Saturday, December 31, 2016

Mediocre Mileage - Packham & Tall Sam meander down the Great Divide

Andrew Packham—sometime bike courier, race promotor, stalwart Stuckylifer and cranky dissident—probably had a cooler 2016 than you did. 

As our 'year to be forgotten' draws to a close, we're looking back to warmer temps, gas station snack stops, and ambitious bike trips. The following are some words from Andrew on his and Tall Sam's meander down the spine of our continent, complete with acerbic commentary and some very hip film photographs snapped from the saddle. 

Ahh, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route: the world's premier old-guy-bike-trip. 4000-something kms and 200,000 or so vertical feet of high vis-clad, BOB-trailered bliss through the American heartland.  A chance to put all that titanium cookware you've been hoarding to the ultimate test. An opportunity for adventure, for self-discovery, and to all but forget the estranged marriage and unappreciative kids - if only the office would let up for a couple of months.  

Me and Sam decided to give 'er a go less from mid-life crisis and more from quarter-life why-not-ness I guess.  I'm not even sure how long we planned for - with Sam it's always hard to pin down the moment when talking about a dumb trip becomes doing a dumb trip - but apparently it happened in there somewhere.

The GDMBR doesn't involve much mountain biking.  A mountain bike with big tires is most suitable, sure, but the vast majority consists of lane(s)-wide dirt roads.  Ya ya, the (omg it's) 10% single track (!!!) figure gets bandied around quite a bit, but it's really more like 1 or 2%, and that's probably pushing it.  There's some pavement in there as well, which is nice, because paved roads are nicer to ride on than dirt roads most of the time. 

You read about how remote the route is too, but there's 322 million people in the United States, you're never far from someone.  The most constant fixtures of the American backcountry are the enclaves of travel trailers seemingly everywhere, arranged in circles harkening to the wagons of the American Identity's pioneer past, with generators and satellite TV and not much idea of the symbolism.  Folks'll be out farming or ranching or logging too, or lurking around in camouflage with bows and face paint like out of shape Commando-era Arnold Schwarzeneggers searching for elk instead of Alyssa Milano.  And you'll see lots of people riding the route: from solo 17 year olds to hipster bums like us to surly Belgians with 100lbs of gear and hydraulic rim brakes, plus weird hair (lots of surly Belgians especially).  

We've both talked about how hard it is to remember, like, what happened.  32 days is a long time, and 4600km is a long way, so it all sorta bleeds into itself after a while. One moment we were starting the trip, and the next we were done. Maybe the repetition – the same food, the same schedule, the same feeling of dread when you wake up clammy and confused every morning – keeps you from remembering specifics.  Or maybe the brain just understands the lack of significance in the whole thing, and saves room for more important stuff.

Mostly I remember the visceral: the tang of week-old roadkill or a state park outhouse wafting through the morning air.  The ping of rock on bike frame as another passing truck sprays us with gravel, the frantic-looking cattle dogs on the back barely clinging to the flat deck as it all careens by.  Hunger; thirst; sunburn; nausea.  An assault rifle cracking in the distance.  The feeling of carrying a little too much speed down that hill, or of missing that person back home.

Other things were just hard to forget. We got really fucking off track right off the bat, for instance.  15km from Banff and we were down the wrong drainage in the pouring rain, hauling bikes one at a time through 3 story-deep troughs where the road had washed out.  We weren't lost because we, uhh, knew where we were – we just weren't in the right place.  After 2 or 3 washouts we figured we'd gone too far to turn back (not really), and it took another 10 or so, almost 24 hours, and a swampy bushwhack to get back out to the route.  

There was a forest fire north of Jackson Hole so we hitchhiked around it.  I got food poisoning after shamefully failing at a burger eating challenge in southern Colorado, so I rode for a few days through the desert without eating or drinking much of anything.  Where that special New Mexico mud clogged up between my chainstays and tire, it only took about 45 minutes of rubbing before tubeless wasn't a thing that worked anymore.  There were hills and washboard and headwinds and rain – sometimes all at once.  There were places without water, and other places where you just couldn't drink it because of all the arsenic.  [We recommend not finding out about the arsenic until after you've already consumed a bunch, like we did – it just makes life easier.]

People ask what the highlights of the trip were but they're harder to place, they don't quite resonate like the lowlights.  Part of me assumes that's the chronic pessimism talking, but really I think it has more to do with the constant pleasantness of the whole thing. We met a lot of nice people: people who you probably wouldn't want to ask about reproductive rights or Donald Trump or gun reform, but who were friendly and gracious and who stopped to give us beers on the side of the road more than you might expect. We went to nice places; we felt the wind in our hair; we ignored the exchange rate with reckless abandon.  We took as much advantage of that extra ounce in the Budweiser tall can as we could, and witnessed the most creative anti-Hillary placards red-blooded America had to offer.  We got super tanned and fit, and built a lifetime of character.  It's just pretty nice to be riding your bike all day, ya know?

- Andrew Packham         Fall 2016

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