Good Grief and Gravel: Emily Dillon’s Tribute to Her Late Father

My Garmin reads 113 degrees. With smoke blowing into Idaho from the seemingly continuous California fires, the air quality index is almost double the temperature. A brown haze obscures the landscape. Soot mixes with dust and sweat forming a dry crust on my face. In the dirt, on either side of me, lay my two companions—my younger brother and my hardtail mountain bike, fully loaded with camping gear. Forty miles into a four hundred-mile unsupported mountain biking trip through the Idaho backcountry, we take reprieve in a sliver of shade.

“Classic Mike Dillon trip,” my brother mutters, his voice thick with melted trail mix. Mike Dillon is our dad. Mike Dillon died eight months ago.

A “Mike Dillon trip” is an outdoor adventure, agnostic to activity, during which the participants experience such misery that it amplifies the ultimate appreciation of the journey.

A few examples:

2002: Eastern Sierras, California. Wind up-ends our campsite. Rain pelts down. My mother grabs us—Declan, my older brother (eleven years old), me (nine years old), and Bryce, my younger brother (six years old)—and scrambles toward the car. My dad begins a balletic performance of running, jumping, and lunging after camping equipment as it gusts away. The performance crescendos with a haphazard attempt to secure the equipment in the Volvo Station Wagon’s roof box. At last, Dad joins us in the car.

But for our teeth chattering in time to the rain hitting the roof, the car is silent. A single overhead light, which my mom uses to scrutinize a paper map, casts a warm glow throughout the cold car.

“What a night!” my dad exclaims. Our pact of silence is broken.

“I’m hungry! When are we eating dinner?” chirps Bryce.

“Can we at least turn back on the Harry Potter cassette?” I ask.

“You two just need to shut up,” Declan responds.

“Mike, we should head toward 395, and try to get to Willow Springs,” Mom says, attempting to cut through the cacophony.

Dad leans his head back against the driver’s seat headrest. The water droplets speckling his face sparkle with the reflection of the light. In the rear-view mirror, he sees his damp cast of characters. He smiles, then begins to drive.

We wind through the trees, hugging the slick, twisting roads. The storm begins to ebb, and with it, our hunger flows. We pull over on the side of the highway and open the cooler to see soaked tortillas and cold canned beans. We eat our Thanksgiving dinner in the car.

2004: Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. On a quest to see the Supernova, an ancestral Puebloan pictograph, our family marches in the July sun. The heat stands on our shoulders, bowing our heads, and buckling our knees. Quickly depleting our water reserves, Bryce begins to cry, then starts to feel cold—heatstroke. My mother takes him back to camp.

Dad, Declan, and I continue. Heat waves rise from the exposed and arid landscape. I place each of my steps in the sandy footprints of my dad. His long gate leaves me jumping from foot to foot.

“This is so dumb. It’s too hot. I don’t get why I couldn’t go back with mom,” Declan mumbles, licking the dried salt deposits from the corner of his lips.

I agree, but don’t say it.

“Declan, this is going to blow your mind. This pictograph is of a star explosion from almost a thousand years ago. Historians have found records all over the world of people reporting seeing it in the sky. And we’re going to see one of those records,” Dad says.

The shadow cast by my fuchsia cowboy hat paints a constellation on my arms. I imagine each speckle of light exploding.

An hour later we step into the shade of a rock wall. The temperature difference triggers a shiver throughout my body. A wooden sign held into the earth by a cairn states “Supernova Pictograph” with an arrow pointing up. Six meters off the ground, we see it: a hand print, a star, and a moon stamped on the wall.

“Are you kidding me?” Declan says, stabbing a nearby stick into the ground.

Dad pulls out his Chaco Canyon guide book and begins to read aloud.

2019: Lee Vining, California. An unseasonably high volume of snow blankets Lee Vining, a small town in the Eastern Sierra mountains. A year round destination for outdoorsy people, the town is home to cyclists, backpackers, and rock climbers in the summer, and backcountry skiers and ice climbers in the winter. In February, the small community looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting, alight with glittering snow and trees.

