Real life

After the Tour Divide, I felt surprisingly okay. Montana picked me and Alex up in Antelope Wells, and we spent a couple days driving north to Albuquerque where we dropped Alex at the airport. I was sleepy and hungry, but not bone-tired and dead like I thought I'd be.

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To break up the long drive, we spent a few days in Colorado - camping at Scott and Eszter's secret Scamp spot by Twin Lakes, then hanging out in Carbondale at a friend's house and catching up with friends there. I even got back on my bike! Risking my life each time, apparently. My dirty break cables rubbed a quarter-inch gash into my carbon fork on the Tour. (Our friend who's done some carbon repair told us to trash the fork immediately. Oops.)

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Kevin - always testing new Defiant Pack gear. 

Kevin - always testing new Defiant Pack gear. 

Then we drove back home in the Shark across the great hot plains. That trip always sucks. It especially sucks for two exhausted people in a 43-year-old camper with bad engine insulation and no air conditioning. I got pulled over by a suspicious state cop in Indiana for extreme slowness on the interstate. Our max is 60, even when the speed limit is 80.

Exercising in Kansas. 

Exercising in Kansas. 

We got back to Ohiopyle at 3:00 a.m., fell asleep for a minute, then went back to work.

The past month has been a blur of rafting photos and bike tour guiding. I gave a presentation on the TD, our friend Fred hung up a big congratulations poster in front of the store (thanks Fred!) and the local newspaper even called me up for an article.

June and July saw some crazy rain, with high water almost every day. For the rafting folks, that means every boat needs a guide. (The Youghiogheny is one of the only rivers in the country with "guide assisted" whitewater trips.) Staff gets stretched in all sorts of contortions to hustle all those people down the river. The rain just kept coming.

Big water. 

Big water. 

But now August is here, the rain stopped and the river dropped. Everyone's tired and pissy from a full-on summer.

Ohiopyle is seeing the last hopeful bubble of summer tourism before the school year starts. People waddle around town and eat ice cream cones, dropping trash on the grass. Riverbanks are full of garbage swirling around in eddies. River guides have shaved their beards into mustaches in honor of August.

Now I'm definitely tired.

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Maybe because the ground is so wet and soggy this year, but it's been hard to ride fast. My daily mountain bike loops in the park are many minutes slower than last year. The humidity drags me down while I'm slogging through the woods, wiping spider webs off my face. For a couple weeks I couldn't power through anything technical - my first ride on rocky trails was a mess. That's what you get after overtraining every day for a month, I guess.

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I'm trying to get it back , but I'm not very patient. So I've started switching up my workouts by running a couple times a week. My college cross country buddy Becky is rallying a group for the Pittsburgh Marathon (ahem, or half marathon) next May, so I've got some incentive to improve my 11-minute mile time.

Another post-Divide thing - stomach issues. Montana had problems right after he finished the race from eating too many cinnamon buns. He ate some yogurt every day for a week and felt better. I mostly felt okay after my Clif Bar and Peanut M&M diet - until recently.

For years I've battled with my guts. My sophomore year of college was particularly awful, when I developed a sudden allergy to gluten. Since then (usually in times of high stress - did you know your stomach and your brain are connected: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection?) I've had nagging GI troubles.

After the bike tour I guided in July, I thought I'd gotten food poisoning from a restaurant. I was sick and nauseous for a week. But didn't go away like food poisoning should, and it wasn't giardia either.

But: after the race, I never gave myself time to recover from all the crap I had to eat. Then when I got home I consumed lots of legumes, cheeses, diet soda, alcohol and processed meat. My stomach knew that was wrong and rebelled.

Last time I had serious digestive distress, I went to a nutritionist. She put me on a new-ish diet of foods low in fermentable sugars (i.e. stuff that starts fermenting in your digestive tract, causing all sorts of chaos in the body). The list of things I shouldn't eat is long, including: apples, cheese, beans, fake sweeteners, peanuts, garlic, onions, broccoli... etc. I like all those foods, but I feel much better without them. And Montana's not complaining about eating steak instead of black bean burgers, so everybody wins.

Now we're on a plane to Colorado to guide a mountain bike tour. I'm excited to be back in the dry air. When we get back, August will be nearly over and maybe everyone will be happier.

Tour Divide - 3

In Del Norte, getting groceries. My stomach’s a little distended from the giant taco salad I just annihilated. I found the Kiwis at a Mexican place - Geoff was still hungry after his first meal, so he ordered another one. The waitress was stunned and maybe a bit offended. (From what I know about Mexicans, they pride themselves on feeding people well.) Then the very hungry Kiwis split a big fried ice cream. Then the staff was just impressed.  

I wander the aisles, something that drives Montana crazy when he tries to shop with me. There’s nothing fancy, but they’ve got the classic gluten-free Mexican staples. I pile corn tortillas, avocados, cheese, summer sausage and eggs into my basket. Then a bag of trail mix and extra M&M’s for good measure. Tomorrow I’m making breakfast, damn it. 

While I’m loading up my bags, a guy in the parking lot comes over to chat. He’s wearing baggy shorts and a cycling jersey with cut-off sleeves, like the good old boys in West Virginia. He rides a lot, but hasn’t heard of the Divide race. Do I need a couch or a shower? I turn him down - race rules. I’ve already got a room at the hostel in town, anyway. He inspects my bike. 

“That’s a nice light there!” he says. “You’d better start using it if you wanna win!” 

I laugh. He’s right. I’m calling it a day at 8:30. But I’m beat from a day in the hot open high desert. I need a shower, a good sleep and real food before Indiana Pass. Anyway, it’s dusk now. I plug in my light and spin down the street.  

-

The top of Indiana Pass is at 11,910 feet. I walk up the last turn, breathing shallow. Way up here, cell phone service is good. I’ve been getting texts from my dad - he says the first and second place girls are both disqualified for going off-route. It’s just Peggy and me, and she’s a day ahead. But I probably won’t catch up now. I’ve taken too many mental health breaks to make a fast time. 

At the top, I lay my bike down. I’ve been climbing about four hours. Time for a pee and a snack. I drop my shorts on the open rocky hill, then wash my hands and open one of my last Bobo’s Oat Bars (bought in Frisco). I’s windy and quiet. The mountain ridges are bright and sharp against the sky. Something rumbles down the road. 

A dozen quads roll up and stop in a big dusty cloud. Retired-looking people in hiking clothes pile out and look around, wiping grit off their sunglasses. Someone sees me. 

“Where you headed?” he asks. I point at my map - Platoro. “Oh well, that’s a hard road. You with that guy we passed back there? We sure did dust him!” I half-explain the Tour Divide concept, but these people don’t care to listen. I get on my bike and wave goodbye. 

“Good luck!” A guy says, “Hope you make it!” Buoyed by that vote of confidence, I start to descend. 

Except it’s not really a descent. The road to Platoro is beautiful and brutal - up and down, rough and windy. Quads, trucks and dirt bikes throw dust up in my face around every corner. A guy asks me directions to somewhere. I don’t know. 

Damn, these are the most amazing mountains I’ve ever seen. The plant peaks are streaked red, gold and orange. I stop and stare, wishing I could camp here and see these hills at sunset. But I’m almost to Platoro, and there’s a cafe. I cruise down the final hill, wave hello to the Northbound rider grinding up, and think about eating a burger. 

-

So far, northern New Mexico isn’t much different from southern Colorado. It’s green and cool as Alex and I pick our way along Brazos Ridge. There was even frost on the grass this morning. A herd of elk crashes through the trees off the trail. 

Alex caught me last night, when I stopped, exhausted, to camp at the New Mexico border. We decided to ride together for a while, since we keep ending up at the same place. 

We’re close to the end now. Last night I had a nightmare that there was an extra state to cross after New Mexico ended. It’s not real, I promise myself, you’re almost done. 

At the bottom of a rocky hill, we see some dogs. Alex rides past, but I slow down. 

Someone yells from the woods, steps out and waves at the dogs. I stop and the three dogs circle around me, wagging tails. A man in a big hat wearing jeans and a heavy blue flannel comes over. 

“Como esta?” he asks, smiling with big brown crinkly eyes. We chat for a minute - he’s happy that I can speak in broken Spanish. He’s a shepherd living on Brazos Ridge. His sheep are bleating in the forest. The shepherd is from Chihuahua. He tells me that the road ahead is very very malo. I laugh and nod, bid him adios. He shakes my hand with both of his and grins. I start pushing my bike up the rocky hill. 

-

We’re cruising on pavement, watching heat rise in wobbly waves on the horizon. This year’s fire detour routed us out of the forest and through Tres Piedras, a tiny old railroad town with a restaurant/motel called the Chili Line Depot. When we stopped I got dizzy from deja vu before I recognized the place. Montana and I stopped for lunch there after his race in 2013. I told the owner, Deb, and promised to stop back through on our way home. We hid from the sun there for almost an hour. 

At the turn to Vallecitos, I take out my emergency whistle. Alex turns the safety off his bear spray. Vallecitos is infamous for its mean dogs. We roll carefully through the tiny, crumbling town. Two big dogs in a driveway bark once, then a guy calls them inside. They back off. We’re almost out of town when two tiny terriers launch off their porch and run next to us, nipping our tires. We laugh and put away our weapons. 

-

Pushing up the hill from Abiquiu, now it’s really hot. We walk up and over the dusty, dry slabs of rock, determined to get to Cuba before sunset. It was a late start, since we had to wait for the only store in Abiquiu to open at 8:00. As usual, my bags are stuffed with enough granola bars and nuts to get me through all of New Mexico. This food is heavy, but healthy pickings are pretty slim up ahead. 

As we climb, I stare at the ground. Two sets of footprints next to one tire track - one big, one small. Must be the tandem. Rocky loose crap is not their forte. At least it’s getting cooler up on the ridge. 

In Cuba, we’re shattered. We stop at McDonald’s for slimy burgers and fries. Not my best dinner. The Kiwis track us down and join our dirty dinner party. They didn’t have fun getting here, and they’re in a hotel for the night. We could join if we want. Sounds tempting, but there are 126 miles on flat, hot pavement ahead. Better to do in the dark. 

