Thursday, July 23, 2009

Central New Mexico

I awoke to the sting of raindrops hitting my face. I groaned loudly and fumbled with the nylon of my bivy sack until I succeeded in closing the zipper. A headache pounded in my skull and my stomach gurgled and lurched. My first thought was, "Damn, I'm even more sick than I was yesterday. I totally have giardia. I'm going to die out here." But as I began to emerge from my sleepy haze, I realized that the crappiness I was feeling wasn't nausea. I was really, really hungry.

The rain picked up intensity as I thrashed out of my sleeping bag and stuffed it in its drybag as quickly as possible. I had somehow kicked off my shorts during the night, but before I even bothered to pull them back on, I walked over to my bike in my rain jacket and underwear and tore into my food stash like a half-starved raven. I pulled out a mashed package of Grandma's Cookies and shoved the whole mass into my mouth. The I opened a package of almonds and inhaled those, followed by infuriatingly well-wrapped cheese snacks and handfuls of Sour Patch Kids. I can't remember ever feeling so hungry in all my life. It was almost an out-of-body experience, with the repressed civilized side of myself standing aside, somewhat bemused and somewhat horrified as she watched my hands involuntarily tear through mass quantities of junk food. A full-on feeding frenzy.
When it ended, with my stash half depleted, I pulled on my shorts and rainpants and darted around camp, picking up random loose objects that I had strewn about during my sickly apathy the night before. With a sugar rush coursing through my blood, my energy went into overdrive, and I marveled at the turnaround even as I braced myself for another wave of nausea. It didn't come. My body was retaining the food. But my elation about that could only last so long. The rain was starting to come down hard, which probably meant more bad roads, which meant I had to start riding 30 miles into Cuba as fast as my tired, can't-climb, severely undernourished legs could carry me.

I had only traveled about eight miles from what felt like an extraordinarily remote campsite when I began to see car after car parked along the road. At first I thought, "Makes sense; it's the fourth of July weekend." But the cars went on for miles. Bumper to bumper. No campers. No campsites. Just cars. Many had made poor parallel parking maneuvers and ended up 10 or 20 feet down the embankment. Then I started to see the painted school buses. And the crowds of people huddled in cotton quilts, sleeping in the grass as the rain pelted down, and the half-collapsed Wal-mart tents, and the piles of garbage bags, and the extracted car seats, and the shelters made out of bed sheets and the red-eyed, dreadlocked 20-somethings walking their mangy dogs at 7:30 a.m. I stopped one of the dog-walkers and, pretty much expecting the answer, asked him what in the world was going on.

"Duuuude," he droned in a half-stoned, half-excited whisper. "Don't you know? It's the Rainbow Gathering, man. Like 10,000 people are all here together. It's amazing."

The guy's demeanor was right out of a bad movie about the '60s. I just smiled. There was trash everywhere. Unconscious people were sprawled in the mud. Rotten garbage cars had been driven off cliffs. The entire thing was horrifying. How could this guy not see that? But he didn't appear to see much of anything. He just looked at me with his glazed-over eyes and grinned.

I have a bit of a hippy-dippy background myself. I used to hang out in drum circles, listen to the Grateful Dead ... when I was 15. Now I wanted nothing more than to be far, far away from a culture that seemed to be about little more than driving a bunch of obnoxiously decorated vehicles to places where they literally didn't fit, getting really baked, trashing the forest and passing out. They were standing on the wet roadside thumbing rides, yelling at me to "Get high on life," and they couldn't see the hypocrisy of it all? Very rarely do I feel like a bike snob, but I wanted to yell back and tell these people to get a bike, and try going somewhere - somewhere real, not somewhere cooked up by the hippy bureaucracy as a magical Mecca and artificially enhanced by chemicals.

Anyway, I was happy to put the Rainbow Gathering behind me and begin the long descent into the fog-shrouded valley that encircled Cuba. Clumps of clouds draped the pine-covered hillsides in a way that made me feel homesick for Juneau. Of all the places on the route that could resemble my rainforest home, I never expected to find one in New Mexico.

I dropped into Cuba on a long pavement descent as I squinted into the pouring rain, opening my eyes just long enough to see the numbers on my speedometer surpassing 40 mph. I replenished my food supply in town, and bought a little extra in case I had to spend another night out. It was 125 miles to the next real town, Grants, and although it was all pavement, I was skeptical I'd make it there in a day knowing I was possibly still sick and already had 30 miles behind me.

