Saturday, June 11, 2011

June 10, 2011: GGT Day 11, Moran, WY (Togwotee Lodge) to West Yellowstone, MT

Given the excitement of the previous day, my continuing issue with my foot and shin, and the fact that another look at the route revealed it to be about 117 miles rather than the original estimate of 75, I decided not to ride. Kathy was flying into Jackson early in the afternoon, so it was not a big deal for her to pick me up on her way to West Yellowstone.

It was very sad to see my buddies ride off without me, but I wouldn't have gotten very far, and would surely have slowed them down for as long as I managed to hang on.

The other guys prepare for the final day of the tour. Notice Fred's get-up. It may look funny, but he was the only one who remained warm over the pass.

Off they go, without me (sniff).
Kathy picked me up at around 3PM and we set out, following the same route through Yellowstone that Fred and Ray were doing by bike (Mike was turning south toward Jackson at Moran Junction). The idea was that they could throw their bikes in the van when we caught up with them, if they wanted.

As it turned out, Fred's wife Pat was doing the same thing and got to them a few minutes sooner. After a beautiful day of riding, they were both content to accept a ride after pedaling 100 miles.

So, the Geezer Geyser Tour, now also known as the Survivor Tour, is a wrap. The route covered about 700 miles (though I rode less than 600 of those). We had more than the normal amount of adventure, encountered some very challenging riding conditions, met lots of interesting people, and made some new friends. We had only one bike issue, a broken spoke that occured within walking distance of a bike shop with an available mechanic. Otherwise we did not have so much as a flat tire.

At this moment, the soft plan is to finish the rest of the cross country route next summer, doing both Colorado Springs to Little Rock, and Yellowstone to Portland. That will mean that we will have ridden from Portland, OR all the way to Key West, FL, a distance of approximately 4,200 miles.

June 9, 2011: GGT Day 10, Dubois to Moran - Beaten by Togwotee Pass

STATS: 32 miles, about 3.5 hours, approximately 2500 feet or so of climbing.

First let's get it straight: I do not get along with cold weather and snow. I live in Florida, have made a solemn vow to live no farther north than Gainesville (FL), and wear the badge of Weather-Wuss among my cycling friends back home. If the thermometer dips below 47 or so, or the wind is over 15 mph, I quickly dive into my bag of lame excuses and find something other than bicycling to do.

To put it mildly, it is a mystery that I found myself pedaling toward Togwotee Pass in mid-thirties temperatures, a 20 mph headwind, and all but certain snow or freezing rain between me and the summit. My three companions (Fred, Ray, and Mike) were all Colorado residents who live at 6,000 feet and deal with this kind of crap weather most of the year, but this whole scene was foreign to me. 

You may recall that Jim, our Warmshowers host in Lander, had ridden with us from there to Dubois. At breakfast he agreed to make the ride over the pass by himself rather than slow us down. We all went out together, but after a while he dropped back and we continued without him. The plan was for him to meet us at the Lodge on the other side of the pass. 

Once Jim dropped off, I took his place at the tail end of the line for the remainder of the first 20 miles, at which point we pulled into the Lava Mountain Lodge and store. After a brief rest, my companions all started adding layers of clothing, gloves, shoe covers, rain gear and more. I did likewise, trying to mimic their preparations, within the limits of the stuff I had. In retrospect, I could have added another layer or two of socks and switched from my five finger gloves to the more waterproof lobster mittens at the bottom of my pannier. Maybe that would have made a difference, maybe not.

Up to now the skies had gone from clear to overcast but we were still dry. The top of the pass was 12 miles away and almost 2000 feet above us at an altitude of 9635 feet. We got back on the road and almost immediately a light snow began to fall as the road ratcheted up a couple percent. Ray quickly rode away into the distance. Fred, Mike and I stayed pretty close together as the storm intensified by the minute.

