Days 75 & 76: Climbing a mountain through a wildfire and being rewarded with the Tetons

It was a big day leaving Dubois – I had 30 miles of climbing to do, which would lead me into a descent into the Tetons. But I had to reckon with Mother Nature first. I had to pass the wildfire that had been giving me grief the previous few days, and in an up-close-and-personal way. I stopped at the Cowboy Cafe for an elk sausage omlet to fuel up for the smokey road ahead and tried to collect myself, then I was off:

Seeing a gas station with a free giant jackalope exhibit and NOT stopping in is a testament to my focus on the smokey climb:

Before long I passed the city park, which had been taken over by the Forest Service:

And then I was out of town, headed up to Togwotee Pass. 

Thick smoke “possible”? That’s like saying it’s possible that water is wet.

But away from the direction of the wind (and therefore smoke) there was still plenty of magnificent Wyoming-ness:

And then smoke:

Wyoming-ness:

And then my first view of the fire on the day:

Emotions were running deep, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe because it was such a dramatic situation, my mind had to match it. I’d never seen a wildfire before, and I certainly hadn’t ridden through one.

I kept climbing and the cold of the morning quickly gave way to the heat of the day… Temperatures change wildly out here. It wasn’t my strongest climb, and I blame the smoke…which kept getting more substantial:

It really was quite an amazing sight, and I couldn’t help but keep stopping to marvel at the beautiful natural destruction and renewal:

By talking to people in town and the Forest Service I learned that the fire was caused by lightening and the firefighters were letting it burn but containing it. Those living near the site were on pre-evacuation status or something like that. I also heard that locals are very frustrated with how the Forest Service was handling the fire, but I felt safe, so no complaints.


And then I got my first view of a flame, which didn’t translate all too well to photo:

Every once in a while a tree would just blow up in flames, and the firefighters would consume it with water. Clearly this only did so much. Man vs Nature is a losing battle. 

Before long I was in the clear.


It was incredible how quickly the air cleared up once passing the fire. But looking back…


I was only 20 miles or so up the mountain with 10 to go. Two thirds up is two thirds up, but aside from the smoke the heat was beating me down. I couldn’t have been happier though. It was another incredible day on the bike that added to my adventure pretty substantially. And grabbing Gatorade and water at the Lava Mountain Lodge gave me a wonderful glimpse into hummingbird feeding habits:


I’ve seen so many hummingbirds at feeders since entering the Rockies, starting with Guffey at Bill’s place. They’re wonderful creatures that I hardly ever saw back in Cincinnati. Out here they’re commonplace.

The climb went on and I was feeling it. The gradual push wasn’t deceptive, just long, and the wind was fierce (surprise surprise). But the views…


Wyoming is a pretty special place. My pleasant surprise just got stronger, even while grinding through this:
 Which led to a better view of the last picture:

I finally climbed to a point where the fire was behind me and almost outside eyeshot. This definitely called for a bike portrait:


I was getting more worn down with each pedal stroke. But again, the payoff:

WYOMING.

I started to get lost in my head…maybe 17% delerious. My lungs were on fire and I just wanted the climb to be over so I could fly down the western side of Togwotee Pass. When I saw Teton County’s sign marker I knew I was close:

And then I made it. Togwotee Pass, elevation 9,658 feet:


Just like Willow Creek before it, it was a silent victory. No one there to share it with. But it wasn’t much of a victory, because the Continental Divide was 100 feet higher and a bit further down the road:

Talk about a tease! I don’t know why the pass is marked separate from the Divide, but I took them both, and then it was time for what I was waiting for – the descent:

Unfortunately it wasn’t the most satisfying descent. Itwasmuxh steeper climbing up it than it was going down, and again, you guessed it, the wind was a wall I had to push through. My temper took a turn for the worse. I wanted so badly to feel the release of flying down the mountain and I didn’t get it. I’m not proud of this childish lapse but it’s what happened in my head. 

But eventually the big kahuna presented itself, just when I least expected it. The Tetons were visible just beyond the bend:

I was absolutely floored. I was so lost in my head climbing the mountain that I failed to remember what was waiting for me. I was completely overcome. It was one of the most spectacular sights on tour, and tears started flowing. It was another moment where my journey all flashed before my eyes, with my mind running though all the experience I’d had and the things I’d seen that led me to such a breathtaking place. It’s happened several times out here, and these are the moments I’ll remember the most.