Despite my obnoxious breakfast and equally huge second breakfast at the Cuba Subway, I tapped into the food supply right away. My appetite was out of control. I considered that a good thing. I had obviously ridden the previous day on a serious calorie deficit, and was trying to recover from illness, but I was still confounded by where all that food might even be going. I calculated a rough calorie estimate and came up with 3,800, which seemed unreal as it was only 10 a.m. But I wasn't trying to follow any kind of weight loss plan at the time, so I didn't really care.

The Cuba-to-Grants route traverses a sparsely populated Navajo reservation, where open space is abundant and buildings are few. It was another stretch where I started out with an obnoxious amount of water - six liters - and still decided to stop halfway for more, despite the fact that temperatures were very mild - high 70s at worst - and drizzling rain was still falling from the sky. Such is my paranoia about the desert. My maps indicated there was a store at mile 45, but when I reached it, I discovered it was a laundromat. That was a little unsettling - I had heard plenty of stories about unfriendliness on the reservation - but decided to go inside anyway.

The laundromat was packed on a Friday afternoon, with crowds of children weaving through the halls as their parents folded clothing and leaned against rumbling machines. All faces looked up as the white girl in bike tights walked inside, holding a red water bladder. A Native American man in his 70s who had no teeth and was at least six inches shorter than me approached. "I'm wondering if there's a place in here where I can fill up my water?" I asked.

"Sure," the man said through a big, gaping grin. He pointed to a bathroom in the corner. "You can get water in there. But we have pop machine, too. You can get a cold Coke; it's much better." He directed me over to the Coke machine and started fishing around in his pocket, pulling out a handful of coins.

"Oh no," I said. "I can buy my own soda."

"It's no problem!" he said, and made a move to put his own coins in the slot as I whipped out my wallet and showed him a dollar.

"No, I have cash. I want to buy a soda," I said.

He nodded and smiled. "Where you coming from today?"

"Cuba," I said. "I'm going to Grants."

He shook his head. "No, that's too far. You go to (I forget the name of the town). I have a son there. You stay with him."

"It's really OK," I said. "I know I can make it to Grants."

He laughed. "So you're Super Bike Woman! Fine, OK, that's good."

Other people put down their folding and walked up to ask me more questions about my trip. The children giggled and one girl handed me a piece of paper she had been coloring. So much for unfriendliness on the reservation.

In fact, even after I left the laundromat, three more people stopped on the side of the road to ask me if I needed water or directions. One woman even offered me a swig of her Gatorade. The overreaching friendliness and the cool, moist air put me in an incredible mood. It was everything I did not expect from "The Rez," and the surprise was refreshing and invigorating. I felt like I could pedal fast and strong enough to launch the bike airborne. And the stronger I pedaled, the more I ate. The headwind picked up, and I just pedaled faster and consumed with gusto. At one point, I reached into my framebag, and all I had left were the three waterlogged Clif Bars that I had been carrying as emergency food since Canada. I had managed to eat everything else. I guestimated at least 8,000 calories - Michael Phelps territory. That made me feel almost as proud as the incredible time I was making.

I reached Grants by sunset, just as spectacular thunderstorms raged to the south. 155 miles in 13 hours with a leisurely breakfast stop, one day after feeling as sick as I've ever felt on a bike. Grants felt like a huge victory, and I celebrated with Pizza Hut, full-on laundry at the laundromat, and a full hour of doing nothing but watching CNN. (On the Divide, any time that's not spent biking, eating or sleeping feels like a waste. But that was the day after Sarah Palin resigned as governor of Alaska, and I had been seriously deprived of current events and political gossip.)

Life was good again.

The next morning, I studied my maps and realized that the next stretch comprised of nearly 300 miles of mostly dirt with only one fuel stop available - a tiny little town with just two cafes called Pie Town. Many veterans of the route warned me that Pie Town was always closed, and it was the Fourth of July, so I called the Pie-O-Neer cafe from Grants. I got a message saying they would be open until 4 p.m. It was 8:30 a.m. Pie Town was 80 miles away. It had rained a ton the night before, and I expected to find plenty of mud. It was impossible. I left a pleading message: "Hi, my name's Jill. I'm riding through town on a bike with the Tour Divide. I'm sure you've seen others come through. Anyway, I'm calling from Grants. I'm going to try, but I don't think I'll make it there by 4. I was wondering if I could ask you to leave a lunch on the doorstep, maybe a hamburger or sandwich and pie, and a gallon of water, and a check. I can just pick in up on the doorstep, and I'll leave cash. I don't really care what the food is. At this point, I just need calories and water. Please. I'm good for it, I swear. I have lots of cash. My name is Jill Homer."

