When I ran the shaver over my calf in the bath tub last night, I saw that my skin was recently decorated with more brown sun spots. My fingers gripping the pink shaver with my equally pink knuckles with the peeling sunburned skin reminded me of my recent past adventure…500 miles on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail, where the sun was THE ENEMY. Todd sat on the chair beside me. “I can’t believe we are back already,” I told him. “It’s like it never happened,” he replied. But it did.
The healed incision on the low point of my trunk where the doctor in the emergency room stabbed me, looking for pus, was another indication that something big had occurred this past month. It all began in this same sunken claw-foot tub the night before we left on our bike ride, a month ago. I had seen a tiny pink bite and immediately alerted Todd to fetch a magnifying glass and a head lamp. “See if there’s a tick in there,” but there was no black speck. I forgot about it and we loaded up the Ford pick-up with our mountain bikes and gear and set off for the Rockies.
The next night in Michigan, I was taking a shower at my friend’s place in Traverse City and when I washed myself, I noticed the pink speck of a spot had grown to a quarter size and was bright red. The next evening in Minneapolis, it was the size of a fifty-cent piece and was purplish red. I was feeling tired too. The next night in eastern Montana, the inflamed area stretched 3 inches wide by 3 inches high, was blazing sore looking and was hot to the touch. That night, the heat and infection spread to my entire abdomen and I was so sick, I was barely able to pick my head up. Next day in Dillion, Montana, at our friend’s the Reichle’s home, we visited the urgent care facility and they sent me directly to the hospital. There they stabbed my inflamed area to grow a culture. Dick and Linda Reichle were so generous to offer their cabin for me to convalesce in.
Days later, the mountain bikes had not left the back of the truck and the whole family had gathered there to ride. But I wasn’t getting better. I could not get out of bed. I could barely open my eyes. What in the heck was making me so sick? The culture came back with a staph infection and cellulitis but my body was resisting the sulfur based antibiotic. Then my friend Hop called and told me that his wife Jane, had the exact same symptoms. They treated her for the infections and took a lymes test but did not share the results, which were positive, and only focused on the cellulitis and staph. “Get a lymes test,” Hop advised. The hospital was not too anxious to do it as they see very few cases of lymes but I insisted. When they realized I was not responding to the antibiotic, they switched me to doxycycline, which is also used to treat lymes, but only gave me two weeks supply. When I called my cousin’s wife back home who is a doctor, she said, “Are they crazy? Two weeks is not long enough. I am calling in a script for another two weeks. By the time your antibodies build up to show positive, too much time will have gone by without treatment. Take a month’s worth and do not skip a single dose.” I was happy to follow the instructions and be a good patient. I had to return to the hospital a few times to have my wound checked, which had to be packed with gauze so it healed from the inside out. Todd was a good nurse, but I did not look forward to dealing with a wound while we rode the GDMBT. It’s hard enough healthy.
Once I was released to ride, I was told to really take it easy. That meant, examining each 40-mile stretch of trail and deciding which direction involved the least climbing. Since the kids were along with their car, they helped us shuttle, doing day rides, while I built up my strength. I also purchased $45 worth of vitamins to boost my immune system so I could get better faster.
I knew doxy makes you sensitive to the sun but I had a generous supply of 70 SPF lotion and 50 for my lips. I was pretty sure I could stay on top of it. I applied new sunscreen every hour as I rode. I also had a visor under my helmet and a long sleeve white shirt to keep the sun off my arms. I was not feeling great, but at least we were covering some trail. It is a huge undertaking to pack up the truck for a long mtn biking adventure, coordinate with our kids and friends who were joining us, make arrangements back home for a house sitter and to handle your affairs. The thought of climbing back into the truck and driving the four days home sounded like depressing defeat. I plugged along.
Finally, we loaded up the bikes with our panniers and gear and set off leaving the truck behind. But soon my lips began to swell and burn and blister. My knuckles burned so badly that they filled with water-filled blisters. They felt as if they were burning, on fire. Todd gave me his zip off pant legs and I tucked them under my bike shorts. But when the sun hit the inch of skin between my sock and the pant leg, regardless how much sunscreen was on it, it felt as though it was flaming. When I looked down at my skin, I half expected to see flames shooting out.
The sun made my skin so painful. I had to sleep with my hands out of my sleeping bag as they were on fire and my lips were growing worse every day. I cut flaps from a dried fruit bag and bent it over my bottom lip like a bite wing from a dental x-ray guard, and rode with it clenched in my teeth. It made breathing heavily climbing mountains a challenge, as well as when trucks zoomed by on the road, ripping it from my mouth. Then I’d have to go back and find it on the road, dust it off and put it back in my mouth. And I was so hot. It was hot anyway as southern Montana is Big Sky country and we were in the hot sun for 12 hours at a time. About 3-4 times a day, I laid completely clothed in a stream or a river or a drainage ditch and soaked myself so I could ride up the mountains or deal with the sun. Of course, that made the sunscreen drip down in white drips and needed to be re-applied.
