On June 11th, 2021, I became the first Tibetan person to race the Tour Divide (if that kind of thing matters, really). Though I didn’t reach my goal of finishing this year, I did bite off a good 1,300-mile chunk of it, offering pieces of myself to the land along the way. Here’s what I experienced.
“Are you carrying bear spray?”
One of the first questions I asked riders who I met before the grand departure of the Tour Divide in Eureka, Montana back at the beginning of June. Montana is bear country. The frequent stories people hear about bear attacks made the defense spray a must-have item. I didn’t carry bear spray. My choice on this matter cemented from having zero experience discharging even regular pepper spray. I didn’t trust in my ability to effectively disperse a potent chemical agent at a specific, perhaps moving, target while also battling race-related sleeplessness and fatigue.
A friend of mine who made the same choice grimly reminds me of an ancient order,
“I’m entering the food chain now, I’m fair game.”
I agree with my friend to this dangerous contract and have opted for a little bear bell instead (the friend had a small whistle necklace). One that asks politely to pardon the intrusion into the lifeways of bears whose search for food in a changing climate makes them behave a little more unpredictably. Those of us who go into Wild places, hopefully, do so with the knowledge of the holistic risks involved in that choice and plan accordingly.
Sure I didn’t have bear spray but I felt confident that I was protected. While I was still home in Connecticut, my mom and sister took out the blessed barley seeds from their own bags and placed them in my hands to bring with me. Coming from a family of Tibetan Buddhists who believes strongly in Spirit, they braided their protection, love, and encouragement for me in this gesture. To say I didn’t carry protection would not be accurate, then. My besties Sal and Ron took the time to ride me off to the trails and kept me company for the first two days of the Tour. Sal and I smiled really big and whopped really loudly at being able to ride together again as we became part of the Montana mountains. When faced with the unknown path ahead, I found that plurality of protection beyond the physical gave me the extra sense of security I needed to keep moving forward.
The Tour Divide requires ecological awareness and also a great deal of self-awareness. I had been struggling all year with which evolution of myself was showing up at the starting line. Having never traveled solo for longer than an overnighter before. Having never really raced anything before. I didn’t recognize myself. When I got my first touring bike and began cycling regularly five years ago, taking on a 2,480-mile self-supported race on 90% unpaved roads through the wild country would have been laughable and outside the realm of my personhood. Things change though. Chani Nichols, the astrologer I turn to for guidance, wrote around the start of the Tour Divide journey that it’s okay to not recognize yourself after a transformative year. Such a simple sentence but as simple things go, this was profound. I don’t recognize my current self, so I was hoping to find that person and fall back in sync with my spirit again.
This bicycle named Lil Romeo was chosen for this journey based on trust built over the years of adventuring together. As far as bicycles go, Romeo is a dream machine specifically built for this trip. The gearing, the components, the bike overall look a lot like the kind these paths have seen since people have been pedaling them. Simple friction shifting, an 8-speed cassette, waxed canvas (bag), and leather (saddle) have been tried and true since people have been touring on their bikes. I find refuge, medicine, and trust in these Simple Things. The bicycle has primarily been a vehicle for connection and healing for me and so I came to the Tour Divide to recognize and trust myself again. The Land becomes shelter, teacher, medicine-maker, and overall Sacred when it’s the consistent company you keep. I came to the starting line ready to fly by the seat of my skort to the known unknown of the Tour Divide ahead; an open container ready to be filled.
Speaking of dreamy companions, I was lucky enough to be traveling all the way through Montana and until the Grand Tetons at the Wyoming border with the ultimate adventure buddy, single-speed hero, all-around animal lover, and midwest sweetheart, Sam Scipio. She learned how to weld and built herself a bike a month before the start of the tour. My dear friend whose companionship I’m missing as a dog who misses their human every second they’re apart. I’m the dog. Sam is a force of deeply potent love that pours into and fills the empty containers of my bicycle knowledge and skill. Even though she was making great competitive time riding these back-to-back century pluses, she decided to wait for me in Lincoln for an entire day for the Turtle-pace-loving bike and me to arrive. When I rolled into town, Sam was smiling big and waving around her sun hat by the grocery store. She was practically the mayor of the town and had memorized the library card catalog, knew all the good places to get food, rest, and suggested we go to a place called Lambkins for supper. I mean, it’s called LAMBKINS, we HAD to go.
