Two days later, as I headed east from the Grand Tetons, the clouds lowered and let loose a fine drizzle. The trail turned off the busy park roads and headed up Buffalo Valley, still comparatively lush for Wyoming, with tall grasses and brush in the valley bottom and trees on the hillsides. The slope steepened and as I put my weight into the pedals, a 1940s vintage red pick-up in mint condition passed me. I would see it again.
Ranches in the west universally have a high post and lintel gate at the entrance to their roads. Often they are no more than three barked spruce logs: two vertical with one laying horizontal across their tops. Others have swinging cantilevered gates, rock posts or fancy iron scroll work on the top. Ranches are named and branded.
As I climbed up Buffalo Valley, the road narrowed and, after a couple of miles, I passed the entrance to a well kept ranch. Jogging up the drive in a very pink fleece pullover and black tights, leading a toy poodle on a leash, was a slim woman. I passed in a flash and didn’t have time to wave, but reflexively I thought: That was not Wyoming, it was Manhattan.
A couple hundred yards further up the road, my left pedal began to wobble. I leaned the bike up against a fence post—noting that the barbed wire was tight, each row precisely parallel and the post milled lodge pole pine. Whoever worked this ranch did it right.
It wasn’t the pedal, but the crank that was loose. The nut securing it to the spindle had backed off. I figured it was an easy fix, got out my tools, dabbed the threads with Loctite, and with the needle nose pliers on my Leatherman knock-off, tightened it down.
My back to the road, my butt in the air, a voice behind me asked if I needed any help. Startled, I straightened and turned. There she was, hot pink, blonde, jogger slender, toy poodle, the leash held high and taut to keep it from attacking me, iPod earbuds in her ears. She didn’t take them out.
“Thanks, but no,” I said. “Minor problem.”
We went thru the standard introductory routine and when I said I was headed to Mexico, consternation flooded her face. “It’s that way.” She pointed back the way I’d come. I explained about the Trail, the map, the dirt roads. The conversation was difficult as she had trouble hearing me over whatever was coming out of her iPod. Despite my explanations, understanding didn’t flush her face, it was more like: “I’m not going to argue with another bullheaded man.” She wished me luck and jogged on up the road.
While I had the tools out, I greased the chain, then packed up and started up the road after her.
I hadn’t gone a quarter of a mile before the crank started wobbling again and I knew I had a problem. The needle-nosed pliers couldn’t get a decent bite on the nut, and the pliers’ handle was too short to generate enough torque to adequately tighten it. I squatted and stared at it working thru my options. As I saw them, they were: Riding the 50 miles to Jackson where there were two bike stores, stopping to tighten the nut every quarter mile; or taking a rock and hammering the point of the pliers into the threads, mangling them to lock the nut in place.
“You’re not going to get to Mexico that way.” The lady in pink had jogged back down the road and this time I accepted her help. The name of her ranch was Fir Creek and as we walked down its drive, I learned that her name was Jurate, the ranch was her summer home, and that she was, indeed, from Manhattan.
She parked me by the shop and went to find the ranch manager. I followed him into the shop. You could get yourself to Mars with the tools it contained. Roger, the manager, gruff, stocky, weatherbeaten and Wyoming bred picked thru his sockets, found a 5/16” and snapped it into an 18 inch driver and while I stood on the pedal to keep the crank from moving, he leaned his muscled weight into it.
Then Jurate and Roger reopened the discussion about how the hell I was going to get to Mexico by going northeast instead of south thru Jackson. I pulled out my map and showed him the red lined trail I was following that hiked over the ridge at the back of Buffalo Valley, up Togatwa Pass-”They’re rebuilding the road over the pass—it’ll be a muddy mess”, down the other side to a Forest Service road heading south over yet another pass and then down to Pinedale, some 130 miles away.
“I wouldn’t wish that route on anybody,” Roger said. Roger, with a gruff warmth, said that it would be a four day trek at least and seriously uncomfortable. He qualified his observation by saying he hadn’t ridden a bike since his school days, but you could tell he questioned my sanity. But given that I was intent on going that route, he suggested I drop in at the hardware store at Dubois to pick up a socket and driver in case the nut loosened before I got to Mexico. Dubois was only nine miles off route and I had no idea how long Roger’s fix would last (it lasted 960 miles), so it seemed a good idea to me.
