Archive | July, 2012

West Yellowstone, MT to Sandpoint, ID – That “30 Miles to Portland” Feeling and What I Learn Riding in Cars

22 Jul

 

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Both times I’ve bicycled to Portland, once in 2009 on a whim with a friend and this last May on my training ride to SF, I’ve had the same feeling 30 miles from the goal. By 30 miles to Portland I’m past the challenges of the route, far past the halfway point, but also past the novelty of the surroundings. The two hours of pedaling ahead is less a challenge than something to just endure. 

 
 
The “30 miles to Portland” feeling dogs me from the morning I wake shivering in my tent in Yellowstone and set out teeth chattering through the mists, past my last buffalo chasing her calf beside the river, to exit West Yellowstone and enter my 3rd to last state. Montana mostly looks like Colorado and Kansas had a baby and there’s nothing really new to see, so my surroundings become almost invisible as I’m stuck in my own head. The burn out lasts through a disrupted routine.   
 
I stay two nights in hotels until I can exchange my tent at REI. I had planned to make distance to Missoula and meet my friend Nita who’s got a day off to drive through Glacier, but feeling a little sick from the night in the damp tent, I take it easy on the miles for two days, fall behind schedule, and decide to thumb a ride. 
 
An SUV pulls over and an intense man, thick with age, gets out and asks where I’m heading. When I tell him Missoula, he reminds me it’s 140 miles away, I nod, then tells me to strap my bike on the roof and lets go. Alex introduces me to his wife Shae, a Creek Indian, and their autistic son Josh, tells me if I hurt either one he’ll murder me, and we head off. Alex’s intensity comes from personality and life experience. He served in the IDF, has “knife wounds from when I ran out of bullets” and his first wife and child were killed in a bombing in Tel Aviv. Currently he’s in the Bitterroot to find a plot of land for his family and teaches sustainable living. He’s recently been on the news for coordinating a massive transport of Hay to Colorado farmers, who’s own crop has burnt up in the heat. He’s kind at heart, accepting no money from me for the ride and making sure I get safely to my destination. He also is a “Republican Constitutionalist” birther who hates Obama for his “lies,” much more than he hates Bush for getting us into wars that have killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of people based on real lies, and continues to confuse socialism with fascism, even after I explain the difference. He insults my intelligence, my democratic beliefs, and jokes about chucking me out of the car even as he drives me to my destination and makes sure I get there safe. We hug it out after I’ve got my bike off the roof, and I think with no sarcasm “Thanks for everything, you dick” A year ago I’d hold these beliefs against him, but after months of meeting kind, thoughtful people who spout Fox news buzzwords every third sentence, I’ve a more balanced view of my Red State brethern. Generally nice people with terrible voting priorities.  
 
Nita picks me up in Missoula and we drive to Whitefish, catching up on our lives since we met years ago spinning fire at a house party, and then catching up on our pasts as we realize we don’t actually know each other that well. During the long drive up to Whitefish, and the long drive up to Glacier, we tell our stories. Most of hers ending with “And then I knew I had a friend for life” and mine ending with “and then the first sentence of that journal entry reads “Do I ever tell anyone this happened?” We share mistakes, sucesses, and both come away realizing how easy it is to forget how little your past self knew, and how much better a person they made you because of it. 
 
