Tag Archives: Bike tour

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”  
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