Jurate invited me to lunch and left us to go down to the main house. Roger and I stood in the doorway of the shop looking out over the ranch. It had originally been a dude ranch but eighteen years ago, when the owner died unexpectedly, his widow sold it to Jurate and her husband. Roger, who had managed it for the previous owner, had stayed on and managed it for the new ones. He grinned, “Like a slave.” They ran about 150 head of cattle, which had already been moved to a lower elevation for the winter. I mentioned that I was impressed how well maintained the ranch was and he thanked me modestly.
The main house was new, but built with old timbers that gave it a rustic weatherworn look. It was tasteful and a welcome change from the milled log green sheet-metaled roofed houses that pock the Rockies all the way down to New Mexico. I let myself in through the garage and, parked on the dustless cement floor, was the red pick-up that had passed me only an hour or so ago. Next to it was another antique car.
Lunch was chicken stew, bread, and salad. Jurate, though her English was unaccented, was from Lithuania and still had family and a store there. She wrote women’s histories and had recently completed a novel. Cody, her poodle, was 11 and the two of them ran every day in Central Park.
I told her that my next project was to live for a few years in New York City. “And of all of my projects,” I said, “living in NYC intimidates me the most.”
“It should,” she said. “Consider a practice run in an easier city like Philadelphia.” New York apparently was too rough, too busy, and too impolite for newcomers.
After making certain that I had everything I needed, she left me to teach English to Haitian school kids via Skype. Her cook, from Peru, and who had been with the family for many years and whose four children were scattered around the world, gave me a plastic container of a pear and peach cobbler. “It took me three hours,” she said, to make.
Back on the road, the crank stayed tight as I headed up to Togwotee pass. It was raining and snowing and I climbed the new, still pitch-black asphalt, the road lines not yet painted on it. A Porsche with Illinois plates, coming down the pass toward me, pulled over and warned me of the mud of the construction going on right in the pass. He warned me again and then again and then it turned into a whine that he hadn’t been warned of how bad the mud was and that the flaggers had been near criminally negligent in not telling him of the true conditions he should have been told exactly how bad it was and…
I made my escape wondering what it was about the metaphysics of the universe that the whiners got Porsches.
Hard pellets of snow were blasting into me by a cold wind when I reached the end of the pavement. The flagger told me I wasn’t allowed to bike through the construction and I stripped the bags off Succotash and threw her into the back of the pilot tuck—driven by a twenty-two year old, heavily made up lass from Minnesota who was tremendously excited about living in the west and who planned to be driving the monster Volvo dump trucks next season when construction resumed after the snow was out of the pass.
It took twenty minutes to get over the pass, slipping in the mud and dodging the big Volvos, and I sucked up every BTU coming out of Samantha’s heaters. Those five miles over Togwatee pass was the only part of the Trail I was driven. Tossed out into the cold and growing dusk on the east side, I quickly rehung the panniers, but the first pressure I put on the pedals, they locked up and a scary grinding came from the derailleur.
Peering at the derailleur with my unfocusable eyes in the dusky light, I could see that it was bent—preventing the chain from feeding properly into it. Pissed-off yet again at my mindlessness, I realized that I’d tossed the bike into the pick-up derailleur side down. It was too late to try and fix it, so I remounted and coasted away from the construction site intending to make camp around the corner in a copse of trees.
The bike was drifting too slowly. Heated by my implosion of self-regard, I tentatively put my foot on the pedal—and it spun. I put both feet on and the bike moved forward—no scary sound coming from the back wheel. Ignorant of what had happened and what had changed, but grateful, I blasted down the pass trying to get low in the valley before nightfall.
Later than night, camp made, dinner eaten, the stars overhead blotted out by heavy rain-spitting clouds, I popped the plastic container and poured a big slug of whipping cream on the cobbler. It was exquisite—no cloying sweetness, the fruit tasted sharp and almost metallic in its fruitiness and the precision with which both the peaches and pears asserted themselves: a glorious ending to a long day.
