Thursday, July 02, 2015

On not letting go

Atlantic City, Wyoming, is a place where ghosts linger. It’s not a ghost town, exactly, although this relic of the 1867 gold rush has no paved roads, and mining ruins still form the foundation of rustic homes. There’s a gun shop (for sale) and two western bars that draw folks off the highway to experience authentic Wyoming. Inside these buildings are antique tables and musty wood floors that creak underfoot, hinting of long-dead secrets so close to the surface you can almost smell them. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, there are echoes of the past everywhere.

The community of 37 sits in a hole — a steep gully below the Great Divide Basin, which itself is a spectral void that not even water can escape. Westward-expanding pioneers built the Oregon Trail and Overland Trail across dangerous snowy passes just to avoid the arid wasteland. These days, I-80 lays a path for travelers to zip across without even stopping to pee, although the interstate has afforded the Basin its only incorporated town — Wamsutter, Wyoming. On the 2015 Tour Divide route — which was being challenged by roughly 150 cyclists — nearly 100 miles stretched between these two hardscrabble communities. A hundred miles of absolutely nothing.

The Atlantic City Mercantile was open for business on a hot summer afternoon, with a tattooed woman behind the bar and Merle Haggard playing over scratchy speakers. The only thing missing was a swinging saloon door. I walked inside and pulled down my face mask like a real outlaw, taking quick, wheezing breaths. The air was laced with cigarette smoke, but it seemed preferable to dust— or at least less abrasive — as it circulated in and out of my raw lungs. The only other patrons at 2 p.m. were fellow Tour Dividers — Mike Schlichtman, a 50-something car-wash owner from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Marketa Marvanova, a 20-year-old champion mountain bike racer from the Czech Republic. The two had formed a partnership over the past few days that may have seemed odd to an outsider, but in the Tour Divide, such unions are only natural. Sometimes, two people just ride the same pace.

 We exchanged only cursory greetings as they split the check and headed out the door. Mike later told me he thought I was a Continental Divide Trail hiker, on account of my running shoes. It was unfathomable to him — and me, too — that anyone could cross this land on foot. He regarded me with a wide-eyed gaze, like I was some kind of ghost who had materialized from the infernal regions.

In actuality, I pedaled 85 miles from Pinedale in the morning. Besides phlegmy coughs and breathing difficulties, it was a fairly smooth trip, but I managed to lose my sunglasses, sunscreen, and chapstick along the dusty roads. Although I’d cobbled together replacements from a gas station, the loss left me rattled. Along with my bug spray and face mask, I considered these the most important items in my kit. My lips were already oozing with sun blisters, and my backside and legs were mottled with swollen mosquito bites. Please shield me from the world, from the merciless world.

 I handed the bartender five liters’ worth of water containers to fill, then ordered a basket of chicken fingers and fries. I gulped down a couple of Pepsis but mostly just picked at the food. I was anxious — well, terrified is a better word — about going back out there on my bike. It was early in the afternoon and my lungs already felt like they’d been scoured with a Brillo pad. The day before, I experienced a breathing attack while fighting a stiff headwind into Pinedale. One moment I was sucking wind, and the next my airway closed altogether. I gasped and gasped and no oxygen entered my lungs, until I was so desperate that I jumped off my bike and doubled over, hyperventilating so violently that my shoulders ached. Finally the clamp released, and I inhaled panicked gulps of dust. When oxygen returned to my brain and the sagebrush hills came back into focus, I sat in the dirt and cried. I haven’t had asthma in the past and had never experienced an attack quite like that. Most of us have our fears about the Divide, but there is nothing more scary to me than losing the ability to breathe. Give me the bears, any day.

