"Why am I so thirsty?" I wondered as shook out my dew-covered bivy sack. My hands went numb as I collected another liter from the creek. The 6 a.m. sky was already bright, but the air was icy and damp, and I felt an odd pressure in my chest as I breathed.
The first seven miles of the day were spent obsessing about coffee. It had been more than four days since my last cup — that incredible sugar sludge I obtained in Elkford. Each morning I took a caffeine pill to stave off headaches, but it wasn't the same. It just wasn't the same.
I rode by a sign fixed to a fence that read, "Ovando is Open!"
"I sure hope that's true!" I yelled back, out loud.
Ovando, population 71, is a lonely town in the Blackfoot River valley, tucked away between the Mission and Swan Ranges. It's close to Missoula, the city in Montana where I lived for a short time in 2010-11. For this reason, I was excited to visit, and scanned the vaguely familiar highway for signs of old friends. It's ridiculous, I know, but this is one of the scenarios I fantasized about — that people I knew would be waiting for me on the side of the road, cheering. It funny, these dreams you conjure as your thoughts become more childlike.
In town, there were a half dozen bikes parked next to the museum, where a small cabin and teepee were available for campers. Jeff Wise was walking his bike toward the Stray Bullet Cafe as I rolled up beside him.
"You're just in time," he said. "Restaurant opens at 7."
I glanced at my GPS. It was 7:01.
"Ovando is open!" I yelled triumphantly, and Jeff regarded me with a squinty grin.
"Oh, I can," I said, and it was true, but I was mainly focused on guzzling cup after cup of coffee. So satisfying.
The owner of the fishing shop next door, a woman who goes by the name of Angler on the bikepacking forum (and I'm sorry that I've forgotten her real name), came inside and took pictures of all of us. Angler is the Divide's most dedicated journalist. She photographs every cyclist she comes across and posts a small anecdote about each one on the forum. She was extremely nice and upbeat for 7 a.m., and I visited her store to buy bug dope and a few energy bars. (Along with fishing supplies, Angler also offers an array of cycling-related items. The whole town of Ovando has come together to create a cycling-friendly destination, and it's wonderful.) Anyway, I hoped to find salt tabs, thinking that electrolytes might help balance this strange thirst I was experiencing. She dug into a box full of Hammer samples and found several packs of Endurolytes, and gave them to me for free.
I pedaled 15 miles out of town before I was famished again, and decided to devour the cinnamon roll at the bottom of Huckleberry Pass. This was the second time that I would consume a massive pastry at the bottom of a huge climb, and it was the second time I'd regret it.
"Maybe five days?" I replied. "I think this is day five." We talked for a while as I shopped, and I told them about the best parts of my race so far.
They left before I decided to sit down and devour a personal pizza (so hungry on this day. Why so hungry and thirsty?), but I caught up to them a few miles down the road. The 16-year-old daughter raced to catch me after I passed, and asked more questions. We rode together for about ten minutes, and I turned the questioning to her. She told me she'd been really into bikes since she was a kid, but just started mountain biking a year prior.
"I really like it," she said. "I feel so much faster when I'm going downhill."
"And you haven't had any problems with the more technical stuff, the rocks and mud?"
"Oh no," she shook her head. "I just hold on tight and go."
She turned around to return to her family, and I turned off Stemple Pass Road to battle this rocky doubletrack that shoots straight up a steep canyon, in the Death Valley-like heat of the day. (only 25C? Lies!) Piles of rotting tree trunks were stacked in clear-cut meadows along the road, and it looked like a battlefield. It felt like a battlefield. I was coughing up the afternoon crud and breathing swift and shallow at this higher altitude (only 6,000 feet? Lies!) The pass topped out at 7,000 feet, and the descent was similarly steep and dusty.
The 6 p.m. slump sank in as I battled a rolling ridge along the Continental Divide, and I brooded over my physical state. I reflected back on recent endurance-related struggles: falling backward and collapsing onto the slope as I tried to carry my bike up a rocky scramble during the Freedom Challenge; gasping and wheezing on Two Top Divide during the Fat Pursuit; dragging a rigid leg up a talus field during the Tor des Geants; pushing my bike with all my might and still failing to move forward in knee-deep snow drifts and gale-force headwinds on the Iditarod Trail. All of these instances had legitimate extenuating circumstances, at least in my mind. But what if there was a pattern? What if I no longer had access to strength or vitality that I used to take for granted? What if I was developing this ... weakness? A weakness I could neither improve nor control?
I rode more than a mile off route before I finally found a hotel, which had a line at the front desk at 9 p.m. I walked to the back to use the bathroom, and when I returned to the lobby, the last guy in line was just leaving. So I went to the desk and inquired about a room. Before the clerk could answer, this woman who I didn't even notice earlier rose up from a lobby chair and berated me, loudly. She was the next in line, she screamed. She'd been waiting for a half hour and had to sit down because she was so sick, and people kept butting in front of her, and she wasn't going to put up with it any longer. She had driven all the way from Missoula for the Gordon Lightfoot concert, and now she had the flu, and why was I being such a selfish bitch? Then she started coughing, loudly, pounding her fist on the desk to the horrified expression of the clerk. I just gaped at her, mouth open, hair matted to my scalp, clothes and legs coated in dust, with my own illness crushing my lungs. "You know," I seethed, "all you had to do was say something. Use words. No one knows you're in line when you're not in line!"
I couldn't let it go. After I finally secured a spot, I stormed into my room and stomped around while swearing and throwing all the pillows against the wall. I hated being in the city so much, here with the crowds and sprawling streets and crazy bitches and stupid Gordon $%&! Lightfoot. All I wanted to do was escape on my bike, ride away from my rage and flee back into the mountains. But I had to get this breathing issue under control. The city might be mean, but the air outside was killing me.