I pedaled out of Grants in an unexpected bubble of strong emotion. I'm not even sure where it came from. Many people have asked me at what point of the race did I realize that I could finish it, and the exact moment has been hard for me to pinpoint. Sometimes I think Montana. Sometimes I think 65 miles from the end. But, after further reflection, I think that was the moment. Pedaling along Route 66 out of Grants, New Mexico. I realized that I had only 400 miles left to pedal. Just three more days if things went well. And that realization filled me with everything from elation to strong doubt. Tears streamed down my face as I pleaded to God, the Universe, the Powers that Be, my own inner strength, anyone and anything that might be listening: "Please be with me. Please stay with me. Please help me get through this."

I left the pavement and pedaled up the Pie Town road, a long, rolling traverse of seriously washboarded clay. My teeth rattled and my butt clenched with the worst kind of saddle sore agony, but I didn't really mind because anything was preferable to mud, and I had been expecting mud. The road did start to become softer as it climbed. I concentrated hard to tap into my snowbiking Zen and imagine myself as light as a feather: "Let me float on top of this. Just let me stay on top of this." The tires skimmed the sloppy surface, tossing mud but rolling true, and I pedaled with everything I had in my tired legs, with the Pie Town carrot dangling over the horizon.

I rolled into town at 2 p.m. and strolled triumphantly into the Pie-O-Neer cafe. A guitarist and base player strummed mellow country songs in one corner as a handful of people listened from tables and snacked on burly pieces of scrumptious-looking pie. Before I could announce myself and ask if they got my message, a woman rushed up to me and wrapped her arms around me in a gigantic hug. "You made it!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe you made it!"

"I made it," I smiled.

The guitarist in the country band was just finishing up a song. "We did not think you were going to get here in time," he said. "After all the rain last night, I thought that road would be soup."

"Actually, it wasn't so bad," I said.

He smiled and shook his head. "Well, congratulations. That's some amazing riding."

The woman nodded. "And, I have to say, you're the cleanest and best-dressed person in this race."

I laughed. "Really?" I looked down at my outfit. I had a big chainring grease stain on the front of my jersey, and my baggy shorts were rumpled and dusty.

"When Matt Lee got here, he was covered in mud, red eyes - he looked half-dead," the woman said. "He just fell in the door, mumbling, 'I need food.' He really looked like death. I thought, 'That can't be healthy.'"

I laughed again. I was about to give her my "Here in mid-pack we have more fun" speech when she pulled me over to a table and sat me down. "What do you want?" she said. "We don't have a lot on the menu, but I can see what I can cook up."

The first thing that came into my head was salad, so I asked for it. She told me they didn't have salad, but she had a bunch of veggies in the fridge and she could whip one up. She offered me a spinach quesadilla and tomato vegetable soup, and I enthusiastically ordered it all. Fresh food! Real, fresh food! I was so giddy that I completely forgot about the pie.

I devoured the healthiest and tastiest meal I had consumed in three weeks as the country band played an impressive set of original music. The woman brought me new Pepsis as fast as I could knock them back. She directed me into the kitchen so I could fill up my water and choose from a spread of pies. I chose coconut cream. "Good choice," she told me. "That one won an award from a big food magazine last month."
I left Pie Town feeling like I was pedaling my first mile of the day even though I had 80 behind me - another example of why human kindness is the most valuable resource on the Divide. I made a couple of short stops to explore some super-intriguing old adobe buildings and began climbing into the Gila National Forest. The desert soon turned back into pine and hemlock-studded hillsides, with the distinct feature of an almost barren forest floor beneath the tree canopy.

As evening approached, the thunderstorms that had been encircling the mountains all day began to close in. I hadn't yet decided how far I was going to ride that evening, but I knew it wasn't going to be to real shelter. The route would soon dip away from the forest and back into the open desert. After that, I knew there would be at least 20 miles in which I would be completely exposed before I re-entered the national forest, and there were no camping options before then. I lingered for a few minutes near the top of a long descent and tried to decide whether I should stay or go. I decided to go.

