Wednesday, March 21, 2012

WORK/LIFE BALANCE: Riding with the Gnarly Old Broads

A group of local women let their hair down along the Great Divide

Express Staff Writer

In 1998 the Gnarlys set out from Canada for the first leg of a Great Divide adventure. Left to right Sharon Steiner, Carol Knight, Peggy Dean and Sue Petersen.
Courtesy photo

In the seminal television series "Sex and the City," cultural icon Carrie Bradshaw and her bevy of best friends let their hair down after a hard days work by sipping cosmos in New York's hottest bars while discussing men, men and more men.

For the typical Wood River Valley woman, a girls night out might include the aforementioned cocktail, but chances are that it will come out of a thermos, be served in a plastic cup and be sipped while the women survey the spectacular view from a mountaintop and discuss men, men and more men.

A group of valley women have taken this Idaho sensibility a step further. Their girls nights out became a 3,000-mile mountain bike odyssey across the continental United States. Oh, and they're a few years older than Ms. Bradshaw and her babes. The Gnarly Old Broads, as they call themselves, range from 54 to 77 years old.

Born on the Burr Trail in Southern Utah, the Gnarly Old Broads celebrate their 18th year in 2012. Composed of different groups drawn from an always constant circle of friends, the Gnarlys' idea of good old-fashioned girl time is mountain biking past forest fires, dodging grizzly bears and circling the wilderness on hair-raising tracks, all in preparation for a well-deserved cocktail hour by the campfire.

The original Gnarlys are Sharon Steiner, Carol Knight, Sue Petersen and Peggy Dean. More recent inductees include Penny Harper, Becky Stokes, Jude Hawkes, Linda Parsons and Lili Simpson. Their common mission is to get away from it all with an arduous mountain biking/camping trip once a year, and for eight of the last 18 they tackled the Great Divide.

"The Gnarlys came to be following that first trip on the Burr Trail in Utah," said founding member Steiner, a Ketchum resident and part-time personal assistant. "There was a wilderness advocacy group around back then called the Great Old Broads for Wilderness. We thought the name was pretty cool—we'd probably had a few glasses of wine—and came up with Gnarly Old Broads."

The group has tackled numerous challenging mountain bike trips, including Copper Canyon in Mexico; Pinyon Peak near Stanley, Copper Basin, Dollarhide Summit and Magruder Corridor, all in Idaho; and the White Rim Trail in Utah. But the one that they're most proud of is the Great Divide trail.

It was 1998. Steiner had read in Adventure Cyclist magazine that a trail had just been mapped out that took in the Continental Divide from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada.

"She suggested we should start doing it in segments," said founding Gnarly Carol Knight, owner of The Toy Store in Ketchum and Sun Valley. "So we took a Suburban, packed in all our camping gear and took turns driving and riding. We'd do 300 to 400 miles a trip, and would pick up the next year where we left off the last."

Squeezing up to five women, their tents, sleeping bags, bicycles, coolers, extra tires and other essential "supplies" ("We had to have cocktail hour," Knight said firmly) into one little car, the ladies started the Great Divide trail at Roosville, Canada, and ended at Antelope Wells, N.M. The route consistently stays within 50 miles of the Continental Divide the whole way.

"It's all on backcountry Forest Service roads, a little bit of trails and a little bit of pavement, but mostly just really bad Forest Service roads," Steiner said.

Lili Simpson and Carol Knight pack up the Suburban in Colorado. The Gnarlys got this procedure down to an art form, and they made sure there was always room for the wine.
Courtesy photo

Completing the trip took the Gnarlys eight years (between 1998 and 2008) and through five states (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico).

"Some years there would be only three of us, others there were five or six," Steiner said.

According to Knight, the trips were the ultimate way to let their hair down and enjoy life with the girls.

"We all love the outdoors, we all love camping, we all love drinking. ..."

"Don't put that in!" Steiner interjected.

"... and we all love gossiping," Knight continued.

What more could you want?

"Over the years we have developed quite the friendships," Steiner said. "When you go out and camp and get in difficult situations, you work out problems, it's a pretty cool thing."

The intrepid bikers faced thunderstorms, braved scorching heat, battled fierce headwinds and at one point even cycled through a forest fire.

"As we went through Montana there was a huge fire near Helena," Steiner said.

"We were smoked out," Kinght said. "It was awful."

"That year a little black bear cub came into our camp. We figured out that mom would be shortly behind and made Sue [Petersen] move camp," Steiner said. "She was very angry that we moved camp on her. And then, where we ended up camping, these just terrible people came and camped right next to us. It was right during this fire and they built this huge bonfire, and they had guns and one of those great big dually trucks. They were just swearing and loud and we were scared to death that they were going to get terribly drunk and murder us in the night. So we made Sue move again that same night. We were totally freaked out."

The Gnarlys' achievement is not a small one. On one stretch they ran into the people who mapped the original Great Divide route for Adventure Cyclist magazine.

"They wrote a story about meeting us in the magazine," Steiner said.

"We invited him [to our camp] for a cocktail," Knight said. "He was quite amazed because most people who do the Great Divide do it solo or as two people, or six or seven riders with a guide, and they carry their own gear. But there we were doing the Great Divide with a Suburban and all the comforts of home, cooking really great dinners every night."

"Most of those doing it are seriously macho athlete guys," Steiner said.

Some of the passes along the route top out at 12,000 feet. "So all these old ladies doing it was kind of a different angle!"

While they may all be a decade or two (or three) older than the average Great Divide biker, the Gnarly Old Broads clearly don't let a little thing like 12,000-foot-high rides or gun-toting campers get between them and their cosmos.

The Gnarlys arrive at the Mexican border in 2007, completing their Great Divide challenge. From left to right, Sharon Steiner, Lili Simpson, Carol Knight, friendly farmer, Sue Petersen and Penny Harper.
Courtesy photo

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