Of course, the slow rhythm of the Divide has its own calming effect, and by the time I reached Pinedale, I’d come up with several justifications — “That road was particularly dusty, and the wind particularly bad. I’ll double up the face mask if it gets that bad again.” “I’m nine days and 1,200 miles into this. I really just need a full night’s sleep.” And the ultimate soother — “I just can’t push myself anymore. As long as I don’t push the pace, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

But by the time I left Atlantic City, I wasn’t so sure that taking it easy was an adequate safety net. My breathing was becoming rougher; even slow pedaling had me sucking air. The wind had increased to a steady twenty miles per hour, stirring up a visible fog of dust from the desert floor. What if I was reduced to walking? What if I had another attack in the middle of a hundred miles of nothing? What if my airways failed to open? Fear gnawed at my stomach with such ferocity that I could scarcely force down my food, although I managed to get through the chicken fingers.

 “Is that going to hold you over?” asked a cowboy who had just entered the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey.

 “Hardly,” I rasped. “But it is nice to sit down for a while.” There’s always hope that this one small thing —extra sleep, or a face mask, or chicken fingers — is going to turn everything around.

Both wind and afternoon heat had picked up strength during my so-called recharge. Outside the air felt like gritty flames on my face and arms, and the wind had a firing effect that solidified the gray paste of dust, salt, and sunscreen that coated my skin. I pulled a buff over my face and turned away from the gusts to push my bike out of the ravine. Even walking sent my heart rate too high and my breathing became erratic.

 “Slow,” I reminded myself. “Calm breaths.” For all of my expectations and planned strategies before the Tour Divide, this had become my predominant concern and thus mantra. “Slow. Calm breaths.”

I crested the rim and commenced pedaling over a ribbon a gravel that rippled across high desert hills. For a time the road was lined in shrubs that ended with a familiar juniper — hunched over the road, with branches bent and twisted by the constant wind. The tree was a stoic outlier; behind it, sage plains and grassy hills faded into a white, empty sky. I felt a flutter of affection for “The Last Tree Until Rawlins” … or Wamsutter, as was the case this year, when we’d be traveling an entirely new and unfamiliar route across southern Wyoming. But I’d stood here before, experiencing different and yet familiar apprehensions.

 The Tour Divide is a race where people chase ghosts. A tracking page includes icons of past racers who set a standard. Their historic progress is tracked right alongside the racers of the present. Fast men chased the record-setting splits of 2012 Jay Petervary, women tried to keep up with 2012 Eszter Horanyi, and those of us farther back had 20-day, 25-day, and 30-day standards to pace. I’d started the race determined to shadow the 20-day bubble, but as health declined and 20-day faded from view, I felt a quieter, more urgent ghost bearing down on me. The ghost of 2009 Jill. Every night, I noted where she’d been. She was gaining on me.

Why was I so afraid of Ghost Jill? Why did it matter if I rode faster or farther than she did? Why are we always trying to be better than ourselves? I resented this notion every time it crossed my mind, and yet her ghost haunted me. I could still taste the blood in her mouth as I gnawed on another stick of jerky. When thunderheads collected over the mountains, it was her heart that raced in my chest. She was so alone out here, but I didn’t experience the same kind of loneliness because she was always shadowing me, if that makes any sense. Memories collided with realities until time lost its elasticity, and I slipped into a nebulous trace of thoughts about places I’d left and people I’d lost years ago. This was the fear. I was becoming my own ghost.

Afternoon shadows grew long while I listened to raspy breaths punctuate these echoes of the past. A pronghorn with two tiny calves ran alongside the road, and for a time we were side by side. As I watched their spindly legs move in unison with mine, I was struck by an electric sensation of awe. Real joy reminded me that yes, I am here, and this is now. The pronghorn peeled off at the turnoff for Diagnus Well, and I wondered if we’d be racing to the same place. I waded into the artificial wetland and refilled my bladder from the spouting pipe.

“Twenty-five miles down,” I thought, remembering the well’s distance from Atlantic City. Or was it a hundred and ten, because Pinedale is where I started my day? I’d long since lost track of how far I’d traveled since Banff. What is distance, anyway? Or time?

Another twenty miles passed before I reached the end of vaguely familiar ground and turned onto the new section of “trail” — a faint doubletrack climbing out of an oil camp. The rocky track cut a direct line along the spine of the ridge, a steep and boney challenge for pedaling. My leg muscles vibrated at the stimulation of something more than dull spinning, but a spiking heart rate soon taxed the diminished capacity of my lungs. Still I battled for a few useless moments until gasping erupted, and I was off the bike, desperate and humbled.

