Week 4: Yellowstone

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Day 22 — July 4 I turn north and ride to Red Lodge, just over the Montana border, 62 miles. I’m following Charles’s advice and, instead of continuing west directly into Yellowstone, loop around the mountains to position myself at the foot of the Beartooth.

This is my first night in grizzly country, and at a campground just outside of town I stash my food panniers in a shed (I reserve my front bags for food only, in case I need to hang them) and sleep next to my bear spray. The weather looks promising for an attempt at the pass tomorrow, and I try to get an early night amid the booms, alternating thunder and fireworks.

Day 23 The air is still and crisp, the sun is beginning to find its way into the dark spruce of the narrow valley. I follow US 212 up Rock Creek toward the Beartooth.

I scan the horizon, looking for a dip in the mountain wall, over which a road could be built. Steep walls become steeper. The valley bends and then straightens, opening out. Rock Creek valley was scooped out by a glacier into a long U shape. The only apparent way out is to go back.

Undaunted, the road runs straight up the wall in a series of switchbacks. Whoever designed Beartooth Pass had more imagination than I do. The grade is steady. Bikeable. I look straight down to see where I was five miles back. This is an elevator.

At some 9,000 feet elevation there is a rest area. A biker who passed me earlier, pumping his fists, finds me, full of enthusiasm for my climb. I eat some bananas, fending off impudent squirrels.

 
 

Up I go. A mountain goat stands on an outcrop, watching me. The switchbacks end on a high plateau covered in grasses and wildflowers. The road straightens and maintains a steady climb. I’m biking on tundra. The subsoil here is permanently frozen.

The wind, no longer restricted by valley walls, hits me head on. I’m biking on molasses. Every fifty yards I stop to catch my breath. There is only blasting in my ears.

I cross back over the Wyoming border at some 10,000 feet, and curl up behind the sign, refuge from the wind. A short break gives me time to think. What am I doing here? This is crazy. I should hitchhike to the top.

Better get on the bike and stop thinking. Slowly, slowly make progress.

In the distance, a small, sharp glacial horn: the Bear’s Tooth.

I reach a false summit and descend for a mile or so before climbing again. More switchbacks. In the high wind I crawl up one section, and then, taking the U-turn, I’m almost pushed up the mountain by the wind.

Six hours in, I make the pass. I find a stranger to take the photo. 10,947 feet. The rocks behind me are arranged in geometric patterns, naturally, from the constant thawing and freezing of the ground.

On the western slope of the plateau, the road twists around alpine lakes and meadows, rocky hills speckled with spruce, white patches of snow not yet melted.

I descend, falling at twenty miles an hour off the plateau into a high river valley, the Clark Fork Yellowstone. The pyramidal Pilot Peak of the Absarokas rises behind birch and spruce forests. A few mosquitoes greet me. The wind is gone. I climb again — Colter Pass, up to Cooke City, a little tourist town where I find a burger and beer. From Cooke City, twenty miles of gentle descent into Yellowstone’s northeast entrance.

A car pulls off ahead of me and a couple gets out with cameras. Two great horned owl chicks in a nest, right over the road. I coast by slowly. They stare, two fuzzy heads, four big eyes following me.

The road narrows in thick forest. Traffic is light. I sing, letting animals know I’m coming.

Wonder who is it, waiting for me. At the end of heartbreak road.

The forest opens to meadow. A solitary bison grazes.

Hope that she’ll be tender. Someone I can know.

I end the long day at Pebble Creek campground, in the opening valley with sides of forested mountains and rocky cliffs, quiet, serene. The elevation here is 6,900 feet.

Day 24 Morning in the shadow of the eastern mountains. The road gently twists into the glacially carved Lamar valley, full of grazing buffalo.

There is a strange white mound, porous travertine, terraced edifice of precipitated limestone from an exinct hot spring. Hanging in back are cliff swallow nests.

Traffic, clustered, moves slowly. A group is pulled over, watching the hills for wolves, talking with a ranger, who has been following a pack for years. He has set up a spotting scope on their den on a far hill. They aren’t home. Early this morning we watched them leave, he says, the whole pack, seven pups in tow.

A dip in the land brings me across the Yellowstone river, shallow, fast-moving. Futher upstream it carves a steeper canyon.

A few miles from here is the caldera, the enormous volcano, collapsed into itself, beneath which lies a huge pool of magma. The land is getting weird. Across the canyon, a perfect line of dark columnar jointing is exposed, an ancient river of basalt.

I camp at Tower Falls next to Alessandra and Michele, Italians on a cycle tour through as many national parks as possible, headed south to Utah. They have just begun their trip, fresh, ebullient. Later we are joined by Rob, tall, bearded, English, long on a tour begun in Florida in February that looped around from California. He’s now heading to Denver. We collect around Rob’s picnic table (we love these, say the Italians, in Europe you must bring your own chair to campgrounds). He opens three packets of Ramen and a can of tuna into a boiling pot. 35¢ each, the chef remarks. You are a great — cook, says Michele, grasping for a word. No, you are a great eater, corrects Alessandra.

