There was one week left to our mountain biking summer adventure. One week out of six remained. Todd and I both vowed that this last week was going to be the best week- taking our time, creating more joy, seeing beauty, making the most of our last days on the trail.
It took Todd and I awhile to figure this sport and journey out. We are no newbies to long distance wilderness travel, have logged thousands of miles on our bikes, even mountain bikes doing the 650-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail in New Mexico with our kids on tandems twenty years ago and the 450-mile Camino de Santiago in Spain. But the GDMBT was different. It was much harder than we ever imagined and we never got strong enough to put in the 50-60 mile days we had hoped to evolve towards. We were in good enough shape when we left. Even after consistently biking 35-48 miles a day, we never once went to bed after taking Advil. Not a single pain killer was ingested and that is saying something for a 60 & a 57 year old. Once we accepted the fact that this was our best mileage, Todd relaxed about feeling the need to push.
We thought we were going lightweight when we left. We discovered that my loaded bike was comparable to the other male cyclists on the trail, even the young, very strong cyclists so I was no slacker. Todd’s bike, however, grew heavier and heavier as the weeks ticked by, taking more of my weight in hopes of getting me to cycle faster and farther each day. But the other cyclists were minimals- no stoves, no long pants or jackets- but SLEEVES and leggings of thin fabric which they pulled up to cover their limbs. Little food- One cyclist ate only cheese and crackers every dinner. We needed to step up our lightweight game.
Rolling along on level or downhill, the weight was fine, but pushing our bikes up and over mountains, was a real challenge. Nothing we could not do, but it was hard. The second to the last day before our ride came to an abrupt end, we had the most difficult push of the summer. We were taking our own gravel road route as opposed to the designated route, so we could cycle past an old logger friend’s home from twenty years ago. We were so excited to think of surprising him after all these years and couldn’t wait to arrive at his home. Gordon had directed our family and llamas to his log home when we were hiking the Continental Divide Trail, offering a steak dinner, homemade bread and a great friendship.
The gravel road that climbed up and over the Divide was the longest steepest we encountered. I could not push my loaded bike more than 15 yards without stopping to breathe deeply and allow my lungs to catch up to their demand for air. And my arms ached as I propelled my bike forward. I did push ups and lifted weights before we left but it seemed like it did nothing. My upper body is no comparison to Todd’s tremendous strength from chainsaw carving and wielding a very heavy saw, to blacksmithing, splitting firewood and all the manly jobs and activities he does every day throughout his daily life.
Todd was far behind me when I was on the top steepest section of the climb, (he stopped to filter water at a lake), when I became overwhelmed with the struggle and began to weep. I shocked myself. It was quiet sobbing and I hung my head and said in a whisper, “This is so hard.” When I told Todd what happened later he was surprised as I had recovered (as we always do on the downhills) and asked why. I said that I did not know, it just sprang forth out of me and I could not control it. It was cathartic.
Hard was “okay “most of the time. We told the kids years ago when we continued to return to the CDT and hike every year, despite the challenges, “It’s not always easy, but it’s always worthwhile.” Todd and I also believed this when it came to the GDMBT. We were experiencing beauty, were drawing closer as a couple, and certainly were becoming more fit- a big goal of the trip, and we so planned an attitude adjustment, to try to have even more fun next year. We had every intention to return next summer and pick up where we left off and continue making our way down to Mexico. Until, Todd woke up the morning we were in Butte, Montana, looked me in the eyes and uncharacteristically said, “I have to tell you something.”
“I think something is wrong with my heart. Last night it raced for an hour and now it is still pausing and speeding up.” I put my hand on his chest and sure enough I could feel the obvious inconsistency.
When I asked him if it actually woke him up in the night, he told me that he had gotten up to pee, which he never does, and noticed it once he retuned to our tent. We were camping in a KOA and the stupid shitter was across the campground and you needed a four digit numerical code to open the door, which he could not remember. I asked him, “Do you think you were anxious over not remembering the code and freaked out? Really? Do you think you had heart palpitations over the need to just take a piss?” He didn’t think so. “Why didn’t you just pee in the stones on the parking lot? ”
He told me that his heart does this about once a week or every two weeks his whole life and I said, “are you kidding, married to you for over thirty years and you never told me that? No, that is not normal.”
He said he is afraid to go back onto the trail and have something bad happen like a heart attack or a stroke and leave me to deal with a dead husband in the wilderness. I told him I did not want that to happen nor did I want him to worry so much and have it impact the fun we just decided we deserved to experience in this last week. Plus his father just had his erratic heart cauterized to regulate it and Todd was pretty convinced he inherited the same issue, (as was Bryce).
