Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Return of the Mountain Turtle

I feel I can best explain the decrease in blog output here by quoting a fellow who recently explained a long, awkward pause by saying "I've got a lot of things twirling around in my head..."

Actually, I've got a several of projects cooking, things that will most likely see the light of day as ebooks. The project that is the furthest along is an expanded version of the saga I first recounted in The Way of the Mountain Turtle. The expanded version will include more detail of my 2005 Great Divide Race and more training thoughts and philosophy. Also included will be the full story of my 2010 Tour Divide effort.

Many of you reading this followed the 2010 Tour via this blog and read the posts as the race unfolded. I also wrote a magazine-length version which, due to a change in editors at the magazine and the vagaries of print publication schedules, never saw print. (BTW I could do an long, colorful venting screed on working in the print world and why I, for one, welcome the digital age where I can sit at my netbook, say "screw it," hit the publish button and reach readers instantly.

In that spirit, I present the article-length version of the story that is going to get reworked and combined and folding into something bigger, something you may be reading on your Kindle sometime soon. But I'm fond of this version and I want to thank all of you who have stuck with my blog for all these years and who help make my adventures possible. I hope your like this story, I call it:

The Return of the Mountain Turtle


Wednesday June 16, 2010

“Slow down,” the waitress at The Stray Bullet advises, “they weren’t here that long ago.” It’s just after 9:00 AM and I’m shoveling in my second breakfast of the day. Cold Spam and chocolate espresso beans were enough to get me out of the bivy, onto the bike at dawn and 26 miles down a rainy, muddy forest road to this cafe in the tiny town of Ovando, Montana. Now I’m inhaling bacon, eggs, hashbrowns, juice and coffee. It’s what they call a “gunslinger breakfast” here, but I’m no gunslinger, I’m a bike racer.

The race I’m in is called the Tour Divide, a 2745 mile sprint from Banff, Alberta to the Mexican border at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Forty-six of us rolled into the Canadian wilderness last Thursday on bicycles laden for the journey. We don’t have team cars or support crews, each of us is carrying what we think we need for the journey: clothes, camping gear and enough food to get to the next mini-mart. The race follows Adventure Cycling’s Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, hugging the spine of the Rockies and avoiding pavement as much as possible.

Mike Gibney and I rode together for a bit yesterday and again this morning, talking about the race and telling each other lies that we truly believed at the time. We both talked of pushing on past Seeley Lake last night and I’d vowed I wouldn’t burn up time at the cafe in Ovando. Yet we’d both stopped near Seeley Lake and now I’m here having breakfast. The mountains don’t care what I say or what I’ve planned. In the end, the trail tells me what I need to do and I ignore it at my peril.

Mike and I are veterans of the course, most of the course anyway. This is Mike’s third attempt at the Divide and I’d raced the “short” version (2,500 miles from the Canadian Border to the Mexican Border) back in 2005. In ‘05 I’d been the first person to race the Divide on a single-speed bike. Seven racers started that year and four finished. I came in dead last, but first in my unique division.

As long as my record stood I could tell myself that I had been there and done that on the Great Divide, but last year Chris Plesko rode his single-speed much faster than I ever did over these rugged miles. The course is longer now, including several hundred miles of Canadian wilderness that Matthew Lee has raved about for years. Matthew has won this race more than anyone so I took his “you gotta ride the Canada stuff” seriously. Chris gave me the excuse to race, Matthew gave me the encouragement, but it’s the mountains that gave me the real reason I’m back here riding again. I’m convinced the beauty of these places is best seen from the seat of a bicycle.

I’d told myself that if everything went perfectly, if the weather was wonderful and I was feeling strong, I could beat Plesko’s record. A few days on the trail has knocked that thought pretty far out of my head. I’ve already pushed through more snow and mud then I’d seen in all of ‘05. In Canada, the route descending Flathead Pass was at least as much a stream as a trail and the climb up from the Wigwam River involved dragging the bike up a quarter-mile mud cliff. Galton Pass featured about a mile and half of hike-a-bike through the snow. It was all so wonderful and beautiful but not terrain I could speed through. At least 20 times a day, I’d be stopped by some jaw-dropping vista and I’d dig out my camera, trying to pack this amazing world onto a tiny screen.