Damn Fool (Again)
I came down out of the mountains of Bridger-Teton National Forest. The night before, spent next to a cattle trammeled little Strawberry Creek, 9000 feet high, had been cold—dropping to about 10 degrees and thick frost stiffened the tent and rimmed Succotash the next morning.
I was headed into Pinedale on the edge of the Wyoming desert. The dirt roads that Roger had thought would take me four days to cross, I cruised over in about ten hours. Pronghorn antelope raced in their curious rocking-horse gait, across the landscape, leaping fences without slowing. Sometime during the day, the derailleur started poking into the plastic spoke-guard behind the cassette. I’d adjusted it twice since coming over Togwotee Pass and the poking now seemed so gentle and tentative that I ignored it, telling myself that I would fine-tune the adjustment in camp that evening.
The dirt road emptied into a paved one and I picked up speed. Some miles further on, I downshifted to climb a hill and the derailleur poked through the spoke-guard and decapitated itself in my spokes.
I carried Succotash to the side of the road and laid her on the panniers. The spokes were OK, the derailleur beyond repair. It took me twenty minutes to remove it, shorten the chain so that it fit around the middle fore and aft sprockets and get back on the road, pedaling up hill and down with just a single gear. It was nothing major, a mild inconvenience, but I was pissed. And I bent over the handlebars flogging myself without mercy. I had broken (yet again) the rule I laid down my second day out
of Juneau: if something’s wrong fix it right away, don’t wait. It would have taken 30 seconds.
It was late in the day and there were still thirty miles or so between me and Pinedale. Instead of camping that night as I’d planned, I went all the way, struggling on the few uphills and coasting in frustration on the many downhills, my feet spinning uselessly anytime the bike’s speed edged past 10 or 11 mph.
At 8 sharp the next morning, I walked into the hardware store in Pinedale that had a corner devoted to a few bicycling items—I was expecting to have to hitchhike the 70 odd miles back to Jackson to find a new derailleur. The proprietor opened a dusty glass case and shuffled around the boxes stacked there, pulled one out and handed it to me. It was the same make and model of one I’d destroyed. I’d lucked out, again.
A Long Day
The eastern sky was paling, only the brightest stars still alight in the sky. The thermometer read 12 degrees. Oatmeal, pre-cooked the night before for a quick getaway, was rimed with ice. I struck the tent, packed the panniers and ate breakfast as the sun rose behind me casting my shadow across the desert grasses. Hat, jacket, fleece pants and down mittens, a gallon and a half of water: 70 miles across the Great Basin Desert to the next campsite with water.
It was just past 7 am when, in dead low gear, I rode Succotash up the track to the gravel road that would take me into the desert. As I topped the ridge, the horizon receded—the mountains distant and the desert flat and dusty beige pocked with dusty-green saltbrush and sagebush, short, spikey, and low to the ground, inches of bare sand between each plant.
I shed clothes as the sun pumped warmth into the air. An hour into the day, I spotted Diagnus Well and turned off the road to check it out. An acre or so of desert fenced off with a pipe gushing water into the ground. The fenced desert was thick with plants unseen on the other side of the fence. A sign stated that the water and area inside the fence were for wildlife, implying what is unvoiced fact, that wilderness must now be protected from man and no longer man from wilderness.
I headed back to the road and pushed hard on the pedals. I was moving fast. Succotash bounced and shivered over the gravel and ruts without complaint. The road was flat, with occasional short steep descents and climbs out of gullies and draws—each one very dry.
By mid-morning, I was flying, hot in the sun with only bike shorts and a light shirt on, miles were ripping by. I began the mind-fuck of estimating when I would get into camp. As if I were in control of my destiny.
I flashed down an easy slope and the front tire plowed into soft sand. Fine as talc, more like dust, and bottomless, the rear wheel fished, I countered with the front wheel, now pushing into the dust instead of riding over it. The wheel snapped left, perpendicular to my line of travel, stopping Succotash as if she’d hit a wall, and shooting me over the handlebars.
