Face of a Trail Angel — Kirsten’s Tour Divide story


In Thru-Hiker Lingo she’d be called a “Trail Angel,” but for riders in the Tour Divide, Kirsten Henricksen is so much more — superfan, confidant, helper, healer. Kirsten runs a remote hunting lodge in the mountains north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Six years ago, she stumbled across Matt Lee, who was leading the 2007 Great Divide Race at the time. The meeting made such an impression on her that she started following Divide racing year after year, offering meals and beds for racers as they passed through.

I also met Kirsten by accident in 2009. I was passing through these rugged mountains just south of the Wyoming border late in the evening, after spending most of the day dealing with unfixable mechanical problems in Rawlins. I was frustrated, pessimistic, and incredibly lonely, to the point where I lingered at nearly every remote cabin I passed and imagined I was Ebenezer Scrooge pressing my nose against the cold glass of the windows of happy townsfolk who could not see me. Still, when I passed Kirsten’s place, I didn’t linger long — it was late, I was tired, and I needed to stop daydreaming and find a place to camp. About fifty yards away I heard her call out to me by name — she’d been tracking my progress in the Tour Divide but nearly missed me — and invited me in for dinner, coffee, a warm bed, and some amazingly cathartic conversation. I value my short time with Kirsten above many of my solo experiences on the Divide, and many other Tour Dividers feel similarly.

The following piece by Kirsten Henricksen is published in the The Cordillera, a compilation of Divide racing essays. The Cordillera volume three, with Kirsten’s piece, can be purchased at this link. Volume 4 can be purchased at this link. Proceeds are donated to an education fund for the daughter of Dave Blumenthal, who died after colliding with a truck during the 2010 Tour Divide.


I run a lodge along the route.

My introduction to Divide Racing came as a surprise. It was hot, and I was busy with the day-to-day job of maintaining the lodge. Accustomed to the quiet that happens after a meal, I think I was probably listening to the radio; oblivious, to be sure, on that summer day in 2007.

I walked out the front door, arms full of laundry, and saw a stranger approaching. A stranger, yes, and perhaps maybe he’s crazy, I thought. This guy was wearing nothing but spandex shorts and shirt. He had lifted the shirt over his head, presumably for ventilation, revealing a skinny belly and ribs–in cowboy-country, in Northwest Colorado.

He introduced himself as Matthew, and politely asked if he could get some water to fill his bottles. I think I probably looked at him like he was insane. I know that I asked him, “What are you doing all the way out here? Are you lost?”

“No, I’m not lost, I’m racing. There are guys behind me.” His bike was packed as though he expected to be home in hours, not weeks.

I was confused, but I offered him lunch; after all I was cooking for a whole crew of construction workers that summer, and had plenty of food. And did I mention we are miles and miles and miles from the nearest town? It takes two hours by vehicle to get to civilization for groceries.

It is kind of easy to be complacent in the quiet at the lodge. This was especially true in those days. The activities in the summer mostly involved ‘maintenance’ in preparation for hunting season. We really hadn’t had much business in our very remote location in the summer. (The occasional construction crew, fisherman, etc. but that’s about it.)

So I was filled with questions for Matthew in that first meeting. What was this all about? You start and finish, where? What does ‘self-supported’ actually mean?

This was in the days of the GDR. The race started at the Roosville, MT border crossing. However, even then, Matthew was starting in Banff.

The nature of this type of race, the self-supported structure, the single-stage (a term I have since learned) and the pure hard-core nature of the thing made me love it instantly. It was amazing to me, how something so incredible could be happening, AND coming right past my front door!

My final memory of that first exposure to Divide Racing comes with a laugh. I was encouraging Matthew, on his way out, to take an orange.

He politely declined, and I gave him a stern face and said, ‘No, really, take the orange.’

Again he declined.

When I insisted a third time, he said, ‘I’ll eat it now…’ and (again politely) took the orange from me and began peeling it on his way out of the kitchen.

