Today marks the day, this time last year, I started on what to date has been the hardest adventure of my life. Its the day I started my almost 5,000km bike trip from Canada to Mexico. Hardest physically, mentally, and mostly emotionally. It lasted 5 months, but somehow its taken me till now to finally put it where it belongs.
I’m not going to rehash the thinking behind it, or the preparation (or lack of it!!), you can see that in my previous blogs (listed at the end!), but lets just say I’m great at saying YES to things, without realising exactly what on earth I’m getting myself into. This was definitely one of those!
I’ve learnt a few things, and I have a few regrets, but I wouldn’t give up this experience for the world.
Let me share 8 days from the trip…
Day 1. Bike Touring is definitely all rainbows and unicorns
After 10 days amazing mountain biking (including downhill in full armour!) and hiking in Whistler, Canada, it was time to start the 800km ride from Whistler, to the start of the Great Divide MTB Route in Banff. An “easing in” introduction to cycle touring (and as a result of little training at home, it was kinda training on the road!), following the TransCanada highway, all on bitumen. Today we spent our first day in the saddle cruising mostly downhill to Pemberton, with the exception of 1 ass kicker of a hill, on the main highway, with no shoulder on the road. Celebration time, we didnt die! Woooo! Temps in the high 30s were a little less than ideal (didnt expect this in Canada!), but it was a lovely ride, we stopped in Pemberton for food, and continued our way to our first campsite at Owl Creek, with a french stick sticking out of the back of my jersey (its the only way it wouldnt get squished!).
The Owl Creek campsite was exactly what we had imagined, a rustic forest campsite, alongside a river, with no other campers about. The arvo was spent washing in the river, and an hour or so trying to work out how the hell to hang the food bag from a tree. See you can’t have food (or sunscreen, or lip balm or toothpaste) near your tent, due to the friendly, and not so friendly bears in the area. Food must be locked in a car (uuumm didnt have one of them) or hung from a tree, at least 3m high, on a branch solid enough to hold the food, but flimsy enough to not hold a bear, at least 2m from the tree trunk. Hahahaha nice theory finding that! Lucky i have a very stubborn boyfriend, and after too many attempts to count, it was finally hanging from a tree!
After a dinner of cheese and salami in bread, we drifted off to a restful sleep, lulled by the sound of the river, perfect, if this was bike touring, then where had it been all my life! What a blissful experience, camping peacefully in a deserted forest…well until 3am when we were quite literally almost run over by a freight train…WTF!! What we didnt notice about our blissful campsite was that it sat right on the train line. In fact, we later realised that the whole Transcanada highway followed some of the busiest train lines in Canada…and we farewelled the dream of silent nights for the next 900kms!
Now that was a great start to the trip, wasn’t it…..
Day 2. Bike Touring is definitely a cruel joke
After yesterdays blissful start, I was super excited about today. We had decided on a relatively short day, get it done early before the heat of another hot day, around 40 degrees Celsius. We had decided to leave the TransCanada for this section, as we had heard the main road gets pretty hairy as it crosses a mountain pass, and a couple of riders had been killed there a few weeks before by a drunk driver. So we took some beautiful backroads, with almost no traffic, and we got to our planned campsite by lunchtime. Well what we thought was our planned campsite. Turned out the “town” was on a First Nations reservation (Canadian native Indians), and there was nowhere we were allowed to camp. Disappointing, but thats ok we thought, its only lunchtime, lets push on the extra 27kms to Seton Portage, we would be done in 2, maybe 3hrs tops.
Except it was a super rough dirt road, it was now close to 40 degrees, and well the road name should have given it away, it was the Highline Road. And the bloody bastard was straight UP, when I say up, I mean so steep that my superhuman boyfriend Shane was off his fully laden bike pushing it up many of the sections of the 23km climb. So steep that I was getting nowhere pushing mine up, so he would get to the top of the section, trudge down to me, take my bike and push it up while i shuffled backwards up the hill. Sometimes he even pushed both bikes at the same time! And this was repeated 10 or more times. It was hot, and dry, and super dusty. We had wonderful views of a stunningly blue sparkling lake, 1000’s of metres below us, with nothing but dusty road ahead of us. Plenty of logging trucks heading the other way, dusting us out every time. But nothing heading our way. There had been a bit of whimpering from me as i climbed, mostly when Shane was out of sight, he was being amazing enough with playing superman with both our bikes that he didnt need to deal with me losing it. Till at around 20kms of the 23km climb I finally lost it. I hated today, I hated bike touring, I hated life, and I cried! “Least its better than working” Shane said. And my quick response “I’d rather be at bloody work than doing this shit!” I was well and truly toast!
