A route for the bold,
A challenge for the wild.
Now filled with hues.
Doom in full colour,
An arduous muse.
In May I had made my way to Arkansas to take part in the inaugural grand depart for Ozark Gravel Doom, eager to tackle “a beautifully evil bikepacking route in the south”. I had a tough go at it though - dealing with mechanicals, navigational issues and heat exhaustion. After a long twenty-four hours, I pulled myself out of the race, knowing that it was much too hot and humid for me during the unanticipated heat wave. It was bittersweet. I had come all this way, only to bow out so soon. But with that trip came an unexpected new community, and that was my real takeaway.
My recovery from Doom did not go as planned. I had a summer of sickness and injury. My emotions were high during this time, reflecting on whether I should bother to make plans anymore and jokingly if Doom was a curse. But as autumn crested, I was feeling healthy again, and I wanted to return to the Ozarks to hash out the route I knew I was capable of.
This time I arrived, greeted by friends who wanted nothing more than to support me in my endeavour and see me succeed. They helped me build my hardtail back up, joined me on a shakeout ride, and feasted with me the night before my start. Everything felt so smooth. I couldn’t help but harness that calmness and confidence going into my individual time trial (ITT).
Andrew, the race director, joined me in my 4 am wake up call and drove me to Oark for my 6 am start. I considered starting in the daylight, but there was no better way to start an ITT than on Halloween in a dark fog, with the glow of the ‘closed’ sign coming from the general store. I pedalled off down the dark paved road, excited to tackle this hefty route of 608 kilometres and 12,500 metres in elevation gain.
P.C. Andrew Onermaa
Almost immediately, I reached a canopied section with lights gleaming from a house to the left. A dog stood in the middle of the dirt road, patiently waiting my arrival. “This is how it’s going to be”, I thought to myself. This dog inhibited little fear as I passed, but it triggered my senses to be on the lookout for more aggressive guard dogs. Although I encountered few on my first Doom attempt, I heard that many were out there.
Twilight came. I turned off my headlamp and continued cruising, soaking in how the light reflected between the crisp leaves. Miraculously, I had pinpointed a near-perfect weather window for this time of year. Between torrential rain and a cold snap, the forecast showed a week of sunshine and little precipitation.
I was motoring along compared to my initial attempt. “Check, check, check.” I consistently fuelled myself throughout the day and my milestones seemed to come with ease. My feedbags and framebag were loaded with food. I did, however, discover that my microfilter was partially clogged and made for a slow filtering process. It didn’t worry me though - I’d rely on general stores and my water purification tabs, resorting to a slow filtering process if necessary.
I was determined to put in a big first day, having seen a sizeable chunk of the route before, but that didn’t stop me from pausing and taking photos. I had my cellphone camera and film camera at the ready. How could I not capture all the beautiful and rugged terrain surrounding me?
I only made two lengthy stops throughout the day - in Deer to grab more water and salty snacks and in Jasper to grab a chicken sandwich and fries. As I sat down at the table, I noticed another cyclist cozied up in the cafe's corner. I tried to speak out and ask him what route he was doing, but he didn’t quite hear me. Within half an hour, I had changed into warm, dry clothes and shovelled my food down. As I was outside getting ready to depart, Colton came out and wished me luck on my wild adventure. He was tackling the Arkansas High Country Central Loop, which overlaps in Jasper.
I rode off, knowing exactly what was around the corner - the Jasper Cemetery I had napped in during my first Doom attempt. As I pedalled by, I felt ebullient. I had biked (and hike-a-biked) 146 kilometres and was feeling great compared to last time. Next up was making it to the church in Parthenon, where I had scratched. I had desperately wanted to join my friends as they biked away from the church, but all I could muster was a nap on an outdoor pew while I waited for Andrew to pick me up. Passing by the church and its cemetery felt like a victory.
Next up was the unknown. My plan was to get to JB Trading Co at the 209 kilometre mark, but after some 4,000 metres of climbing, my left knee hurt and I was slowing down to keep things at bay. This was the most elevation I had ever put my body through in one go, and it was showing. Perhaps not from the actual grinding up hills, but more so the pressure on my joints from dismounting and mounting on steep grades, from twisting into my clipless pedals and from trying to get momentum on a heavy rig.
