Tag Archives: bikepacking

The people of Baja California

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Baja is diverse and mixed. It is California in Mexico. It is a mountainous desert dotted with oases and surrounded by the sea. The beating hearts of this land reflect its warmth through kindness. They seem to know us before we arrive.

Read my story about our friend Pancho on the Revelate Designs blog.

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Advocate Hayduke in Baja California

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I’m riding an Advocate Cycles Hayduke in Baja California with Nick. 

I’m happy to be back in Mexico, traveling on the bike and riding fat tires in the sand. And we’re having fun.

Tim Krueger wrote to me in September to offer bikes to us. I met Tim and his wife Odia in Las Vegas at Interbike. They seemed like really kind folks. I only have one bike at a time and they gave me one and it’s great. The Hayduke is a steel 27.5+ hardtail. I was hoping to ride the titanium frame, but it wasn’t available in time for this trip. Advocate is a new company that released three bikes this fall.

The Hayduke is a great bike for this trip because it has three inch tires and a suspension fork. We’re riding sandy jeep roads and rough mountainous tracks. It rides like a Jeep, the tires float like a fatbike when I need them too, but it’s not burdensome for climbing and technical riding. Having a new Rockshox Reba fork is pretty sweet compared to the crusty old fork on my blue bike. I was concerned the bike would be really heavy, but it’s not a tank. Nick tried to convince me to tour on my white Pugsley four years ago and I refused. This is not the same white bike. It’s kind of a mix of all the bikes I’ve ridden in the past five years, even the Hooligan. I may look to build some 29 inch wheels for it in the future with carbon rims. 

Nick is designing a dirt route through Baja that we’re riding and hoping to share. We’re really excited to ride with friends next month visiting from Missoula, Seattle and Anchorage.

I also have an Instagram account, follow me @laelwilcox for pictures from the road. 

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In my dreams, I’m convinced that I’m still chasing the Tour Divide record. I wake up every night for a week, convinced that I’m still supposed to be out there. It takes minutes to tell myself that it’s over.

I pass through Albuquerque to visit some friends on my way back to Anchorage. I lived in Albuquerque in 2013 and helped open a restaurant. On my visit, I find out the owner is opening a new restaurant in Austin, Texas. The wheels start turning.

I’m tired, but I’m not going to be tired for long. I could work in Austin. If I’m going to work in Austin, I could ride there. If I’m going to ride there, I could ride the Divide again. Am I recovered? Not now, but I think I will be in two weeks.

It’s a risk and risks are opportunities. I’m trying to think bigger every year. I was really sick during my June Divide ride. I couldn’t ride well because I couldn’t breathe. It was frustrating to feel so limited. I know I gave it my best effort, but I also know that I can do better. Knowing is not the same as doing. I’m curious to be out there alone. There are so many things that could go wrong. I could get sick again. There could be terrible weather or forest fires. But there’s also a chance that I could do better. I don’t want to wait around until next June to try again during the race. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next June. We might be traveling. I don’t want to arrange my schedule to wait around for a race. I’m ready for this now, well not now, but maybe in two weeks.

I definitely want to ride to the start again. It’s a good way to get my legs moving and gauge my recovery. I book a ferry ticket from Whittier, AK to Bellingham, Washington. The ferry only runs once every two weeks, so I’m leaving next week. I’m committed. I spring the news on my family. Their disappointment haunts me. Everyone dries their tears for my birthday party and my grandmother gives me an Alaskan Grown t-shirt. I tell her I’ll wear it every day and I’m not kidding.

Nick and Christina ride me out to Girdwood the next day. It’s so warm that we’re still in shorts and t-shirts at 11PM. We see a bear cross the road on the way into town and camp at the municipal park. They pedal back to Anchorage in the morning. My mom, sister, and her kids meet me in Girdwood to go see animals at the conservation center. Tamra meets me for a hike and drives me through the tunnel to Whittier. When I check in for the ferry, they tell I’m really pushing it. 

I’m late?

Well, I wouldn’t say you’re early. 

I tie my bike up in the car deck and bring my sleeping bag up with me. There are lawn chairs on a covered deck to sleep on. The ferry is like summer camp. Everyone is friendly. My friend’s cousin is on board and two other bike travelers. The more I pedal, the smaller the world gets.

It’s a five day ride. We stop for a few hours in Yakutat, Juneau and Ketchikan. It’s my first trip to southeast Alaska. I run in Yakutat and Ketchikan and bike to downtown Juneau. The other passengers are concerned because I almost miss the boat on the way back from Juneau. They’ve already got the crew involved, but I make it back in time. I jump rope on the ferry deck and read Marathon Woman by Kathrine Switzer to get inspired for my ride. I quit drinking beer. I’m putting all my eggs in one basket. I want to ride my best.

We dock in Bellingham. There are awesome bike trails right out of town. I ride paths and Highway 11 to Burlington. I pass a couple of cyclotourists and raise a hand to wave. Looking over, I realize it’s Hope and her boyfriend from Anchorage. They’re riding and moving to Seattle. It’s rad to run into friends on the road.

I head west on Highway 20– a killer ride. I pass Sedro-Woolley and Concrete and ride some of the Skagit County Bike path. It’s blackberry season. They’re huge and sweet and everywhere. I stop at the shop in Marblemount. There’s lots of big hair and trucks. Two girls look me up and down as I stroll the aisles. The family from Florida that I slept next to on the ferry pull over to say hi. They’re on their way back to Florida and their son would love to ride like me.

I camp on the side of the road in North Cascades National Park. It rains in the night and the morning is sunny. A truck with a rack and four big bikes pass me on the climb. I see them a few miles down the road in a parking lot. Are there trails here? They flag me down. They’re broken down and there’s no cell service. They’re trying to make it to Canada to downhill for the weekend. They give me their AAA contact and account information and I say I’ll do my best to get to town and get them rolling again.

I feel good on the bike. My energy is back. I climb twice and descend to Mazama. It is fantastic country. I stop at the shop and the pay phone is out of service. As I’m going in to ask for a phone, I spot the downhillers out the window of a truck. They’ve hitched into town, got their situation sorted and are all smiles. I walk next door to the bike shop and ask about my creaking bottom bracket. The friendly owner, Merle, says it’ll be no problem. When I tell him I’m from Alaska, he asks if I know the Westhusings. I grew up playing soccer with Kaley! They have a second home here. Do I know Greg Matyas? Of course, he’s great! I ask if I can leave my bike while I go for a run and he directs me to the town singletrack. I run through sandy pine forests that are groomed cross-country ski trails in the winter.

I run back to my bike and take the singletrack out of town. I roll through Winthrop and Twisp, old western towns. I climb to the Loup Loup ski area. dark clouds menace so I lay out under the roof of the pit toilets at an empty campground. It rains a little and is clear in the morning. I descend to Okanagan and buy tacos and a burrito from a food truck. It’s an agricultural valley in a hot, dry desert. I climb to Tonasket and stop at the food co-op. As I’m heading out I hear, Lael? 

It’s me, Danny Watts. 

No way!

Danny is a childhood friend from Anchorage. As four year olds, we played together instead of going to preschool. Danny lives in Seattle and spent the weekend in Eastern Washington on a house boat with twenty friends. He works as a sales rep for a juice company and gives me tons of juice. We take a picture for our moms, hug and part ways. 

I roll past historic shop fronts in Republic in the early evening and start up Sherman Pass to camp. In the morning, I’m up and over to Kettle Falls. I leave my bike at the gas station to run along the dammed lake. I daydream about racing my bike around the world. From Chewelah, I head east to 49° North Ski Resort and camp next to the railroad tracks just shy of Newport. I’m in Idaho in the morning, to Sandpoint in the afternoon and in Montana by nightfall. I roll through Libby for coffee in the morning. It’s over a hundred degrees as I pedal high above Lake Koocanusa. I don’t find swimming access until early evening. Then I’m back in Eureka, back on the Divide route. During my Tour Divide June ride, I spent five hours laying in a field trying to breath in Eureka. It’s surreal to be back, almost like waking up and revisiting a nightmare and no longer feeling scared. I camp in the city park and run along the Pacific Northwest Trail in the morning.

I cross into Canada in the afternoon. I ride the pavement to Sparwood and get back on the Divide route. I camp just past Elkford. I continue on the Divide to Banff, stay with Keith and Leslie for a week and get ready to go back out. It’s like I never left.

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Tour Divide Rookie

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Six riders pass while I’m brushing my teeth. It’s sunny and crisp. I pull on my rainpants to warm up fast. I’m still in this race!

I pedal the first twenty with a lanky east coaster. He got all fired up to be back in America, bought a pizza at the bowling alley and rode until 4AM. Back up at 6, he pulls one ankle back at a time to stretch his knees and quads from the saddle.

And there’s huge John that tells me I’m awesome and he’ll take this cold morning over any hot day.

Not me. I like the heat.

Spirits are high on day three, but a lot of bodies are not holding up.

I feel pretty good, I have a deep, nasty cough that flares up worse when I laugh but I’m happy to still be out here. My legs are fresh.

It is a gorgeous gravel cruise up to Red Meadow Lake. I leapfrog a couple of Germans in matching red jackets and shoes. They hardly acknowledge me.

