January 6-7, 2017
What happened that night?
Solitary, cold, happy
Nothing recalled from
Hiking the rise near midnight
Till seeing mountains at dawn
Heading out from the Chick Creek checkpoint, I felt good. I was eager for the next leg of the course, which I had ridden in the other direction during my two attempts at the 200k course. I remembered loving the innumerable long views up and especially down the forested mountainsides and finding the trail not too hard. I encountered a few 200k racers as they worked their way to the checkpoint, and was passed after a few miles by Perry and Josh, two good guys from Spearfish, S.D., who had been at the checkpoint with me. They were having a good time, and pulled away from me pretty easily.
I was trying not to push too hard, fighting the urge to go all out – an urge that has led at more than one race to a huge slowdown after the rest and refreshment of the checkpoint wears off. This more steady approach helped me cover the first seven miles of this section, and keep moving well as I started to climb toward the more challenging trail that would go to West Yellowstone. And the views did not disappoint: I stopped more than once to goggle at the spectacular vistas of the mountainsides patched with stands of lodgepole pines and open fields of white snow. Above, a cloudless blue sky. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect winter.
10, 12, 14 miles from the checkpoint, I had little to do but ride and think about how I was riding. Mentally, I was fine: thinking clearly, remembering to eat and drink, reading the trail well. Psychologically, the same: enjoying myself, thinking positive thoughts, looking forward to discovering whatever was around the bend – and to facing the bigger challenges later. Physically, too, good: feeling no aches or pains even in places that had hurt last night (back muscles, knees), and especially feeling no real fatigue. I had the sense that I was moving slower than I had overnight, but my average speed was still well ahead of the where I needed to be to finish the race by the cutoff. In short, I felt good for having been riding 20 hours and 90 miles.
Despite all that good feeling, somewhere in the stretch, the fatigue of having been riding for 90 miles and 20 hours (not to mention having been awake for thirty) caught up to me. Very unlike the familiar feeling of nodding off, which wells up from inside, this came on as an irresistible external pressure to sleep. Mindful of the rule that racers cannot sleep on the trail (where snowmachiners could run them over), I looked for and found a little spot off to the side of the trail: a gentle slope between two lodgepole pines, corrugated not long before by some sledder. Without really thinking, I propped the Buffalo in the deep snow alongside the trail, pulled my sleeping pad off the front of the bike, and threw the pad down in the snowy spot. I shrugged off my hydration pack and draped it over the bike’s handlebars, then lay down on the pad. A second later, I woke up, chilled but refreshed. Twenty minutes had passed. As I pulled myself back together, a snowmachine approached. I raised a hand to the driver – Salsa’s Kid Riemer! He hopped off the sled, already shooting pictures and asking how the race was going. I told him that I had just had a little nap, and that I felt good. He commented on my upper lip, which I’d been ignoring since the checkpoint, and repeated what I’d heard at the checkpoint about the attrition up front. He guessed that only ten riders were still riding, and none of the pre-race favorites.
This heartened and surprised me, just as it had at the checkpoint. Had the night been that hard? Recombobulated, I climbed back on the Buffalo, said my goodbye to Kid, and headed up the trail. The little bit of extra mental and physical energy provided by the nap put me in a reflective frame of mind, and I concluded that though I wouldn’t pass up the chance to ride any section of the Fat Pursuit course again under less strenuous circumstances, I would probably choose this one if I could – any easy daylong out-and-back jaunt from Island Park. Someday!
The undulating trail was wide and white but far from uniform. Snowmachine tracks – the skis and the treads – covered almost all of it, but dozens of big and small snow boulders had rolled down off the slope to the left. Small softball-sized ones only rolled a few feet onto the trail. Bigger ones – soccer balls, beach balls – made it halfway across, into my path down the middle of the track. I enjoyed riding over some of them, feeling the Buffalo’s tires break them in half. A small amusement.
Around one bend, I saw a cluster of riders ahead. I assumed that Josh and Perry were among them, but when I approached, several sledders broke away and rode their machines down into a big bowl, leaving two bikers. I caught them and we aid out hellos. I didn’t recognize either of them, but Graham had started the 200 mile race with me, and Kellie had started the 200 kilometer race that morning. We rode together until we reached the big turn to the north, toward West Yellowstone. They stopped there, Graham lying down in the snow for a nap while Kellie had a snack.
I pushed on, remembering how hard this trail had been during my first attempt at the Fat Pursuit in 2014: a soft, ungroomed mess that I had not been able to ride for more than a few yards at a time. Today, the trail was firm and smooth, easy to ride even as it tipped upwards. As my computer’s elevation reading went up, though, the sun went down, though. The trail turned light blue, then gray, then black except where my headlamp and headlight shined. 5:00 p.m. came and went. I’d been riding for 24 hours.
Not being able to see much of the trail now, I just rode toward the yellow spots of light in front of me. Eat, drink, stretch, occasionally hop off to walk a tougher section. I crossed from Idaho into Montana. Somewhere on the climb, I caught or was caught by another rider, Greg, who said he was a friend of JayP’s. The surprise of seeing another rider – and especially of having more light on the trail – was a nice diversion from the trail and the trees. As we rode, I filed away details about him: his Canadian accent, his beautiful blue Kona Wo fatbike, his use of a silver beer growler for water. “That’s a good idea,” I told him. “Yeah, it holds a lot of water, but it all tastes like beer!”
Our trail emerged from the woods onto a high ridge – the South Plateau – and exposed us to a sharp wind, blowing from the west across our path. Finger drifts reached across the track, and here and there, the wind created weird patterns that looked like runes. Getting tired again, I knew that they weren’t letters, but I tried anyhow to decipher them. Though the drifting had obscured any snowmobile or bike tracks, some small animal was traveling just ahead of us, leaving a line of crisp paw prints the size of half dollars. We were leaving footprints, too, walking about as much as we were riding. I promised Greg that we would soon hit the faster sections that descended to West Yellowstone, but these downhills kept not arriving. After Greg pulled away from me at one point, I caught him as he prepared to bivvy, saying that he needed some sleep. I assured him that we were not far from West, and the second checkpoint, where I’d already decided to get some good sleep – or maybe I begged him to keep going with me.
However that conversation went, he did get back on his bike, and sure enough, we finally reached the downhill run to West. Doing 4, 5, 7 mph was marvelous. Greg pulled away from me again, a red human form, then a gray shape, then just a blinking rear light, then nothing but a fresh track in the snow. From my computer’s mileage reading, I could tell we were within a few miles of West Yellowstone now. A few signs appeared, some presenting miles-to-go numbers that seemed absurdly high. Gates barring entry to this or that road. The red light on a radio tower south of town. A dim yellow skyglow from the town itself. The descent ended with a straight trail toward the hotels and cabins at the south edge of West Yellowstone. Another rider suddenly passed us. Greg sped up to ride with him. Lagging and feeling really tired, I took a bad route to the checkpoint. What should have been a quick zip-zip ride over the streets turned into a tour of the eastern half of the town.
Finally, at 2:30 a.m., I pulled into the open garage where a few other bikes were resting. I leaned the Buffalo against an open spot on the wall, grabbed a few items off the bike, and headed up the steps into the checkpoint.
The volunteers gave me a hearty welcome. A number of other racers were there too, including Greg and the guy who had passed us as we reached town – my friend Jon, who said that he was going to stop there, that reaching West had been his goal. The living room was full of sleeping riders, some of whom, the volunteers said, had also decided to stop. They asked me what I was planning to do. I told them that I was going to take a nap and then continue. A photo by Jon’s girlfriend, who had been waiting for him at the checkpoint, suggests why they seemed surprised to hear this:
Taking off my vest and shell and hats, I used hot water to melt off my icebeard and sat down to eat a bowl of soup and two grilled-cheese sandwiches. I finished the soup, but halfway through the first sandwich, I realized I needed that nap. The volunteers pointed me downstairs. I decided to take a 90-minute nap to get through one full sleep cycle. I set my phone’s alarm (thank god you can just tell Siri what to do!) and crashed into sleep. After at least one major coughing fit, the alarm sounded. Feeling awful, I decided to grab 20 more minutes of sleep. When that alarm buzzed, I vaulted out of bed, feeling great. It was a little after 5:00 – 36 hours into the race, and one hour before the cutoff time to leave the checkpoint.
Back upstairs, I found different volunteers on duty and more racers at the table. Everyone was quitting or had quit except Graham and Kellie, whom I’d last seen in the afternoon as we turned north toward West. A volunteer asked me if I was planning to continue. “Yes! I feel good!” His eyes widened. “Really? Okay! Good. I’ll tell the race director.” I tried to hustle through everything I needed to do. Two more bowls of soup. A handful of gels to stash on my bike. Hot water in my pack, along with 2 or maybe 10 hydration tablets. New batteries in my headlamp and headlight. Last, a check of the forecast – “1 to 2 inches of snow during the day,” a volunteer told me – and directions back to the course – “Just turn right on the street here and keep going. The street turns into the trail.” 5:58! Time to go. I climbed into the Buffalo and pedaled out of the garage, turned right, almost instantly left town.
For a few miles, the course headed due north, between the West Yellowstone airport and the highway that runs up to Bozeman. I could hear an occasional car through the trees, but steadily I moved away from the road and reentered the black, silent woods. The riding was easy, and pedaling again – after three hours at the checkpoint- was comfortable and familiar. The sleep had been effective, providing physical rest as well as mental rejuvenation. I wasn’t sure exactly when the sun would come up, but I knew that I’d get a boost from the sunshine, and that the boost would help me in turn get up and over Mount Two Top, the 7,880-foot mountain that loomed as the next big challenge on the course. And the last big one, for after Two Top was a long downhill and flat run to the third checkpoint.