I made it to the tiny town of Ponca, 17 kilometres short of my goal, and decided I needed to rest my tired eyes and give my knee a break. I spotted a post office, lights on, welcoming my sleepy grin. At first I laid on the tiled floor, helmet still on, and alarm clock set for a nap. When the alarm went off, I immediately knew I wasn’t going anywhere for a while still. My sleep debt from travelling and an early start had caught up to me and my knee was still throbbing. I grabbed my inflatable pillow and fleece liner, neglecting to set up my air mattress in my exhausted state.
I overstayed my welcome in the heated post office, waking to the sunrise and murky dreams of my bike being stolen. Post office etiquette was unknown to me, so had left my bike outside for the night. I jumped up, still in my fleece liner - my bike was still there. I quickly packed up, ashamed that I may be encroaching on people’s plans to grab their mail. Staff at the Buffalo Outdoor Center, next to the post office, were arriving for work as I pedalled off down the pavement, only to make a hard left into the forest.
My knee was still inflamed and I’d have to adjust my expectations if I wanted to finish the route. And so I spent a long while pushing my bike through thick leaves up steep grades to summit the next ridge. That 17 kilometres to JB Trading Co felt like forever.
I was relieved to pull up and find the owner ready to help me tackle problems. He had met ‘Doomers’ before and knew my look of desperation. While I perused the snack aisles, he made me a giant ice pack for my knee and boiled water for my dehydrated meals. I sat outside for over an hour, resting and eating, while my power bank attempted to charge. Only the second power level dot was blinking when I decided it was time to get going. It was lunchtime and I had progressed less than 20 kilometres.
I continued on, thoughts swirling around in my head, wondering if I could finish the route. Based on the limited photos I took on my second day, it is evident that I was lost in thought, instead of my normal attentiveness to natural frames. I felt flustered in the slightly hotter temperatures as I pushed my bike up hills in an attempt to save my knee. My slow pace meant my dynamo hub was producing little output, leaving my electronics in a depleting state.
The day was quite a blur, with my energy only being revived at dusk in the cooler temperatures. I pedalled through the little community of Flat, having my first standoff with guard dogs. A herd of them came running at me, so I jumped off my bike and put it between me and the barking dogs. They did not overly scare me; I was just annoyed that they weren’t letting me easily pass. One was clearly the ringleader, and that was the one I focused my attention on. It bewildered me that as I dragged my bike along the dirt road shouting in my harshest voice, no owner came out to recall the dogs. Eventually, I motioned my bike toward the ringleader, showing him who was actually in charge, and carrying on my way.
I found my groove again as I passed the community of Bass and climbed my last pass of the day in the dark. I was running low on water but determined to make it to the Richland Creek Wilderness Area, knowing I could grab more water and rest soon. Once at the summit, I had 300 metres of descent to get to the campground. I chose my lines lit by my headlamp cautiously, reminding myself to focus if my thoughts wandered from anything but descending. On my last hairpin turn before the campground, I rounded the corner and halted in my tracks. An animal with wolf-like stature was standing on the shoulder looking at me, less than 10 metres away. I said in my kindest voice, “are you going to go into the bush?” Thankfully, it obliged and scurried into the bush in the opposite direction I was going. I zipped down the hill and crossed the Buffalo River.
I had the intention of returning to the river to grab some water once I set up my bivy and got into warm clothes, but it was quite cold in the valley and I couldn’t resist nestling into my bag right away. I went to sleep with a toque on my head, two pairs of socks on my feet, and gloves and mitts on my hands. Still, I found myself waking up periodically, feeling slightly too cold. Ironically, too cold to get out of my bivy and grab my emergency blanket to add an extra layer of warmth.
The stars were still out when my alarm sounded, but I had no interest in baring my body to the brisk air just yet. I waited another half hour until the sun dawned. I draped myself in my fleece liner and transported everything closer to the pit toilets. Warmth, my old friend. I packed up my sleep system in the enclosure and changed out of my wool long sleeve and tights into my warm layered cycling clothes.
