Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Way Back (Machine)

I was sort of thinking this was done, once I reached my destination, and that I'd just let this site rest as-is. It's encouraging to read the comments urging me to keep going. I've been mulling this over the past couple of weeks, and I thought, if for no other reason than to get my self-portrait with bunny photos moved down the screen, maybe I should tell about the trip back, which turned into quite an experience in itself. Then there was the whole mental transition that occurred the first week after my return.

I thought it would be fun to take the train back. I have memories of a couple of long train trips from my childhood, but in my adult life I haven't gone any further than Portland, so it seemed like a relaxing time on the train would be a nice change from the bike ride down. Time to watch the scenery without worrying about where the pavement ends, and time to finish reading the book I hauled all the way down there.

There's a daily service called Denver Coach that takes people between Scottsbluff and Denver, just a passenger van, but it's easy. Scottsbluff is some distance from any major airport hubs or even the interstate, so unless you drove, there's no one-step way to get in or out.

After being dropped off at the train station in Denver, just me and my back-pack, I started scouting around for a place to spend the night. My train didn't leave until the next morning, and while I thought I could probably sleep on the wood bench in the station (which is very nice by the way), I was hoping for something more bed-like. After a very hot couple of hours of walking around, I stuck my head in at a place just a half block away called The Oxford, thinking, "this is going to be way too expensive." If I've learned one thing on this trip, it's that the concept "expensive" is relative to how much time you've been out in the sun. Turns out, The Oxford is a small but beautiful, historic (1800's), hotel that's been there about as long as the train station. My Art Deco room comes with a flat panel TV! I recommend this place to anyone with a night to spend in Denver. It's also walking distance to the ballpark, if you are interested in the Colorado Rockies.

My train trip is in two legs: The first from Denver to Sacramento (Chicago Zephyr), then north on the Coast Starlight to Seattle. The route west was everything I hoped it might be. The tracks wend their way into the mountains as soon as you leave the city, on sharp enough switch-backs that you can see the other ends of the train in the turns. The scenery is amazing, with almost fifty tunnels by the time you reach Sacramento, including the Moffat Tunnel, 6.2 miles long, which leads across the Continental Divide, at the same time it reaches the highest elevation on the route: 9,270 feet. We paralleled the Colorado River much of the way, and some very deep canyons we went through had no access other than by kayak or the train I was in. At one stretch, we were greeted by the bared backsides of some of the rafters below. I learned later from a friend who used to be a river guide in the area, that that particular stretch is known unofficially as "Moon River."

If I had this to do again, I think I'd plan a stop along the way. Glenwood Springs looks like a great place to explore overnight. Also, thirty-three hours is a long time to go without a shower, and the one negative thing I will say about train travel is that beside no showers, the restrooms are also no place you want to be in for very long. I took more time to read my itinerary in between book reads, and was a little depressed to see that I had misread my ticket. I was due to arrive in Seattle a whole day later than I thought. Well, I figured I had nothing else to do before Sacramento than relax and consider my alternatives, so I went back to enjoying the ride. For the second half of the trip, there was a volunteer rail-historian aboard who narrated the various points of interest as we went by them, including Donner Pass, which is has a story I have always been very interested in.

I slept a little, but not very comfortably, and by dawn I was looking at the sunrise over some of the most barren desert I've ever seen. The parts of Utah and Nevada that we crossed did not look like a place you'd want to ride a bike though, at least not without a trailer-ful of water and a roof, or a well-appointed sag wagon. From the train though, I could admire it with detachment.