We spoke to a local nurse that we met and she said that no doctor would probably be able to tell anything without putting on a Holter monitor and recording his heart rate for multiple days and nights, which we may as well wait to get until we are home. We had pushed it that day (the next day after the weeping Divide climb), although the terrain was much easier. Every time I took a swig from my water bottle, I said to Todd, “You aren’t drinking, why aren’t you thirsty?” He said, “I’m not sweating much.” I reminded him it was windy and we were so sweating. We were out of salty snacks and were looking forward to chowing down at an all-you-can-eat in Butte. When we discovered that our Butte warm showers.org host was across town by 5 miles, up the steep hill, we grew hungrier and thirstier. Our nurse host said that perhaps Todd was low in electrolytes -sodium, potassium and magnesium, and it threw his heart rate off. We decided to not return to the trail, quit a week early, and take our time getting home, stopping at national parks and watching how Todd felt and seeing if his heart acted up again. He did not want to go to the hospital.
When our daughter, Sierra caught wind of her parents NOT getting this issue checked out, she demanded that we go to an urgent care facility in Jackson, Wyoming, and so we listened. The EKG looked fine at first, but then it showed a pause and 4 rapid beats. The doctor wanted us to go to the hospital immediately. There 6 nurses and doctors worked on him (no one else was in emerg), taking chest x-rays, blood tests, more EKG’s and finally after a whole afternoon, released him. His valves were all open and showed no signs of blockage. His blood had returned to normal after eating and drinking a balanced diet, but low electrolytes “with an irritable heart rate” was the supposed culprit. “Go to your doc when you get home and get a monitor,” were their directions. And so we went to Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Custer State Park, and had some fun.
But then Todd’s arm and hand began to go numb. Friends and family alerted us that this could be a stroke symptom. Todd’s mind went wild again– open heart surgery, a pacemaker, not being able to cycle the GDMBT next summer or do anything physical again. When we pulled up to a minute market, he went past the Handicap space and said, “That will be me soon.” Bryce went back and forth between being very concerned and worried about his dad and also teasing Todd calling him “Pacemaker Padre.” He claimed that he had the same issue with his heart and Todd said they can both go get pacemakers- two for the price of one.
Once we got home, we called the doctor and in our appointment learned that his numbing arm and hand was caused by a pinched nerve in his neck, aggravated by pushing his heavy bike up the Divide, vibrating severely on the rocky downhills, gripping the steering wheel as he drove for hours around Chicago & Gary, Indiana with tons of trucks, and mowing with a vibrating mower only an hour once we got home, because he couldn’t stand the sight of a lawn and an orchard with long grass. No stroke, and a very clear and clean EKG- the electrolyte deficiency probably was the culprit. We have an appointment at the hospital tomorrow for a stress test and a monitor. The doctor does not think they will find anything wrong. He already had his “stress test” mountain biking 800 miles and pushing his loaded bike up and over the Divide.
So it looks like after we unpack and get back to normal life here, Todd will pull out the GDMBT maps and begin planning next year’s ride. He won’t be getting a pacemaker probably, (Bryce changed his nickname to “Paranoia Padre.” I told him the acorn does not fall far from the tree), I’m not going to need to wipe his drool and diaper my beastly, manly husband anytime soon, and we have vowed to do things differently next year. As in more salty snacks, potassium and magnesium rich foods, vitamin supplements, Gatorade drink mixes, and NO STRESS to go faster, farther, longer. I had an issue with my German gestapo husband in the beginning weeks of this ride, him wanting me to go faster, farther, longer and me, on the other hand, wanting to be happy with what we were covering and trying to have more fun along the way. I have learned that my husband was not just pushing me, but himself and got a little carried away with thinking he was invincible and could push himself to extremes. This is not a question or a problem with age. Age has nothing to do with electrolyte deficiency.
Besides learning about what is lightweight on a mountain bike and what is too much, how much is enough electrolyte supplements and not enough, we’re also learning how to get along on a challenging journey in a many decades-long marriage when we have not been alone for all these years. This bike ride is teaching Todd and I a new way to learn to live together. That is what this GDMBT is truly about- our introduction to life beyond children. The Great Divide is our theatre. Maybe there is another book in there, twenty years after we traveled this way with kids and llamas. And oh by the way, our old logger friend that we were looking for outside Butte, died five years ago, from cancer, unbeknownst to his friends in PA. We stopped a man in a pick up near Gordon’s house and asked if he knew if Gordon was around and he gave us the bad news. One more message in life to not take one day for granted, to take it slow and make the best of this life.