Surprisingly, there were a few other people at the campground. We exchanged pleasantries and I backtracked to the river. It was a beautiful sight at sunrise. I collected some clear water and dropped in some water purification tabs. If I was in race mode, which I clearly was not, I would have hopped on my bike and made the most of the daylight hours. Instead, I fiddled with camera settings and composition, hoping I captured something elegant on film.
I should have known better than to be layered up before going into a climb. Promptly, I had to stop and de-layer. This wasn’t the first or the last time I tried to wear warm layers, only to succumb to my ‘heat monster’ status.
Richland Creek was stunning in the morning glow, leaves flittering from trees. I had a lot to appreciate in this moment - my knee felt good again and my mindset was in a much better state than the day prior. I felt like I could tackle another big day, maybe even as big as the first. Sometimes it’s nice to dream big.
As I pedalled through the community of Victor, I reflected on the mixture of eras before me - covered outdoor pews, a basketball net and an antiquated car buried in a bank of leaves. After a climb, I followed some forest tracks to my first and only river crossing that required me to take off my shoes. I laced my shoes together and draped them over my neck. The river was shallow, but the rocks were very slippery. The crossing required careful footing as to not slip, fall in and get soaked.
The climb to Dover Lights wasn’t incredibly long, but I was happy to grind a bit with no knee pain. I made it to the lookout and a few teenagers were up there stoked that I had come all the way from Oark. One pointed across the valley - “that’s Pilot Rock”. Next on my checklist after a brief rest at the Moore Outdoors Store. Unfortunately, it was closed for the season, but their spigot was still working. I filled up on water and searched around for an outlet. None to be found.
Pilot Rock was a momentous climb with deserving views at the top. Andrew later joked with me that Pilot Rock is not somewhere you want to be at sunset, knowing what’s next. I’d disagree. The colours I experienced atop that rock were enchanting. At the top, I called Red Lick Country Store and confirmed that I could sleep behind the general store under their carport. I then tried my luck at a phone order, knowing the store would be closed when I rolled in. “Of course.” My biggest haul yet: 3 litres of water, a bottle of ginger ale, two bags of chips, a chocolate bar, gummy candy, and the pièce de résistance, a deli sandwich. My carrot was that sandwich.
I was soon after treated to a janky ATV trail descent - perhaps my favourite part of the route. I rode it all, executing my lines cautiously with a smirk. Once out of the trails, I hit a small patch of pavement as darkness enveloped the air. I turned onto the gravel road and rested my body in a ditch for a few minutes before I began my last climb of the day.
My cycling headlamp hadn’t charged via my dynamo hub throughout the course of the day and my camping headlamp likely had little juice left. And so I climbed the Strawberry Bluffs with nothing but a dim beam from my dynamo light, conserving my headlamp for the descent. I finally crested, and made my way down, noticing that my dynamo light was strobing, a sign that the connection to my hub was loose. I pinched it a bit with my hands and that seemed to help temporarily.
I made it down the descent only to find myself walking through a forest by moonlight, following the line on my GPS computer. Ironically, I was walking too slowly for my dynamo light to work but couldn’t walk faster as I couldn’t see where I was stepping. Eventually, I remembered I had a small emergency power bank stowed away in my framebag. I tucked this into the strap of my hydration pack and connected it to my camping headlamp on my forehead. The short cable wouldn’t let me fully extend my neck, but I was grateful to have a soft light to navigate.
I was counting down the kilometres to the exit of the forest, in a distressed state. My GPS computer and phone were almost dead, and I was seemingly lost. The route file was snapped to a forest service road that did not physically meander as mapped. I backtracked several times in the darkness, checking the theoretical junction for another path that did not exist. I followed the physical road, hoping it didn’t veer in another direction. Thankfully, my GPS computer validated this decision with a burp of green lights around the bend.
A short distance on pavement and I was at the Red Lick Country Store. I approached the carport to find my food and drinks, supported off the ground so the critters couldn’t get into it, with a sign directing me to a charging location. I felt like I could cry.
