Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hoosier Pass, 11,539 Feet - fuck yeah!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Day 45-46: Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado


When I planned for my early flight home from Pueblo, I had overestimated the time it would take to reach Pueblo. From Hot Sulphur Springs, I was at most three days away. I still had the trip's highest pass to climb - Hoosier Pass, at 11,542 feet - but from there it would be almost all downhill to Pueblo. I decided to spend the weekend soaking. My Friday night hotel room was unavailable on Saturday night, but available on Sunday night; I would spend the intervening night camping in the town's free park, set against the Colorado River.

According to town history, the Ute Indians used to enjoy the hot springs here before the inevitable white settlers took over, and now a private resort rests on the porous hill where the springs bubble up. The resort features an amusing hodgepodge of pools nestled into the hill's cracks and crevices, two dozen of them in different sizes, styles and materials, all connected by twisting catwalks. There were perhaps a hundred other guests while I was there, including families with children. Apparently the springs are a regional favorite. I also counted numerous international visitors, including quite a number of Russians, as well as a few asians.


My plan was to soak and read. I'd finished A Confederacy of Dunces. Apart from the library, closed, the only source of books in town was a small shelf of used books at the local gas station. I came away with a beaten copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I'd never read, and I'm now in love with Harper Lee. My mental image of her is a picture of Catherine Keener, who played her in Capote. I was already in love with Catherine Keener; now I'm doubly in love with Harper Lee.

After a day of soaking, I was not even disturbed by the hourly freight trains that run along the gully between the resort and the city park, thirty yards from where I was camping. The same gully is used by recreational ATV drivers, so the trains slow down and frequently blast their horns in warning.


I crawled out of my tent on Saturday morning and went hunting for breakfast. Along the way, I met another pair of cyclists, following the TransAm from east to west, who had also camped in the park.

I was poking around town after breakfast when my chain broke again. This time, I was relaxed and ready for it. I pulled my bike into the shady parking lot of the hotel I was coming back to. I felt I had absorbed enough from the previous incidents to handle it at least semi-competently. Each time my bike breaks, I learned something about how to repair it. Last year, spokes, this year, chain. At this rate, I'll be a competent mechanic in just a few years.

By this time, my hotel room was ready. I checked in, cleaned up, bought a new used book (a Tony Hillerman potboiler), and went for another day's soak. In the afternoon, it rained. The clouds were breaking up when I left the resort. The olfactory effect of the new moisture was dramatic: the water hungry prairie grasses and wild flowers all released their scents, filling the town with an odor like sweet bees wax. I walked through the back streets of town, inhaling deeply. The other effect of the rain was a full, luscious rainbow. Most rainbows that I have seen fade away before they reach the ground. But, because of the stony mountains behind the rainbow, this one appeared to be firmly anchored to the ground.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Day 44: Walden to Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado

Wind again, leaving Walden, but the roads were the flattest I had seen in some time. Twenty miles passed, then thirty, and in the space of a few miles, I was back in the mountains. My spirits rose dramatically. At last I was free of the unchanging windy plains. New surprises lay around every bend, rewarding exploration.


Mountains!


The mountain road took me up and over Willow Creek Pass, elevation 9,683 feet, where I crossed the Continental Divide. For the eighth time? The ninth? It was a surprisingly easy climb.


What, again?


I had ahead of me thirty miles of downhill, less a mile here and there. The road followed Willow Creek. Most of the creeks I'd passed on the plains were questionably brown. I stopped to swim for the first time in weeks.


Willow Creek


The road skirted the town of Granby, built on the grassy hills above a wildlife refuge / hydroelectric dam.


Wildlife viewing area / hydroelectric dam


Almost before I knew it, I was in the village of Hot Sulphur Springs. I assumed from the name that there were in fact bathable springs here, but hadn't confirmed it. If there were, I was going to take a day off to soak. I learned from the locals that yes, there was a resort here, it had multiple tubs, and day passes could be had. All I needed to know. It was a Friday night on a holiday weekend in a resort town; once again, I lucked into a hotel room.


Hot Sulphur Springs


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Day 43: Riverside to Walden, Colorado

The day dawned, miraculously, without wind. I saw Peter and the kiwi couple again. I had just finished breakfast at the local cafe when they arrived. Peter and I compared notes for the day ahead. I was going a short 48 miles to Walden; Peter was aiming to make it 110 to miles to the town beyond that. I had begun to hate him.