The waitress, Sabrina, opened up to us immediately. She recognized Sam from earlier in the day from the cafe where she worked her second job. She even remembered what Sam had ordered- as most people would of their Mayor ;).
“I met my husband working right there at that gas station,” Sabrina pointed right outside the window. “He proposed to me with my grandmother’s ring that my mom gave him.”
Sam knows I love love stories. We listened with interest about their courtship, marriage, and her past that kept her from having healthy relationships. We told her about our ride and that tried to convince her that she was just as tough as she was saying we were. When we parted ways, she brought out gallon zip lock bags with napkins, wet wipes, condiment packets, and cookies.
“Figured you’d want these things for your trip ahead.”
People are kind. We all want connection; we all want to take care of each other. Even if we may not fully be in the practice of taking care of our own damn selves yet, we offer our love to complete strangers freely.
We have breakfast with a fellow southbound rider along with a northbound rider with who we share a room at the motel in Lima, MT. I’m noticing how the GDMBR becomes a river of resources, bodies, and friendships flowing south from the mountains to the desert where the River dries up. The Northbounders then, in this analogy, become the Salmon swimming upstream to their final destination. For the remainder of the ride, I think about the River and the Salmon.
On Juneteenth, Sam and I were drinking root and regular beers at a honky-tonk.
“Do you think anyone here knows it’s Juneteenth?” Sam asks over sips.
“Probably not, they don’t have to know, it doesn’t concern them at all.”
Everyone in the bar is white-passing. Some have their Wranglers permanently painted on, their cowboy hats superglued to their temples. I love this look- que style, non?
“But they’ll know soon because it’ll likely turn into a misunderstood holiday like Cinco De Mayo where people just need an excuse to day drink.”
Sam’s right, of course. We share sighs and laughs. We are so on the same wavelength we start finishing each other’s sentences and saying the same thing at the same time.
Sam and I celebrate the Summer Solstice with a campfire and read each other chapters of a truly terrible romance novel we found for free. It made us laugh a lot so we kept reading chapters of it out loud to each other. We’re camped for the night in a wildlife refuge that was part of an effort to save the trumpeter swan population from being decimated in the Greater Yellowstone area. A once abundant life force in the area under indigenous care of the land, they nearly faced extinction in the early 20th century because of habitat loss and large-scale hunting and trapping. A near century-long effort by humans in better relationship with the Wild has brought numbers up to get out of the danger of extinction. However, massive migration memory loss has kept the population increases only in the areas where Refuge have been intentionally created. To save dying species, we need more intentional practices and spaces of care.
“This is equisetum and it’s been on this planet before the dinosaurs.” Fred is holding a few strands of horsetail in his hands. Getting permission to come over to our camp for a morning chat.
“You can use the hairs to scrub your camp dishes, see how these segments pull apart?”
Fred, his wife, and their teeny tiny dog are camped a few sites down. They come to Red Rocks Lake every once in a while from their home in Jackson Hole to breathe the air and look at how the swans are doing. Fred is a former forester and current art teacher who speaks enthusiastically about the animals he’s met and the work he’s put into the seasons of his life.
“You really do yourself a disservice if you don’t notice what’s around you. You have to open your eyes so you can open your heart”
Sam and I naturally travel with our hearts open but hearing it from an elder can make any clichéd aphorism seem refreshingly significant. Along with this, we also learned why the trembling aspen trembles. Oh, you don’t know? Go find Fred, he’ll tell you all about that. People are generous. We all want to share what we know with others who consent to be part of that sharing. We want to see our fellow living beings survive, even if it takes a hundred years before anyone sees the results hatch.