We stock up on caffeine and sugar at the gas station. Finally I’m using my lights. It only took about 20 days. 

-

I’m sitting in Sonic, staring into an empty ice cream cup. I could get another, but I don’t. Alex is making me nervous, fiddling with his phone and mumbling. I look outside. The day is white-hot, sun practically cracking the pavement. Little kids at the table next to us are yelling. I excuse myself to have a quiet mental breakdown in the bathroom. 

Last night we rode under the starry sky until we both zonked out around 1:00. We set alarms for 4:00, to get rolling before sunrise. I think I annoyed Alex with my slow packing and morning rituals - drink coffee, eat a granola bar, sit and stare at nothing for half an hour. We didn’t start until the sun was nearly risen. 

Then somehow I managed to get ahead of Alex on the road. He dropped back, caught up, then sat 20 feet behind me while we spun the endless hot, windy miles to Grants. I put headphones in and tried to ignore it. He’s not doing it on purpose. If my mom were there, she’d tell me to ride my race. But jeez, he should be way ahead of me. 

By the time we got to Grants, I was overheated, over-caffeinated and grumpy. We couldn’t keep pedaling in this weather. Now we’re waiting out the heat. 

In the bathroom, I splash cold water on my face and blow my nose. At least it’s stopped bleeding. 

I repack my bags while we wait - cold-weather and rain gear stashed deep in my handlebar bag, making maximum room for snacks. I pull out my ACA maps. Jesus, still 50 miles to Pie Town. Then a million miles of the hot mean Gila. I hate the stupid desert. I try to call Montana, but he doesn’t pick up. The day’s cooled down to 90 degrees, so we hit the gas station for snacks. 

I stare at my overloaded bike. Alex is ready to roll. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to ride the rest of New Mexico, but I have to. I lose my shit. Big gulping hiccup cries. Snotty nose. Alex looks freaked out, as he should. I’m being a nut.

“Sorry,” I whine, “I’m just tired.” 

He asks if I want to go sit in the shade. A lady comes over and asks, “Is everything okay here?” She looks skeptical, like I might be damaged or deranged. I wipe my puffy eyes and reel it in. I pound another box of coconut water, get the hiccups. 

“Let’s just go,” Alex says. “Standing here will just make it worse.” I snivel. 

-

Pie Town doesn’t have any pie. At least for the next 45 minutes. We’ve got nowhere to be, so we park at a booth and wait. 

This morning Alex and I picked up Mac, a chipper Englishman with a quick cadence and a funny sun hat. Mac should’ve been way ahead of us, but he had a tough ride into Cuba - involving a chipped bone in his elbow and a leaky bear spray canister. He’s in a good mood, happy he didn’t have to quit. After a good night’s sleep, I feel like a person again. 

The Pie Town Cafe is the only cafe open in Pie Town at 10:00 a.m. on a Wednesday. The place is packed, and our food comes out a little slow. That’s okay, we’re happy to sit. 

It’s the best breakfast I’ve had on the Divide - a big veggie omelet with potatoes and homemade corn tortillas. I wish there was more, but a second order would take another hour. When we finish, there are pies! The waitresses bring them around, passing pies under people’s noses. We cheerfully pull out the special Tour Divide top caps we got in Banff. Every rider who makes it to Pie Town gets free pie, thanks to Salsa Cycles. (Thanks, Salsa!)  

I order a slice of coconut pie with ice cream, and eat around the crust. It’s perfect. 

We finish eating and face the fact that it’s noon already. The entire Gila Forest is still there, waiting for us. But we feel good, high on our fat slices of breakfast pie. Alex buys a tea towel for his wife, then we roll out of town feeling festive. 

-

It’s 2:00 p.m., and we’re walking our bikes along the CDT. It’s rocky and steep. This ridge is hot like an oven. Sweat evaporates as soon as it comes out, leaving a layer of crusty salt on my skin. I ate the last of my food a minute ago, and my water’s almost gone. Not that it matters - I’m parched even after I drink. Six miles of this crap. I turn my Garmin off. 

Last night we rode as far from Pie Town as we could and camped at the Beaverhead Work Station. That part of the Gila was gentle and mostly flat. But the second half of the Gila’s been everything I was dreading - punchy, scrabbly climbs and blistering sun. I’m cracking in a big way. 

Finally the trudge on the CDT ends, and we drop off the ridge. Climb so slowly back up to Pinos Altos, totally shattered. 

“That was terrible,” I say.

“Yep,” Alex agrees. “Let’s never talk about it again.” 

We plan to celebrate our Gila crossing with a cold Coke at the saloon in Pinos Altos, but it’s closed. We drop down to Silver City, find a Mexican restaurant, hide from the sun in the air conditioning. I want a margarita, but stick with diet Coke. By the time Alex eats most of his football-sized burrito, it’s getting dark again. 

We stop at the Silver City gas station for our last sack resupply. Peanuts, M&M’s, Clif Bars. These things make me gag, but there’s nothing else to buy. One more night and day left. I think I can stand it. The gas station attendant chats with us while we pack our bikes. 

Silver City isn’t the prettiest place, but the locals are aggressively nice. A cop tells me to be safe on the road, a local fireman offers us all the bike tools in his garage. A big tattooed guy walks past holding a pit bull puppy - “Poor little guy! I think he’s lost!” Another guy tells us to visit his donut shop downtown. They make me smile. 

We roll out into the night toward Separ, with a big tailwind pushing us down the highway. Alex starts rolling faster than me. I let him go. I’d rather ride out the last 100 miles alone, anyway. I ride into the dark until the tailwind dies down, then pull off into the creosote to sleep. 

-

The road is an endless hot strip through the stale monotone desert. I’m thirsty, even though I just stopped in Hachita for a cold drink. I’m also hungry and a little nauseous. The Takis and beef jerky aren’t helping. Shut my eyes for a minute, swerve, get back in the right lane. These saddle sores are fiery. I just want to get off my bike. Radiolab turned up loud in my ears. Try to zone out, almost done. Would it be cheating if I took all the bags off my bike and left them by the road? 

Thirty more miles. Mile-markers should be illegal. The road turns left, a hot hairdryer wind blasts me back. I yell at the sky. Turn again, the wind quits. 

Twenty. Something’s behind me. I twist around. The Shark! The blue hulking box on wheels is bearing down on me, bright against the silvery sky. Montana in the driver’s seat, smiling big. He passes me, pulls to the side and gets out. He’s wearing a new flowered shirt. 

I stop for a hug - and maybe hug too hard. He pulls away. I must smell pretty bad right now. 

“You’re almost done!” He says. 

“Two more hours!” I laugh-cry a little. He gets back in the Shark and rolls down the road to wait. A few wispy clouds hide the sun. 

Elbows down on the aerobars, I try to ignore my saddle sores. Miles ticking slowly down - in the teens! I don’t need this much water, so I dump half a bottle on my head. It trickles down my shoulder blades. 

Three more to go, I can barely spin over 13 mph. Whatever. This is just a run down the block. It’s a long three miles. Then there’s the border station! The Shark looms over the horizon. Alex and Montana are waiting there, squinting in the bright sun. I can’t believe it’s over.

Photos: Montana

Tour Divide - 2

Grand Teton National Park is full of tourists in camper vans. The road winds up and down through dense forest. Mountains peek out of the trees. I’ll take it. After 30 miles of deep sandy ATV trail in Idaho, riding pavement feels nice. I can turn the pedals even through my quad’s a little sore.

It’s my birthday! I slept until 6:30 this morning and even took time to dry my gear on a tree before I packed up. I’m riding slow, thanks to the breakfast buffet at Flagg Mountain Ranch. I had two full plates.

I roll down to the viewpoint, stop short of the parking lot. The Tetons jut up across the lake. I just learned that the name is “the Big Ta-Tas” in French. They’re pretty incredible, snowcapped and sharp against the blue sky. Wildflowers bloom along the lakeside. But I wish someone was here to look at it with me.

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A dozen birthday texts bleep into my phone all at once. Cell service! I call Montana, but he’s busy working. I get all weepy again. I try talking myself out of the funk: This is stupid. It’s an easy day on pavement! I should be loving it. But I still can’t stop crying.

So I keep riding. A sign says two bear cubs are on the road. Cars are stacked up by a meadow. Oh damn. A lady gets out of her car with a camera. There’s a big brown something walking around in the grass. It’s an elk.

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OI turn at an intersection, leave the Tetons and start climbing. I’m feel like crap. A freewheel buzzes up behind me. I’m expecting another Divide rider, but it’s a girl on a carbon cross bike. She hangs out for a few minutes, slow pedaling. We chat about the race. Turns out she’s went to school in Morgantown. Small world.

She rides away, and I climb slowly as the road turns to dirt. It’s a nice climb, now that my breakfast digested. There’s a gas station and a lodge with a restaurant near the top of the pass. The restaurant doesn’t open for half an hour, so I buy some cheese sticks at the gas station and call my parents, then Montana. I whine a little, but don’t have a total mental breakdown this time.

The restaurant’s open. Some retired Texans have started walking in for early bird specials. Should I get dinner? No, it’ll take too long. I’ve been sitting here an hour. I sidle over to the hostess stand, peer at a menu. Screw it, it’s my birthday. I sit my muddy self down at a table for one and order a chicken sandwich, no bun, extra salad and fries.

-

The Great Basin is big, bright and windy. It’s 2:00, the brightest, windiest time of the day. I wish I’d started earlier, but I was enjoying Atlantic City too much.

I got to the bar at 11:30 after a long, hot ride from a cow-pocked bivy spot near the Big Sandy River. The bar was dark and cool with wood paneling and a gun rack by the door. Four bike tourists were there drinking root beer. They let me sit with them while I inhaled a burger and fries. They were taking a day off, lurking in the cool of the bar. I wanted to stay, too. But instead I signed the guest book and rolled out into the white hot day.

A big wind whips behind me, shoves me down the road at 20 miles per hour. Turn, the wind blasts me sideways. I almost wipe out. Yikes. I feel sorry for the people riding northbound - they’ve got this wind in their face. I reach up to take off my regular glasses and put my sunglasses on. But I’m already wearing the shades. I guess brown lenses are better for riding in the woods.

