Behave, but don’t forget to dream.
Friends! Family! Complete strangers! Welcome, to the recap for section 2 of my journey from Canada to Mexico by bicycle. Continuing my effort to ride every inch of the longest off-road bike path in the world, this year I took a quick jaunt from Butte, Montana to Dubois, Wyoming.
Roughly 450 miles over the course of two weeks, I ventured into the wilderness again in a vain attempt to capture a piece of this planet; to fold up and tuck away in some half-forgotten back pocket so that I might remember how life tastes when living for a single simple purpose.
I’m taking a different tone this year mostly because I was disappointed in myself for watering down last year’s log so much. There are a lot of compromises that come with trying to write for everyone, so this year I’m just going to write whatever I want and if it isn’t reader-friendly and accessible then, well, that’s your problem.
So scroll through and check out the pics and vids. I know that’s all most of you will have the time and attention for. For those of you who are a little more committed, the summary would take the average person about 20 minutes to read start-to-finish.
Feel free to bookmark it and come back later, or just scroll through and read a paragraph here or there. Feast your eyes, and leave when you’ve had your fill. Either way I’m satisfied, so let’s make this mutual.
Life is like a gift of clay. The gift is given by grace, but it’s on us to build something beautiful. As amateurs we usually build a bunch of crap, but if we keep squeezing and twisting after hundreds of ugly iterations it slowly, imperceptibly, becomes the work of a skilled artist.
I want to be clear, to make sure no one thinks this is about me bragging. When compared to the Tour Divide riders who sometimes cover over 200 miles a day, my measly 40 mile days don’t look like much. While what I do is uncommon, it certainly isn’t special or exceptional.
No, my point in doing this is to explain that anyone can do stuff like this. Because when I planned this almost two years ago, if you read back, I didn’t even have a bike. I had never ridden a bike more than 20 miles in a day, ever.
My whole trick is to choose an adventure, something stupid and ridiculous, something so huge it seems impossible, then go for it. That’s it.
This is my current impossible adventure; one that starts with a plane trip from DEN to BTM and involves me comically throwing my bike and gear in a box with a solid lump of dread in the pit of my stomach.
“If all of this stuff makes it there and ends up in one piece it will be a fucking miracle.” I told my roommate.
After the chaotic dragging and loading, I found my gear box was two inches under the oversize limit and four pounds under the overweight limit. *whew* A few chapters and a short nap later I found myself in Butte, MT where my dad was waiting for me.
After sending out an invitation last year, my dad offered to run support for the first part of my trip. For the first week I traveled light, and met him at camp where a huge tent and equally-sized meal awaited. Having done both now I can state the obvious and say that supported touring is much easier than self-supported travel.
I found a picnic table to unbox and reassemble my bike. Amazingly, nothing was broken. With a few hours of light left I rode out 18 miles to a fantastic view on top of the Watershed divide. My dad pulled up and we sat at the top listening to an Elk bugle; an eerie call I’ve never heard before.
“I KNEW I came out here for a reason!”
I got a ride back to the hotel just as the rain started, and it didn’t let up until long after I’d gone to sleep.
Time spent waiting in the rain: 5hrs
The story we tell ourselves is important.
It frames everything we experience and defines the meaning of everything that happens to us.
The story is a filter that some things stick to and others pass through and are forgotten.
We need to spend some time thinking about this to make sure we aren’t telling ourselves and the rest of the world a shitty story.
I got a ride back up to where I’d stopped the night before started climbing. I crossed the Continental divide for the first time around 10:00. At one point two Moose (Mooses? Meese? Mee-sigh?) burst out of the bushes and ran beside me for a while.
I watched them clunk out of sight as they ran up and around the hillside. They’re notably less graceful than deer and elk.
At one point I came around a corner and was overwhelmed with open space. The dense forest lay behind me. Further back, a silver mountain peak rose above the swaying treetops. Ahead was a massive valley like an ocean of green. I felt like I could see for a hundred miles in every direction and I literally had goosebumps from the contrasting sights. This was my favorite part of the trip.
To be out there, by yourself, silent. No engines, no traces of man. That’s awesome.
Reminded once again of why I do this, I pedaled on over another rise, and down a long, steep descent, then back up again to Beaver Dam campground.
I was supposed to meet my dad there for lunch. He’ll tell you otherwise, but this is MY story.
–We arranged to meet at Beaver Dam Campground around noon.
