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Friday
Dec102010

Via the Middle of Nowhere

where the wild horses roam

The Great Divide Basin is a curious piece of geography. Unlike anywhere else in the country precipitation does not drain either west towards the Pacific and Gulf of California or east to the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Rain-water simply evaporates or drains internally into small lakes. The term basin seems a misnomer as it is in fact desert with a very limited supply of water. This piece of desert sits within an already arid and vast expanse of landscape. Thus, the adventure cyclist not only has to contend with heat and thirst but with a lonely landscape too that offers absolutely no distraction. For the solo bike-tourer this is a stern test.

I bid adieu to Pinedale after a hearty breakfast and I caned it on a nice long stretch of asphalt out of town. Smooth roads are my thing and the Great Divide route has precious few of them. If I'm on a good surface I make the most of it. I was both nervous and excited about the ride ahead. It felt like I was heading out to a bike-race. I knew I was going to enjoy it but there is always a certain amount of apprehension when you know you are going to have to hit your limits. The adrenaline was flowing making me feel very alert and switched on. The day-off in Pinedale meant my legs were fresher than usual and with the kilometres of asphalt rapidly passing underneath me things were going well. I was attempting to ride to the junction town of Rawlins in three days. I wasn't sure how feasible this was but whenever I'm up against desolate scenery I tend to ride long and hard. With nothing to look at it is better to medicate yourself with exhaustion so that you don't ever really have to deal with the boring landscape. The work provides the distraction rather than the scenery itself.

The problem with wandering into the desert is that nobody knows you are there. If anything were to go wrong it would be very stressful getting out in one piece but you can't think like that. I have already biked through really remote scenery and I have always encountered at least one other soul. It's bizarre the places you find people.

The road turned to gravel and soon I was in very barren country. This was a bit of a surprise as I still had about a hundred clicks before I would enter the basin proper. However, the sun was shining and the legs were strong so it was just a case of taking it one stretch of gravel at a time. I was making my way to South Pass, where I would cross back onto the eastern side of the continental divide. South Pass is a wide open pass with a very gentle grade. It was a key way-point on the route to the west for the pioneers of old. This was the pass they used as the lack of a steep grade made it passable for wagons. Indeed, pioneers often crossed the pass before they realised they were on it, creeks with waters rushing westwards would have been the give-away. This was often a disappointment to them; spending months on the road would have led them to conjure images of something much more dramatic considering the Rockies had always been the barrier to what lay out west.

The Great Divide Basin was one of the harshest pieces of landscape the fur-trappers, Mormon Pioneers and gold-rushers encountered on their journey west. This route is considered the longest graveyard in America due to the amount of people that died from temperature extremes, violent storms, malnutrition, bad water, fighting and disease. Successful passage was dependent on travelling at the right time of year but the vagaries of the weather made the walk of two thousand miles fraught with risk.

In the early 1800s fur-trappers followed the network of Indian footpaths to Oregon due to the demand in Europe for stylish hats made of beaver fur. They discovered that it would be possible for an ox-drawn wagon to make it over South Pass making this the gateway to the west. While the supply of beaver dried up by the 1830s the economic depression of 1837 and 1841 caused a lot of desperate businessmen and farmers to seek better opportunity. Politicians also urged people to go west so as to wrest disputed land from British control. Based on the reports of fertile lands by missionaries the Mormons soon followed the route of existing trails to flee the persecution they were suffering. They left the town of Nauvoo in Illinois to settle in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. To maintain their cultural and religious identity it was necessary to find an isolated area where they could settle and practice their religion in peace. This was a movement of an entire religion and its people. Between 1846 and 1869 more than 70,000 Mormon Pioneers made the journey to the Great Salt Lake. The biggest exodus of people however, was the quarter of a million prospectors during the California Gold Rush. Trail guides and promoters had managed to paint a picture of paradise and the lure of gold caused many men to head west to make their fortune. Some planned to stay but a lot planned to return to their families back east in a year or so once they had struck it rich. Up to the period of the Gold Rush the Indians had been tolerant of the trail-blazers helping them with provisions, searching for their lost cattle and even guiding them through difficult stretches. The favours were typically returned, however, the quantity of people and livestock now travelling the trail caused severe damage to Indian food sources. Relations broke down and tensions mounted. The emigrants saw the land as theirs for the taking but the west had been the tribal home of the Indians for 10,000 years. In 1845 John O'Sullivan coined the phrase 'Manifest Destiny' to capture the government's thirst for expansion. The phrase refers to the concept that it was God's will and the right of Americans to expand to the Pacific. Of course, western settlement led to loss of land for Indians, broken treaties and the destruction of their way of life. In 1869 rail-tracks were connected from east to west making it possible to reach California in days rather than in months by foot. Soon the foot-traffic stopped.

Riding through the Great Divide Basin it's almost impossible to fathom how central this piece of landscape is to both American history and culture. It is arguable that the pioneers and trail-blazers remain in the psyche of Americans such is the degree of transcience that occurs in the States. The landscape is so lost that it is difficult to conceive that it was once thick with men, women, children, wagons, oxen, mules, horses and cattle on the biggest adventure of their lives. My trip may be an adventure but it is nothing like theirs was. While there wasn't a sinner in sight, the souls of thousands rest here.