Seeing this, I figured he was still hungry, and tried to hand him another ‘one for the road’.

Finally, he shook his head and said, ‘no, thanks. It’s too heavy.’

Too heavy?! Really?! An orange?!

This was certainly a new brand of human to me! (And I know some freaky humans!)

In the ensuing years, I have seen the race change, the name change, the route change, and the field of competition grow exponentially…but I have to say, the surprising diversity of the Divide Racers abides–to my great satisfaction!

I have an interesting perspective, where I sit on the route. The position of our lodge is almost in the center of the course. It also sits roughly in the middle of 90 miles of ‘nothing’ -in terms of services for the racers. Over the years, this has come to mean that I essentially have the opportunity to meet each and every racer. While I have missed a few due to poorly timed

logistics, I have tried in the last 5 years to be ‘open’ whenever they are coming through.

And they are an interesting bunch. Firstly, most of the people who make it as far as the lodge will actually finish the race. My years of following the ‘blue’ dots, have taught me this much: Barring major catastrophe, the vast majority that I see will finish. This means that I get to meet some of the most finely tuned athletes I have ever been exposed to. However, they are usually stretched pretty thin by the time they arrive. So while I don’t know them for very long, I do feel like I get to know them while they are in a uniquely vulnerable place. The exposure is beautiful and telling.

Being in the middle of that 90-mile stretch between Rawlins, WY and Steamboat Springs, CO means that, depending on the time of day they arrive, most of the racers are ready to rest. They are ready for some food, and something cold to drink—a break. So I usually have some time with them: a chance to hear about their journey so far, to talk about the racers ahead of and behind them, time for them to check the internet for encouraging words from home. And they are inevitably, incredibly grateful.

This interaction is filled with the charge of the race, of course. When the people at the front arrive, they are almost always ‘all business’. The length of stop is directly associated with the amount of sleep they got the night before and the amount of maintenance they need to achieve in Steamboat, the time of day, and what kind of lead they are either maintaining or closing. They look at the leaderboard briefly, move through the motions of consuming as much food as possible, and head on up the road. Don’t get me wrong, they are always cheerful, and filled with gratitude. However, at the front it is most clearly a race.

As the event progresses, the later cyclists tend to relax out of ‘competing’ and concentrate on ‘finishing’. Their visits get longer; they tend to linger over desert or a load of laundry. In these more lengthy visits, the diversity of stories really becomes apparent.

There was Danny Hill, who decided to do the race because he had retired from his job as a Corrections Officer in Michigan. Or Deanna Adams, who did the entire route on a fixed gear bike, while also staying committed to her vegan diet, carrying a framed backpack. She didn’t say a whole lot, but you really had to give her credit!

Sometimes, there isn’t much communication when they first arrive. Sometimes it’s really hot out, and they have been riding up hill for 15 miles on the long gravel road, shade-less sage fields, that lead to our lodge. Racers who are having this kind of day are not all that capable of communication. They are overwhelmed and a little bewildered (perhaps because they didn’t know I was there waiting with food for them). Nonetheless, they come up the steps, gripping the handrail and asking, ‘Is this a dream?’ In these cases, the necessities are primary, get them some food, something cold to drink, and they will come back around.

A couple of years ago, Erik Lobeck, a ‘hometown’ favorite, from Steamboat, was giving Matthew a run for his money…pushing through some amazing challenges to find himself exchanging leads in the front of the pack, with Blaine Nestor as well. When he arrived on the porch, his eyes were glazed, his face sunburned, and he was limping up the stairs. He mumbled a few pleasantries, and then offered this analysis ‘I’ve had a headwind since Canada.’ He looked daunted…ready to drop…both physically and figuratively.

I had burgers on the grill for him as he arrived, and sat with him as he devoured them along with a giant plate of watermelon.

‘I don’t know, man.’ he said after a while. ‘I need a break from this wind, to be sure.’