I crashed into the road on the side of my head and left shoulder. Lying in the dust, staring at the sky, the words: “I’m so committed to helmets” lit up in my stunned brain. I crawled to my feet and swung my arm checking for ripped tendons and broken bones. Everything seemed to work, but it was sore and would get worse.
Succotash was nose down in the dust. The front wheel twisted almost back to the down tube; the handle bars yanked off center. The left front pannier had been ripped off its rack; the rear-view mirror lay face down in the road, snapped off its mount.
It was a quick job straightening out and remounting everything and I was back on the saddle in a few minutes. But my first push of the pedals and the front wheel jammed up in the forks. A great pie-section of the tire had been twisted mangled way out of alignment.
I dragged Succotash over off the road and laid her on the panniers so that I could spin the wheel. Digging out my spoke wrench, I set to work tightening the spokes on the right side of the wheel and slacking off those on the left forcing the bent rim back into alignment. I was laying on my side in the sand, one eye closed as I spun the wheel looking for bends, when I heard a vehicle coming up behind me.
A couple of men in a white SUV, the driver in a big, well worn, cowboy hat and sunglasses, his buddy, 20 years younger, in a military tee, cameo pants, and dark sunglasses. I never did see his eyes. They asked if I needed any help. I said no. They were out scouting for elk (did they mean antelope?)—the season opened the next week. Both had been born and raised in Wyoming and loved the flat and wide open country: You can see where you’re going to spend the night when you get up in the morning. They warned me to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. “Just killed one yesterday,” the younger said. They shook my hand and drove off. Both had radiated warmth and it made lying back in the scratchy sand to finish truing up the wheel an easier task.
Succotash and I were moving again in about 45 minutes. There was still a wobble in the front wheel—but I was uncertain how tightly I could crank down the spokes before they started snapping or ripping out of the rim. The front wheel took a serious beating on the rock-strewn roads we rode over and in my fears, I saw over-tightened spokes on pop like a string of firecrackers when it hit a particularly nasty bump. I was packing five spare spokes, but I still wanted to avoid having to respoke the wheel. What I didn’t know then, and wouldn’t until I was only a few days from the end of the Trail when I tried to replace a bent spoke, was that the new tire I’d bought in Whitehorse used a different length spoke than the old wheel it replaced and so the spares would have been useless if the spokes had broken.
As it was, the front wheel lasted the trip and, over the miles, it trued itself up as if by magic until it spun wobbleless.
Remounted, I took off cautiously. I could lean on the handlebars without much pain, but it hurt to shift, and almost any movement, up, left or right flooded my shoulder with pain. I gave up trying to make the reservoir and resigned myself to a dry camp that night—I had plenty of water and slowed way down. Even still there were patches of soft sand I didn’t see until I was in the thick of it, the bike fishing barely in control.
I biked on, feeling more at ease at the slower pace. The temperature still mild, in 80s, and the land flattened out, sage green and brown stretching for tens of miles to distant colorless mountains. As I moved into it, the desert grew drier and more sparse. Off to the east on a high knoll stood a pronghorn buck, regal, cut against the sky.
I was alone, only rarely, did a truck pass. In the afternoon, as I was struggling up a rocky hill, a pick-up edged around me and disappeared over a rise. I crested the rise and found the truck parked a ways down the slope. As I approached a white haired, white bearded, stocky, man with the deeply etched lines of a weather-worn face climbed out of the cab and walked back toward me. He stopped at the end of the truck’s bed, opened a cooler, rooted around in the ice and pulled out a bottle of water and handed it to me. I rolled it over my face before cracking the top.
Born and raised in Lander, just a ways north, he’d been a welder, owning his own shop. Then a couple of years ago, he’d had gone to work for a mine and in the yard, had tripped over some channel iron buried in snow, fell and broke a bone in his elbow. The local surgeon (“horse doctor”) fixed him, but the bone grew over and pinched his nerve, numbing the outside of his right hand. He’s been on disability since. He and his wife (she stayed in the cab—and, as they’d followed my tracks, had thought I was drunk because they wandered from one side of the road to the other) were scouting for antelope, making ready for the season.
“Did you see the buck on the hill back there?” he asked. His eyes lit up in appreciation.
