by Laura Kussman
It’s late summer 2021 and Steve and Mary Gropp are in the midst of a gnawing, moveable feast: hiking the final leg of the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail, an endeavor they’ve been chewing on for years.
It’s the last stage of their nearly 5,000-mile, human-powered journey stretching in a continuous line from Skagway, Alaska to Mexico completed in five stages over the course of 40 years. A palate of mesas, volcanic formations, and mountain ranges that seem to pop right out of the desert floor are in view, along with cacti and grass varieties that are home to small rodents, snakes and lizards.
“Southern New Mexico is quite a hostile environment,” 66-year-old Steve recounts.
Dennis Dahl, who sits adjacent to the Gropps and who recently returned home from bicycling the entirety of the Continental Divide Trail, agrees, citing the desert’s bites, stings and stabs. “Everything has thorns. It’s really hard to navigate. We started encountering rattlesnakes. Twice Mary almost stepped on these huge, coiled Diamondbacks,” Steve said.
Mary remembers she wasn’t paying attention to the trail when a friend yelled “SNAKE” and she jumped back, detailing the viper’s posture and size, narrowly avoiding an encounter.
“And there were these whip snakes that would go up in the trees way up above your head,” she said. “You’re walking along trying to figure out where the trail is and you’ve got twenty miles to go for water and your head is just constantly in motion watching the trail, watching for snakes…”
“Sounds like Highway 2!” Jim Bredouw laughs, “but instead of semis and rumble strips, it’s whip snakes.”
Bredouw also traveled on his bicycle, unsupported, across the northern United States from coast to coast with friend Jim Schuh. He, too, had been anticipating his tour for years, ever since he biked the same route in 1997 inspired by a septuagenarian on the trip.
Bredouw, Dahl and the Gropps are a handful of locals over 65 who threw their hats (or helmets) into the ring this year and committed to testing their limits. Savvy Sanders, who modestly declined to be part of this piece since he doesn’t yet consider himself a senior, says he “only summited Mt. Rainier.” For each, the trip was a hunger whet by years of personal motivations and planning.
Bredouw says it was Martin Lund who originally introduced him to the world of long-distance cycling when they were in their twenties. Lund invited Bredouw to ride with him from Portland to San Francisco, on what Bredouw assumed would be a motorcycle. He admits he wasn’t aware that bicycling that far was even possible.
Twenty-three years of pedaling Mt. Constitution every Sunday morning with friends, including Schuh and Rolf Eriksen — another 70+ athlete, a dozen biking tours spanning the west coast, Canadian Rockies, French Alps and the Pyrenees prepared Bredouw not just physically for this self-organized and supported 2021 tour. He says these challenges are critical to his sense of well-being.
This year, the route took him and riding partner Schuh from Spokane, Washington to Long Branch, New Jersey in 51 days, mostly hugging the stress of the highway with a few unexpected, wildcard routes peppered in by “The Google Lady™,” including a 30-mile stretch of washboard gravel which both Jims endured on road bikes. Because of the nature of the tour, the duo “ate out quite a bit,” he says, including one too many meals at Dairy Queen, Howard Johnson’s and Cenex gas stations. Remarkably, neither had a single injury, flat tire or mechanical issue for the entirety of the trip.
“I forgot how hard an unsupported ride is,” Bredouw admitted, meaning both riders carried all their provisions, food and water on their bikes. “And one of the drawbacks of riding with traffic is it’s not as beautiful as riding off-road.”
Upon recalling any notable ecological or geological sights along the way, Bredouw shared, “From St. Mary’s to Cut Bank, MT, it was 102º and, looking for shade relief to avoid possible heat stroke, I was shocked to discover that there wasn’t one single tree for 30 miles straight. For some reason, this possibility had never occurred to me and we had to ask a passerby for a water refill, taking temporary shade refuge behind a tiny 3’ x 4’ historical road sign.”
