Dakota Jones: Why I Ride My Bike
There is a place in Wyoming called Muddy Gap, which is really just a gas station at the intersection of two highways. It’s situated below a high bluff in the prairie land of southern Wyoming, a small dot in the statewide expanse of rolling sagebrush hills baked by the summer sun and scoured by winter winds. I rolled in there in early September from parts north and west, several days into a 900 mile bike ride back home to Colorado from Montana, and even that late in the season the sun was a powerful force.
I leaned my bike against the wall of the gas station and nodded to a young cowboy organizing equipment in the back of his truck.
“You bike here?” he asked, smiling.
“I did. Started in Lander this morning.”
“Well that’s something,” he said, and turned back to his gear.
I continued into the gas station and bought a root beer. After a long morning on the bike, I had a routine of giving myself a short break with a cold drink in the shade each afternoon. I took a seat outside the gas station and sipped my sweet drink, looking out at the empty prairie to the west. Wyoming is big country, and you can see most of it in one glance. That’s what always draws me back to the west: the dry air and the long views. I was born in Wyoming, and I’ve lived most of my life in deserts since.
I heard a voice to my left. “So where you headed?”
It was the cowboy. “I’m riding back home to southwest Colorado,” I told him.
“All that way on the bike?” he responded, looking impressed. “I never been down there, but I know it’s a ways.” He smiled kindly.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“I’m from Casper, Wyoming,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I responded, musing. “And what brings you out here?”
He looked over at his truck. “I’m an engineer, and I’m working on a project to mitigate chemical leakage from old mining and ranching operations,” he explained.
This piqued my interest. I love the environment too! I told him as much, and we talked for a while about the kind of work he does and why he does it. “It means a lot to me, to be able to help some,” he said.
I asked him how old he was.
“I’m 26,” he said, smiling again. “How old are you?”
“24,” I told him. We looked at each other for a second. Then I continued: “You know, I was born in Casper.”
“Really?” he looked dumbfounded. “Me too!”
We both laughed and then looked back out at the prairie. He took a deep breath. “Well, I better be off. Best of luck to you!”
“And to you,” I responded.
If not for my dad taking a different job when I was two years old, I might have grown up with this kid. We might have played sports together, sat next to each other in school. Our lives could have been closely intertwined for many years if things had only been a little different. But they weren’t different. I moved away and the cowboy didn’t. We never met until a chance encounter at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, and chances are we’ll never meet again. The threads of experience wind through the fabric of time like highways across the prairie, often in view but only occasionally crossing others. But their rarity is what gives them value.
There are many reasons I like to ride my bike, and most of them boil down to environmental reasons. As a mountain person, I often witness the effects of climate change firsthand: reduced alpine snowpacks, dry stream beds, dying pine trees. It’s as easy to find reasons to protect the environment as it is to blame myself for damaging it. Despite my ecological ideas and occasional bike tours, I regularly drive and fly extremely long distances in order to have adventures in exotic places. I’ve been to five continents and Alaska, which is basically a continent in itself. All of this was in pursuit of physical adventure in dramatic landscapes. But — and you probably see where I’m going with this — I have a lot more powerful memories from my bike ride across Wyoming and Colorado than I do from many of my international trips. There was something different about that trip, and I’ve tried very hard to figure out what it was. There’s only one answer: the bike.
I want to explore wild places in the most sustainable ways possible so that future generations can have the same adventures. But the huge weight of environmental issues can become overwhelming. So I choose one thing at a time to focus on, and I try to do my best. Right now, I want to set an example. I want to show the outdoor world that you don’t have to go to Iceland or Antarctica to have a big adventure; rather, the adventure is in expanding your comfort zone. And that is accomplished by your style. Airplanes will not expand your comfort zone; they will only take you to a place that might. So why not cut out the middle man, get on your bike, and start challenging yourself right from home?
I am a runner because running offers avenues for exploration in big mountains and technical terrain. Biking offers different opportunities for adventure over long distances. It’s a way to slow down from the 80mph blast of driving, and it’s much more efficient and comfortable over many days than carrying everything on your back. The idea is that biking is not just an adventure AND environmentally friendly; it’s an adventure BECAUSE it’s environmentally friendly. Anyone with a bike can strap a bag over the back wheel and head off down the road, whether that’s just to the grocery store or the other side of the planet. Adventure and sustainability support each other. It’s easy to sit in a cushioned airplane seat on the way to your planned adventure; it’s harder to set out from your house and let the adventure plan itself.
In the fall of 2015, after a race in Big Sky, Montana, I decided to go home the long way, on my bike. I expected to see the landscape in a new way and to check a box on my to-do list: “go on a bike tour.” But I never expected the most powerful part — that I would meet so many different people. The bike somehow made me more personable, as if by slowing me down it made me more approachable. People talked to me, asked for my story, told me theirs, and offered me assistance. If your top speed hardly exceeds 35 mph, it’s hard not to make eye contact with the people you pass. And if you make eye contact, you might say hi. And if you say hi, you might say more. These connections don’t sound much like environmentalism, but they are the same connections. Why would you protect a common landscape if you don’t understand or respect the people you share it with? Therefore, we must get to know the people we share the land with.
As I rode my bike through the high deserts and meadows of Wyoming and Colorado, I was treated to many experiences like that with the cowboy from Casper. The places I saw and the people I met were representatives of a thousand lives I could have had, a thousand more I could still have. The idea was fraught with regret: look at all the opportunities that have passed, and that continue to pass me by. But the extraordinary potential of each bend in the road was exhilarating. Biking made me intimately familiar with the contours of the land and the many people that have passed over it. Furthermore, it made me conscious of the many ways in which people pass over the land, and the effects they have on the land and the people who come after them. But it doesn’t have to be anything more than what it was. I rode my bike a long way, and it was worth the effort.
Give it a shot. I think you’ll find the same.
Dakota Jones is a CLIF athlete, ultra-runner, adventurer and climate advocate