While I remained undecided on a route or even an intermediate destination until the week before I left, I felt the touring itch late in the spring. Thus I collected parts to rebuild my Trek 520's drivetrain during May and June, finally completing the project in mid-June. However, my apparently insatiable itch to try all manner of human-powered wheeled vehicles got the best of my common sense, and I ended up buying a RANS Velocity Squared long wheel-base recumbent bicycle, commonly known as the V2, through craigslist. A few weeks of riding it, including up the infamous Flagstaff Road and loaded on local canyon roads, convinced me that it could handle a mountain tour -- or, rather, that I could handle a mountain tour on it. In the final week, I wavered a few times between the 520 and the V2. A final loaded ride on the V2 the Sunday before I left clinched it. The 520 moped while the V2 rolled a few victory laps around the garage.
The route that I finally settled on mixed high mountain and high plains riding. Yellowstone Lake would be the pivot of the loop, with the outbound route snaking through Rocky Mountain National Park and then joining with the TransAmerica bicycle route in Granby through Grant Village in Yellowstone. From Grant Village, the homeward route would head east out of Yellowstone through Cody and pass through Casper and Laramie, ending with a ninety mile run east along the front range. The route, along with my sleepover points, is available here: route on maps.google.com.
The only remaining decision was when to leave. Sarah would be visiting family July 2 to July 11, and I wanted to overlap that time as much as possible while still keeping the probability of returning by July 11 as high as possible. I thus decided to leave June 29, three days before Sarah left, to allow myself thirteen days to cover the over 1100 miles. While I averaged about a hundred miles per day on last year's 11-day midwest tour, I didn't want to gamble that I could average the same mileage in the mountains and high winds of this year's route. After a meeting for a project at work on Monday, June 28, I obtained final supplies and packed.
In contrast to my Trek 520 touring gear, which consists of cheap but reliable TransIt waterproof bags and craigslist-special front bags, the gear for the V2 is decidedly upscale. I had a choice of ordering a recumbent-specific underseat rack to augment the rear rack, which would enable using the same panniers as on the 520, or of simply using the gigantic Arkel tandem touring panniers that accompany our Co-Motion tandem. The V2 is unfazed by a large rear load, so I opted for the tandem panniers and a trunk. A picture of the loaded bicycle is here: loaded V2.
Arkel panniers are among the best. The tent and rainfly each packed into its own built-in drybag at the bottom of each pannier. The tarp, tent poles, stakes, and mallet fit into a vertical cylindrical tube hanging off the rear of the left bag. My sleeping kit -- sleeping bag, liner, and thermarest -- fit into the drybag of the main compartment of the right pannier, along with a wool sweater and mittens. The left main compartment held extra clothes in a dry bag; and food, first aid stuff, toiletries, and a water bladder in a bear canister. Outside pockets held maps, tools, rain gear, and additional paraphernalia. I stored frequently-accessed tools, food, maps, and wallet in the trunk. The trunk also has expandable side bags that I used to store extra food on the days that I rode significant distances between towns. The panniers and trunk have bright yellow rain covers with reflectors that I ended up using all the time to increase my visibility. I also stuck reflectors on my helmet and rear fenders.
The ride to Estes Park was uneventful. I arrived there in the late morning and refueled before entering RMNP for the afternoon's slow ride over Trail Ridge Road. I had chosen RMNP for the outbound route for the simple reason that it would test the climbing capability of the fully loaded recumbent. If I found that I couldn't manage it, I'd return home and switch to the Trek. Alternately, a successful climb to 12,020' would set the tone for the rest of the trip. The climb ended up being slow, as expected, but otherwise not a big deal. My lowest gear of 30 front, 32 rear is perhaps higher than some would like, but I found it more than adequate for RMNP's relatively gentle grades and thus often found myself in second (30/30) or higher.
My dad had visited a couple of weeks earlier, and because he hadn't seen the park for several decades and Sarah had never seen it, we had decided to drive over Trail Ridge Road, which I've ridden over two times previously, once from the west and once from the east. Driving the car was bizarre. I felt detached from the environment and was disappointed with the views. However, cycling over Trail Ridge reminded me again why I like cycling so much. Instead of getting easy, quick samples of the park, I experienced a gradual change from the arid microclimate of North St. Vrain Canyon, through the mountain forests of the lower park, to the cold and windy tundra region through which Trail Ridge Road passes. Smells, terrain, temperature, humidity, views, effort, available oxygen -- all varied widely over the climb. Each view, enhanced by endorphins and the effort to get to it, was once again spectacular. This experience of the park -- and similar experiences throughout the tour -- could not be captured on camera: too much of it involved non-visual perception.
