Days 77 & 78: Braving Yellowstone and reflecting on the tour

After a cold night at Colter Bay with evening temps in the upper 30s it was time to hit the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Highway north into Yellowstone. 

I had heard countless times in the days previous, starting with coming down from Breckenridge – it’s the most amazing place I’d ever see, and some of the most dangerous riding I’d ever do. Oh how right they all were.

Dave, Bob and I were all heading out at the same time, but when I saw them climb on their Surlys  (so many tourists riding Long Haul Truckers and Disc Truckers out here… But I love my Randonee. It’s a 5th appendage) I lingered around Colter Bay. I was genuinely happy to see Dave and so happy to catch up with him over some beers the night before. He’s a riot and cracks me up with his wit and South African charm. But it was a reminder that I’m on the TransAm, doing the same ride as so, so many others. I didn’t like feeling that all my riding has already been done to death, or that there was no element of the unknown. All the services needed are in the map. There’s no element of surprise because passing tourists always tell you what’s ahead. I wanted to ride alone, and I wanted to ride into the unknown. And on that sole level the TransAm is maybe the worst cross-country route to take on. The problem solving is so limited in comparison to making your own way.

When I did head out the traffic was already heavy, but I had a shoulder and was ok… For a while. And then I got my last wonderful view of the Tetons:

These mountains are magical. They soothe in an extremely profound way. I felt it the second I first saw them and continued to feel it every time they were within eyeshot.

I had to get my snapshot from a South Carolina couple driving around the country for the summer:

The road to Yellowstone’s South Entrance wasn’t necessarily an easy one. I faced a pretty steep climb but got to fly down the other side. I was excited to get into the park. I mean, it’s YELLOWSTONE.

I saw Dave and Bob stopped at a pull-off chatting with a retired couple on recumbent trikes doing the eastbound TransAm. I stopped for a banana and to say hi, and heard the bicycle touring TransAm hamster wheel conversation that had become so familiar since joining the trail that it had become as predictable as a second rate Hollywood romantic comedy – the same old chatter about the same old things. It had become so commonplace that I predicted what they’d say next in my head, and shocker, I was right, every single time. I had to keep riding. I felt antsy hearing them talk and wanted to get back to my bike. I left them behind without thinking twice. 

And then I made it to the park…along with many, many others. A scene unfolded that would become very familiar over the next day and a half:


People fighting each other for photo ops. And guess what? I’m not all that different:


And then I entered the gauntlet.


So many cars. So many people funneling into that park, and even before the line you see above formed they were getting way too close to me. WAY to close. When I showed the ranger my receipt for payment a couple days before entering Grand Teton I asked him to please tell the drivers to watch out for us. 

It started out ok, surrounded by so many fantastic trees with the most welcome of overpowering smells:

With glimpses of unbelievable canyons:


But then I started to feel very unsafe. The highway through Yellowstone doesn’t have a shoulder. While this is never my first choice, it doesn’t automatically make me feel unsafe. What DOES make me feel unsafe is massive RVs zooming by at 45mph within a foot of me through steep, winding roads with their momentum throwing me off balance, only to right myself to have cars do the same all over again. Non-cyclists don’t get it – wind from cars going fast enough and close enough can make you fall over, even with a load to anchor you. And in Yellowstone that can be a pretty harrowing proposition:


What frustrated me was that not unlike the TransAm, 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. Yellowstone is an absolutely unbelievable, beautiful place. But making my way to Grant Village I never felt safe pulling off the road to absorb it. If I were to pull off, that would mean I would have to get back on the road, and the car traffic was so heavy that I worried I’d get hit. And this is saying something – for over 20 years I’ve never been as scared of cars when riding as I should be. Hell, I think riding a loaded touring bike through Manhattan is a breeze… And a welcome one. I miss it more and more each day. 

Clearly frustration was growing and I didn’t like it. But at the same time I didn’t know how I couldn’t be frustrated. And I wasn’t alone. So many cyclists told me about the dangers and some even suggested hitchhiking through it or renting a car. I wasn’t ready for the first option and certainly wasn’t willing or able to pay for the second. I just trudged on and tried to focus on the road and staying alive. 

I made it to the Grant Village campground a little before 3pm and felt exhausted. Not physically, but mentally. My brain needed a break. And for the first time in quite some time I hung my hammock at my hiker/biker site in the full campground (I benefitted here from the same policy that I did in Colter Bay) and took a nap for a few hours. I didn’t even intend to, but it was needed. 

When I woke up around 5 Dave and Bob were setting up camp. I chatted with them for a bit and learned that they were headed to the lake for a swim and then dinner. I wasn’t even tempted to join them. I just wanted peace and calm after the stress. I went to the lodge to pay for wifi so I could work on this blog (yes, paying for wifi… in a national park…in 2016) and download some Dead shows for the riding ahead of me. I lost out on both counts. It was just so slow, probably because everyone in the lodge was using it. Cell service in these parks is pretty much nonexistent. 

