Friday, 14 July 2017

Tour Divide 2017, day 21, Silver City, Antelope Wells

Incredibly, today would possibly be the last day I dragged myself from slumber, painfully dressed, had a Snickers breakfast, packed, and rolled out.  But it wasn't in the bag by any measure.  Whilst there was a lot of tarmac to cover late in the day, first we had to deal with whatever the rugged Gila mountains had in store for us.  There was still 100 km of lumpy profile to deal with, the most challenging of which was likely to be a 10 km segment of the CDT; the continental divide walking trail.  

The first kilometres had us drifting through some heavy smoke in places, with burning stumps still visible, the remnants of what we hoped was a control burn. Further up the track kilometres of freshly pruned scrub confirmed this.  Just like during the difficult day between Abiquiu and Cuba, there was considerably more lumpiness in reality than was evident in the profile.  Lots of steep pinches to burn the legs, and rutted descents to torture ankles, hands, and basically rattle everything that hurt.

Finally we got to the last major technicality that separated us from Silver City, the CDT, which had us pushing bikes up steep scree almost immediately. My frail ankle, tendons and groin weren't enjoying any of it!  The effort did, however, avail us of views across unusual terrain we'd not seen before, with oddball succulents in poses and colours as though drawn by Dr Seuss.  Having gained elevation some delicate singletrack wound across ridges and gullys, sometimes forcing another walk up steeper pinches.  We'd stop and rest in the shade of trees here and there.
Finally, after an exhausting first half of the day, at about 1:30 pm we rolled into Silver City.  Miro knew its layout well, having raced the Tour of the Gila on multiple occasions.  I envied both Craig and Miro as they elegantly lifted an extended leg over the back of the bike whilst coasting to a halt before dismounting.  I stopped then did my signature move of painfully dragging my leg awkwardly across the top tube frame bags.  I hobbled into the restaurant behind them and sat with Craig and Miro as an ensemble for the last time.  Miro even had a couple of visitors drop by to wish him well.  As we ate Craig was having his bike serviced at the bike shop 'round the corner.

We had approximately 200 km to crunch to get to the Mexican border, largely on tarmac, and largely flat, and we had till 8 am the next morning to get it done if we wanted to finish inside of 21 full days.  Anita and I exchanged a few texts.  She was in the country, was following progress and was ready to come pick me up, cautioning me not to leave too late given the time other riders had taken to reach the end.  The wind direction was hardly ideal, but not awful either, most likely a cross wind for most of the journey.  Whilst it was pretty hot in the sun we didn't dither too long before kicking off and were back on the road at 4 pm.
The section out of Silver City is on tarmac, and a little way in we got flagged down by a car carrying bikes in the opposite direction.  Three kiwis jumped out who'd recently finished, including Rob Davidson whom I'd chatted with back in Banff, and who finished 5th outright (in 18 days, 10 hrs!)  Also present was a Belgie, Ben Steurbaut who'd smashed it in 16 days 13 hours, despite breaking a fork descending Fleecer Ridge whilst in the lead.  Having replaced it he then broke his frame, and still managed to finish (3rd outright!).  Obviously built for this sort of race.  We exchanged congratulations but of course hadn't quite finished ourselves.  Back to the grind.   

We turned onto the last dirt sector with the angling sun and a brief taily allowing us to appreciate the beauty of the New Mexican desert, punctuated by more oddball Dr Seuss plants spotting the landscape.  It was still warm and we had the odd break in a ditch quenching thirsts.  A mini bottle of warm coke lugged by Craig mostly fizzed all over the ground.  Passing through the vast property of Thorn Ranch we were escorted by the local friendly black dog for a few kms.  Just out for a run, it seemed.  

Darkness came and with it the route angled more into the wind.  At Separ we turned and paralleled the highway on a side road till at last the dirt was left behind for good, with nought but 100 km of empty sealed road to deal with.  Foggy glows would periodically light the black horizon, and in time turn out to be an oncoming car, a property light, or even, eventually, the tiny outpost of Hachita, where a tiny store had remained open for us.  Belgie Ben manned the till until Jeff Sharp, the manager, arrived.  It was still warm so I indulged in three ice blocks and a coke.  We stayed about 30 minutes, hobbling about the shop, chatting with Ben and Jeff and generally procrastinating.  