I crossed onto a gravel road that cut through a wide-open ranchland with a few scattered houses. The clouds in front of me sunk in and became dark to the point of near-complete opacity, which told me that just a couple miles away it was raining, hard. The wind picked up velocity to my side, and as I glanced behind I could see another opague storm advancing quickly toward me. A glimmering curtain of lightning flashed through the crescent of the two storms, and I knew that if I didn't catch the one in front of me, the one behind me surely would. My heart rate shot to primal speeds, and I pedaled as steadily fast as I could manage through the eye of the storms, wondering when they were going to join forces.

It's hard for me to describe just how frightened I am of lightning storms. To me, they are the scariest, most unpredictable aspect of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. At least with grizzly bears, you know 99 times out of 100, they're going to run away. Lightning has no such guarantee. Incredible streaks of electricity tore through the sky as I traversed a region that didn't even have a stop sign to cower beneath. I was the tallest thing in a one-mile radius, whether I was on my bike or crouched on the ground. And if I stopped moving, the back storm would surely catch me. As long as I kept pedaling, I could at least hold out hope that the gap held.

And that's where I was at, stress-pedaling right into the heart of an electric storm as another one approached, when I heard the loud zip of my rear tire spitting out mass quantities of air. I stopped and inspected the damage. I was running slime tubes, and my frame was coated in green goo. The slime was bubbling out of a hole in the tire, but whatever I ran over seemed to be gone. I picked up the frame and spun the wheel around until it stopped gurgling. Then I pulled out my air pump and started pumping frantically, hoping the slime would hold.

I inflated the tire to about 25 psi and decided that was good enough, but when I started riding, air started to spit out again. I swore out loud. I did not want to have to change the tube, which on my bike involves undoing the brake caliper and generally takes me long enough that I would undoubtedly end up underneath the back storm. The air stream stopped quickly and I decided to stop and pump one more time. As I kneeled in a puddle atop a road had been innundated with rain only minutes before, I looked up and noticed a full rainbow draped over the heart of the storm, and all around it was an incredible ceiling of phosphorescent red light, a reflection of the sunset that burned through a thin clearning to the west. Streaks of lightning continued their violent dance beneath the rainbow stage. It was so breathtaking that I even through the dark fog of the stress I was feeling, I knew I was witnessing a moment of powerful beauty. Beauty more powerful than fear. I pumped a few shots of air into the tube, and it seemed to hold. I got back on the bike and continued approaching a vibrant curtain of color and lightning that filled the entire sky. "Be brave," I chanted. "Be strong."

Before I reached the front storm, the road turned mercifully to the west while the storms continued their swift march east. I began to climb back into the forest, but stopped before I entered the canyon to look back on the now-fading sunset one last time. In a corner of the valley many miles behind, I saw tiny bursts of bottle rockets exploding in the shadows. "That's right," I remembered. "It's the Fourth of July." I watched the fireworks for a few minutes, listening to their tiny pops and smiling at their miniscule streams of blue light that were pitifully dwarfed by the booming thunder and blazing red sky. "Why don't those people just save their money and look around?" I wondered out loud. Couldn't they see that their efforts were so, so small; and nature was so, so immense?

I pedaled a few more miles until the road seemed dry again - a small patch of land that hadn't been pummeled by storms - and began setting up my camp. After weathering that horrific storm, and having found the courage to power through it without breaking down and cowering in a ditch, I felt a surge of confidence that can't be duplicated by any other kind of success. And as I laid down beneath a near-full moon revealed by a new clearing in the clouds, I realized that this was the answer to that ever-present question: "Why do you do this?" Why does someone like me - who doesn't possess any remarkable athletic talent, and who isn't all that competitive, and who still harbors plenty of fears about things remote and lonely and wild - why do I participate in incredibly difficult, expensive, time-consuming, admittedly dangerous ultraendurance races when I might find more success and fewer challenges in more reasonable endeavors? And that moment, in the Gila forest, perfectly framed the reason:

Physical fitness is fleeting. Strength is forever.

23 comments:

  1. Absolutely, stunningly amazing. Both your story, and the sky in your photos. I've never seen anything like it! Nature is incredible. Your determination gets you through all sorts of dangerous adventures, and I get to read all about it from the safety of my air-conditioned office. I hope you turn this story into another book!