I plugged my cellphone into the electrical outlet, changed into warm clothes and prepared my sleep system before digging into the box of treasures. Ginger ale, chips, a chocolate bar, and a sandwich tasted divine. I checked my cellphone, and it had a slow charging notification on its screen. Was it my charger? Cable? Dirty charge port? I plugged my phone into my emergency power bank and left my large power bank and GPS computer charging at the outlet, worried about the outcome.
I had a warm sleep, only awaking sporadically to the sound of transport trucks passing by. When my alarm went off, I was scared to check the progress of charging. My phone had reached around 30 percent full on the emergency power bank. My Wahoo Roam had luckily fully charged, but my large power bank was still flickering on the second power level dot. I pulled out my pliers and meticulously pressed my dynamo hub connector tighter, praying that this would help my electrical conundrum.
As with every day on this bikepack, I did not depart until sunrise. I went into the general store, wanting more snacks, sandwiches and Advil to go. I greeted the lady at the counter and asked if she was Maggie, the owner. She was not, but I reiterated that I just wanted to say thank you for letting me sleep out back last night. Another lady overheard and ordered me a breakfast sandwich - I think she thought I was homeless. I assured her I was bikepacking and was choosing to rest my head in strange places. None the less, she offered her couch and told me she would pray for me. I appreciated the kind gestures from this trail fairy. Off I went with an optimism that I’d finish the route in one more push. Just shy of 200 more kilometres to go.
The day started off relatively flat. It felt like I was gifted 40 kilometres with little effort. Most of my energy went into fending off guard dogs. Another herd came running at me, barking as I put my bike between myself and them. I used the tactics I had learned from the other night, hurrying past the house. I could not believe when I saw the door to the home open a crack and an additional dog was let loose to bark at me. Such a different world than I am used to. This scenario was countered by a soggy wet dog that emerged from the trees a few kilometres later. He had an inviting grin on his face as he bounced on by.
Before my first big climb of the day, I stumbled upon a farm with cows and without hesitation sat in the grass talking to them while I lightened my pack by eating a sandwich. The spotted one took an interest in me and my lunch, which made my day. I descended into Turner Bend for a quick water refill and chug of chocolate milk. The general store had an outlet to charge my headlamps, but I decided that taking advantage of sunlight would be a better use of my time.
Not long after, I heard a vehicle behind me and, like I always do, edged closer to the shoulder and waved them on. Unbeknownst to me, my friend Randy, who I had met during the grand depart, had tracked me down using Trackleaders! We both pulled over and had a little chat about my ride so far and my plan to ride through the night. There’s a fair amount of contention about these types of interactions on racecourses, but I was not going for a fastest known time (FKT) and was simply out there to enjoy myself and to finish the route. So I obliged when he offered me two bananas, but decided not to accept the burrito (mostly because it was heavy and I had enough calories on me). I seriously debated taking his spare headlamp as a safety measure, but ultimately conceded to a potential night without lights. All part of the adventure.
Onwards and upwards with a smile on my face. Literally. The ascent to White Rock was long and especially relentless near the top with steep grades. I thought about going to the campground at the summit, but that would mean extra effort spent to get up a massive hill off route. Again, I forwent charging devices, relying on the slow charge of my dynamo hub, and continued towards St. Paul. I ran into two men completing the Arkansas High Country Northwest Loop, just about to crest White Rock in the opposite direction. They explained they were headed to the campground for the night while I noted that I had an adventurous night of riding planned.
I stayed up on the ridge for some time until I was greeted with a glorious paved descent. I rarely feel safe going fast on paved descents in the dark, but this highway was freshly paved with bright lane markers. A few vehicles passed me and gave me plenty of space as I made my way into St. Paul. Or rather, until I thought I was almost to town.
The route had me dip off the highway onto backcountry roads, only to climb a quick blip in the dark and reconnect. At last, I made it to the general store with the welcoming glow of an outdoor pop machine plugged into an outlet with a spare receptacle. I plugged in my cycling headlamp and got organized to spend a couple of hours curled up on the wooden bench.
In hindsight, it would have been safer and more comfortable to set up my bivy in the shadow of the general store instead of in the storefront's limelight. I napped on the bench for about an hour, only to be awoken by a peculiar man hovering near the bench with a pocket knife clipped to his jeans. In my haze, I nonchalantly made small talk while he dug for change in his pockets. He did not have the dollar needed to get a pop, so jumped into his truck, revved the engine and said, “I’ll be back.” “No need to come back”, I thought to myself as I calmly packed up my belongings and forced more food into my stomach. The nighttime segment of my adventure was about to begin.
