When the first drops of rain and the crash of the thunder was finally audible from the butte above, we knew it was time to go. With strong gusty winds the pace of packing up camp was hurried. Lyla, served as a human sized paper weight to keep our sleeping gear from blowing off the nearby cliff as I crammed everything back in our bags.
I’m new to bikepacking, but not to cycling, and certainly not new to cycling with kids. With six kids and a passion for playing bikes, our garage is full of different sizes and types of bikes (currently there is not a single flat tire among the collection thank-you-very-much).
We’ve done our share of neighborhood cruises, BMX racing, and mountain biking. Through trial and error I’ve slowly learned to modify my approach and expectations when it comes to cycling with kids, by finding ways to keep them motivated and doing my best to align my expectation to their abilities. The skill of being a good bike dad, has not come without major errors. My oldest son has been the recipient of my poorly planned attempts to push my kid into what ends up becoming a grueling experience for him to finish the ride.
Lucky for me, my kids are somehow forgiving and come back to riding with me as I learn to create better experiences that are centered on their likes and motivations.
Lyla, age 9, kid number 4, has been riding mountain bikes for about 6 months now. She has made it clear she isn’t interested in racing or taking scary lines like her older brother. She likes mountain biking for the one-on-one time with dad, the chance to see some wildlife, and the little thrills of cruising the green and blue trails of Southern Utah.
To align with her birthday, we’d planned her first bikepacking overnight. She got into the stoke from the beginning by helping select the gear she needed and picking out a light weight sleeping bag. At the sporting goods store, we stopped to look at the tents and even lay down together to try the fit of some new tents.
“I think we should sleep under the stars.” I said, trying my classic fatherly way to avoid spending more money by making the alternative seem fun.
“Yeah, that would be fun.” Lyla said. Always a trooper.
It hadn’t rained in months. It hardly ever rains here in Southern Utah and we’ve been in the middle of one of the driest seasons on record. The only precipitation had been in the form of fire tankers dropping their loads on the occasional wildfire.
Besides, I’d never bikepacked with a tent before. I wasn’t sure how I would fit it on my bike. Sleeping under the stars is in fact: awesome. Was $200 for the tent worth the extra insurance for the rain that never falls? After spending $150 for other gear she needed, I was easily influenced by the arid climate and left the tent on the shelf.
In the days approaching our trip I considered the best route. The route needed to be short, easy, and feel like a real trip into the wilderness. Living in Hurricane, Utah there are plenty of options as we are surrounded by thousands of miles of BLM, National Park, and Forrest Service land.
The planned route would be within the Hurricane Cliffs trail system and include a shuttle. Wanting to keep the cardio effort low for Lyla’s first time with a loaded bike, we planned on a drop off at the top of a double track road, a short ride to the campsite for the overnight, and a long (by Lyla standards) seven mile ride mostly downhill to the other trail head where mom would be waiting.
We’ve been in the middle of a heat spell in Southern Utah with highs above 110 every day. To avoid the peak heat, I’d planned our overnight trip to start 30 minutes before sunset.
Two days before departure, we brought her bike into the living room and Lyla packed up her bike with her gear and treats from the pantry. Lyla planned her own meals for the overnight which consisted of our finest processed junk food. [You haven’t lived until you’ve had one of Lyla’s trailside sushi rolls made from rice crispy treats and fruit-by-the-foot.] It was fun working with her as she figured out how to pack her gear and get everything she needed on the bike.
Day of departure we finalized our packs and did a shakedown ride around the neighborhood. We were stoked. As I began loading the bikes in the truck I first noticed the clouds far off to the South over the Arizona Stip. There were two of them, cumulus castellanus, towering cumulus clouds, which are immature version of thunderstorms. Checking my radar app I could see they were 50 miles to the South of our planned route and growing in size. Based on the direction they were heading they appeared to be on a trajectory that would miss us by passing to the east has they crossed Gooseberry Mesa.