Soon the snow was thick and accumulating on bike and body alike. It took an hour to go six miles. I could no longer feel my fingers or toes and could see through only a tiny area of the right lens of my glasses. I could not imagine another hour-plus of climb, followed by an even colder descent to our hotel on the other side. I decided to quit while I still could and told my companions I was going back down. Mike and Fred were doing considerably better than I (though they had stopped to chip the ice out of Fred's rear derailleur) and said that they were going to continue. I made my U turn between the walls of snow flanking the road and carefully felt my way back down. I used my brakes liberally; the thought of overheating a rim was laughable. The brakes, especially the rear, made unfamiliar noises which I realized was due to a mixture of ice and accumulated road dirt on the rims and brake pads. (Later inspection showed the rear brake pads to have gotten severely worn in just that six mile descent, probably from all the sand deposited on the rim.) Nonetheless, they were still effective. After what seemed like a very long time, I finally made out, through my nearly occluded glasses, the Lava Mountain Lodge buildings.

I pulled up in front of the store and somehow got off the bike without falling. I had the thought that a photo of my snow-covered bike would be great for the blog, but when I tried to fish out my phone to take a shot, I found that my fingers were not working very well and I was too cold to stay outside any longer. Take my word for it. There was snow. All over the bike.

Inside, I peeled off my saturated gloves, rain pants, and shoe covers, and paced around in the store, shivering. I guess the store staff had witnessed similar scenes many times before and paid little attention to me. I did share the high points of my experience with them, and shortly one said, "Here comes one of your friends." It turned out to be Jim. Apparently he had ridden past the store, but saw me coming back down the mountain, even though I had not seen him. He soon decided to retreat as well. His wife, Julia, was due to be coming up the road pretty soon to meet him, though the planned meeting place was on the other side of the pass. There was no cell phone service, so Jim moved his bike to a location that he hoped would catch Julia's eye as she drove by.

As I thawed out I realized that my best move would probably be to catch a ride to our hotel on the other side of the pass rather than go 20 miles back to Dubois. I can't exactly remember the details of how it happened, but before I knew it I was happily sharing the back seat of Billy Snodgrass's truck with several huge bags of dog food, my bike equally happy in the otherwise empty trailer behind us.

Billy is a celebrity sled dog musher, having been the subject of TV documentaries, and a three-time Iditarod competitor. It turns out that he runs sled dog tours from the Togwotee Lodge (my destination) and was headed there to pick up some of his equipment now that his winter tour season was over. I coulda/shoulda gotten an autograph, but I didn't know who he was until it was too late. Shortly before arriving at the hotel we passed both Fred and Mike riding down the mountain. They didn't look happy, but I was very, very relieved to see they survived the pass. Later they explained that they had made a stop at a construction trailer to warm up. Mike spent the time with his fingers in the heating vent of the trailer. Amazingly, Fred was not particularly cold thanks to all his layers of clothing.

Before leaving Jim at the store, I had the good sense to get Julia's phone number. As soon as possible after arriving at the lodge, I got off a message to her with Jim's location and got a return message confirming that she understood, so Jim and I were both saved.

Shortly after entering the lodge lobby, Ray walked up and told me that there had been a snafu with the reservation, but that he had it fixed up. I was still euphoric about being rescued and delivered to the hotel, so, "Sure, Ray, whatever you say." I let him know that I had seen the guys a short distance up the road, and sure enough, they appeared a few minutes later. We had all survived, though Ray's fingertips are still numb 24 hours later. Hopefully that is not a permanent thing and nobody else has any physical injuries.

Togwotee Mountain Lodge, the reward on the far side of the pass
Our cabin at the Lodge (photo taken the next morning)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

June 8,2011: GGT Day 9, Lander to Dubois

STATS: 77 miles, 6 hours 55 minutes, 3200 feet of climbing

Beautiful morning.

Memorial to Chief Washakie at Fort Washakie on the Shoshone - Arapahoe Reservation through which we rode.
Again, all the action was in the last part of the ride. After a cool but sunny ride for 50 miles or more, the clouds joined together and darkened. Thunder boomed in the distance and I spotted a handful of lightning bolts flashing out of the darkest clouds. Eventually the rain started to fall, and we stopped to climb into our rain gear. Luckily the rain remained light and the road and thunderstorm went in different directions.