As I turned east off onto the trail that ran along the southern shore of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake, I checked my average speed. I was still ahead of the pace needed to reach the third checkpoint by the cutoff time of 6 p.m. – about twelve hours into the future – and thus also ahead of the pace needed to finish the race by midnight or a little later. That would mean a total race time of 55 hours or so. Longer than I expected, but feasible if my legs held up. Certainly, I had enough food and water to go that long.
Winding over these flat tracks, I was aware suddenly the sun had come up behind me, lending pale blue and gray tones to everything. At first, I could hardly see the trail in the flat light, but gradually the light sharpened enough that I could see the trail and, across the Madison Arm, the curving banks of Horse Butte – notable to me as one of the few places outside of Yellowstone National Park into which the park’s bison can safely migrate. I hoped to see some buffalo over there, but didn’t. On my side of the lake, a few trees, some shrubs and brush, acres of open country. I wasn’t moving fast but I was moving steadily, now mostly west, not needing to dismount for the few inclines or the occasional snowdrifts. I found another racer’s tracks and tried to follow them. The trail bent south, past mile markers, through an idle campground, and back into thicker trees. Above the trees, Two Top, maybe 10 miles away in gray sunlight.
The mile markers ticked by. I crossed Highway 20 (the finish was 22 miles away by car from that spot) and rode a short spur trail toward Two Top Loop, which would go up, over, and down the mountain. Coming off this spur to turn toward Two Top – now looming dead ahead, green-black with trees but bare on the summits – I saw ahead of me a pack of dogs. Wolves? No, too small. Just as I saw that they were sled dogs, harnessed up and raring to go, their driver shouted to me from off-trail: “Hey, can you do me a big favor?” I stopped. “What is it? I’m in a bike race.” He explained he’d dropped something on the trail and needed me to hold the dogs in place while he retrieved it.
So I dutifully stood there, one foot on the sled’s brake and both hands wrapped around a rope tied to the sled’s chassis, while he sprinted away and then returned with a lost shovel. “Thanks, man. You’re a lifesaver. Have a good ride!” He took the rope from me, tossed it on the sled, pulled up the brake, and shouted to the lead dogs. They ripped off down the trail, throwing up plumes of snow behind the sled. I stepped back onto the Buffalo and pointed myself at Two Top.
I had an unsophisticated strategy for getting over Two Top – and into the last 35 miles of the race: to climb the mountain as steadily as possible, going slowly but continuously, and then to attack the descent, making up time so that I reached the flats by mid-afternoon. I reached the foot of the mountain at about 11 a.m., riding as far up the climb as I could before dismounting for what I knew would be a long hike-a-bike session from about 6,600 feet to about 8,000 feet.
1,400 feet of climbing, more or less. I tackled the climb by going 100 feet at a time, more or less, fourteen times, more or less. On some steep pitches, my computer showed me gaining a foot with every step. 100 steps earned 100 feet. More often, I needed to take two or four or even ten steps to climb a foot. And of course, the Buffalo didn’t roll itself up the hill; I had to push it. Sometimes I had my hands on the bars and walked pretty naturally. Other times, I had to lean in, chest almost on the bars. Here and there, I had to put one hand on the stem and one on the seat and push from behind.
Foot by foot, though, we made our way up, encountering a few groups of snowmachiners. One group, heading up, stopped just up the trail from me and, in unison, reached up to activate the GoPros on their helmets. Another group, coming down, slowed and stopped when they saw me. The leader looked at me and shook his head before roaring away again. I only talked to one group of sledders, two guys in U.S. Forest Service jackets who asked jovially how the race was going. I slurped water from my backpack while we chatted, then waved as they headed uphill. The fact that the riders were on different brands of snowmachines bothered me. Shouldn’t the government have a uniform fleet of snowmobiles?
Suddenly, the trail flattened and I saw the sign marking the Continental Divide, the boundary between Montana and Idaho. This spot isn’t the top of Two Top, but I wanted to commemorate the moment. Two tourists were taking pictures of each other at the sign, and I asked them to take one of me, which they obligingly did – without commenting on how much I looked like death warmed up.
I was happy to be on top of Two Top, but the climb had already eaten up a lot of clock. I had about three hours to reach the third checkpoint – just barely feasible, and only possible if I could ride fast on the descent and then hold a good pace on the trails from the far side of the mountain to the checkpoint.
The bad part of Two Top is that the summit is not a peak but a wide ridge, a patchwork of snowfields and stands of trees, with the trail winding every which way. Up here, the snow and the wind turned the trees into the famous “snow ghosts,” some of the most amazing and bizarre sights I’ve ever seen:
I could ride many parts of this flatter section, but now the light flurries that had started as I reached the divide began to intensify. In the fields, the wind whipped the snow at me; in the woods, the snow drifted down. I could not see any bike tracks, and even the snowmachine tracks were nearly obscured. One more group of sleds went past me as I crossed an especially wide meadow, giving me a wide berth and roaring up a steep bank that I knew I would have to walk.
I didn’t know that those helmeted snowmobilers would be the last people I’d see for eight or nine hours. I did know, as reached the slope they had zoomed over, that my Fat Pursuit was over. My average speed had now dipped under the minimum finishing pace, and I had less than three hours to cover almost twenty miles to the checkpoint. With fresh legs and compliant trails, I could meet this challenge. With exhausted legs and snowed-in trails, I could not. I was not going to reach the next checkpoint by the cutoff.
“Fuck fuck FUCK!” I was pissed. I shouted, I stamped my feet, I even felt a couple tears trickle down my cheeks. “I wanted this so bad,” I said out loud, possibly to the Buffalo. The bike didn’t respond. I hauled it up the ramp, through a grove of trees, and out into a wide meadow.
I climbed onto the Buffalo and pointed our front wheel at the trail markers I could see down the trail. In this open area, though, the flurries became a blizzard, raising walls of snow in front of me and obscuring the markers as I rode toward them. The snow under me was uniformly windblown, hiding the edges of the trail as well as any snowmachine or bike tracks.
This was crazy. As crazy a moment as I’d experienced in any fatbike race – and at least as crazy as biking through the forty-below temperatures on Saturday morning, 36 hours before. I thought for a second about whether I was in any danger. I decided I wasn’t. I was warm and dry. I wasn’t too hungry or thirsty, though I’d have gladly accepted anything to eat or drink that I hadn’t been eating and drinking since Friday evening. My legs were heavy, yes, but not sore, and I didn’t even feel tired so much as weary. As my outburst a few minutes before showed, I could still think, and make clear decisions about riding and resting, not just stopping and going as whims struck or my body allowed.
So no I wasn’t in danger, even if I couldn’t see how I was going to get off the mountain. But I was disappointed – that I hadn’t made better time earlier in the race, that I hadn’t gotten further down the course before the snow started, that now I would not finish.
But whatever. I couldn’t do anything about any of that now, but I could try to ride the Buffalo off the mountain and then as far down the trail as possible by 6 p.m. Maybe I could get to the last main junction before the trail turned north to the third checkpoint. Reaching that goal would be worth something.
I stood there for a minute, looking down the mountain, trying to pick out the paired posts that marked the edges of the trail. I could barely see the nearest ones, which were perhaps 20 feet away. I couldn’t seen the next pair at all. With nothing better to do, I dug out my phone and took a picture so I’d always be able to see just how bad the conditions were. Turns out, the phone’s camera was better at finding the posts in the blizzard than my eyes!
I had been racing for almost exactly 48 hours when I took this picture. I knew I could not finish the race as I’d hoped, but I also knew I had a lot of good work to do to get down to some spot where I could “self rescue” by riding back to Island Park or maybe get picked up by one of my cabinmates. I texted my friend Ben to let him know where I was, though he already knew thanks to the online race tracker. I told him I was going to ride and walk as far as I could and then update him.
Climbing back on the Buffalo, I headed down the mountain. We could ride some of the steeper parts, though the drifts made steering difficult. My computer showed that we were steadily losing elevation and approaching the turnoff from the trail over Two Top onto another trail that ran toward Island Park. Ride the downhills, hike-a-bike the intermittent uphills, pedal, walk, pedal, walk. Back into unbroken woods again.
The sky had turned from gray to black again, my third nightfall of the race. I don’t think I’d been aware of any dawn or dusk as it happened, only after it was over. In the dark, the snow kept falling, filling the flatter tracks and slowing me down even more. I crossed back into Montana, then back into Idaho. Montana, Idaho. Sometimes riding, sometimes walking. 6 p.m.
Around 7 p.m., I made the turn off the Two Top trail and onto a trail – Railroad Grade – that I remembered from my two previous races as being fast and fun, an undulating, curvy section that repaid a certain necessary effort with decent speed and the pleasure of riding fast.
I found though that Railroad was not fast this year. From one edge to the other, the trail was snowed in. An inch or two here, three or four inches there. Snow boulders like those I’d seen on Saturday afternoon – 28, 30 hours ago! – had rolled onto this trail too, but here they were points where snowdrifts could grow. I tried to ride or walk around these obstacles, but my body and mind were finally failing. I’d stumble and fall, or oversteer and crash. Getting up, I sipped a little water or tried to eat something. My water was almost gone, though, and every single item of food tasted the same – like sweetened chalk. 8 p.m. More than once, a tree dumped some of its snow on me as I stood on the trail. I wondered if somehow my headlight was causing those snow dumps. My computer died, so I had to remember how to put in fresh batteries.
As tired as I felt, I also felt relieved that I was, for all intents and purposes, done with the race. I just needed to get off the course. Walking and riding and stumbling and weaving, I made my way down Railroad Grade. To my surprise, I now picked out at least two sets of tracks – bike tires and footprints. I wondered who was ahead of me, and if I could catch them. 9 p.m.
