West Yellowstone, MT to Walden, CO
The events in this blog happened 3.5 years ago at a time when the current news unfolding and unravelling around the world were unthinkable. But amongst all of the troubles and losses caused by the pandemic some little gems are emerging as people use their forced isolation to be creative, connect with people, help their communities or just have a bit of a tidy up.
For my part, this week I’ve dug our vegetable patch, taken part in an online dance party and decided to start filling in the gap in our blog that somehow never got written. Some of the details will no doubt have been lost in the fog of my memory but I’ll try and tell the story of our journey from Wyoming to the finish line in installments over the next few weeks.
2nd September 2016 – 10th September 2016
On our first night in Yellowstone we’re treated to a talk by Ranger Jack who tells us a bit more about the park. “There are 10 wolf packs and 250 grizzly bears but these animals tend to stay well clear of visitors. You’re much more likely to be gored by a bison, burn to death in a boiling mud pool, drown, get crushed by a dead tree or fall off a cliff. A lot of of these things happen to people while they pose for a selfie.”
We emerge from our tent the next morning after a sleepless night worrying about the old, creaking tree next to our tent. We rescue our food and stove from the steel bear box provided to stop inquisitive bears stealing visitor’s pic-a-nic beaskets. Or stealing visitors.
There’s a rule in the park that you should not get any closer than 100 yards of bears or wolves and 25 yards of all other animals. What they don’t tell you is what to do if the animal approaches you. So when an enormous bison ambles up to our tent as our porridge bubbles away on the stove we sit tight and hold our breaths. He’s a colossal animal but seems entirely uninterested in our breakfast so we breathe a sigh of relief when he continues on into the forest.
Ahead of us lies 2.2 million acres of forest, mountains, rivers and lakes all supercharged by one of the largest areas of geothermal activity in the world. We’re sharing it with a convoy of tourist buses as we’ve managed to arrive for the Labour Day weekend, a national holiday. Despite the crowds, it’s a very impressive sight. We spin up to the lower geyser basin for our first views of boiling hot ponds, bubbling mud pits, steaming fumaroles and spitting geysers. The smell of sulphur lingers in the nostrils everywhere we go.
Further up the valley we find the Grand Prismatic Spring, an enormous, rainbow coloured, steaming phenomenon spilling into the hot river that we’ve been following. I’d seen photos of this many times and was suspicious that it could actually be real but here it was before our very eyes in all its multi-coloured glory. The early explorers had the same problem when they reported their findings back to Lewis and Clarke for the first time. Their tales of 100 foot geysers, volcanoes and hot rivers surrounded by beasts of all shapes and sizes were initially laughed at as being the stuff of fantasy.
The main event for many is Old Faithful and the park authorities know it. They’ve built what amounts to be a small stadium around the geyser behind which are hotels, restaurants and fast food cafes. We all gather on the benches ready for the next performance which takes place every 90 minutes. As the time ticks by the crowd gets restless and I half expect someone to shout “Get on with it!”. Then there’s a short spurt of water from the crater as everyone gasps and moves a bit closer to the edge of their benches. Another spurt and another collective gasp. Then WHOOOOOSSSSHH! 30,000 litres of boiling water launches 50m into the air and we all “ooh” and “ahh” as if it’s a firework. In typical American style there’s a round of applause for the geothermal feature. Thank you Old Faithful, that was truly impressive and the extra 10 minutes we had to wait meant that it was bigger than average.
On a plateau like this it’s easy to forget how high up we are so it comes as a surprise when we winch up the next couple of passes and see that we’ve crossed the Continental Divide for the 2nd (2515m) and 3rd (2556m) time. Our campsite for the night is next to Lewis Lake and we cross the divide once again before spinning down to find a spot for our tent. People used to use the ‘cook on the hook’ fishing technique here where a freshly caught fish would immediately get dunked into a boiling pond. They’ve since realised that fish probably don’t enjoy being boiled alive so the practice has been banned.