Turn right on the reroute to Wamsutter. Some rocky doubletrack, then a barely-there path through the grass. I follow the line, lose it, find the path up on a rocky bluff, get lost again. I’m amazed that someone was able to map out these faint cowpaths. The trail rolls up and down the bluffs (there’s way more climbing in the Basin than I’d expected) and finally drops back to a road. I turn up my yoga meditation music and zone out.

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Breathe, ignore the wind, keep pedaling. I’m getting to Wamsutter tonight. No way I’m camping out here in this ugly barren desert with all these cows. I knock back a caffeine shot and eat a snack - Chex muddy buddies and dried chili mango slices with cashews. Yesterday that combination seemed like a good idea. Actually it’s weird and makes my mouth hurt.

As the sun sets, the wind settles down. The sky turns deep purple. A road sign! I love signs. They mean civilization. Wamsutter - 26. I’ll be there before midnight!

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It gets dark. I’m bored, riding slow. So I cover up my Garmin with an arm sleeve. An hour later, I’ve gotta be close to town. There are some lights up ahead, blinking. The map says 15 miles, and I’ve been riding 8.5 miles per hour. Damn. I hope Wamsutter has a Holiday Inn. Or a McDonald’s. I eat a Clif Bar, try to pedal with more energy. I’m glad for the dark. This ride would be blistering hot in the daytime.

Finally I pass the refinery, down to a Love’s gas station. It’s the busiest one I’ve ever seen, packed with noisy rumbling trucks. Not much else in town besides one grungy motel, so I go there. It’s past office hours. I call the number on the door. A sleepy woman tells me there’s no vacancy.

I check Trackleaders on my phone. The Kiwis and the bucket hat man are at the motel, but I don’t see any bikes outside on the balcony. I look around. The church has some scraggly bushes.

I wheel my bike through the scratchy grass and lay down without setting up my bivy. It’s bright from street lights. Trucks blast past on the interstate, shaking the ground. I try to shut my eyes, but I’m still wired from the caffeine shot. I’m hungry, so I eat more muddy buddies, then I feel gross. At least the Basin’s over.

-

The only good thing about southern Wyoming is that it leads to northern Colorado. I’m walking my bike up a steep hot hill covered in loose sand. A truck passes me and kicks up dust.

I'm drained. I only napped at the church for two hours. Then I dragged myself to the Love’s station at 4:00 for breakfast. It had a Subway, so I asked for an egg on spinach. “Yellow or white egg?” the girl asked. Gross. I ate yellow egg on spinach with coffee while my phone charged. The Kiwis came in and started inhaling hot dogs and ice cream for breakfast. They always make good food choices.

They rolled away from me on the hot, washboard road out of town. I stopped to eat a fruit cup, but dropped it. Melon scattered over the gravel. I left it there.

Finally I descend the hot bright road into Savery. There’s a museum and and some buildings with a yard where kids are playing day camp games. It’s hot-hot, about 90 according to the thermometer hanging on the porch. The museum has cold soda for a dollar in a cooler! While I’m drinking one, a tall guy comes outside and tells me they’ve started a little store for Divide riders in the basement. I’m pretty close to the Brush Mountain Lodge, but I buy more nuts and chocolate anyway. Before I leave, the guy warns me about the huge climb to the lodge. Super. I drink another Coke.

The road is hot and scrabbly-steep. I get off and walk, promising myself I’ll never get such a bad night’s sleep again. My nose starts bleeding again. I push up to the top of the hill, coast down. The lodge!

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I almost missed it. It’s a big log cabin with big colorful porch lights and an elk skull on the roof. Someone’s outside ringing a cowbell. I pull up and lean my bike on a picnic table. The lady with the cowbell runs out and wraps me in a big hug.

“Wow,” she says, “you’re the smallest non-child rider I’ve ever had here.” She’s Kirsten, the owner. I love her already.

Kirsten sits me in a chair on the porch with two bags of ice for my puffy knees. Alex the Aussie is there with an English guy and another racer who’s been laid up for a couple days with food poisoning. We watch hummingbirds zooming from feeder to feeder.

Kirsten comes back with a gluten-free pizza and a pitcher of ice water. She’s truly an angel. Again, despite Montana’s solid race advice to keep riding toward Steamboat, I decide to stay.

It’s a good choice. Kirsten has the lodge stocked with everything important - Clif Bars, sunscreen, aloe vera, Advil, band-aids, oatmeal packets, and even some charming volunteer mechanics who got jobs at the lodge after running support for a RAAM rider who dropped out 30 miles into the race. Kirsten feeds us more pizza and salad, and even does our laundry. I fall asleep in a nice soft bed, stuffed and happy.

-

I get up at 5:00 to leave the lodge. I’d love to stay for a good hot breakfast, but I’ve got to be in Steamboat early to get my bike fixed up at Orange Peel. I make a cup of instant coffee and eat some oatmeal. It’s not sausage and potatoes, but it’s better than yellow egg on spinach.

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I race up the road, trying to put time into Alex so I can get my bike fixed first. It’s a good day! My knees look almost normal. I’m glad to be done with Wyoming. The crisp Colorado air feels good in my lungs. Up the last bit of climb, down the rocky descent. A guy stands at the intersection with a little dog in his arms.

“Are you Colleen?” he asks. “Welcome to Clark, Colorado!”

“Thank you!” I call as I turn down the road. He and his dog climb in the car and drive away. 

The ride into Steamboat Springs is nice, paved and mostly downhill. The bike path through town is busy - it’s a sunny Friday afternoon, after all. Orange Peel is jammed, too. They’ve got rentals and repairs and retail all at once. I sidle in, tell a mechanic about my worn-out cog and chain, and they put me at the front of the queue. Dang, these guys are efficient.

While I wait, I eat a (GF!) sandwich from the Backcountry Deli and read Mountain Flyer’s obituary for Mike Hall. Riding the Divide is a privilege, Mike said. I have another one of his quotes written down: "Life is simple and beautiful and you are free. Enjoy." I think on that for a minute.

One of my friends from Ohiopyle moved to Steamboat a while ago, so she comes around to say hi. We hang out for a minute. She can’t believe how clean my clothes are. I remember that I just did laundry and tell her about the Brush Mountain Lodge. She leaves with her boyfriend to go rafting. Alex rolls in, they adjust his brakes and he’s on his way.

Finally my bike’s finished. I’ve got a new steel cog, a fresh chain, new brake pads and an overhauled rear hub. My bike feels solid. I also buy eight gluten-free Honey Stinger waffles and some Nuun. I roll out, stop at a gas station and buy gummy oranges to supplement the waffles - another experiment in gluten-free ride food. People use candy to get carbs, right? I chew on them climbing up Lynx Pass. Actually candy is gross.

The grade is nice and gradual. A sweet tailwind pushes me along as I climb. Top out in a gorgeous aspen grove, glowing in the late afternoon sun.

Descent! Past Lynx Pass campground. I feel a wave of deja vu - Montana and I camped here once. Weird. More downhill, then some stream crossings and another climb. It’s steep. And I thought Radium would be an easy target for the night. The sun sinks down. An old man with a walking stick is stumbling down the road ahead.

“Does the old trail still go through Steamboat Springs?” he asks, swerving a little. His breath is sour and beery.

“Um, yes.” I tell him. I’m sure there’s some kind of trail going through that town. I wish him luck and ride away before he can change the subject.

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Up, down, up, down. It’s dark and colder. I’m looking for a place to camp off the side of the road. I check my map. I’m a mile from Radium. I coast down to the river, see a little white light waving back and forth.

“We’re camping here!” someone yells. They’ve next to a pavilion by the boat launch. It’s Alex and bucket hat. Good enough for me. I’m excited to lay down and eat my extra sandwich from the deli.

-

Climbing up Ute Pass, I feel excellent. I love Colorado. And paved climbs. I ride up to Alex. He isn’t doing too hot. He’s out of water and food, so I give him a handful of Skittles. He perks up a bit. At the top of the pass, I eat some Honey Stinger waffles covered in peanut butter. Best snack combo far.

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I start descending, then stop to take a picture of the mountains. This place is prettier than I remember.

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It’s a screaming downhill from there. A left on more pavement - 16 miles to Silverthorne. They’re doing construction. I swerve to get around a sign in the shoulder, go right so I’m not in traffic. My tires slip on the soft loose dirt and then I’m sprawled out on the pavement. Alex rides past.

I jump up and look at my knee. Get woozy, lean on my bike for support. It’s okay, just scraped. But I can feel it starting to swell. I pop three ibuprofen.

“Are you okay?” An Indian guy on a road bike pulls up behind me. He looks really concerned. “Do you need a plaster or anything?” No, no, I’m fine. I notice all the bags on his bike. He’s a TransAmerica rider! We chat for a minute. He’s racing the TransAm, but quitting at Breckenridge because he needs to get back to Sweden to work. I let him go, wish him luck. Man my knee is sore.

I pedal into Silverthorne, fuming. My knee is puffy and stiff. Ugh.

Finally the bike path starts and I can get off the highway. Then two people are standing at the turn to Frisco. They've got signs. I know them! It's Lindsay Jones, my good gal pal from Ohiopyle! I throw my bike down and we launch into a big hug.

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Lindsay is on a big roadtrip through the west. She and her friend were watching the tracker all morning. We talk, take a picture and both cry a little. Suddenly my little knee scrape feels a lot better.

After a long resupply stop at Natural Grocers (Colorado is a gluten free heaven!), I ride through up the bike path and through Breckenridge. I put on mental blinders to the ice cream shops, Starbucks, hotels, t-shirt stalls. Then I spot Alex's bike at Clint's Bakery & Coffee. Maybe just a coffee.

Two gluten free cookies later we're full and happy (maybe a little too full), climbing Boreas Pass in the setting sun. Geez this is sweet. Why did I move away from Colorado again?

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Tour Divide - 1

I've been done with the Divide for over two weeks now. I think my brain's recovered enough to write something half insightful about the race. Here we go. 

I turn the pedals, grinding through thick, gloppy mud. Eyes up on the riders in front. Each has a dirty skunk stripe up their backs. Bikes and bags all gritty, zippers coated in dirt. Man what a mess. I wiggle my freezing fingers, trying to get some blood flow back. 