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  2. Anonymous6:08 PM

    Wow! You remembered that after experiencing it and took those glorious pictures. What a joy to read your writing. This 77 year old stage 4 breast cancer patient will be inspired to keep on riding.

    donbiker

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  3. dinglearm6:25 PM

    Remarkable story and Stunning pictures.

    Thanks a bunch.

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  4. Anonymous6:33 PM

    "Beauty more powerful than fear. I pumped a few shots of air into the tube, and it seemed to hold. I got back on the bike and continued approaching a vibrant curtain of color and lightning that filled the entire sky. "Be brave," I chanted. "Be strong." "

    I read these lines and the hair stood up on my neck. Not because of electricity in the air, but because of your powerful emotional imagery. Jill charging her and Nature's dragons. Conquering both, at least on that day dusk.

    Ride on, girl.

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  5. You are Jill Homer: Super-Bike Woman! You Rock Jill!
    Amazing stuff!

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  6. Anonymous7:37 PM

    Before you get all smug and full of yourself with regards to the stoner hippies, I'd like to remind you that the previous day YOU were talking to cows. ;)

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  7. "Get high on life," and they couldn't see the hypocrisy of it all? Very rarely do I feel like a bike snob, but I wanted to yell back and tell these people to get a bike, and try going somewhere - somewhere real, not somewhere cooked up by the hippy bureaucracy as a magical Mecca and artificially enhanced by chemicals."

    Such true words... Have really been enjoying your recap Jill!

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  8. Holy wow, Jill. Amazing. Stunning. Glorious. This is one heck of a piece, both the writing and the photography.

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  9. Thank you for writing this. I just love your way of placing me right there in the dirt and hunger with you.

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  10. Anonymous1:42 AM

    Wow, what an amazing recollection of your adventure. Thanks for sharing!

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  11. sharon roes4:22 AM

    Awesome pictures - you are amazing - scared to death and still you are taking such beautiful pictures. What a challenge and you, of course, made it through all of this. What an experience for you and thanks for sharing it with all of us.

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  12. That red light is CRAZY! But crazy beautiful, yes. I loved this post, Jill, and am so glad to hear stories of human kindness. You do possess quite remarkable athletic talent, by the way - you should remember that.

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  13. Anonymous12:27 PM

    Your best post about the ride yet. Gripping and inspiring with stunning pictures. Well done.

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  14. Beautiful photos, as always. I've ridden the Cuba to Grants road route and it was enjoyable to ride it again through your story.

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  15. "....At this point, I just need calories and water. Please. I'm good for it, I swear. I have lots of cash. My name is Jill Homer."

    You said everything you possibly could there...great tale, great pics.

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  16. Jim B.8:22 AM

    "Physical fitness is fleeting, Strength is forever"
    Made me think of my friend Jeff and Susan Nelson and anyone fighting cancer.
    Inspiring, Jill.
    Oh by the way, I noticed the airconditioning unit on top of that bus of "hippies" getting away from the "world"
    Jim

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  17. The people out on the Divide who just give wholeheartedly - they're so touching. They remind me what humanity is supposed to me. I'm so glad those people came along for you at all the moments when you most needed them. Someone's looking out for you!

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  18. Anonymous10:33 AM

    I love your blog. I check it every day to find a new story ... whether it stems from your day hikes in Juneau of the race. I really think you are brave. You inpsire me.

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  19. Julie in Alaska12:43 PM

    This post makes me miss Northern NM all the more. Thanks for all the wonderful pics and your story of the ride. So well-written!

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  20. This is so great - thanks so much for sharing your journey.

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  21. Wow, what an amazing recollection of your adventure.


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  22. Hey Jill,

    Thanks for this. You put words to something that I have struggled to for so long - "Fitness is fleeting. Strength is forever."

    I've been riding the Divide Route in sections over the past few years; Some with friends and strangers, and a decent amount solo. I'll pick up at the New Mexico boarder next summer to finish it off.

    In the dark hours alone on the trail I've often entertained the same questions of why do I do this, what drives me, all those things.... and you summed it up so well.

    One question about the writing - do you keep notes as you go, or pull it from memory when you return?

    Thanks again for sharing

    www.elysium-on-the-hill.blogspot.com

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