Book Excerpt: “Trail Magic and the Art of Soft Pedaling”

The last time Scott Thigpen had been on a bicycle, he was a 12-year-old kid with a love of Star Wars and Disney. Twenty-five years later, he was sedentary and rapidly gaining weight. Hello Couch, meet Potato. It was time for a change, for both his body and his mind. Determined to start moving again, Scott climbed on a bicycle one summer afternoon and started pedaling. By the end of the driveway, he was gasping for breath.

 

A year later, Scott was still trying to stay upright on a mountain bike when he watched Ride The Divide, a movie  about an event so daunting, so exhilarating, so tough that few attempt it. But Scott couldn’t stop thinking about it. The Tour Divide, a nearly 3000-mile mountain bike race along the spine of the Continental Divide, was his new dream.

Known as one of the toughest races in the world, the Tour Divide is an unsupported off-road event. If your tire is flat, you fix it. If you run out of water, you must find more. If you’re caught in the middle of nowhere, exhausted and blurry-eyed? Find a spot to nap amidst nature and try not to bother the Grizzlies.

 

Starting from zero, Scott trained for two years while maintaining a busy family life, a freelance career illustrating for the Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal Constitution, and a teaching gig at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Scott was preparing for the ride of his life.

 

In June of 2013, he climbed on that bicycle again, this time to race against 167 other people from all over the world on a trek that would take him from Canada to Mexico in 22 days.

 

Captured through Scott’s vivid words and wondrous illustrations, this is the tale of one man’s quest to break free of the typical life and conquer his wildest dream. (Source)

Read on for an excerpt from Scott’s new book, Trail Magic and the Art of Soft Pedaling:

Illustration by Scott Thigpen. "Trail Magic and the Art of Soft Pedaling" also includes a collection of original artwork inspired by the Tour Divide.
Illustration by Scott Thigpen. “Trail Magic and the Art of Soft Pedaling” also includes a collection of original artwork inspired by the Tour Divide.

I couldn’t really afford to stay there at the lodge, but I also didn’t want to bike out and camp in the middle of no where because it was bear country and my bike was a walking meat wagon with all the beef jerky and food stuffed in it. I considered my options, finally gave in and decided to go ahead and do it however every red flag in my brain was waving saying “NO!” I remember a guy named Rob Roberts that had done the Tour Divide previously and was following my progress. I messaged him and said, “How bad is Richmond Peak?” He said it wasn’t overly bad but that there were some sketchy spots, and if they were just too sketchy, for me to just walk. I told him I was nervous and his response was:

“Bears are scared of big dudes with southern accents singing at the top of their lungs. I’ll share my song with you….

Go home bear
Leave me alone Mr. bear
just passin’ through
want no trouble bear
move along now bear
just passin’ through
Go home bear”

I rolled my eyes at his poor attempt at humorous songs, half smiled and went out to my bike. The rain had stopped and I took everything out of my bike, repacked and took a deep breath. I put one foot on the pedal and hoisted off to Richmond Peak.

There are some dumb, really dumb things I’ve done in life, but none have been as stupid as trying to take Richmond Peak, Montana in the middle of the night, alone. The day was waning and I started in on the climb. It was a long climb but nothing I couldn’t handle. My legs had been in superman mode for the past few days and I was still going strong. I gritted my teeth and kept pedaling on the fire road. Eventually the fire road turned into a trail and all I could see were the remaining purples of the Montana sky, then the moon and shadows. I started to get a little nervous so I put in my iPod and listened to some poppy music. I’d accidentally grabbed one of the kid’s playlists when copying over mine so what I’d hoped to be what I call “working man’s music” like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams III (not Hank or Hank Jr), Eminem, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Atmosphere ended up being Ke$ha, Hannah Montana (not Miley Cyrus), One Direction and a bunch of other bubble gum music songs. Fortunately the bubble gum music songs are happy enough to take the edge off a very dark, scary hike through bear infested woods. I kept my eyes peeled for anything but wanted nothing more than to find the light of another biker so I would know I was in some company.