With 3kms left of the climb from hell (and another 4km descent into “town”), I was doubled over by the side of the road, having a “moment”, when a vehicle slowly approached from behind us, FINALLY, someone going our way! A ricketty old pickup truck, filled with dogs, the driver, a self confessed “crazy dog man”, offerred to take all our panniers and bags into town. OMG, what a relief! Shane was now about 25kgs lighter, and I was about 12kms lighter, it was a true lifesaver! At that point he could have nicked all our stuff and I could not have cared less!!
Rolling that last 4km straight downhill was the most amazing feeling. Feeling that it was nearly over, feeling relieved that we didnt die, and feeling so torn to shreds physically, but more so mentally, how the freaking hell was I going to do this bike touring thing? Is this what bike touring was? If it was, screw that, I’m out, I didn’t sign up for this rubbish!
We finally arrived at the hotel/motel/general store/bottle shop/post office that was Seton Portage, and there was our bags, chilling on a bench in the bar. Phew!! Suffice to say the plans for camping went out the window upon discovery of the one available motel room, and copious amounts of coke (aka can of happiness), beer and massive pizzas were devoured. All in all, that last climb took over 6hrs to cover 23kms, adding up to a very very long day in the heat, and this was just day 2!! I’d love to have blamed Shane for that day, but Im the one who picked that route dammit!
And so the trip began. Ill say that day 2 was probably THE worst day of the whole trip, so I’m pretty lucky I didn’t quit after that day!
Day 3 – Bike Touring is easy as laying under the stars on a beach
We were all prepared for another ass kicking climb to get out to the next town, and I was searching in vain for lift, I did NOT sign up for another one of yesterday! Then someone mentioned the caboose…literally a 1 carriage train that ferries the locals, and some hardy tourists between nowhere and nowhere really, and it had bike racks! Someone was looking after us! A stunning trip along the lake edge, looking up at the towering mountains that we had planned to be riding. I knew where Id rather be in this heat!
Getting off the train we found ourselves in this random desert town, hot, dusty, not much happening. We found our campsite, to find it all booked out for a long weekend. This was my first experience of begging for somewhere to sleep (it became a theme for the trip!), and we snared a tiny patch of dry dirt on a “beach” on the “riverside”, you didnt want to swim in this river, with zero shade. Shit spot, and well, we spent the afternoon in the only fast food joint in town, trying to stay cool! Though it did turn out well….that night was the first time I have ever spent sleeping out under the stars, with no tent, no nothing, listening to the coyotes in the canyon. I was hooked, it was so cool!
Day 4 – Crashes are inevitable
My crashes were few and far between, and to my credit all had the same theme, losing control by going too slow! The first was today, on a super long tedious climb in close to 40 degrees. After a stop on the side for a mental break (legs were doing as they were told, not so much the head!), getting started on the hill, fully loaded, not enough momentum, slow motion tumble into traffic, luckily there was no traffic as I lost panniers and water bottles into the car lane…that was embarrassing! Lets say there was a slightly longer mental break taken after that!
That was the day of the lake…I was still smarting from the epic that was day 2, and with more heat and plenty of climbing, I was in all sorts. Not happy that day. So the lakes in Canada all look like they belong in a postcard, brilliant blue, sparkling and inviting. And we passed a few that day, but many of them inaccessible, or too far off the road. Then we rounded the corner, this was our lake! And even better it was attached to a campsite.
Even today, a year later, the feeling of jumping off that dock into the shockingly cold glacial waters, it was so shocking, so take your breath away, but oh god, was it so amazing to feel cold again! Then we dozed the afternoon away in the shade of a big tree, jumping in for a swim whenever we needed to cool off..
THIS is what I signed up for! This, and another night under the stars!
Days 5 to 50ish
And on it went…great days, interspersed with really shit days. High pass climbs, and descents that went for 30kms or more, oasis’s in the middle of the desert, and trying to sleep jammed between 2 railway lines with the ground vibrating all night. And before we knew it, 3 weeks later and we had made it to our start point, Banff, still alive, and still enjoying most of it!
And thus the actual Great Dividing MTB Route began there in Banff. That’s where we hit the real dirt. And its where everything got more epic. The terrain got rougher, the mountains got much higher, the gaps between towns got longer (up to 4 days), the wildlife got bigger, and the absolute “EPICNESS” of the wilderness we were in, and the sheer beauty of the world become so much clearer.