My computer showed that I had just a couple miles to the spot where Railroad Grade ended. There, the racecourse went north toward the third checkpoint, eight miles or so away. Looking at my map, though, I could see that continuing straight west for about that same distance would get me out to the highway. I decided to do that. I texted Ben to let him know, then resumed the trudge. Somewhere in this last stretch, I saw ahead of me, smack in the middle of the trail, an LP gas tank, the sort that might sit outside some rural house. I knew that the tank wasn’t really there in front of me, and yet… As I rode closer, it of course vanished. I kept riding, laughing a little to myself at the oddity of that hallucination.
The turn off Railroad. 10 p.m. A bit more walking and riding brought me to the junction where I planned to keep going west. 10:20. I needed longer than I should have to do the math and figure out that I’d been riding for just over 53 hours – minus the two naps. I was very hungry.
Standing at the junction sign, I tried to figure out which way to go. The trail toward the highway did not start right at the signpost, so I started to wander around a little bit, trying to pick it up. My initial foray put me in the middle of a snowfield, up to my waist in snowmachine-churned powder. As I extricated myself, I saw a snowmachine coming down the trail from the north, the direction of the checkpoint. I waved, hoping the driver would see me, stop, and help me get oriented.
The sled wasn’t driven by just anyone, though: it was JayP, out looking for stragglers like me. Just as he had when he pulled me off the course in 2014, he asked, “How are you doing?” I answered honestly: “I’m tired. I’m going to head out to the highway from here, but I can’t find the trail.” He used his headlamp to find it, a freshly groomed track not ten feet from the signpost. “What happened to your lip?” With the tip of my tongue, I touched my lip. Stinging. “I think I might have gotten some frostbite.” Jay nodded. He said that he was going to go find two racers who were ahead of me but had gone off course, and then go back to the third checkpoint to retrieve the only other 200-mile racer, a guy who’d reached and then left the third checkpoint only to tire and return. I said I was going to ride out to the highway, then ride back to Island Park on the road. Jay said that he’d watch the online race tracker and see if he could meet me at the highway instead.
He roared off up the trail. 10:45. I climbed onto the Buffalo, immensely relieved that I knew how things were going to end. The groomed trail was wondrously smooth and firm, and I enjoyed riding the three or four miles toward the highway. Going oh so slowly, I crossed the Henry’s Fork again, a few miles upstream from where we had seen it on Friday night near Harriman State Park.
I began seeing more street signs, so I knew I was getting close to the highway. Up ahead, red tail lights. A bike, or a set of bikes. No, a car. No, a van – Jay’s van. I rolled over a berm left by a snowplow and onto a paved street. Kid Riemer, Jay, and Gary, a volunteer I’d seen at the first checkpoint on Saturday morning, came toward me, congratulating me on my race. I could barely speak, from both emotion and horrific dehydration. They took the Buffalo from me and packed it in the van, then helped me up and into a seat alongside Graham and Kellie.
We talked quietly about the race as Jay drove us back to Pond’s. I didn’t know what to say or think beyond the fact that the Fat Pursuit had been an extraordinary experience, and so much more than I expected in so many ways – duration, intensity, beauty, difficulty. My computer showed 55 hours of riding time and 176 miles covered.
Hunched there in the van as we hummed along the highway, I knew I needed to do the race again in 2018. I just needed to go faster, so the race wouldn’t take so long. First, though, food and drink and sleep.
I’ve been working as a more or less professional for nearly 20 years now, but Wednesday was the first time I did a one-day business trip by plane – to attend an meeting in Chicago.
The event itself was great, which was the main thing – an all-day workshop at which a colleague and I described how our colleges collaborate.
The travel was, really, fine: the meeting conveners paid for my plane ticket, the flights and El rides were on time, and it’s stupidly easy to get great coffee when you’re traveling by air. #good #better #best
Beyond that, though, the experience was interesting, in the Minnesota sense. This kind of travel is amazingly tiring, for one thing. After getting up at 3 a.m. to be ready for the airport shuttle at 4, I was at the airport at 4:45, one business-casual white guy in a horde of us. (Turns out, being up at that time gives me a splitting headache.) Flight, train, meeting, train, flight, shuttle, and I was back home by 9 p.m. – a solid 18-hour day.
For a second thing, the condensed nature of this trip revealed just how much of a noob I am at travel. On the way back home, my traveling companion pointed out that I had somehow, without any volition on my part, been granted TSA’s pre-check status. I’d never applied for it, to my knowledge, and certainly never paid the $85 for it. And yet there it was on my boarding pass, whisking me through security. I’d estimate that 80% of the other TSA Pre passengers were white guys of +/- 20 years of my age. Most of the rest were white women of similar ages (like my fellow traveler). The few non-white Pre passengers exuded wealth.
So I guess I have that going for me.
For a last thing, travel of this sort drains away a lot of the aspects of travel that I enjoy the most, like just looking around, or having foods that I usually don’t, or pausing to people watch. No time for that when you have to get to the plane/train/office! I’ll have to make up for this by going extra slow and eating extra much on my next trip.
A lot of people – cyclists and not – have asked me about the clothing, bike, and gear I used in the Fat Pursuit.
Given how much I’ve learned from talking with fellow racers about their systems, I thought I’d share mine.
With a couple exceptions, I’ve used the items here in several other long races, and the new items had been tested on long rides this fall and winter.
I’m not trying to name-drop with the brand info; I just want to be clear about what works for me.
And yes a lot of this stuff is expensive. I don’t think I bought a single item here at retail, though – I watch for sales, use shop/club discounts, buy on clearance, etc. Even the Buffalo, my beloved adventure partner, was bought used (albeit from a bike guy who took very good care of it).
Worn Continuously (* Craft brand items)
Worn as Needed (when it was so goddamn cold)
Spare Clothing (stashed in a dry bag in my seat pack and never used)
FATBIKE AND GEAR
Bike: the Buffalo, a 2011 Salsa Mukluk ti, size large, and far from stock.
Bags and Gear
EQUIPMENT (* required items)
My 2017 Fat Pursuit was extraordinary – the course, the weather, the scenery, the effort, the effects.
Though I didn’t reach the finish line this year, I had a hell of an adventure: 55 hours and 167 miles of riding my fatbike, the Buffalo, through a surpassingly beautiful, harsh, and rewarding place. Racing the Fat Pursuit was a privilege and a challenge and a joy. I can’t wait to go back next January.
The Fat Pursuit as an event has three separate races: a 60-kilometer race run in December and then a pair of 200s run the same weekend in January – the 200-mile in which I was competing, starting at 5 p.m. Mountain time on Friday, January 6, and a 200-kilometer (126 mile) race that started the next morning.
By race day, I had been preparing for a year – or maybe longer. I had done the 200k distance at the first and second Fat Pursuits in 2014 and 2015, but I missed the first year of the new 200-mile distance in 2016. I burned up my regrets over my absence at the edition by doing a lot of training – more and better riding, including more races, than I’d ever done as well as hundreds of hours of work in the gym. I also did a wide range of other preparation: testing literally every piece of required (and optional) equipment, studying the course to the point of memorizing segment distances, ironing out travel and lodging, visualizing myself riding (not walking!) past the Continental Divide marker and under the finish line arch…
When I left for Idaho with my friend Ben Doom two days before the race, I felt as ready as I could possibly be. On the long, fun drive out west, we talked about the course, about our bikes and equipment, about other racers, and about the weather, which looked daunting: extreme cold on Friday night, the first night of the race, then the possibility of snow later in the weekend, during what would probably be the last half of my race. I’ve done okay in cold weather, but fresh snow makes for slow riding.
We reached the race HQ at Pond’s Lodge in Island Park, Idaho, early Thursday afternoon, right on schedule. We checked in at the registration table, where I was assigned race number 9, and went through the gear check, which race director Jay Petervary – “JayP” – insisted on running on the sidewalk outside the lodge, with his two dogs running around like maniacs and snowmobiles – “snowmachines” in Western parlance – revving in the parking lot. When we finally headed over to our luxurious cabin, at the back of the Pond’s property, I was pretty confident that I would be able to go for 30 or even 40 hours – perhaps a bit longer if the extra time ensured a finish.
Staying in a cabin with a dozen other racers – some doing the same 200 mile race as Ben and me, some the 200 kilometer race that started on Saturday morning – I soaked up their excitement and their knowledge. I think I made a good half-dozen tweaks to my bike and equipment based on our conversations in front of the fire. A couple favorites: use the capacious zipper pockets on the underside of my pogies (the big, funny-looking overmitts that most fatbike era mount over their handlebars) to store stuff like nutrition gels and extra gloves or hats, and loop my dry bag buckles through my bottle cage so that the bag can’t bounce out.
At noon on Friday, we all trooped over to the racer meeting, at which JayP gave a surprisingly causal overview of the race course. Cold-cut sandwiches there for lunch, then back to the cabin, quieter now as we handled final prep and got our minds right for the start of the race. I stuck to my plan for the afternoon. Get dressed in all my race gear: wind briefs and wicking shirt, compression socks and thick wool socks, upper and lower thermal base layers, heavyweight cycling pants, synthetic soft shell jacket, wind vest, neck wrap, heavyweight gloves, thick wool cap, cycling boots, clear-lens glasses. Take short ride on (and shoot live video during!) the first section of the course. Hang out for a few minutes with an old friend who’d come up from Jackson Hole to see the start of the race. Double-check that all my extra clothes were accessible: down hat, fleece mittens, light gloves, headband. Install fresh batteries in all my devices (headlight, headlamp, bike computer, hearing aids). Get to the start line in plenty of time. Pose for pictures – so many pictures: pre-race solo portrait,
group photo with my cabinmates, shot of all the starters under Pond’s arch…
Finally, just before five, Mike Riemer from Salsa Cycles, the main sponsor of the race, gave a short pep talk. While I listened, I reset my computer to get good data for the next 24 or 36 or 48 hours. The screen showed a temperature of -9º F, but I refused to believe it. I felt warm and happy and ready. We cheered the race volunteers and especially JayP, who then sent us off with a simple “Three, two, one, go!” My eyes welled up unexpectedly, but now we were rolling. There’s no crying in bike racing!
