/ The Route / FAQs
/ Stupid signs / Aphorisms
/ Packing list / Links
<-- previous state / next state -->
(May 26 - June 4)
On Memorial Day in Walden, Colorado (elevation about 8,200), we awoke to winter storm warnings "for altitudes above 8,000 feet". It was small comfort that during the day we'd be descending to below 7,000 feet -- freezing rain would certainly be worse than snow. Neither Rob nor I had packed with this kind of weather in mind, but the general store in Walden sold plastic rain suits and woolen hats and gloves (right next to the ammunition) and despite the holiday the store was open early, so we stocked up. It was 37 degrees and snowing when we set out for Wyoming.
As expected, after a couple of hours the snow turned into a cold, piercing, intermittent rain. We rode the entire wretched day into headwinds, and though we made good distance, we had little choice -- there were no towns to speak of, and stopping at roadside to rest would have just left us wetter and colder. It was, on the whole, an inauspicious introduction to the state and we were very grateful finally to arrive in Saratoga, where we would be able to get off the bikes and into dry clothes.
Saratoga in fact provided a splendid and unexpected counterpoint to the day. By the time we left our hotel room to find dinner, the western sky had cleared and the heavy clouds still directly above us were bathed from underneath in a brilliant blood-red sunset glow. It was beautiful. And, though the temperature was still stuck somewhere in the low 40s, we had gym shorts and towels under our arms -- we'd learned of an authentic hot spring in town, and we were going to go for a soak.
We found the spring mostly by following the smell of sulphur. The town had built a cinderblock structure (complete with changing room) around the source, creating a waist deep, sandy-bottomed hot water pool. The water where it rose out of the ground was nearly too hot to bear. But toward the middle of the pool it was, conveniently, about exactly the temperature at which you'd draw a bath at the end of a hard, bone-chilling day. It was no spa -- in fact it was kind of dumpy -- but it was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and was free. I don't remember either of us complaining.
That day turned out to be the last one that Rob and I rode together. From the time I met him in Kentucky, he'd never been certain quite where or how far he was going to go, so there was a continuing ad hoc quality to our partnership. In Walden he finally decided to follow the Transamerica Trail through to the Oregon coast and then continue up to Seattle, where his wife was going to be attending a conference. To do that, though, he'd have to put in some serious miles. On the other hand I was way ahead of schedule, and, having no desire to end my trip early, was actively looking for ways to linger. On top of that, I had been planning to depart from the Trail at Jackson. In the end we decided it made more sense to split up, and so on a nippy and overcast morning I watched Rob ride off on the first of the hundred miles he planned to cover that day. We made vague promises to get together again at the ocean, but I knew he'd get there well before me. It was the last time I saw him.
My route through Wyoming was straightforward. Saratoga is 40 or so road miles in from Wyoming's southern border, about halfway west across the state. After Saratoga, the Transamerica Trail heads mostly north through Rawlins and the Great Divide Basin, then bends northwest to join the Wind River beyond Lander. A couple days later there's a climb up to Togwotee Pass, which at 9,658 feet is the second highest point on the Trail. From there it's downhill all the way to the base of the Grand Teton mountains. At the Tetons the Trail turns north through Yellowstone National Park and into Montana -- but I headed south to Jackson, where I stowed my bike for three days to tour Yellowstone in a rental car. Once back on the bicycle, I rode west out of Jackson, over Teton Pass and into Idaho. In all, I was in Wyoming for 10 days.
The plains in Kansas are covered with wheat and the mountains in Colorado are covered with trees. They're both lovely, but in a static, postcard kind of way, and riding through them could be painfully monotonous. Wyoming is the surprising converse - little grows, but the scenery is dynamic and fascinating. The views became more dramatic and striking each day, unfolding in front of me almost as though they had been laid out for effect; and with the sparse ground cover, the earth's folds and striations are plainly visible in nearly every mountain, gorge and outcrop. Every mile provided another window into tens or hundreds of millions of years of unimaginably massive and gradual change. Finally, few places in the country are as geologically active as Wyoming. The spring in Saratoga merely foreshadowed the hot, fluid, otherworldly earth that escapes to the surface throughout Yellowstone.