It is a long descent to Whitefish.

I pass a tiger of a man. I say hi as I pass and he growls something back.

What was that?

I’m ready to eat! I got nothing left.

Not until I’m down the road do I realize that I could’ve given this guy a snack. Or maybe I should just drop one on the road now and he’ll find it when he passes.

I don’t, but I should have.

 I see a cop and a cyclist on the side of the road leading into Whitefish. Is he getting in trouble? The cop smiles and waves.

Down the road he pulls up next to me in his car. He’s following the race, heard that I got sick and perks up knowingly when I tell him I’m skipping Whitefish to resupply In Columbia Falls. He sketches a map and gives directions to the grocery store. I know full well that I’m staying on the route, but let him draw the map anyway.

It’s an easy 10 miles to Columbia Falls, but I feel my breath shortening.

I buy salami, sliced cheese, potato rolls and chicken strips at the grocery store. I fill my bottles with two-for-one super green juice while ladies talk facebook.

I’m back on the bike pedaling into the afternoon on flat farm roads with a light tailwind. I am grateful that it’s easy because my energy is tanking. My breath becomes gasps and wheezes and I slow way down.

I start an easy graded climb. I feel I’m pedaling in slow motion. I’m in my easiest gear and my legs are hardly circling and they’re not tired. My lungs are too weak to fire my legs. There are hours of daylight left. I am so limited, but I know that even if I’m going slow, I’m still making progress and stopping now will not help and having a bad attitude will not help, and feeling powerless and frustrated will not help. I tell myself that I’ll do what I can. I’ll get up this climb in short gasps and coast down the other side.

I’m grateful for the fine weather.

A young couple in a very old truck pass. They’re the only people I’ve seen since Ferndale.

When I finally get up there, it feels wonderful to roll downhill. Free miles.

The longer I ride, the more my breath declines. It feels like breathing through a tiny coffee straw. I’m trying so hard, but no air is coming in.

I slow-mo the little ups and downs of the gravel road. I hear a couple of riders hollering. It’s huge John and Southern Josh. They’ve teamed up and we’re all happy to see each other. I pedal and talk to Josh for a few miles. I tell him I’m camping early and they crush down the road.

Soon enough, I pull down a turnoff marked private property no trespassing. I lay out my bivy and sleeping bag. It’s still light out, but I’m toasted. The mosquitoes are terrible. I burrow deep in the feathers to trap them out. I cinch my bag tight and crook my neck so my mouth is near the tiny air hole. I’m out. I’ll try again tomorrow.

In the morning I cough up loads of neon green mucus, feel some relief and get on my bike. It’s a great ride over Richmond Peak and I die on the pedal to Ovando. The bartender at Trixie’s Antler Saloon shares her cough syrup with me. She laughs because I sip it. She’s sick too.

I try again the next day. My mind and legs are sunny, but my chest and breath are on fire. I wheeze and cough. I realize I lost my bivy somewhere on the descent from Huckleberry Pass.

At the store in Lincoln, Beth Dunne catches me as I’m pulling out my sleeping bag to dry in the sun.

At last we meet, she says. I say hi, but my eyes dart around to find no coffee and I tell her I’ve got to go to the gas station quick.

I run over there and grab a huge coffee and three breakfast sandwiches out of the hot case. Checking out, the lady tells me that I’ve really got that windswept look.

Filling water in the restroom, I see that my bangs are shooting straight out of my forehead.

I don’t take my helmet off in public for the rest of the trip to Mexico.

Back at the store to buy medicine, Beth waves on her way out. She’s got a monster can of bear spray tucked into the back pocket of her hot pink jersey.

I call Nick. He thinks I have bronchitis. I decide to go to the hospital. Helena and Butte are my last chances and then there’s nothing on route until maybe Pinedale, Wyoming over 400 miles away. I decide on Helena. It’s about 80 miles from Lincoln over three passes. I should get there in the afternoon before the hospital closes.

I fill my bottles with ginger-lemon-echinacea juice and move on.

The first pass flies fine. I catch Beth. She can’t believe I’m going to climb four passes when I can’t breathe enough to speak. I tell her I’m going to the hospital. She jokes that I’m so fast I could probably take a day off and still catch them. We laugh. I’m lucky she’s so nice.

She pushes on and I slow down. It’s the same story: energetic legs and no air. By the time I get to Helena, I’m cooked.

I head for St. Peter’s hospital. It’s two miles off route up a couple of steep hills.

On my slow pedal there, a lady in an SUV honks at a skateboarder crossing the street. Belligerent, he leaps right up to her window and starts yelling. She ignores him. He steps right in front of her car and tells her to back up– her wheels are past the crosswalk.

Back up! Back up!

He’s flailing his arms. She pretends not to see him. Cars stack up behind her.

I keep pushing the pedals. I pass the brick capital buildings and make it to the hospital. I follow the signs to the Urgent Care and bring my bike into the entry hall. I sign in at the front desk.

What are you here for?

I’m having trouble breathing, I wheeze.

We recommend that you go to the Emergency Room, but if you really want to be seen here, you can.

I tell him I’d rather be seen here. I don’t have insurance and I think it might not cost as much. I fill out paperwork and sign for a fifty dollar copay. He prints out a hospital bracelet and puts it on my right wrist: Lael Wilcox F 7/18/86. I leave it on for the rest of the race.

I go to the hall to get my water bottle and wait on the floral couch in the empty, windowless room. A young, frank blonde in scrubs calls me in. She asks my height and weight and why I’m here. I tell her I’m having trouble breathing and think I might have bronchitis. She takes my blood pressure and pulse. It’s 80 beats a minute. She leaves.

The doctor comes in. We talk. I tell him about the race. He puts his stethoscope on different locations of my back and ribs and asks me to breathe deeply. I can’t. In this quiet room, I want to cry, but I don’t. He decides he wants to x-ray my chest.

The nurse comes back in with a gown. My top and necklace need to come off, but my shorts can stay on. We x-ray and I wait. He’s back with the print. It appears that I don’t have pneumonia, but my lungs are cloudy. He leaves.

The nurse comes back with a machine. It’s a box with a long tube and it hums. She tells me to hold the tube up to my mouth and breathe long and slow inhales and exhales until no mist exits on my exhales. She leaves.

I breathe and watch the mist. Humid air broadens into my lungs. My breath deepens and my heart slows. The mist stops and I switch the machine off.

She comes back. How are you feeling?

Much better.

My voice is rich and I feel calm. The nurse’s eyes open wider. She purses her lips, nods her head and exits.

The doc is back. He asks about the treatment and is happy with the success. If it hadn’t worked, he planned to check me for a blood clot. Since it worked, he’ll give me a prescription for an albuterol inhaler.

Have you had productive coughs?


When you cough, does anything come up?

Oh yeah, loads of bright green phlegm.

Well then, we’ll put you on antibiotics.

He asks when the race starts again.

I tell him it’s still going on.


He tells me the fastest way I’ll get better is if I rest, but he knows how athletes are. So I can go ahead and ride my race, but if my condition gets worse, I need to see someone.

I smile and agree.

On my way out, I ask about low income programs. The front desk gives me paperwork and instructs me where to drop them off, before 5PM Monday to Friday. It’s 7:25.

Wow! I’m back out and I can breathe and I don’t have pneumonia!

I go right to Walgreen’s to get my prescription filled.

The pharmacist tells me it’ll be ready in twenty minutes. Really?! Yes, really, she smiles back.

I pedal to the outdoor shop to try and replace my bivy. It’s closed. Oh well, the sky is clear. I should be fine sleeping out tonight and I’ll buy one tomorrow in Butte. I pedal back to the grocery store, fill up on chicken strips, carrot juice and cough syrup. I chug a liter of kombucha and pedal back to Walgreen’s.

The pharmacist feels bad that the prescription is expensive. She tried for the cheapest options, but they’re just not cheap. I’m so happy that they exist and I can breathe, that I don’t care at all. She gives me instructions. I take the antibiotics right away and I’m out of Helena before 9PM.

I pull over on the climb out of town to pee. A young rider rolls up. I wave big.

Do I know you?

No, but I’m riding.

We pedal together. He’s loaded– with all the bags bulging and a backpack. He’s springy with a big smile. His knee was hurting for the first few days, but today he felt great. He’s been hammering away and what a relief it is to climb standing. He’s from Tucson and Arizona is his favorite state. He can’t wait to get to New Mexico because that’s his second favorite state. He can’t wait to get to Colorado because then we really start climbing high. And he’s excited about tomorrow because we’ll climb our highest yet. This kid is great! I tell him about the Helena hospital and that I tried to get a new bivy cause I lost mine.

Is it red?


He spotted it on the descent from Huckleberry Pass. He stopped, hoping someone dropped a fancy light weight down jacket and was disappointed when it was just a bivy. He almost left it, but didn’t.


I tell him I’ll trade him some cookies for it. He says he’ll take a high five instead.

How long do you plan to ride?

As long as I keep breathing, I’m going to keep riding.

How about you?

At the top of this climb.

He pulls over up there at sunset. We exchange bivy for high five and I keep on it.

