The People Make the Route: Stories of Kindness on the Great Divide

Sep 18th, 2023

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route means a different combination of things to everyone who rides it: endurance, perseverance, physical strength, mental fortitude, pain, resilience, focus, determination, willpower, and hardship … to name a few.

For us, it was not entirely about accomplishing a physical challenge, nor closing the loop on a promise we made in 2021 to our fundraising supporters. When we reflect back on our experiences, we always say that the Great Divide was defined by the people we met along the way and their unbelievable generosity and kindness.

During the housebound months of 2020 COVID quarantine, we ate dinner on TV trays while scrolling YouTube. One of these nights we discovered “I Just Want to Ride,” a film following one of Lael Wilcox’s Tour Divide rides. Lael is one of greatest ultra-endurance biking racers on the planet. She has won numerous ultra-endurance bike races and set the Tour Divide women’s record on a time trial in 2015. Most importantly, Lael always seems to have fun no matter how difficult the terrain, and takes the time (even during races), to appreciate the beauty of her surroundings.

Lael’s message that “we should all get out and ride somewhere that means something to you” ignited a spark in us that maybe we could ride the Great Divide. Never mind that we’d never bikepacked or ridden more than 160 kilometers in a single day, it’s only 5,000 kilometers from Jasper, Alberta to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. No big deal.

We started planning in earnest for a 2021 ride. We watched more YouTube, admiring the amazing scenery and getting inspired by other riders. We trained indoors and outdoors and rode our road bikes and mountain bikes on gravel and pavement regardless of weather.

In August 2021, the Canada/US border remained closed, so we rejigged the plan. Instead of riding to the US/Mexico border, we would ride to the US/Canadian border at Roosville, Montana. At nearly 1,000 kilometers, it still seemed like a legitimate ride.

two cyclists lie with their bikes and gear, pictured from above
Ken and Heather with all of their gear before setting off on the Great Divide
Ken Cook

We also thought the Great Divide could be an opportunity for us to give back, and we settled on cancer as our give-back cause. We had lost two parents to cancer and one parent was — and still is — living with cancer. Heather had also been volunteering for Wellspring Alberta, a local non-profit cancer organization, since 2019.

Without any prior fundraising knowledge or resources, we pitched our idea to Wellspring Alberta, setting our sights on a goal of $50,000. To our astonishment, Wellspring Alberta said yes and established a donation website to market our campaign.

2021: A Pandemic-Era Start

On August 1, 2021 we began our ride with naive confidence based on past experience of succeeding in every previous crazy adventure.

We quickly realized the various challenges of bikepacking: driving rain, thick gravel, choking wildfire smoke, mud, more mud, long days on the bike and a near-collision with a grizzly bear. Yep, you’ve got that right. Heather almost rode into the back end of a bear, something she would repeat on our 2022 ride.

Not to be outdone, I crashed and broke two ribs on the fifth day of riding, followed by a week off-route to recover. In Great Divide style we reached the US/Canadian border at Roosville on August 17 on an unseasonably cold, windy, rainy day. Overall the ride was fun and we felt a huge sense of pride and accomplishment in meeting our projected time of nine days and raising $25,000 for Wellspring Alberta.

2022: The Full Route

In September 2021 the Canada/US land border opened for travel. Without a second thought we knew that we had to complete the Great Divide.

This time we got smart. We hired a coach. We trained. We geared up. We planned. We strategized. We refreshed ourselves on bike maintenance. We felt prepared, having trained more as well as having done the 2021 section.

But as relative newbies, we had mixed emotions. We knew of the rescue of more than a dozen Tour Divide racers from the Flathead Alternate two weeks prior to our departure. We read about washouts from overflowing rivers and long hike-a-bike sections caused by downed trees and kilometers of thigh-high snow. Did we really have what it would take to ride 4,300 kilometers, traversing the passes in Colorado and northern New Mexico? Would we encounter the notorious peanut butter mud in New Mexico?

two cyclists stand with their fully loaded bikes
Ken and Heather all geared up and ready to go
Ken Cook

On June 28, 2022, we found ourselves in the shadow of the Fairmont Banff Spring Hotel in Banff National Park. As we positioned our bikes against the trailhead signpost (the official start of the route) to capture the first of thousands of photos, along came three young women bikepackers wearing tutus, also heading out for the Great Divide.

