Two thousand and three-hundred miles, 32 days and a fiery motivation to take on a mental and physical challenge were all it took for Triana Willmert ’22 and Dylan Sloan ’22 to complete the Tour Divide cross country bike route between the Canadian and Mexican borders during their gap semester this fall. Beginning in Roosville, Montana and finishing in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, the duo traversed an average 71 miles per day on dirt, gravel and sand roads, crossing through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico on a route called the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
A life-long endurance athlete and a member of the Bowdoin nordic ski team, Willmert wanted both a physical and a mental challenge. Her year-round ski training since high school with supplemental running and biking gave her the fitness base necessary to successfully complete the journey. After deciding not to enroll this semester, Wilmert was excited by the challenges and character building that the five-week journey would provide.
“I love training and working out, but having done so much of the same for the past six or so years, I wanted to step out of my comfort zone on the physical side of things,” Willmert said in a phone interview with the Orient. “Not sure why I thought I needed to do maybe the hardest possible thing I could ever conceive of doing to get that challenge, but in hindsight, I’m so glad I just sent it.”
As Willmert expected, the trip was hard. She recalled the times where she and Sloan would be yards apart, biking in silence for hours, both knowing that the other was sharing their mental and physical exhaustion. Throughout the trip’s difficulties, the two relied on each other to keep spirits high.
“The mental strength I gained from the trip and belief that I can truly do anything I set my mind to is incredible,” Willmert said. “I’ve never experienced such a rollercoaster of emotions so often for so many days in a row.”
Willmert and Sloan’s journey remained largely unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from the cancellation of the Tour Divide race along the route and the subsequent shut down of towns that only open during the summer to riders, most places have remained open and generous. The route mainly traversed smaller towns where Willmert remembered a scant presence of COVID-19 precautions.
“In some of the small towns, it seemed as if COVID didn’t exist. People didn’t wear masks, servers/cashiers didn’t wear masks, no hand sanitizers … It was weird to come from a bigger town where everyone was wearing masks and taking COVID seriously to a smaller town where it was non-existent all in the same day,” said Willmert.“[I remember] specifically being in Platoro, Colorado and being made fun of for wearing a mask and ‘believing in the hoax,’” said Willmert.
Willmert especially enjoyed the funny and unique memories she made along the way. A major component of such a trip is the unexpected encounters with new people in strange locations. Her favorite story comes from Pie Town, New Mexico, the location of an infamous abandoned house now used for Tour Divide riders. The house is called the toaster house due to the old toasters that populate the house’s exterior.
Of course, from having to bike in pitch darkness in grizzly Montana to underestimating food rations, the trip was not without its dangerous moments.
“We were nearly caught in a snow storm and just barely made it to a lodge in thirty-miles-per-hour winds that were nearly blowing us over,” said Willmert. “I was in tears.”
Willmert chronicled her journey on an Instagram page and suggested that anyone with further interest in her trip explore her posts. She also highly recommends the experience to anyone considering a serious mental and physical challenge.
“There’s something special about the simplistic beauty of nothing but you, a bike, essentials and a friend on the road for five weeks,” she said. “I would tell people to just go for it but also to expect more challenges and ups and downs than you would ever anticipate.”
Dylan Sloan ’22 is a member of the Orient.