God it hurt, but it was STUNNING! And the locals got super friendly too! (See my post about the Kindness of Strangers)
Day 50ish – I could have just stayed home and jumped in a freezer for the same result
We were in Montana. We had 2 nights in Helena, a big town, in a motel. The morning we were to head off, it was pouring rain and freezing. The other bike tourers we had met were staying another day, in the warm motel. I wanted to stay another day, but Shane had ants in his pants even a run couldn’t fix. So we left in the late morning, and we were freezing and soaked to the bone before we even left the motel parking lot. As we rode through town, i was staring longingly at the warm inviting cafes, but Shane was far in front, a man on a mission. We quickly hit the dirt as we headed up towards our first mountain pass. I did not want to be out there, I did not want to be freezing and saturated to the bone, and I did not want to be covered in mud, and I definitely did not want to be climbing up a fucking hill. What was I trying to prove? I want to go home. I wanted to break up with Shane, it was his fault we were out here. He is the crazy one, not me! I got slower, and slower (I didn’t know that was possible, I’m surprised I didn’t fall off!). Till Shane started to get really shitty. See most of the time, he was pretty good about stopping to wait for me. But he gets cold very easily, gets almost frozen. And on this day, waiting for me was agony for him.
Shane – “Whats wrong?” Me – “Nothing.” Shane – “Whats wrong. ” Me – “nothing.” Shane – “Whats wrong?” Me – (breaks down bawling) “I hate this, I hate riding, at the next town I’m quitting and going to stay with my mates in Napa in California!!” Shane – “um…ooooooookkkkkkaaaay?!?!”
By that point we got to a junction where we had to make a call, go right, and head up the mountain, into the probable snow, on the planned trail. Or go left, and descend, and hit the highway in the hope of finding somewhere to warm up. There was only one option in both our freezing states, and my emotional one – we headed down. And good god, I didn’t realise we could get any colder, but we did! Shane lost all his hands, which isn’t great when flying down a steep, slippery dirt track fully loaded.
As we rolled into this tiny village, we found the only place open, a random bar. We covered their bathroom in mud and water, and drank them out of 2 pots of coffee. And sat there for hours trying to dry off. Once dry it was time to head off again, there was nowhere to stay there. Now on the highway the mood was much better, the nightmare was behind us, the sun was peeking out, well temporarily, until the blackest clouds rolled in and we found ourselves stuck on a highway service road, with no shelter, bombarded with hailstones! Cowering together using our helmets for protection, all we could do was shriek with laughter, it was hilarious, crazy, scary and everything in between!
Watch the video of the hail here:
We finally rolled into a tiny town late in the arvo, with only 1 motel which we were pretty sure was haunted, but god, I have never enjoyed a hot shower more than that day!
That day in Montana was the first time I threatened to go to Napa and drink wine. I got over it for a few more weeks, until the next crazy wet and freezing day, where i threatened it again, and then once more a few weeks later.
Day 60ish – the Bike Touring bliss returns with bigger unicorns, and the threat of bears
After a particularly shitty night of gastro at Flagg Ranch the night before, I was remarkably fresh and ready for the days ride….it started bloody freezing, but the climb out warmed us up pretty quickly. Today we were riding with some crazy kiwis, and Shane was up ahead with them, so I comfortably found my own climbing rhythym, and with every twist of the mountain road, I was offered glimpses of the absolutely magnificent towering Grand Tetons, they didn’t look real! And the closer I got, the more amazing they became, snow capped glaciers there in the tail end of summer, surrounded by the amazing autumn colours of the trees.
A leisurely lunch by the lakeside with a first class view was just stunning, before we then headed off, away from the tourists, and back into the wilderness. That day there was no struggle on the bike, I was too bloody distracted by those mountains! As we rolled into the little valley we were to camp in, we discovered that the “campsite” banned tent campers, as the threat from Grizzly Bears was too great, so instead we camped in the bush nearby…the bears would surely see the invisible boundary yeah?
But it was so cool, we were tucked into the bush just off a dirt road, by a river and set up camp to watch the sun as it set over the Grand Tetons in the distance. I wont lie, I did quietly crap myself when i went down to the river alone to get water – every sound was definitely a grizzly bear there to eat me! That night was the coldest we had so far, and we woke to sheets of ice on our tents, and icicles hanging from our handlebars, we even had to light a morning fire to thaw stuff out!!
I think the Tetons day was my fave day!
