The thermometer had sunk into low teens and the intrepid trio of travelers had courageously slept indoors at a hotel in West Yellowstone braving the comforts of warmth, friends and family. From the outside of the hotel room, it looked quite normal, indistinguishable from the other 87. Theoretically, if you looked inside you would see a hotel room resembling the rest. But, an aerial view inside the room would expose an abstract painting splattered with an explosion of geometrical shapes from the neon dry bags and Thermarests which disrupted the conservative array of pre-installed furniture and 7 adults having to play hop scotch with the few square inches of unoccupied space to get across the room. With the wave of a magicianâ€™s handkerchief, the 7 adults spilled out of the impossibly small hotel room and made all the food at the continental breakfast disappear. This would not be as remarkable if the buffet did not include omelettes that were a chemically crafted combination of neon Velveeta and Egg-Beaters.
Just as promised, the Yellowstone National Park had been closed to the vehicular masses, and reserved for our own enjoyment and safe passage. Days before, I asked a Park Ranger if we could still ride our bikes through the park after it closed. â€œLet me put it to you this way, a snow plow slid off the road,â€� Was her cold response. It seemed quite obvious she was ready to get all the tourists out of the park so she could be on vacation.
â€œSweet! So youâ€™re saying we can,â€� I thought enthusiastically as she walked off.
Old Faithful erupted, exactly as described by the hotel clerk, except for one detail. We did not have to share the view with 4,000 other eager tourists. I could swerve blindly from one side of the road to another, a personal over-sized bike path through some of the most beautiful scenery a mortal could imagine. Buffalo somehow managed to appear out of nowhere while I got lost in my pedal strokes. I suddenly found my way, startled by the appearance of the car-sized creature a mere 5 feet away from me, silently chewing on some grass.
Towards the end of our day we had climbed into the snowy elevations and crossed the Continental Divide. We dropped down into West Thumb to find a camping spot before it got too cold. Wind and snow inspired us to seek more comfortable accommodations in a nearby building.
We explored the psychedelically painted pools of scorching effervescent liquid. Steam rose from the pools with an ethereal quality, dancing with the chilling gusts of cold air and fading towards the heavens. Streams of super-heated geyser water trickled towards the shore, singeing the delicate waves on contact. I had found myself on another planet with no signs of human life for hundreds of miles and explored the area with the care and interest of an astronaut. We were treated to an explosive sunset that blasted its way over the mountains, foreshadowing the powerful storm that would follow.
Weather patterns brewed up a fierce climate while we relaxed with the comfort of our indoor accommodations. Cued by our departure, the storm was released the moment we stepped onto our bikes. A dualistic presence of ice and rain ensured that we would experience the worst of both worlds. Rain soaked us as we climbed up towards the next divide crossing where it promptly fluctuated between a combination of snow and ice. An unrelenting wind picked up, ferociously sweeping its way through the park, carrying the ice into our face with tremendous force. Seventy feet off the road I saw a fifty foot tree come crashing down, echoing its power across the valley. â€œOf course this storm waited for us to get back on our bikes,â€� I thought.
It was hard to enjoy the view as we rode out of Yellowstone. I put my face down to avoid the wind and icy debris. Progress was slow, despite pedaling as fast as I could against the elements. After leaving the confines of the park, the weather relaxed a little and gave us the chance to achieve a reasonable dayâ€™s mileage. Enriched by our human-less national park experience, we were enticed to head through the Grand Teton Park with the same private reservation as Yellowstone. We opted to yellowstripe the Great Divide section for more pristine â€œbike paths.â€�
But, our fearless leader Sean passed the turn and we wound up riding along a busy road just East of the vacant wilderness pavement. The weather was so poor that it didnâ€™t really matter, because the Grand Tetons were shying behind the clouds and the wind/ice forced us to put our heads down and grind away at our gears. Our next stop was Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
We dropped into famed ski town beneath towering snowy cliffs and a hanglider floating overhead. I looked up at the colorful triangle and thought how nice it would be to experience moments without gravity and resistance. Two qualities that ensure each and every day, no matter how good of shape we are in, will be exhausting and challenging. But then I realized that in some twisted way; that is also why I enjoy it so much.