The only difficult parts of the ride were the extensive construction zones near the top and on the west side of the park. Fortunately, most motorists were patient and careful around me, so I really only had to contend with the gravel and milled tarmac. The one section through which a pilot car guided cars was on the west side, the descent for me, so I easily kept pace with the line of cars.
Besides the abundant flora, I encountered elk, a marmot, hawks, and rodents.
Leaving the park in the early evening, I rode past Grand Lake and found a campsite at Stillwater, a beautiful place to camp on Lake Granby at the end of a day of over 9K' of climbing.
Once on the other side of the pass, the forest gradually gave way to a more arid climate of scrub bushes and grass. By Rand, a small town with services only Thursday to Sunday, I was riding through true high plains scenery. Mountains shadowed the horizons, but I rode through rolling plains. I think this day was the first time that I saw a small group of pronghorn, a type of animal that resembles the antelopes of Africa and British-narrated nature documentaries through convergent evolution. Besides their horns, their other distinct feature is their fluffy white rear end. I was of course excited to see them, but by the end of the trip through Wyoming, I had realized that they are just another ho-hum sight. While they seemed accustomed to cars, the way I rolled seemed to frighten them, so I was frequently treated to astounding displays of speed -- apparently upwards of 40 mph when they're really frightened -- and soaring jumps over fences. The only time that they crawled under fences was when they were leading their young to safety.
I ate a midday meal of a deep dish pizza and malt in Walden, Colorado before entering Wyoming. As my ability to consume and digest mass quantities was still developing, the pizza won; I left the pizzeria with my tail between my legs and the deep dish crust wrapped in a bag for later consumption. The malt, however, was down for the count in the first round.
Just after transitioning from route 125 to 230, I encountered a pair of women apparently training for a triathlon. One stood by their parked truck while the other pounded up the same climb that I was on with a bright yellow visibility vest flapping behind her. I guess that folks in rural areas who get into competitive cycling have to make do with the roads that they have available.
That night, I camped at a small and quiet RV park in Riverside, Wyoming. There I met a soil scientist who regularly stays at the park in a tent when she's in the field taking soil samples. Carrie's job is to clamber all over her assigned region and collect samples at designated spots any way that she can, which means scheduling visits with ranchers and driving far into BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and presumably watching for the abundant rattlesnakes.
I also talked with a fly fisherman who currently lives in Tennessee but makes an annual pilgrimage back to his original home of Wyoming each year to fish old and new spots. He tows a sardine can behind his truck just large enough to house his bed and gear, an oversized bear canister of sorts.
Just before crawling into my tent, I gulped down a pint of Guinness from the bar across the street. A few extra carbs never hurt a cyclist.
Tony, as I learned throughout the day, is a free spirit. He's 32, has a 12-year-old son and a friendly relationship with the son's mother and her husband, is a practicing masseuse, is enrolled in an acupuncture degree program starting this fall, and is an all-around friendly guy. He's also lactose intolerant, which I learned when I was downing the cycle tourist's preferred beverage, chocolate milk, right in front of him.
We rode basically together to Rawlins, including on the one stretch of I-80 between the 130/I-80 junction and Rawlins on which we encountered the first major headwind of Wyoming. At the 130/I-80 junction, we met an older fellow who is in his third or fourth year of walking across the US. He apparently goes home each winter and then gets a ride back to where he left off the previous year. His neck is like a bull's, a result, I assume, of carrying full camping gear on his back day after day.
In Rawlins we found a Subway and tucked into footlongs. There we met a remarkable woman and her three children. She rode on the Stanford Cycling team through 1992 and then rode on a four person team in RAAM (Race Across America) after graduating. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, she doesn't remember anything of RAAM except that whenever the team coach said to ride, she rode. While she couldn't recall their time, it was likely somewhere in the seven to eight day range of most four-person teams.
Tony's and Stuart's ride that day ended in Rawlins while I still intended to cover another 45 miles to Muddy Gap Junction. The ride continued through high plains scenery. First there was a bit of a climb out of Rawlins, slightly hindered by a strong crosswind that peaked temporarily as a strong gust front off a storm west of me. Once I had cranked past the gust front, I reached a long descent onto an arid plain marked by jutting hills of exposed rock. The weather also changed as I descended from the high plains into the more arid climate, and I soon had a tailwind pushing me over the hills to Muddy Gap Junction. I even crossed the continental divide again, this time at a most unassuming low pass through the hills that could not have been more than a few hundred feet above the surroundings. I did a quick spit test to verify that I had truly crossed the divide and the spit indeed flowed uphill, a conclusive result.
