Monday, July 20, 2009

Southern Colorado

I felt strangely unrushed when I woke up in Salida to a beautiful bluebird morning. I flipped on the Weather Channel and warmed my gigantic 7-Eleven sweet roll in the microwave. I savored it with an extensive breakfast of coffee, smoothie, yogurt, peach, banana and orange juice, then chased it with a round of peanut butter cups. I had no planned destination for the day, and therefore no required distance to stress about. And I was feeling so fresh and strong that I had no doubt in my ability to go far. I stopped in Poncha Springs to buy a new pair of sunglasses (I had a way of obliterating old pairs and went through a total of five cheapie gas station shades over the course of the trip.) I spent a half hour there talking with a GDMBR tourist who was traveling south to north (I've since forgotten his name.) He handed me $5 and asked if I'd give it to a couple he stayed with in Del Norte. "The big climbs in Colorado aren't too bad," he said of the passes south of there. "But watch out for northern New Mexico. It doesn't look like much on the maps but it will bring you to your knees."

The first climb out of the gate - Marshall Pass - was a monster: 4,000 feet of elevation gain along a canopy of 14'ers. The route followed an old railroad grade. I motored up the gravel feeling grateful that locomotives were notoriously weak climbers. They forced engineers to cut long, snaking paths up these huge mountains. Now, 100 years later, cyclists could enjoy maximum coverage of this beautiful terrain for minimal pain. The knee agony of northern Colorado was only a distance memory, the potential meanness of northern New Mexico only a vague promise. The entire Tour Divide seemed wrapped up in that one morning, and that morning was perfect.

I was likely humming happy Sunday School songs to myself when a Honda Element pulled up beside me. I quickly recognized the driver and he smiled back - I'm pretty sure just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. Mike Curiak and I had only met once before in person, on March 1, 2008. I had just woken up in McGrath, Alaska, race-addled and bewildered by the transition from the deep-frozen Iditarod Trail to a hot, crowded house, when I noticed him standing in the front room in his longjohns. He was supposed to be on an entirely self-supported tour of the entire Iditarod Trail and reportedly wasn't stopping in any buildings, so I asked him whether he was planning to beyond McGrath. "The future is uncertain," was all he said before I was whisked away to catch my plane home. Now, the future was here and we were both basking in Colorado sun. Life is strange like that. "What are you doing in this part of the world?" I asked him.

Mike told me Pete Basinger was going to be coming through the region that day and he wanted to surprise him with cold Pepsi and other sugar treats. "Really?" I said. "Pete's just behind me?" Pete is a quiet but gifted endurance cyclist from Anchorage. He was riding the route as an individual time trial, meaning he didn't start with any race but was out there gunning for the overall record. Pete and Mike Curiak had battled for that record during the Great Divide Race in 2004. In the end, Pete finished only 20 minutes behind Mike, who established the GDR record at 16 days and change. Pete had been working toward the elusive record every other year since. He was shut down by "total body breakdown" just 600 miles from the finish in 2005, and contracted food poisoning in 2007. "How's Pete doing?" I asked Mike.

"Good," Mike said. "He's still on record pace. But he's had a lot of issues with his bike. I sent him a big box of parts a week ago. Then he taco'd a wheel outside of Silverthorne and had to hitchhike back into town. He called me because he was debating whether to buy the one set they had at the bike shop. I said, 'Do you have a choice?'"

"Man," I said. "That guy can not catch a break."
Mike offered to ride with me up to Marshall Pass. He pulled out a bike complete with an Epic Designs frame bag that had a custom-built pocket specifically designed to hold Mike-and-Ikes. He offered me a handful of the colorful candies along with a Pepsi. "It's Pete's favorite," Mike told me.

"I'm not going to drink Pete's Pepsi!" I said.

"Don't worry," Mike said. "I have another one for him."

We pedaled leisurely up the road, both stopping to shoot photos of flowers and landscapes. Mike commended me for being a fellow camera geek and an unhurried participant in an endurance race. Above is a photo taken by master photographer Curiak himself. I love how I can hand him a point-and-shoot camera to snap a posed shot in front of a Continental Divide sign, and he can turn it into a dramatic retrospective of the sweeping Colorado skies.

Mike and I parted ways at Marshall Pass and I sped down to Sargents, where I ran into the same huge group of bicycle tourists that I had snacked with in Hartsel the day before. They had gone up over some road pass while I climbed and dropped and climbed and dropped in the Salida area, and we had somehow both ended up at the same point. My maps indicated that I was going to be on Highway 50 for 12 miles, so I asked if I could ride with them. We motored down the road, chatting about their house building cause while I further explained the Tour Divide. As we talked, my heart began to race toward levels I hadn't felt since I was actually able to climb strong back in Montana. I looked down at my odometer and we were doing more than 19 mph, on level pavement. The problem was they were on unloaded road bikes and I was riding 50 pounds of mountain bike beast. I mashed into the pedals harder, determined to keep up, sucking down big gulps of air between conversations so they wouldn't know I was maxing out. It seemed almost silly to waste so much energy on pavement, but I seemed to have energy to spare, and I was ecstatic about all of my unexpected company that day.

Highway 50 was choked with traffic. More than once, we were buzzed closely by RVs and honked at by truckers. "Man, I don't know how you guys do this - touring on pavement," I said. "It kind of sucks." They just laughed. "It's really not that bad," one guy said. "Tell me you don't have moments where you wish you were on pavement instead." (How true this would turn out to be.) Still, I was grateful to finally turn onto a nondescript dirt road and begin the lonely climbing anew.

I call this photo "Waiting for Pete." After Mike informed me that Pete was not far behind, me, I spent the entire day looking over my shoulder. I wanted to watch him power up from behind and mumble short but sincere words of encouragement as he flew ahead.

You could say I'm a big fan of Pete's. He's my friend, too. Alaska is a small state in a people sense, and we often end up at the same events. The first time I met him was at the 2006 Soggy Bottom 100. He was way out in front, but the race had enough out-and-back that we passed each other three times. He always said, "You're doing awesome," or "good job," which was a huge self-esteem boost to a totally new, very insecure endurance mountain biker who only knew him as an Alaska cycling powerhouse.

Since then, we became more acquainted through the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I went to him for winter survival advice, which he always freely gave. I brought him my poor dilapidated Pugsley for total overhauls mere days before that race, both years, and he'd blast through the repairs without even doling out the maintenance lectures I sorely deserved. I made a feeble effort to repay him by taking over the blogging duties for the 2008 Great Divide Race, and he still wrote me afterward and said he owed me his first-born child. "She's probably 7 by now," he joked. Yeah, Pete's awesome. Good-looking, too. ;-)

Anyway, I let myself get really excited about the fact that he was going to catch me that day. In fact, as the day wore on, I made less stops and rode later than I would have otherwise, for fear I was going to miss him. It seems pretty silly, and it was, but out there on the Divide, where you're running the high gears all the time, your mind seems to regress, almost becoming childlike in the process, and it's difficult not to fixate on simple things.

Meanwhile, the big picture was swirling all around me. I surpassed the century mark for the day and kept riding, cycling between daydreams about Alaska and an awestruck awareness of my newfound place in a big, big world. I was Jill Homer, Alaskan, pedaling myself toward the Mexican border. And I was Jill Homer, former recipient of multiple F's in seventh-grade gym class, riding in one of the hardest mountain bike races in the world. But the beauty of the Tour Divide is that it's only as hard as you want it to be. It can be tough, sure, agonizing even. But more often than that, it's fun, pleasurable, relaxing, and dare I say, at some perfect moments, even easy. I smiled because it was fun to know that secret.

Still, the fatigue of a 120-mile day with tons of climbing (someday I'll actually go back and quantify it so I know the real number), was beginning to wear, and by 10 p.m., I just had to camp. I was disappointed that Pete hadn't caught up to me yet, but there was a chill in the air and an inky thickness to the night, and I was tired and hungry. I pulled off the road into the Storm King Campground and grabbed a site next to the creek so I could filter water the next morning. I munched on a brownie, jerky and packaged tuna, and gazed at the golden moon, lonely but satisfied.

I'm not sure how long I had been asleep when I awoke to rustling just a few feet away. My automatic bear-alert mode caused me to jolt upright, but everything after that became hazy and dreamlike. I had been using sleeping aids the entire trip to help me pass out amid the adrenaline and high heart rate left behind from hours on end of riding. I always felt normal in the morning, but this was the first time I had woken up within hours of taking the drug. I gazed around the campground through a thick Ambien fog. I could see a silhouetted figure unpacking things from a bicycle. He looked up and a dull headlamp shined in my face. I mustered a smile, though even my face muscles felt sluggish. I fumbled for my own headlamp and couldn't figure out how to turn it on. I pressed the light on my watch, but that wasn't working either. Finally, I just laid back down because this was obviously all a strange dream. Within seconds, I was unconscious again.