As I left town, I passed White River and filled up my hydration bladder and bottles for the last time. I expected that this water should last me the final 58 kilometres, with just three steady climbs to summit before my final descent into Oark. I pedalled away from the town lights, telling myself that I could ride through the night slowly and cautiously with all but a dynamo light if it came to that.
I typically don’t mind riding at night. In fact, I often find a calmness in the air that revives me. This night felt different, though. A storm was forecasted to roll in the next day. Big gusts of wind had already started, causing tree limbs to sway above me and leaves to swirl by my side. My senses were in overdrive, with slight movements sending pins and needles down my back. “It’s only leaves, you’re fine.” I continued on fighting this heightened state, trying to call upon more tranquil thoughts while my dilated pupils looked for the safest line to ride. The dimming of my cycling headlamp didn’t help. I made it up the first climb and down the first descent before it completely shut off.
Onto my camping headlamp, positioned as best as possible above the brim of my cap, only to shake into a suboptimal position moments later. Derelict homes and sheds surrounded the community of Friley seemed more creepy than they should under the haze of a dim light. I stopped by an excavator and taped my headlamp into a fixed position. Oddly, I felt at ease resting against an excavator - tapping into that modern human connection that reminded me of safety.
My next encounter was one I will never forget. As I was biking along a dirt road, a rabbit arced above me from the left and hit the ground with a thud. I yelled out profanities and pedalled hard to distance myself. “What the heck just happened? Surely a rabbit did not just fall from the sky?” The adrenaline surge got me to the base of my last climb in no time. I sat down on the roadway with my headlamp off. The wind had stopped howling and the stars were twinkling. I took those few moments to reset - home stretch. Or at least it should have been.
I made my way up the climb, hiking a few portions where thick leaves provided no traction. The file route said I was on the wrong track as I was about to crest the hill. I dismounted and dragged my bike down a segment to double check that there were no other route options. Back up the hill I went, ready to remount and grind my way to the top. My crank arms wouldn’t turn, though. I had jammed a stick in my derailleur, causing the derailleur guide pulley, chain and cassette to meld into one brick.
Here I was, exactly 13 kilometres from the finish, with a catastrophic mechanical. I tried tugging the derailleur with no luck. It was time to flip my bike upside down and get to work. I unbolted the derailleur, realizing too late that I had forgot to put it in the hardest gear first. The excess tension sprung the derailleur at me and I noticed a piece fly into the leaves. This wasn’t going to be a quick fix.
I laughed at the situation as I succumbed to the fact that I may need to wait until daylight to tackle this issue. I changed into warm, dry clothes and scoured the leaves for a missing part I could not identify without finding. Miraculously, I found the derailleur’s own hanger in the leaves; a wee little piece that isn’t supposed to separate from the derailleur. As I went to put the chain back on, I realized that where the quick link had been, a roller was missing. Very bizarre. I shortened the chain and checked the gearing. I was excited that I fixed my mechanical, but too exhausted to jump back on my bike.
Oddly, I had cell service in this spot. I checked my messages. Jacob was in Oark waiting for me to finish. I quickly relayed what had happened and told him I needed a nap. Was it foolish to nap 13 kilometres from the finish? Probably. I felt like I needed a reset though before finishing this journey. I got my bivy out on the road, as close to the shoulder as I could get without encroaching on rocks. There, resting my body but alert enough to jump up if I heard a vehicle approaching, I closed my eyes.
My final alarm went off and I packed up. The crest of the climb was comically close. My final descent into Oark was worth the mechanical that slowed me down. It meant I got to finish in a rejuvenating sunrise with a smile on my face. Jacob was waiting for me at the general store, ready to listen to my stories over a big breakfast. Perfect timing to finish “a beautifully evil bikepacking route in the south”. This was by far my hardest solo adventure and so glad I had the opportunity to return to Arkansas and hash out this route.
P.C. Jacob Loos