In Jackson Hole the next day, we drank beer at the local brewery with Peter Wuerslin and Tim Young, two guys who traveled the world on bikes in the early 80â€™s on what was deemed the â€œToo Tyred Tour.â€� They passed through civil war torn Central America, crossed the Darien Gap down through S. America, and flew over the pond to S. Africa with their remaining funds. Earned some money and continued up through Africa, designed innovative bikes to pedal on railroad tracks to cross the sandy deserts of Sudan. They passed through Iran & Iraq during the war and were the first bicycle tourists ever to enter Tibet. 55,000 miles and 6-1/2 years, they finished their tour around the world. I was what would be described as star struck, sitting across the table from these guys.
Bike touring really didnâ€™t exist in that scope, when they began their journey. Bike racks had to be custom designed to accommodate their gear and special bike frames were also created for the occasion. Communications were comparatively primitive, with fax machines being touted as state-of-the-art. They werenâ€™t just riding their bikes around the world, they were bicycle nomads, living on their bikes.
They couldnâ€™t just have a bottom bracket air mailed to them if theirs broke. They had to get the parts machined, they had to fix things, invent things, to continue their journey. Their life was bicycle touring, much as someone else gets up each day and goes to work, they get up each day and ride their bike. Conversations with them proved invaluable and helped give us insight into our own experience and journey.
They had traveled with three people and commented on the advantage of the â€œdemocracy of three.â€� Decisions will always weigh towards one side, and no matter what the decision is, you have to go with it. A four-person group could reach a 2-2 decision that has the potential to split up the group, making three a powerful number. They continued by describing how they felt like brothers and the extent they would go to stick up for each other, under any circumstances. â€œWe were a force to be reckoned with,â€� Tim said.
Their philosophy of bike touring as a lifestyle was really inspiring and helped solidify our own direction with the adventure. We had yellowstriped some of the dangerously snowy sections of the Great Divide Route and were frustrated by our inability to stick with our plan. We wanted to get bikes designed to ride in the snow so we could continue. Our attempts to get sponsored with snow bikes were futile and we felt defeated when we detoured away from the snowy passes. It would cost a little over 1,000 dollars for each of us to get frames that could accommodate a 3-4â€� wheel that could get some traction on the snow. Unfortunately, there is no way we could afford this. We are not a well funded expedition attempting the worldâ€™s first something or other, we are simply bicycle nomads trying to migrate south towards warmer weather. It appeared so simple under their perspective.
At this point, we would have a better chance at continuing the off-road bike touring if we dropped in elevation some, which was our priority. Trails like the Kokopelli from Grand Junction to Moab, Utah, and the Arizona Trail from Utah into Mexico, offered a promising alternative. If we stayed close to our designated route, we would be forced to take busier highways, plowed and maintained for the multitude of vehicles traveling. Our experiences with black ice and vehicles swerving off the road, just a few feet from killing us, have left us to fear and respect the automobile, especially in icy circumstances. Some of the off-road routes on the great divide trail could put you over a steep pass and drop you down at the base of another. A two-three day ride under normal conditions, and twice that in the snow. The thought of the sky dumping a couple feet of powder overnight, could turn the joyride, into..well.. our last ride, I suppose. Our next stop was Pinedale, Wyoming and an opportunity to get back on the great divide trail. We would consider our options when we got there.
In the Jackson Hole community, effigies were burned as sacrifices to the snow gods, grown men danced various jigs outside of the local brewery to encourage the powder to fall, and we remained the only sacrilegious people in confines of the city that did not want snow (except for Tim and Peter). Luckily, we were granted a snow-free day to pedal out of town, despite our inability to craft up any ceremonial dances to preserve the sunshine. We sailed south along a chocolate ribbon of road, cutting up through the freshly frosted canyon. After one final icy stretch, we made it out and onto level ground. I drifted far behind the others, feeling spent within an hour of riding. No amount of candy or Peruvian frosting given to us by Goatâ€™s dad, could revive me. It wasnâ€™t until after it got dark that I saw the familiar flashing red light in the distance of Sean.
But Goat was nowhere to be seen. The freezing temperatures had taken their toll on my feet, and riding into the night only made my frostbitten toes worse, I could only imagine what Goatâ€™s felt like. Sean was miserable as well and ready to camp, and it was out of the ordinary for Goat to blast ahead of us like this. I reached a junction with a truck stop just 10 miles shy of Pinedale.
I parked my bike near the street and left my flashing light on while I sought warmth inside the building. At first, I wandered through attempting to coax the blood to flow to my feet once again. I cursed the holes in my shoes and aimlessly sauntered through the store, pretending like I was there for something besides the free heater. Eyes of the clerks began falling on me, suspiciously; so I made conversation, hoping to comfort them with my unusually haggard presence.
