Author Nathan Doneen was born and raised on a wheat farm and studied biology at a state university. But after graduation, he found himself dissatisfied by the direction in which his life was heading and embarked on an epic journey in search of answers. Setting off alone on his mountain bike from the south end of Banff, Alberta, Canada, Doneen battled fatigue, erratic weather and overwhelming solitude as he made his way south along the Great Divide, a 2,700-mile route ending at the Mexican border. The journey forced Doneen out of his comfort zone and caused a dramatic shift in his goals and perspective on life.
In September of 2014, Doneen published The Divide, an inspiring and revealing account of his physical, emotional and spiritual journey. With a keen eye for introspection, Doneen details the challenges he faced on the road and the strength, courage and perserverance necessary to overcome them.
To learn more about Doneen and his writing, visit www.nathandoneen.com.
In what ways did your childhood help to shape who you are today?
Most of my childhood was spent outdoors, playing and exploring. I still love the outdoors and have taken up hobbies such as mountain biking and rock climbing… sadly, I’ve given up playing soldiers and trying (and failing) to build tree houses. But I’m still an explorer, though it’s not always of physical spaces. I never get tired of exploring new ideas and perspectives, a trait which I think makes traveling so appealing to me.
I also grew up in the country, which meant playing with my two brothers or just by myself. I’m not sure if I was predisposed to a more introversive personality from birth or if the environment of my upbringing nudged me in that direction, but I am still more comfortable in smaller, more personable groups of people. And I’m also very comfortable being alone, which was a big factor in my deciding to ride the Great Divide route alone.
Who have been your biggest influences and inspirations over the course of your life?
This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. I tend to be more inspired by the big picture ideas and notions than the people that introduce them to me. But how about a short story?
In college, I worked at a rock climbing gym for my boss Kevin, a no-nonsense kind of guy—that is just the kind of personality you want to manage college kids dangling from ropes 30 feet off the ground. Once I was asking some very specific questions about the particulars of a task he had assigned to me. He turned away from the work he was doing, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “Nathan, I don’t care what you do as long as you do it for a reason.” Having given me the freedom to complete the task as I saw fit, he turned back to his desk and went back to work.
If you do something, do it for a reason—this bit of wisdom is something I’ve tried to live by ever since. Now, I may have taken that way out of context… I may have just taken a piece of work advice and applied it to life in general. However, I can easily imagine Kevin saying, “What’s the difference?”
Before embarking on your journey along the Great Divide, what were your expectations for the trip? And how did the reality of the journey differ from those expectations?
Before beginning my trip, I had very romantic notions. This wasn’t just a recreational endeavour, but a setting I chose for inner healing. I envisioned this wonderful experience of coming to peace, even of some kind of enlightenment. Instead, I found a lot of horrible weather that left me cold and wet (and hypothermic in one instance). There were long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of intense excitement, the source of which could be something as simple as finding a source of water. The trip was much different than I had expected. My expectations feel naive looking back, but I suppose I set out to learn something, and that is exactly what I did.
What type of bike did you ride on your trip?
After a lot of research, I chose to ride a 29er and ended up purchasing a Trek Mamba which I fitted with a rear rack and pannier system and aerobars. I custom made my own frame bag and handlebar bag as well.
If you were to do the Great Divide ride again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t worry as much about how much gear I brought. I sacrificed a lot in the way of comfort to make my load lighter. I wouldn’t worry so much about that in the future. And I would also go at a more enjoyable pace and not push myself so hard. I would make more of a tour of it, even going out of my way to see something fun or interesting, instead of constantly pushing myself and refusing to leave the route.
At what point did you make the decision to document your journey in the form of a book?
Going home after six weeks on the road was very surreal. The lifestyle was dramatically different and it took some time to adjust. During that adjustment period, people kept asking lots of questions about the trip, questions they didn’t have the frame of mind to understand the answers to.
For instance, I met with a group of very close friends the day after I arrived home. We went out for dinner, and I tried to explain my relationship with water on the trip. I had been collecting and filtering my own water for weeks—from streams, rivers, gas station bathrooms, wherever it was flowing. And the quantities of water I carried varied based on the environment. Crossing the desert, I had about 3.5 gallons at one time. I had to think about how much water I needed for the next 2, or possibly 3 days. The fact that I was explaining this at a table to which a random stranger brought us a pitcher of water was mind-blowing. I did absolutely nothing to locate and acquire that water. It took zero effort on my part, which was totally different. But to my friends it was still the norm.
So I decided to write the book to put people into my own frame of mind, to give them the perspective needed to really understand what the trip was for me.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing The Divide?
It was always my intention to put this book out into the world. With that goal, I was very concerned about the structure of the book. I had read several similar books prior to starting my own, and I wasn’t the biggest fan of just the plain narrative.
Again, I wanted to give my trip context, which is why there is quite a bit of backstory included, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this. After a lot of thought, I decided I would use something akin to flashbacks. I was weary of this choice—I had read a lot of beginner writers do this because they lack the skill to provide the same information in other, more creative ways.
Eventually, I solidified the decision when trying to create something similar to a traditional plot line. I had read a lot of material on plot structure, which included Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. I found this work fascinating, and I knew if people could sense that journey within my own story, than it would be more appealing.
Breaking up the background information and presenting it piece-by-piece as flashbacks actually made this work much better than if I had structured it otherwise.
I even had a reviewer comment on this, saying that she didn’t mind switching between the two story lines, something that typically “frustrated” her. But in this case, it worked well enough that she read the whole book in a single day. This was great validation of my structure choices.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
I recently finished a landmark piece of nonfiction called Autopoiesis and Cognition, a book consisting of two essays written by Maturana and Varela. Originally published in 1972, it was a work that changed, or defined really, how we think about systems, networks, and what it means to be conscious.
It is an incredibly dense read, and it took me several weeks to finish. But within it are some great ideas and concepts which I want to integrate into my next book.
What are you working on next?
In October of 2014, I travelled with two friends to Peru to participate in a charity race. The catch: we were racing Mototaxis (horrible, horrible pieces of machinery) across Peru to raise money for Cool Earth, a charity that preserves and supports the Amazonian Rainforest.
I’m working on another adventure travel book about this experience, but it will also examine mankind’s relationship to the planet and how we are affecting life on a global scale. I’m still in the storyboarding and research phase of writing, but I’m very excited to write this book because of my background in Biology and Environmental Science.