A taste of summer floated through the air, sweet and warm. Green nubs sprang to life on the branches of the aspen trees. Tiny wildflowers grinned skyward, covering the green meadows in patches of yellow, blue, and white. The mountains sighed in relief. Another winter was breaking. Snowy cirques melted into frigid run-off that splashed its way over rocks and under mossy overhangs. White clouds sun-bathed lazily across the blue, clear sky.
Each day the snow fields on the southwest face of Timpanogos shrink. Each day the rivers swell a little more.
And each day, the Grand Depart is closer. And I wonder more and more if I am ready.
I don’t feel ready. But I trust that my preparation has been adequate. I trust my legs, my mind, and my heart.
But something is missing.
I ignore the feeling, push it aside. Of course something is missing. I am about to ride the Tour Divide. I should be nervous. Scared, even. I won’t see my family for weeks. I won’t be comfortable for weeks. Ahead of me are storms, mud, grizzly bears, and big mountains separated by even bigger, emptier valleys. Only a cyborg would feel nothing.
My eight-year old daughter does not want me to leave.
“Can’t you pretend that you are sick?” She asks. “Or how about you tell everyone that you have a broken leg.”
I give her a hug. She cries. And then so do I. My wife is crying. Even my sons, normally stiff-lipped and stoic, have tears in their eyes. The bike is loaded into the truck. The bags, too. It’s time for the Tour Divide. And still, no mojo. Only questions. “What happened?” I ask myself a thousand times. I leave the family behind, eyes northward. On the way to Canada, I sleep a lot. It’s the only escape I have from my buzzing head and troubled heart. Occasionally, a wave of excitement rushes through my body – genuine excitement – and I am buoyed by this.
“Maybe I will be all right. Maybe these feelings are just jitters,” I tell myself. I hadn’t ridden for a few days. “When I get to Banff, I will spin away this frazzled energy, calm the nerves, clear the head.”
But as soon as the positive energy comes, it is gone, replaced again by a nagging, persistent uneasiness.
I can’t avoid thinking about my week on the Divide a year earlier, and the demons that pestered me for more than 700 miles. I spent a year learning how to fight them. And I thought that I had them beat. But they are clever and know which battles to fight. They were not defeated. They were dormant, resting, biding their time. They learned my tricks. And new ones of their own.
The rolling ranch lands of Montana give way to lush green forests. On the horizon, white-capped peaks interrupt the skyline, jagged and uneven. Canadian peaks. We cross the border, Banff bound. The knots in my gut tighten with each passing hour. I check the weather forecast again. It still looks good for the coming days. But I know that it can, and probably will change. I wonder about the snowpack in the passes, and how much hiking we’ll have to do to get through them. When we arrive, I am agitated and exhausted.
The bike ride through town and trail do nothing for the unsettled, jittery uncertainty.
The uneasiness grows. I am paralyzed by fear.
But it is too late to turn back now.
Banff, Alberta is crowded with tourists. The town attempts to be quaint, but the facade is betrayed by t-shirt shops, cafes, and high-end steak houses. The sidewalks hum with accents and languages from all parts of the world. People step into traffic to take the perfect selfie with Cascade Mountain. The Bow River races through town, swift and swollen from the summer run-off. Among the tourists there are Tour Divide riders. They are easy to pick out among the throng. Most look very fit. Many are riding their loaded bikes. And some, some have a faraway look in their eyes that betrays the bravado and confidence each is trying to convey. I envy the relaxed ease the tourists are enjoying. They are on vacation. I am not. I am here for the explicit purpose to leave. Banff is not my destination.
An unassuming parking lot behind the mighty Banff Springs Hotel is empty. A small sign post at the head of a narrow gravel trail warns about bears, wolves, and bad weather. The trail rolls southward, following the banks of the Spray River. This trailhead is the northern terminus – the southbound starting point – of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. This trailhead is the abyss. The great leap.
I stare at the sign post and think about the thousands of bike riders that have passed through this gate. Racer, tourist, explorer. Some rode until the trail ended, 2,700 miles to the south. Others rode only for an hour, a day, a week. All of them brought with them ideas and expectations, goals and ambitions. But they have all gone. Their stories are written, and their tracks have been erased by wind and water and time. And now here I am, with my own ideas. My own desires. Alone. Timid. I feel small and inadequate. A shiver of doubt ripples my spine. Bitterness rises in my throat.