I’ve managed to return here thanks to dozens of folks and hundreds of acts of kindness. The story of my first time here, something I wrote down and called “The Way of the Mountain Turtle”, inspired amazing generosity in people. Checks for food, bike parts, time to train and all the rest of what is needed to race came not with a bill but with a common message, “Don’t pay this back in cash. Ride. Take pictures. Tell us what it’s like out there.”

What it’s like out here is wonderful. At 6,000 feet and higher, away from the lights of the city, the stars gleam pure and cold. Snow clings to the high peaks and the shaded places on the trail. Bear tracks mark the same mud as my tires. Elk and deer move silent as fog through the trees and watch me pass with wary, wide-eyed wonder. The mountains are doing their best to remind me that racing does not come naturally to me. I’m the Mountain Turtle. I plod. I take pictures. I’m having the time of my life. I summarized my race strategy a few days ago in a call-in to MTBCast where Joe Polk is doing his annual podcast coverage of the Tour. “I start out slow,” I explained, “and then I back off. I think I’ve lulled Matthew Lee into a total sense of security.”

Matthew is hundreds of miles ahead of me, ahead of everyone. Erik Lobeck is damn near as fast as Matthew, blasting out something like a 150 mile per day pace. My average is closer to 100 miles per day, positively pedestrian by Tour Divide standards.

We’re less than a week into the race and already a dozen racers have dropped out. A team from Great Britain, with great plans and great hopes of a record setting ride, were eliminated by bad navigation and a bad knee. Bob Moczynski crashed on the steep Galton Pass descent and broke his collarbone. The air was too cold and thin for Bob Marr’s lungs, the climbs were too steep for Suzanne Marco’s knees. A torn quad here, a twisted ankle there and two more are gone.

But it’s wrong and impossible to dwell only on the hardness of the land. We all knew this would be hard and we’ve been drawn here to test ourselves, to take some of the toughness of the land and make it part of us. Perhaps it takes a wild trail and some damp nights in a bivy to make me really appreciate the wonder of a gunslinger breakfast.

I finish my breakfast and go up to the counter to pay the bill. After confirming for the waitress that the breakfast was the most wonderful thing I’ve eaten in days, she asks me about the race.

"What do you win?"

Time is short and the miles are long, so I give the easy answer, the short one, the lie.

"Nothing," I say, "we do this for the fun." And I head back out into the rain, on down the trail.


Friday June 18, 2010

I’m just turning back onto the route, ready to roll out of Butte when I hear a voice call out “Hey, Kent!” It’s Rob Leipheimer, flagging me down from the doorway of his bikeshop, The Outdoorsman. “We were tracking your SPOT,” Rob explains, “and saw that you’d gone to get a pork chop sandwich.” I first heard about the pork chop sandwich when I saw the Ride the Divide movie on the eve of the race back in Banff and I knew then that I’d be stopping in Butte for a sandwich. Divide racers run on heavy fuel and the pork chop sandwich is every bit as good as it sounds.

Rob and his crew are giving the NASCAR treatment to all the Tour Divide racers, popping bikes in the repair stand and as quickly as possible undoing the damage the miles have wrought. I almost feel guilty that my simple single-speed has so little for them to work on, but Rob pronounces my Monocog Flight as being “smart”. While I munch on some grapes, Rob fills me in on how the others are doing. There’s horrible mud ahead, mud that ripped the derailleurs right off Erik Lobeck’s bike. “His bike was running perfectly when he left here,” Rob explains.

When I’d raced five years ago, the only updates on the race status were via pay-phone call-ins to Joe Polk. I’d call home when I’d get the chance and talk to my wife and she’d give me a few updates as well, but most of the time I had no idea where the other racers were. Back then, very few people along the course had any notion that a few bicyclists were racing towards the Mexican border. Now, things are different. All the racers have SPOT trackers, small battery-powered devices that relay our coordinates to the internet in real time. People follow the race on the web and talk about it on Twitter, Facebook and other online forums. Although cell coverage is sparse in the back country, in towns smartphones and other pocket-sized devices like my Peek Pronto buzz to life with news, weather and other updates. Folks working in bike shops and cafes along the route all know about the race and recognize us from our haggard looks and high-calorie purchases.


Sunday June 20, 2010

The mud up on the Sheep Creek Divide has been the consistency of Play-Doh but the sign proclaiming the area to be “Impassable When Wet” isn’t strictly true. When my wheels won’t turn, I carry the bike. Walking slow is better than stopping. The rain finally stops and the sun finally shines. I roll again.

