Up at 9,000 feet, with frost coating my bivy sack, it was finally cool enough that I made it through the night without dousing myself in sweat ... or at least that's what I assumed. There were a few coughing bouts, but I'd become used to those. Night coughing was just part of the waste removal routine, like peeing. But the night sweats were disconcerting. They caused feverish, weird dreams and sucked all the moisture from my body, leaving me dehydrated, exhausted, and achy in the morning. If I could stay away from the night sweats, I actually woke up feeling okay.
Coasting along the Brooks Lake Road, it didn't take long before self-generated dust clouds were already aggravating my breathing. The last time I rode the Divide, this entire segment was covered in snow and mud, forcing a gooey slog that required more than three hours to travel six miles. I thought it was so terrible then, but right now, I missed it. I missed the snow. I missed the mud. The Divide had become this hot, dry, dusty, mosquitoey place that was tearing me apart.
"The only reason I got through this the first time was because 2009 was a wet and cold year," I thought. I'm fair-skinned, heat-sensitive, allergy-prone, and possibly (apparently) a little bit asthmatic. My body is just not well-designed for the summertime outdoors.
After a refreshingly frigid coast down Highway 26, I found the Lava Mountain Lodge opening up their small store at 7 a.m. I was just in time for morning coffee and a microwaved breakfast burrito. Heaven! Sarah Jansen was there and offered to let me take a shower in her room. It was tempting, as I hadn't had a shower since Helena. But I was already considering shooting for an early day in Pinedale and spending another full night indoors with lots of available fluids, in hopes of giving my ragged lungs some rest and relief.
Sarah passed shortly after the descent and complimented me on keeping up with my daily mileage goals, which I hadn't really calculated, but I was somewhere in the range of 1,300 miles on day ten. "I'm only going to get slower," I said with a resigned sigh. Sarah mentioned she was planning to stop in Boulder, which is about twelve miles past Pinedale, in hopes of getting the Great Divide Basin out of the way in one big effort the following day. I thought this might be possible for me as well, if I could clear out my congestion. I'd ride to Atlantic City during the day and tackle the Basin overnight, when the wind, dust, and heat likely wouldn't be as bad. Then I'd be in Colorado, home to high-elevation coolness and afternoon thunderstorms, and maybe, just maybe, I'd could conquer this crud, once and for all.
Although these optimistic hopes flitted through my thoughts, my mind's wanderings increasingly slipped into the stagnant tailings pond of my frustration and malaise. I wanted to keep fighting, but why? My old mantra, "Be Brave, Be Strong," whispered from a far distance, but these words no longer had the tone of triumph and hope that they once did. "Be Strong" sounds mocking when when you're in the grips of progressively deepening physical weakness. "Be Brave" sounds sarcastic when the battle is clearly futile, and soon I only heard this phrase the way Modest Mouse sang it in what had become my favorite song to listen to on the Divide — "Be Brave"
Well the Earth doesn't care, and we hardly even matter
We're just a bit more piss to push out its full bladder
And as our bodies break down into all their rocky little bits
Piled up under mountains of dirt, and silt,
And still the world, it don't give a shit,
But ... Be brave! Be brave! Be brave! Be brave! Be brave! (Be brave!)
Often, people who participate in these endurance events compare the experience to living a whole life in a day. In the case of the Tour Divide, it's a few weeks, but the sentiment in the same. When I look back on my first Divide ride, I remember it as distinct periods of wide-eyed childhood, angsty adolescence, strong young adulthood, and wizened but weary older adulthood. This time around I jumped very quickly into the elderly years, and in retrospect, believe the experience served as a window into old age. My mind swirled with a barrage of hopes and dreams, and often utter awe: Look where you are! Look! But when the dullness set in, I'd stare off into the distance with a gray pall over my thoughts and emotions, and I'd begin to understand how someone could wile away the last years of their lives staring at a television. Even more than my weakened body, my mind craved a deep and dreamless sleep that wouldn't come.
I understood the desire, too, to rage, rage against the dying of the light. I devoured cinnamon bears and demanded more from my legs on the rolling descent from Union Pass. But in the Green River Valley, I ran up against a wall of wind fortified by relentless dust. A steady stream of vehicles kept the dust in motion on that bumpy road, and my breathing became alarmingly raspy. I started coughing, and then I was gasping, and then I was sprawled in the sage next to the road, clutching my chest and panicking.
I couldn't do this anymore, I couldn't do this anymore, I couldn't do this anymore ... but, breathe, breathe, breath, breath. Be brave, be brave, be brave. (Be brave!)
I managed to calm my breathing, but after that I was terrified of hard efforts, and even more scared of the clouds of dust, which I couldn't do anything about. The asthma attack had frightened me, but even more than that, it left me utterly exhausted, in a way that even cinnamon bears couldn't cure. I didn't feel sleepy, even, just empty. After the attack, there were 35 more miles into Pinedale that I remember almost nothing about.
Yet optimism stayed with me. I do remember walking into a hotel lobby, pulling down my face mask, and taking a deep breath. My lungs were so congested that it stopped short and caused me to cough violently, but I let myself believe this was my first healing breath of dust-free indoor air, which I planned to spend the next ten hours breathing. I didn't even care about a shower, or access to real food, or even sleep. Oxygen is and always will be the top priority.