â€œHave you seen another cyclist stop through here?â€� I asked, as I sat down at a table near the counter and began taking off my shoes and socks.
â€œIf you ask me, I think youâ€™re crazy to be riding this late in the cold,â€� She said and looked at me like I was dangerously dumb.
I struggled to maintain a level of courtesy with my reply, â€œUhmâ€¦well..I actually just asked you if you had seen another cyclist.â€�
â€œNope. Canâ€™t say that I have. Whenâ€™d ya last see him?â€�
â€œNoon-ish, I suppose. Just south of Jackson City.â€�
Her face seemed to flush with concern. She said, â€œHoney, he may be in trouble. Jes last year, a snowboarder your age was hitchinâ€™ â€˜long this road, found a few miles from here, stabbed â€˜bout 27 times.â€�
â€œWow. Did they ever find the murderer?â€� I asked.
â€œNope. They shor havenâ€™t.â€� She slowly and dramatically shook her head back and forth, like I had just given her news of another fatal tragedy.
Just then, the bell on the door jingled and let in a cold gust of air as Sean walked through the door. I couldnâ€™t help but laugh thinking about how I had looked coming in just a few minutes before. Frozen moisture from his breathe had added an extra Â¼ inch of ice to his beard. Failed snot rockets caught on his mustache leaving two green icicles above his lips. His bloodshot eyes rolled around the room while he tried to pull off his gloves. He laughed when he found me sitting at a table with my shoes and socks off, trying to rub some circulation back in my feet. Somehow, his feet, inside Keen sandals still had plenty of life to them. We were not the picture of sanity, verified when I glanced up at the clerk behind the counter, shaking her head.
â€œHave you seen Goat?â€� He asked as he inspected his icy beard with his frozen hands.
â€œNah.. But the lady behind the counter informed me that he is probably bleeding on the side of the road from knife wounds.â€�
â€œOh really,â€� he replied incredulously. â€œThatâ€™s too bad. I sort of enjoyed his company.â€�
The lady interjected, â€œIâ€™m closinâ€™ it on up in here. Yaâ€™ll are welcome to hang â€˜round outside. But I gotta lock up and you donâ€™t wanna be stuck in here all night.â€�
I surveyed the room and saw the shelves of food. I was certain I would enjoy a night in the food mart. But I obediently stepped outside and paced around in the cold. We were both dumbfounded by the disappearance of Goat and exhausted enough to set up camp without him but Sean claimed he had seen Goatâ€™s tire tracks and was sure he was ahead of us so we pushed on. A huge raised pickup almost hit Sean as he crossed the sizeable intersection. I followed behind and feared something was wrong with my bottom bracket.
I had one seize up on me just before setting up my bike for the trip and wanted to get the best one available to prevent any failures. A bottom bracket should not fail. Phil Woods was reputed to have some of the best bottom brackets, so I splurged 150 dollars on the finely crafted component, handmade in San Jose CA. It started to feel a bit loose; soon it evolved into an aggravated grinding rattle. And within about 15 minutes the cranks developed a significant wobble that accompanied the painful sound of clenching metal. The right side of my bottom bracket completely blew out and little ball bearings were littering the highway. I thought back to the day it arrived in a sleek box, with each little piece sitting in a slot perfectly form fit to it. A work of art, really. Goat and Sean settled for the bottom of the line Shimano BB, which set them back about 8 bucks. I was furiously disappointed with Phil. My pathetic bike hobbled towards the edge of town where Goat was patiently waiting for us.
The man seemed un-phased by the ridiculous cold we slid through all day and night. Didnâ€™t see any need to stop at the gas station, had no frozen limbs to defrost, and so he kept going. We were expecting a package at the post office the next day, and we had to pick it up early before it closed. So he charged ahead stretching our daily mileage into about 80. Camped out on the side of the highway behind some bushes and I woke up early to get into town.
The post office was closed, and the sign on the door explained that it was Veteranâ€™s Day. We would have to hang out in Pinedale over the weekend. I found a hardware store/bike store and was able to get a new bottom bracket, a bottom of the line Shimano. There was a nice coffee shop with free internet access that we spent a good amount of time at. Small enough place that our conversations were quite transparent. And a guy working on his computer at the other table heard us whining about having to spend the next few days in the snow. He invited us over to his house to spend the weekend.