Aakozikwe: Alexandera Houchin on the Colorado Trail
Aakozikwe is Alexandera Houchin’s deeply personal reflection on her recent attempt at setting the new fastest known women’s time on the Colorado Trail. Read it here, accompanied by a stunning set of photos from Eddie Clark…
Words by Alexandera Houchin, photos by Eddie Clark and Alexandera Houchin
This wasn’t an Individual Time Trial (ITT), but I suppose that’s the title I gave it. Lance Casteau’s ITT of the CTR. As selfish as I have always been, bikepacking has become less about the me and more of an opportunity to bond with my found family. Some years back, I told a close friend I was thinking about doing a yo-yo of the Colorado Trail. I had finished a westbound attempt in 6 days, 18 hours, and headed back up Kennebec, toward Coney Summit and through to the La Garita detour when I decided that I wanted to deviate from the prescribed route I was tracing. I ended up taking some backroad routes to Gunnison where I stayed in the town hostel and met some other travelers on the bike.
I wandered on toward Buena Vista where I met a fellow Indian who drove me around Cottonwood Pass (I had ridden all 20 miles up only to find that the pass was really closed when I saw a car approach me as I had ducked beneath the DO NOT ENTER barricade). He let me crash in his spare room for a night. I woke up to a note that said, “Help yourself to anything in my home, I had to leave for work. You’re welcome to stay as long as you want. If you leave, I hope you find time to come back again.”
Just 24 hours before, we were strangers. We had stayed up late drinking beer and talking about family, about life. He’d only come to Colorado to attend college at Fort Lewis, one of two colleges that offer free tuition to enrolled Native Americans (the other being University of Minnesota Morris), as long as you are accepted. I told him I had thought about attending school there and even got accepted. And I asked him questions about his Winnebago identity, about his father, siblings, children, life. He said he was pretty disconnected from “all of that.” We explored that disconnect; I told him a story or two about my Anishinaabe identity. I invited him to share incoherent ideas that we stitched into something that we would both come to later understand as we lay our heads on separate pillows in separate rooms.
I had to get on the road in the morning. He was a musician, a defining part of his identity, and I knew that if I left an album list he would learn more about me that way than if I had scribed a wordy note. Number one on the list: The Deadweather’s Sea of Cowards. I closed the list with my P.O. box address. Some six months later I received a card in the mail that still hangs on my refrigerator. The scribble on the back says “don’t give up.” Should I stop racing and make time for these people who have changed my life? I hopped back on the trail again and finished out some seven days after I left Durango. The yo-yo had escaped me then; I was planning to try again in 2019.
Then 2019 came. I’d put so much travel, time, and energy into bikepacking ultras that by the time I hit the Colorado Trail Race I was ready to relax with my friends at our Brush Mountain Lodge Ultra Season After Party. I decided that the yo-yo would wait another year.
Welcome, 2020. The year all racing prospects were canceled. I had been training and planning on setting a new Single Speed Triple Crown Record aboard my trusty Chumba Stella. I found that I would be home for the summer instead. It was a nice reprieve; I got a dirt bike and fell in love with that, pedal biked with friends, and killed two batches of tomato plants I’d grown from seedlings. I have a smothering green thumb, it seems. I have been swimming in Gichigami, meeting my mother for supper on restaurant patios, and basking the agony of Northwoods bug bites. I was dead set on being home for the summer. I was going to be here.
I had been washing the dishes at his house, and whilst emptying a plastic bag of Tupperware into the sink a note fell out that read “Don’t forget the food in the fridge,” written in some other woman’s handwriting with some illegible name scribbled on the bottom. He slept over at her house. And it hurt because when I closed my eyes, I remembered how he wraps me in his arms before we drift off to sleep. My stomach dropped. I felt more embarrassed than I could remember having ever felt. It’s not like our relationship was picture perfect anyway, if you could even call it a relationship in the first place. I thought about taking the note with me, I thought about throwing it away. They were just words, but oh, how they broke me. It seemed wrong to take something from his house, so I left it on his kitchen table and took a picture of it.
