I swung the door open, winter blasting in with me, letting all inside know she waited outside, strong as, perhaps stronger than before, for any who still harbored thoughts of continuing on. On her winds the message was clear. "I dare you."
How desperately he wanted the other two’s approval. To deliver the final leg, against all odds. To see their faces. To push, literally if needed, through these last 25 miles - even if it meant not being able to pedal as much as a single stroke. THAT he thought,
would most certainly be something.
One year prior they had traveled from Alaska to take the test known as “The Fat Pursuit”: a 200-mile winter fat bike race in and around West Yellowstone. Its reputation was daunting. The entirety of the course sat above 6000 feet, at times approaching 9000. Held the first weekend in January, the trails could range from freshly groomed, pump your tires full, 15 mile per hour Nirvana; to non-existent, post holing, hike a bike hell. Most fail in their attempt to reach the beautiful wooden arch start/finish at the Pond’s Lodge. 2017 saw just one entrant finish. One.
145 miles into their attempt the year before, the test proving too difficult, they too had failed...
The three of them, training, nearly inseparable, (so close in fact, that most could not even tell them apart), did not take the defeat lightly.
It’s uncertain if grudges or ill will were harbored. It had been a long way to travel for Steve #3 to not even get a chance to throw his leg over the bike. All of his pre-race work and long hours training...he never said a word, hearing that Steve #2 had decided he could not or would not go on.
Steve #1, after delivering a masterful first leg of 120 miles into West Yellowstone, no less disappointed, had also held his tongue. After all, they were a team and teammates. Good teammates support, knowing some days the other just doesn’t have it. Completely wrecked, Steve #2 had rolled back into the West Yellowstone checkpoint, left to wonder what and where things had gone so wrong.
Now, a year to the day later he sat, having completed the leg a year prior, in much less daunting conditions, he had been unable, between alternating bites of hash browns, eggs...cheesy eggs, bacon, more hash browns, pancakes and biscuits and gravy, all being sent down the hatch with glasses of milk, coffee, orange juice and coke he delivered the bad news.
He'd spent the last year carrying the burden of last year's defeat and not once, not once was there even a hint of ill will from the other Steves. It was with that same understanding and heartfelt bond with his teammate that he delivered the news he felt fairly certain Steve #3 already knew.
"There ain't no trail bro and it's gotta be even worse heading up and over that last piece of mountain. I appreciate y'all never giving me any grief over last year and there was no way in hell I was gonna let you down again but Mother Nature has said her piece...and there ain't no beating Mother Nature. We gave it our best shot."
Steve #3 hadn't blinked, not once during my heartfelt discourse. I couldn't recall ever seeing him quite like this - "You let me know when the tanks are all topped off and we'll be on our way."
The soda pop caused an intense burning as it came back up, equal parts exiting mouth and nose. A half eaten menagerie of all things Man Cave breakfast found their way, mostly, back onto the plate below...."Maybe you didn't hear me or notice what happened when I came through that door!! It's-"
and that would mark the end of our conversation.
Interrupting, not at all mean spirited but certainly steadfast in his resolve he made sure I heard him loud and clear. "You let me know when your’re good and fed and have drank all you can hold."
I did. And with that he gave me a pat on the back, a big old man hug and said, "We'll see you and Steve #1 at the finish line."
The wind howled its disapproval as the door swung open, seemingly cursing Steve #3 while simultaneously letting all those still inside know that she had plenty more for any fool that wished to test her. The door closed abruptly behind him. No longer from the cold, but now from the prospect of what lie in wait for my teammate, I was left numb. "Why, How, What if....?" All rushed through my mind with the tenacity of a wind I'd been fighting for hours and one that he'd be fighting for who knew how long. No one else would continue on from Man Cave.
Petr had stopped for no apparent reason, smack dab in the middle of the trail. He'd left just ahead of me and was moving a bit quicker, both of us walking nearly every foot since Man Cave some thirty minutes or so earlier. Upon my catching up to him, both of us maybe shin to knee deep in new blowing, drifting snow he looked back over his shoulder to either make sure I knew what lay ahead or perhaps to confirm to a doubting mind inside himself what was appearing more and more a likely scenario. "We're probably going to have to break trail from here, up and over the mountain, to the finish line. Could be 24 hours."
I'd also done the math and had come to a similar conclusion. This was probably 1 mph conditions we were looking at. I wondered for a moment, mistakenly so, if Petr was looking for an "out". He was not. "Yep, I'm thinking that's about right buddy." It would be the last words we shared that day. He just turned back into the storm and again took up the task. "That's one tough dude." I thought and set sail into the storm as well.