We’ve decided to hike the Grinell Glacier overlook, 7 miles up. I see the destination as we enter the park, stone plates jutting high out of the crumbling dirt mountain. The final mile takes us through a green praire flecked with yellow petals and steep climbs across red, green, grey, purple and tan confetti of sedentary rock shards where marmots warm themselves on rocks and surer-footed mountain goats graze. Exhausted, I sit at the overlook, the strong wind that carries a river of clouds to break on the stone plates above me blows a fine cool mist from the packed snow below into my face. In the distance a green slope disappears into the valley. Closer to me a sheer rock face looks like a brick sticking out of the frozen ground, surrounded by a deep blue glacier, thinning year by year, the last remnants of a dead Ice Age. A chipmonk nudges my ass to break me from my meditation. A marmot wanders around another couple resting here from the climb. Nita looks at our path back, uneasy at the prospect of the steep terrain on her reparing knee. I turn back to the overlook and keep staring, squeezing the last moments from this as I realize that this is the beginning of the end. When I turn away from here, the journey winds down and the “lasts” begin. The last Tuesday, then the last Wednesday, the last 400 miles, then the last 300. The last 2 states, then the last one, the last mountain, the last town, the last journey of a 20’s now past, then the last look back at an incredible 3 months as I dip my rear wheel in the Pacific. I’ll return home and for the first week people will ask about the journey and I’ll tell them what happened. After 6 months home no one will ask about the journey, when I can tell them what it meant. I visit Glacier again the next day and hang around Whitefish for another two days until my legs get itchy and it’s time to go. 
 
My final day in Whitefish is wistful but the further West I go, the sadness disappates. Two days ago I’m in Libby, MT when a Windstorm knocks out all the power, ruining my plans to see the Dark Knight Rises. I head to a bar and while on my first beer the power is restored and the movie is a go. As I wait in the ticket line I marvel that yet again, drinking has solved all my problems. Last night my Warm Showers host tells me he works in the local brewery and I get to sample amazing IPAs on their porch. It’s easy to appreciate days like this because I’m now at that “15 miles to Portland” feeling, when I realize that I have to be present in the moments now, because sooner than I realize, this will all be just memories and a sense of accomplishment to begin the next journey with.  
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Riverside, WY to West Yellowstone, MT – Birthday Beneath the Sea and a Bison Infestation

14 Jul

On July 6th, my birthday, I wake at my campsite in the city park of Lander, WY still buzzing from the day before; a perfect day of biking. My first thought is “Paul, you’re living your dream, biking across the country and midway through the last of the 7 goals you set out for yourself at 24. Way to go” My second thought is “Paul, you’re homeless, jobless, and living in a tent somewhere at 30 years old. So many of your High School teachers were right”

 
The morning before I left my Warm Showers hosts dreading the ride ahead, but well rested since the Fourth of July in Rawlins was absent of fireworks, gunshots, BBQs, or sparks of any kind since we’re living in a tinderbox. Over breakfast my hosts prepare me mentally for the day ahead; Heat, Headwinds, and Open Praire. I pass deer munching on grass in the graveyard and my legs slowly loosen up passing beside mountains across the open prairie. I’d been told to expect nothing in between Rawlins and Lander, 130 miles away, but along with heat and wind, my threshold for “nothing” has been warped by Kansas. I descend a steep hill, roll across the flat bottom and keep speeding. Looking down at my odometer I realize that a miracle is happening. For the first time on this trip; tailwind. An early birthday present that propels me across this rippled landscape with the wind in my ears. I’m not fighting the wind with my head down, so I have the time to look around and what I see, the rolling crests of mountains, the curving ridges of land, looks strangely familiar. I’m still trying to place where I’ve seen it when I stop for water at the only bar for miles in Jeffery City, an old Uranium mining town that still has the infrastructure built for prosperity but not the people. I place my order for a bowl of chili, the bartender looks at me for another minute, then says “You want cheese on it?”
“Yes”
He stares for another minute, then heads off to get the chili, which takes ten minutes. I think he’s mentally off, possibly uranium poisoning, but turns out he’s just drunk all the time, which is understandable.
While I’m waiting for him to fill a bowl of chili I go outside and check my mileage. 70 miles in 4 hours. I can make it to Lander easily. 
 
