Words and photos by Jan Bennett
The Pony Express Bikepacking Route was born of a desire to expand my comfort zone, push boundaries, and explore new places. What I hadn’t planned on were the intense emotions and rediscovery of self that caught up with me along the way.
After scratching from the Tour Divide in 2016, I found myself passing time scrolling through maps of the American West, an area of the country that had captivated me since my first drive down US-50, the ‘Loneliest Highway’, through Nevada a few years before.
The vast expanses of wide-open, uninhabited public lands spoke to my desire to disconnect fully from a world that constantly had me questioning my reality and searching for meaning amongst a life-long sea of confusion.
I wanted to go remote, on my own, and explore areas where the history of a place was still palpable. I quickly found myself drawn to a dot on the USGS survey maps labeled “Sweet Water Pony Express Station”. From there I discovered that many of the roads through the area came about because of the Pony Express and Pioneer trails. The Pony Express Route follows much of the same route as the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. In some places, the wagon ruts left by those enterprising pioneers, and in one instance even the very wagon itself, can still be seen along the route. As Native Americans had discovered well before the first pony rider crossed those mountains, the land tells you which way to go.
In the mid-1800s, a call was put forth by the US Postal Service for a contract to deliver mail as quickly as possible to California from the east in an attempt to keep the new territory as part of the Union as the American Civil War was brewing. Entrepreneurs Russell, Majors, and Waddell hatched a far fetched plan to create a route of relay stations whereby riders would launch themselves on hearty mustangs at full speed for 10-15 miles at a time to the next station, only to dismount and remount in a matter of seconds on a fresh steed and head off to the next station, carrying valuable news and mail in a purpose-made saddle bag called a mochila across the American West.
The prospect of propelling myself on a bicycle across such a historic route fully captured my attention. I started to map the original stations and plot the route utilizing the National Historic Trails website. After driving and riding certain sections of the route I decided I would tackle it via mountain bike, on my own, in the spring of 2018. My main concern would be the vast expanses without available resupply. Four hundred miles from Salt Lake City, UT to Austin, NV without knowing for sure where the next water supply would be was daunting. There are no convenience stores, no grocery stores, no restaurants, and no shops along long stretches of the route.
A week before I was to head out on my ride I received news that my father had overdosed and died. After quite a bit of trepidation, I decided that I needed this trip. For myself.
At one point, as I crested a pass that led to an expansive view of low mountain peaks to the southeast of Casper, WY, I was overcome by intense emotions.
I screamed. I cried. I laughed. I sang. I danced. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of freedom. Freedom from a burden that I had become so accustomed to bearing that I simply didn’t know any other way.
In that moment, on that dirt road in Wyoming, on a self-supported ride across half of the country on a route that no one had attempted yet, I discovered a new sense of self. As I hopped back on the bike to continue my journey I recognized the impact that the route had on me. The opportunity for healing and self-discovery I found along the way should be made available to everyone. I had found purpose in my struggles and wanted to do what I could to provide an opportunity for others to do the same.
The remainder of that ride and subsequent scouting rides allowed me to verify natural springs and identify supportive private landowners who agreed to passage for subsequent bikepackers and who were willing to share their water with other riders who would come after me. I rediscovered human connection and the good that still exists in a world of seemingly endless chaos. I found peace through the incredible interactions of those I met along the way.
Looking back now I realize that the Pony Express Route and the journey to make it a reality for others is precisely what I needed to give back to a community that has helped me grow in ways I thought unimaginable just a few years earlier.
Bikepacking Roots is excited to be supporting the final stages of development of the Pony Express Bikepacking Route, a vision and undertaking being driven by Jan Bennett. The route begins in St. Joseph, Missouri and covers more than 2,200 miles as it makes its way to Sacramento, California, crossing Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California along the way. 85% of the route is on dirt and gravel with a few car-free bike trails to get riders through major cities. But some sections, particularly in the mountains of Nevada, are rough, rocky, and are decidedly not dirt or gravel roads. History is alive and well along much of the route, with the remains of original Pony Express stations still visible in many places, and commemorative markers along the way denoting important landmarks, graves, and important information.
Interested in being one of our Route Scouts in 2020?
We are seeking adventurous, experienced bikepackers interested in being volunteer scouts. Although extensive reconnaissance of the route has already been conducted by Jan Bennett, we are looking for a cadre of veteran bikepackers who are eager to ride [some of] an ambitious new route, provide feedback, additional assessment and information about water and services along the way, share photos, and potentially help out in some other ways.
Click here to learn more about the Pony Express Route and how to get involved in 2020!
Professional, intentionally-designed bikepacking routes are time-consuming to develop – extensive scouting and collaborations with local land owners, land managers, communities, and test riders are critical parts of the process. Creating the accompanying navigational and educational resources like the 90-page Wild West Route guide and the mobile app make routes even more accessible and impactful. But all this costs money, and it is for that reason that we are running our “10 Routes. 10,000 Miles. $100,000.” year-end campaign. As we look ahead into 2020, we have 10 new routes at various stages of development to bring the bikepacking community 10,000 more miles of bikepacking opportunity – opportunity for the empowering, inspiring, life-changing experiences that we believe bikepacking can facilitate. Help us finish the development of these 10 new routes by making a contribution toward the $100,000 goal for supporting these projects!
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Bikepacking Roots is the only non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and advancing bikepacking, growing a diverse bikepacking community, advocating for the conservation of the landscapes and public lands through which we ride, and creating professional routes. We value human-powered adventure and an inclusive, engaged, and informed membership (nearly 6,000 strong) that makes a positive impact as we explore by bike.
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