 “I’m so sorry,” I said to no one, except maybe Ghost Jill. “I won’t push it again.”

Walking again, stumbling along the boney ridge, wheezing to wring oxygen from the dust-choked air. “No one has ever moved so slowly in the history of biking,” I thought, forgetting that I myself have moved a whole lot slower. As the slope rippled skyward, views of the Basin stretched to great distances. Alkali flats were carved with deep ravines, and the resulting bluffs had eroded to colorful and cartoonish hoodoos. “Looks like a chicken foot,” I thought of one, and another was a chocolate bunny that had melted in the sun. I grasped at these distractions as evening light saturated the mineral reds and greens. “So much endless beauty,” I said aloud as calm finally settled in my breaths. I was back on the bike for bumpy descents and off again for climbs, on and on as time and distance closed in with the deepening twilight.

Finally the track emptied onto a sandy jeep road, and dull spinning gave me a chance to eat dinner. Tonight I had a few limp mozzarella sticks, a Slim Jim, and Grandma’s peanut butter cookies. It was a downgrade from the early days of the Tour Divide, when I really tried to hold my convenience store diet to mainly nuts, cheese, and dried fruit. But I was long past believing that food mattered, really. Give me oxygen, any day.

 Night brought calm air, and I was determined to push my way through this dusty wind tunnel before daybreak. It would be a 187-mile day if I could push through to Wamsutter, but I’d become convinced this was my only chance to escape this place. If I could get out of the desert, I could get out of the dust. If I could get out of the dust, I could breathe. Or so I said to soothe a clawing anxiety. The jeep road widened as it cut south across a ripple of shallow valleys and plateaus. The grades were so gradual as to be imperceptible from flat, but my ragged lungs felt every inch climbed. It wasn’t even that late when fatigue clamped down, and I turned to my candy — cinnamon bears — which I also reserved for desperation. “Can’t be here when the wind comes back,” I scolded myself. “Can’t be here when the heat comes back.”

But the candy did nothing and soon even my steering became lazy. I nodded off for a second and snapped back to attention only as I was already diving headlong into a ditch. My shoulder hit the dirt and I bounced instantly back to my feet, reeling through the depths of disgust. I was still 25 miles from Wamsutter. 162 miles into the day.

“Fine, whatever,” I spat, and wheeled my bike fifty yards into the sage. If I was going to fall asleep on the bike, I was going to take a nap. That’s the one thing a route like the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route affords that a route like the Iditarod Trail really doesn’t — at least on the Great Divide Basin, I don’t need to move to survive.

The Iditarod frequently entered my thoughts, as I've slated February 2016 as the date to attempt an endeavor that’s haunted my imagination for almost ten years — traveling by bicycle a thousand miles across Alaska. The 2015 Tour Divide was to be a crash-course refresher in self-supported endurance travel — among a multitude of other motivations for returning to the route after six years. When things got tough in the Tour Divide, I thought of Alaska. It was a reminder to relish in my weaknesses, draw strength from my shortcomings, because the tundra doesn’t care. But the desert, also, does not care.

 Darkness was bountiful across the uninhabited plain, and the fragment moon hid amid a panorama of stars upon stars upon stars. As I unrolled my bivy and inflated my pad, I noticed streaks of white light shooting through the sky from the north. “Rawlins?” I wondered. “Casper?”

As I focused my eyes, the fingers of light intensified, and I noticed waves of luminescent green rippling above the horizon. “That looks just like the Aurora,” I thought. “But that’s impossible.” I’d seen the Northern Lights outside Alaska before, but this was a particularly dynamic display, and I was in Southern Wyoming. I stood frozen in place, neck craned toward the sky, as the green wave shimmered and faded, dancing amid the white streaks. The light show continued for long minutes, and I stood mesmerized with awe even as I questioned my sanity. Was this all just a reflection of a memory? A hallucination? Was I really falling this much apart? The ghost lights continued to shimmer and undulate, as real as the sage and stars and black horizon. They didn't care, either.

