Friday, June 22, 2012

It was the Best of Rides; It was the Worst of Rides

It seems like a lifetime ago, already, but it was only five days ago that I was riding on the Tour Divide. I was seeing some of the prettiest country I seen in my life (plus coal mines and clearcuts). I was able to trust the drivers when I was on the road. (Many drivers saw my sleeping bag and gave me a thumbs up!) I had no obligations other than to cover some ground, eat like a deranged hyena, keep myself dry (and failing that, to keep my spare socks and down cardigan, dry). It didn't matter what country I was in, paying with a credit card always worked and I had my passport in case I hit a border.

Haven't even started yet, and it's scenic!

When I did hit a border, it was to enter the US. Which was nice, because the prices are lower here. In Eureka, MT, I filled my bags with junk food, ate an ice cream cone, and paid a paltry $12. So I went back for a $5 footlong sandwich. On the other side of the border, I had just paid $16 for minor restock of beef jerky and nuts!

Life was so simple. And mostly, it was so wonderful. But when it sucked, I can't convey how badly it did.

First off, I had no idea what I was doing. I had ridden with my bike loaded, camped one night, and ridden home. That was my test.

I got cold, but I said, "If I bring gloves, dry socks, a wool beanie and a down cardigan, I should be fine."

On the Tour Divide website, it says to be an experienced bike-packer before signing up. To paraphrase, in the middle of nowhere (and in the middle of a race) is not where you want to discover that you don't like camping after all. This was very good advice that I ignored for two reasons. I was not going to (and I didn't) discover that I don't like camping. But secondly, if it's so darned tough to get a month off work to race the Divide, how was I supposed to get three months off to tour it? The part I didn't realize was that I was missing out on real life experience of improvising when things went wrong. Which made it SO much more stressful when things (inevitably) went wrong.

This is just to say that when I crashed, on the first day of the longest journey of my life, partly due to my own poor judgement, the first time I had ever mountainbiked (or biked at all) in a foreign country, it was devastating. I knew that I could ride on my bent wheels for a while, but that I needed a bike shop. At least I had disk brakes so my wobbly wheels would actually spin! And looking at my route map, the nearest bike shop was 90 miles away (not bad, but 20 of those miles were going off of the route). As soon as I saw a place to spend the night, I did. Let's see how things look in the morning...

Well, in the morning, it was snowing. The snow gave way to rain (which is worse) but the gusty winds persisted. So after making only 30 miles, I was ready to get a room and call it a day. Without getting a room, I wouldn't have a phone to call the bike store. Without calling the bike store, I couldn't be sure of how screwed I was. And besides, I was cold and wet  from having a broken zipper on my raincoat.

I could go on and on. But the reality is that the weather changed, the bike store hooked me up, I spent the night in a very reasonably priced hostel in Fernie, I met a Swedish woman who was touring east to west across Canada on a Surly Long Haul Trucker. I also decided to drop out of the race and take the easier "Fernie alternate" route to Roosville. Once there, I rejoined the route but my race was over. It was a good thing. I was riding the same as before but somehow it seemed easier.

Which one is the Swedish woman, do you suppose?

Once in the US (Roosville was the border), I had a nice climb up to Whitefish Divide. There were patches of snow but not much. And the sun was nice. From there, I knew I'd drop down to the Flathead River, follow that for a bit, and then climb up to a similar pass south of Whitefish Divide. Well, I dropped to the river, saw a bear cub (black, I think), followed the river. By the time I got to the turn to start climbing, the sun had gone down. And the temperature dropped. And conditions were perfect for a climb. The cool air kept me from overheating. I felt like I had just reached my stride. Riding with a light can be sketchy at speed, but at 8-13 mph it was perfect. Plus, there were mosquitoes at the lower altitudes, so a climb was the evening's special!

It was a nice climb--until I hit the snow. Turns out Whitefish Divide is on a south-facing trail. Red Meadow Lake, not so much. Pushing through the snow was not on my agenda for midnight (sun hadn't gone down till 10 and dark came an hour later). So camping it was.

It started raining during the night, so it was a good thing I had been right about the extra clothes being enough to keep me warm. Unfortunately, my morning started with breaking camp in the rain, followed by pushing through snow, followed by riding downhill in the rain. I was not so warm anymore. It was bad enough that when I saw a bathroom I got in just to get out of the rain. And I put on all my dry clothes, and  ate all my food, and waited to see if there might be a break in the rain.

And so it went, alternating good and bad. With the only constant being the eating. Oh, the eating!

I remember eating slices of dry salami as I rode 10 miles to breakfast. Once I located The Hungry Bear (which I highly recommend, btw, just north of Jette Rd on some highway in Montana), I ordered the greasiest thing on the menu--the meat lover's scramble with hash browns and toast. Just to be sure, I ordered some oatmeal, too. The waitress asked if I wanted half-and-half and brown sugar with that. I somehow managed to avoid saying "F'n A" as I answered in the affirmative. But when she brought it, there were also pats of butter. I put three on the oatmeal before pouring the half-and-half on. Just to be sure. And I put sugar in my coffee, which is unlike me. And when I saw all the food spread before me, I couldn't imagine finishing it, but I took one bite after another until the plates were empty and I was putting packets of jam in my jersey pockets (just to be sure) and looking on the map for the next grocery store.

I lost two pounds in a week and a half. And I never even got to the hard parts of the route.

But oh what a journey it was!