We trade stories and tips. I warn the Italians about the heat. I carried six liters of water once in South Dakota, I boast. Rob says, I carried seventeen liters in the deserts of Nevada. And I drank all but two of those. Seventeen, I repeat, eyes wide.

Michele says, when the English come to Italy, they all wear shorts and t-shirts during the winter.

Day 25 Ice on my tent in the morning. I’m the first cyclist packed up and on my way, and say goodbye to the Italians. Rob and I plan a rendezvous at West Thumb. There are few cars this early. I sing again for the bears.

Just a little lovin. Early in the mornin.

It’s a slow, moderately long climb up to Dunraven pass, between Tower Falls and Canyon. Bands of fog lap canyon walls behind me.

Beats a cup of coffee. For startin off the day…

I spend a few hours on a hiking detour to summit Mt. Washburn, which has a panormic view of the north side of the park. To the northeast, I see the crags and snow of the Beartooth. To the south, where I’m headed, the Yellowstone cuts a gorge through hills and leads to a wide area of flat, forested land, as far as I can see: the caldera.

 
 

There are bubbling, sulfuric hot springs along the road. When I arrive at Yellowstone Lake parts of the shore are steaming. A cave that contains a hot spring sputters steam and produces strange gurgling sounds. Tourists flock here. We are standing on a giant moka pot. One that has exploded every six hundred thousand years, sending thousand-degree pychrocastic flow out to the Tetons, ash clouds around the globe, causing mass extinctions.

The last explosion was six hundred thousand years ago.

Day 26 Before leaving camp I visit Rob, who has his tent in a nearby site. Rob quit his job for this trip. When he gets to Denver, he’s flying to Madrid, and from there will bicycle back to England. I ask him what he thinks of American drivers. They’re nice enough, he says, but act as though they’ve never seen a bicycle. He finds it funny that oncoming traffic will sometimes slow down, yielding space to cars behind the cyclist that are already yielding, causing chaos.

It’s a gentle climb through lodgepole pine forest to the Continental Divide — but only to kiss it. After a rolling hill or two, I’m back in the Mississippi watershed. While I’m attempting to photograph an airborn selfie, a cyclist rolls up to say hi. He has no panniers, just a backpack, but I see he is traveling across country: scraggily beard, deep tan, a familiar cheeriness. Carl rides one hundred miles a day and sleeps under a tarp. I love Wyoming, he says. In the deserts I slept out under the stars. One night the wind died down, and I decided to take advantage and ride some more. It only takes me a few minutes to pack my gear, then I was riding under the stars, no towns in sight, no cars.

Later, I see Carl again at Old Faithful. He’s sitting on a bench waiting for the show. This is Disneyland, he said. I can’t believe it. Old Faithful even runs on a schedule. Crowds gather. Carl extols the pleasures of riding with a couple sitting next to him. What was your favorite part? He tells them about Wyoming. But what was the hardest part? Missouri. Missouri is a hot, humid hell. You sweat and nothing evaporates, and you don’t stop sweating. Salt stains grow on your clothes. A couple sitting on his other side are nodding their heads. We’re from Missouri, they say, we hear ya. When your clothes dry out they crinkle like paper.

Old Faithful goes off. We all clap. Carl says, driving is like teleportation. You move so quickly, you’re in a new place before you can even start to process the transition. I agree, I say, but Yellowstone to me feels like teleportation, even on a bike.

I stop at a few more geyser basins along the road. Cars are parked along the road for miles. On the boardwalks, wind washes us in the steam from hot springs, stinking of sulfur, summoning a great collective groan.

I head west, out of the park, happy to be leaving. In the distance are the rugged Henrys Lake mountains, the Contental Divide, along which runs the Montana-Idaho border.

Montana. I cross the border and exit Yellowstone.

 
 

Day 27 I ride north, into a narrow valley, passing a lake full of dead trees standing in its waters. This is not an artificial lake, but one created in 1959 by an earthquake. Earthquake Lake. The tremors, largest recorded in the northern Rockies, broke an enormous dolomite wedge protruding from a steep ridge, holding in place an outcrop of unstable metamorphic rock. Thirty-seven million cubic yards of rock were suddenly airborn, headed into the valley. As it fell, the air underneath was compressed and exploded outward. A campground happened to be in the way. Cars and people flew from the blast of wind. The rocks buried everything else, and slid (perhaps lubricated by the cushion of compressed air) up the opposite valley wall, some four hundred feet.

The wall of debris dammed the Madison River and created the lake.

Bald eagles fly over the remains of the old forest, trunks drowned dead white standing above the water. A few bands of dark clouds move over the mountains. It rains a few drops in the valley. The wind picks up.

On top of the debris pile sit two enormous boulders. They were once sitting on the opposite ridge.

A strong, constant south wind blows in my favor today. The bike practically rides itself to Ennis, Montana. I camp at an RV park.

Day 28 & 29 Storms forecast, as well as snow in the mountains. I decide to take two days off, and get a motel. I have some work to catch up on, and also, my back has been hurting since Beartooth, which no amount of stretching has helped.