The trail turned back into a road and it was now pitch black dark. I started to break down a little bit because I was convinced by now that every grizzly bear in America was hot on my trail. I continued to ride and finally the climb partially started to flatten out. I wiped my forehead thinking I was done however when I checked the elevation profile, I realized I’d only just begun what was going to be a long, long night. As I started into the first descent it was all pitch black dark by now. I grabbed a bite to eat and started downhill, that’s when a series of orange eyes all lit up in my lights. I skidded to a halt and started to breathe heavily. At least 8 pairs of orange eyes stared back at me and didn’t move. I was stunned and frozen in my tracks. I tried to sing the song that Rob Roberts has mentioned.

“Misst…. Missster bear… don’t eat… oh god” With a surge of adrenaline, I screamed “GET THE HELL OUT OF THE ROAD OR I SWEAR TO GOD I’LL THROW THIS DAMNED BIKE DOWN YOUR THROAT!”

To my surprise the orange eyes all darted off and now somewhat relieved, I realized they were all elk. I grabbed my very loud whistle, stuck it in my mouth and with a new found adrenaline I poured downhill blowing my whistle as loud and possible to scare off any wildlife that would be lingering in the dirt road.

The next climb was worse, but only to be matched by the worseness of the climb thereafter. I was sweaty, tired and just didn’t know how much more I had left in me but there was no way in hell I was sleeping in these woods, I could feel everything starting at me, waiting for me to let my guard down. The road leveled off for a moment then did a switchback where I saw a man-made sign jabbed into the ground. As I made my way around it I looked at the sign. It was warning that this was heavy grizzly activity, not to go ahead alone and to make sure your food was packed in airtight containers. Well I was alone, I had beef jerky stuffed from one end to the other on my bike as well as M&M’s, snickers, a slice of cake and Sour Patch Kids all shoved into what was definitely not an airtight container.

I sat there and thought about going back down to the lodge, but I’d spent hours just getting to this point. I looked to see when the next town was and it was going to be easily another 3-4 hours to get there. I tried my best not to panic and kept looking back for any lights of a fellow biker foolishly taking this climb like I was. No one.

I ate a bunch of my food and threw out the rest that wasn’t sealed. It really killed me to do that but I really had no choice.

“Enjoy these peanuts and candy, Yogi… You suck.”

I hopped on my bike and started the slow and grueling climb. I kept the bubble gum music going however a feeling of dread just came over me. I stopped, looked back and felt like something was following me, but nothing was. I collected my thoughts and continued to climb. I stopped again and looked back, I swear I thought something was following me. My lights peered through the fog and cold behind me, as I looked, nothing.

I continued to pedal and between my nerves the drop in temperature; I was a cold nervous wreck. A few more bubble gum songs by pop singer, Ke$ha came on and I started to sing along; happy music makes for a happy Scott. Then I saw it. There was movement in the corner beam of my light, I saw it move, this was it. It was going to be a Grizzly and I was about to become a snack. My adrenaline spiked along with my heart rate and I started to breathe heavier and heavier. I yelled “COME ON BEAR! DO YOUR WORST!” And bit down on my whistle and blew. The movement tore out from the bushes and darted out in front of me. I started to scream again however the frightened rabbit I’d scared to death probably was in worse turmoil than me as it scurried across the road and down the mountain. I sat there and felt waves of relief and anxiety flow out of my body. “Damned rabbits” I said and by this time I’d used up so much energy that I couldn’t pedal anymore and I had to start pushing. An hour went by or so as I’d push, stop, freeze up from the cold and then continue to try to ride only to push, stop and freeze up again. Rabbits would dart in front of me and while I was much more relaxed, I was still keenly aware there were bears in the area.

I looked down at my watch. It was two in the morning and I was tired, really nerve wracked, cold and scared. I would have done anything to find a fellow rider while cresting Richmond Peak and that’s when I noticed it, two lights ahead of me up on the peak of the mountain. Finally, it was two bikers and I blew my whistle hard and started screaming at them. I saw their lights flicker and move but not really towards me. But I was sure they heard me. I picked up the pace and blew my whistle again, again the lights flickered back and forth, and then one disappeared and appeared around another tree. “HEY! HEY HEY!” I screamed but nothing. I pedaled faster, and then faster trying to catch them. I wanted so bad to see another human, someone to talk to and feel safe in numbers. Nothing. Their lights, which were an odd orange instead of the bright white that most bikers had on their bikes, just sat and flickered back and forth. As I got closer the lights look like the eyes of an angry Tiki God or something, something like an Angry Bear Tiki God. I started to get a little nervous that maybe they weren’t bikers but some raging backwoods hillbillies bent on taking out bikers up on Richmond Peak in the middle of the night. I started to get scared and slowed down my pace.

