The coughing returned for another round of midnight fits, and all I could do was prop open the bivy sack so I could dislodge whatever piece of lung was trying to escape this time. I drank all of my water trying to soothe the coughs, and fell back asleep with the bladder valve between my teeth.
Despite the coughing fits, I slept fairly well, and rose to beautiful light on the edge of my grassy clearing. While rifling through my backpack, I rediscovered the piece of chocolate cake I'd purchased at the market in Whitefish. It was another one of those items grabbed on a whim (as all Divide food is), and I'd completely forgotten about it. It held it in both hands for several moments, admiring the five layers of cake slathered in dark chocolate frosting with floral designs. It wasn't even smashed. I wanted to eat it badly, but no — this cake was too special, and mornings were too easy. I needed to have my cake for hard times. I gently placed it back in the pack after pulling out two protein bars. Then I sat in the sun gnawing miserably on the bars, without any water to help me choke them down.
"You're probably the biggest water hoarder on the Divide. Why didn't you fill up in Ferndale?" I scolded myself.
Elliot passed with another rider and told me that he, too, was hunting for water. I understood on an intellectual level that we were directly above Swan Lake, and eventually we'd descend to a low enough elevation that one of these creeks would be running. But I was letting my phobias get the better of me, and raced after Elliot just in case he had a sharper eye. We did have to descend to the bottom of the hill to find water in Yew Creek, but it was there, running clear and cold.
Elliot was gracious enough to ride with me for a while and told great stories about the Arizona Trail Race — hiking his bike into the Grand Canyon, being offered a free steak dinner from tourists at Phantom Ranch after he'd already eaten a full meal, and then struggling to hike out in the dark with 700 miles of tough biking on his legs, 40 pounds of bike and gear on his back, and an extremely full stomach, plopping down for naps while trying not to appear asleep just in case a ranger caught him "illegal camping." I laughed and laughed.
Soon Elliot outpaced me and I settled into my late afternoon slump, which was happening far too early on this day. My breathing became rougher and the phlegmy cough came back with the afternoon wind.
My symptoms didn't entirely line up with past experiences with cold viruses. The mucus in my lungs, for starters, and the ragged breaths. I was starting to move away from my theory that this was a cold. "It's pollen," I thought. "It's allergies."
And then there were my legs, which seemed to be emptying themselves out by the pedal stroke. It wasn't normal leg fatigue — at least it wasn't like any fatigue I'd experienced before. They only similar experience I had to compare it with was last year's Freedom Challenge, when excessive lifting of my bike with weak little arms resulted in muscle failure in my triceps and forearms, as though I'd done one too many reps with a heavy barbel and could manage no more. On the Tour Divide, my legs were exhibiting this similar shuddering weakness. When I held two fingers against my quads, I could feel them quaking. I didn't know why.
"I guess if worst comes to worst, I'll take a nap."
With great difficulty and some whimpering, I managed to schlep myself to the trail intersection where the route begins to contour around the mountain. From here I half-hoped to see snow, because I just needed to walk for a while. Richmond Peak is well-known in Divide lore for being buried in snow at terrifyingly steep angles, where slipping in the wrong spot could actually prove fatal.
When it's not buried beneath a 60-degree snow slope, Richmond Peak is just a smooth, flowy trail cut into the mountainside on the eroded remnants of an old road bed. Not scary at all. I made an effort to enjoy myself but I was in a low place, struggling with efforts that should have been easy, wondering what was going on with my legs, my lungs, the coughing. All of these are fairly normal occurrences during an endurance effort, when I'm spending entire days and nights out in the weather, taking in the oxygen I need to keep my heart rate in zone two and three for 16-hour spans. But something just didn't feel right, beyond what I've come to expect from endurance-related fatigue. It was as though the air was attacking my body, gouging tiny holes into my lungs and legs and draining me from the inside.
I stopped several times during the descent to shake off dizziness, and ate handfuls of trail mix. I'd already resolved at my next resupply to just buy a bunch of candy, because this protein-focused diet wasn't working and if I had to cannibalize muscle to get through this, so be it.
I soft-pedaled up the next small climb and contoured around Cottonwood Lake as the sun was setting. The tips of larch trees reflected a neon shade of orange, and pink light filled the sky. I felt a surge of gratitude that I had the legs to reach this place at all. The ability to travel five hundred miles along the remote backroads of the Rocky Mountains is a beautiful privilege.
About seven miles from Ovando, I rolled across a bridge over Monture Creek, sparkling under intense starlight and a coal-black sky on the night of the new moon. I'd been aiming for town, which I heard had cyclist-friendly camping. But I realized then that I didn't want to go to Ovando tonight. This was where I wanted to be.
I rolled out my bivy on the bank, and then crawled over boulders to sit next to the creek, filling my Sawyer Squeeze filter with cold water, drinking an entire liter, then filling it again. The water tumbled down my throat and filled all the porous emptiness in my body with new life. I leaned back and gazed at the sky, splattered with the orange and purple light of the Milky Way. This was everything I needed.