Monday, August 6, 2012

Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming Days 9-12

 Here is a brief recap of our trip up to this point. In eight days we had ridden most of the way through Montana and were stopped for the night at a lodge near Polaris. We had dealt with climbing over quite a few high passes and had been rained on for three days straight between Ferndale and Lincoln. We hoped to get in some long days since the terrain flattened out after Polaris. Little did we know this was not to be.

We ate a good breakfast at the lodge and hit the road at around 8 am. The road was paved and mostly downhill for the first 12 miles till we got to the ghost town of Bannack and started a slight climb over the Bannack Bench. Bannack was a mining town in the late 1800s and was actually the state capital for a few years. Now there is nothing left but 30 or 40 decaying buildings. 

We hit some more pavement and then started our only decent climb of the day, the climb to Medicine Hall Sheep Lodge Divide.  We were to climb to a modest altitude and it was over around 20 miles so I figured it would go easily, I was wrong. Things were going well till I felt a little breeze on my face. Quickly the breeze turned from a zephyr into a full-fledged gale that succeeded in slowing our pace to a crawl. At first I relished the challenge but after an hour of making basically no progress I was ready to just get it over with. Usually we were able to average around 10 mph up a moderate climb like this but we were wearing ourselves out just to achieve half that. Intermittent gusts of at least 30-35 mph were strong enough to bring up to complete stop and we eventually had to push for a few hundred yards until we had recovered enough to get back on our bikes. 

We finally crested the Divide and were rewarded with a paltry mile of downhill till we had to turn back into the wind and fight it for another 40 miles. I don’t know about Joseph but by this point I felt awful. It was hot and as a consequence I had no appetite even though I could tell my body needed food. I was even hardly able to swallow my water which has long ago passed the lukewarm stage. The road ran along a river and was slightly downhill but the vicious headwind meant we still had to pedal hard to keep going faster than a walking pace.

 We were riding through a gorgeous section of country with sagebrush and amazing rock formations but at this point I had trouble appreciating the beauty when it was all I could do to just move forward. After what seemed like endless hours of fighting the wind we turned till we had a strong tailwind. Harnessing this we blazed along the river for a few miles till we turned once again and soon had a crosswind that was so strong Joseph said that a few times he could feel his tires sliding sideways during a few gusts. We reached a frontage road along an interstate that we had to follow for seven miles to make it into Lima then turned right once again into (you guessed it!) a headwind. Joseph was feeling slightly better than me so for most for most of the never-ending last few miles into town he was in front while I was able to draft behind conserving my strength just so I could keep up. We rolled into Lima at around 4:30 having covered 97 miles, 60 of which were either with a headwind or a crosswind. We pedaled to the first restaurant we saw and collapsed into a booth. I can’t imagine what the waitress thought when we were so spaced out we could hardly order our food. With a burger and fries in my stomach we climbed back on our bikes and rode to the motel across the street. We were planning on camping that night but the last thing I wanted to do was to deal with setting up a tent after the day we had had. I took the room key, rolled my bike inside the room, took off my shoes, collapsed onto the bed, and thought, “I have to do this again tomorrow!?”

 We woke up the next day shortly after dawn and went to the restaurant to grab some breakfast. Once again I had trouble getting much food down even though I knew that I would need all the food I could get for yet another long day. We planned to ride into Idaho and needed to cover 80-85 miles to get to the next town of Island Park. Usually this distance wouldn’t be too bad but after the day I had yesterday I knew it would probably be a long and hard ride. We rode out of town around 8:30 and followed the Red Rock River for a few miles. Shortly before the Lima Reservoir we ran into a couple cowboys who were driving 500+ head of cattle to grazing grounds further up the valley. We stopped and talked to one of them for a while but we didn’t spend much time there. After dodging some huge bulls, cows, and gangly calves for 2 miles we finally got through the herd. 

  Once again around lunch time the wind started up. Luckily it was mostly crosswinds but it still was demoralizing.  In the tiny town of Lakeview we found an abandoned house that had a working water spigot outside so we spent half an hour drinking cold water and trying to get more food into our systems. (The only food I ate throughout the entire ride and didn’t get tired of was Sour Patch Kids. I could wax eloquent about these sour, sugary, and artificially flavored and colored bits of paradise, but I will save that for another essay.) The road became increasingly rougher and soon it was nothing but rocks with a little dirt filling in the cracks. This served to exacerbate my already painful saddle sores till I was hardly able to sit down without grimacing. It felt as if some fiend had surreptitiously replaced my chamois with 40 grit sandpaper and had even thrown in some gravels for good measure. (For you non-cyclists out there the chamois is the padded area in cycling shorts that are designed to reduce chafing.) I would shift my weight around time and time again but I was never able to get comfortable. Luckily we soon crested the Red Rock Pass, snapped a few pictures, and then pedaled into our second state. 

We still had around twenty miles to Island Park but luckily there was not much uphill into town. We grabbed some Powerades at a gas station then went to a restaurant for a delicious dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. Once again we were too shot to set up camp so we grabbed another motel room and I’m sure as we were eating junk food and taking our showers we both hoped for a better day tomorrow.

