The Wandering Jew: Adventures in Glacier, Part III: My Dance with Death

[Eds Note: Click here to read Part 1; Click here to read Part 2]

After a sleepless night spent in fear for your life, one is not in a position to make wise decisions about anything…
I knew the weather was going to be bad for a couple of days, and though I hadn’t yet done everything I wanted to in Glacier, I decided I needed to take off and sleep in a bed – alone, sans 1000lb beasts. I called my guardian angles in Lethbridge, Alberta and got the go ahead to spend another night in the warmth of their company.
I knew I had a wet ride ahead so I decided to take a nap with Sarah under the single patch of blue sky in Glacier. An hour later the patch had closed; the clouds seemed to be moving in from the east, the interior of the park. At the time I thought nothing of this fallacy. So I packed up my bike and, against the suggestion of my GPS and the campground host, turned west to leave the park.
That one turn, that one moment when I could have double-checked the time and distance of the road I was going to take…
I did not want to go east because that meant crossing the Rockies over a road potentially clogged with slow driving tourists, and over Logan pass on the continental divide (elevation 6646 ft.) which would potentially mean snow. And for some reason, which I cannot to this day explain, I thought that if I first went west, then north, I would not have to cross the Rockies when I went back east to Lethbridge!!! I thought there was some magical flat area in the middle of the range between Glacier Park and Height of the Rockies Park in Alberta!! This thought, along with my decision to first go west, was based on a vague recollection of a map I had seen some days earlier which I thought showed the road going just slightly west before turning north and then back east.
All of these assumptions would have been extinguished had I taken a moment, just a single moment, and checked a map or my GPS. That one moment would have saved my traversing the razor thin ridge between life and death which was my night time, freezing and soaked, crossing of the Rockies.
As it turned out, the route I had chosen would take 270 miles over the course of 6 hours, instead of the 130 miles over 4 hours it would have taken otherwise.
So I made my turn west (remember that my destination is north-east), and decided to ignore my GPS’s pleas for me to make a u-turn as soon as possible. But I was sure, with no actual confirmation, that my way was quicker and free of snow. Within 20 minutes I was driving through a wall of rain, at just a few degrees shy of turning to hail. For a while I had to keep my left hand over my face to keep the “rain drops” from busting out my teeth.
When the rain let up for a few minutes I was able to fully see (not grasp) the magnitude of my mistake. the western sky was a solid charcoal wall past which no mountain or forest was visible. The rest of the sky put on a full display of the beauty of clouds in all their shapes and styles, but I could not contemplate them for the imminent storm about to engulf me and the Rockies. To my great dismay the eastern sky, over the road I should have taken, showed no evidence of snow or even a downpour the likes of which I just crossed.
I continued west and north and began to feel the cold that would be my companion for the rest of the ride.
About an hour into the ride I got tired of the GPS telling me to turn around, so I pulled into a gas station for a brief respite from the rain and to re-plot my course – something that if it had been done earlier…
My heart sank as I saw my ETA pushed back 2 whole hours upon my inputting my intended route. At this point it would still be faster to turn around, but I felt committed to my mistake and used the possibility of snow over the pass and the fact I just passed a massive downpour to justify my continuing on the wrong path.
This was the first compounding of my initial mistake.
During the next two hours, as the sun continued to set behind the dark mass that followed me on my trail, and my body began to freeze, I cursed the atrociousness of my decision.
By the time I was half way through the Rockies that I initially thought I would not have to cross, my feet were soaked and frozen, my body shivered non-stop and my hands shook harder and harder with every passing mile. By that point, every hotel I passed should have been my last stop for the night. But I saw the Moe’s house (my destination) as my salvation and my tunnel vision kept narrowing upon it, making it impossible to stop.
When I started getting small waves of warmth and seeing things along the road that were not there, I realized I needed to pull over because hypothermia was setting in.
I pulled into a 7-11 somewhere along the Crows-nest pass. I staggered inside and managed to get to the bathroom to run hot water over my hands. I was delirious with cold, my bloodshot eyes sought the coffee pot. As I stood by the glass enclosed trays of chicken laying under heat lamps I could not help but press my face against the warm glass.
Coffee in hand, body shivering, face against the bubble of warmth, I began to cry.
The enormity of my mistake overcame me and I could not hold back the tears. Almost 10 years of riding and I was still capable of such stupidity! Not only should I have checked the route before leaving, I should have stopped at a hotel long ago. The tears, sadly, did not make me cross the road to the motel located across the 7-11. Instead, my tunnel vision tightened further and I began preparing for the road.
I found some small handwarmers that I put in my boots, along with a ski mask, and some gloves that were slightly less wet than the ones I had on. The two kids and woman running the 7-11 were very kind to me. They put my gloves and mask under the heat lamps and gave me a piece of chicken to chase the 5 Advil and 2 muscle relaxers I needed to take in order to continue down the wrong path.
A few minutes later I was back on my bike and for the first 20 seconds felt good and could feel the warmth of the face mask. But that feeling fled as quickly as it was painstakingly found.
By now I was engulfed in darkness and could only see clearly about 10 feet or so in front of me. It did not help that every passing car lit up the little droplets of water on my glasses rendering me blind for a few seconds – and did so every half minute. If there were a few cars in succession, I could only pray that I would stay on the road. And pray I did! I invoked the Great Mother’s mercy. I begged only that she not let any animals in my path. The cold I would somehow bear, but there would be no chance for me if a big horned sheep or moose were to wander in front of my steed.
I tried taking of my glasses so that I would not ride blind half the time, but the rain would hit me right in the eye-balls, and I was forced to replace the shades. And so I had no choice (or so I thought) but to ride on, half blind, freezing, shaking and thinking every shadow or dark patch on the road was a beast running in front of me.
I still had more than 100 miles to go – my speed kept shifting from 50mph to 80mph, depending on the amount of fear I had at the moment regarding the unknown darkness.
80 miles – I’m praying; every two minutes I prayed, again and again: I can handle the cold, just don’t let an animal come in my way.
60 miles – I’m getting colder and colder and am starting to shake more violently; I become less and less sure of my ability to handle the cold.
40 miles – I see lights in the distance, a town, if I can only reach that town…
30 miles – The tears are coming back; why did I put myself through this?! I could have stopped, I could have checked the map, I could have been warm…
20 miles – I’m shaking and delirious and can see nothing but the Moe’s house…
10 miles – I can die at any moment – either an animal, or a car I can’t react to quick enough, or running into something because I’m blind half the time…
5 miles – So close, within Lethbridge city limits, so close, don’t let me die now, it can still happen, it can happen within 20 feet of the house…
The garage… the door opening… inside… off the bike… staggering into the basement… must untie boots, unzip jacket, unbuckle belt, slide of shirt and underwear… Garret staring in amazement: “oh my god, oh dude, holy shit, oh my god, bro…”… must warm up – shower! WARM UP!… hot, wet, not cold, warmer and warmer and warmer… dry off, breathing stabilizing, shins and feet still cold… bed, covers, more covers, a bowl, darkness…