But as he ate, his eyes became less glassed, his color began to look more human, and he started smiling as he spoke about the terrible luck he was having on this ride…his commitment to the thing was returning once again.

And while I might have worried, when I first saw him, that he was going to scratch in Steamboat, and head to his home with his lovely family and his comfortable bed, by the time he left, there was no doubt in my mind that he’d push through.

Mike Hall also comes to mind. When he arrived at the lodge, it was raining, and he had that look I mentioned, the one that has desperation only slightly clouded by determination.

He dismounted his bike with a wince, and limped toward the steps. As he clicked the metal of first step with the clamps on the bottom of his shoes, he looked up at me and asked, ‘Um, well, I was wondering, can I stay for two days?’

Of course!

His Achilles was ‘killing’ him, and as a result, his knee was compensating, and he looked like he’d like to cut the whole leg off.

He iced it, slept, and ate and slept and iced and ate intermittently over the first 12 hours he was there. The racers, who were just behind him as he arrived, came and went–and Mike stayed still.

He, too, seemed daunted. As he recovered, stories slowly came out…of how unwelcoming Rawlins had been, and how painful his injuries were, and how the long and tiring journey from Rawlins to the lodge was kind of his last shot. He was talking about resting-up at the lodge long enough to force his body over the giant pass between our place and Steamboat where he would scratch from the race. He talked of riding around the world in the coming year, and perhaps coming back to beat this route another day.

Experience has shown me that lots of people think of dropping out between Rawlins and the lodge. Maybe people think of dropping out all the way through, and it is just like every other day. But somehow, it seems like it is especially challenging for people right around the middle.

I have often found however, that once fed and refreshed, the light for the race returns to the eyes and the strategy of getting back out there returns to the mind, and they are off! So, when Mike mentioned scratching, I did not pay it too much credence. There was still time to return, I thought. Give him some time to recoup.

And his demeanor did improve with rest and proper food.

(Perhaps I should note here, the sheer volume of food that these racers can consume! It is simply amazing!

In the first years I fed the cyclists a little like I fed the hunters or the construction crew–a normal, hearty meal. But it is not enough!

Finally in the last couple of years, I have begun to assume double the amount of food per cyclist than I would cook for either the hunters or the construction workers.

I also assumed at first that as they are riding their bicycles down the continent, they must all be health nuts!

They most certainly are not!

Don’t get me wrong; there are a number of nuts in the bunch. But one more thing that makes my place in the race interesting, is that by the time they reach the half-way point, the people who were health nuts at the start are just calorie-fiends now. The body of a divide racer is flying through calories much faster than they can put them into the machine.

One racer told me several years ago that the ‘meal-time battle’ is to stuff as much food into the hungry belly as possible before it realizes that it’s full. And they do!

In addition, I have learned that the cyclists staying through the night are hungry every two hours—like clockwork. So a big dinner at seven means that there should be pizzas or something at around 9. And always a giant breakfast before they leave in the morning.)

And so while Mike was at the lodge, contemplating scratching, I just kept feeding him, and handing him the occasional fresh bag of ice. He found some stretches on the Internet and was working out the injuries–and he was improving. Nonetheless, by the time he pushed out of the driveway after two restful nights at the lodge, he was still unsure of whether or not he would make it to Steamboat, let alone all the way to Mexico. I had hope.

And in the end, I watched with a cheer at the computer screen, as his dot moved past Steamboat and kept moving South, where he not only closed the gap between himself and the racers that had passed him, but he also finished the race quite respectably in the top 10.

And there have been so many more.

I have fond memories of meeting Jill Homer late one night…when she almost passed me by. Of Paul Howard devouring watermelon and lamenting that Stephen Huddle hadn’t stopped to share it. (This happened much more often in the early years—sometimes racers didn’t know I was a business, and they would just push past if I wasn’t there yelling out the window for them to stop and eat!)