Finally we set off on the final leg, getting passed only by Tour Divide related vehicles.  First Jeff passed us en route to picking up the two women, Ricki Cotter and Lee Craigie, who were finishing just hours ahead of us.  On their return leg their car pulled over and once again congratulations and hugs were passed round.  It was nice to put faces on names of riders (and initials) we'd only occasionally been privy to on Trackleaders.  Next car to pass us heading south was Miro's pickup, and last car to pass us, just 10 km shy of the border was Anita.  Timing!  I'd been waiting for this moment and endured so much for so long to have it realised.  It was so good to see her here, on the opposite side of the globe, waiting for me.  With 3 miles to go and the border lights glowing from the other side of the rise, we'd agreed that Craig would ride as hard as he could to the finish.  Craig was clearly the strongest of our trio and deserved to finish ahead of us.  Miro and I just limped it in, side by side, as best we could.

Arriving at the gates at just on 3 am was quite emotional for all of us.  I burst into tears when embracing Anita, as seems to be my custom.  Over 30 minutes we exchanged hugs, took photos and tried to celebrate with a beer or Coke.  I was so stuffed I really didn't have the energy to drink anything, but just enough to slowly break the bike down and help load it into the car.  Whilst doing this it stuck me how little you actually need to travel 4400 km through mud, rain, dust and snow, from one side of a country to the other.  But you do need a good dose of gumption, which I think all three of us, in fact everyone who rolled the dice, had to conjure in order to realise this outcome, this conclusion, which I think I'm still coming to terms with a week after finishing.

Using the logic of the "adventure map" whereby no matter how hard it was, as long as you didn't die then you had a good adventure; then yes, it was a bloody terrific adventure on many levels.  It certainly wasn't easy, or clean, or even enjoyable for protracted segments, but it was ours, and we shaped it in our own way and owned it, and that in itself is probably enough.  I honestly don't know if I'll be back for another shot, or for just touring sections of it.  It's still too raw and confused.  My toes and finger tips are still numb, both hands are almost useless, showing the classic symptoms of compressed ulnar nerve damage (ulnar neuritis, or the appropriately named handlebar palsy) which will likely take months to redress, and my achilles and groin injuries still have me hobbling round like a very old man.  

So be careful what you wish for if you are entertaining thoughts of doing the Tour Divide.  Chances are you'll find yourself challenged in ways you can't imagine.  But that, in and of itself, and the inescapable task of addressing these uncertainties and pitfalls is part of the allure, and heightens the sense of accomplishment you'll feel crawling out the other end.  Not to mention experiencing the splendor of some pretty amazing scenery.  It's raw, it's out there, it's waiting!

(302 km, 2560 m, approx 15-16th overall in 20 days 19 hours)

PS:  if anyone is interested in a somewhat verbose (lengthwise) view of my Tour Divide experience in pictures and some video set to music I thought appropriate, here are some links - each version in 2 parts, which can be watched on Dropbox;
87 min version;
67 min version;


Thanks to Greg and Ray for crunching the numbers!

Tour Divide, day 20, Toaster House, Beaverhead, Gila


The mornings were still cold necessitating several early stops to strip off layers, but the scenery was spectacular, dominated by growing silhouettes of the rugged edges of the El Malpais wilderness and the Sawtooth Mountains, which guard Pie Town, coming into view.  In contrast with the more rolling higher altitude hills of Colorado, New Mexico was increasingly a more eroded landscape punctured by jagged little teeth.  We got to Pie Town about 8:30, skipping the pie shops altogether (not open till 10) for the sanctuary of the Toaster House.  