I got there at 11:30, and no one was there. I sat on a picnic table and ate lunch alone while I watched the clouds form around me.
At 1:00, the rain started.
At 1:30, the lightning came and it started pouring.
By 4:00, I was ready to send for the Forest Rangers.
“The first day!? Really?? What the hell? I am NOT sleeping out here tonight in shorts without shelter.”
I gave it another half-hour, figuring that five hours was plenty of time to get lost, or stuck, or lose track of time, or whatever, and then get back on track.
Right as the 5 hours was up, my dad pulled up, swearing that we had arranged to meet below the steep un-drivable singletrack ahead. We hadn’t, of course (MY story!) but after a few minutes of nervous laughter and “I thought–”
“–No you said…” things calmed down and we decided to camp there for the night.
It started raining again as we put up the huge tent that Dad brought. We sat under the awning (yeah, it had an awning) and drank beer while listening to the rain as it gently spilled out of the sky.
The Infamous Fleecer Ridge
We don’t suffer from a lack of information, food, or resources. We suffer from our inability to manage the abundance of these things.
Empty your cup
In the morning we packed up the damp tent while a woodpecker casually tapped for food in the trees above. Today I would set out to take on the infamous Fleecer Ridge; one of the most technical and memorable parts of the entire route from here to Mexico.
Not knowing what to expect, I pedaled up and up through five miles of gentle climbing, then another mile of insanely steep climbing. At a random flat spot on the barely-worn path my map told me to “Turn right near high point, passing through grassy meadow to aim at solitary fence-like structure.”
I looked over and saw a post, which was the only man-made structure in sight so I hopped off the bike and walked it across the meadow on the top of a ridge in the middle of nowhere.
From here I could see where the Earth opened into a deep valley. I ate an orange, cinched down my pack, lowered my seat and set my rear shock to full open for the descent. It started out modestly enough, but got sketchier and sketchier until I had to walk down. They say everyone walks Fleecer Ridge, but it still stung my ego a bit.
After the crazy steep ridge, I had some awesome doubletrack that fell deep into the valley floor below where I finished up the day in the rain on a paved scenic byway. The rain continued to fall until early the next morning.
Fleecer ridge analysis – What makes it difficult:
Navigation is tough, the approaching climb is steep and deeply rutted, the grade on the way down is like that of a black ski-run, terrain on the bottom half is loose shale that shifts and shuffles beneath your tires. The remoteness guarantees that you will be dragging yourself for miles if you get injured or damage your bike.
Max speed: 41 mph
I rode and thought I’d try to understand the hard things, like fear and sadness. I wanted to feel wonder, so I had to accept a little uncertainty.
I rode along a river that became a stream as I neared the mountain pass. While resting at the top I came across four other supported divide riders, who were riding the same route northbound. These were the only other riders I saw off-pavement.
After that it was miles of downhill. By 2pm, I had covered 45 miles. Just outside of Polebridge the paved road dropped at an 8.5% grade and I hit 41mph. I don’t think I have to tell you that on a bicycle, that’s stupid fast.
After recovering from some serious heat exhaustion (a recurring theme on this trip) I found myself in Bannack State Park. The mosquitoes were terrible, but the site redeemed itself by providing an awesome ghost town that we were free to explore. This was my favorite part of the trip.
Wind speed: 500mph
Your calling is not a dumb idea; it’s what you need to do. It’s what WE need you to do.
Another long day in the high desert. Not a single tree around me and I could see for a hundred miles in every direction. Smooth dirt roads and sagebrush melted away behind me in a hazy mirage as I worked my way halfway into the 50 mile back-country byway.
I spent the last 20 miles riding straight into severe headwinds. It deafened my ears and pummeled my face for hours. I buried my head between my handlebars and stared at the dirt as I fought my way through the open valley and up the long, steep, watershed divide.
This pic shows some of the road I came along. You can’t tell but it’s near the top of a giant climb, taken in 40-60mph winds.
It was this day that I learned to hate the wind. It became my nemesis, stealing all the moisture from my body and pushing against me relentlessly. I yelled and spat and wrestled my way through it every time it came to fight me.
To think that nature can destroy you with its mere breath, that the mild stirring of atmosphere can send the air slicing through you like arrows..
Down over the back I found Morrison Lake, which was a nice treat tucked out of the wind in the folds between two mountains. I had a chance to wash up in the lake and tend to my sunburnt, windburnt, heat-exhausted body.