Looking over Beaver Ridge it hits me, why my surroundings are so familiar. I’ve seen these valleys, the ridges, the irregular mounds of earth with channels in between when I’ve been snorkling and looking at the sandy bottom beneath the waves. From this height I see what I’m biking across, if I increase the scale a thousandfold. I tip my front wheel down and for 20 minutes know that I’m flying across the bottom of the ocean at the bottom of the sky. Everything becomes clear. My place in the world, in time, in geologic history. A blip enjoying a landscape that looks frozen in the scale of lifetimes but dynamic over the eons. I reach the end with my hands shaking and the wind knocked out of me, then fly the rest of the way to Lander past red and white striped mountains. To cap my evening, I get a sundae at a local ice cream shop and watch a father holding his gut in obvious pain, working to finish a ten scoop sundae monstrosity as his children cheer him on. Looking down at him from the wall above are pictures of those brave few, including his wife, who’ve kept the sundae down, victorious in their complimentary ice cream parlor shirts. She also stands there in person, arms folded and bemused at his struggle.  
 
The next day ends in Dubois and I have a birthday steak and some birthday drinks and the bartender gives me an awesome suggestion for the night’s activities. As I walk out a 55 year old Dutch woman rides up to the restaurant and I decide she’s coming too.
“Hi, guess what we’re doing tonight?”
“Hello?” Marlene replies “What?”
“We’re going to a rodeo, then we’re sleeping in that church over there”
“OK. Can I eat first?” 
“Yes”
So we drop our gear at the church, go back to the restaurant, Marlene buys me more birthday drinks and we learn about each other. Marlene is 55, a PR officer at an engineering firm, taking a sabbatical after the 101 year old Holocaust survivor she looked after finally succumed to Alzheimers. The local rodeo is a fun change of pace; children race their horses around the barrels and rope calves. Adults hold on as the bulls try to throw them off, usually quickly. I drink beers at the concessions, bull riders are amazed I’m bicycling across the country and we tell each other we’d never be crazy enough to do that. 
 

The next day I leave by the peppermint taffy cliffs through the mountains until I see the Tetons in the distance and turn toward Jackson Hole, and the home of some family friends where my parents are also waiting to wish me a happy birthday. Some BBQ, some beers, a bed and a shower and it feels almost normal again, like home. A hike up to Jackson peak the next day, looking out over the lumps of mountains on the flat land and the sharp blue granite blocks of the Tetons shoving through the earth, a branch of lightning arcing from the storm to the valley beyond, later a traffic jam of people snapping pictures of a moose and I’m no longer feeling like home, but this will do. 

 
Wyoming ends with 2 nights in Yellowstone. Whether because of the burn-out that’s been dogging me the last couple days, or maybe my expectations were too high, I couldn’t dig Yellowstone. It’s an endless procession of cars and people, multi-cultural families snapping pictures across an active supervolcano as sulphorous water bubbles from the ground and the winds carry the smells through the park. I saw many amazing things there and don’t regret going. Mammoth Hot Springs lives up to the name, climbing on a calcified mass, stained yellow and red from the minerals seeping out, that towers out of the mountain like a weeping sore. Obsidian cliffs and the black and red glassy stones that tumbled down. Fields of wildflowers, waterfalls, the short green lodgepole pines surrounding the tall bleached spears of their parents, burnt in the fires of ’88. Maybe my expectations of wildlife were too high. In over 100 miles of bicycling I saw one coyote, one badger, one black bear, one grizzly, and a dissapointingly large number of bear shaped rocks. Yellowstone I count 25 cars and 37 people all gathered on a hillside, snapping pictures of the furry ears of a bear visible behind a bush. When I do see bears, they’re doing what they normally do, digging in the ground, or wandering, not doing what I want them to do, like snatching fish from a stream, or fighting former president Teddy Roosevelt. The bison are another matter. I’m lucky enough to see a massive herd grazing on Gibbon Flat. I snap pictures of the largest bull I’ve ever seen until it growls at me and I agree that yes, I am too close to him. After an Italian couple interviews me for their documentary I race to the campsite and in the driveway I stop 10 feet from another bison sitting in the dust. We stare at each other for a few minutes, then he rolls over onto his back and rises concealed in a cloud of dust like a multi-ton furry Ninja. I spend the night sharing a campsite and food with an awesome family and share a laugh with them the next morning as a bison wanders through the campsite, keeping the terrified in their tents.  
 