We learned that upon their arrival, they suffered sticker shock at the price of accommodations. Even the hostel was beyond their budget. They resigned themselves to spending the evening wild camping in a park, ideally out of sight of the public. A local cycling couple overheard the women discussing their dilemma and had invited them to stay at their house. Not only free accommodations, but the next morning the couple cooked them a hearty breakfast. We were dumbfounded. We had experienced so-called “trail magic” in 2021 but this was next level. “Who invites total strangers into their home and feeds them?” we wondered.

Gifts of Kindness

Kindness on the ride took many shapes and forms. It was common for people to clap and shout words of encouragement. Numerous people stopped to ask what we were doing, where we were going, where we’d come from, and nerd out over the gear and bike setup. We were provided with snacks and food at the top of Boreas Pass in Colorado and beer to celebrate the long climb from Breckenridge.

However, nothing prepared us for the extraordinary, humbling acts of kindness that stopped us in our tracks every time.

New Old Friends – Day 8, Holland Lake, MT
Total Distance: 744 kilometers

As chance would have it, we rode into the small town of Condon, Montana earlier than expected after missing a turn on the route between Montana’s Flathead Valley and Holland Lake. We were immediately rewarded with the amazing Mission Mountains Mercantile, a treasure trove of gourmet food in the middle of nowhere. While Heather stocked up on supplies, I sat at a picnic table with the bikes to assess how much further we had to ride to reach our destination of Holland Lake Campground.

I was studying the Great Divide map when I noticed a family standing outside their truck nearby. Blair, Chris, and their three daughters had driven to Condon from Holland Lake Campground to access Wi-fi and cell service. Instead of recoiling from my dirty, tired state, they asked all about our bike setup and our adventure.

campers and RV and cyclists in a wooded campsite
Enjoying the amenities at Holland Lake Campground
Ken Cook

When Heather asked about campsite availability at Holland Lake they said: “Don’t worry, you have a spot.” At first we weren’t sure what they meant, then realized they were giving us a fully paid campsite. They also offered to transport our new food supplies (including beer) to the campground to make the remaining part of our day easier.

We rode into Holland Lake Campground a few hours later and the reserved campsite was waiting for us. We commenced with our routine of camp chores and cleaning up, excited about digging into our new food, beer, and supplies. Blair and Chris had other plans as Chris announced that dinner was served.

We spent the evening learning about each other’s lives and worlds, meeting their amazing daughters, and eating the best food we’d had on the ride, complete with s’mores around the campfire. It felt like catching up with old friends.

After saying our goodbyes the next morning, we were left with an unbelievable sense of humbleness and joy at the kindness bestowed upon us. In only a few hours, they’d made us feel like family.

A Heart of Gold – Day 10, East of Ovando, MT
Total Distance: 829 kilometers

Our second memorable act of kindness occurred two days later on the way from Seeley Lake to Lincoln, Montana. After lunch at Ovando’s Stray Bullet Café, we felt refreshed and ready to tackle the next two days of challenging terrain between Ovando and Helena.

I’d been struggling all day to keep up with Heather, which I chalked up to general fatigue. Just east of Ovando at the intersection of Highway 200, she noticed a “thwacking” noise emanating from my rear wheel. When I took a look at it, I could almost push my thumb through an approximately 10-centimeter section of the rear tire.

I spent several minutes trying to convince Heather (and myself) that everything was cool, we’d just monitor the situation and add more air to the tire as needed. No big deal that we were about to leave the grasslands and head into the mountains. She gave me the “look” which meant I was an idiot if I thought the tire would last until Lincoln, much less the next five kilometers. I swallowed my pride and agreed to call it a day.