I made an easy ten miles, expecting at any time to see Peter at my back. He had to pass me, and I only prayed that he wouldn't catch me walking up a hill. It was during a two mile climb that I first saw the black speck in my rear view mirror: my nemesis. All I wanted was to reach the top of this hill before he caught up with me. I was spurred to a 50% increase in my climbing speed, from 4mph to a whopping 6mph. I fought to maintain speed as the black speck grew.

Peter and I reached the top together, where a new valley spread out below us. "I don't know if you saw me stop back there," he said. "That was the A Bar A Ranch. A lot of celebrities go there. Jimmy Fallon was up yesterday. Those're some good granny gears you've got. Looks pretty comfortable. I met a couple of guys touring on recumbents. One of them fell asleep in his seat, went off the road. He banged himself up." I vaguely shared story about once almost falling asleep on a bike after overworking. He politely waited for me to finish, said "I'm going to ride ahead. See you on the trail."

I rode my brakes as I watched him slide away. I used to speed down hills for the fun of it, but now they were my best chance to rest.

I crossed into Colorado two hours later, and took a break in the only shade available: the shadow cast by the "Welcome to Colorful Colorado" sign.


From where I was sitting, it didn't look appreciably different from Wyoming, though mountains loomed in the distance. After a week of windy plateaus, I actually looked forward to returning to the mountains.


Still no end in sight


I reached Walden early, at around 4pm, and found that every hotel room in town was taken by members of a 70-man seismology crew that was part of an oil survey. Camping in the town's public park was legal - and apparently even encouraged, as the town had the notion that campers helped chase away hoodlums - but not my first choice. I availed myself of Walden's surprisingly good community pool to shower and swim laps for a half hour. At least I was clean and cool.

I found one more motel, asked if a room was available and got a maybe, pending word from the seismology coordinator about a group of four in the field who hadn't yet shown up, and wouldn't I check back in an hour? I cruised Walden for dinner, checked back, and lucked into Walden's last room. I celebrated with a pint of Ben & Jerry's and a load of laundry at the local laundromat.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Day 42: Rawlins to Riverside, Wyoming


Sinclair


A few miles east of Rawlins lies the town of Sinclair, which leaves no mystery to its industry. "Sinclair" is Sinclair Oil's Wyoming refinery. This explained the numerous trucks loaded with metal pipe that had passed me previously.


Endless


Today, continuous 40mph winds. The first 20 miles in my favor (woo!), the remaining 40 miles a grind of sidewinds and headwinds. A day with heavy wind is like two without, sucking all my energy and leaving me wrung out at the end of the day, without even my usual 7pm endorphin rush.

At day's end I reached Riverside / Encampment, an historic copper mining area, and checked in to the EZ RV Park. Though I was too tired for company, I fell in with a group of assorted travelers that included: Peter, a bicyclist from Georgia on the TransAmerican route; a young couple from New Zealand on an extended world tour, traveling America by car; and an older couple from Australia, also on bicycles. The others had all been there at least a day and spent an evening drinking together, and it quickly became clear that Peter had commanded center stage, completely dominating the conversation.

Over dinner, Peter brought out a laptop to show his travel photos. I laughed when it appeared, and pointed out that it weighed twice as much as my tent, to which he defensively replied, "I travel light. I'm doing 80 to 100 miles a day." He pushed the laptop at each person in turn to make sure we saw his photos. Perhaps I saw something of myself in him, or perhaps I resented him for showing the energy and enthusiasm I felt I had lost, or perhaps he really was the self-aggrandizing jerk I imagined him to be, but regardless, there wasn't enough room in the conversation for both of us, which was a shame, because I was much more interested in the kiwi couple, who'd been traveling the world for six years(!).

In the moments when Peter was hunting for certain photos, I quietly asked the kiwis about their lives, and learned that after college, they'd lived in and traveled out of the UK for most of 6 years, taking menial jobs to support further travel. Peter would wait politely for other speakers to finish sentences, before resuming with his own narrative. As the others began ordering drinks, I regretfully begged off and turned in for the night.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Day 41: Rawlins, Wyoming


In between meals and reading from a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces that I bought in Lander, I watched television, that gateway drug to heroin and religion. I fear for what I may become.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Day 40: Jeffrey City to Rawlins, Wyoming

I stopped for breakfast at Jeffrey City's single cafe, where several tired looking older women seemed surprised to see me. I learned from my waitress / cook that Jeffrey City had once been a uranium mining community of 5,000 people. The mines tapped out, and the community blew away, leaving only a husk of a town. New surveys were being conducted, and with new mining techniques developed in the last half century, it was estimated that new mines might support a work force of perhaps 500 people.

