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The Carbon Cycle

Crossing The Great Divide
Kate Rawles

North America’s continental or Great Divide has an almost magical significance. Invisible and unmarked, it meanders at altitude for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Fall to one side of it and, if you are a raindrop, your journey will end in the Atlantic Ocean. Fall even fractionally on the other and the Pacific will be where you merge back into the ever-shifting seas. If you are a cyclist on a road-bike in the Rocky Mountains, the great divide switches between a place that gifts nigh on unbelievable mountain panoramas, however hard-won; and somewhere that summons all your past experience of dealing with fatigue and mental overwhelm in the face of sheer, hard, apparently unending slog. On Independence Pass, I felt that sudden, expansive sense of relief; the sense of something usually hemmed in sighing outwards to the distant horizons, mountains behind mountains behind mountains everywhere I turned. On Trail Ridge Road, I nearly lost the plot.

The final big pass (for now at least) turned into a bit of an epic. Trail Ridge Road, one of the most spectacular roads in the world in terms of mountain scenery (allegedly). It started to rain at the foot of the climb and many, many hours later I reached the summit in the rain equivalent of a white-out, with accompanying head-wind. Twelve thousand feet and absolutely no view! Worse, even after the summit, the road kept rising! By this time I was stopping every few minutes to rest, slumping over the bike and found myself talking to the road (always a bad sign). “Just go down! Please, just go DOWN!” My breath was making an odd choking noise that I didn’t seem to have much control over and my face ached from the wind, cold and trying not to whimper out loud. Finally the road did go down – thank goodness!! – for about twenty-five miles of cold wet descent into the town of Estes Park where I arrived, in the dark, way beyond drowned rat state. My friend Bill pointed out later how ironic it would be to get hypothermia and frostbite on a global warming trip. Very funny.

The overall shape of this journey was structured as much by one of those semi-random goals that self-propelled creatures like humans like to dream up, as it was by gravity and mountain contours. My plan, hatched in comfort over a kitchen table, was to cycle from El Paso on the Texas/Mexican border to Anchorage, Alaska, following the spine of the Rockies as closely as a human on a road bike can. At 4553 miles and with numerous high passes as I criss-crossed the great divide it was definitely a personal challenge. I wanted this challenge and I was more than ready for time out in the hills. But I wanted to construct a journey with an additional purpose, too. This was 2006, and President Bush was famously declaring the American way of life as not up for negotiation – and climate change a non-problem. The two are related, of course, by oil.

The USA is one of the most oil-hungry, oil-intensive, oil-dependent countries on earth, burning billions of gallons a year and thereby releasing tonnes and tonnes of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There it traps heat, contributing to one of our most urgent challenges: climate change. Bush was often portrayed as the arch-villain of the global climate change drama. But Bush was not the same as his citizens. I hoped to explore attitudes as well as landscapes; to uncover what that most elusive of creatures, the ‘ordinary person’, thought about climate change. And, on the theory that solutions often arise where the problem is most acute, I was keen to find out what positive responses were arising from within the belly of the oil beast. My overall aim was to use the cycling adventure as a communication medium, to help raise awareness and inspire action back in Europe. The adventure would be the hook; would function like a Trojan horse, with a climate change story rendered more engaging by being inside the mountain cycling one.

The overall shape of this journey was structured as much by one of those semi-random goals that self-propelled creatures like humans like to dream up, as it was by gravity and mountain contours. My plan, hatched in comfort over a kitchen table, was to cycle from El Paso on the Texas/Mexican border to Anchorage, Alaska, following the spine of the Rockies as closely as a human on a road bike can
If you turn up alone on a bike with big panniers, and perhaps especially as a woman alone, people come and talk. Where are you headed? Are you crazy? Don’t you have a car?

Leaving El Paso mid-June was like cycling into a fan oven. Hot head-winds made my seventy-five mile-a-day average much harder than anticipated and for the first few weeks I’d typically crawl into a campsite well into the evening, too tired to do anything much but struggle with tent-pitching on rock-hard ground. In Colorado, the weather took a dramatic turn as I tackled the highest passes. The deluge I experienced on Trail Ridge Road turned out to be the end of a year-long drought so it seemed a bit churlish of me to complain that I’d missed the view. Nevertheless, as I cycled out of Estes Park the next day, it was just a bit galling to see the Rockies shining and beautiful behind me, with the pass I’d climbed virtually unseen clear and tantalizing under the blue, blue sky.

I rode the first half of my three month trip solo and it completely confirmed my view that 98% of people are friendly and helpful, and that women cyclists are safer than we’re sometimes lead to believe. Conversations with total strangers were amongst the trip’s highlights. If you turn up alone on a bike with big panniers, and perhaps especially as a woman alone, people come and talk. Where are you headed? Are you crazy? Don’t you have a car? Not infrequently they offered to buy me beer, coffee, lunch. One of the least expected aspects of returning home was a period of loneliness. Walking the streets of my own town I really missed the conversations and the small crowds of friendly folk whenever I stopped; the connection with strangers that is much harder to strike up a without a loaded bike to spark an exchange. 

In terms of nudging these conversations towards climate change, the heat, unusual even for Texas and New Mexico, was often a great way in. So hot the cactus were dying, people had plenty of climate change stories. Truck drivers harassed with the smoke from wildfires. Campsite owners closing down and heading for cooler northern states. A bike shop owner mournful that Glacier National Park is set to lose all its glaciers in the next couple of decades. A wolf ecologist in Montana explaining why mountains have been called the canaries of climate change. In the face of a warming climate, mobile species can move northwards or upwards. But, if you already live high on a mountain, you’re effectively trapped – and so mountain ecosystems are responding to climate change sooner than others. Species are moving upwards or disappearing and, because different species are responding to climate change at different rates, food webs are starting to unravel. Bears, for example, are emerging earlier from their dens because of the temperature, but then not finding food. 

