Whats the Point? A Sideways Look at the Great Divide

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Looking back on the two months she spent touring the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route last summer, our friend Jessica Shadduck from Ponderosa Cyclery in Nebraska wrote this refreshing piece on what the experience meant to her. Read her candid story of how the 2,700-mile route broke her down and built her back up here…

Words and photos by Jessica Shadduck (@wooftoof)

What’s the point? I’m not gonna get too morose, but, as a depressed person, I’m honestly pushing down the question all the time. What’s funny is, for me it’s best shoved aside with a great deal of optimism—fully leaning into the wonder, beauty, and simple pleasures that exist in this world. I also occasionally try to experience some physical hardships to send blood and energy to those more immediate needs of nourishment, shelter, and safety, rather than having it all directed to whipping up existential crises, as I tend to do during idle times.

Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

Having something to look forward to can go a really long way in keeping the bad brains at bay or giving some purpose to somebody who feels purposeless. And, when you pick something tough, it can give a sense of power to someone who feels like a limp noodle. It’s good—even necessary—to remind yourself of what you’re capable of. And yes, what a privilege to choose to suffer in this way.

  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

I need to shake things up, make myself a little nervous, and really woo myself occasionally, maybe every couple of years. Casually evolving perpetually is my goal. There’s another skin underneath this one, and one after that, and one after that. I expect to never be done molting. But sometimes I get stuck in one skin for too long. That’s when I get itchy to do something weird or difficult. In 2021, riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) was that thing.

My dear friend Jordan signed up to ride the first half with me. On the day we landed in Montana (the Canadian border was still closed), someone told us about a cyclist who was just killed by a Grizzly in Ovando. We showed up relatively experienced in backcountry camping and already planning to be very bear safe, but having strangers warn us about imminent danger a couple of times a day got to us.

  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

In those moments of vulnerability, when I do the math on how likely it is that I’m actually risking my life, the question of the point is either explicitly or subtly on my mind. Not to be melodramatic, but I think most of us who do things that scare us have come to a conclusion that might sound morbid when said aloud: better to die doing something awesome than die of boredom. Some version of that can serve as a mantra in those moments.

Bear paranoia aside, beginning a big journey is always daunting. There we stood at a trailhead, looking down a path that crosses the whole United States and is filled with a variety of unknown obstacles that are geographical, meteorological, human, animal, and personal. They were waiting to be dug up from deep inside of us, and it would be a day-by-day process. The GDMBR is a meditative long haul, where riders must live in the moment but also think about the future and how “this too shall pass.” There are nearly endless possibilities for good stories between the beginning and the end, and hopefully they’re ones that can someday be told with a smile and some nostalgia.

Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

The start of the route is always where the tough part of breaking down the current self so as to give birth to the future self starts. Beginning the Divide really hurt. Especially as I hadn’t trained properly. Learning to cope with aches and pains and acclimating to higher altitudes and steeper grades all felt like a very literal tearing down before rebuilding into a better self. I questioned the point several times, and was mostly too annoyed and tired to be aware of the metamorphosis happening. I flirted with the idea of going home and thought of how I was an idiot for believing I could do this.

  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

Those feelings came and went throughout the trip, but in the beginning, I didn’t yet have the muscles to push back. The more I do these kinds of things, though, it takes less and less effort to realize that this will be something I did, and the moment I’m in right now is one to be cherished. It’s easy to think that future me is a real badass for accomplishing this, but future me has it easy, has the muscles and tan and wisdom of the trip, all while getting to sleep in my comfy bed with my pets and partner and air conditioning and Wi-Fi and car. Current me is the real badass, in the thick of it and fighting my way through. And really, choosing to push off at the trailhead is arguably the hardest part of the trip.

Because it’s the beginning, Montana may get unfair treatment in my memory. It’s undeniably beautiful. It’s also the bulk of grizzly country and the state where all the wildfire smoke occasionally pooled into the valleys where we descended, irritating my lungs into a dry, phlegmy, coughing panic. It’s the state with multi-day stretches when we didn’t come across a convenience store with Mucinex or Wi-Fi and the state with the most places that gave me creepy vibes. It’s the state where I was the sorest and most fatigued while I whipped myself into shape. It also might have the highest number of beautiful swimming holes of the whole route, and it has some of the kindest hosts. Montana is vast, and it contains multitudes. Ultimately, getting through it was one of the first real milestones of the trek, and it was a joy and relief to get to the Idaho border.

Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

We only rode in Idaho for a few miles, but it was lovely. We had our breath stolen by the wild views on a rail trail that runs parallel to and above a river. Suddenly, we were in the Tetons and Wyoming. Blasting down a hill at 40 miles per hour while singing along to the Fleetwood Mac song playing in my headphones was a treat I’ll never forget. It’s gotta be in the top 20 moments of my life. I missed the moose that Jordan saw on the roadside. This is national park country and benefits from plentiful gift shops with snacks and soda and rest areas with real, flushing toilets. What a treat!

  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

These were also the days when we probably saw the most fellow cyclists. Usually not for long, though. Everyone seems to be so good at getting up and leaving early, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over how much I loathe playing that morning game of Tetris, putting everything back in its place where it fits just so. I put it off as long as possible.

Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

We mostly camped, sometimes splurging on a hotel when we hit a city. The campsites were a mix of (free) unofficial national forest backcountry sites, paid sites on state and federal land that vary in price and infrastructure, and privately owned RV parks from city centers to fringes to the edges of a radon therapy mineshaft. We found out that some KOAs and RV parks aren’t so bad. We started to get picky about amenities. Is it less than $30 for both of us, and does it come with a shower, at least? How about laundry and Wi-Fi? Sometimes we talked to hikers or bikers on the route who seemed to be too cool to want Wi-Fi or cell service—like the whole reason they came out was to get away from that. I don’t plan ahead well enough to be completely independent from Wi-Fi. Where are we sleeping tomorrow? Where’s the water? These questions were always on my mind.

  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

We met many folks who make a point to almost never pay for camping, some based on budget, others on principle or ethos. Preferring to use a paid site because it feels safer with its bear boxes or vigilant campground hosts or because you just want showers or Wi-Fi doesn’t make you uncool, in my opinion. It does mean you have to bring more money, though. Lots of places require you to book online several days in advance, which is tough to do given all the uncertainties of a bicycle tour, so there are still plenty of opportunities to experience the fun of waking up not knowing where you’re going to sleep that night. “It’ll all probably work out” is one of my favorite phrases and might be my bike tour motto.

Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

Wyoming is where we hit our stride and started feeling strong. For a coupla regular dudes, we were becoming total pros at bike touring. We were getting good at reading clouds and deciding when to pop up the rainfly quickly or duck under the roof of a backcountry toilet to wait out a deluge. We knew to stay stocked up on ibuprofen and brainstormed saddle sore remedies together (my tip is anti-chafe balm reapplied on trouble spots throughout the day, and applying diluted tea tree oil to new sores at night). We developed a rhythm for filtering water from a stream when the opportunity presented itself and stopping to eat snacks regularly.

Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

I learned that I get sick of eating “healthy” snacks like protein bars and whatnot, and then eating becomes a chore I avoid. I embraced trashy junk food. I finally got enough calories to maintain energy throughout the day when I leaned into soda and cupcakes. Jordan brought earplugs, which is genius. Once we were out of grizzly country, I got some too. At the northern edge of the Great Basin, we convinced a northbound CDT hiker to take our bear spray.

I eventually discovered that I didn’t really like knowing what parts of the Divide people absolutely hate or think are the worst because it gave me a paralyzing dread that made it hard to move toward that place. However, the Great Basin stands out to me as a very rough stretch. It is worth mentioning because there are many dry, hot, thirsty, windy miles without a water source. Prepare accordingly, and you’ll be better able to marvel at the sorta Martian landscape and enjoy communing with wild horses without being distracted by a sharp, salty taste in your mouth and panicky rationing of water.

We were cheered, even saved, by the fact that Wyoming absolutely has the most gallons of free water given out of any place in the world (probably). The guy in a tractor grading the gravel roads for the BLM out there stopped to ask if we’d like water from one of the gallons he keeps on board for the cyclists and hikers. We learned to keep an eye out for those coolers chained to a fencepost at the entrance of long driveways. Sometimes we even came across ones full of primo snacks.

Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

We gradually (and at the same time suddenly) arrived in Colorado. The gravel was beautiful, and after a climb that yoinked us out of the relaxed delight we felt at being done with the Great Basin, Brush Mountain Lodge was an oasis. Kirsten immediately offered hugs and drinks and baked pizzas and rolled joints for us. We talked and talked and fell in love on the porch. Jordan would be leaving soon to get settled in a new home in a new state. We had just one more day of riding together. It’s the beginning of the beautiful gravel roads and passes that make up a good deal of the Colorado portion of the route. We happened to ride into Steamboat during a big gravel to-do, which was fun and also stressful when it came to finding a place to stay. We said goodbye. I stocked up on the good ramen at the Natural Grocers and then I entered the solo phase of the trip.

As I neared New Mexico, I worked myself into an anxious paralysis about getting to the border because I worried about what I’d do about the scarcity of water. I took a couple of zero days in Del Norte and downloaded Adventure Cycling’s maps (finally), and having campsites and watering holes marked was a huge relief.

  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

I suspect I may also have had that creeping feeling of loathing the idea of completing something. Part of me wanted to be back home so badly, and another part never wanted the trip to end. I just wanted to pause everything. Once I was done, how long would it be before the accomplishment wore off? What would come next? The work of staying in the moment, of leaning into the liminal, is constant. It’s one thing that I hadn’t really gotten better at, though I felt like a well-honed bike touring machine in just about all other aspects. I had become intoxicated with self-confidence and felt fully in love with myself. I was on my own plane, showing off to myself, seeing new sights with the clearest eyes. I had become my own best friend and constant cheerleader. I was getting a chance to see what I had in me all along.

  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

Getting through the day with the longest climb and hitting the highest point of elevation on the route made me feel cocky about the coming days. By comparison, the topography didn’t look bad, but it would still be very humbling (getting too confident in your abilities is a great way to set yourself up to be humbled). It was much easier to find water in New Mexico than I feared. And it was much more lush and full of wildflowers than I could have imagined. It was also monsoon season, and it was important to consider paved alternate routes, pay attention to weather forecasts, and remember that bad weather isn’t just something that causes temporary physical discomfort. It’s also something that can whip up bike-wrecking mud if I didn’t pay attention.

  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

My confidence on steep and rocky descents was beginning to give way to carelessness, and I had some close calls. My first and only wipeout didn’t slow me down, but a couple of days later, I had to do some surgery on a rim after getting a nasty dent from a baby head, and I was reminded that the last miles of the trip could remain unfinished if I thoughtlessly smashed something irreparable on my bike or injured myself.

Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

There’s a point at the end of the route where the elevation sharply drops off, leading to a flat and easy finale in which the main struggles are monotony and the danger of riding on highways with little-to-no shoulder where rattlesnakes rest on the edges of the road. There’s a ghost bike just north of Hachita that suddenly woke up every molecule of me as I was drowsily coasting to the finish line. I googled him later. He was a southbound rider who was struck and killed just before reaching Antelope Wells. There were no guarantees. Every moment was a gift.

My final day was just a few hours of pedaling from Hachita to Antelope Wells. The fear of highway riding was mostly gone at that point because the closed border meant the road was mostly empty other than border patrol. A couple of times, a rattlesnake in the road brought me out of my reverie. And then it was over. I was at the border. It felt like I was just at the Canadian border the week before, but it had been two months. I was also aware of every pedal stroke and every step of hike-a-bike I took to get there. I almost couldn’t believe I did all that.

  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide
  • Jessica Shadduck, Great Divide

I took some time to bask and didn’t immediately plunge into an existential crisis. I’m not quite that brutal to myself. I am only casually keeping an eye out for the next thing now, because I know I’ll crave it eventually. Looking back, I think my muscles have forgotten a lot of what I did, but the Divide is a part of my new skin, and surely at least a few of the layers beneath it.

Jessica Shadduck

About Jessica Shadduck

Jessica Shadduck runs a bike shop in Omaha, Nebraska, with her partner, Vince and Lyle the cat and Mabel the dog, who are almost definitely the most consistent bike-commuting cat and dog in the city. She tries to get out on a big tour every couple of years and works out her wanderlust in the meantime with local overnights. You can find her archived stories from the GDMBR on Instagram @wooftoof and see the shop @ponderosacyclery.

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