Payton is currently out on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, riding from Antelope Wells to the Canadian Border. He is roughly halfway on his journey. Payton’s trip is a little different from most people taking on the long trek. We asked Payton some questions to get all of the details of The Sonic Divide. All Photos provide by Linda Guerrette

Age 41

Hometown I was born and raised in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Now I live in West Orange, NJ, 10 miles West of NYC.

To understand what you are doing on the GDMBR, what do you do for a living? I’m a professional musician, a percussionist, singer, and composer specializing in contemporary classical music and East Indian classical music. I teach at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ, just outside of New York City. I’ve performed all over the world, in every kind of venue from places like Carnegie Hall to clubs and art galleries. Now I’m performing in the wilderness.

Is this your first bikepacking adventure?
No, I’ve completed the AML, the TransWisconsin, and scores of overnighters and self-made adventures. I also raced the TD for five days in 2014, but I found that I much prefer touring to racing. Mike Hall TD-7939
Can you explain how you are incorporating riding and composing to make the Sonic Divide? The Sonic Divide is really one large performance art piece that incorporates music, ultra-distance mountain biking, and film making. The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route crosses the Continental Divide 30 times, so I commissioned 30 composers to write pieces for me to perform. When I get to a Divide crossing I put down my bike, set up my GoPro cameras and Zoom audio recorder and I perform a piece. When the whole thing is over I’ll use that footage in combination with interviews with the composers and other athletes and I will make a full-length documentary film called Sonic Divide. At least, that was the plan. But when I got out here I discovered that some of the Divide crossings aren’t that interesting. For example, in the northern part of the Gila there were several Divide crossings in close proximity, but it was all the same landscape, with lots of dried plant life and cow pies everywhere, which didn’t feel great musically, or from a film perspective. So, I decided my original plan was a good framework, but like a jazz chart, I’m using it only as a framework. If the Divide crossing has good musical and cinematic qualities I’ll perform there, but if not then I’ll do something close to it or just in a beautiful place, of which there are many on the GDMBR. So the overall project is much like the pieces: structured, but with room for improvisation.

Share with us the significance of each piece. The pieces are incredible. The composers I’m working with are all top-notch musicians, with far-reaching creative minds. I can’t really generalize about each piece because they are all so different. Some of them are very groovy and tuneful, others are quite abstract and philosophical, some of them have theatrical elements, some of the pieces have me playing the bike, etc. But as an example, one composer named Jerome Kitzke wrote a piece called “Turning at Togwotee” that I’m to perform at Togwotee Pass in Wyoming. The title refers to the physical movements I make in the piece, including turning through a large circle that I demarcate with logs and rocks, while singing and knocking some rocks together. One composer named Michael Udow wrote a piece in which he asks me to write a haiku at the end of each day about the events that happened that day, and then later do performances of those haikus where I read them and improvise music to them. It’s an amazing piece that is both musical and a kind of sustained meditation and also serves as a journal of sorts for the adventure. That is one of the beautiful things about contemporary classical music: just the incredible variety of aesthetics. Mike Hall TD-7874
Whose pieces are you performing? The group of composers includes a wide range of people with different aesthetic and cultural perspectives. Some of them are only in their 20s and just getting their careers started, others are older and have very established and distinguished careers. Some of them are from areas near the route (e.g. Eric Funk, who was born and raised in Montana, and still lives and works there today), and many are from New York City. A few of them have also done long-distance bike or hike trips and combined that with music, like Nat Evans and Taylor Ho Bynum, so they were natural choices for this adventure.

How often are you performing? About once or twice a day. Each performance takes about 45 minutes including setup and packing up. Mike Hall TD-7920 What type of instruments are you using in these performances, did you bring them along? All of the pieces are scored for my voice and/or for what we call “found” percussion objects, like logs, rocks, the ground, leaves, etc. All I’m carrying with me is one pair of drumsticks.

Have you performed for anyone or received strange looks? I’ve done a few performances for people, including some reporters from Silver City who came and met me at the first Divide crossing in the Gila. I performed with some other folks at the Toaster House in Pie Town, the folks at Absolute Bikes in Salida (see their video below), and on the top of Boreas Pass in Colorado I performed for Linda Guerrette, who is an amazing photographer and she took some shots of that performance. (My wife was also there for that one; she came out for a few days to help with some filming.)
My experience so far has been that people love it. One of the guys at Absolute Bikes told me that he has worked in the bike industry for 34 years and “. . . that was by far the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

You started in the south and are heading north, why did you pick that direction? In general I do better in heat than cold, but wow, this year the heat is really intense. I’ve had to adjust my mileage expectations a bit and stay out of the heat in the afternoon. Two years ago I rode part of the route from Canada into the middle of Montana and it was freezing the whole time and I was miserable so I thought NoBo might work better for me, but I’m not sure it is any better. There is nothing about this route that is easy.

You are roughly half way, how has the experience changed you? I have a tremendous amount of energy and I work quickly, but out here there’s no way to rush things. I can pedal harder, but it’s still going to take several hours to get up a big pass. I’m learning to be patient. I’m also learning to be kinder to myself. Trying to combine ultra-distance mountain biking, music performance, and film making all into one project entirely on my own and self-supported is very, very difficult. Sometimes I feel bad that my mileage was low for the day or my performance wasn’t ideal, but I have to take a step back and realize that I’m actually doing it, I’m getting the project done and it’s exciting and inspiring. I’ve also been blown away with the people aspect of the project. I knew the musical and athletic part would be inspiring, but I didn’t realize how all the trail angels out there would give me so much hope for humanity. There are just so many wonderful people in the world. Mike Hall TD-7956
Talk about an extremely demanding section and how you coped with it on route. The Gila. I was very nervous leaving Silver City. I was worried about water and food. It’s a huge distance from there to Pie Town with zero services. I left Silver City with over 10 pounds of water on me plus a lot of food. Thankfully all my other bikepacking adventures prepared me pretty well. I knew I should leave super early in the morning (I was pedaling by 3:30 a.m.) to avoid the heat and I had targeted an area about 65 miles away with trees and a stream that was supposed to be running where I could get out of the sun for a few hours and filter some fresh water. I made it there by noon and rested until the heat abated a bit. But the climbs in the canyons were very difficult. I had to walk a lot of them and I was really struggling. I wanted to quit so many times, but of course once you’re deep in the Gila you can’t just bail out. But I camped near Beaverhead work station and then the next day rode 100 miles to the Toaster House in Pie Town. I coped with it one mile at a time and I tried to remember that each mile I rode put me that much closer to Toaster House. And good thing, because we had an amazing performance of one of the pieces the next morning, and Nita participated in it!

When do you think you may be finished with the route? It will take me a little over a month. I’m going border to border, so it’s right at 2,500 miles. On the days I’m riding I’m averaging close to 100 miles a day, but I’m taking days off to do data transfer and back up and get ready for the next performances, so all told it will take a little over a month.

Anyone you would like to thank? First and foremost my wife Jessica. She has been amazing running a lot of the logistics while I’m on the trail and also taking care of our two young daughters. She has also given me a lot of moral support when I’ve been down. My parents have also been very helpful with that, and the rest of my extended family has been supportive as well. And then of course I have to thank all of the incredible trail angels out there. So many people have given me a much-needed boost on several occasions with a cold drink, or a sandwich, or just an encouraging word. That has really made the whole adventure so wonderful and has been inspiring on every level.


  1. Loved the spoke drum performance. Wow! Unusual and original. Such talent! A ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event for me.

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