In their twenties, Steve said he and Mary had their “first big date” rowing a 16ft open dory around Vancouver Island, stopping each night to camp on the ocean’s shore. The trip took 80 days.
“I just came to Steve’s house one day with all the charts,” Mary laughs. “I hadn’t done any rowing since I was a kid.”
The longest trip the duo took thereafter was a four and a half month row up the Labrador coast between Hudson Bay and Greenland. Eventually, Mary approached Steve with another good idea. “We should go on a walking trip.”
“You meant Greenlake, right?” Bredouw jokes as he, Mary, Steve and Dahl swap stories. She meant something greater.
Over the course of two months, Mary and Steve hiked the final 1,000 miles on the Continental Divide Trail, a feat Mary says is “mild” for Steve, who humbly lives a life notched by impressive physical feats, including ascending Yosemite’s granite edifice El Capitan twice.
The Great CDT winds along the continental divide through parts of Canada, Glacier National Park in Montana, Idaho, Yellowstone and the Tetons in Wyoming, the Colorado Rockies and New Mexico terminating at a Mexican border crossing which has been temporarily closed since April 2020. The route is rich in history and anthropology as it weaves through long-abandoned gold rush mining towns and cultural First Nations sites. The areas are native to grizzly bears, elk, moose, mountain lion, deer, wild horses, pronghorn antelope, eagles, osprey and sandhill cranes among others.
Beginning their trek at 11,000 feet in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, the Gropps carried 25- to 30-pound backpacks which included all gear, varying amounts of water and six days’ worth of food.
Beyond gulping on olive oil packets and butter powder to try to get enough protein, Mary shared a grocery store practice of looking at nutrition labels for the highest calories per ounce.
“Fritos are the way to go! They have lots of salt and lots of fat. We put them in our dinner,” she cheerfully disclosed.
Some days, the couple was hiking up 3,000 feet, down 2,000 feet, averaging about 15 miles per day.
“Nothing prepares you to go several miles at 11,000 feet except doing it,” Mary said. “There would be these traverses that were along really skinny trails with big drop-offs. That, for me with acrophobia, was really difficult. That was my mental game, just like you and the trucks on the highway,” she tells Bredouw.
Steve shared, “There were many memorable places we camped but one vivid memory was in the southern San Juan Mountains just north of the Colorado and New Mexico border. Up early, long before daylight on a deeply cold morning, we took a wrong turn and ended up in a huge open parkland, everything covered in frost, the full moon low in the sky, a cold weak sun just coming over the edge of the world. Several huge bull elk with enormous racks of antlers were standing at the edge of the trees, calling out to attract a mate for the fall rut. It seemed such a magic moment, part of an ancient pattern of life, one we felt so very truly fortunate to witness.”
Commonly known on Orcas as “Coach” for his work as the wrestling and football coach at the high school, Dahl approaches many of his physical pursuits with a pure attitude. His strengths are witnessed in both his celebratory nature and a lifelong history of sports playing, marathon running, supported and unsupported bike touring and hiking. At 74, Dahl qualifies as a senior cyclist, although intuitively he wouldn’t describe himself as such.
On this particular trip, from July to September 2021, Dahl pedaled from Roosville, Montana to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. 2,600 miles over 160,000 feet of gain traversing the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route with Adventure Cycling’s van-supported team and eight strangers-turned-companions. For reference, that amount of gain is equivalent to bicycling up Mt. Rainier thirteen times.
“It’s like in my rules of life: Rule 5 is PFA: Pay F*** Attention to what’s going on around you, especially when you’re in the brush. When you’re dealing with the hard stuff, like how do I compensate if my footfalls, or what line am I going to ride, or what’s up ahead?” Dahl said. “I’ve run 50-mile races in Patagonia that I thought was just so beautiful. Then, I’m in the French and Italian alps and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, this is so beautiful.’ Then I’m in Colorado this summer, up in those high mountains and I’m experiencing that same awestruck feeling. You go around a corner and it’s like going through a portal and you’re in a whole other beautiful area. That’s your reward.”
