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GDMBR Chapter 18

Fernie, British Columbia, to Kananaskis, Alberta

Hello single track

From Fernie we headed north through an interesting "choose your own adventure" section that let us hop between paralleling single track, a rural gravel frontage road and a wide cycling lane on the not-too-busy highway.

We started on the single track which was quite overgrown in some areas and then abruptly interrupted by recently-dug pits from some kind of mining activity. It had us dragging our bikes up and over ten ft-tall dirt piles. While cutting through, we noticed people moving on the other side of one of the pits, so we started running as best we could in the soft, uneven footing toward the trail ahead. We managed to just sneak through.

The route took us through the town of Sparwood where to my delight there was a Tim Hortons! We stopped for donuts and coffee, then stayed for an encore round of breakfast sandwiches and more coffee; iced coffee, because the day was shaping up to be another incredibly humid scorcher.

From there, we toggled between the gravel frontage road and the highway to take advantage of a strong tailwind.


In the early afternoon we reached the small town of Elkford. It was so hot. It felt like my face was melting off my head and after every stroke of the pedal, my body wanted to collapse into itself.

As we pulled packaged ice cream cones from the deep freezer of a corner gas station, it took everything for me to not crawl inside.

The formal campground there, which had been our original destination, was rather uninspiring. We didn't want to camp there, but there was no way I could keep pedaling in the heat.

So we cycled down to the river and set up a picnic, where we agreed to cool down and rest for a couple hours until the sun began to set. Then we would continue another fifteen or so miles to a small dispersed camping area in the Blue Lake Recreation Area.

After wading around the clear frigid water, I laid out a mat, spread out some snacks and put Big Wild's album, Superdream, on the bluetooth speakers.

For the next two hours all I did was lay on the ground and stare up through the filtered light of the giant Poplar trees

It was magical—meditative, even. I allowed myself to succumb to the music; the feel of the breeze across my toes and eyelashes, the lull of the swaying branches overhead—punctuated by gurgling water and a coolness that wafted from the river.

Riding high

As the sun inched closer toward the horizon, easing the temperature and casting long shadows across the trail, we packed up and jumped back on our bikes.

Perhaps for the first time on the trip, I got deep inside my head.

For so long I was in the beginning of the trip—or the middle of the trip. Suddenly, I found myself nearing the end and I was woefully unprepared. I didn't even know how yet, exactly, I was getting home.

As I rode down the well-maintained yet somewhat boring forest road, the past seven weeks came flooding back to me as a barrage of singular, highly specific moments. Interactions, comments and looks from my past, in high definition.

...that morning I got lost near Elephant Rocks and that old man came out of the mountains to so kindly make sure I was okay... what did it mean? Did it matter? How does he remember that morning? Does he even care to remember it at all?

I felt lightyears away from getting caught in that freak snowstorm in Platoro, hearing a pronghorn's call sound for the first time, seeing that wild horse galloping alongside me in the Great Basin and the sheer delight of racing down Marshall Pass and flying right into downtown Salida.

Until this moment, I didn't really have time to sit and reflect and contemplate, because I was in it. I was still living out those new experiences and crafting the stories that would be chronicled for you in this blog or privately held as the deeply personal moments that will accompany me to my grave.

Technically, in this moment, I was still in it... I was just still high and on a very un-technical stretch of trail, allowing me to enter a kind of autopilot cycling posture.

Every now and then, I would have these interesting thoughts and find myself repeating them over and over in my head, in a childlike bid to hang onto them. Then I remembered I had a mini moleskine and pencil in my handlebar bag, so I stopped frequently to scribble notes on its pages.


Blue Lake was gorgeous with pristine turquoise water and dense pine forests all around. On the east side was a small informal camping area with no infrastructure other than a decrepit vault toilet.

There were two families camping in RVs. From the indoor living room furniture set up under awnings and kids' bikes and toys strewn all over, it looked like they had been there for a while.

Around 10:00p, I was jolted awake by the revving sound of a chainsaw, the loud crackling of snapping wood fibers, needled branches brushing past other needled branches and the thud of heavy timber hitting the ground.

Did this fucker seriously just fell a tree within a protected provincial park—in the middle of the goddamn night—very near my tent? Yes, yes he did.

And that's not all. The fucker proceeded to chainsaw the tree into tiny pieces for the next thirty minutes.

What made me most uneasy was having listened to him slovenly partying and tossing around empty beer cans in the hours beforehand.

A real cowboy

The next day had us mostly on dusty logging roads passing gravel mines and riding through open range where mooing cows wandered indiscriminately.

At one point, a real-life cowboy was herding his cattle across the road, forcing a double trailer logging truck to come to an unexpected screeching halt as we approached from the opposite direction.

All at once, a truck driver, a cowboy and two cyclists' paths collided. The truck driver emerged from his truck through a cloud of dust and exchanged terse words with the cowboy who was aboard his trusty steed with two cattle dogs running circles around his horse's hooves.

When the dust settled, the four of us were standing in a tight circle. The truck driver ate a crisp apple and the cowboy offered Jens and I advice on the trail ahead of us.

After some more small talk, the cowboy finished herding his cows across the road, the truck driver climbed back inside his truck and roared the engine back to life, and Jens and I continued on.

I noted that what just happened sounded like the beginning of a cheesy joke: A cowboy, a truck driver and a cyclist walk into a bar...

It's just so damn hot...

Again, around midday, the sun was strong overhead and the air was thick with stagnant, hot, humid air. It was hard to breathe.

At one point, the feeling of heat exchanging across my body became incredibly suffocating and without warning I let out an agonizing groan, bailed off my bike, threw my helmet and sunglasses on the ground, ripped off my sun sleeves and chamois, and sat in what little shade I could find guzzling water and putting my head between my knees.