After a few minutes, or an hour, or perhaps several years, I crawled into my sleeping bag. White light continued to fill the sky as I erupted into another of the coughing fits that had become commonplace whenever I laid down. These episodes ravaged my lungs, but they dislodged enough gunk that I could breathe slowly enough to sleep. Eventually the coughing subsided and I closed the zipper to my bivy sack because I didn't want to breathe the air anymore. Even if it was the same air as outside, just staler, the bivy sack added a humidity that made it tolerable. But I missed the Northern Lights. And I missed Ghost Jill, who was still pressing through the night some distance back, breathing a fire I could no longer feel. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Following the 2015 Tour Divide

Last pre-ride — spinning with Keith near Cascade Mountain. 
Before I set out on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and don't update my blog for a month (hopefully), I wanted to post all links for tracking my progress in the Tour Divide and Beat's progress in the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa.

Beat's race began on Thursday, June 11. The 2,400-kilometer route across South Africa involves mountain and desert crossings, several off-trail portages, and map-and-compass navigation. Beat and Liehann are traveling together and aiming for a 20-day finish.

The Tour Divide begins Friday, June 12. The 2,750-mile route travels from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, along the Continental Divide. I am hoping for a 20-21-day finish, but mostly aim to remain flexible and have another fantastic and soul-rending experience.

Following the Tour Divide: 

Official Tour Divide tracking page.

My Delorme tracking page (with text updates)

My Twitter account (text updates)

My Facebook page (encouraging notes appreciated)

Race discussion at forum

MTBCast call-ins (I have a feeling this service, while great, is going to be bogged down this year. I may or may not try to call in during the race.)

Following Beat in the Race Across South Africa: 

Official Freedom Challenge tracking page and race updates.

Beat's personal tracking page for the Race Across South Africa.

Liehann's personal tracking page for the Race Across South Africa.

Freedom Trail Twitter chatter

If you haven't read my book about my first Tour Divide adventures, you can purchase an eBook (Amazon provides software to read on any device) or paperback at Amazon. Purchases help keep me in Sour Patch Kids and Babybel cheese wheels for the duration of my ride. I also have three other books:

Ghost Trails: Journeys Through a Lifetime

Arctic Glass: Six Years of Adventure in Alaska and Beyond

8,000 Miles Across Alaska: A Runner's Journeys on the Iditarod Trail

It looks like there will be a large showing for this year's Grand Depart of the Tour Divide — probably more than 150 riders. I looked on Trackleaders to get a sense of the women racing.

Here's a short intro to some (probably not all) of the Ladies of the Tour Divide, southbound GD, 2015:

Lael Wilcox | Anchorage, Alaska | Rookie. I spent a fun evening with Lael on Wednesday. There are going to be more experienced racer types on the trail this year, but I think Lael will be a top contender for the win. She has natural athleticism, lots of bike touring experience, and the right attitude all working in her favor. She was leading this spring's Holyland Challenge in Israel (in front of all the men) before severe weather forced a restart. She toured across South Africa, Egypt, Greece, and Israel during the winter. She rode more than 2,100 miles from Anchorage to Banff over 19 days, as a nice little warmup. She's strong and ready.

Alice Drobna | Bend, Oregon | Veteran. Alice won last year's Tour Divide on a rigid singlespeed Moots, finishing in 22 days, 6 hours, and 36 minutes. I believe this is the second fastest women's finish on the full GDMBR route, next to Eszter Horanyi's record of 19 days, 3 hours, and 35 minutes. Alice set a new women's record on the Arizona Trail 750 in April. She is attempting to become the first woman to finish the "Triple Crown" of bikepacking, which is the Arizona Trail 750, Tour Divide, and Colorado Trail Race in the same year.

