Tour Divide Day 6: On a Roll

Butte to Lima, 192 miles

I’m on the road by 4am from Butte. With the mental enthusiasm that only an early morning 5-Hour-Energy shot can provide, I’m bound and determined that this is a day of redemption. I crank hard on the pedals on the bike path out of town. A part of my brain still believes that my ambivalence is about “not riding well” – meaning, I’m not riding enough hours a day. If I can stay mentally strong enough to get those hours in today, I figure, I’ll be back in business.

But first, I have to take off my shorts. I’ve got a saddle sore that’s beginning to rankle, so I stop under the moon in front of a darkened house, do a half-hearted squat behind a calf-high shrub, strip off my yoga shorts, and switch to my chamois.

Better.

I’m not really sure what today has in store. The first few days I treated my cue sheets like a treasure map. But in the immediate future of the route, the only things I take note of are “Fleecer Ridge – HAB” (hike-a-bike) and “Bannack Road – IMPASSABLE WHEN WET.”

Fleecer Ridge comes about 45 miles into the day. The climb begins on a pleasant road, then a sharp turn off on a faint two-track heads straight up to the top of the mountain. I can see the top of the mountain, and I am visually fixated on it. It’s far, but not that far. I ride as far as I can up the steep track, and then when I can no longer pedal, I begin pushing my bike. My breath is strong and labored; I’m actually breathing harder than I have in days, maybe since day one. It feels good.

I wonder about the view from the top. It must be spectacular. It’ll be worth it, I tell myself. Worth the burning in my quads, my back, my triceps. I’m not far from the top when I come to an intersection of sorts in the tall grass. I stop to catch my breath and check my Garmin.

And there’s that thin, blue line again, hanging out in space. I’ve missed a right-hand turn, which turns out to go to the actual Fleecer Ridge. I’ve given so much attention to that summit that I think for a half a second about finishing the climb anyway. But just half a second.

Once I’ve found the correct Fleecer Ridge, I also find Beau in the trail, fixing a flat. He says things are under control. The descent down the ridge is absurdly steep and rocky – way more than I imagined – and I stumble-jog my way down through the grass and flowers on the hillside, not even bothering to stay on the trail itself. It only takes about ten minutes, but there are definitely a few moments of panic as I pick up speed and my bike threatens to lurch away without me. I know some people actually ride this, but I can’t imagine it.

In the town of Wise River, I refuel and check the map. High Country Lodge is a mere 30 miles away, and I shouldn’t stop again, but it’s a famous Tour-Divide stop-over. As I’m packing up, Ryan Simon rolls in. Ryan is riding a single speed and wearing a plaid collared shirt. He introduces himself, and I like him right away. His face is serious, but I get the idea he might laugh easily if provoked. He plops down in front of the ice machine on the ground and eats a sandwich.

I head out on a beautiful road along the Wise River. It’s paved but there’s very little traffic. The road trends uphill, but I barely notice it because the grade is gentle. There’s a light breeze, and I don’t want to jinx myself but it feels like it’s a bit of a tailwind. I can get in my aerobars and move pretty fast on this type of terrain, and as a result I pass several riders.

Near the top of the ascent the grade in the road kicks up, and I’m surprised when Ryan comes by, standing on his pedals and cranking hard. I feel like I am moving well, but he is absolutely hauling.

We arrive within a few minutes of each other at the High Country Lodge, a hunting and fishing lodge owned by Russ Kipp, an avid Tour Divide dot watcher. The wood-paneled great room has floor to ceiling windows with imposing deer heads looking down from 20 feet above our heads.

Ryan and I sign our names on the dry-erase board dedicated to the 2019 TD riders. The boards from years past are propped behind the bar in the living area, and I see Mike Hall’s signature at the top of the 2016 list. I imagine the circumstances under which that signature was scratched – perhaps in fatigue but likely good humor nonetheless, as Mike was en route to a Tour Divide record that still stands. That signature remains an earthly symbol of all the things that Mike left behind to so many, even those like me who knew him only by story and legend.

Ryan and I sit across from each other at a table the big dining room for almost an hour, eating Russ’ homemade lasagna. These seated meals remain so unlike anything I have ever done in a bikepacking race but I’m so tired of the voice in my head shaming me for slowing down that I simply ignore it. Plus, I really enjoying chatting with Ryan. He’s from Stillwater, Oklahhoma, and even though I’ve never been to Stillwater in my life, this creates an immediate connection for us because it’s where I was conceived when my parents were working at the university in the 1970s.

Eventually I make my way outside to head towards Lima on the Bannack Road. With a barren next 100 miles between us and the town of Lima, and with good weather conditions, Ryan and I have both agreed that it makes sense to try to ride there tonight. He’s coming too, but in a few minutes, so I say goodbye.

