[Note: Quotes are from interviews conducted post-ride. Individual conversations have been condensed and reordered for storytelling purposes.]
The boys take off, late afternoon, in the land of the godforsaken. Badwater Basin.
ERIC: There's no other ride that incorporates so many different feelings, because there's so many different zones - desert basin to a high-altitude peak.
BRIAN: The distance, when you're totally off the leash, is so surreal.
JONATHAN: There is a lot of time to feel a lot of different things.
BRIAN: How do we do the ride? That's the bottom line. Making it beautiful is secondary to making it real.
They ride through a valley of death, out and over a long, dusty road.
BRIAN: When we were on the washboard sandy area it was very real to us how far we were from any type of help. We only saw one car on a seventy-five mile stretch that we were on for nine hours.
ERIC: That road is terrible; it's tough to pick a line. And these guys, they were feeling it pretty good.
BRIAN: Mentally, you're just like, "Damn, I just have to get through this."
ERIC: It's pure suffering. You're shelled. You're constantly expending energy.
BRIAN: Most of the time, there was active denial. If I allowed my mind to figure out something to do in that case, then I'd probably accept it. If you don't see anything other than making it, you just keep going.
The mountains appear as daylight fades. They enter into the shadows. The cool of night; moonlight.
JONATHAN: In the afternoon we hit a wall of shadows behind the mountain. That was huge for me, because I knew there was finally some relief from being in the burn of the sunlight.
ERIC: We all had our lights off and we all rode together. There was a blue hue in the sky. The moon was bouncing off white sand gravel. It was pretty special. We rode the entire time with no lights.
BRIAN: It was such a unique physical experience, cruising through cool desert night air; shapes around you; enough moonlight to throw our shadows. That was amazing.
BRIAN: Because we were going to 14,000 feet, we were thinking, "At 7,000 feet, it won't be that bad." But actually, it was twenty-nine degrees.
ERIC: The weather smacks you around and teaches you who's boss. You get humbled a bit by the weather. You just have to learn from it.
JONATHAN: It was freezing cold but we kept going through these warm pockets of air.
ERIC: We would check in with each other; it's always good to hear someone talking to make sure they're doing good, they're staying awake.
JONATHAN: I've dozed off while driving a car, but I've never been so fatigued that I've fallen asleep on a bike. You're just staring down the road and getting tripped out by the moving lines. It's hard to keep your eyes open. We were descending and there was no engagement; it was just, "Hold onto the handlebars and turn the bike through the twisty stuff." At one point, I realized I closed my eyes for more than five seconds. I think I was swerving pretty far across the road.
BRIAN: It's very vivid. Our memories of nighttime, especially.
JONATHAN: We stopped at the bottom. That was about 2:00 a.m.? 3:00 a.m.? Something like that. We set a timer for an hour. We all slept on the gravel, under the space blankets. After that we were in a much better place.
ERIC: Three grown men huddling like little piglets.
BRIAN: We had hit the wall and needed sleep. We got a decent amount of sleep. And we felt a lot sharper after that and more capable. Pedaling again, I was much stronger than I had been at that end of the last climb. That only lasted so long, but it lasted long enough to get us past.
They ride on, dreaming of a rising sun. They ride up, up, up.
ERIC: That climb is difficult. There are so many grade changes. It's hard to get into a rhythm.
JONATHAN: Once you start sowing seeds of doubt or pointing out certain things about the situation that are facts - like the details of whatever difficulty we were facing - you enter into unwise territory, because we were hanging on by a thread.
ERIC: You're stripped of everything to your core. And the simplest things - warmth, food, shelter - those essentials mean so much more.
Then, from the dark of night comes the light of day.
ERIC: There was a banger of a sunrise. Pretty powerful. It was good for the head. You've just come from the evening. You feel like an animal of the night. And then the sun rises and you're like, "Okay, vampire season is over." It's wild, man. The sun comes over a set of mountains and you get a renewed effort. It's a new beginning.
JONATHAN: Once, when we saw the gate [near the summit], I cried a little. Like, "Oh my god, I'm so happy to use the bathroom, to drink some Coke, to sit down for a few seconds and then just have that final six-mile push up to the peak."
The mountaintop reveals itself in the distance. Bald rock. Burnt black. The destination. The summit.
ERIC: Those are like no miles you've ever seen.
BRIAN: You are very aware of how far you have to go. And how slow you're going. At that point, after 160 miles, I was walking most of the uphills. You're up over 10,000 feet and your legs are done and the going is quite slow.
ERIC: Everything was super rough, super rocky. It was slow going. Temperature was good. It was clear. Probably forty-five degrees. Just warm enough.
JONATHAN: I think maybe we were facing a bit of sleep deprivation. Because we would stop and I would find myself closing my eyes and almost forgetting I was on the ride. I was going someplace else entirely.
BRIAN: We were pushing our bikes up the peak. It was just walking. And I was actually falling asleep on my feet as we were walking. I needed to stop and close my eyes for a minute, but I didn't want to fall asleep for an hour - until my body got cold enough to wake up; I wasn't even sure if I would wake up. So I tapped Jonathan and was like, "I just need you to sit with me while I close my eyes, because I don't want to not make it. Or fall asleep for too long. But I can't keep walking right now." I don't know how long we were there for, but he finally tapped me and was like, "We should keep going," and we did. I had never been in that position before. I had never had that while being physically active. It's so weird to be mechanically putting one foot in front of the other but also falling asleep.
ERIC: Then you get your first real glimpse of White, and it looks so far away. You're just like, "Oh. Damn." But you can see it and it looks out of this world.
BRIAN: The top is in sight, but the effort to get there is still unreal. You're thinking, "How is it so hard to go that distance?"
JONATHAN: One pedal stroke at a time. One footstep at a time. Eventually enough time will pass that this day will be over. That was the physical threshold that we were trying to push into. Or push through.
BRIAN: I wanted to take it in as much as possible, while also needing to just get off my bike and sleep.
ERIC: It's definitely a day like no other.
A sunset on the mountaintop. The end of the journey.
BRIAN: There was a sunset-type light for 360 degrees. Everywhere was pink in the clouds. From the east side of White Mountain there were sun rays filtering through the clouds from below. I didn't know what was happening. It was so alien. I thought we were on an off-planet moon with two suns. It actually seemed like sunrise and sunset were happening at the same time.
JONATHAN: It was eye opening seeing how many times you go through psychological highs and lows. Your brain is telling you that you can't do it anymore and you have to quit. And your body is like, "No, it's fine." Then your body says, "You have to quit." And your brain is convincing you that it's time to keep going. That's something I've come to expect on hard rides. Your brain is constantly sending you these messed-up messages, telling you to stop doing what you're doing. And you get these bouts of self doubt and fear and you're like, "I should quit. This isn't happening. This isn't good for me."
BRIAN: It was a tough one. I had a few cries along the way.
ERIC: When you come down from a thing like that, you don't realize how shelled you are.
BRIAN: When you're exposed to the elements and using your own body to transport yourself; the way that the light and landscape changes, it extends everything. As a personal experience out there, it was very beautiful.