Archives for category: bicycle touring


READY TO ROLL

In about two months we should be on our way to Amsterdam to begin our ride to Rome.  That being the case, it’s about time we start getting in shape.  We have already taken two training rides on our Bike Fridays and hope to do another tomorrow.  Rudy will not be accompanying us to Europe but he insists on being part of the training rides.  If nothing else, he (plus his trailer) provides useful ballast that approximates the weight of the panniers I will be carrying on the actual ride.  I towed him in his plastic bin yesterday but he was mad with thirst when we returned home and lapped his water dish dry in no time so I rigged up a Connestoga cover to shelter him from the sun (see photo).  I also greatly shortened his tether.  That’s because he saw a doe and her fawns yesterday and leapt from his bin as we were riding along.  Luckily we were not traveling but about ten mph so he only skinned his shin.  Had we been moving at high speed he probably would have been dragged by the neck along the pavement for some distance before I realized what had happened and was able to stop.

Our Dutch friends, the Maiwalds (whom we met on our Great Divide ride), procured us some nifty maps of the Amsterdam-Rome route which they mailed to us.  The maps are very detailed and follow bicycle paths and rural roads so they will be essential.  I’m going to have to brush up on my Dutch, however, because the narrative is written in that language.  In any case, the maps, being maps, should be mostly self-explanatory:


Perusing the map, I see “halfopen tunnel” which sounds suspiciously English if a bit treacherous – does that mean one lane is open or does the tunnel go half way through the mountain and then stop?  “Hoofdweg op” on the other hand, is a genuine head scratcher.  Oh well, there is always Google translator.

In addition to whipping our bodies into shape, we need to take a shakedown ride with all our gear and see how that works out.  I’m thinking the Cascade Loop, which crosses the mountain range twice, would be an appropriate venue.  That should be good preparation for the Swiss Alps.  

Next to the actual ride, I would have to say the challenge of training and sense of anticipation leading up to the ride are favorite activities.  Images of the bucolic Dutch countryside, French vinyards, German castles, Swiss Alps, and Italian lakes entice me as I pedal merrily along through North Central Washington.  


AT THE SUMMIT OF UNION VALLEY ROAD

Lord knows I don’t mind exercise but riding a bicycle up the Union Valley Road falls under masochism, not exercise.  Our house is a mere 6 miles from town but distance is not the problem – it’s the elevation change.  The road climbs 2,300 feet in that distance.  Back in 1980 when I was building my cabin in Union Valley and a mere thirty years old I rode my Schwin 10 speed to town – once.  It was such an ordeal to pedal back up the hill that I did not attempt it again for another thirty years.  

Bikes have improved since 1980 and I’ve made the ride several times in each of the last five years but I don’t do much else on those days – I’m tapped out.  So why do I do it?  Part of the answer is that sometimes I feel rambunctious and nothing quells my “rambunctuosity” like that tortuous (and torturous) ride.  But the other part of the answer is that it bothers me to use a 2,500-lb vehicle to transport my 170-lb body up that hill.  If I just need to pick up the mail or buy a couple of bolts at the hardware store it seems like such a waste to use a gargantuan machine to do it.  I’ve always thought there has to be a better way.

Well now there is.  It’s called the e-bike.  Thanks to the lithium battery revolution it is now possible to get way more bang for your buck (actually amp-hours per pound) than was heretofore possible.  Throw a small electric motor into the mix and strap them to a bicycle and call it an “e-bike.” They’ve been around for a few years but they started at around $3000 and for that price you can get a conventional motorcycle that has a lot more range and power.  They didn’t seem like a good deal. But an Internet pop-up ad appeared on my computer recently offering me an e-bike for $545.  On a whim, I ordered it.

The burning question was: “Would it power me up the Union Valley Road?”  My bike, the Cyclamatic Power Plus from Walmart.com has a 250-watt motor and an 8 amp-hour battery which is on the low end for e-bikes.  I had my doubts.  Unlike some e-bikes, mine expects the rider to contribute to propulsion.  If I stop pedaling, the motor stops running.  But that’s fine with me.  I enjoy the exercise.  It’s just that there is a limit to how much exercise I want and Union Valley Road crosses that line.

Well, the good news is: the Cyclamatic Power Plus gets me to the top of the hill with power to spare!  (There is no bad news)  When that motor kicks in it feels like Lance Armstrong is pedaling behind me.  Equally important is the fact that it gets me up that hill for 1.62 cents of electricity (I calculated it).   I figure I’m saving about $5 per trip to town over using my car.  Since I’ve already made five trips to town, that means that I only need to make 104 more trips to recover my $545 investment!

Pedaling over mountains is a part of many Adventure Cycling routes but it is the heart and soul of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Ride (GDMBR.)

Spanning the United States, north to south plus a Canadian addendum, it follows the Continental Divide down the Rocky Mountain chain. It is a rare day when a Great Divide rider does not conquer at least one major climb.  Since hills are many bicyclists’ least favorite parts of a ride, it is perfectly natural to wonder “Who would want to tackle a 2600-mile ride that seeks out hills (or rather, mountains) to climb?”

