Story and photos by Dan Clark...
The black asphalt spools out ahead of me and disappears around the bend, obscured by scrubby pines. As the sun crests the ridge it lights up the needles in the trees and when I look over my shoulder, the distant expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert comes aglow. I’m climbing north into the Gila National Forest on my fourth day riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from New Mexico to Canada. My legs are fresh, my bike is light and I’ve got a month of 100-mile days to look forward to.
This is exactly what I imagine bikepacking to be for the majority of riders—freedom, big days and a long, dusty track on a nimble bike. This is my first solo bikepacking trip, and the lightweight setup is definitely liberating.
Rolling north through Pinos Altos, I accelerate onto my first real downhill and have a blast railing the corners low in the drops with the music cranked in my headphones. It is a beautiful morning and I’m having so much fun that I miss the CDT alternate and roll all the way down the pavement to the Lake Roberts General Store. In moments like this, I’m glad to be touring the Great Divide so that I can pick the route that works best for me and enjoy the moment.
I’m pleased the store is opening as I ride through, so that I can grab a few extra drinks and some more breakfast before heading into the mountains. As I assemble my purchases at the till, the shop keeper looks at me quizzically, “You look familiar,” she says. “Weren’t you here with your family a while back?”
“Yes, we were here just over three weeks ago,” I respond. “We were riding north as a family, but we ended our trip not far from here and went back to Canada.”
She smiles, “So what are you doing back here?”
“Once we got home I realized that I needed to finish this ride,” I reply. “It is the missing piece in a bigger ride we started as a family. I have the time off and the kids are back in school, so I flew back to El Paso and I’m riding home.”
“We get lots like you through here, but they are usually going the other way,” she smiles again. “Have a good trip!”
Back on the bike, I turn north onto gravel and climb steeply up washboarded inclines. This section of the route runs across the grain of the country, so there is constant climbing and descending. On the steepest hills, I happily grind slowly uphill in my lowest gear, with the knowledge that we would have been walking these same sections as a family. Part of me is glad that Alice and the kids are home, with time to devote to work, school, piano and free play. I can picture them happily playing Star Wars or board games after their long separation from their friends. The other part of me is keenly aware of how quiet it is in this wilderness without two kids in tow, and how much I miss their joy and enthusiasm.
This is not my first trip sans kids, but it has been a long time since the last one. In my twenties, I spent the majority of my time in the wilderness, either guiding hiking trips in the Canadian Rockies or embarking on lengthy climbing and skiing adventures. In those years, I slept in my sleeping bag more than in a bed, and I only returned home to switch out gear for the next trip. But all of those trips were with at least one other person. Thinking about this as I bounce along rocky tracks in the Gila, I come to the realization that I have never done a long trip entirely on my own, and here I am on my bike for the next month with nobody but myself for company! For all the time I’ve spent outdoors, my lack of solo endeavours hits me as a huge surprise. It is more than a coincidence that soon after I realize I’m talking to myself while setting up camp!
Within a couple of weeks, I find my solo groove and successfully ride through the driest sections in New Mexico, north through Colorado and into Wyoming. Riding from south to north is working out perfectly. The heat in New Mexico is challenging enough in May that I need to rest through the hottest hours of the day, which makes me wonder how I would fare closer to summer. In Colorado, I’m able to ride every pass without having to hike through snow. The biggest challenge in May is that some of the summer operations are not yet open, which limits resupply options.
Late in the afternoon on day 20, I spend a few hours at the Little Snake River Museum in Savery, WY. The staff are very hospitable and welcome me into the cool basement where they feed me baked potatoes from their garden, fresh fruit and a soda. I plan to spend the night nearby, but when I get online I discover that the wind forecast is deteriorating. In the open country around the Great Basin, wind is crucial. At 6 pm, I decide to keep riding. I quickly fill bottles and load my bike for an extra 60 miles to Wamsutter. It seems like a rash decision but travelling solo gives me the flexibility to make these calls.
North of Muddy Mountain, the route traverses a high plateau with grand views back into Colorado. There are no trees to block the vista and the cool evening air whips dust ahead of me as I roll past herds of cattle. The cows don’t move very quickly, but the antelope that I come across dart far into the distance, leaving tiny puffs of dust and the scent of sage in their wake. Riding north as the sun dips steadily to the horizon, my mind devours the endless unknowns that come from all the miles of new terrain.
Pulling into Wamsutter just after dark, I can barely wipe the smile off my face - I’ve covered 130 miles today and tomorrow I’ll hopefully make it across the Great Basin. I’m on a roll and the constant motion feels great!
But my confidence evaporates when my alarm goes off at 3 am and I can hear beer cans blowing across the parking lot outside my motel room. When I look outside, I realize it is the garbage cans that are blowing around. The forecasted wind has come early and it doesn’t look like I am going anywhere soon with 40 mph winds from the west.
A rest day after a week of constant movement feels luxurious, but Wamsutter is little more than a truck stop on the verge of the Great Basin. I’ve done all my bike maintenance, clothes washing and grocery shopping by 10 am and am left reading and watching a couple of old movies for the rest of the day. It is in these times that I feel the most homesick and when I start to question why I’m so far from my family. The separation seems particularly severe after spending months together riding the Baja Divide.