Muddy Gap Junction consists of a gas station at which the rambling cyclist can set up a tent for the night for a mere $15, a fine example of supply and demand in action. There I met Gary and Cindy, a grizzly and friendly couple out for a ride on their Harley, one of five motorcycles that they own. He has ridden that particular Harley, an early 80s model, over 150K miles. I met them because one of the wires had apparently shaken loose from the battery, so he was reattaching it. Gary is a dispatcher for mining operations in Wyoming; Cindy works at the DMV. They have three children, the youngest of whom is now thinking about college. They both dress in full leather, and Gary's beard is arranged into a braid, but they're as soft spoken as they come.
As the wind escalated that night, I knew I was in for it the next day.
Refueled, I basically spent the rest of the day focusing on not getting blown off the road. The scenery was more high plains, though one section stood out. A major descent lead from stormy skies into a sunny, grassy plain out of which jutted formations, hundreds of feet high, of weathered rock: ancient ships foundering on a vast ocean. The descent was sufficiently abrupt that the walls of the cliffs leading to the high plains blocked the wind. Therefore, I enjoyed about five miles of glorious speed through this landscape.
In Lander, I decided to check into a motel if a room were available -- not so likely, given that it was Friday evening of a holiday weekend -- so that I could get a real shower and do my laundry. The first motel was booked, but on a whim I tried one more and got lucky. I took a recent cancellation a minute before an elderly couple walked through the door inquiring about rooms. Then another cyclist walked through the door and asked for a room. I immediately offered to share my room, to which Tom agreed. The person behind the desk was impressed by my generosity, I think, because she in turn refused to raise the rate to that for two people.
Tom is a community organizer -- yes, the very job that Palin disparaged -- who runs a bicycle-centric youth program in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is riding the TransAmerica route in the west-to-east direction during a paid sabbatical. He plans to ride the final eastern section with each of his two children in turn. His wife works for the university in St. Paul as the director of an outreach program. After taking turns showering and doing our laundry, we set out to find dinner in the fine town of Lander. The main street was lined with filled bicycle racks, a good sign. We settled on a Chinese restaurant and both refused the waitress's offer of a doggy bag. Tom is intelligent and introspective, so I enjoyed our conversation very much. We also devolved into bike talk at times, and I learned from him some history of the rear derailleur, including about the vicious patent wars between Suntour and Shimano over parallelogram derailleur technology and the loose upper pulley. He also explained his peculiar drivetrain, which has two large chainrings that differ by only five teeth, one small one, and a six-speed cassette. The idea of two large chainrings is to allow half steps, thus turning a six-speed cassette into something like a twelve-speed. The ideal difference is four teeth, but he could not obtain chainrings of that difference. The small chainring is of course reserved for climbing, the same as on any touring bicycle.
Thus I entered the Wind River Indian Reservation mid-morning. In Fort Washakie, I stopped by the side of the road for a snack, a fortuitous break. Just as I got rolling again, I heard whoops, hollers, and the buzzing of a laboring ATV (all-terrain vehicle). The ATV leaped out of the brush along with a few cattle as I coasted towards a bridge, so I halted. A moment later several riders on horseback and a part of the herd appeared. It was clear that their intention was to cross the highway. I looked back and saw that a woman was now holding an orange flag to stop traffic, but either she didn't see me or she decided that I was fine where I was.
I watched this spectacle in amusement for a bit. The riders on horseback seemed fairly calm, but the fellow on the ATV was anything but calm. He frequently had the ATV on two wheels as he made sudden changes in direction, dove down the embankment, or rocketed up the other side. I would have offered him my helmet except that he was a tad busy. After a few minutes, several cattle trotted down to the river. He yelled, "Get the %!*& outa there!" -- at the cattle, I thought -- before diving down after them. A little while later, he careened down the road towards me yelling the same thing again, then pulled a screeching U-turn beside me to inform me that the yellow of my panniers was scaring the cattle from crossing the bridge. I thought it more likely that the hot asphalt, narrow bridge, and beckoning cool shade by the river had more to do with their recalcitrance, but I certainly understood when a fellow needed to get some frustration off his chest, so I meekly and obligingly turned around and cruised up to the flag woman, who I thought might also be annoyed with me. She turned out to be sweet and as cool as the riverside shade.
They eventually coaxed the cattle to cross the bridge, at which point I discovered that yellow indeed had little effect at keeping cattle at bay. Despite the woman's multiple assurances, I was tempted to move myself and the bicycle somewhere else away from the herd. However, just as she had said, the herd didn't get any closer than a few feet as they passed us. Just to my right, however, the woman's horse, who was still housed in its trailer, freaked out, so I found myself sandwiched between the herd and a bucking trailer.
I confirmed later that cows, like most animals, are red-green color-blind, but they can distinguish blues from yellows; however, it is motion that scares or enrages them, not a particular color. But for good measure, I told the woman to pass on my apologies to her buddy on the ATV for getting in the way. It cost me nothing, and it might have kept him from dwelling on me later when they sat around recounting the morning's work.