My girlfriend, Brigetta, who was along on this first mountain bike adventure of her life, said she “loved it.”
“I don’t,” I said, “I like it, but I don’t love it.” But of course, I was dealing with extra issues besides just powering my loaded bike down the trail.
“But it’s very hard,” she said. “It is very hard,” I agreed, even without the sun sensitivity issue. It was very hot, unusually hot for Montana.
“I did tell you it was hard, didn’t I” I asked her.
“You did,” she replied. “But I didn’t think it would be THIS hard. It is very hard.”
That it is.
I would periodically stab my open sores covering my lips with my toothbrush bristles and shriek out. Twice a night, the pain woke me up and I had to take pain pills for my blistered oozing lips. They were not getting better, they were getting worse. The blisters were traveling around my lips now and on top. It was very fatiguing to deal with the burned skin and ride. Being happy was more than I could ask of myself.
I did manage to enjoy the downhills and the cool morning rides through the forests and the evening light as we crossed over the beautiful sub-alpine Union Pass. It was worth it and we were covering hundreds of miles. Last year was challenging too and someone asked us. “Why go back if it was so hard?” and Todd and I both answered, “It’s too late. We already started the trail. Now we have to finish.” We used to tell the kids when they were small and traveling the Continental Divide Trail with our llamas. “It isn’t always fun but it is always worthwhile.” This year’s ride was proving to be even more challenging and difficult than last years.
One day I was struggling a lot. Todd was riding up front that hot afternoon and I found myself alone in the back sometime. That was ok but just as he was taking off after a short break, I asked him if he would mind staying with me in the rear and he said, “Sure,” but then I began crying, sobbing. He said, “Oh honey, we don’t have to do this if it’s too hard. We can stop,” and he came to me and put his arm around me. And I said no, I was ok, I was just having a moment. The crying jag surprised me, but not really. Emotions flow out of you sometime out there like sweat, unable to stop them. Todd was so sweet and I could not keep myself from holding his hand, hugging him, telling him how much I loved him, the rest of the day and evening. I was so grateful to him for taking more of my weight so I could keep going. I did not feel 100% and often felt tired, especially when climbing in the sun.
One of the reasons we wanted to ride the GDMBT was to be together as a couple after our kids had grown up, learn how to have fun together, usher in a new era as empty-nesters, rediscover the adventurous life together. Even if it meant dealing with illness on the road, changing your plans, altering your schedule, accepting that you were not going to accomplish the lofty goal you had in mind when you left home.
We were cruising towards Pinedale, Wyoming and our friends, Pat & Jill Maier’s horse ranch, when I began to rethink our ride. Pinedale had been our goal for last year’s ride but we feel short when Todd had his heart scare issue, which only ended up being dehydration and low electrolytes but sent him into the hospital. What was coming up next was the Great Divide Basin. This low point was the unique area of the Continental Divide where the highest land splits and forms the rim of a giant bowl 100 miles across. All the water that runs into the bowl, dries up as it is the highest land. It’s considered to be the most desolate land in America. Empty, void of mankind. The sun and the wind are relentless there. I was worried. I did not know how to protect myself. There would not even be a sagebrush to rest in and attempt to cool off. I thought perhaps that I should see a doctor in Pinedale and get some advice on my terribly sore mouth. I purchased white cotton gloves to cover my burned hands but my lips were incredibly painful.
As soon as I walked into the pharmacy, the pharmacist said, “Your lips look infected.” Oh man. I received messages on FB warning me of potential melanoma risk. How could we get across the Basin in one piece? Todd made the decision. “We’re not continuing. It’s not worth it. That’s enough. You won’t ever be able to get out of the sun and the wind and the wind is just as bad for your lips. It can wait until next year.”
And so we stopped, short again. Only 500 miles completed out of our hopeful 1200 but 500 is better than none and that week I was laid up in Dillon, MT and visiting the hospital multiple times, it did not look like we would climb into the saddle at all this year.
So, we found ourselves suddenly back in PA, the truck unloaded, our ride over for the year taking a bath and looking down at my healed incision on my lower truck, and my scarred knuckles and thought, really, it is all good material for a book. Back, 35 years ago, when I wrote A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail, there was only a handful of narratives published about the trail. Now there seem to be 100. There is presently only one narrative about the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail and the world could use another account. Why not ours. And so if it takes us 5 years to complete the entire trail, that is 5 years of adventures to write about. Having a fun, nice, easy ride would be a boring book. We are gathering material. Learning as we go, still at 60 years old. And, we are learning about relationship and commitment and what makes a good marriage and dealing with whatever life throws at you, even if you didn’t plan for it. You sometimes have to come out to the arena of a place like the GDMBT to rediscover each other, and how to do life, hitting the low points and all.