Headed To Adventure On The Great Divide Trail

Maggie Grimason
7 min read
The Shark Fin
A vista in the far northern reaches of the trail. (Jim Chavez)
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“A couple things that I learned early on is that it takes a long time to get there, and its always uphill and against the wind,” Jim Chavez reflected on the seven summers he took to complete the Great Divide Trail—a long-distance bike trail of forest roads and single track that skirts the Continental Divide for its entirety, from the US-Mexico border all the way into Canada. It’s a lesson that anyone on two wheels with a long way to go has found to be true.

The beginning of this journey has its origins on Chavez’ 40th birthday, when his wife asked him, “What are you going to do instead of having a midlife crisis?” Soon after, she gave him
Cycling the Great Divide, a guidebook to the Great Divide Trail by Michael McCoy. A lifelong fan of adventure stories—and an avid cyclist on many terrains—it quickly became a goal for Chavez to complete all 2,768 miles of the trail. He approached the mighty network of trails and roads in sections, every summer whittling away the distance by 300-500 miles. In the last weeks of July this past summer, he completed the final section in a north to south push that brought him to the Canadian border and to completion of the goal he had set 10 years prior.

Over the course of these thousands of miles, Chavez learned a lot about bike packing, route finding and something more poetic—about the pace of life and what it means to roll through the day with a simple objective—“taking a deep breath and slowing down, saying, ‘OK, I have all day, I can get up when I want, I can ride all day, I don’t have to worry about anything, and I get as far as I get.’ That’s a change in mentality. I get as far as I get today.” Chavez shrugged and smiled, “I may need food, I may need to get somewhere, but I’ve got all day.”

That’s the tempo change—from an average of 60 mph to somewhere around 5. “You see the world in a different way,” Chavez described. “On the road, on any road, you’re traveling so fast—you see things, but you glimpse them. When you’re traveling at five miles an hour, you have a long time to look at those things and you see things that you would never see.” Grave markers weathered down to smooth stone, moose ambling across a valley, a bear creeping beyond the treeline—scenes that pass quietly and are seen by few eyes on the remote sections of the cross country trail. “It takes you a little time to get in the zone when you’re traveling by bike,” Chavez said, but when you finally arrive in the moment, life becomes endearingly simple.

Informally completed in 1997, the Great Divide Trail runs from the remote outpost of Antelope Wells, NM to Banff, Canada. The route is continually being refined by members of Adventure Cycling Association, the nonprofit outfit that established the trail and provides the most comprehensive maps and guidance on cycling it. On Chavez’ tour, which he began at the southernmost point, he passed through low desert, pristine valleys, mountain passes of upwards of 11,000 feet, high mountain forest and middle-of-nowhere towns in mostly south to north sections.

Chavez, a lifelong New Mexican, found particular beauty in the portions of the trail that cut across our state. “The Black Range, from the Gila up to Reserve is really hard, and really gorgeous,” he described, “and from Grants to Cuba, there’s so much wildlife there.” While other sections surprised him—Montana was not as remote as he expected, and through Canada his path crossed with the fewest number of day hikers and other mountain bikers, but the wild beauty of the north was interrupted by the logging that was so prevalent near the trail. “I was riding up this beautiful mountain, when this huge racket started, and a big truck comes down carrying this backhoe and plow … I had been worried about bears, but after hearing that, I wasn’t worried anymore, at least for a couple of hours.”

Surprising, too, was the kindest of strangers—Chavez recalled being several days into an outing with his son, and many hours into a long climb in northern Colorado, when his son’s question of “When are we going to eat?” became a refrain as they slogged skyward. Materializing like an angel over a rise, was a woman on the deck of a cabin shouting “Hey! I’ve got cold watermelon!” A trail angel for hikers of the Continental Divide and cyclists on the Great Divide Trail, she fed them a whole meal before they set off on the path again. Another moment he recalled with a special fondness was skirting the Colorado River, again with his son, with only oatmeal in their packs after a week out. It was late when they saw some boaters coming down the river, “they had obviously been having a good time,” Chavez recalled (read: drunk). They happily let Chavez and his son throw their bikes into their boat and brought them into a tiny town where only a gas station was still open. “We ate all the bratwurst they had,” Chavez laughed “ … It was the best food I’d ever had.”

Chavez finished his tour of the West on a Salsa Fargo adventure bike set up with a bikepacking rig (whereas he had begun and spent many summers using a trailer to ferry his gear). Essentials included maps of the trail proper and surrounding towns, a top quality water filter (which proved itself invaluable), a Big Agnes inflatable sleeping pad, and “more bike tools than most people carry.” It took at least one week out that first summer before he learned “More stuff is not necessarily better, because you have to carry it.” Despite that wisdom, he learned that a mini-espresso maker was a morale-sustaining luxury he couldn’t do without.

On the outside of the experience, it may seem like a slog, but as Chavez described, “For me, it was a really calming experience. We live in a crazy world—society and schedules and all. When you’re out there and you’ve been riding for six hours in the rain or wind or snow, you can still say, ‘God, this is gorgeous.’ And you always mean to get 20 miles farther down the road, but you can still say, ‘I can just camp right here.’” When I asked him how it felt to complete the Great Divide Trail after all those years and miles, he described pedaling to a stop at the border as an anticlimax, saying to himself in quite an understatement—“Well, that was cool … And then I was like, well, what am I going to do next?”

Chavez has big plans for more adventure—which he defines simply as, at its core, the experience of new things. A ride through Patagonia or perhaps a winding route through the Southwest, the rides on his list “aren’t all hundreds of miles, but I’m going to do them.” In summary he humbly offered, “anyone can do this kind of stuff … all you have to have is a desire and an interest.” Chavez certainly possesses those traits, but provides an example of what else is necessary: patience, perseverance and a taste for adventure.
The Great Divide Trail

The Great Divide Trail is largely made up of a single track and forest service roads. Here the trail runs through Montana.

Jim Chavez

Marshall Pass

For its entire length, the Great Divide TRail stays near the Continental Divide.

Jim Chavez

Aspen Alley

The Great Divide Trail passes through diverse landscapes.

Jim Chavez

The Road Goes Ever On

Jim Chavez

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