The ride itself was difficult. I was carrying my full capacity of 12 litres of water as there was little chance of a refill in the basin. This was a serious drag. The heat and the arid air meant that my mouth was permanently parched. I couldn't indulge on the water as I had to ration it in case of emergency. The road surface was heavy and included one bone-crunching 10k section towards the start which seriously dented morale. I was fearful that this 10k section was representative of what was to come but it was in fact the hardest bit. The road surface remained rough and the first day seemed to be be a series of undulating drags on a gently rising incline. I eventually came upon a small gas-field with a couple of workers on site. This was nice. It is hard to describe how difficult it is to ride through such nothingness. Lots of adventure cyclists find it too desolate. They inevitably take an exit road to bike the long-way round on the highway. It takes a lot of concentration to keep with it. Some love it and some people just can't handle it at all. I was happy to experience the crazy landscape. It is funny finding yourself in the middle of a self-inflicted game of mental torture. It is hard to call the scenery beautiful but to experience it was beautiful. It was the closest I have come to riding on the moon. It took me 28 hours to ride through the actual basin itself. This was pretty good going making the trip less torturous on me than on somebody who might not be able to bike as long. However, I personally would not have wanted to be in there any longer. I had used my full quota of water and I was still dehydrated. While it was unfortunate to have suffered such high temperatures I was lucky that the wind had been calm. A head-wind would have made the ride particularly stressful. It was a crazy experience but it was one of those great camping moments where you wake up wondering where the hell you are. I had pitched my tent off the road across from a distant uranium mine with nothing but a naked flame from a nearby gas-pipe for company. Magic is the only word that describes it. Perhaps the photos in the gallery might give you a better idea.

Mind how you go

Marco

Friday
Dec032010

The Pinedale Puzzle

Every now and again I roll into a town that is more than the sum of its parts. On paper Pinedale, with its 1400 inhabitants, appeared to be just like any other small-town in America. I knew it would have one supermarket, a post-office, a library, a school, a gas-station and at least one bar. I expected a quick stop-over before launching my bike towards the lunar landscape of the Great Divide Basin but upon reaching the outskirts of town I quickly understood that I had underestimated the place. There were recently constructed hotels and plenty of bars and restaurants around. I had no idea why but I could smell money.

I arrived to a party atmosphere. The town was painted in the colours of the local high-school football team. Cars had banners spray-painted on them and kids were walking around town in green and orange football shirts. It was Homecoming Night. Typically schools have a night each year towards the beginning of term where the alumni return home for the weekend to toast the local high-school. I'm guessing what fronts as a fun evening amongst old friends is simply a game of one-upmanship among the alumni and a chance for the school administration to rattle its foundation's begging bowl against the school railings. The evening typically centres around a high-school football game making it is easy to conjure up images of vain jocks, the picture-perfect homecoming king and queen, underage drinking in the local woods after the game, disenfranchised school-kids who hate Homecoming weekend and all the typical high-school scenes that Hollywood has made us familiar with. As a football fan I was keen to watch the game and support the Wranglers. However, I was forced to skip it as I was camped 8 miles from town on Freemont Lake. It turned out that they are a bunch of losers. However, as I rode up the hill away from town towards the lake I was able to look down on a perfectly floodlit high-school football field with a beautiful new pitch and nice bleachers. My jaw dropped in disbelief at the amount of money it must have cost to construct. This was only a school playing field, there was definitely something odd going on in this town but what?

When I dropped into the library to get online I was sitting in a very cosy building with rows of Mac computers. What the hell? What public library can afford to install Macs? While it was a treat to work with Apple again it seemed a little surreal. Of course, the folk in the library were as friendly and helpful as ever and pointed me towards the new $17mln Pinedale Aquatic Centre. As the campground did not have have any facilities I used the showers in the aquatic centre and enjoyed the spa and pools for a mere five bucks. What a winner, how could something that cost so much to build be so affordable? I ended up having the pool all to myself for some laps. It felt odd, it suggested overspend. As I pottered around town and enjoyed the nice bars and restaurants I came across the recently opened $23mln elementary school. Indeed all the municipal facilities were new and state of the art.

For a vagabond Pinedale was pure luxury. I realised then that my few days off in Jackson had been anything but. I wasn't able to relax in that town but here I could. It definitely warranted a day-off so I stayed another night to catch my breath and enjoy the friendly locals. The next section of my route would be exceptionally remote so I wanted to stock up on civilisation as much as good food. Tourism is important to Pinedale but they are not swamped with the same number of tourists as Jackson despite their proximity. Pinedale is a place to sit back and relax. You can sit on your boat on the lake above town, you can sit on a horse and ride through the beautiful countryside or you can sit by the banks of a river and fish. The town is bathed in the calm of nature that surrounds it. This sense of serenity is reflected in the locals making it a great place to visit if all you want to do is relax.

Of course, the wealth that exists here can't be explained by tourism. It turns out that the road from Pinedale to Rock Springs is flanked by lots of gas-fields. The sun doesn't set on these 24 hour mining operations in what is the biggest Trona deposit in the world. Trona is the primary source of sodium carbonate or soda ash. A quarter of the world's soda ash is mined in south-west Wyoming. Half of this is transformed into glass and a quarter is used in chemical manufacturing. The rest goes into soaps and detergents, pulp and paper production and water treatment. The concentration of mining companies in Sublette County generates huge tax revenues for the state of Wyoming. As Sublette is (or at least was prior to this tax-year) the biggest contributor of taxes in the state they get the most pay-back. If the county doesn't spend the money it has been allocated than it won't get so much again. The need to spend this windfall led to the incredible infrastructure spend that is concentrated in Pinedale; a town of a mere 1400 people. Whether the money has been spent wisely is not for me to say but it is clear that the collapse in the Federal tax-take will put more pressure on the Wyoming state coffers going forward. I'm guessing the time of Pinedale plenty has now come to a close.