By the time I got to Sacramento, I had made a decision. If I could avoid the second twenty-four hours of train travel and get home a day early, I'd figure a way to do it. My layover was nearly eight hours, so I had plenty of time to kill while looking at the possibilities. The train station in Sacramento was nowhere as beautiful nor comfortable as in Denver, so I figured whatever I did for the next eight hours, I wouldn't be doing it here. I grabbed a cab and headed out to the airport, walked up to the Southwest Airlines counter, and proceeded to do everything that is supposed to make the TSA flag you for a body cavity search. It's September eleventh. I show up with one small bag and ask for the next flight to Seattle, one-way. They should have had me on the floor at gunpoint, but instead, it was more like one of those "Yes you can" commercials that Southwest runs. I got a ticket for a flight leaving in less than two hours, had time for some food while I waited. And the flight itself turned out to be only an hour and eighteen minutes flight time. I figured I could have taken a return flight and still made my original midnight train out of Sacramento.

So, just like my bike ride, the conclusion to my trip back suddenly appeared ahead of schedule. I took my first light rail ride back from Sea-Tac, then on to the #66, and then a half-block walk to the front porch where no one was expecting me to walk in. My bike and trailer arrived via UPS the following Monday, in good condition.

It did take my brain a while to adjust to being home. Not sure why, but the next few nights I would wake up not knowing where I was, including one very confusing half-awake dream where I looked around the living room (really) not recognizing it as my own home (in the dream I was staying at a stranger's house while they were away), looked towards the hallway and saw (but did not recognize) Linda walking from the kitchen to the bedroom and thought "oh my God, there's someone in this house!" Not until the following morning did I figure out that I was in my house and who the woman in the red robe was. Very strange.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Statistics and Summary

Things I packed but never used:
Camp chair
Sewing kit
Spare bike parts (still glad I brought them though)

Number of flats:
Two, both on the front wheel. The tire was shot when I departed, which is probably why I had flats. Should have bucked up for a new one.

Biggest mileage day: 95 miles

Shortest mileage day: 30 miles

Miles covered overnight in a very expensive rental car: 681

Total miles ridden (not counting a rides to errands in Lewiston, Missoula and Scottsbluff): 786

Nights camping: 5

Nights in abject luxury in a motel, B&B, or cabin: 10

On shipping my bike and trailer back to Seattle: I was surprised that the combined cost of shipping each big box (one for the bike, one for the trailer) by UPS was only slightly more than it cost to send the boxes out here in the first place. Nice Surprise.

Ride summary:

Seattle to Silver Springs Campground: 78 miles (hwy 410)

Silver Springs Campground to Yakima: 77 miles

Yakima to Othello: 95 miles (hwy 24)

Othello to Palouse Falls: 60.2 miles

Palouse Falls to Pomeroy: 46 miles

Pomeroy to Lewiston: 30 miles

Lewiston to Kamiah: 87 miles

Kamiah to Wilderness Gateway Campground: 62 miles (hwy 12)

Wilderness Gateway Campground to Lochsa Lodge: 41 miles

Lochsa Lodge to Missoula: 62 miles

(Drive: Missoula to Casper via Yellowstone Park)

Casper to Glendo: 84.4 miles miles (hwy 26)

Glendo to Fort Laramie: 52 miles

Fort Laramie to Scottsbluff: 54 miles

Things I Learned Along the Way

Don't trust a name next to a dot on a map as being a town: Often it turns out just to be where the highway intersects with a dirt road, maybe with a grain silo added for decoration.

The more rural it is, the friendlier and more polite people become. Few exceptions.

Friendliness of lodgings owner is inversely proportional to cost of lodgings. (one notable, huge exception to this (I'm sure coincidental) tendency: Maggies Garden in Pomeroy.) But Lewiston Econolodge, Lakeview Motel in Glendo, and Chuckwagon RV Park in Fort Laramie, some of the nicest people I rented from, and all less than $35.00 a night.

My inexpensive Pearl Izumi shorts were more comfortable over the course of a long day than my expensive wool Ibex bib-shorts. I'm talking about comfort where the shorts meet the seat!

How smooth the road surface was proved to be more of a factor in riding comfort than steepness of hills or wideness of shoulders.

One pair of cycling socks is not enough, especially if that pair is hanging out to dry in a thunderstorm. What was I thinking?

