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Update 20th Sept 2015.
Eight days on the trail so far, and finally found a location to make an overdue update! Averaging 60 miles per day with a couple of 70mile + days, always hilly and sometimes rough. Started in Cranbrook, BC and am writing this from Helena, MT. Have passed through spectacular terrain, quaint towns, stunning lakes and alpine passes. We can often go almost a day without seeing anyone, and camp in the wilderness listening to howling cayotes. Saw a bear yesterday which was a relief for Simon who really wanted to see one before heading home in two days. From then on I’m riding solo for the next four weeks.
Feel like I’m becoming more a part of the experience now, after pushing through a kind of threshold about day five. At that stage I was craving a rest day (which didn’t occur) and lying awake at night feeling horribly dehydrated and with a burning tension in my legs. Travelling by bike allows a full immersion in the environment and a high level of satsifaction once the days destination is reached. Maybe that is just because I’m so glad to be off the bike saddle! The rest day will eventuate in Butte, two more days down the trail. Can’t wait…
The trailer is going wonderfully, I sometimes think it was built for this trail. Simon is travelling with panniers, which are in need of constant adjustment as the fast and rough descents shake them loose. Not to mention I have to carry all the groceries! I managed 40mph down a rough road yesterday with no problems.
Update September 28th:
After leaving Helena (after being generously hosted by some old-time and un-met family friends) we rode to the small town of Basin. Home of the Merry Widow Health Mine, where people with various ailments go to be treated by the low-dose radiation in the mine air and water. We spent a bit of time soaking our feet and hands, and chatting to the people in that dimly lit and cold tunnel. We also filled our bottles with radioactive water, and joked at the placebo effect of it all.
Basin is akin to Otira, tired and rough at the edges. That night the waitress told us we were very attractive, then ran back to the kitchen blushing, amid calls of ‘get their number’! About that radioactive water. We went back the next morning and filled every bottle we had.
Next stop was Butte, one of the bigger towns in Montana and fascinating beyond belief. A real living piece of mining history, who’s heyday has passed but it still oozing the style of the affluence of a bygone era. You feel like you are 50 years back in time, and living the history rather than viewing it. We stayed in a 10 story hotel made entirely of brick and copper. Butte was once the worlds biggest copper mine, and underneath the town are 10,000 miles of mines. 10,000 miles! Also in Butte is Americas biggest environmental disaster, the Berkerly pit. A one mile wide crater in the earth containing 33 billion gallons of highly acidic water (ph2). Mining stopped in the pit 1982 and it has been filling ever since.
Butte was the end of the road for Si, so after a couple of days of mining tours, whiskey and distilleries I hit the road solo. Leaving Butte through six lanes of traffic, all bustling to get to the closest plasticky chain store or strip mall, I felt very insignificant on my bike.
The last five days the terrain has changed a lot. From the forested mountains of north Montana, things have flattened out into a dry high country akin to a massive Central Otago. The wind has been in my face constantly which has been draining on morale. The trail has got more remote, with services being very basic and far between. Finding decent food becomes a daily chore and my diet of gas-station peanuts and cheeseburgers has worn pretty thin. And my cooker has broken.
Feeling a bit sick, I decided to leave the trail to search out a supermarket and ended up in Ashton. On my birthday and on a Sunday which means everything is closed. Except the church, which was packed. And the library was hosting a gun show, and that was packed too. After another massive steak and gravy for dinner, I turned on the hotel TV and found about 20 channels of bellowing church services. I spent some time trying to reconcile the conscience of a people who love church, steak, hunting and guns in equal amounts.
While I’m detouring I’m heading to Jackson Hole to meet a friend and spend some time in the Grand Teton National Park. Hopefully there I’ll be out of Hicksville for a couple of days before continuing through Wyoming. I must be getting fitter and can push 80 miles a day. Can’t wait for Colorado.