Sometime during an ungodly hour of the next morning, noises woke me up again. I peeked out of my bag toward a shimmering glaze of stars, and right beside me was a dark figure packing things into a bicycle. The Ambien had finally worn off and I was alert enough to acknowledge that he was really there. And, based on the timing, I was certain it was Pete. The thought made me giddy. "I should get up," I thought. "Maybe we can start out the day together, ride for a while, maybe even all the way to Del Norte." But another voice said, "Ha! You wouldn't be able to keep up with him for a mile." I stuck my face further out to get a better view, only to be hit with a startling blast of cold air. The temperature was close to freezing, probably 35 degrees, and the dark was powerful. It was well before my awake time. Guilty as I felt about not even saying hi, I laid back down and closed my eyes, quietly wishing him good luck as we both hoped for a quick sunrise.

The morning ride into Del Norte was one of the most fun trails of the entire route, a bumpy doubletrack that rolled down red sand hills toward the Rio Grande. I still felt empowered by all the good days behind me, and I rode hard and confident, even catching sweet air on some of the larger bumps.

I rolled into Del Norte at about 9 a.m. and started winding my way through town, looking for the home of Gary and Patti Blakely so I could repay them the $5 that someone somewhere owed them for something. Patti, who was riding through town on her own bike, managed to find me first, and she brought me home and started reheating homemade pizza and peach pie. I gulped down several cups of sweet tea as Gary and I discussed the more nontraditional aspects of my bike set-up. He was especially interested in my platform pedals, which I suspect he never expected to see on any serious Divide racer's bike. I explained that my frostbitten toes never took kindly to any of the clipless pedal shoes that I tried, and in order to avoid needless toe agony, I finally just bought a pair of too-large running shoes and some $20 commuter pedals with cages and it was one of the best decisions I made.

Patti rode with me several miles out of Del Norte before wishing me well. I started up Indiana Pass, the biggest climb of the entire route. It gains more than 4,000 feet in 26 miles, topping out at nearly 12,000 feet elevation. The summit is certainly not the end - several smaller passes complete with steep climbs awaited me on the other side. I was mentally prepared for that one task to take me the rest of the day.

The road was steeper and looser than most other Colorado climbs, and I had to engage the high gear to get up it without walking. My mind was still amped up and I thought I had high gear to spare; little did I know that it was already slipping. I reached the top feeling thoroughly cooked. I looked out over Summitville, the mining ghost town that is now a Superfund site, toward an expanse of mountains that seemed to last forever. There was no relief in sight. Only more climbing road, and ruins of old buildings, and ominous-looking stormclouds.

The thunderstorm hit with maximum force just as I was starting down the rolling descent. Black clouds sunk in with little warning and rapidly disintigrated into sheets of rain before I even slowed down to put my rain gear on. Deafening bolts of lightning streaked through every corner of the sky, all around me, and I had nowhere to hide. I was at 12,000 feet, where even the trees were too small to cower behind. I finally decided that my best course of action would be to just drop down the route as quickly as possible. But the descent into thin tree cover continued to throw more climbs at me, and I was already shivering from the cold but too frightened to stop and put on more layers. My fingers felt frozen to my grips; my legs were stiff and quaking. The lightning wouldn't leave me alone, and the pouring rain was pooling in potholes and streaming dark mud down the soft road.

I pedaled as hard as I could, and the storm calmed a bit just as I entered a long, steep downhill. By this point, my teeth were chattering audibly. I was as cold as I have ever been on a bike, even all the times I rode in driving sleet in Juneau were just similar, not worse. Still, I thought I wasn' t that far from Platoro., and I could weather the wet cold a little longer. I pedaled a few frigid miles before I passed the first vehicle I had seen since Summitville - a police car. An officer was standing outside. He asked me if I was alone. "Yes," I said. Beside him, the road was shredded with swerving tire tracks. I assumed a four-wheeler accident. I continued down.

About a mile later, I came upon two ambulances inching down the road. I pulled up behind them and watched my odometer drop to 6 mph, and then 5. They were wide enough that they took up the whole rough road, and it would have been difficult to pass them, and I decided I shouldn't anyway. I rode my brakes and coasted behind them, shivering violently, becoming more uncomfortable with each maddeningly slow minute. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached an open clearing, and both ambulances stopped. The drivers got out with radios in their hands and started talking to each other. I was just about to make my way around them when one of the drivers saw me and waved me over.

"Are you with this biker?" he asked.

"Wait, that's a biker in the ambulance?" I said. The driver nodded slowly. "A cyclist?" He nodded again. "Who is it?"

He shook his head. "I can't tell you."

I felt a thick lump of bile gurgling up from my stomach. "Is it Pete Basinger?" The driver nodded. All the blood left my head, and I said in a broken squeek, "Is he OK?"

"He's responsive," the driver said. "He's talking to us."

"What happened?"

"He was hit by a truck pulling a horse trailer. Head-on."

"A head-on collision?" I sqeeked. "With a truck? Do you know what's wrong?"

The ambulance driver shook his head. "We have him stabalized and we're trying to call in to see if we can land a helicopter in here."

