With all this snow billowing in across the region, I’m now having to patch together a modified plan, borrowing bits that are still rideable from the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, with (boring) stretches of roads that are more likely to be open. As an overview, the route heads from Montana briefly into Idaho, before crossing into Wyoming, and then Colorado. Which means more and more mountains, and higher and higher elevations. At this point, the question is: should I head south towards the warmer climes of Utah and hit the mountain bike meccas of Fruita and Moab. Or should I persevere into Colorado and risk more snow…
Here’s some pictures I took while crossing Idaho to Jackson, Wyoming, where I’m based at the moment.
Diners, like the outside of cheap supermarkets as I’ve come to discover, are good places for weird conversations with unusual people. One of the waitresses in Lima looked a little like a white version of Tina Turner – very cool. Tucking into my pancakes, I was soon approached by a man with claw hand, who’d lost his fingers in an industrial accident. Retired since he was 32, he proceded explain the ins and outs of different mining equipment, and what each truck could haul, pincering his remaining fingers as he spoke. My eyes glazed over – I fear it’s the same reaction when I talk about bikes to people…
I was togged up in all my layers, even my trusty jeans, for the long climb up and over the pass, and didn’t even break into a sweat. My water bottles froze as I rode, as did my beard. Beards sure keep you warm, but can be socially embarrasing when you start to defrost mid conversation.
Luckily I didn’t have to ride the interstate too long, as I tracked down a snow-free gravel road that cut round the mountains out of Spencer, a one strip hamlet famous for its locally mined opals.
I popped into the local gas station/opal store to check directions, and was somewhat embarrassed to find my beard defrosting as I spoke, dripping onto a prestine counter. ‘It’s okay,’ said the lady, ‘happens all the time when my husband has a beard,’ before hurrying off to fetch me a paper towel.
Later, as I was standing outside, cold and uncertain as to where I was heading, I managed to resist two temptations. First I met BK, who offered me a lift in his 4WD to Jackson, where I was headed. Then Connie pulled up, travelling south from Alberta to San Francisco in her VW van, with a Husky that adopted her, as she put it. As we sat and chatted, a biting coldness overwhelmed me. It was the kind of coldness that burrows deep, even deeper than all my layers. When she offered to give me a ride south to warmer climes, there was no doubt in my mind that I’d turn it down. But part of me wished I could have taken her up on it, and that I didn’t need to feel so constrained by my plans.
Instead, I set off once more, my body and my mood warming up on the first hill, music playing in my ears, uplifting my spirits. A little while later, the sheriff passed by and pulled over to see what I was up to, a lone cyclist making his way slowly across an empty backroad, under a porcelain sky.
Indeed, the lanscape was all but bereft of features. Lumps of obsidian, once used by native Indians for arrowheads, protruded out of the earth. Voles scuttled by, their tales pointing straight up into the air like radio antennas.
Roadside encounters uplifted my mood too. I love how approachable cycling makes me to people I pass by. Like Blaine Grover, a local farmer, who shook his head in wonder at the notion of riding down from Alaska. ‘How old are you?’ he asked. When I told him I was 35, he laughed merrily and said: ‘Aren’t you old enough to know better?!’ Then he asked me how old I thought he was, tottering slightly as he stepped back for me to make a proper appraisal. I was suitably complimentary.
Soon, farming land was replaced by an expanse of sage scrub and tall, spindly wooden ranch gateways, cordorning off what seemed like vast tracts of empty land. Abandoned houses, their peeling paint muted over time, dotted the landscape.
I’d heard there were ice caves along the way but didn’t want to end up sharing one with a local mountain lion, so opted for a clearing amongst the sage brush; a peaceful spot is was too.
That night, the temperature plummetted. Nowadays when I go to sleep, I’m pretty much in everything I wear during the day – long johns, jeans, base layer, jersey, fleece, jacket and wooley hat. At least it makes getting going the next day pretty quick…
In St Anthony, a backwater farming town festooned with 50s, neon-signed shops, I asked a lady for directions at a four way junction; she immediately invited me in to stay at her farm down the road. But it was early, and I needed to push on to keep ahead of the storm. To check up on the weather, I stopped in at the visitor centre, which shared its offices with the police station, the medical centre, the town treasury and the library. It smelled of a hospital and there, a lady breathing through an oxygen tank marvelled at my accent, and suggested I check in at the forestry office, 12 miles down the road in Ashton.
In Ashton, I was told that snow was 40 per cent likely for that night, which might mean several miles of pushing over the pass. But I was keen to get back on the route, and to experience the remoteness of those forest tracks again, so figured that with the odds in my favour, I’d give it a go.
I was hoping all the bears would have slunk off to hibernate by now, but apparently there are still plenty around. In fact, they hang around until the end of hunting season, feasting on the entrails that hunters leave behind from the kills they’ve gutted and chopped up. I also heard that this forest is where the ‘bad grizzlies’ are transferred to, if they misbehave in nearby Yellowstone National Park.
In the morning, the sun was beaming in all its glory, and the night’s snowfall had compacted down, filling in the body-jarring corrugated track that had rattled loose my fillings the day before.
As I rode, two National Park Rangers, Chris and Jason, pulled over in their truck for a chat, surprised to see a cyclist out alone in the forest. Chris insisted I grab myself a coffee and a beer in the resort down the road, and put it on his tab. Then, a jeep with two distinctly glamorous couples from Idaho pulled over to find out what I was up to. The driver was clearly a cyclist, noting my Brooks saddle and Rohloff hub, so I enthused about this wonderful route, and how fortunate he was in having it in his backyard.
For the first time on this trip, I had to take a ride in a pilot truck through 8 miles of roadworks, despite pleading over the radio with the head honcho. I’ve no doubt he gets the same pleas from every other cyclist on their ‘special’ journey. The only way round it was to stay until work ended at 7.30pm, when it’s dark. It was a deflating moment, but I tried to see it in a positive light too. Riding every single last mile really just panders to your ego. Having to swallow your pride once in a while is no bad thing.
I’d planned to try and reach Jackson, but there was a strong headwind to contend with. When I stopped in at the grocers along the way, I bumped into Sean, Ingrid and Kate, the family from Skye travelling to South America on their tandem. The campsite there was just $5 for hikers and bikers, so that helped seal the deal for an impromptu stop. I was pleased to note that RVs pay $45, the way it should be, to rebalance the coffers. It’s a shame that in in a lot of official campsites in the US and Canada, a cyclist looking for a small patch of land to pitch a tent pays the same as a family-filled RV on their massive pad of gravel.
At first glance, Jackson seems a curious blend of ultra wealthy residents rubbing shoulders with hippyish ski bums – apparently it has some of the best, and easily accessed backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the country. Everyone glows with the healthy sheen of the outdoors. It’s the kind of place where you can leave the keys in your car, and your house unlocked. In fact, as I rode into town, Nick, who’d cycled to Jackson from New Hamphire to work and ski, offered me a place to stay, having seen me way on his way back from work.
Right now, I’m staying with David Gonzales, a film maker/photographer/climber/skier, who kindly offered to put me up at the last moment. David keeps a great photo story blog and makes some very cool films, often revolving around the area and its issues. Today, I drove a neighbour’s truck so he could get a tyre fixed – the first time I’ve driven in a long while. The engine was low pitched and burbly. Despite myself, I did feel strangely powerful… Soon I was feeling confident enough to have my elbow sticking out of the window, and with my scraggly beard, I felt like a proper Mountain Man.
I’d love to spend a winter in a mountain town one day, though of course I’d invest in a Surly Pugsley…