false summits

A short man with a furrowed brow emerged from an old rickety wooden building. We were nearly 20 miles from the nearest town, out of water, and I was beginning to see stars dance across my plane of vision. The building was surrounded by a fence with a big “no trespassing” sign, and around the house itself were scattered “stay the fuck out” posters in case anyone was unsure about the message of the first few signs. As he approached we quickly explained our predicament. He looked us up and down, and kindly offered up his spigot around the back of the building. I saw the flash of an idea emerge as a grin spread across his face. Here it comes, I thought. What will it be this time?

“This is gonna sound cocky, but I could spray you gals down with my hose” The man looked at us expectantly. He waited awkwardly to be rewarded for his seemingly clever joke, and was met with silence. I sighed. Matt frowned, and Liv whispered “gross” under her breath behind me. I filed his comments somewhere in my brain with the various others that we had encountered, and that I wasn’t sure how to deal with. This had become a frequent occurrence for our all-female student group. Belittling questions like, “who changes your tires?” or decorative posters titled, “12 Reasons Why a Handgun is Better Than a Woman” can be discouraging. It’s a challenge to celebrate our accomplishments after battling 25 mile per hour headwinds, or reaching the end of the arduous and seemingly endless false summits while also trying to digest how others respond to the choice we all made to embark on this journey. Number 8. A handgun doesn’t fall asleep after you’re done using it, and Number 3. A handgun functions normally every day of the month, are, unfortunately, seared into my brain.

Cycle the Rockies is a course during which we get to bike with all of our gear over 700 miles across the massive state of Montana. We have the privilege of speaking with farmers, ranchers, coal miners, wind workers, journalists, etc. as we earn college credit for studying climate change and Montana’s energy systems. Using nothing but our mental and physical strength to transport ourselves has demanded patience, tenacity, and teamwork. Each day we soak in the rewards of our efforts through the surrounding views that continuously evolve from eastern Montana’s golden wide open spaces to the rolling hills and towering Rocky Mountain Front. For some reason, only women signed up to take on the challenges of the Cycle the Rockies course this year.

A false summit is a peak that appears to be the pinnacle of a mountain but upon arrival it becomes apparent that the real summit remains higher. It feels like the landscape is betraying me, like it’s mocking me while demanding the exertion of more effort, time, sweat, and the occasional tear. We always make it though. One pedal at a time. I listen to my breath and the rubber tires gripping the hot pavement. I feel my heartbeat and blink away the salty sweat that drips into my eyes. Soon the incline relaxes, but my relief quickly dissipates as I look up to see the invitation for another taller mountain to tackle that had been just out of sight. This is what “no trespassing” man’s degrading comment feels like. Just when I thought I’d catch a break, or receive encouragement, or the reward of a nice downhill glide after a long strenuous uphill climb, we’re instead hit with comments on the tightness of our shammies, and encouraged to “lighten up” or “smile” when we fail to laugh at degrading jokes that are at our expense. So the climb continues, the work continues, the disappointment continues. But the strength and grace of the women with me on this course doesn’t just continue. It expands, and it’s contagious.

We bend around a long curve in the road and just ahead of us the pavement juts up from the flat land like a skyscraper. I hear groans behind me. 40 miles in and we’re at the mercy of 90 degree heat. Our exhaustion leaves us beyond the capacity to complain. We approach the final hill before Townsend, MT in a single file line. As the incline steepens, I put my head down and look only at the tires in front of me. My quads ache as I hear the sound of nine other bikes shifting into lower gears. I sneak a peek at how far away it is until the steepness subsides, which was a disheartening sight. Instead I look at the women in front of me. Their calves are flexing with each pedal and their backs are glistening with sweat in the radiating heat. Progress is slow and gradual. I pick my head up any time I feel discouraged and stare at the persistent push of the cyclists in front of me. They press on, therefore so do I. We reach the top and catch our breaths, congratulating each other. I watch the final cyclists behind me huff their way over the summit and towards our hoots and hollers. Our smiles reveal our relief, exhaustion, and pride in what we’ve just accomplished.

The willingness to go in blind to an unknown experience called for an extensive amount of courage from the students who signed up for this course. As this trip comes to an end, I feel endless amounts of gratitude and admiration towards my fellow classmates and instructors. We all had similar responses to the patronizing commentary, and we all encouraged each other into being courageous and staying motivated as we faced the cat calls and condescending comments with our chins up. Navigating a landscape in which I haven’t always felt welcomed or acknowledged has felt more like a learning experience rather than a personal offense because of the people accompanying me along the way in this course. They have helped emphasize the importance of a curious approach to the longstanding power structure in our society that is so deeply ingrained. But have also prioritized recognizing the negative implications of such a structure and the importance in honesty while addressing them. It has been a fine balance between self-respect and empathy for others. There are more hills to climb, and more mountain passes to cross in Montana’s male dominated landscape. There will be more false summits. And I will continue to look towards the inspiring women who surround me for the motivation to sustain forward movement.