Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Into the Grand Tetons

After a relaxing July 4th celebrations in Lander Wyoming, celebrating the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 from the Kingdom of Great Britain….. WHAT…… I’ve been duped, that American cycling buddy of mine said it was to celebrate the opening of the 1,000,000 th McDonalds!

Luckily I’ve been reclaiming each State on route for Queen and country, so we now have a fair chunk off our soil back in British hands. God Save The Queen!

Another surprise in Lander was to find our old cycling companion Keith, stood on the corner in the towns main street waving frantically at us. He explained that he was waiting for his girlfriend to come and get him, he had given up, the Trans Am had beaten him. He looked like a broken man and although he had hinted way back in Kansas that he may not make it, it was still a surprise to see this forlorn figure at the cross roads. It was a shame, he had suffered many of the hardships that the route hands out and was close to reaching the joys that the west offers. Keith says more about his reasons in his journal here.

Leaving Lander my excitement was starting to mount as I new we were getting close to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks, two of the many highlights of this ride, although nature did her best to slow me down as I pedalled along the Wind River in the Indian Reservation. This aptly named river was a funnel for ferocious head winds that brought us to a crawl, eventually getting into Dubois exhausted.

I was now cycling alone as Tony’s schedule for getting home meant that I’d be riding through areas quicker than I’d planned, he had been a great cycling companion for a large chunk of the Trans Am and it was sad to see him go. I cycled on alone, but the ACA (Adventure Cycling Association) group were running at a similar speed to me and the friends I had made amongst them would prove to be great company over the coming weeks, along with other cycling cohorts that came and went on route.

In Dubois we managed to covertly fit five of us on one camping pitch, with the owners thinking there were three, as it was a KOA (Kampgrounds of America) site this proved to be a good plan. KOA’s are notoriously expensive, usually charging cyclists the same as an RV (recreational vehicle (lethal bus sized holiday home badly driven by old folk)). So Me, Nick (American lived in Cambridge looks like Michael Hutchence!), his cycling\skateboarding young mate, Sky Horne the Trans Am unicyclist and Kelly Phipps, Astrologer, Mystical Poet, Cosmic Philosopher, Spiritual Filmmaker, Fantasy Novelist, Game Designer, Teacher, and Travelling Magi…. all squeezed into one spot.

After an amazing meal of BBQ braised beef and a few beers with some of the pitch sharers and assorted ACA drinkers, I was early to bed for the next days climb up the 9658 ft/2944 m Togwotee pass and down towards the National Parks.

I was one of the first away in the morning, early to bed, early to rise! But after many punctures from an unknown source I had resorted to tyre liners, they were working, but the weight of them made the bike feel like it was running through treacle. Half way up the pass the ACA boys had caught me up and we pulled into a Gas Station for coffee; where I proceeded to have a hissy fit, throw my teddy in the corner, rip my tyres off and remove the liners. I got an Instant speed gain but would the curse of the punctures return?

It was a hard morning climbing over Togowotee pass, but the reward as we descended the other side was worth all the effort.

Going around one of the densely forested sweeping curves the trees opened out to reveal a sight that no photo will do justice and made me stop and stare in awe and wipe a few tears from my cheek. The majestic Grand Teton mountain range stretched across the horizon, it’s snow capped jagged peaks reaching up high forming a seemingly impenetrable wall into the Yellowstone park, this was mother nature at her best.

I queued with the cars and RV’s and paid my $12 for my seven day pass and pedalled on through into the Parks.

There was an instant moment of trepidation as I set off, as I had a flash back to childhood trips to Windsor Safari Park and the warning signs about not opening car windows or feeding the animals as you drove through the wildlife enclosures. Yellowstone was going to be one big wildlife enclosure!

The visions of Windsor's Orangutans ripping off windscreen wipers soon translated in my minds eye to grizzly bears ripping my arms off! I calmed myself with made up statistics of cyclists who ride through the park each summer and survive!

Within a few miles a sign indicated a look out point and I turned off the road to soak up the amazing vista and came across a group of people pointing and looking through binoculars. A Park Ranger walked over to me “Don’t you be going back down the way you came Sir, we’ve just seen a Grizzly chasing Elk through the pasture down there”!

A women was busy showing the other ranger her video footage of the grizzly whilst I looked out at the spooked Elk reforming their herd. Maybe my Windsor Safari Park analogy wasn’t so hypothetical after all and especially after some rough calculations put the grizzly crossing the road I was on a few minutes before I passed through!

I headed on, slightly spooked to my camp site for the night, meeting up with the ACA group and managing to get a free pitch on they edge of their groups Forestry Service Biker \ Hiker site. To spook me even more Bear warning signs were everywhere announcing “Be Bear Aware!” and there were even steel Bear boxes to store your food in.

The ACA group were cycling down to a nearby restaurant for dinner and having already had some luxurious instant noodles I offered to look after their tents for the evening. This moment of overwhelming generosity left me deep in the woods, on my own, with fading light. I pondered my predicament and decided fire was a good option and quickly gathered arm falls of dead wood and bought them over to the fire pit, flinching at any twig breaking out in the dark dense pine forest.

Realising my only way to light the fire was with my fire steel, as I had no matches, I quickly metamorphosed into a Bear Grylls \ Ray Mears character rolling up leaves, dry moss and loo roll to form a kindling and frantically showering it with sparks from my fire steel. It looks so bloody easy on the TV, but I couldn’t get the thing to light and it was almost dark.

Something moved behind me, I stupidly hadn’t even kept my pepper spray on me, as I turned fearing the worst I was met by Jack, the ACA leader, brandishing a cigarette lighter, “You probably start it quicker with this Stuart!”. I reluctantly admitted defeat and after a few minutes we were sitting round a roaring fire with the rest of the ACA group drinking beers. I’m sure they must use lighters on those survival programs…….

I awoke alive, having survived a night in Bear country, my fear of Bears did subside somewhat and I sadly never even saw one during the Trans Am!

Although I had only just entered the Grand Teton National Park, I decided to take the spur route down to Jackson WY, following the most amazing cycle paths close to the foot of the mountain range. Jackson is a tourist hot spot and home to many celebrities including Harrison Ford. This is reflected in the prices of everything being rather extortionate, including my Motel at $130 a night, I’d get three nights for that in some of the less salubrious locations I’ve travelled through!

I decided to have a day off and treat myself to a rafting trip down the Snake River, not the suicidal white water variety, but the more sedate wildlife spotting type!

As we boarded the rafts I was put with an American family Terry, Martha and their two young daughters and son; they were regular holidayers in Jackson and had family in the area. We got chatting and I explained about my travels by bicycle, Terry was gobsmacked by my journey and immediately insisted he buy me lunch.

After 3 hours floating down the beautiful Snake river, past Harrison Fords ranch and spotting Bald Eagles and Pelicans, I joined Terry, his family and relations for a fabulous lunch. It was another one of those moments of great generosity and friendliness that have epitomised the American people on this journey.


Annoyingly my puncture fairy had returned and the next course of action was to have the local bike shop in Jackson fill the tubes with a green gunk. I’m sure the cycle mechanic didn’t realise the potential implications of the failure of his green gunk idea and as I headed back into the Grand Tetons National Park the thought of getting a puncture by the side of the road and being trampled by a heard of buffalo as I struggled to fix it, or taken as elevenses by a grizzly, seemed a realistic but somewhat paranoid fear…

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