exploring the handprints on a rock wall built more than 1,000 years ago; watching a momma mountain goat and her curious young scramble past our lofty camp; launching a pebble via a slingshot into an alpine lake just to witness the symmetry of the ripples expanding outward; standing thirty feet off the ground while precariously balancing a heavy window that was about to find its place; watching hummingbirds dart to and fro competing for bird feeder and flower dominance; waking up shivering above 12,000 feet due to an unexpected freeze, feeling overwhelmed and humbled by Mother Nature; getting some much-needed encouragement from my adventure partner; laughing uncontrollably at each other and the absurdity of the world; feeling a true connection to the place and those sharing it with me.

As I listened to Diana’s breath slow as she drifted off to sleep, my mind was still fully engaged, still connecting the dots that began with a map on my floor. What could I learn from what the world is currently experiencing? Follow the lines. Connect the dots. Make a plan. Pack. Load the bike. Begin pedaling. That’s it. THAT’S IT!

As the pandemic spread across the globe, disruptions followed. Life as we knew it changed for everyone. Realizing that my privileged opportunity to board a plane and travel to some far-off locale was not possible nor appropriate for the circumstances, I turned my focus towards my own home. With wild spaces and new explorations abounding in all directions from my doorstep, the opportunities to experience and learn more about my backyard were endless. I took on the four routes of the Cardinal Challenge with mindfulness for the safety of myself, my partners, and those we would encounter along the journey. In doing so, I experienced the moments described above and learned a valuable lesson for my own emotional and physical health. I realize that I cannot truly experience the rawness of life without doing. Living is a messy endeavor when bad luck or unfortunate things happen, but things that bring great joy also happen. By not leaving my comfort zone, I will never experience all that life can bring in its most pure and natural forms.

Brett and Diana high five each other as they ride their bikepacking bikes down a gravel road.


Click here to read the first post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge: Origins

Click here to read the second post in this series – The Cardinal Challenge South: Slipping Away

Click here to read the third post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge West: A Different Angle

Click here to read the fourth post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge North: An Escape

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Brett Davis Gravel Mountain Biking Sponsored Riders

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Brett Davis

Brett Davis

I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.


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