Wyoming was rawer and more rough-hewn than any other place on the ride. Even its beauty -- which was abundant -- had kind of an edge to it, as though it could hurt you somehow. Not surprisingly, Wyoming provided some of the ride's most vivid memories.
-- The fewer the merrier. It was funny being alone after a month of companionship. I'd been lucky to find someone as compatible on the road as Rob -- he liked longer days than I did, but not so much longer than we couldn't easily compromise. We kept a similar pace too; if we weren't riding actually side by side, we were almost always within sight of one another. And, though we could often go for two or three hours without saying anything, during those long silent stretches, we were still company. I also really appreciated having someone there to share particularly memorable moments, like cresting the 11,000 foot summit at Hoosier Pass.
So I did miss him. But on the other hand, now that I was by myself again, riding each instant at my own pace, I realized that riding with Rob had involved a constant, subliminal and irresistible urge to keep or make speed. If he was behind me, in my draft, I'd ride a stronger and steadier pace than I might otherwise. When he was riding strong, I'd stay with him; and though he might be riding only a hair faster than I would ride alone, keeping his rhythm and not mine could feel like a job. It was nice now to be riding exactly like I wanted to.
I was a little freer in my diversions too. I could stop three times in a thousand yards if three things caught my eye -- I passed up more than one photo riding with Rob because I felt foolish asking him to wait yet again. As much I missed the companionship, I was really enjoying the complete freedom that accompanies solitude. It was a good time to go our separate ways.
-- A Certified Epiphany. On my second morning in Wyoming, I set out from Rawlins on what was going to be a comparatively short 60 mile ride to Jeffrey City, a destination I'd chosen only because the next town, Lander, was 70 miles beyond it. A good part of the ride would be through the Great Divide Basin, a vast, flat expanse surrounded by high ridges. I read somewhere that the continental divide splits and goes to either side of the Basin, meaning that water falling into it drains to neither ocean. And indeed I passed signs marking the divide both as I descended into the Basin and climbed out. (In contrast to my first time over the divide at Hoosier Pass, these "crossings" came at the crests of small hills, indistinguishable from any of the other dozen or two I climbed that morning.)
The Basin is divided by a single, ramrod-straight two lane highway. Signs advise motorists on this mesmerizing road to drive with their headlights on at all times. Most drivers heed the advice, so oncoming cars are easily visible 8 or 10 miles away. It was fascinating being able to watch, for seven or eight long minutes, a single car approaching at (his speed plus mine) 95, maybe 100, miles per hour. Usually something traveling that fast arrives more quickly.
Except for these occasional cars, I was entirely alone. Time passed quickly, though, and I arrived in Jeffrey City a little after 1:00. The town, such as it was, consisted of two bars (open) plus a hotel (apparently closed). There was little to hold a person's interest and I had got there far too early to consider stopping, so without the slightest idea of where I might spend the night, I decided to press on.
An hour or so beyond Jeffrey City, the sky grew threatening. I could see rainstorms off to either side, and indeed sometimes right in my path -- but all afternoon as I rode, either the rainstorms or the road would change direction just when I needed them to, with the result that I rode the entire day through a tunnel of dry, sometimes even sunny, weather. It rained everywhere but over my head.
In Wyoming there is little other than the ground to sit on when you feel like taking a break, so 30 or so miles further on when I came upon a guardrail rising up out of the road alongside a culvert, I decided to stop for a snack. It was late afternoon. I'd been dodging dicey weather all day but at this moment there were only patchy clouds in the sky. The sun was shining low in front of me and making that perfect temperature where you can't tell where your skin stops and the air starts. I had been riding for ten, ten and a half hours and had covered well over a hundred miles but I felt great, strong, like I could go another 50. I still didn't know where I would be spending the night but it didn't matter; I wasn't in a hurry, and anyhow after 6 weeks on the road I knew that things would, one way or another, sort out fine by nightfall.