Four pairs of underwear is way too many. (Except to use as packing material)

Wyoming is all about the "drive-up liquor."

On "tanning:" Since I ride eastward all day every day, the sun rises ahead of me, and moves up and to my right as the day progresses. So, my tan is darker on the right side of my upwards facing surfaces. I had to be extra careful to apply sunscreen to the upper part of my right calf, while the left leg was doing just fine. On future rides like this, I think I will bring a loose fitting, long sleeved white shirt to reflect the light off me while keeping me cool.

On dealing with the heat: First and foremost, leave by sun-up, ride while it's cool, and try to be off the road by mid afternoon. For the period between about ten am and end of ride, I had a Halo head cover that covered my head, the tops of my ears, and the back of my neck, which I doused with water periodically, and as it evaporated, it helped my head feel cooler. Still, anything over eighty-five degrees started feeling fairly unpleasant unless I had some shade. Serious climbing in direct sun (e.g. on my way up to Palouse Falls) was just torture.

Things will work out: You have to be ready to change your plan as you go, and just like in flying, call for help when you need it. I got great advice from family and friends along the way. And the people who commented and cheered me on through my blog were a huge inspiration.

Familiar Road

I woke up in my tent around one am, and since I've learned that I just don't sleep very soundly in the tent, I just listened to the sounds, and stared up at the stars for a while, hoping to see a meteorite or two. At one point, I could feel something, a weird sensation around the back of my neck, and then a crawling sensation, as if something were crawling in my neck. I reached my hand around and felt something insect-like, pulled it away, but then started to get that weird feeling you get when a bunch of bees sting you, sort of a head rush. Hard to describe. Then, a definite, sharp pain right at the nape of my neck. I feel the spot again, and already there's a big knot of swelling forming. I'm thinking "what? Are there tarantulas in Wyoming?" I had my screen door totally zipped shut too. Then I rolled over and-- woke up. The whole insect biting thing had been a dream, and confirmation that I did in fact fall asleep sometime between two-thirty and three-thirty. Relief.

I dozed until my alarms started going off (two each in my watch and cell phone). Quietly got up and walked to the showers. I hadn't noticed this before, but the men's showers at the Chuckwagon RV Campground have quite an art collection. There are five versions of the famous "Dogs Playing Poker" series, shellacked to pieces of tree bark. I have always liked those pictures. Maybe because I was very young when I first noticed them. I wonder what art the women get?

I still had about an hour of darkness, so I boiled water for coffee as I took down the tent and started packing the trailer. I knew this was the last time I'd be cooking, so I just let the stove go for a long time, burning off those pounds of white gas.

And now for a short commercial break: Did I mention that I have been drinking coffee from my very own Revolution Mugs coffee cup? If you haven't ordered yours, better get going. This mug has traveled hundreds of miles with me now. A much more satisfying weight to drag over mountain passes than the one-pound box of tasteless linguini, or the 6 heavy packs of albacore tuna and chicken breast.

Now back to our story.

Today was super humid, and this morning would be my first IFR departure of the trip. A heavy but shallow ground fog had formed, just at sunrise, and as I headed east on highway 26, the sun was a huge white disk you could stare at just as easily as the moon. The road shoulders were smooth, the highway was flat, and the miles just melted by. As always, rural drivers almost always move over half a lane to pass, even if I'm six feet away in an eight foot shoulder. I've even seen oncoming cars drive on the far side rumble strip, as if I'm radioactive or something. This would be amazing behavior in the Puget Sound basin.

