Monday, July 27, 2015

At home with the ghosts in the national park

Night sweats woke me up before my dawn alarm, so I stripped off my soaked clothing and draped it over my bike before crawling back into the bivy on top of my sleeping bag. Sometime later I awoke in a fit of coughing, burst out of the bivy and stumbled barefoot through prickly bushes to vomit. It was just the coughing that made me throw up, but the result left me feeling weak and feverish. I laid down on the dirt in my underwear, feeling the cool Earth on my clammy skin, and took quick and shallow breaths as I stared up at the tree canopy, framed by stars. A minute or two passed before I stood up, shivering heavily, and crawled back into my sleeping bag, which was wet.

Before these little emergencies, I'd been so deeply asleep that I floated through them with a kind of disoriented detachment. When dawn came, I wasn't sure if any of it had happened. But my clothes were still draped over my bike, and my head was pounding. Early mornings had turned from being the best part of the day to the worst. But nights weren't so great either.

My Tour Divide has been a difficult experience to recap, because it reads as though I was miserable and sick nearly all of the time. There were lots of pleasant and enjoyable stretches that don't necessarily make the trip highlights reel when illness factored so heavily into the experience as a whole. I suffered through some difficult bouts, but the simple act of waking up to sunlight, eating terrible protein bars, and getting back on my bike would improve my outlook — and my physical state — immensely.

I enjoyed quite a few good miles in the morning, with smoother pedaling down the remainder of the rail trail (surface conditions improve considerably as it descends along the Warm River) and a nice spin through Idaho farm country with the Grand Tetons looming over the horizon. I collected water from a sprinkler that tasted like ginger ale, and found a smashed brownie from Whitefish in my frame bag, which made me immensely happy.

Still, the miles of easy breathing were now entirely in the past. Even on short climbs, I often had to stop before the top of the hill to catch my breath. I was doing just that on a pullout above the Fall River when a cyclist approached. It was Josh Daugherty. He had this intense look on his face that I can only describe as crazy eyes, but he did stop to say hello.

"Where's Brett?" I asked.

"Oh, back there," Josh said, gesturing down the road.

"Did you guys stay at the campground?"

Josh shook his head. He told me they stayed back on the rail trail, probably very near the spot where I camped, after both of them crashed several times in the dark. After being turned away from Subway, both of them were frustrated and had some sort of tense exchange. Brett was the veteran, Josh explained, and he respected Brett's wisdom, but he was unhappy with how the race was going so far. Their sleep had been poor, and their stops weren't efficient. So he was riding ahead this morning. He didn't have a plan, he said. He just needed some space to think.

"People keep telling me not to worry about guys passing you, that it's just about finishing. But that's not what I want." Josh paused for several seconds as he turned his crazy-eyed expression toward the mountains. "I want to chase dots."

The emotion resonated with me. I don't consider myself an overtly competitive person, but I admire that drive in others. It's a fire that can fuel great things, or spectacular meltdowns, but either way, it makes for a compelling narrative.

"You seem strong," I said. "You should go for it."

Josh thanked me and headed down the road. I didn't expect to see him again. A week and a half later, he posted this update:

"On day 9, I woke up frustrated and rode away from my company, sort of by accident, just wanting to work out the angst. Then a switch inside me flipped and I realized I was going solo and there was no turning back. I was done racing with fear. I would rather fail riding my heart out than ride safely to the finish. I wanted to find the very bottom of me, and to answer questions about myself that I didn't believe I would get another chance to again. Those guys that had been passing me were riding their hearts out. They looked shelled and exhausted in their battle for some place in the mid 20's or 30's or wherever. There's a mocking title for those guys, the "mid-pack heroes", and it's not a flattering title, but it's probably fair. And I wanted to be one of them. So I joined the battle and the true meaning of the event revealed itself to me. If I raced without fear and gave the very best of myself then I would be happy. If I fought bravely and opened myself to whatever experience the journey had in store for me then I could be satisfied with myself."