Just days before, I’d been on the phone with ultra legend Mr. Justin D. He had decided he was going to yo-yo the Colorado Trail this year. We talk everything; bikes, politics, 2-strokes, 4-strokes, conspiracy theories, life, love, and everything that is woven between all of those categories. He’s one of the greatest friends I’ve come to have in this life. It’s incredible how love can manifest in your heart so quickly. Especially that familial love that comes from sharing these race terrains together, sharing goals, and meeting each other’s loved ones. I confessed to Justin that I wanted to be the first. He challenged me to beat him. He believes in me more than I believe in myself. I said I didn’t know if I wanted to be gone that long. Part of me didn’t want to leave home because I still hold hope for the relationship I have there.
I think finding that note was telling me to go to the mountains. I scribbled him some heartfelt words, inviting him to figure out who I was to him while I did the same as I traversed the backbone of Colorado. I was crying as I threw all of the new bike parts Chumba had sent me into a crate. I asked Justin if I could rebuild my bike at their house. I had to get the fuck out of Cloquet. I needed family; even if I wasn’t going to talk to anyone about how much my heart ached. I just wanted to be surrounded by love.
My car was struggling to go over 65 mph, which made for shitty interstate driving, so I called Katie and Andrew to see where they were. Turns out, they were less than an hour behind me, on the same road, so I stopped driving for the night and we camped next to each other. The next morning, as Katie made us breakfast, I invited them to come brainstorm at Justin and Karla’s. That evening, the dream was decided: all four of us would set out to establish some singlespeed yo-yo efforts. Justin and I would start on July 17, with the Strempke’s starting a few days later.
A plan only goes so far, intention only guides so much; life has her way of testing us.
“There’s not that much climbing,” Justin said. “We’ll break it up into a two-day ride, pedaling to Golden on day one, then to Waterton Canyon the next.” I don’t know why I believed any of what he said, but after some 7,000 feet of climbing in some 60 miles, “not that much climbing” rang in my ears again and I laughed. I want to race the best. I’m trying to be better.
I was beyond excited to race the Colorado Trail with Justin. He’s one of the strongest willed, most extraordinary people I know. He’s selfless, wise, fit, and passionate; most of all, he’s an animal on one cog. In fact, most of my closest friends ride singlespeed. It’s a mindset I can’t explain. He won the 2019 Arizona Trail Race, overall, on his Reeb singlespeed, despite a rear hub mechanical, and being one of only two people (Ben Hanus being the other) who followed the Four-Peaks route option which added more climbing and more trail. Even now, looking at the AZTR results page, Justin is but a mere afterthought following a legendary effort (did anyone see how fast he moved through the canyon?). Justin and Ben reside in their own category “Four-Peaks Option.” Perhaps it’s better that way?
We camped a couple of miles away from the Waterton Canyon trailhead the evening before; we were planning a 4:20 a.m. start. Waterton Canyon is one of my places. It’s the parking lot where I met Justin, Karla, and Ben. It’s the parking lot I was rolled into the morning I met Adam. It’s the place I met up with the Dubios’ the next year. And there was that time Brett and I parked my car in that parking lot and prepared for a go at the CT. It is the starting line of a love affair with a trail that keeps calling me back. I find comfort in the Waterton Canyon Trailhead because I’ve found love in so many ways that can be traced back to that place.
I fell asleep late, beneath the dark July sky, to Justin’s voice whispering words to his person. Love like that brings me hope. We were up the next morning at 3:00 a.m. buzzing with anticipation for our journey ahead. Near silence engulfed us as we packed up and rolled toward the trailhead. I’d invited Liz to join us as she was the fastest woman I’d ever raced the Colorado Trail with. I thought we may set a really high bar chasing the record, chasing each other, chasing together. I didn’t think I could keep up with Justin. At 4:10 a.m. Liz was nowhere to be found and Justin and I were ready to roll. A few minutes later, she rolled up, we snapped a photo, and Justin and I set out for our journey. For 20 minutes we rode, side-by-side, with Doja Cat blaring from my JBL speaker. Liz started shortly after us. Justin pulled ahead to set the pace, and so began the race.