Sara Dallman | Willmington, Ohio | Veteran. Sara won the 2013 race in 22 days, 19 hours. She also finished in 2012, and has more than a decade of adventure racing behind her. Lael, Alice, and Sara are probably the women to beat, but this is the Tour Divide and there are always dark horses and a lot of luck involved. (And no, I'm not talking about "You make your own luck." No, real luck.)

Bethany Dunne | Canberra, Australia | Rookie. Bethany and her husband, Seb, are both riding the Divide, but I'm not sure whether they're planning to travel together. Both are shooting for sub-20-day finishes. Bethany was the first woman in this spring's Kiwi Brevet in New Zealand.

Sarah Jansen | Northfield, Minn. | Rookie. I scrolled through Sarah's Tumblr and she appears to be your typical bright-eyed rookie with big dreams who put a lot of preparation into this event.

Katie Monaco | Portland, Oregon | Rookie. I used to ride with Katie when I lived in Missoula, Montana. We were part of a women's Tuesday Night Ride group, the Dirt Girls. Katie started bike touring shortly after I moved away from Montana, and we occasionally e-mailed back and forth with questions and advice. I'm thrilled that she's starting the Tour Divide this year.

Michelle Dulieu | Rochester, New York | Veteran. I believe Michelle has raced the Tour Divide twice before. She had some setbacks that took her off the trail for more than a week in 2012, but she returned to the course to finish that year.

Lynne Silvovsky | San Luis Obispo, California | Rookie. Lynne is a computer and electrical engineering professor at Cal Poly. In 2013 she broke a women's powerlifting record with a 292-pound deadlift (!). She's aiming for a 25-day finish. 

Eleanor McDonough | Knoxville, Tenn. | Rookie. Eleanor is racing in honor of her brother to raise money for brain tumor research. That's about all the info I found in my cursory Google searching, but I believe she's shooting for a ~22-day finish.

Marketa Marvanova | Czech Republic | Rookie. Marketa is just 20 years old, but she's won the Craft 1,000 Miles Adventure two years in a row.

Tracy Burge | Clarksville, Ohio | Veteran. I met Tracy during the 2012 Tour Divide. Beat was acclimating for the Hardrock 100 in Frisco, Colorado, and I rode up Boreas Pass one rainy afternoon and just happened to bump into her. I think she had many setbacks in 2012 that led to a finish around 50 days. She's back again and no doubt (like me) looking to fix the cracks.

Carolyn McClintock | Cincinnati, Ohio | Rookie. Carolyn and Tracy plan to travel together. She's also riding a Moots YBB (which is what I'm riding), and stated that she's aiming to finish in 40 days.

Jen Marsh | American living in South Korea | Rookie. Another friend of Tracy's. It seems she's aiming for a 23-day finish. From her letter of intent, she said she's been dreaming and preparing for this attempt since 2007.

Team Rice Burner | Texas | Rookie/Veteran. The stoker on Billy Rice's awesome Cjell-Mone-built 29+ tandem is his 16-year-old daughter. I met her today and she strikes me as a sweet, quiet, typical teenager, with her nose buried in her smart phone. I'm astonished at her taking on this ride with her dad. I'm sure they'll have an incredible experience.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Banff doesn't change

Six years ago, when I rolled into Banff three days before the start of the Tour Divide, I connected with two trail-angel types, Keith and Leslie. Although we were strangers at the time, they invited me into their home, fed me dinner, and then whisked me away on all the grand tours we could possibly squeeze into what amounted to a 48-hour period. Within about twenty minutes of my arrival, Keith drove me to an overlook where I believe Parks Canada filmed that infuriating earworm cute "Sheep and Goat" video. He stretched his arm toward the kingdom, complete with a massive castle they call the Banff Springs Hotel, and characterized Banff as "paradise in a bubble." Regulations from the National Park and other policies strive to ensure this little village nestled in the Canadian Rockies never changes. 