So there I was, enjoying the silence and reflecting on an already remarkable day, when all at once the thought struck me: I am on an empty road in the middle of Wyoming, three-quarters of the way across the continent from my home, and I rode my bike here. This of course should not have been news to me but still it came with the force of revelation -- how remarkable a thing to ride so far, how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to do it!
I'd been on other adventures where a single moment seemed to sum up the whole of the thing, and my friends and I always enjoyed trading stories about these epiphanies. I knew that I'd just had such a singular moment and so I snapped a photo of myself sitting on the guardrail. (It came out lousy.) Having documented the event I sat a bit longer to savor it; and I don't think that in those five or so minutes I would have traded places with anyone in the world.
Of course, perfect contentment is fleeting and so I wasn't surprised or upset when I noticed the sky once again darkening over the road in front of me -- it was time to start moving again. I got back on my bike and started to climb the hill leading away from the culvert. About halfway up, I reflexively checked the rearview mirror mounted on my glasses and spotted a rainbow -- a double rainbow -- arching over the very spot I'd just left. It's trite, sure, but it's still hard to imagine more fitting corroboration for what already seemed like a transcendent event. To make sure the rainbow wasn't the hallucinatory product of a fatigued brain, I stopped to photograph that too. Luckily for my story, that photo turned out well.
(There certainly does seem to be something special about this spot! A pair of eastbound cyclists have included a photograph of the identical place -- sans rainbow -- on their web site. To see it, follow this link to Dave & Babak's Wyoming page.)
-- The RV people. An hour up the road from the rainbow, maybe a dozen miles short of Lander, I passed an RV campground and made the improbable decision to spend the night there. The setting and campsites were nice enough but the place featured a hokey Wild West village with hourly staged shootouts, and it looked kind of stupid. Then of course there were those wall-to-wall RVs. But by that point I'd ridden 120 miles and I didn't need much encouragement to stop -- so when I spotted another touring cyclist setting up for the night, my mind was made up.
The cyclist was Alby Mitchell, heading on his recumbent from Jackson, Wyoming, to New York City. He was in the first days of his trip and was shedding excess baggage at the rate of about 10 pounds a day. We shared coffee and dinner and told stories, including a swipe or two at the RVers parked all around us. Indeed, any touring cyclist can reel off a long list of complaints about RVs. They're big and take up too much road. They're erratic and smelly and loud and their outrigger rearview mirrors are a menace. I have always thought of them -- and, uncharitably, their owners by extension -- as a kind of scourge.
Alby retired as soon as the sun went down but (remarkably) I was still awake and looking for something to do. While wandering around I was drawn into conversation by friendly RV owners curious about my bike and my ride, and wound up spending the rest of the evening, as well as a good part of the next morning, chatting with them. Surprisingly, I came away as impressed by them as they claimed to be with me.
Apparently there are semi-guided tours that you can sign up for with your RV, like you can with your bike. The company comes up with a theme for the tour, tells the RV owners where they'll be camping and how to get there, and the drivers spend the week heading from site to site with stops along the way. The RVers hook up with the same friends on different tours, and look forward to them for months. This particular group -- 20 or so RVs in all -- was roughly retracing the Mormon Trail on its 150th anniversary, attending various events along the way that commemorated the original Mormon migration.
These folks were old. Many needed a cane just to walk; one or two were tethered to supplemental oxygen tanks. A lot of people reaching that stage in life just retire to the bedroom to wait and die. But every one of these men and women was still curious, still interested in what the world looked like, and they were driving around the country to see it despite their very visible physical difficulties. Although they were fascinated by my transportation and had no end of questions for me, they didn't have to ask why I was riding across the country -- that part they plainly understood. Me and the RV drivers, kindred spirits. Huh!
I still don't like having to watch out for those machines -- and to be sure, lots of those folks drive barely better than they walk -- but I don't get so angry so quickly at them any more, and it's more fun to ride in a peaceful frame of mind.