After eating dinner and talking to a cowboy who was fishing at the lake, I thought it’d be a good idea to cut the bottom of my foot on a tent stake. So that’s exactly what I did.
Change feels dangerous, but it isn’t. Sometimes, comfortable and familiar is the most dangerous thing you can do.
I made my way out of the high desert and watched two high canyon walls rise up around me. The scenery quickly changed from bleak to bustling, and I could barely keep my eyes on the road.
I followed the winding path of the creek down past a landscape that transitioned from jagged rocky cliffs to smooth forested hills, marveling at the contrast. My passing stirred the birds into a cacophony of sound. This was my favorite part of the trip.
It was here that I first realized that there is no way to capture something like that. Photos, videos, and carefully picked words could never mimic the sensation of being in those surroundings. Since I couldn’t take it with me, I took the opportunity to stop and savor the moment.
Eventually I came to Lima, where I found my dad had gotten a motel. I was happy to have a real room for the first time since Butte, and immediately took a nice cold rinse in the shower. Fox news babbled about a “massacre” and messages flooded in from my family and friends when I switched on my phone. It was about as unpleasant as it was comforting.
We ate dinner at Yesterday’s Calf-A, an old-schoolhouse-turned-restaurant. The one-room building was filled with big dining room tables; the kind you’d see in someone’s house.
The waitress led us to a table with two other people and motioned for us to sit down. I can’t remember ever being seated at a table with other strangers in a restaurant before, but the place was charming and the food was good.
I finished up the evening lying around there in that dark, hot motel.
Montana is the 4th largest state in the country
Beaverhead county is the largest county in Montana.
Lima is the second largest town in Beaverhead county.
Lima has a population of 220.
This is where I woke up on day 7.
-Map data ©2012 Google
Today was a ‘rest’ day. I only rode 16 miles. I fought the wind again through wheat fields and pastures. The vegetation turned to sagebrush and again I was riding through the desert straight into the wind. I hate the wind.
I hit a low of sorts there in that windy desert. Experience has taught me to expect this kind of thing, but it still hurts the same every time. A majority of the last two days had been spent fighting brutal headwinds in the desolate high desert.
I had a little windburn and some serious fatigue, but my body was holding up well. My emotional reserve, however, was virtually nonexistent. Suddenly it felt stupid to be out there in such unforgiving territory, pushing through an endless landscape on a friggin’ bicycle. After all, I could just hop in the truck and get a ride. No one but my dad and I would even know.
Fortunately, I’ve also learned that these are not appropriate times to change plans. When tears well up and resolve starts to falter, that’s when it matters most. That’s what separates the doers from the talkers; the men from the boys. When things are good again, when the storm has passed, that is the time for changing plans and not a moment sooner. Besides, every good story includes conflict.
I’ll say that again: There has never been an interesting story that didn’t include some form of conflict.
After the stage is set and the war against self has been waged, there’s only one thing left to do. Go forth, and Bring ‘em hell.
Day 8 & 9
Days without a real shower: 9
Turn your self-awareness dial up to 11, and explore the internal world you’ve created. If you think that sounds boring, you must not’ve been there lately.
After getting a ride back to Lima Reservoir (another one of those supported-ride luxuries) I made my way across the vast prairie land into the lush Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge.
The wide shallow pools set against towering mountains covered in Lodgepole pine were quite a treat after passing through 50 miles of dust and sagebrush.
I rode to the far end of the park and set up camp in the late afternoon. I was overheating again so I soaked my hair and shirt in the frigid spring water and just laid around in the shade swatting bugs for a while.
Eventually, we set up camp and retreated behind the mesh screen. Outside the mosquitoes buzzed furiously and the birds cooed in the dwindling sunlight.
I decided here that I needed a real rest day. Like, one where I actually stay off the bike all day. My dad went for a drive and found some cabins to rent the following night, probably as an attempt to keep me from being such an asshole.
The next day in the cabin I took a shower and actually scrubbed the grime off myself for the first time since Butte, nine days prior. It was the most wonderful shower of my life. This was my favorite part of the trip. In the shade of the cabin’s porch we watched a bald eagle circling above. Solid Cirrus clouds drifted lazily by as we sipped Heineken and talked aimlessly.
Flat tires the entire trip: 1
No matter how I word it, nothing can describe what it feels like to be riding here right now.