Back on the road, I faced another day of heavy winds and endless plateaus. Rocky outcrops rose in the distance as the composition of the land began to change.


Watch for Graboids, it's Tremors country

By late morning, I reached Split Rock, a significant landmark along the Oregon Trail. A small "interpretive center" was nestled against the rocks, and from the plaques sprouting there I learned several interesting fifth grade facts, notably: the legendary Pony Express only operated for 18 months before it was replaced by telegraph lines, costing its investors a million dollars; many Mormons followed the Oregon Trail seeking to escape persecution, which was news to me because I'd thought Mormonism originated in Utah.



The rest of the day turned into another mind and body numbing slog. A few miles from Split Rock, I reached a turnoff onto another road at right angles, putting me solidly against the wind for 45 grueling miles.



The only service in those 45 miles was a cafe called Grandma's. I arrived there, heated and exhausted, ready for lunch and a nap, and found it locked up. Through one broken window I could see an wall on the other side that opened to daylight. I walked behind the building, where sprawled a junkyard full of vehicles and cast-off industrial equipment that I assumed must be left over from the defunct uranium mines. The open wall I had seen was the bay door of a filthy garage bay that adjoined the cafe. I found my way into the empty cafe, used the restroom, and filled my water bottles with ice. Afterwards, I wheeled my bike into the junk yard and had lunch and a nap in the shade of a half container. Between this and last night's empty motel, I was starting to wonder if I had left the land of the living.



The day dragged on, wearing me down, setting me back to swearing at the wind and hills, leaving me with only my angry perseverance to keep me moving forward. I climbed six miles from one plateau to another, crossing the Continental Divide yet again, and reached Rawlins at the end of a 12 hour day.



The road forked into Rawlins; one branch leading left to the interstate services; the other, right, into town. My route took me into town. I stopped at the first hotel I found, the Jade Lounge, run by an Indian family. Chatting with the mother, I learned quite a bit. They'd lived in California for 18 years and just moved bought the motel here a year ago. Winters were hard with lots of snow. The road just beyond the motel was under construction while they widened it, and they were losing money due to the construction.



I had decided to take the following day off to recover from fighting the winds. I parked my bike in my room, ate dinner at a Thai restaurant, and then went for a walk in the dark through the sealed off road construction. Walking down the dirt road construction zone in the dark, with neon signs in the distance, I was reminded of Burning Man, currently going on, and found myself missing it. I went back to my room and stayed up late watching cartoons and comedy shows.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Day 39: Lander to Jeffrey City, Wyoming



Between Lander and Rawlins lay two days and 130 miles of vast, windswept prairie with few stops and minimal services. I stocked up on supplies before leaving Lander, but as per my usual MO, I drew out my break until noon; and suffered through the worst heat of the day to make up for the late start.



After several hours of fighting the wind, my legs gave out. I looked for a shady resting place, and found a dry creek bed lined with trees, but it was so full of red ants that I didn't dare stop moving. Instead I leaned my bike against a fence post and crouched in its meager shade. Normally I would've napped after eating, but the elements were inescapable, and I returned to the road with a heavy belly.



I walked for several miles. I was put in the mind of old westerns in which riders sometimes walked alongside their horses, and imagined Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach chasing each other across these sere plains.


Sometimes the bike and I need some time apart

Though the immense vistas were inspirational, the grinding wind and heat blunted me of all my smart-aleck comments, whimsical notions, and fond reminiscence, left me with nothing but the drudgery of pedaling. And so, please enjoy this series of images without comment...











The midway point between Lander and Rawlins is tiny Jeffrey City, population 106. I was determined to reach it by sundown, and I arrived there just as the last pinpoint of sun dipped below the horizon in my rear view mirror.



There is a motel in Jeffrey City. I'd been warned, by my map, and by a woman in Lander, that it might be unattended. Sure enough, I found the office door locked, with a plastic bag pinned to it that contained a faded old note instructing would-be guests to call the local bar to check in.



The bar phone was answered by a guy named Tony. I told him I was outside the hotel office and wanted a room. Tony said, "Isn't he there? He should be there," never indicating who "he" was, but giving me "his" phone number.