And I couldn’t take my eyes off them:

Thankfully the road got steeper the closer I rolled to the base, and my legs and lungs felt some relief. I then made it into Grand Teton National Park proper:

I was getting excited to get up close and personal with the mountains and to setting up my tent in Colter Bay Vilkage, but they were a lot further than I thought. I was spent, but I had more riding to do. On a certain level this wasn’t a problem:

Eventually I made it to the gatekeepers – it costs $20 for a hiker or biker to enter Grand Teton and Yellowstone, which was an utter (and unwelcome) surprise. I’m not crazy about living in a country that doesn’t bat an eye at blowing billions on Air Force jets that will never fly but charges citizens top dollar to ride a bicycle into public land. But that’s a different discussion. 

The late afternoon brought me to the Colter Bay campground, with what would seem like very bad news:

But here’s the thing – they don’t advertise it, but no campground in these parks can turn away a cyclist, no matter how full they are. It’s in the books. Why? Because a) cyclists don’t take up a lot of space and we’re generally only staying a night or two, and b) they don’t want to pick up our remains in 5 gallon buckets in the woods after bears kill us, which is what would happen if we were turned away. It’s not like we can drive 30 miles to another place or sleep in our cars. $12, and off I went to the hiker/biker section of Colter Bay. 

And what a pleasant surprise it was to catch up with Marius, James, and Monty from the night before in Dubois! I was glad to see them. They were a hoot and I needed laughs. We all put some calories in our face and talked about the day – Monty shredded a tire on the descent, and he and James got a ride from the highway patrol into the park. They were beyond satisfied to have not paid the $20 admission while Marius and I were bummed we didn’t have flats ourselves. 

We then decided to go take a swim in Jackson Lake before it got too dark. On the stroll to the beach we heard some kids laughing and playing:

 They were confused by me taking their picture, and James yelled out “you’re the future kids!” One of them yelled back “thank you for the future!” We all died laughing at this. 

And then we saw an anachronism if there ever was one: a phone booth. James got very excited by this, and said “wait! I’m going to be Superman!”


The laughs continued. These guys have absurdist humor down to a T. I needed it and just kept getting happier we had the same goal for the day. 

The lake was fantastic. Cold waters right at the base of the Tetons, which are the most massive, unbelievably beautiful things I’ve ever seen.  


They called for a picture, and I was the only one with a phone. They’ve got the goofy poses down more than me:

Back at camp we had a fire and chatted it up with Max, a solo tourist from Wilmington, DE (where I went through when this tour was in its infancy) riding from Jasper, outside Calgary, to Salt Lake City. Good times, lots of laughs. 

*** *** ***

It didn’t take long for me to decide I was going to stay another day. I wasn’t ready to leave the Tetons, I was beat, and Colter Bay Village was quite a hopping little camper town. Marius was going to push on into Yellowstone, and James and Monty were on the fence. They needed a new tire and needed to hitchhike to get one. But they also liked the camping in Colter Bay and wanted a break. I secretly and selfishly wanted them to stick around, but I tried not to lobby for it. Everyone is on their own ride out here. They just overlap sometimes. 

They decided to hitchhike into West Yellowstone after calling a shop there that had what they needed. I was bummed but grateful for the laughs. 

Before they headed off we all went to the lake again, and oh my, are those mountains more powerful in the morning hours or what:


I spent the rest of the day relaxing, people watching, and blogging with the sluggish signal around the restaurant. But I was in for a surprise at night – I came back to the hiker/biker spots and saw a South African flag on a Surly Disc Trucker… It was Dave, who I rode with from Cañon City to Breckenridge! It was such a shock to see him. He had gone into Boulder to meet his girlfriend, then started riding with Bob, his Warmshowers host in Pittsburgh who decided to join him from boulder to Missoula. We all went to the bar at Colter Bay and caught up. 

I felt recharged from the rest and ready to take on Yellowstone. But it was more of a gauntlet than I thought it would be…

-J

 

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