BUTTE — Count Butte's John “Bear” Stillwagon and his brother, Nate Stillwagon, among what the renowned American author and environmentalist Edward Abbey called the "venturesome minority," a small slice of the national populace who "will always be eager to set off on their own."
"(L)et them take risks, for Godsake," Abbey urged in a 1968 essay, "let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches — that is the right and privilege of any free American."
Proof that the Stillwagons belong to this risk-taking minority can be found in the fact that the two Mining City natives set off Friday morning from Banff, Alberta, on a 2,745 mile mountain biking trek from Canada to the U.S.-Mexico border known as the Tour Divide.
It will be the first time the two brothers will participate in the annual, self-supported race, but they won't be alone. About 200 others will compete against them in what's billed as the world’s longest off-pavement cycling route.
“Everybody thinks we’re crazy,” Nate recently said, chuckling. “But now our dad’s talking about how it seems kind of fun. So I guess other people are getting a little crazy, too.”
On Wednesday morning, Nate and Bear made final preparations for the long race before their parents drove them from Butte up to the Canada start line.
From the Alberta start to the New Mexico finish just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the Stillwagon brothers will bike through two Canadian provinces and five U.S. states, crisscross the Continental Divide numerous times via the dirt roads of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and put in well over a dozen hours of cycling each day before camping each night.
There is no entry fee and no real help along the way.
Competitors must support themselves and climb nearly 200,000 feet of vertical elevation during the weeks-long race or ride.
That's equivalent of summiting Mount Everest from sea level seven times, according to the Tour Divide website.
“People may think we’re crazy, but to me, it’s going to be so awesome,” Bear said. “Most people can’t take three weeks off to ride their bike every day. … I can’t even put into words what this opportunity means.”
At first, Bear saw the Tour Divide race as a way to train for the Mining City’s annual Butte 100 Mountain Bike Race. Bear placed second last year in the pro-division after leading the 100-mile race up until about mile 94, where he said he tired and was passed.
Two days later, he and Nate, who competed in the Butte 50-mile race, went on a six-day backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. There, Bear brought up the idea of taking on the Tour Divide the following summer.
He claims Nate thought it was a dumb idea at first.
“After two days, it sunk in,” Bear said. “I thought I’d do the Tour Divide to help me train to win the Butte 100 but have realized it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s more than just training.”
Both Bear and Nate consider themselves rookie mountain bikers but also fierce competitors, and they aim to push their bodies and minds to their limits during the cross-country race.
The brothers have trained separately for the tour, as Bear lives in Butte and Nate in Boise, Idaho.
They plan to race separately, too.
“We’re super competitive. We call each other up and compare times,” Bear said of his younger brother, smiling. “But we’ve also got each other’s backs. ... I’d love to see him beat me.”
While the brothers have physically prepared for the Tour Divide, they both acknowledged that the mental aspect of the weeks-long race will be challenging.
Bear said he never listens to music when he races, but has read a lot of books and tried to internalize where he will be mentally during the unruly bikepacking trek.
Nate said he’s bringing audio books, music and podcasts on his phone to help him power through any mental obstacles.
“It’s going to be a lot of suffering along the way. … Not a lot of people push themselves to their limit anymore,” Nate said. “Anyone can do it (the Tour Divide). … It seems impossible, but you just have to throw yourself in and ride.”
Nate and Bear aren’t the only mountain bikers in their family. They have cousins, aunts and uncles who are passionate about the sport, too.
A large group of their extended family competed in a 24-hour race in the Spokane area recently, and some of their relatives have competed in Butte mountain biking races with them in recent years.
Bear said he’s proud to say his blood relatives are active in the sport that has quickly become a major part of his life. But he’s also proud to be a part of the mountain biking family in Butte, which he sees as a premiere biking community.
“I’m so lucky to be in Butte," he said. "It’s a great bike town."
Bear recently helped spearhead the local Copper Sprockets youth mountain biking team. And he said that when he and Nate pass through Butte during the Tour Divide, a group of his teen athletes plans to ride a portion of the route with him.
He hopes to ride through the Mining City sometime next week but acknowledged it's impossible to know what's going to happen after he starts racing Friday morning.
“I feel like I’ve got the whole city of Butte riding with me,” Bear said of the Tour Divide. “This town has supported me so much.”