Stephen Huddle came back around, and I have seen him several times in years since. He is always in great spirits and joking…something admirable under those conditions.

Love Cricket Butler as well. She didn’t get to my place last year, but I have seen her pour her heart into this race for several years prior.

And of course there was Dave Blumenthal. Vivacious, and filled with life, he was loving his adventure. When he arrived at the lodge he announced, ‘I am doing much better at this thing than I thought I would be, I think I should be geo-cashing more and drinking more beer!’

And so many more–like Justin Voss, former police officer, injured on the job, and riding his bike down the continent (in the top 10 no less!) much to the amazement of his doctors and family, or Jay and Tracy Petervary as they made their mark on the route with a tandem ride.

And let’s not forget Patrick Tsai, the young man from Minnesota who boldly and gallantly carried the lantern rouge two years ago. When he came by the lodge, he told me he hadn’t seen any other racers for over 2 weeks! He said that he had quit calling his mom because she was worried about him and kept suggesting that he just come home! He was alone almost the entire ride! And still finished with grace. Inspiring.

It was also inspiring to watch Roland, Frank and the other northbound racers last year, pushing up the continent last year instead of down.

The northbound aspect brought it’s own special chaos to 2011. With the start-list numbers reaching over 100, there was a second start point in Antelope Wells, heading north.

I was a little surprised by the no-bo’s (as they were called), so accustomed was I to the race coming at me from Wyoming, sometimes I was surprised to come out of the kitchen and see extra people around the table!

That said there was something really exciting about watching the front-runners from each direction as they moved ever closer to the lodge.

In the days of construction of the transcontinental railroad, the completion of the line, where east met west, was commemorated with a golden spike, high on the top of a pass in Utah.

In the days of the Tour Divide, I was secretly hoping that Brush Mountain Lodge would host the meeting of the north and south bound racers. (The “golden spoke”!) I was really hoping. But truthfully, at the front of the race, there is not much else on the minds of the competitors but racing. So I had to leave it to fate. If they met up at the lodge, great…if not, it would surely be near-by.

Imagine my surprise as I watched Jefe Branham and Kurt Refsnider coming up the road on the computer, while at the same time, there was Paul Attalla pushing through the snow on his way in from the other side!

Kurt and Jefe made it first; they were riding with Dave Bruno who was doing a quite respectable ITT. Everyone was in great spirits. I cooked breakfast and made pot after pot of coffee. The sky was a little grey and they were trying to work out how bad the snow would be ahead of them, when along came Paul! I watched as his dot moved up the road, and announced that he was in the vicinity. When he arrived there were big ‘hellos’ all around. Paul took a seat at a table and began to quietly eat as much as he could. They talked about snow, and course corrections, and competition.

The racers all posed for pictures in the front yard and exchanged notes about the course. And before you could say ‘golden spoke’, they were gone.

I turned up the radio after they had left, checked the leaderboard, and went into the kitchen to wash the breakfast dishes.

In a little while, drying my hands in my apron, I would check the leaderboard again, and again later on, and again after that.

I love this race.

5 thoughts on “Face of a Trail Angel — Kirsten’s Tour Divide story

  1. June 19, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    This is so beautiful. Thanks for sharing your story, Kirsten, and thanks to Jill for posting it here.

  2. Lynne
    June 22, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Amazing life you have girl!

  3. stephen gleasner
    June 22, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Gave me chills on a hot day. i remember sitting in your lodge, downing cold cokes with Andy Bucanon in 08. Fine representative of the good part of humanity.

    Just that smile of yours Kirsten, better than any consumable.

    Hope. Enthusiasm. Wonder. Beautiful.


  4. June 23, 2013 at 8:51 am

    Love it! My son, Peter Haile, should be there around 6/26/2013! With him will be Ezra Mullen. At 20 years of age he’s probably the youngest in TDR 2013. Both were doing very well at Jackson Lake, WY last night.