Well, for starters, my wife, Mary and I. Last summer we rode the Divide from the Canadian border at Roosville, Montana to the Mexican border at Columbus, New Mexico. At 65 and 66, respectively, we’re not exactly broken-down geezers (yet) but neither has anyone ever called us athletes.

Lief & Mary near Salida, Colorado

Several near misses with speeding vehicles along paved highways was the reason we first considered the ultra-low traffic GDMBR.  Cars are few and far between along the mostly dirt and gravel roads the trail follows.  Gorgeous scenery and moderate August/September temperatures further enticed us.
Already feeling nostalgic for last summer’s ride (but not nostalgic enough to redo the ride on bicycles) we cruised a section of the trail this summer on a motorcycle.  Because of our increased mobility on the motorcycle, we encountered a considerable number of bicycle riders – many more than we did last summer because then we were moving at roughly the same speed as everyone else .  Here’s what we learned about who rides the GDMBR:

More Europeans than Americans.  Of the roughly thirty riders we encountered between the Canadian border and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, about two thirds were Europeans.  In addition to Americans, we met riders from Netherlands, Norway, England, France, Belgium, Italy and Canada – all of whom, by the way, spoke English well (even the Canadians!)

As you might expect, the most common subgroup was young men.  But approximately one out of five were female and about the same fraction were old enough to be retired.  Most of them started at the Canadian terminus of Banff and were riding the trail north to south.  While we started our ride last year on August 18, most of the riders we met this year had started in late July which seems to be a more popular starting date than our later one.  Our recommendation to prospective riders is to pass through Colorado in September like we did, however, because the Aspen trees were brilliant that time of year.

We were surprised at the percentage of riders who were traveling alone both years – roughly thirty percent.  Because many of the stretches of the GDMBR are far from human habitation (especially the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming), I imagine a rider would have to be extremely comfortable with keeping his own company on those lonely stretches.  Nevertheless, some of the most buoyant personalities we met were riding alone.  Tim from Dallas was bubbling with enthusiasm when we stopped to talk to him sixty miles from the nearest habitation in the Great Divide Basin.

Tim in the Great Divide Basin

Semi-retired and in no discernible  hurry, Tim had been meandering down the GDMBR from Banff since June 28 when we met him on August 9.  Although quite sociable, he seemed to revel in the Basin’s solitude.   “I’m lovin’ this!” he exclaimed when we asked how he was doing.   He told us that the most gratifying aspect of his ride had been the warm reception he received from people along the way – how differently people respond to a man on a bicycle than to people in cars.  “Would we even be talking” he pointed out “if we were in cars?”

Although we consider ourselves accomplished bike trekkers, having completed four Adventure Cycling trans-continental rides, we were humbled by several of the riders we met, including Jan Petter from Norway, who had ridden through Europe and was on his way to Banff from the southern tip of Argentina when we met in Grand Teton National Park.  From Banff, he plans to continue riding through Asia.

But even Jan Petter failed to impress us as much as a seventeen-year-old boy from Austin, Texas named Sam who we met near Lima, Montana.  Riding alone, he hoped to make it to Banff in time to return to Austin for his senior year of high school!

We also learned that few riders strictly adhere to the GDMBR as laid out in Adventure Cycling’s detailed maps.  Side trips to visit friends or places of interest, jumps to avoid unpleasant stretches, and curtailments to meet deadlines are commonplace.

There is also the issue of burn-out.  Once the initial euphoria of a new adventure has passed, no one should be surprised that some riders get discouraged.  We saw it in the faces and speech of several riders.  Anyone setting out on the GDMBR thinking the entire ride is going to be one extended lark would be well advised to think again.  Completing the ride needs to be a goal in itself because inclement weather and fatigue are certain to make portions of the ride more chore than thrill.

Mayumi, Sue, and Erika outside of Rawlins, Wyoming

Take the trio of Mayumi, Sue, and Erika that we met climbing a hill south of Rawlins, Wyoming.  They were all that was left of fifteen women who had responded to an ad in Adventure Cyclist’s “Companions Wanted.”  Even Sue planned to leave the group at Frisco, Colorado.  Erika, a genetic scientist and Mayumi, a retired information technologist, still seemed gung ho.

So who rides the GDMBR?   All kinds of people.  You certainly don’t have to be an athletic young man.  More than a few riders concurred with me when I observed that a successful completion is more of a mental feat than a physical one. If you want to meet interesting people, exercise your thighs, gawk at great scenery, and pack your memory with unforgettable experiences, perhaps you, too, should consider riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Ride.


Our lonely motorcycle at Diagnus Well in Wyoming’s Great Basin

Today’s itinerary was a tall order: crossing 200 miles of barren landscape on primitive roads with no services available.  The weather forecast called for afternoon thundershowers which, on a motorcycle, can be a major inconvenience.  To be caught in the open with no possible shelter gave us pause.  On the other hand, sitting around for a day in Pinedale sounded even less appealing so we opted to take our chances with a thunderstorm.