“Which is the lucky color?” I ask. Jay Petervary is in front of the YWCA handing out stem caps, tradeable for pie in Pie Town, New Mexico.
“I don’t know, you tell me.” He says.
“Give me a few weeks, and I’ll let you know.”
I choose blue. The cap is tucked away in my frame bag with a vague hope that it will bring good fortune.
The Grand Depart is only 12 hours into the future. Riders gather in the U-shaped driveway of the YWCA to share stories, admire bikes, and meet the Tour Divide celebrities racing this year. Of course, those celebrities are just normal bike riders. As normal as one who races the Divide can be, anyway. But they are humble and interesting, and willing to play the part. In truth, everyone here is worthy of admiration and respect. All of us, rookies and vets alike, share in the mutual understanding that the next several weeks will hurt each of us dearly. Underneath the forced enthusiasm among the crowd, there is an unspoken knowing, a truth, an inevitability. We are condemned. And yet, we chose this path. And we will smile, as much as we can, through the coming damnation.
Crazy Larry is hounding riders for photos. “Have some rice krispy squares!” he insists. His love for the Tour Divide is well known, his excitement palpable. I watch from a distance, amused, grateful. I wish for some of his energy. In a few hours, he will lead us through the gate, and we will disappear into the void.
I meet some of the other riders. I’m impressed by each of them. Some vets. Some rookies. It matters little. One rider is a big man. Not cycling-big. Just big-big. He is here for the 4th time. He’s 0 for 3. “I want to be the fattest guy to ever finish this race,” he declares. We laugh. He does, too. But he is serious. And determined. Another is here on a bike his wife surprised him with for Christmas. He cries when he tells me the story. A woman is here riding in memory of her daughter. A couple is spending their honeymoon on the Divide. Then there are the Belgians, here for only one thing: to win. But they are affable, eager to talk about gear and route details. The Kiwis, every single one of them, is confident, well organized, and utterly indifferent about anything that might happen in the future. “Just here to ride,” they all seem to say.
And then there is me. I joke and trade tales with the others. But inside, I am trembling. I am in knots. I wonder how everyone else is so relaxed, confident, easy. “They are actually enjoying this,” I realize. “But, how?”
Ty tells one of the riders, the one whose wife surprised him with the bike, about the time I nearly drowned with my bike. “It was the dumbest thing I ever did, until now,” I say. He grows serious. “This isn’t dumb,” he says. And he means it. “When you are sad, or you are tired, or you are cold,” he continues, “just remember that you are riding the Tour Divide.” I nod. “Say it out loud if you need to: ‘I am riding the Tour Divide.’ I promise you that it will bring a smile to your face.” His words prove prophetic.
Ty is at dinner with his parents. I am alone in the dorm room at the YWCA. I look out of the window, and down into the long, wooded valley where the trail leads. Storm clouds shroud the view, but if I squint, I can see Mexico. Not actually, of course. But I imagine for the hundredth time, what it might be like to ride all the way to Mexico. In a few hours, I will know. In a few hours I will be down the road, on the trail. Southbound.
I kneel on the bed and weep. Heavy, heaving sobs. An empty, fruitless release.
Thunder booms in the mountain valley. Rain falls hard from the murky, liquid sky.
“I do not want to do this. I do not want to do this.”
Everyone is quiet. Heads bowed. Helmets held over hearts. We remember Dave Blumenthal and Mike Hall. And others, too. The ghost riders. Crazy Larry breaks the silence. “Are you ready?” he asks. A low murmur rises from the crowd. “Are you READY?” he asks again, louder and more emphatic. Cheers, if half-hearted, rise into the gloomy, morning air. Everyone is nervous. Everyone is uncertain. But everyone is also here, bikes aimed southward, eyes up, looking forward, ahead. “Viva Mexico!” someone yells. And then we are moving. A brightly-colored mob of jittery, determined bike riders overwhelms the streets of Banff. Cars stop. The few tourists walking the streets at the early hour watch with curiosity. The YWCA is behind us. So, too, is the Banff Springs castle-hotel, main street, Cascade Mountain, and all the many weeks and years of planning, thinking, and wondering.
