High Time in the Rockies

Ashton, Idaho departureAshton, Idaho departure


Ashton, Idaho departure


Journal Entry at camp at the end of Day 1, July 18:

I have been off the bike for nearly 5 months, and it was with all that trepidation that I took to the road again. I stopped out of loneliness and intimidation, used the time to work myself to the bone, and searched my soul for the motivation to continue. Tonight I sit listening to the hurried hum of the mosquitoes, trapped in the great wide open on the other side of my tent fabric, in the northern Tetons. I can’t definitively say this was the ticket to a new successful trip, but after a hot day on rough backcountry mountain roads with meadows a lush green canvas painted with wildflowers and alpine lakes blanketed in lilly-pads, it sure has put some love and life back into my soul. It feels good to be tired and sunburned listening to a stream bubble across the way.

Idaho fields and the TetonsIdaho fields and the Tetons


Idaho fields and the Tetons


I was calling it a warm up, or training ride, but in reality my 660 mile stint down the Rocky Mountains was as rugged and remote, sunny and scorching, as any miles of my AK to LA trip. I was attempting to follow the Great Divide Mtb Route from Ashton, ID to Hartsel, CO, but of course Surly Sue is no mountain bike and so I was never anticipating being glued to the rugged route. I received many a stunned expression as people looked at me and Sue and then questioned my tactics for the ride. My comment was always, “Sue can handle it, I have no doubt it will be me who cracks first.” On that note, it is true; Surly Sue had no mechanical issues nor even a flat tire covering 400 of the 660 miles on gravel or dirt roads, some of which were less than optimal. Further accolades go to the Schwalbe tire I am still rolling on from AK with almost 6,000 miles, 1,000 on gravel roads, all while under a touring load. Perhaps the advantage my setup offered was the narrowness of the tires; I was running just a 32mm front. What this allowed for was my wheels to bounce and ricochet off every rock or pebble encountered, reinforcing my above comment that it will be me who suffers more than Sue.

After a truly blissful weekend listening to great music and visiting with incredible friends, I was delivered to Ashton, Idaho (thanks Cassie and Ben) where I would take off and venture east between Yellowstone and the Tetons on the Ashton-Flagg Ranch road. I was tired and sunburned from the weekend, but quickly found the gentle rhythms that move a bike down the road. The first 10-15 miles of gravel road I came upon where chunky and bumpy, as was the case with almost each new dirt/gravel road I hit along the route, but soon enough mellowed into a cruising dirt road. For an introduction to riding the backroads of the Rockies the Flagg Ranch road was perfect; simply meandering its way through and gently up and over the northern flanks of the Tetons. The hills were challenging after 5 months off the loaded bike and a weekend of late night dancing, but offered a perfect warm up for the legs. As my journal entry indicated, it was a welcome day back on the bike.

Traveling light through the high RockiesTraveling light through the high Rockies


Traveling light through the high Rockies


Day 2 started with rolling dirt roads leading me to the mega-campground compound of Flagg Ranch. Over the course of a cup of coffee and muffin at the general store I met more bikers (Flagg Ranch is at a confluence of the Great Divide Mtb route and the Trans-America Route) than during my entire ride down the west coast last fall. Odd what riding during the right season is like. Easy paved roads led me quickly to my nights rest at Turpin Meadow Campground to recoup before setting off for the crossing of the Wind River Mountains; a true test of my rusty climbing abilities. I must not have been ready for the challenge, because as I was preparing dinner on my fancy light new Soto stove it melted under the heat and collapsed beneath my pot of water. I would like to note that it was only the third pot of water I had boiled on the new stove. Again I was being taught the lesson that if it isn’t broken then don’t try and fix it. My MSR Dragonfly was of course working fine, but I was interested in something smaller and lighter. Interesting how I am willing to throw my bike at any number of potentially unsuitable challenges (rugged gravel roads under a load and on skinny tires comes to mind) but it just keeps ticking. It ain’t broken so doesn’t need messing with. Of course I didn’t have enough raw food to get me through the 4 day crossing of the Wind Rivers to Pinedale and so I was forced to detour through Jackson to sort out a new stove. I think the deviation from the route was essentially a good thing because it offered me 130 miles of paved highway travel to get back into the rhythms of the road. While in Jackson I met the lunatic/athlete who has previously held the Great Divide speed record, and was soon to depart on another attempt. Covering the whole 2800 mile route in about 12 days put him in a different category and of course had him criticizing my bike, my load, and my general approach. To each their own, I was just out to ride my bike through some beautiful country.