Here’s a glimpse of how I entertained myself at the end of some of the days…
Day 62ish – The Great Basin
So this was the BIG thing I think we were most apprehensive about even before the trip started. 10,000sq km of flat arid nothingness in southern Wyoming. 4 very long riding days, dictated entirely by the availability of water, which as you can imagine, was pretty scarce in the middle of summer!
On the longest day, we set out early, knowing it was going to be an 8hr+ day, 130km-ish, and hot, bloody hot! The morning started with a comedy of errors, with multiple mechanicals, and some mis-communication. All with the anxiety of whether we would find the one random water spring for many many kms, off the road, in the middle of nowhere. We couldn’t afford to miss the water in this heat. And we didn’t even know if it would be running. But many thanks to a crazy solo tourer who had almost killed himself crossing traffic to talk to us over a month ago, we kept a sharp eye on the tyre marks in the sand of all those who had come before us, and, EUREKA, we found it first time! It was truly a little oasis in the middle of nothingness. Somewhere I was happy to spend a LOT of time at!
But alas there was over 100km of tough riding ahead. Flat? Who said the basin was flat, nutcases! Lots of douche-grade up and down, exhausting in the heat with zero shade for respite. A well and truly screw with your head mentally tough day. With 30-40kms to go, there I was, toast again. All I wanted to do was lay down in the ditch. And not move. I could have very comfortably slept there for days I reckon. Happily dehydrated I would have been, and probably vulture food, they seemed to be circling already I was riding so slowly! But bloody Shane was there right on my tail, not having a bar of it, damn him! Somehow we managed to limp into camp right on dark, our latest day so far (we weren’t carrying riding lights). Absolutely ruined, but so happy to have survived the biggest day of the Basin. And here’s the sunset we were greeted with…
Day 70ish – Woine Toime
Then I stopped threatening Napa and just did it! It was 10 weeks in, we had hit Steamboat Springs in Colorado, and I was feeling bad for “cheating” cause i had hitched a ride for the last 5km of a climb. A few days off in Steamboat, and it was time to head off again. Back up into the mountains. But this day, 30kms in, all mostly douche climbing (slightly uphill) into a sucky headwind, I kept losing it, working myself up into such a state that I couldn’t breathe.
Why? I wanted to quit, I mean seriously, not just a passing thought. I was pretty sure i was gonna quit. And I couldn’t cope with quitting. It would mean I failed, it would mean I wasn’t strong enough to do the Great Divide. What would people think?
Shane – “Whats wrong?” Me – “Nothing”, Shane – “Whats wrong?” Me – “Nothing”, Shane – “Whats wrong?” Me – “I hate being on the bike, I am dreading the next few days of mountains, and I just hate it, i want it all to end.” Shane – “ok, you can finish here and go to Napa.” Me – “Waaaa, I cant deal with failing. And I don’t want to miss out!”
At that point we sat down and had some lunch. Decisions couldn’t be made unless I was fed, otherwise nothing would make sense. And Shane sat me down and told me that I had ridden for 10 weeks, I wasn’t failing, I wasn’t even a cyclist and I had ridden over some hardcore terrain for 10 weeks! He told me it was ok to finish here. So I did, well I finished after we both had a wonderful 30km downhill roll back into Steamboat Springs. And I think it was a win for us both, I was stopping cause i needed to, but it also meant that Shane could continue through the Colorado mountains and into New Mexico alone, as his own pace, which i knew he was pretty excited about!
To cut a long story short…
I caught the train over to the Napa Valley in California, and I spent just over 2 weeks with my wonderful friends, Ally and Carter, drinking wine, doing lots of cooking, and generally enjoying being comfortable off the bike! Oh and I went to a Luke Bryan concert, my fave country singer on the planet – it was meant to be that he was playing where I was!
Shane continued south on the Great Divide, and made it to the Mexico border a few short weeks after he left me. He did it in probably a third of the time it would have taken us! He then bussed it back up to San Francisco to meet me, take 3 days off, before we were back on the bikes heading down Highway 1 to Los Angeles, via Big Sur, another 700kms on the road. I actually really enjoyed that section, it was at more of a holiday pace, there was no stresses about where to get water, and where to get food, and hey, it was on the beach!
We crossed the Mexico border at Tijuana, and headed onto the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. What a stunning part of the world, but oh so desolate, its a long way between stops down there! We did another 600kms together in Mexico before I called it for real in a little town called Mulege on November 24th . I was done with the bike, I was loving the experience, I was just hating the bike.
