Sur La Plaque!

Bicycles, beer and other self-indulgent ruminations.

Category: TransAm

Sixty-One: “Point of Interest” (Missoula to Weir Creek, IDAHO)

Miles: 82
Total: 3,888

After breakfast, I found Adventure Cycling World HQ on Pine Street. Sarah took my photo for their wall, offered me ice cream and an ACA flag before giving me a tour of the building. A spandex-clad VIP.

I also met Greg Siple, a founding member, the back-page photo guy and much more. He had me fill out a brief bio and photo release, then took a photo of me and the bike. We also threw it on a hoist and weighed ‘er: 80 pounds before a trip to the grocery store. The ACA folks are headed to Pittsburgh for a conference soon and have the opportunity to ride the GAP. I advised fenders and wider tires.

On the way out of town I picked up provisions for the next two days since there’s not much till you hit Kooskia (coo-ski). Map 3 opens with a pretty, and pretty desolate stretch along Highway 12. I backtracked to Lolo (a trip to Missoula is an optional extra (but who wouldn’t?)), where I stopped at Travelers’ Rest, a confirmed Lewis and Clark camp. Staff said I’d be OK camping anywhere in the National Forest.

The route takes you past Fort Fizzle, an emplacement built hurriedly to engage non-treaty Nez Perce as they headed deeper into Montana. The Nez Perce simply passed undetected at the next ridge, earning the fort its name. This was a welcome failure, given mixed public and soldier opinion on Indian policy and the Nez-Perce War. Every few miles stands a post letting me know there’s another post that will tell me something historic about the area. Just in case I miss it at 14 m.p.h.

Then up Lolo Pass (5,235′), into Idaho (no. 9) and Pacific Time. It sprinkled briefly on my climb, but rained steadily on the descent. I stopped in Powell, the last service for 66 miles. You can camp behind the store for free, but the storm passed, so I filled all four bottles for a dry camp and continued on. I had a destination in mind.

On Day 49, Thomas C. told me about a hot spring on panel 32. Jacob and Megan also mentioned it at Jenny Lake. The turnout is easy to miss, but drag your bike just a few minutes up the path and you’re rewarded with a gorgeous campsite right on the creek. I have my food hung from a tree , just in case. The best part about this free site is the natural hot pool 10 minutes up the path.

It’s public, and I hear can be busy at times, but it was all mine when I hopped in. Maybe 105 degrees, it’s too warm to stay in for more than a few minutes. It’ll stand in nicely for a shower. A little later, four young ladies joined me. They came from Portland this morning (!), headed to Missoula. Natalie out-and-back cycled the stretch they’re driving a couple of years ago.

We spotted a big pine tree on fire in the woods past the pool. They’re gonna call it in once service is available. Hopefully no one wakes me up.

Sixty: College Town (Hamilton to Missoula)

Miles: 54
Total: 3,806

I had a great morning visiting with Terry. She worked last night till 10 p.m., so we caught up the over delicious pancakes (with a colleague’s fresh raspberries) and eggs she kindly made. One of her sons did a cross-country trip in 2009 and they host cyclists in part to repay some of the good turns folks did him.

There’s a bike path between Hamilton and Lolo. It’s separate and about 15′ from 93, so you don’t have to fight with traffic along the busy corridor. Probably ACA-influenced, I enjoyed it tremendously.

In Lolo, Highways 12 and 93 run together, which makes for a lot of traffic. The bike lane ends here, so the final dozen miles into Missoula are on the shoulder.

I spent most of my afternoon at Missoula’s busy library. This town of 66,000 people is the biggest I’ll see till for several hundred miles, and it was high time to camel-up on quality coffee, beer and ice cream (as if you need a reason). I had dinner at Bridge Pizza (right on the Clark Fork River), where two huge slices of fantastic NY-style pie and a beer set me back $6.50.

Home tonight is Warm Showers host Bruce Anderson’s 1931 home, built by an oil and gas salesman at the height of the Great Depression. The bath/shower controls have five knobs — you could probably pilot this tub to the moon. I’m sleeping in the sunroom. He and his housemates put up more than 130 cyclists last year. He’s got it down to a science, including a quirky guidebook to the house. The home serves as an unofficial Missoula community center. It’s a cool place to be. His grade-school son, Ben, was scootering around all night. Bruce helped him swap the bearings on his scooter, but we never did get the mystery noise resolved.

