My first real challenges came during this time. Snow was extraordinarily bad that year. So much so that we were re-routed around much of it. However, my third day still had me walking through miles of snow.
“Had to walk 10+ miles through snow in a pass. Also, didn’t have enough food. But I made it to Whitefish! Woohoo! Bed time.”
This was my first experience with snow. And bears. And walking without being able to feel my feet. Snow was piled at least 5 feet on the road where I was traveling. Sometimes much higher. I walked for 10 miles with all of my gear and bike. If I stopped, I got cold. That was pretty good encouragement to keep going.
Let me reiterate. Before Tour Divide, the most snow I ever encountered was the freak, slight dusting that occurs in Texas sometimes. It’s enough for the entire state to lose its mind, close everything down, and make snowmen that may not reach 2 feet in height.
This was also my first experience urinating in the snow. I attempted to spell my name, but as bad as my handwriting is, one can only imagine what my pee-writing looks like.
On day 3 I went from Eureka, MT to Whitefish, MT. It was a day characterized by snow and climbs, but also beautiful vistas and gorgeous mountain streams. As painful as that trudge was, the views were there to remind me that there was some good left in the world.
However, as most racers will tell you, that beauty only goes so far. Soon a pristine snow-packed mountain road, the kind of scene postcards are made of, is twisted into an aggravating annoyance. I had no snow shoes with me. My Texas brain didn’t even entertain the thought while I was making my gear lists. When I could, I stepped into well-worn footprints of racers that had gone before. These footprints became very encouraging for me. If they could do it, so could I.
Finally, after miles of hiking through snow, I was able to ride again. I have never been so happy to ride a bike as I was at 5 PM on day 3, when I was finally done with the snow.
I booked a room in a motel at Whitefish and ate at a tiny diner. I hadn’t become quite used to the looks I got from the locals. I wish I had a way to capture the puzzled look that spread across the waitress’s face as I named off two entrees and three drinks (Milk, iced tea, and water).
However, at this point I had gotten used to placing myself as far from other patrons as possible. My nostrils had learned to get along with my new found smell, but other more virgin schnozes were more keen to pick up my mixture of sweat, body odor, dirt, and unwashed spandex.
That morning I had breakfast with two other riders. We swapped tales of tumultuous tribulations and turbulent trips. One was from Scotland, and the other from Idaho. Two very cool places. The Scotsman was drinking hot tea, which is something that had never done anything for me in the past. Being raised in the south gave me a different perspective on what tea should be. More on that later.
We parted ways after bartering a bit for supplies (I traded paracord for chapstick, if I remember correctly. Best deal I’ve ever made.).
Before moving too far into day 4, let’s start from the end.
Last night I was racing until 1 AM. I was set on getting out of the woods, but with the rain pouring down I thought it best to make camp. I slept under light rain under pine trees, and I loved it. Sure, bear were around, but I still felt safe.
The first part of the trip was not bad at all. Even rode with a fellow Texan for a little while. He was from El Paso (Had to drop out due to neck complications the next day, sadly). This was a day that I learned a VERY important lesson: Never pass up a chance for food.
After riding around 60 miles on nice paved roads, we came across a BBQ place on the side of the road. Instead of eating there, we saw that our maps indicated that the next small town, only 10 miles down the road, would have a steakhouse. We opted for the steakhouse.
Which hadn’t been open in a long time. Turns out that town was practically a ghost town. As we lamented our woe-some decision, I decided to take a slight detour down a walking path for about 2 miles to a very nice, quaint, wonderful tourist town called Bigfork. Bigfork lay between rivers as they converged into a pristine lake and boasts a great variety of food, tea/coffee houses, hotels, etc. Would have been a great place to stop, if it wasn’t just now lunch-time and I had it in my mind to put in at least another 60 miles that day. After eating, buying food for that night’s dinner, and shipping back my tent (Too heavy, not needed, or so I thought), I rode back to the main route and made my way up into the mountains again. I was to be on old logging roads for the next 60 or so miles. These dirt roads were line with huge evergreens. I was feeling right at home amidst the pines.
Then it started raining.
I had my Marmot rainproof lightweight jacket with me, which has to be the best investment I have ever made. Without it I would be dead, and that is no hyperbole. It has literally saved my life. I had a pair of lightweight rainpants as well that I slipped over my shorts.
It started raining around 3 pm and didn’t end until… Well it didn’t end. I fell asleep next to a log in the woods with my marmot wrapped around the opening of my sleeping bag to keep the rain out.
Let’s back up. I had to go up two mountain passes that day in bad conditions. During the uphills and downhills and all the way until the sun set completely, I spotted a total of twelve bears.
And only one of them was a black bear.
This is my first experience with being up close to bears. Grizzlies, that is. And it’s hard to appreciate how large they are until you see them up close, defenseless, tasty-looking, and wet.
Luckily, my whistle kept them away from me. I have full faith in whistles now. When my future children reach an age where I believe they can be responsible enough to learn how to use a whistle, I will teach them safe whistle practices. My whistle had scared away every animal, save one or two stubborn moose, since I started the ride in Banff.
I pushed through in the pitch black night with only my tiny headlamp to guide my way. It’s tiny cone of light was riddled with raindrops, giving a view very conducive to riding a bicycle down a mountain. I finally gave in at 1 AM, being completely worn down and with no idea how far these old fire-roads went.
I didn’t eat that night, even though I had food. I didn’t want to break anything out of a package and risk attracting unwanted bed-partners. I used my waterproof jacket to shield the rain from the entrance of my sleeping bag. This also kept a bit of warmth in.
After a grueling day of unrelenting rain, bears, tough climbs, and a lack of BBQ, I finally had a moment of serenity. The rain had began to let up around 1:30 AM. I ventured a peak into the icy blackness that surrounded me. The moon was high and full and I could see the silhouettes it made of the pine trees that shaded my tiny sleeping covey in the woods. I slept with a downed log beside me on a bed of wet foliage. As I looked up into the night sky, the occasional raindrop falling through the tree branches, I felt an incredible peace. I felt like everything was going to be ok, no matter what happens; Not just for the race, but for life.
This moment of nirvana could have alternately been brought on by delirious exhaustion and lack of food, however. The jury’s still out on it.