Section 1: From the Start to Checkpoint 1 (81 miles, 5:00 p.m. Friday till 11:30 a.m. Saturday)
The opening miles of the course routed us south over flat, fast trails along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River – a famous and gorgeous fly-fishing creek. In a long loose line, we passed the ominously-named Last Chance resort, a few buildings at a wide spot in the river where the sunset shot light through the steam rising off the black water. Dozens of trumpeter swans were settling in for the night. I jockeyed with other riders for good lines on the trail, but tried as much as possible to absorb the beauty – the river and trees around me, the sunset fading to my right, the blinking lights and hunched shapes on the bikes in front of me.
Soon after Last Chance, we turned right, for a loop through Harriman State Park. Full dark. Headlamp and headlight on. -15º showing on my computer. Dismount and get in the queue of riders lifting bikes over the gate into the park. Take the moment to pop a gel and a sip of water. Back on the bike. Catch up to some riders, get caught by others. Greet Jill Martindale, going well on her splatter-painted Salsa Beargrease, Miami Vice, early in her own extraordinary adventure. Study a mechanically regular line of feline tracks running along the edge of the trail. Climb and descend the low hills. Glance at the black bulk of a bluff in the near distance – the rim of the Island Park caldera. Keep things smooth as the trail leaves the flat open fields and enters thick evergreen forest.
This narrower, tighter riding was tricky – a mental test. I’m not a very good rider on singletrack under perfect circumstances, but now I was maneuvering a 50-pound fatbike and trying to not to slow down the riders behind me. Their multiple headlights cast numerous overlapping shadows of me down the trail – negative racer #9s, to match the negative temps. -10° in higher warm spots, -20° in lower cold ones. Watching the mileage on my computer, I could tell we were nearing the end of the Harriman section, and soon enough the trail spit us out on an access road that in turn led us across the highway, exactly 10 miles straight south of Pond’s.
181 miles to go. I stopped for more food and a gulp of water, but my hydration pack hose was frozen. Uh-oh. I dry-swallowed the trail mix and tucked the hose deeper under my clothing, hoping my body would thaw it. As I chewed another mouthful of trail mix, I dug out a set of backup clothing. A headband went across my nose and mouth, a new layer of insulation against the headwind. I pulled off my headlamp to fit my down beanie over my cycling cap, then put the lamp back on my head. I loved seeing the bright yellow spot of light it cast wherever I looked. I pulled my down jacket from my seat pack and put it on too, being careful to pull both my shell’s and the jacket’s hoods up over the headlamp straps. Finally I snuggled my gloved hands into fleece mittens. Armored up. 8:00 exactly. Three hours in.
I knew from my course notes that the next section was mostly downhill, running sixteen miles from the flats of Harriman at 6,100 feet to the lowest spot on the course – the Warm River campground at 5,200 feet. Jay had suggested at the race meeting that Warm River would perversely probably be the coldest spot on the course, thanks to the berg of frigid air that would likely settle there overnight, so as I pedaled southeast across some open country toward the trail to the campground, I looked at my computer to get a sense of how cold it was right now. The temperature readout was blank. I tapped the screen. A flicker. -29° appeared. I could feel a headwind blowing. Cold that cold feels solid. A spring or summer headwind pushes back at you. A winter headwind like this encases you. Han Solo in carbonite, delivered to Jabba the Hutt.
I was happy to make the turn south toward Warm River, into the trees and out of the wind. This riding was fast, often easy, but the extra speed intensified the cold. My hands would go dead and come back, numb and revive, though I told myself this was more from a nervously tight grip on the bars than from the cold. Loosen up. Light hands. I pulled each hand in turn out of its pogie and shook it, warming the fingers. My toes too were getting cold. I flexed each foot and pointed each toe in turn. This little piggy went to market.
About two-thirds of the way to Warm River, the race detoured to Mesa Falls, a gorgeous cascade where the Henry’s Fork pours over the edge of the Island Park caldera. At the falls, racers had to go on foot to retrieve a piece of candy that we’d show volunteers at the first checkpoint – after 45 more miles and the rest of the long night. A cluster of lights up the trail told me that I was approaching the spur to the falls. Hooking a sharp right turn, I plunged down the steep, winding road to the falls, cursing because I knew I’d have to climb every damn foot of the road to get back to the trail. Fuck fuck fuck fuck. Now my hands were numb for real. Feet too. I couldn’t feel them at all. Glancing at my computer, I though I saw a reading in the -30° range, but I was going too fast to be sure.
Finally I reached the bottom of the road. 9:41 p.m. 33 miles into the race. A sixth of the full distance. A big park building loomed in the dark, shuttered for the night if not the season. Another rider pulled up just as I dismounted. We instinctively started heading down the only path we could see. Another racer came back up path toward us. “What are we doing here?” he asked. “The path just kinda peters out!” I told him we were supposed to get some sort of candy to save for the first checkpoint. “Oh yeah, the fucking candy! I shoulda paid more attention at the meeting.” He fell in behind us as we walk-jogged further down the path. I could hear a dull roar – the falls. Off the Buffalo, my legs felt like they were being misused. Cold wet air billowed up from the river below us. Finally, we saw two crude wooden stakes with a plastic grocery bag tied between them. Mr. Confusion lunged around me and grabbed one of the candies – golfball-sized cordials for a local confectioner. Some sort of JayP joke. I chose a blue one to match my bike’s bags.
We made our way back up the path to the parking lot where our bikes waited. I put the candy prize in the bag on the front of my bike, tucking it into an interior pocket so that it could not, would not fall out even if I dumped my bike and tore the bag open. Standing there, my feet felt dead. I needed to do something for them. No time like the present. Take off my mittens, lay them on my pogies. Unzip the right side of my frame bag. Find my stash of chemical handwarmer packets. Pull out two pairs. Lay one on the pogies next to the mittens, rip open the other. Shake each packet, one in each hand, being careful to really mix the contents. One of my companions leaves, pedaling back up the road. Reach down and undo the four fasteners on my right boot: Velcro strap, Velcro flap, zipper, drawcord. Pull out my foot, a block of ice inside two socks. The foot in the air feels like the foot in Lake Superior in March. Place the warmer, faintly warm, inside the boot. Focus. Flatten the warmer out where the ball of the foot will go. Push the foot, now seemingly swollen with cold (impossible!), back into the boot. Focus. Flex the foot. Wiggle the toes. Carefully do up the boot’s fasteners: drawcord, zipper, flap, strap. Get each one exactly right to prevent the need to do all this again.
But I do have to do all this again, with the left foot. By the time I had the left foot out of the boot, though, I felt – imagined? – heat seeping up from the warmer into my right foot. Two minutes later I had the left foot back in its boot. I took another minute to activate the second pair of warmers and put them against my palms inside my gloves. The empty wrappers went in my garbage bag. I ate some food, put the mittens back on, put my hands back in my pogies. I climbed onto on the Buffalo. With a big push-off, I started pedaling up the hill. It was steep and took effort but I rode every foot, chest almost to the bars at some points. The motion felt good – generating heat to trap inside my layers, giving me reason to flex my feet over and over and over, recalling repeats I did in November on the steepest hill in Northfield – no harder than the tenth time up Radar Hill! I passed a few other riders walking the climb, and a few more where the road rejoined the trail.
I paused there for some food and drink. My hydration hose had thawed long ago and the water in the reservoir – scalding hot at 4:30 p.m. – was now pleasantly tepid. I made the right turn toward Warm River, just a few miles further downhill. This stretch wasn’t quite as fast as the leg to the falls road, but I still moved well, feeling warm for the first time in a while, and even, wonderfully, feeling sensations in my feet. With a bit of concentration, I could tell each toe apart from every other toe. Little piggies awake again. A rider came up and settled in next to me. I greeted him, but didn’t hear a reply. He moved ahead, then drifted, as passing riders often do, toward me. I overreacted to create space between us and steered right into the snow bank on the edge of the trail, flying off the Buffalo and burying myself in the pillowy snow. He didn’t stop, or even notice. I sorted myself out and got back on the Buffalo, following him a safer distance. My computer showed an elevation that meant we were nearly at the low spot of the course, but surprisingly also that the temperature had gone up since Mesa Falls to -15°! Remembering JayP’s prediction that this would be the coldest place on the course, I was heartened. Maybe the cold, forecast to last all night, had broken early! My computer showed a little after 11 p.m.
Warm River itself was just to my left, flowing in the same direction as my ride. Abruptly the trail crossed the river. The low spot. In a poetic sense, the course was uphill all the rest of the way. But in a real sense, the next leg of the course was all uphill: 26 miles – a marathon! – of steady climbing. My friend Minnesota Mark had said that this was “AC/DC time,” time to crank up whatever music was needed to do the work of turning the cranks. Owing to my hearing aids, I can’t listen to music while I ride, so I had decided to enjoy the fact that this would be the longest continuous climb I had ever done – and that when the climb ended, I’d have ten miles of downhill and ten miles of flats to reach the first checkpoint. I had more water and food, pushed the Buffalo up and over a steep initial ramp, and started pedaling.
And you know what? That’s all I remember of the climb. I started the climb at 11:20 p.m., a late night, and topped out at 5:48 a.m., an early morning. I have no recollection of the six-and-a-half hours between those moments. A quarter of a day, lost to memory. I must have just been riding my bike, eating, and drinking. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t take pictures of the dark trail or the starry sky. I didn’t send any late-night texts. I just rode the Buffalo, doing the thing I came to Idaho to do.