The skies south of Lima are blue and this tiny farm road is dry. There are cows everywhere and dozens of cattle guards -- bars across the road surface, with gaps too wide for tiny hooves. A speeding bicycle, hitting the bars at a right angle, can cross a cattle guard without incident.

Apparently, very young cows lack mature caution and may tiptoe across cattle guards. A rancher may string barbed wire across a guard now and then, to keep the youngsters with their moms. I discover this fact very suddenly.

The guard is like the dozens of others I’ve buzzed over, but this one also has a vertical pole and a couple of strands of barbed wire. My brain processes this information a fraction of a second after my front wheel hits the wire, in the moments when I am airborne.

The Monocog does a perfect somersault, sticking the landing on the south side of the fence. My own Superman impersonation ends less elegantly as I slam to the ground six feet beyond the bike.

“I’m alive!” That’s my first thought. Adrenaline and amazement pick me up and a very brief survey of my major bones tells me I’m good enough to ride on. Some will call me lucky and some will call me blessed, I count myself in both camps at this moment.

I should be racing on, as a true racer would, but I stop to photograph amazing things. Right now, the most amazing thing is a bicycle, still balanced, perfectly inverted on this dusty Montana road.


Wednesday June 23, 2010

It’s late afternoon and I’m still many miles north of Pinedale, WY when my Peek vibrates to life indicating it has a signal and I have email. My delight at getting a note from my wife vanishes as I read the news -- Dave Blumenthal collided with a truck this morning in Colorado. Initially taken by ambulance to Steamboat, his head injuries are severe enough that he’s been transferred to the hospital Denver. His wife and four-year-old daughter are flying in from Vermont.

I stare stupidly at the screen, the pixels blurring as my eyes fill with tears. I blink, hoping that the words will change, that the words are wrong. Dave is one of us, racing through the high country on the adventure of a lifetime. How could he collide with a truck? There are hardly any trucks out here. There are hardly any people out here. We worry about bears. We worry about the weather. We worry about running out of food or water a hundred miles from anywhere. But a truck? Damn.

Of course it could happen. Things happen. Hell, I’d slammed into a barbed wire fence that was right in front of me.

I can’t stop thinking about Dave but I have to stop thinking about Dave. I have to ride and I have to get to the next town. I have to be here now so I can be there then. I get on my bike. I dodge the ruts in the road, trying to find the smooth line, the line that makes sense.


Thursday June 24, 2010

After enjoying a nice tailwind and a pleasant day of riding, I arrive in South Pass City at 5:25 PM. I grab a cold lemonade from the vending machine, change over to the next map and set out for Atlantic City and the Great Divide Basin.

At an old mine, I stop to take pictures and read the sign. That's where I miss the key words that tell me to turn right at the mine. I just keep going.

Off course.

By the time I figure out that I've gone wrong, I've taken too many turns to trust my backtracking. I find a biggish dirt road and follow it for quite a few miles before a signpost, my map and compass give me back my bearings in the world. The beautiful country with lots of trees and streams confirms the fact that I am far off course. I should be in the dry, sparse lands of the Basin. But I know which way to go now.

Four hours after I’d left South Pass City, I’m back in South Pass City. I grab another cold lemonade from the vending machine that is the only thing active in this dark and tiny ghost town. Remarkably my Peek has a signal here and I’ve got mail. Another note from Christine and the subject line is ominous, “Sad News”. I click and read:

Hey Sweetie,

I am so sorry to pass on that Dave died this morning at the hospital in Denver. He's survived by his wife Lexi and their 4 year old daughter Linnaea. I didn't know him, but I feel so sad.

Love you always,


I knew Dave, not well, but I knew him from the internet, from his blog and from a brief conversation we had on the first morning of the race. Dave knew what he was doing, he was prepared, at least as well prepared as any of us can be.

Can it ever make sense when a good man dies for what seems like no good reason? I know Dave was a loving, adventurous and generous man. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and loved ones.

The world is a poorer place because of Dave's tragic death. Death always comes too soon, except for those whose lives are overcome with boredom or suffering. The world is a richer because Dave chose a life of adventure and wonder. We all, too briefly, got to share in the wonder of his life.

I suddenly feel very, very far from home. Until now I’ve felt at home on the trail. The SPOT tells my loved ones where I am and that I’m OK. My Peek sends signals back to civilization. And I’ve known that I have what I need to continue, to get further on down the trail, to get back to my civilized home, where I have more than two pairs of socks, more than a bivy sack for a bed.

