Years ago, when I was young and naïve (I’m still the latter, probably, but with the excuse of the former) I set out to ride across the USA as my first big foray into the world of adventure. It was a terrifying experience to begin with - I was hideously underprepared, hugely overloaded and, ultimately, completely inept. I struggled to navigate, and my bike was too heavy for me to haul more than 40 or 50 miles a day. I spent nights in my tent wide awake, recoiling at every sound in the darkness, and I worried about everything: how would people respond to me? What would happen if my bike broke? How would I sustain body and mind for thousands of miles and an indefinite amount of time on the road?
Energy was always a concern. I’d never been an athlete (and sadly I probably never will be) yet I’d committed to something that was a pretty serious physical endeavour. I’d buy rice and lentils to eat each night and, occasionally, if I was feeling adventurous, I’d fry up some peppers and onions. My budget was $5 a day, so there wasn’t much wiggle room. While I was riding, I mostly ate breakfast cereal and peanut butter. Sometimes I’d eat the latter out of the jar, sometimes with jam. Other times, rarely, I’d experiment with other alternatives, but I’d usually return to the classics. Then, about a third of the way across the country, I met three other cyclists going my way, and we teamed up. The company, and comfort of travelling in a group, combined with my increasing aptitude of this new lifestyle that I’d chosen, was a huge relief. Everything seemed to get easier. I even tried to introduce Matt, Andy and Morgan to my cycling diet. They were unimpressed, and confirmed my hunch: they were taking a more ‘professional’ approach than I was. Andy mentioned "nutritional content", and Matt talked about protein replenishment. I wondered if we could still be friends. “We eat CLIF Bars,” Morgan told me one afternoon. I had no idea what that meant.
A couple of days later, on the outskirts of a large town, Matt suggested we detour to an industrial area. “Morgan’s got this loyalty card, and we can go buy stuff in bulk,” he told me. Then, the magic words – “it makes things way cheaper.”
This, then, was my accidental introduction to CLIF Bars – we walked out of the supermarket that afternoon with at least 40 bars each. The majority of mine were, inevitably, peanut butter flavoured. Over the following days I noticed a significant difference in the consistency of my energy levels, based on when I ate the energy bars – under the guidance of Matt, who had apparently lived on them through his days playing football at university – and for the first time I understood why someone might choose to use products specifically designed to boost performance. It was a revelation, and it powered me happily across the rest of the continent.
This summer, some seven years since those glorious days of riding across Middle America, I teamed up with Clif for a journey that I made to the Geghama Mountains in Armenia. These days I take my diet a little more seriously (and, I’m glad to say, I’m no longer restricted to a $5 a day budget for life.) With my friend Tom Allen, who is currently directing a project to create hiking trails across the Caucasus mountain range, I set off into the volcanic Geghama range carrying 10 days-worth of nutritionally balanced and energising food – including CLIF Bars - for a wilderness journey that, we hoped, could eventually become a part of the Transcaucasian Trail project.
This is one of the shorter expeditions that I’ve been on in recent years, but it came with an intensity of experience that, even after years of travelling like this, surprised me. Our packs were heavy, the air was a little thin (we topped out at just under 3600 metres on the mountain Azdaak) and it was real wilderness – blazing sunshine during the days, electrical storms at night, snow on the peaks and a lot of big, steep climbs as we headed south. It was also, undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The shape of the landscape looked like it had been designed with aesthetics in mind – the conically shaped dormant volcanoes grew directly out of vast plateaus that stretched out across our horizon, and in both the valleys and the summit craters we’d find high altitude freshwater lakes to admire, drink from and, when we felt brave enough, swim in.
There are no permanent residents but for the short summer season, when the snow begins to clear, nomadic herders from the Yazidi minority of Armenia leave the outskirts of Yerevan and the Ararat plains, and come to set up camp in the shadows of the mountains; their flocks of goats and sheep roam the hills during the day, but are always under careful watch by shepherds and rounded up each night to protect them from the wolves. We’d see two or three camps a day, and stop for tea and the obligatory conversations about the weather (and to answer questions about what on earth we were doing out there) and then we’d move on, often with warnings to watch out for the bears (which we never saw.)
Towards the end of the expedition we descended down into the wetlands, where farmers were camping out in the back of their trucks while they made hay. Finally, at the top of an improbably steep pass that led down into the next vast valley and another province, we finished our journey at a 13th century caravanserai, which one would once have hosted travellers and traders on their way to and fro across the continent. This was, of course, the Silk Road.
I’m always grateful on these journey for kit that works, and that applies to food too – eating CLIF Bars above the snow line, by a crater lake, atop a dormant volcano, after a 700 metre climb, is a joy that I’ll remember for quite some time.
There’ll be more on my journey to Armenia soon, on this blog and elsewhere. You can check out Clif here, and follow their drive to #feedyouradventure via this hashtag.
The CLIF Bar products that I used are a blend of organic rolled oats and natural ingredients, designed with an optimal blend of protein, fat, fiber, and multiple carb sources to help get the best performance from athletes and adventurers.
Finally, here are a few more pictures of the Geghama mountains to keep you going…