On not letting go
The community of 37 sits in a hole — a steep gully below the Great Divide Basin, which itself is a spectral void that not even water can escape. Westward-expanding pioneers built the Oregon Trail and Overland Trail across dangerous snowy passes just to avoid the arid wasteland. These days, I-80 lays a path for travelers to zip across without even stopping to pee, although the interstate has afforded the Basin its only incorporated town — Wamsutter, Wyoming. On the 2015 Tour Divide route — which was being challenged by roughly 150 cyclists — nearly 100 miles stretched between these two hardscrabble communities. A hundred miles of absolutely nothing.
We exchanged only cursory greetings as they split the check and headed out the door. Mike later told me he thought I was a Continental Divide Trail hiker, on account of my running shoes. It was unfathomable to him — and me, too — that anyone could cross this land on foot. He regarded me with a wide-eyed gaze, like I was some kind of ghost who had materialized from the infernal regions.
I handed the bartender five liters’ worth of water containers to fill, then ordered a basket of chicken fingers and fries. I gulped down a couple of Pepsis but mostly just picked at the food. I was anxious — well, terrified is a better word — about going back out there on my bike. It was early in the afternoon and my lungs already felt like they’d been scoured with a Brillo pad. The day before, I experienced a breathing attack while fighting a stiff headwind into Pinedale. One moment I was sucking wind, and the next my airway closed altogether. I gasped and gasped and no oxygen entered my lungs, until I was so desperate that I jumped off my bike and doubled over, hyperventilating so violently that my shoulders ached. Finally the clamp released, and I inhaled panicked gulps of dust. When oxygen returned to my brain and the sagebrush hills came back into focus, I sat in the dirt and cried. I haven’t had asthma in the past and had never experienced an attack quite like that. Most of us have our fears about the Divide, but there is nothing more scary to me than losing the ability to breathe. Give me the bears, any day.
But by the time I left Atlantic City, I wasn’t so sure that taking it easy was an adequate safety net. My breathing was becoming rougher; even slow pedaling had me sucking air. The wind had increased to a steady twenty miles per hour, stirring up a visible fog of dust from the desert floor. What if I was reduced to walking? What if I had another attack in the middle of a hundred miles of nothing? What if my airways failed to open? Fear gnawed at my stomach with such ferocity that I could scarcely force down my food, although I managed to get through the chicken fingers.
“Is that going to hold you over?” asked a cowboy who had just entered the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey.
“Hardly,” I rasped. “But it is nice to sit down for a while.” There’s always hope that this one small thing —extra sleep, or a face mask, or chicken fingers — is going to turn everything around.
“Slow,” I reminded myself. “Calm breaths.” For all of my expectations and planned strategies before the Tour Divide, this had become my predominant concern and thus mantra. “Slow. Calm breaths.”
The Tour Divide is a race where people chase ghosts. A tracking page includes icons of past racers who set a standard. Their historic progress is tracked right alongside the racers of the present. Fast men chased the record-setting splits of 2012 Jay Petervary, women tried to keep up with 2012 Eszter Horanyi, and those of us farther back had 20-day, 25-day, and 30-day standards to pace. I’d started the race determined to shadow the 20-day bubble, but as health declined and 20-day faded from view, I felt a quieter, more urgent ghost bearing down on me. The ghost of 2009 Jill. Every night, I noted where she’d been. She was gaining on me.
“Twenty-five miles down,” I thought, remembering the well’s distance from Atlantic City. Or was it a hundred and ten, because Pinedale is where I started my day? I’d long since lost track of how far I’d traveled since Banff. What is distance, anyway? Or time?
“I’m so sorry,” I said to no one, except maybe Ghost Jill. “I won’t push it again.”
Night brought calm air, and I was determined to push my way through this dusty wind tunnel before daybreak. It would be a 187-mile day if I could push through to Wamsutter, but I’d become convinced this was my only chance to escape this place. If I could get out of the desert, I could get out of the dust. If I could get out of the dust, I could breathe. Or so I said to soothe a clawing anxiety. The jeep road widened as it cut south across a ripple of shallow valleys and plateaus. The grades were so gradual as to be imperceptible from flat, but my ragged lungs felt every inch climbed. It wasn’t even that late when fatigue clamped down, and I turned to my candy — cinnamon bears — which I also reserved for desperation. “Can’t be here when the wind comes back,” I scolded myself. “Can’t be here when the heat comes back.”
But the candy did nothing and soon even my steering became lazy. I nodded off for a second and snapped back to attention only as I was already diving headlong into a ditch. My shoulder hit the dirt and I bounced instantly back to my feet, reeling through the depths of disgust. I was still 25 miles from Wamsutter. 162 miles into the day.
“Fine, whatever,” I spat, and wheeled my bike fifty yards into the sage. If I was going to fall asleep on the bike, I was going to take a nap. That’s the one thing a route like the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route affords that a route like the Iditarod Trail really doesn’t — at least on the Great Divide Basin, I don’t need to move to survive.
The Iditarod frequently entered my thoughts, as I've slated February 2016 as the date to attempt an endeavor that’s haunted my imagination for almost ten years — traveling by bicycle a thousand miles across Alaska. The 2015 Tour Divide was to be a crash-course refresher in self-supported endurance travel — among a multitude of other motivations for returning to the route after six years. When things got tough in the Tour Divide, I thought of Alaska. It was a reminder to relish in my weaknesses, draw strength from my shortcomings, because the tundra doesn’t care. But the desert, also, does not care.
Darkness was bountiful across the uninhabited plain, and the fragment moon hid amid a panorama of stars upon stars upon stars. As I unrolled my bivy and inflated my pad, I noticed streaks of white light shooting through the sky from the north. “Rawlins?” I wondered. “Casper?”
As I focused my eyes, the fingers of light intensified, and I noticed waves of luminescent green rippling above the horizon. “That looks just like the Aurora,” I thought. “But that’s impossible.” I’d seen the Northern Lights outside Alaska before, but this was a particularly dynamic display, and I was in Southern Wyoming. I stood frozen in place, neck craned toward the sky, as the green wave shimmered and faded, dancing amid the white streaks. The light show continued for long minutes, and I stood mesmerized with awe even as I questioned my sanity. Was this all just a reflection of a memory? A hallucination? Was I really falling this much apart? The ghost lights continued to shimmer and undulate, as real as the sage and stars and black horizon. They didn't care, either.
After a few minutes, or an hour, or perhaps several years, I crawled into my sleeping bag. White light continued to fill the sky as I erupted into another of the coughing fits that had become commonplace whenever I laid down. These episodes ravaged my lungs, but they dislodged enough gunk that I could breathe slowly enough to sleep. Eventually the coughing subsided and I closed the zipper to my bivy sack because I didn't want to breathe the air anymore. Even if it was the same air as outside, just staler, the bivy sack added a humidity that made it tolerable. But I missed the Northern Lights. And I missed Ghost Jill, who was still pressing through the night some distance back, breathing a fire I could no longer feel.