I plunge through the gate, off the ledge, and into the great, unknown abyss.
I make small-talk with the riders around me. “What’s your name, where are you from, have you done this before?” There’s Bret and Brad, and Rob. Craig, Jeremy, Andrew. Minnesota, Colorado, New Zealand, Belgium. “Yes, I’ve done it before.” “Nope, first time.” “Yes, sort of, scratched in Helena.” The discussions are thin, short. Not much else to say at this point. We are all buzzed, trying to settle down, avoiding a crash or wrong turn. The long line of riders unfurls like flags on a string. I imagine the clustered blue dots on Trackeaders slowly stretching out, a snake uncoiling across the Divide.
“I am riding the Tour Divide.” I say it. Out loud. “I AM riding the Tour Divide.” And I smile, just as promised. I laugh, even. “I AM RIDING THE TOUR DIVIDE!” It’s raining now. Hard. I’ve already dug out my rain jacket and pants. They are shiny and wet. Snotty mud is splattered up my back. I stop and peel off my sodden gloves and replace them with waterproof ones. The trail is a long, straight corridor, a hallway lined as far as I can see by dense rain forest. Along the narrow cut are splashes of green, yellow, blue, and black – riders.
When I arrive at the Boulton Creek store, it is crowded with soggy, muddy, shell-shocked bike riders. “Is this Mexico?” I ask. “Not yet” is the consensus. “Not yet.” I leave the store alone, but am soon joined by others as we creak our way up the soft, puddled trail to Elk Pass. Upward, and then over. Through more puddles, muddy bogs, and running, rocky creek beds. The rain fades, the clouds clear, a little. The sun peeks out from behind the curtain of streaky, grey paint. Jackets are stowed.
For a moment, the going is fast and bright.
All the while, I have been arguing with myself. I fight with the two aspects of who I am. There’s the man who wanted to be here, and the one who won’t, can’t, refuses.
I am in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. They are unreal, like cartoons. Massive, unabashed. Water flows from them freely. Every drainage is roaring. Every river is brimming. “Certainly these mountains are the source of all mountains, of all rivers, of all life itself,” I conclude. “How could it be any other way?”
When I reach the right turn for the new re-route – a 3-hour hike – I am exhausted. I have no more energy to fight myself. No more tolerance for doubt. Nothing left. I do not turn right. I do not hesitate. I have left the trail. I ride through Elkford, all the way to Sparwood. It is getting dark. I rent a hotel room where I sleep warm and comfortable, knowing that my friends are cold and wet. I feel nothing. I am numb. My Tour Divide is over before it ever began.
I wanted to be a dragon slayer. A demon killer. I wanted to ride into the unknown, and reveal the path. Instead, I cowered. I fled. I failed.
What was supposed to be a focused, simple, escape from the daily grind turned out to be a debacle. The grand adventure became a farce. I let my dizzy brain complicate the cleanest, most straight-forward objective. Just ride your bike. And yet, riding the bike was the last thing I wanted to do. It was the one thing that didn’t make any sense doing. There was no point to riding my bike. “Why continue,” I asked myself, “when I know that I will hate this?”
I didn’t want to hate it. I still don’t want that. But in the moment, there was no joy. And that is the most disappointing thing of all.
The crowd outside the Downtowner in Whitefish, Montana wont’t stop. I roll over and look at the clock. 2:30 in the morning. All night they’ve been drinking and yelling in the parking lot. One of them, the owner of a loud muscle car revs the engine as loudly as possible over and over again. This goes on all night. I almost ask for peace and quiet, but I value my teeth. So I stay in bed.
I look at Trackleaders. Dots are faded and still. They are strewn along the route from Ovando to Fernie. A sickening mixture of regret and relief ferments in my stomach. I’d ridden from Elkford, along the highway into Sparwood the day before. The next day, I continue on the road to Fernie, where I encounter Divide racers. “Come with us.” they say. “Who cares if you missed some of the route. Who cares what color your dot is.” I can think of no reason to decline the invitation, and yet, I do. “Thanks.” I say. “But I am going to take the highway, and get to the border as quickly as I can.”