A guy rides up beside me on the doubletrack. He’s on a geared bike with some overstuffed bags and a big backpack. We make the normal small talk - where are you from, have you tried to race the Divide before, who made your bags? 

“Oh, a singlespeed?” The guy says, peering at my drivetrain. 

“Yep.” At this point in the day, lots of people have asked about my bike. It’s getting on my nerves a little. 

“What’s your name?” The guy demands. I tell him. “Huh. Well I’m gonna watch your SPOT. I’m curious how that works out for you. See you later.” 

He shifts gears and spins away. I’m pissed. Does he have me pegged me as a DNF? I cram a Clif Bar into my face and keep grinding through the muck. Forget the jerk, beat him if you can. Look around, the mountains are beautiful. 

-

Early that morning, I was clean, dry and full of pancakes. (My Warmshowers host Paul got up early to make breakfast and drive me to the start in Banff. He said he was going climbing anyway, but really he’s just nice.) 

At the Banff YWCA the air was thick with cold mist and anxiety. People checked, double checked, triple checked their gear. Crazy Larry bounced around with a tray of Rice Krispies treats. During the group photo, the girl sitting next to me sighed and mumbled, “I thought this was supposed to be a low-key event. This is like Leadville or something.” The crowd hushed in a moment of silence for Mike Hall, then Larry sang out the Tour Divide riders creed. We repeated the words after him, but I forget it now. 

We staged ourselves (where the heck was I supposed to go), then rolled out - a big wheeled mass of nervous happy terrified energy.

Three miles in, my Garmin freaked out. Power lost. Power lost. Power lost. Probably from leaving my cache battery out in the rain. I fiddled for a bit, while the entire race passed. Technology is the worst. I called it some names. Finally plugged it into the dynamo, carried on into the murky cold rain. 

On a piece of slick singletrack, I tried to pass a guy wearing a bucket hat. My front tire slid off a root and I took a digger into the mud five feet in front of him. My aerobars took most of the fall. I apologized four times to the guy. That's what happens when I have too much fun mountain biking. 

It rained, snowed, stopped, rained again. I passed a guy dunking his bike in a stream. He was hauling it up and down, splashing water all over the bottom bracket. Whatever makes you happy. 

-

About 100 muddy miles down, it’s 8:00. I stop at the intersection. Keep going straight to Elkford, a warm dinner and a hotel room. The route usually goes through Elkford, but there's a bridge out. Turn right onto the new Koko Claims reroute to Fernie, which is some kind of burly hike-a-bike up a rocky-ass forest road. The road behind me is littered with broken derailleurs, Clif Bar wrappers and sad, muddy cyclists. 

A couple guys are standing by the trailhead. I ask how far it is to Elkford. Four kilometers (they’re both Australian). They’re planning to tackle the climb, camp on the other side.  Do I want to join? It’ll be better now than in the morning. 

Montana told me not to stop in Elkford. “Only non-finishers stop in Elkford,” he’d said. Four riders zoom past me, so focused on a hot shower and dinner that they don’t even look at us. I waffle back and forth, wondering if I’ve got enough food to keep going. Of course I do, I’ve hoarded enough snacks for almost three days. We start hiking. 

Two hours later, we might be close to the top. The trail was a steep, rocky stream for a while and now it’s covered in snow. About a dozen of us are walking our bikes through the dark. A lanky guy up front is hiking fast, hooting for bears every five minutes. His bear bell jangles from his handlebars. Where’s all that energy coming from? 

I’ve leeched onto Ross, one of the Australians, because he has a headlamp. Mine bounced around in my accessory bag, turned on, and burned out. I’m dragging. I stop.

“I’m just gonna camp here,” I tell Ross, gesturing at a totally slanted, icy piece of ground nearby. Ross looks at me. 

“Come on, now. We’re not leaving you alone on the mountain. Just five steps at a time.” Gosh, he’s really nice. 

Many sets of five steps later, we’re finally at the top. A few feet down the other side, people are camped in a meadow. We all disperse, set up our meager shelters. I fumble with my bivy in the dark. Should’ve practiced with it. Montana wrote a love note on the front: NOT A BEAR BURRITO. DO NOT EAT. It’s extra cold up here. I put on all my clothes and crawl into bed with a frozen gluten-free burrito and a plastic bag of squished strawberry crumble that my Warmshowers hosts gave me last night. 

I fall asleep listening to small, hard flakes of snow tip-tapping on the bivy roof. 

In the morning everything is frozen, and none of us were eaten by bears. 

-

Past Fernie, I’ve got such a bad cold I can barely talk. I can’t breathe hard, either. Tour Divide illness. I'm walking up a hill 20 miles from the Canada border, wheezing. Then my sniffles get loose. A fat drop of blood falls on my handlebars. Oh hell. 

I get nosebleeds a lot. Especially in the mountains. My fragile sinuses get too dry, then a vein cracks and bleeds for a couple hours. I have to stand over a sink and let it happen till the bleeding stops. I don’t have a sink right now, so I wad up some toilet paper and hold itunder my nose for a few minutes. It doesn’t exactly stop. 

In Eureka I stop at Subway. Suddenly it’s hot out, I’m burning up in my wool tights. I call Montana and try not to cry when I hear his voice. “It’s just a bike ride,” he says, “you’ll be okay.” The Aussies roll in with some other people. Everyone’s filthy and beat. 

I order a big salad with large bag of Bugles as my carbs for the day. Gluten-free life is rough on the Divide. 

My nose lets loose again. I run to the bathroom with napkins up to my face. The cashier comes in while I’m hunched over the sink. 

“You okay, honey?” She asks. “You’re awfully red in the face.” 

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just doing this really long bike ride and my nose is dry.” 

She eyes my pile of bloody paper towels. “Well maybe you should give up this biking thing.”

It stops, I leave and spin away from town on the pavement. Opens up again. I drip blood all along the road, stop in the grass. Some people driving past donate some napkins. I have to start riding again. It keeps dripping. I’m out of napkins. I tilt my head back, letting some blood drip down onto my bike. Hopefully no bears around. I think about stopping for the night.

The two Czechs catch up. Marketa is the female rider closest to me. She’s a little horrified at the state of my face. I decide to ride a little more. Can’t let her get too far in front. 

A few more miles. Finally, a nice creek. I stop to camp with a guy from Alaska, go to the creek and use my one spare t-shirt to mop the blood off my face and my gear. I'll have to throw it away. 

A rider passes the campsite. “Jeez, was that blood from you? I thought a bear was eating something back there.” 

I force myself to sleep on my back so I don’t leak nose blood on my bivy. 

-

Soupy mud on Richmond Pass. Foggy, freezing rain, everything’s totally soaked. My knees hurt. My stomach hurts from eating five jalapeño elk jerky sticks for lunch. At least I can talk and breathe today. A wind kicks up and blasts down the pass. I unclip and trudge next to my bike. 

At the top, I layer my soggy puffy coat under my wet rain jacket and start to descend. Warm dinner soon! But my arrow’s not on the green line. Fudge. With numb fingers, I dig out my Great Divide map. Go through the boulders, singletrack starts. I shout at the map and cram it back in my frame bag. 

The trail’s covered in snow. Of course. I ride carefully, feeling dark and moody. There would be a nice view over the edge if it ever stopped raining. Finally the trail opens up onto a road. Rolling faster down the hill. I’m frozen. Fingers won’t move, chilled to the bone. A few tears leak down, then I’m sobbing and shivering, yelling at the road again. What a load of garbage. If I was touring this route, I’d still be warm and dry in Banff. 

At an intersection. Montana told me to carry on into Ovando if I could. I can’t. I’m done. I roll off route into Seeley Lake, stop at the first hotel and feel bad for tracking dirt into the office. They’re out of rooms. Tears well up again. I shuffle outside. 

“Hey cyclist!” Up on the balcony, three riders are rolling bikes out of a room. “We got here at noon, cleaned up and slept all day,” one guy tells me. “The room’s a mess but you can have it if you want.” He hands me a key. Yes! I’d give him a hug if his bike wasn’t in the way. 

The Kiwi couple on a tandem rolls up, looking haggard and muddy. 

“Free hotel room!” I yell. “And the office has Twinkies!” It’s the little things. 

-

The sun is out in the morning. I’m flying high on an honest-to-god Americano from a cafe in Seeley Lake. I run into Bucket Hat on the way out of town. He tells me that he got hypothermia on Richmond Pass and had to recover at the motel for 20 hours yesterday. He pedals away, excited for breakfast somewhere in Ovando. His pedal stroke is weird. Is he wearing water shoes? 

I stop in Ovando at the place with all the bikes. A text from my dad bleeps onto my phone. “Stop at the Stray Bullet Cafe.” The what? He must Googling the places I stop. I look around. The Stray Bullet Cafe is right in front of me. Bucket Hat and a few other guys are sitting down inside, eating. I order eggs, potatoes, and cheese in aluminum foil to go. 

“Are you on some kind of time crunch?” The waitress asks. No! But I feel like riding my bike today. I stuff the egg thing in my gas tank and the Blackfoot Angler takes a couple pictures. She’s excited that I’m on a singlespeed.

Photo: Kathy at Blackfoot Angler Fly Shop

On Facebook she captions my photo with this: “She is the darling of the men’s race due to her petite size and that they all admire how tough she is being on a SINGLE speed and nailing it. But a lady she is, all that sparkle on her helmet….it’s nail polish!” It is. Montana sees the photo and says I look too clean. 

Stoked on sun, I set my sights on Helena. I can make it! The day is beautiful, there’s a tailwind and I have a lot of chocolate in my trail mix! I strike a deal with myself. If I get to Helena, I can get a hotel room and some ice cream. Motivation! 

The last pass of the day, I’m riding with Jeremy, the lanky bear bellower from the first day. I've got two rolled-up wet wipes plugging my nose, but Jeremy doesn't laugh at me too hard. We’re rolling through a gorgeous green meadow dotted with wildflowers. The sun is setting over the hills. We’ll make it to Helena for sure. Ka-chunk. My cranks catch, then spin free on nothing. Chain popped off the cog. I put it back on. That sucker’s loose, dropouts won’t slide back anymore. I hop back on. Ka-chunk. Again. Oh hell. Don’t panic. Just keep riding. We’ve got a tiny pass, then 10 miles of highway to Helena. Ka-chunk. Guess I’ll need to visit the bike shop tomorrow. 