[Photo and caption courtesy of Mike McLain] (l to r) Fred - "I can't keep calling you animal"; Ray - "If that guy [me] can ride to Lander [from Jeffrey City], so can I" (neither of us could); Seth - "Next summer, can we maybe find a place with summer weather?"; Jim - Three miles a day, seventy-five miles a day, same thing.
Closing in on Dubois, WY.

I had neglected to set aside some advil where I could easily get to it, so my foot and shin bothered me quite a bit during the last couple of hours, after my morning dose wore off.

When we reached Dubois (pronounced DEW-boys), we ran into Mike McLain, whom we had met as he pedaled into Jeffrey City at about 3 mph while we were there. It turns out that he also is a college professor at University of Colorado, but in Boulder rather than Colorado Springs (where Fred works). We had dinner together and agreed to meet in the morning for the ride over Togwotee Pass.

The weather for tomorrow looks ominous. We have been told about snow on the pass and it is supposed to be cold and windy even at the base of the mountain. We will see what it looks like in the morning.

For tonight, we are comfortably settled in Dubois (pronounced DEW-boys).

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

June 7, 2011: GGT Day 8, Lander rest day

Fred and I had the day off, having escaped from Jeffery City and its other-worldly winds last night in a pick-up truck. We spent the morning having a leisurely breakfast and packing and mailing the pottery we had purchased from Byron.

Ray arrived in Lander at about noon, after getting a lift from JC to Sweetwater Junction and being spared about 20 miles of ridiculous headwinds. He still had to forcibly pedal on 6% downgrades to make any forward progress, and from time to time would be knocked to a standstill by gusts. The other touring cyclists in the area told a similar story. Everyone got at least some motor vehicle assistance to get to Lander.

After meeting up with Ray, we rode a few miles to the home of our hosts for the night, Jim and Julia. Jim asked almost immediately if he could join us on our next two days of travel. He was eager to test out his new touring bike, carrying a full set of panniers. He hopes to ride from Paris to Athens in the fall and felt that riding out with us would be a good shake-down tour.

The remainder of the day and evening was spent in conversation with Jim and Julia, and enjoying a wonderful dinner that Jim cooked for us.

June 6, 2011: GGT Day 7, Rawlins to Jeffrey City - Adventures in (Nobody) Home on the Range

STATS: 68 miles, 4 hrs 41 mins, 1500 feet of climbing

The day started normally, even pleasantly, enough. Forty five miles of tailwind had us all in a good mood. None of us realized we were riding, blissfully unaware, straight into ... The Twilight Zone (da da daah).

We made the turn west at Muddy Gap Junction, and for a while it was not too bad. Soon, however, the wind began to toy with us like a cat with a cockroach -- ignoring us for a few seconds, then carelessly swatting us and leaving us reeling. This was a whole new level of wind-driven suffering, even by yesterday's standards. Finally we spotted the little settlement of Jeffrey City in the distance. When we pulled up in front of the Split Rock Cafe and saw a new banner declaring, "Bicyclists Welcome," we thought we had found our oasis. Inside we encountered a friendly enough welcome, though the decor, menu, and facilites closely matched the sparse, dry, windswept location in which the cafe rested.

After a while we decided to wander across the street to meet Byron, the owner of the Monk King Bird pottery shop, who had offered us a place to sleep for the night. I am not really sure what we expected, but what we found was a young man covered in clay dust, sanding a piece of pottery, in the midst of random assortment of vehicles, furniture, machinery parts, logs, and all manner of other artifacts spread out in a random fashion in front of his studio-gallery-home. In a previous life the building had been a service station. Byron bought it cheap a few years ago, but has since had to replace the roof and therefore is no longer sure it was such a bargain. While we were there, however, he found that he could raise up one of the ancient hydraulic auto lifts by connecting a friend's compressor. Though he has no use for the lift, he was quite excited about finding it in working order and might be re-assessing the value proposition of the property. Byron sleeps in the back of the shop, but because there is no running water, he uses the bathroom in the cafe across the street.

