Simplify, Simplify

[Editor’s Note: Joe Grant submitted this monthly column before departing for the Arizona Trail Race. He just finished the race in second place and it took him seven days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes.]

I wake up to the sound of my neighboor scraping ice off the windshield of her truck. It takes her awhile, working her way around the vehicle breaking up what appears to be large chunks of ice, suggesting that we got a fair bit of freezing rain during the night.

I have a text on my phone from my friend Nico in Flagstaff, Arizona, saying they just got a foot of snow and he is going skiing. None of this is particularly abnormal for April in the mountains, but I am mulling over my gear list for an upcoming trip to ride the Arizona Trail with one of the last remaining questions being, Do I bring a sleeping bag or not?

The Arizona Trail Race (AZT) is an unsanctioned 750-mile bikepacking race traversing Arizona south to north from the Mexican border to Utah. Similar to the Colorado Trail Race, riders follow one basic rule–“do it yourself”–meaning that no outside support is allowed and racers must be entirely self-reliant.

For me, the beauty of this type of endeavour lies in the fact that each person gets to choose how they wish to approach the trail. How much gear to bring or leave behind is entirely an individual decision.

Before setting off on her record-breaking ride on the Iditarod Trail Invitational this year, Jill Homer reminded me that you pack your fears.

For me, packing is a process of analyzing my fears relative to what I am bringing, a kind of pre-assessment of my skill, commitment, and how far I am willing to put myself out on the line.

It is also an exercise in self-reflection and knowing what pieces are key to keeping me moving forward and what is simply excessive comfort. Of course comfort is relative, but somewhere in there lies the balance between sustainability and failure.

From the warmth of my bed, thinking of the ice, freezing rain, and snow outside, a sleeping bag seems like a sure choice. If it were warm and sunny out, I would probably not even question leaving it behind. Obviously, this is a fundamentally flawed process of decision making, much like going grocery shopping after a long run, when my rationale for buying excessive amounts of food is heavily influenced by how I am feeling in the moment.

Yet, I do find there is something worthwhile in this line of thinking, which is essentially to observe my reactions in both a position of strength (such as effortlessly cruising the trails on my run), and then in a position of weakness (bonking at the grocery store).

From there, I conclude that neither strength or weakness is a permanent condition, rather each state ebbs and flows, and both will be experienced many times over on an undertaking such as the AZT.

What is important, then, is less how I feel, but rather my perspective and how I choose to confront situations as they arise. Being aware that a state of joy is temporary allows me to savor the feeling while it lasts, but also ready myself for when the experience becomes more trying.

Once I have started my trip, the decision of what I bring with me will be made and there will be no room for regret. Perhaps then, my biggest fear is not so much what I choose to pack or not, but rather if I have the mental preparedness to meet the challenge ahead regardless of what comes my way.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When making tough packing decisions for efficient yet safe backcountry travel, what goes into those decisions?
  • Are you more often called upon by something in you to simplify your situation or complexify your situation?
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All photos: Joe Grant

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Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.