Back in the summer of 2018, musician and rider Ben Weaver set out on a unique challenge: riding the Tour Divide route and playing concerts in small towns along the way, which stretches 2,745 miles from Canada to the U.S.-Mexico border. Filmmaker Keenan DesPlanques joined him for the journey, riding and collecting footage which would eventually become the short film, Music For Free. We spoke with Ben to learn more about the ride and the making of the film, so watch Music For Free below, then read the interview below for some behind-the-scenes details.
Playing shows along an already difficult route adds a layer of complexity to this ride. What were the most difficult things about doing it?
It wasn’t that bad because I’d done so many music tours by bike before this trip. Because the Tour Divide route is more rugged and has lots of elevation gain, I was conservative about the amount of time I would need to do it—in all my years of doing this I’ve never been late to a show or missed a show. I planned on 31 days, but we did it in 30, and probably could have finished it in 25. We planned for 8 days off to time all of our tour stops properly, and, if anything, the hardest part was sitting around on the off days and watching the other Tour Divide riders go by.
How did you and Keenan get together and decide to make a film out of this adventure?
The concept of the trip was in place, and when I started to think about how I would document it, I decided on video. I met Keenan through a connection at Adventure Cycling Association who said Keenan was young, strong, and fast—probably one of the only filmmakers that could keep up, and that I should try him. We didn’t know each other personally. Going into it, I was worried about someone dropping a camera or having to stop a lot to capture multiple shots. But it worked out perfectly and almost everything was shot in one take because Keenan was dialed every time we stopped.
What is one of your favorite memories from the ride?
On the solstice, we rode through part of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, ending in Pinedale. It was a long 190-mile ride on the longest day of the year. I love being on a bike for a really long time, and those longer days are some of the highlights. I found the New Mexico part of the route to be one of my favorites—it’s so wild and rugged. I also played some really cool impromptu shows, like the people with the stuck pickup truck. It was inspiring to see how many people showed up for some of the shows and how word traveled organically about what I was doing.
The scene in which you’re standing in a park bathroom waiting out a cold rain shows the less-glamourous side of bike touring. Were there any other low points on the ride?
There was the time in Montana where it rained for like a week straight. There were also some really cold mountain passes where we didn’t even get the camera out because we could barely grip the handlebar. We also encountered lots of snow early in the route, which meant lots of pushing.
You had a unique bikepacking setup on this ride with your instruments strapped to your bike. How do you keep them safe from damage while riding?
I ride with my instruments a lot so I have equipment designed to carry them. On the Divide, I kept them in dry bags inside of the cases, which was essential due to lots of rain at the beginning of the ride. That said, this route was way more rugged than my usual tours. I have an electric pickup in my acoustic guitar and during sound check for my show in Silverthorne, I found that the wire had been shaken so much that the solder had disconnected.
Did the scenery and people of the Tour Divide inspire new lyrics and melodies? Do you typically write new music while you’re on the road?
Passing through those spaces full of the wisdom of the trees and water always has a way of impacting me and coming up in my music later. That’s how it always happens. The people had an impact as well. The Tour Divide is a metaphor for people. When you’re not interacting with people, you can convince yourself that they’re good or bad or that there’s a division in our country. But the agency of human beings to take care of each other was super inspiring and supported my desire to share that truth about people.
What would you tell someone who is thinking of riding the Great Divide route someday?
You should absolutely do it, no questions asked. There’s no excuse that you could tell yourself that would ever compensate for not doing it. It’s such a powerful ride with the people and the land that you experience. Everyone should prioritize something like that at least once in their lives.
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I’m a jack-of-all, master-of-none sort when it comes to the outdoors. Riding, climbing, paddling, skiing or hiking—everything has its own appeal. All that matters are the effort and the solitude. I’m not competitive but I enjoy a good challenge, and I’ll say “yes” to anything that puts me in over my head or involves type 2 fun, as that’s where life’s spicier moments seem to live.