In my day dream of riding the Tour Divide, I'd conjured up a heroic image of myself moving effortlessly through majestic mountain ranges, over high plains and through hot desert; of sleeping under the stars and finding the same rhythm as all the other wild creatures out there who survive in the vast emptiness of western US. Not so.
It took me three years of day dreaming to edge my fantasy towards reality. I felt like I needed to get my head around the scale of the thing. I wanted to try and fully prepare myself; mind, body and equipment, to ride the 2750 miles over the accumulated height of five Mount Everest's fully self supported and as fast as possible but I needn’t have bothered. There was nothing that could have prepared me for this. I should have just leapt in with lower expectations sooner but that's not really my style. Or, at least, it wasn't. It probably is now.
Now it's over, I consider all the precision thinking that went into preparing for this ride and all the minuscule tweaks and tucks and weighing of gear that we sweated and laboured over in the months before leaving and then I look at this photo and I laugh out loud.
We began two whole, clean, intact beings on finely tuned bikes all neatly packed and ordered and we finished two feral unwashed, emaciated, wild creatures with plastic bottles, used wet wipes and an entire meal of food crumbs stuck to bikes held together with cable ties and Sugru. But happy and content despite all the mishaps that cost us so dearly throughout the race.
Rickie Cotter, (an actual Nugget of Welsh gold) had felt a similar way about riding The Divide and so, when we talked about it together, a plan formed. Two women who move at a similar speed on and off the bike and who have a shared desire to communicate the physical and emotional benefits of outdoor adventures to others is a film maker's dream. The fact that neither of us could really operate a camera and have the tendency to get so caught up in riding that we might forget to film, were small facts lost in the excitement of the project. Rickie and I would ride “together” (i.e. independently but alongside each other) with an iPhone and a GoPro between us and self film this epic journey. What was still not clear was whether we were racing or not. Could we do both?
It started the way any good adventure does. Meeting strangers who would become friends. Tori Fahey (the brains behind Apidura bikepacking luggage) kindly put us in touch with her Calgary based friends Erik, Cindy and Craig who, between them, picked us up from the airport, fed and accommodated us then rode with us over to Banff for the race start. We didn't know it then but this generosity of human spirit would be a recurring theme over the next month. Craig Stapplar, a well known name in Divide history, introduced us to Robin and Michelle who, without question, put us up in Banff the night before the race start. It was at this stage I realised just how incredible a network the Tour Divide draws around it. Robin has ridden the Divide and played host to many a nervous departee in his Banff home. The gravity of the task that faced us was obvious from the faraway look in Robin’s eye as he carefully drew out our fears and expectations of the challenge that lay before us over dinner the night before. Michelle's offering was more simple and practical. She solemnly removed her work badge from her Wonder Woman lanyard and placed it round my neck. This talisman would switch between Rickie and me countless times over the next 20 days and arrive in Antelope Wells covered (literally) in our blood, sweat, tears and sun cream.
We had arrived in Banff without a clear idea of how we were going to do this. Our initial thinking was to set off the day after the mass start on an individual time trial so that we didn’t get caught up in the race and could focus on the filming. The night before departure, we spoke to Matthew Lee, race coordinator and maestro of the Trackleaders website that allows people to follow our GPS generated dots online. We wanted to be represented on the Trackleaders website so our friends, family and primary school pupils who were matching our mileage back home could follow us but it wasn't until we spoke to Matthew the night before that it was decided we would be included in the mass start the following morning. I think for Rickie, who tends to need a bit more time to adjust to evolving plans than I seem to, this news nearly blew a gasket in her mind. Suddenly, it looked like we were racing this thing. We hurriedly discussed how we mustn't let the filming suffer as a result of being included in the mass start then went off to nervously tweak and fiddle with our bikes.
That night, we watched the rain bouncing off the pavement as lightening split the sky and I had a moment of feeling incredibly small and temporary. I move through life occasionally suffering little digs at my own mortality but at the start of something like this your mortality squares up to you eyeball to eyeball and asks “You sure about this?”. My answer came easily. “Nope, but it's not going to stop me now.”
In the morning Banff was buzzing. Boys, bikes, bags and beards were everywhere. Robin rode us up to the start line by the Banff hostel, a place I'd thought about standing astride my bike for three years. I was ready. I had my friend by my side. We had a joint mission. I was scared and excited and desperate to start turning my pedals in order to dispel some of this pent up energy. This would be the last time in three weeks that something didn't hurt. But I didn't think to savour that feeling. Who does? You never appreciate what you've got until it’s gone.