We've since become good friends, and we have a number of adventures behind us. For this reason, and also because Beat and Liehann just happened to be flying out on Friday night, I purchased a ticket to Calgary one week ahead of the Tour Divide start. I thought this would give me plenty of time for relaxing, visiting and meeting folks, tying up loose-end work, prepping my bike, and a couple of pre-race adventures, in that order. My flight out of SFO turned out to be something of a debacle. I've had relatively good luck with air travel and didn't see it coming, but Beat is cynical enough that he noticed a discrepancy on my ticket and prepped me for battle (it's one of those long boring air travel stories, but in a nutshell, I purchased an Air Canada ticket online that was actually handled by United, which has terrible bike policies and refused to put my bike on the plane even for their ridiculous $200 fee.) Well, it was a hiccup, but I made it here with a good amount of time to spare.

True to precedent, I awoke in this stunning paradise and was quickly whisked away on "low-key" adventures that have already involved 30 (!) miles of not-easy hiking, along with a couple of test spins on my bike. 

One aspect of Banff that has been stunningly different this year is the weather. Snowline is considerably higher than it was in 2009, and it's been well above 80 degrees and sunny the entire time I've been here so far. I know that can change in a heartbeat and I should be grateful for any time I spend near the Continental Divide not shivering or wallowing in mud. But even California-acclimated, I'm roasting up here at this altitude, and sunburned my forehead despite best efforts not to do so. Also, four years in California hasn't made me immune to northern summer mania, where getting out on a nice day feels paramount to rest and food and oxygen. 

My first day in town, I followed Leslie on an 11-mile jaunt up and around Sulphur Mountain. She just returned from hiking 600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and her hiking pace is fierce. Most of my training this spring has been either cycling or trail running, and Leslie's version of hiking feels harder than both. (Truly! It's not just taper anxiety phantom weakness, I swear.) I was a wheezy mess above 6,000 feet and fought to keep up, because I did not want to miss these views. 

My friend and home-based bike mechanic Dave put my bike together for me, tuning it up to near-perfection (or the best I can get for a three-year-old bike with many miles and some neglect.) I took it out for an easy spin on the first ten miles of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, then back. Out of the gate, the route follows a nice gravel bike path along the Spray River. There were more rolling climbs and descents along this path than I remembered, and I actually had a little freak-out about this ("I thought this first section was flat. It's hard!") Then I laughed at myself, because it's not actually that hard. I'm just truly going into panic mode at this point, and fighting it with every ounce of distraction I can find. 

Distractions, unfortunately, come with a bit of a price. In the evening, Keith and Leslie told me we were going out for a "stroll through town" to get ice cream, which was a trick because this "stroll" included a thousand-foot ascent of Tunnel Mountain. 

Okay, it's true, I would have gone anyway. The views are pretty fantastic at 9:30 p.m., which is still before sunset at this latitude. Downtown is full of fun people-watching, and I haven't even run into any obvious Tour Divide cyclists yet. 

The next morning, Leslie was going hiking at Lake Louise. It was again 80+ degrees and clear, so how could I resist? I asked her if she was going for a "long hike" and she said, "no, just a short one." Leslie's version of short is 13 miles with 4,200 feet of climbing that includes a dash of late-spring snow slogging. Just in case you were wondering.

But wow, Lake Louise. I'm not sure you could ask for a better bang for your mileage. It was worth it.

Climbing the Beehive.

Plain of the Six Glaciers. The trail climbs to the end of a valley, where we stopped and had lunch while listening to the thunder-booms of distant avalanches, and eyed overhanging seracs for evidence of calving.

PB&J bagel with a view.

Up there is the Continental Divide. Sadly, not part of any mountain bike route.

After we returned from the Plain of the Six Glaciers, we visited the Valley of the Ten Peaks. This place is unreal. It often feels like standing on a movie set in front of a massive blue screen — it just doesn't look like a landscape that actually exists. The scenery also doesn't translate well in photos taken under mid-day light. You should visit ... before it melts.

I'm working up a blog post on info for this year's Tour Divide, which will remain at the top of this site while I'm away. It looks like there will be well over a hundred cyclists lining up at the start on Friday morning, and between 10 and 15 women. I'm becoming more nervous as the memories come flooding back, but mostly I'm excited. It's going to be a completely different experience, of that much I'm certain.