Stretching out in Wyoming

The last week and a half or so has been a wild ride; I’ve pushed my own limits and ridden through some incredibly large landscapes, finally reaching an astonishing couple of days through America’s great parks, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. By the time we got to Montana several days ago my new friends Gareth and Andy and I were all certain Wyoming had been the most amazing stage of this trip.

Heading into Wyoming from Walden, Colorado where I’d joined the official TransAm route, I knew the upcoming stretches would include long distances between overnight stops or services and I needed to be ready to ride some higher-mileage days than I’d been doing. Gareth, the Belfast-born cyclist I’d met in the park where we camped, would prove a great motivator.

There’s not much between Walden and the small former timber town of Saratoga, Wyoming. There was a WarmShowers host there that looked promising so we set our sights there. The ride would be just short of 70 miles.

This part of the TransAm bicycle route, things start to stretch out. It was good to have riding companions (well, one, since on this first day Andy rolled way ahead really quickly) as the landscape, while beautiful, was going to be much the same all day.

With good weather and mercifully light wind, the riding was pretty easy; staying occupied was the only challenge. Stops for snacks and cold drinks were determined by the one or two tiny towns along the way. By mid-afternoon we arrived in Saratoga and contacted Karim, who was a fantastic host and a great source of information on the trail ahead.

Before heading to his place Gareth and I made an important stop- Saratoga has a natural hot spring that’s free to use. This was great for the legs. Over the next week and change we’ll be riding just above a hotbed of geothermal activity culminating in the otherworldly scene in Yellowstone.

I considered our 68 miles to have been a pretty big day. The next day would turn out much bigger, and shift my perspective.

In Wyoming, towns and services are far enough apart that you have some real choices to make- once you go past a town with accommodations, you’re often committing to another 25, 30 or 40 miles before the next opportunity.

Heading north out of Saratoga, you’ve got basically nothing til I-80, then a couple of towns that are really just service stations- then you’re either stopping in Rawlins or riding another 40ish to Muddy Gap. Then you’re either stopping in Muddy Gap, where your lodging is your tent behind the convenience store and your roommates are hundreds of mosquitoes, or you’re continuing yet another 24 miles to Jeffrey City. Jeffrey City has a whole restaurant and, more importantly, a Baptist church that opens its doors to cyclists passing through.

We’d caught up somewhere on this incredibly desolate stretch with Andy and were now riding three together.

This was a long day.

We assessed the situation in Muddy Gap. By this point the 85 or so miles we’d done were the most I’d put on the bike in a day. I was toasted- my legs did not want to move, my mind felt fried by the monotony and it was hard to imagine another mile. Honestly I wanted nothing more than a crappy night in my tent next to a crappy convenience store. The two stronger cyclists with me were ready to move, however, so I pressed on with them.

The last 20-something miles felt like an eternity. Finally as evening fell, Jeffrey City came into view (it’s three buildings and a bunch of trailers) and we landed at the church. I’d done my first century ride- 110 miles total for the day. This was a symbolic as well as physical landmark for me- from this point on, knowing what I could do, I would ride with a different view of what could be done in a day.

The Jeffrey City Baptist Church, an oasis for cyclists in desolate Wyoming. There are showers, rooms and a full kitchen made available at no charge to cyclists.
Jeffrey City- all of it

Leaving Jeffrey City, the three of us continued up 287. You spend days on this road. Days, without so much as an intersection. There would be a choice to make here. 57 miles up the road was the town of Lander. Beyond that was the enormous Wind River Reservation, mostly undeveloped. We’d have to choose between what was now a ‘short’ day and another 100-mile day.

We were in Lander in time for a late lunch; Gareth needed some work done on his bike and we enjoyed this little touristy mountain town’s vibe quite a bit.

I knew I didn’t have another huge day in me- my legs were shot. After much discussion- Gareth is both an athlete who loves pushing himself and a persistent salesman- we agreed to make it a ‘half day’ and stay the night in Lander, where we found a little cabin to rent for the night. This was perfect- the RV park had showers and laundry and we woke up refreshed.

The next day is hard to put into words. We left Lander in the morning chill and before long entered the massive Wind River reservation. We came across a sign pointing to the gravesite of Sacajawea. Riding through a reservation neighborhood of obvious economic distress to the gravesite of the native American without whom Lewis & Clark would never have been successful was a sobering moment. Throughout the West would be reminders of the truth of this nation and its foundations in the brutal massacre and displacement of this land’s native people.

The day’s ride was about 75 miles through the Wind River Range, an extraordinary and massive landscape that was absolutely mindblowing in its scale. Riding bikes through this place makes a person feel extremely small- the ancient mountains and basins are endless, and to see countless miles in every direction with almost no sign of man is humbling.

Up to this point we have been very lucky in Wyoming. This state is notorious for breaking the spirits of touring cyclists; the endless stretches without services is often accompanied by relentless headwinds, storms and heat. A lot of people go nuts or quit here. We were spared almost entirely from this, and I may well have lost it from the isolation if I hadn’t run into Gareth and Andy.

The last few miles into Dubois gave us our dose- a storm coming over the mountains to our west finally threw us some crazy headwinds slowing us to a few miles an hour. At one point a crosswind gust hit that quite neatly blew Andy and I directly off the road.

We made it into Dubois just in time. In this extremely charming town- we’re now on the Great Yellowstone RV Trail- there’s another church that welcomes cyclists. We met several fellow tourists here.

Home for the night

I wasn’t fully prepared for the next day’s ride. I knew we were approaching the parks gradually, and I knew that the ride toward the Grand Tetons was one of the most dramatic moments of the trip- but I hadn’t put it together that today’s would be that ride. I think I was too focused on Togwotee Pass, the 9600 foot pass we’d have to summit, and its grizzly bear problem.

At the recommendation of the locals, I finally gave in and purchased bear spray, which was unnerving. I have an irrational fear of bears even as I absolutely love them. The three of us rode out after an early breakfast to face the mountain pass.

Start of the climb

The landscape was starting to get alpine and rocky; we’d been generally climbing for days. It started to look more and more like the environment you picture around the great parks. I truly cannot get enough of these mountain environments.

The climb was long, winding and tough. In accordance with our usual pattern Gareth had been hanging out at the summit for quite a while by the time I reached it, totally beat but anticipating another beautiful descent.

One thing about this trip is that those descents are just amazingly beautiful but there’s generally no way I’m stopping to take photos. I just try to remember them as best I can and enjoy the moment. It’s not often you get to roll 40 miles an hour down mountains for miles on end.

But this time was different. Coming down from the pass, you eventually follow a big bend in the road and then, suddenly:

A few days ago I’d been told by Jeff in Granby about this moment, and there’s no way for a photo to capture the feeling of the first sight of the Tetons. It absolutely took my breath away. For the next several miles we wound down the mountain, the Tetons revealing themselves in new angles and shades with every turn. This, I thought, is what I came for. A truly rewarding moment- I’ll never forget it.

Gareth kept riding to Jackson, where he would visit a friend for the night. Andy and I camped in a well-appointed RV park just short of the National Park entrance with a great view of the Tetons catching the setting sun.

I am way behind on this journal but will have to save the parks for their own post. They were a major reason I wanted to do this, and they did not disappoint.

Sunrise catching the mountains.