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Over the Top
Thoughts on conquering the Continental Divide
by Geoff Roes
Pedaling up a winding mountain road I find myself counting down the mileage. Only 20 miles to the top and then it’s all downhill.  I count down nearly each hundredth of a mile on my bike computer.  I begin to count my pedal strokes in relation to the mileage.  I try to find someway to make it seem like the mileage is going by faster than it really is.  Now I’m down to 19.5 miles and I begin to think more of the other side.  Virtually all downhill for over a thousand miles to the Mississippi river! 
This thought gives me some relief as I push harder and harder on the pedals.  19 miles to go and now I think not ahead, but back to all that we’ve already come through.  This is our second major pass in as many days, and before that 300 hundred miles of gradual climbing and dropping and climbing again up out of the desert and into these fierce mountains.  Yesterday we crossed the continental divide at Battle Summit, 9,955 ft, and yet here we are today approaching 10,000 feet again and we still have 17.5 miles of uphill to go.  I wonder to myself, “why are we going back up and over this giant mountain when clearly being over the great divide there should be an all downhill way to go east?”  If all water east of the divide flows eastward to the Atlantic Ocean than why are we still climbing up and up even higher than the day before?  If the rivers have found an easier way through than why haven’t we?

15 miles until the summit and I begin to think back to my first memories of what it would mean to bike over the Rocky Mountains.  At one point bike touring only existed in my mind because when I was young my uncle and cousin biked from Massachusetts to upstate New York to visit my family.  The thought though that people would actual ride their bike over the immense mountains of the American West didn’t enter my mind until the first time I saw someone doing it.  As I recall I was in New Mexico, crossing through the southern Rockies in the ease of my Volkswagen when I saw a lone rider chugging up a winding mountain road.  At the time he was probably only 3 or 4 miles from the top but in my mind he seemed so much further than the 12 miles that I now had until I would reach the top.  Driving past this rider I imagined it taking him not minutes or even hours, but rather days to climb this last few miles.  At that time the task of biking, fully loaded with gear, up and over the Rocky Mountains seemed as challenging and as intense as most anything I could imagine.  Now though I found myself, several years later, only 10 miles from the top, and although much easier than I had first imagined, 10 miles to go still seemed like 100. 

After seeing that first biker riding up and over the mountains in New Mexico I gradually began to imagine myself being in that same position.  Each time I was traveling and saw another rider passing through the mountains I would become a bit more intent on eventually doing the same.  And now I found myself so close.  Only 8 miles until the top but by constantly watching my computer I was making it feel so much further.  7.99 miles, a camper passing in our direction, on their own quest for the summit.  7.98 now as I notice a small waterfall in the stream that runs beside the road.  I glance back and forth from the road to the stream, convinced at one point that I see some small fish in the pool just below the waterfall.  A few seconds later I realize that I couldn’t possibly see fish from as far away as I am and I turn back forward and focus on my mission.  7.95 now and I see Jill stopped up ahead for a break.  I’m relieved to stop, hoping that when we start back up I can find someway of passing the time rather than staring almost continually at my bike computer.

As we start back at our uphill ride we continue our conversation that we had begun while stopped.  We talk for a few more minutes about how lucky we’ve been to have pretty much missed all of the thunderstorms that have passed around us over the past few days.  We tire again quite quickly though so the conversation diminishes after just a few minutes, but thankfully we’ve covered another half mile, and now only 7.5 to the top.

Time passes even slower now, but in an effort to pass the time I begin to think once again of other bikers I’ve seen in the past pushing up and over these seemingly endless mountains.  I come to realize that a big part of my interest in ever doing this trip has stemmed from my disbelief in seeing others involved in this daunting task.  I’ve fantasized several times over the past few years about biking across the country, but the only times this fantasy had ever come close to a reality was each time that I was driving through the mountains and saw someone involved in the struggle that I now found myself in.  I would always try to put myself into that person’s mind and imagine as close as possible what the reality of climbing these mountains would be.  And now here I am, only 4 miles from the top, about to completely realize something I’ve imagined for several years now. 

We’re over 10,500 feet now with just a couple miles to go and the weather has turned wet and cold as we bike into the clouds.  The incline gets even steeper and the wind begins to kick up, seemingly trying to blow us back down the mountain.  I scarcely notice any of this though.  I’m now only 1 mile from the top and the picture finally begins to become clear.  I find myself knowing now what it is and what it has been to climb these mountains.  I still have half a mile to go but suddenly I don’t even feel like I’m going uphill anymore.  I can see the top through the clouds and I finally bring my eyes from my bike computer for good.  I still have one last steep straightaway to go, but in my mind I’m already there.  I feel as though I float without any effort to the pass, 10,847 feet, and now the imagined experience is my reality.  So much of why I ever had interest in being out here on this trip was to come to know how this moment would feel.  At the time I mostly just feel cold and tired, but later in the day as we descend out of the cold and rain and into a small café for lunch I begin to feel the sense of accomplishment and relief that I had expected.  The climb itself ended up being somewhat easier than I had always imagined it would be, but the experience and the gratification far exceeded anything I could have hoped for.

Several days later I still find myself thinking occasionally of that first rider I saw biking over the mountains in New Mexico several years ago.  I coasted down from the mountains and out across the prairie having accomplished for myself what seemed to me several years ago like a nearly impossible feat.  The wind here on the plains is mostly at our back and the terrain is always dropping more than rising, but even a larger factor in making these past 150 miles seem so comfortable has been the gratification and momentum we gained by biking up and over the Rocky Mountains, an experience which for me will likely be one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done.