Thursday, July 02, 2015

On not letting go

Atlantic City, Wyoming, is a place where ghosts linger. It’s not a ghost town, exactly, although this relic of the 1867 gold rush has no paved roads, and mining ruins still form the foundation of rustic homes. There’s a gun shop (for sale) and two western bars that draw folks off the highway to experience authentic Wyoming. Inside these buildings are antique tables and musty wood floors that creak underfoot, hinting of long-dead secrets so close to the surface you can almost smell them. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, there are echoes of the past everywhere.

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.

The Atlantic City Mercantile was open for business on a hot summer afternoon, with a tattooed woman behind the bar and Merle Haggard playing over scratchy speakers. The only thing missing was a swinging saloon door. I walked inside and pulled down my face mask like a real outlaw, taking quick, wheezing breaths. The air was laced with cigarette smoke, but it seemed preferable to dust— or at least less abrasive — as it circulated in and out of my raw lungs. The only other patrons at 2 p.m. were fellow Tour Dividers — Mike Schlichtman, a 50-something car-wash owner from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Marketa Marvanova, a 20-year-old champion mountain bike racer from the Czech Republic. The two had formed a partnership over the past few days that may have seemed odd to an outsider, but in the Tour Divide, such unions are only natural. Sometimes, two people just ride the same pace.

 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.

In actuality, I pedaled 85 miles from Pinedale in the morning. Besides phlegmy coughs and breathing difficulties, it was a fairly smooth trip, but I managed to lose my sunglasses, sunscreen, and chapstick along the dusty roads. Although I’d cobbled together replacements from a gas station, the loss left me rattled. Along with my bug spray and face mask, I considered these the most important items in my kit. My lips were already oozing with sun blisters, and my backside and legs were mottled with swollen mosquito bites. Please shield me from the world, from the merciless world.

 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.

Of course, the slow rhythm of the Divide has its own calming effect, and by the time I reached Pinedale, I’d come up with several justifications — “That road was particularly dusty, and the wind particularly bad. I’ll double up the face mask if it gets that bad again.” “I’m nine days and 1,200 miles into this. I really just need a full night’s sleep.” And the ultimate soother — “I just can’t push myself anymore. As long as I don’t push the pace, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

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.

Both wind and afternoon heat had picked up strength during my so-called recharge. Outside the air felt like gritty flames on my face and arms, and the wind had a firing effect that solidified the gray paste of dust, salt, and sunscreen that coated my skin. I pulled a buff over my face and turned away from the gusts to push my bike out of the ravine. Even walking sent my heart rate too high and my breathing became erratic.

 “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.”

I crested the rim and commenced pedaling over a ribbon a gravel that rippled across high desert hills. For a time the road was lined in shrubs that ended with a familiar juniper — hunched over the road, with branches bent and twisted by the constant wind. The tree was a stoic outlier; behind it, sage plains and grassy hills faded into a white, empty sky. I felt a flutter of affection for “The Last Tree Until Rawlins” … or Wamsutter, as was the case this year, when we’d be traveling an entirely new and unfamiliar route across southern Wyoming. But I’d stood here before, experiencing different and yet familiar apprehensions.

 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.

Why was I so afraid of Ghost Jill? Why did it matter if I rode faster or farther than she did? Why are we always trying to be better than ourselves? I resented this notion every time it crossed my mind, and yet her ghost haunted me. I could still taste the blood in her mouth as I gnawed on another stick of jerky. When thunderheads collected over the mountains, it was her heart that raced in my chest. She was so alone out here, but I didn’t experience the same kind of loneliness because she was always shadowing me, if that makes any sense. Memories collided with realities until time lost its elasticity, and I slipped into a nebulous trace of thoughts about places I’d left and people I’d lost years ago. This was the fear. I was becoming my own ghost.

Afternoon shadows grew long while I listened to raspy breaths punctuate these echoes of the past. A pronghorn with two tiny calves ran alongside the road, and for a time we were side by side. As I watched their spindly legs move in unison with mine, I was struck by an electric sensation of awe. Real joy reminded me that yes, I am here, and this is now. The pronghorn peeled off at the turnoff for Diagnus Well, and I wondered if we’d be racing to the same place. I waded into the artificial wetland and refilled my bladder from the spouting pipe.

“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?

Another twenty miles passed before I reached the end of vaguely familiar ground and turned onto the new section of “trail” — a faint doubletrack climbing out of an oil camp. The rocky track cut a direct line along the spine of the ridge, a steep and boney challenge for pedaling. My leg muscles vibrated at the stimulation of something more than dull spinning, but a spiking heart rate soon taxed the diminished capacity of my lungs. Still I battled for a few useless moments until gasping erupted, and I was off the bike, desperate and humbled.

 “I’m so sorry,” I said to no one, except maybe Ghost Jill. “I won’t push it again.”

Walking again, stumbling along the boney ridge, wheezing to wring oxygen from the dust-choked air. “No one has ever moved so slowly in the history of biking,” I thought, forgetting that I myself have moved a whole lot slower. As the slope rippled skyward, views of the Basin stretched to great distances. Alkali flats were carved with deep ravines, and the resulting bluffs had eroded to colorful and cartoonish hoodoos. “Looks like a chicken foot,” I thought of one, and another was a chocolate bunny that had melted in the sun. I grasped at these distractions as evening light saturated the mineral reds and greens. “So much endless beauty,” I said aloud as calm finally settled in my breaths. I was back on the bike for bumpy descents and off again for climbs, on and on as time and distance closed in with the deepening twilight.