That first day we rode fast on fresh legs and nervous energy. We passed bikepackers of all different shapes, sizes, colours and set ups. There was a lot of stopping to tighten and adjust things and to take photos and footage of the impressive, intimidating snow covered peaks we were riding at the foot of. We ate and changed clothing on the bike to make up time and to combat the torrential rain and fatigue that threatened, both of us digging far deeper than we would have chosen to this early on. A re route due to washed away bridges meant a brutal hike a bike up a near vertical rubble field and added half a day to the overall route but we pushed our bikes above our head (sliding backwards almost at the same speed) until we found ourselves among the group of riders heading up the race. This was never our intention but how foolish of us to think we could ride our bikes at a pace anything less than we felt capable of. Rickie and I are bike racers and, despite our shared film- making objective, this fact is woven through our DNA.
We passed our first cold, damp night in a river valley 130 miles from the start line but were up and moving again after 4 hours of semi-sleep in an effort to reach Fearnie for breakfast.
A word about re emerging into civilisation after an intense bout of bike battle. Ordering food is challenging. Your brain has a time lag on it like a bad Skype connection. The whole way along the route we would be asked impossible questions about the type of bread we’d like or what our cheese preferences were while we’d hop from foot to foot, squirming with incomprehension and rubbing our faces in an effort to restore basic communication ability. Intuitive cafe staff would make the easy decisions for us and we would be ushered gently to one side while our order was prepared but young or bored employees of fast food joints were more likely to stick to their dogmatic question and answer regime. “Ok ma'am and after you've decided on your bread we’re going to go right ahead and talk about all the different dressing choices we have for you today.”
I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to all the service staff I might have offended the length of America. To the young boy just doing his job in the Subway near Lima, I didn't mean to raise my voice and say “Look, I don’t CARE what cheese you give me, just MAKE ME A SANDWICH.” I was impaired and choice is stressful for me at the best of times. That's why I choose to pack two tiny bags on my bike and ride for 20 hours a day. It's hard physically but strangely stress free because you have no decisions to make. You're just moving forward. Any choice is based solely and selfishly on achieving that task.
Canada was wet, cold and impressive and over too quickly. On the second day, we hauled our bikes up Galton Pass all afternoon in the rain before negotiating the snow on the summit, donning full waterproofs and clocking up our fastest speeds of the trip down to the US border and the welcome warmth of the border control office. We dripped water and mud all over their immaculate floor then got our heads down for the last few km’s to Eureka.
Arriving in the US felt momentous. A real landmark and with it, a complete change of terrain. The high, jagged peaks of Canada suddenly gave way to the meandering plains and soft rolling hills of northern Montana. We rolled along the road at 9.30pm having happily left the menacing, dark rain clouds hovering over Galton Peak but protected from them now by a barrier of vivid rainbow.
We intended to use our bivvy bags and sleep out every night but after two days of solid rain, we booked our first motel room of the trip and dried ourselves out thoroughly in preparation for the following days inevitable soaking.
Montana was lovely. And long. 4 days later we were still riding through it, its vast plains and rolling hills having given way to more mountainous terrain and a mind boggling amount of trees. A key community that stood out for us in this state was the tiny town of Ovando whose residents have wholeheartedly embraced the fact that Tour Divide riders greet them as little crumpled messes on their grocery store porch. I was one of these messes. The day had been hot and long and two hours previously, I'd gone down on bended knee for something and now had a searing pain in it. I bought a can of sweetcorn and some Ibuprofen and spend 20 minutes eating and icing my knee while chatting to our hosts and a Montana based friend who had popped up unexpectedly in the tiny town to wish us luck. “There's a storm coming in, girls. Do you not want to stay here the night?” Sure enough the skies to the south were bubbling and darkening and the thought of climbing up and over Huckleberry Pass wasn't filling me with joy. But it was 8pm and our rhythm of riding until 11pm and rising at 3am has just been established. We thanked them. clambered back on our bikes and rode out into the expansive plain that led to the start of the climb. It was then that the lightning began. Big, bold claps of thunder followed by terrifying cracks of blue light all around us and, for the first time that day, I didn't feel bothered by the pain in my knee.
The thunder, lightening and rain continued all the way across the exposed plain. This was not a good place to be in a lightning storm but we’d made our decision and had to press forward. (I hate lightning. Can't help thinking it would be such a shit way to go.) When we reached the start of the climb having survived the crossing, our relief was short lived. The rain and now the darkness, made descending off it at speed impossible. We couldn't see and so had to go slow, getting very cold in the process. The lights of the town of Lincoln were a long time coming that evening and when we did eventually see them and followed them until we found a motel, we were so cold, wet, hungry and tired that we couldn't even feel relief anymore.
The next day, having survived one final attempt at killing ourselves by setting fire to our clothing on the motel radiator, we rolled out again into the relentless rain.
I didn’t know it then but the maximum dose of Ibuprofen I had begun taking in Ovando to help me manage the pain in my knee, was having another affect on my system that in days to come, was going to prove even more problematic.