Ephemeral personal connections are a unique attribute of this sport. “See you down the road” is a standard thing you say to a person you may have just shared a cry or your life story with – and you never even know if it’s true. Maybe they’ll come by in five minutes; equally likely, you’ll never see them again. We all make these personal connections without social obligations, which is both bizarre and refreshing. Just two people thrust together by the common sharing of an entirely unpredictable adventure, passing as itinerants through the same mountains and rivers and deserts.

At the turnoff to Bannack State Park, there’s a white clapboard house with a man outside on the porch smoking a cigarette. He waves, and I ask him if I can fill up my water bottles, since it’s a long stretch ahead and I am unsure how long it will take. He invites me into the house, where three women and two young girls are crowded around a kitchen table meant for four. Heavy smoke fills the air. The women point me to the sink and ask what I am doing. When I tell them, they say wow. Then they take puffs of cigarettes and watch me at the sink, not unkindly but silently. The two girls remain quiet too.

When I am finished, I say thank you and begin to open the screen door. Suddenly, the older girl who is probably eight, blurts out, Is it hard?

I stop and turn around. It’s hard, I say. But you could totally do it.

She looks at her sister, and they both begin laughing and shyly bow their heads. I might be imagining it, but I think I see a light of recognition in the older girl’s eyes. They’ll probably forget that moment. But it’s fun to think they might not, too.

You can see for miles down the Bannack Road, and near the end I see the dusty dot of another cyclist in the distance. I figure it’s Ryan, who must have passed me while I was getting water.

When I catch up, though, it’s not Ryan. The rider introduces himself as Nate Stillwagon. Nate is an ER doctor who lives in Boise, Idaho, but he and his brother Bear grew up in Butte. He is not enjoying this part of the ride, it’s hot and dusty and desolate.

It’s funny because, despite my own deep misgivings about this whole venture, I really want Nate Stillwagon to be enjoying himself. I find myself kind of selling the ride to him. The conditions are great, I say. (It’s pretty hot, actually.) How about this tailwind? (I’m talking loud over a crosswind.) The route is beautiful. (There’s shrubs and dirt set against a giant sky, with a road to seeming nowhere.)

At some point, I realize I may be trying to convince myself more than Nate.

Soon I spot our right-hand turn onto Medicine Lodge Road in the distance. I can see from the elevation profile that we are about to start a climb that will rise slowly, but steadily, for the next 32 miles. At the turn there’s a lone figure waiting, and as we get near we can see she has a cooler of cold drinks.

Sweet relief, and perfect timing. We thank her gratefully and she introduces herself as Lauren, an ornithologist working in the area. She is also a long-distance cyclist herself and tells me she has been following me on social media. She thanks me for inspiring her, which I’m even more grateful for than cold drinks on a hot dusty road.

I find myself riding alone during the last 20 miles or so of the climb. The scenery is by turns desolate, then beautiful, but always vast. I’m looking forward to what appears on my elevation profile to be a 30-mile descent to Lima. As I crest the top of the last lung-and-leg-busting climb, it’s getting to late evening and I stop to pull on my down jacket. I can hear the cows mooing and I wonder what they are saying.

The descent begins rollicking and screaming through a high desert dotted with shrubs and flowers and herds of cows. The wind is howling here in this treeless expanse, but it’s at my back and it feels like flying. Eventually the road levels out a bit and enters a long canyon cut by a roaring river. The road is covered with fresh gravel and takes longer than I expect, and the shadows of nightfall start to throw themselves into the canyon. I pass campsites with people making fires and cooking dinner and prepping fishing rods for evening angling. A few ATVs come by and the people inside wave. The sun throws changing colors across the sliver of sky I can see above the canyon. The air is beautifully cool and the rush of the river drowns out almost all the other sounds.

Eventually it’s dark, and the road dumps me out onto the feeder road for the highway. Cars rush past at what seem like superhuman speeds on the highway, but there’s not a single car on the feeder road. I am getting pretty good at voice texting, so I send a couple of texts back and forth to friends as messages come in with cell reception. My plan is to head to the 24-hour convenience store in Lima, load up and start again early. I’ve ridden almost 200 miles today, and I’m on a roll so I’d better use it.

When I arrive, around 10:30pm, I find that there’s in fact no 24-hour convenience store in Lima. Poor planning on my part, as I’m out of food except for the crust of one peanut butter and jelly sandwich made by Russ’ mom at the High Country Lodge after lunch. That already seems like eons ago.

Luckily, the motel owner has some frozen burritos and cokes behind the check-in desk. I ask for three of each and head to my room. The shower is set to pressure-hose levels, which means the water droplets hit my skin hard like shards of glass. I stand there forever anyway, letting the spray wash roughly over me. I’m thinking about that canyon and the sky with the colors, and that long beautiful, desolate road, an I’m wondering what it really is that I want after all.