Many people have asked me to name one of the best and the worst scenarios while bikepacking the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

The hardest day on the trail started in Abiquiu, New Mexico.  The climate in Abiquiu was like being in a glass bowl full of hot air devoid of any moisture. It’s expensive, touristy, frustratingly cute, and has fancy piñon pancakes… the next town is 80 miles away.

I got a really late start out of town (11am).  As I updated my blog, a short man with crazy eyebrows came over to me and started talking about my journey, but careened off on the topic of Brazil inflation rate and government corruption.  I gave him my rapt attention for about 5 minutes before I decided that my wifi session was over.IMG_1

Climbing out of Abiquiu, I was hydrated, my feedbags were full of tasty sugar nurdles, and I was jiving to the sonic vibes of chick-power-go!-Santigold.  In general, I felt pretty good. The ACA map had promised a deteriorated road and some lava rock, but not in a way that made scared.

Then, the climbing got real. Real steep. Nothing that broke my spirits immediately; I was a pro at hills by now and the road was still evenly-graded.  I had to admit though, I was impressed to see a Micro-machine truck coming up the switchbacks below.
Vehicles in the canyon below resembled Micro-machines.
Vehicles in the canyon below resembled Micro-machines.
After getting to the top of the first climb, I rode through a plateau of short and scrubby juniper trees.  I glanced off the trail and locked eyes with a white-faced cow standing in the trees. I was startled; she looked like a Dia de Los Muertos figurine.  She was so surreal in her stillness that I wasn’t sure that she wasn’t a ghost.  Creepy.

Next came a plateau of sagebrush, the dirt road wiggling off into the foothills of another range.  I stopped to pee… leaning my bike up against a cattleguard, I trudged off to a random, anonymous, unlucky patch of ground.  I had no privacy except the vast emptiness around me.

Further into mountains, large rocks began to protrude beneath my tires.  The hard-packed dirt began to buckle, and deep grooves cut by ATVs formed channels in the road.  Suddenly, my whole bike snaked beneath me.  The front wheel went right while my rear wheel fished left.  I struggled to stay upright in the pop-up sand pit, and headed for a solid-looking berm.
Ten miles of sand pits mixed with lava rock almost broke my spirit.
Ten miles of sand pits mixed with lava rock almost broke my spirit.
“What bullshit was was that?!” I shouted audibly, to no one.  I perched, one foot down, eyeing  backwards at the trail.  “Whatever.”

I began again, but 40 seconds later my bike was writhing again in a long tract of sand. I tried to stick to the high points of the undulating road, but sometimes they would unexpectedly give way and send me sliding down sideways.  There were two mountain bike tire tracks in front of me as well as some cow tracks.  In a twisted way, I found solace in the fact that there were other victims like myself, and that they couldn’t be too far away.

A scant few miles later, the lava rock that the ACA map had promised reared up through the sand like the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin.  Lava rock, to my untrained eye, seemed to come in two flavors: huge sheets with tire-sized cracks, and fields of smaller, jagged rocks that looked hungry for rubber.  I preferred the former.

I stole a few glances from my speedometer.  My face fell: 3mph.  “No way.”  I tore my eyes from the path and looked again: 5mph.  “That’s a little better.” I looked again: 3mph.  “So that’s how it’s going to be.” Occasionally, I would have to get off my bike when I got stuck in a sandpit or couldn’t get my bike over a pile of lava rock.  Pushing through the trail wasn’t any faster: 2mph.

Pushing through deep sand wasn’t any easier than laboring to ride through it.
Pushing through deep sand wasn’t any easier than laboring to ride through it.
I continued on, still not totally disheartened.  I had been through tough sections before.  It probably wouldn’t last too long.  It couldn’t, right? The map didn’t say anything about a soul crushing section. It just said things like, “Mile169.1: Getting rugged.” Or, “Mile 161.0: Rough stretch of lava.”  How do they define “stretch”?  Miles upon miles?  I had no idea how long this stretch was going to last.