Long straight roads to Pinedale, WyLong straight roads to Pinedale, Wy


Long straight roads to Pinedale, Wy


The road to Pinedale had me facing a more accurate reality; I was increasing my daily distance in the face of increasing temperatures and more arid conditions. It was hard, hot, and windy. Towards the end of the day, as my body was suffering, the wind slowly shifted to my backside and pushed my blissfully down the road. This was something that seemed to occur ever more frequently, and so I was left to struggle and suffer for the initial 50 miles every day, and then find my flow and rhythm with the wind and fly through the remaining 30 or 40 miles. It was a unique challenge to spend 5 hrs warming up to hit my stride. Pinedale also represented the end to the easy section of my ride, as I would soon leave both pavement and trees behind and venture across the desert of south central Wyoming.

Dirt and the desertDirt and the desert


Dirt and the desert


I knew I would be crossing a vast arid landscape, but that turned out to be a slight under-representation. The 230 miles (200 dirt or gravel) between Pinedale and Rawlins turned out to be some of the most remote and rugged I have encounter on my bike. This includes the Dalton Hwy in Alaska. It was cloudless and in the 90’s every day, the wind was warm, dry, and parching, and the water was scarce, the trees scarcer. Crossing the Great Divide Basin, 120 miles of abusive dirt roads, I encountered just 3 vehicles, 2 water sources, and no trees. Why Mother Earth elected to leave trees off the map between Atlantic City, Wy and the CO border is a puzzling philosophical question.

Last water oasis for 70 rugged desert milesLast water oasis for 70 rugged desert miles


Last water oasis for 70 rugged desert miles


50 miles into the crossing, as I filled water at the last water source for 70 empty and parched miles, I was reduced to a 6 mph crawl on a particularly nasty section of road. It was only 2 in the afternoon so I wasn’t particularly keen on camping with the brutal sun and feasting mosquitoes, not to mention my current pace would make it impossibly hard to reach more water the following day. So, I pushed on. At first slowly, then steadily the road improved as the gravel turned into dirt, and occasionally sand, sending me swerving wildly all over the place always close to going over the handlebars. Miles were ticking by, but my concern was steadfast. If I were to have a flat, I could fix it; if I were to have a tire blowout (a strong possibility with the size and sharpness of the gravel on the roads), I would have found myself stranded in a desert with dwindling water and a 20-30 mile hike to the possible salvation of a paved road. I was legitimately concerned, because it would be a death-blow situation to have to cover that kind of distance under those conditions without the aid of a rolling bike. It occurred to me that in over 5,000 miles I had always been sufficiently connect to the steady lifeline of used roads. I had of course covered greater distances between civilizations, but never between water sources, never under such unrelenting skies, and never with so few vehicles. To say it humbled me is inadequate, I was down right frightened. But, just as I was nearing the end of my limits, sun-cooked and spent, the sun drifted overhead and the wind shifted to the west.

95 degrees, a sandy two-track, diminishing water supply, and I manage a smile95 degrees, a sandy two-track, diminishing water supply, and I manage a smile


95 degrees, a sandy two-track, diminishing water supply, and I manage a smile


I was on mellow two-track rolling through an expanse of land so vast that it reminded me of the Arctic Plain, where distances are impossible to estimate, the wind pushing me along. A few dry drainages later, and I had covered nearly 95 miles in one horrendous day. Fear of a desert death pushed me beyond my known capacities, and as the sun set and the wind stopped I was only 20 miles from more water as I lay my head down in my tent. When I was drifting to sleep listening to the still silence of the desert I was thinking about how this mini-training-trip had just turned into its own epic. I was back, physically capable of the rigors, and surviving some tremendous challenges.

