Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Northern New Mexico

I stood outside the Skyline Lodge for nearly 10 minutes, wracked with internal conflict. I held my icy hands against my mouth and listened to the echo of my breath, like an expanse of empty space. My shoulders quaked because I was still cold, but that hardly mattered anymore. I longed for the comfort of civilization, but I wasn't yet ready to face the happy indifference of everyday life - the vacationing people at the lodge, drinking beer, laughing and talking loudly about things that didn't mean anything to me. And they would want to talk to me, rolling in on a bike and caked in mud as I was, and I would have to describe a race that in that moment felt trite and meaningless. I craved deep solitude and escape even as my body begged for warmth and food. The little voice in my head demanded I march onward. "If you walk in that building, you're going to quit," it said. "But I have to go inside," I reasoned. "Dark's coming and it's not getting any warmer. And I have to find out what happened. I can't just leave with all these uncertainties."

Flames raged in the fireplace as I walked inside the lodge, and before I said a word, a woman walked up to me and escorted me in front of it.

"You can take off your stuff to dry here if you want," she said. "That big group in front of you had a clothing canopy going on." She walked over to a sheet of paper that was hanging on the wall and looked at her watch. "What time is it? See, um, 5:45, June 30. You must be Jill?" I nodded. "Ok. Jill ... Homer?" I nodded again. "Jill in. 5:45. OK, now when you leave, come over here and sign out. I assume you'll be spending the night?"

I nodded. At that point, it didn't seem like a choice. The employees at the Skyline Lodge in Platoro had obviously heard of the Tour Divide, since they seemed to be closely tracking it, so if anyone in all of southern Colorado could help me, and I wasn't even sure in what ways I really needed help, but if anyone could help me, it was them. "I'll go grab you a menu," she said. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine," I said. "But ..." and it all came out right there, coming upon the ambulances, learning about the accident, talking to Pete, not knowing his condition, concerned that he was badly injured.

"We heard about a biker hit up there," the woman said. "Pete, you say?" She looked at her sheet of paper again.

"Oh, he's not in the Tour Divide," I said. "He's doing his own thing."

She scrunched up her nose in a way that told me she didn't quite understand, but said, "I'll tell you what. I'll call around to the hospitals and see what I can find out."

"Thanks," I said. "Thanks so much."

I settled in with a plate of chicken fingers and fries as the woman made a series of calls from her business phone. The kindness I stumbled upon in Platoro was an incredible relief - I had been expecting typical wilderness lodge skepticism about the dirty person on a bike. I had expected to be snubbed and even turned away, or at the very least asked to mop up the puddles of rainwater under my chair. Still, the interest at the Skyline Lodge swung a little too far in the other direction. Everyone there was Tour Divide savvy and couldn't stop talking about it. Matthew Lee had just won the race earlier that day, and several other frontrunners were closing in on the finish. The employees and a couple of guests sat around the fireplace with their laptops and updated me continuously on the standings. I was happy for Matthew and the others on the lonely highway, but at the time I genuinely did not care much about the race, and despite the unconditional kindness of the employees at the lodge, I couldn't help but be annoyed that they were so wrapped up in it. I was upset and wracked with uncertainties. My friend had just been in a terrible accident. Why did they think I cared that I was in 15th place?

The woman got off the phone after about five minutes and said she couldn't find any info about Pete. I asked her if she had a pay phone and she shook her head. "We have a courtesy phone, but it hasn't been working great with calling cards," she said. She paused and said, "If you need to make a personal call, you can use this phone. Please make it quick, though." I called my mom. She listened with sympathy and promised to do as much digging as she could and relay the information as quickly as possible. But I knew that in Platoro, I was pretty much out of touch with the world. I was going to have to accept uncertainty as my condition for at least the night. I took an Ambien and prayed the drug would cut through the empty space in my heart.

The problem with my uncertainty is that it went beyond not knowing Pete's medical condition. It went beyond my doubts about the importance of the race. It spread out into my entire life, and a truth I had been unwilling to admit to myself until that moment. I had been playing around on my bicycle all summer while I let of swath of unknowns about my future stagnate - my job, my newly single status, my lack of a home and dread about returning to Juneau. I was able to ignore all of these things as long as I was riding my bicycle, but the truth was I had a whole life to get on with. As long as I was riding my bicycle, I was avoiding the hard but necessary task of moving forward.

The next morning came and went with no new info. Quitting the race was still on my mind, but it wasn't very feasible from Platoro. And, even as upset as I was, I couldn't help but laugh at the thought of my final call-in should I quit there: "Hi. This is Jill. I'm in Platoro. Yeah, I'm bagging it. I just realized I have a life to move on with. Wow, what a waste of time these past two and a half weeks were." Of course I didn't believe it. My time on the Divide had been treacherous and invigorating and amazing, and I wasn't actually ready to give it up just yet. I was still in good health. I was excited to see New Mexico. And of course I still wanted to finish the race. Jeez, I had dedicated an entire summer to that race.

A Skyline Lodge guide approached me as I was packing up my bike outside the building. "Where you headed today?" he asked.