I pedal gingerly up and over Priest Pass into a bright mountain sunset. Zoom down the pass in the dark - the two Czechs are changing brake pads at a switchback - catch Jeremy at the bottom and spin as fast as I can into town (12 miles per hour). The Czechs fly past without a word, bear bells jangling.  

By 12:30 I’m finally in a hotel room, soaking my dirty clothes in the bathtub and eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for dinner. My mouth is too ripped up from chips and Clif Bars for anything else. 130 miles. Hotel. Ice cream. Tomorrow I’ll lose a bunch of time because the bike shop doesn’t open till 10:00. But right now I’m happy. 

-

The top of the infamous Fleecer Ridge is actually kind of delightful. The air is crisp and cool. Little wildflowers bob in the breeze. I set my bike down on the grass and take a picture of the trail dipping over the hillside. Hop on, start riding down. It’s not so bad. What kind of fools walk this descent? The trail turns, then plunges. Oh. I get off and scramble down. 

The dirt hits pavement in a few miles. I start climbing. Ow. Stabbing in my quad, by the knee. I stop, massage it, stretch. Good to go! Ow. Damn, that hurts. Sit down, soft pedal to Wise River. 

Lunch at one of two bars in town. It’s nice in there, warm and dark. The flightless Kiwi tandem comes in, sits down at my booth. The waitress plops my lunch on the table and rolls her eyes. She doesn’t seem pleased to have two more customers. We take our time eating, and Denise chips away at the stony waitress with aggressive politeness. She warms up to us and fills our bottles. I have to fill my own water bladder though - she says that a Divide racer accused her of putting a hole in his bag. Dang, people can be rude. 

There are a few locals at the bar. “You headed to Polaris?” They ask. Yep. “I wouldn’t take the road! That’s a big hill!” Was there a helicopter shuttle we could take? 

“Yeah, some people have to walk that one,” Geof says. I can’t tell if he’s joking. 

When we roll out, the Kiwis drop me fast on the pavement. That’s okay. The clouds loom closer, so I stop and put on my rain jacket. After Fleecer, I’m looking forward for some gradual climbing. It gets a tiny bit steeper, I stand up out of the saddle. Holy god I can’t. Knives in my quad. I sit and pedal. That still works. 

A few more miles, I can’t stand and climb. I can barely sit and spin. What’s a singlespeeder who can’t climb? Sad. 

The top has to be here somewhere. Low heavy clouds piss rain. I stop, pull on my rain pants, limp a few steps, try to stretch. I take a couple Advil, but nothing feels better. Tears sting my eyes. Gotta keep riding, can’t camp up high in the rain. I’m so mad. This would be a nice climb if I didn’t feel like cutting my leg off above the knee. 

At the top, I descend through freezing rain, pass the turn to some hot springs and feel sad that I have to skip them. The Grasshopper Valley opens up, wide and dotted with a few big houses. There’s a fire station and a post office. I spot the sign for the High Country Lodge. Divide Riders Welcome! Montana said I shouldn’t waste time stopping here for the night. I can hardly pedal up the long driveway. Nope. Stopping. 

The owner Russ welcomes me into the big living room full of forest creatures. The Kiwis and Alex the Australian are there already, discussing the difference between a New Zealand elk and a Montana elk (there is none). Alex is limping a little, too. The lodge has a big board for riders to sign their names. I mark mine down, then see that the Czechs have already been through and carried on down the road. My window to catch up is shrinking. I plop myself down on the couch and wallow in self pity, gazing into the glassy eyes of a moose on the wall. 

The food is amazing - roasted chicken and mashed potatoes. They even find a gluten-free roll out in the freezer (lucky me, Russ and Kathy's daughter has a sensitive tummy too)! I think about asking for seconds, but nobody else does. So I stay quiet and enjoy my gluten-free brownie for dessert. 

Denise, who’s a physical therapist, checks out my quad after dinner. She recommends some glute exercises. I’ll never do them, but I’m grateful for the advice. I call Montana. He says I’ve probably lowered my seat too much a couple days ago. Or maybe my knees are suffering because I’m hauling three extra pounds of tortillas and pepperoni. Food hoarding. I tell him I feel bad for staying inside four nights in a row. 

“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Just do what you need to get to the end.” He’s too good. 

I’ll just get up early, start riding and hope things feel better. I don’t have anything better to do.

Pre-race jitters

"Everyone in Canmore picks their nose. It's totally cool," said the bike shop guy in Canmore.  

I nodded and laughed a little, twisting my new red blinky light in my fingers. 

"Seriously. You need clear nasal passages if you're riding to Mexico."  

My flight from Pittsburgh was a red-eye in the sense that my eyes were actually red when the plane touched down in Calgary at 2:00 a.m. Another Divide racer and I shuffled to the overweight baggage claim and crossed our fingers that our bikes had followed us to Canada. The doors opened. His box slid in. Another box. The doors closed. Oh god. The doors opened. My box! 

We dragged the boxes over to Camp 1, a row of airport seats. I made a nest on the bench, lining my box alongside like a privacy screen. Another guy in a cycling kit wandered over and started unpacking his bike. 

"Are you riding to Banff right now?"  I asked. He looked confused. 

 "Oh I dunno. I hadn't really thought about it."

"Okay, we're sleeping right here." If he wanted to ride 80 miles right then, that was fine. But I hoped he'd get some sleep. 

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In the morning, coffee and bike building.  Micah (bike box #2) and I set out to Banff. 

Google routed us on every bike path in Calgary. It's a sprawling kind of place, which is the same impression I got when Montana and I drove past it on our way to Banff in 2014. I wish we could've seen downtown, but neither of us we're in the mood for sightseeing after a no-sleep airport night. The riding was good - sweet tailwind and sunshine all the way.

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I hopped off in Canmore, where I'd planned to stay with Paul and Nola, who I met through Warmshowers. (Best site ever!) They're a really cool couple who've done all sorts of mountain climbing and bike touring around Canada. Since they're authentic Canadians, they know all about bears and they even put the hockey game on for me tonight.  

From their place, I rode into Banff on the Legacy Trail. 

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Today Banff was full of nervous Divide racers. Riding their loaded bikes around town. Looking sideways at other people's gear. Discussing the pros and cons of bear spray. I hung out with Craig the Scatman Fowler and talked about cats. Josh Kato shook my hand. People asked what gear I was running. I know (32x20), beacuse I counted the teeth on my chainring at the airport. My brain doesn't hold onto numbers. 

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There was a brief collective panic when the SPOT trackers were late getting to the front desk at the YWCA. Then another panic when Banff ran out of the fancy Lithium AAA batteries recommended for max SPOT life. I checked at the camera shop in town.

"Oooh ya," the guy at the front desk told me, "Buddy came in earlier today and cleaned us oot. Another guy called a month agoo and ordered twenty packs, eh?"

People fixate on weird things when they're nervous.  

I showed my face for a minute at Crazy Larry's pre race meeting in the bowling alley to meet some of the other women riding. Larry was jumping around, making balloon animals and hanging tinsel on things. I finished my drink and pedaled out of Banff.

The sky over Canmore was black. I called Paul for a ride as lightning forked across the sky and the wind whisked fat cold drops across the bike path. Paul wants to drive me to the start as well. I'll take it! He's the last SAG support I'll have till Mexico. 

So there it is. Nothing left to do but pedal (and probably walk a bit too). 

Cliche: As I'm getting ready for the race, I'm overwhelmed by all the support I'm getting from family, friends and random people on the street. Thank you, I love you all! 

Get the gear!

Montana and I have been spending the past couple weeks getting my bike ready for the big race. What we've come up with isn't as ultra-minimal as his setup a few years ago. But I need to change my shirt every once in a while to feel human. Here's what I'm taking. 

Clothes

This looks like a lot of stuff. But this is the system I worked out this winter: one pair of non-fussy mountain bike shorts (thanks Shredly!), but no chamois; two pairs of wool socks; two pairs of wool undercrackers; two synthetic bras; arm sleeves; a bandana; a wool jersey; wool short sleeve t-shirt; wool long-sleeve t-shirt; wool tights. There's a pattern there. Wool dries fast and stinks less than most other fabric. I like Icebreaker stuff, but maybe I'm biased because I like New Zealand a lot. 

Layers

Cold weather really destroys me. So I figured I'd go all out with the crappy-weather gear: OR helium jacket and pants; waterproof OR shell gloves; wooly beanie; Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer puffy jacket. 

Sleeping

Again, getting kinda hefty - where other people bring nothing at all, I've got: an OR Helium Bivy (or a bear burrito, as Montana's been calling it); 6 titanium tent stakes; a Thermarest Neoair (ladies version); Enlightened Equipment Revelation Down Quilt, rated to 20 degrees. That quilt has been life changing. I used to camp with a Mountain Hardwear Phantasia 15, which weighed about 2 pounds and hogged all the space in my front bag. This baby is half the weight, just as warm, and it was made in the USA. Win!   

Fixy bits

It really helps to be married to a mechanic here. Patch kit; quick links; two sets of brake pads; grease, lighters; a new valve stem; iodine; wire; a multitool; pliers; chain tool; tire lever; superglue; cable; bolts; cleats; screws; zip ties... Not pictured: chain lube, rag spare cleats, a mini knife, and some Stan's. 

Obvious things: Helmet, gloves, shoes - without buckles. All from Giro. 

Other bits and bobs

Dorky fanny pack for food and iPhone storage; wallet and passport; sunglasses; ACA maps; headphones; eTrex20x; phone charger; some hippy soap; chapstick; half a toothbrush. Not pictured: a Princeton Tec headlamp, an iPhone for music, photos and navigation backup. Tomorrow I'm making a Target run to stock up on mini sunscreen, mini toothpaste, bandaids, probiotics and instant coffee. 