Highway 26 is arrow-straight as it leads past these last few towns into Scottsbluff. Fortunately, the towns are spaced six to eight miles apart, so the entertainment value is a little higher. I had planned to have a real breakfast in Lingle, but the diner there apparently closed its doors (I was told this by a woman working at the gas station, where I picked up a maple-bar-ish twisty something pastry to tide me over) last summer. Next town: Torrington, Wyoming, where I found the 77 Grill at a big truck stop. Apparently the only place open, because it was hopping. I got my fill and continued down the road. Torrington is also the town closest to the farm of my Grandparents on my Mom's side. It's all dirt roads to get out there, and no one left who would know me, so I don't think I'll be riding out that way this time.

The sequence of little towns down this road is a very familiar and nostalgic path for me, as I have counted my way down these last miles many times from the back seat of my parent's car as we traveled each summer to Scottsbluff. I remember sometimes we competed to see who could be the first across the state line. The best way to do this was to be crafty and pretend you weren't really thinking about it, and just happen to be in the front seat when that border was approaching. That way you could just make sure one of your feet was farther forward than the driver's right foot. But, you had to be careful, there might be a last-second lunge over the seat backs, and a pair of hands attempting to reach up under the dashboard.

I reached the Nebraska border at ten am, and almost immediately, the town of Henry, with the fading, hand painted sign "Welcome to Henry, Scottsbluff County, Home to a Undergound Environmental Hazard." Then Morrill, Mitchell, and now I was finally in visual contact with the bluff itself, the national monument which shares its name with the town and county.

Scottsbluff National Monument is a fascinating place to visit, both for the history, as well as the geology. Right next to the bluff is Mitchell Pass, a point along the Oregon Trail where you can still see the ruts made by wagon trains that rolled through so long ago.

So humid today, the air feels thick and hard to breathe, plus in the last few miles, of course I pick up a little headwind. Still it's exciting to arrive in this fashion, and I can hardly believe I'm finally here. One more Twilight Zone (Outer Limits?) moment just after Mitchell, where the grasshoppers which heretofore had been hopping out of my way as I ride, are suddenly jumping right at me, and onto me from all sides. Reminded me of that episode where the couple is marooned in the desert overnight, and have to deal with attacks from sage brush, and then frogs.

As I ride along highway 26, I pass by Sunset Memorial, the cemetery where all my grandparents, and an uncle are buried. I stop and think about taking a break to go look at the markers, but after watching the traffic (65 speed limit, divided highway), I decide that a visit isn't worth the risk of joining them prematurely and permanently. I imagine my grandad Dale understanding my decision as I ride away. A couple of passing cars give a toot and hold out a peace sign, not sure what that's about. Finally, a right turn off the highway onto fifth avenue, past the Appleby's where a few fun family evenings were spent after my grandmother's funeral a few years back. A left turn, and... oops, streets are counting opposite the way I anticipated, I'm on sixth, u-turn, back the other way, there's the old Terry mansion, and another landmark, old Ford pickup, and I'm here!

Thinking: Shower. Glass of wine. Pizza. Sitting. (Made me think of Borat. "Look at me, I am sitting on a chair.") Send a text to Theo. Oh, and finally I can make a quick run to the grocery store for shaving implements. I look like Gabby Whiskers. No wonder people are afraid of me when I roll into town.

Time Travel

Another great day.

Last night I lost consciousness shortly after seven-thirty, and didn't wake up until about five-thirty, so clearly my body was trying to do some catching up. I had breakfast at a little diner in Glendo, and rolled out about seven-thirty. Unfortunately, I took the wrong road out of town, including a nice little warm-up hill climb, and before I realized it, I was a mile and a half out. So, turned around and just figured it would be three bonus miles for the day.

I got on the I-25 southbound, for my final twenty miles of freeway travel. Shoulders not quite as smooth as yesterday, but still a far sight nicer than the no-shoulder chipseal Old Glendo Highway.

The miles went quickly and soon I was turning off to rejoin highway 26 eastbound towards Fort Laramie, and ultimately, Scottsbluff. Traveling this roadway takes me back to the many summers we'd cover it in the family car, after days of driving, knowing we'd be reaching my grandparents home soon. This highway, like others in the area, is red due to the type of stone used in paving it.

