Embracing the Outback
Words, Photos, & Video by Ally Mabry
It’s 10pm and I am lying in my bed on top of the sheet, sweating under the steady oscillation of my ceiling fan. On any other night I would tell you I was sweating because I live in Austin, Texas and it is always hot here. Tonight I am sweating because I am nearly paralyzed with anxiety under the weight of my quickly approaching 7am flight to Portland. Once I land in Oregon, I will collect my bike from Virgin America’s oversized luggage bin, assemble my transportation all by my lonesome, and nervously make my way to the train station where I will board a train for Klamath Falls, Oregon—the start of the Oregon Outback.
The Unknown can be paralyzing in a big way—if you allow it. One of my favorite quotes was spoken by the “patron saint” of dirt bag rock climbing, Yvon Chouinard: “The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong—that’s when adventure starts.” In other words, things never go as planned and that’s the beauty of traveling. To be open to The Unknown is to allow yourself to be influenced by your experience in the moment. Taking this to heart, I have gotten into the habit of planning most of the big factors and leaving the rest to chance; hoping the stars align and things work out.
You always tell yourself you’re going to do X, Y, and Z to prepare for something big until you’re sweating in your bed the night before your adventure begins meditating on the fact that you chose to ignore Z and hope for the best. Although I identify as a cyclist and I have plenty experience backpacking on foot, before May 2016 I had never been bike camping. This small fact seemed half as daunting in May 2015 when I began planning my first trip with my friend Scott. Around that time there was a big stink about this incredible (and at times soul-crushing) 360-mile route through the high desert of Oregon mostly comprised of unpaved roads. OregonBikepacking.com released a recap of the 2015 Oregon Outback “event” organized by Donnie Kolb with the big, stark headline: The Death of the Oregon Outback. After thoughtful consideration Scott and I concluded with “Fuck it,” and decided we would do it anyway—completely unsupported, just the two of us—and believe that the Universe would bestow upon us magical camping availabilities that Kolb warned may not exist anymore. “It’ll be okay,” I mused, “last year there were 300 people on the trail during Memorial Day weekend. We’re only two people. And we’re nice.”
For the next year, I traveled to many new places with Oregon in the furthest corner of my mind. In addition to cycling on the reg, I am also an avid rock climber. I split my time between these two passions and the many jobs that make up my full-time self-employment by riding 20–30 miles before work, climbing in the evenings, and either riding centuries on weekends or pretending I’m a mountain biker on my Surly Straggler.
I returned home from a week of riding road bikes in Tucson one month before our departure. I realized I hadn’t bought my plane ticket to Portland yet. The final month of preparation consisted of almost daily trips to REI and my new mantra “all of your experiences combined have prepared you and toughened you for this trip. Everything will shake out. The stars will align.” Oh, and the miserable solo bike camping trip I attempted locally two weeks before I left for Portland (I rode to a metropolitan park 42 miles from my house, gaining 2800 ft in elevation on the way directly into a thunderstorm—once I reached my campsite, set my hammock and rain fly up, and made myself dinner over a pocket rocket, I crawled into my hammock and called a friend to pick me up.)
I never actually got on the train. Two days before my flight Scott and I were discussing the lack of buzz surrounding the Oregon Outback this year. It was possible that we’d be going at it alone, so I turned to Instagram. Under the #oregonoutback hashtag I found a guy from NYC with the username @Ultrastokedjohnny who was also preparing for the Outback. I direct messaged him and soon our party of two became three. He even offered to pick me up from the airport and together we would drive to Klamath Falls where we would meet Scott.
I stepped off the plane and hurried to baggage claim, palms sweating because I had never traveled with a bicycle before. I awaited the arrival of my battered cardboard box and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when it popped through the plastic flaps on the conveyor belt. My phone rings—it’s Johnny. I can’t understand a word he’s saying but I tell him to meet me outside of baggage claim. Again, remaining calm and telling myself that everything will work out. The two strangers, Johnny and his friend Ivan, greet me with big hugs and I am instantly relieved. This is the kind of generosity I would experience from strangers over the next six days.
Two days into our trip I remember thinking I knew this would be the best thing I have ever done. Rolling into Silver Lake after a rough 54 miles, we rejoiced at the sight of the mile-long town’s open convenient store. The owner, Les, greeted us and immediately offered to let us set our tents up in the shared yard between his house and the store. Overjoyed that the rumors we’d heard of Silver Lake’s negative opinions of bike packers were false, we accepted his generosity. The next day, 30 miles from the town and by a stroke of luck, Les and his family pulled up to us in an SUV as we rode through the most challenging gravel we’d faced and gifted us beef jerky and kind words
As the miles ticked away, my body got used to the long days. My biggest worry leading up to the trip was that I wouldn’t be able to handle back-to-back days of high intensity miles. My savior: chamois butter and trail mix with chocolate bits. I honestly didn’t focus on the physical pain much because every 20 miles or so the scenery changed. It’s pretty incredible what happens when you propel yourself and everything essential to life on your bike with nothing but your own [wo]manpower. I cried a few times when I was overwhelmed with joy. I also cried a few times because biking fully loaded through deep, lightweight gravel uphill in the beating sun can be incredibly difficult.
Now that I’m home and out of my adventure bubble, what seemed like an amazing feat at the time seems so small. I have to keep reminding myself that it was the first of many bikepacking endeavors I will take on in the coming seasons. Two weeks after I returned from the Oregon Outback I convinced my friends to load up and ride 84 miles to a state park situated around a lake to camp for the night. I’m currently planning a two-week-long, 830-mile tour of Iceland’s Ring Road with two of my best girlfriends, which will be 100% paved. I’ll return to gravel sooner or later, but after 360 miles, I’ve had my fill for a while.
Follow Ally on IG: @a_mabry