The nearest bike shops were located 120 kilometers southeast in Helena, and Heather immediately crossed the highway and stuck out her thumb. Good lord, I thought. We’re going to be here for hours. But within five minutes, a pickup pulled over and the driver offered to give us a ride all the way to Helena.

This is how we met Steve, a local rancher returning home from visiting family over the long weekend. We were nervous at first. It had been years since either of us had hitchhiked, and we had no idea if we’d picked a ride with the wrong person. Heather proceeded to talk non-stop for the first hour, her usual coping mechanism. Surprisingly, that didn’t deter Steve. Eventually we relaxed, enjoyed the scenery, and the conversation settled.

Steve didn’t just drive us to Helena, he took us right to the doorstep of the Great Divide Cyclery. He helped us unload our gear and waited until we had confirmation that our bikes would be serviced as quickly as possible.

a man seen through the wheel of a bike
The author hitching a ride
Ken Cook

While we were waiting for the bikes to be processed, Heather saw an animal cage in the back of the truck, and asked if Steve had a cat. It turned out that Steve had chickens. More precisely, one chicken, as the others had all been killed by predators. Steve told Heather that chickens don’t do well on their own, so part of his weekend trip was to unite his chicken with the flock on his son’s farm, and that his chicken wouldn’t be sad or lonely anymore. Instead of meeting “the wrong person,” we met a guy with a heart of gold.

Steve accompanied us to the hotel to ensure we had a room, and met us on the route south of Helena the next morning to wish us luck. Once again, we found ourselves in awe at the kindness of a total stranger.

Two Grows to Four – Day 15, Pipestone Pass, south of Butte, MT
Total Distance: 1,333 kilometers

Our third significant act of kindness started when we met father-son duo Jim and Will on the Milwaukee Rail Trail section south of Butte. Jim and Will were section riding the Great Divide from the Canadian border to Lima, Montana.

After walking our bikes down a steep hillside from the suspended railway trestle, Jim asked if we’d consider riding together with them over the next few days, explaining that a larger group would help ease Will’s fear of bear encounters.

We crested Pipestone Pass, then rode over Fleecer Ridge. To be clear, Will rode while Jim, Heather, and I pushed our bikes for the last third. Will effortlessly went up and over everything that the ride threw at us, like only a lean, fit, determined 14-year-old could do.

We only rode with Jim and Will for three days, but in that time we witnessed numerous examples of Jim’s generosity.

No words can explain the appreciation we had for a total stranger who took the time out of his day to drive us to our campground in the opposite direction of his destination.

When my rear tire developed a puncture descending Fleecer Ridge, we found Jim and Will waiting several kilometers down the route to make sure we were ok. Later that night at Wise River, Jim coached me (over a few beers) on converting my damaged tire from tubeless to tubed.

The next day Heather limped over Crystal Peak, not finding her riding legs until well into the afternoon. Not once did Jim balk at the breaks or slow pace, never letting Will get too far ahead or leaving us entirely. That night, Jim splurged on a teepee site at Bannack State Park Campground, sharing with two young university students cycling the Divide on a shoestring budget, including one on a single-speed and another studying for medical exams he planned to complete remotely in Steamboat Springs.

On our last day together Jim inquired about our accommodation plans for Steamboat Springs, then casually offered us his sister’s condo for our scheduled down days. No compensation required and no strings attached, he simply wanted to help.

True to his word, two weeks after leaving Jim and Will, we arrived at Steamboat Springs late in the day — soaking wet and covered in mud — with the access code to a fully equipped luxury ski condo. We are forever indebted to Jim and his family for their generosity and unbelievable act of kindness.

Closed On Sundays – Day 27, Atlantic City, WY
Total Distance: 2,286 kilometers

We rode into Atlantic City, Wyoming in the early afternoon on a dreary day with one thing on our minds: FOOD. Not just any food, specifically burgers and fries at the Atlantic City Mercantile, a Great Divide landmark. Unfortunately all of Atlantic City must have received the same memo, and there was a two-hour wait. Our schedule didn’t allow for the wait, so off we went to Miner’s Grubstake … but it was Sunday and the restaurant had just closed for the day.