In fact the next moment I remember came even later, after the ten-mile descent that followed the all-night climb. Other riders have said that this descent was horribly cold, but I don’t know. Instead, I recall a moment of riding on the flat stretches before Checkpoint 1. Heading north into a light but insistent breeze, I could see dawnglow to my right, over the mountain ridge that I’d climb much later in the day, on the way to West Yellowstone. One of my cabinmates had said that a day’s coldest temperatures often occur right at dawn, a sort of thermal analogue to the sky always being darkest before daybreak. I pointed my headlamp at my computer. -39°. Definitely the lowest air temperature I’d ever seen. Pretty cold. Worth remembering.
My mental tape started running again there, partly with aches and pains. My stomach hurt from too many sugary foods overnight, and my head felt heavy. I had a massive icebeard on my face, pulling at my whiskers. The headband I’d put over my nose the evening before had frozen in place. I could feel an icicle on my upper lip. I’d chew it off, spit it away, and feel it form again, an unwanted extra tooth.
Ride, ride, ride. I was getting desperate to reach the checkpoint, but no matter what I did – pedaled, ran, walk – I was getting closer. Around 9 a.m., the full light of day became irresistible. I fished my phone out of my jacket and took a picture of Sawtell Peak in the far northern distance. The course would go over that mountain too, in the last twenty miles of the race.
Ride, ride, ride. More miles ticked by. I reached the last trail junction before the checkpoint. From study of the course map before the race, I knew that this junction was almost exactly midway between the first checkpoint and the start. A left turn would go directly back to Pond’s. Three, four miles of easy pedaling. A right turn would go directly to the checkpoint. Three, four miles of slightly harder pedaling. Later I learned that a dozen or more racers had come to this corner and turned left, including all the favorites to win.
I turned right. I had no reason not to. I was fine. Happy. Working hard. Somewhere on the approach to the checkpoint, I stopped again to take a selfie, expecting that I would melt off my icebeard at the checkpoint.
Then I got back on the Buffalo and finished this first, longest leg of the race. I reached the checkpoint at 10:15 a.m. I was 17 hours and 81 miles into the race. Well over a third done, at least by distance.
This first checkpoint is infamous because it is the site of the race’s dreaded water-boil test: to use whatever means you’d like to bring eight ounces of water to a rolling boil. I’d nearly failed when I did the test at my first Fat Pursuit, but performed far better at my second race the next year. This time too I acquitted myself well. In a few minutes of focused effort, I used my white-gas stove to turn a few big handfuls of trailside snow into 16 ounces of boiling water, which became a delicious cup of hot cocoa.
After turning off the stove, I went into the tiny canvas-sided shelter where racers could thaw out and rest. I sipped my cocoa and downed a cup of ramen that a volunteer gave me. Sitting awkwardly in a saggy camp chair, I hunched toward a massive propane heater, trying to thaw off my icebeard. The cold was so piercing, even inside the tent, that I had to actually touch the ice to the heater’s shroud before the beard started to melt. Gradually the icebeard shrank and fell off. I finished my cocoa and had more soup, chatting with a couple other racers, including the leader of the 200-kilometer race, which had started that morning at 7. After a while – you could have convinced it was thirty minutes or three hours – I was ready to go again. 11:30 a.m. I had been at the checkpoint for about 75 minutes – less than a minute of rest for every mile of riding. So far.
Going back outside, a volunteer asked whether I was continuing. I told him I was. I asked him who was winning. He said he didn’t know, but that all the “fast guys” had quit overnight. Looking at the racer log, I saw that almost every name on the list had been crossed off and had “scratch” written next to it. Apparently the night had been pretty hard.
I packed up my stove and cup, threw away my garbage, filled my hydration reservoir with hot water from a massive pot that the volunteers were feeding with snow, put my gloves back on, and picked up the Buffalo from its resting spot in the snow. I massive thermometer on the side of the checkpoint tent showed a temp of +20º, but my computer showed 5°. Either way, the sun was shining high in a blue sky. The next checkpoint was forty miles away in West Yellowstone, Montana. I hoped to get there by midnight.
I’m working on a real narrative post on the race; this list of details is a placeholder and raw material for it.
167 miles: covered by bike or foot
55 hours: time I spent on course
29 percent: fraction of 2017 that I’d spent in the race when I quit at midnight on Sunday night
10,000 feet: estimated number of feet climbed during the race
2.2 hours: sleep during the race (20 minutes trailside on Saturday afternoon, 110 minutes at the second checkpoint on Sunday morning)
-20º F: the supposed air temperature at the start
-39º F: the coldest temperature I saw on my bike computer, near dawn on Saturday
22: minimum number of items of clothing I was wearing then
3 times: number of crossings of the Continental Divide (maybe more?)
8.25 hours: time needed to climb, cross, and descend Two Top mountain, largely in a blizzard
8 hours: longest time I went without seeing another person (4 p.m. till midnight on Sunday)
12 hours: minimum stretch I went without talking to anyone
6 hours: hours after missing the final cutoff time that I finally stopped
18,000 calories: estimated energy burned during the race
1 time: number of times I filled my hydration pack with snow to see if the lining and my body heat really would melt the snow (they did!)
For a lifelong Midwesterner like me, the mountains never fail to be awesome in the traditional sense of the word.
The drive out to Idaho on I-90 climbs the whole way, from the thick air in Northfield at 910 feet, up the inclined plane of eastern South Dakota, through the Badlands and Black Hills in western SD, past Sheridan, WY, at 3,700 feet
and the Crazy Mountains in central Montana,
before going over the pass into Bozeman at 4,800 feet, where you see this from the parking lot at Target.
A few miles later, leaving the interstate, the route goes south through the Gallatin River valley, seeming somehow to descend but actually climbing past endless rocky and forested bluffs.
The highway pops out at West Yellowstone (6,667 feet) – at the northern end of the Fat Pursuit course – goes east over Targhee Pass, then turns south again, down to the race start in Island Park, Idaho. From I.P., Mount Two Top looms to the north, just outside West but 2,000 feet higher – the biggest challenge of the race course.
I’ve been anticipating the 2017 Fat Pursuit for more than a year. Tomorrow, the race finally happens – or starts to happen.
Today on the drive from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Island Park, Idaho, Ben and I talked pretty much continuously about the race – the course, strategies, equipment, weather…
I was almost relieved to get to West Yellowstone, Montana – at the northern end of the course – and finally be in the places where we will be riding our bikes. We drove past these flats south of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake, just west of “West,” for instance:
We’ll cruise over these flats at about mile 140 of the race, then start the climb to Two Top, the 8,710-foot peak at the left end of the highest ridge in the distance here:
Two Top should be the last big test of the course, around mile 150. I can’t wait to be up there, probably sometime Sunday, and then to ride off the mountain toward the finish. (I have a recurring dream about descending Two Top the last time I did this race, in 2015… The mountain left a mark on me!)
Lying here a cabin full of other racers – old friends and new ones – Sunday seems very far away, but I find this oddly appealing. I can anticipate finally getting going today and tomorrow, and then – after the race start at 5 pm on Friday (18:26 from right now!) – switch to enjoying my 40 or 50 hours of riding (and, honestly, to detesting some of it too) and especially anticipating the feeling of finishing.
On the first leg of our road trip to the Fat Pursuit, Ben Doom and I made it as far as Sheridan, Wyoming – 815 miles from Northfield (925 from St. Cloud, from which Ben started, heading down to pick my sorry ass up). We have 340 to go!
Having just done most of this drive this summer on our family vacation to the Black Hills, I didn’t pay much attention till we crossed the Missouri River. Soon afterwards, the sun set – which seemed to take hours and hours. Before we reached Rapid City, though, we were traveling in full big-sky darkness. Even with high-beam headlights in front of me, the stars were distractingly bright. I can’t wait to see them again on Friday and Saturday nights from the seat of my bike.
After Rapid City, the country and the road emptied out. We hit the Wyoming state line, goggled at the massive coal mine power plant outside Gillette, paused for snacks when we hit that city, and then pushed on to Sheridan.
The 80 miles between Gillette and Sheridan were empty. I usually think that I grew up in a pretty sparsely-settled place, but that stretch reminded me that the U.P. is Manhattan compared to Wyoming. In the time we needed to get from Gillette to Sheridan, we shared westbound I-90 with only three other vehicles: a filthy pickup truck that blasted past us at 90 mph right after Gillette, a dumpy compact car that popped up in front of us from some remote on-ramp, and an old Chevy truck that lumbering along in the passing lane. Even this bit of I-90 will seem heavily trafficked compared to the overnight trails at the race. Again, I can’t wait.
What: the marathon class (four-hour) event at the Border Crossing MTB race, part of the Minnesota MTB series
Where: Whitetail Ridge MTB trails, River Falls, Wisconsin – really fun trails that loop up and down a wooded hillside. Apart for a couple straight stretches along the cornfield at the top of the hill (perfectly situated for recovery!), the trails are very twisty and turny, and very rooty, and not particularly technical except for a section – near the end of our lap – that featured some burly rock sections. Our lap also included two short but steep climbs, which did a very good job of exploding my legs.
When: 8:50 a.m. till about 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 15, 2016
Why: I had hoped to do the Dirt Bag gravel race this weekend, but family plans made that hard or impossible, so when my friend Galen asked if I was interested in this event – rescheduled from July – I jumped at the chance.
Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi with a new 1x drivetrain.
My best gear was the bike, of course, and my new Revelate Wampak hydration pack – which I hope will be a key element of my winter-racing setup.
My worst gear was my new 1x drivetrain on the bike, which was wonky all day. Still, it never failed, so…
The low points were not very low:
The high point was when, on my last lap – pretty much totally gassed – I still managed to clean all but one of the various fairly technical obstacles on the course. I had been hit or miss with them all day, so I was happy to put my experience with them to good purpose so late in the race. Now I just need to be able to do this on lap two, and at three times the speed!