I was two hours and 10 miles into the day, and only had 1.5 liters of water left. The gravity of the situation hit me somewhere in the upper gut region.  I was thirsty, but began limiting my water intake.  The map indicated no water for another 20 miles… and it was a cattle tank at that.

Suddenly, a herd of cows appeared before my eyes.  And two cowpeople.  Er, one cowboy and one cowgirl.  They wore plain t-shirts, jeans and ballcaps.  I think one of them was drinking a beer.  They were moving with the tide of cows, but I forced my presence upon them.

“Do you know of any water sources along this route?” I asked.

“Ah, er, well, no not really on this road. What, d’you need water or something?” he asked in a piqued, Mexican accent.

I nodded feverishly.

“Well, down in that cañón down there is a bunch of water,” he pointed over my shoulder.  “Then, not in this valley, but the next one over,” he waved his arm behind him, “there’s another cañón with a creek.”

I squinted at him holding my tongue.  That first canyon had to be at least 1,500’ down, and I had no idea how many miles of bushwacking or re-routing I’d have to do to get to the second canyon.

He continued to glide past me on his down-trodden horse.

I thanked him for his help, but knew it was no use telling him how much those detours would cost me.  (As an aside, there’s nothing worse than asking anyone other than a cyclist for directions.  As a fully-loaded touring cyclist, you quickly learn to NEVER trust the advice of motorists that say things like, “just a little uphill” or “just a little ways, maybe 2 miles, down the road”, because what they really mean is, “three HUGE hills” and “about 5 miles down the road, uphill”.)

I was forced to make a decision.  Stop now and pick my way to water, or keep moving forward hoping for a more convenient source? I debated the options with myself.  I studied the USGS topo map on my phone.  A reservoir here, a creek there, a water tank there… I had no doubt that they could both easily be dry.  In fact, they were almost certainly dry.
I came to find out later that the water tank was indeed, dry.
I came to find out later that the water tank was indeed, dry.
I decided to keep going.  The cowboy detours seemed just as risky for the time that they would consume.  I began to panic a little bit.  What if I never found water? The distance to a reliable source of water (about 65 miles) seemed impossible. My paltry 1.5 liter water supply was laughable.  I found myself hoping for something unexpected… something on the order of trail magic.

I eeked out two tears before catching my breath.  It was hard to climb and cry at the same time.  I stopped my bike, and looked over my shoulder at the trail.  I hated it.

I was falling apart, and I knew it. I realized I needed to hit the mental reset button, or I would never make it.

So I pulled my bike off the road under a big pine tree.  I sat down in the dirt and tried to eat something.  My throat was dry.  I pulled a precious sip of water from my hose and hugged my knees.  “This is really hard,” I thought.  “Maybe I should just stop in the next town.”  It was the only time I ever considered quitting.  I’ve never been quitter, but my primal fears overrode all pride.

Without a thought or a motive, I found myself pulled into woods behind me.  I picked my way through the thin forest and found a rock graffitted with green and black lichens overlooking the canyon.

The canyon I had been riding alongside the whole time, but not until I broke down did I stop to check it out.
The canyon I had been riding alongside the whole time, but not until I broke down did I stop to check it out.

Here was this view, only 15 feet from the trail but totally hidden by the woods, and it was all mine.  It was huge, this canyon; maybe 2,000 feet down, a mile across, and longer than I could see.  Lined in spikes of pine and falling chunks of red rock… I couldn’t even see the river below.

All by my lonesome. I breathed deeply and felt the tangle of anxiety loosen in my gut.  The enormity of the canyon put me in my place.  I felt encompassed in all of the natural world. Some might’ve called it the middle of nowhere, but I felt – most certainly – that I was in the middle of somewhere.

Thirty minutes later I came upon a camp containing one Jeep and two humans.  I approached them knowing that I was the solo female in need, but steeled myself with positivity.  They didn’t know of any water sources, but insisted that I fill up from their 20 gallon container.  I gladly complied and thanked them repeatedly but not profusely.

