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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Great Divide - Trail Angels Marlene & Paul

In ways I can't explain and can't deny
The little that I have He multiples
Just when I feel He won't show up on time
God provides
God Provides, Kirk Franklin (2016) 

 From Left to Right:  Our hostess Marlene Fifield, Marlene's sister Roberta,
Marlene's husband Paul Fifield, and Roberta's husband George. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Filet mignon grilled to order, sautéed fresh mushrooms, baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, fresh corn on the cob, huckleberry coleslaw, fresh picked cherries, bottomless glasses of ice water (declining the red wine), and then vanilla ice cream topped with homemade huckleberry sauce.

Does that sound like your typical dinner on a bikepacking trip? Not mine, either. Well, that was our dinner on the evening of Day 4 of our ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, thanks to Trail Angels Marlene and Paul Fifield of Montana. And that gourmet meal was just part of the story.

Paul documents the scene where Paul Fifield, California Ken, Marlene Fifield, Paul and I
sort out just where we are and where we need to be. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Day 4 of our Great Divide ride starts from Wayfarer's State Park near Big Fork, Montana with the relatively ambitious thought of riding about 75 miles to the Owl Creek Packer USFS campground near Holland Lake. If short of that, we'll disperse camp somewhere along the way.

After warming up on some pavement, we climb steadily on two-track logging roads into the remote backcountry of Flathead National Forest. Always on the lookout for bear and other wildlife, we catch occasional glimpses of big mountains on the horizon and of Swan Lake through the dense vegetation. Stands of Western Larch tower 150-200 feet above the lush forest floor and hug the road to frame our narrow path. Always above is the big, blue Montana sky. I lose track of how many times Paul joyfully exclaims, "Now, THIS is what I came out here for!"

So we don't miss another turn, Paul Fifield positioned tree branches to point the way to his house.
I say we go that way, while California Ken stows his map. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Paul chases down another southbound GDMBR rider, California Ken, and the two of them immediately talk themselves off the route by missing a turn and plunging down a steep hill. Despite my screaming from behind, they quickly drop out of sight. Glancing at the map, I see that their road soon ends at a campground, where they would probably recognize their mistake. So, I find some shade atop that hill, grab a snack, and wait for them to return. Within about 15 minutes, they come charging up that hill.

Back on route, we roll up, up and down, and through big time logging country, with countless tantalizing rough roads veering into the forest. In the mid-afternoon heat, we're over two miles up a steady climb when we realize that something's wrong. Paul rides ahead to look for a sign, while I pull out my map, cue sheets and book. Eventually, we both conclude that we somehow missed a turn at the bottom of that climb and turn back toward an intersection down there.

Preparing to sleep in a luxurious man-cave garage.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Then huckleberry hunters Paul and Marlene Fifield pull up on a side-by-side ATV.  Marlene says, "You fellows look lost." Grateful for help from locals, I ask if they'd look at my map to confirm where we are and where we should be. They do so and follow us back to that intersection to make sure we don't miss the turn again. Then they insist that we sample from their buckets of freshly picked huckleberries. Sweet.

With the time and energy lost climbing those errant miles, on a hot day already a bit ambitious, we conclude that it's unlikely we'll reach Holland Lake that night. That's OK, we'll ride for awhile and find a nice place to disperse camp. California Ken thought he'd do the same. Overhearing that discussion, Paul Fifield says, "There's a lot of bear out here. Why don't you stay at our place? We're just a few miles away."

Our host Paul Fifield works his magic.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

We're not about to turn down that offer and neither is California Ken. Early on, Paul and I agreed to prioritize secure sleeping arrangements in grizzly country where possible, even if it meant riding a bit less, or a bit more, than circumstances might otherwise indicate. That is, where possible, we seek to sleep indoors or in a developed campground with bear bins. In our final tally after 20 nights in grizzly country, we slept indoors 7 times, in developed campgrounds 12 times, and at a dispersed campsite just once.

We soon learn that we would not be sleeping just anyplace, but inside Paul's enormous, luxurious man-cave garage. Nice. We set up, clean up, and charge devices. Then Paul returns to invite us to dinner. Wow. Yeah, that would be great. He then asks, "How would you like your steak?" Are you kidding? Steak?

Marlene Fifield serves her gourmet dinner.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Yeah. Steak. And all the other delicacies noted above. Amazing dinner. Amazing company. Paul, Marlene, Marlene's sister Roberta and Roberta's husband George want to hear all about our ride. Paul, California Ken and I want to hear all about living in the beautiful Montana backcountry. Time flies by.