"Where are you taking him?" I said. "Can you tell me where you're taking him?"

"Not sure," the driver said. He leaned over to the other driver and mumbled a few things I didn't hear. Then he turned back to me. "Do you want to talk to him?"

"Um, I probably should just let you guys go," I said.

"We're not in a hurry right now," the driver said. "Either way we have to wait to see whether we can get him out of here."

I stepped into the ambulance and nodded at the two EMTs sitting inside. I was still shivering wildly, a combination of the cold and fear, and I braced to restrain myself as much as physically possible. Pete was strapped to a bed and his head was completely stabalized so he couldn't turn his neck. His long eyelashes pointed where his eyes were fixed on the ceiling. Based on the severity of the accident, the way he was strapped in and the fact that the EMTs were calling in life-flight, I was convinced I was looking at a man who was badly injured, possibly even paralyzed.

"Hey Pete," I said, startled by the shakiness in my own voice.

"Um, Jill?" he said.

"Yeah, Jill," I said.

"Heh. This is pretty crazy, isn't it?" he said.

"It's intense," I said. "How long ago did this happen?"

"It's been about a three hour process getting here," he said. "But I don't even know ... where are we now?"

"Stunner," I said at the exact same time he did.

"Stunner Campground," he said. "That's what I thought. Did you hit any rain?"

I smiled. He couldn't see me, but I was coated in mud and my hat and coat were still dripping rain water. "A huge amount of rain," I said.

"Yeah, that's why I left Del Norte right away," he said. "I wanted to beat the rain."

"Smart man," I said.

He laughed. "I'd say you had better timing than me."

"Are you in much pain?" I asked.

"It's not too bad," he said. "Now. Those rednecks who hit me were walking around me, talking about what they were going to do with me. That was the scariest part."

We paused and the silence echoed. I looked down, muddling for anything to say. "So did you see me at the campground last night?" he asked.

"Storm King? Yeah, I heard you come in. I was going to get up and talk to you. Sorry I didn't."

"That's OK," Pete said. "I didn't want to wake you up."

"I'm still sorry," I said. "I'm really sorry this had to happen."

"Yeah," Pete said. "Shit happens. Just sucks right now, three days from the end."

"Three days," I mustered a laugh. "I was thinking more like seven."

"It won't take you seven days," Pete said. "Where are you staying tonight?"

"I think Platoro," I said. "I'm thinking about just going to Platoro."

"Platoro's good," Pete said. "The cabins there are expensive, but they have good food."

Another pause lingered in the thick air. "Well, I should let you guys go," I said. "You're in an emergency and stuff."

"Yeah," he said. "Good luck."

"You too."


Outside, the sun was beginning to break through the clouds and a bright rainbow formed over the ambulences as they inched away in the opposite direction I was headed. I guessed the helicopter wasn't coming. I watched them until they drove out of sight, then turned to face the last climb into Platoro, Stunner Pass. Where the storm clouds cleared, a dark cloud of grief descended over my body. Here was a friend, a fellow Alaskan, a man I admired looked to for inspiration - mangled on the Great Divide. His life might be changed forever. I didn't really know, but in not knowing I let my imagination serve up the worst possible scenerio. I felt sick with regret and doubt. Pete had been out there, battling the same harsh elements, riding the same hard roads, pushing through the same physical and mental fatigue that I had been experiencing. We were out doing the same thing, this totally unique thing, riding the spine of the continent as fast as we were physically able. And to what end? To what end? What purpose could it possible have to net this kind of consequence? I couldn't get the image of Pete strapped down in the ambulance out of my mind. And out of that, the little voice in my head dug from my memory a haunting loop of "What Sarah Said" by Death Cab For Cutie ... "And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time ..."

I crested Stunner Pass in a depth of sadness. I could no longer muster the energy to ride my bike so I just walked it, even as the road dipped downhill. I stopped every few steps and just stared into the distance, hating the vile forest, the remoteness of it, the way it just swallowed space with its massive mountains and dark shadows. I thought about the things in life that were important, truly important - my friends, my family, my career. None of them were near here, not even anywhere close. I was riding my stupid bike through a strange land, and that definitely didn't seem important. I was angry with it all and I couldn't think of anything that would take that anger away, except to go home. I wanted Platoro to be a place that could take me home. I didn't really care how. I remounted my bike and dropped down a steep hill, finally emerging through the trees to a little cluster of cabins. And beyond that was more forest, just forest. Platoro was nothing more than a lodge. A remote wilderness lodge. There wasn't a bus station there. There probably wasn't even a phone. My anger bubbled to the surface until it erupted in a stream of tears because there was nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

P.S. You can listen to my call-in from Platoro at this link.