My final night in Yellowstone and in Wyoming I’m 10 miles from my campsite when I see to my right in the far distance another lightning storm, the third that day. The storm, however, is a decoy to allow another storm to swoop in right on top of me (Clever Girl). Suddenly I’m racing through driving rain as electric bolts turn the ground below me purple. Normally I love lighting storms, but it’s dark, windy, and there are many cars passing me. After 40 terrifying minutes I make it to the campsite drenched and set up my tent on the soaking ground. Then my tent pole snaps. Enraged, I throw the tent against a tree, then a thought hits me and I start chuckling, and keep laughing as I climb inside shivering, and fall asleep damp in a half-collapsed tent as water seeps through the bottom. As I fall asleep on the damp soil of a buffalo infested super-volcano I’m still laughing at the thought “You’re homeless, jobless, and living in a tent somewhere at 30. Take a moment to appreciate your success”  

Ordway, CO to Riverside, WY – I Finally Forgive Kansas

7 Jul

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The last entry for Kansas took 3 rewrites, and I was still ThisClose to just writing

“Fuck Kansas” *Send


I’m at the Dinosaur Depot Museum in Canon City, Colorado and I’m giddy. Hanging on the wall in front of me is the worlds’ most complete Stegosaurus skeleton. I can see the crack in his tail spike where the bone infection took root, the abscesses in the back plates as it spread, the bend of the legs as it kneeled down to cool it’s feverish body in the mud beside the riverbank. I run my fingers over a preserved imprint of a T-Rex footprint in mud and shiver as I feel the pebbly skin. On the wall above is the boney remains of an ancient fish with the boney remains of it’s last meal inside. Behind me in a glass room volunteers remove the plaster and matrix from dinosaur bones. The original dinosaur skeletons shown in the Smithsonian in the 1920s came from the quarries near Canon City. All this, plus I got to sit on an Apatosaurus femur, which the Smithsonian frowns upon.

On the wall a display shows the geological progression of Colorado. Eons ago the Interior Sea ran down the center of America from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, with Kansas and Utah as it’s riverbanks. It was here the sand, mud, and shells compressed layer on layer until from beneath the waves the earth birthed mountains and the Rockies gained prominance. I leave Canon City grinning and begin the long 11,500 foot climb up these layers to Hoosier Pass. I’m breathing hard and occasionally gasping, the scenery and the altitude take my breath away.

My first impressions of The Rockies are that they should be called “The Lumpys.” I expected jagged stone peaks slicing into the blue sky everywhere I looked. Instead rounded lumps of earth surrounded me, with farther rounded lumps retreating into a blue haze from the forest fires consuming the state. In between are large swaths of prairie and sagebrush.

This is the majority of the Rockies, but there are also marvels. As I climb the passes, my lungs sipping air when I’m demanding gulps, I realize that along with the highway signs saying “Historical Marker, 1 mile” they should also have highway signs saying “You’re gonna want to stop and stare for a while, 1 mile” The Rockies are filled with views that demand awe. Gargantuan mountains with treelines scoured level by ice, curving bowls of rock sit atop the bald peaks where the glaciers carved their cradles. 4,000 year old Soldier Pines hide amongst the treeline of the Arapahoe, where bright green trees are far outnumbered by the limp, wine-dark corpses of pines that have died of thirst in the unseasonable heat. Jagged towers of red stone stabbing into the sky above the deep blue Colorado River. Canyons where the rivers sawed straight down into the earth, exposing multicolored layers of time. I pause frequently, gaze in amazement, take photos, stare some more, look around and wonder why there isn’t a crowd gathered here staring at this at all times, take one last look and leave. This happens frequently enough in Colorado to remind me of the Avenue of Giants in California, or the 1,000 year old graveyard on Koya Mountain, where I’m so awestruck at all times that it’s a relief to be finally are out of sight and back to regular, status quo gorgeous.