I'm off to the moon next. Chat soon.

Marco

recently relaid High-School football fieldtown skate-park

Saturday
Nov272010

Union Pass

waking up in the outhouseIt's not everyday you wake up beside a toilet. I had spent the night inside an outhouse having arrived too late to bother pitching a tent on the overgrown lawn of my absent hosts. As outhouses go it was a surprisingly cosy affair; the smell of timber and saw-dust made it seem like a freshly made-up hotel room in comparison to my usual night under the stars.

I had been out late the past three nights and I was pretty shot. These late nights were not fun-filled ones over pints, rather stressful ones riding and hiking under the cover of darkness over unfamiliar terrain. I didn't want a repeat performance so I dragged myself out of my bag half asleep as opposed to stubbornly rolling over for another hours sleep as would be my norm. With a belly full of oatmeal I was on my way by 9am and straight to work starting with the very steep ascent of Union Pass. As climbs go this was right up my alley, two steep 6k sections with a little breather in the middle. While it wasn't properly sealed it had a smooth surface making the load far more bearable. I much prefer climbs that are vertical as opposed to horizontal as the scenery is usually more dramatic providing a nice return for my effort. I was hopeful that I would make it 125k down the road to the town of Pinedale but I had no idea how hard the terrain would become at the top. The road turned to pot and I was robbed of the descent that I was expecting. Every cyclists makes a deal with a mountain; we agree to work and suffer in the assumption that the mountain will reward us with an effortless descent down the other side. The more we suffer on the way up the greater the free-ride on the way down. This is a fair deal as you work twice as hard but only for half the distance as when riding on the flats. However, this mountain reneged on the standard terms and the heaviness of the road and constant uphill drags made what was supposed to be a 15k pass into a 60k monster. When the descent finally came it was a short and steep bone-cruncher, which required the brakes on hard. It was hell on wheels. By the time I got to Whiskey Grove Campground I was beat. It had taken me six hours to ride 75k and none of it was easy. The decision to stop there for the night was automatic.

The early rise and shortened ride afforded me a late afternoon to myself off the bike. I was too tired to read so I was left to contemplate my ride under the warm rays of the sun. It was difficult to put things into perspective but I was aware that I had started the ride without any adrenaline, which had leaked from my system in the darkness of the past three nights. If you are low on physical energy your adrenaline kicks in, so without it I was dangerously left to scrape the bottom of my mental reserves. It had been a beast of a ride and I hadn't enjoyed a minute of it apart from the initial climb when I was fresh and blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead. This was a shame as the scenery had been quite impressive and its remoteness made it rich with wildlife in what was prime grizzly country; two pronghorns racing (the fastest land animals in the US), a bear scampering down my track, a pair of moose chewing on leaves that teased them from overhead branches and a bald eagle imperiously perched above the bend of a river.

The Great Divide is not a stage-race for me. However, when it becomes harder to replenish your reserves, when you fail to get excited about the next day's ride, when you have to repeatedly tell yourself to hang in there and when you fail to notice the scenery that blurs past your eyes, it all starts to feel like a race. The last thing I wanted to become was a prisoner of my own ride. However, while the scenery was changing constantly it was starting to feel like I was looking at the same four walls of my prison cell. As I rode through Canada, Montana and Idaho I had been very charmed by the route , so charmed that I contemplated taking it all the way to the Mexican border. Now I wasn't so sure. I felt trapped, on the one hand I had to beat the snow that would soon bury the Rockies but on the other I had to stop whipping myself.

I was unaware that Union Pass is cathartic for most Dividers. It seems that every rider loses a part of themselves and hence, their way on that mountain. It had been another bad day but I had to put it behind me as a string of them would inevitably force me to pull the rip-chord.

Yours exhaustedly

Marco

seasons starting to turnbald-headed eagle

Sunday
Nov212010

The Wheels Come Off

The arduous hike through the Grand Tetons had knocked the stuffing from my legs. I contemplated a rest-day but I knew that even if I could barely walk that I would be able to bike without any difficulty as biking and hiking muscles are different. My plan for the day was to pull-up at the bottom of Union Pass where a couple allow cyclists to camp on their property.

The inevitable chats with people at Jenny Lake campground delayed my departure. The photo-stops on the way out didn’t help either. Then, I learnt over lunch that baby Carla had finally decided to join us on planet earth. I had a new niece. Unfortunately there was nothing celebratory about the weather; the skies thickened with cloud as a lightening storm kicked in. There is nothing like a simultaneous bolt and clap over your head to make you jump in a flash from your bike. I waited the storm out glumly under a tree while watching the rain-water cascade down the road I was climbing. At the top of the pass I encountered construction works that I was unaware of and was forced to wait for twenty-five minutes before I could proceed. I stood patiently at the top of the pass watching daylight evaporate before my eyes. The most stressful thing about bike-touring is having to ride in the dark and inevitably cursing your propensity to delay. However, forced delays are more stressful if you have to watch the skies darken while your two feet are on the ground instead of the pedals where they belong.