From Texas to Alaska, I asked truck drivers and café customers and bike-shop mechanics their views. Not surprisingly, I got a huge range of responses. Some seemed scarcely to have heard of it. ‘Climate change?’ said a man in a queue in New Mexico, ‘you won’t find anything like that until you get further north’! Lack of knowledge on such a high profile topic seemed hard to take as genuine until I learned that Fox News, a dominant media outlet, was almost never reporting on it. A bit of research and the interconnections between the oil industry, Fox and the far right Republican Party read (to a naïve European at least) like some mad conspiracy theory; a dark glimpse of vested interests and the sheer staggering scale of the money and power associated with oil.

At the other end of the spectrum were the Cool City Mayors. Representing many millions of US citizens, the Mayors had basically said the heck with federal government, if they are not going to act on climate change we will. There are now over 400 of them, all with entire cities committed to significantly reducing their CO2 emissions. I came to think of this as ‘leadership from the middle’ – the city or town, smaller and more fleet of foot than a nation state, yet more effective than an individual acting alone, is a really good sized unit for change. I found leadership from the middle amongst NGO’s too, such as the incredible ‘Y2Y’ project, which aims to provide a protected wildlife corridor all the way from Yellowstone to the Yukon. New Belgium Brewery, a wind-powered microbrewery, was my clear favourite in terms of leadership from the middle in the business community.

The Mayors were inspiring. They were also thought provoking. Cycling in N.America, it’s hard to avoid almost literally running into fantastically energy-hungry, high consumption, high carbon-emission models of what success and ‘quality of life’ are understood to mean. For me, this version of the American Dream came to be typified by a series of images. An immense RV towing a Hummer. Private jets parked outside Aspen, a town full of glittering malls and heli-skiing outfits. The Mayors’ solution is essentially to make this way of life climate safe through technology; to make it all run more efficiently with different fuel, for example, or better design. Streamlined trucks and RV’s running on biofuel. Efficiency gains are without question part of the answer and we need as much technowizardry here as we can muster. But will it be enough? And is the high consumption model of quality of life really so great anyway? The many long-distance cyclists I met on the road had often exchanged money for time and, even in the worst conditions, they had the exuberance of beings recently released from a cage. Whether intentionally or not they embody a different solution; quality of life understood as quality of time and experience rather than quantity of stuff and money. Less stuff and money almost invariably means much lower emissions. Of course long distance cycling is not everyone’s thing, but lower emissions and higher quality of life is the ultimate win/win, whatever form this takes.

For me, personally, the bike has been a life-changer. I grew up fantasizing about adventures and reading a great many books by Wilfred Thesiger and the Crane Cousins. Officially Designated Adventurers, though, always seemed like other beings: stong, tough, talented, somehow free of normal life and not at all like me. I was a weedy child, a bit of a swot, rubbish at school sports – though I loved being outdoors – and what’s more, I was a girl.  The Cranes – and even Thesiger – never, I’m sure, set out to present ‘adventurers’ as a different order from the rest of us. But the sheer fact of what they’d achieved made them seem like another species. 

I learned almost by accident how the most mundane journey is vastly more interesting by bike than car, how you are really in the landscape you travel through by bike, and how even a non-athletic person can cycle reasonable distances without too much pain. The bicycle is a magician, making adventures possible for ordinary people, like me. Over the years, I’ve just gone further and further. This journey, the longest and hardest yet, was both physically challenging and out and out fabulous. Bears with shining black fur grazed on berries on the roadside and often a moose would amble in front of me. On one occasion, stopped on the road for no particular reason, a lynx walked out of the forest and stood on the road just metres away. We both stood still for a few minutes before she turned, saw me, and vanished into the trees. An astonishing encounter on a journey vivid with contrasts. I started in a desert and ended in Alaska, moving into autumn, the trees on fire with foxy reds, golds, and oranges and glaciers running down to the ocean. It left me deeply aware what a wonderful, diverse place our earth is, and even more passionate about the need to protect it.

And that of course, is the other great divide: between where we are on climate change and where we need to get to. The most recent figures on global climate change emissions were worse than the worse predictions, going up by far more than expected, when they need to be coming dramatically down. The good news is that almost certainly still have time to prevent the worst impacts, if we act effectively and fast. Climate change puts us all on a journey, however uninvited. The destination is clear: high quality lives, that can be enjoyed across the world, without undermining our own ecological life support systems. Adventures, of course, can be part of the problem, involving lots of resource hungry gear and generating high carbon emissions through long-haul travel. My own involved a trans-Atlantic flight. But they can also model the solution; quality time, an escape from consumerist values, low impacts, reconnection with our place in natural systems. A cyclist on a flat road without a head wind can do about ten miles per peanut and travel, fantastically, in the most efficient way we know how. Win/win. It has to be the way ahead.

The many long-distance cyclists I met on the road had often exchanged money for time and, even in the worst conditions, they had the exuberance of beings recently released from a cage.

Kate Rawles

In 2006, ‘outdoor philosopher’ Kate Rawles cycled 4553 miles from Texas to Alaska, following the spine of the Rocky Mountains as closely as possible. Along the way, she talked to Americans about climate change to find out what they knew about it, whether they cared, and if they did, what they thought they could do.

Kate’s book The Carbon Cycle; crossing the great divide (Two Ravens Press, August 2012) was shortlisted for the 2012 Banff Mountain Festival ‘Adventure Travel’ book award. Information about the book and a discount can be found here.

Kate now lives in Cumbria and teaches environmental issues at the University of Cumbria. She is a keen hillwalker and sea-kayaker and she also runs Outdoor Philosophy courses. www.outdoorphilosophy.com

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