New on Sidetracked:

The Great Divide

Written by Quinn Brett // Photography by Andy Earl, courtesy of Goal Zero

Adaptive cyclist Quinn Brett explores the Great Divide – a physical 2,450-mile journey over the US Continental Divide by handcycle, and also other great divides that separate and stratify us.

Today, I cry after my experience at the public swimming pool. Anxiety drips from my pores whenever I venture out to new places. The half-assed, box-checking, non-compliant-building scenario is just another way to compound my anxiety. I compromise my skin by sitting on wood or cement surfaces. I compromise my personal space because people rush in to ‘help’ without my consent. I compromise my independence and attitude.

I have reached a tipping point, tired of being inside – inside four walls, but also inside myself, my racing mind. Trapped. All of these walls without doors or windows. An M.C. Escher house with winding steps and inspirational quotes haphazardly strewn about the towering walls.

Get me out! I scream, in my head, nearly every day. A world where you feel unaccommodated depresses the soul. I feel the layers of societal condescension. It’s not appropriate nor invited to talk about changing the unrelenting ignorance.

Outside the walls, the world is freeing. I can explore with a lack of inhibition, rolling away from the smothered assumptions, averting eyes, and prayers that lurk in the built environment. Nature is my way out. I hope that adventure will give me the voice I need to eventually settle back inwards.

Since I broke my back in 2017, off-road handcycling has become my main form of expression. And, when I learnt about it, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route seemed to be the quintessential expression of both myself and the handcycle. This 2,800-mile route starts in Banff, Canada. Since the northern border was closed due to Covid in 2021, the point of entry near Eureka, Montana became my alternative start, subtracting about 300 miles. The Great Divide bobs and weaves over the Continental Divide nearly 30 times.

The flow of water along this imaginary line is analogous to the walls in my mind, the barriers of the built environment, and a realisation of the glacial pace of inclusion.

This Great Divide separates all the water that runs towards the Pacific Ocean, from the water that runs towards the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico. It starts in Cape Prince of Wales in western Alaska, runs through western Canada and the United States alongthe Rocky Mountains, then through the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in Mexico. This is water that touches everyone in western North America. This dividing line drawn on the map inherently creates boundaries to wilderness areas and represents the height of the land between watersheds; it does not follow the highest peaks within the range. The flow of water along this imaginary line is analogous to the walls in my mind, the barriers of the built environment, and a realisation of the glacial pace of inclusion.

I have been disabled for only four years, so I am coming from a newborn’s perspective – but also from a viewpoint layered in a rich history of capable-available freedoms. I not only notice the physical and societal barriers but also my own mental codification of what disability means, represents, or more importantly negates.

Even our definition of disability leaves out options. The very prefix ‘dis’ means apart or negative. We are without ability; we are apart from advantaged. Disadvantaged. This concept in reverse is termed ableism.

A great divide exists in our cultural models of humans and their capacity to be productive, attractive, to have power and expertise. Able-bodied versus disabled. In 2018 Paralympic athletes in the United States finally got equal pay to their counterparts in the Olympics. Adaptive Sports organisations exist and they are a form of segregation. ‘You, with the disability – go recreate over there while your family recreates over here.’

For me, ironically, the easiest way to portray all of this – the greatest divide – is between the natural world and the built environment. The built environment is indeterminable, absurdly unpredictable when it is bound by laws and an inherent purpose for access. Yes, in natural terrain there are places I can’t go independently, but it has this forgiving beauty in that way – appreciated, coveted. The possibilities to overcome that type of terrain seem more surmountable. The culture around nature and activity also encourages the idea of hey, let’s go give it a shot.

Montana was filled with dunks into rivers and lakes, mountain lions and bears – oh my. No joke. This year there were a few fatal bear attacks on fellow Tour Divide riders.

Idaho had brief but stunning backside views of Grand Teton National Park. I think this was also where the support team got a backside view of me, as spinal-cord injuries include dysfunctions like surprise pooping while riding.

Wyoming was nuts, from mountains to arid desert-like terrain. While crossing the Great Basin, Continental Divide Trail hikers were shuffling in the opposite direction. The wind and sun at our backs encouraged us to ride our biggest day of 140 miles. Meanwhile the hikers we passed were awfully sun-baked and windblown – like castaways crossing a Martian landscape.

Colorado, oh Colorado. Brush Mountain Lodge was a hidden oasis of lounging bikers, and hikers scarfing down beer and pizza. Rolling in and out of Steamboat, over remote dirt-road passes, and dumping into popular ski towns. Indiana Pass from Del Norte to Platoro is one of my new favourite places in the universe.

Then I dumped into New Mexico and the Gila Wilderness, WTF? Solitude and 60-mile-long bumpy, windy climbing and mudding along forest roads. I’d dump into a tiny town, dogs chasing me – sometimes a little concerning – as I’d cross the pavement once or twice and dump into another long stretch of gravel. Hundreds of miles of incredible landscape. I felt like I was in southern Spain or Tuscany. On the last few days, I finally felt back on Earth, away from any Martian landscapes, in a warm desert.

Twenty-five days and 2,500 miles later had me head-down cycling my trike into one giant metal wall at the border of Mexico and the United States, reminding me of the freedoms we so often take for granted. In the built environment where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed over 30 years ago, I still can’t navigate in a city with confidence. Walls, everywhere walls.

I am speaking solely for me, and my experience as one human with a physical disability. Physically, I was capable of this freedom before and after. Mentally, I crawled over the walls in my own head. This wheelchair doesn’t define me. I am in charge of defining my identity in a world that consistently ignores barriers, throwing small bones to those of us with physical mobility issues.

The Great Divide was more than a glorious handcycle over breathtaking lands. It enlightened me to a poignant thought – one that has been bounding around in that little mind of mine since my injury, unidentified. There is still a great divide in our society when it comes to our stigmas and schemas of people with disabilities. We are not included physically because we can’t get in or around the actual streets, businesses, or homes. We are also not invited – because we are a burden or just out of fear of the unknown. What do you do with us?

I will tell what you do. Invite us. Problem-solve with us. Venture into the unknown with us. It will be a good time, maybe a little type two, but it will surely be heart-warming! I encourage you to open your eyes, ears, minds, and physical body to the gifts they provide you. Share those gifts.

This story was first published in Sidetracked Volume 23

Written by Quinn Brett // @quinndalina
Photography by Andy Earl // @wasatchandy, courtesy of Goal Zero // @goalzero