It’s nice out and I can breathe! I keep going. I have no idea what’s ahead of me. I’m exhilarated to be moving. Hours pass in the dark. The track gets narrow and steep– too steep to ride, so I get off my bike, put my headlamp on and start pushing. I’ve got energy for this.

I hike up Lava Mountain. I can breathe. I’m warm on the up and layer up for the down.

Just past Basin, I pull out my sleeping bag and bivy and lay down on the side of the freeway. It’s 3AM. I set my alarm for five.

At daylight, I see a German redcoat spin past. He doesn’t say hi. I’m groggy, but good, like the morning after a great party– hung over, but smiling and maybe still a little drunk.

There are a few hours of little ups and downs to Butte. It’s sunny and I’m there mid-morning. Montana has some fantastic main streets– broad and open and brick. Butte is on a hillside. I circle up and around a few blocks looking for the grocery store.

I down a liter of kombucha and take my coffee to go. As I’m sipping it from the aero position, Kiwi Rob pulls up. He just has to unload; last night was the second to last worst cycling night of his life and the night before was the worst. He’s got a raspy voice and cough. We pass a gas station. I’m stopping. Rob says he’ll stop too. I say I’ve got a few things to take care of– hoping Rob won’t tag on to me. He gets it and says he’ll keep cruising on.

I rinse my shorts out in the restroom, clean my chain with a paper towel and load up on chicken fingers and pizza flavored burritos.

I’m back on pavement to dirt up Fleecer Ridge. I pass German Red on the way up and catch Kiwi Rob on the way down. We’re all in Wise River together.

I microwave a couple of burritos to take with me. Rob and German Red drink pints of half and half. The mosquitoes are terrible. I walk to the trash to throw my soda can away. German Red asks what’s wrong with my feet because I look like I walk on eggshells. I smile and say they feel fine, but really I feel like he’s picking on me and I don’t like it. I’m glad they pedal away before me.

The road ride is so easy after Wise River, but I’m losing energy fast. My breath is short again– getting shorter by the hour. I thought I was better! I thought the hospital visit was magic. I was wrong. I use my inhaler, but it gives me little relief. As the day wears, I pedal slower and slower.

The climb up Crystal Park is very gentle. It’s a picture perfect day. I’m riding too slow to escape the mosquitoes.

Eddie Clark pulls up next to me in his red pick-up.

How’re you doing?

I’m having a hard time breathing.

You’re still making great time. You know, Mike Hall had a hard time breathing too– all the way through Montana. And then he got better and really stepped it up for the rest of the race.



It’s a long climb, but there’s a huge descent on the other side.

He pulls away to get a few more shots. I slowly pedal on. I’ll make it over Crystal Park and camp on the other side.

I descend to a river and check the water, looks fine to drink. The mosquitoes swarm. I pull out my sleeping bag, burrow deep and am asleep before 9PM.


I peek out of my bag to find a huge man hovering over me.


I just came from the High Country Lodge. We’re just five miles down the road. I’ve been following your SPOT expecting you to come. And then you didn’t. I came to make sure you didn’t ride into the river.

No, I just couldn’t breathe, so I stopped for the night.

We’re just down the road if you want to come sleep in a real bed.

I’m fine here.

Well, then maybe we’ll see you in the morning for breakfast.

Yeah, see ya.

He gets back into his jeep and drives away. I really don’t think I’ll see him for breakfast because I’ve packed loads of food to make it to Lima. I open my framebag to snack on some fritos and go back to sleep. I wake up in the night and see a healthy white fox hanging around my bike. I sit up and holler. Hey! Hey you, fox! Get out of here! He takes his sweet time leaving.

I don’t hear my alarm in the morning. By the time I wake up, the sun is high and it’s well past 6AM. I start packing up and realize my framebag is empty, save an old pack of potato rolls and my spare tube. That white fox stole it all! I had a large bag of fritos, a 12oz pack of salami, and four Probars. What a feast! I check my bag for damage and it’s perfect. That sneaky fox must’ve reached his hand in there and snatched everything out.

I pack up and start pedaling down the road. When I pass the High Country Lodge, the owner is waiting in the road with his cell phone, ready to take my picture. I tell him about the white fox and we laugh. He invites me in for breakfast. I hesitate, I really want to keep on it, especially because I got such a late start. I do have those potato rolls.

How far is it to Lima?

104 miles. Come on, my wife’ll make you breakfast. It’ll be quick and painless.

I cave and pedal the half mile up the driveway and he follows. It’s a wooden lodge with huge picture windows.

Wow, this place is beautiful.

And to think, you slept on the ground. He laughs heartily and my pride flares.

It was nice out there.

I figured you were long gone and just didn’t turn on your SPOT.

Nope, I slept in.

He smiles and nods and wakes his wife up so she can make me breakfast.

Hot coffee?

Yes, please.

While I’m waiting on my breakfast, I decide that if I have trouble breathing today, I’ll quit the race, take a few days off and continue touring the route. My intention is to ride the Great Divide. If I can’t race, I’ll ride.

The lodge owner shows me pictures of all the riders coming through. He has me sign a board of this year’s racers– signature only please or else there won’t be room for everyone.

She’s ready for you in there. He gestures to the kitchen. I walk in and ask if I can take it all to go instead.


His wife raises her eyebrows and looks at him.

Just put it all in plastic bags.

She dutifully puts scrambled eggs, pancakes and breakfast sausage into individual ziplocks.

Orange juice?

Can I fill my bottle?


He tops it off. I put the breakfast bags into my gas tank. He takes pictures and I pedal away.

On the road, I eat scrambled eggs with my fingers. I wrap the pancakes around the sausage links and wash it all down with orange juice. It’s damn good.

Beth catches me down the road.

Hi Sicky!

Hi Beth.

I tell her about the fox and High Country Lodge. She says the owner gave her a huge cuddle and said it was from her husband– he’s in the lead pack. Thinking of a High Country cuddle gives me the willies. She breezes past me, but I catch her on the climb. It’s broad cow country and we’re over 7000 feet. The descent narrows and winds around features. It flattens out on dirt farm roads. I turn onto pavement and into a headwind for the final stretch to Lima. I stay aero and push it in.

And I’m there. At the gas station, I run into Australian Simon and American Brendan.

You’re killing it! He smiles at me.

Thanks! I can breathe.

I buy eggrolls, jerky, fritos, cheese curds and pepperoni slices. I fill my bottles with iced tea and coconut water and I’m back out. The road out of Lima is a stunner up to a water reservoir. I’m not stopping anytime soon. Gas station eggrolls are weird.

Before dark, I spot Brendan blowing up a sleeping pad on the top of a hill. You camping for the night?


Well, I’m sure I’ll see you in the morning.

He smiles and waves. I never see him again. I would never camp with the wind at my back.

I keep on it past the Red Rocks Wildlife Refuge and up and over Red Rocks Pass. I lay out to sleep on the other side, set my alarm for four and this time put is right next to my head, so I’ll be sure it hear it. I’m tired, but not winded.

I have a cough for the rest of the race, but I can breathe, so I pick up my mileage. I make it to Union Pass the next night. I’m up and over the pass and to Pinedale by early afternoon. I pedal to the grocery store at the end of town and resupply. I turn on my phone as an afterthought as I’m heading out of town and get a text from Nick: Go see the people at the Great Outdoor Shop.

I call him. He explains that I’ve been riding the 2014 Tour Divide route. We dowloaded the route in early May before I left Anchorage to ride to the start. An updated route was published at the end of May while I was riding from Alaska to Banff. Unknowingly, for a ten mile stretch leading to Union Pass, I followed the old race route. Nick has been in correspondence with the race organizer– I can still ride for the record, but may be disqualified from the race. I’m so happy that I can breathe and that I’m physically able to ride, that I don’t feel too disappointed. I just need to get the right track because the route through the Basin has changed.

The guys at the Great Outdoor Shop welcome me in. The owner takes me to his apartment upstairs. He’s loaded the current Tour Divide track and has it ready to go. I plug my Garmin etrex20 in and he gives me instructions before heading back downstairs. They’re busy. I try to load the track, but when I turn the gps on, it freezes. The owner is back up the stairs to help. The same thing happens when he tries. He leaves again. I try over and over– removing the batteries and restarting the gps. I delete the track and reload it. The owner is back and forth– he suggests we try to load the track, let it sit for fifteen minutes and see what happens. I sit and stare at it and magically it loads! We cheer.

I pack up to pedal away and realize my rear light is loose. An employee at the shop helps me tighten it.

And then I’m really off. All told, I spent an extra three hours in Pinedale. I start pedaling like hell to Atlantic City. I make it there in the dark. Loud Lady Gaga echoes out of the bar. I go in to fill water. The locals are tanked– lots of white russians and liquored cokes– lots of laughing and some dancing. One lady clears the remains of a potluck.

I fill four liters and am back out into the night. I aim to camp in the Basin, rise early and make it through before the heat.