I considered the options and tried to avoid drawing my wife’s attention to the weather as I finished loading.
Should we cancel? Reschedule? Everything was loaded and ready to go. When would I have time to do this again? We don’t even have a tent if it rains. If it rains, we’ll be right by the double track road and we can be picked up. Packing up camp and waiting for a ride in a thunderstorm would likely mean Lyla would never want to bikepack again.
In my other life as an airline pilot I’ve had to make many similar weather related decisions. Should we delay, cancel, or divert the flight? Times spent in holding patterns at 30,000 feet watching fuel gauges as we run rapid calculations for our fuel burn to nearby diversionary airports.
If we wait in this hold a few more turns will the airport conditions in Denver improve? What is the weather conditions in Rapid City? How many other flights have diverted there? Can they handle another flight? How much time do we have left in our duty day? Will we be outside of our duty time limitations and be stuck when we get there?
Some decisions are best delayed when more information is available. Off to the trailhead we go. At the trailhead I pulled up the radar app again hoping for some new information that would indicate no threat of rain or thunderstorm. Good news, the storms appeared to be dissipating and heading well east of our planned route. Unload the bikes.
Before we headed down the trail I gave Lyla a little pep talk on bikepacking:
“Lyla, there are two things you need for a good adventure. First you need a good companion. Which is good because I have you and you have me. Second, you need something to go wrong for it to be an adventure. I don’t know what will go wrong, but when it does, together, we get to overcome it. Ready Lyla?”
We headed down the trail to our camping planned spot only a mile away. Our chosen location was near the edge of a cliff on a mesa overlooking the trails below and our town off in the distance. As darkness set in we quickly set up our camp.
One-on-one time is a rare commodity for a child in a big family. The next 30 minutes were golden as we read a Ramona Quimby book that Lyla had packed for our trip. As it grew darker the flashes of lightening became more present behind us.
Trying to not draw her interest, I turned away to check the radar app on my phone. The storms were now building and were directly to our East. I went into pilot mode and considered our options.
If Gooseberry Mesa gets heavy rain, it will rush down the slopes quickly and our campsite will be a mud mess. Radar shows it isn’t moving towards us. It will miss us. If we don’t pack up now, we could have to pack up later in the middle of a storm. Why did I not just buy that tent? We can see the lightning, but we can’t hear the thunder, so it isn’t close. If there is lightning, we are very exposed on the edge of this cliff.
Lyla kept her cool. She saw the lightning over the mesa and somehow wasn’t showing the smallest signs of fear. When the gust front of strong winds of the storms came she still kept calm, only worrying about her helmet blowing away.
There was no longer keeping Lyla away from an awareness of the storms. Together we looked at the radar app and I explained how the different colors mean varying intensity levels of rain.
“Right next to us is green-light rain, the red, the strong rain is miles away.”
Laying together as the wind grew stronger she still remained calm. I wondered if she would fall asleep as I would anxiously stay glued to the radar app through the night.
When the first sprinkles of rain hit our faces and we could hear the thunder, together we looked at the radar and we both knew it was time to make the phone call. Mom would be there in 30 minutes. First it was a scramble to pack up the camp in the blasting wind [the town is called Hurricane for a reason].
After our bikes were loaded we started to head back to the trailhead. She did awesome pressing through the dark, wind, and rain keeping her cool.
Since Lyla wasn’t experienced riding at night, we did a hike a bike one mile back to the trailhead. When the lights of the truck were in view, she reminded me:
“Dad, you said that something needed to go wrong to have an adventure. Well, we had something go wrong.”
“Lyla, your right. This was fun. Thanks for going on an adventure with me.”
“Yeah dad, this was fun.”
Even though we ended up sleeping in our own beds that night, together we had our great adventure. It was only a two-mile round trip that lasted three hours. I hope that for both of us we’ll remember it forever.
Written by Logan Phipps