Seeking Flow on the Great Divide
Earlier this year, Diana Davis spent six weeks riding and paddling along the Great Divide with her partner Brett, and she put together this meditative essay on her attempts to find “flow” and be fully immersed in the moment. Find it here, alongside a lovely gallery of Brett’s images from the roads and rivers along the Divide…
Words by Diana Davis, photos by Brett Davis (@brettrdavis)
It’s simple, really. I like to ride my bike—be it mountain, gravel, or road. I like the sense of movement, the close-up feel of the outdoors, and the quantifiable sense of progress. There is something else though, something deeper and elusive, something I’m regularly searching for and hoping to create.
Sometimes, it happens on those perfect rides where the sun is never in my eyes, but streaming golden, even, light along the trail. The wind is blowing enough to offer a cooling caress but too gentle to be obtrusive. My mind starts to drift as one by one the external influences fade. I enter a dreamlike state of serenity where my pedal strokes are harmonious, and my breath is steady and strong. I match the exertional demands with perfect complement.
These moments of “flow” where I lose all sense of time, where my intrinsic motivation holds all the power, are when I feel my best, act my best, and it’s the composite of these moments that helps me live at my best.
As I internally debriefed my six-week bike rafting adventure along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route with my husband Brett, I reflected on the elements that brought me great joy and connection; those amazing moments that fostered elation and excitement. I also took note of the pitfalls I fell into that led to discouragement and dispiritedness. I must credit the work of Csíkszentmihályi, a positive psychologist who has researched and written on the concepts of flow and optimal experience. His descriptions and qualities of “flow” kept popping into my head as I paddled and pedaled my way south from the Canada/U.S. to the U.S./Mexico borders. After my trip, I reread an article from my graduate coursework by Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi entitled “The Concept of Flow.” Their work brought me a deeper awareness and better articulation of my own qualifiers for what constitutes a fulfilling outdoor adventure and an overall gratifying experience.
For many of us, life tends to be a hurried blur or a full-stop lethargic rest. What I love so much about vast, human-powered trips is how each day becomes fuller and richer. How time becomes malleable and expansive as we simply focus on one paddle or pedal stroke at a time. Brett and I had an agenda, but it was flexible to allow for both the unpredictable wonders and woes. A 12-hour day might flow gently by as we paddled the Green River through Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Amid the spectacular scenery, our attention was drawn more to counting moose and river otters than on making the river miles pass.
One day, Brett and I stopped paddling with great excitement, our necks extended all the way back, our eyes fixated right overhead to watch in amazement as a bald eagle inverted like a fighter jet at just the precise moment to avoid an attack by a peregrine falcon. We were mesmerized by the fight dance of such great birds, totally engrossed with their talons lashing out, the wild calls, and the fast swirls of movement. Unlike TV, viewing nature in real time leaves a feeling of rejuvenation, energy, and a connection to these special wild places and all the creatures calling them home.
The only moments where I felt the pressure of time were in those elemental modes when we were scrambling to beat out a storm. I grew aware of time only so much as it measured spaces between lightning and thunder.
That is until our trip’s end grew near. I felt myself becoming more calculating. How many days left? How many miles are left? How long was the drive home at the end? How much time would that leave before returning to work?
On the last day of our adventure, we planned to ride 124 miles. The weather had other plans, but fortunately, we were able to cross the mud and puddles even if it meant a little hike/carry-a-bike. The last 30 miles were by far the longest of the whole trip as my attention shifted to the end, the destination, and the “successful” completion of our trip. With attention directed to the outcome, I lost all enjoyment. I was just trying to ride as fast as I could. I was trying to speed up the process and just be done. Brett’s voice kept drifting up to me, “Take it easy, relax a little.” Finally, with about 10 miles to go, I processed his words and slowed my pace. Instead of blasting in front and taking the wind, I moved next to him, softening my stance and letting good conversation lead the way. We recalled our favorite moments of the last six weeks, our challenges, our hopes, wishes, and ideas for future endeavors. I can’t believe how close I came to missing those last beautiful miles.
It is often too easy to rush through the day, always on to the next thing, hastening for that arbitrary finish line. It’s unfortunate, as the real “win” is in the riding, the journey, the experience.
A break from the Ego
A hyperactive self-awareness is often my greatest barrier to full, wholehearted, and whole-minded experiences. My brain is too often on the other, the outer. There were so many times along the Divide that I would be riding immersed in the gently swaying trees, sparkling sunlight, and the rocky gravel road. Then, I would notice Brett up ahead. One day, I watched as he crouched in a cougar-like position, camera ready, capturing flowers and bugs. I knew the next focus would be upon me. All of sudden I found myself practicing smiling when I was smiling naturally only moments ago. Why? I became self-aware. Not the good kind of self-awareness but more the hyper-focused, distorted type. I felt a shift and could easily see myself as a social media-driven caricature of someone having fun in the outdoors. It was contrived, and no amount of “authentic” hashtags would make my feelings and expressions genuine. I kept trying not to think that way, but trying not to think about something tends to have the opposite effect. It wasn’t until my activity demands outweighed all else that I was finally able to become blissfully unaware of the camera and have a total break from my ego-driven brain.