It was in the bag when I made it up the last serious climb, a steep ramp covered with loose rock, and knew I pretty much just had easy, fun trails to the finish.
The key lesson learned was that Four Hour Energy isn’t, and that the Whitetail Ridge trails are great. I’ll have to try to do this race next year, at its usual time in July.
The takeaway is that the MMBS races are pretty damn fun. I did three this year (this one, the Red Wing Classic in RW in July, and the Singletrack Escape in August in St. Cloud), and found the race experience to be quite different from my usual kind of event – gravel centuries and fatbike ultras. I like the vibe, especially having racers around almost all the time. I look forward to getting better – smoother but especially faster – at this kind of racing.
Last weekend, I finished the Tuscobia Winter Ultramarathon along the Tuscobia State Trail in northwestern Wisconsin – my fifth winter ultramarathon. I placed 12th out of 29 finishers (25 men and 4 women) in a time of 23:38. I had a great, brutal, wonderful time riding my bike in the woods.
I’d been looking forward to Tuscobia for a while, having heard from other fatbikers that it’s low-key, well run, and straightforward. Many other racers use it to tune up for the Arrowhead 135, always held three or four weeks later. I hadn’t ever done that, but when I decided last fall that I couldn’t spend the time or money to go out to Idaho to race the Fat Pursuit again, I was pretty happy to be able to register for the Tuscobia instead.
In two ways, the 2016 race was a new event. For the first time, the full-distance race ran from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back (rather than from P.F. to R.L. and back). With the start/finish in Rice Lake, the course was lengthened by four miles at each end to take advantage of a flat, straight four-mile spur trail connecting Rice Lake to the Tuscobia trail. Race HQ was a no-nonsense community building with a back yard abutting that spur.
I rode that spur trail the day before the race, getting a sense of snow conditions and stretching my legs midway through a very pleasant day of travel and prep. The mandatory gear check that afternoon felt pretty casual, perhaps because I’d done gear checks four previous times. Some of the rookies looked awfully nervous as race officials scrutinized their required gear. I tried to stay relaxed by chatting with other racers, drinking water, and thinking about my race strategy. I was aiming for an 18 hour finish, but I was prepared for a 24 hour ride.
After passing the gear check, I had a quick dinner with my friend Ben, attended the race meeting to pick up any last-minute intelligence on the course (such as a warning about a dangerous spot on the trail), and then went back to the hotel to pack my bike, which as luck would have it I could do while hanging out with Ben.
Six hours of restless sleep – full of nervous dreams about racing and especially about missing the start of the race – ended at 4 a.m. I dressed, nibbled on some high-calorie food, and got myself over to the start in plenty of time to finish some last-minute tasks like attaching my sleeping bag and pad (both mandatory pieces of gear). I couldn’t fit my bike into my rental car when fully assembled, see! As always, I got a little bit high from the way the Buffalo looks when ready for a race:
Just before 6:00 a.m., the 44 bikers tackling the full 160-mile distance formed up outside in the starting area. My thermometer showed the temperature as being 10° F, which is pretty much an ideal race temp. After a few more words from the race director, we were let loose with a hearty shout of “Go!”
Over the four-mile run north out of Rice Lake to the Tuscobia State trail, the pace increased from easy to manageable to fast, but I hovered around tenth place, near enough to see the leader if I stood on my pedals. I relished finally racing: the squeak of tires on the snow, the breathing of other racers, occasional calls as one person passed another, the warm yellow glow of headlights and the unpleasant red blinking of tail lights – by rule, two on the back of every bike.
When we made the right-hand turn that took us over a highway and onto the Tuscobia trail proper, the speed went through the roof, stretching and then breaking the line of racers. I monitored my speed on my computer so that I didn’t get sucked into chasing racers that I’d never catch. Soon enough the leaders came back to me and we traveled along together for a few more miles.
As we headed east, my sleeping pad started to slide upwards, catching the bottom half of my headlight’s beam and reflecting the light back at me in an irritating way. Too, the tire pressure that had served me well over the first 5 or 10 miles was proving too hard for the softer, less heavily ridden snow that we were now on. Earlier than I would have liked, I pulled aside to adjust the pad (folding it in half and strapping it further down) and let quite a bit of air out of my tires. Though as always I second-guessed the new pressure with pretty much every pedal stroke for the next few miles, it turned out to be just right; I didn’t have to tweak it again.
Back on the bike, I could see the sun gradually illuminating the sky in front of me – or at least what of the gray sky I could see above the near-tunnel of trees. Around then, another racer caught up to me – Tom E., a guy with whom I had shared a table at the gear check. We said our hellos and decided without really deciding to ride together for a while, trying to find the right lines in the softer snow. We’d spend the next 22 hours within ten feet of each other, sharing the race and the experience.
Racers say of the Tuscobia that the trail is flat and straight, which some complain is “boring” – a quality that’s amplified, for some, by the unusual out-and-back format. You see everything twice, and “everything” is pretty much just a straightaway through the trees.
I’m a big believer in the grandmotherly maxim that only boring people get bored, so I’d been looking forward to this “boring” quality of the trail. I love out-and-back courses, and do quite a bit of training on them, enjoying the way they turn this uphill into the downhill, or that left-hander into this right-hander, or flip-flop the scenery so the big red barn that was on the left going out is on the right coming back. Very simple pleasures.
The Tuscobia was no different. Talking with Tom about this and that and the other thing, I soaked up the view in front of us, occasionally glancing to the sides if we passed over a river or through a swamp or crossed a highway. The low ridges of snow along the edges of roads were nearly the only bike-handling challenges. The landscape was very much like the low rolling woods in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I grew up, or in northern Minnesota, where the Arrowhead is held – and very unlike the spectacular mountain forests in the Idaho of the Fat Pursuit course. I loved it all, even the little towns that were usually nothing more than a convenience store, a bar, and a few houses: Brill, Birchwood, Wooddale, Couderay, Radisson, Ojibwa. These names seemed familiar, akin the names of little towns elsewhere in the state that my family drove through on the way from the U.P. to Minneapolis or Green Bay.
The race’s first checkpoint was just past Ojibwa, an old stone cabin in a city park. The ride from the Ojibwa city limits sign to the park seemed painfully long, but we hit the checkpoint just before 11 – five hours and 45 miles into the race. At that 9 mph pace, we’d finish in about 18 hours – my target time.
Though we didn’t have a real plan for the checkpoint, Tom and I were pretty efficient at Ojibwa: checking in with the timekeeper, drying wet clothes in front of the fireplace. I melted off the day’s first icebeard so that I could eat and drink better. Soon enough, we were good to go, and checked out after 40 minutes inside. Tom started back toward the trail, then nearly took a wrong turn onto the driveway that led from the park to the highway. Calling to him, I led us back to our trail, laughing as explained that he’s just too used to riding on the road.
The leg from Ojibwa to the turnaround checkpoint in Park Falls was 34 miles, a solid ride under any circumstances and tougher thanks to an insistent headwind and a steady increase in elevation – nothing alpine, for sure, but plenty of false flats. Just after the checkpoint, we passed through more little towns – Winter, Loretta, Draper – before the emptiest part of the ride, a big, silent expanse of state forest interrupted only a few creek crossings and a bit of riding next to the highway. The snow thinned, and we even rode on short stretches of gravel here and there.
As we pedaled, Tom and I chatted. He talked about his experiences as a long-distance road rider, doing brevet rides of 300 and 600 and 1200 kilometers, including the famous Paris-Brest-Paris randonnée that’s held every four years in France. He also told me about his ride over the summer of the full Tuscobia trail, which gave him a nice sense of where we were and what we were approaching. Usually riding in file, we occasionally rode side by side and stopped about once an hour to eat something, adjust our clothes, or take a leak. I took every chance to stretch my back, which was tightening up as we rode, paining me especially on uphills.
What was new was race traffic. First, bikers doing the 80-mile half-distance race came through. The fast guys zoomed by while middle-the-pack riders approached more slowly, traveling more at our pace, and exchanged friendly calls and waves. Then the runners started coming, endlessly, pulling their sleds. Some were actually running, most were walking energetically, and a few were barely moving, even though they were only a third of the way into their races. We even met a couple skiers, who were standing at the bottom of one of the course’s only hills, waving their poles and cheering madly for those of us going in the other direction. Mixed into the short-event racers were the leaders of the 160-mile bike race. They appeared up the trail, closed on us with shocking speed, and then whooshed past. I waved to my friend Ben, riding alone in second position, and greeted the other guys in the top 5 or 10 as they came by in a small group.
The race traffic thinned again as we approached Park Falls. I knew from my cue sheets and from common sense that we’d start crossing roads more frequently as we neared Park Falls, but dammit, not all the roads were signed where we crossed them, or they had a name that didn’t jibe with my cues. Still, my computer told me that we were getting close: 75 miles. 75.5 miles. 76. 76.5. Where the hell was that town? We saw the silvery water tower, which then disappeared as the trail curved. Finally, we could see something that wasn’t trail ahead of us – a trailhead sign! We sped up and popped out with relief onto the city streets. A few turns later, we pulled in at the checkpoint, a Catholic school which had given its cafeteria over to the race. I leaned the Buffalo up against the wall to unpack some stuff I’d need inside: an energy drink, a change of clothes, fresh batteries for my headlamp.
By no means plush, the cafeteria was comfortable – too much so, it turned out. Amazingly and (in retrospect) dismayingly, Tom and I spent a full 80 minutes there – eating soup and pasta and grilled cheeses, resting our legs and stretching my back, drinking soda and coffee, chatting too much with each other and with other racers (including my friend Mark S.), changing our wet clothes, swapping new batteries into my lamp. It felt great to put on fresh, dry clothes and to see that my headlamp would be nice and bright when the sun went down again, but had I been watching the clock, I would have tried to get us, or at least myself, moving sooner than we did. Lesson learned, at least for the next race.