The Toaster House is an institution for passing walkers and cyclists, kept afloat with donations, and magically packed to the gunnels with snacks, cold drinks, laundry facilities, mattresses and shaded seats.  Miro made coffee and we munched on snacks and relaxed, indulging our preferred state of procrastination, until we really felt we should kick on, at least before the pie shops opened, which would have delayed progress even further, and before the nastiness of the heat became too much.  A hot one was clearly on the cards.  The next major resupply town, Silver City, was 300 km away.  We clearly wouldn't make that, especially given the jagged route profile ahead, not to mention the uncooperative winds, but hoped to get as close as possible.  

We passed through dry forest, then open desert, at one point coming across an unexpected water stop, courtesy of a local farmer who'd stashed half a dozen 4 L bottles of water inside a signposted barrel.  More trail magic!  Back into forested gullys where dry stream beds were a counterpoint to streams in previous states that always seemed to be running.  The heat was on and periodically we'd take a break under the shade of a tree atop a rise.  The trail finally changed tack, and shortly afterwards we crossed paths with some north-bound riders who reckoned we'd have tail winds for the next 30 miles.  A-grade!  

We descended down a spartan valley with a taily at our backs, and generally hard buff clay under our tires.  Apparently this is one of the sectors impassable after rain courtesy of the trail transforming to peanut butter.  Paul Lester was a victim of this very phenomenon last year, getting marooned at the same spot for several days.  As Miro pointed out, days of uncooperative wind were preferable to rain in this part of the Divide.  

The final water point of the day was the Beaverhead Workstation, featuring a famous Coke machine.  Naturally, when we finally rolled in just before dark there was a conspicuous piece of paper stuck to the outside indicating it was out of order.  Not that I had any coins anyway.  
I was keen to make an extended evening push from here into the Gila mountains, but Craig was the voice of reason, suggesting that we still had time to finish comfortably inside 21 days.  I wasn't so sure he was correct, or even that the day count was correct, but we'd come this far together so I trusted that he had a better idea of where we were placed than I did.  
We got ourselves over one pass in the Gila, and noticed disconcerting clouds of smoke down where we were headed.  Now I was nervous about whether another re-route might have been issued that we'd failed to receive notice of, reception having been fairly scratchy.  But what could we do?  We dropped down into the valley and camped in a relatively open area just off the trail, but with a few trees overhead to ward off the dew.  I was so conditioned to crawling into my sleeping bag filthy by this stage that it hardly even registered.  Almost inconceivably, this might be my last night on the Divide - all things going well, the following day might be our last on tour!

(216 km, 1953 m)

Tour Divide, day 19, Grants

Unfortunately, we woke to discover that the winds of the day before hadn't changed their trajectory.  This meant that instead of cruising along at 30+ km/hr, we would be working hard to manage 18, if that.  I was happy to let the other two disappear up the road in aero format, and for the first and only time on the Tour popped in my ear buds and listened to tunes for half the day, if only to distract the mind from everything that hurt   From a physical perspective i was holding up OK, although managed to strain the groin a few more times, simply during the process of getting on and off the bike.  At this stage even on bitumen, all the contact points were painful, so the whole day would be spent restlessly shifting from one position to another, holding out for as long as possible before standing for a stretch or adjusting to a hopefully less painful poise, and the whole process would repeat....for hour upon hour.

A large shaded tunnel mid way provided the perfect opportunity to escape the heat, have a feed and a bit of a lie down, and ponder the amazing reverberating echoes courtesy of the corrugated tunnel lining, before getting moving again.  I couldn't imagine doing day after day of pavement in similar fashion, as is presumably required for road events such as the Indian Pacific back home. 

We were hoping to make the deliciously named Pie Town, but this didn't seem likely given the heat and wind.  It was hard enough just getting to the major resupply town of Grants in the late afternoon furnace.  Craig had forged ahead of us and kindly had some cold cans of coke waiting for us when we rolled in.  We indulged in pizza before hitting the gas station on the outskirts of town and pressing on in the late afternoon, when the road sidled around a series of spectacular sandstone cliffs adorned with natural arches.  We finally hit dirt again as the sun dipped and we threw down camp in another paddock populated by the tell-tale signs of cows.  It was a disappointing day with regards kilometres covered, but sometimes you've just got to take whatever the weather gods dish out.

(221 km and 1295 meters)