By: Jake Orness
Have you ever committed to something before realizing you’ve gotten yourself into trouble?
Not long ago, Tyler Pearce (Vegan Cyclist) mentioned he was doing this “thing” in the desert over multiple days with “retired” pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop. Dubbed The Impossible Route, this thing was an 817-mile gravel excursion with over 48,000 feet of climbing, starting in Yuma, AZ and ending in Benton, CA with the Death Valley as but one daunting feature along the way. When I heard Death Valley, I was in and committed to spending a week off the grid in the California desert with these lunatics and a small crew documenting their ambitious adventure.
This impossible thing was really Jeremiah’s brainchild with Tyler as the unflinching compatriot of co-misery. As the name implies, the question was: Can two guys on gravel bikes survive the most untraveled route possible from Yuma beyond Bishop to Benton, through beautiful but unforgiving terrain in some of the most remote places in California?
There are rules, too?
Yeah, why not make the impossible even less possible by instituting rules? Well, given Jeremiah’s full-on bike racer mentality, there had to be rules, and thus the rule structure from Cape Epic was adopted. Riders must start and finish together with minimal separation (buddy system). No assistance from the crew, no matter what. These two had to be self-sufficient. On top of these restrictions, they had to complete the route in the same number of days that people do the route on enduro moto bikes - seven days. Doing that kind of mileage and climbing on the road would be one thing, but this was all on the most terrible, nasty, dirty, sandy, unforgiving terrain that California has to offer.
Jake Orness - that’s me. I’m Eliel’s staff photog. I'm a van person and love an adventure on the bike as much as anyone. I was there to capture the goods at the best and worst of moments.
Jeremiah Bishop - the “retired” pro mountain biker. Turns out we raced against each other in the mid 90’s. We apparently battled it out a few times, which meant he kicked my butt at the East Coast NORBA National races, and I had an advantage on the West Coast stuff. He went on to have a successful career winning Pan Ams and multiple National titles before moving onto endurance events like ABSA, Cape Epic, TransAlp Challenge, Trans-Sylvania Epic Mountain Bike Stage Race, and the Breck Epic.
Tyler Pearce - The Vegan Cyclist. Tyler is a one of a kind. Always in the moment. Ready and willing for any and all, plus always on point for just the right screen grab and colorful commentary.
Biju Thomas - A professional chef with tons of experience with cycling teams. His title is Soigneur, but he wasn’t doing the laundry or giving massages; he fed the crew like kings, cleaned up after everyone, and made sure he had the RV where it needed to be at all times.
Ramy Khalaf - The quiet documentarian. Ramy is an experienced filmmaker who has been dipping his toes in the bike world with his Bar Pedals YouTube channel.
Dale Travers - Photographer. Dale is from Australia and currently travels with triathlete Sarah Crowley as her content creator. His mission was to be our driver, collect behind the scenes footage, and be our second shooter. Dale was a rock; never stressed about the terrain we were on and successfully navigated us through some of the most remote rough terrain I’ve ever seen in person (in a stock F150 with no spare tire).
Travis Longfellow - Aspiring young racer from Redlands. Travis was our “gopher.” He drove my van, filled bottles, cleaned the bikes, met us where we needed, encouraged the boys, and gave us all some great entertainment with his energy.
On Sunday, February 28th, everyone had to find their way to the “Gateway to the Great Southwest” as Yuma is known. It’s also known as the “Lettuce Capitol of the World.” The crew had to fight 40mph gusts to get to this corner of the USA where Arizona, California, and Mexico collide. It’s from this agricultural strip in the south that the Impossible Route would begin.
Stage 1 - Yuma to Blythe 115 miles and 3600 feet of climbing
Day 1 started in the dark. It was a crisp and cool morning. None of us knew what to expect so there was a combo of excitement and nervousness. The big questions resurfaced. Could we even drive the entire route? Would satellite phones work? Would we all be able to follow Covid safety protocols? Would we all make it?
We rolled out with seven stops planned for just the first 15 miles, but those best laid plans went out the window as we started heading north from City Hall through all the farms, which gave way to dirt and nothingness. And thus, the real journey began.
Lurking in the back of my head was the first area of true concern...deep sand. The kind it takes motos hours to get through. The kind you keep rescue boards in the truck for. Slowly rising in elevation as we headed north to parallel the Colorado River. We knew it would be stunning here, but none of us were prepared for what we saw once we reached the first viewpoint; harsh jagged peaks and deep shadows and ridges. We had to stop and take it in for a few minutes and get some photos and drone footage while Tyler and Jeremiah rode away.
Chasing after Jeremiah and Tyler, we had nasty washboards that shook the truck, and I’m sure their bikes as well. Just as we caught them, Dale hit the brakes and said “We lost the e-bike!” Alas, the wheel tray had snapped and the front wheel was just a few inches off the ground. The bike survived with no damage. This was just the first of many times the stars seemed to be aligning in our favor and close calls were just close calls.
Soon after, we came upon the first decision point for the truck to take a safer route and circumnavigate the sand, so I excitedly took off on the e-bike with the boys.
This area, Picacho State Park, along the Colorado River, has gravel roads that crisscross and connect. Our computer navigators sent each of us in different ways and we were quickly separated. Tyler was up the hill. I had stopped to shoot a photo and was waiting for Jeremiah. It seemed he had gone a different way. I could see on my map that all the dirt roads led back to our route. Sure enough Jeremiah came around the corner out of nowhere, gave us a light scolding, and we doubled back the way he came from.
Exiting the park, we encountered our first sign of sand as the temperature increased from the frigidness of the morning. I was still wearing some compression tights under my jeans, and a few layers on top. I’d much rather be hot than cold, but I had to shed some clothes. The e-bike did not like the sand. Tyler and Jeremiah had an easier time pushing/trotting through the sand since they were pushing much less weight. I’d try to get ahead and get a shot, only to see them pedal off. It was a snail’s pace and this 25-mile section was taking much, much longer than planned. It was Day 1 and already serious doubts were more than creeping in...
We were only halfway across the sand, my bike battery was at two bars, and I was nearly out of water! This seemed to go on forever, but eventually I could see a rise in the desert floor. At this point, I welcomed the idea of pedaling or pushing the heavy e-bike up any hill rather than dredging through the sand. At the top of the hill, Ramy and Dale were in fact there and we all rejoiced at coming back together successfully.
This was supposed to be the easy day, remember, and Tyler and Jeremiah were already deep in the cave. The next stretch was desolate but hard-packed enough that we still believed we could make it to the day’s finish by nighttime.
But then our next turn over to the Bradshaw Trail, which was supposed to be dirt, ended up being sand. UGH! Tyler had a moment, then flipped the switch and got going again. Luckily, the sand was short-lived and gave way to rideable surfaces with great desert views. From the trail we found ourselves in Blythe. I figured we were home free at this point, but discovered the riders had had forgotten to fill up with water back at Picacho. Desperately searching for a water source, we had to eventually give up and press on with the hope of finding water later.
That source turned out to be not too far away in a completely random spot that a family was using for a weekend moto trip, 25 miles from anything. Tyler had no problem at this point asking for water and after startling and confusing the campers, our water bottles were filled and we made it to the campsite by nightfall.
The end of the day was a focused choreography of cleaning, eating, showering, post ride photos, interviews, and rearranging vehicles for sleeping, editing photos, charging batteries, and being organized for next day’s adventure.
Needless to say, the nervousness of what lay ahead was only compounded by how difficult the first "easiest" day had actually been.
Stay tuned for episode two...