We finally headed back out at 5:20, with the sun already gone. I got a little thrill from seeing that we would be riding in the dark again – “already,” it seemed. Riding the Buffalo in the dark is one of my favorite things, and here I was, literally in the middle of a big race, about to do just that thing for another 10 or 12 hours.
Weaving over the streets back to the trail, I checked my thermometer. As forecasted, the temperature had dropped all day, and was now at a nice round zero. I’d put on thicker layers inside, so I felt ready for that temp, and for the even colder temps that we’d have overnight – all the way down to minus 10 or 15.
When we hit the trail, I couldn’t help myself, and stomped on the pedals. I wanted to go. Behind me, I could sense Tom’s headlight fading, and then he called for me to sit up, not ready yet to go so fast. With 80 miles to go, I was okay with that, so I pulled back a little. This yo-yo’ing occurred on and off throughout the rest of the race, but I was fine with going at about 80% of my maximum. We had a long way to go, riding with someone – especially overnight – is nice, and making the race take longer would, I hope, have a good effect on fitness for the Arrowhead.
The trail was the same, but different. What had been on the left was on the right. What had been steady uphills were now steady downhills. Or, no, wait. They weren’t downhills. They’d somehow become regular flats. Signs we had read as we approached P.F. – like the ubiquitous ones reading “Dip” that marked literally every bit of uneven terrain – were now just silver shapes on posts, and ones that had been silver shapes were now legible. The trail mileage markers now counted down, though I had to remind myself to add four to each number to account for the spur back to Rice Lake.
The big difference was that the trail that had been lit by gray light all day was now a black tunnel – my favorite view, equal parts scary (what’s up there?) and comfortable (the trail is up there!). The abyssal blackness was punctured by our headlights, which lit up a nice cone to help stay in the track other racers had worn into the snow. I had decided at the halfway to use my Princeton Tec Apex headlamp rather than my handlebar-mounted headlights. The headlamp has a big sentimental value (I won it at the first Fat Pursuit), but I also like the way the beam, cast from my head rather the handlebars, lights up a wider patch of trail. And since the lamp is on my head, I can shine it off to the sides of the trail to light up that mountain lion that’s waiting to pounce. Oh, no, that’s just a snowy log. I think.
The black trail was also intermittently broken up by the blinking tail lights of a few runners whom we were now catching – some 160-milers and lots of 80-milers. In the blackness, the blinkies were visible from a mile away, which created many opportunities to chase, not that it’s difficult for a cyclist to catch someone walking. More difficult and more satisfying to catch was a group of four cyclists who had left Park Falls in the half hour before we did. We exchanged encouragement as we went by.
These spurts of motivation helped shorten the 34 miles from Park Falls back to the Objiwa checkpoint. Though Tom and I were hardly talking anymore – just a few words now and then about mileage or time – we still stopped a couple times to have a snack and a drink and adjust clothes. I tried to work my back loose, too, and needed both on and off the bike to shake my hands back to life. Thanks to the cold and a recent tweak of my handlebar position, my palms and pinkies kept falling asleep. I pondered how to correct this for the Arrowhead.
We couldn’t quite reach Ojibwa in one push, deciding out of hunger and thirst and tiredness to swing off the trail in the little town of Winter (aptly named!) for some nourishment at the gas station there. I leaned the Buffalo up against three massive ice cooler and went inside to let my stomach identify its needs. My icebeard alarmed the clerks who gamely sold me some orange juice, which looked so incredibly good in the cooler and tasted even better. The two skiers who’d earlier cheered madly for us were there too, having dropped out of the race. They liked my icebeard, and asked me to pose for a picture with them. I really want to see that picture.
Though I don’t think we stayed too long, we probably did stay too long before wheeling back out onto the trail, especially since Ojibwa was only five miles away – well under an hour of riding. The distance was wearing on us, and my thermometer was now showing five degrees below zero or so now, which meant for the first time meant that the air felt bracing, even unpleasant.
Within the hour, we came on the reflectors that marked the trail down to the checkpoint. I hadn’t taken a photo of the trail since my early-morning shot, so I paused as Tom headed in to take a murky picture of the trail leading on toward Rice Lake and the finish.
The Ojibwa checkpoint had been tidy and energizing when we hit it on the way out, but now, after about 12 hours of solid operation, the atmosphere was different. Racers and volunteers packed the place, first of all, with a group of French-Canadian runners occupying the prime spot in front of the fireplace. The food tables were in disarray, having been attacked by waves of racers since the morning, and the volunteers were working hard to supply everyone with soup, hot water, pancakes, oatmeal, and other warm stuff.
Tom and I chowed down and thawed out and bitched with less and less good nature about the fact that everyone seemed to be forgetting to close the cabin’s giant swinging door. I pulled hunks of ice out of my beard and tossed them into the fireplace. I did a round of back stretches in a bit of open space on the cold floor. We chatted a little bit with other racers about how things were going for them. Opinions were mixed. The lead woman looked disappointed as she messed with her tire. She headed out soon after we arrived, back to the race, I thought. I learned later that she’d dropped out. Gradually the crowd thinned and we realized that we needed to get moving too. We checked out, appallingly, after another 80 minutes of stoppage – the same amount of time we’d spent at Park Falls.
We rolled out just before 11 p.m., with the last 45 miles staring at us out of the dark woods. We knew that the leg to the finish would be tough, and we were pretty much silent, focusing on the effort we needed to make. We’d agreed again that we’d stop every hour or so to drink and eat, which I understood to mean that we would not stop anywhere else if we could help it.
I was in front, as usual, listening for Tom’s tires and watching for his lights behind me. I’d occasionally have to sit up to keep him close; at other times, we’d come up alongside me for a bit, joking a couple times about my tail lights’ obnoxious blinking. I could understand that, even as I was getting foggy from about 18 hours of work.
Surprisingly, the witching hour was not as empty as I’d expected it to be. Soon after Ojibwa, we passed the same group of four riders that we’d caught as we approached Winter. They were still traveling together, a nice little team that cheered as we went through. I was surprised that they didn’t stick to us, but within just a minute or two of catching them, they were behind us again, for good.
We didn’t find any other cyclists on the trail. Instead, we regularly came up on runners who were working their way back to Rice Lake too, including that group of French-Canadians, who took up all of the trail and only moved aside with sluggish surprise. They were a tired bunch. A few runners’ lights were turned off, or burned out, so we didn’t know they were there until we were almost literally on top of them. Moving without illumnination was strictly against the race rules, but what could we or they do?
Most of the time, we could see the runners from hundreds of yards behind thanks to their blinkies or their reflective vests. As fatigue settled into my brain, these spots of light started to play tricks. At one point, I saw a red ribbon hovering over the trail that turned out to be two pairs of blinkers on sleds behind two runners who were walking next to each other. At another place, my eyes told me that a car was parked on the trail. I could see the running lights! I knew it couldn’t be a car, and sure enough, the mirage turned out to have been created by solid red lights and reflective panels on the sleds of two runners who were standing at the edge of the trail.
I tried to call out encouragement to the other racers with a voice that was getting hoarse and slurred with tiredness and cold. I could feel a big icebeard growing on my face, and when I glanced down, I could see the rounded shapes of ice under my nose. I was having a hard time focusing on my cue sheet, too, but I knew we were approaching a railroad crossing that my friend Minnesota Mark, a very experienced ultramarathoner, had warned me about. Though the crossing had been a straightforward down-and-up bit in the daylight, I was a little worried about it in the dark. I didn’t want to hit the rails at the wrong angle and crash on them, to miss the noise and light of an approaching train and ride into its path, or – perhaps worse – to get stuck waiting for a train as it passed or idled. I focused whatever energy I had at that point on this tiny little bit of the race: looking and listening for a train, setting my bike straight down the trail so I’d cross the rails perpendicularly, plunging down the descent, getting up off the seat to ride over the rails as smoothly as possible, and then grunting up the other side. We stopped at the top of the incline for a drink and a snack and a photo of the ominous warning sign. 29 miles to go.
Those 29 miles are mostly lost to me. I remember not catching any more runners or riders. We were alone out there, pedaling down the trail at 7 or 8 mph – 9 if we were on a downhill. I remember watching the elevation reading on my computer, then trying to figure how many feet we still had to lose before Rice Lake. Of course, I couldn’t remember Rice Lake’s elevation( 1,148 feet), so I my arithmetic was futile, just something to occupy the brain. I remember needing to stop a few times to stretch my back, which was stubbornly tight, verging here and there on spasm. I remember talking now and again with Tom about the mile markers, and trying to remember to add the four extra miles to them so that I had an accurate distance to the finish. I remember being disturbed by how drunk I sounded when I tried to let Tom know that the roads we were crossing were clear of traffic. I remember my thermometer showing a temperature of minus 20. I remember seeing a SUV alongside the trail in one of the last towns on the trail, with a couple racers sitting in back. I remember a guy yelling and waving to us as we cruised through another town. I remember thinking that the bars and restaurants looked awfully sad at 2, 3, 4 in the morning. I remember at one point starting to weave from side to side on the trail, falling asleep on the bike. I stopped immediately to down a caffeinated gel, which chased the fatigue just enough to let me ride straight lines. I remember trying to calculate from the display on my GPS how many minutes we needed to go a mile, and failing.
Somehow my legs didn’t stop turning, and nothing on the Buffalo stopped working, and we covered the miles. I had to slow way down to negotiate the bumps along the highway that marked the end of the Tuscobia trail and the start of the spur trail to Rice Lake. Turning my handlebars to make that left turn felt monumental, but then we just had four miles. Tom was right behind me as we made this last push, jostling over the frequent road crossings. Finally, far far far ahead I could see a blinking light – a runner? a rider? No, a tail light on a sign at the finish line. The anticlimax was fitting: no banner, no clock, no spectators, not even a timekeeper. We rolled over the line at 5:41 a.m., leaned our bikes up against the wall of the community building, and went inside to announce ourselves to the two volunteers who were recording finishes.