Couple of highlights: Getting ID’d at a bar two days before my 35th birthday. She thought I was 23! Lying exhausted on the grass at the end of the day with Johnny Walker and staring at the treetops and clouds, unable to even gather a thought except how to articulate the sentence you have just read. The wildlife, got really close up to two bull elk who had locked horns and didn’t hear me coming, two moose, and a few cayotes. Being asked by a toothless man in Basin if I was ‘Packing’. That means carrying a concealed weapon.
Update October 9th:
From Aston I started my detour along a rail trail that was so similar to the Central Otago one that for a moment I thought I might travel through a time warp and come out in Oturahua. That didn’t happen, but I did end up traveling through some quaint Idaho towns that made we want to sit in the town square and do nothing for a few hours. But I was on a mission to Jackson, which meant climbing over Teton Pass. The descent into Jackson was epic and I bombed down at 45mph (70kmh) with a strange feeling like I was merely a player in a computer game.
I met a friend in Jackson and spent a day exploring the Grand Teton National Park. What an amazing place! The Teton monoliths are impressive in their own right, but given that they rise out of the landscape in one huge piece, with no foothills, makes them even more impressive. Hiking in this area could be the most memorable day of the trip. From here I traveled up to Yellowstone National Park to check out the thermal activity it is known for. While definitely a worthwhile detour, it wasn’t a comparison for the Teton’s and the 70 mile backtrack to the trail seemed long.
From here I was into the elevated flatlands of Wyoming and the relentless headwind. I have never been in a landscape so vast, where the horizon is so distant on all sides it was like being alone on a small yacht in an endless ocean. An unusual part of this was witnessing completely different weather systems occurring on every point of the compass. I was kept awake one night by a huge thunderstorm testing the mettle of my tent. My goal was to make the town of Pinedale that day, 90 miles distant. The roads had turned to mud, the headwind was freezing sleet and I had to battle my way over a 2900m pass. Morale was at it lowest as the speedo was reading 3mph and the day was ticking past. I descended the pass in leg-out motocross style through the mud and eventually made it to the highway, where I got my second wind and somehow made the full distance to Pinedale about 9pm. The skies opened up for real during the last 20mins, which at least went some way to washing all the mud off. It was the toughest day riding so far.
I hadn’t finished with the flatlands, and the headwind hadn’t finished with me as I continued south. The wildlife was never ceasing to impress, with herds of pronghorns (antelope-ish) and wild horses roaming the landscape. I had a movie-like experience walking into a locals only bar in Atlantic City, where everyone stopped to turn and stare at the guy who just walked in. Ah, awkward. Should have seen that coming in a town where the streets are still dirt. Desperate to be back in the mountains, I managed 125miles (200km) one day, with my elbows on the handlebars and my chin on the stem most of the way, into the town of Rawlins. From there, I climbed back up into the mountains and across the border into Colorado and my spirits lifted immensely. The trees are still putting on their impressive autumn colours and the sights and smells of the forest are magic. I’m no longer painfully watching the odometer, rather just enjoying the ride in a way I had imagined I would when I first decided to do this.
Today is a rest day in the town of Steamboat Springs. I have been looking forward to this immensely after a week of strain. I feel like a character in the Streetfighter game, who is unlocking his secret power but at the same time his life-bars are decreasing, as my pedaling power increases but I get wearier by the day. I’m hoping a day off will help.
This trip has so far been a great insight into the best and not-so-best of America. From the stunning vistas and seemingly unknown passages I get to travel, to the sprawling urban decay of the small towns, whose developers seemed overly-optimistic about whatever that region had to offer. Huge areas of abandonment lay testament to a by-gone enthusiasm.
Colorado could be the last state on this trip, and I’m really excited to spend the next 10 days on some epic hill-climbs. The wind has thankfully shifted but the locals are warning about the snow which could arrive anytime.
Update October 20th
Before leaving Steamboat I went to visit Strawberry Park hot springs, as I was told it was beautiful especially in the evening. Not realising it was so far and so steep out of town, it was pitch black by the time I arrived, with a stunning vista of stars and no moon whatsoever. Not being able to see a thing I couldn’t confirm it was beautiful or not, but their ‘clothing optional after dark’ policy made navigating my way around the narrow pools, paths and stairs amongst 100 naked people, with one meter visibility, an interesting experience in it’s own right.