Next thing I’m being run off the road by a pilot-car. After some argument he made me throw my bike in the back of his truck. This was the first time in over 12,000k of bike-touring that I had to take a ride. Accepting rides is par for the course in an emergency and often par for the course for some bike-tourers full-stop. Not for me, I resolutely refuse rides when offered them. Even if there is nothing wrong with accepting them, it just doesn’t feel right for me. I know that if I take one lift that I’ll end up taking a hundred and one. The dude would no longer seem bionic to me. Although my wheels only left the ground for 15k I was pretty annoyed at the interruption to my tour. While negotiating the descent would have been tricky I would have managed it if I had been allowed to. A lot of my trip has been on rough surfaces after all. Unfortunately I couldn’t argue with him as the reason for the road-works was to widen the road so that bike-tourers would be safer. This section of pavement lies on both the north-south Great Divide route and the east-west Trans-America route. Upset Bike-tourers are not given a choice but a highway-ticket if they refuse to comply with the works. There was nothing I could do. While sitting in the back of the truck with my arm around my bike I was left to contemplate whether this was symbolic of the beginning of the end for us.

Thankfully, I didn’t get a chance to finish the thought; the spectacular scenery was too distracting. I had no idea that there was so much more to Wyoming than simply Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

Over and out

The Dude

Togwotee

Monday
Nov152010

The Marathon

As I was too scared of the grizzly tourists I skipped Yellowstone National Park in favour of the Grand Tetons instead. I decided to hike to where the artificial knees and SUVs can’t go.

As is my wont I left the hostel in Teton Village by the gondola a little later than planned. I ended up biking 30k in the pitch black with only my head-light illuminating the way. Obviously that was a little stressful considering I was on a gravel road. I was making my way to the camp-site by Jenny Lake, the gateway to the National Park. This camp-site is for people tenting only, which was quite refreshing to see. It’s difficult to know what the definition of camping is anymore. Most people ‘camp’ inside a massive RV. Often I can’t stake my tent into the ground because they have gravelled over the site to ensure that RVs and trailers have enough traction to pull in and out. Am I camping or are they camping? The lines have become blurred.

As it was no longer summer the days were getting shorter forcing me to hike at first light. My original plan was to hike into Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude but that would have been an out-and-back route. Thus, I decided to go through a different canyon and hike over the Paintbrush Divide to Lake Solitude instead. This would allow me to return via Cascade Canyon and cover a fair amount of ground through the Grand Tetons. Having talked to the Ranger I was under the impression that the trail wasn’t rocky, of course, being the Rockies I should have just assumed that it was. Thus, the heavy ground started to wear me out after about 10k of hiking. I have only one pair of shoes; my trade-mark pair of Converse. Obviously these are not the best shoes for hiking in. I slowly made my way up the mountain with the understanding that this was the difficult side and the other side would be more straightforward. Looking over my shoulder the panorama across Jenny Lake to the plains was spectacular. Up ahead I could see some snow-banks. Snow is to be expected at this altitude, indeed it was more unusual to be able to hike over the Divide at all as normally it is not passable at this time of year. Thankfully the mild weather had delayed the snowfall long enough for me to explore the park.

Lost in thought I turned the corner. Uh oh! A bear! I cursed beneath my breath. He was no more than ten feet away from me. Having made eye-contact with him I looked down so that he could get a sense of me without feeling threatened. I had two choices; to move forward and potentially aggravate him or to turn back down the mountain and wait until he had moved on. I didn’t want to go back as that would have meant hiding out and I didn’t really have time to delay with. My legs getting heavier and I was only a third of the way into my hike. He had his claws sunk into a tree and was two foot off the ground. The position of the tree was at the apex of the bend and I was only two metres from moving through the bend such that he would be behind me. Both of us were frozen to the spot. I couldn’t but notice how wild his eyes were. His eyes were glass, which meant that his thoughts and soul were invisible to me. When you look into the eyes of a puppy or a horse you can usually determine what they are thinking. In that first glance I quickly understood what the term wild-eyes meant. He did not look teddy-bear cuddly at all, this was a grizzly but he was only about 5 feet tall making him more of a cub than an adult. Within the stasis I could sense that we were both thinking the same thing; we are not supposed to meet. As I was reluctant to back down I paused and in my hesitation he made the first move, which was to grind his way up the tree. I took that as my cue to press on keeping my stare firmly to the ground and my ears pricked in case a shuffling should come from behind. The danger passed and my adrenaline settled. Phew! Considering the amount of back-country I have passed through it was only a matter of time before I encountered a grizzly from close quarters. I’m lucky that he was more a cub than an adult as that likely made him a little unsure of himself. Of course, I was also fortunate that he had his paws sunk into the bark of the tree. If he didn’t have his hands full things might have turned out differently. I wasn’t dressed in camouflage with a rifle or a bow slung over my shoulders, he had no need to fear me. However, it was sad that neither of us could afford to take the chance to share the same space.

Having crossed the shallow snow-banks I made my way to the bottom of the final face. This would entail a scramble up rocks. This was the point of no return. Scrambling up rocks is a lot easier than scrambling down them. If I climbed to the Divide I would be forced to take the longer route down the mountain through Cascade Canyon. Working my way over the rockery I crested the summit. It was a nice feeling as biking over mountains is rarely as remote as hiking them. I was pleased to have scaled at least one summit during my time through the Rockies. The Paintbrush Divide is only 3,260ms of altitude. It is lower than the capital city of La Paz but it still represents a 1200m vertical ascent from Jenny Lake. This is nothing to a practised hiker but the climb was certainly weighing on me. This was only my fourth proper hike up a mountain on my travels so my legs were a little beat up from going over the rough ground in a pair of chucks. It probably would have been easier for me to bike it.