Near the end of the meal, Marlene quietly shares her experience from earlier that day. She had invited Roberta and George to dinner and, before leaving to huckleberry hunt, she removed steaks from their freezer for dinner for four. Then her husband invited these three cyclists to stay the night. What to do? Invite them for dinner, too? Driving back to their house, Marlene wonders if there's any way to stretch those four steaks to feed seven, now with the addition of three hungry cyclists.

Returning to the steaks she removed from the freezer, Marlene discovers that, somehow, there are seven steaks thawed. How did that happen? She does not remember removing seven steaks, but reasons that she must have. She cannot fathom why, since she only planned four people for dinner, but here they are. Seven thawed steaks. How can that be?

Marlene simply says that God provided steak for seven.

Then she realizes that there's so much more. God brought these seven people together for that night through a sequence of events unplanned by any of us. He provided guidance to three wandering cyclists to find their way back on route, a secure place to rest for the night, and a home cooked meal. He provided an opportunity for two huckleberry hunters to serve some weary, wayward travelers. And He provided company for everyone to share a special evening together. We listen in awe and give thanks. Amazing.

In the morning, Paul Fifield leads the way back to the Great Divide route.

Reluctantly, we retire for the night and sleep comfortably in our spacious accommodations. In the morning, Paul Fifield brings hot coffee and cinnamon rolls for everyone. To top it off, he hops on his bike to lead us to our route. A few miles later, we're back on the Great Divide, with hearts full of gratitude.

Trail angels, indeed.

God provides.

God Provides, Tamela Mann (2016)

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Great Divide - Living A Dream

The bells were ringing
Our souls were singing
Do you remember, never a cloudy day

There was a 
Ba de ya, say do you remember?
Ba de ya, dancing in September
Ba de ya, golden dreams were shiny days

September, Maurice White & Allee Willis (1978)

Emotions and thoughts run wild after I reach Antelope Wells.
This photograph is about 3 hours after I finished and I'm still giddy. 
(photo by Cyler Groseth)

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. A 2,500 mile cross country journey over primarily remote, rough gravel/dirt roads tracking the Continental Divide from Roosville, Montana at the Canadian border to Antelope Wells, New Mexico at the Mexican border. It's the longest off-pavement route in the world.

The Adventure Cycling Association first published this route way back in 1998 and it immediately caught my attention back then. Wow. The imagination to dream up such a route! The dedication to map it! The audacity to even consider riding it! Is that even possible? How? Boy, if I could, well, that would be something special. But it's way out there. Way beyond reality. Well into the realm of dreams. But, maybe. Someday. Maybe. Yeah, maybe someday.

Twenty-three years later, I lived that dream. I rode the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Unreal.

Big sky, big mountains, big trees, big views and another big day on the Great Divide.
Montana two track skirting the western edge of Glacier National Park.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Now weeks later, the magnitude of that experience still boggles my mind and unleashes a cascade of emotions. I still struggle to comprehend even the most basic aspects of the experience. Talking with family and friends helps, but my words are inadequate.

Here's one way I've described my Great Divide ride. Take any one day from my seven weeks of riding and disregard all the rest as if they never happened. Plug that one day into a normal cycling year filled with other rides, events, and races. That one day would be my best cycling day of the year. Hands down. Now, go back and string together 48 more days just like it. Unreal.

Slugging my way up Lava Mountain in Montana.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Part of my difficulty in expressing this experience probably lies in the amount of thought and time that I invested to prepare for it. This was years in the making and many months of detailed planning. Then, suddenly it's right there, staring me in the face. Are you sure that you're ready for this kid?

Over breakfast in Eureka, Montana on the day of the start, Colleen notes that I am unusually quiet. After months of patiently listening to every excited utterance of my plans for this ride, she recognizes that I'm sorting through a lot internally and asks if I'm alright. I am, although I'm not excited and I'm not nervous. I'm in that big pre-ride mental place where I'm thinking of what I'm about to do and how I can do it.

But this one is fundamentally different. This one is just so big. It's not a one day, weekend, or even week long ride. It's just so big. So many miles. So much time. So many variables. It's just so big. I cannot see a clear path to Antelope Wells. I cannot see a way to do this.

