Geraldine pedaled beside me as we motored up the final pitch of a 3,000-foot ascent, a dusty dirt track snaking like a tentacle up the mountain - your typical Montana monster.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
I took a few quick gulps, stockpiling the oxygen. "High," I said. "Feels high."
"What, the altitude?" she asked.
"Maybe," I said. "Maybe elevation. Maybe it's the ride. Maybe I'm just tired. This has been the world's longest week. I can't believe it was a week ago I was living at sea level, a long, long way north of here."
"How do you like Missoula so far?" she asked.
"It's awesome," I said. "My co-workers are friendly, job's just getting going, and the mountain biking has been fantastic. I mean, this only my second ride, but they've both been pretty incredible."
Geraldine grinned and moved ahead up the fire road. I blinked toward the low sunlight, already golden at 8 p.m. The altitude-stunted trees thinned out, leaving wide-ranging views of the rolling mountains. And the smell! I breathed in a fermented stew of pine and mulch, marinated in spring melt and dried in the daylight ... the pungent aroma, the strongly familiar fire road, the trees and dust ... Divide flashbacks. I shook my head, trying to turn my focus away from a creeping sadness.
My new co-worker, John, invited me on his annual 50-mile summer solstice celebration ride. I politely turned him down. It was my third day on the job, and I wasn't about to ask my boss if I could cut out an hour and a half early. John persisted. I said, "Maybe. No promises." John wrote my boss an e-mail, cc'd to me, extolling the virtues both my boss and the publications department would enjoy if he would just let his new hire out for the solstice ride. My boss laughed out loud, looked from his computer, and said, "You should just do it." So I had to.
We left downtown at about 4:25, a group of 14 motoring toward the mountains. John told me the names of things, of buildings and streets and geographical features. I remembered the names briefly, but they soon faded to the gasp and flow, the climb. The group laughed and joked. "Have you done this ride before?" many asked me as we shifted positions in the pack.
"No," I said. "I'm new to town."
"I got here on Sunday night."
"Wow, really?" The real questions followed - where did you come from, what do you do, have you been here before. Inevitably, the conversations turned to the Tour Divide. What was it like, what did you eat, where did you sleep. Then, from some, "Did you hear about that guy in the race that was hit by a truck today?"
All of my valuable oxygen would seep out in a sad sigh. "Yeah, I did."
What are the odds, really? On narrow backwoods fire roads in Colorado, miles can pass without seeing another vehicle; hours can pass without another sign of human life. There are just a few dozen Divide racers spread out over several hundred miles. What are the odds? After the long double-track climb, the group veered onto faint hint of singletrack in the woods. I watched sunlight flicker through pole-thin limber pines and wove through my own unsettling thoughts. Flashbacks. It was just a year ago, on June 30, in Southern Colorado. It was the day that changed everything for me. Terrorizing lightning storms chased me off the exposed summit of Indiana Pass, followed by drenching rain that cut a chill so deep it nearly severed my spirit. I already felt half-broken when I caught the ambulances. Then I learned the person being transported was my friend, Pete - another Divide racer, who had been hit head-on by a truck while descending the steep pass. I stepped inside the ambulance and briefly spoke to him. I saw him strapped to equipment, immobilized and almost completely covered, except for his eyes - his drug-dulled eyes. I thought his injuries were severe. I convinced myself of terrible scenarios. I pedaled through the woods in a sea of grief and depression. I felt like there was nowhere to come up for air. I lost hope that day, for a little while. I obsessed about "The Things That Are Important." I wrote in my journal:
"Pete and I had both been out there on the Great Divide, riding the same muddy roads, climbing the same sweeping passes, watching the same spectacular sunsets. Both of us had been bound by this one thing, this totally unique thing, this effort to ride across the spine of the continent as fast as we possibly could. And to what end? To what end?"
Dave Blumenthal collided with a truck coming down a remote Colorado pass on Wednesday. I could picture the rocky, rutted road well because I had experienced a crash there during a rainstorm last year. Initial reports said Dave had sustained head injuries, that they were critical, and he had been rushed to a hospital in Denver. It was difficult not to imagine the worst, but impossible not to hope for the best. After all, Pete miraculously escaped from his head-on collision relatively unscathed. The day after his crash, I found out that he only had a broken collarbone and many cuts and bruises. Pete was riding a 100-mile singletrack race within six weeks.
Maybe Dave would make a similar miraculous recovery. I hoped for that with all my heart. I have never met Dave Blumenthal, but the Divide has a way of connecting people. I read his blog and forum posts leading up to the race. I listened to his call-ins. I identified with him, and his desires, and his reasons for wanting to do "this totally unique thing." But what are the odds that two horrific head-on truck collisions could have a happy ending? I tried not to think about the odds. I did think about Dave. The solstice group lined up single-file and swept down a narrow trail that John essentially built. We plummeted through moss-lined forest and apocalyptic clear-cuts as the golden sun cast long shadows behind us. Down, down, down, with cool wind whipping past our ears. "The summer solstice is such a strange thing to celebrate," I thought. "We're simply acknowledging the inevitable descent into winter darkness."
After an hour of ripping, nearly solid downhill, we returned from our six-hour epic in incredible moods. We went out for drinks and food and laughed away the deepening night until midnight came, and we were tired, and we pedaled home. Optimism ran high and I convinced myself of the best - Missoula is going to be awesome, the hot summer with its "long" nights is going to be tolerable, and Dave's going to be OK.
On Thursday afternoon, I found out Dave Bluementhal died of his injuries. He is survived by his wife, Lexi, and his 4-year-old daughter, Linnaea. He was 37 years old.
Light flickers and fades, and in its absence we remember The Things That Are Important.
Dave, I never met you, but I won't forget you. I feel a deep, empathetic sadness and my heart goes out to those who love you.