The world knows him as The Real Hiking Viking (TRHV), but Thomas Gathman is more than trekking poles and trail shoes these days. The 39 year old Marine Corp veteran with an impressive 25,000+ mile hiking carrier under his metaphorical belt got bit by the bikepacking bug – and he’s not easing into it.
Gathman was stopped in his tracks early this season on a Continental Divide Trail (CDT) northbound thru-hike attempt. After a quick reassessment, he swapped his trail shoes for cycling shoes and made the decision to attempt the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route – a 3,087.5 mile off-pavement route between southern Canada and the U.S./Mexico border.
I sat down with him – among the mayflies and floating cottonwood flowers – as he took a rest day on his journey from Antelope Wells, NM (US) to the Canadian border to learn more about this new chapter – and gain a little insight into the ultralight hiker-gone-bikepacker way of life.
EO: I guess the ultimate question is why are you doing it? After thousands of miles on foot, why are you joining the world of cyclists?
TRHV: I’m bored [laughter]…
I mean, most of my adventures have been because a.) I thought some stupid idea up and then once it’s in my brain, I’ve gotta go do it because a I can. And b.) If I don’t do it, then I’ll just have it in there forever.
I always go back to this: On Thanksgiving in 2015, I was at home. I just had a 4-or-5,000 mile hiking year. And I was like, ‘I can’t stay inside all winter...I don’t even know what I’m going to do’. And I just thought of this idea of going hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) southbound in winter…and within 10 days, I was doing it and I had never done any winter backpacking or any winter camping.
This is very similar to that in the sense that I’ve never done any bikepacking. I’ve never spent any time doing bike maintenance, fixing a bike, or changing flat tires; I have no concept of how to keep a bike going all day long every day, you know? Luckily I got a bike over here, a Priority 600 X, that allows me to do that very easily.
EO: We hear you have a counterpart in the cycling world that may have been part of the inspiration for this new chapter. Can you share more about how this whole bikepacking thing started for you?
TRHV: Basically the inception began when I met Ryan Van Duzer last summer when I was crewing Scott Jurek on his southbound Appalachian record attempt – his second attempt, [because] his first attempt, he actually broke the record. Duzer came out to pace Scott and I picked him up [and] we hit it off immediately; just like two very similar personality people. It’s almost like I am to hiking what he is to biking in some senses; personality wise and the joy of it and just relentlessly getting after it.
So, he told me about his bike, about a bikepacking the Divide, about bikepacking the Baja Divide. And, you know, I’m 39 years old and I’ve just done a number on my body for the last 39 years. From being a four sport athlete in high school, an infantryman in the Marine Corps, a scout sniper in the Marine Corps and then backpacking 25,000 miles for the last nine years…my body just isn’t what it was five years ago. I still want to hike, I still want to backpack, but bikepacking, on average, is probably a lot easier on the body than hiking and backpacking – it’s less impactful, physically speaking.
EO: Why the Divide Route for your first bikepacking experience?
TRHV: I wanted to hike the CDT this year and then bike the Continental Divide this year. I wanted to go up and down the spine of our country. And I originally thought that I would start with hiking – and I did. I made it to Grants, New Mexico, until the unprecedented forest fires in New Mexico led the U.S. Forest Service to shutdown all the national forests that were in front of me in New Mexico, which essentially shut down 250 miles of trail of the Continental Divide. I was like, I had done the CDT before (2014), so this is returning to a trail I’d already done – which I loved and was my favorite trail to date – but I didn’t feel the need [to continue the hike] once the national forest shutdown.
So, in my brain, I was like ‘Why don’t you just go get your bike, man?!’.
The beauty of the life that I live is that I don’t have to adhere to any plan other than the one that I make, which can change at any point in time. I have nothing forcing me to adhere to any rules of how to do things. And so I was like, ‘screw it‘.
EO: We know you got into this pretty spontaneously, but did you prepare at all for ride?
TRHV: I’ve done zero research on this thing – and I mean zero. By the way, I just learned that there is an Adventure Cycling Association last week – that’s a thing! I didn’t know they made maps for this route – they do. I put this bike together literally the week after I got back from the CDT and slapped all this gear on there – and I’ve only ridden this bike three or four times.
The first ride I ever took on this bike, I must have not installed the factory and pedals properly, because I broke a pedal – it fell off and broke. The second ride, I broke the rear wheel hub doing a singletrack, hill repeats incline training ride. The third ride, I thought I broke my tailbone. So, I didn’t really ride it again. Listen, I’m just the person that breaks shit.
EO: What’s been the biggest surprise in the 700+ miles you’ve pedaled so far?
TRHV: Biggest surprise, you ask? How much I’m already looking to optimize my setup. I mean, I knew I’d be optimizing my setup at some point; this was a starting point. I’ve already done plenty of optimizing with backpacking. Like, do I want to go heavy? Do I want to go light? Do I want go ultra light…ridiculously ultra light? I’ve ebbed and flowed on what my pack weight has been over the years and ebb and flow on how I want to carry for comfort and luxury versus what I want to skimp on.