I’m up at four, pedaling in the dark. It’s calm in the Basin. The sun rises to expose a sea of green. The route cuts onto doubletrack and then fainter doubletrack, but I see tire prints. I’ve heard this is a cursed place, but this morning the broad expanse is comforting. It’s open green scrub as far as I can see. And before long, I turn in the direction of Wamsutter 26. It’s a harsh turn into a headwind, but I don’t care too much. I’m riding. I can breathe. I got the right track.

I pass an older guy in the Basin and then I catch Kiwi Rob

You’re doing quite well. You must have had some good days.

Thanks, Rob. I tell him about the track mix-up. He tells me about the big party in Atlantic City.

We get to Wamsutter quick. The shopping center is a Love’s gas station with and Subway and a fried chicken joint. It’s a zoo in there. I end up with eggrolls and taquitos from the hot dog roller, fritos, cheese and Clif bars. I fill my bottles with orange juice.

Taking his first bite out of an ice cream cone, Rob turns to me:

Well, I’m glad we’re past the Basin.

Yep. See ya.

I step on my bike to pedal away. I see his eyes flare up. Five minutes down the road, Rob is back. We ride into a stiff headwind on a hot afternoon.

Well, this is awful.

It’s not that bad.

Not that bad?

Look Rob, I was really sick. I couldn’t breathe. I had to go to the hospital. I’m just happy to be out here.

I’m actually hoping that Rob will just pull ahead. I don’t want to deal with a headwind and a bad attitude. He changes his tune. He tells me stories about last year’s divide, about the riders and the stops and how great he felt at the end. We pedal into the headwind for about thirty miles together and the time passes pretty quickly considering how slow we’re moving.

I only packed two liters of water out of Wamsutter. Huge mistake. I’m dry pretty soon and I don’t know where I’ll find water next. I see a sign for a well and follow it. Rob pedals out of sight. I open the shed and it’s a well with a pump and tubes and no access to water. I zoom in on the gps and see we cross Cow Creek up ahead. It doesn’t sound too promising, but I’m hoping. When I cross it, it smells like urine and is totally dried out with salty remains. It’s hot. The air feels like riding into a hair dryer.

Kiwi Rob is ahead. It’s Sunday. I pass tons of little oil rigs bobbing up and down into the dirt. I’m getting desperate for water. I know I’ll make it, but I’ll make it much better if I get some water. I stop at an oil rig with a couple extra buildings. I see tanks that look like water, but are marked oil. It’s a big deserted operation. I start poking around the buildings– first a big noisy one with massive machines, then a smaller one with a desk. I find two little bottled waters with a couple of sips left. I chug them and get the hell out of there.

Fifteen miles down the road, I spot an old RV and a truck. People? Sure enough, three shirtless dudes sit in the back of a pick-up sipping Coors Light. I stop.

Do you guys have any water?

Do you want a beer?

Sounds great, but I can’t I’m trying to ride this race.

From Canada to Mexico?


They bring me a cold liter of water. I drink half of it right away.

How come none of you carry enough water?

It’s a long stretch.

Maybe we should start selling it. That New Zealand guy just passed. He said some young girl was right on his tail. He was in a rush.

Yeah, I better go catch him.

Go America!

We laugh.

Are you sure you don’t want to pack a beer for later?

Naw, thanks though.

How far have you ridden today?

I look down at my odometer: 136 miles.

Their eyes get big. When did you start?

About 4.

We’ve been shearing sheep since five.

They bring me another pint of water. Grateful, I pack it.

I start back again into the wind. Within the hour, they pull up next to me in their pick-up.

We’re headed to a water reservoir to swim. You sure you don’t want to just put your bike in the back of the truck and come with us?

I can’t. I laugh and wave them on.

The wind is some work, but when my mind starts bitching, I just look at my hospital wristband from Helena. If I could do that, I can definitely do this. And I charge on.

It’s steep ups and downs into the evening, past cows and not much else. I see trees in the distance and then houses. Great! I descend to a river and pavement. The signed gas station and museum are closed. I approach a lit house looking for water. It’s fully fenced. I walk around looking for the front door and find it, but I see a man in a truck pull out from behind, so I run over to stop him.

He rolls down his window.

Sorry to trouble you, but could I have some water?

Of course. He tips his cowboy hat and gets out of the truck. He takes me around the back to a pump.

Fresh cold water straight out of the ground. Would you like ice?

Oh no, that’s fine.

Are you part of that race from Canada to Mexico?


A feller from Uruguay was here earlier, drank three glasses of ice water before he said more than two words. He was headed for the Brush Mountain Ranch. Are you going there?

I don’t know. I plan to just head up the road and camp somewhere.

He says I’m welcome to stay in the yard, but the mosquitoes are terrible.

They sure are– I feel them biting as we stand there.

His words are slurred and his eyes watery. He warns me of the drivers. They look out for deer, but not bikes.

I ride a little into the night, but I’m whipped from the wind. I pull over to get my headlight and realize I forgot it somewhere. I camp near the base of the climb on the side of the road. I lay in a patch of grass, but the mosquitoes are so bad that I move over to gravel– it’s a little better, but pretty bumpy.

I wake up around midnight and consider getting back on the it, but can’t face so many hours of darkness with no light. I sleep until the sun breaks.

In the light, the climb is a beauty and I’m up to the Brush Mountain Lodge in no time. Kirsten waits for me out front and gives me a huge hug: so wonderful to meet you! She makes me feel like a dear old friend.

She invites me in. Rob is just leaving with a twinkle in his eye that he got me caught. I flare up– I want to move too.

Kirsten says she’s making blueberry pancakes. Would I like a plate?

Can I take some to go?

Are you in a rush?

I just like to keep moving.

I can see that. You’re making great time. You rode from Alaska, right?

Yeah, it was awesome!

You have to at least tell me some stories.

I concede. She’s wonderful, but time is miles or sleep.

Do you want to take a shower?

Oh wow. That sounds great. And then I hesitate. Time is miles. No, I’m all right. Let’s sit and have coffee instead.

We sit for an hour. She brings me butter and foil to wrap up my pancakes. I tell her about seeing a hundred bears on the Cassiar Highway and crossing the Highway of Tears. I tell her about Israel and South Africa and learning about people and justice. She tells me I remind her of Jesse C. from Australia. He arrived at Brush Mountain in a fresh white jersey as if he’d just had a shower and laundry. He carried speakers and blasted dubstep and blew a whistle to ward away bears.

She tells me about the six guys that slept at the lodge the night before. They had four different ways of pronouncing my name and they know I’m coming. Have I met Andres? He’s great! Martin eats a lot– four cheeseburgers in one sitting and a huge plate of pancakes and six eggs for breakfast. The only person she’s seen eat four cheeseburgers is Billy Rice on his yoyo back from the border last year. Where does all that food go? We talk about Team Riceburner– Billy and his daughter Lina riding tandem We agree it’s the coolest and we’d never do it.

I ask if I can pay for breakfast.

Not a chance. You’re broke!

How about ten bucks?

Nope. Just write me a letter.

I will I promise.

She gives me a big hug and sends me on my way.

I fire up and over Brush Mountain. I make it to Clark in no time and stop for drinks. A lady on a loaded Bike Friday is excited to see me.

Are you the first woman?


You look great. I just saw Martin and he looks like shit.

She takes my picture and tells me about her northbound divide ride. New Mexico was tough! It should be much better now because she just got rid of 15 pounds of gear in Steamboat Springs. I compliment her Bike Friday and she beams with pride.

You know, people say little bikes can’t do much, but I can do it all on this little bike.

She’s a believer.

It’s an easy pedal to Steamboat. The route passes straight by Orange Peel Cycles and I stop to get my bottom bracket checked out. I’ve been hearing some creaking.

It’s roached.

Can you change it out?

No problem.

They lend me a town bike to run errands. I buy a new headlamp and lots of juice and five prepackaged Indian sandwiches called nanwiches from the Vitamin Cottage. The checker asks if I’d like a small box.

You don’t have bags?

No. She rolls her eyes at me.

So I cart a small box around on my handle bars like a delivery boy.

Back at the shop they’re still working on my bottom bracket. Then the mechanic asks if I’d like more sealant while he’s at it.

Should I?


Then he tightens my stem bolts and takes it out for a test ride.

You need new brake pads.

I’ve got a spare pair that he installs.

He charges me for the bottom bracket and $25 for labor. I buy some Probars.

Don’t you ever get sick of those?

I go through phases. Sometimes they’re disgusting and sometimes they’re delicious.

And then I’m off.

I pass an older group of ladies on old mountain bikes. One catches me.

Where are you riding?

I’m riding the divide.

Us too!


The ride out of Steamboat to Radium is a treat. I make it past the river at sunset. I follow good dirt roads in the dark and lay out near some lakes.

I’m up and over Ute Pass in the morning. I buy pizza at the gas station and I’m gunning for Breckenridge. A couple of older folks on longboards cheer me on at the dam. A commuter pulls up next to me on the bike path. He recognizes me because of my helmet. He tells me I’m wonderful and to keep going.

Nick’s cousin Brent waits for me on the bike path, a few blocks away from his apartment. The encouragement is awesome.

Boreas Pass is a breeze. I hit the Gold Dust Trail on the other side. A stream runs down it. I take it slow and eat my last nanwich on singletrack. Back on the road, I see a big man and a little girl next to a truck on the side of the road.