Byron, the potter, appears to lack anything remotely like ambition. He enjoys creating pottery, but has no interest in arranging for shipping his work or tending a web site to market it. He would not object if others were to do these things for him, but he seems fine with leaving things just as they are. From time to time he takes some of his work into Lander for resale by shops there, and that provides him with enough money to get by. Regardless, I found his work to be quite attractive and purchased two pieces, a mug and a pitcher that he pronounced "The best thing in the shop." It has a pattern that he has only seen in three of the thousands of pieces he has created, making it rare and special (the pitcher on the right in the photo just below). 

Next door to the Split Rock Bar and Cafe across the street is Otis's defunct gas station. You don't want to poke around over there because if Otis notices, he might take a shot at you (according to Byron). Down the street a bit farther is the bowling alley. Some say there are still pins and balls inside, but others say everything is gone. The real mystery is that there is any disagreement at all. Anyone can just walk over there and take a look, but for some reason they don't.

There are something like 50 people who live in Jeffrey City, though the town appears to have no government and legally is probably extinct. Originally there was a town on the site called Granite City, later given the picturesque moniker "Home on the Range." In the 50's and 60's uranium was discovered and mined there. An important personality during those radioactive boom years was a Dr. Jeffrey, hence the renaming to "Jeffrey City."

Unfortunately for J.C., once the first wave of nuclear power plants had been built and stocked in the U.S., nuke fuel recovered from decommissioned Soviet warheads could be purchased for less than the cost of mining and refining raw material. The town had nothing else to offer, so the people moved on and the businesses closed. In short, it is a modern ghost town.

Our plan for the night was that one of us, probably Fred, would spend the night on an old sofa in the shop -- if the cat sprawled out on it was willing to share. Ray and I would sleep in the camping trailer parked out front, which is just a place to sleep out of the wind; it has no water or electricity. Standing inside was like standing on a small boat, except the rocking (provided by the wind) was far less rhythmic. It did not take much imagination to believe that the trailer could actually be blown over by some of the gusts.

In the foreground, Ray's accommodations for the night. Notice the flags.
You can't see the trailer rocking back and forth in this still photo, but it was.
Considering the challenging accommodations and the predicted winds for the next day (significantly higher than the day we just finished), I decided to see if maybe I could get a lift to Lander, the next stop on our itinerary -- preferably that night. That way I could actually get a day to rest my foot and leg, which were still aching, and avoid the predicted winds of 30 (with gusts to 50) that would be directly into our faces. A young man named Kyle, who is Byron's roommate at present, was quite willing to drive me the 60 miles into Lander for an unspecified compensation. Fred quickly signed on as well, but Ray, always up for an athletic challenge, opted to stick it out. We later gave Kyle $40 each and he acted like he had won the lottery. Considering he drove about 120 miles round trip in his V8 pickup on our account, just refilling his gas tank would eat up a good portion of his windfall, but I guess he wasn't thinking about that part of it.

Kyle turned out to be an interesting young guy -- kind of a free spirit who likes the solitude of rock climbing and backwoods hiking over the complexities of a traditional lifestyle. He dropped us off at a real nice Best Western at the edge of Lander. The wind was really blowing by then, and Fred and I got sand-blasted just crossing the parking lot to a nearby fast food restaurant to get something to eat.

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Monday, June 6, 2011

June 5, 2011: GGT Day 6, Saratoga to Rawlins (aka The heaven to hell ride)

We started the day with our first actual sit-down breakfast. We then got on the bikes in pleasantly cool weather and fairly flew along in front of a substantial tailwind. I was frequently moving along at 25 mph with a heart rate of under 100! That was the first 20 miles, the "heaven" part of the ride. Then things got interesting.

