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The Great Divide

Phil Scott
Posted: November 15, 2006

Somewhere on a rest stop atop Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado, a bronze strip lies imbedded in the asphalt, aligned with the Continental Divide, that magical spot where rain falling on one side flows toward the Atlantic, and rain on the other side flows to the Pacific. That spot, three states away from Butte, Montana, and at 10,850 feet the highest point of the Continental Divide, was our main objective. We were David Seidman, Dan Long and myself, three guys each with a motorcycle and a week's vacation to kill.

We picked up our bikes in Butte (where we had them shipped) and spent the first night in Dillon, Montana. Then we set out for Jackson, Wyoming, but it started raining outside town, which stopped us there for a day. "The thing about getting wet is you always get dry," a customer told me at a coffee shop where we'd sought shelter. But then I was dripping and he'd driven there in a pickup. Signs in Jackson were encouraging: next to our log-cabin motel was a business that carved cigar-store Indi…Native Americans. Upon further inspection downtown, nearly every block had a store with such a Native American standing before it. Dan had already packed along a few Padrón 5000 Maduros, but we picked up a couple of Gisperts to be safe. The rest of the day we spent soaking up the rain and puffing on the occasional Maduro. When the rain stopped the next morning we took off again, still heading south. We rode through a chunk of Idaho, all of Wyoming, pausing briefly to watch Old Faithful do its thing, and into Colorado. It seemed as though we climbed ever higher; both David and Dan complained of shortness of breath, dizziness and forgetfulness, common signs of altitude sickness. For me, that's just an everyday mental condition.

As the hours on the road passed, my mind began wandering, sometimes settling on my deepest embarrassments. Like the time the vice principal caught me flipping a cigarette butt onto the high school's roof, and sentenced me to a day of in-school detention. It was really more of a mini-vacation; if he'd really wanted to punish me, he should have forced me to attend class. Then there was the time I convinced my best friend that the quickest way to empty the garbage from his dad's truck would be to drive it incredibly fast on the county's roughest road and bounce the rubbish out. On one particularly nasty series of deep potholes, we tore out the driveshaft and bent the frame. Ah, good times.

We rode through about a dozen small towns, population 300 or less. After the first five or so I could say with certainty that the nicest building would be the church, the shiniest building would be the gas station and the newest building would be the post office, which also tended to look like a FEMA trailer. Another thing I noticed: out on the road, when bikers passed one another going the opposite direction, they'd inevitably wave. It was always a slight gesture that looked as though they were pointing at the yellow center line as if to say, "Stay on that side of the line and we'll be fine." I experimented with a full wave once, and the wind resistance nearly knocked me off the bike. From there on I pointed.

Dan Long has a cigar with Smokey the Bear.
About midway through Colorado we pulled over at a trio of large wooden billboards placed along the left side of the road near Wolf Creek Pass. Here it was, the object of our quest -- the Continental Divide's highest point. Dan suggested we pour water on the line in the pavement to see if it flowed east or west, and so we did. It flowed north. Downhill.

In all the excitement and rarified air we forgot to light up the Gisperts. Dan remembered them hours later, when we stopped for a few minutes in front of a Smokey the Bear sign. After reaching Los Alamos, New Mexico, that evening we both fired up Gispert Belicosos in the Holiday Inn's parking lot. Mine tasted great, mild and rich, though it would have been even better if we'd smoked them on the Pass.

"You know what's amazing?" Dan said, leaning against his seat and looking at the mountains. "All this land belongs to the people."

"Unless they find oil underneath it," I said. We both leaned silently against our bikes, puffing on the Gisperts and still caked in road dirt, watching the sun slide behind a peak. Ah, good times.

Phil Scott is the author of Hemingway's Hurricane [McGraw Hill] now out in paperback.

Photos by David Seidman

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