I cross into the United States, and ride the rural pavement into Eureka, where I pretend to be a racer, eating a big lunch at the most famous Subway restaurant in mountain biking. Josh Kato arrives. A few others. I wish them well. I ride toward Whitefish, hitching the last few miles into town.
I buy clothes at Shopko. Jeans, a t-shirt. Ill-fitting shoes. A hoodie. “This is a nice one” the sales lady says. “It’s RealTree brand, good quality.”
I wander around town aimlessly. Most of the restaurants are bars. They are noisy, crowded, unpleasant. Anyway, I don’t drink. Dinner from the grocery store will do. Fried chicken, potato wedges, a candy bar, and a popsicle.
Reality settles in. I need to get home. But how?
I get a text message from a friend. “I’ll come get you.”
“Really? It’s a 10-hour drive, each way.”
“No problem. I’ll leave early in the morning. But you gotta drive back.”
In the morning, I am glad to be out of the room. The carousing finally stops just before dawn. I contemplate slashing the tires of the muscle car. Instead, I watch a few more riders pass through town. Ty is among them. He looks strong. He is focused. I wave, he waves back, not recognizing me. And why would he? I am supposed to be on the trail, slugging my way up Galton Pass, not in Whitefish, wearing blue jeans and a RealTree hoodie. Later, he asks if that was me, sitting on the gas station porch in Whitefish. “Yup.” But I am glad he didn’t stop. He was racing, after all. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to explain myself just yet.
My friend arrives. I load the bike. Fill the tank. And once again I am southbound.
The sun is setting low over southern Montana. I know that to the west, Divide riders are pedaling into the twilight. A massive storm gathers overhead. Soon, rain is pelting the truck. The deluge lasts only a few minutes. I hope that riders in the path of the storm can find shelter. But they are tough. They will endure. I drive over rolling hills, dotted with evergreen trees and endless plains of sage. I catch a glimpse of the Tetons, far to the west, snow-capped and abrupt. The lonely road in front of me is not the lonely road of my imagination. But it is lonely, nonetheless.
In the time since then, the Tour Divide has done what it always does. Riders have succumbed to illness, food poisoning, injuries, mechanical problems, and unworldly fatigue. Riders have overcome those things as well. The gritty southbound determination that Divide racers have is priceless. I had it, once. But it proved a flighty companion. Ty withdrew in Lima. His grandpa passed away. He was in 5th place, and riding well when he left the trail.
The honeymoon couple is out, due to injuries. The woman riding for her daughter is also out. Bret, Craig, and others ride on. As does the big man. He’s farther south than ever before. He’s riding with the “I am riding the Tour Divide” guy. I see a photo of them both, together, smiling. I can almost hear them saying aloud “We are riding the Tour Divide.” I am rooting for them more than anyone else on the trail. They are the perfect representation of what the Divide means to the people who ride it.
Others that I spent time with on the trail are plodding along. Wyoming. Colorado. Into New Mexico. Some have scratched. Some have had to take rest days. But most are still riding. A Kiwi voice echos in my head. “Just here to ride.” I long to be with them, staring at the long road ahead. I wish it were so. But just as I chose to race the Divide, I chose not to race it. And here I am, feeling that same bitter mixture of relief and regret.
But I also wonder if the voice that pestered me, nagged at me, thwarted me, was the voice of reason. What if it’s in those moments of despair that I think most clearly? In the moment, there was no doubt what I needed to do. And so I did it, though it was not what I had planned. Not what I wanted. The way ahead was never more clear than when I left the trail, and high-tailed for home.
Does that make me a coward? A fraud? Both?
But I did what I knew I needed to do.
And now I will try to figure out why I quit the race, and what I can do to ensure a different outcome next time. If there is a next time.
I am home now. I hug my wife. I cry in her arms. For a moment, I am broken. I spend the week lying low. I do not want to see neighbors or friends. I do not want to ride my bike, though I do, because I don’t know anything else.
I feel better a few days later. I am still disappointed. I am still confused. But answers will come.
Maybe not for a while. Maybe not for years.
Maybe not until I am once again riding the Divide.