The middle 15 miles of the route is on Interstate 80, believe it or not. It is simply the only option, and therefor perfectly legal. Well, from the moment we made the left onto the I-80 ramp until we arrived at our motel 24 miles later, we had the previously helpful wind in our faces. It was a struggle and my plan for a recovery day went out the window. High winds are predicted to continue for the next couple of days. We have been considering various plan B's for Tuesday, which is supposed to be especially bad.

We had a very good dinner tonight at Michael's Big City Bar and Grill, just a couple of doors away. Afterwards Fred rehearsed a couple of songs (using a borrowed guitar with a broken string) that he is planning to perform tomorrow night at The Split Rock Bar and Cafe in Jeffrey City.

Riding time: 3 hrs 39 mins
Distance: 44.4
Avg speed: 12.1
Climb: 1220
Wind: SW 25 - 30 mph

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

June 4, 2011: GGT Day 5, Walden, CO to Saratoga, WY

Stats for today: 68 miles, 4 hrs 57 mins, 2000 feet of climbing.

Today we finally crossed from Colorado into Wyoming. In spite of the fact that we were being blown along at a near-effortless 25 mph, we stopped for the obligatory state line photo op.

Back on the bikes we flew the next six miles, all the while closing on a large mass of white smoke rising into the sky. The fire itself was nothing much, but there was an awful lot of smoke being blown directly at the road we had to climb to get out of the basin in which we had been riding. I knew it was going to take me quite a while to work my way up the two and a half mile climb and I did not want to be sucking all that smoke into my lungs. I ended up using my balaclava plus a couple of additional layers of stuff as a makeshift breathing mask. Ray, on the other hand, did nothing special and says that he didn't even smell any smoke! I sure as hell did. At any rate we all seem fine tonight.

A shift in wind or road direction later in the day slowed us down quite a bit. We took a rest break in front of the store in Riverside, just across the street from the famous Mangy Moose bar. While there, we were joined by a young couple, Jessica and Chris, on fully loaded bikes, including camping gear. They are 50 days into their cross-country trip. After talking for a while I took a photo of them, which reminded Jessica that she had not re-packed their camera when they stopped 8 miles north. Given that we were headed up that road, we promised to look for it. We traded contact info and off we went on our mission. We found the spot easily enough, but we could not find the camera. I left that sad news on Jessica's cell phone voice mail. Hopefully the camera will turn up in their gear or the camera case contained some ID that will allow it to be recovered.

We are unable to visit Saratoga's hot spring. The river has already risen so much that it has overflowed into the spring, making the latter unsafe to use. As I write this post, sandbags are being deployed to defend the low-lying property from flooding as the river continues to rise with the melting of this year's extreme snowfall in the upstream mountains. Flooding is a real danger for many of the towns on the rest of our route.

Tonight Fred initiated a change in our dinner plans after we were seated in the Wolf Hotel's restaurant. (We were staying at the Wolf Hotel for the night.) On his way back from the Kum-n-Go convenience store (no, I am not making that up, and Fred was there to buy a store logo t-shirt) Fred spied a Thai restaurant up a side street. He promised the proprietress that he would return for dinner. This behavior is similar to the time on the original Tour de Fred trip when he disappeared to have lunch with the Indian hotel-keeper.

He insisted that we were not bound by his promise, but we decided to go along with him. We were the only customers. All cooking, service, prep and cleanup was handled by the new Thai wife of a guy who talked our entire meal about his four marriages, his experiences in the military and how he learned to cook many styles in his travels around the world. Nonetheless, his wife does the Thai cooking (and serving and cleaning, we noticed, in spite of their "equal" marriage).

Fred paid for all the meals and added a 40 percent tip, which clearly had nothing to do with the meals or dining experience. Ray and I agreed that it was one of the strangest restaurant experiences we have ever had. Fred, on the other hand, was happy because his mouth was burning "in a good way," which apparently made up for everything else, in his view. Oookaay then.

Tomorrow we have a short ride of about 40 miles. I am planning to do it in a very easy, rolling recovery mode. We'll see what happens.

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