Thursday, July 30, 2009

I suck at tapering

So the Soggy Bottom 100 is in less than 48 hours. When it comes to tapering for a bicycle race, I tend to be a bit unorthodox. Some people rest, fill their glycogen stores and hydrate. Others do easy spins to loosen up their muscles. I like to get up early after five hours of sleep and go for long, hard hikes. It may be a questionable taper strategy, but it sure does fire up the synapses.

I wanted to go real big today, but I had to be at the office in the afternoon, so I dialed it back to the longest Juneau hike that I have completed before - the Juneau Ridge to Granite Creek Basin.

From the top of Mount Juneau, there's a good view of the airport runway that will be the launching point of my doom early Friday morning.

It was ultra-hot today ... meaning it was in the low 80s. But the sunlight reflecting off the snowfields made it feel much warmer. Stranged to feel so scorched while walking on snow.

I tried for the Juneau Ridge five times last year, and every single time I was shut down by bad weather. I was so frustrated last season that I never got to do anything "big." I love that this is now officially a hike I can knock out before work, as long as I motivate early.

The view northeast: I can see Canada from my house.

The Juneau Ridge is a good connecting point to the real backcountry - the Juneau Icefield. Someday (hopefully soon) I'm going to plan a multiday trip out that way. I will need to find a partner that is good at reading maps first.

Mount Olds. Someday I will bag that as well.

Five hours. 12.5 miles. 5,430 feet of vertical. Just like resting, only better.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Silver city

My friend Brian and I had a great morning fishing for coho salmon off South Shelter Island. Calm waters, sunny skies, temperatures in the high-70s, kicking back on the boat and crazy arm-busting action for 45 minutes. We caught four silvers and lost two, and spent the rest of the time listening to jazz and working on our farmer tans. This fish is my first of 2009, a big ol' coho. Delicious.

On the way back, we pulled up next to a humpback whale that was just bobbing motionless in the blue water. We decided it was sleeping. Later, Brian wrote to inform me that "they don't really sleep like humans, but they doze with half of their brian sleeping while the other pays attention to breathing and danger." I wish I had the ability to do this. It would make for killer ultraendurance cycling times.

Master fisherman Brian with the four silvers we caught.

I arrived at home to find this letter from State Representative Cathy Muñoz. Not only am I a registered D, I don't even live in her district. How sweet is she?

OK, I'm torn between finishing up my Tour Divide report and going to sleep so I can get up early and aim for a big peak. Hmmm. Weather report calls for more heat and sunshine. Looks like an early bedtime for me. 'Night!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

OK, NOW it's summer in Juneau

For the past three months, my friends in Juneau have been updating me about everything I've been missing during the "best summer ever." Why, they asked me, was I wasting all of my vacation days in a wet and cold place like New Mexico when I could be somewhere sunny and warm, like Southeast Alaska? Well, I arrived July 16 beneath a drizzly wash of gray that hasn't cleared up for more than a couple hours until, well, until today.

My reintegration into society has also been a little on the drizzly and gray side. I had a rough go of my first week back at work - difficulty focusing, productivity down, more mistakes than usual. It's hard to transition from 12 hours a day on a bike to 10-12 hours a day in a cubical. It occurred to me that I was actually lucky the weather was gray, because it helped me keep my head turned away from the window.

I'm also still homeless. I've had a tough time finding an apartment that will allow me to have a cat, and where I can afford to live alone. Juneau rent is ridiculous. I supposedly have a good job and I'm looking at places that would cost me nearly 50 percent of my take-home income. I'm still holding out hope for a place around 30 percent. And in the back of my mind, I'm remembering how easy it was to just throw down a bivy sack and fall asleep wherever I decided to stop at the end of the day.

And then, just this morning, I woke up to sunlight on my face. I had three hours to kill before my work meeting so, with a pile of dirty laundry next to my suitcase, a stack of old medical and credit card bills on the desk, a list of landlords to call, and a fridge empty of food, I used those hours in the most productive way I could think of - I climbed Mount Jumbo.

3,337 feet for hundreds of square miles of perspective. Soaked in sweat and sunlight. That's when you know you're having a good morning.

