MANISTEE — People who know avid bicycling enthusiast Ken Blakey-Shell realize just how much he enjoys to hop on his bicycle and take a ride.
However, when Blakey-Shell says he is going for a ride, it carries a different connotation than the average person. When Blakey-Shell goes for a ride — he really goes for a ride.
This summer the Manistee Area Public Schools technology director was able to cross one of his “dream rides” off his list when he spent 29 days riding the nearly 3,000 mile continental divide route from New Mexico to Canada. It was a ride Blakey-Shell has has been reading about for quite some time.
“I have wanted to do this for a long time,” he said. “There is a group called Adventure Cycling and they do a variety of routes throughout the United States and Canada and basically North America in general. One of their rides goes right through Manistee and is called Route 35 and people will see signs for it.”
The seed for this particular ride was first planted in Blakey-Shell’s mind decades ago.
“It was 21 years ago that they first published news about a route called the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route,” said Blakey-Shell. “It basically follows the continental divide between the Mexican border (Antelope Wells, New Mexico) and (Banff, Alberta) Canada. I remember reading about it and thinking that would be such a cool thing to do and they even have a race called the Tour Divide on that route.”
Blakey-Shell said he has done many other bike packing routes over the years, but his mind kept coming back to this particular one. He finally determined the summer of 2019 was the time to make it happen.
“This was just kind of the magic summer to make it happen and I decided to do it by myself,” said Blakey-Shell. “I actually didn’t stop at Banff (Canada) as I went up to Jasper, which is another 150 to 200 miles past Banff. The whole time I was doing this everyone just raved about the Icefield Parkway that goes from Banff up to Jasper because it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful roads in the world.”
He said with all the times he heard about this part of the route it became an obsession with him to do those extra 150 to 200 miles.
“With all I kept hearing about the Icefield Parkway, I thought this is just too cool and I have to do it,” Blakey-Shell said. “I ended up in Jasper finally and spent the whole next day going to Calgary and from there I was able to fly back home.”
However, the first step of this excursion was to fly to El Paso where he hired someone to shuttle him to the Mexican border. Because the cost of taking a bicycle on an airline is so costly, Blakey-Shell opted instead to ship his drop bar mountain bike (mountain bike wheels, with drop bars like a road bike) out to the starting point and back home at the end by United Parcel Service (UPS).
“I shipped my bike out to near El Paso and then when I finished at Jasper a bike shop sent it back to me,” said Blakey-Shell. “I have done that a few other times like when I did the Colorado Trail and the Oregon Timber Trail, so that was something that I was pretty familiar with.”
Although he rode by himself while on the route he was far from being alone. The trail was filled with many other biking enthusiasts.
“There is a lot of people that do this route and I ran into about 10 people a day who were riding it,” said Blakey-Shell. “There is a race on this route and even though it didn’t fit into my time on the route, I ran into many of them. So there were a lot of kindred spirits out there. Most of the time you don’t have any cell phone reception out in the middle of nowhere, but I did carry a spot tracker, so family and friends could follow my progress.”
Blakey-Shell knew he had 29 days of riding to complete the nearly 3,000 mile course meaning he had to cover 105 to 110 miles per day.
“The route is mostly gravel roads, which can vary from well maintained county gravel roads to a two-track in the middle of nowhere,” he laughed. “I always just kind of winged it. Some days I went more miles and other days where it was super rugged I went less miles.”
What also helped was careful planning weeks before he peddled the first mile. The location of the areas where he could replenish his supplies all figured into the process of how far he would ride on a particular day.
“Most of the time I just camped, but there were other times where I found lodging,” he said. “A lot of times it all came down to how it kind of shaked out in terms of where I was.”
The weather he encountered over the 29 day period “spanned the gauntlet.”
“When I flew out there on the first day that I started in New Mexico it was 116 degrees,” he said. “I actually started at 3 a.m. to try and beat that heat. The other extreme — I ended up getting snowed and hailed on up in Canada and there were plenty of nights that dropped below freezing because I was sleeping 10,000 feet above sea level. There also was a spot I went through at 12,000 feet where I had to go through a bunch of snow.”
Dressing properly wasn’t a problem for him.
“I always have some stuff in reserve like a down jacket, but really I had very minimal clothing and would just keep moving to stay warm,” he said. “If it started raining I would throw on the rain jacket, but in general it was just a matter of keeping moving to stay warm.”
The only real setback on the trip was a flat tire at one point in a very exposed area, but overall everything went well.
Blakey-Shell said there were many intriguing things along the route. The vistas to the many interesting people were things that stuck out in his mind. He said there is the urge to go back and do a slow ride of the trail, but he would also like to do the race as well.
“I met tons of interesting people along the route and surprisingly about 80 percent of the riders were from Europe,” he said. “It was a combination of people who were racing it to those who have three or four months off work, or just slow rolling it and taking in the sights. However, everyone had a great story to tell. People are super nice and it kind of restores my faith in humanity. People are always interested in what you are doing. All the cool human interactions are what I take the most from it.”
When questioned about the next challenge, Blakey-Shell laughed.
“I kind of crossed the United States up and down, so now I want to cross it horizontally,” he said. “There is a motorcycle route called the Trans America Trail and it is predominantly off pavement. It starts in North Carolina and goes to the Oregon coast about 5,500 miles. It is going to be a trip of six weeks to two months doing kind of what I did this time. I don’t know when that is going to happen, but I will do it some time.”
He said because of time restrictions with his job it might be necessary to break it up into two segments at different times.
But overall, he said the trip was incredibly pleasing and something he was happy to do.
However, if anyone gets asked by Blakey-Shell “if they want to go for ride” the best thing to do is plan to be out there for a while. But the odds are good that at the end of the ride they will not regret one second of it.
“The toughest part of this for most people is just getting out the door and going to do it,” said Blakey-Shell. “It is something that is very approachable to most people and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has an inkling of wanting to do something like this.”