Wind burnt, sun burnt and desert torturedWind burnt, sun burnt and desert tortured


Wind burnt, sun burnt and desert tortured


High times that night were quickly zapped when I was forced to endure more sun, wind and dirt, and 85 more miles, to reach Rawlins the following day. It was there that I was sure to find salvation from the sun, a tree to camp under, and water flowing from a tap. How quickly dreams are shattered. Not one of Rawlins’ campgrounds had a tree, or for that matter a spot of shade, and it was with great relief that I abandoned any since of ruggedness and drifted into a hotel. Part of that day’s ride was on pavement, yet as I sat “bonking” and being eaten by flies on the side of the road I wasn’t clear what it was all for. Sure I was allegedly “fighting the good fight” and I had found some liberation on the open road; life was different, unique, and only mine. No-one could usurp my experiences or share my daily rigors, but what joy was I actually finding. I wanted to take a rest day but wasn’t about to waste it in a hotel, nor was I willing to waste it baking in the desolate town of Rawlins. So I picked myself up off the floor and pushed on the next day in hope of finding some trees.

Just maybe some trees in the distance, only bad gravel roads, steep hills and strong headwinds in the wayJust maybe some trees in the distance, only bad gravel roads, steep hills and strong headwinds in the way


Just maybe some trees in the distance, only bad gravel roads, steep hills and strong headwinds in the way


It would take 45 miles ascending 4,000 ft to finally find a tree, but I was also to find myself back in some mountains. Hooray! Unfortunately, I wasn’t nearly as excited after one of the worst days on the road. I meandered gently up in elevation along a decent paved road for the first 30 miles only to find myself deposited on the crappiest, choppiest, coarsest gravel road. I was shot, nothing left in the legs, eating something every mile just to proceed another mile; walking hills out of frustration. The gravel was either big enough or loose enough to render one out of every two pedal stokes useless, not to mention that those skinny tires I was on liked to just shift and shimmy around all the rocks. I honestly did not want to go to sleep that night for the realization that dawn would come and I would do the same thing all over again.

Aspen Alley (very near the CO border)Aspen Alley (very near the CO border)


Aspen Alley (very near the CO border)


If there was any solace as I went to sleep that night it was knowing that I would ride through “Aspen Alley” the following morning. At the end of the alley, I found myself deposited on some pavement and began a rain soaked journey towards Steamboat. I crawled along a 30 mile section of muddy road and up another 4,000 ft of elevation to reach Columbine, CO. At that point it was 30 miles of wet, but paved, downhill to reach Steamboat and the great hospitality of Louie and Joanne. Not a hard decision for me to make; what was another 30 miles tacked onto a grueling 50 mile wet morning? I can’t imagine a situation where Steamboat would not come across as some sort of oasis, but then again I am partial to nice little mountain ski towns. One much needed rest day turned into two much needed rest days as I pondered my predicament; how in the hell did I sign myself up for this? I was riding through some of the most spectacular country in this country, camping under some of the greatest skies in this galaxy, and I could care less.

So, I left Steamboat for my tenth day on the bike with a need to “snap out of it” and “get my shit together” because I was on a fun training trip for a much bigger, longer and harder adventure still to continue. Then the damndest thing happened. I was pedaling along in 95 degree heat at 9,000 ft above sea-level, and I realized that I just really didn’t care. What was the point of drawing, or following, a line on a map at the expense of my love of biking, traveling, exploring, and camping? I was taking photos out of a necessity to document and not any real interest, just the same as I was biking as a necessity to reach another destination but without any real interest. Unfortunately, it is rare that a destination can make up for the exalted status that I have set upon it in order to keep the momentum going. Everything turns out to be anti-climactic; views, roads, destinations, town, campspots, food. This was my experience along the west coast last fall and winter, and against my best wishes and psychological mind games, it was turning out to still be the same this go around. I knew going into this small trip that there were two outcomes; either I would be re-inspired for an extended life of bike-touring, or I would return to the depths of despair I struggled with on the west coast. Perhaps what I came to realize was that the weather along the west coast wasn’t as significant a factor as I had placed upon it, but simply it was a matter of my mental grappling with this form of solo travel. Perfect weather and the most stunning landscapes along my Rocky Mountain ride did little to change my approach to a life on and about the bike. I wanted so desperately to just slow down and smell the wildflowers, but if I did then I was usually just sitting on the side of the road being either eaten by mosquitoes, baked by the sun, drenched in the rain, or blown down by the wind. So, it always seems to me like a better idea just to ride. It was this unforeseen approach that had me staggering into Silverthorn, CO in just 10 days of riding, covering 660 miles and at least 28,000 ft of elevation gain on rugged and remote dirt roads, on what was supposed to be a reinvigorating and fun training ride. Instead of being reinvigorated and inspired I was deflated and lost. I pulled the ripcord and had a family weekend in Summit County. We ate and drank well, enjoyed the nice weather and great communities, and snapped what may be my final image of me on a loaded bike for this trip.

