I recently completed, with 5 other intrepid souls, a 5 day mountain bike ride starting in Telluride and ending in the town of Gateway, 150 miles away. We rode as much as 41 miles in a day and as little as 14 miles. We climbed up and down a lot of hills, with some trails that even required slinging the bike over our shoulders. That was hard. What was harder was a week of eating processed food.
We used a terrific company called San Juan Huts, which as the name suggests, provides huts to stay in along the way. Their tag line is Adventure without the Weight. We carried clothes and snacks, they provided lodging, food and drink.
While most would be concerned about the physical challenge of riding a mountain bike up and down a shi* ton of hills carrying a not-so-light back pack and seat bag at a breathtaking elevation, I was more concerned about the food. My usual diet of unprocessed foods would be out the window for the entire week. Could I survive?
After all , fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t exactly portable. I had no room to carry a bushel of bananas or a dozen watermelons. There would be no every other day trip to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. When we set off on Monday morning I pedaled away from fresh and towards packaged and canned.
We arrived at the first hut and were greeted by a twelve foot wall of canned food including lentil soup, mushrooms, beans, corned beef hash and (drumroll please) spam! I can’t believe they still make that stuff. Yikes! I’m convinced they did one run of production in the 1960’s and that we’re still going through those original rectangular cans of spam.
Our first dinner was a Mexican theme, with corn tortillas, black beans, rice and diced tomatoes. Not too bad. We even found some fresh cabbage to include. Still, I felt the effects of the sodium in all the canned food nearly immediately. I felt puffy and sleepy immediately following dinner, not so much from the biking that day as the extra work my body had to do in order to digest my food. Blahhh.
I had restless sleep that night, though in fairness it may have had more to do with getting so tangled up in my sleeping bag liner that I felt like lunch for a boa constrictor.
For the actual riding during the day, I brought raisins and dried flattened bananas from Trader Joe’s. These bananas really hit the spot, and though I don’t typically eat dried fruit, this was about my only alternative to eating as close to my normal diet as possible. I also brought crunchy peanut Clif Bars, which were good but I limited myself to one of those a day.
Day 2 and 3 dinners were couscous with marinara, and couscous with curried vegetables and potatoes. All good and healthy vegan fare, but again, all generated using a can opener. I happened to glance at the sodium content on the mushrooms and saw it was 390 mg per serving. Black beans topped out at over 500 mg per serving. Yikes!
On a typical day of eating fresh fruit for lunch and an epic salad for dinner, I take in less than 100 mg of sodium. Here I was, probably taking in around 1500 – 2000 mg a day eating canned and packaged foods.
My fingers and face were definitely swollen, along with my toes and ankles. I also noticed that even though I was taking in a lot of water I wasn’t urinating nearly as much. I also felt much more thirsty than I normally do.
I made it through day 4, though I dearly missed my morning ritual of eating a watermelon or cantaloupe and bananas. I grew weary of looking at cans of food. The texture also started to bother me, with everything feeling mushy. I missed chewing my food. With processed food, there’s hardly any chewing required. It’s all mushy and slides right down your throat. With fruit, there’s work to do. An apple requires some serious masticating before swallowing. P.s. that’s a good thing.
Some of the huts did have a few apples and oranges, which I snacked on immediately when we arrived. I was thankful for even this small amount of fresh produce, though the quality and amount dwindled as the week proceeded. Would it be too much to ask for organic?
Day 5 was a tough start, with some dicey single track and sections that required slinging my bike over my shoulder and hiking straight uphill with tough footing. We soldiered on with good humor, knowing that today was the last day and tomorrow meant a day off from sitting on a bike seat. Hallelujah! My butt hurt!
The last long stretch into Gateway required sitting back and squeezing both back and front brakes for about 7 miles. We catapulted down a severe pitch of a dirt road with sudden switchbacks, mounds of loose gravel and sandy transition areas that threatened to turn our front tires sideways at the worst possible moment. We had some epic views, though you couldn’t take your eyes off the road for too long or you would miss a switchback and go flying off the mountain like some real life version of the poor Road Runner in Bugs Bunny.
I wasn’t sure which I looked forward to more, not sitting on a bike seat or not eating dinner from a can. I couldn’t wait to eat anything that didn’t require a can opener and contain a months worth of sodium. But also, my butt hurt.
We arrived at Gateway and pulled up to the local convenience store, which was about the only store in this tiny town. I re-filled my water bottle with mostly ice and a little water and looked around at all the canned and packaged food and headed directly out the door. My friends loaded up with Gatorade and Beef Jerky. They needed their protein after a week of eating vegan. Right?
A week of eating processed foods taught me that I don’t like eating processed foods for a week. Call me a food snob. I get it. Some people eat canned and processed foods exclusively. For economic reason or because they don’t have the ability or resources to cook. I know that. And I feel for those people.
There is nothing healthy about eating processed foods. Processed foods have a ridiculous amount of salt, fat and sugar. Salt preserves, after all. Want to make something last for a long time? Add salt. Want to make it still taste good? Add fat and sugar.
I enjoyed the bike ride and the camaraderie of exploring a variety of terrain over multiple days with good friends. I enjoyed the Colorado scenery and the physical challenge of miles and miles of hills and winding single track.
I certainly appreciate, even more now, the relative ease with which I can obtain fresh fruits and vegetables. Going a week with eating processed foods made me realize how important it is to eat foods in their natural, whole state, as nature provides.
Last night I ate tomatoes from my garden, cut up in a salad of fresh romaine, spring mix, and avocado. Nary a can opener in sight. Now if only my butt would stop hurting.