During the Tour Divide I always felt best in the morning, which is the opposite of my usual modus operandi. Regardless of the total hours of sleep I managed the night before, mornings always brought cool air and clear lungs. I indulged in deep gulps of sweet-tasting air and gazed up at the pink sky with renewed optimism. This would be the day the sun wouldn't scorch my skin, dust wouldn't fill my airways, and gunk wouldn't clog my lungs. This day, I'd be free.
A number of riders had trickled into the campground during the night, and it seemed I was the first to leave. Without realizing it, I'd ascended about half of the climb up Fleecer the previous evening, and was surprised when I reached the wall only a half hour into my day. I pushed my bike up an eroded track, skirted around a saddle, and dismounted again to hike downhill. Brave or reckless cyclists will ride their loaded bikes down Fleecer, but it looks like this:
Even pushing downhill is more of a shoe-ski than a hike. Clumsiness caught me and I ended up on my butt, after which I inched downhill at an embarrassingly glacial pace. The reward following the downhill hike-a-bike is a screaming descent through Jerry Creek canyon, and I was grateful that morning lucidity let me enjoy every spark of exhilaration and joy.
"Did you stay in town last night?" I asked.
"No, I camped in the canyon," she answered.
"So you went over Fleecer in the dark?"
She nodded. "I crashed, pretty bad."
"That sucks; are you okay?"
She shrugged and looked the other way. "Yeah, I'm okay." She sounded dejected.
Whenever I meet someone clearly having a low point during these types of efforts, I'm always at a loss about what to say. I'm not a pep talker, and hate to be pep-talked — few conversations are more grating than those served with a heavy dose of artificial cheeriness. But shallow sympathies and small talk aren't exactly helpful either.
"Do you need anything?" I asked. She shook her head, and I wouldn't have been able to offer anything, anyway. Race rules stipulate that nothing can be shared among competitors, just to make everything fair. I purchased my own breakfast and sat down in the sunlight.
|Brett Stepanik and Russ Kipp at the Montana High Country Lodge|
I'd already indulged in a long breakfast stop in Wise River and considered passing by, but realized it would be a mistake not to visit a friendly place that's become so deeply embedded in Divide culture. I'm glad I did. I had a chance to chat with a few riders who I hadn't yet met. Russ's wife served a hot lunch of chicken marsala, and Russ prepared brown-bag dinners with a turkey sandwich, brownie, and an apple. The Montana High Country Lodge offered an experience similar to the daily support stations in the Freedom Challenge, where families set you up in their homes, stuff you with homemade meals, and generally dote on you to your heart's content. It was a bit of harsh reminder about how quiet and lonely of a place the Divide can be, but it is wonderful that these islands of kindness exist at all.
As I was leaving the lodge, Eleanor rolled in, looking much more upbeat. I was happy to see her, as her demeanor in Wise River left me wondering whether she was going to go on. She seemed so shattered then, but of course I should have realized that was only temporary. Out here, we get so caught up in our own struggles that it's easy to forget that everyone else is fighting a battle, everyone else is getting knocked down, and everyone else has to find the strength to keep going, every day. We all have to carry our own weight, but nobody is alone. This is what I value most about racing. Sharing difficult objectives with others lends depth and perspective to my own experiences.
"Hey! Hey!" I screamed as the bull wheeled around, galloped up the road, and turned to charge me again. "Hey! Hey! Hey!" I screamed louder, with a high-pitched animal voice that I didn't recognize as my own. The bull came within six feet of me and reared up on his hind legs repeatedly in a taunting dance. He was just a bully bull, but I was extremely frightened, as I think anyone would be if a thousand-pound animal was messing with them. "Go away go away go away go away!" I yowled in a piercing scream that tore through my throat and ripped my lungs to frayed shreds. The bull continued to shadow my bike as I sprinted up the road, gasping and screaming "go away" until my lungs seemed to close up entirely. I gasped again and again, but it felt as though no air was getting through. I launched into a full panic of hyperventilating and crying, still awkwardly attempting to sprint away from the bull. A dark screen flickered across my field of vision, and I screeched to a stop. I couldn't breathe. I was on the verge of passing out. This was probably how I was going to die.
"The bull charged me and I panicked," I remember thinking. "That was all. I just panicked."
For all of my mental inertia, I still had my plan. My plan said to keep going until I could eke out 135 miles from the day, which I did near the confluence of two creeks in a narrow gorge, about 18 miles from Lima. I set up my bivy near a fence and walked down to the creek to collect water. As I crossed the road, a strange wobbliness rippled through my Styrofoam legs, and I had to sit down.
"I am really weak right now," I thought, believing that the scare with the bull was what emptied me out. And then later, after I'd already crawled into my sleeping bag, the thought continued. "I came to the Divide to search for strength. I'm going to keep searching."