The last words Dave posted on his blog before he left were these: “Lexi and Linnaea, I love you both.” Dave knew how to live, knew what was important. I send Christine email, thanking her for passing on the bad news and telling her of my latest wanderings. The last few words are the most important, a lesson Dave knew so well. I sign off for the night with “I love you so.”


Friday June 25, 2010

I’m up at dawn and I’m careful to take the right turn at the old mine. A few miles past Atlantic City, another Wyoming ghost town, a horned lizard scoots across the dry and dusty road and I chase him down to make sure I have a picture.

This is the Great Divide Basin, high, flat country so dry that what little rain that falls here flows neither to the Atlantic nor the Pacific but rather evaporates back to the sky. Once I’m past the Sweetwater River and the Diagnus Well, the next reliable water source is 55 miles away. The next town is Rawlins and it’s a hundred miles away. There is little here but sand, sagebrush, antelope and some very thirsty-looking cows.

Just past 10:00 AM the freehub on my Monocog begin to slip. The freehub is the mechanism that allows a bike to coast. Tiny pawls inside the hub retract when the wheel is spinning faster than the cog, but when power is applied (via the pedals, crank and chain) the pawls engage and the force of my legs drive the wheel.

Normally, freehubs just work. This particular freehub has worked fine for thousands and thousands of miles. But this hot, dusty, washboarded section of road is hard on freehubs. Last year, Jill Homer had freehub problems on this section of road. Fortunately for her, the problems worked themselves out. Commenters on her blog suggested dribbling lube into the freehub body. Not a bad idea. I stop my bike and dribble lube.

It helps, a bit, for a while. But the pawls keep refusing to engage. My legs spin wildly against zero friction. I bounce the wheel, trying to get the pawls to catch. Sometimes they catch and I can pedal for a bit but then they slip again. With each slip, I picture part of the tiny pawl being worn down. When coasting, the hub makes an ominous sound.

There is a final, sickening snap and a thunk and now the pawls refuse to engage at all. I no longer have a bike under me, I have a 29-inch wheeled push scooter.

I’ve seen no humans since I'd left Atlantic City and Rawlins is more than 100 miles away. I have enough food for the trip and enough water to get me to each of the few streams in the Basin, assuming a biking pace. I now have a walking pace with a few bits where I can coast on the descents. The thermometer on my bike computer, which may be overly dramatic, reads 92 degrees. My map describes this area as being “spectacularly desolate” and promises that I’ll “undoubtedly see more antelope and wild horses than fellow human beings.” The grim cartographic commentary continues on to tell me that this is part of the historic Oregon-Mormon Trail and has been described as the “longest graveyard in America.”

I have something of a problem. I walk and push and coast my bike for miles. About 40 miles. The map lists "Emergency bail outs" at miles 47 and 66. The mile 47 bailout involves a 15 mile walk north to a spot of nothing labeled Sweetwater Station. I opt to press on to mile 66 and the turn off to Jeffrey City. From the turn off, it will be another 14 miles of walking, pushing and coasting to get to town.

I’m almost out of water when I’m thrilled to find the trickle that is Arapaho Creek flowing at mile 62. It’s a bit past 3:00 PM. As America sings in that "Horse With No Name" song, "the heat was hot." But I have water now and I know I can make it to Jeffrey City. It will be hours, but I'll make it.

A cowboy named Travis with a big truck and a scruffy dog save me about 15 miles of walking. He is out here checking on some cows and I flag him down and he gives me a ride into town. He looks and acts and walks just like you’d think a cowboy would. He’s got the hat and the boots and the drawl and as we bounce down the road to town he says “don’t blink or you’ll miss it.”

I don’t blink but it’s beginning to dawn on me that if a town in Wyoming has “City” attached to it’s name, it’s a good bet that the “city” is a ghost town. I buy Travis a couple of beers at Jeffrey City’s only bar. The bar pretty much is Jeffrey City, unless you count a fossilized Texaco with no gas pumps and no X in the sign and a motel with no cars in the parking lot and no signs of life. Travis explains that Jeffrey City was a uranium mining town, but the mine shut down thirty years ago. Only a few dozen people and a few dogs still call Jeffrey City home.

Remarkably, Travis tells me I can get a room at the motel. I hike over to the motel and follow the instructions on the office door that tells me to ask at the “shop”. I figure the shop must be the busted down Texaco, so I roll my bike over there.

