“I’ve gone to look for America”
I didn’t need the odometer to tick over 20 miles to figure out that my map was wrong. I was looking up the road and judging from the fact that I couldn’t see the ridgeline, I knew I was nowhere near the end of the climb. But really, 20 miles on a single climb? I’d never experienced anything like it in my life; this climb was going to last longer than some of my training rides.
And it wasn’t just that the climb was long. I was on a touring bike loaded up like a moving truck. Four panniers, three giant bottles, a handlebar bag, plus a tent and Therma-Rest pad strapped to the rear rack. My bike weighed 100 lbs. That’s why even though the grade was often only four or five percent I was pedaling in a 32×26 gear. At 5 mph, it was going to be lunchtime by the time I reached the top of Togwotee (say Toe-guh-tee) Pass.
The climb in question lies in Wyoming, just outside Grand Teton National park and is, for the record, all of 22 miles, not the 5 miles my Bike Centennial map claimed. These days the organization is known by a new name, Adventure Cycling, and I was using their maps to plot a course from Glacier National Park to Crested Butte, Colorado.
I can’t so much say I planned this trip as I was infected with a vision. A friend in the town I lived in Western Massachusetts had filled me with tales of the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. Some years back he had been a sales rep for an outdoor company that produced backpacks, sleeping bags and the like. His stories of riding and skiing the Rockies were circulating in my bloodstream like malaria. The only cure was to go see them for myself.
This was 1991, so there was no Internet for research. I ordered maps from the back of the Bike Centennial catalog and scrapped my plans to ride my bike from Memphis to Atlanta. Why that had ever seemed like a good idea for a mid-summer bike tour, I can’t tell you, but my new plan was going to be 100 percent awesome. I would fly into Missoula, Montana, then ride north to Glacier National Park. I would ride Going-to-the-Sun Road, which Bicycling Magazine had pronounced the prettiest road in America. Then I’d head back south through Missoula and down through the Bitterroot Mountains and into Yellowstone National Park. Next would be a short jaunt further south to Grand Teton National Park and then I’d ride across Wyoming and into Boulder, Colorado, where I’d meet up with some friends and do a ride into Rocky Mountain National Park. After a few days in Boulder, I’d continue south and into the heart of the Rockies, ultimately finishing in Crested Butte before flying out of Gunnison. By my reckoning, I would cross the Continental Divide seven times and ride more than 1700 miles before the trip was through.
What could go wrong?
Mountains Make Weather
It wasn’t until I reached Kalispell, just outside of Glacier National Park, that someone mentioned how it usually rains in the afternoons when you’re in the Rockies. That little detail became, well, it became something of an issue for me.
Take my visit to Glacier. I rolled into the park in the afternoon and it started to rain. With steep mountains crowding the sky and forest encroaching the road, the experience was surreal, as if I was riding into the unlikely world of a video game. The thought I had was that I was in a landscape meant to remind man of his place in the world, that this was a place we could not conquer.
I set up my tent as quickly as I could manage then waited out the rain. When it broke hours later, my boredom got the better of me and I headed out for a ride. I began heading up Going-to-the-Sun Road, even though there was no sun and I knew I’d need to double back to Avalanche Creek campsite where all my gear was.
I climbed past waterfalls, past mountain goats keeping sentinel on impossibly small rock outcroppings, past The Loop, the Weeping Wall and Triple Arches, climbed up more than 3000 feet on dank asphalt and I stared up into clouds that shrouded the view of Mount Gould from view. Around a switchback I encountered the unthinkable: A huge gate closed the road.
One of the centerpieces of my trip wasn’t to be. Going-to-the-Sun didn’t go all the way. Crews dynamiting snow out of Logan Pass caused such an avalanche a large chunk of road careened down the side of the mountain with the snow. Going-to-the-Sun Road had never been opened later than June 15 I was told; I was there June 22. What I would later learn was that Glacier was experiencing the coldest, wettest, latest spring on record. Great.
The next morning when I woke, the temperature was a balmy 39. Following a late breakfast (I didn’t emerge from my sleeping bag until almost 10:00) at the restaurant at Lake McDonald, I went for a short hike on which I came to the conclusion I was in the park not just the wrong day, but the wrong month. I struck camp.
My hasty retreat led me back to a campground on the outskirts of Kalispell. Escaping the shadow of the mountains brought warmer temperatures and dryer air; the combination helped my attitude. It was in the campground I met a couple from northern Alberta, Canada, who told me they’d been heading south to Kalispell for vacation since the 1950s. He loved the fishing. He then told me the most amazing thing.
