Beat finally asked me about the strange titles of my Tour Divide posts. They're lyrics from the most recent Modest Mouse album, "Strangers to Ourselves." I listened to this album rather incessantly during the ride, and it became the background score to many high and low moments along those dusty roads. The lyrics fit well with the stubborn optimism and strife of a slow decline, with just enough humor and nihilism to beat back despondency. Now I can't think back to the Tour Divide without hearing these songs in the background. After I wrote about "Of Course We Know" on day three, it just made sense to go with the theme. I suppose that's strange, but hey ... this is my blog.
Now, where was I? Oh yes, Big Sheep Creek canyon in southern Montana. In the morning I woke up with a piercing headache and disorientation. I blinked through pounding confusion as the world came into focus — high cliffs loomed over the narrow canyon, but just enough sunlight swept over the rim to illuminate patches of sage near my camp. The outside of my bivy sack had the usual layer of dew, but the inside of my sleeping bag was soaked, as though I'd been sweating heavily through the night. I'd slept the sleep of the dead for six hours without waking up once to cough, and now my lungs felt like they were filled with sand. I tried to force a cough as I stood up, but this only made me dizzy.
Pedaling down the road, my head continued to pound, and nausea discouraged me from eating anything. "Coffee," I thought. "I just need coffee and breakfast." But this dizzying headache surpassed typical morning malaise. I'd become accustomed to feeling my best first thing in the morning. And I'd slept for six solid hours! Maybe I needed those midnight coughing fits to clear my lungs. It had seemed like a crazy theory up until that point — this notion of slow suffocation because my lungs were too clogged to properly filter the air. I still doubted this theory had medical merit, but maybe I really wasn't getting enough oxygen?
I sat down at a table with Eleanor, Brett Stepanik and Josh Daugherty. I'd met Brett and Josh the previous afternoon at Russ's lodge. We had lunch together and among the usual Tour Divide chatter, I learned that Brett was a dedicated photographer who was carrying a large film camera and dozens of rolls of film in his messenger bag, and Josh was a soon-to-be new father. They'd slept up in the canyon the previous night as well, and were taking advantage of cell reception to make calls and check news from the outside world. The conversation I'd interrupted was about the race standings. Josh informed us that the next person to leave would be in 28th position — then 29th, 30th, and so on.
I couldn't help but curl my lips in a little smirk, because I found it amusing that he'd taken the time to extrapolate this information. My last few days had been such a struggle that my mind had wandered far away race mentality. It was jarring to realize that this was still very much what we were all out here doing, out here on these lonely roads, battling with everything we had for weeks of our lives — we were just jostling for position in a race. But then my next thought was, "30th out of 150? That is not so terrible." I was somewhat surprised to learn that the entire field hadn't passed me, at least not yet.
The rail trail is another infamous segment of the Divide — 30 miles along an old rail bed that cuts a thin, straight line through the forest atop a thick bed of volcanic sand. In 2009, I rode the rail trail in a rainstorm. While the trail was badly washboarded then, the rain did tamp down the sand, and I had *no* idea just how slow and sandy this thing was. Even after letting as much air out of my tires as I dared, I still swerved and sank and barely gained enough traction to grind out five miles per hour. Adding insult to indignity, it was a Friday evening and several dune buggies were crawling the trail. About two miles in, I got stuck behind an older couple in a one of these vehicles, inching forward at an unfathomably slow pace. I mean, I caught up to them while pedaling a jerky 5 mph, and they might as well have been standing still. The trail was only as wide as their vehicle, so all I could do was inch behind them. Their speed was too slow for me to keep traction, so eventually I had to walk, and still I was shadowing them without losing ground. How could this be fun? How could this possibly be an enjoyable Friday night activity, to drive a dune buggy at two miles per hour on a flat bumpy trail through a forest with no views?
"Recreation? How could this be fun for anyone?" I wondered. "It's crap to bike, it's bumpy and slow to drive, it would be awful to run or hike. They should designate this a national torture trail."
Clearly, I was becoming very grumpy, and it only went downhill from there. The sun set and the trail emerged in these pretty wetlands, where the ruts and washboards were much worse. Even at the blistering pace of five miles per hour, I swerved enough to get bucked off my bike. I negotiated the crash landing badly and ended up with my face in the sand.
This ignited what would become a nightly incident for me — a solid ten minutes, at least, of shameless sloppy bawling. Being charged by a bull the previous evening is what set off my first emotional outburst. But every night thereafter I'd find something to cry about, and then I'd really indulge in the cry. Looking back to those nights, when thoughts and emotions were muted behind a thick, dull haze, I think on some level I was clinging to anything I could still feel. Even if that feeling was despair, over something quite minor, I embraced it with as much vigor as I could muster. Until there was nothing left.
I hated the rail trail so much. I wanted to get it all out of the way before morning, but then I crashed a second time, and then a third, before finally conceding that I was riding quite badly. I followed a faint deer trail to a hidden cove above the Warm River, then dislodged the contents of my bike bags. On this night I still had some lucidity, so I went through the ritual of wet-wiping the dust away from my skin, slathering Neosporin on my butt, and opening my sleeping bag all the way, so hopefully I wouldn't wake up soaked.
Within seconds of laying down I was out — which is not like me at all. I'm a terrible sleeper, more so in unfamiliar camping situations, and especially so in endurance racing situations. But it had been a long time since I'd truly exhausted myself.