I stopped briefly in Guernsey, and a bar kind of place called Crazy Tony's, looking for a sandwich. They were still serving breakfast, so I had a breakfast sandwich. Most of the people coming in were ordering beers, and complaining about how hung over they were. I cleared out as quickly as I could eat and pay.

I pulled into the town of Fort Laramie, and coasted down the gravel drive of the Chuckwagon RV Campground, and paid for my $10.00 grassy space. This is the nicest RV Park I've camped in. Everyone is super friendly and it's nice and quiet. There's been a constant breeze which is refreshing. The owner just came over on his golf cart and handed me a bag of fresh vegetables from their garden. I immediately sliced up a tomato and devoured it.

It was not quite two when I arrived, so I showered, got on my bike (sans trailer) and pedaled out (in very leisurely fashion) three miles to the Fort Laramie Historic Site. Fort Laramie was a major crossroads for Plains Indians, Fur Traders, the Army, and Emigrants from the mid to late 1880's. It was sold at auction in (I think) 1909, and gradually fell into ruin until 1939, when the State of Wyoming cquired it ,and eventually gave it to the National Park Service. Since then, many of the buildings have been restored, and you can look into the rooms and see the clothing, gear and furnishings, looking just as they would have in the fort's prime.

I spent a leisurely three hours strolling around, listening to the park ranger tell stories, and just exploring. There's a really nice Visitor Center, and sometimes they hae people dressed in period clothing staffing the shops, or the bakery or garden. I love these kinds of places, where you can immerse yourself into what it might have felt like to be there. Reminds me just a little of that Christopher Reeve movie... Somewhere In Time. Of course anyone transporting themselves back to old Fort Laramie would be setting themselves up for some hard living.

Well, there is a little restaurant here, but they don't open until nine am, so I think I'll be up and out as close to sunrise as I can, and look for breakfast in Lingle, about ten miles away. Tomorrow's my last day riding! (I added the word "riding" after re-reading how the sentence appeared without it).

Monday, September 7, 2009

Land of Wide, Smooth Shoulders

Last night my cousin Julie, her husband Mark and their boys Kolby and Kale came over and took me to a fabulous dinner. It's cool to finally, actually know someone in a town I arrive in. Mark teaches at the college in Casper, and Julie has been a teacher for many years in the nearby town of Glenrock. It was two for one night, so the beer we ordered each arrived as two beers. I didn't think, after having been up until one-thirty the previous night, I'd be able to drink two pints of beer, but it was a lot easier than I anticipated. Casper didn't look too bike friendly, and I was a little stressed about what route I should take out of town. I received some good advice from the Casper Cabs driver that brought me back from Hertz, and with Mark's advice modified it a bit and we did a quick test run before parting company.

I got up and out while it was still dark, and rolled up to a diner I had found that opens at five-thirty. The waitress saw my bike, and asked about my ride. She says: "I live six blocks from here and I drove to work." I think if I started at five-thirty, I might too. I'm finding that a big breakfast with lots of coffee is making all the difference in how my day on the road starts out.

Yellowstone Highway (26) out of Casper has huge, wide shoulders with very smooth surfaces. I was cruising easily at fifteen and above even with the trailer. This was the first truly chilly morning of my trip. I had my arm warmers on for the first twenty miles or so. About thirty miles out of Casper (or four miles out of Glenrock), The highway joins up with the big divided highway, State Route 25. Now I had even wider shoulders to ride in, far from the traffic, and it was still so smooth that I felt like there was hardly any effort to keeping up to speed. The previous evening, my Uncle Gary in Scottsbluff gave me a blow-by-blow preview of every hill and rest stop along the way, so my "big" eighty-four mile day turned out to be the easiest of the ride so far. I did great for water, even though it was headed for ninety degrees. The freeway would sometimes rise very gradually, about three degrees, and as I crested the top, I'd just coast my way up to about thirty miles per hour on the mile or two of gentle downhill.

