The first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning was a baby bird, dead in the grass just inches from my face. Above me, an adult robin, presumably its mother, hopped frantically from branch to branch, screeching into the still air. I stood up quickly and moved my bag away from the scene of the accident, which just riled up the distraught mother even more. Morning sun filtered through tall ponderosa pines. The baby bird laid lifeless on its side. And I was on such an emotional edge at that point in the race that I just broke down bawling. It was so sad - the dead baby, the despairing mother, and an unknown tragedy that seemed to occur while I slept in ignorant bliss. The world was such a hard place and sadness lurked under every tree. Who was I to fight despair?
After about 10 minutes, I pulled myself together enough to realize I was crying over a bird, and packed up quickly so the robin could mourn in peace. I started pedaling up a beautiful, narrow canyon alongside a network of sandstone formations that I had failed to notice during the dark and storms the night before. I rolled through the high plateau of the Gila and reached the Beaverhead Work Station, the first public building I had seen in nearly 100 miles since leaving Pie Town. The ranger station was closed on a Sunday, but a glowing Dr. Pepper machine hummed on the front porch. The morning was warm and Dr. Pepper sounded delicious, but the machine only took coins and I had none in my wallet. A feeling of desperation built as I rifled through my backpack, digging up a nickle here, a dime there. Then I started tearing apart my bike bags, formulating something like hope when I discovered a quarter and more dimes. I found the last needed nickle in my handlebar bag, and 15 minutes after the treasure hunt began, with my entire kit strewn asunder, I walked triumphantly over to the machine and fed it 75 cents. I sat down on the grass with my cold Dr. Pepper and cheese crackers, mapping my next move.
I had, at that point, about 200 miles left to ride. The last 125 were known to be fast. I had crossed the Canadian border at 9:45 a.m. exactly three weeks before. I did some quick calculations in my head and realized that if I could manage the last 200 miles in 23 hours, I would be able to come in under the border-to-border women's record. There were a lot of uncertainties about gunning for it. I wasn't racing the Great Divide Race, and had knowingly broken a GDR rule - cell phone use - so I wasn't sure a possible new record by me would even be recognized. I had also never ridden all through the night, or even done that much night riding during the Tour Divide, and wondered whether I could even handle a 26-hours-straight-through push. But there was excitement in the thought of gunning for the record, and even more excitement about the thought of being done in no more sleeps. I decided if I had a good afternoon and felt even marginally energetic in Silver City, I was going to go for it.
Storm clouds started to build as soon as I left Beaverhead, and my stress levels elevated in direct proportion to the darkening sky. As I climbed a dusty set of switchbacks, my GPS shut down on its own. I turned it back on, and it shut down again. I changed the batteries to a brand new pair, and still the screen flickered and faded. My stress switched to full-on panic. I needed GPS. I tried to reason with myself - I could probably navigate the route without it. There wasn't that much navigation left to do. The ACA maps were perfectly clear by themselves. But GPS was my lifeline. It confirmed whether the turn I was making was the right one or not. It cleared up vague spots on the maps. It told me how far I had left to ride, how many feet I had left to climb, how many streams I had to cross, where the possible bailout points were and where I could find off-route towns. GPS was my friend. At that moment in the race, it was my only friend. I did not want GPS to abandon me.
I put the unit inside my frame bag, where it wouldn't be jolted around as much, and hoped that if it had a good break, it would start working again. And in the short time I had been fiddling with it, the dark clouds dropped and rain started to fall from all corners of the sky. There was no escape this time. I put my head down and pedaled into the deluge, and watched with dread as my tires dug deeper into the softening road. Within minutes, the surface was complete sludge. The tires sunk in and dredged up clumps of clay that stuck to everything. Then I felt the all-too-familiar stall of the back wheel, and I knew it was all over. I was going to be lucky to simply hike from that point. More likely, I would be hoisting the bike in strenuous intervals between chipping mud off the frame and trying to coax the wheels to turn. For how long and how many miles, I had no idea.
The bike-carrying intervals did indeed increase from that point, followed by periods of lunging with my mud-caked luggage cart, followed by rare stretches of riding. I could only guess how fast I was moving because GPS was dead and my odometer only registers above 2.5 mph, a speed I would reach only rarely. The rain fell in hard, fast spurts and then dissolved into a steady shower. It was Juneau-esque, which is a feeling only those who live on the northern Pacific Coast will understand, but it's that feeling you get when the liquid sky engulfs you, and you sink beneath its cold, gray weight, and you know, you just know, that it is never going to stop raining. Ever. For the rest of your life. It's a feeling of complete hopelessness, so complete that my body was no longer willing to co-operate with my flailing motivation, and I often found myself involuntarily stopped on the side of the road, just moaning - "Why does this have to be so hard? Why, Why, Why?"