It’s Stella and Andy! They’ve come from Denver to cheer me on. Stella has a sign; Andy an Alaskan flag hat. They’re great.

Tailwind to Hartsel. Breakfast burritos and Moutain Dew and I’m headed for Salida. I descend in the dark and keep on to Poncha Springs. I buy a refrigerated Bomb Chimichanga, a cold breakfast sandwich and bag of Gardettos from the gas station. I camp across the street under a big tree to protect myself from the wind.

I’m up at 4 and straight out for Marshall Pass. It’s well graded. A truck and two men wait for me at the top before 6AM. It’s Nate’s cousin from Anchorage and his brother. I can’t take their sandwiches, but seeing them is a nice surprise.

Cochetopa and Carnero Passes make for a magnificent ride to the La Garita Wilderness.

Eddie Clark shows up to take pictures just out of Del Norte. Excited to see him, I wave big and then hit the soft shoulder, fall over and scrape my knee. I stop for a sub in town. As I’m leaving, big Joe Fox and Andres from Uruguay show up. They’re shocked faces make me smile. These guys are nice.

Are you riding on?

Of course! You?

We’re staying in the motel here. We’ll get an early start in the morning.

Well, I’m sure I’ll see you then.

No, you won’t.

We split ways smiling. I climb halfway up Indiana Pass before I camp. The rest is a quick morning ride. I stop for soda in Platoro and plan to resupply in Horca.

When I toured through in 2010, there were feet of snow over the pass and Horca had a small store. The store is under renovation, but there’s still a cafe. I order pancakes, a barbecue sandwich and a cheeseburger with fries. It takes over an hour. I sit on my hands impatiently and drink buckets of Dr. Pepper. I can feel the daylight dissolving.

Back out, a thunderstorm breaks as I climb La Manga Pass. I put my rain suit on for the other side. I’m still sick and trying to keep my heat.

The Brazos Ridge is muddy and slow, but still beautiful. I cross paths with a biker.

Lael! We’re all pulling for you.

Mike gives me detailed directions for what to do if I miss the hours for Bode’s store in Abiquiu and six dollars to spend at the snack stand in Canyon Plaza. He drank chocolate milk there. He is excited.

I still have chocolate milk on the brain when I get to Canyon Plaza in the dark. I can feel the pack of guys chasing me, so I keep on it. The dogs are mean in Vallecitos. I camp just above El Rito.

I’m at Bode’s at 6:30AM for the store opening. I buy two massive bacon breakfast burritos. I’m full of energy because I’m in New Mexico. I love it here.

I charge up the 4000 foot chunky climb. It’s my favorite part of the whole ride.

A girl pops out of an SUV on the other side, almost near Cuba. It’s Liz Quinley, a high school friend from Anchorage. She’s living in Albuquerque and drove out to find me. She pulls out a huge cutout cardboard pink dot with the initials LW attached to a rake. Too funny! We pose for photos.

On the pavement, I pump up my tires for the first and only time of the whole race. I have a long paved stretch ahead.

On the descent, I cross paths with Banff Keith and Whitefish Crickett. They’re touring northbound. We all sweaty hug.

I buy taquitos in Cuba at the gas station because the McDonald’s line is too long. I’m on pavement and into a headwind to Grants.

I camp by a barbed wire fence on the roadside in the Navajo Reservation. In the morning, I snag my sleeping bag on the barbs and tear a huge hole. I send it and the maps home. It’s warm enough to sleep in the bivy and it’s awesome to ditch the gear.

The road ride is windy, but pretty. I make it to Pie Town in the early evening. The Pie-O-Neer is closed, but I can’t help but peek through the window. I’ve heard a lot about this place.

As I pedal away someone is hollering.

Wait! Wait! A lady in a headscarf waves her arms frantically.

Wow! It’s Kathy. They’re closed, but she invites me into her kitchen for pie. It’s the only meal I sit down for during the entire race. I eat a slice of peach and a slice of apple crumble and a slice of chicken pizza. Stanley warms up a cup of coffee. Kathy sends me with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas and a cupcake. Am I strawberry girl or a grape girl? I don’t know. How about one of each. I sign a sheet for Salsa to register that I’ve had my pie. I spot Josh Kato’s name at the top of the list and tell Kathy that he won.

He did? I’m so proud of him. Those fast guys never stop anymore. Back in the day, Mathew Lee himself used to sit on this counter and eat a whole cherry pie with a fork and then go win the race.

She shows me pictures of Josh Kato smiling over pie.

She and Stanley walk me out.

And then I’m headed into the Gila. Shortly after dark, my wheels start veering into the ditch. I’ll sleep now and wake early to ride.

I get up at 3AM and pull my rain clothes on to warm up fast. My vision is blurry and I feel terrible. I realize if I don’t get some more sleep, I’m going to have a really bad day. I stop two miles down the road and pull out my bivy. I climb right in and pass out. I even leave my shoes and helmet on. Awake at 6AM, I feel great.

The Gila is always up and down. It takes all day. I cross a major road and two couples cheer me on. I don’t know them, but they’re sure nice.

I hike and ride the five mile section of the CDT. It’s pretty, but I’m in a rush to get off before it gets dark. I can see the pavement, but the light is waning. I hit a patch of rocks and fall. I fall hard.

Oh no! Oh no! I yell. I was so close. My knee is streaming blood and my shoulder is very sore, but mostly I’m just bummed. I’m so close and that really hurt. I take some Ibuprofen and get back on my bike and start spinning slowly. My knee aches.

I fell and it really hurts. I think I’m going to camp early and deal with this tomorrow. I don’t want to see anyone.

Don’t stop. Go get something refreshing to drink and pull yourself together. If you have to sleep, sleep on the road out of town.

My friend Lucas pedals a few blocks from his house to meet me on the route and we descend to town.

We stop at McDonald’s. I drop almost $30 on nuggets and cookies. That’s a whole lot of McDonald’s! I buy a couple of 5 hour energies and we roll out of town. It’s midnight.

It’s a beautiful, calm night with a huge moon and I’m ready to pedal to the end. Lucas rides me up the first big hill and it feels like we’re on just a nice little night ride. He turns back. He has to work in the morning. I keep on, full of heart.

I really start losing it around three in the morning. I’m tired. How can I stay awake? I stop and pull out my headlamp. I turn it on bright and shine it straight into my eyes thinking maybe it will stimulate them. It’s a total failure and I have blind spots at the sides of my vision. What else? I decide to sing songs in my head. That doesn’t work at all. I start singing songs out loud. It works! I sing whatever song I can think of– mostly songs from elementary school because I actually know all of the words. If I start singing a song that I don’t know the words to, then I trail off and start falling asleep again. I sing until the sun comes up and in the daylight I feel fine.

60 miles to Antelope Wells: wow! It’s all straight flat road and seems strange after so much remote and beautiful country until 13 miles from the finish, a bobcat crosses the road. He walks slowly and pauses, looking over his shoulder at me. This may be as remote as it gets.

Eight miles from the end, a car pulls up. It’s Joe Fox’s dad. Joe is about 15 back and his dad is going to the border to wait. And then it hits me: Oh yeah, I’m in a race. And I start sprinting like hell all the way to the end. I feel great, like I could ride forever.

I sprint all the way to the Mexican side of the border. The guards stare at me blankly. I zoom into my gps.

This is it?


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and then we start

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Josh Daugherty leaves the left lane open on the first day of the Tour Divide 2015.  Photo via klite.com.au.

You can’t win this race in a day, but you can certainly ruin it for yourself and others. We’ll try to organize this start to ensure that doesn’t happen to anyone.

All 150 riders stand together in the parking lot of the YWCA for a group picture. Well over six feet tall and larger than life, Billy Rice commands the group. I turn to find Alice Drobna, the female single-speed record holder from last year, standing right behind me. I recognize her from pictures. I smile at her and lift my hand for a high five. She looks at me quizzically, but tags my bare palm with her leather glove.

Billy Rice continues:

If you’re planning on beating Jay Petervary and riding two hundred miles to sleep in Butts Cabin, come stand over here.

A dozen riders huddle in the far end of the parking lot.

A nearby rider snickers. There’s only room for four or five to sleep in that cabin

If you’re planning on sleeping in Sparwood, please make your way to the center of the parking lot.

I’m standing in between the Butts Cabin beating JayP group and the Sparwood group, catching up with a Colin Saman. Colin is riding the Tour Divide on a fully loaded cargo bike. He’s an ex-roadie and one of the strongest riders I’ve ever encountered. I met him in the spring of 2013. He’d recently quit road racing and was on a road trip to move back to California. He stayed with Nicholas and I when we were living on a farm in Albuquerque. We spent a few days riding fatbikes along the Rio Grande together. Now Colin spends most of his time picking up produce from local farms with his cargo bike and connecting directly to consumers. He’s the vegetable man. He must be carrying at least a hundred pounds of gear for the Tour Divide.

If you’re planning on riding the Elkford, please wait at the end of the parking lot.

If you didn’t know this was a race, get back there! Billy Rice waves his hand past all of the riders to the end of the street. Everyone laughs.

We depart.

It’s about a mile from the YWCA parking lot until the official start of the Tour Divide. Billy Rice warns that if we pass JayP before the start line, we should consider ourselves on an ITT. It’s cool out. I’m shivering in shorts and a t-shirt, but I know I’ll be hot soon. I pedal casually in the lead group up a steep hill to the start. “On your left”, the lady calls. Alice pushes past us on the left. “Whoah, Alice” a guy replies.

I have to get my cadence, she hollers back.

It’s a race. We’re all nerves.

And then we start.

Good God, it’s fun and we’re ripping trail. 

I find myself close to Chanoch, a Trek sponsored Israeli rider. I know him from traveling in Israel this spring. Someone complains about the first hill we have to climb. Chanoch jokes: this trail goes from east to west, right? A southerner tells him, No, buddy, it’s north to south. Chanoch says he knows. The southerner says it must’ve been the accent that threw him off. I glare at the southerner. Chanoch speaks perfect English. He’s spent a decade driving around the US and competing in mountain bike races. He’s well versed in America. I’ll be happy to ride alone soon. 

Ten miles in, we emerge from the doubletrack Goat Creek Trail to connect with the Spray Lake Road. There’s a crowd with cowbells cheering. It’s a steep hill to the crossing. I stand and climb to the top, almost losing traction, but stick it. Crazy Larry is at the top and yells: It’s the first woman! I aim straight for him and reach up for a high five. He claps my hand loud and starts hollering with excitement. 

This is too fun. I’m having the ride of my life.

Thirty or forty miles in, it starts raining. Then the rain freezes. It’s cold. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt. Crazy Larry pulls up in a van next to me. He asks if I know the number one reason why people drop out of the Tour Divide.

No, I don’t know.

They get sick in the cold. They don’t want to stop to put on more layers. They just try to push through.

That makes sense. If you get too cold, you lose all of your energy.

He nods. Do you have something to sleep in?

Yeah. I have a sleeping bag.

What kind?

I can’t think of the brand. The model is Summerlite. It’s a 32 degree bag, but four years old, so more like a 45 degree bag.

Crazy Larry’s friend laughs. Do you have something to eat?

Yeah, I have like seven sandwiches.


In my framebag, gas tank, and jerry can.

Don’t get too cold and don’t forget to call Crazy Larry. He gives me a sticker with a 1-800 number out of the window. I slide the sticker into my pocket and forget about it forever.

Crazy Larry speeds away.

I pull over to get into my rain suit. 

I cruise past the Boulton Creek Trading Post. The sun comes back out. I keep my pace up. My lungs start to heat up. Then they start burning. I figure they’re just opening up, that I’m just getting used to the elevation. I’m breathing hard, but I’m having fun.

It rains. We ride through mud. 

I pass Elkford during a sun break. I spot menacing clouds and I don’t stop.

I cross paths with three ladies on dirt and they hardly say hi. It starts hailing. The big stones bounce off my nose. I lose the track. I track back and forth three times and finally find a narrow path pushing straight up a hill.

I make it to Sparwood in the early evening. I walk right into the bathroom of the Subway. My face is covered in mud. I wash up and fill my bottles.

I order two meatball foot longs and a foot of the sub club. I ask the ladies to cut the sandwiches into four pieces, skip the paper wrapping and put the pieces directly into plastic bags. I know it’s weird, but it’ll make it easier for me to eat them on the bike. They work together. One lady holds the plastic bags wide and the other stuffs the sandwiches in. They’re already a mess. I buy cookies and chips and drink soda and split.

Out front, a rider asks if I’m continuing on. I grin wide, of course, are you?

No, I’m just a rookie. This is the second longest day I’ve ever had on a bike. I’m sleeping here for the night. We part ways.

Back on route, the sky clears. I follow a river on pavement to a mine and turn back on dirt. Night falls. I climb.

Around midnight, I encounter icy water and downed trees. There’s no way around them. I walk straight through. The road is a cold stream. It takes me an hour to be through with it.

I’m breathing hard in the cold night, but I’m happy to be climbing to warm up. Stars overhead comfort me. With no rain in sight, I can sleep out.

Around 1AM, 183 miles into the route, I decide to call it for the night. I pull out my sleeping bag and bivy on the side of the road and doze off.

I wake up a few minutes later gasping. My breath is short. I try to slow it down, to fall back asleep, but I can’t. I lay there for another hour, focusing on my breath, trying to slow it’s pace, but I feel like I can’t get any air. I hear another rider pedal past, deep in conversation with invisible bears. I decide to get up and ride. It’s just after 3AM.

My breath is labored, but I’m riding fine, my legs feel fine. I figure I’ll buy cough syrup in Eureka and I’ll be fine. Over the morning, it get worse and worse. I have three passes to climb before the border at Roosville, MT. I don’t see anyone all morning. Corbin passes fine, Cabin is a little labored, but by the time I make it to Galton Pass, I feel terrible. I’m wheezing hot, stale air. I have to stop several times during the steep quarter mile singletrack push. This can’t go on. Even when I make it back to the road, I’m too exhausted to pedal. It’s not even steep. I’m powerless. I get off my bike and start pushing. My speedometer drops to 0 miles an hour and my trip mileage restarts. I’m hunched over my bike gasping. It’s a beautiful sunny day. I walk for five miles. I have no idea how tall the pass is, but I don’t stop to look. Hours pass. Finally, a rider catches me. It’s Rob from New Zealand. He hops off his bike and starts pushing next to me.

You’re suffering.

I can’t breathe.

It’s only another K and a half to the top.

He gets back on his bike and pedals up the hill. I keep walking.

Chanoch and Joe Fox catch up.

Chanoch hollers when he sees me: What, did you only sleep two hours? You’re crazy! You need to sleep six hours.

I look at him lamely. They pass. I tell them I’ll see them in Eureka.

I make the top and speed down the other side. I’m achey all over, but it’s nice to be back on the bike. I descend to the border.

The border guard is incredulous. Where did you come from?


All the way from Anchorage? Where’s all your stuff?

This is it.

He asks about my raspy voice. I tell him I’m having a hard time breathing. A stack of cars line up as we chitchat.

I struggle through the ten mile road stretch from Roosville to Eureka. I call Nick on the way, keeping my left hand on the bars as I talk. Something is wrong. I can’t breathe. He tells me to relax, to get to Eureka. From there, I need to take a nap. I need to take it one hour at a time.

I feel like my race is over. It’s taken me all morning to cover very little distance. I can hardly move.

Joe Fox, Chanoch and Rob are all sitting for Subway in Eureka. 

You don’t look so good.

I don’t feel so good.

I buy some Dayquil and a huge soda. They push on. I tell them I’m going to take a nap and see how I feel in a few hours.

I pedal past a forest service office and into a grassy field. I pull out my sleeping bag and lay in the sun and focus on my breath. It is short and labored. Within an hour I’m coughing up loads of bright green mucus. It’s a disgusting relief. I can breathe a little easier.

I lay in the field for another three hours. I call my family and tell them I’m sick. They support me– I’ve already had a great ride through Canada. They’ll be happy to have me home early.

I go to the supermarket to buy juice. I’m feeling whipped out, but much better. I call Nick and tell him I plan to ride a few miles down the road, sleep out and see how I feel in the morning. I’m not ready to give up. He tells me I’m the best person he knows.

I load up on cough syrup, ride down the road and set my sleeping bag out next to the train tracks at sunset.

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In Daliyat on the top of Mt. Karmel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea there is a thirty year old bakery run by a twenty-two year old girl named Arwa. On a rainy morning we come in looking for cover and coffee.

Arabic coffee? With Cardamom?

Yes please.

She scoops two spoons of coffee and a pinch of cardamom into the cezve, fills it with water and sets it on the stove. Tucked away, we watch a steady flow of customers– in from the rain and out with boxes of baklava. 

Arwa arrives with the pot of coffee and two small cups. She pulls up a chair to tell her story.

I love bicycles. I have always ridden bicycles. I take my children riding in the forest. Let me show you.

She pulls out her phone and shows us pictures of children on cheap mountain bikes riding dirt roads– children covered in mud (it’s good for them!), children straddling their bikes over a ledge (when we reach the high point, we lift our arms and cry out!), children gulping 2 liter bottles of water (You must drink!), children red in the face, smiling and exhausted.

A man comes in for kanafeh, a woman for a cappuccino. Arwa comes back.

Who are these children?

They are my family. When they are riding their bikes in the woods, there is no more stress. She hunches her shoulders up to her ears and then relaxes them down with a long sigh.

She shows us chubby before and slim after pictures of her nephew. During his first rides he walked the hills, he got down on himself, he couldn’t do it. She made him get back on and pedal. She told him that he could do it. Now he rides with the group.

It wasn’t always easy. Women in town gave her dirty looks. They told her she was too old to ride a bicycle, that she needed to stop. She didn’t. She kept riding, into the woods and definitely up the hills.

More customers, more coffee, more kanafeh.

We show her pictures of riding bikes in Alaska and South Africa and her eyes get big.

I want to do that!

We pack up to leave. I promise I’ll be back in two weeks when I race through.