The road narrowed and rose. Just before the cut-off onto a little used road that would take me into the Great Basin, another truck stopped and the driver shouted out his window: “Are you going to Mexico?” It was rare to meet folks who knew about the Trail. He said there was water in both Crooks Creek and the reservoir. Crooks Creek was 3 miles off the trail, but 19 miles closer than the reservoir. I figured I could make it there by nightfall.
The cut-off narrowed and became a little used two-track. It passed an abandoned cattle loading area and turned more directly south and rose as it climbed the escarpment ringing the Basin. In the dust, occasionally, I saw old bike tracks. Others had been this way.
It was now mid-afternoon; already it had been a long day and I still had twenty-odd miles to Crooks Creek. The heat of the sun had built into the 90s. I was sticky with sweat, tired, hot, and dusty and I couldn’t drink enough water to feel hydrated. My shoulder had swollen along the collarbone up to my neck, down my back and chest. Tomorrow it would be worse.
The road was cutting along the base of a low ridge—at the top of the ridge was a rusted 55-gallon drum. As we passed it, the air went out of the rear tire. I hadn’t had a flat for the past 1100 miles and any other day would have been a better day to have one. Dispirited, I laid Succotash on the side of the road and trudged up the gently rising ridge to the barrel, not ready yet to deal with the flat.
The rusted barrel reminded me of Wallace Steven’s poem, Anecdote of the Jar, which can be read as a metaphor for how man has tamed and asserted dominion over the wilderness. See the fence around Diagnus Well.
Like most things in the west, if it looks like a target, it becomes one. The barrel had been pierced from every angle by bullets and in it were crushed and faded Pilsner beer cans. I walked to the top of the ridge and discovered it wasn’t a ridge, but an escarpment. Its off-side fell steeply away to the flat desert plain. Below me was the Great Basin from which no water escaped except by evaporation. The continental divide split around the basin, water, what little there was, running into the Basin flowed neither to the Atlantic nor the Pacific. I shuffled along the escarpment, kicking rocks, watching for snakes, and cradling my left arm. When it hung free, its weight hurt my shoulder.
After a time, I turned back toward Succotash. I was worried that my left arm wouldn’t be strong enough to hold the pump when I refilled the tire with air. It took considerable strength to force in air when the tire pressure got above 40 lbs.
I took off the rear panniers, found my tools and disassembled the tire. The puncture was quickly found: the lip of the Mr Tuffy tire liner that I’d had inserted between the tire and the tube to prevent punctures had itself worn thru the tube. I sat on the sand, the tube limp in my hands and looked at the wear marks of the liner on the tube feeling betrayed.
Neither in the mood nor having the energy to patch the tube, I put a new one in. I was back on the road by 4:30. The sun was mid-sky but still hot. I biked up and over the escarpment and down into the Basin. The road, flatter now, rarely had soft sand and I picked up speed. The landscape started looking industrial. Several high tension wires, stung on high wooden poles loped across the sands from horizon to horizon. I passed over a gas line and in the distance a giant rectangular cut scarred a desert mountain. This scar was a uranium mine operated by Rio Tinto.
Around 6, the road I was following dead ended into one running north south. Crooks Creek was three miles to the north. The reservoir, my original destination, was still 19 miles away. I couldn’t bring myself to go 6 miles (roundtrip) off the Trail. Nor did I want to spend any more time looking at the giant scar, the high tension wires, and the other industrial ravages all to the north.
To make the reservoir, I had six miles to go south—almost directly into the wind, and 13 miles west, nicely downwind, though with my luck, the wind will have laid down by the time I turned west. In two hours, it would be dark. I decide to run for it.
The road south was hard packed. Big pick-ups from the mine raced by me swirling up dust that eddied and resettled in hollows and rills in the road. The wind was unrelenting. I put the bike in a lower gear and spun the pedals in a faster cadence than normal pushing into the wind without pause. The sun swelled as it sank to my right.
