Roaming Wyoming

The breathtaking beauty of Wyoming has been a surprise as we have made our way to Jackson Hole for a rest day. We spent the Fourth of July in the bustling town of Lander where there was a parade, rodeo and fireworks. Our little band of touring cyclists was asked if we wanted to be IN the parade or just watch it. We watched. It was a great opportunity to see authentic celebration in the middle-American west and people watch.

The parade crowd was very diverse although the majority of the parade participants were people running for political office, most of them under the Republican “brand”. There was an LBGT float and I was given a rainbow sticker. Interestingly, the announcer omitted mention of this float, while announcing every other participant. Still the crowd all had to watch this exuberant float go by…and be reminded of their family and friends and loved ones who fit the description!

In the end the fire department sprayed water on everyone at the main intersection. I noodled over to the rodeo grounds to check out the preparations. The calves (not a happy bunch) and horses and bulls were all there. The show wasn’t scheduled to start till later when I could not attend so unfortunately I am still not able to proclaim “Hey, this isn’t my first rodeo!”

They do fireworks a little differently here in mid Wyoming; there is no central location or professional show. People all over town shoot off fireworks…big ones…until past midnight. We were camped on a bluff overlooking the whole town so we had a great view. Funny how annoying fireworks can get to be after a few hours!

After not enough sleep we left early in the morning in an attempt to avoid the fierce Wyoming winds. The riding to the Tetons included the most dramatic scenery of the entire trip: spectacular vistas, red-rock canyons, lakes and rivers, and the glory of the Teton range as it comes into our view. Yes, that 17 miles of coasting downhill at the continental divide was kind of enjoyable. At Jackson Hole, a visitor showed up. Barbara and I are spending five days together to be tourists in the Tetons and Yellowstone. I will rejoin the bike tour in West Yellowstone as we continue our trek to Florence, Oregon.

Wild West Wonderment

After the chi-chi cool hostel we stayed in for two days in Breckenridge, we are now in the wild west of Wyoming. Everything is spread out and the scale expands dramatically as we traverse the Great Basin and join the iconic “Oregon Trail”. An estimated half million people passed this way in the mid-1800’s in search of a better life in the west: Oregon, California, Utah. Wyoming greeted us with strong cold headwinds and by mid day eight of us were sheltered in a giant hay carport with rain spitting and horribly dark skies ahead. Marie was out on the road somewhere ahead, she’d left camp early. No cell service in the Wild West.

In the end, four decided to cycle the remaining twenty five miles, four “hired” the ranch manager to hitch up a horse trailer for the bikes and drive us to our destination, and Marie jumped onboard the shuttle when it caught up with her. I was in the shuttle of course.

The natural wonder of Wyoming comes as a surprise. It would be too expansive to see well by hiking, but cycling is just the right speed. The foothills that you see on the horizon become the hills you are riding in two hours later, and the beautiful river splayed out in the valley below becomes the river you’re riding next to after fifteen minutes of downhill. The town of Jeffrey City is the story of a uranium boom town that went bust after Three Mile Island and now is like a ghost town with this free Baptist Community Church Hostel where we stayed.

The winds have been strong and when they blow as a crosswind they are downright scary. We have all been blown right off the pavement…multiple times. It’s difficult to navigate within a five foot wide shoulder!

New Beginnings

When we crested the first pass of 9000 feet and got the first view of the snow-crowned peaks in the distance, it felt like seeing the Emerald City. The sight brought tears of joy to my eyes. Suddenly the last 46 days of riding seemed to be just preparation for this moment to behold the mighty mountains with feelings of awe and wonder. The flotilla of clouds echoed the contours of the ridge line as earth & sky danced their dance together as they have for eons. It felt like coming home. It felt like I’ve been away from mountains far too long.

That evening we slept in the “Love is everything” barn and watched the moonrise over the Southpark landscape and Platte River. Magic.

Unfortunately, my sleeping pad/air mattress has been leaking for a couple weeks and three patch jobs have failed to stem the deflation. I’d been getting used to sleeping on hard surfaces but on this night it was our first cold weather and with no pad the cold concrete sucked all the heat right out of me. It wasn’t a good start to a big riding day that called for us to pedal over the Hoosier Pass to the town of Breckenridge. At the top of the pass we converged for a group photo.

….and I had to try a handstand as I promised myself I would.

The climbs in the Rockies are manageable gradients, but they go on for miles and miles. The downslopes are the same and allow lots of looking around at the natural wonderland while coasting comfortably. Listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons while drinking in the surrounding beauty was sublime. These are the times that make all the effort worthwhile.