Bike-mounted stuff

Lezyne mini pump wrapped in Gorilla tape; spare water bottle; Sinewave Revolution USB dynamo charger; Exposure Revo dynamo light; one ultralight spare tube, velcroed under the top tube; aerobars; extra chunky grips. My bags (except for the Revelate bag on the top tube) are Defiant Pack zipperless bags. I've got Montana's Porcelain Rocket Mr. Fusion seatbag rack. The dynamo hub, USB charger and light are also Montana's. It made more sense for me to use his things than buy new stuff for the Divide.

My Waltworks is the best bike I've ever ridden.

A couple things:  I love riding this Whisky Parts Co Number 9 thru-axle carbon fork - it's light and lively. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to go with a 32X20 singlespeed. Riding gears has always felt weird to me. The brakes are Avid BB7's, with Paul levers. Jones H-Bars cut narrower because I have short arms (and because one time my bike fell off the Shark and the bars scraped along the road for a while). I'm a huge huge huge fan of the Terry Butterfly saddles. Last year I rode a unisex Chromag Trailmaster, which wasn't kind to my lady bits. The big notch in the Terry, plus the nice padding, make it a dream to ride without a chamois. Last, I like riding with aerobars a lot more than I thought I would. The padded cups are nice and squishy on my elbows. Can't wait to take all the naps there. 

3 weeks out

I stood with Montana in the cold rain, watching him double-triple-check his gear. He cinched down his bags one last time. I made him pose for a photo, and he grinned nervously while icy water dripped off his helmet brim. 

I watched him ride off into the dark woods, then drove away into the gloomy Canadian morning. I’d see him three weeks later in dusty Antelope Wells, New Mexico at the end of the Tour Divide. 

At the time, I felt a lot of feelings. I was a little lonely, a lot worried about him and a little excited to have a few weeks to cook things for myself that Montana doesn’t like eating. But I definitely did not ever want to race the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Mountain biking was terrifying. It usually bruised my legs and my ego. Montana could have this one to himself. 

-

Three years later, I feel a little different. Since I stopped fancying myself an ultra marathon runner, I’ve actually learned to ride a bike pretty well. Getting a custom Waltworks and living in Colorado helped a lot. 

Our trip to Baja was a very very hard bikepacking tour for me as a newbie. But at least it got me out of my desk job and into a bike seat. I felt better last winter. Our ride in New Zealand taught me how to do longer days and live comfortably with just two pairs of underwear. 

In the middle our New Zealand trip, I started turning the idea over. What if I raced the Divide this year? A couple weeks after the idea lodged itself in my brain, I told Montana. He was cautiously stoked and fed me all his advice over the next few weeks. “Are you sure?” He said a few times. Yeah, I think so. 

I’ve booked my plane ticket to Calgary, finished fooling with my bike setup and bought the pair of shorts I’ll be wearing for the whole month of June. I’m still about 95% sure I want to do the race. I know it’s going to hurt a lot - I just don’t really know how much yet. It seems impossible to guess how it’ll feel to ride for 2700 miles along the Continental Divide. But if I don’t do it, I’ll always wonder how it would’ve felt. 

This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done alone. Hell, this is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. The couple marathons I’ve run don’t even come close. I’m definitely deep in quarter-life crisis territory here. Even if the Divide sucks really bad, at least I’ll have a lot of time to think.

So a couple weeks ago I did a test run - a trial ride down to Daivs, West Virginia. 

I left Ohiopyle in the afternoon with a feed bag stuffed with trail mix. The weather was crappy and cold, which was perfect! The northern Rockies aren’t exactly in a heat wave right now. Google Maps gave me a wonky cycling route down to Davis. Fair enough. I needed to learn how my Garmin works. Montana took the derailleur off my bike (my choice, not his), and I managed to climb up the steep West Virginia hills without getting off to walk. Hopefully the singlespeed thing feels good in the race, or else I’m getting some dangly bits sent to Steamboat. 

Davis was still shut down for the shoulder season. My dreams of a Hellbender burrito bowl crushed, I got to practice riding into a bar, ordering from a gluten-based menu and sitting alone for dinner. Training! 

I rode a half-mile out of town and set up my bivy in a darkish patch of pine trees. The next morning I got up at 4:45 and pedaled up Route 219 with a hot cup of gas station coffee in my hand. For the race I think I’ll load up my frame bag with a bunch of Starbucks Via packets. The rest of the morning I spent pedaling back north, squinting into a drizzly headwind. Too bad the road wasn't rough washboard, because that would've been really good practice. 

I spun down the Great Allegheny Passage into town, hunkered down on my aerobars. My neck kept cramping up. Need to readjust those. 

Just 24 hours after I left Ohiopyle, I was back. I didn’t intend on making it a time trial, but I was happy to have ridden 140 miles with daylight to spare. 

The race is three weeks out now. It feels like a long time and no time at all. Till then, I’m going to keep mountain biking as much as I can and going to yoga a lot so I don’t turn into a nervous wreck.

The South Island

We spun down the central west coast on a sunny day, toward Franz Josef glacier. The high rocky mountains jutted up around us. A dreamy turquoise river flowed under the road toward the sea. It was hot, so we stopped for lunch at a little roadside cafe and drank fizzy Lemon & Paeroas.

Montana was fuming. Riding on the road makes him peevish.

“Hey, that looks like a really good pie,” I said brightly.

He grumbled. I gave up, smearing more sunscreen on my face. Maybe one day we'll find a place to tour that we both like.  

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South of Wellington, I didn’t know quite what to expect. While I was studying abroad in New Zealand, I did a quick hop over to the South Island. I didn’t have a car, so I decided to join some friends on a Kiwi Experience tour bus. These buses are painted forest green, and they’re usually full of hungover college kids. It drove us down the West Coast and deposited us in Queenstown. Along the way, we drank a lot of wine, took a bunch of pictures and did a 3-day hike. It had its fun points, but I’d missed the freedom of traveling under my own power

Picton - Blenheim

It was hot, humid hilly dirt road riding. Like the Hilly Billy race in West Virginia, but next to the ocean. The kilo of peanut butter in my frame bag was dragging me down. Up and over the last muddy dirt climb, to the beach. Our campsite was just down the hill. I coasted in, and Montana was already boiling a pot of rice. Time for a cold shower and a stroll on the sand.

Blenheim - Molesworth Station

55 miles of hot, breezy gravel climbing out of Blenheim. Overheated sheep crowded into a tiny sliver of shade under a scraggly tree. No campsite for the next 20 miles. We set up camp by the silty river under the trees. Maybe the wind woud stop in the morning.

Molesworth - Hanmer Springs

Windy as hell again, barely going 8 miles per hour. Stunning scenery, high dry mountains and purple wildflowers. Camped for the night by the river and became acquainted with the New Zealand sandfly.

No sandflies in these photos. No Montana, either. He couldn’t stay outside the tent long enough.

Montana’s birthday was in Hanmer Springs. It's a little mountain town with a nice campground and some hot springs. 

“What do you want to do for your birthday?” I asked over coffee and toast at a cafe in town.

“Repack our hubs.” Well, I would’ve suggested going out for ice cream. But it was his birthday, not mine.

Hanmer Springs - St. Arnaud - Nelson

No wind! We rode up, up more gravel to the highest graveled pass in New Zealand. Twenty minutes of hike-a-bike. A guy pulled up in a truck, asked if we wanted a ride to the top. We laughed. No, we’re good. 

Over the hill, a long descent to Island Gully Hut. We had it all to ourselves. 

"Let's stay here a while," Montana said. 

Maybe, but we were almost out of rice and beans and it’s a long way to town. 

From our nice snug hut, another long descent to St. Arnaud, a beautiful but rainy sandfly zone in Nelson Lakes National Park. One night camping in the rain by the fly-infested lake, and we retreated to a hostel full of soggy Te Araroa through-hikers. In a couple days the rain finally let up and we hustled to Nelson, getting soaked by another deluge along the way.

Nelson

The sun came out! We swooped down singletrack with Philip, another great Warmshowers host. Montana had a new set of Moonmen bars from Colorado. He giggled all the way down. 

Back to Philip’s house. He sent us to the town market for olive oil, then gave us most of the bottle. Such a nice guy. 

After the market, we rode around town. A note appeared in Montana’s helmet. 

“Hey single speeder, nice handlebars. Todd Heath’s a good friend of mine. If you’re in Christchurch stop by for some Kiwi hospitality."

Seriously, SO nice.

We were on our way to have dinner with a Kiwi couple, Hamish and Jane, who we’d met on a street corner in Santa Monica. They’d noticed our touring bikes, said hello and given us their address in Nelson. We took them up on the offer and spent a lovely evening at their place. They’ve been touring since they rode the first Bikecentennial in 1976 with handmade canvas panniers.

Hamish and Jane rode out of town with us on the bike path toward Seddonville, the closest town to the Old Ghost Road trailhead in the ghost town of Lyell.

Lyell - Seddonville

High ridge riding on the Old Ghost Road. Damn. It was pleasant wide bike path riding in the woods till this part. I get off and walked. Chin up, this tour's been way easy. Rain clouds moved in along the mountain tops. Better hustle to get to our campsite. 

The next morning, more rain and techy rocky riding. I walked a lot, but not enough to ruin my day.

Seddonville

We rested in the tiny town of Seddonville at the town campground (an old schoolhouse maintained by local volunteers). There was one bar/hotel/restaurant/post office run by a friendly, gruff fellow named Greame and blazing fast Internet. I binge-watched all the episodes of Stranger Things while Montana fiddled with maps to figure out the rest of our route down the South Island. I’m not very helpful when I’m resting. We ate at the Seddonville Hotel twice. I recommend Graeme's very tasty chips. 

Seddonville - Westport

The wind blew us into Westport, where we stayed at a surf hostel to wait out more rain. It was a cool, quirky place run by a couple well-traveled Kiwi surfers. 

At night the hostel population swelled to capacity when the Kiwi Experience buses pulled in. Noisy teenagers poured into the place. They partied loud. At least one guy knew how to play the guitar well enough to make the whole room shut up

Westport - Greymouth

We pedaled from Westport down the west coast with Ian, another bikepacker who’d shown up at the hostel after us. The whiskey from the night before had us all a little groggy. 

