I’ve spent the last few years questioning my worth.
In May of 2015, I found myself in a pile-up of riders at a stage race in Arkansas. I broke a rib and tore the ligaments between the T5, T6, and T7 vertebrae, leaving me with limited stability in my spine.
I lived in the racing world, where winning is valued at all costs, so I continued to try to race for another month. I believed that if I was strong-minded enough, I would be able to continue. I believed that the pain was only in my head.
It wasn’t. Sometimes I wished I had actually broken my collar bone—a visible injury is easier for everyone to accept.
Eventually, I saw a specialist and was prescribed a five month break from physical activity. That five-month period was one of the lowest points in my life.
After some time, though, I found I could ride my touring bike without pain thanks to its relaxed position. Touring helped me rediscover my love of riding and helped me realize that my own self-doubt had been what held me back.
For three years now I’ve made the pilgrimage to the Black Rock desert in northwest Nevada for Burning Man. This year I decided I wanted to ride my bike there through some of the most desolate parts of the Utah and Nevada deserts on my way to the event.
Yes, I rode my bike to Burning Man.
I didn’t do it to “stick it to the man,” or to assert that we can save the planet by riding bikes (though that might be true).
I did it to get into the right headspace for a week in the Nevada desert. I did it in an attempt to find the person I was before depression and the daily grind got the better of me. I did it to remind myself that the years spent training and racing on the road were a gateway into a world of bikepacking and exploring that would ultimately lead me down a path of self discovery and appreciation for where I’ve come from and where I’m headed.
I did it for me.
Burning Man is not kind to the unprepared—experienced Burners spend months preparing their bodies, minds, and gear for the event.
In part, this is due to the setting. The city is built on an ancient, dusty lake bed (known as a ‘playa’) with a pH level around 10. That’s about the same as Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and caustic enough to give chemical burns over time. The dust from that lake bed is baked by the summer heat and blown by strong desert winds, creating an environment that seems hell-bent on killing its inhabitants.
From this dust, Burners build a city of 70,000 people in just a matter of weeks and tear it down (or burn it) just as quickly. The result is a place wholly independent from default reality. The playa is a place where judgment is held at bay, differences are embraced, and money holds no meaning. In addition to physical grit, it demands a particular outlook.
Some do a ‘pre-burn’ in order to prepare themselves for the transition. This year, my pre-burn was a six-day, 327-mile bikepack on my Salsa Cutthroat. I embarked on this journey to help ensure I’d be more open to the experiences that awaited when I rolled through the city gates, and it worked.
Long-distance bikepacking requires self-reliance, the willingness to be vulnerable, an appreciation for your surroundings, and an understanding of your environment. If you’re a Burner, you might recognize that these things sound a bit like the principles that Burning Man is built upon. That’s because the overlap between the two is pretty substantial.
Traveling via bicycle on the dirt roads of the Utah and Nevada deserts meant that I had to rely on solar and wind-powered groundwater wells for drinking water much of the time. It also meant I had to be comfortable being completely self-sufficient in the event of a mechanical failure.
At times, I found myself feeling more than a little overwhelmed. I was often more than 70 miles from the closest form of civilization, without any cell service, and having gone hours without seeing another human being. I did at least have a SPOT tracker in case of emergency.
We learn the most about ourselves when we push our limits.
For some, just being in the harsh environment of the Black Rock Desert is enough to push those limits. For myself, those limits were found on the paved and dirt roads of Utah and Nevada. I found the resilience and determination that I had lost over the years. I was reminded that my own life experiences are what have made me into the person that I am and that those experiences are to be embraced, not to be ashamed of.
My ride to Burning Man served to remind me of my own worth—something I’d forgotten after years of allowing myself to be beaten down mentally. When I arrived at the city gates, with hundreds of miles behind me, I felt a sense of calm for the first time in years.
It was worth it. I was worth it. I was worth the effort I’d put in all these years just to exist. It was worth staggering through the seemingly endless feelings of wanting to have it all end. I was worth the spot of dirt I was standing on. I was worth the air I was breathing.
…and I had a camp to go build.