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Last summer, Flint Zeigler and his 13-year-old daughter Scarlet took on the full length of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, spending 42 days pedaling from Canada to Mexico. Along the way, they strengthened their minds, bodies, and bond with each other. Find a reflection on their ride and what the experience meant to them here…
Words and photos by Flint and Scarlet Zeigler (@meadow_to_mountain)
Every adventure has a starting point, an ignition point, if you will, that sets the plan in motion. While the physical journey doesn’t start there, the mental one does, and—as with most things in this life—that is often the hardest aspect to keep jurisdiction over. While my legs can turn the pedals over and over again, the real question is, “Can I think of everything that needs to be thought of to make this endeavor successful?”
The physical side is often the easy part. Train the muscles needed to complete the task, and they will properly carry out their function in most conditions. But the mastery of the mind has been proven to be an age-old task that is hard to measure and never complete.
Everything has a beginning, no matter how vague, and to my 13-year-old daughter, Scarlet, the beginning of riding her bicycle from Calgary, Canada, to the border of Mexico and the United States along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route was a simple statement:
“I think I’d like to ride that next year.”
It’s late November 2021, and we are just getting home from two bikepacking tours. The first was Scarlet setting a new personal record on the Erie Canal Trail, and second was riding across Florida on the Cross Florida Individual Time Trial route. Upon getting home, we fed our adventure hunger with the Lael Wilcox’s film I Just Want to Ride about her 2019 Tour Divide race, and Scarlet filled up on the film’s inspirational intention. Ignition.
The idling time is the following nine months of trying to prepare for such an expedition. We utilize some homeschool opportunities to learn about the route and the areas we will be passing through. We ride a lot, designing and executing several “training tours” to get our pack system down and our bodies ready for a month and a half of living on the bicycle.
We ride the gravel roads and trails that pass throughout the Appalachian Mountains all over our home state of Pennsylvania with a new fervor, now noticing the nuances that might help us on the upcoming ride. We ride the historic Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway which boasts over double the amount of climbing per mile to the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR). We read and share articles on bear safety and take some extra precautions to create good habits on the tours beforehand.
When the calendar that hangs in our dining room gets flipped to the month of August, the reality of Scarlet’s goal finally starts to settle in. Her goal becomes my goal, and we have the start of the physical movement to our adventure on August 3, 2022.
Whoever said, “Getting there is half the fun,” has clearly not flown during COVID times. Because getting there is now the most stressful, convoluted mess a dad and his daughter could get themselves into. And let’s not even add in the before-we-even-left-the-house breakdown that left half of us feeling like we might just be getting in over our heads.
We have conversations, grant assurances, and heartfelt bridges are built again. On arrival, we built up our bikes and pedaled off into the great unknown. And we quickly realize we have absolutely no clue what time it is anymore. We are feeling dinner, and it’s not even 11 a.m.
Technology now affords us the ability to stay in touch and keep others informed of our whereabouts from the far reaches of our planet. This is a truth that I often battle with. On the one hand, I crave the solitude and the peace that these tours provide. On the other, I recognize the comfort I feel when I hear from a trusted friend who is multiple time zones away. Our Instagram account has become a way to share snippets of the ride as well as have a way to funnel support from family and friends.
Canada is exciting and, in hindsight, our favorite section of the GDMBR. As we find comfort in the rhythm of touring, we pass pristine creeks, rivers, and lakes, see jagged snow-capped peaks, and ride fun, flowy singletrack. While the low points and hard times often stick out in our minds, Canada was continually a high point.
Scarlet’s Journal – Sunday, August 7, 2022:
We woke up in the pretty cabin (Tobermory Rec. Site) and packed up quickly. We wanted to get to Elkford by lunch, but it was 40 miles away. We got on the road by 8 a.m., and 20 miles flew past in a fun blur. The road was smooth gravel with rolling hills, each downhill propelling us to the top of the next uphill. We rode to a rocky connector path that took us to Elk Valley Trail. The mountain bike trail was super cool, feeling like a long pump track.
We began our trip with the understanding that, at any time, we could stop and go home. We considered it successful just getting to Canada. The goal became, “Let’s see if we can get to Banff.” Then, “I think we can make it to the US border.” But somewhere in Montana, Scarlet started making the permanent goal, “We are headed to Mexico!” From there, the miles kept ticking by.
We averaged more than 70 miles (112 kilometers) each riding day, a shock to other folks we met along the way—and to me, for that matter. Scarlet and I pack our kit almost identically: the same tents, sleep system, cook system, water, and basic clothing. She is responsible for carrying and maintaining all of her own gear. When I step back and take in how this cheerful, talkative young person handles this level of touring, I’m inspired to offer her whatever support I can to help her achieve her goals.