Over the course of six weeks, Dahl navigated summertime forest fires, steep inclines, 60 miles of singletrack trails, as well as an introduction to cooking tofu, a “crazy Dutch farmer who had 17 flats” and the fear of being eaten by bears in the night while peeing. He says on his night to cook for the group, his specialty was grilled cheese sandwiches with apricot jam and tomatoes.
In response to Bredouw’s preference for what he calls “credit card camping,” Dahl said, “Sixty-five days sleeping in the dirt. You’re riding up there on gravel roads with rocks, and then you get down into New Mexico and there are goat heads everywhere, vines coming out looking for the sun. I told everyone, ‘We’re all going to Mexico and the rest of it is bullshit.’ You deal with it. If you’re always pissed off, you shouldn’t be there.”
If anything, these supreme journeys became prime opportunities to “put shingles on the character house” as Bredouw’s wife Anne calls it. To see about accomplishing long-sought-after goals. To be surprised. To get out and go. To have fun. And perhaps, as the song by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson posits, to answer the question: “Does old age and treachery always overcome youth and skill?” What does it mean to be a senior cyclist or hiker? Does it feel like more than simply having to calculate one’s age when asked?
Dahl says it’s nothing overtly remarkable beyond a sharpening of one’s smarts. He says tours like this one simply “sounded like fun” and proved to be so, marked by both nature’s beauty and the kindness of others, shown in the form of thumbs up or cheers from motorcyclists, unexpected pies and BLT’ from strangers, a ride from a Blackfoot deputy in a pickup truck on a hot day, an offer to drive sixty-pound panniers up Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, or a passerby stopping to refill water.
All four agree: years of experience can provide riders with a mindful awareness of their limitations that allows them to compensate for potential age-related handicaps. Once you’re on the road, the considerations of age are just something you deal with, such as packing specific medications, wellness investments in the form of a hotel room or massage, or preparing for the first week to be a tough adjustment.
Moreover, though, there was a ubiquitous appreciation for the use of humor and being forced to slow down — a recurring theme for older riders. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast: Dahl was the oldest rider on his tour and “always the last one into camp.”
“We had this one stretch where we’re going through all this sagebrush and creosote brush and we got kind of off the trail, and we had to go over and under all these barbed wire fences. We’re commando crawling — we called it Medicare Boot Camp,” Mary shares, laughing. “It gave us something to laugh about.”
Sings Willie Nelson towards the end of the song, “…Old bull says young bull, let’s just ease on adown and love ‘em all.”
In the land of 10,000 lakes, 1,000 miles into the trip and after days of what he calls ‘having my head on a swivel’ on Highway 2, Bredouw realized he needed to make an adjustment. He made the difficult decision to abandon the tour.
“I was exhausted from being on guard all the time,” he said. “Emotionally, it was a mixed bag — on one hand, I had ridden a thousand miles fully loaded and didn’t regret my decision to terminate in Minnesota over safety concerns; but on the other, I was disappointed that I didn’t complete the bike ride that I’d been planning for a decade.”
He rented a truck, bought a luxurious third T-shirt and told Schuh he would support him the rest of the way to the Atlantic.
These sorts of adventures are the kind of personal challenges and rewards that might not occur at all if not seized with urgency for someone over 65. When asked about motivations, Steve shared how a climbing injury as a teenager influenced his mode of thinking for the rest of his life.
“Ever since then, life has been dessert. I realized at that age you just have to go for it. Nothing is guaranteed. If you want to do something you better just get on it because it could all be over in a snap,” he said.
Mary, who celebrated her 65th birthday on the trail, was clear: to simply be in wild places with the wild things.
For Bredouw, biking and hiking were a departure from his early cerebral life as a musician and offered a chance for him to prove to himself he could do it.
“I generally feel more secure about who I am when I’ve done something remarkable or that pushes my expectations,” he says.