Riding in the RockiesRiding in the Rockies


Riding in the Rockies


I had every intent of releasing this information in a separate post, but it was so intertwined with my experience during this mini-trip that I couldn’t appropriately describe my time without it. I have been idle in CO for over a week now, with some of the time in Colorado Springs, and some time with my sister in Denver. I finally am putting this down on the interweb because I have confidently come to the decision that I am moving on to different pursuits in my life. I wanted to know what they were prior to making that claim, but we all know that is not how life works. I am unable to make the argument that I can both, change who I am and how I experience life on the bike, and confidently make the additional 18 month time and financial investment. The rewards are elusive, making it even harder to justify such a huge commitment. I have invested over 10 years of my life and the cost of a good graduate degree (just in travel expenses) into a life of travel and exploration. I don’t regret a single moment of any trip, nor the decisions that landed me there, but I don’t think another year and a half is going to teach me much more about myself. And, if a grand adventure isn’t about self-exploration and self-discovery then what is it about? Sure I can see how that is possibly a naive view, and that my decision is nothing more than me backing away from a hard challenge and emotional insecurities, but I no longer see it that way. If anything I am pleased with my ability to swallow my pride, admit my shortcomings, and move on; better now than somewhere in Central or South America. Here are a few of the things I wrote in my journal the night before my ride through the Aspen Alley and on to Steamboat.

I hate that I got myself into this.
I hate that every road seems worse than the one before.
I hate that the wind is always in my face on bad days.
I hate my ass because it hates my saddle.
I hate that when things are tough I always look to spend my way to a non-existent solution.
I hate that I am losing my love of bike-touring as a means to explore.
I hate that I no longer enjoy camping.
I hate that bugs can keep up with me and bite me while I ride.
I hate that it has taken me so long to admit all this to myself.
I hate that I am about to turn 30 homeless, lost, and with nothing to show for myself save the sunburn that has me glowing so red I could be stamped Jelly Belly and sold as a cherry jelly-bean.
I hate that I am going to quit.
I hate that I am alone.
I hate that my handlebars always tip over while I am straddling the bike at a standstill.
I hate that I think 5600 miles is weak.

Here are my stats from the mini-epic:
661 miles in 10 days
66.1 mile per day average
5.6 hr per day average ride time
longest day – 94.6 miles in 8.75 hrs.
approx. 28,000 ft of climbing

I certainly feel as though I have expressed enough trauma and difficulty to justify my position, and that isn’t exactly how I want it to go. Without a doubt this last year, and more-so the 6 months of bike travel, were an experience of a lifetime that pushed me to uncover and discover more about myself than I have at any other time in my life. I wouldn’t change it for the world, and I certainly won’t be looking back on it with anything other than fondness. It falls into the second category of fun; challenging and not always enjoyable at the time, but certainly fun to look back on. In the end, not many people have traveled the roads I traveled, by the means I chose to travel them, and I feel good about that. Knowing that none of this is ever a competition I don’t feel bad for not completing the original target. We live, we learn, we move on.

Things are still evolving and unwinding for me, so even if my rolling journey south is coming to a close I am sure there are a few more experiences to pop up in the near future to justify passing along the adventure. Or, maybe I will just decompress with a few more accounts from the last year. Nothing like reliving stories to make you appreciate them even more.

I guess it would be appropriate at this time to thank everyone for their support and the enthusiasm for which everyone followed my adventure. I was under the impression I was doing this for myself, but without a doubt when it was tough I was doing it for everyone excited to see me through. Thanks.

Now to turn 30 and come up with my next move in life.

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