I just got into Colorado and even during the first week I was like, ‘All right, I gotta ditch these panniers’. It’s not like they’re that big or heavy. They’re not bad, but I like to go fast and I want to go light and I want to do big days.
EO: Speaking of big days, what’s the longest mileage day you’ve had so far?
Almost every single day that I’ve been out here has been the biggest day I’ve ever had on a bike. And I want to have even bigger days. [Longest day has been] 123.6. [miles] and over 6,000 vertical gain, at least according to Strava.
EO: Is there a section of the route you’re really looking forward to?
TRHV: I think just the experience of moving at a different speed without being in a car. Still human-powered, but on a different mode of transportation. Hiking 123 miles would take me four to six days and I did it in a day on the road. So it’s just a totally unique experience of moving across a map, our country, at a totally different pace. I’ve done border to border in this country many times on foot and it takes months and a lot of physical anguish at times [laughter]…This has not been the case on a bike.
So I think I’m just looking forward to becoming more one with the bike. I’ve only been out here 13 days (12 days of riding) and that’s not a full trip yet for me.
EO: What will you do once you hit the Canada border?
TRHV: I’m not even sure I’ll be done once I get to the border of Canada. I might turn back and find a different route back to Mexico. I might ditch my bike for a backpack and hike back south…but right now, I don’t know. We’ll see.
EO: You’re not a one-and-done, check the box, trail guy. What keeps bringing you back to the Divide?
TRHV: The Divide is just amazing. Up and down, the whole thing, it’s just amazing… It’s just such a wild place: weather wise, terrain, wildlife, like every, every way you can think about a place being wild, at least in terms of our Continental US, the Divide is that.
I’m a totally different person than I was 8 years ago [first time hiking the CDT]. I didn’t even believe in the concept of going ultralight when I hiked it and the CDT was the first time I had ever been in big mountains. And it’s not like you’ll have the same experience. It’s not like ‘been there, done that’. We go to the same places we love many times. Why do you have a home? Why is your bedroom the same every night? Maybe the Continental Divide feels like home. Maybe the places we see in the wilderness are more home than some of the places we have actually lived. I don’t subscribe to the idea that ‘oh, you’ve already hiked the AT’… I’ll hike the AT again! And if I don’t finish the CDT this year, I will, at some point, hike it again, I promise you. I’m habitual…I’m a repeat offender. And I’m all or nothing.
EO: What keeps you going back to the trail?
TRHV: It’s good for your health. It’s good on so many levels: mental health, appreciation of the world [and] planting a seed. I’m the crazy uncle to 9 nieces and nephews and I think it’s nice to have someone in their lives that is living this other existence. I think it’s important to have examples of people going and having crazy experiences like that, that are non-traditional that can shape you and have a broader spectrum of what life has to offer.
EO: What’s your perspective on why people need experiences like this?
TRHV: You need to be physically in them [wild places] [to have a] powerful, meaningful experience you will never get just by reading a book, [by] hearing somebody tell you of their tale, by seeing a picture, seeing a video. Sure, they can all be impactful, but not half or nearly as impactful as actually going and doing these things yourself [and] getting away from your TV, getting away from your house, getting away from your job, getting away from your wife and kids, your significant others and going away and having an individual, personal experience with the physical world, in wilderness, away from a cell phone connection.
You can start to expand your actual known existence and your own realm of understanding of the natural world if you actually go to these places – and keep going to them and not just have it be a one-and-done. It begs for more if you allow it to…you have to allow it to.
I haven’t turned back. Nine years ago, I hiked the AT and it was the most eye-opening experience and it didn’t end there and it’s certainly not going to end here.
EO: What can you share with readers about the challenges along the journey overcoming them and what this lifestyle has shown you?
It’s never been all roses. I’ve certainly had to battle often. In fact, I choose challenges that require it because the most rewarding experiences I’ve had have been the ones where I’ve persevered through significant challenges and obstacles. This isn’t all about just having the best day, all day, every day. It’s not what this lifestyle has even remotely come close to being. You can’t possibly have the absolute most appreciation for things if every single day is the best..if you don’t have days that are just so shitty, you want to quit and cash it in for the easy route.
Studies and tons of polls have said by and large, 9 out of 10 times people on the deathbed say, ‘I wish I had done this, this, this, and this’. It’s like they have regrets for what they didn’t do. And I still might have regrets for what I didn’t do, but that’s just because I just want to do everything!
The more experiences I have, the more and more they become serendipitous; where I always feel like I’m in the right place at the right time, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s just continuous little messages and little signs that are telling me that I’m on the right path – and I never saw those before I got into this adventuring lifestyle.
Cover image by Thomas Gathman, The Real Hiking Viking