To wrap things up, a state trooper came down the road with lights flashing, but I didn't stick around to see the outcome. Traffic started moving again, so I did too. On the climb out of the river valley, I met a woman sauntering down the side of the road who greeted me in a friendly way and made a few flattering remarks about cycling long distances. All in all, the worked-up herder notwithstanding, the folks on the Wind River Indian Reservation were among the friendliest in Wyoming.
If you hadn't noticed, "Wind River" is an ominous name for a river in a state already known for wind. Sure enough, the wind picked up to serious intensity in the early afternoon. "Serious" is about the midpoint on the wind intensity spectrum; I experienced "ridiculous," "ludicrous," "you must be kidding," and "you must be *@in' me" later that day as I followed upstream the course of the Wind River. Actually, I met the Wind River a second time on my homeward route, again cycling upstream. How is that possible? It turns out that it makes an about-face in the Owl Creek Mountains; its course turns northward, and it becomes the Bighorn River on the north side of Wind River Canyon. But through the canyon, which is a spectacular ride that I discuss below, Wind River actually flows northward.
In Crowheart, which consists of a gas station as far as I can tell, I stopped to pick up a performance enhancing drug. That's right, I'm a doper. I ingest caffeine when I know I'm about to subject myself to a few hours of slogging. At the station, I met two other cycling tourists. Jerry is retired and is riding a Bike Friday on the east-to-west TransAmerica Route. He is riding with a younger, though possibly retired, woman whose name I have forgotten. The woman was apparently suffering from an upset stomach -- but I think it was the wind that was actually getting her down. She explained that the previous day, she and Jerry had ridden the final forty miles into Lander because she had felt that the wind was too strong for safe riding. She was intent on reaching Dubois, another thirty miles down the road, that day as they had a hotel reservation. Given my subsequent experience, I doubt they made it without a ride.
Jerry is rather proud of his Bike Friday touring rig and went on at length about it -- so much so that he, an obvious bicycle geek, didn't ask a single question about my odd vehicle. Eventually I learned that they had started the ride with another couple on Easy Racers, one of which was a top-of-the-line Gold Rush Replica, so my V2 was perhaps nothing interesting. Meanwhile, I soaked up the caffeine.
As I was preparing to leave, Tony (a different one) and Brent, two students cycling from northern Colorado to Glacier National Park who I had met earlier that day at a rest stop, rolled into the station. Tony was wearing an "oh no" expression, as in, "oh no, the wind is picking up." I sipped my Pepsi. Brent is studying history with the intention of being a teacher; and Tony is studying biology with the intention of figuring out what he wants to do. They have a peculiar touring setup that has apparently evolved over two previous tours: they alternate pulling a trailer with all their gear.
Pepsi drained, I remounted and turned into the wind. One of the desirable side effects of a tour is to become a better person by emerging victorious from character-building experiences. I like to remain cheerful as much as possible. Grumbling about the weather is basically losing. Caffeine gives me the extra edge to remain cheerful during the many hours of slogging into a headwind whose strength ranges from "ridiculous" to "you must be *@in' me." Does that mean I cheat? I invite anyone who thinks so to dust of his or her bicycle and take a cruise along Wind River. Personally, I know that I am capable of forcing good cheer if necessary -- indeed, on some stretches of road, I had to get by without caffeine, or any services for that matter, when caffeine was certainly called for -- but I prefer in windy conditions to focus as much effort as possible on staying on the road rather than on maintaining a smile. Besides, anything that allows me to belt out lyrics into a gale about being among the champions and the lack of time for losers is OK by me.
To give you an idea of the riding conditions that afternoon, I'll relate two incidences. At one point, a descent lead into a climb that was protected from the wind by a hill. I shifted up, not down, as I made the transition.
Later I approached a stunning canyon carved into red sedimentary rock. Over the eons, the water and wind had etched out eerily flowing curves. Boulders over three stories tall lay at the bottom of the canyon, their negatives clear in the walls above them. The final run into the canyon was a mile or two stretch of descending road. However, the opening of the canyon funneled the already gale-force wind to a new level that I named "you must be %!*&in' *@in' me" -- one extra attributive verb to distinguish from the heretofore record "you must be *@in' me" strength wind. About twenty minutes of cranking in the lowest gear down the hill earned me entrance into the canyon. After the first turn I found relative quiet.