The road ended and turned into a trail that steeply went up, the trail got narrower and narrower then I heard “crunch.” I looked down and my shoes were in a foot of snow. I decided to move to the left to get out of the snow, but there was no left. My foot found no ground, it was straight down and when I looked all I could see were the tips of trees. I looked over at the other mountains, sheet lightning would hit and I’d see the sea of mountainous nothing with me surrounded by darkness. I trudged through the snow hoping I wouldn’t slip off the mountain. I looked up and noticed I was closer to the two other bikers with their lights, but it wasn’t lights after all – it was fire. Two trees were on fire and it was now spreading down the mountain towards the trail I was heading towards. I frantically picked up the pace and walked faster through the snow occasionally slipping and making it to surer ground. Smoke surrounded my nose and eyes. I started coughing and grabbed my bandana wrapping it around my nose and mouth. My eyes watered with the billows of smoke and in a panic I said “screw it” and hopped on my bike powering through the snow, with a few flare ups of fire to my right where the forest had started to burn (I later found out that lightning had struck two trees and caught them on fire). I flew down the snowy trail trying to get through the smoke, see which way to go and not cough up a lung at the same time. “ GO GO GO!” I yelled and hammered it down hitting limbs, briars, slipping in the snow and trying to keep upright. The upright part didn’t work out very well and I bit it pretty hard one time. I got up and took a long breath full of smoke and coughed uncontrollably again while flames licked up here and there around me, I was a nervous wreck. I grabbed my bike and continued hammering as hard as I could zip through the cold night and going down. The smoke started to ebb, the trail started to clear out, there were no bears and I was going faster than I’d ever gone at night on a single-track trail. I was covered in sweat from panic, fear and fatigue. The snow started to fade and then it happened, I hit a fire road that was all the way down. “HELL. YES!” I screamed and let off the brakes flying down the road at speeds I’d never take usually, especially at night. I didn’t know what shape I was in, I didn’t know what shape my bike was in, I didn’t care, I just wanted off that damned mountain.

Twenty minutes or so went by and a new issue, cold, replaced relief. It was still in the 30’s and the sweat that covered me was now chilling me to the bone. I started to shake and had nothing else I could put on because I had everything I possibly owned, on. To make matters worse I experienced a new sensation, one that would appear many times to the very end of the Tour Divide.

This new sensation was when my front wheel hit the miles of divots or washboard terrain that was made into the dirt roads by cars, bulldozers, rain and erosion. As I whipped around a corner and hit the washboard part of the road my teeth and bones were instantly sent into a violent vibration and rattling.

“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT!” I screamed as I vibrated through the divots.

Then I hit another long patch of vibrations and I was constantly working to pick better lines through all the washboard roads. It became tedious, and then it became an act of patience, which lent itself to almost losing my temper. I was shaking uncontrollably from the cold and sweat and also kept getting surprised by the washboard roads. I kept riding and was desperately looking at my GPS seeing how close Seely Lake was. It showed five more miles, then four and a half, and then I saw lights in the distance. To put the icing on the cake my lights started to dim and flash low batteries followed by my GPS flashing low batteries. Three miles, the lights grew bigger. I hit another round of washboards jarring every bone in my body. I hit a fork in the road and saw a sign that said “Seely Lake,” I hammered it. The lights got bigger and signs of life started to pop up on the dirt road; neighborhoods then the city, which had a hotel. I zipped under the awning, taking note of all the Tour Divide bikes there and knocked on the door, which was closed, no response. I went to a window and it said, “buzz for service.” I pressed my fingers on the buzzer and 4 minutes went by with no response. I was freezing now and shaking uncontrollably.

“Yes…” A sleepy lady said.

“Do you have any rooms available?” I said with my teeth chattering.

“No…” she said. “We have a sister hotel a few miles down the road you can stay. It’s 85.00”

“85!?” I said shivering “Do you have a cheaper room? I don’t need anything special!”

“No…” She said angrily and hung up the phone.

Scott went on to take 4th place in the Tour Divide singlespeed category. To read the rest of Trail Magic and the Art of Soft Pedaling, be sure to pick up a copy by clicking over to his website.

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