Montana continued. Helena, Butte, Lima. Days could be going so easily and well along fast double track and then be slowed to a crawl by a knee deep snowy pass, clinging mud or some technical terrain. We changed brake pads in super market car parks, washed our underwear and dried it from our helmets, ordered terrible, wonderful breakfasts from cheap roadside diners. We rode uphill all morning and descended steep rocky chutes in the afternoon. We slept under the stars, in snowmobile warming huts and under trees and occasionally we were reminded of the heart warming support this race receives from the communities and individuals we passed. More often than not, we were expected. The two leading pink dots among all the blue ones on Trackleaders made us easy to spot on the web page as we inched our way south.
In our urgency to complete a stretch of infamously muddy trail before the rains began again, we bypassed High Mountain Lodge just before The Bannack Road in southern Montana. It was 5am and although a coffee would have been most welcome, we didn't think anyone would be too pleased if we knocked on their door at this time in the morning. 30 minutes later, a truck overtook us and pulled over. Russ jumped out.
“Sorry, I set my alarm for you guys coming through but you were up earlier than I thought. Need coffee?”
He produced a flask of coffee and some homemade cookies from High Mountain Lodge. We stopped to spend some time with this remarkably kind man who was keeping all sorts of strange hours to make sure Divide riders weren't left wanting on this remote stretch of desolate road. There is such kindness and camaraderie to be found on this route.
When we eventually left Montana and slipped into Idaho, it was 6am on the 6th day. We had traversed across a high plateau (which was also a nature reserve) the previous evening and the starry sky had been so vast and bright that we hadn’t needed our lights to see. We’d then dropped into the neighbouring state early the next morning, marvelling at the change in landscape and feel again. Idaho was a brief interlude but riding through it felt like taking a deep calming breath. Soft skies and rolling singletrack delivered us from within deep wilderness to the welcome arms of an espresso hut on a busy intersection. It was here I looked in a mirror for the first time in 4 days. I knew I had some localised swelling in my knees (standard) but on seeing my face I realised the swelling was not confined to my joints. This happens sometimes when I sleep outside and my inflated stomach I assumed was as the result of the gas station frozen burrito diet we had been rigorously adopting so, although uncomfortable and a little inhibiting, I rode with this systemic swelling into Wyoming. It was exciting to enter Wyoming. The Teton National Park put on a fine display of needle peaks and rock formations that distracted me briefly from the growing discomfort of fluid retention. But when my knees could no longer pass my top tube without biffing off it, I knew things were bad and getting worse. My breath was now very laboured and one of my eyes was swollen almost shut. We had started moving so slowly that guys we hadn't seen since the start were now overtaking us. Rickie looked over at me as we crawled up an easy Tarmac gradient and exclaimed.
“Jesus Lee, you've gone blue!”
Rickie is not known for her melodrama. A more practical, stoic person you will never meet so when she sounds alarmed, it's time to get alarmed yourself. We stopped at Lava Mountain Lodge and had the difficult conversation I knew in my heart we were going to have to have at some point. I told her she had to go on alone. I was not about to kill myself by pushing over Union Pass that night without first getting medical help. I didn't want her to stay with me. It would have made me feel ten times worse not least because I know how invested in this ride she had become. Rickie Cotter is an excellent, tenacious, competitive bike rider and a fiercely loyal friend. I watched as she battled with herself over her decision to stay or go and in the end I made it for her. She HAD to carry on. Yes, we were making a film about this journey together but more importantly, a journey like this is a solo endeavour. Ultimately (and this is what makes it so potent an experience) each of us is completely responsible for ourselves and no one else.
I watched her ride off, her face set in a grim line in an effort to compartmentalise the concern she continued to feel for me. I turned away quickly before she was out of sight and forced the lump out of my throat. I didn't feel worried about myself, just exhausted and disappointed. I struggled with my ego as other riders came and went through the lodge, offering their condolences before speeding on into the dusk. I'd fought hard to be up at this position in the field and now all I could do was watch as it all slipped away. I booked a room at the lodge and slept a strange, numb 4 hour sleep in the semi darkness and woke to find I'd been crying. Something had shifted in me. For the first time ever I'd not been able to battle my way out of a set of unfavourable circumstances. It was day 11. My body had simply stopped working and there was nothing I could do about it but give in. This rocked my world a bit and still does. But you always have choices.
In the morning, I felt ready to fight again. I stashed my bike and stood by the side of the road for an hour in an effort to hitch a lift to a medical centre in Jackson, an hour's drive away. Eventually, Grant picked me up and we spent a companionable day together. He even insisted on picking me up again after my treatment and returning me to Lava Mountain Lodge. I silently added Grant to my growing list of people to feel grateful for. The diagnosis was peripheral oedema caused by an allergic reaction to ibuprofen. I’d been taking more and more of the drug in an effort to reduce the swelling and now I realised I'd been exacerbating the problem.