Monday, July 27, 2009

First week back

I still need to write up the last chapter of my Tour Divide trip report. I'll be bummed when I'm finished. I've had a lot of fun writing it - like reliving it, in a way. My goal for the summer is to really dig in to my whole summer experience and flesh it out even more - which, for those who already think my blog is too wordy, probably sounds impossible. Believe me, it is possible. Writing about my life is how I process things, and right now it feels like there's a lot to process.

In the meantime, I'm trying to make the most of being back in Juneau while hammering out my 60-hour work weeks (my boss went out of town this week. Hopefully it gets better.) I've had a few chances to head up into the mountains. Last Sunday, I walked up Mount Juneau with two guys who were both named Dan. I just happened to meet the Dans at the trailhead. They were impressed with the pace I kept, so I think I may have just scored some new hiking partners for the ridge traverses that I really want to complete this summer (but, really, only the weather can decide that.)

Tuesday was Mount Jumbo in the rain. The workout was great but the scenery wasn't very good.

On Friday, I finally took Pugsley out for a ride. In the interim between the Tour Divide and now, my mountain bike has pretty much fallen apart. The tires don't seem to want to hold air anymore; the shock also seems to be leaking; the chain is stretched out; the cables are really tight; the grips have almost worn through and large chunks of foam are breaking off the seat. It's literally falling apart. I sent her off to Gustavus for some TLC, but without a swath of new parts, I'm not sure how well she'll fare. I've actually thought about converting the mountain bike back into a touring/commuting bike with a rigid fork and skinny tires, and using Pugsley as my trail-riding bike for the rest of the year. I'd love to get a new mountain bike, but there are a lot of necessities I need to nail down first - a place to live being at the top of the list.

On Saturday, I entered the Tram Run with my friend Abby. The race follows the lower Mount Roberts trail, gaining about 2,000 feet in four miles. I rode my bike to the race start, and was about halfway there when I realized I forgot my bike lock. I looked at my watch and calculated what it would take to swing it, then turned around in full-on sprint mode back to the place where I've been staying, adding five miles to a 10-mile ride. I grabbed the lock and made it to the start with 90 seconds to spare, dripping sweat, heart rate in full-on red zone, head spinning, trying to remember how to spell my name on the sign-up sheet as someone stabbed at me with safety pins to attach a race number to my shirt. I locked up the bike just as they yelled 'go.' Abby shot off ahead. I started the race in recovery mode just to get over my bike sprint, but I picked it up a little. Not much. Running is just ... well ... it's hard. Abby ended up winning the race in 37 minutes, chicking every single one of the guys by more than three minutes. I finished in 50 minutes ... third place woman. I'm not sure about my standing overall. It was fun, though. Just like hiking (in fact, for a lot of it I actually was hiking. Mount Roberts is steep.) I just figured out that my time last year was just 30 seconds faster - 49:36. I'm happy that I'm not in worse running shape than I was a year ago, when I actually did at least some running prior to the race.

My biking fitness, on the other hand, is a little on the dismal side. I have minor tendinitis in my Achilles tendons, although it seems to be aggravated more by running than biking. I still feel weak on climbs. My enthusiasm on the bike is on the low side. Although I didn't feel like the Tour Divide wore me down much directly after the ride, it definitely feels that way now. Which is why I'm feeling quite a bit of buyer's remorse for something I did last week amid a particularly tough day at work - I used air miles to buy a plane ticket to Anchorage so I could ride the Soggy Bottom 100. The ride is this Saturday. I'm still going to go because air-mile tickets aren't transferable. But right now I have that fear-in-my-heart feeling and I don't really want to talk about it.

I can just ignore that fear by staying on my feet. I hiked Blackerby Ridge today. That is a mean, mean trail. It forces you up 2,500 feet in a mile and a half on a narrow staircase of roots covered in slimy mud and lined with Devils Club. I'm still pulling thorns out of my hands. But once you get up into the rolling alpine, it's all worth it. Even on a dull day, the views are spectacular. I watched a bald eagle stalk, pounce and carry off a baby ptarmigan (sad but fascinating nonetheless.) The marmots were singing. The lupine was blooming. It's summer in Juneau.

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.

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.