Day one brought us to Kenosha pass. I had stopped about two miles behind him knowing that I needed sleep to keep the elevation sickness at bay. I had barely managed to eat throughout the day. I spent Day 2 chasing him at all costs. If he’s doing it, I can do it. Up Georgia, up Ten Mile, up Searle, up Kokomo before I found sleep at 11:00 p.m. that night. I wondered how he was doing it. I was out of cell service and wondered if he was still moving. I slept in and finally found cell service just after I summited Tennessee pass on Day 3. A series of text messages rolled in, and an urgent one from Justin made my stomach churn. Zack was coming to pick him up from Leadville; things weren’t okay. And I cried while talking to him. I didn’t want to finish this yo-yo without him; it was his idea this time. We spent days prepping alongside Katie and Andrew. Justin and I had set out together from his front porch. We’d gotten split up for 12 hours after I got lost on our journey to Denver. We found each other the next day. This was already a team effort. We discussed every detail of our yo-yo attempt since I had dreamt up the idea a few years back. I was going to chase him as fast as I could because I wanted to be the best me, and I wanted to see the best him. That’s what family does. The weight of our phone call squeezed tears out of me the entire time I was detouring around Leadville. Justin and Liz were both out.
I was going to chase him as fast as I could because I wanted to be the best me, and I wanted to see the best him. That’s what family does.
I couldn’t help but think about the him back home. I called him, told him what was going on. I don’t think he will ever know what I meant in the words of that phone call. What would happen to us if… it was deeper than that because Justin’s reality made me think deeper about mine. I’m really alone. I wanted to be Alexandera and… like Katie and Andrew, or Ben and Jackie, or Justin and Karla.
I guess it’s Alexandera and her bike; it’s been going on ten years now. Through the love, the loss, the hurt, the joy, the defeats and victories, my bike and I still trudge forward. I decided I would ride hard, chasing a ghost version of Justin. I pressed on toward Mt. Elbert. The daily afternoon storm drenched me, the hail fell for a minute, and so would begin my tango with wet feet. I rode strong, felt fast, and arrived in Buena Vista just before 4:00 p.m. I ran into Eddie at the City Market and we talked bike build and trail conditions. I remembered to buy maxi pads; I had forgotten to pack underwear. Chafing. This wasn’t a great solution but I didn’t know what else to do. I ran into Ben. I cried spilling my heart to him. Family. My ultra family endures. The rain dumped from the sky.
I set out toward Mt. Shavano and made it up the first significant climb before I found sleep. I was eager, anticipating Sargents Mesa. Sargents is easily my favorite section of the race. I summited Fooses in a wet, dreary state and started down toward Marshall Pass. I found Steve, and we sat side by side for a few minutes trading necessities we each lacked. I’d descend with Eddie a moment. A few miles later, my dropper seat post would break. I didn’t have a hose clamp. I had no way to keep the post up. I wasted hours fidgeting with it. I tried to use my Garmin mount, a cut-off piece of a voile strap, and electrical tape to keep it up. It would drop; it would be too high to descend the tech of Sargents Mesa. I’d drop the post to descend again. I’d go on to break my valve core again (I broke it last year in this section too). I’d lost most of my water after Tank 7 due to setting my heavy backpack on the hose. I thought about camping. I was too scared to camp in those woods. They give me an unwelcome feeling. I quit messing with the post and stood up while pedaling, or walking the rest of the way. I finally escaped Sargents at 2:00 a.m. I was dreading the La Garita detour because I had no idea how I would solve my seat post situation. I tried drilling a hole with my knife into the post. I gave up and went to sleep.