The afternoon moved like molasses - sludgy, gooey, adobe-colored molasses. I was basically on the edge of emotional breakdown, crying more than was really appropriate. But the tears did help stave off an urge to just sit down on the side of the road and give up on life, which is what hopelessness was urging me to do. And every time I reached the near-breaking point, with my feet lodged in the goo and refusing to move, some drill sergeant of reason deep inside would nudge me and yell, "What choice do you have? What the hell else are you going to do?" And I would look up and actually laugh, out loud, because the situation was so ridiculous. Too ridiculous to take so seriously. I would muster a smile and chant my Iditarod motto - "Keep yourself warm, keep yourself fed, and keep moving. You'll get there ... eventually."
However, keeping myself warm turned out to be difficult. The temperature had plummeted when the storm moved in, and it was still dropping. Pushing my bike through the goo was strenuous, but the effort wasn't steady enough for me to work up consistent heat in soaked clothing, and pretty soon I started shivering. I was wearing arm and leg warmers, a fleece pullover, waterproof rain coat and pants, wool socks, vapor barrier socks and a fleece hat; I was in Southern New Mexico, in July, wearing what amounted to winter layers, and I was freezing. It was almost too ridiculous to bear. And all that time, the intense aroma of the Gila permeated every slow step. The smell was so strong and distinct, a sweet and spicy pinon with a smoky hint of charcoal. I wondered if I would ever look back on that fragrance with a sense of fondness, but I doubted it. At that moment, I could only associate it with an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach, the way I associate vanilla air fresheners with car-sickness. The smell of the Gila was a hate smell, and despite its beauty, I hated the Gila.
That strong (and short-term) hate of the Gila carried into darkness, after I covered a short stretch of merciful pavement only to reach another gooey, unrideable climb. Old mud had already hardened into a wheel-and-drivetrain-seizing cement; I didn't even bother trying to scrape off the new mud. I just unhooked my frame bag and balanced the bike on my shoulder over the worst sections of road, and pushed the rest. When I finally reached the highway, I was as lucid as a zombie, shell-shocked into an apathetic stupor by a special form of torture. A friend later asked what I thought about the "maddening" steep hills that rolled into Silver City, and I honestly don't remember them. All I remember about that night were the lights of the city glimmering in the far distance, and the beautiful sound of rubber whirring on pavement, and how that slowly lifted me out of my daze until I was wandering around the 24-hour Super Wal-Mart at 11:30 p.m. trying to remember what it was that I was doing there. I "came to" near the produce section and stood there for a few seconds, very still, absolutely, bewilderingly confused. "Why am I in Wal-Mart? Do I need to buy groceries? Underwear? What year is this? Am I still living in Idaho Falls? Where am I?" And then, like a half-drowned person rising out of the murky water, I remembered. I'm in Silver City. I'm on the Great Divide. I'm 125 miles from being done.
But at that point, I knew there was no way I would finish by the next morning. Even if I were fresh - and I was obviously so far from fresh that I'm pretty sure somebody at the Silver City Super Wal-Mart had already called a coroner - I would still have to ride 125 miles in nine hours to even scrape the record. I was glad that the goal had become impossible. I knew I had burned up enough of my energy matches in the Gila that I was going to be lucky to limp the last mile to the Super 8, but yet the guilt of a racer burns deep.
I crawled into bed a shadow of the cyclist who left the Beaverhead Work Station 14 hours earlier, with a new resolve to just sleep for as long as my body felt like sleeping. If I couldn't make the record, I had all the time in the world. And still, not since I fell asleep in a flu stupor outside of Cuba had finishing the race seemed so impossible. 125 miles might as well have been 125,000.
7 a.m. came and I woke up like clockwork, launching into my morning routine without giving it any more thought than an office drone who worked the same 9-5 job for 40 years. I took off my dry clothes and put on my wet shower-washed clothes. I brushed my teeth and slathered on bug spray and sun screen. I packed up my bike bags. I walked into the hotel lobby and loaded a paper plate with free continental breakfast. As I sat in front of the Weather Channel stuffing my face with day-old pastries and coffee, the almost otherworldly thought popped into my mind. "Holy cow ... this could be the last day of my trip!" And with that, my mind started to race. How did I feel? Were my legs still functioning? Was my bike still working? Could I grind out the last 125 miles in one shot? I wheeled the bike outside and sprayed it down, methodically working away the cemented-on mud with a butter knife and a garden hose. As I cut through the adobe layers, I discovered a rather large sharp rock lodged between the chain and the derailleur pulley wheel. How long had that been in there, grinding away at the chain? Both tires were webbed with cracks throughout - they looked like one of those faux old-timey paint jobs people use to make furniture look antique. So many things on that bike were on the verge of falling apart. "Please just hold it together for 125 more miles," I said. I was speaking to both my bike and my body.