It was the closest thing to a panic attack I'd felt in a long time. I can't explain it, but I suddenly felt unbearably uncomfortable... I wanted to unzip from my own skin, step outside of myself and cool down, completely free and exposed.

I eventually pulled my shit together and we continued on toward Elk Pass.

So they say

The further north we got, the busier the trail became. We turned onto an old double track trail toward Elk Pass that ran along the artificial linear clear cut of a major powerline network. More than one southbound group warned that they'd just encountered several grizzly bears and we should be extra cautious.

Many of them also commented that the section we were entering was the most beautiful of the entire Great Divide route.

We carefully navigated the puzzle of potholes in the packed dirt and eventually crawled up an intensely steep section. I ended up hiking my bike up much of the steepest parts. On the last section, Jens parked his bike at the top then walked down to push my bike from behind as I steered and pulled on the handlebars.

It was the first—and only—time I ever let Jens help me. He offered to help portage my bike over some fallen trees on a muddy road the day we rode through a thunderstorm in Wyoming. I politely declined and he understood from that point on that if I wanted help, I would ask for it. He never offered to help again, trusting that I knew it was there for the taking.

But this day, I think he saw through my pride, to the struggle I was having as I audibly heaved my bike up the loose gravel, the metal plates on the bottom of my cycling shoes causing me to repeatedly lose my footing.

He didn't offer to help this day, he just did it. Somehow, I hope, that in my lack of resistance there was an air of gratitude.

Ups and downs

The climb up Elk Pass wasn't particularly fun or scenic and we never saw any grizzly bears. The descent down the other side was also not very enjoyable; it was equally steep, to the point it was slow and difficult to navigate.

There was, however, a pretty totem that the trail passed through toward the top, signifying our exit from British Columbia and our entrance into Alberta.

From there, we entered the Kananaskis Lakes Provincial Park area and beelined toward the main campground, which apparently had a little ice cream and food kiosk.

We both ordered pizza, which for the price, expected whole personal-sized pies. Instead, what we each got was one slice of microwave-nuked frozen pizza. We must have looked so sad eating our sad-looking pizza slices. And we couldn't stand for that... so we followed it up with giant ice cream cones and a cinnamon roll!

After a rest in the shade, we moseyed over to a walk-in campground between the upper and lower Kananaskis Lakes and relaxed by the water.

We come into the world alone...

At this point, we were one—two days max—from the official end of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Despite having developed a close friendship and being easy travel companions, I increasingly felt it was important for us to each finish our journeys how we began them: on our own.

No one takes the decision to halt their life for months to mountain bike across some of the country's longest, roughest terrain lightly. We each do it for deeply personal reasons and although we might physically travel the same trails, no two experiences are the same.

They're shaped by our own preexisting biases, past experiences and forward-looking expectations. Not to mention other variables, like:

  • Weather

  • Extreme climate events

  • Bike setup and gear

  • Physical and mental health

  • Trailside illness, injury or mechanical issues

  • Animal encounters

  • Human interactions

  • Extenuating personal situations

My emotions were already bubbling over as I began to reel and reflect over my own past seven weeks. I knew I wanted the time to ride at my own pace and experience the end in whatever way I needed to when that moment arrived.

It took me a while to bring it up with Jens. I really had to think about my own motives; why I now felt the urge to part ways.

Difficult conversations

Historically, I haven't shied away from broaching difficult conversations or asking taboo questions. As a child it must have come across as rude and provocative. ...asking about the Crusades after saying Grace at the dinner table with Grandma, asking my older sister about birth control out of the blue... Needless to say, my questions and incessant "whys" weren't always well-timed, well-delivered or met with enthusiasm.

But a blend of curiosity and complete and utter ignorance—naïveté—kept me initiating conversations on chewy topics well into adulthood.

By now, though, I like to believe I approach them with more empathy; with a compassionate delicacy that lets the person on the other end trust that they can open up, because I truly just want to know; to understand.

I like to say that, often, the most difficult things to do/say/share/ask are the most important. They feel hard because there's greater risk attached to them. The stakes are higher. But that also means there's potential for great reward.

Fatal flaws

Taking it a step further, I have also been known to say that sometimes the hard thing is the right thing to do.

It's no secret I haven't been super lucky in love. The sticky kind. The one time I found someone with mutual feelings, I ended it, citing something about it being the hard but right thing to do.

As the words left my tongue, sounding confident but delivered cowardly under the cover of darkness in the middle of the night, even I was struggling to craft a narrative that made sense to myself.

It was like I was Nancy Kerrigan, but breaking my own kneecap.

Intellectually, I knew I had a lot of love to share and deserved to be loved wholly and unconditionally. And here, miraculously, was someone who seemed to be just as crazy about me as I was them.

But emotionally—subconsciously, perhaps—I didn't quite believe it. I didn't yet trust myself with the responsibility of such a love. Surely I would find and commit that one unforgivable condition and inadvertently hurt the very person I loved most.

I was afraid. And in my fear, I'd managed to weaponize the very thing that was usually a tool of strength and connection. Instead it was a Trojan Horse, used to usher in an army of anxiety, destroying my shot at something wonderful.

A self-sabotaging ruse.

To be honest, I'm still not confident I won't fuck up a relationship. But since then, I've become more comfortable with vulnerability. I'm now better able to articulate those fears and admit when I'm uncertain. I'm also more willing to share my true feelings about how I feel about someone—even at the risk of rejection or unrequitedness.

Because, after all... sometimes the hard thing is the right thing.

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