Having taken in the view I made my way down the other side. While it wasn’t rocky the trail was still hard-going. My hamstrings were just about intact but I wasn’t sure how much longer they would hold. I had to keep moving as I was getting slower and couldn’t afford the time to rest. I did not want to be hiking in darkness and while I had prepared for the eventuality in case of emergency it would be best to get out of the canyon. My adrenaline was kicking in once more. The hike was no longer about enjoying the scenery. I had to keep moving even though I was moving at about two miles an hour at this point. I had bitten off more than I could chew but I was not defeated yet.

I suffered a small delay as a moose came down my path. This was the first time I had seen a moose up close. They are the largest members of the deer family but are not blessed with a deer’s good looks. However, they are cool in their own way as they can easily move through very deep snow despite their size. Deep snow may as well be quicksand to humans. As agile as we are in some ways we are retarded in others.

By the time I reached Inspiration Point it was dusk. I had to scale the mountain down to Jenny Lake and from there it was still a 3k hike back to camp. My legs were ridiculously heavy now but I was out of danger. If I had made it this far I would be able to make it back to camp even if I had to crawl. I finally reached my tent very relieved. I knew I was in for a long day but I had not factored hiking 37k over very difficult terrain. It had taken me twelve hours to hike the divide. It was beautiful but my legs were now so jammy that I was worried I’d need a few more days off the bike.

As tired as I was I had enjoyed the challenge immensely. It’s not everyday that you see a bear, a moose, snow-banks, two beautiful lakes and a mountain peak. The beauty of the Grand Tetons will leave a lasting impression on me for certain.

Regards to all

Marco

ps - my netbook is toast, I will post the full gallery when I am technologically equipped soon.

Converse are not designed for thisPaintbrish Divide - 10,700ft. Mount Moran in the background

pitch-black on my return. I look surprisingly fresh but I can barely walk

Friday
Nov122010

Jackson Hell-Hole

ARRGHH! Get me out of here! Cars and tourists everywhere, this is not what I came for. If it weren't for the traffic signals I'd have had to wait all day to cross the road. There are so many tourists they are tripping over each other. They are even asking me for directions. Do my bike and I look like we are from here? Of course not, so no, I haven't a rashers where the ice-cream parlour is! Jeez!

The town of Jackson acts as a gateway to nearby Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. These are two of America's most well known parks so they tend to attract a lot of visitors each year. The town is so over-run with tourists that the locals jumped ship a long time ago. The few that remain are plotting their escape. If you have made the mistake of putting your kids in school here you might be forced to stick around until they finish but as soon as they do, vamoose! There are likely some rich folk on large pretend ranches that remain too. However, the erection of large electronic gates and the installation of guard-dogs successfully protects them from tourists. I'm guessing they don't sweat around town too much and are thus, oblivious to the 'rush'.

The rush that I speak of is eerily similar to a gold rush. Once there were no new lands to discover and the pillaging of colonies became unacceptable, man resorted to mining. Of course, the perceived environmental destruction and the fact that man has already robbed the land of plenty makes mining beneath the surface less resourceful than it once was. The result is that man has turned to the open-pit mining of natural beauty instead. Something that was free to humankind is now refined and packaged to a large degree. Where once money was made in the sale of pans and shovels to prospectors, people nowadays sell beds to tourists and wait on tables instead.

I don't begrudge paying National Park entrance fees when I have travelled through so much back-country for free, however, I do resent being told that it goes to maintenance and preservation of the Park eco-system. Is it not ironic that I am being asked to contribute to the protection of nature as a visitor when the community is doing its level best to get me there in the first place? Let me be clear, damage to natural habitat is the result of local greed and not visitor foot-prints. What were once National Parks have become National Car-Parks as asphalt roads are laid through open country-side to allow visitors to reach all the remote and scenic natural spots without expending any effort. To visit a National Car-Park is to say that you drove to the parking-lot at the summit, stood for five minutes to take in the panorama from the man-made viewpoint, took the photo and then dropped into the visitor centre to buy a hot-dog. While it is great to make National Parks more accessible to the disabled and frail it is disingenuous to think that they do it for their sake. The truth is that the local community has already mined all the active nature-lovers and in an effort to swell visitor numbers they need to target a new market segment - retired people and pensioners who have savings and time on their hands. It must be really annoying to local providers that there is less profit to be made from this group such is the level of investment required in making the Park more accessible to people wheeling oxygen tanks and wearing pace-makers. The only reason these places become a life-long dream to visit is because marketers are reaching out to them through various media painting a picture of a natural paradise. Surely, it is hard to absorb the energy of a place in five-minutes but hey, the less time they spend in the Park the more money they will spend in town.

I realise that I am fortunate that my healthy condition allows me to toil through spectacular scenery and enjoy all the perspiration and inspiration that it entails. However, it is troubling that in trying to connect man to nature that we are in fact disconnecting him. If there is a choice to hike or drive to the top then I'm sure the majority would choose the latter. Our obsession with economic vitality dictates that if some damage to the local environment is the price to pay for full employment and fortune, then so be it. However, the issue for me is that the more tourism there is the more competition there is amongst local businesses as new competitors join the fray. It is a futile exercise as while the pie gets bigger nobody gets a bigger slice, except of course the tax-man. Hmm, so local government is in on the act too; what a surprise!