To cap off an already eventful day, I stopped for dinner in Dubois and then headed over to the KOA on the north side of town. There I learned that the KOA had been booked for weeks for that night, this being the Saturday of a three-day weekend. I suggested that I might set up my tent in a corner out of anybody's way, but the two women felt that my tent and bicycle would "crowd the guests," the majority of whom were barely eking out a luxurious existence in their gigantic RVs. How peculiarly blind, I thought. So I changed my strategy and asked what they thought I should do in hopes that by engaging their imaginations, they might see things my way. But lo! It was not to be. Their suggestion -- and let me remind you that one of the ladies had just told me that the KOA had been booked for weeks because of the three-day weekend -- was to try a motel in town.
Seven miles out of Dubois, I asked permission to pitch a tent on a piece of dirt next to a decrepit gas station at the junction of the main road and a dirt road leading out of the valley. The owner grudgingly allowed it, first examining me the way one might examine an animal and then relating how the previous time he let a group of cyclists stay on his property, they had -- well, I won't use his words. In any case, this exchange triggered some thoughts about stereotyping. The tendency for humans to stereotype is a consequence of our abilities, which we share to some degree with all complex animals, to summarize, categorize, and generalize. These abilities are especially manifest in humans. Other primates and canines, for example, can only learn a limited vocabulary of simple phrases because they lack the ability to generalize from examples to a grammatical model of language. There is actually a genetic defect that causes a toddler to first exhibit a precocious ability to speak and then exhibit retardation henceforth. The cause, apparently, is that such people have deficient structure in the part of the brain associated with language; their initial abilities rely on rote memorization unhindered by the faculties of generalization that lead most of us to make mistakes in the process of learning.
Unfortunately, many people fail to engage the conscious thought necessary to hold generalization and classification in check, and instead act like animals equipped with a particularly strong and sometimes vicious tool. The result is that superficial cues -- such as a bicycle or skin color -- trigger associations with past experiences, many of which were probably second- or third-hand, or even outright fabricated, anyway. But as with any classification situation, the associations may be irrelevant -- particularly when dealing with complex creatures like humans. So there I was, a professor of engineering, a published author, a PhD, a relatively unique person -- a human being -- and how was I treated? Like a flea-infested animal. Truly bicycle touring yields a range of experiences that one does not typically encounter in normal living: from the summits of an endorphin-enhanced climb into mountain tundra to the valleys of human weakness.
About ten miles later, I finished the climb to a resort on Lava Mountain. Peering into the general store, I saw 6:40 on the clock, noted that it opened at 7:00, and dug into a breakfast of canned fish. A portly fellow meandered over about 6:50. He was staying with his family in a rental cabin down the road and couldn't sleep. Larry owns a company that installs wallboard, so, since I have some experience with wallboard, we discussed the finer points of mounting wallboard. It was most satisfying to engage in civil conversation again.
I was further heartened when the owner or employee at the general store arrived and opened the store early since he saw me standing there. Given the frosty ride there, I luxuriated in hot coffee, chocolate milk, and some additional breakfast. As a second omen that my luck with fellow humans was on the rebound -- the first being the early morning conversation with the wallboarder -- the clerk had me dump the first cup of coffee because he thought that the cream I had used might have been bad.
The road, which meandered through the mountain forests of Shoshone National Forest, crested at Togwotee Pass. At that point, a stretch of extensive construction began. On other days, I would have had to toss my bike in a pilot car and ride down part of it; but the holiday had shut down operations, so I gingerly descended, only taking one minor tumble when I hit a patch of deep gravel. My early start saved me from traffic.
Near the bottom of the descent, I met two men who had just graduated college and who were touring on the most ridiculous touring bicycles I had yet seen. One was a late-seventies Trek; the other an unidentifiable heap of parts. Not surprisingly, they were on the side of the road scratching their heads: three bolts that held the chainrings together had fallen off the Trek, and the remaining two were loose. I first suggested using a donor bolt from the other bicycle since such bolts are pretty standard now, but it didn't fit. I then proposed that they tighten the remaining two and then use zip ties in the other three holes to better distribute the stress. They liked the idea and so set about implementing the temporary fix. They were already detouring to Jackson Hole, the nearest town with a bicycle shop, because of another problem.
I don't mean to suggest that they were hapless tourists at all. In fact, they had already ridden from Washington D.C. on those bicycles. They used trailers, so their gear was not causing the kind of stress that would have otherwise broken the bicycles early in the trip. When I asked if they could use any cash, they laughed and said that they were well supplied, having fund-raised $3000 at their universities before the trip. They said that many adults, for some reason, gave them cash along the way. I laughed sheepishly (inwardly) as I had had the very same impulse. Motivated youth on ramshackle bicycles would loosen the wallets of all but the most cynical. Once the fix looked feasible, I continued on my way. They had each other, after all, if anything further went wrong. In any case, I'm sure they would have done just fine if I hadn't happened along. Given my previous evening's experiences, I'm sure I got more out of our encounter than they did.