The swelling thankfully decreased with the help of a steroid injection from Medical Centre staff and my breathing had become easy again. I messaged Juliana Burhring, another endurance cyclist who had suffered similar symptoms earlier in the year who told me Billy Rice (friend and paramedic) wasn't far behind me on course having suffered his own medical difficulties. She also explained that Sam, another mutual friend, wasn't far away at Brush Mountain Lodge and could come and get me if I was stuck. This news combined with the steroids now pumping through my system, and an additional course in pill form in my pocket, gave me the strength to make the decision to carry on.
Billy and I joined forces to get up and over Union Pass at 3am the following morning. If I was going to go high again having suffered oedema it made survival sense to do so in the company of a paramedic. I'd lost a day and half to my illness and my journey goal had shifted a bit but we still had a film to make and the Tour Divide to recce in preparation for a race effort in the future. It was up to Rickie what she chose to do. She could ride alone to the finish and self film or wait for me along the way somewhere. It wasn't up to me and that felt good. Now, all that was up to me was making the most of my ride and, although I missed my friend, I realised I was really looking forward to some alone time to move at my own speed and establish my own rhythm. It's easy to assume that riding in a pair would be an advantage and make for better progress and while this is true under certain circumstances (we definitely drew confidence in riding together late at night over high passes in thunderstorms) we also had to adapt to each other's pace. Rickie goes super light weight and likes to ride up hills fast then stop to recover. I prefer to move more slowly and to keep going rather than stop and so we found that by moving together we were getting the best and worst of both worlds. I lost my rhythm by stopping in cafes, she had to temper her fast climbing efforts. I wasn't getting a chance to look around and appreciate where I was, and poor Rickie was having to adhere to my requests that we stop and set a filming shot up that included both of us riding. All that said, she was an absolute joy to journey with and I wouldn't have started out on this with anyone else. I hoped in the back of my mind as we inched up Union Pass that if at all possible, we'd complete the journey together.
I felt strong and re energised going up over Union Pass in the early hours of the morning on the 12th day. We post holed through snow in the darkness until we emerged on the wide summit just as the sun was yawning awake and splattering the sky with colour. Billy and I descended together towards Pinedale occasionally submerging our bikes right up to their cranks in muddy water. And then, just near the foot of the descent, my bike gave a clunk and I began feeling like I was pedalling squares. It was making the most horrible noise so I got off and inspected my bottom bracket. There was some play but not enough to worry about. Yet. An hour later and a mashed aluminium collar revealed itself, all the bearings fell out and my cranks began lurching about so wildly that my chainring scraped off my frame with every revolution. I told Billy to go on ahead.
I spent 35 miles grinding my chainring into my frame and moving at 6 mph on a hot, flat road in an effort to reach the small town of Pinedale then my heart sank as I realised that the bike shop was a stand at the back of a general hardware store. The store manager and I problem solved as best we could but in the end, all that was left for me to do was retreat to the diner, drink coffee and make an alternative plan. From Pinedale, riders enter the Great Basin, a barren sun bleached, waterless wilderness with nothing and no one around for miles. My bike was unrideable. The closest repair shop that stocked the replacement bottom bracket I needed was 400 miles away in Steamboat Springs. I knew this meant a scratch from the race but I was frantically pleading with my optimistic self to salvage a solution of some kind. I didn't mind too much about the race strangely enough, I just wanted to keep moving forward on the bike. I wanted to keep journeying and filming and sleeping out under the stars but I was struggling to find solutions. Instead, I said a series of bad words and ordered more coffee. Then Dwayne came in.
“I hear you might need a ride some place?”
Dwayne was a local cowboy with a day to kill. He was willing to drive me 200 miles to southern Colorado where I could reach the safe haven of Brush Mountain Lodge and the friends who had been on standby to help me when I was sick and suffering at Lava Mountain Lodge. I added Dwayne to the list of fine people I had met and accepted his offer.
It's an interesting dynamic that develops in a vehicle being driven by someone who’s doing you an enormous favour. Gratitude and respect for Dwayne’s altruism opened my mind up to conversations I wouldn't otherwise have had. As a Trump voting, gun toting, far right, anti Muslim Christian, Dwayne’s political standing was about as polar opposite to my own as it's possible to get. Yet a mutual respect grew between us so strong that for the first time I felt able to really understand why someone would hold so tightly to these aliens values. He taught me that kind, caring people can be motivated by different things and that tolerance and acceptance of difference is not only possible but can feel easy between two very different human beings. I didn't change my value system as a result of meeting Dwayne and I'm sure he didn't change his but we parted company each with the new realisation that people who are different to us are not to be feared and that simply by being curious, rich connections can be made. He did make me promise to think about getting myself a gun before continuing on my journey. “You have to take self protection seriously, Lee” but ironically, as a result of meeting Dwayne, I felt reassured by my lack of firearms.