After settling in, I rode downtown for ice cream at the Big Dipper and then over to Caras Park to scope out a 1991-built carousel. It features 38 hand-carved horses on a 1918 frame. And it spins way faster than what I would call reasonable and prudent! The park’s along the Clark Fork River (A fork of what, I have no idea. It seems to be its own entity), and the city’s installed a concrete wave-forming structure that challenges surfers and kayakers.

I’ll have to wait till tomorrow to visit ACA HQ — it’s closed Sunday.

Fifty-Nine: Grease Spot (Wisdom to Hamilton)

Miles: 79
Total: 3,782

You know the feeling as you’re ratcheting up before the first drop on a roller coaster — that slow reeling of cable and pulleys, clicking home every few feet. This is prime time to reflect on all the undone, unsaid things in life, as well as the prosaic: Did I pay my life insurance bill? Who will raise my children when this coaster goes off the rails?

That’s how I felt on the easy four-mile climb to the top of Chief Joseph Pass (7,400′), and my seventh and final Continental Divide crossing (if you follow the TransAm exactly, you cross nine times, but I missed two in Yellowstone during my off-route tour loop). I’ll be on the Pacific side for the rest of the trip. I’ve read that some cyclists crest 50 m.p.h. coming down Chief Joseph, and many don’t drop below 40 m.p.h. for miles at a time. So, I spent a lot of time thinking about my worn rear tire, the possibility of scree on switchbacks and the likelihood of a deer coming out of the treeline during my descent. And, then, of course, you go over the precipice, and there’s no time for anything except to hang on, and try to make a funny face for the camera. Afterward, you reflect on how big of a grease spot you’d leave on Highway 93 if a tire let go.

In actuality, I kissed 35 m.p.h. coming down the hill, and that was pedaling pretty hard. Next time, I need to bring more weight, hope for better winds or maybe get a little more aero (at least as aero as a fully loaded touring bike can be). But I sunk too much time developing the roller-coaster analogy climbing the pass, so I’m sticking to it.

The Harley riders beat me out of camp this morning — they’re headed to Bozeman. I stayed in my tent a little longer — it’s a cold morning, and I’m in no hurry. Big Hole National Battlefield, nine miles down the road, doesn’t open till 9 a.m., and it’s on my list of places to stop. In August 1877, the U.S. and non-treaty Nez Perce fought a battle in the valley. The Indians hoped that they’d leave their quarrel with the U.S. behind as they left Idaho. This battle affirmed that the government was serious about pursuing those who refused to cede ancestral lands in Idaho (breaking an 1855 treaty).

Over the pass, It’s all downhill to Hamilton (pop. 4,348). I stopped for lunch in Sula (Lois and Clark also stopped here, and I  bet they at put a sandwich together.) and saw a herd of mountain goats scrambling on the cliffs. The route along Highway 93 follows the Bitterroot River, and it’s beautiful country.

I’m camped out in the backyard of trail angels Terry and Carl Tignor. Carl’s the biggest Hokies fan in all of Montana (so says Terry), and we talked football for a good long while. He’s from Virginia Beach, and the Tignors are getting ready to move back to the 757. I’m glad I had a chance to stay and meet them before they hit the east coast. Terry works at the hospital till 10 p.m. tonight, so I’ll meet her in the morning.

Fifty-Eight: U-Turn (Twin Bridges to Wisdom)

Miles: 110
3,703

Irrigation’s prevalent in this part of the country, and the early morning sun fragmented water into dozens of mist-displayed rainbows.

It dewed heavy overnight, and the cold surprised me this morning, sleeping at 4,600′, the lowest I’ve been in quite a while. I said goodbye to Davide, who had all day to make his destination: a Dillon bike shop.

Riding into Dillon was pleasant, and I got a peek at Beaverhead Rock, a formation that’s served as a landmark for thousands of years and played a role in the Lewis and Clark expedition. Dillion’s home just just over 4,000 people, and I paused here for groceries and to fill my bottles as there’s no service till Jackson, quite a ways down the road.