I stopped at a resort lodge for elevenses: pancakes, eggs, toast, jam, and loads of butter and syrup. The waiter and waitress running the place were an engaged couple who were in different stages of obtaining their teaching licenses to teach in rural Mississippi. The owners of the resort had previously lived in the same town in Mississippi and had thus invited them to wait tables for some extra summer cash. While a bit inefficient at waiting, they were industrious, friendly, and obviously motivated. As a final salve on my wounded faith in fellow humans, I left a twenty dollar bill to cover my seven dollar meal and left in high spirits.
The weather conspired to present a glorious welcome into Grand Teton National Park. The impossibly steep Tetons swept from wild-flower dotted green meadows into the crisp blue and white sky, the needle-like peak of the grandest of them ripping into the soft underbelly of a cloud. Dark green forests separated the glowing green of the meadows from the searing blue horizon visible on each side of the Teton range.
The glory continued all that afternoon as I rode through the northern half of Grand Teton National Park, across the eight-mile gap between parks, and into Yellowstone. The southern entrance leads the road-bound adventurer on a sometimes steep climb up the west side of a canyon. Since I was heading north, I rode along the canyon rim and peered into the raging waters far below. About eleven miles into the park, I reached my intended campsite, the relatively quiet Lewis Lake camping area, which does not allow RV generators and which contains an area strictly reserved for hikers and cyclists. There I set up my tent in the late afternoon among pines and with Lewis Lake nearby.
My intention had been to hit the sack early, given my interrupted previous night, but I met the camp host, who turned out to be a cantankerous, divorced, wonderfully unique, and retired computer engineer from Florida. I only learned his name, which I've forgotten, after our adventure. After listening to a fascinating monologue on early computer engineering, whose details I won't repeat here, he said that he was thinking about exploring a "short trail" to the water falls at the southern end of Lewis Lake that a ranger had told him about and asked if I'd join him. Thus we set out into bear country, he clad in slip-on shoes because of tendon problems, me carrying a spoon, a peanut butter container, and an empty water bottle. We never found the trail, but we managed to cover the majority of the way to the falls -- which we never reached -- by clambering over burnt logs, winding our way down hills and up again to avoid swamps, and kidding each other about how dumb of an adventure we had gotten ourselves into. Meanwhile, I learned about his fascination with S2000s, which he's owned five of, his adult children, his political and life views -- which are startlingly coherent -- and various other details of his life. Oh, and also that he'd left the bear mace back at his (small, efficient) RV.
With light waning, we set a new course over the hills to the main road. He didn't believe me at first that the road was the way I was leading him, but I was sure, having cycled through the canyon at a pace that allowed detailed observation. Soon enough we heard the welcoming sounds of cars and returned to the campsite along the road. I climbed into my tent and prepared to enjoy a sleep in the woods.
The ride to the east entrance is about sixty miles from Lewis Lake, so I spent the entire morning and early afternoon riding through the varying terrain of Yellowstone. Parts are still scarred by the fire of 1988: black timber on almost bare earth. Other sections have significant new growth; person-sized pine trees packed like sardines grow among towering burnt trunks. Of course, much of the park wasn't damaged at all.
The majority of the ride followed a rolling course around Yellowstone Lake. Once east of the lake, the road begins a climb to Sylvan Pass. The pass is of the spectacular variety. It is relatively flat for several miles, so lakes reside among meadows and forest. Mountain peaks loom on either side. Snowmelt feeds transient waterfalls. The subsequent descent fuels a speedy ride through the remaining eight miles of the park and at least twenty miles through Shoshone National Forest, passing from mountain forest to arid canyon. The final thirty miles into Cody was slowed somewhat by a now-eastern headwind, so I broke out the Queen tunes, particularly through the canyon leading to Buffalo Bill Reservoir. One entertaining part of the ride is the tunnel on the east side of the reservoir. It's long with a narrow shoulder, so I shifted into the highest gear and pushed hard.
In Cody I decided to stay at a motel since I hadn't had a shower or been able to do laundry the previous two nights. I learned while checking in that Cody has a rodeo every night of the summer. After doing my laundry and taking a shower, I headed across the highway to the open air arena on the west side of town. Its backdrop is dramatic: the mountain range that I had just descended from lay to the west, and unending plains lay to the north and east. That night was unusually cool because of the northeast wind.
The rodeo began with a moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner during which a mounted cowgirl first stood still with a giant flag waving in the wind and then sprinted around the arena with three cowboys trailing, each flying a red, white, or blue flag. Unfortunately, the patriotism of the opening devolved into partisan jokes and a touch of xenophobia during the actual rodeo. For example, in the intermission event that included children, a boy from California was "welcomed" to the USA. Our tendency to think tribally, much like our tendency to stereotype, is an unfortunate trait that we share with animals. And it's only when people exercise that uniquely human ability of introspection that they see beyond the artificial tribal boundaries to the greater commonality that all people share: the desire to live well and to help the next generation to live even better. But I'm sorry to report that there was no great display of thought that night. There were more animals in that arena than just the bulls, calves, and horses.