We proceeded to pull out our predictable (and boring) food to cobble together a Divide version of a picnic when a rancher named Jess noticed our plight. She had witnessed our disappointment inside Miner’s Grubstake, and after instructing her daughters to water their horses, she came over and offered us a bag of cherries. What a luxury: fresh fruit that hadn’t bounced around all day in panniers. But Jess wasn’t finished. Next came watermelon, cold drinks, deli meat, and a loaf of bread. We did her proud and devoured it all in minutes.

After we’d bid them farewell and were cycling along the 1850s wheel ruts of the Oregon Trail, Jess and her gang came rumbling down the gravel road. It turned out that this portion of the Great Divide route was located adjacent to her family’s ranch. She’d driven to her nearby summer ranch, dropped off the girls and the horses, then come screaming back on an ATV with her young son.

an ATV next to cyclists in a desert setting
Jess and her son doing a full meal delivery on the Great Divide
Ken Cook

Strapped to the back of the ATV was a huge plastic container filled with more food: asparagus, pasta, sauce, and even wine. A grocery store on wheels. Jess told us that wherever possible, she and her family try to support and help Great Divide riders and thru-hikers. We had no words for this kindness. Off we rode to our planned campsite at the Diagnus Well for a feast provided by our latest trail angel.

Love Language – Days 26 to 28, Southern WY
Total Distance: 2,105 kilometers

Heather and I were enjoying tacos and beer in Pinedale when a woman who looked like a Continental Divide Trail thru-hiker pulled up a chair and asked if she could join us. There were no open seats in the restaurant, so we welcomed her to our table. I noticed she resembled one of our best friends from Denver, and to our shock, she took off her glasses and Buff and said “Hi, it’s me, Kelly!”

We stared at her, speechless as we tried to understand how this could be happening. Thinking she was hundreds of miles away, we’d been sending messages about our plans for the next few days. But she hadn’t been in Colorado — she’d spent the last few days heading to Wyoming while innocently inquiring about our schedule, location, and dinner plans. In fact, she’d hunkered down in her car outside the restaurant, waiting for us to arrive.

Over dinner, Kelly filled us in on her year-long “secret” scheme to support us on our ride in southern Wyoming. Her goal was to set up at our planned stops to feed, hydrate, and raise our spirits as we rode through the Great Basin, a notorious 214-kilometer stretch from Atlantic City to Rawlins with limited water and resources.

Not only did she meet her goal, she knocked it out of the park. For the next two-and-a-half days, Kelly carried most of our gear and the majority of our food. She cheered loudly and rang her cow bell as she passed us on her way to our morning and afternoon pit stops. We’d arrive at a table decked out with gourmet snacks, lunch, drinks, and water. She set up the campsite each night, made us dinner, and in the morning sent us off with a hot breakfast.

a woman in a pink shirt stands in front of an open car back
The famous Kelly of Kelly Camp
Credit: Ken Cook

On our last night together, our “Kelly campsite” was like an oasis complete with yoga mats, real pillows, camp chairs, snacks, fresh water, beer, wine, and pasta dinner.

We continued to thank her, but Kelly didn’t require thanks. She told us “doing this was her love language,” her way of showing how much she cared for us and her way of playing a role in our Great Divide adventure.

Kelly was not done. After leaving us 50 kilometers east of the Diagnus Well in Wyoming, she and her husband met us in Steamboat Springs and rode with us to Radium.

We had the time of our lives riding and exploring the Great Basin, all thanks to Kelly. At the time, I don’t think we truly recognized the magnitude of this incredible gift of kindness.

Doobie Brothers – Day 45, Abiquiu to Cuba, NM
Total Distance: 3,663 kilometers

The one thing that you can count on riding the Great Divide is the constant change of fortunes, and we got a chance to see both sides of this after leaving Antonito, Colorado for New Mexico.

We departed the small town of Antonito elated by the thought of entering New Mexico. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the famed steam train that departs Antonito daily and travels along the scenic Cumbres and Toltec Railroad. We saw the steam engine and train cars ready to depart for the mountains just south of town, gazing in awe and taking photographs of the steam-belching behemoth.

