I love bike touring. So, with a few days off in a row, off I go.
The Continental Divide tour.
I love the approach toward the wall of mountains, the eager and nervous feeling of knowing that your destination is somewhere on the other side of the pass, of knowing that no matter the weather, the strength in your legs, or any gap in confidence, the only thing to do is to ride up and over that beautiful intimidating wall. There is something heart opening about not knowing what is over the horizon but being fully committed to going there.
And so, after finishing night shift, I drove from Denver to Buena Vista, stopping for an hourish nap, had some lunch, and at 1pm started biking up Cottonwood Pass (12,126 feet), hoping to beat the afternoon thunderstorms. With a little drizzle and some thunder and lightening to the north I wound my way up. A beautiful sundog shown in the sky and the summer snowfields glowed in the sun shining between the dark clouds.
Generously, by the time you hit the switchbacks it’s almost a relief. By then it hurts as much as you would expect it to. Biking after nightshift, I found, is a special type of hurt. Your body is hungry and thirsty but doesn’t want food and no matter how much you drink, it never feels right. But it’s not enough to stop my awe at this beautiful place.
I reached the top of the second highest pass in Colorado, completely out of water and gasping but also grinning and triumphant. I had been to the top of Cottonwood Pass by car about month earlier and knew there would be a number of cars at the top, admiring the continental divide. I knew I could find someone to give me some water. Sure enough, I made friends and soon was on my way down the winding dirt backside.
Check out those curves down the back of Cottonwood!!!
At 5pm, rolling through the beautiful valleys of the Rocky Mountains, my body gently reminded me I’d been awake for basically the last 24 hours. Then it not so gently reminded me. But there was nothing to do but soak in the amazing view and continue on.
Still half in nurse mode, I ran self systems checks, wondered how my kidneys were fairing and how my electrolytes were. I considered my likely glycogen deficit, wondered what my pH was chillin at and had a snack while riding.
I love long distance bike riding because the pace and repetitive motion helps me reflect and process.
I work in an ICU. There are a lot of stories to process. In the moment when all of the critical care is happening, there isn’t space to absorb the sadness of it all. In order to be effective, it’s better to focus to some extent on the tasks, the critical thinking, the science of the body. Within that, of course, there are moments of connection, of being a part of people’s journeys, of taking someone’s hand, of holding the space for people to be who they need to be in those moments. But during the workday, it’s not the space to lean into the sadness of chronic disease, death, and loss. We focus on the small wins, the big wins, the hope for people to get better, the hope that people will walk out, hug their loved ones again, snuggle with their dogs.
Biking up this beautiful quiet highway, suddenly the stories and words of the patients I’d recently lost hit me hard. The gravity and the tears for these people I’d cared for who didn’t make it came all at once and left me at the side of the road, gasping for breath, crying, unsure of how to make sense of it all.
In February, someone posted a video of a stand up poet talking about her girlfriend who was a trauma nurse. Together they would read news about outer space in the hope that they could capture that sense of the universe being big enough to hold all the grief in these deaths. Looking at the beautiful road winding it’s way up through quaking ghostly Aspen to look out over huge glacial valleys, I reached for that feeling.
The sky is big enough to hold it all. It’s big enough to hold these people’s stories of their lives and hopes and deaths. It’s big enough to hold our hopes and our sadness for the losses. The sky is immense. And beyond the sky, beyond the things I think I know, out on the horizon, there are mountains beyond mountains.
And so the road continued to an eventual lunch and a few little towns before turning up another valley. At the hundred-mile mark, the road headed up. Somewhere over McClure pass, in the Aspen valley, my dad waited for me to arrive.
There are days on a bike where you feel badass, crushing one hill at a time, flying through space. And there are days when your strength is long gone and it’s only stubbornness to pull you up the hill. I’ve told people that biking up mountains is 20% preparation and 80% moxie. Either I’m wrong on that ratio, or I hadn’t actually completed enough training to get me through this 227km (142 mile) day. I stopped to fix a flat tire, I soaked up the incredible scenery, I admired the sky, I paused to listen to the Aspen and very very slowly I made my way over McClure pass.
If I was traveling with someone else, I would have likely split the day, staying in Paonia, having a glass of local wine to end the beautiful day. In that case we would have hit the pass fresh and early in the morning, the slow climb up comfortable and easy.
But there is also transcendence in embracing a road that you know will hurt like hell. It’s a different adventure when you face that voice inside that wonders, how are you going to find the strength to do this?
The last six miles to the top of McClure Pass, neither particularly hard grade or high elevation compared to other recent rides, was some of the hardest and slowest riding I’ve ever done. It was not a victory march, but it didn’t matter because it gave me time to be breathless for the sky and the mountains and the whispers of the trees as I inched my way up.
I cleared the top at dusk, descending in the fading light into the White River wilderness, granite cliffs and gorgeous rivers. The air cool, refreshing and infinitely rewarding. I rolled into Carbondale around 10pm, thirteen and a half hours after leaving the hostel, 10 hrs, 20min of time moving on the bike.
And so it goes. The trick to riding long distances up hills is1) keep the rubber side down
2) point the bike up hill
3) keep pedaling
4) if you are tired, keep pedaling. If you are thirsty, drink some water (or whatever) but keep pedaling. If you hungry or feel weird, eat something and keep pedaling.
These rules do break down for me a little at high altitudes, though, because I’m breathing so hard I can’t keep moving and eat at the same time. But that’s ok, Aspen Valley is beautiful and photogenic and it was lovely to take photo and snack breaks. Though the highway is busy, the traffic moves pretty slowly due to the tight turns. I was one of at least a dozen cyclists out that day, some faster than me, some not.
As I approached the final push, you can see the road cut into the side of the valley. Cars yelled encouragement and the slow glow of pride began to swell knowing I was only miles from the top of the highest paved pass across the continental divide (12,095 ft). From there it was a stunning descent in mountains that rival Patagonia and may be some of the most beautiful in this incredible world.
There’s a lot of internet buzz about why people run long distances. Is it to fight the blerch? Is it to overcome that small darkness within us?
For me, it’s more to find that spot within that knows resilience, fortitude, courage, and persistence and when I’ve found that small flame to nourish it, to grow it, to make it big enough that I can carry it forward to difficult conversations, to moments at work where I fear I won’t be good enough, to days when I don’t want to get out of bed. Because if you’ve found that place within that can cross the continental divide twice in a long weekend, begin a tour straight from night shift, bike over McClure pass at the end of a 100 mile+ day, be ready for the hail or rain of any mountain storm and push through the worst saddle soreness of any tour, then the rest of the daily struggles should be well within my grasp, right?
I bike to feel small. I bike because the mountains are so much bigger and more permanent than any of my worries, heartaches, or angsty rants. I bike because it’s the closest I feel to touching that big beautiful sky that can hold everything.
I bike because it’s a different way to inhabit my body, to know what I’m made of, to explore the world, to feel curves of the earth, to have a relationship with gravity, to celebrate the glory of these mountains.
I bike to settle comfortably into that space where I know how much I can improve, where perfection has no place, where the pretty ones are always painful and the dirt road is where it gets interesting.
And by biking through these places, I make them home.
The adventures continue…