The rodeo itself was captivating. The skill displayed in the calf roping and barrel running events complemented the possible insanity but undoubted courage of the bronco and bull riders. In the calf roping events, a mounted cowboy or cowgirl sprints out of the gate, lasso flying, just behind a calf scared out of its wits. In the blink of an eye, he or she flicks a wrist to send the lasso flying around the calf's neck. A cowboy then dismounts, picks up the two hundred pound calf, and flips it onto its side to tie its legs; a cowgirl's run ends with successfully lassoing the calf. In barrel running, a cowgirl rides through a course with three tight turns as quickly as possible. In each turn, the horse's powerful hindquarters tilt to 45 degrees as its muscles bunch and its hooves dig deeply into the dirt. After the final turn, both horse and rider stretch out for the final sprint; the rider holds the reins in one hand and coaxes the horse to higher speeds with the other.
In Thermopolis, I stopped for a late lunch at a Subway, where I met a group of young Christians from Pennsylvania who had just emerged from a thirty-day wilderness experience in Shoshone National Forest. Their purpose was apparently to be secluded for a long period; rather than emerging occasionally to shower and restock as is typical for long expeditions, they had resources delivered to prearranged drop-off points every ten days. I asked one of them if she felt differently after this experience. She said that she thought so but that she needed a few weeks to process it.
The day's ride turned interesting south of Thermopolis as it entered Wind River Canyon. The river has eroded through upthrust crust. Signs indicate the exposed rocks' ages along the first ten miles of the canyon: it gradually transitions from 150 to 600+ million year-old layers. The tilt of the layers conspire with the depth and narrowness of the canyon to create an illusion that one is descending when going southward, though my legs and the river were telling me differently. Before I got close enough to the river to see the direction of its flow, I actually stopped to check if I had a slow leak in the rear tire. Even once I had explained the illusion to myself, I could not shake the feeling that I was descending. At the campsite that evening, I saw a sign alluding to the illusion, so I guess others are fooled as well, particularly as their legs don't give any indication of an upward trend.
I stopped for a break at a store just to the north of Boysen State Park. It stocked fireworks and beer, so I bought a can of Coors for the evening. The end of a long day of cycling is just about the only time that Coors is tasty.
After walking through the narrow but short tunnels at the end of the canyon, I emerged at the Lower River campsite in Boysen State Park. There I met Mary and her fraternal twin sons Thomas and -- huh, I seem to have forgotten the other's name, though they both made quite an impression. (If you're reading this account, I apologize; I'm terrible at remembering names, but I remember you very well.) They were traveling by car from western Massachusetts. Mary has a background in environmental science from Harvard, but transitioned to studying and improving how elementary teachers teach mathematics early in her career, and is now a third-grade teacher herself. Her husband, who had to return to Massachusetts early for work, is a musician and community developer. They live on a farm and apparently raise a type of dog that protects sheep -- or anything else that it imprints on as a puppy, including, in one case, pickup trucks. She and her husband rode a tandem on a 6000-mile tour when they were first married.
Our initial connection was that she and her two sons unicycle. In fact, they had three unicycles with them so that they could practice while traveling, so I got to ride one for a bit. She taught most of her third-graders to unicycle last year; not surprisingly, it helped several students become more engaged in academic lessons as well.
Thomas and his brother are delightfully precocious in different ways. We talked books for a while, and I got a lecture on Asian knights from Thomas. Thomas struck me as more introspective and susceptible to becoming obsessively engaged in esoteric subjects, while his brother seems to be intelligent in a way that probably makes school easy for him. Of course, I only talked with them for a couple of hours, so I could be totally wrong except that they're obviously abnormally intelligent. In any case, we moved onto a game of Hearts near dark, and then I headed back to my tent.
That evening was a welcome reprieve from the typical behavior of children. In Yellowstone, I witnessed many bored children -- and, not surprisingly, bored adults. In contrast, Thomas noted that there was no excuse for being bored, as one should always be able to find something absorbing in one's surroundings, echoing my thoughts exactly.
There I met a few locals and a group of men trucking hay into Casper. Conversation was pleasant -- similar to those that I had last year on the midwest trip -- and topics ranged from touring to baling hay to sheep herding to local news. The truckers gave a friendly honk when they passed later that day, and I actually encountered one of them again on the road the next day.
