Why are you afraid?
I think a number of Tour Divide riders experience fear at some point along their journey. And I mean genuine fear, not just your basic worry about strange noises coming from your bike, nagging saddle sores, or the possibility of having consumed contaminated water. I mean fear for your life. It could be a chance encounter with the local fauna. I met one rider who got close enough to a grizzly to have to use bear spray. The bear was charging her, and at the last minute she was able to spray and deter the bear, just feet away, and seconds from being mauled. She also got a dose of bear spray in her face. Or, just as deadly, an attack by the flora. I talked to a north-bounder who was knocked out cold by a falling limb. When he came to it took him a panicked few minutes to remember where he was. We spoke three days after the incident. He still seemed dazed. For me, real fear struck in southern Colorado, about four miles from the top of Indiana Pass. The weather gods took the opportunity to remind me of their presence, and of their power.
For two thousand miles I had enjoyed somewhat of a free pass from the cold rain and the debilitating snow fields that haunted last year’s riders. So far, the worst I had encountered was on Day One riding out of Banff. We had some rain, snow, and sleet, but the adrenaline pumping through my veins kept spirits high and mileage respectable. I think the relative lull in the weather since then may have nudged me into a false sense of security. Either that or I was just plain naive about the damage things falling from the sky could do to a cyclist.
To be honest, Indiana Pass really isn’t all that tough as far as Divide climbs go. It’s a gradual, 25-mile, 4000-foot ascent from Del Norte to the top. Indiana’s regal status comes from the fact that at 11,910 feet, it is the highest point on the route. I had filled up on my lunch of choice, a footlong Subway Club, a bag of Cheetos, and a couple Powerades. A phone call home had boosted my spirits and fueled my mental tank, steeling me for the long slog ahead. The time seemed to go by quickly. I was looking forward to summiting the pass, passing the 2000-mile point and maybe crossing the New Mexico border all in one day. A respectable achievement. Thoughts were meandering and positive. The flow state was locked-in. And then a sharp “pop” on my helmet yanked me back to the present. A rock, maybe? And then another “pop.” This time a little louder. No, not a rock. Hail. I saw a few white balls bounce off the ground. The thing was, the sun was still shining. There were only a few clouds. Surely this would just blow over like they all have. Hey, this might even be fun, I thought. I was a little hot from the climb anyway. Natural air conditioning is always welcome. Then, a few more “pops” on my helmet, and a couple more quickly following. And a few seconds later I couldn’t hear the gaps between the “pops” anymore.
When weather threatens, riders go through an internal debate about whether or not to dismount and don rain gear. Most of the time the non-breathability of the “breathable” gear you paid so much for forces you to take it off five minutes later anyway. So, you tend to hold out as long as you can. The problem is you don’t want to get caught pulling out your rain gear in the middle of a downpour. It’s a judgement call. And today I judged wrong. Just a minute or two after I heard the first “pop,” it began to pour mothballs. And it hurt. As I watched the road quickly turn to white, I decided to make a break for the trees. I found a few branches to hide under, taking the sting out of the hail before it “thwacked” the exposed parts of my body. I dug out my rain gear and hunkered down. Then the freezing rain started and the temperature dropped. What was a pleasant sixty-five degrees five minutes ago was now probably close to forty.
I did take a little pleasure in knowing that I wasn’t alone. A couple of guys buzzed past on ATVs, speeding down to get to a lower elevation as quickly as possible. I heard a few cries of pain, a reaction from what I imagine was the hail making contact with their faces. A truck splashed by as well and then reversed back up the hill to check on me. I motioned that I was okay and they sped off, the passenger in the warm truck cab looking confused by my rebuff. Divide riders aren’t supposed to receive outside help, right? A few minutes later I was questioning the wisdom of stubbornly following that rule.
The rain and hail weren’t stopping and I was starting to shiver. If I didn’t start moving things could get bad. So I grabbed my bike, waded out into the icy stream flowing down the road and began to hike up the hill. And for the first time on the Tour Divide I got scared. I was pushing my bike through a hail storm at 11,000 feet (and climbing), soaked to the bone, with likely hours before descending the pass on the other side. I don’t think I had ever been in a situation like this. Hypothermia was a real possibility. The blissful flow state of half an hour ago was gone, replaced by a raging war between the rational and primitive parts of my mind. I took deep breaths and told myself I’d be fine, hoping to placate the fight-or-flight reflex screaming at me to panic. I needed to move faster to get the blood pumping, so I got on my bike and pedaled blindly. I had to pull my sleeves down over my hands to protect them from the pelting icy projectiles. It just. kept. raining.
Earlier in the week, my wife, an Episcopal priest, sent me a sermon she was working on for the coming Sunday. She had hoped I could spare a minute or two to read it and give some feedback, something I often did. In my Tour Divide delirium, though, I don’t think I quite had the mental capacity to offer up anything helpful. But now, riding up this hill in the cold, I realized her sermon had offered something to me. The Gospel reading she had based the sermon on jumped into my mind. It’s the story from Mark where Jesus and the disciples are crossing the sea in a boat when all of a sudden a great windstorm arose and the boat was about to be swamped. The disciples, panicked, were in awe of Jesus’ peacefulness in the midst of this clearly dire situation. Jesus then calms the storm and asks the disciples plainly, “Why are you afraid?” And there, in that icy storm on the Tour Divide, it was as if the question were being posed to me as well. “Why are you afraid?”
Don’t get me wrong. Cold is cold. Hypothermia is deadly. Ice falling from the sky hurts. Of course, I was hoping the storm would somehow magically stop like it did in the story, but I wasn’t holding my breath. Rather, I was hearing Jesus’ question as a warning. Fear, like any of the natural elements, can be dangerous. Fear, when it takes root and consumes your thoughts, can paralyze. Fear can make you give up, back down, admit defeat. And so, “Why are you afraid?” became my mantra. I had to conquer fear along with the ice and the rain.
After repeating the mantra to myself a few times, and feeling my anxiety lessen a bit, I had the mental space to do some problem solving. Warmth. I pulled out my long sleeve wool jersey and put it on underneath my rain jacket. Wet but warm. Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier? I had to get over this hill and put the climbing behind me. The story of Indiana Pass wasn’t going to be about being afraid. It was going to be about pushing fear to the side and seeing the story continue beyond.
Before long I had summited the pass, at least that’s what my GPS told me. The clouds had gotten too thick to make out much of anything other than my handlebars and the five or so feet of road in front of me. The words “Why are you afraid?” continued to fall out through my frozen lips.
Fear is something just waiting to be experienced on the Tour Divide. It’s around every blind corner, it’s hiding in the dark of night, and it’s falling from the sky. It will leave you sleepless and exhausted, lonely and despairing, and hungry for everything you don’t have. And yet, fear, like any 4000-foot climb, can be overcome. Once fear is managed you realize you actually have the resources you need to do what you’ve set out to accomplish. Freedom from fear makes a successful journey on the Tour Divide possible—and life beyond truly livable.
This story appears in The Cordillera, an annually published anthology of Tour Divide tales.