The mountains continued out of Steamboat and I was enthusiastically racing down a particularly steep and loose track into the small town of Radium. My rear brake had overheated but I thought I could manage the rest of the descent with the front brake only. Wrong. I came into a hairpin way too fast, my front tyre sledged through the corner, suddenly found purchase on the exit and threw me off the high side. Now, I haven’t bitten gravel like that for a few years, but the instinct to roll onto my back was instantaneous, thereby letting my camelback bear the brunt on the slide. The 10 second post-crash assessment revealed nothing other than some gnarly grazes in the usual places, which stung a lot but was also a relief. Fortunately, this happened just two miles from the next campground. Also fortunate was that this happened on a day I left a ‘big town’, which meant my ‘medical kit’ was well stocked for such an event. After consuming a bottle of Chia Kombucha, a packet of Doritos, a box of cashews and a flask of Jameson’s Whisky I couldn’t feel a thing. Until I had to peel off my blood soaked thermals the next morning. Ouch….
My spirits were high as the journey continued south and the elevation continued up. It was here I crossed the highest part of the Rockies that the trail goes through, 3300m above sea level. The trail also became more remote, leaving the ski-town affluence of Breckenridge and Steamboat behind and making way for the high-plateau tumbleweed towns I had become accustomed to. I was totally at peace with the trail now, and could reflect on the huge range of emotions I had been through in the previous weeks. I recalled that no matter how hard any given day had been, when evening descended a certain sense of calm always enveloped the land. When whatever the miles for the day had been accepted, I would look at my long shadow stretching out to my left and see a guy pedaling a bike across America and realise that was actually doing it.
Often I have said that traveling through a landscape in a modern car maintains a level of detachment between the land and the traveler. Arguably, you could replace all the car windows with high resolution screens, run a simulator program through them and the experience of the occupants would remain largely unchanged. Cycling is completely different. You retain the ability to engage with the land, and the ‘feel the vibe’ of the moment. The vibe could be a practical aspect, like the weather, road surface or physical hardship. Or in a more metaphysical sense. As in the undercurrents of energy created by natural forces or man-made intervention that run through a given area, should you so choose to subscribe to such a theory.
Another steep descent landed me in the lovely town of Salida, where the aforementioned undercurrents of energy are at at the high end of the spectrum. I knew this would be the last re-supply of the journey, and climbed up and out under a blistering sun hauling a trailer laden with fresh fruit. There was a sudden shift in attitude, after weeks of wanting to make it to Southern Colorado, I was finally here and now I didn’t want it to end. The map set I was carrying had 12 maps, and in the first instance getting across just one seemed monumental. Now I was onto map 10, having crossed five out of the six states of the full journey from Canada to Mexico. With just one more week I realised I could have made it the full distance. Am I disappointed? No. Colorado is a beautiful place to end such a journey, so at a non-descript intersection I went left instead of right, and with no celebration or fanfare the Great Divide ride was suddenly over.
This adventure was challenging in ways I wasn’t expecting. It only occurred to me in hindsight that during the last three weeks of riding, with the exception of one night at a brewery in Steamboat, I hadn’t had a conversation with anyone. All the campgrounds closed at the start of October, making for some pretty desolate evenings. The pain in my backside from 10 hours a day in the saddle never really went away, and an all over tiredness had crept in. I loved making breakfast in a beautiful location as the sun rose, but was getting over the ritual of sleeping on a 1 inch thick mat and packing up an ice-encrusted tent each morning. The upside of this is the spiritual invigoration, which always trumps the hardships, so I can now plan another adventure and start the process over again.
People have been asking about the trailer. I really don’t have much to say. It has needed no repairs or adjustments. It has diligently followed along largely unnoticed. Some sections of trail were many miles of deep washboarding which were punishing for man and machine. The trailer just soaks it up in a way even the best-set panniers would surely struggle with. The low centre of gravity is excellent on the road and at high speed, with the slight compromise of clearance on the really rough sections. I will tweak this a little bit to achieve a better on-road / off-road balance.