As I started down the road, I was amazed at how well I had recovered from the night before. Maybe it was the pull of the finish, or the warmth of the desert air, but the turnaround was complete and irreversible. I was a Divide-driven machine, and there was nothing, nothing that could stop me. The Separ Road could be soup and I would swim the distance. My bike could implode and I would carry it the rest of the way. I could almost smell the border - cinnamon and tamales - and the smoke-marinated hate smell of the Gila faded into distant memory.
And I rode. My legs were coated in sweat and soaked in desire and I was topping 19 mph on the sandy but mercifully dry road into Separ. I enjoyed a long lunch and chat with a local at a trinket store called The Continental Divide, and as I rounded the frontage road off I-10 to the final stretch of pavement, I saw my parents standing next to their car. They had driven to New Mexico all the way from Salt Lake City just to watch me finish and take me home. I hadn't expected to see them mid-way, and we had a tearful - and for me surreal - reunion as 18-wheelers streamed by. "It's just 65 more miles now," I announced. "If I don't make it, please just run me over with the car."
Most people had told me that the final 65 miles to the Mexican border, on a tiny two-lane road dubbed "The Lonely Highway," would be a slog. "You'll just want to be done," they said. "And it will go on forever." I switched my iPod to shuffle-all, hoping for fun surprises, and dropped into my aero bars (one of the few times on the trip that I did) as random U.S. Border Patrol trucks rumbled by. I tried to switch into slog mode, but my mind didn't want to be there. It wanted to be reflective, and nostalgic, and absolutely thrilled to be spinning in the serene solitude of The Lonely Highway on a beautiful day.
Music streamed in my ears and my mind cycled through my all of my bicycling experiences the way one's life might flash before their eyes. I was touring the rolling hills of Southern Ohio; I was sprinting along shoreline of the Great Salt Lake; I was pounding rotations beneath the neon strobelights of spin class; I was pushing through the endless powder of the frozen Kuskokwim River. I was everywhere I had ever ridden, condensed into the short miles I had left in a very long bike race. Waves of emotion pulsated through my memories - hunger and desire, happiness and love. And through it all, there was a sense of sadness. Sadness because I really was almost done. It wouldn't be long and the Divide would become just another one of those memories, and my life beyond could never be the same.
My parents passed me again 12 miles from the border. "We thought we were going to miss you!" my mom called out from the passenger's seat. "You're really cooking!"
"12 more miles I called out," and realizing what my average speed had been, added, "I'll see you in 45 minutes!"
The highway mile markers flew by, and I became sad to see them go. Life on the Divide was hard, but some of the time, even most of the time, it was extremely good, and it was intense, and it was real, and every pedal stroke I made was a tiny decision to give all of that up. I rounded a small hill and saw a clump of trees in the distance. "Wow," I thought. "That's Antelope Wells. It really is. I'm actually going to finish this thing." My heart vibrated with disbelief and anticipation, and the mile markers pulled me closer, and there was nothing I could do to stop them.
As I passed mile marker 1, I hit the "next" button on my iPod to cement forever an official finishing song. To my amusement, the song iPod picked was something I don't remember downloading and didn't even know was on there - "Morning Has Broken" by Cat Stevens. But as I closed in on the tree-dotted oasis in a vast, open desert, the joy of the music and the lyrics fit better than I could have ever planned ...
"Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day."
I approached the waving arms of my parents, standing in front of a closed border gate in an otherwise abandoned station, and gave my best yellow-jersey fist pump as I rolled to a stop. I exchanged hugs and congratulations with my mom and dad, and the first thing I said was, "I can't believe I rode the entire Great Divide and it never got hot!"
"Um," my dad said, "It's 98 degrees right now."
I looked out toward the scorched earth of Mexico. "Really?" I said. "Wow, that crosswind works better than I thought."
"We almost didn't get here before you," my dad said. "We didn't think you would make that kind of time. That was, what, less than nine hours?"
The sun shimmered down at 5:24 p.m., 24 days, seven hours and 24 minutes after I left Banff, some 2,700 miles away, on an equally sunny Friday morning that seemed a lifetime before. Mexico was an arm's length away and I didn't have a stroke left to pedal. What exactly that meant, I wasn't yet certain. But I hoped that after the shimmer faded, and my bruises healed, and my muscles rebuilt themselves, and the hard brutal road became a memory, that I would someday understand.
The rest of the story:
Northern New Mexico
Central New Mexico