-- An entirely different pace. Way back in Virginia I concluded that to enjoy bike touring you have to adjust to a "bicycle scale" of time and distance. Somewhere in the middle of Wyoming I discovered how successful my adjustment had been: After pulling into an auto rest area for a snack and to fill my water bottles, I struck up a conversation with an eastbound couple driving home from a vacation in Yellowstone. They warned me of substantial snow still in some of the park's higher elevations. Yellowstone was at that point maybe 250 miles and three days ahead of me. Thinking (hoping) that their information was stale, I asked them when they'd been there and was genuinely taken aback when they told me, that very morning. That possibility hadn't even occurred to me.
-- Two ways to Togwotee Pass. The road into Dubois, Wyoming, follows the Wind River, a muddy roiling thing that has carved a deep gorge into the colorful, variegated Wyoming bedrock. In Dubois itself, all the buildings on the main street are done up in the same weathered-wood western motif and it is too cute by about half. The place largely redeemed itself, though, with the local practice of permitting bar patrons to take "go cups" full of margarita or martini out onto the street.
After a night in Dubois I began the climb to 9,600 foot Togwotee Pass. The ride up was long and slow, but not that hard -- the sun was shining and the views were great. The road continued to follow the Wind River, which had been noisy and frothy in Dubois but quieted and shrunk on the ascent until it was almost narrow enough to jump across. At the summit, the temperature was in the low 70s but snow still blanketed the high meadows. I stopped to take photos of people incongruously riding snowmobiles in picnic weather on the last day in May and they stopped to take photos of a lycra-clad cyclist standing incongruously in a snow field.
As I started to descend, the weather changed abruptly to a heavy overcast. I coasted toward the Grand Tetons and Jackson for several miles under clouds, whereupon a cold rain squall blew in. After a few wet minutes I passed a resort lodge full of workmen preparing for the season's opening a week later. A convenience store next door sold sandwiches. (This was lucky -- they were the only buildings for several miles in either direction.) Eager for shelter, I pulled in and took up a spot on the porch of the hotel.
While I was waiting for the rain to let up, a small pickup heading uphill pulled into the parking lot. A very large man climbed out of the passenger side and unloaded a bike from the back. As the truck sped off, the former passenger wheeled his bike over to me and introduced himself. He was Joe Knapp, from the Quad Cities (those being of course Moline & Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport & Bettendorf, Iowa). Joe was riding from the Pacific back to the Mississippi but he'd decided early on that he going to "do it for the fun" and so would actually ride only the flat or downhill portions. As he explained, at the bottom of a climb he'd simply stick out his thumb and soon someone would stop to ferry him to the top. He never had to wait long at all. At first something troubled me about this approach but as I rolled it over in my head I couldn't identify anything actually wrong with it and decided it was not a bad idea at all. (Joe did allow as how, having ridden into somewhat better shape, he would occasionally ride up the more gradual inclines.)
The rain ended and the sun came out, but Joe was a delightful fellow and we chatted for a good hour after that. Finally it was time to press on. Naturally, the last I saw of Joe, he was settling into position on the uphill shoulder. I bet he had a blast on the descent to Dubois.
-- The Grand Tetons. This is brief because I couldn't come up with words to convey how magnificent these mountains are.
They are sublime. Formed by the angled upthrust of an ancient sea bed, the Grand Tetons (literally, "big breasts") have no foothills on their eastern side. They simply erupt, thousands of feet high, out of the flat plain in front of them. If it weren't for the lakes at their base, you could literally walk up and put your hand on their side, as you would a tree or a building. Still very young (only 5 to 9 million years old) and unsoftened by erosion, they appear jagged and sharp, like arrowhead flint. A dozen glaciers, 15,000 years old, flow slowly -- glacially! -- from the peaks.
The Tetons are stunning from 30 or 40 miles and they become even more spellbinding as you draw closer. For two days I rode with these mountains directly in front of me, and I often slowed to seven or eight miles an hour just so I could gaze at them longer -- it was a treat to be on a bike and have that option.
Main page / The
Route / FAQs
Stupid signs / Aphorisms / Packing list / Links
Page posted August 19, 2000