But the warmth and cheer of the town seems far away. We have spent the last three hours practicing the basics of ice climbing—reading the ice, using the gear, learning the safety foundations—on the twenty-five meter frozen waterfall that stands before us. The cold gnaws at my fingers. The cloying sweetness of the semi-frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’m splitting with Dad coats my mouth.

“You heading up again?” Dad asks. I take it as a challenge.

However, the towering ice wall, while only fifteen feet away, is now obscured by rapidly accumulating snow. Wind whips through the valley, expertly finding every opening in our layered clothes. Our ice climbing guide looks nervous. “We should head in soon—like now,” he advises. Through clenched teeth and balled up fists in mittens, we nod, grateful someone else made the call.

Baptized into the world of outdoor adventure as a toddler, we grew up privileged with road trips, backcountry hikes, and frequent camping trips—leading, perhaps, to an overconfidence in the extent to which mental fortitude could make up for lack of physical preparation. The thing with Mike Dillon trips is that they always work out. You always have just enough reserves, humor, and dumb luck to make it through.

But I’ve never been on a Mike Dillon trip without, well, Mike Dillon.

On December 2, 2020 my dad died. It was sudden. On the day of his own father’s funeral, his stomach hurt. “Probably a case of the emotions,” Bryce joked as we drove to the cemetery.

My dad, the eldest of three brothers, gave his father’s eulogy. As he read, his usual soft, but commanding voice broke, halting with the sudden intake of breath from pain. A small wince betrayed the cause—it was physical. He passed the eulogy to Bryce.

“Come on man, I’m struggling too,” Bryce laughed, tears running down his red face, as he accepted the baton. Dad rested his arm across Bryce’s shoulders—a paternal embrace and a physical crutch.

The three-gun salute still ringing in our ears, Bryce and I drove Dad directly to the urgent care clinic.

“Honey I just need to sleep. Take me ho–,” his protests were interrupted by a burst of pain as the car rolled over a speed bump.

The urgent care visit turned into a hospital stay. Six days after his initial admittance, he received emergency surgery for a perforated bowel.

“The surgery was a success, but I’m going to have a colostomy bag for a few months,” Dad told us over the phone.

We immediately took to Amazon to order some good hearted poop-related colostomy bag covers and an extra large bag of Metamucil. The perfect gift for his sixty-second birthday the following week.

Bryce and I exchanged text messages debating whether one’s sphincter can atrophy from lack of use.

That evening, Mom and I dropped off balloons, flowers from his garden, and a homemade card that said, “You’re full of shit, but we love you” at the front desk of the hospital. Due to the pandemic, we are unable to see him.

“I’m back, I love you,” Dad said over the phone, his voice heavy with anesthesia.

The next day he was dead. The doctor’s overlooked sepsis.

My world cleaved in two: alive Dad, dead Dad. We entered the unknown. We were feral. My mind still frantically tries to gather every living memory of my father, as if I will lose them if I do not continuously replay them. This reel screams to a halt at the feeling of my hand clenched around his, still warm, at death. Still warm. Still.

So much of my world was, and still is, anchored around my dad, perhaps no facet more so than my relationship to the outdoors.

I’ve always sought out challenges, thanks largely to his influence. But when it comes to cycling, I’m the black sheep of the family. My mom routinely clocks more than 10,000 miles a year on her bike. My dad cycled from Florida to California in 2010, then for good measure decided to ride from Canada to Mexico in 2018. Declan rode competitively in high school. Bryce jumps his bike off dirt jumps and over rusted cars. He accompanied Dad on his second cross-country trip.

At the age of twenty-five, thirteen years since I had last ridden a bike, I purchased my first road bike. My maiden voyage was a thirty-mile out-and-back ride near Point Reyes not far from my apartment in San Francisco. While relatively flat, it smoked me. In addition to a saddle sore and a scraped hand from tipping over at a stop sign, I had a new appreciation for my family’s cycling abilities.

Naturally, my second ride was a seventy mile race. My father rode the one hundred mile route. At the finish line, I lay in the grass downplaying my exhaustion.

“The greatest medal of all,” Dad declares, passing me a beer before settling into the grass next to me. My first crisp, carbonated sip winds its way through my body, cooling me from the inside.