I had done close to 5,000kms. I was happy, I’m pretty proud. Shane and I spent a few days together in La Paz swiming with whale sharks, and then Cabo before he jumped on the ferry to the Mexico mainland, and continued his journey south. I was ready for home, ready to go home and start my business, but he had only just started!
He’s still going, hes made it down to Peru. Funnily enough, I do miss him, but I don’t for a minute wish I was still on the bike. Its rough going on the bike in South America, and he has certainly been roughing it on $7 a day and bush camping. Perfect for him, I need some comforts every now and then!
Hindsight is a wonderful thing
Funnily enough, it wasn’t the physical challenge that was the hardest. Yes, it was tough getting back on the bike each day, yes my bum hurt, and yes my legs were tired, but each morning I just did it, cause hey, that’s just what I did.
It was actually the mental and emotional challenge that killed me way more often than I liked. There was this running joke that I needed to be fed and watered properly to keep me going. By lunchtime i was generally tired, grumpy and over it, and knowing there was often 40k or more to do after lunch was often too much. But let me stop, eat something and have a rest, and I would be raring to go again. Shane really became my carer, all my energies were just focused on turning the pedals, anything further than that was beyond me. Forcing me to eat food when i couldn’t be bothered, and in getting into camp each night, he would perch me on the nearest log, put the afternoon bag of chips in my hands and proceed to set up the tent, and prepare for the night. Meanwhile id just mindlessly sit there sometimes putting chips in my mouth, sometimes i didn’t even have the energy to do that. It was my job to blow up the mattresses, and my god, you have never seen a task happen so slowly, i would drive Shane nuts with my speed!
And the same went for the mornings, I would operate in this haze of sleep for the first 2-3 hrs of each day. We would joke that’s when id do my fastest riding, or my best hills, cause I was still asleep and had no idea what I was doing!
This was really tough for me. I was used to being the one looking after Shane, at home I loved doing all the cooking, making sure he was looking after himself, doing the washing etc, I really loved being able to do that for him. But here I was suddenly, not offering much of anything, feeling absolutely useless but not being able to change it. I said to him at one point, whats the point of riding with me, I’m giving nothing, and I’m just holding you back. I was struggling with my identity.
See Shane and I are polar opposites in terms of athletic ability. Hes the extreme ultra runner, and can run hundreds of kms in one go. Hes the one to ride up the hills with the fully loaded bike when everyone else is pushing their bikes as they trudge up. I, on the other hand, I’m capable of many things, but I am at the slower end of the spectrum. So yes, I knew exactly what I was in for in terms of the difference of our ability, but the reality of cycle touring with an extreme ultra athlete was a tough pill to swallow. I’m a wonderful comparer. Because I am with Shane, I naturally socialise with some very high achievers. So who am I comparing my abilities to, you think? So here I am, midway through 5,000km on the bike, and I’m telling myself how slow and useless I am. Cause everyday I’m comparing myself to Shane, Shane who is at the top of the mountain hours before me, Shane who is putting on weight cause he isn’t really exerting himself!
No Regrets? Bullsh*t!
I want to go back.
I want to go back and tell myself that I am awesome, that my speed doesnt matter. Why is slow considered a bad thing? Who decided that slow was shit? Who decided that I should feel less of a person cause Im slow? Well, me, me and me of course. For what?!
I want to go back and laugh with Shane when he calls me Driving Miss Daisy for being slow. Its funny, he’s funny. Why did I have to beat myself up every time I heard it? Its true, I’m slower, but that doesn’t FREAKING mean I’m a lesser person, it is just a speed, nothing more. Just means I get to see more stuff!
I want to go back and feel like I belong, without telling myself im this bike touring wannabe. I am a bike tourer, I carried myself and a lot of my own gear for nearly 5,000km.
I want to go back and turn off the auto assumption that if Shane is having a bad day, its all because of me and how slow I am. Let him have a bad day or 10, its nothing to do with me (well except the time I rode off on him, his bad mood was my fault that day, and the day after!)
I want to go back and have more good days than bad days.
But you know what, I wouldn’t change my experience on the bike for anything. Well I might change that day on the Highline Road, and maybe that cold freezing day in the hail. But seriously, how would I have learnt what I have about myself without it? And that’s the key to life that at 37 I’m slowly learning to fit into the lock. There are so many things I could have done better, but I did the most important thing right – I did the trip!!
Yeee-ha! If I can do that, what else can I do with my life!!
If you are interested, here’s some of the blogs by Shane and I from on the road!
And heres some pretty cool videos: