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Conquering the Great Divide

Biking from high towns to Pie Town

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Most guys my age vacation with a fishing pole or a good book. They would never dream of spending a month riding 900 miles of dirt roads through the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. But then, I'm not like most guys, and neither is my cycling buddy, Mark Annas from Twin Falls.

Mark and I started our adventure along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route eight years ago at Roosville, Montana on the Canadian border. The goal was to make it to the Mexica,n border ... someday. The majority of the trip would be done in three big sections, with little fill-in-the-gap tours as we had time. This year's stretch from Salida, Colorado, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, would break the chains of our somewhat youthful misgivings.

The Adventure Cycling Association developed the 2,490-mile route to appeal to a growing number of bicycle tourists craving solitude and spectacular scenery far from the motorized hordes. It delivers in spades. Nothing else compares to the views from the spine of the continent.

The route doesn't follow the Continental Divide exactly, because much of the actual divide resides in wilderness areas inaccessible to bicycles. Still, riders cross the divide 29 times and clear many beautiful mountain passes otherwise unseen by normal tourists. Between the borders, riders gain over 200,000 vertical feet. Through the years Mark and I did most of the route without support, which meant dragging our gear in panniers or trailers. The heavy load was survival basics: tents and sleeping bags, stoves and cook kits, water filters, clothing, food and water. And even though we tried to travel light, our bikes were still a mighty burden when churning up the hills.

The route follows mostly dirt roads through some of the most remote regions of five Rocky Mountain States, including the far northeast corner of Idaho. This presents riders with challenges our pavement-bound brethren rarely have to contend with. In Montana, I rounded a corner and met a bear in the bushes. (With pepper spray in hand and heart a-pounding, I was thankful he chose to gallop off the other way.)

Nothing about the Great Divide is easy. There are few opportunities to stock up on food or water. The tiny towns along the route may have only limited groceries, if any, and some may be simply closed. Since much of the route is at higher elevations the weather can also be unpredictable. It can snow at any time of the year.

Through vast dry stretches of Wyoming and New Mexico, we never knew where we might find water next. Stock tanks and windmills became our best friends, as streams on the map often proved to be dry on the ground.

The Great Divide is challenging physically, mentally and logistically. Explaining this to strangers, they inevitably ask, "Why do you do this?" We usually responded, with an equally inquisitive look, "Why wouldn't we?" There are few great adventures within the grasp of ordinary people, but the Great Divide is one of them. Mark and I are just a couple of middle-aged guys who aren't particularly fast or strong. But we're stubborn, and that will get you farther down the trail than an expensive bike and gear.

There's magic in every bike tour. People treat you differently when you arrive on a bike. They immediately assume a few things: You're not going to get out of town very fast, so they trust you. You're hungry and thirsty, so they'll give you food and drink. You've been sweating all day, so you might appreciate a shower. You don't ride a bike across the country without having stories to tell. They'll think you're crazy, but still respect you. Most enjoyable of all are the little slices of America. After a bitterly cold night spent in an open field just south of the El Malpais National Monument, we were looking forward to a hot lunch and some pie, in Pie Town, N.M. some twenty miles away. Pie Town was closed that day, but Lola, the postmaster, made a phone call that forever altered our perception of Pie Town. She called Nita Larronde, an earthy woman in her fifties who drove into the park where we were having lunch and said, "I hear you boys are looking for some pie."

A billboard in town indicated we had missed the annual Pie Festival by just a week. And though we didn't know it until later, Nita had been crowned the 2006 Pie Queen. We quickly learned why. She stuffed us full of rhubarb and peach pie with ice cream, then opened her home to us for showers and insisted we camp in her yard. Turns out we weren't the first to be afforded such fine hospitality. Since her house sits right on the continental divide, she has over the years hosted dozens of hikers and bikers. All she asked in return was stories, and we didn't disappoint.

The divide separates the precipitation that falls on the continent into either the Pacific or Atlantic watersheds. To look at it in most places, you'd never know it was there, and to be honest, we rarely knew which ocean we were peeing into. The divide is little more than a line on a map, a path for us to follow. But the journey, will always be more important than the destination, no matter how old you are.

For more information on the Great Divide Mountain Bike route and the Adventure Cycling Association visit www.adventurecycling.org.