“How was your ride?” I ask.

“You know what? It was just great. We couldn’t have got a better day. During that first climb I really found my groove with the help of the Alabama Shakes. Have you listened to their most recent album?”.

Extending my leg to mitigate a quadricep cramp, I nod. Despite living in the golden age of free music streaming, Dad had recently purchased and sent me a copy of the album through iTunes.

“Around the halfway point, up by Tomales, I couldn’t resist a stop for some oysters and a beer,” Dad continued. “Met some great fellow cyclists there. Get this, they’re heading from Alaska to Mexico. All unsupported—just them and what they can carry on their bikes. How cool is that?”

“Come on, if you throw in some Zagat rated restaurants and five star hotels, you could entice Mom,” I jest. Knowing full well that, in the eyes of Mom, a loosely planned months-long bikepacking trip is incongruous with enjoyment.

Tilting his Oakland A’s baseball cap over his eyes, Dad leans back into the grass. “Ha. What I do know, is that this right here, is the perfect place for a snooze,” Dad responds.

I mimic his motion. Given the intensifying soreness in my legs, it doesn’t seem smart to fight gravity.

My entry into mountain biking was similar. In 2018, Dad and Bryce biked the Continental Divide Mountain Biking Trail, which stretches from Canada to Mexico. Borrowing Declan’s bike from highschool and rigging it with a trailer, Mom and I met Dad and Bryce in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Over the next seven days, we biked five hundred miles across the state.

Averaging seventy miles a day we slogged out of Colter Bay, over Togwotee pass, through Pinedale, across the Great Basin, to Rawlins. Hot and dry, the landscape took turns between mind-numbing flatness that would inspire a flat-earther and steep fire road climbs.

Deemed “Turtle” due to its round, bulging appearance, the trailer attached to my borrowed bike was a drag. For someone with an affinity for redundancy and preparedness, “packing light” included multiple changes of clothes, three sets of shoes, three freeze dried meals per day, and multiple gallon size bags of snacks. As the more naive half of our mother-daughter duo, I also volunteered to carry a large share of my mother’s gear. Garnished atop the trailer, wagging on a thin white pole, was a yellow safety flag with Declan’s face on it. While a mountain biker in his teens, Declan could not be coaxed out of air conditioning and away from a flushing toilet for this family trip. Thus, his face on the flag would have to do.

As our menagerie wound across Wyoming, we biked in pairs. Bryce and Mom rode up front, talking about their last meal, their next meal, their favorite snack. My father and I took up the back. We rode together, but with headphones in – insulating ourselves in the physicality and beauty of the moment. Occasionally we’d make eye contact, let out a sigh and wipe sweat from our brows.

On our fifth day, exiting the Great Basin, Dad and I got an early start ahead of Mom and Bryce. With a horizon that shows no sign of curvature, our route for the day—78 miles—was almost entirely visible from the start. Ride straight until we reach the skyline.

Without Mom and Bryce’s Ina Garten-inspired chatter sounding our presence, we see the other early risers on the prairie. Sagebrush vole peer out of their holes. Pygmy rabbits scurry between bushes.

Suddenly, to my right, six wild horses appear. Keeping pace with me, they gallop alongside the fire road. After sixty seconds, they cross in front of me. I slow my pedal strokes, trying not to scare them. Rather than continuing forward, they turn, and now trot along my left side. We hold this dance for two minutes, before they gallop away. I look over my shoulder for my dad, searching for proof that this moment was not a product of dehydration, and had in fact occurred. He calls back all the validation I need, “wow”.

My desire for a challenge, for a chance to show my grit, is in part rooted in a desire to make my dad proud, or moreover, impressed. My dad always let us know he was proud of us. But to impress my dad, this magnanimous adventurous man, was something I craved.

For motivation, on grueling hikes and bike rides, I’d think about recounting the adventure to him. I’d visualize his Cheshire cat grin—his satisfaction that I was living with my whole body. Extending beyond outdoor adventure, I strove to impress him in school, at work, in friendship, and in sisterhood to my brothers. In his absence, his memory serves as my exemplar of living, but the validation is gone.