Brush Mountain Lodge sprawls on the hillside right on the Tour Divide route at the top of a gradual climb from the desert floor. Riders arrive dehydrated and occasionally traumatised and it’s infamous host Kirsten, is waiting on the wooden deck to welcome them with a hug. A hug at this point in the race can feel so good it has been known to reduce riders to tears. But before melancholy can set in, Kirsten has food and drink before tired riders and has already put their clothes in the wash. Most riders stop here to gather themselves and accept full hospitality which includes comfortable accommodation, warm showers and all the food you could possibly want in a relaxed and welcoming setting. Just to add to the juxtaposition riders experience in arriving here from their two weeks of ride related torture, hummingbirds swoop and dart about giving the place it’s final touches of paradise. Also waiting for me at Brush Mountain were Sam and Bernard, two friends who were supposed to be crewing for that years Race Across America but whose rider had crashed out on the first day, leaving them all pent up with unutilised support energy and a vehicle full of gas, tools and bike parts. They detoured to Brush Mountain to expend their energies by offering mechanical assistance to Tour Divide racers instead. I was so glad to see them. Partly because I liked them both a lot and partly because Sam’s ability to bodge a bike repair is legendary. If anyone could help me get back on the trail, it was Sam. But these things cannot be rushed! Since Grant’s helpfulness back in Wyoming and now Dwayne's kindness, I was experiencing a shift in my focus and mentality. The fight was gone. Any sense of urgency had been replaced with a need to connect with people and give back to others some of the generosity I had been shown. I wanted to sit down with a beer, put my arm around Kirsten's black Labrador and watch the sunset with my friends. I could keep pushing and striving and forcing my way down the Tour Divide route or I could pause and rejuvenate myself. Hit reset and make a gentler plan.
A friend back home who had been watching my dot and seen the post I had made on Twitter announcing my official scratch from the race sent me an extract from Mike Hall’s blog of the Tour Divide just before he set the course record on it.
"Enjoy it, don't lose sight of just how lucky you are to be out there and above all, manage your expectations. If we treat things as a pass or fail test we can torture ourselves over the outcome but if we can consider it more as an experiment with an uncertain outcome from the start then we always at least get an answer."
Mike was the best.
Tempting though it was to hang out at Brush Mountain with the wonderful Kirsten for the rest of the summer, I decided I needed to complete this journey in one way or another so I enlisted Sam's help and he came up with an ingenious fix for my bike. Taking the bearings out of the headset of his retired RAAM riders bike, he fashioned a shim that held the bodged bearing race in place and squeezed the crank arm back on. The pedals didn't exactly go round freely but they did go round and, more importantly, there was no play in the bottom bracket. If I was careful I could nurse the bike for 5 hours over the high mountain pass that separated Brush Mountain from Steamboat Springs where Orange Peel Bikes had a new bottom bracket they could replace for me. We were back on.
The next morning I rolled out again under a new flag. My dot online had changed from pink to orange (indicating a rider has alternated from the original route). I was no longer in the race but it didn’t seem to matter. I was on my bike with bags packed for an adventure and all the freedom and autonomy I needed to enjoy the wild places I had yet to pass through. I felt happy and content and grateful for good friends who happened to be bike mechanics
A four hour layover in Steamboat Springs to get my bottom bracket repaired put me 3 days behind Rickie on the trail. Oddly, I felt no sense of urgency to force the repair through faster but instead enjoyed hanging out with the friendly bunch of mechanics in the bike shop while they sweated and laboured to remove my completely collapsed bottom bracket and replace it with a new one. This was just the pace of things and if there was no point in fighting it then I might as well enjoy it and the company of the people I was meeting along the way.
I eventually got underway and soon the sun went down over northern Colorado, the heat of the day lingering about in the silky night air. At midnight I bedded down on top of a pass and enjoyed the solitude of the moment. My knee had started to hurt again shortly after leaving Steamboat but even this couldn't dampen my spirits (though it did threaten to in Breckenridge before Will from Howard Edge Physio manipulated my knotted quad and k-taped it up for me. Will got added to the list).
Moving solo through Colorado felt magical. It was a place I'd felt an affinity for as a young adult working on her first real work contract for Colorado Outward Bound. I co instructed 30 day technical mountaineering trips in the South San Juan mountain range and had my first taste of the power of wilderness emersion during them. 17 years later I still love that feeling of moving independently carrying everything you need to survive with you. It's true freedom if you can allow yourself to really be there. This means opening yourself up to those feelings of discomfort and loneliness as well as joy. You can close everything down and feel very little while just remaining focussed on the task (something I think Rickie and I can be accused of when we race our bikes) or you can look up and open your eyes and your heart. It's risky. You stand to lose focus and motivation but I kind of feel what's the point otherwise?