As I rode away, my anxiety left me like a demon rattling out of a cage.  Unexpected tears of relief welled in my eyes.  I was so thankful.  “Thank god for hunters and bow season,” I thought.

With my water supply re-stocked, I gained confidence.  The road even seemed to improve a little. Just a little.  I became certain that I would come upon the cyclists in front of me at any moment.

Uphill, still, forever, the terrain morphed into a rockslide. I pushed and climbed and pushed again.  Then finally, I saw the hi-vis brim of a cyclist at the top of a climb.  I whooped and whistled, but he couldn’t hear me.

I watched from below as he pushed off again at a 90 degree.  Damnit!  I pushed on, got to the top of the climb, and pushed off in right direction. Jumping and bumping along, finally in a downhill direction, I found Chris and Mike otherwise known to me as “Team Hi-Vis” (named for their copious high-visibility gear).

After my solo trial, I was glad to have company.  We pushed on together, asked more hunters for spare water, and eventually camped at a pastoral-looking clearing (read: cow pies everywhere).  We’d stare at the stars together and take under-educated guesses at constellations.  The next day, we’d ride to town as a team, sharing water and motivation.

I went to sleep that night exhausted but proud.  Twenty five miles of climbing over treacherous terrain, and I wouldn’t have missed it for any shortcut.  This is what the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route was made of, and now I was too.  I also knew that I’d be carrying more water from that point forward.

Oddly, I never thought, “What am I doing here? Why am I doing this?”  Even on the hardest day, I didn’t feel out of place.  I knew the hard days were bound to happen, and they would become a story one day.  Today is that day.

For more stories and info on Amanda’s Journeys check out her website – Small Tomatoes  

11 Comments

  1. That section was a soul crusher for me as well. I was dodging lightning and hail by the time I reached the top of the climb. IIRC, that section from Abiquiu to the top is most feet of elevation gain in one climb on the entire route.

  2. sounds like a real ass kicker. sounds awesome.

  3. I carried 7 liters of water with me when I went through. That was one of the hardest 80 miles for me too. I almost crashed going uphill in those sand pits, more than any other section of the route. I went through over half my water by the top of the climb and was running dangerously low by the time I got to Cuba. That was some of the most demoralizing 80 miles of the route. It took me 8.5 hours of ride time to get over those mountains. Some of the slowest progress I had. Seriously awesome job!

    I was also wondering if I might be able to use one or two of your pictures for my write up? My camera died on the first day of the Divide so I didn’t really get any pictures. Thanks! Hope you had a great ride!

  4. Jeff Taylor

    Nice read; your story recollected my contentment with being a NOBO here. The whole time I was descending this section I reminded myself of my luck having escaped climbing this in 90 degree- plus temperatures…

  5. Tom Anderson

    ^^^Jeff Taylor – I’m researching Northbound. Do you have a write-up somewhere? I’m of the belief that a person would be fresher, possibly more hydrated, etc and getting thru New Mexico easier. Any thoughts on NOBO and ease of getting thru New Mexico as a “fresher” rider? Any info and advice would be appreciated.

  6. Hi Tom, Both travel directions have their advantages for sure. The one advantage I calculated was maybe avoiding the extreme wet and cold of the start in Canada and potentially wet rutted going in NM; as it turned out that was a fine weather year so we only had to contend with warmer temperatures.

    The one big disadvantage going NOBO is that early in the race you climb to elevation rather quickly and you are likely to yet have a clear eating and drinking strategy/rhythm established. This combined with some decent mileage gaps between resupply points would be something to carefully practice and consider.

    That being said I never carried more than 3 L of water at anytime thru NM and found pre-identified water sources at strategic points along the way…feel free to contact me if you have any other questions, I would be glad to offer you advice. rugbywales@hotmail.com

    Definitely have a story!

  7. Thanks for the insight. Many of the same things that I’m thinking through. I appreciate the comment.

  8. Pingback: Top Bikepacker Stories of 2015 - Bikepackers Magazine

  9. mikeetheviking

    Great story. It’s always the tough situations that make the best stories:) Thanks for sharing!

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