The irony for Jackson is that the more they try to increase visitors to the town the more the locals are moving out. I'm as guilty of tourism as anyone else but I'm only ever a tourist in tourist towns. Everywhere else I'm a traveller and so I become frustrated with tourists who prevent me from enjoying the local interest and privileges that a traveller usually receives. A tourist town that has become desensitised to travellers is simply another irony. While the town of Jackson represents everything that is wrong with tourism it is hard to deny that the surrounding landscape is very pleasing on the eye. There is such natural bounty here that it is easy to see why Jackson has become the equivalent of San Francisco in 1849 as people rush to get rich quick from tourism. It is my hope that the situation in Jackson deteriorates even further. If we can quarantine all the tourists in one place then we might still be able to save beautiful Idaho and Montana from the same fate. It the tourists leak into these two states it will be a natural disaster. If there is ever talk of opening a new airport in these states it should be resisted. America is blessed in having a huge amount of wilderness compared to the over-populated and over-cultivated continent of Europe. I would support any effort made to prevent the further erosion of pristine landscape. I wonder will tourist boom-towns at some point suffer the same fate as their mining forebearers in becoming ghost-towns? Of course, such ghost towns all over America have been turned into tourist attractions and so the cycle perpetuates.

Nature is everywhere people, we don't need to travel far to enjoy it! (This from a guy who has had the luxury of being a tourist all over the world to form his view)

Mind how you go

Marco

Monday
Nov082010

The Road to Jackson

As I rode through remote country I felt like a passenger. While it wasn't without its hard efforts it was simply a case of sitting back and watching the scenery change as I travelled south-east. Leaving Big Sky country the route made a short 115k incursion into Idaho before sneaking between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming. I was making my way to one of the few hostels on my route near Jackson in Wyoming. Unfortunately Jackson is off-route by about 65k but I was always using it as a way-point to get out of the weather, rest my legs and regroup my scattered thoughts. I haven't had a day-off the bike since Polebridge and being a city-boy I tend to look for something of size on a map as a place to stop for a while. Bizarrely, the opportunity to stare blankly at concrete provides a welcome change of scenery.

The visit to the ghost-town of Bannack suggested the route would be very remote and while it was isolated it felt remote only in terms of services. I was on backcountry roads but there still seemed to be a reasonable amount of folk around for one reason or another. I hoped that once I got over Medicine Lodge Pass that I could relax as it was the last serious climb for a while. However, I simply traded the climbs for rough roads. There is just no let-up on the Divide at all it seems. The difficult 50k rail-trail made of extremely soft volcanic sands I was expecting but the hellish surface along the John D. Rockerfeller Memorial Parkway I was not. Sand traps are a disaster for a cyclist as they require a considerable amount of effort to power through. Often one loses traction and thus, the bike. I had written off the afternoon to tackle the rail-trail so the frustrations were easy enough to take in my stride. Biking through sand is hard enough but having to walk and push a loaded bike through it is worse. Talk about going nowhere slowly. While I was catapulted from my bike a few times it was really the bumpiness of the trail that sapped my resolve. I'm not a fan of foot-down bike-touring at all. Thankfully the last section was more hard-packed and slightly down-hill which made it just about bearable. It felt like riding over cobbles so I tried to Fabian Cancellara my way over it. As the rail-trail had exhausted both my legs and my patience I was left fuming at the effort it required to bike through the Jedediah Smith Wilderness the next day. It is soul-destroying having to ride over this crap. Unfortunately the highway would have been just as stressful as its proximity to Yellowstone made it thick with traffic. I couldn't win and I certainly wasn't happy about it. I was definitely looking forward to a few days off the bike in Jackson Hole.

I have posted photos to the gallery to give you a feel for the ride. There is also a separate gallery with some shots from my visit to the ghost-town. Bannack was a mining town in its day and the properties have been preserved the way they were found as opposed to being reconstructed and turned into a museum.

I'll let you know how I get on in Jackson Hole next.

Marco

Thursday
Nov042010

Butte - Ireland's Fifth Province

The route was starting to get more interesting. Where the Great Divide is concerned, the word interesting is simply a synonym for challenging. The small city of Butte would represent the last bit of civilisation until either Ashton in Idaho or Jackson in Wyoming. Ashton was a five or six day ride away but was off-route and Jackson was at least a week away. Riding in remote country is fun but it means that you need to carefully study the map to work out where you can get food and water. To travel for a week between supermarkets means that I would have a full load of rations. To have to cart 10 litres of water on top is a real drag so it is this which requires the most calculation. On the one-hand biking remotely is an inconvenience but on the other it's cool as you can look forward to plenty of enforced burgers and fries at random way-points along the route. While there may be no proper towns there are still plenty of fishermen and hunters in Montana giving rise to some bars and small restaurants in remote natural surroundings. Mind you, there are not a lot of them, just enough that they act as stepping-stones that one has to take giant leaps onto. In such scenarios you plan for having access to nothing so that if something is shut then you are not stuck. While being miles from a bike shop in case of trouble is a worry, the biggest concern for me is that I won't have enough treats to satisfy my sweet tooth. In the absence of a fridge I can not really carry more than raisins or apples as fruit, so I end up eating trash. Bars of chocolate melt and cakes crumble. Cookies work well but my current favourite is spooning marshmallows into a jar of nutella. YumEEE!