You have to come see me. Even if I’m not here, make them call me.

She gives me a hug and a kiss and we pedal away.

HLC day 3, 5AM

I wake up under the tree in the rain. I’m going to see Arwa.

I stuff my wet sleeping bag and bivy into my seatpack, lift my bike onto my shoulder and trudge on. Time passes. I don’t care how slow I’m going as long as I’m going. I make it to a road– some bits are rocky enough to ride, others too muddy. I’m on and off the bike, soaked through, but warm because I’m moving.

I turn onto a riverside path and bless the overgrown thorns because they cover the mud and allow me to ride.

The path lets out to a paved road. Standing in front of a parked car, a man and his daughter flag me down. They’re friends of Niv’s. They’ve brought me hot sweet mint tea. It’s perfect. The little girl giggles because I drink three glasses in a minute. Ndav tells me the climb over Karmel is rocky, not muddy– I should be able to push and ride. He sends me off with a chocolate matzah sandwich. It doesn’t feel right to say no, so I don’t. 

Minutes later, another man pulls up in a sedan. He’s a friend of Yam’s. I stop to talk. The rain comes down harder. My gps freezes. I ask to borrow his phone to call Nick. I tell him my gps is frozen, that I’ve been walking, that I want to get smaller tires for mud clearance. He tells me he’ll see me in Daliyat-al-Karmel at the bakery. I’m shaking with cold. The sedan man follows me to a gas station indicated on the route. It’s warm inside. The two Arabic attendants look at me like I’m crazy, sedan man explains the race and I unintentionally track mud across the mopped floors. I drink hot coffee and instant soup. Two other spot stalkers pop in. They’re friends of Ilan Tevet’s. Sedan man warns me that a bridge is out down the way. I nod like I understand, but I don’t. I change the batteries on the gps. It works.

I’m back out on the road and I’m warm in the core. I’m going over the mountain to Daliyat to see Nick and Arwa and then I’ll get skinnier tires and then I’ll keep going.

Back down the road I approach a river crossing. Two weeks ago Nick and I took off our shoes, hoisted our bikes on shoulders and easily walked across. The water is bigger and faster today. I begin crossing in a calmer, broader entry. My feet sink into the mud and it grips over my ankles. I step back and push onto a rockier entry where the water courses faster. I lift my bike onto my shoulder and begin a slow, little step crossing as the current juts up against my thighs. Before the far bank, the current pulls me down. At once, I let go of my bike and fall under water. Up for air, I see my bike moving down stream and away from me. My foggy brain tells me that I’m going to lose my bike, that I need to focus, that this is getting serious. Sitting in the water, backed up to the edge of the bank, I grab onto my bike. It’s all I can do to hold on, but I need to get out. I can’t back out of the current and hold onto my bike at the same time. Instead, I lay flat on my back with my whole body submerged in the water and lift my bike over my head to the far bank. It works.

I don’t stop to think.

I cross the highway to begin a steep push up Karmel. Water rushes down the rocks like a vertical stream bed. I hike and push fast and bless the climb because it warms me up. Halfway up, the grade lessens and I’m back on the bike, riding over rock to the top. It’s muddy, but passable. I wind around the mountain and make it to pavement. A little descent through town brings me to the bakery where Arwa stands in the doorway. She’s not surprised to see me.


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take no prisoners

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Biria Forest, 6AM

I wake up in the daylight in a rumpled plastic bag in the dirt. I pedaled a gap last night. A real pirate takes no prisoners.

I pack my bags, drink my juice and get back on the bike. I climb steep hills through the forest to single-track, up a clearing and down the pavement to Jish. The town is still asleep, but the bakery is open. I buy a stack of Druze flatbread, labane and zata with sesame seeds. 

The track takes me by a salon and the dump and back to the forest. I stop to eat a can of sardines and mop up the chili oil with bread.

I’m onto a section of the Israel National Trail. Orange, white and blue blazes sign me over loose rocks and between branches. I ride when I can and hike to the pavement and familiar domed ruins. We camped here two weeks ago in a rainstorm. It’s overcast and cool.  I keep to the pavement to finish the climb. It’s a workout: heart rate up, legs burning and lots of standing. I like this.

Back on dirt I wind around Mount Meron, breezing past hikers. A man yells after me asking if I need help. I reach another highpoint in the clouds and start descending back to the Galilee– slow down chunky rock roads, fast on pavement through two communities and bumpy on cow tracks.

I cross over the highway and edge down a steep drainage. I grip the brakes for stability like an old man with a walker. A steep hike up a grassy hill and a smooth dirt descent lead me to the dreaded Gospel Trail. The trail consistently traverses swamp and thorn. It feels like penance. I wouldn’t recommend it.

But there’s Nick! He’s whooping and hollering with his arms in the air. He shouts: You’re crazy. You made it to the top of Meron nine hours faster than anybody last year.

And I’m whooping and hollering and grinning. And I don’t care that we’re on the Gospel Trail. I’m crushing the little wadis.

We hit the gas station. I order chicken schnitzel and omelet sandwiches to go. Nick rides with me to Golani Junction. A couple of kids on electric bikes pace us uphill past an Arab village. We push through thorns where we got lost in the dark on our last time through. My brain starts getting really goofy, so I eat another sandwich.

Nick splits. He might meet in Jerusalem. The forecast calls for definite rain in the dark. I’m aiming to make it as far as I can before that happens.

I ride hours of flowy single-track to the bike shop at Alon HaGalil. The shop is closed. A dad and two sons are camped under the covering.

Are you the American girl?


Someone is looking for you.

I go looking for water.

An older man finds me. He’s excited and shakes my hand. 

What you’re doing is amazing. My wife has a hot shower waiting for you. He holds out a couple of candy bars.

I’m sorry, I can’t take them. It’s against the rules.

He’s confounded. 

But I brought you fish and crackers.

I smile and thank him and he understands.

His name is Israel.

I fill up my water bottle and push into the night.

It starts sprinkling and turns into real rain, but it’s not cold. I keep pedaling along, but slower and slower and then I’m not.


I push my bike a few steps and stop to grab handfuls of mud off of my front tire. After ten slow minutes, I lift my bike by the chainstays and rest my saddle on my shoulder and trudge forward. It’s slow, but moving keeps me warm.

Two hours pass. It’s dark. I’m tired. It’s raining. I’m not going to make it to the next gas station soon. I think about leaving my bike on the route and hiking to a community to find cover to sleep. Then I see a tree with dense boughs, but it’s on a steep hillside. I push under it, lay my bike at my feet, pull the emergency bivy over my head and I’m out. I wake up somersaulted against my bike. I push my feet into my frame to straighten out and fall back asleep. 

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I pop the lid on the can of green olives and drain the juice into the grass. I slice them into pizza toppings on the plastic hummus lid with a pocket knife. I score the avocado, pull the halves apart, remove the pit and scoop out the meat. I slice the purple-green tiger tomatoes, then a cucumber into spears, then a yellow onion. I open five rolls and we assemble– a thick layer of hummus on one side, avocado on the other, tomatoes, onions and olives in the middle. Nick closes them with cucumber and packs them in plastic.

I set the alarm for five and fall asleep once the jackals stop screaming.

In the morning the sandwiches are heavy in my hands. I pack four and give one to Nick. Will it be enough?

I pedal past the cows, uphill to the roundabout with the statue of the mustached Druze warrior on horseback for the start. At five to seven, Zohar calls Nick to tell us that we’re starting at the hotel instead.

And so we do.

Nick starts with us and I’m happy he’s there because I’m so excited I feel like I’m going to jump out of my seat and fly to the moon. We’re on pavement for a minute, steep climbs and descents and I’m sprinting the hills in the lead. The others pass me quickly. Nick splits off to take pictures. I follow Niv up a wrong turn. Now we’re really started.

Wind turbines cut clouds. There are no views.

We pedal past farmlands and picnic areas and abandoned bunkers disguised as ruins.

I talk a little to riders– Ophir didn’t sleep well for the last two nights, Niv traveled Alaska on a motorcycle twenty-four years ago, Ingo rode the HLC last year and likes the south the best– but mostly I crave quiet. I want to ride alone.

I pull over to eat a sandwich or pee or fill up water when I need to. Otherwise, I don’t stop.

By the afternoon, I’m past the Syrian border and overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Nick meets me there. He motions to the cafe and a stack of loaded bikes. Let’s get out of here!

Nick rides with me for an hour. We stop for sandwiches. He fills me in on the race. Niv and Omri are leading, they’re hammering. Niv looks like he’s riding a motorcycle. He descends like Mad Max. Nick found them at the cafe, wolfing down sandwiches and running out the door. Ingo and Eitam are just ahead. Klaus and Yam and a pack are stopped for snacks.

It’s four in the afternoon. I’ve ridden seventy miles of dirt and trail. I want to ride another seventy before I call it a day. I know I’ve got it in me, it just might take some time.

So I continue– past Ingo and Eitam on the Galilee Trail, past banana trees by the sea, up to the heights at Givat Yoav, past grapefruit orchards, through the Jordan River and up and down again.