Josh was the twelfth person to finish the Tour Divide in 18 days, 12 hours and 19 minutes. The fact that he didn't really start racing until nearly halfway through the ride, and turned what I considered a "clinging to 21 days if everything else goes well" pace to an 18.5-day finish, is impressive. In my opinion, Josh's late-race push was one of the more incredible, if quieter, performances of this year. No doubt it was a meaningful journey for him.

When I read Josh's post, it made my heart shudder a little. "I wanted to find the very bottom of me." This is what I had wanted, too. Not to race without fear, as fear is one of the emotions I seek and embrace in these endeavors. But I did want to race with an open heart, without expectation, free from self-doubt, fixed perceptions, and the limitations of my body. "Those limitations are in my mind," I'd tell myself. "I can choose something more."

But I was growing weary of the battle, a deepening struggle just to do what I thought should come easily to me. How can I explore my own inner depths when I can barely stay afloat in the shallow end? I wasn't fighting to be great. I was fighting to be a vaguely adequate version of myself, and that in itself was very discouraging. Weakness was winning. In these endeavors, who do we have to blame but ourselves?

The Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road cut me to shreds. Wrapping around the northern edge of the Tetons, this wide gravel road was extremely dusty and constantly under siege by Saturday traffic. I descended into Flagg Ranch in a state of distress, took a long break at the resort while sucking down slushy drinks in the lobby, and still felt no better as I climbed toward Grand Teton National Park. There was a tiny, 500-foot climb on pavement past the resort. Refusal to allow myself a break on such an easy ascent resulted in my second breathing attack of the trip. Similar to when the bull charged me, my airways tightened and I began gasping. But here I wasn't frightened, and I wasn't doing anything difficult. I was just weak.

I coasted down to Jackson Lake almost in tears, although this wouldn't yet qualify as my cry for the day. I still didn't feel confident that my lungs wouldn't seize up again, so I pulled over at a picnic area and laid down on a table. Weekend traffic streamed past, but the picnic area was empty. One of the most gorgeous and popular views of the Tour Divide — the snow-capped Tetons towering behind a sparkling Jackson Lake — was in view as I tapped an update into my satellite messenger: "Really sucking wind. So much dust I can barely breathe." It seemed like a good idea to alert others of my condition in case I lost consciousness and couldn't be roused.

I napped for maybe fifteen minutes and woke up feeling a little better. My breathing had improved and I no longer felt as though I might suffocate. As I pedaled toward the park exit, a man on a road bike caught up to me and slowed to chat for a while. Mark was a retired law enforcement officer from Florida who worked summers at a Wyoming ranch. We talked about cycling, horseback riding, self-defense techniques and grizzly bears as I grew more winded. Mark had slowed down quite a bit to keep my pace, which was hovering between 12 and 13 miles per hour, but it was killing me. Slowing to something less than 12 mph seemed pretty embarrassing, given I was a bike racer and all that, so I worked to keep it up as he spun easy. I told him about my breathing struggles. "Must be the elevation," he said. "Gets me too."

"Yeah," I said. "It probably is just the elevation."

Mark turned off my route after a few miles, but it was nice to have his company while it lasted. It helped me ride better, I decided, because I wasn't so fixated on feeling bad. Just before sunset I had my big cry for the day, though, over mosquito bites. I'd accumulated dozens of bites over the past week, and the Buffalo Valley bugs were the worst yet. I was not hesitating to drench myself in DEET, and they still found unprotected patches of skin to ravage. I'm allergic to mosquitoes. Usually the bites just swell to quarter-sized, dark red welts. But as they accumulate, the reactions sometimes extend to more extreme swelling, watery eyes and sneezing. Once, after picking up about thirty bites during a hike, I came down with a fever. I wondered if mosquitoes were to blame for my respiratory distress. This wondering turned to bawling, and once I had the daily meltdown out of my system, I felt better.

I still had to race the mosquitoes though, and lack of breaks caused my lungs to start constricting again. It was another dizzy battle to schlep myself up Togwotee Pass, where I planned to camp on Brooks Lake. At one point I decided, "This day hasn't been all that bad. It probably won't get much worse." But of course I didn't know.


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