Yellowstone was always going to be hard to beat so it’s with some disappointment that we drop down out of the park the next day. Large swathes of charred trees line the road. We’re lucky to get out this way as wild fires had closed the south entrance until 4 days ago.
We’ve only just begun exploring Wyoming and it’s a state that has plenty more to offer. Not least of which are the Teton Mountains that come into view just in time for us to admire them over a lunchtime picnic. We could have sat there all day but we have to turn our backs on this magnificent view as our road turns east and we begin our next big climb. Togwotee Pass tops out at 2900m and it’s too much for today so we’re forced to camp a few hundred metres from the summit. We’d passed a camp site further down that didn’t allow ‘soft sided shelters’ and the bear warning signs have been becoming more frequent. Our roadside clearing doesn’t have the luxury of a bear box so I collect all our food and cooking gear into a bag and climb a tree to suspend it from a high branch. Every crack of a stick and rustle of leaves has us tense up as we spend most of the night wide-eyed and nervous.
Overnight our tent is battered by wind and rain but thankfully no bears and I’m pleased to see our bag still dangling from the tree in the morning. It’s freezing cold so the last few kilometres of climbing to the top of the pass are very welcome to build up some heat. The ridgeline still wears a blanket of snow and huge jagged peaks stand all around us. Coming the other way we meet several other cyclists including Mya from Burma who is writing a cookbook for cyclists and Tim and Jimmy from Colorado who interview us on the hard shoulder for their newspaper.
The descent off the top is a cyclist’s dream. Smooth roads and sweeping bends have me whooping with delight. The landscape begins to change with lush green trees giving way to arid red and orange rocks with painted ranches dotted alongside the huge meandering loops of the Wind River. We’re now in the Wind River Valley and it lives up to its name as a strong breeze helps us on our way to Dubois.
We spend the night at the Dubois Episcopal Church and are invited to dinner by the caretaker, John. His wife Julie happens to be a baker so we have to be polite by accepting her offer of tasting some freshly made cakes and leaving with a bag of tasty muffins. The church itself resembles a log cabin and proudly claims to be ‘very old’ having been built in 1910. John is a very proud of this until I tell him my home village has a church dating from the 12th Century!
The Wind River Basin is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Native American tribes in the huge Wind River Indian Reservation. We roll into Fort Washakie to find a very run down town completely at odds with the smart little settlements that we’d passed through further up the valley. A large gift shop touts predictable souvenirs with hundreds of dream catchers, animal hides and t-shirts with wolves howling at the moon. The problems inherent in these communities are well documented but there seems to be little evidence of a solution.
As if to highlight the contrast between life inside and outside of the Reservation our next stop is Lander, a bustling little town that is popular with adrenaline junkies who enjoy climbing up and throwing themselves down the surrounding mountains. We find ice cream parlours, thai restaurants and a busy high street of shops that makes it feel like another country compared to Fort Washakie. Once again we’re incredibly grateful for our privileged position of being able to make the choice to keep on riding through all these places and to be looked after by kind hosts like Lydnsey and Mike. Lyndsey is another baker so when our bread gets eaten by one of their dogs in the night she replaces it with some fresh banana bread.
Wyoming is the size of the UK but has a population of just 500,000. This leaves some huge open spaces. It’s a 100km ride between Lander and the next town of Jeffrey City and apart from an RV park and a Mormon Handcart Visitors Centre there’s not a lot of life in between. Other than an angry rattlesnake makes its presence known with a furious shake of its tail as we climb up to the top of Beaver Rim. We’re nearing South Pass on the Oregon Trail that was a pivotal junction for the early settlers. At this point they had to decide whether to take the trail south to Utah, South West to California or North West to Oregon. Lives would be defined on this huge expanse of nothing.