Restored and rejuvenated by my encounters with good humans and the three day solo time that allowed me to slow down and listen to my heart beat in this vast, impressive place, I knew what I needed to do next. I was getting fraught WhatsApp messages from Rickie who had slipped fully into race mode in my absence (a place she knows well) and was turning herself inside out pulling impressively long and arduous days over high mountain passes alone. Self filming is not her forte and yet she was valiantly holding up this end of the bargain. In two days she would enter the deserts of New Mexico and I knew how she was dreading the heat. I reminded myself of our objectives. We were recceing the route for a race attempt one day, we were completing a journey together and we were making a film. I had to try and catch up with her. The trouble was, she still had 3 days ride on me. I checked the map and emailed Matthew Lee. We made the plan that I should drop down into the valley floor and time trial south on the road in an effort to intercept her before the New Mexico border. It would be a long, hot road bash avoiding three 10,000ft passes. If I rode through the night, l’d avoid the oppressive heat of the day and make it to New Mexico before it got hot again. Riding by the road was not what I came here to do but under the circumstances it felt right. I could claw back time and rejoin my friend in two days.
The following day while eating Twinkees at a gas station 50 miles north of Salida, I got an email from Michael Stevens, a film maker I'd been in touch with who lives in Gunnison, not 150 miles away. He was interested in our project and keen to be involved in some way. I leapt on his offer and suggested Salida as a rendezvous point. Serendipity had intervened. Michael recruited Manik, a drone pilot, and together they made their way to Salida to intercept me. I battled into a headwind that felt like an industrial strength hairdryer and made it to Salida in time to pour over maps and make a plan. By the time Michael and Manik arrived I had worked out two options for them. They could film me time trialling on a hot, straight road into the night in an effort to intercept Rickie on the New Mexico border or, we could travel together in their car the 90 miles back into the mountains to the town of Del Norte through which Rickie would be passing in 2 hours time. To a film maker, this choice was a no brainer. Stay up all night and get mind numbing footage of my bum or stand the chance of filing an emotional reunion before Indiana Pass. The boys slung my bike Jimmy on the roof of their car and Manik barrelled south while Michael filmed from the back seat.
And it was emotional. The Nugget arrived in Del Norte in quite a state. She was dirt and salt encrusted with blood from a nose bleed all over herself and her bike. A brown wet wipe was still thrust up one nostril but her face when she saw me in that gas station was worth the stinky hug I got. It was so good to see her again.
The boys filmed us resupplying on gas station burritos, Gatorade and protein bars then followed us partway up the final, highest pass Colorado had to offer to get some valuable footage of the two of us moving together. They then bid us farewell. Michael and Manik had showed up at just the right time and been generous with their time and resources when we needed them most. I added them to The List.
Rickie was a shadow of herself. She'd climbed her own legs off and was now reduced to a single steady pace. We inched up the long climb together, wildly recounting stories of our 5 days apart. We each got animated about the really fun bit of built singletrack that had gone on for km’s after the pass out of Breckenridge. Rickie told the story of how she had initially missed it in the dark and been informed in the morning via social media that she had to redo it but that luckily a guy had offered her a lift back to the top to rejoin the trail where she had gone wrong. She'd lost four hours retracing her steps but without doing so, she would have been DQ’d from the race. This wasn't to be the last of this part of the story.
We'd had two very different experiences while apart but in coming back together (her broken from her gargantuan race effort and me refocused on moving at a pace that allowed me to appreciate the terrain we were passing though) we found our equilibrium quickly and re established a comfortable rhythm up Indiana Pass. The sun sank behind the hills and the stars came out we kept chatting and climbing until Rickie announced she was about to topple sideways with fatigue. It had been a massive day in the hills for her. Tomorrow we would enter our 5th and final state.
New Mexico was not what either of us expected. We were prepared for vast desert plains and red dirt roads with the occasional cactus as the only source of greenery. As it was, New Mexico was hilly and lush with pine trees in abundance high on its rolling hills. But it was dry and hot in the valleys and the least populated and most economically depressed state we had passed through by far. We had to concentrate hard to ensure we had enough food and water to get us between resupply points comfortably. This is something you can only really get to grips with by riding the route yourself and we were nervous of getting it wrong and so carried more than we needed to, slowing us down but keeping things stress free.
When we were high up we could see that hundreds of miles in the distance, the earth flattened like a pancake and we knew that come the final days, we would be pushing through the red desert with little or no shelter from the sun's brutal rays.
By this point our bottoms were suffering. They had been sore to start with. So much so that back in Montana Rickie had fashioned herself an extra layer of protection out of moleskin that she emerged from the toilet beaming with pride over at one stop and scowling with anger over at the next. “My moleskin fell down the toilet and I weed on it” she admitted. I felt her pain. But like most aches and pains on a trip this long, they had gone full circle and up until now undercarriages had been relatively pain free. Then one particularly jarring, rough climb out of Abiquiu had us howling and the pain cycle started all over again. Rickie inadvertently adopted the Roman technique of hurting herself in another place in an effort to take the focus off her painful bum. She lost her front wheel going very fast down some loose trail and hit her knee hard. Now between us we had two sore knees and four sore buttocks but spirits remained high as experience reminded us that nothing stays the same, like it or not.
