We Call Ourselves Holy

No journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.

Lillian Smith

I was a lot less concerned than those around me seemed to be.

A Boeing 737 is a massive piece of metal and, perhaps 30 meters above the runway on final approach, we were all pushed back in our seats as the pilot suddenly and unexpectedly applied full throttle and pointed the nose back into the air.

Perhaps it was my flight training from years long past. Perhaps my somewhat cool detachment from most of what happens around me every day. In either case, I knew that it was not as frightening or uncommon as it may seem. What it was, as far I could tell, was just another somewhat unusual start to another somewhat unusual journey.

It was just what I'd signed up for.

After flying toward Edmonton for about 20 minutes the "security issue" on the ground was resolved. We banked into a steep turn and ended up landing at Calgary after all.

Every time I check a bag for a flight, or in this case something as precious as my bicycle, I am reminded why those in the industry refer to baggage handlers as "throwers". After making our way to the oversized baggage claim area, we discovered that we were not the only ones flying with bicycles. The Tour Divide (the race version of the route we were destined for) had started over a week earlier so meeting another person riding our route was serendipitous. The fact that Steven White had flown in from almost the exact opposite side of the globe from us to arrive in the same airport on the same arbitrarily offset day, to ride the same route in the same direction, simply added to the unlikihood of the event.

Steven was planning to shuttle to Banff to start the ride whereas we were pedaling there. It looked as though we wouldn't see each other again.

Richard King picked us up from the airport in his van, took us out to get dinner and groceries, and gave us all the tools we needed to reassemble our bicycles at his home. We spent the rest of the evening swapping stories over beers at his kitchen table. Now eighty years old with sixty years of cycling experience, Richard had bicycle toured every country I could name and trekked or mountain climbed innumerable other places I'd never even heard of. On the list of inspiring people that I've met in my life, that man is near the top.

We pedaled out from his home the next morning into the cool Canadian air and pointed our bicycles toward Banff. The adventure had truly begun but something felt wrong. By the end of the day I was utterly exhausted and my head was in a fog. The next day was even worse. I had no energy, no patience, and no good will for anything in the world. I couldn't decide if I was sick or just an asshole. Maybe both.

Meeting Ashley Benns on our way out of Banff was a humbling experience. Fifty-three years old and one of the record holders of the 2016 Tour Divide at 20 days, 10 hours, 16 minutes. He makes all his own cuben fiber bags and even carbon fiber bicycle parts. It was his last day on the route, riding south-to-north. We would later discover he was going to turn right around and ride back to Mexico in the other direction.

Our first night at Spray Lakes included a nice Czech couple, some free beers, and 100 km/h wind and rain which bent my tent poles and kept me up most of the night. My health continued to decline as we rode through days of snow flurries and mornings of ice on our tents. I started downing NyQuil and DayQuil and sleeping as much as possible.

As more time passed, 1000 meter climbs were becoming the norm. I was actually starting to feel healthy again though and the Cycling Gods smiled upon us as we rode a long descent into Elkford, BC. We ran into Steven White again and had some great conversation over breaksfast. He had been delayed in Banff due to illness and we had been leap frogging each other on the route without knowing it.

We passed through Fernie, crossed the border into The United States, and landed in Eureka, MT where we crossed paths with Stacy at Homestead Ales. Having a beer on the road is nice, but being allowed into the closed brewery while Stacy happened to be there starting a new batch was a special experience. We had the whole place to ourselves. We took our time talking brewing with Stacy and enjoying our beer and pretzels on the patio, then climbed over the next pass to end the day at Tuchuck Campground, high in the mountains, completely alone with the deer and the bears, nestled in a silent pine forest along a rushing snow melt stream.

I was starting to feel better and David was starting to think. A lot. I know because I've been there myself. Our conversations were becoming increasingly philosophical as the days passed.

Until you've done a big tour you can't appreciate how much of a journey of self it really is. After a week or four, the novelty of the routines of the road fade away. The daily exercise and logistics become background noise and you are left with an abundance of time to think. You begin exploring the depths of your own psyche and replaying the life choices that led you to this moment. You look inward and what you find can be inspiring, embarrasing, intimidating, and more... and you must face it alone.

When you have nothing to distract you from the mirror of self the questions you ask and the conclusions you draw can be unpredictable. I've known people who, on what is planned to be a long journey, will suddenly pack it all in and go back home having barely gotten started. Their journey of self forces the trajectory of their life and their plans for the future into a new frame of reference. They possess a new Truth and what they are doing out there on the road simply doesnt make sense any more. I've known others who, rather than return home as planned, decide to never go back, having seen the misguided decisions and existential contradictions of their old lives with new eyes.

It was the morning of day fourteen that David told me he was considering going home after we reached Missoula, MT. I can't know what inner dialoge led him to that decision but something was clearly drawing him back to unfinished business in Texas. I told him the only thing you can say in such a situation; If you don't want to be here then you shouldn't be. Go home. There is no shame in changing one's mind.

David rented a car in Missoula and gave me a ride some kilometers south to the home of my old friends Kelly and Wendy in Hamilton, MT. I would stay there for three days while I weighed my options. I could easily go home as well but I had no such intention. I could finish the route to Mexico or I could do something else entirely. My options were nearly infinite.

Which path would I choose?

Thanks:

  • Richard & Mavis King, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
  • Paul & Nola Stoliker, Canmore, Alberta, Canada
  • Uri & Petra, Spray Lakes West Campground, Alberta, Canada
  • Steven White, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
  • Nikki & Jeremy, Eureka, Montana, USA
  • Stacy @ Homestead Brewing, Eureka, Montana, USA
  • Terry, Seely Lake, Montana, USA
  • Kelly & Wendy Zeigler, Hamilton, Montana, USA

Justin Lott

Justin Lott

Adventure :: Photography