Pinedale, Wyoming, is where most southbound riders where stop carrying bear spray, and we did the same. A day’s ride past Pinedale, with a storm closing in on us, we used the Great Basin as the location marker where we could loosen up some of our regulations. I told Scarlet, “Of course, we still need to be a little careful with food. We don’t need other critters getting it.” When I woke up that morning, I got to my bike and realized I left the zipper on my frame bag open.
As I lifted the bike up off the ground, a tortilla bag was half hanging out, chewed through, and the tortillas were eaten. Scarlet’s bike was completely closed up, and all her food was put away as it should be. Lunch was spoonfuls of peanut butter with honey drizzled over the top. Diagnus Well is our halfway point. How does Scarlet celebrate the halfway point? Back-to-back century rides of 109 and 114 miles. We reached Rawlins, Wyoming, three days ahead of our planned schedule.
As the days seamlessly fused themselves together, I began writing a poem for Scarlet to express my feelings and sentiment. While most evenings she would write in her journal, I was journaling on our Instagram account and working on the poem. Words that kept coming to mind were support, progress, presence, strength, determination, encouragement, independence, fearlessness, and beauty.
We rode and we wrote. We laughed and we cried. We lived.
Scarlet’s Journal – Friday, September 3, 2022:
Indiana Pass. The road started out paved, then turned dirt as we started climbing. It wasn’t too bad of a grade. We leap-frog Tom for a while and finally reach the summit. We descended a few feet and had lunch at a trailhead. “Tom is going to be pissed off when he doesn’t see a sign marking the highest point on the GDMBR.” Dad says. “I AM SO PISSED!! THERE ISN’T EVEN A SIGN! I CALLED MY WIFE!” we heard from him.
The personalities we met along the way added to our experience with each conversation and shared meal. In several instances, we were met with an air of concern over how seemingly light we were packed. One gentleman, in particular, was worried if our food and water supply would be enough to get over a tough pass. A few days later, we checked in with him and found that what we rode in a day took him three. Provisions are relative to what kind of ground you are covering.
Scarlet’s Journal – Tuesday, September 6, 2022:
We had to push a little, but it got better. We hopped onto a paved road and flew at 40 mph (64 kph) downward into a beautiful sunset. We missed the camp spot that we were supposed to stay at, so we continued onto Cuba, New Mexico.
By the numbers, we had two rest days (one of which was due to being too many days ahead of schedule), 40 days of pedaling, eight nights indoors (some with running water and heat and some without), 2,900 miles (4,667 kilometers) total, and enough Pop-Tarts to make me wonder if we’d have withdrawal symptoms. It was not an easy trip, the days that followed after getting home solidified that fact as I battled through the hardest bout of depression and anxiety I’ve ever faced, but somewhere out in those mountains, we uncovered new layers of who we are. We discovered parts of us that are resilient and stronger than we ever knew.
Our drivetrains, on the other hand, weren’t so resilient. For about half of the ride, our chains would slip if we got on the pedals too hard. For Scarlet, this was like learning to ride again. Scarlet doesn’t like to spin. She likes to muscle those pedals. And though I wouldn’t have believed it was possible for my 13-year-old to destroy her drivetrain, I had to accept that, in the middle of the Gila National Forest, 40 miles to the closest resupply, I had underestimated her. Less than 200 miles (322 kilometers) from the Mexico border, we were left with only one bike that could be pedaled and had to accept a ride to Silver City, New Mexico, chalking it up to part of the adventure.
On day 42, I thought, “It’s all downhill from here!” A petrol-fueled engine and my legs have vastly different propulsion systems. I know this because, on my bike, I can feel every change in gradient and resistance. Asphalt and gravel. Gravel and sand. Sand and mud. Hell, I can tell the difference from tar and chip and rolled pavement. “Downhill” is a different perspective for the automobile operator. But in a way, it really was all downhill from there. The loss of elevation is the physical aspect of ending in Antelope Wells, but when I think of how much Scarlet and I grew, how much we changed, and how our thoughts on what we are capable of expanded, I realize that many future challenges will feel more like downhills than uphills.
We will always have those 42 days to draw from when life gets hard, or when the unknowns outnumber the knowns, or when we question if we have what it takes to get through. We became stronger versions of ourselves. We weeded out areas that were getting crowded with doubts and fears. We got to know each other better as we got to know ourselves better. When stressors and bad things happen, we now have a deeper place to pull from. Not only in ourselves, but from the trust and bond that has always been strong and became stronger between us.
Much like the perspective from a bicycle forces us to experience the landscape in a way that we can feel the different surfaces and grades, we are now more sensitive to each other’s unique perspectives. We can be an asset to each other in a more helpful, compassionate, and effective way. On our last evening, over our final dinner, Scarlet and I talked about whether or not we’d do this ride again. And, for me, the answer was simple: “Yes. Just to spend time with you.”
Scarlet is scheduling some public speaking engagements, and you can check in with us on Instagram for the full Great Divide Mountain Bike Route story. For more information, shoot us an email at email@example.com.
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