After cleaning up and giving my sore ass a rest, it was time to hit the trail again. I rode next to a Golden Eagle that flew along with me against the backdrop of the mountain. Here and there, the sun had sent pillars of light to peer down at me through the clouds. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t a single person in any direction for miles.
How do you capture that? That’s my dilemma.
Even so, I’m still writing this is to make sure you’ve been told at least once not to lose sight of the fact that you can and should do anything you want. Seriously. Don’t think about entitlement, think about how you can use the privilege of choice to tell a story with your life.
After repairing a flat tire, I reached the Continental Divide crossing that also serves as the border between Montana and Idaho. The map instructed me to keep an eye out for singletrack, so I naively ventured off the path onto a terrible side trail. I ended up deep in the trees by the time I finally decided to hike out through the brush.
Covered in dirt, sweat, and foliage, I rode past Henry’s Lake and down into another tricky part of the route. I got lost more on this day than on any other, and at one point I had to turn around four times before finding the right path.
Finally, I got my bearings. My reward was the unpleasant Island Park, ID. It’s a place, and there are people there. I’ll keep my opinions to myself about this place and its people.
Sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s not fun. Plan accordingly.
My dad left and was happy to head home. Our proximity to Yellowstone had him feeling crowded, and it was time for him to get back to work. Fully loaded for the first time this trip, I dusted off the BOB trailer and set out on my own.
The designated route followed a VERY sandy trail with dozens of ATV tourists, so I exercised my right to veto and rode along the highway until it broke off onto the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway.
The byway turned out to be a great last-minute decision. It tumbled down and into the valley of the Snake river and then made its way back into the land of “Spud farms and wheat fields” as my host that night put it.
Here I got my first glimpse of the Tetons. Even from 50 miles away, the view was harrowing. For some reason my reaction was one of humility and intimidation. They seemed to mock me by giving scale to my tiny efforts.
After rejoining the route outside of Ashton, the guy at Squirrel Outpost hooked me up with a spot for the night. I found an old skeet shooter to play with and wandered the ranch to keep myself occupied.
I felt free, playful, and stupid. And I think we should do things that make us feel free and stupid more often. Hell, I don’t think I do it enough, and I do it all the time.
In the night I heard people singing hymns. Not just campfire songs, but creepy angel songs with four-part harmonies. Carmina Burana-type stuff. I had to get up and walk around my tent to listen and make sure I wasn’t losing it.
Seriously, there was a choir in the forest that night. I swear there was.
Average speed 7mph
Why do we insist on complicating simple things, and simplifying complicated things?
I left early, rolling through the horizontal shafts of morning light. I was a vapor; a mist that burns off in the first sunlight. Just as you catch a trace –I’m gone.
Traveling along the seasonal Ashton Flagg Ranch gravel road, I crawled over a 25 mile climb through the desolate, rocky northern flank of the Teton range. After what seemed like endless uphill riding, I came to Grassy Lake Reservoir just on the border of Yellowstone National Park.
After eating lunch and topping-off my water, I climbed some more. Finally, after 1,500 ft over 25 miles of loose rock I caught some downhill into the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway area.
If you’re ever in Yellowstone, go to Flagg Ranch and continue down the gravel Ashton Flag Ranch road into the woods. It’s worth it.
Finally I came into Flagg Ranch campground. Let me tell you 3 quick stories about Flagg Ranch:
1. When I checked in, some douchebag was freaking out about the (admittedly pricey) sites and the fact that there were no RV hookups left. After the woman calmly explained that reservations are recommended and the National Park system sets the prices, he just stood there gesturing wildly and saying “What am I supposed to do? This is crazy!” over and over.
Finally I stepped in and asked if he was just whining and if he was almost done. Apparently he was because he immediately walked off without a word.
2.Later, starving, I sniffed my way to a restaurant near the campground entrance. They smiled and seated me in front of a lit candle and cloth napkin. Really? I felt a little extra dirty being there. Everything was really expensive, but they had Ravioli and I was super hungry so I ordered a plate.
When they brought it to me, I found four raviolis drizzled with a little bit of sauce. I counted several times and looked around to make sure it wasn’t a joke. Four raviolis. I wanted to grab the waitress yelling “Four?? Do you know what I did today?!”
To be fair, they were really nice. The building and the people were nice, and the food I did get was good. Really good. So good I could’ve eaten a whole meal’s worth.
I went back to camp and immediately cooked a freeze-dried meal to get my fill.