I don’t see anyone until I cross the road in the dark. A man next to a car hollers after me. He knows me. Do I need food? Do I need water? I tell him I can’t accept anything. He says he knows. He rode last year and he’s back to feed everyone. He gives me a paper cup full of spaghetti. 


No thanks. Can I take it to go?

Of course.

I throw the cup, noodles and fork into a plastic bag and stuff it into my framebag.

He tells me Niv and Omri pulled off at Ramot for dinner. I’m in the lead.

Do you need bread? There won’t be any food tomorrow. Where are you going tonight?

Machanayim Junction.

That’s impossible! You will never it make it there. It’ll take you at least seven hours.

I pull out my cue sheet and count out loud: thirty plus thirty plus ten or fifteen– that’s seventy kilometers. I’ll make it there.

He tells me my calculations are wrong. 

I tell him thanks for the spaghetti and I’m off.

I drop down to 650 feet below sea level and cross knee deep water twice in the dark. I pull the pasta bag out and eat it in the grass. A light shines down the dirt. It’s Niv. We ride together to the beach. Niv’s light is the size of a coca cola can. He startles four wild boars out of the brush.

We reach the Jesus church of fishes and loaves past Amnon Beach, cross the main road and turn up a steep hillside. We climb together past fields and the Monastery of the Beatitudes. It’s warm. I pull over to take a shirt off. Niv keeps on. Ahead, I see his light veer off to Almagor. I stay on the route and keep climbing. It’s 1AM– 18 hours into the race. The final 30KM to the Junction on flat farm roads is easy river-grade. I buy juice at the 24 hour shop and am in my sleeping bag at the base of Mount Meron by 3. My heart and mind are still racing, but I know I need sleep. I need to close my eyes and wake up to climb tomorrow.

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Rain in Arad

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I am standing in the bathroom at the coffee shop in Arad, looking in the mirror and crying. For all those people that have told me I couldn’t do the things that I set out to do– I can. For all those people that tell me I didn’t do the things I’ve done, that I’m lying– I’m not. For all the people that are told you’re not strong enough– you are. At least you can try. There is nothing shameful in trying. This race is not about winning. This race is about riding my heart out because I can. I wash my face in the sink. The restart of the HLC is in two hours.

Wind rushes past strip malls. Dark blue grey clouds threaten.

We meet in the center of Arad at noon. It starts raining. In Israel, rain makes impassable mud. The mud cakes onto tires. Soon, tires no longer roll. Soon, I have to carry my bike. Soon, I can hardly lift my feet and bike at the same time because they’re so heavy with mud. Forward progress is slow and exhausting.

We delay for half an hour. Niv, the strongest rider of the group, shivers with cold. Limor warns us not to cross flooding rivers.

What do we do if we encounter a flooded river? asks Ingo.

Just wait it out, replies Ilan Tevet.

I step away, into a pharmacy and out of earshot. I crossed a flooding river yesterday on my way to Daliyat al-Karmel. The current swept me off my feet and pulled my bike away. I have already voiced my concern about restarting in the rain.  


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To the Karoo!

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The winding road to Montagu passes by rock and water and long grass and birds. The town is colonial and quaint.

Our last stop before the Karoo, we stock up big. We don’t expect any services or pavement for three days. Three pounds of golden delicious apples, 2 large rounds of potbrood, a dozen school buns, a brick of mature cheddar, a brick of ladismither, an english cucumber, a pound of cherry tomatoes, a pack of viennas, coconut biscuits and eetsumore shortbreads, Kloof coffee and chicory, festive fruitcake chocolate, 4 avocados, safari peanuts and peri-peri sauce.

We’ve strapped 4 water bottles to our forks and fill them at the cafe on the way out of town. The owner Keith introduces himself as Mr. Mountain Bike. He eyes our bikes and offers to cart our gear up the pass. Nick is too proud, so I am too. He directs us to the road and promises to take his wife on an evening drive to check up on us. We thank him and head uphill.

I still have no idea what or where the Karoo is. I’ve heard from some that there’s nothing but ostrich farms and brush. Others speak of mountains, antelopes of all sizes and horn configurations, baboons, and the one time they saw a leopard. And then they say it’s hot. Everyone says it’s hot there.

Near the top of Ouberg Pass, Keith and his wife catch up with us. We talk a minute, they wish us well and we roll down as the sun sets. 

We sleep out and wake early to ride smooth wide dirt roads to jeep tracks in the Anysberg Nature Reserve. The sign at the unlocked gate welcomes cyclists and swimmers and smiley faces and indicates an office down the way. The previous days saw rain and we see nine stocky antelopes drinking from a fresh spring. They flee as we approach, but watch us from a hillside, their eighteen thick straight horns toward us. 

We continue to the nature reserve office, nearly the only building we’ve seen since Montagu.  There is a new kitchen and a swimming pool made out of a water tank. It’s time for shade and a little running and lunch. We pedal through the hot afternoon on sandy rocky jeep tracks and lift our bikes over a couple of fences that lead us out of the reserve to a white house and a windmill. I spy an older woman behind a fence and call after her, raising a water bottle. She responds in Afrikaans. I try again in English. She waves her arms at the windmill. A metal pipe pumps groundwater into a large tank under the mill. We fill nine liters and roll down a smooth county road to camp.

The next morning promises to be a cooker and we’re looking forward to hiking down The Ladder to The Hell.

For now, we’re following the Freedom Trail, a 2350 km dirt route across South Africa. Most people race the Challenge in the opposite direction in June. We’ve read a couple trip reports, but it’s hard to tell what’s what when up is down. The trail promises to be full of legends and adventure.

In the morning we smell the green onions and chives of Rouxpos before we see the fields. Distant laborers raise their arms and cheer us on. Vleiland has a town hall with a library.  There is a store. We drink cold Stoney ginger beer on the stoop out front.

The dirt road leads us to a private reserve and a gate identifying a 4×4 trail called to “The Hell and Back”. Nick calls the listed number. The man allows us to pass, but warns that the landowners down below “can get angry.” We chunk our way to the ladder. The Ladder is nearly a 2000 foot drop to The Hell. The trail used to be a donkey route to deliver supplies to the Afrikaans community below. They settled in the valley in the mid 1800s and remained nearly isolated until the road was built in 1962. I gingerly lower my bike down steep loose rocks. Actually, the bike suffers minor abuse.  The trail is extremely steep and loose and rocky.

Below, we cross a stream towards a couple of estates. A lady stands in our path. I wave and she crooks her finger at me, reeling me in. From farther than conversation distance, she recites:

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Who told you that you could come down here?”

I continue towards her. She repeats:

“Who are you? And where did you come from?”

I respond: “I’m Lael and I’m from Alaska.”

Perplexed by our bikes, she softens, asking about our ride and telling us we’re lucky we didn’t encounter the Mr. McGregor up above. He never would’ve let us come down. She asks where we’ll sleep and says she has a camp up and over the hill. We must hurry as we have to make a fire to heat the bath water. She assures us we’ll encounter Donald in a beat bakkie along the road and tells us the code to the electrified gate. As we pedal past she calls that we’ve a climb that’ll break our backs ahead of us. There’s a special word for it in Afrikaans.

Up and over we cross paths with a sunburnt bobblehead in a Datsun. It’s Donald. He says we must camp at his place.

“How much?”

He mumbles something about 200 Rand and interrupts himself to say that he must ask his sister and the camp is signed. We thank him and continue.

We pass a wooden pennant marked  “camp”. We still have an hour of daylight, so we continue down the valley. Soon we see another pennant for “Donald’s house”. The valley only really becomes Alice in Wonderland when we reach the electric fence. The code we were given opens a lock box that holds a key that unlocks the gate, which gives a gentle electric buzz through the handle. Mountains tower the quiet valley. It’s floral and sandy and smells good.

After hours, a sign at the visitor center tells us to inquire at the house around back.  She asks if we’ve just ridden into the valley, and are leaving tomorrow.  There is only one rideable route into the valley, which will be our exit. We agree, so as to avoid describing the semi-confrontation with the woman at the end of the valley. The kind lady there encourages us to camp at Donald’s and offers us the electric fence code. We smile and nod and keep going the other way to find an empty group camp down the road. I jump rope to the sunset and we eat the last of our hotdogs and cookies.

We get up at first light to climb steep switchbacks before the sun bakes The Hell. It’s worth it. We’re 2000 feet up and out in the cool air before seven. The road continues for the next 40K as a series of ascending hills, up and down. The brush and the mountains are beautiful, the climbs more challenging as the sun heats up. The recent rains flow though cool streams and we stop to submerge ourselves three times. 

At the top of Swartberg Pass is a descent all the way to Prince Albert, over 3000ft below. Baking hot with blazing arms from three days of sun I shoot straight down the mountain. Pink and orange and red rock tower along the sides of the steep gravel road, like the Mund’s track into Sedona. Flying down, I think about how I’d like to climb this canyon, to spend more time moving through it, to slow it down. For now, I have to get out of the sun. I’m pretty sure even my eyeballs are sunburnt.

Prince Albert is straight out of a Larry McMurtry novel. Wind whistles through flowering trees outside white-washed houses lining Main Street, except everyone drives on the wrong side of the road.   

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