If he had it to do over, he’d have spent less time fishing. I’ve yet to meet a fisherman who believes it is possible to spend too much time fishing. He wished he’d seen New York City, learned to swim.
The wonders of this place never ceased.
My days developed a consistent arc. Compared to other campers, I was slow to rise, but once on my bike, I could pedal the beast at a pretty good clip. On flat ground I could often maintain 16 or 17 mph. Climbs, not so much. I tended to eat a lot in the saddle to minimize stops and while the other cyclists I saw were off the road by 1:00 to avoid the rain, I kept at it. I’d pull over to don my rain gear and keep rolling.
That plan wasn’t without its shortcomings. Wet shoes and socks stained black greeted me each morning. South of Missoula, as I neared the Bitterroot Mountains I encountered a hail storm that made me question my endeavor. I was riding through a broad valley with nothing but fields to my right and left. There wasn’t a gas station or other building in sight and when the chilly rain started to tock against my helmet there was nothing I could do. Soon, marble-size hail was beaning my back, arms and hands and I cried out in pain. Three lumps lodged in my helmet. Had I been wearing one of today’s ultra-vented models, I can tell you I’d have been brained like a character in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
If anything could ever teach me the value of being the tortoise, rather than the hare, pedaling for six hours a day was it. I’d planned my route according to the placement of campgrounds, with a goal of no more than 80 miles per day. I ceased to think about my pedal stroke; pedaling became as automatic as breathing.
I’d have given one of my arms for an iPod. The quiet, which could go unbroken by the noise of a vehicle for upwards of 10 minutes left me with little to do think and once I’d had my fill of me I would try to play back favorite songs in my head. I spent the whole of the climb up Chief Joseph Pass singing Peter Gabriel’s song “Wallflower” to myself.
The descent down from the pass bent like a river and I took the opportunity to sit up no-hands and have a snack. Touring bikes aren’t like typical road bikes. I was riding a Specialized Expedition which had a wheelbase on the order of 110cm; the chainstays were so long you could fit a pump behind the seat tube. With two panniers hanging from a lowrider rack that positioned the bags’ center of gravity next to the quick release, the bike was so calm you might wonder if it was on Lithium.
When I rode out of the mountains the Big Hole Basin opened before me. It was a place of such desolation to my eye that any time I watch the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam’s view of Mordor conjures this Montana location for me. A broad plain extended nearly 15 miles in front of me and close to 20 miles to both my left and right; a rim of mountains fenced the rest of the world from view. Why the road was here was anyone’s guess. Every 50 feet orange poles 20 feet tall marked the edge of the road to let the plows know how to color inside the lines.
Suddenly the road gave out at what has to be the most ironically named community in the United States: Wisdom. Aside from a couple of wooden homes largely wind-stripped of paint, the only outpost to give name to the place was the gas station—which was closed—and a restaurant that seemed more bar than food dispensary.
The elevation was a bit more than 6000 feet and I tried to imagine if what I was seeing was the best summer could offer the place. Half an hour later I passed my second ranch in the basin. There were a few head of cattle and two sturdy horses. The breeze feeding north through the valley contained the damp chill of a milk bottle and the sky was the grey of depression.
To settle here, I thought, is a triumph of imagination.
After more than a week nearly alone the campground I chose in Yellowstone National Park came with a welcome diversion: people. There were more than a half-dozen cyclists nearby. That evening we ate dinner around a fire and traded stories. I’ve forgotten all of them save one.
A German couple confessed that they weren’t serious cyclists. She less so than him. They looked fit enough, so without this confession I’d never have guessed what they said next: They were doing more hitchhiking than riding. They couldn’t answer our questions quickly enough. How do you do it? Just stick out your thumb. Where do your bikes go? There’s lots of room in the back of a pickup truck. Are you ever afraid of who stops? No—anyone who stops for a cyclist is pretty nice.
Hitchhiking was one of those activities, like Russian Roulette, that my parents had warned me against until they were breathless. It was certain death. They’d rather I eat Drano.
The next morning something clicked. I realized that I might need to try their strategy. The figure eight of roads in Yellowstone comprised some 164 miles. If I were to see much in my two days allotted, I’d have to give hitchhiking a try. I began with a ride in the back of a jeep up to Mammoth Hot Springs. Not bad. The stunner was my next ride. A family with four kids took me in their RV back to my campsite, which turned out to be theirs as well.