Here I made my first significant wrong turn of the trip. It cost me 12 miles and I’ll take about 75 percent of the blame. Dillon’s big enough that the ACA gives you a detail map. The instructions say to turn right on old highway 91/frontage. I did, but it was the wrong right on the highway. So I ended up headed the opposite direction for about six miles. Turned around and frustrated, I got back on track. The map should be notated — also it turns out you continue straight onto Highway 91– it’s not a right-hand turn. The maps are pretty good, though occasionally they call for a right and indicate a left, or vice versa. I’m still very glad to have them, warts and all

ANYWAY, after my mix-up, I had two tough climbs: Badger Pass and Big Hole Pass. Both had decent downhills, and I met Stacy at the top of Big Hole Pass. She needed stitches after a crash when a pannier fell of a bike in front of her, and riding over broken road caused too much pain, so she’s rented a car for a couple days. They’re calling it quits in Jackson, where there’s a nice Hot Spring Resort/Campground.

I kept rolling to Wisdom (pop. 120), and the last 18 miles with the sun low in the sky were perfect: Wind low, gentle downhill. I planned to cook tonight, but it started to rain, so a beer at the Antelope turned into beer and pizza. I met Karel, a 60-year-old Dutch cyclist who started in Astoria and came up Chief Joseph Pass this morning. He ran into Wouter three or four days earlier.

I’m camped in Wisdom’s American Legion park tonight. Also here are four Harley riders (three brothers and one brother-in-law) from Idaho Falls. The park reminds me of C&O camping facilities. There’s two outhouses, a hand pump for water, a fistful of picnic tables and loads of mosquitoes. All the essentials.

Fifty-Seven: No-Name Pass (Beaver Creek to Twin Bridges)

Miles: 94
Total: 3,593

Great news: no bears ate me last night. It’s a cold morning, but no coffee since I’m running a little low on water. After breaking camp, my first stop was Earthquake Lake. In 1959, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake shook a section of mountain loose which dammed the Madison River instantly, creating the lake and killing 28 people, many of whom were camping — eerie. You can still see the treetops sticking out of the water. The visitor center didn’t open for another hour, but I took in the plaques and filled up my water bottles.

Outside Cameron I met two Frenchmen doing an around-the-world tour. They have 29,000 kilometers (roughly 18,000 miles) on the clock so far. Unreal.

It was all downhill to Ennis, home of 840 people and 11 million trout. A lot of folks were plumbing the river with fly-fishing gear. I also spotted a goodly number of drift boats and plenty of fishing access signs off the highway. I stopped here for lunch and ran into Bob again. He’s holding here tonight, waiting for a replacement tent to arrive and having a few documents notarized. Business Bob today.

Between Ennis and Virginia City is a 2,000′ climb over six miles. It was demanding, and the pass doesn’t have a name. That doesn’t seem right. I came screaming downhill into Virginia City, a preserved/restored mining town from its 1860 gold rush heyday. More than $10 million was extracted in the first few years and 10,000 souls called it home. Now it seems to trade on nostalgia and big lumber boardwalks. Oh, and homemade ice cream. Which I tried.

Gravity’s on my side (though the wind is not) all the way into Twin Bridges, which is home tonight. I’m staying at the town’s Bike Camp, the donation-based brainchild of Bill White. We’ve got a hot shower, toilet, deep sink to wash clothes and dishes as well as a screened-in lounge. It’s a pretty great place to be.

I’m spending the night with Davide. He just finished college and is riding from Yellowstone National Park to Glacier National Park. Also here is a family of four: Shannon, his wife Stacey, and their two daughters. They started in Maine and are en route to Florence.

Davide and I went for ice cream after cleaning up dinner. Making up for lost time.

Fifty-Six: Steam (Madison to Beaver Creek, MONTANA)

Miles: 76
Total: 3,499

I saw Bob and Juan off this morning — they’re headed to a campground near Earthquake Lake. It took me a little longer to get going, but the kind cup of coffee the staff offered helped. Everything except my rain coat and handlebar bag stayed in the bear box and I headed toward Old Faithful. Always a treat to ride a barely-loaded bicycle. It’s slightly uphill to Old Faithful from Madison, but I didn’t notice.