A guy named John and his buddy are at the shop. Yes I can get a room. It turns out the only reason the motel is still here is that it was part of the package deal when John bought the shop. “I never got around to tearing it down and every few weeks I wind up renting a room to some busted down biker!” I tell him I’m happy to contribute to the local economy. “Hell,” he grins, “today you are the local economy.”

I see John has a welder and I briefly explain a way to fix my bike, “We could weld the hub solid, it wouldn’t coast, but it’d go.” John looks at me and passes judgement. “That’s a totally dumb plan,” he declares in a voice that’s solid and sensible. “Sometimes, it’s just time to stop. This is one of those times.”

I could have argued, I would have argued, if I’d thought John was wrong, but I knew he was right. When you walk, push and coast for forty miles you have a lot of time to think.

In the end, the trail tells me what I need to do and I ignore it at my peril. I’ve pushed on through snow and mud. I’ve crashed into a barbed wire fence. I’ve frozen in the mountains and baked in the Basin. The trail has worked to slow me, the waitress said slow down and now my bike has clearly said it’s done.

I’m done for now.

I’ve been thinking for a few weeks about why I ride and why I’m here.

The waitress asked a simple question, “What do you win?” and I think I have an answer now, but it isn’t short or simple. The long, true answer is the one that reveals itself, bit by bit, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, mountain vista by mountain vista. It is the truth found in the distance and at the center of this bit of flesh I call myself. On a tiny trail in a vast world, with my possessions pared down to the minimum needed to maintain forward motion, with thoughts in my head of every kindness shown me, each step that leads me onward, I can answer to the wind, "Everything. I've won all this. I'm the luckiest man alive."

My race didn't end when I hit a barbed wire gate at speed, although with one bit of bad luck, one slightly different landing, my fate could have been the same as Dave’s. Dave Blumenthal had the sudden, brutal, tragic, fatal bad luck. It is his life and joy I remember and his final gift to the world is the haunting reminder that we should love our best in every moment.

My race didn't end when my bike's freehub mechanism gave up and I was reduced to walking and coasting. My race ended in hundreds of moments, moments when a racer would roll on but a tourist would stop and wonder. I knew my race was over when the horned lizard crossed my path and I stopped to chase him down, to get a picture.

I am the Mountain Turtle and in the end, I guess this turtle doesn't race, he tours. And that's OK. For me, it's even better than OK.

The fast folks race to push themselves a bit faster than they know they can go. They find truth and beauty in speed. That’s beautiful for them, but I find my truth rolls slower.

It’s time for me to wander off the course, to rebuild my bike at home.

I’ll be back, but I’ll be slower next time.

I’ll take more pictures.

I won’t be racing, I’ll be touring.

I’ll explore side roads.

It’ll take a long time but that’s OK. I’ll do it in stages. I’ve got the time.

It's a beautiful world. And I've won it all.


Ryan M. Williams said...

Wonderful, Kent! The Way of the Mountain Turtle was the very first thing that introduced me to the Divide. I've long thought that it deserved to be released as an e-book and frankly can't wait to read it again.

Thank you!

Unknown said...

A joy to read!

I have raced too (not the Divide). I got some wonderful moment. The way of the mountain turtle is so much more my way of enjoying the life.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kent. Well written.

dexey said...

That piece of writing is exactly why I look in on your blog every couple days.

Excellent work, Kent and thank you.

Unknown said...

I'll just echo the others - Thanks for sharing your experiences so superbly through the written word...

I didn't know Dave either but recall being touched somehow by his death and having a feeling of loss for his wife and child.


Small Adventures said...

AWESOME read,Kent! :D

Steve in VA

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading your post. It struck me as very engaging and thoughtful.

Your misfortune is very similar to something that my friend suffered a few weeks ago:


RoadieRyan said...

Great Post Kent very fun to read about your 2010 Tour Divide again Look forward to your next race...er tour

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your writings. I remember your final call-in after the hub failed -- you're a champion, Kent.


Davey Oil said...

Thanks, Kent.
That was beautiful.
May we see the photo of the horned lizard?


Kent Peterson said...

Hi Davey,

The photo of the horned lizard is at:


In the archives of this blog you'll find some of the hundreds of pictures I took while riding the Divide. If you ever get a chance to get out there, go!

Russ said...

You have an immensely elegant prose style. I'm glad you're writing a book - I'll buy it.