Unfortunately, lunch didn't sit well, so I rode the next sixty miles into Casper in a headwind with an upset stomach. The stomach issues blocked my hunger later in the day; and hunger, of course, leads to weakness and potential bonking. I think my salt balance was also off, but I couldn't seem to correct it with Gatorade: I'd suddenly get overwhelming urges to urinate that had to be obeyed. Needless to say, I wasn't at my most cheerful, and I let myself swear at the wind a few times to relieve some frustration; but I did make it into Casper. In Mills, just outside of Casper, I stopped at a Subway and inhaled a footlong and almost half a gallon of 7-Up. I only stopped sucking down the soda when the incredible sweetness became bitter, an indication that I had sufficiently replenished my resources.
I camped at the RV park behind Fort Casper and enjoyed a refreshing shower.
Susan drove the pilot truck that was called out to carry my bicycle. She's been in road construction for a long time and was in charge of orchestrating the many contractors engaged in that particular operation. One of her three children is following in her footsteps by apprenticing with her.
The wind never appeared that day, and with the fifteen mile boost, I decided to ride through Medicine Bow and camp in Rock River. Rock River actually has a motel that must have been ridiculously cheap; but it was booked for the entire summer by a university paleontology program out of Pennsylvania. (What is with all the folks from Pennsylvania on this trip?) One of the instructors kindly offered to let me use a shower, but as I had just showered and done my laundry the night before, I declined. Instead I parked my bike in the local park, got a second dinner of a grilled cheese sandwich and a root beer float at a streetside stand -- the first dinner had been in Medicine Bow -- and stopped by the bar for a beer.
There I met a woman, the owner, who is studying at the University of Wyoming to be a petroleum engineer. If she's not careful, she's going to become one of those people who live life with a chip on their shoulder -- in her case, for pulling herself up by the bootstraps from small town life. I got a long and aggressive lecture on petroleum engineering that was clearly intended to impress on me that she was not a country bumpkin. That said, she was also friendly, and she too offered to let me shower at her and her husband's place, but I declined again and headed back to the park to set up the tent and call it a day.
Nevertheless, it was a multiple hour ride to Laramie, and the terrain continued as arid high plains. I found myself in a contemplative mood with few distractions, so I thought, what the heck, let's do a bit of a review of the life of yours truly. I find that a periodic thorough mental checkup is not a bad idea, and tours are a great way of getting into the right mindset. After warming up by remembering every teacher I've had, I got into the slightly more interesting and treacherous terrain of examining all of my adult decisions. Fun! Finally, I got around to that most pertinent of questions: if I kicked the bucket that day and was granted the opportunity to regret, would I? The crux of the question, I think, is whether I'm living my life in a way that is too forward looking. Am I putting anything off that is crucial? I think the answer is no. Some might look at my career and say that it's just started; but in fact I made one or two important (relatively speaking) contributions during my PhD work, and I've made one now at CU Boulder, so all is clear on the career front: I don't just have potential, but rather have both potential and prior contributions. Life at home? I'm wonderfully happily married to Sarah, and I think we do a good job of fulfilling our wedding vows, so all systems nominal there. I've always had a yearning for adventure, which I actually postponed acting on for quite some time, but I clearly started addressing that as well. So check on (the lack of) unfulfilled yearnings.
Of course nobody -- or few people, anyway -- wants to die. It's good to have hopes and aspirations, which I have plenty of, and I'd prefer to have a crack at fulfilling them than not. But I also think that it is imperative to have a handle on death so as not to live in fear of it. We are all mortal after all. And the best way I've found for having such a handle is to acknowledge that I am happy with the years that I've had so far -- that they could not have been better -- and that while additional years would be great, the future can in no way improve my perception of the past. We may make certain practical sacrifices in expectation of future returns, but those sacrifices should only be of a superficial nature, not ones that can lead to regret.
My ruminations ended as I approached Laramie. There I refueled at a Safeway before heading for the Wyoming/Colorado border. My intention was to find a place to camp in Fort Collins, but I arrived so early that I passed up two KOA campgrounds, partly because I've semi-seriously forsworn KOAs after my experience of July 3. Instead, I called Sarah and then my mom to find out if a state park south of Fort Collins allows overnight camping. As far as I know, there is nowhere to camp in Boulder County except 15-20 miles into the mountains, so I wouldn't have been surprised if the same held in Larimer County. While waiting for the information, however, I downed a quart of chocolate milk and a PowerBar. I thus found that my body was telling me very clearly that it was capable of finishing a 145 mile ride that ended at my bed. Furthermore, I realized that I'd reach Diagonal Highway before dark, and Diagonal Highway itself has a shoulder wider than a lane, while my touring rig had two red flashing lights and fourteen rear reflectors (I'm not kidding). Thus I finished the tour in eleven days rather than twelve.