Somewhere back in Oregon we’d been given a piece of paper by a Westbound Transam cyclist with recommendations for our route ahead. One line that stuck in our minds was that we must “…find the mad potter in Jeffrey City. We stayed with him and the night ended with him trying to put a fire out on the roof. It was wonderful”. Jeffrey City is a ghost town with a population of just 58. A far cry from its boom times in the 60s when thousands moved here to work in the nearby Uranium mine. A huge high school was built, several churches and even an Olympic sized swimming pool. But when the Uranium market collapsed in the late 70s almost everyone moved away, some even taking their houses with them. What’s left are a few hardy souls who like solitude, and some enormous buildings that stand empty.
The Monk King Bird Pottery is easy to spot by the side of the road so we park up and poke our heads through the door. A scribbled sign instructs us to make some noise and if no-one appears then try the bar across the road. “Hello?” I call out. There’s a murmur from a pile of blankets in the corner and a bearded face pears out. This is Byron, the potter and Transam legend.
He rubs his eyes and begins to take in the two people standing in front of him. “Ah, you’re bicyclists! You can stay in my bus!”. The pottery is a complete mess but there are plenty of finished articles for sale. His best sellers are a range of mugs with bullet holes in them. Tourists on their way to Yellowstone shoot them when the clay is still wet and by the time they come back Byron has fashioned them into a useable mug. “But why is it called the Monk King Bird Pottery” we ask Byron. “I wanted it to be called the Mocking Bird Pottery but the sign writer misheard me”.
Byron introduces us to his neighbour Chuck who lives in a tiny house next door. He moved the house from the mountains a few years ago. Chuck is a colourful character who served in the Vietnam war, worked as a cowboy, as an actor and in the uranium mines. He now spends his days as an artist and keeps his severed finger on a keyring. This is a town that seems to attract real characters.
The next couple of days take us over the wind blown expanse of the Great Divide Basin and onto Rawlins where we’re kicked out of a park by an apologetic policeman. Some towns encourage camping in their parks while others don’t and this is one of the very few times in the entire trip where we’ve been asked to move on.
As we begin our last day in Wyoming we leave our secluded camp spot behind a church just outside of Riverside. It had been a chilly night with outside temperatures dipping to -5°C so both of us are tired and tempers are on edge. To make matters worse the bike has been moaning too with a broken gear cable needing to be replaced before we can set off.
We stock up in Riverside then venture out onto the Skyline Road. A steady climb takes us into a sparse landscape that has become the default view for this state. Suddenly the chain jams and upon inspection I see that the cage of the rear mech has cracked. I try to bend it back into shape but as soon as we try to pedal again the chain jams again and drags the mech into the wheel to break a couple of spokes. Dammit!
As we contemplate our next move a ranger’s truck pulls over and Melanie jumps out to see what the problem is. She rummages in her truck to find a hammer which I use to try and bend everything back into a useful shape but it’s not looking good. She explains that it’s 100 miles to the nearest bike shop and then spends half an hour ringing round everyone she knows to see if someone can help. It turns out that a man called Jeb can. He speeds over to collect us and takes us back to his house a few miles away. In his enormous workshop stands an old mountain bike that he offers as a ‘donor’ bike. I immediately set to work transplanting the necessary parts onto our bike and replacing our broken spokes. Before long we have a working bike again. Jeb is not only a keen climber and occasional mountain biker but also happened to be a former State Senator. He’s more than happy to help and refuses payment for the parts so we promise to send a gift from the UK once we get home.
He drops us back where we left off and we continue up and over into our next state of Colorado. As we spin along the long, straight road chirping prairie dogs warn the rest of their village of our arrival. By 7pm we’re in Walden and are joined for dinner by Melanie.who has kindly brought some super warm sleeping bags to borrow for the night. She’s in charge of controlling a nearby wildfire where another 30,000 acres are currently burning. Just another normal day for a Wyoming ranger.
We toast the sheer luck that she happened to be passing when she did as at earlier today we didn’t imagine we’d have arrived here by bike. The road has treated us very well in Wyoming but now we have the last of the Rockies to contend with along with the highest climbs of the Transam. Let’s hope our luck continues into Colorado.
You can find a few more photos in our Gallery