I tried the new number, and let it ring. While it rang, I tried motel room doors. All of them were unlocked, and every room empty. The first four rooms I tried were trashed, filled with mattresses and water heaters and lengths of pipe, and I wondered if the motel was out of business after all. The phone continued to ring. I hung up and continued my examination. The remaining rooms were all vaguely acceptable.



I hung around in the lot, kicked the dirt, watched the sunset clouds. After waiting for a half hour, I took the room furthest from the road and office. If anyone arrived, I wanted to see before being seen. I showered off all the road grime, ate dinner out of my supply bag, and settled in for the night, trying to ignore the fairy tale quality of my circumstances. In the morning I made my room up as if no one had been there and slipped out like a wraith.

Sunday is the new Monday

I holed up for a couple of days in Lander, Wyoming, while I put my bike in the shop for repairs to the chain, front derailleur, and seat. Next stop, Rawlins, Wyoming.

While killing time in Lander, I came to decisions: I'm going to stop in Pueblo, Colorado. It's the half way point in miles, but its two thirds of the work. Perhaps next year I'll resume from there to finish the trip.

I made a flight reservation for September 10th, so I will be home in time for Mary's birthday. I expect to reach Pueblo by the weekend of the 6th, giving me ample time to pack up and ship my gear.

Meanwhile, here's the last week of back posts.

Day 31-33: Colter Bay Village
Day 34: Colter Bay to Togwotee, Wyoming
Day 35: Togwotee to Dubois, Wyoming
Day 36: Dubois to Lander, Wyoming
Day 37-38: Lander, Wyoming

Day 37-38: Lander, Wyoming



I enjoy figuring out what makes towns tick, asking what's the keystone business here? Most times it's easy. Apple processing. Feed and grain. Cattle. Tourism.

I arrived in Lander in the early evening and was almost immediately struck by certain qualities that I have found to be uncommon in small rural towns. Bookstores, retail health care including optometry and hearing, a family care center, a job retraining center, a children's museum, an arts center, children riding bicycles to the supermarket with canvas shopping bags, boutique art shops, artistic tiles by each sewer drain informing people to be mindful because this sewers drain to the Popo Agie river... In short, Lander is a progressive liberal town in the heart of rural Wyoming. I couldn't see an immediate explanation for it.

In size, Lander is equivalent to Dillon, Montana; but Dillon is little more than a stop on the I5 interstate, offering services to partway travelers. Lander appears to be far more prosperous than Dillon. In quality, Lander more closely resembles Tonasket, Washington; a town where the primary industry appears to be processing apples from the orchards of eastern Washington. Lander and Tonasket have in common a low frequency of franchise businesses. Both towns seems still to own their souls.

In the morning, I stopped for breakfast at the Cooking Crow. It was a weekday, and the place was empty but for a dour waitress who served me with a grim sort of humor. I remarked to her that Lander seemed like a very progressive, liberal town, hoping to spark a bit of conversation. Her response: "Unfortunately." And, "It's those damned NOLS people." I was discouraged from digging deeper.

I dropped my bike off at Freewheel Sports, and explained my situation to Don, the kid behind the counter. Mary had called ahead, and they hadn't received my package of parts, but they were expecting me. I left my bike and Don agreed to call when the parts arrived.

Later, I followed my tingling indie coffeeshop sense to a place called Folklore, where I settled in with coffee and wifi. Toward the end of the day I was approached by the barista, who was curious about my Asus Eee PC. He turned out to be one of the owners, along with his wife. Shane and Jess had been here less than a year, having moved here from Fargo, North Dakota. They seemed like a hippy dippy couple, so I asked him the same question: what's up with this place? It was NOLS, he explained.

NOLS is the National Outdoor Leadership School, with, at its core, a 27-day wilderness training program. Shane described NOLS in intelligent, glowing terms, definitely not to be confused with Outward Bound, as an organization that taught people a broader sense of humanity. NOLS' mission sounded thematically similar to the Brian Utting Massage School that I attended: to bring out the inner adult by teaching a deeper sense of humanity.

It seems that NOLS is well entrenched in the local community, and bicycling around the neighborhood later, I passed a number of their buildings. In terms of real estate, they seem to be on a par with local government. Shane explained that NOLS has long butted heads with the more conservative cattle ranchers who otherwise influence this area. Perhaps the conflict is a good thing, creating checks and balances, though I would point out to the cattlemen, if I could, that Lander is certainly more prosperous than many other towns of its size and consistency that I have seen.