"New Mexico," I said. "Gonna hit up the Brazos Ridge today."

"The Brazos?" he said. "Have you checked the weather?"

"Afternoon thunderstorms," I said. "30 percent chance, which means I'll get pummelled. What's new?"

"No, no, no," he said. "Don't go up there. I fought fires in the Brazos for five years. You'll be up to your knees in mud. I'm not kidding. Knee deep."

"I have to go," I said. "I really don't have a choice." And as I looked up at the perfectly blue sky that I knew was as fleeting as good moments on the Divide, I realized that was true. I didn't have a choice.

I pedaled 20 miles down Platoro's dirt access road before I reached the highway junction at a town called Horca. I had hoped to use a pay phone and stock up on food, but the store was closed at 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday and the pay phone didn't work. I wanted to scream because this whole place was so remote, and so out of touch with the outside world. And the Brazos, the Brazos was one of the most remote regions of the entire route. It wrapped around a designated wilderness area, high above the desert and well away from towns. It seemed so cruel of the GDMBR to carry travelers out here, so far from anywhere, so we could be alone and scared and knee deep in mud. But I guess that was the point. Lonely and wild. That was the point. I tried to remind myself of that, but all I could think about was Abiquiu, still more than a day away. Screw remote and wild adventure. I just wanted to find a phone that worked.

I climbed La Manga Pass and dropped down to the border at Carson National Forest. The clay road was still soft from thunderstorms the day before, and a couple of ranchers in trucks stopped to warn me about impending rain. "It's OK," I told one of the ranchers. "I get rained on every day. I'm used to it." I climbed to a wide plateau where my GPS indicated I was above 11,000 feet. It seemed so high and open that I thought maybe, just maybe ... and pulled out my cell phone. Cell phone use is controversial in Divide racing - it's outright illegal in the Great Divide Race, and legal but mostly discouraged in the Tour Divide, to avoid use as a means of soliciting outside support. I had my cell phone with me but had rarely used it - only a couple of times to make call-ins as I stood in front of pay phones that didn't work (most don't these days), and to call my family from towns because it was cheaper than using my calling card. But in that moment, high on the Brazos Ridge, I needed that cell phone to help settle the storms raging in my mind. It seemed so unlikely that it would actually work, riding along the Cruces Basin Wilderness that was close to exactly nowhere. But as I pedaled higher on the plateau with my phone turned on, I heard that familiar ring that told me I had voice messages.

No fewer than six different people had called to update me on Pete's status. He was actually OK, they all told me. He had a broken collarbone, possibly broken arms, lots of cuts and bruises, probably terribly sore, but he was going to be fine. Amazing, they all said, after being hit head-on by a truck. I listened to the messages and then called my dad, who confirmed the good news. "And how are you doing?" he asked.

"I feel much better now," I said. "Relieved." But as I looked toward the dark clouds building over the plateau, I realized that my relief only extended to my emotional trauma. I was about to head out into the wilderness amid what was almost certain to become another violent thunderstorm, with no known shelter on the horizon, and I felt a very raw, primal sort of fright. I wondered if I should tell my dad this, but decided against it. "Be brave," I chanted as I turned off my last connection to the outside world and approached the black horizon. "Be strong."

Within the hour, the rain was pelting down and the road was breaking loose. I mashed through the mud, drivetrain slipping, chain bouncing, wheels serving, pedaling as hard as I could just to slough off the goo that was clinging to my frame and trying to keep myself afloat. It wasn't enough. The gooey road dipped and climbed out of stream drainages. The drops were slow. The climbs were unrideable. As I pushed my bike uphill, the wheels jammed up. I lifted the bike to carry it and my feet slipped. I fell to my knees, still sliding backward, clinging to the overturned bike for traction. The Skyline Lodge guide and the south-to-north GDMBR tourist were both right. Northern New Mexico was bringing me to my knees. I felt like sobbing, but I had already spent my emotional capital for the day. And, anyway, I had to keep moving forward. It's not like I had a choice.

By the time I reached the merciful pavement of Highway 64, I was coated in mud and half frozen, in New Mexico in July. I shivered up the highway climb until I reached a campground at Hopewell Lake. The campground had a day-use shelter and I huddled inside to get out of the rain. The moisture seemed to be letting up a little. There was even a sunset forming to the west, and I had hoped to ride further in order to make Abiquiu by early morning. But the day-use shelter, "No Camping" signs and all, was just too inviting. I unrolled my sleeping bag and drugged myself into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

The next morning I awoke to bright sunlight and considerably less malaise. I started my usual morning chores of eating a candy-based breakfast, brushing my teeth and using sticks and rocks to chip cemented mud out of my drivetrain, and started pedaling up Burned Mountain. I dropped into a town called Cañon Plaza, a cluster of adobe buildings and wooden fencecs, where New Mexico was finally starting to look like New Mexico. I crossed through Vallecitos, where the infamous "Dog Alley" welcome wagon greeted me viciously. Every single house had a mean loose dog or four, and every single one of them chased me, growling, barking and nipping at my ankles. Frazzled and frightened, I pulled out my bear spray and uncorked the safety, pointing the business end straight at a vicious yellow mutt. He backed up at just the right second, when my fear of dogs was just about to trump my fear of macing myself. Despite multiple grizzly and black bear encounters in Canada and Montana, that was as close as I came to using the 11 ounces of bear mace that I carried the entire distance of the Great Divide.