I set out for the detour. I pulled a nail from a wooden post with my pliers. As I was squatting next to my bike with two wads of toilet paper stuck up each nostril—remnants of blood crusted on my face—attempting to hammer a nail into my seat post where I’d tried to “drill” a pilot hole with my pocket knife, a 4×4 pulled up to ask if I was okay. I turned to look at them and sarcastically replied, “I’m great.” They drove away and I threw my bike into the ditch and cried some more. My zip-tied Garmin popped off and I had to scour the ditch for half an hour to find it.
I’d barely been able to eat the past few days. The altitude was hitting me worse this year than in years past. This was the first time I’d ever done the CTR without the foundation of the Tour Divide. I was so altitude sick and kept bleeding out of my nose. I couldn’t keep food down. The wind was a million miles an hour directly in my face, and the sunny sky was starting to turn grey. I was bonking, hard. I walked my bike for a while on relatively flat ground, thinking how stupid it was to ride in the rain. Some fishermen invited me back to their camp for some beers. They said it looked like I needed some drinks and some company. I wanted to tell them to go fuck themselves. I passed them, then they passed me a little while later in their side-by-side. They re-extended their invite. I had forgotten headphones and couldn’t find any in BV. I wanted to tune the world out. I no longer wanted to race my bike.
Everything was breaking, including my body, my spirits, and the pocket knife that I had jammed into my seat post to keep it at the right height.
Everything was breaking, including my body, my spirits, and the pocket knife that I had jammed into my seat post to keep it at the right height. I ran into a fella touring the CT and he said something as I was riding past. I said, “If you wanna talk, better climb, I’m not going to stop.” I had found some momentum and was not going to lose it at any cost. I was also so tired of everything, so exhausted, so angry at the way the yo-yo Justin and I had planned—fuck it—the way our world was unfolding. The solo tourer confessed that multiple people in vehicles had said that his “riding partner” was really struggling quite a ways back behind him. He had said he waited to see who was behind him. I confessed that I was not having a great day.
He dropped into Lake City, I pedaled up toward Spring Creek trailhead. I changed socks and set out for the high point. I made it to tree line at 9:00 p.m. only to see lightning over Carson Saddle, and hid beneath a tree to dodge the raindrops while I sought out my raincoat. I decided to camp for the night. I continued to meet rain, thunder, lightning, wind, and hail for the rest of my trip. I’d decided that I wasn’t going to yo-yo. I had a handful of reasons. There’s really no good reason I quit, though. I arrived in Silverton to a downpour and spent a few hours sitting under the awning at the grocery store. I finally bought a hose clamp; I didn’t get it tight enough until I made it to the top of the road climb to Molas. I still wanted to set a new ladies’ fastest known time for the westbound route; I lost motivation after spending so much time trying to make my seat post work. I had mostly forgotten how to ride a bike without a dropper post.
I texted Andrew to let him know that I wasn’t turning around. Katie’s phone was broken. He told me not to give up yet. I wasn’t in it anymore. As I finished my second westbound effort at 7:40 p.m. beneath a rainy sky, I had zero regrets about not turning around. Something like 6 days, 15 hours, 20 minutes or so was all I had in me this year. Less than an hour from Ashley’s record. In two years, I will try harder.
The Colorado Trail yo-yo evades me still. When you guys are ready, let’s go at it again. It’s waiting for us. As much as this idea started out as something I needed to do for the self, the CTR yo-yo took on a new meaning this year. I’m not doing it without you.
Let’s call it… Yomega, and we, too, can revolutionize yo-yo play, brother.
About Alexandera Houchin
Alexandera Houchin is a citizen of the Fond du Lac Nation of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. She resides in her reservation community in northern Minnesota. Selected as a fellow following completion of her undergrad, she’s working within her tribal community to build a bicycle collective through fall 2022. Oh yeah, she also goes on really long bike rides with one cog.