Our four hour sleep cycle had stretched to five as the build up of fatigue began to take hold. Now, the last two hours of every evening was spend forcing ourselves to stay awake as we fought sleep demons with conversation, songs, caffeine, sugary snacks and sometimes just grit. Then came that moment when you roll out your sleeping bag, blow up your mat and let your body sink into oblivion. Though this would feel delicious, I'd often jolt awake a few minutes later convinced I should be on my bike and moving and that this luxury I was allowing myself couldn’t be right. I'd then realise with giddy relief that I still had four hours of blissful sleep due me and that realisation alone made the discomfort of the entire day worthwhile. It's hard to explain. I've made it sound like hell but it really wasn't. All we’d done was shift our reality a bit. We moved our comfort perimeters in an effort to cover the ground fast but what was interesting was we felt no happier or unhappier in doing so. It had become our new reality and within those new boundaries, happiness existed to the same degree (or more) than it did in the comfort of our own homes and beds.
New Mexico was changing. We were spending longer and longer descending and it was becoming oppressively hot low down in the middle of the day. We tried to coordinate our daily stop for a sit down meal at the hottest times of the day and were in a diner in the economically devastated, depressing town of Grants when we got The Email. Matthew Lee had emailed Rickie questioning why on Trackleaders she could be seen to ascend back up the Boreos Pass in northern Colorado at a speed conducive to being in a vehicle. She explained that was because she was in a vehicle. That she had rationalised, rightly or wrongly, that this would be ok as written in the race rules is the condition that under circumstances of mechanical or medical emergency, motorised transport could be used as long as “the rider is returned to the place they exited the course before carrying on”. It appears this condition does not extend to navigational errors. Rickie's dot was to turn to orange alongside mine. She was out of the race.
We sat by the side of the road in the heat of the day while I comforted her with my conviction that this news didn't matter one bit. We all knew she had covered every inch of that trail and in a startling time under extremely unfavourable conditions including two time sapping course re routes. Having her name on a leaderboard had nothing to do with that. Yet still, it seemed so unfair that someone as diligent and honest as Rickie Cotter could suffer this. I knew how much this ride meant to her, for herself mostly but also in terms of how she is understood by others. We all balance a little bit of our self worth on the challenges we undertake but when the challenge is this big, it's importance, understandably, gets blown out of proportion. This was a devastating blow for Rickie but as we rolled on together (there was never any question that we would stop before Antelope Wells) a quiet calm descended. Now, there really was no question what this ride was about. It was all ours now, no one else's, and I think Rickie came to realise this over the course of the next few days with a kind of sad relief.
When Divide riders reach Pie Town in southern New Mexico, they know they are close to the end. This place is legendary, for its pies, yes, but also for its welcoming community spirit. There is a house by the side of the trail (covered in toasters incidentally) the doors of which are permanently open to riders and hikers of the continental Divide trail. It has beds, a fridge full of beer and microwaveable pizza, first aid supplies, a shower and boxes and boxes of donated trail food. We washed for the first time in (not telling!) and ate pizza on the deck as the sun went down. It was relatively early but the heat had been taken out of our ride since Matthew’s email and looking after ourselves felt more important than extra miles that night so we took our five hours sleep early in the comfort of a bed in The Toaster House on day 18. As I drifted off to sleep, I conjured up an image of our absent host, silently thanked her for her generosity and added her to The List.
What now lay between us and the Mexican border was 220 miles of desert wilderness. I’d been dreading this part but as the sun rose on our penultimate day to reveal a landscape bursting with biodiversity and beauty, I gratefully conceded to myself I had been unduly harsh in my assumption of what this place would be like. Sandy double track snaked between trees and cactus and far in the distance, we could see with a weird relief that what we thought would be pan flat, actually continued to undulate in and out of the shelter of vegetation.
There was something so special about the morning we left the Toaster House. The soft quality of the light and the still cool air at 5am helped but it was more than that. It was as though the trail had smiled and held its hands up to us. “Well done you two” it had said. “You're nearly there and you can't be stopped now”. But the drama wasn't quite over yet.
The Gila Wilderness is big and remote with few opportunities to resupply with food and water. We were running low on both as we made steady progress on a high plateau 50 miles from our final town. Rickie’s accumulative fatigue was taking a firm grip by now and we were reduced to singing obscure 80’s pop songs to each other and playing guess that tune. There was also evidence of forest fires on our horizon making us uneasy. We’d already lost the best part of a day to a fire reroute and we didn't want to have to face the prospect again in our delicate physical and emotional state.
Some local wildfire fighters took us under their wing and assured us we’d be fine. Yes, we’d be riding right through the fire but it had been contained and we were in no danger. They thrust Gatorade upon us and we stayed chatting for a few moments in the shade learning about the diversion of wildfire and contemplating our maps for the next resupply point. We were out of food and the only shop on our route would be closed by the time we reached it that evening. I called ahead to the tiny shop and ordered $20 worth of food to be left on their porch for us to pick up around midnight then we rode on into the setting sun.