Just like yesterday, I turned off the main route and followed Firehole Canyon Road for a few miles. I was rewarded with great waterfalls and access to various hot pools you’re allowed to soak in. Again, traffic was insanely light. Very few folks deviate from the main figure-eight loop. I arrived at Old Faithful just in time to catch the breakfast buffet. Breakfast buffets are generally a horrible idea, but I knew the next few hours’d be slow. After gorging, I wandered up to the second floor, where Bob recommended I watch Old Faithful. After all, who wants to mingle with the proletariat? Within a couple minutes of its 10:42 a.m. appointment, the geyser went. Cool to see, but I think the hot pools are prettier.

From Old Faithful, it’s 18 miles back to Madison, and I stopped at Biscuit Basin and Midway Geyser Basin, which is home to the Grand Prismatic Spring, a beautiful 200′-wide, 160-degree Fahrenheit pool that drains into the Firehole River.

In Madison, the sun finally broke out of the clouds. I switched to a short-sleeve shirt and strapped the bear-box contents back on my bike before heading out the west entrance. I had 36 miles on the clock before breaking camp today. Luckily, Yellowstone’s elevated from the surrounding area, so I coasted out of the park and into West Yellowstone (and Montana, my eighth state). In town, I picked up a few groceries and called for campground information. The ranger said there were no hiker/biker rates for surrounding USFS campgrounds, but that I could camp for free on BLM land just off Beaver Creek Road. Sounded good to me. I grabbed a quick shower at the laundromat( 75 cents’ worth of hot water) and rode a couple dozen miles along Hebgen Lake before pulling off onto Beaver Creek Road. I filled all of my water bottles at a gas station a few miles before the turn.

This is bear country, so I hung my garbage and food from a tree. A fun first for the trip. The forest’s exclusively lodgepole pine, which makes gathering firewood easy, but finding an intact branch 10′ up and 4′ away from the trunk difficult. I built a small fire tonight, another first.

Now that I’m through both parks and into Montana, I can say that Wyoming has the nicest shoulders of any state (excepting the heinously shameful stretch outside Lamont) I’ve been across so far. Very wide, reasonably clean and with sanely placed rumble strips, they were a pleasure to ride on.

As for the parks: Grand Teton possesses great shoulders with plenty of room for cycling over about 95 percent of what I traveled. Yellowstone, not nearly so much. The South Entrance Road has no shoulder and is uphill, which makes it challenging. The stretch outside Grant Village to nearly Madison is passable, if you’re brave. I never felt in danger in either park, though I took the lane whenever a question arose. It’s a shame to see the park fail to have adequate shoulders given the millions of pounds of asphalt poured to make roads, parking lots, campgrounds and turnouts accessible to gargantuan RVs (frequently pulling trailers AND large trucks).

Off the soapbox.

Fifty-Five: Counter-Clockwise (Grant Village to Madison)

Miles: 69
Total: 3,423

Bison jam sounds delicious. Maybe as a crostini with goat cheese and a little arugula. In reality, these jams (of the bison, bear, elk or moose variety) occur when an animal wanders out in the road and debates whether the grass is truly greener on the other side. This can take some time. They’re tasty only in the fact that as a cyclist you can blast past the backup on the shoulder.

It rained overnight and John and I packed up damp. We went to Grant Village’s restaurant for the buffet (thanks for breakfast, John). The sun stayed behind clouds for most of the day and we road counter-clockwise around the bottom loop of Yellowstone’s figure eight. Riding this way around puts the lake on the right side and makes it much easier to see. Early morning highlights included West Thumb’s geyser basin and a visit to Gull Point, via a side road that used to be the main park road before repaving in the ’60s and ’70s brought the roads in a bit and widened them for the bloated RVs that soon followed. Turn off onto Gull Point Road and you leave 95 percent of traffic behind — almost a time machine.

We separated at Lake’s lodge where I crossed elk off the animals I needed to see. John had a pair of slow leaks he wanted to fix and said I should go ahead.