Speaking of bicycles, I got a call from Grant, the owner at Freewheel, letting me know that my package had arrived. I went to meet him and reiterate my situation if necessary; but he seemed to have a clear idea of what he was doing. He was startlingly young. Later, I would learn that he was only 19, had worked at the shop for six years, and taken it over from the prior only in the last year. A lot of young area guys, he said, bought $50,000 trucks and $10,000 welding tools, and then foud themselves in debt with no work. The bike shop was his $50,000 truck, and his dream was paying for itself. After a day of working on my bike he charged me a preposterously low $27. I gave him $50 and still felt like I was cheating him.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day 36: Dubois to Lander, Wyoming



In case I hadn't mentioned, the cities of Dubois and Lander reside in the aptly named Wind River Valley, where the steady Wyoming wind scores clean the desert underbrush.



I set out from Dubois with a strong tailwind that only varied as the road curved left or right, carrying me easily through miles of desert. It was forty miles in that the road diverged from the valley, climbing up out of the bowl of it to the grassy plains above, and that's when I learned to sail.



My path turned perpendicular to the wind for fifteen miles, and I was intermittently buffeted by strong sidewinds that grabbed my fairing and yanked me across the road. At first I held the wheel rigidly, struggling to tack into the wind and keep to the shoulder. I had often imagined mounting a sail on a bicycle at Burning Man; I quickly learned that my fairing was more than enough sail. Eventually I learned to relax, loosen my grip on the steering, and lean into the wind, with one foot hung down like an outrigger for stability.


What a crosswind looks like

Contemplating the wind, I wished for an organ that would let me see it, as I imagined that its currents must be beautiful and terrible. As a city boy with no experience in activities that are influenced by wind, I've never had to think much about it; never considered it as a constant, or as part of a lifestyle. But the longer I cycle, the more it impresses upon me its utter influence. It always makes its presence known, even in its absence. I understand why cultures that were dependent on it ascribed it faces of godhood, because it is so powerful, yet so capriciously arbitrary.



As the road led up out of one bowl and into the valley above, so it eventually crossed over to another bowl, there to sink below sunset colored cliffs and rejoin the wind's path.



I rode through the Shoshone reservation and was dismayed by the amount of obesity there: 3 or 4 out of 5, more among the women than the men. Bad diet and diabetes are among the enduring legacies that our nation has left the Indians, and while some tribes, such as the Kalispel, are dealing with it smartly, with PSAs and community health centers, others are not, and clearly the Shoshone are among the nots.

While I was stopped at the Shoshone reservation, a man in the passenger seat of a mini-van gestured me over to ask about my bike. After a couple of slurry questions, he asked, "Can I have it?" This is a question that's been asked of me by homeless drunken Indians in Seattle, as well as a few pubescent street punks. I frowned for a moment, wondering if this was some cultural expression that I didn't understand, something more than the simple minded question that it sounds like, before answering "No, you can't have it." He seemed unfazed, and I moved on.

It had been a long day, and I counted each of the remaining 20 miles from the reservation to Lander. I arrived in the early evening, with 75 miles behind me, and looked for the bike shop where Mary had agreed to ship my parts. I found it - closed, of course. I checked in to the Downtown Motel, which had caught my eye because its lot was bursting with flowering potted plants, which gave it a cozy look, a look that said someone cared, even if it was in all other ways unremarkable.



Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Alive in: Dubois, Wyoming


Laundromat in Dubois


This seems to be the week for bike parts wearing out. First my chain snapped and my front derailleur was bent. Today, my seat broke. The seat is attached by two bolts to a cuff that circles the post. One of the bolts sheared off, leaving the head of the bolt inside the collar, where I can't remove it. I think I heard / felt a snap when it happened, and thought I'd lost something, but couldn't see anything wrong. It wasn't until I stopped for a break, and the whole rear end of the bike pivoted backwards, that I saw what was wrong. The second bolt was still attached, but the seat had come loose from it. I was at least able to reattach that, and I will hobble along on one screw tomorrow while Mary has a replacement part delivered to the next town ahead.

Meanwhile, I made it over Togwotee Pass, and rarely have I seen such a dramatic change of landscape in such a short distance. From the west side of the pass to the east, I've watched the world change from dense forest to mountain lakes and meadows to rocky peaks to dry valley to painted desert.