Butte is a very strange sight on arrival. It is at total odds with everything I have seen up to this point. As opposed to being downtown it is in fact uptown. The architecture is all bricks and stone unlike the timber saloon-type buildings that populate other Western towns. A fire burnt down the original uptown area and naturally they didn't want that to happen again. What is most striking is that uptown Butte sits like an island on a hill surrounded by mountains. Its rich mining history has scarred the land quite visibly, so much so that it's hard to fathom how man could happily ignore the environmental impact for so long. The mountain-sides that surround uptown are red raw from all the open-pit mining that took place. It very much looks like man has bled the mountain dry, quite a disturbing site. Of course, the town has the mercenary Irish to thank for it. Naturally, someone else would have been to thank/blame if we hadn't of gotten there first. Indeed, a certain Marcus Daly from Ballyjamesduff noticed that the red hill-sides were more abundant in copper than the silver and gold that was being mined. He eventually succeeded in getting financial backing to start mining for copper and with the advent of electricity Butte turned into a boom-town. The word was out that Daly had a preference for hiring Irish and so we heeded the call. In 1900, 12,000 of Buttes 47,000 residents were Irish. In 1908 there were 1,200 Sullivans in Butte. The Irish soon began to infiltrate all levels of local society, so much so that an Arab rug merchant changed his last-name in court to 'Murphy' for business reasons. The Anaconda Mining Company owned by Marcus Daly became the fourth richest company in the world at the height of World War one; copper was used in every single bullet. To this day the Irish and mining play a vital role in this small city. While mining operations are much more limited now due to the environmental impact, the fortunes of miners continue to play a role in how prosperous the city feels. The city also hosts one of the most popular Saint Patrick's Day celebrations in the country. People from all over travel to get their fix of 'craic agus ceol'. There is even a second more sober Ri-Ra festival each August where the emphasis is on the ceol rather than the craic.

The first introduction to the Irish connection came when I visited the Great Outdoorsman bike store. This store belongs to Levi Leipheimer's brother. Levi is the most successful American pro-cyclist of his generation behind Lance Armstrong. As soon as I said I was from Ireland he took me to a photo-collage with a lot of pictures of Levi from the Tour de France. In the middle of all these photos of Levi was a photo of Stephen Roche after collapsing at the top of La Plagne in the 1987 Tour de France, which he won. It was this moment that inspired thirteen year old Levi to dedicate his life to cycling and riding in the Tour de France.

Having visited the bike-store I made my way to Safeway to stock up on supplies. As I have a finite amount of space in my packs I make for an unusual site outside of supermarkets as I repack everything and discard of all the cumbersome packaging. One guy ventured up to me curious to know where I slept at night, when I told him in the woods he was just aghast. Not long after another man came up to me asking me how my journey was going, he too was a cyclist and soon I was tailing him and his daughter back to their house where they put me up for the night. The hospitality of some people is very touching. Not only does it get me out of the elements and a better night sleep but it gives me a much more informed view of the places I travel through. I spent the evening with Dan and his daughter Kalli in their beautiful home. It was Kalli's last night before she returned to Panama where she works with the Peace Corps. Having dropped her to the airport early the next morning Dan drove me around town so that I could complete my chores giving me a small tour of Butte at the same-time. It was a beautiful day, part of me wanted to stay as it looked like a very photogenic place but the other part of me felt the need to press on. It is hard to take a rest from the Great Divide when there is such a mountain of work still to be done.

I hope the form is mighty

Marco 

Tuesday
Nov022010

But You're Dirty

Uh oh! A lightening storm. Shucks, I have no clue what I am supposed to do when camping in the middle of a storm. It's lashing rain outside so there is no chance of me getting out of the tent. The lightening had charged me with enough adrenaline such that there is no chance of me falling back to sleep either. I guess, I'll just have to wait it out watching some Dexter on the laptop.

Of course, all of the above was wrong. I should have gotten out of the tent, I should not have been lying prone on the ground and I should not have been playing with electronics. Thankfully I was in the lee of a mountain-side with trees nearby such that I was unlikely to be a target. However, it is very discomforting not knowing what to do in the force of nature, especially as the lightening bolts were within a mile. I had no idea what way the storm was moving from inside the tent but lightening jumps around and can change its point of contact over six miles at a time. I was frustrated, not just because my ride was delayed but because common sense was not yielding me any answers on this one. Normally I trust that my instinct will tell me the correct course of action but in this case I was coming up a blank. I hate feeling at the mercy of mother nature, I have been conquering her with my bike but only because she lets me.

The storm subsided and so I made a dash for it packing up my wet tent. The sky was still gloomy and I had the uphill single-track of Lava Mountain to climb. Wet weather at altitude in the mountains can quickly turn hypothermic, so it's very important to stay alert at all times. You need to keep asking yourself how you feel to make sure that your senses remain keen and that your judgement doesn't become clouded. There is an imaginary line that one has to heed and it is very important not to step over it, particularly when riding solo in the middle of nowhere out of cell coverage when nobody knows where you are. Feeling soaked, having numb fingers and being hungry are fine to a point but you need to stay on top of the situation especially when you don't know what way the route is. When the clouds are racing as fast as they were one can not rely on the weather improving. One needs to think of blue skies and the sun hitting the nape of your neck to stay positive but it is also important to consider what you will do if conditions get worse. There was an alternate route but I decided to stick to the race route out of curiosity.