Next up were Mud Volcano and Sulphur Cauldron and other, more minor, geothermal features. Bison are thick in this area, and they go where they please. Road, parking lots, boardwalks — it’s all fair game. One overzealous tourist was briefly chased for getting too close.

The afternoon took me along the Yellowstone River to Canyon and through Hayden Valley. Beautiful riding and even more wildlife.

It had been sprinkling most of the day, but a storm came down just as I reached Canyon. I ducked inside the visitor center and learned about the super volcano while the storm passed.

Back on the bike to find my second big jam of the day: A grizzly was eating something dead and he had a major audience. Rangers were out to manage traffic but cars backed up at least a mile in either direction.

The rain returned for my final 30 miles to Madison (it’s a big park!). I pulled in soggy and snagged a hiker/biker spot, put my tent up and called it an early night after a quick dinner. Bob and Juan spent the day working from Grant Village clockwise up to Madison, taking in more famous geysers and hot pools. I’ll make that out-and-back trek tomorrow.

 

Fifty-Four: Ridin’ Pine (Jenny Lake to Grant Village)

Miles: 64
Total: 3,354

I said goodbye to everyone Jackson bound, then retraced my steps back to the route. The detour to Jackson’s offered as a spur, not loop, so I had to backtrack a bit. This is the first time I’ve thrown the bike in reverse not for a mistake, beer or grocery run. Still, the Tetons are the place to backtrack if you’ve gotta.

I must have have started a little early, because by the time I made it ten miles to the Signal Mountain lodge and grocery, I stopped for a chocolate milk and took a nap on the bench while my electronics recharged. With all of us suitably electrified, I came through the rest of Grand Teton Park (stopping to drop a postcard at Jackson Lake Lodge — what a place!) and exited through the Rockefeller, Jr. Parkway.

Showing my Tetons entrance ticket granted me admission to Yellowstone, too ($12, both parks, 7 days). The south entrance road was an uphill climb, with no shoulder. In comparison to the Tetons, this was like eastern Kentucky. Luckily, most drivers were kind, even those piloting rental RVs. There’s lots of evidence of 1988’s wildfires. Scorched trees, open fields and young accession.

It looked like rain so I hustled to the Grant Village campground, where hiker/biker sites are $7.96, tax and bear spiel included and — more importantly — site guaranteed. Tent errected, I took my first Hollywood shower since Lander — $3.76, but you get all the time in the world. Nice facilities. The clouds spit a little, but didn’t let loose. I saw Fairplay Bob outside registration. We caught up and Kelly, his traveling companion, told me something attacked her tent (at my site) last night. She says bear, but Bob says a bear wouldn’t be stymied by a little nylon. The rangers agree — if anything a deer or other ungulate pawed at it a bit. Since Kelly — fearing for her life — moved down to Bob and Juan’s site, I had room for John E., a Wyomingite who’s done a tremendous amount of bicycle touring and been to the park more than 35 times. I picked his brain about the area and we talk bicycles in general. We may ride together tomorrow a bit. I’d love to have his experience and wisdom through the park.

We attended a ranger presentation at 9 p.m. called “Expect the Unexpected,” delivered by Ranger Nancy. She talked all about various animal adaptions in the park, including a frog whose whole body freezes solid — and emerges unharmed after the thaw. Wild. I had a great day.

 

Fifty-Three: Bear Aware (Dubois to Jenny Lake)

Miles: 98
Total: 3,290

Bike and Build had a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, so I did, too. They’re headed to Jackson today. I’m not going quite as far, but we’ll share many of the same roads. It was cool to see the wake-up routine, including their breakfast buffet of cereals.

I was on the road early, and it was cold, even in late July. I stopped for a pair of gloves at a gas station just outside of town. Size: XL. Dad, you can look forward to these being a stocking stuffer. I spent the morning climbing 30 miles to Towgetee Pass (9,584′) and my fifth continental divide crossing, before a 17-mile descent into Moran, including an absolutely breathtaking moment where the Tetons popped up — out of nowhere. No foothills, no nothing. Just, boom.