Standing outside the famous-ish “Pancake Rocks,” we waited for Ian to show up amid the tour buses and camper vans. It was getting late. The manager at the Pancake Rocks Cafe kicked us off the parking area for eating non-cafe hummus. Ian pedaled up slow, and we went to look at the Pancake Rocks. Gray and blocky. Not much like pancakes. We turned back south and raced the setting sun to Greymouth. 

West Coast Wilderness Trail

Spinning through squishy mud. Another four-foot-wide path. Ferns and lichens grew all around. Montana was annoyed by this trail, but he’d be more annoyed by the 250 miles of road riding between us and Otago. 

At the end of the trail in Ross, we walked into a hotel/bar that supposedly had campsites in the lawn. The crusty local farmers at the bar frowned at our goofy bright clothes and click-clacky shoes. Tent sites? Ten dollars. Montana got a beer. The farmers snickered. 

In a few minutes, the hotel lawn was full of camper vans and rental cars. European chatter floated on the air. Nobody went to the bar to get food, eating instant noodles and canned beans instead. No wonder the locals were annoyed. 

We spun down the road, watching camper vans whoosh past. Montana got saltier by the day. I tried to keep up a cheerful face, but we were both wishing there was a better way to ride down the drizzly coastline.

Walking to glaciers

We hiked our bikes up the walking path the the glacier. The sky threatened rain again and helicopters thrummed up above, shuttling people to the mountains and back. Huge black cliffs rise up on either side, waterfalls pouring down. 

We almost didn’t go, since I saw the glaciers back in 2012. But damn they’re small now. I’m glad we got to see them before they melt away.

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Glacier Country - Wanaka

I was riding faster than the sandflies up Haast Pass - barely. At least the pouring rain was keeping the bugs down. A giant RV trundled past, knocking me into the ditch by the road. I was ready to be done with the west coast. 

Up and over the hill, finally we were in Otago. The sky cleared as we rode along the clearest, bluest lakes into Wanaka

Wanaka - Cromwell

On top of the Pisa Range, looking down at Wanaka. The lake was misty blue in the distance. The mountains jutted up, gold and green. Wind whipped around the craggy black rocks. I pushed my bike up to the top of the climb, breathless in the altitude. It was like being on the Front Range. Dang that climb was good and long. 

All signs said the track was closed from the top. So we went right where we should’ve turned left. It took us three tries to find the right way down to Cromwell.

Cromwell - Lumsden

Montana had his helmet off, swinging from his handlebars. I wiped sweat out of my eyes while I hiked up the steep, scrabbly road. It was the Nevis Crossing, New Zealand’s highest public road. We’d been walking for two miles. 

Lumsden - Invercargill

Back on the pavement. A tailwind! No rain! Flat land and flat gray skies. Invercargill wanted us to visit. Montana wanted to see Burt Munro’s record-setting 1920’s motorcycle in a hardware shop. I wanted to see the tuatara, New Zealand’s only native reptile, in their Tuatarium. 

Invercargill had terrible weather, some neat old buildings and a surprisingly hip salon where I got my first haircut in a year.  We loved it there. 

Invercargill - Gore

In NZ’s country-western capital, we stayed in a campground with just a few other people. Montana was locked in a deep conversation with a slightly-tipsy Maori guy in the warm kitchen. They had their palms pressed together. The guy kept pressing Montana to define his religious beliefs. Montana kept deflecting, drinking slugs of whiskey to ignore the question. The kitchen smelled like fried fish. I left them to their male bonding and went to bed

Gore - Dunedin

It was raining and chilly. Instead of mountain biking on the local trails, we sipped coffee and walked around town, looking at the cool Gothic churches and university buildings. We bought used books, went to a garden and listened to some music. We rode up the steepest street in the world. 

No, it wasn’t Pittsburgh. We were in Dunedin, on the other side of the world.

Dunedin - Oamaru

I sat down on the side of the road and pressed my palms into my eyes. My back wheel was off, tire lumpy and soft on the rim. The damn thing wouldn’t inflate. The wind whipped around, and I zipped up my rain jacket. The zipper broke at the bottom, and it unzipped all the way. Goddamn. 

Some sheep on the side of the hill looked at me blankly. Bastards. I started pushing up the next huge climb, hoping Montana would get worried and turn around. He did. We gave up on the big mountain route and rode north on the road.

Oamaru

We staggered back from the jazz bar along the streets lined with wedding-cake stone Victorians. Back to the campground through the steampunk playground, where we took turns zipping around on the Flying Fox. 

A crowd was gathered in front of the campground porch. The world’s smallest penguins! Montana crouched down in front of the porch to get a look. The grayish, rabbit-sized penguins hissed and snapped.

Oamaru - Tekapo

We counted the days we had left. Wow, there were a lot. If we did a backwards tour of the Alps2Ocean (from Oamaru to Lake Tekapo), we could stretch it into a 6-day ride going about 30 miles a day. That wasn’t a lot of riding, but it would be better than sitting in Christchurch for two weeks waiting on our flight home.

Spinning along the washboard next to Lake Pukaki, we looked for a spot to camp. The Lake glowed turquoise under the bright blue sky. After three days of riding into a headwind, the weather had finally settled. Snowcapped Mount Cook jutted up across the lake. We rolled off the road and set up our tent on a cliff by the lakeside. Wild camping night #3 in New Zealand. 

My idea of Tekapo was from postcards - showing fields of lupines (my favorite alpine flower) along the the lovely blue lake, starry night skies over the old stone Church of the Good Shepherd, snowcapped mountains and braided rivers. 

We rolled into town, high off the night of peaceful free camping. Tekapo was a town full of tour buses and million-dollar homes painted black against the tussocky grass. It was too late in the season for lupines, and the sky was overcast. We got food from the Four Square and beat it out of there. 

Tekapo - Geraldine

Shacked up in a holiday park cabin in Geraldine, we watched the rain fall hard outside. It was 9:00 am. We still had an hour till official checkout (which Kiwis take kind of seriously). The campground owner rushed through the storm and tapped on our door. 

“What are your plans? We haven’t got any cabins left, so either you tent or you leave, sorry!” Seemed like she was in a big hurry to get us out. We packed up quick and sloshed away. 

Geraldine - Christchurch

We walked along the side of the big farm house, looking for Dan, the guy who’d left a note in Montana’s helmet in Nelson. A black-and-white cat watched us from the window. Dan said he’d be around. Oh shit. 

A cat was belly-up in the yard. Its legs looked awfully stiff. 

“Montana. I think their cat is dead.” His face fell. We decided to pretend we didn’t see it. Maybe it was a stray? 

Turns out the cat was feral. Dan and his wife started trapping feral cats (super invasive in New Zealand, really bad for the bird population) after their black-and-white kitty got a bad infection from a cat fight. 

Dan and his wife Ange gave us a great couple days in Christchurch, showing us all the local trails we had time to ride and even letting us use their garage to pack up our bikes.

We ate through the city’s food trucks and souvenir shopped around. Then all of a sudden it was time to go. At the airport we drank our last long blacks, dreading the two days of airports in front of us. We were sad to leave the good espresso and fluffy sheep, but we were ready to get back to our cozy camper by the river

North Island

I love the North Island. Its hills are green and steep, like Pennsylvania or West Virginia with novelty-sized ferns and beach access. Little maraes are around every corner, wood carved tikis with paua shell eyes gleaming. People speak gently and end every sentence with a question mark. The weather is mild and damp to help the kauri trees grow huge. Little towns with low-slung buildings are everywhere, and you can get a tasty pie every 50 kilometers if you want. 

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There’s not a lot of backcountry in the north - at least not much that you can access on a bike. We realized that a few days into our tour, when we tried to link up a ride with the Te Araroa - a tramping trail that runs the length of the country from the lighthouse at Cape Reinga to the seaside at Bluff. We’d heard from some hikers that there was some insane mud on one of the trails, so we figured we’d ride around the mud to the next section. We’d also heard that the Te Araroa wasn’t suitable for bikes, but that’s just what hikers say. On a gravel road leading into the forest, we passed a bunch of hikers and waved merrily. We were about to ride a trail in an hour that would take them all day to walk! Bikes are so fun. 

Two miles and a steep, muddy, 1000-foot descent later found us hauling our bikes through a river. 

“Is this the trail?” I yelled to Montana. He fiddled with his Garmin. 

“Says so. For like 3 more miles.” 

We turned around. Maybe New Zealand’s hiking trails really aren’t suitable for bikes. 

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From there, we rode through the thick, hilly bush till we hit the ocean. We visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the Maori and the English signed an agreement to live more or less harmoniously under the crown. They have a huge ceremonial war canoe on the grounds, but we would’ve had to pay $80 to look at it. We settled on having a snack and a coffee at the Treaty Grounds café instead and watched seagulls peck the Grounds for loose french fries.

We rolled south, through more hilly bush and beachy places back to Auckland, where we crashed for the second time with Warmshowers hosts, Hamish and Ida. Hamish recently toured the California coast as well — on a longboard. In classic Kiwi fashion, he described his trip as “pretty good” and was hard-pressed to elaborate. Montana finally got him to talk in more detail about the trip. Hamish did 50 miles a day, poling along using a stick with a doggie chew toy on the end and carrying his gear in a backpack. Occasionally walking up hills through Big Sur. Insane. 

From there, we took a couple more days to explore Auckland before shoving off again. One street in the city has the most whimsical holiday light display I've ever seen. 

After a month riding the road on the California coast and two weeks of roads in New Zealand, Montana was getting itchy to do some mountain biking. We took a shortcut by taking the ferry around part of Auckland's suburbs, then beat it due south, along some rail trails and some roads, past Matamata (Hobbitton!) to Rotorua, home of Crankworkx and the Redwoods trails.

Two of our raft guide friends from Ohiopyle moved there in October to work on the Kaituna River, and we’d made plans to crash with them for a few days while we waited for fresh tires to ship from America. 

We went to the river and asked some raft guides about our friends. 

“Short guy? Long hair?” One lifejacketed, dreadlocked dude asked. Yep. “Oh yeah, Frodo lives in town!” 

We found Frodo’s house by peeking into his recycling bin. Full of beers? Must be a whitewater house! 

