Canyons & Communities

A Long Unknown Line

It’s day 2 and we’ve just laid down 43 miles on our bikes. Now, at 5pm, with the sun setting on January 14th, Ben and I kick off the 7 + mile descent down the North Rim and into the Grand Canyon with our frames, wheels, and gear strapped to our backpacks. So far on this trip, from the Utah/Arizona border to the North Rim, across two full days of travel, we haven’t seen a single other person on the Arizona Trail. A trail that we came to traverse hoping to explore the idea of community.

“Is this it? Is this what our professional lives are going to look like - endless computer screens, emails, and conference calls?” A simple yet looming question, it’s one that we have asked each other repeatedly over the last 12 years while we navigated jobs, cities, relationships, and life. Friends from college, Ben and I set out in January on the Arizona Trail to see if there might be something else out there.

A newly-minted digital nomad, Ben is a mathematician turned software developer and entrepreneur who is actively seeking to determine what his future holds. From Philadelphia to Colombia to Arizona, and recently through Vietnam, India, and Romania, the guy moves around a lot, and wherever he rests his head becomes his home. My story is, well, slightly less exciting. Having worked in advertising agencies throughout the states, I’m an ad guy who is taking a very long, very extended break from slanging lottery tickets and hamburgers feeling bad about my cultural output. I’ve been asking myself a couple of questions as well: what’s next and how will it provide meaning? Meaning for myself and for others? Over and over, these questions consistently beget answers related to community, adventure, and discovery.

That’s what we set out to find while we bikepacked the Arizona trail: a little bit of adventure, a fair amount of discovery, and a whole lot of community. Along the way, we asked ourselves and those we met, what exactly do these concepts mean? This is to say then - before you read too much further - that this is not a straightforward travelogue, as there are plenty of those already out there. What this is is a reflection and meditation on these ideas and questions. This is an exploration of how community, adventure, and discovery might pertain to something as wild, as multi-use oriented, and as stunningly beautiful as the Arizona Trail.

“I want to be aware and have an appropriate response to things.”

\\ — Taylor, aka @Tenderliving

Backing up quickly, I’ll be the first to admit that these are not necessarily novel questions, ideas, or thoughts. There are vast mountains of information and inspiration out there in the world; people doing very exciting things with varied access to resources. All you have to do is look around a little bit. “The Punk Rockers of Ski Mountaineering” episode of The Dirtbag Diaries is a great example. So is the REI branded video project “How To Run 100 Miles”. And these are just some very recent, very immediate inspirations that have fueled my personal fire. I should also state here that I’m very interested in what brands - brands like REI, The Dirtbag Diaries, like Rapha or the ever obvious Patagonia - can contribute to the ideas of community, adventure, and personal or communal discovery.

It’s also important to know that Ben and I had pretty much no idea what we were doing when it came to bikepacking. We knew that it had a hashtag and that it involved carrying all your gear on your bike for an extended period, but while we had talked for years about embarking on a trip like this neither of us had ever bikepacked at all. Hell, neither of us had ever camped overnight by way of a bicycle. In truth, the longest ride I had been on prior to this trip was probably 70 some-odd miles while living in Boston over the past two years, and I did that on the fixed gear I built up in college.

What knowledge we did have we gleaned from Ben’s experiences growing up in Arizona and my time spent there while attending Arizona State, where we met. We had both hiked the Grand Canyon together, climbed various routes in the state, hiked through Arizona wilderness, and explored a couple of slot canyons. This gave us a pretty good idea of the landscape and sense of adventure that Arizona offers, or so we thought. Beyond that, we were ready to go where the trail took us.

So we spent a month planning. Ben led logistics and I drove the creative boat. We picked out our gear, packed our bags, hauled a DSLR camera, a GoPro, and a couple of notebooks that were far too big, and set out on the long unknown line that is the Arizona Trail. Throughout the 800 miles, we navigated the adventure while we sought out what brings people together and what builds the connective tissues of community. Was it shared meals, gathering around campfires, cups of coffee at dawn, or is it the shared moments of discovery revealed over miles cranked or hiked? Our guess was this: it’s all of these things and more. As with all things though, before any learnings could be gleaned we had to put ourselves into a new context and strike out onto that unknown path.