Chuck will be leaving the tour and flying home in the morning. Here’s a parting shot from the pass yesterday. His dry wit and sweet neshama will be missed as our group of nine presses onward on our journey.

Middle Ground

Today has been a rest day at Royal Gorge on the easternmost slopes of the Rocky Mountains where we have followed the course of the Arkansas River as it enters the mountains. There is a pedestrian suspension bridge across the canyon that was built in 1929 and overlooks the Arkansas River more than a thousand feet below. The area has been developed as a theme park where, as Chuck noted, “everything has been monetized.” I wasn’t interested. After nine straight days of cycling I took it easy and hung around camp.

What can be said about Kansas? One morning, we left the town of Newton and about six miles later a natural gas line exploded in a wheat field next to us. Wow!

The winds in Kansas never stop, but fortunately never blew directly in our faces. On a few occasions we enjoyed fabulous tailwinds that propelled us at speeds up to 30 miles an hour with little or no effort for stretches of twenty miles at a time. I appreciated the help getting us across the border to Colorado that much quicker. We passed the 2000 mile mark in Kansas and marked the occasion in the morning with a photo outside the church where we stayed. (I’m the “2” with Marie, Chuck and Steven as the zeros.) Later that day the town was hit with a flash flood that saw water rushing down the Main Street over a foot deep! Yes, they got weather here!

In the landscape of nothing but massive farms stretching in every direction many of us resorted to guessing the distances to the next grain elevator on the horizon. We also had to share the road with some massive farm equipment being shuffled around for the winter-wheat harvest in full swing.

Oh, and did I mention the feed lots and cattle transport trucks with their special aroma. “We say ‘that’s the smell of money’ around here,” one local told us.

So hello Rocky Mountains and the western half of the Transam route. The next two days will be tough with lots of climbing but the sheer grandiosity of the mountains is enough to set the soul to singing.

Chuck’s Story

Five years ago one of our group, a freshly retired doctor from Syracuse, began cycling the Transam route by himself going from west to east. Just outside of Tribune, Kansas, he was hit by an elderly woman with early dementia.

When medical help arrived he had no pulse and was not breathing but he responded to CPR and was airlifted to a trauma unit in Colorado. He had 21 broken bones, a corkscrewed leg and foot and required sixteen units of blood.

Yesterday, Chuck completed the half of the ride that he did not finish five years ago and the medical people that saved his life conspired with Chuck’s wife who flew in as a surprise, and hosted a dinner for all of us.

Chuck with his wife, Joy.

The first responders with Chuck & Joy.

The personalized cookies made for dessert.

Chuck will be going home when we get to Breckinridge where he can catch a plane. We will miss him and his readiness to talk to google for any questions that arise in our conversations. Thank you Chuck!

Spaghetti, Corn Chex & Oz

Today is a rest day in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, Mennonite Country. After seven straight days of riding capped by a seventy-seven mile ride yesterday, it’s a welcome relief.

There are twelve maps from Adventure Cycling that cover the Transam route and we are on the fifth one. (Not shown)The spaghetti of the Ozarks

The corn chex of Kansas

(Red line is our route. Squares are one mile)

Riding through the Ozarks felt just like traversing a mountain range every bit as tough as the Appalachians, but in reality the Ozark region is a vast elevated plain that’s been carved up by forces of erosion rather than uplift. Consequently there are no “peaks” but rather, there are “knobs” of harder (erosion resistant) rock.

I loved the Ozarks! There are springs and rivers everywhere. It’s lushly forested with hardwoods and teeming with wildlife. We camped next to beautiful clear rivers and went river rafting on a rest day.

This saw-mill and flour mill circa 1895 is fed by a spring producing 80 million gallons…per day!

The legacy of this area is a story of scorched-earth capitalism run amok and a rebirth thanks to the government. Here’s the short story paraphrased from a NPS informational plaque:

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Lumber operations ceased in 1919 leaving over 1000 unemployed. The forests were gone; forest dwelling animals had all but disappeared as had fish in the gravel-choked streams. The denuded land was sold or abandoned by the timber barons.

Unschooled in conservation, the settlers burned off the land each spring, destroying young trees and humus that covered the ground. Then they subjected it to more livestock than the land could support. Hooves compacted the soil–the rains came–the hills bled. The destruction was complete.

In the 1920’s conservation efforts began, led by the federal government.

___________________

Today, the same forces are at work: Some want unfettered opportunity to profit and portray government as obstructing their freedom. But when there is a mess to clean up, the government is the only one left to do the job. Privatize the profit; socialize the risk.

The great affirmation for me is the power of the earth to heal as seen in the Ozarks a hundred years after the devastation. As I swam in the river and watched an otter busy fishing and marveled at the beauty of a miniature heron, I thanked “Source” for the beauty of creation and the wonderful web of life that is earth. I collected a small sample of water from the Jack’s Fork river to contribute to the earth healing ceremony for the high holidays this year.