The RV was small and every square inch was in use for storage. Cookware hung from the ceiling; books protruded from nooks and dry food spilled from cupboards on the hard bumps. How six people slept in that wheeled box, even if not all of them were full-size, I’ll never guess. We ended up having dinner together and the father offered to take me with them to Old Faithful and Upper and Lower Falls the next day.
My climb to the top of Togwotee Pass was yet another hasty retreat from a national park, this time Grand Teton. I spent the previous day trying to remember the full lyrics to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” because five of the six hours I spent on my bike were rain-decorated. I was hoping that crossing the Continental Divide would deliver me to warmer, dryer weather.
At the pass I made a snowball and asked the driver of an RV the size of an 18-wheeler to snap a picture of me holding my chunk of ice on the first day of July. The incongruity of the moment was just what I needed and I chuckled as I began the 31-mile descent to Dubois. I opened up my handlebar bag and settled into a lunch of a banana, a few granola bars and an apple, all consumed at 35 mph. A tailwind helped me cross most of Wyoming in two days.
I rolled into Boulder just in time for the Fourth of July. A teammate was spending the summer there, living, racing and in early July, still looking for a job. Somehow we got the idea to ride up into Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road as an appropriate way to celebrate the holiday.
My buddy Ed was on his Colnago, which was geared for racing, not toodling like a tourist. He’d roll from switchback to switchback, pulling over to wait for me to catch up. Each time I joined him, he’d update me on the views, the foliage, the evolving climate. Ed was a one-man training partner, coach, tour guide and naturalist. I was sure he’d kill me, either with information or enthusiasm.
Hours later we reached the pass, at an astounding 12,300 feet. Though I’d acclimated to the thin air of the mountain environs, this was the absolute high point of the trip. It may explain why with the one exposure remaining on my disposable camera I took a picture of the mountains rather than getting a shot of the two of us looking light-headed.
The way back down was arguably the most fun I had the whole trip. On the big sweeping turns I could look out at surrounding fourteeners and with the bike more maneuverable because my bags were in Ed’s bedroom, I could actually attack the descent. We passed pickups, a couple of small RVs, even a convertible Cadillac with the top down—the driver of which waved to us as we rolled by—and with too much speed to consider alternatives, we shot over the yellow lines and past a tour bus. I can’t recall a day where 55 mph felt less intimidating or more exhilarating.
By the time I rolled into Buena Vista I’d begun rising earlier and quitting earlier. I’d managed to avoid any rain since climbing over Togwotee Pass. But after dropping down from yet another mountain serpentine and entering the narrow valley that led to Salida, clouds ripped in and prepared to dump their payload, and I knew it would fall on me. Colorado 285 was straight and wide like an interstate and semis were passing me going 80 mph. I didn’t care for any of this, but then lightning struck, first literally, then figuratively.
The bolt exploded less than 300 yards from me. The Who would have envied the thunder. I fixed a single thought: I don’t belong here. That’s when I remembered the German couple in Yellowstone.
I dismounted my bike, turned and stuck out my thumb. Can you imagine the sight? Some skinny college student in halogen Lycra with an ice chest on his head and his thumb cocked like that of a serial killer.
A Volvo wagon, the kind that fits a Girl Scout troop and two tons of their cookies, pulled over just as the first splotchy rain drops fell. We picked up my bike with the bags on it and shoved the whole thing into the back of her car. I climbed into the passenger seat and the driver, a woman in her 40s, turned and held out her hand.
“I’m Ellen. I figure you must really want to be out of here.”
Ellen was an empty nester. Daughters in college, husband putting in big hours at work, she was headed to Gothic, an outpost up a dirt road from Crested Butte where she was going to do a wildlife count for the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. She was concerned about the planet decided to roll up her sleeves long before saving the planet became hip. Her adventure sounded serene. We parted ways in Gunnison; my adventure was coming to a close, hers just beginning.
Over the weeks, I saw a part of America I really didn’t know previously. Sure, I saw pristine lakes, a legendary geyser and that whole “mountains’ majesty” until I wanted nothing so much as a job. I’d love to go back; it’s been 20 years. But what I’d most like if I retraced my steps would be to meet those people again, to bump into the couple from Alberta, the family in the camper, do another ride with Ed and talk to fascinating Ellen. What is Ellen up to these days?
Originally published in Peloton Magazine