3. The campground was full, and I was less than 10’ from my neighbor’s tent. Since I didn’t have a car, there was a parking space in front of me. I awoke to the glow of headlights in my tent and found a couple setting up right next to me in my spot. I got out and explained nicely that they were in my spot, and that I paid for C11.
They said something about the host telling them there was an open spot, and I told them there probably was, but it wasn’t C11. To be sure I repeated “I’m on a bike. If the parking space says C11, it’s mine.” and went to bed satisfied that they understood.
When I woke up in the morning I found their tent about 5’ feet from mine. I noisily made breakfast and left early.
Last night’s campsite $35
Aside from the gentle rustling of the leaves of the Aspen trees, there wasn’t a sound. A few seeds from some far-off cottonwood tree drifted lazily by. I stood there in the silence, taking in my surroundings, with no real goal, just a curious observation.
After escaping from the industrial mega-plex camp city, I traveled south on scenic Hwy 287. The heavy RV traffic on this highway kind of ruins the experience, but luckily I’d been warned and hit the road early.
After being pissed about the situation for a while, I changed my strategy and grabbed a surveying stick from the side of the road, broke it in half, and wedged it under my rear pack. The jagged orange tip stuck out about three feet to my left side, and kept the drivers off my shoulder. Funny how they’ll move over for a stick, but not for a person….
Anyway, I enjoyed the ride after that, and soon flew downhill to ride alongside Jackson Lake.
Jackson Lake is–
well, here it is:
The road and the scenery were awesome. So awesome I had gone 36 miles before I realized that I was completely exhausted and starving. I stopped at the Buffalo valley ranch cafe for lunch, but never quite recovered.
After a few more miles, I decided to ‘stealth camp’ and just pushed my bike through the brush into an old dried-up creek bed. This was a great experience, mostly because it scared the shit out of me.
Last night’s campsite: $0
You can’t eliminate danger from your life, but you can eliminate all the excitement.
Make sure you’re not doing the latter while confusing it with the former.
I woke up to a light rain. Eventually I found the motivation to pack up, eat breakfast, and wash up in a creek I’d found nearby. I made my way back to the main trail and immediately started climbing.
Half a mile up the road I passed the place I had planned on staying, Turpin Meadow campground feeling pretty damn smart for camping for free just a few hundred yards down the road.
This feeling passed away almost immediately though, as I had already started the long steep climb up toward Togwotee pass. The mosquitoes chewed on me a bit as I rode, and after about a dozen bites I violently pulled my rain jacket on to try to keep them off of me.
While climbing steep, gravel, mosquito-infested hills aren’t my favorite thing to do first thing in the morning, it would’ve been a lot worse trying to climb the same hill in the heat of the afternoon.
After about 5 miles I came to some construction, and the workers forced me to take a 1.5 mile truck ride to get through it since I was a ”hazard.” I’d consider this cheating if it weren’t for the fact that I had 9 miles of off-route riding to get to Dubois later in the day.
When the road finally leveled off I cried out in victory. Finally, after 16 miles of climbing I’d crested Togwotee pass.
This paved portion of the route joins up with the Trans-America Bicycle Trail, and I met a lot of other cyclists. I met five guys from Belgium were doing the whole route in 28 days. Through the language barrier, about the only thing I understood was that their asses were sore.
A bit later I came across Sue, a retiree who tours almost full-time. She was super cheerful and fun to talk to, so I rode with her for a few miles and soon we came across another cyclist, Brett Lucas, who was doing a self-supported solo tour. It’s his first tour, and he’s making up the route as he goes. The guy clearly has balls, and might be a little crazy. For the brief time we spoke, I really liked him.
Still later in Dubois, I met Buddy. Buddy was a “technically-homeless” guy who travels on a massive trailer/bike/thing that he said weighs 500lbs. I believed him. Meeting these people changed the experience for me, almost like seeing my own reflection for the first time.
My hotel was stupid cheap and looked awful. I found two spiders in the bed, and didn’t care one bit. My left calf had gotten really sore over the last couple of days so I wrapped it up, laid in the dirty hotel, and couldn’t be more content.
The next morning Tara arrived and over the next two days we explored Yellowstone and Jackson hole before heading back South to Denver. The luxuries of human companionship, motor transportation, and large meals came flooding back into my life.
We joked and swapped stories.
I got a congratulations, but she didn’t ask how it was.
She didn’t need to.