A change happens as I descend the other side of Hoosier Pass. The final climb is 4 miles and 1,000 foot elevation gain, and the entire time I’m huffing hard, as I’ve done since beginning the climb yesterday for another 3,000 feet, and 2,000 more earlier in the day, and really since I began the trip. It’s been slightly overcast since I got into the mountains, cooling me but blocking my views. I reach the peak, snap evidence of me grinning at the highest point on the TransAmerica Trail, then I point my front tire down and gravity and I kiss and make up. Suddenly my odometer’s jumping past 30, the sun is out from the clouds and pedaling is optional. Over the wind in my ears I hear a creek gurgling beside me as I race beside pines and aspens, gargantuan mountains with pink and red bands of color loom above me, growing larger and larger. Suddenly a long-forgotten feeling emerges from behind my grin: Ease. This trip has been incredible, but it’s been difficult. Even on the shortest days, there’s background stress as my body deals with things breaking down; my food, my muscles, my bike. I have to know where my bike is at all times, where I am in relation to home, where I’m shooting for tomorrow, what new location I’m sleeping tonight. I realize the next time I’ll have this feeling is when I step off my pedals with my rear wheel in the Pacific, and that this moment is coming up soon. I’m over halfway done with this trip. It’s this that makes me pause even as I’m racing against sunset to appreciate Dillon Reservoir, watching the full moon hang above the sails floating in the darkening, glassy water, stark white against the crimson rocky peaks. To appreciate spending that night in a house, with my own room, my own bed, my own shower, my own TV. I’ll have this feeling of ease again, but I’ll never have these moments.

It’s this memory of ease that makes me take a half day day to soak in Hot Sulphur Springs, catching up on the 3rd Game of Thrones, and spend 5 minutes staring into the eyes of a dragonfly that’s landed on my book, wiping his eyes with his legs and staring back. It’s what makes me appreciate more the small moments here. The fact that the entire next day I still smell of sulphur, like I’ve just teleported with Nightcrawler. Taking a picture of a Coyote in the Arapaho and having it yawn it’s mouth and leap back and forth on its front legs until I left. That even a County Commissioner campaign poster has a gun shooting the underline for the name. Sharing Whiskey with a Blackwater Employee living in Seattle and heading back to Afghanistan as he tells me of the two times he’s met Ichiro, once when Ichiro was sober and timid, the other drunk at a party and yelling at him in Japanese. Sharing dinner with James, a Math Teacher in Waco  who spent his time in the Navy dropping sonar buoys to track Russian subs, now partially retired and taking half his family to meet the other half in Yellowstone.

After crossing the Wyoming border and asking directions at the home of Roy and Donna I end up in some reverse “If you give a mouse a cookie…” where I’m offered a bottle of water, then a soda, then a banana, then a sandwich, and we chat on the porch about the unseasonable heat, how his farmer friend will need to buy hay for the first time ever after his crop didn’t come up and how low the Platte river is running.  I end up camping in their yard as Roy runs an extension cord from the house to the tent so I can charge my phone. Then the next day, as I coil the cords and replace them near the house, he comes out, wishes me luck, and gives me $10 for breakfast.

Now that I’m in Wyoming, I’m done warning Eastbounders about Kansas. When the cyclists and I swap advice they tell me Wyoming is windy, it’s hot, and it stretches on forever. I nod, and think “You have no idea what hot, windy, and endless is (Also, Wyoming is amazing, but that’s for another entry)” Then it’s my turn. Kansas is over a state away, why make them worry about the distant future? I smile and tell them simply “You’re gonna love Colorado”