The morning of the Strawberry full moon, Sam and I woke up at the Flagg Ranch in a cabin we shared with three other River folk. Two of them were emergency room nurses and have been working together for 11 years. Their friendship was beautiful to witness as any two people who are fused together by hard work and adventure- I could have listened to their stories all day, but I had a big day ahead. Starting in April of 2020, I had been observing every full moon with a century ride and I fully intended to continue this ritual on the route. The emotions the full moon draws out of me found extra vigor on this day because this was also when Sam and I had to part ways. After tearful hugs and kisses at Jackson Lake, I had to dig additional energy to keep my mind/body occupied away from the sadness of the separation. A song made in my head for Sam kept me company in her physical absence for the 130 miles I would ride that day and through the night. The choice to ride through the night didn’t come from a need to be a tough guy, but rather a longing to have the blessings of moonlight. It was a cloudy night and the moon was in hiding until about 3 am when I had ridden and carried my bike over Union Pass. I made it to Pineville the following morning after napping for two hours in a patch of aspens a few hours after the moon visit.
In Wamsutter at around midnight, I ate a hot dog at a Luvs Truckstop. I’m generally a vegetarian and have been for almost 20 years. At home, my meals almost always contain plant proteins, sprouted grains, lots of greens, and whole foods for our dinners. My sweetie Ron likes to cook whole foods from scratch almost every day for me to enjoy. I love the foods he makes but I’ve also equally loved junk food and candy, so I was actually looking forward to the “candy party” aspect of the bike tour. Aside from the few grocery stores in the larger towns the route passes, almost all meals came from gas stations. I was going through a roll of antacid tablets a day to keep my constantly churning stomach at ease. My candy love was beginning to hurt me and the idea of any deep-fried foods got no reaction from salivating glands as it had at the beginning of the trip. The joy of eating had begun to fade which took a tremendous toll on the joy of riding. This, and time constraints essentially cut my ride short this year. The words “gas station hot dog” kept repeating circles in my head like a wild animal kept in captivity. I knew I was beginning to make bad choices and “gas station hot dog” had become the canary in the coal mine.
Although this ride saw me riding solo quite a bit, I was never lonely because I was never truly alone. Big Sheep Canyon hugged me with their enormous arms and told me the Earth is far more than what Science can ever imagine or explain. That everything will be okay and not to worry about the health of the earth- the same thing my elders tell me to soothe unnecessary burdens I carry. The anxiety I weave into baskets to hold my depression begins to weather as roses assert their sweet fragrance in higher altitudes, mixing with the smell of pine and cedar to my tearful delight. I move with the foxes with full fluffy tails, ground squirrels who move with frantic speed, the cows who hilariously sound like yelling humans when they moo. The earthy aroma of the sage bushes in the rain has power enough to cross state boundaries without needing permission from any Governments. They all tell me I’m part and parcel. I am reminded and recognize that I am an Animal. That complicating life beyond the simple needs of the animal self is just that…complicated. Bike tours hold such special spaces in people’s stories of themselves because they teach the rider exactly what simple things they need for a happy and healthy life- if they listen.
The Colorado mountain views kept me pedaling for two more days after the hot dog incident. The route was not the same without Sam and I wanted some real food for crying out loud. I tied a Khatak to a bush at the top of Boreas Pass, offered tsampa to the land, and knew that was the last mountain I’d be riding over this year. The night before, on a rainy post-dusk night ride on a highway in Colorado somewhere between Colorado Springs and Silverthorne, three people standing on a roof shouted at me. I take off my headphones playing John Denver’s Greatest Hits and yell from the other side of the road,
“SORRY, WHAT DID YOU SAY?”
One of them shouts back, “DO YOU DO IT FOR THE LOVE OR FOR THE MONEY?”
“FOR THE LOVE!” I reply, of course, no duhhh.
To which all three yell back with a cheerful “YAYYYYY!!”
People are whimsical and playful. Especially the people who recognize themselves as animals. They want to invite you to their game and cheer you on. I smile and pedal on; the rain and darkness don’t bother me much for the rest of that evening.