"Just keep moving forward." He'd said. "Time will continue on and if you can keep moving forward, eventually time will deliver you to the finish." Simple. True. Words born from thousands of miles on trail. Jay P, the race director of the Fat Pursuit had shared these words two nights earlier at the pre-race meeting. Never did they ring more true than right now. I'd made my peace, although many mental retaliations were forthcoming that I would be doing just that. 24 Hours from now was an inevitability. Come Monday afternoon I'd either be a finisher or have collected my 2nd DNF. If at any point the mind or body became unwilling, I'd shut them off knowing there is always something left in the tank and just let time do the work. If indeed this were to take 24 hours, perhaps we would miss the not too strictly enforced time cut off. This was of no matter to me. I was going to finish this race, honoring the monumental efforts of the 2 Steve's before me, now happily recuperating somewhere deep inside me, cheering me to a finish neither thought and perhaps still didn't, possible.
I admired Petr's pace. He is not quite as tall as I, but his stride I was unable to duplicate which meant many frustrating missteps in the deepening snow as well as him slowly disappearing into a winter mirage like something out of the end of a Clint Eastwood western. And, just like that, I was alone. 20 miles from a finish line that, were the trail intact, would have taken just a few hours. That thought, along with many others intent on stopping this perceived madness would have to be vanquished. They served no purpose, but damn...with each mile, each hour, they would get louder and louder and LOUDER!!!!
"THAT'S F^$&%*N IT!!!!" I stopped dead in my tracks. "EITHER GET ON BOARD WITH WHAT'S GOING ON HERE OR SHUT THE HELL UP! WE ARE GOING TO THE FINISH....IF YOU GOTTA BITCH AND WHINE, DO IT SOMEWHERE ELSE!!!"
The mind can be a great asset, but often times it is our weakest link and needs to be silenced. This was one of those times. If at any point it wanted to start chugging out "I think we can, I think we can, I think we cans" it would be welcomed back with open arms.
The test was not really one of 25 miles anyway...at least not mentally. At some point, I'd cross an imaginary line where the mind would be forced to give in to the inevitable. A place where so much ground had been covered it no longer made any sense to resist. You might do well to remember this in your pursuits as well. I wasn't sure just where that now most certainly blizzard covered line lay in wait, but it was most certainly miles before the true finish. Once crossed, reserves that had been kept in waiting would be released. Mind and body would enjoy a rush now knowing without fail that this race was indeed going to be finished. The thought disarmed that part of the mind intent on screaming "25 miles!!!! You can't push your fatbike through this winter hell for 25 miles!!!!" The subconscious reply of "No one said we were pushing 25 miles....we are just pushing to the point that your bitching no longer makes any sense" gave me a good giggle.
How do you eat an elephant...or a snowed in Idaho mountainside? One bite at a time.
...Time. Hmmmm. Time. Just how long had we been at this, I wondered. This was the place I yearned for in racing, in adventure, in meditation, in writing, in life. The place of no-mind. A place of total immersion in the task at hand. A place where the man made concept of time disappears.
The peace of all things, just like that, POOF. I was in up to my hip. A misstep that could not have been of even a foot had taken me off trail and here in the small valley before what appeared to be the penultimate climb of the race, I was face to face with my bike sprocket. It firmly atop the trail to which I'd just stepped off and into a drifting of snow perhaps 3 feet deep. I took the moment in stride, even found it sorta cool. I was most definitely in, not quite over my head, to this adventure.
Taking a moment to just be still and soak in the wildness of the moment I gave thanks for the challenge. All things that could have been seen as negative, I embraced. The wind - whipping snow, limiting visibility, and creating a bit of wind chill? I said Thank you. The soft trail - at times requiring great focus to move one step? I gave thanks. I was Bill Tyler in the movie "Mountain Men". I howled, as alive as any creature that called this place home. "I am a mountain man god damnit!!!" His character did not do so to curse the place but rather to proclaim his place in it. It felt as if the mountain and this race were my teacher. The test, not an easy one, at least not to me, was being passed and I hollered so that not even the wind could drown out the message I was intent on delivering to my teacher. I envisioned her nod of approval and then an intensifying of the challenge so that the student continued to realize their place in it all.
Exiting the drifted predicament with much effort I took up the yoke. If my calculations were correct, this was the last "real" climb. Once over it, other smaller bumps in the race profile waited but this was it. Once over, it actually was "almost all downhill from here." Deep in the recesses of my mind was a hope I'd harbored, but dare not utter aloud or even recognize as a thought since Petr had shared his thoughts so many hours prior.
But first, the climb.
It was relentless from the start. As steep seemingly as any part of Two Top the night prior. Perhaps this was true, perhaps not. With a foot of new snow and drifts even higher, the pitch, combined with the fresh snow made each step one you were glad to have behind you. Best guess? 2 Miles. Best guess? 2 hours. Maybe 3. God I hoped not three. Yet at the same time this was the place I, "WE", had worked so hard to get to and now we were here. I could feel the 2 Steve's rallying to my support. "Two more hours man!!! Holy Hell!!! Your’re freaking doing it man!!! We are here!!! We are with you!!!!"