It was a horrible moment when we realised on closer inspection that our route didn't actually go past this stop at all and that our groceries would be left to languish a few miles up the road while we rode on getting hungrier and hungrier. And so we arrived in Silver City very frazzled and sore and with the day heating up to be an absolute belter.
Two enormous vegetable omelettes, fries and a stack of pancakes made the world a rosier place. As did the connection I made with Erika (Silver City’s premier bike mechanic at Gila Cycles). Over the purchase of an extra inner tube (all four of our tyres sidewalls now looked as though they might blow at any minute) Erika offered to come and pick us up from the Mexican border checkpoint at 6am the following morning and bring us back to Silver City to hang out with her and her friends. Erika quickly assumed top spot on The List which had most recently been occupied by the firefighters of New Mexico.
Rickie and I rode on. It was 11am and we had the hottest most barren section of dirt road still to cross in the heat of the day before hitting asphalt again and cruising the final 65 miles to the border. 30 miles down the Separ road, in 45 degree heat, there was an almighty bang and Rickie's rear tyre lay in two bits on the sand. The miles and the heat had been too much for it and it had shredded near the bead rendering it absolutely worthless.
Without a word, the sewing kit was out and the tyre repaired under the beating sun until the rubber resembled Frankenstein. It wouldn't make it to Mexico but it might just get us out of this desert before we desiccated. Rickie phoned our new friend Erika and requested a new tyre be driven 200 miles round the route to be replaced before our final road section. We'd come this bloody close. There was no way we weren’t getting to Antelope Wells now.
I'd like to describe to you what that last 65 miles to our destination was like but I find I can't really. I can give you some words but it will always remain my experience alone. My wheels went round, the air temperature dropped, the moon came up, the blanket of stars developed layer upon layer as the night wore on and the miles ticked by. These things actually happened. I know they did but I was elsewhere. It was almost as though I'd turned my eyes inwards and was solely focused on my breath, my legs, my heart. I played stories out in my minds eye until they became so real it was like watching TV. I was floating, flying, completely at ease and entirely alone. Rickie was somewhere nearby physically but turning to look at her would have broken the spell. At that moment it was just me in this vast universe reassessing my place in it and with a funny, liberating twist of my stomach, found I had the vague sense that I was absolutely nothing and all I'd just done was write my own story.
When we reached the border a little after midnight, 20 days and 15 hours after we began, we kept the cameras turned off. We'd reached the end of a very personal road together but separately. Our mission had been to gather enough footage to make a film and to tell a story but in some ways, what we would create from that would always be a fiction. How others choose to interpret our efforts and storytelling is entirely up to them but we knew what we'd achieved that night. Two wee dots orange staggering into Antelope Wells. It was up to us what that meant.
Erika did pick us up from Antelope Wells but not until Jeffrey, a friendly local guy, had taken us home with him, let us sleep on his floor and fed us leftover Chinese takeaway and beer. (“I was watching your dots. You can't sleep out here. This is rattlesnake territory.”)
In the days that followed we mooched about the tiny, alternative town of Silver City being passed from neighbour to friend, being generally looked after and made to feel entirely welcome. We were both utterly at ease. The DQ had found its resting place, my illness and mechanical rationalised and placed gently in a box lined with acceptance and kindness in my mind. We were tired and happy with our respective rides but for me, there was something more important going on. I felt proud of myself for carrying on. Despite having been handed ways out of this difficult ride all over the place, each time I'd made the harder but more rewarding choice to problem solve and keep moving forward. It's so easy to let your predetermined expectations of something (or someone) kill an adventure or an interaction dead. What I'd learned was that we always have a choice in how we react under difficult circumstances and that by not holding on too tight to a set outcome, magic can happen. Stay open, flexible and curious, I say. That way, the outcome of anything you undertake will always be worthwhile and possibly even more so than you might have imagined.
Tori Fahey; Craig Stappler; Erik and Cindy; Kirk and Rachel; Robin and Michelle; Dave, Soul Ski and Bike, Banff; Whitney Ford-Terry; The people of Ovando, Montana; Russ, High Country Lodge, Montana; Dylan, Flag Ranch, Wyoming; Grant Proops; Lava Mountain Lodge, Wyoming; Billy Rice; Dale, Pinedale Harware Store; Dwayne; Julianna Buhring; Emily Chappell; Sam and Bernard; Kirsten, Brush Mountain Lodge; Orange Peel Bikes, Steamboat; Will and Eric, Howardhead Sports Medicine; Micheal and Manik; The people of Platora, Colorado; The Toaster House, Pie Town; The Beaverhead Station Remote Fire Crew, New Mexico; Erika Burleigh; Jeffery Sharp; The people of Silver City, New Mexico; David Hawkins; Gila Hike and Bike, Silver City; The pupils of Crown Primary School, Inverness; Ferga Perry; Matthew Lee; The Nugget.