Thursday, July 23, 2015

We're lucky that we slept

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:

It only gets steeper as you descend. Once you go over the horizon line, you've entered the no-brake zone and just have to hang on and hope for the best. No thank you. I prefer to have my bicycle endeavors kill me slowly, through gradual suffocation.

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.

I reached Wise River just before 9. Eleanor was sitting in front of the tiny town's general store, eating a breakfast sandwich.

"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
The scenic byway over the Pioneer Mountains was steeper than I remembered, but I made relatively strong progress to Polaris, home of the Montana High Country Lodge. The proprietor, Russ Kipp, first entered the Tour Divide micro-community back in 2010, when cold and wet racers came stumbling up to his doorstep to inquire about rooms. The hunting and fishing lodge is more of a reservation-only establishment, but he welcomed them inside and has actively promoted his services to Tour Divide cyclists ever since.

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.

I pedaled toward Ye Old Bannack Road — home to miles and miles of much-maligned death mud, — as dark clouds gathered overhead. Bile filed my stomach, because getting caught in thunderstorms on Bannack Road ranks near the top of my list of things on the Divide that scare me. Bannack Road was established in 1862 as a freight route between Corrine, Utah, and Bannack, Montana — two towns that don't really exist any more. As such, it's a dirt road from nowhere, to nowhere, through the middle of nowhere, and nobody uses it. The maps warn of fifty miles of nothing, and if you get caught in unrideable mud anywhere along that stretch, you could be in for a very long wallow.

Luckily the clouds continued rolling south, but they brought with them a gusting wind that renewed my lungs' daily battle with dust. My pace slowed considerably, and I could only nod and exhale a wheezy "hello" as others passed me like I was standing still. The road climbed gradually but persistently through the Carver Creek valley, which was populated by free-roaming cattle. As I neared the Medicine Lodge/Sheep Creek Divide, a young black bull looked up from a herd and charged toward me.

"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.

There's a gap in my memory at that point. I don't think I lost consciousness, but my mind flipped some kind of survival switch, and the next image I remember is walking my bike toward the final steep pitch of the divide and feeling a deep trepidation.

"The bull charged me and I panicked," I remember thinking. "That was all. I just panicked."

I pushed my bike up the pass in a daze — a thick and chilling mental fog that permeated not just my thoughts, but my emotions as well. My legs were Styrofoam that leaked out the last fumes of energy, and only hollowness and exhaustion remained. The adrenaline surge had drained me, and the mental fog obscured any perspective on what had happened. Some deep, primitive synapses in my brain understood that what I'd been doing before the whole debacle was turning pedals along this dirt road, so that's what I should continue doing.

Looking back on this experience of being sick on the Tour Divide — the worst part about it wasn't the physical weakness. No, it was the mental dullness. Each evening, as the congestion in my lungs deepened and my breathing became more rough, my oxygen-depleted brain conceded to lassitude. It robbed me of the awe and intensity of the experience, leaving me out here on this quiet nowhere road, beneath the vividly lit Big Sky of Montana, gazing at snow-capped peaks, including the mountain where I mourned for my grandfather when he died five years ago ... and all of my emotions were muted. I descended through the valley, amid this sweeping expanse of space, on a clear and gorgeous evening, lost in a fog.

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." 


  1. I've been meaning to ask if you ever run into cows on the TD ride...I had an experience similar to yours a few months ago, only mine ended with me flying up and off my bike and down the embankment, crashing into the brush, missing a shoe (he was a BIG bull, with no horns thankfully, and popped me straight-up off the bike and out of my right shoe, still clipped in). I crawled back up to the road in a daze, and he was thankfully gone with his ladies (I came upon them fast on a downhill corner, trotting along in my I decided to pass them...which was NOT the right decision.....but this all happened in the span of a few seconds). Apparently after I flew off my bike, it must have fallen right there with the wheels still spinning. I guessed this because he stomped both wheels (they WERE my beautiful XTR tubeless) and they were both snapped in half, spokes sticking out, shaped like Pringles potato chips...totally ruined. M

    Miraculously I was unhurt (he hit me perfectly on the hip) but I had a nice 14 mile walk with my broken bike to think about it. He could have very easily killed I now think about cows a LOT when I ride around them, and I can TOTALLY feel your terror at that young bull charging me goosebumps!