Just prior to the seventy mile point, I reached the rest stop at Orin junction, and left the freeway to head down the Old Glendo Highway, for the last sixteen miles into town. Just before Glendo, I was expecting to see a huge body of water (Glendo Reservoir) shown on the map, but it turned out to be a nearly empty basin. I don't know if that's just the time of the year or a sign of a water table in trouble. I saw my first oil well this morning, as well as a huge coal power plant. I read in the paper that wind power is moving in here just like it is in eastern Washington.

It finally started feeling deliriously hot in the final ten miles, and the highway was chip seal, so the surface texture was starting to frazzle the big head of steam I had started with. Still, I got in at two pm, eighty-four miles in seven and a half hours, which is great with a trailer in tow.

I'm holed up in a little basic room tonight, thirty dollars, it has a bed, a shower, electrical outlets. Just fine for me. Tomorrow I move on to one of my favorite places: Fort Laramie!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Long and Strange, Dreamy Night

For those who don't remember back to my crisis of decision making back in Lewiston, whether to commit to the whole ride and possibly end up a skeleton out in the desert, or call off my ride in Lewiston, or, get a car to skip a portion, that is what occurred on Wednesday September 2nd. I grabbed my bike and left the back yard of my sleeping hosts, and rode out to the Missoula airport to get a Hertz Corolla. There is a mix of fortunately/unfortunately in here, as I was to find out that night. Ever make a decision because of something gone a little wrong and find out your new path may have saved you from something much worse?

Within minutes, I was in a strange world where you could go 75 (legally) with a gentle push of the right foot. I was still regretting the fact that my only option was to pick up a car in Missoula and drop it in Casper, cutting out about half my ride instead of a smaller portion, but it was that or nothing. Still, I wanted to see what I would have ridden, so I headed for West Yellowstone and drove through the park. I drove in at West Yellowstone and then wended my way to the south entrance and Grand Teton National Park. Every time I saw a pannier-laden rider, I felt guilty for skipping ahead. On the other hand, I had naively thought I could get through Yellowstone in one long day of riding. The miles alone said I could. What I was seeing from the car though, was that the route cruelly cuts back and forth across the continental divide, giving you the chance to climb and re-climb the same nine thousand odd foot ridgeline. It was beautiful, but would have been days for me to pull that off. And it gets worse.

After passing into Grand Teton Park, there are miles and miles of roadway presently under construction, soft gravel and hard dirt, uphill, where you have to wait for the pilot car and then keep up. I don't know if they would have said "go back," or have offered me the back of the pilot car. It would have been miserable. But the bad news is not over.

Once you head west from Moran Junction towards Togwotee Pass, which would have been the highest of my trip at well over nine thousand feet, once again, miles and miles of the climb up to the pass is all ripped out and you wait for a series of pilot cars. I became convinced that fate had dealt me a kind blow.

Once clear of the construction, I finally settled in for the drive across Wyoming to get to Casper via highway 26. The initial segment takes you through a red desert that is just amazing to look at in the twilight. There was a full moon, and the setting sun lit up the clouds in bright orange. If only I had taken a photo, I was so consumed with getting some progress made I didn't stop except for fuel and a quick bite in Riverton. Plus, I thought it seemed wrong to post a photo from a car. There was one very close, adrenaline producing encounter with a couple of deer crossing the highway. From then on I was very much awake.

Into bed at Motel 6 around 1:30 in the morning, and Thursday I will spend repacking, planning the final 177 or so miles, and being thankful that it has gone this well rather than ruing the six hundred miles I did not ride.

One good thing about the last part of my route. I think I have it figured out so I can camp near the Fort Laramie historic site, one of my favorite places to visit. That should be a shorter mileage day, so I think I might have time to go visit the fort. The few jaunts I have made without the trailer have felt very loose and easy. I'm sure that will wear off after I get home.