Just before the park, I stopped for a gas-station burrito (lots to be said for 900 Calories for $2.39, though not on the flavor or life-extending front). While I ate, a rag-tag crew of super cars pulled in for fuel: two Lamborginis, an R8 (V8), an NSX, as well as a V6 Mustang and BRZ fakin’ it till they make it. In Moran, I entered the park and paid my $12 for a hiker/biker pass, good for seven days at both Yellowstone and Teton.

I’m camped at Jenny Lake tonight, one of the most desirable spots in the park. Luckily, hiker/biker spots are just $8, with no reservations. No shower, either, but I hopped in the lake to clean off. It’s really busy in the park — height of tourist season (and I suppose I’m one of them). I shared camp tonight with five other cyclists: Chris (Florida), Luuk and Bert (Holland) are all doing the Great Divide mountain bike trail and are looking forward to a day off in Jackson tomorrow. The big city. I gather the GDMBT is basically a few days in the woods eating Snickers bars before coming into town to drink and whore. I kid. It’s tough. Megan and Jacob also joined us. They’re from Washington, D.C., and are running the TransAm W>E. We swap stories over the beer Bert and Luuk brought. I also backtracked about 18 miles to pick up some PBR from the Signal grocery. It’s startling how light my bike feels with just six tall-boys riding shotgun. The stars are out and this might be the prettiest night I’ve had so far.

Fifty-Two: What’s a Couple Orders of Magnitude? (Lander to Dubois)

Miles: 79
Total: 3,192

Hikers popped up in the park overnight like mushrooms after a hard rain. When I turned in, only a handful of tents marred the lawn. In the morning, I saw close to a dozen hikers putting away bivy sacks and flattening air mattresses.

My ride today was sponsored by wind: I rode along the Wind River, through the Wind River Indian reservation, and through the Wind River mountains. And, after about 1 p.m., into a 24-m.p.h. headwind. Slow going, but the morning was lovely.

In Fort Washakie, I came across a bunch of cyclists stopped at the service station. They’re a supported group called Bike and Build, riding from Rhode Island to Washington, stopping every so often to help raise a roof. I talked to Everret, who told me they were holding here because one of his teammates went in for snacks totaling $18, but the clerk rang him for $1,800 worth of merch. So they were waiting for a Lander-based IT guru to sort things out. Sacajawea’s grave’s nearby, about four miles off route. I didn’t visit, just like I didn’t visit Jefferson’s at Monticello, but find it interesting the TransAm takes you within spitting distance of both.

West of Lander the valley’s much greener — there’s a host of irrigation projects bringing water in and plenty of grass and cattle to graze it. Great scenery, including a Crowheart Butte, so named because Shoshoni Chief Washakie displayed a Crow Indian’s heart on his lance after a successful battle over land around the formation.

About the time I left the reservation, the wind came on like someone flipped a light switch. At times, I was pedaling on the rare downhill (you gain about 1,700′ between Lander and Dubois) for forward progress. But the scenery kept getting more and more spectacular. Red rocks, blush-colored mountains with the Wind River in the background.

In Dubois, I asked for directions to the city park after lunch and it looked like a great spot to camp. Quiet and shady with bathrooms, water and electric. Unfortunately, coming out from a great visit to the Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center (probably worth the $3) I noticed a big “No Camping” sign. Nuts. It was getting a little late and after a shower at the laundromat (great concept, even if our ideas of how long a minute is don’t quite agree), I headed to the library, which was closed but broadcasting a wifi signal. A woman taking advantage of the internet suggested I visit Saint Thomas Church. I did, and found all 29 of the Bike and Build crew there. The church hosts welcomed me warmly, even as a hanger-on. And I was offered a hot meal of veggie lasagna. It was a real relief to answer the question of where to lay my head. It certainly beats heading out of town to camp on BLM land or paying $30 for a KOA site.

Greg, Jamie and Petunia rolled in later on — they took a long lunch and Greg had a flat, but they saw my bike and camped on the lawn (no dogs in the sanctuary). They’re headed to Jackson Hole tomorrow, so we may not meet again, but I could have said the same thing after Lookout, Kentucky, so who knows.

The Bike and Build folks are great. It was interesting to watch them work. With 29 riders, it’s like seeing an army in action. Everyone has a job.