Fortunately, at 3 am the next morning it is quiet outside with only a slight movement of air. I quickly eat a microwaved meat pie, drink a hotel room coffee, and roll my bike out into the frosty morning darkness. While I cross beneath I-80 and roll past Love’s Travel Stop, there is light, comfort, and security; but soon I turn on my lights and ride north into the unknown.
Years prior when I first started researching the Great Divide, several people cautioned me that the Great Basin is more of a crux than any of the mountain passes on the route. This is the section of the route that concerned me the most when I considered riding the Great Divide as a family. Alone, I feel small and exposed as I head out into the Basin with 6 quarts of water and a frame bag filled with food. My apprehension is most pronounced in the hours before sunrise, but as night shifts to day I’m flooded by excitement to finally be riding my bike across this inhospitable geography after years of imagining the moment. When the sun finally throws my shadow out ahead of me, I’m divided. Part of me is sad that Alice and the kids are missing this moment, yet the other half is happy that I’ve been able to make this happen on my own. It’s hard to change your plans and let go of your dreams, yet other opportunities arise if we are open to them. Riding here on my own isn't as rich an experience as being here as a family, but it's better than not riding at all.
The final portion of the Great Divide is a stark contrast to my start in New Mexico. Departing in May begins to impact my ride in northern Wyoming and Montana, where winter snow still lingers in many places. I push my bike for miles over Union Pass, ride pavement over Togwotee Pass to avoid more snow, and push my bike through hundreds of drifts to get into Idaho.
Thus far I’ve been riding as far as is comfortable each day without putting pressure on myself, but four weeks into the trip my focus takes a dramatic shift. On the morning of Day 29, I roll out of Lincoln, Montana with a new plan: I’m determined to make it home for a favourite father/daughter activity— “Donuts with Dudes” at our elementary school—which is in less than a week! As I ride pavement west of Lincoln, it starts raining slightly, but I’m undeterred. Gaining altitude towards Huckleberry Pass, the rain gradually turns to snow. Soon it’s a whiteout. In the midst of the blizzard, my solitude is broken by the first rider I have met in weeks, the current leader from the Grande Depart of the Tour Divide. Richard is as surprised to see me as I am to see him, so we chat for a few minutes in the snow before we each go our separate directions.
Thus far in the trip, I’ve only met a handful of riders. This all changes as I ride through the pack of racers on the Tour Divide. For three days, I meet the hundreds of racers that are just starting their ride as I finish mine. Most of the mid-pack riders are confused as I ride towards them. Time and again, they yell:
“Are you OK?”
“Did you lose something?”
“Are we going the wrong way?”
“Are you Larry?”
I don’t think much of being called Larry, but after a half-dozen such interactions I inquire further. One couple explains, “Larry is the first northbound rider on TrackLeaders, so we thought you were Larry.” We all laugh at the realization that I don’t really exist because I’m not on TrackLeaders!
I’m amazed at the broad assemblage of people racing the Tour Divide that I meet in these three days. They have come from all over the world to challenge themselves: some have it dialed while others are at the deep end of the learning curve; some are thrilled and upbeat, others are struggling and downcast. It is exciting to see so many riders, and the energy is deeply inspiring. Touring the route allows me to ride when I want and choose the variations of the route that appeal to me without needing to adhere to a set of rules. It is my own personal adventure and I value this autonomy.
Crossing the border into Canada is a special moment in this long journey. I leave the Great Divide route for good and turn my wheels toward our home in Kimberley. My last day on my Salsa Fargo is filled with thoughts about the Great Divide and all that I have seen between New Mexico and Canada. The Continental Divide is vast beyond anything I dreamt before, and the rugged and dry county of New Mexico feels like another world when compared to the snow and frigid temperatures of Montana. After a month of riding and many rough and dusty miles, I’m ready to be home.
When I think about home, my thoughts turn to my family and the adventure of riding from the Arctic to Mexico together. Initially, I am sad to be finishing this grand adventure on my own. Yet, as the last miles roll by, I reflect on the difficulty of the riding, the unforeseen challenges that changed each of us, and the growing independence of our kids. I’m happy that Koby and Ava Fei felt confident in their own desires to voice their opinion and be part of our decision to stop our ride in the Baja. And beyond this, I look forward to a new chapter in our family history in which we help facilitate their dreams.
Five miles from home I’m surprised to see three cyclists rolling down the trail towards me. I quickly recognize these riders as my family—the pieces of my life that have been missing while I was away on my own. Instantly, all of the miles on the Great Divide melt away and we are together as a family again, riding our bikes.
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The Clark Family: Dan, Alice, Koby, and Ava Fei
Cycling has been part of our life since our kids were born. When they were babies, cycling provided us a time-crunched workout between diaper changes. But these were solitary missions, not family adventures. Our cycling took on a new dimension in 2014 when we left our home and jobs and flew to the tip of South America for our first bike trip as a family. During our eight-month ride, north along the Andes of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia we discovered the freedom that bikes and an open itinerary allow. We experienced the peace and solitude of roads less traveled, strengthened our family bonds, and were welcomed into a larger family of cyclists from around the world - our “Familia Ciclista.”