Inevitably the route required an awful lot of patience, 8kms of walking and pushing the bike kind of patience to be precise. The trail up and down Lava Mountain was extremely difficult for a loaded bike. When I eventually ended up on some sort of road it was in fact closed to traffic. It was a mining road and the weather had turned it into an awful state. Dirt was flying everywhere as I tried to descend on this but I had to be really careful as huge mining trucks were on this narrow stretch. These truckers would not have been expecting a cyclist at this time of year or in this weather. The trucks had already ripped the road apart and with the rainfall the mud was like slurry and made braking difficult. Thus, as soon as I heard a truck I had to duck for cover as there wasn't room for both of us on the same road. It was a total mud-bath and now the rain was picking up again. My spirit and clothes can repel the elements for so long but there is only so much one can do. I was getting wetter and wetter and as I was descending, colder and colder. I managed to slip past the truckers and mines such that I had the road to myself again. Finally, I arrived at the small town of Basin, my intended half-way point for the day, a lot wetter and later than I had planned. There was no way I could camp in this weather so I pulled into the pub asking where I could spend a night. Thankfully there was a B&B in this tiny artists' enclave of a town and so I made my way there, hoping that my mud-wrestler look would not be turned away.

"But you're dirty" Diane said. Thankfully, she saw through the mud to my shell-shocked eyes, eyes which suggested that I had just come out of the trenches. I managed to secure a bed at a discounted rate and was very gracious for the good fortune of stumbling into a nice B&B with a generous and helpful host in such a tiny town. The truth is that it was silly of me to bike that day. The forecast was for the wet weather to clear a day later but in my rush to get south I decided to ride it out. It made no difference; what I gained in miles I lost in time trying to clean the crud from my bike and clothes.

Bring on the sunshine, I'm not sure how long I can battle this weather.

Marco

Thursday
Oct282010

The Continental Divide x 3

Oh man! Three continental divide crossings in a day, what a slog-fest! I almost regretted not having arrived in the town of Lincoln a week earlier as a forest-fire had closed the route and would have forced me to ride a flatter detour on asphalt. The local Park Ranger had been given the instruction to start a prescribed burn and she somehow thought it smart to start a fire in 45mph winds. It went to wild-fire pretty quick requiring an extra couple of hundred fire-fighters from Canada to help control the blaze. The poor Park Ranger was made appear on TV and make a statement of apology. Ouch! My guess is that she was scape-goated. The blaze was likely started in the morning before the wind picked up but that is still no excuse when local forecasts are so accurate. She was so stressed from the whole ordeal that she almost quit her job but in the end she stayed to the relief of the locals as in normal circumstances she is considered a great asset to the town.

As I climbed Stemple Pass it seemed that the trees had more than just fire to worry about. There is a pine beetle epidemic that has spread all over the western side of the Rockies. These pine beetles infest the forests and lay larvae inside tree-trunks that prevents a tree from accessing its root-system for water and nutrients. The result is that ever-greens turn ever-brown as they die-off. For people who love forests it is considered a real tragedy. Normally severe winters kill off the pine beetle but the last three winters have not been sufficiently cold enough allowing for their population to swell. It needs to be at least minus 20 degrees for consecutive weeks for the pine beetle to die off. Regardless, it is not a total disaster as the beetles don't feed on Firs or Spruce so it is expected that these will make up the next forests as they clear the pines before they become tinder for lightening-storms.

At the bottom of the climb I bumped into two guys on BMW dirt touring-bikes. One of them  was wrenching his bike as he had flooded it trying to climb the pass. The precautionary drenching the forest had taken from the fire had made for some massive puddles on the trail. His bike had cut-out riding through one and so the two of them were now trying to dry it out before calling for back-up if still required. The smug smile on my face due to my motor-less bicycle at the start of the climb soon turned into a pained grimace half-way up it. Not much later I was cursing not having a motor at all. Being more nimble than a laden motor-bike it was possible for me to side-track through the woods to avoid the deep puddles, however, there is nothing to do but walk and push your bike in the face of steep rocky sections. Riding an unloaded mountain-bike up a steep rocky section is one of the more technical aspects of mountain-biking. A loaded tourer simply can't handle this as the weight of the front-panniers causes all sorts of steering problems as you try to counter-act the forced steering that slipping through hard loose rock causes. The Tour divide racers would not suffer as much as I did as they are much lighter. I was fast realising that the Tour Divide route tries where possible to take the hardest pass over a mountain. I'm not certain if I enjoy doing stadium sprints in the middle of what is a marathon. Regardless, like always, I got there in the end.

Thankfully Stemple Pass was the hardest of the three divide crossings that day. The next climb was still a fair bit of work but at least I didn't have to dismount and push. The final 3k climb over Priest Pass was a speed-bump in comparison and so I managed to pull up short of Helena with plenty of daylight left to set-up camp in the woods. Helena, the state capital, has a population of 25,000 and is the biggest town that I have been in for a while. Thus, I spent the day catching up on errands and trying to catch my breath!

'til soon

Marco

atop the Continental Divide

the woodsman

the pine beetle effect on Stemple Pass

it's an epidemic - all the brown trees are dead