By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
Editor’s Note: Five years ago, we began chronicling Jeff Rowland’s attempt to ride the entire 2,745-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. The first installment can be found here. The second can be found here.
There are many ways to measure Jeff Rowland’s bikepacking journey from Banff, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. In miles, it was 2,745.
If you measure it from its inception, however, it took about 15 years from the time Jeff first stumbled across a documentary called “Riding the Divide.” Rowland, an avid cyclist, became enamored with the idea of riding the bicycle route that crisscrosses the continental divide along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.
If you measure it from the time the rubber of Rowland’s bicycle tires met the trail and he was actually able to live out his dream, the journey took five years. By both of those measures, the finish line took far too long to reach for Rowland, who would have done the whole thing in one glorious shot if he was not constrained by vacation time.
“Doing this entire trail is the most rewarding thing ever for me,” Rowland told the News & Neighbor. “It started 15 years ago that I wanted to do this. I put it off, and I dreamed about it.”
He knocked out 781 miles during the summer of 2018, taking in the jaw-dropping scenery between Banff and Butte, Montana before his vacation time ran out. He picked up where he left off the next year, reeling off 985 miles in 11 and a half days before stopping in Silverthorne, Colorado, confident that he would wrap up the last leg of the journey in 2020.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Rowland was prepared to do just that during the summer of 2020, but a freak accident ended his quest almost before it started. A broken bracket jammed his water bottled into his front tire, sending him over his handlebars in the predawn darkness in a rugged, remote area of New Mexico.
Fearing he had broken his collarbone, Rowland hit the SOS button on his trusty satellite tracker and summoned the forest ranger.
“They were excited because they got to practice rescuing somebody,” Rowland said with a laugh. “They sent five people.”
The folks in the emergency room in Taos, New Mexico, were less thrilled given the fact there was a global pandemic going on. Nonetheless, they treated Rowland for a separated AC joint and sent him on his way. He drove home to Johnson City with one arm planning to return in 2021 to finish the trail.
However, Rowland made the decision to go to Alaska in 2021 instead. His aging aunt and uncle have lived in Alaska since 1972, and he wanted to visit them at the end of a bikepacking adventure through the Yukon.
After wildfires scuttled his attempt to finish the Great Divide route in 2022, Rowland arrived back in New Mexico this summer determined to finally knock out the last leg of his journey. The final leg started by backtracking to the spot on the trail where he went over his handlebars back in 2020.
“Three years later, it was kind of emotional,” Rowland said.
But any emotions were quickly put on the back burner as Rowland encountered the most grueling day of riding any cyclist faces on the Great Divide route. On his second day, Rowland rode the 82 miles between Abiquiu and Cuba, New Mexico, a stretch that featured over 10,000 feet of climbing.
As tough as bikepacking is physically, Rowland said the mental battle the Great Divide route presents is far more daunting.
“The hardest part of this is not the physical part; it’s the mental part,” he said. “You have to mentally want to do this. You can’t make somebody ride this; they would go crazy, because it’s relentless.”
Day after day, Rowland would set a short, medium and long goal for the day depending on weather and other factors. The promise of a hotel room, a stunning view or a good meal in a town up the trail served as carrots he would dangle in front of himself as incentives to keep pedaling.
By and large, the journey through New Mexico was much like the first two legs in the respect that isolation was a way of life. Rowland said he would load up audio books and podcasts on his phone to keep him company through the varied terrain of New Mexico. He’d often get through a book a day as he went from mountain peaks where there was snow on the ground and the temperatures hovered around 37 degrees through forests and even vast expanses of desert where the temperature hit 85 degrees.
“New Mexico was more diverse than any state I’ve been in,” Rowland said. “You’re in the (forest), and next thing you know, you drop down just a few thousand feet and you’re in the desert.”
The sun was a constant enemy. The combination of New Mexico’s high elevation and the lack of moisture in the air, Rowland said the UV index hit 10 just about every day. “I feel like 30 minutes of sunshine out there is like 2 hours here,” he said.
At night, Rowland would often sleep outside and listen to the coyotes as he drifted off to sleep under a blanket of stars. The lack of light pollution coupled with low moisture produced a dazzling night sky.
“I had never seen the Milky Way before,” Rowland said. “I thought those pictures required a telescope. I had no idea there were that many stars.”
The trail is laid out in a way that allows bikepackers to pass through small towns about every 100 miles or so. Rowland said the towns are barely more than a gas station, and if you’re lucky, there might be a grocery store or a restaurant.
But Rowland hit the jackpot when he reached Pie Town, New Mexico, which more than lived up to its name. There is a small, unassuming store in the isolated town that makes great pie and pizza.
“That’s the most famous place to stop at the entire ride,” Rowland said. “This is like every bikepackers dream on the Great Divide is to stop there and get pie and pizza. It’s in the middle of nowhere; people must drive from 100 miles to come there. It hit the spot.”
The southern part of New Mexico is the definition of desolate. Rowland peddled toward his finish line at the border with little more than roadrunners, rabbits and the occasional cluster of cows to keep him company. The fence outside the Antelope Wells Border Station might seem like an anticlimactic location, but it will always hold a special place in Rowland’s heart because it signified the end of a daunting journey.
“It took a little while to sink in when I got there,” he said. “A lot of my friends I talked to said it took them a month to get over it. I was really excited to finish it, but I was really sad.”
As Rowland reflects on the Great Divide route, he remembers the mile-high cliffs of Banff, the call of the coyotes, the stars and the struggle. But the one thing he’ll miss the most is something that he never thought about before he embarked on his journey of a lifetime – the camaraderie.
“I’ve got friends from five years ago that I’ve met out there,” Rowland said. “The views are unbelievable, but the people is what’s really special about being out there, and I would never have guessed that when I first started. They know that riding out there is not easy, and they know you’re going through the same thing.”