The Cardinal Challenge South: Slipping Away

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

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

Click here to read the fifth post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge East: Reflections

Words by Diana Davis

The best vacation is the kind that takes you away from yourself. I think about my mother’s words and can still hear her wistful tone as she would daydream about a vacation after long days of work or during particularly stressful times. I asked her once about her affinity for learning new languages (she was fluent in three but passable in six) and she told me, “Learning a new language is the ultimate vacation. People don’t just say things differently, they say different things.” Initially, I took that to mean I needed to travel far and wide to truly learn, experience, and live life to the fullest. If I expanded my horizons just far enough then maybe I would get it.  Maybe I would feel connected to something bigger and more profound. Maybe I would be fulfilled and whole. I spent most of my twenties working hard at decent but short-term jobs, quitting, and then spending all of my savings to explore new cultures and languages. I wanted and sometimes needed to walk, run, or bike along diverse lands always with that faint, effervescent hope of finding myself truly away.

Diana speeds down a winding dirt road into a large valley with a large plateau in the distance.

In recent years, with a deeper sense of self, I’ve found myself away more often, in travel, in thought, in connection, in simply being outside in the great mountains or along the churning rivers running through them.

This summer, as I started pedaling south on my loaded-up Salsa Timberjack mountain bike as part of Brett’s Cardinal Challenge—a local adventure quest—I wondered, “is this a vacation?”

I was exploring new territory, I was shifting my center of time so that daylight dictated my plans more so than my watch. I was feeling free and self-sufficient. What is a vacation really?

An old, weathered tree stands silhouetted against a lightly pink sunset.

Town was bumping when we left. We rode along the bike path towards our river put-in, passing parking lots full of cars, a few locals mixed in with the hordes of out-of-state plates. Weaving carefully along the path, my every instinct jolted with a need to get away.

After stuffing our gear and inflating our packrafts, we carefully positioned our bikes on top of the boats to ensure adequate distance for paddle strokes. Most of our route would be mellow flat water with occasional ripples, but we also had a few diversion dams to navigate.

Diana paddles lightly choppy water with scrub brush lining the banks and large mountains far off in the distance.

Diana descends a gently sloped river rapid formed by a diversion dam.

After I centered myself with the weight of the bike, my paddling became smoother and my attention could drift. My eyes wandered along the shoreline of the country homes at the water’s edge to the clouds above floating steadily by. The occasional wave of a habitant or bark of canine companion gave way to isolation and desert cliffs. Solitude beckoned.

With her bike strapped to the bow of her packraft, Diana paddles downriver toward a large metal railroad bridge.

When we reached our camping destination and my partner/husband/adventure guide took off for an exploratory hike, I sat calmed by the natural unfolding of evening to night. Nature swirled from annoying flies and mosquitos to the soft sounds of deer munching on the vegetation with inquisitive, energetic birds darting across the river from plant to tree to shrub. We were only 20 or 30 miles from home and yet the pace of life, the feel of my typical lifestyle was comfortably left behind. Light slowly faded, but the darkness came quickly.

A mule deer looks out from the lush greenery along the riverside.

A beautiful sunset of purples, oranges, and reds fills the sky.

The next day, we easily navigated the initially disconcerting dams and the river route transitioned swiftly toward the takeout. In the last mile, I felt the river would too soon become trail. I was not done drifting. I tried a little harder to take it all in, to slow the brain train. As if conjured by my need for serenity, a pale blue heron glided effortlessly by to stand in regal elegance along the shore.

A heron stands at water’s edge searching for a meal in the shallows.

Shortly thereafter, it was time to unpack, repack, and transition to a short bike ride before hiking through ancient ruins. Exploring the site and wandering through timeworn doorways, I was lost in a sense of faraway travel mingling with next-door familiarity. I had never been here, but I had heard of it for so long. Friends would talk about visiting the Aztec ruins that are only about a 30-minute drive from our home. That is frequently the way of things—we rarely play tourists in our own communities.

Diana’s loaded Salsa Timberjack titanium mountain bike leans on a fence.

Brett’s loaded El Mariachi titanium mountain bike leans on a fence.

I climbed around, read signs, and imagined a foreign way of life, a time of both simplicity and great effort. Suddenly, I felt that blissful disconnect, a slip from self, followed by the sense of being truly away from the everyday, the routine, the commonplace. I was officially on vacation.

The partially crumbling Aztec ruins stand amidst the scrub brush with low mountains in the distance.

The rock and mud Aztec ruin features multiple levels and rooms and what appears to be a large half-circle courtyard.

The end of a large wooden structural beam pokes through the mud and stone wall of the Aztec ruin.

Diana walks toward the camera, ducking down to pass through a very small doorway in the Aztec ruins.

Sweet singletrack. What? Here? How? I ripped by an oil rig, launched onto a rugged slice of dirt, darting between hoodoos and interestingly textured slick rock. My expectation of boring, flat, mostly paved roads was annihilated with each whipping curve along the trail. We did ride pavement away from the ruins, but for only a few miles before discovering a mountain biker’s remote playground.

Diana rides toward the camera after descending a large rock formation tucked into the scrub brush.

Brett rides down a large undulating rock formation with badlands type land formations in the background.

The adventure continued as I slammed on my brakes before crossing a shadowy tree root that turned out to be a rattlesnake. A flat tire kept slowing Brett down. A ramshackle old cabin stood on the edge of the road, majestically filled with hummingbirds. A terrifying pavement stretch of erratic drivers flying by with barely a side mirror’s clearance. A breath of relief as we returned to the bike path unscathed. A successful adventure quest within a radius of less than 50 miles.

A rattlesnake sits coiled up on an open stretch of dirt road.

Brett and Diana stand with their loaded mountain bikes outside a small log cabin.

There is something so deeply compelling in a route that leads you away and also returns you home. It’s the cycle, that cyclical feel of it all. Maybe that’s why spinning my wheels is a good thing as long as I’m astride my bike. Vacationing near home is a wondrous experience.

Diana descends a winding dirt road past scrub brush and scattered trees to a valley below.


About the Guest Blogger: Diana Davis

I grew up with a restless energy that could only be extinguished with mass amounts of movement, preferably outdoors. In childhood, my roller-skates turned a concrete suburban grid into a never ending playground. I spent my youth trying new activities and bounced around from gymnastics to karate, soccer to basketball,l until settling on running. As much as I like playing sports and racing, I prefer the freedom of a new destination and an unexplored trail. I used to adventure by foot either hiking or running, now I am fortunate to have discovered adventure by bike.


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

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

Click here to read the fifth post in this series - The Cardinal Challenge East: Reflections

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Brett Davis Explore Guest Blogger Mountain Biking Timberjack

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