Yellowstone Branch Line Trail along the Warm River in Idaho.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Colleen's concern sparks a memory. Months before, while I'm ruminating yet again on something about the Great Divide, she simply says, "Craig, every morning, you get to wake up and ride your bike, as long as you want, as far as you want, and stop when you want, on roads you've never ridden. And then the next day, you get to do it again. You get to do what you love to do."

Of course, she's right. Stop over-thinking and just ride.

My friend Mark Steele, an endurance motorcyclist planning his own Continental Divide ride, texted me before the start and somehow recognized my unsettled mind. He responded, "You've prepared for this. You've trained for this. You're ready for this. All that's left is for you to do it."

Of course, he's right. Believe in yourself and just ride.

Blown like a speck of dust across the Great Basin of Wyoming.
Yes, that's me, just a dot riding up that distant hill.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

To stay grounded over the course of this ride, I realize that I need to maintain a mindset to simply stay in the moment and trust myself. 

Here's what I came up with and stuck with every day for the entire seven weeks of this ride. Each morning I resolve to enjoy that day with everything that comes with it, while giving myself a chance to ride again the next day. Each evening, I give thanks for the opportunity and ability to do so. I do not allow myself to even think about the next road, the next mountain pass, or the next state, let alone Antelope Wells. Stay in the moment and simply enjoy it. All of it. And ride to ride another day.

Dispersed campsite in an aspen grove deep in the Rocky Mountains of Northern Colorado.
(photo by Raymond Bleesz)

To enjoy the day, with everything that comes with it, is not always easy. In fact, every day on my Great Divide ride included a stretch of some difficulty, often lasting for hours and sometimes all day. A few examples include a 4 mile heft-a-bike pitch over Lava Mountain in Montana after climbing virtually all day, a day of 20+ mph headwinds in the treeless Great Basin of Wyoming, a 27 mile climb up rocky, rutted Polvadera Mesa in northern New Mexico, and a monsoon with hail that turned my dirt road into a raging river in central New Mexico. There are no easy days on the Great Divide.

By closely tracking the Continental Divide and crossing it 30-some times, the Great Divide repeatedly takes you up and down, up and down, up and down. To keep thoughts positive during long climbs, I started thinking that if I'm climbing, I'm gaining elevation. If I'm descending, I'm gaining mileage. At the end of the day, I need both. So, celebrate whatever you're doing at the moment. You're riding the Great Divide.

Occasionally, when a stretch turned particularly nasty, I turned it around and asked myself, "What would you rather be doing?" The answer was always the same. Nothing. No matter what was happening that moment, that's where I wanted to be. Out riding the Great Divide.

The very first climb after crossing into New Mexico.
It's a little rougher down there.

So, that's how I rode 2,651 miles with 170,572 feet of elevation gain over 51 days (49 riding days + 2 rest days). Stay in the moment, ride one day at a time, and give myself a chance to ride again the next day.

That mindset may help explain why the finish was so surreal. I had never allowed myself to even think about the finish until the night before in the tiny town of Hachita, just 45 flat, paved miles from the border. No, I didn't sleep much that night, as that reality finally and quickly took shape. 

The next morning, I cruised those easy miles like one sweet victory lap, hooting and hollering just to hoot and holler. I even startled a couple of javelinas and woke up a few rattlesnakes. Then I rounded a corner and the finish bludgeoned me with the brute force of a New Mexican monsoon, flash flooding my senses. I stood alone, stunned, at a closed U.S Border Station under a blazing sun, not quite believing that I had just finished riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Unreal.

Locals say the New Mexican monsoons came a month late this year.
I rode right into them, but one reward was the desert in full bloom.
Yes, this is southern New Mexico in the first week of September.

Addendum. I finished my Great Divide ride on September 8, 2021. While waiting for my brother Cyler to pick me up at Antelope Wells, the song "September" by Earth, Wind & Fire and the cover by Kirk Franklin played through my head many times. Pure joy. Some singing and dancing may also have been involved.

The bells were ringing
Our souls were singing
Do you remember, never a cloudy day
Ba de ya, say do you remember?
Ba de ya, dancing in September
Ba de ya, golden dreams were shiny days
September, Maurice White & Allee Willis (1978)

September, Earth, Wind & Fire (1978)

Everybody has a September in their life
You know that first time you heard God's voice
So you felt His love
So no matter what season you're in right now
After winter comes spring
So, if you love my Jesus, help me sing

Ba de ya, tell me you remember
Ba de ya, when your heart felt like September
You still had the joy and God was just a prayer away

September, Kirk Franklin (2007)

September, Kirk Franklin (2007)