The water was fierce. I watched as big rafts were surfed and almost tipped along the churning, wild, waves of the Arkansas River just downstream from Buena Vista, Colorado. Brett, Mike, Kent, and I—we were fortunate to have friends join for segments of our trip—had to shout to hear each other describe the lines and come up with the best plan for us packrafters. I felt the familiar trepidation that comes from looking at something unknown with undetermined risks. But I love water, and the anticipation was filled more with excitement than anxiety. As I made my way to the start of the rapid, my gaze was on my line, my whole being focused on each paddle stroke I wanted to place. The adrenaline pumped as water poured over my boat, sprayed across my face, and my body responded with the left, right, left, right paddle placements I was hoping for. I drove into an eddy, spun once, and was back in the current again filled with exhilaration as I made my way down through the last pour over until splashing into the calm pools on the other side. Smiling, I pushed the wet hair out of my eyes. “Wow, that was fun!” I said to Brett. “I could tell,” he replied, “you’re laughing in all my photos.” Huh. I never even noticed.
The essence of the experience is in the doing and in the full presence of being.
Outcome oriented. That’s positive, right? Achieving our goals? I’d argue that it depends. What happens when we are so focused on the end goal that we lose sight of our purpose? Our goal was to get to Antelope Wells, New Mexico in 43 days since that was how much time I had off work. Our actual purpose, however, was to experience each day as fully and openly as possible via human-powered means: bike, boat, or that occasional hike-a-bike or hike-a-boat.
We strived to welcome whatever came our way. Instead of being discouraged and angry over the caliche—that endless abyss of cake like mud that globs on to your chain, shoes, and makes travel impassable, I felt gratitude for how little of it we encountered. When we were way-laid by a surprise assault on one short bend in the road, I was not discouraged or mumbling under my breath about the delay, I was aware of my surroundings and the fresh puddles we could use to clean our chains. If my mind switched to goal oriented, I felt in a hurry or overwhelmed because on any given day I might still have 2,000 miles to go. When I was purpose oriented, I was only focused on forward progress and eager to take in my stunning and often unexpected surroundings.
We absolutely need purpose, but it feels better when it is with simplicity and grace. I felt my best when I was enjoying the flow of the trail, the ripples of the river, and appreciating the amazing connection I have with my husband/adventure partner. Each day as I saddled up my bike or inflated my boat, I took comfort and ease in the outdoor beauty and the magical way it nourishes my entire being.
Nourished. I love that word. It has so many meanings and all are crucial to a great adventure and a great life. Unfortunately, there can be too little of it in our lives. Shallow conversations. Not enough food. Not enough resources. Fast food. Eating our problems. Dieting for looks. Too much sleep. Too little sleep. Not enough hugs or physical touch.
There are busy days at home when I take bites of breakfast throughout my morning routine; I scarf down lunch while I am doing paperwork; and I eat dinner while I’m watching TV. When you put in so many miles, food comes back to its elemental roots: energy. As I put more out, I take more in. I eat regularly and plentifully to avoid crashing—literally and figuratively. The only day I felt drained, depleted, and wished I was somewhere else doing anything else was due to a lack of food. I tried too soon to wean off sugar and as soon as I ate my Pop Tarts, I was as right as the rain drizzling overhead.
Besides the nourishment of food, we need the nourishment of those around us. I live in a scenic mountain town, home of many outdoor enthusiasts, from amateurs to professionals and Olympians. Sometimes, I find myself distracted by skill level when agreeing to local mountain bike rides with new friends. Were they fantastic and going to leave me in the dust? Were they so slow that I would not get any exercise? Over the years, outdoor adventuring has made me realize how attitude is just as great a consideration as skillset. What kind of energy do my adventure partners bring? How do they handle pressure when things get off track due to wildfires, rainstorms, injury, illness, mechanical issues, etc.? Are they the kind of person I want to spend hours waiting out a storm with, bringing humor, interesting conversation, optimism? Am I that kind of person for others?
We all have our off days. None of us is perfect. It’s about harmony, each doing our part as best as we can each day. It’s Brett’s ingenuity in standing the bikes up with jackets hanging over the handlebars to create some lunch break shade as the sun blazed endlessly across 100+ miles of Wyoming’s Great Basin. It’s cleaning gear, food shopping, cooking, exploring on my own, and hanging with the laundry ladies in Lima, Montana, so Brett could take a rest day and sleep off his cold. It is Brett asking me if I’m okay after a clumsy fall I pretended didn’t happen and didn’t think he saw. It’s trail angels spending their vacation cooking for haggard cyclists and good conversation and compassion bringing about new connections.
Give and take. Output and input. Effort and rest. There became such a beautiful balance of nourishment, of remembering what it feels to feel right.
It was six weeks of climbs, descents, rolling traverses, gravel grinding, brilliant sun, sparkling dew dipped meadows, calm waters, wild rapids, vibrant wildflowers, trail angels, new friends, old friends, and that ever-present quest for total immersion—for flow.
The sunlight is fading. The air begins to cool. It is fresh and crisp. I am pedaling on autopilot along a gentle rocky road as I begin to drift lost in the brilliance of color unfolding all around me. Oranges, pinks, reds, and even some deep violet hues streak across the sky. Damp, emerald green meadows loom out just before disappearing into a darkening forest. I feel a sense of lightness, rightness, a total connection to place, and an effortless enjoyment of the feel of my bike, the crunch of the gravel, the air, the land, the person I love riding beside me. That dreamy serenity takes over and I am simply flowing down the Great Divide.
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