The hall was full of racers, every one of them asleep in their sleeping bags. The indoor warmth and light made me feel nauseous. Before I started shivering violently, I let one of the volunteers take my picture, needing to record the icebeard:
Gradually I warmed up and stopped shivering. I might have had some water or a snack. When I felt reasonably whole, I said goodbye to Tom, whom I’d see soon at the Arrowhead, and rode my bike a few more yards back to the car. I managed to load the bike into the car without too much trouble and to drive the deserted streets back to my hotel. There I took a shower and a nap before meeting Ben – who’d finished second, in 15:47 – for breakfast. It had been an amazing 24 hours.
God, I love the day before races. The anticipation is so wonderfully energizing. The day usually includes some travel, often with friend, which is almost always great because I love traveling and friends, especially for a good reason like getting to a race.
But the day before a race also includes race-y stuff like eating and drinking right, checking in for the event, attending the pre-race meeting, and of course hanging out with other racers and volunteers and such.
If there’s time, the day before also might also include a bit of riding on the course – stretching the legs, getting a sense of the trail, and enjoying the scenery that race-day focus will obscure, like these pix from my pre-rides with the Marks at the Fat Pursuit in Idaho last January
and with Galen, Ben, and Tim at the Maah Daah Hey trail in North Dakota in July.
My trip to the Tuscobia was less involved than either of those race trips, requiring just a short drive to western Wisconsin. But I jammed to my own music, sipped some good coffee, soaked up the views of rolling snowy hills, thought through the race, and stopped for a photo:
Once I got to Rice Lake, Wisconsin, I checked in at the hotel, ran a quick errand, and checked in at the race HQ, then headed up the trail for an hour’s ride. The conditions were very good, so I had a nice time and definitely built up a bank of good feeling for the next day.
Afterwards, I met up with my friend Ben (with whom I went on an epic trip to the first Fat Pursuit in 2014). We hung out for a while before we hit the registration and gear check, had a great dinner (pizza, of course), and then attended the racers’ meeting. Back at our hotel early in the evening, we set up our bikes for the race – a process I love, love, love even though it’s a little bit maddening, since it involves both the pleasant routine of getting all my equipment on the bike, but also trying to guess about new ways to pack the bike. Having Ben in the same room was great because the guy knows his business. (Literally: he runs a bike shop.) By 9 p.m. we had everything ready for the start. One more sleep till the race!
One of the best things about the kind of long-distance riding that I do is the phenomenon of “trail magic” – surprising, wonderful occurrences that happen at just the right moment to hikers, runners, cyclists, and others of our ilk.
The classic bit of trail magic is getting food or water when you need it most, sometimes from another competitor or, even better, from a bystander whom fate has sent across your path. Another common, if less nourishing, kind of trail magic is having someone knowledgeable give the directions that get you un-lost.
I’ve encountered trail magic in many of my races, especially the difficult winter ones, and honestly I’m happily anticipating more trail magic at this weekend’s race, the Tuscobia in northwest Wisconsin. I’m racing this event instead of my beloved Fat Pursuit in Idaho, which is also happening this weekend. (I just couldn’t spend the time or and money on that trip this year.)
Both times I’ve raced the Fat Pursuit, I’ve been charmed by trail magic. Here are two anecdotes about trail magic during the FP, excerpted from Don’t Get Froze, my soon-to-be-finished book on my fatbike racing.
The first incident happened during my unsuccessful race in 2014. Having been riding for about 24 hours, I’d just left the race’s second checkpoint, in the small town of West Yellowstone, Montana. I was preparing myself for the climb to the race’s high point:
Between the stopping and starting and the increasing altitude, the morning’s riding began to feel like an interval workout in slow motion, which only deepened my fatigue and led to more difficulties. A few hours outside of West, I stopped at a three-way intersection and labored to figure out the correct turn while three snowmachiners stood nearby, smoking cigarettes and watching me. I finally made my decision and headed off, almost immediately hitting a screaming fast downhill. After barely keeping the Beast upright, I stopped at the bottom to motivate myself for the inevitable hike-a-bike up the hill on the other side. Before I started that trudge, I checked my phone, and found a text from the race director, telling me I’d gone off course. WTF? I wasn’t off course! What was he talking ab—
Looking again at the map, I saw that oh, yes, I was off course, by a couple miles. I hiked back up the hill I had just descended to find a giant animal on the trail. Cow? No, Clydesdale! No, moose! The animal smelled me and lumbered into the woods, vanishing magically into the trees. Judging by how many of massive hoofprints pockmarked the trail, the moose must have been just a few seconds behind me as I rode over the hill.
The second incident happened about halfway through my successful race in 2015, as I rode toward the second checkpoint:
Though I had hoped to get to West Yellowstone in the daylight, the sun set when I was an hour or more outside of town. Much of that riding would be descent, I knew, so I could expect the easiest riding since dropping down to Checkpoint 1. Still, I wanted to take a break, to be off my bike for a bit.
I must have angered the gods who had rewarded me earlier in the day, because six miles outside West, as I pedaled hard down a long straight descent, my chain clinked alarmingly and jumped off the cassette. I slammed on my brakes, worried about damage to the chain or the spokes. When I beamed my headlamp onto the Buffalo’s rear wheel, the chain was gone. Disaster! It had fallen off somewhere on the descent. Ten feet ago? Ten yards ago? A hundred yards ago? I cursed, laid the bike down, and started walking back up the hill.
The gods were only teasing! The broken chain was lying in the snow just a few yards up the trail, a silvery ribbon amid the black shadows and white snow. I picked it up and walked back down to the bike, mentally reviewing the process of fixing a broken chain. I found my repair kit (left pocket of my frame bag, next to the wind vest), set the spare master link on the Buffalo’s front tire, and got to work. As I wiggled the broken link out of the chain, a trail-grooming machine came rumbling up the trail. The driver stopped. “What’s up?” Crouching in his spotlights, I shouted back, “Broken chain!” He grimaced sympathetically. “Fucking chain! I’m Mike. Need any tools?” I told Mike I couldn’t accept any help, and anyhow I was already almost done. He stood nearby, chatting with me as I finished installing the master link. “Mind if I run my dog?” he asked. I didn’t, so Mike let his gorgeous pointer out of the groomer’s cab. “His name’s Domino.”
Domino sniffed me, inspected my bike, and then ran off up the hill. The trailside conversation and the dog made me even happier that even this problem, the biggest one of the race, was turning out to be eminently solvable. I whooped with glee when I stood the Buffalo back up, spun the pedals, and saw that the chain held. “Nice job,” Mike said. “Enjoy the rest of the race!” We shook hands and I climbed back onto the bike for the rest of the pleasingly uneventful drop into West Yellowstone.
I hope all my friends who are racing the FP this year have some trail magic (and maybe even meet Domino!) and that all of us at the Tuscobia do too.
Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.
"USFS 1919" is shorter than but at least as good as the collection’s lead piece, "A River Runs through It," Maclean’s most famous story (which I blogged about when I finished it a few days ago). Where "River" was a meditation on familial bonds and loss, "USFS" is a funny slow-motion adventure story about the young Maclean’s service on a U.S. Forest Service crew in the high Rockies near Hamilton, Montana, in summer 1919. Like "River," this story includes some wonderful sketches by R. Williams:
I wish the book had more of this visual art, but I am glad that "USFS" is full of literary art, especially beautiful passages of writing in which Maclean vividly describes the mountains and the woods and makes me wish I could there right now:
To a boy, it is something new and beautiful to piss among the stars. Not under the starts but among them. Even at night great winds seem always to blow on great mountains, and tops of trees bend, but, as the boy stands there with nothing to do but to watch, seemingly the sky itself bends and the stars blow down through the trees until the Milky Way becomes lost in some distant forest.
After a surprising August (!) snowstorm during a short stint as a fire watcher:
When I looked, I knew I might never again see so much of the earth so beautiful, the beautiful being something you know added to something you see, in a whole that is different from the sum of its parts. What I saw might have been just another winter scene, though an impressive one. But what I knew was that the earth underneath was alive and that by tomorrow, certainly by the day after, it would be all green again. so what I saw because of what I knew was a kind of death with the marvelous promise of less than a three-day resurrection.
Even before I got back to camp it had begun to melt. Hundreds of shrubs had been bent over like set snares, and now they spring up in the air throwing small puffs of white as if hundreds of snowshoe rabbits were being caught at the same instant.
As he rests during a long walk back from camp to Hamilton, he muses in a way that I recognize from racing in the winter:
When you look back at where you have been, it often seems as if you have never been there or even as if there were no such place.
(Two things about these passages: Maclean writes a great deal about pissing in the woods, an activity to which I can personally relate, and he is a masterful user – or non-user – of commas. He saves his commas like scarce nails and pounds them into his sentences only where truly needed.)
Into these passages of superlative nature writing, Maclean offers some glimpses of how he came to understand his mountain adventures as key phases of life and, eventually, as the raw material for literature:
I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.
Unlike "River," this piece has a big cast of more and less crazy characters, including Maclean himself – a 17-year-old kid with far more responsibility than he needs or merits but an excellent ability to make very poor decisions, like the choice to walk straight through from camp to town. The central characters though are the titular ranger and cook. Much of the story concerns how these two guys conceive of a scheme to end their season of work with a hell of a night on the town in Hamilton. I won’t ruin the story’s ending, which like the story’s landscape has several peaks (Maclean early on says he’s serving in an "ocean of mountains") but it’s amazing as prose, as story, and as life.
The only bad part about the ending of the story was that it came at the end. The good thing is that Julia has also sent me Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, his longest book and one that – she says – is as good as "River" and "USFS."