Barely a Taste
The Great Divide slices off only a sliver of Idaho—less than 80 miles. Mountain bikes are not permitted off road in National Parks, so the Trail couldn’t go through either Yellowstone or Grand Teton. Fortunately, between the two, there’s a small area of protected land called the John Rockefeller Parkway and to thread the gap between the two parks, the Great Divide Trail slips into Idaho.
There was an other-worldly change in landscape crossing Red Rock Pass. From high desert wilderness, largely empty of people, on the Montana side to verdant valley with the early morning dew lifting off the grass and bushes as the sun rose, on the Idaho side. A few old homesteads were in the upper valley, but they soon gave way to second homes plopped in the middle of old hay fields with all the architectural finesse of a palm tree in Juneau.
Horses, horse-trailers, big pick-ups, and the smell of bacon, steak, and homefries greeted me at the bottom of the valley. The cowboys, mostly with Utah plates on their rigs, were dressed in blue jeans, pearled shirts, and chipped and scuffed cowboy boots with two inch under slung heals. None waved, , much less invited me to join them for breakfast, perhaps instinctively knowing that some outfitted in lycra with a diapered crotch wasn’t one of them. I whizzed by and headed up the other side.
And missed the turn back onto the Trail. By the time I realized it, I was a mile or so down the road and not interested in turning back. I followed the paved road out of the valley and into the next, far broader valley until I cut the Trail again. There was a convenience store at the gas station and I loaded up with groceries. The owner, ringing me up, was well familiar with bikers. He warned me that the trail down an old railroad bed to Warm River Campground was riven with soft, nearly impassable volcanic sand. This the guide book corroborated—and, to avoid it, Adventure Cycling had plotted an alternative route 18 miles longer than the Trail.
Guidebooks tend to amp up dicey situations, making them sound more dangerous or more arduous than they really are, perhaps worried about liability suits or bad Amazon ratings. After a close reading of a guidebook, you can start a day wondering if you’re going to be alive at the end of it, only to get to the end of it wondering where the dicey part was. Years ago, I learned never to let an inexperienced person read the guidebook before starting a trip, otherwise it would panic my companion and it’d take forever to talk them back into their senses.
That said, soft sand had started rising on my list of biking horrors and, to my later disgust, I opted for the detour. The detour took me up a waterless ridge forested with widely spaced lodge pole pines. I spent the night camped just off the road. The next morning, the sky was leaden with the undifferentiated grey so well known to those of us who live in rainforests. Rain was imminent and I got back on the road skipping breakfast just as the water poured from the sky. It was a fast cold ride down off the ridge to the Warm River Campground, set in a narrow valley with the Warm River rushing by it.
I fed and watered under a peaked roof that sheltered some picnic tables. The campground was quiet; the few people there hunkered down in their RVs wisely huddled around their heaters and TVs. I was chewing trail mix when the camp host drove up in his SUV. Camp hosts are wondrous folks. The Forest Service and many state parks “hire” people each summer to maintain the park, take fees, and generally the campers. The hosts live in their own RVs on site. Warm River was a large campground with many facilities, and Lynn, the host, was paid only $1000 a month—basically his and his wife’s expenses to work far more than 8 hours a day keeping the camp ground running. It’s a labor of love, the joy of meeting good people, and spending the summer in a beautiful spot that attracts the hosts. Lynn and his wife had been doing if for years in different parts of the country, tho in recent years, grandkids and pulled them back to parks within easy driving distance of home.
Lynn had been over the RR bed, I’d detoured around, in a 4-wheeler and scoffed at any problem. The soft sand stretches, he said were from here to there, pointing to a tree 150 feet away. Otherwise, it’s easy. I was distressed that I’d let myself be intimidated by a guidebook.
Lynn was trained as an accountant and after he retired had worked for H & R Block, “Tho I hated finding government money in people’s returns that they didn’t deserve.” Later, he drove long distance truck, until his grandkids came along and then he stayed closer to home. He hoped Sarah Palin would be president someday. When he got on the city council, the first thing he was going to do was get rid of the community golf course: The taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for people’s golf games. Bikers, tho, he enjoyed. Because the $25 fee was too high to charge a single biker, he’d let them camp on the patch of grass surrounding his RV, excited to see his grandkids meeting strange people with strange accents.
Bundled in warm clothes and rain gear, I followed the road as it climbed out of the valley up into a broad plain planted in wheat and potatoes. Just 40 miles westward was a desert no potato could have survived in. I headed down backcountry roads toward the Grand Tetons buried in low grey clouds, chased by dogs. I learned I can’t out-pedal them.
The road turned to wet gravel and the mud sucked at my tires. I pushed on, wanting to get to a good campsite before the sun disappeared. I was some miles into the Caribou-Targee National Forest when a dirt bike overtook me. In the saddle was John Williamson, an air quality researcher from Seattle. Fifty-seven, with grey close cropped hair, he was hungry for conversation and we two sat astride our rigs chatting for an hour or so. Apparently, some dirt bike group had posted all the GPS coordinates to the Great Divide Trail up on the web. John had downloaded them into his GPS and was following the Trail as far south as Colorado, where he would leave it and head back home across Utah and Nevada.
It sounded like a big trip, looping the entire northwest of the U.S., but he said it would take him only three weeks. “I started in Lima, this morning,” he said, “And will stay the night in Pinedale.” Lima, Montana to Pinedale, Wyoming was 400 odd miles by the Trail and would take me 8 days, biking every day but the half-day I cowered out of the rain in Red Rock. It takes some small effort to bike four hundred miles on dirt roads and into headwinds and that he could do it in a day rocked me—and brought home the great assist we get from petroleum. Eight days of great effort collapsed into eight hours without threat to heart-rate or paunch.
John buzzed off, disappearing quickly at the next bend of the road, although I would follow his tracks for the rest of the day. One barrel of oil is the equivalent to two years of manual labor. The average American utilizes 11 barrels of oil annually, or the equivalent or 22 years of manual labor. It is impossible to imagine life without that subsidy. Even as I biked on, following John’s waffled trail, I helped myself to that subsidy: the roads, my food and clothes, the entire machinery of society which generated the wealth that enabled me to live for months on the stored fat of my labor all depended on the energy assist of petroleum.
The road narrowed and deteriorated as I climbed the northern flank of the Tetons. The transmission popped and crackled as it ground the mud and gravel clogging my chain and gears. Somewhere, deep in the forest, I passed from Idaho into Wyoming and, although there was still light left in the day, I worried at the damage I was doing to Succotash. I stopped early by a little stream, set up camp and took brush, rag, and chain oil to the chain and gears.
That night it snowed.