I rolled into Abiquiu at about noon and ate a big chicken burger, fries, yogurt and six random pieces of fruit at the one convenience store in town. I walked out into what felt like real, unwavering heat - the first I had felt on the Divide. It felt like it was 100 degrees, although in reality is was probably just in the mid- to high-80s. I stocked up on water, despite having a filter, because I didn't know how much water I'd find up high. I started up another 4,000-foot monster climb.

I was finally in full-on, Southwestern desert, which was both exciting and intimidating. New Mexico is notoriously the most dangerous state on the Divide. A combination of heat, bad roads, scarce water, fewer supply stops, and race fatigue can quickly turn a bad situation into a deadly one. I was aware of the hazards, and being a cold-adapted person from a wet northern climate, took them very seriously. The heat out of Abiquiu felt powerful and I reacted by sucking down water. I didn't know if I needed all that water. I certainly had enough water. It weighed heavily on my back up the steep climb. But as I reached the Polvadera Mesa, my thirst for water turned into a deep, unsettling nausea. I didn't know if I had been hydrating too aggressively, or if I ate something bad in Abiquiu, or I was simply worn out and my body was rebelling, but I suddenly felt very sick. I dropped my bike and darted into the woods to vomit up all of my lunch. My immediate reaction was regret, because there were a lot of lost calories in there, and I didn't have that many on hand if the road to Cuba turned into a long one.

However, lost calories were the least of my worries. I drank a little more water and ate a seriously melted Mounds bar shortly after I threw up, only to lose everything again a few miles later. It wasn't an isolated incident. I was really sick. I rested on the side of the road until my head stopped spinning, then tried to get up and keep going. The road was really bad, probably the gnarliest surface I had encountered yet. Large slabs of stone formed a staircase up the mesa, and loose sand inbetween made the whole thing hard to negotiate at full attention, let alone through the haze of nausea. I felt light-headed and woozy, and my energy levels plummetted the longer I went without new calories. But at that point I was so nauseated that I couldn't even stomach the thought of forcing something down. Near the summit, I crossed an open meadow that was populated with cows. I walked my bike up the road, chatting with every single one of them through an almost feverish delerium. "Can you tell me where the water is?" I would ask them. "I think I'm running out of water." (I still had plenty, but my mind was somewhat addled and seemed to fixate on my overall fears about the region. Plus, I was only slightly aware that I was talking to cows, so I obviously had problems.)

I reached a junction where the road seemed to finally turn downhill from the seemingly endless climb. My stomach felt raw and empty, my head light and my legs wobbly. I was so weak that I was having a hard time even walking my bike, and the junction felt like a point of no return. Cuba was still 50 miles away. On the other hand, going back to Abiquiu would be downhill the entire way. The voice of reason told me I should go back. I was obviously sick. I might have giardia or some other kind of bug that was only going to get worse. But the voice of reason could only speak quietly through the faint fumes that my body was now running on. I wasn't thinking completely clearly, but in that moment, moving forward seemed like the best solution.

Beyond the pass, the road continued to roll along the 10,000-foot ridge, with steep climbs and drops that offered absolutely no relief. The evening sun filtered through the trees and burned in my eyes. I slumped over my handlebars and labored through every step. I coasted down one short hill only to meet another steep climb, and then another. I oozed off my bike and dropped to the ground - on my knees in northern New Mexico, again. I was spent, completely bonked, and still too sick to eat. I looked at the shadows stretching across the road and sobbed. "I don't want to climb any more," I pleaded out loud. "Please don't make me climb any more."

But the road, of course, didn't care. I stumbled up a few more rollers before finally reaching a long downhill, on a rough, rocky and rutted track that was very difficult to negotiate in my addled state. My body begged me to lay down and sleep, but I reasoned that as long as daylight lingered, I needed to get myself as close to Cuba as possible. I had been completely alone and had not seen a single other person or vehicle since I left Abiquiu, so I was surprised when I came across a string of what I call "grubber cars" - crappy old sedans that had been driven well beyond the point of sensibility on four-wheel-drive roads, where they subsequently became stuck and abandoned. I had no idea why all of these cars were suddenly here (I would learn that the next day.) But some reason that no longer makes sense to me now that I am no longer in a flu stupor, I decided to break into this car and open up the cooler in the front seat. I think my sick-addled mind was still fixated on running out of water, because I remember I was hoping to find water bottles. What I did find was the most disgusting soup of sun-heated, rotton food that I have ever come across. It was beyond foul. I slammed the cooler shut, absolutely horrified. If I had anything in my stomach to purge, I would have vomitted for sure. Leason learned.

When dark finally descended, I found a nice grassy meadow beneath a wash of stars. I laid down my sleeping bag, and without eating, brushing my teeth, or even taking off my jacket to use as a pillow, I laid down to sleep the guiltless sleep of the dead, completely drug-free.