    Having a 'cow' problem out in the middle of nowhere...the thought now scares me to death! I can't believe there haven't been more issues like mine (nobody I ride with has ever been 'hit' before...which I find hard to believe as there are lots of cows around here out in the forest service land). Or maybe it's just me and riding the wrong places. I hate to let cows determine which PUBLIC roads and trails I will ride.

    1. Damn — This bull was never close to making actual contact with me. I think he was just showing off for the cows nearby. Thinking back the encounter, his motions were similar to that of a playful dog, jumping up and down. But damn I was scared. I often wonder how many negative encounters people have with cattle on the GDMBR, as they are pretty much everywhere on that route. But most of the time, they're contained behind fences.

      I have a healthy fear of all big animals, cattle included. This is perhaps why the bull reacted to me the way he did, and why I took it so badly. For whatever reason I don't get as worked up about unseen threats. This is why I don't harbor a larger fear of bears, which I rarely see. However, I do have this thing about wolves, which is interesting as the chances of a wolf attack are astronomically small. But when I'm at my most tired and delusional, I often fixate on the notion that wolves are stalking me.

    2. I'm (now) WAY more afraid of cows than Mt lions or bears (I've only ever seen 2 mt lions and 1 bear while biking, and none of them were aggressive...just the opposite...they disappeared as quickly as possible when they knew I was there).

      Cows may be dumb, but they are BIG and dumb (my bull was EASILY over 1000 lbs...freaking HUGE...if I'd had more time I'd have been really scared, but as I came around the corner there they were, and just a moment later I'm flying over the bank). All my fear came after. My thought process 'during' as best as I can put together was something like "cows on the road....what to do...pass them...oh shi..."and that's it. These cows were way up on a ridge road (where they likely shouldn't have been, and probably got in thru a broken fence many miles away) with no place to get off the road up where I met them. I can only guess they'd be a BIG 'problem' for anybody on that day up on that, motorcycle, bike...(especially motorcycle & bike as you have no steel between you and the bull).

      Just a few weeks later the Mt bike race Tour de Los Padres went up/over that very road (Sierra Madre Ridge), and I never head of anybody having problems (thankfully).

  2. Who would have thought you'd have such a scary encounter with a bull when most people (not you) are worried about an encounter with a bear.

    I sent an email to your address on July 17 and July 21 (from two different email accounts) with some comments re: "Be Brave, Be Strong" and am just wondering if you received either email? Thanks.

    1. Your comment prompted me to check my e-mail for the first time in months. Thank you for your input! I've been working on new editions of "Be Brave, Be Strong" and "Ghost Trails," so this is very helpful. If you send me your address in an e-mail, perhaps I could send you a copy of my latest book as a thank you? (Suggestions always appreciated ;)

    2. I appreciate your offer on "Becoming Frozen" but I would like to support you as a writer and prefer to buy a copy of your latest book. I'll send you an email with my address and will send you a check for payment if you will send me a copy. I'm going to read "Ghost Trails" next and will be happy to give you feedback on it as well as your latest. Thanks. (Sending you an email in a few minutes...)

  3. yikes! young black bull looked up from a herd and charged toward me.

    the most I ever came close to similar situation was at La Ruta, a cow was running down the road. I yelled at it, get out of the way fat cow.
    Louise Kobin was in front of me, she thought I was yelling at her. Sorry I said to Louise, I was yelling at the cow.

    I did encounter bears on its hind legs where I train though as it protected its cubs...

    A bull charging would be something though. Yikes!

  4. Just re-reading your post...the part about the bull still gives me shivers.

    "The bull charged me and I panicked," I remember thinking. "That was all. I just panicked."

    I'm pretty certain that being charged by a bull is in David Letermans Top 10 GOOD reasons to panic.

  5. Holy cow, how scary! I would have panicked, too! Especially being alone smack dab in the middle of nowhere when it happened.

    I like your observation about racing: how it's a chance to share suffering with others, and also share in the accomplishment of pushing through. I often train alone, and when I don't it's usually with people who are faster and stronger than me, so it's easy to feel like I'm the only one who hurts. Races - the longer, the better - help me remember that's not true.


Feedback is always appreciated!