Since it was Christmas, New Zealand’s postal service was shut down. We ended up staying in Rotorua for two weeks while the country celebrated holidays, rested, then celebrated more holidays and rested again. That’s okay, because it was the first time we rode singletrack in about two months. And we got to celebrate Christmas with our friends, instead of spending a real holiday at a holiday park. We owe those hobbits a few six-packs sometime. 

When we had our new rubber (Montana got knobbier knobs and I got 2.8 Ikons that roll a lot faster than my 3.0 Trail Bosses), we headed into the meat of the North Island. A long, pretty day took us to Taupo and the famous Huka Falls (which our friends have floated over in plastic boats!) We camped next to the Huka River in a (free!) campsite full of loud, drunk college kids and hippies selling weed. 

We loaded up on food in Taupo to last a few days. The plan was to ride the Great Lake Trail, a long flowy piece of singletrack around the lake, then hop onto the road and ride into the Pureora Forest, where we’d pick up the 85-km Timber Trail to Taumarunui. 

Great Lake was awesome - flowing and non-technical like the Mohican trail system in Ohio. We got to camp in the Pureora a little wind-battered from the road ride, but in good spirits because there was a nice river to wash ourselves off. But the next day dawned craptastically, with rain and cold wind. We rode up to the beginning of the trail and wandered around, soaked to the bone, looking for somewhere to buy anything. Nothing but campsites, other wet cyclists and a closed DOC field office. Our plans were stupid. So we descended all the way down the mountain to Mangakino, where we restocked our food and ate ice cream at a free campsite by the lake. Sometimes quitters win. 

When the sun came out, we climbed back up to the trailhead and gave the Timber Trail another shot. Damn, that one is impressive. Two days of buff backcountry bike path with crazy trees, huge suspension bridges over deep chasms and a nice place to camp in the middle. It was sweet. 

Instead of trying to scout more impossible backcountry rides, we rode directly south to Tongariro National Park to see the biggest mountains in the North Island and hike past Mount Doom on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. When I was abroad in New Zealand, I did this hike in atrocious weather. We couldn’t see anything and nearly got blown off the side of the mountain. 

This time we got lucky. Incredibly lucky. Warm weather, no wind and views for days. 

After our walk, we took a day to recover (bike touring does nothing to condition you for an easy 12-mile walk), because National Park was socked in with rain and crazy wind. Then we reluctantly left the nice cozy hostel and booked it south south south to get to the South Island. We wanted to spend as much time as we could exploring the (hopefully drier) mountains down there. 

We rode some winding, rolling dirt roads past fields of fluffy white sheep before the winds north of Palmerston North nearly knocked us flat. Luckily another couple on Warmshowers opened up their home to us with fresh bread and lovely paella, or else we would’ve been feeling pretty downtrodden.  

The windy, cold, wet day of riding from Palmerston North finally squashed my desire to ride every inch of the tour. We got Indian takeaway in Levin and hopped on a bus, which magically deposited us in Wellington. And all we had to do was sit there! Our hosts on AirBnB graciously let us in their home a day early, and we cracked a cold bottle of wine to celebrate arriving in my favorite city of the North Island - windy, wet, weird Wellington. Montana couldn’t wait to get on the ferry south.

How was your trip to New Zealand?

We've been back from New Zealand for a little over a week. I still don't think I've processed it enough to write something thoughtful. 

People are asking us this question a lot: So how was New Zealand? Oh my God, I'm so jealous. Seeing it on a bike must've been amazing. We smile and try to describe our trip without being reductionist. 

Back up two weeks. We were sitting in a strange nursing-home-converted-to-hostel in Christchurch, paying $10 for WiFi to check our bank account balance. I got up to make dinner, another rice-and-eggs concoction in the crowded hostel kitchen. Red-lettered signs up on the wall - WASH AND DRY ALL DISHES, ONLY BOIL WATER IN JUG, LABEL ALL FOOD. Three French teens wandered in and started making toast with Nutella. Two more German kids trooped in speaking in hushed voices, big hiking packs on their backs, little daypacks on their fronts like papooses. I wished we were back in Ohiopyle.   

Ever since I studied abroad in New Zealand in 2012, I've wanted to go back. I only got out of Wellington a few times to explore the rest of the country, and one of those trips was on a sightseeing bus full of hungover college kids. I wanted to go back to go deeper into those two wild islands, to see all the sheep and meet red-haired guys named Hamish. 

In four months of touring around the country (two months per island), I learned a lot of things - some that I couldn't believe I hadn't figured out before. For instance, it took me weeks to understand what a "wheelie bin" was. Trash can with wheels. Duh. 

When I was a student, I didn't connect with local folks much. Maybe I was shy? This time, we got to meet lots of people - talking in the grocery store, staying with Warmshowers hosts, or just riding around town. And for the most part, they're NICE. Once, I was in a grocery store needing to make a phone call and two clerks practically threw their cell phones at me in a rush to help. And people honestly want you to have a nice time in New Zealand. Their first, earnest question, "How do you like New Zealand?" is always so hopeful that you can't help but tell them it's wonderful. Their next question to all American travelers, "And how do you like Donald Trump?" was not as charming to me. 

But there's such constant tourist bustle that sometimes it's hard to meet Kiwi folks. We went days talking only with Europeans or other foreign travelers. We expected that at first, since we arrived at the beginning of the high-travel season. Auckland was full of backpackers lugging their 80-liter packs around, hunting for hostels. The campgrounds were full, most motels were booked and hostel rooms were snapped up fast. Any scenic place was full of camper vans and bus tours. We figured the people would go away after Christmas. No dice. Most of these people (like us) were in New Zealand for months, sometimes even a whole year. With that ever-revolving door of tourists, traffic didn't die down much. It was especially apparent in the South Island, where the number of tourists in many towns dwarfs the number of locals. 

Checking out the glaciers with 1000 new hiking buddies. Montana's photo. 

Checking out the glaciers with 1000 new hiking buddies. Montana's photo. 

When we could, we tried to get away from the crowds. That's hard to do on a bike, since the hiking trails are too gnarly for anything but bushwhacking. But New Zealand is working on making the country more bike-friendly. There's a decent touring route system - about 2500 kilometers right now. Some of the routes, like the Timber Trail and the Old Ghost Road, are impressively accessible multi-day mountain bike rides. But a lot of the routes are just semi-quiet roads. No bike lanes, just a few signs pointing the way. And we did a lot of pavement shuttling between rides, sometimes on busy highways when there was no other way to go. Those roads are narrow, with a skinny shoulder about the width of one mountain bike tire. 

We met quite a few European bike tourists who were aghast at the condition of the roads. Coming from southwestern Pennsylvania, we're used to riding on busy, narrow roads and getting buzzed by speeding cars. What we're not used to is all that traffic, everywhere, all the time. We even saw rental cars and camper vans in the middle of a remote sheep station that took us seven hours to reach. And even when we were as deep into the backcountry as we could get, we could usually still hear helicopters shuttling people up and down to see the mountains without more physical effort than swiping a credit card. 

A helicopter service can take you and your gear to the top of this trail, no sweat. 

A helicopter service can take you and your gear to the top of this trail, no sweat. 

That said, the government's working on creating more cycle touring routes and linking them up. I know it's probably not their tip-top priority, but it will be really cool to see it finished. The land is great for riding. Really up and down, with nice smooth pavement and excellent gravel. And when you're far enough away from traffic, you can focus more on enjoying the landscape around you. 

All the outdoor tourism makes wild camping a little difficult. When we lived in Colorado, we could pull off anywhere in National Forest of BLM land and set up a tent. In Pennsylvania, we can usually count on a cheap state park site or dark patch of woods. But in New Zealand, camping laws are a lot stricter. 

While the country got ready for a tsunami of tourists for the Rugby World Cup in 2011, local governments tightened the rules on freedom camping. Now you can pitch your tent on Department of Conservation land, which is relatively scarce and far apart, or in a designated campground. People driving "self-contained" motorhomes (i.e. a van with a toilet) are allowed to park in a few town parking lots or open fields for free. Tent users aren't allowed. So usually we ended up we in a Kiwi holiday park, or a hostel if we were in a city.

Holiday parks are nice, with clean kitchens and good water pressure in the showers, but at $20-25 per person, they're more than we'd usually shell out set up our tent. And staying in an RV park with electric hookups and internet they didn't really fit with our idea of backcountry travel. So it got a little old. 

Still, I can understand why camping is so limited. If I were a Kiwi, I wouldn't want some dirty hippy campers trashing my favorite spots. I'm also glad we budgeted enough money to be able to stay in a campsite every night. I wish we could've stayed in more of New Zealand's backcountry huts.

Those huts are usually in really beautiful spots. Plus they come in handy on cold, windy nights in the mountains. 

The food there is way better than it is at home. In every tiny town, you can find at least one knock-your-socks-off bakery with painstakingly crafted espresso drinks. I love their cafe culture. I love it so much that I gained about 10 pounds when I lived in Wellington. But since I have a gluten problem, I'd never had a famous Kiwi meat pie. Montana, with his stomach of steel and keen eye for a food bargain, got really into $4-5 pies. Towns weren't too far apart, so we could make a pie stop almost every day. I'd sit in the fragrant bakery, miserably watching him eat his flaky meaty pastry. Then we'd go to an Indian takeout place and I'd inhale $10 of delicious curry. I'll miss that good, cheap food. 

The West Coast lives up to its reputation - wet, windy and full of sandflies. While the West Coast has some good scenery, our 10 days riding down that side of the country was a serious test of patience. Sandflies were especially attracted to my gray pants and the insides of my glasses. They're annoying, but their bites don't itch as bad as a poison ivy rash. So. 

Last, Kiwi playgrounds are awesome. This thing is called a kangaroo jump, and we spent about an hour on it. Cross training is important, right? 

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So I did get to see more of New Zealand. It wasn't the secluded outdoor paradise we thought it would be, but that's not a realistic expectation for a place with an economy that hinges on tourism and milk exports. Still, we got to see the entire country from our bikes, riding almost 3000 miles on mostly pleasant roads, enjoying the happy fluffy mobs of sheep eating grass in their fields while tuis warbled in the trees.

That's my brain dump. In a couple days, I'll post a couple more detailed posts about each island.