Of course, it isn’t all serenity and wonder!The roads in the Ozarks have soul-crushing gradients. On the long climbs I’ve learned to narrow down my field of perception to just fifteen feet of pavement in front of me. At only four MPH…there is nothing beyond that that you need to see! And when utterly hammered into submission…there is no humiliation in getting off and pushing the load uphill…..

On the western end of Missouri the last hill ended and just like that the plains stretched out before us and we could see all the way to Colorado! Adolescent cornfields and wheat fields dominated the landscape as we slipped over the Kansas border for our first night in the new state. It wasn’t until the second night that we realized we had entered the land of OZ.

We were camped out in Chanute, Kansas in the city park. It was the first city park camp where we were surrounded by locals, a refreshing change to observe the small-town culture up close at little league games and playing T-ball. Earlier in the afternoon several of us pedaled downtown to an old fashioned drug store with a soda fountain and enjoyed root-beer floats, shakes and sundaes.

At 3:00am the thunderstorm struck. This California boy had never experienced anything like this. It had been so hot that evening I’d not bothered to wear any night clothes and when the hammering gale threatened to collapse my tent I grasped the central tent-pole and tried to push pack against the broadside attack. I thought about putting some clothes on so I wouldn’t be left tentless and naked if my tent blew over and I had to start chasing after scattered belongings. But I didn’t dare let go of the pole; it was flexing like there was a fifty pound yellowtail making a run.

Two of us did have their tents blown over as the stakes were ripped up and the tents were sent tumbling with them and their belongings inside. One ended up hunkered down in the dingy bathroom. Wally, our ride leader, had a partial collapse and was busy baling out an inch of water inside his tent.

The storm lasted far longer than any of the afternoon thunderstorms that we’d already experienced many times on the trip so far: three hours with a full hour of maximum intensity with non-stop thunder and lightning. By first light a few of us began peeking out at the aftermath, shell shocked.

Unbelievably, our group rolled out for our scheduled ride for the day, less than two hours behind schedule. Yellow brick road.

One Month Down

Since last posting we’ve crossed the Ohio River, the southern tip of Illinois, the Mississippi River, and half of Missouri. Today we rest for a day in the middle of the Ozarks.

Here are our bikes lined up on the ferry to cross the Ohio River into Illinois after a rain delayed start from Marion, Kentucky.

These buzzards were hanging out in the adjoining campsite one morning waiting for the sun to heat things up and create some “thermals” to ride aloft to start their daily search for fresh overnight road-kill. And there is plenty to keep these clean-up crews busy!

Here I am at our first sighting of the Mighty Mississippi about twelve miles south of Chester, MO, the town where the originator of Popeye lived and modeled the characters after some of the “river people” he knew. We passed a grain elevator for loading grain onto barges on the river, and pictured is a coal elevator as well.

Bob and Wally both pose with the town’s bronze statue of Popeye. Wally is our ride leader and also happens to be the President of the board for Adventure Cycling Association. Doctor Chuck is shown with the bridge behind him.

At our daily evening map meetings like this one at the Volunteer Fire Department where we stayed in Utica, Kentucky, we discuss the route for the next day. Cook assignments are also announced along with our destination and the venue where we will be staying. We have stayed at lots of churches where we can have access to a kitchen and sleep indoors, a welcome luxury.

At the Eagles Lodge in Chester we met these two intrepid twenty-something’s, Jenny and Lynn, doing the Transam on bikes outfitted with cat-litter-container panniers. The next morning it didn’t take long before they “chicked” us on the first hill. Our strongest rider, Tom, tried to “unchick” them to no avail. They had passed us after starting eleven days after us!

Tom relaxes in “Al’s Place”, a biker hostel in Farmington, MO. This is the nicest bike hostel in the country, a designated historical building that had served as a jail.Bonjour Marie, one of two Canadian ladies on our tour smiling after another long day in the saddle.

There are three others who are blogging about this trip and I invite you to visit their sites for more pictures and stories. Steve Malikowski has some action videos that are really fun to watch and he is an excellent writer. He has video of me scrambling to rescue my tent as it’s being blown away in a fierce thundershower. And yesterday he took video of the two of us bombing down an hill and, oh yeah, a priceless shot of me on foot pushing my load uphill in a complete state of exhaustion. Tracy’s blog is a good day-by-day account, and Bob is a very interesting blogger who has been at it for some time. Here are their sites:

Bob Kissinger’s blog

Steve Malikowski’s Blog

Tracy Stolberg’s Blog