Bryce and I get up from our dirt recliners on the Idaho fire road. Coaxing a hot, congealed clump of gummy bears down my throat, I take inventory of my body. My navy blue bike bibs are stiff with tie-dyed rings of salt—the remains of evaporated sweat. Dust coats the tops and sides of my exposed calves. The interior sections of my calves are red. They sting from chafing against my overfilled frame bag. We saddle our bikes and start pedaling. The dusty gravel beneath our tires crunches like ashes. We begin to climb.

The name of the route, “Smoke n’ fire”, is not lost on us. Similar to Wyoming, it is hot and dry. Unlike Wyoming, no part of the route is flat. In the route description, the author aptly notes “if you’re not climbing, you’re descending”. The route nets out at 35,661 feet over 418 miles.

I pedal behind Bryce, following his tire tracks, watching his bike tilt slightly from side-to-side with each pedal stroke. Dad’s thumbprint stares back at me. Bryce is riding Dad’s gravel bike, which he recently repainted. The bike is now shades of blue and tan, the colors of the high Arctic—a place Dad held sacred. Painted below the bike seat is Dad’s thumbprint.

The road’s incline increases. Mercifully, the chossy gravel yields to packed dirt. I increase my cadence, propelling myself in front of Bryce. The ribbon of road wraps up the mountain, weaving between outcroppings of rock and ponderosa pines.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” I count my pedal strokes in eight-counts. A habit formed during fifteen years of synchronized swimming, I stay in motion by focusing on each individual count.

The warmth of the sun feels heavy on my shoulders.

“Dad put your hands here,” I say, gesturing at my shoulders. Dad lifts his tanned arms slowly, as if to sneak past the pain. His hands—strong and calloused—latch on to my shoulders. We begin our march. I step, he steps. Together, we move forward.

Our march ends in front of the emergency room door. We reverse our generational train so Dad is aligned with a chair designated for patients amidst COVID-19 to be screened before being admitted, alone, to the hospital.

Before sitting, Dad squeezes my shoulder. It says “Thank you. I love you.” It is the last time I felt my dad’s living touch.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” I hear myself counting.

At last, the mountain relents. At the top, I unclip from my pedals and check my Garmin. We’re now fifty five miles and five thousand feet into the day’s ride. We are making good progress. We need to average seventy miles a day to finish in time for our flights back to our respective states. The temperature is still in the triple digits.

Looking at the horizon, Dad rounds the corner. His clydesdale cadence, his slightly raised shoulders, his gravel bike loaded with gear.

It is my brother, his silhouette cast through a gray film of smoke.

Reaching my side, Bryce unclips from his pedals. Splaying his feet in a wide stance, he rests his elbows on his handlebars. He nods his head toward the dirt.

“We need to stop. I’m done for today,” he says. He presses his helmet against his forehead, releasing streams of sweat down his face.

My first thought is a stubborn “no.” He is physically capable. We can push ourselves and make the complete distance. I catch the word before it leaves my lips.

“Em, I can probably do the full ride, but it’s going to be really difficult,” Bryce continues.

He raises his head to look at me, “It’s not going to be fun.”

There it is. The options are clear: push ourselves to complete the original route or alter our route and enjoy it.

If Mike Dillon was alive, we would have chosen the former. We wouldn’t have even stopped to ask the question.

But Dad is dead. The answer is easy.

Over the course of the next six days, we cycle 250 miles to Stanley, then take a shuttle back to Boise.

We stop to swim in streams. We soak in hot springs. We unload our bikes and play on single track routes. We set up camp early when we find campsites with promising views of the sunset.

Bryce was wrong, this wasn’t a Mike Dillon trip. Instead, it was a trip with Mike Dillon. Pushing ourselves to complete the original route wasn’t going to bring us closer to our dad, even if that is what he would have done. Instead we chose to meet his memory in the moment.

During the remaining days his memory served as our companion and guide, directing our attention to sandhill cranes, to the light filtering through the trees, and to bald eagles gliding above the river, provoking the only validation we needed — “wow”.