And with that, the climb was over not long after it had begun. I'd found and crossed that imaginary line. All systems, mind, body and soul were on board now. I could feel everyone on the other end of the SPOT tracker, their good will filling a body moments before at its limit. We were all in this together now...I roared to the star studded crisply clear Idaho skies above...a primordial howl confirming my now intimate connection to this place.
Each step provided for the next. Each built on the prior. This was now more a dance than a battle. Completely dialed in, the winds now more music than nuisance, I looked forward to the top but no longer yearned for it. Was this the flow? Had I as Shackleton once said, "pierced the veneer of outside things?"
And then, the idea, the hope harbored so long ago revealed itself to be true. It was at first, confusing. For so long the landscape had been just as the wind had left it, no sign of man. But here now, just within grasp of my straining headlamp, looked a mass of snow very much out of place.
"It looks like someone’s pile of snow from a plowed driveway...Odd", I thought. "That could only be....If...." A mind long ago set to sleep, for hours of just one thought "FORWARD", was waking. Before the mind could catch up to what the eyes now clearly saw, the bike was let to drop, and I to my knees followed.
Now, just onto the downward side of the mountain, the Island Park side of the mountain, the "one of the most popular snowmobiling sites in the United States" side of the mountain, just hours prior, the trail groomer had made his nightly or perhaps every other nightly pass. My trusted fat bike, never once having let me down, and I just sat there. One of us, maybe both, laughing, maybe crying, complete joy.
With a smile that damn near hurt, I reached into my frame bag. Taking out the tire pump, we filled the tires for what would now be at most a few hours of riding. If the trail held from here in and the still dumping snow didn't sour it, this gift represented a saving of maybe 6 or 7 hours.
5 mph....now 7....now 12....now 15. "WAFREAKINGHOOOOOOO!!!!". My thoughts shifted for a moment to my friend Petr and the joy he must also be experiencing somewhere down trail. I imagined his reaction once to the groomed trail and looked forward to hearing him recount it some time soon.
Cowbells startled me. "I ain't going that fast" a confused, energy starved mind wondered, knowing the finish line was still some distance. Around the corner, a car, headlights onto the trail, waited. "BAHAHAHAHAHA, YEAH!!!!!!" It was Michele Smith Jones, who had traveled all the way from Des Moines in support and to play in the mountains and Petra, Petr's partner who had driven up here to see us both. Petr I was told was maybe a half hour or so and doing well, ahead. I let my mind consider the fact that perhaps I was much closer than it turned out I actually was, a mistake that once realized would take me a bit of time to mentally recover from.
Rookie mistake. Again. It was great seeing them though and the mini celebration was one I'll treasure.
The hug Shell and I shared was better energy than any power bar or nutella filled pancake could ever provide.
The GPS showed what a too soon celebrating mind didn't want to hear. At least 10 miles remained and the snow storm was intensifying. I needed to get off this damn mountain. In another few hours the trail would once again become a real challenge. I'd been offered a reprieve, not a free pass. The clock was ticking.
"THE GPS SAYS IT'S RIGHT FREAKING HERE.....WHY CAN'T I FIND IT?!?!?!"
The now full on snowstorm and blowing winds, combined with criss-crossing snow machine trails everywhere and my lighting systems unable to pierce through more than ten feet of this squall made knowing for sure just where the hell to go damn near impossible. I'd been up and down the damn road, chosen unwisely and ended up in drifting snow so deep I was damn near unable to extract myself, raging at my predicament so close to the end, three times now. Mother Nature refused to give even an inch. That fact, in concert with a body and mind that long ago passed into new territory was making finishing the beast off a near impossibility.
The last few layers of the onion now being peeled back were exposing nerves completely raw. I'd returned to the spot my instincts had at first felt could be the proper right turn before the bridge. For the umpteenth time I raised my head, willing the light to break through the curtain of snow falling, blowing seemingly harder every damn minute. It was of no use. It felt as if I was out of choices. This turn needed to be THE turn. Were it not...well...it just had to be.
And it was.
But no joy came. No relief. It just simply was.
The purple line after maybe 100 meters or so confirmed indeed I was once again "on track". Had it been any other race, I most certainly would have zoomed out a bit to grab a quick glimpse of just how close I was. This had passed "any other race" status so very long ago.
Nothing else existed other than the simplicity of the pedal stroke now. Nothing.
I was no different than the trail my bike now rolled over nor the trees as they, without as much as a hint of emotion, accepted the additional weight of every snowflake sent from above weighing down their limbs.
Turning right, cuz the purple arrow on the GPS said to - cowbells, one, then maybe two or three, no different I would guess than a ship lost at sea seeing the light tower in the distance, signaled safety and the end to be near.
It was 2:30 Sunday morning. Sixty two and a half hours and 200-miles since I'd left this same spot under beautiful calm Idaho skies seemingly bearing no ill will.
For those last few miles I was nothing...or perhaps, now looking back, I was everything.