The next day we quickly grabbed some throat clogging breakfast sandwiches at the gas station then hit the notorious rail trail that was about 20 miles of washboard torture. After a while I got fed up and took a detour on a gravel road paralleling the trail. It was much easier going and we soon hit pavement once again and crossed over the Warm River. It was a 12 mile detour to get to Ashton Idaho but we were both hungry and wanted some real food, not snack cakes and energy bars. With a tailwind we easily got into town at around 12:30 and had lunch at a diner. I had fish and chips while Joseph had a sandwich of some sort. Both of our meals were washed down with copious quantities of soft drinks. They are something I don’t drink when I am at home but it’s about all I dreamed about on the ride. I guess my body wanted something to drink that was both cold and had calories. Needless to say ice cold Coke after 45 miles of riding in hot weather is about the best experience ever!

 We rode out of town and left pavement on Ashton Flagg Ranch Road. We crossed into Wyoming around 3:00 and were soon able to see the west side of the Tetons. We climbed up and over the rocky spine of the Tetons then descended through dense conifer forests along the border of Yellowstone. We reached Grassy Lake, found a good camping spot, and set up our tent. 

A Loon on Grassy Lake
Grassy Lake should have been called Mosquito Lake because I have never seen mosquitoes that were so ravenous as well as numerous.  We used up the better part of a bottle of Deet but we were  still were swatting our arms and legs as long as we stayed outside. We devoured our rice and tortilla dinner then after we had rinsed off our dusty limbs we sprinted into the tent to escape the hordes outside.  We were tired but we actually felt fairly decent after the previous two days of wind. I couldn’t wait to see the Tetons tomorrow; and I was not disappointed.

 The morning of day 12 we awoke to see the teeming flocks outside. The insects we didn’t kill last night must have called for reinforcements and boy did they attack!  As I rapidly changed into my biking clothes I looked down on my arm to see at least 15 mosquitoes from my wrist to my shoulder. I swiped my left hand along my right arm and was gratified to be able to squish at least half of them which had the effect of smearing my blood that they had been able to extract along my arm. Knowing more would soon return I put on the rest of my clothes as quickly as I could, yelled to Joseph that I was not staying around for breakfast and that it was each man for himself. I threw my leg over my bike and raced out of the campground trying to simultaneously free myself from the black cloud of insects that had descended on the area and to reach the magic speed of 10 mph when they are no longer able to keep up. I quickly was able to escape the worst of the mosquitoes but the terrain prevented me from going very fast. Soon I was passed by Joseph at a speed that made me look like I was standing still. He had the face of a wanted fugitive who can hear the baying of bloodhounds. Knowing the horde would be right behind I accelerated to catch up with Joseph. We were soon able to outrun the mosquitoes but with our brutal pace we soon rolled into Flagg Ranch Resort ahead of schedule for one of the best and cheapest breakfasts we had on the entire ride. I can highly recommend the Huckleberry Pancake Breakfast. Not only are the pancakes about the size of your head but they are literally oozing berry goodness. If you are ever close to Yellowstone I would definitely check this place out! We left the Resort with our bellies full and we soon hit the road between the Tetons and Yellowstone. If you want to know the meaning of fear try riding a bike with gazillion pound RVs piloted by neophytes whizzing by your ears! RVs aside we were being treated to some amazing scenery. I was told before I left home that the Tetons were one of the most beautiful parts of the West and they were not wrong! 

The jagged peaks of the Tetons stretched like stone fingers toward a deep blue sky. With Jackson Lake in the foreground we almost had to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming.  After snapping many pictures we headed toward the twenty mile climb over Towagatee Pass. We topped out at around 10,500 feet which was the highest we had gotten so far. I was somewhat out of breath but it didn’t seem like I was struggling too hard for which I was grateful. The descent down the other side was amazing. It was all downhill and a stiff tailwind meant we were able to cover twenty miles in around an hour. As we rolled downhill I noticed that it seemed that the country really changed from what it was on the other side of the pass. Other crossings of the Continental Divide would reveal that the eastern side of the divide seemed to be much drier than the western slope. I am not a meteorologist but I’m guessing it has something to do with the rain shadow effect and the mountains catching the moisture coming from the Pacific. After more pavement than we had ridden on the ride to date we finally hit some gravel and headed toward Union Pass. 

We were going to camp at a cyclist campground but the place was closed. With almost no food left and legs that felt like cement we decided that a 15 mile detour to Dubois was too much so we pressed on to where we were sure there was a place. After a few miles of brutal climbing we saw the place where we were supposed to eat. It was closed. I thought I had seen a sign saying that a little further on there was a lodge with some food, luckily I had remembered correctly. We saw the sign maybe a mile past the first restaurant and the thought of food lent strength to our dead legs. Once we got there I wasted no time in ordering the taco bar while Joseph got a steak. We were barely able to climb out of our chairs after dinner but we knew we had to find a campsite before it got dark. A few miles further, luckily mostly flat, we saw a nice spot beside a small creek. We quickly set up camp as the last rays of sunlight fled and before we could hardly even wriggle into our sleeping bags we were fast asleep. 

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