When it was dark I headed back to the campground across the street and Dave was polishing off his daily six pack near the bathrooms. We chatted for a bit, talking about the nature of cross-country touring. It’s just such a big undertaking and you can sometimes lose sight of it because of the length and time involved. He started in DC, me in New York, and to think we made it all the way to Yellowstone with the end of the road (comparatively) right around the corner was kind of mindblowing. Yet every morning we just climb on our bikes and do our thing, very unceremoniously. 

Dave was much more proud of himself than I was of myself. On a certain level that’s just his personality (and mine for that matter). But for whatever reason I need that Pacific Ocean under my front wheel to feel that I did anything. I can’t explain why. Intellectually I know that’s ridiculous. I’m well over 3,000 miles at this point and I’ve been through so much…so many surprises; so many detours from my comfort zone, so much sheer joy, so much pain, so many lessons learned, so much geographic diversity. So many experiences that no one or nothing will ever be able to take away from me, including plenty that I’ve never even hinted at here.  But my obsession for years now has been to connect the North American oceans under my wheels and this isn’t over until that happens. I need that symmetry. I need that sweetest of punctuation marks. I envy Dave for his go-get-em, between-marine-engineering-gigs-while-his-girlfriend-works-a-job-in-the-Bahamas attitude. But I’m not out here for that. That night I really appreciated that Dave and I happened upon each other at a dramatic point of the tour, tackling the beast that is Hoosier Pass. And I was truly grateful to have seen him again. But I was also very aware that we’re not doing the same ride. We’re not out here for the same reasons. It was at that very point that I started to realize something needed to change. After weeks of being on the TransAm with all that it entails I needed to reclaim the two-wheeled cleanse that I set out to embrace. I just didn’t know how yet.

*** *** ***

The next morning I packed up for the exodus from America’s Park. I was weary from the word go, and thought seriously about hitchhiking out to West Yellowstone. And like clockwork, Dave and Bob were on their bikes right when I was. To tour is to reject a normal life for a bit, but ironically, it becomes its own kind of normal with its own routine. I asked Dave where they we headed. West Yellowstone, MT… Of course. Exactly where I was going. I sighed and let them ride. 

Before long I saw some sulphur water spitting out of the ground:



I have no idea why these things happen. My geographic training is heavy on Marxist and post-structuralist understandings of the socially constructed urban cultural landscape. I know nothing of the physical environment. I kind of like not knowing. It adds a sense of wonder.

And then I made it to the Continental Divide yet again. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve crossed it, but even still, every time it’s a victory:


And then again:


The Yellowstone roads this day were hard. The climbing to the Divide was steep, and even starting early the traffic was heavy. But my only option was to push through. 

The descents from the Divide were fantastic, and evened the score between me and the auto traffic – if only for a few minutes we were going the same speed and they couldn’t bully me. 

The road flattened out towards Old Faithful, the iconic geyser that is the face of Yellowstone. I almost kept riding past the access road to it. I just wanted to get the hell out of the park, but I knew I’d regret it. I made the right turn. 

And that’s when the tourist trap reared its head in full. The masses had descended, and they were rabid for water spitting out of the ground. I wandered around the lodge, watching people buy overpriced food and souvenirs. I checked the estimated time for the geyser to spit – about an hour. So people watching was in order. 

I made my way to the benches surrounding Old Faithful to get my spot:

Before long people were literally shoving each other out of the way to get a choice spot. I just shook my head, wondering why I was there. 

Soon enough, showtime:

I guess it’s pretty incredible?

As soon as the spit of water lowered people scattered away en masse. I made my way to the bike and rode right through the traffic exiting the parking lot. I bet some of those drivers waited 20 minutes. I scooted on by. That time I won!

The next stop was some geysers down the road:


And then I remembered why I was here. What an amazing place that just consumes your senses with otherworldliness.

And my first bison sighting!


How about that! It was so wonderfully surreal. Other riders have seen all sorts of amazing creatures like elk and moose. I just had the pronghorns in the southern part of this amazing state. I added to my western creature collection. 

And then it was off to Grand Prismatic:


Whooooaaaaaaa… Such amazing colors. Stranger than fiction. 

The ride to Grand Prismatic was a tipping point. I started riding to turnarounds in the road to get off the bike and stick out my thumb. A gave it 15 minutes, then 5, then 5… Three strikes and I was gone. I didn’t have the patience to hope for a ride. Back on the bike. 

Eventually I made it to Madison where the road took a turn. The road got wider and my mind got clearer. I was getting close to the park’s exit and traffic was on the decrease.

Which better allowed me to enjoy this:


And then, my 14th state:


And home free:


I made a beeline for GrizzlyRV, a private RV park that has hiker/biker sites. I rode up, walked in the door, and got right in line behind Dave and Bob. That’s when I was done being on the TransAm. I spent the rest of the night trying to figure out a way to Missoula without taking too much time and I came up with something I’m so much happier with. 

The next morning I started to make my way to Bozeman on my own without knowing how happy I’d be that I did..

-J

 

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