Our good fortunes continued when we reached Ojo Caliente later in the day. We reserved the last available room in the original building of the legendary mineral hot spring resort. There were nine different hot springs, a mud bath, excellent food, real showers, and a comfy bed. We departed for Abiquiu the next morning totally refreshed.

two bikes lean against a trailhead sign
The bikes set up at Spray River Trailhead 
Ken Cook

In the next town we were able to book a room at the tranquil Abiquiu Inn, located adjacent to the Georgia O’Keefe Welcome Center and Gallery. We were on top of the world after seeing the famous steam train and staying at two iconic resorts … but we should have known better than to get cocky.

The next day we 50 or 60 kilometers south of Abiquiu on our way to Cuba. This section of the Great Divide was the most challenging on the entire route. It was worse than Lava Mountain and Watershed Divide in the pouring rain, and as we were descending a peak in the Jemez Mountains, I found myself staring at my broken bike.

My rear rack and the mounting mechanism of one of my panniers had snapped like toothpicks after a wipeout on a steep, boulder-strewn stretch of the route. We were on a desolate section, 50 kilometers from Clear Creek Campground with almost no water, no potable water sources for hours, a storm cell rolling in, and another substantial hill to climb. The route had finally won. We had met our match. For the first time in 45 days, quitting seemed like a reality.

But as dark thoughts took hold, a four-wheel drive truck appeared and Antonio, the driver, offered to take us to Clear Creek Campground. Antonio seemed a bit rough, and I balked at the knife in his hands … which ended up holding his tailgate in place. We were also unnerved by the growling doberman in the front seat.

Both parties eyed each other up and assessed if this was a good choice. For Antonio, taking us down the gravel road to our intended campground meant hours out of his way traversing an infamously brutal stretch of the route that definitely put his truck in jeopardy. In fact, forestry workers we met hours before near the top of the pass had warned us this section of the route was so rough, they would not take the risk.

We all warmed up to each other by the time we rolled into our campground before dusk after completing a brutal, bumpy descent, including several snow and hail stretches. We wondered how people rode that section with the 2,380 meters of elevation gain, given the truck had a difficult time negotiating the ruts.

We were completely exhausted. We would never have made it to the campground without the help of Antonio. No words can explain the appreciation we had for a total stranger who took the time out of his day to drive us to our campground in the opposite direction of his destination.

Lasting Impact of Kindness

The power of people’s actions hit home when we told our kindness stories to an elderly man at a laundromat in Pinedale, Wyoming. He’d noticed our bikes leaning against the front window and inquired about our ride: where had we come from, where were we going, how many days had we been on the road, how many were left.

We answered his questions, and for the first time since starting the ride, we changed the narrative from the usual hardships and mishaps to telling him about the incredible acts of kindness bestowed on us.

bikes and a car at sunset in the desert
An unforgettable night in Wyoming at Kelly Camp
Ken Cook

When we finished, the man sat quietly for a moment, staring at his hands. He looked close to tears. He raised his head and stared at us for a bit, then thanked us for telling him about our kindness stories. He said that given the unrest, anger, mistrust, and negativity that seemed so pervasive these days, he didn’t believe there were still good people in the world. We told him that there are lots of good people out there, in fact we’d met nothing but good people on the route. He thanked us and told us that we’d renewed his faith in humanity. We bid the man goodbye with a sense of wellbeing that we had helped someone through a tough time by simply recounting the kindness given to us.

The Great Divide provided us with a unique gift: the lasting memory of amazing people, their unselfish generosity, and the power of kindness.

The other experiences — the jaw-dropping scenery, experiencing nature on such an intimate level, overcoming challenging conditions, and living a simple existence — pale in comparison to the acts of kindness. These people did not try to convince us to be kinder, they simply showed us what kindness could do. They inspired us to be like them: unselfish and genuinely good.

Although our world is fast and chaotic and the news these days often seems grim and punctuated by strife, war and divisiveness, the greatest gift we can provide one another is kindness.

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