An hour later, I cut the east-west road, stopped for water and trail-mix, and then headed west. Into the wind, I made 6 mph; downwind, I made 12. The road was rougher, the traffic from the mine didn’t use this road, but I kept my pace, letting mile after mile reel by. Behind me the sun touched the horizon cast my shadow far down the road. My panniers swelled reminding me of peddlers in India or Africa with a shop’s worth of goods strapped to their bikes.
The sun was down and the day dusky when I reached the cut off to the reservoir. The last mile was rough, with blocky rocks half-buried in soft sand. I climbed the high berm that had been built around the creek and looked down onto water still ruffled by the wind.
There was no good protection from the wind—which was quieter now, but still blowing. The top of the bank was tent-friendly flat, but totally exposed; down by the water’s edge there was only a touch more protection and the ground was uncomfortably sloped and rocky. Curiously, given that hundreds of bikers must camp here every season, I saw no sign of other campers. It was as if I were the first.
I set up the tent facing into the wind—now just a gentle breeze—in the only reasonably flat spot by the water. The soil was too hard to pound tent stakes into, and, certain that the wind would continue to die, I didn’t tie off the tent to rocks. I crawled into my sleeping bag after dinner; it was late, the sky black, the stars brilliant, the moon missing, the air sharp and cold.
I had done 70 miles that day, all on dirt roads, the last 19 at a run, severely bruised my shoulder, sweated under an unwinking sun, and yet I couldn’t sleep. I read, my left arm limp by my side.
An hour passed and without warning a fist of wind slammed into the tent. The poles flexed, the nylon bellied inwards. I struggled into my clothes and shoes, my left arm useless, the bruise swollen and throbbing. I piled everything into the middle of the tent, scurry out into the wind and spin the tent around so that the narrow end is pointing into the wind to better shed the wind. Back in the tent I lay out my sleeping bag with my head is in the tent’s narrow foot so that my weight helps anchor it.
I quit reading grateful, as I dozed off that it I was in a desert and didn’t have to worry about rain—the groundcloth hadn’t been properly folded under the tent and the fly hadn’t been properly guyed out—any rain would run onto the ground-cloth and under the tent and up through the floor. I’d be soaked in a flash.
A few minutes after mid-night, I was shocked awake by rain pelting the tent.
It is windy in Rawlins: unrelenting, inescapable, and mindnumbing. The campground had wind barriers for tents. I pitched mine behind one and still tied it down so it wouldn’t take off. I put my cook stove behind the tent, and crouched over it to eat, and still the wind would whip around corners and blow my oatmeal out of my spoon and into my lap.
Suzanne was coming for an eight day ride down to Frisco, Colorado. The day before she arrived, I biked around Rawlins shopping and getting us ready for the next leg. As I biked, the chain slipped, skipping off the sprockets. I assumed something had come out of adjustment—it made no sense that the chain, which hadn’t slipped once in the past 3500 miles and was now slipping regularly, unless something was misadjusted. But nothing I did seemed to make a difference.
I decided to pretend nothing was wrong.
Suzanne piled out of the bus in the deep blackness of 5 am. We put her bike together in the light of a Blockbuster Store and, several hours later after getting organized back at the campground, we headed out of town. At the first hill, I leaned on the pedals and the chain skipped. It was worse than it had been the day before, as if Succotash were succumbing to rapid onset MS.
Suzanne ran along side as I pedaled watching the chain. She figured out that it was skipping off the front sprocket, not the rear one as I’d supposed. I got off, put on my reading glasses and looked at the sprockets: the tabs of the middle one had been worn to points and there was nothing for the chain to grab on to.
The middle sprocket—the most used—was the worse. The chain only rarely skipped on the inner and outer sprockets, which was lucky, because the little bike store in Rawlins—owned by a gentle and extremely generous Rawlins native in her 60s—couldn’t repair the bike. So, we left; me with six less gears. It took some practice to switch from high to low gear without my feet spinning wildly against nothing popping me out of my seat.
Five days later we cycled into Steamboat Springs and parked in front of the first bike shop we came to. Brock, acting as the triage nurse, took us into his capable hands and by lunchtime, Succotash had a brand new set of front sprockets. And, in a fit of over thinking, I bought a new tire to replace the rear one whose tread was wearing thin. I would regret this.