Finally the track emptied onto a sandy jeep road, and dull spinning gave me a chance to eat dinner. Tonight I had a few limp mozzarella sticks, a Slim Jim, and Grandma’s peanut butter cookies. It was a downgrade from the early days of the Tour Divide, when I really tried to hold my convenience store diet to mainly nuts, cheese, and dried fruit. But I was long past believing that food mattered, really. Give me oxygen, any day.

 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. 

13 comments:

  1. Big Hugs!! And here in GJ,CO, its still triple digits followed by dusty winds. You Made The Right Decision!!!

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  2. Going into something with realistic expectations of how you'll do, and then having your body get in the way of your ability is so frustrating. There's nothing I find scarier than not being able to breathe. You're a warrior for sticking it out as long as you did.

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  3. Jill - I've been reading "Be Brave, Be Strong" as I followed your progress on this year's Tour Divide. Your writing is captivating and powerful (as it is here, in your blog) and gives such a clear picture of how difficult the route is and, yet, also how rewarding in many ways, from the caring and generous people you met to the physical and mental challenges surmounted. A fine read!

    Congratulations on your Tour Divide effort this year and on making, I think, a wise decision to listen to your body (lungs) and finally stop.

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  4. Your writing makes me want to cry...I know the ending.

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  5. Raw emotion on the page. You are a talented writer and I appreciate the honesty. The photos are beautiful. Do you know why they changed the route? Curious. The wide open landscape makes me long to be there, despite the hardship. Thanks for sharing. I hope your lungs have healed. I have developed seasonal asthma here in Oregon. It is scary when you feel you can't breathe. I only do gravel riding in non summer months if I can avoid it. Also, I wold DIE without my chapstick!

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    1. I think the man who serves as the quiet organizer of the Tour Divide (Matt Lee) thought it would be a more interesting route across the Basin. I have mixed feelings. It does add 15-20 miles of more interesting trail and beautiful scenery, but then it dumps you onto 60 miles of oil fracking roads that are just horrible (30 miles before and 30 miles after Wamsutter.) I very nearly turned around the following day and went back to Wamsutter because the dust from huge trucks was bothering me so much, and basically the only thing that stopped me at the time was "I can't quit in Wamsutter, this close to Brush Mountain Lodge." Also, after Wamsutter, there were 60 miles with absolutely no water. I thought I could get some out of one of three streams noted on the cues, but they were dry. Luckily I'm a water hoarder and had enough, but I think this section, even though about 30 miles shorter than the original, is overall harder and (for me) slower than the route into Rawlins.

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  6. Hi Jill
    By now, we know how this ends, and even though I've busted your chops on a couple of things, I gotta say-it took a lotta balls to go out and do that ride regardless of the outcome.
    Sorry you had to feel so bad while doing it, but you'll live to fight another day.
    My hat's off to you. I hope to share a beer and a really nasty pizza someday.

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  7. 187 miles on a trail/gravel while sick. Oh my goodness Jill! I wouldn't be able to do that on a pavement w/ road tires. Thank you once again for you beautiful writing. I love your honesty of how it really is out there! I hope your feeling better and I'm sure you will soon have all your wind back. 2016 Iditarod?!!! Once again, I will be glued to the computer tracking you. You are going to do great. Hopefully your friend TH will also be back. GODSPEED . . . you are still my hero!

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  8. Hey Jill....I hadn't checked your site for an update the last few days...so it was your lungs...I would NEVER have figured that for a problem (for you I mean). Absolutely LOVE the pics...I was born and grew up in Wyoming (Sheridan) and then later Montana, and your pics really bring me back to my childhood when my Grandpa would load up my 2 brothers and I into his ancient green Willy's jeep and we'd go 4-wheeling all over the state, us kids sitting on the tailgate whenever the road allowed (and us sucking in the dust from the moving truck and LOVING IT)...ahhh...the adventure of being in the middle of nowhere is intoxicating! To do it on a bike? ALONE? That takes a special person for sure. Just glad to hear you're safe, and will be relishing your story as it comes.

    So very sad that you were having health issues...I was wondering what was going on, and knew that you'd tell us soon enough. I'd have folded my tent by day 2 (seriously)...you are one TOUGH racer for sure!

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    1. Thanks Matt. I don't update my blog so much these days as post occasional essays. If you want the latest health complaints, you should follow me on Facebook. :) I've been nine days off the trail, and still very slow to recover. Spent lots of time consulting Dr. Google and others, and wonder if I may have had a mild pneumonia. I sought medical attention in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and really started to spiral downward shortly after that. I was on antibiotics, and I question how much they ever helped, but it may have been too late at that point.

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  9. Oh, gosh, why would they change the rte to a road that has such truck traffic! I hope everyone will have a chance to make route chane suggestions/improvements. That sounds dangerous, too. I can only imagine how bad the dust was. Surely they will change it for next year. I hope your lungs have recovered.

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  10. Anonymous8:31 AM

    So sorry to hear about your issues and having to drop out. I love living vicariously through our adventures. Get yourself healthy again and then go do something just for FUN.

    FYI: I think the change in route was due to major road construction on the previous route.

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  11. I read all your posts but rarely comment. However, this one is written so beautifully - the language is vivid and engaging. You painted pictures so clearly that I felt like I was there. From that viewpoint, it was a joy to read.

    From the point of view of your health issues, it was less of a joy to read. I hope that you are starting to recover. You were very brave to push on at all given what you were experiencing. Thanks for taking us along on the ride. (I followed your dot and Lael's the entire time, and I enjoyed it.).

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