We got off to a good start.  The road, even though still a dirt road, had been recently graded and coated with a dust suppressant so we made good time.   By 9:30 we reached Little Sandy Crossing where we had camped on night number one last year.  By 12:30 we reached Diagnus Well where we camped on night number two.  Ominous clouds were beginning to form in the sky.  By 3:00 we could see dark clouds in every direction.  There was no escaping the obvious – we were going to get soaked.  Our destination, Rawlins, lay on the other side of the storm.  The only question was would the storm turn the road into a mire or would we be able to reach the asphalt road surface that began thirty miles outside of Rawlins.

Mary, sitting behind me on the motorcycle as we sped along, put the map on my back and studied the numbers.  Bad news: we had forty more miles before the relative safety of the asphalt road.  I throttled up the BMW to about forty MPH, all the faster I dared go because of the occasional sandy stretches of road that appeared without warning and caused the bike to wobble dangerously out of control.  As the first raindrops splattered on our face shields, we stopped and donned our rain gear and covered the panniers with rain covers – at least we wouldn’t have to scramble once the rain started for real.

First came the wind.  A violent headwind that blew up clouds of dust and drowned out the sound of the motorcycle engine.  Then the wind shifted to the side.  I had to slow down to keep the bike on the road.  The temperature, which had been comfortably in the 70s, dropped into the fifties.  

The road turned toward the east and we were now running before the wind.  Now we knew just how strong the wind was.  The speedometer registered 35 MPH yet the air through which we moved was calm.  We had a 35 MPH tailwind!  For a few minutes, I dared to hope we might outrun the storm but splatters on my face shield and pin pricks on my arms soon dispelled that hope.  The storm had us in its clutches and for the next thirty minutes we were pelted with successively larger drops and finally hail which created a deafening racket as it pinged off our helmets.  The thermometer on the bikes computer now read 48 degrees.  The wind chill factor had to be below freezing.  Because the temperature had been relatively warm before the rain started, we assumed that our rain gear alone would suffice.  We hadn’t bothered to put our down jackets under the rain coats.  Big mistake. 

Heading toward hypothermia, we could only tense up and grit our teeth.  Our pleasant ride of the morning had turned into a fight for survival.  Had we been almost anywhere else, we could have sought shelter under a roof or even a tree.  But there was literally nothing, nothing for a hundred miles in any direction that would offer shelter.  We could suffer the storm in place or we could suffer the storm on the run; there was no escaping it.


Robert

Through the rain ahead I saw a distant figure that I recognized as a bicyclist.  He was weaving to and fro against the ferocious headwind and rain, moving along at about five MPH.  So loud was the storm in his ears that he didn’t hear our motorcycle until we pulled alongside him which gave him quite a start.  He may have looked pitiful hunched against the rain in the barren expanse but I realized he actually had a preferable situation to ours.  His forward motion was so minimal that his wind chill was much less.  Plus he was generating considerable body heat by pedaling.

We stopped to encourage him.  We learned his name was Robert and he had ridden his bicycle from Canada and he was going to the Mexican border.  Despite the miserable conditions and his lonely predicament, he was feisty and talkative.  It would take more than a summer squall to dampen his spirits I realized.

Shortly after we left Robert, the rain stopped.  We pulled over and put our down coats under our rain gear and felt immediate relief.  After ten more miles, we reached the asphalt road and took off toward Rawlins at 60 MPH.  We had experienced enough of nature for one day.  There would be no tent camping tonight.  Our recent ordeal called for nothing les than the Holiday Inn Express.

Mary captured our ride through the storm best:  “Brutal” she said.  “Absolutely brutal.”


Waiting for cattle to clear the road at Medicine Lodge Divide, Montana

When a young couple on a BMW motorcycle stopped to talk to us on our bicycle trip the length of the Continental Divide last summer, Mary said “We should get one of those and come back and do this ride that way.”  And so, here we are.  We’re almost a week into the ride and we’re in Pinedale, Wyoming.  We’re traveling between 100 and 200 miles per day – about three to four times what we did on bicycles.

The BMW is well suited to this type of travel.  At 800cc, it’s powerful enough to easily travel at highway speeds yet maneuverable enough to deal with rough dirt roads.

The weather has been kind to us.  We did, however get caught in a downpour just as we arrived in Helena, Montana.  Our rain gear kept us from getting soaked.  It was hot traveling from Chelan to the Divide’s starting point – Roosville, Montana.  We’re traveling at 6000-7000 ft elevation these days so heat is no longer a problem.  This morning, near Yellowstone, we emerged from our tent to 32 degrees and frost on our motorcycle.  I’m glad the BMW has heated handle grips.

The trip is unabashedly nostalgic.  Our greatest joy is pointing out to each other the sights that we remember and what we did there: “That’s where the side wind was so strong it blew us off the road!”  “This is the bend in the road where the mother bear and cub were!”  Or, in at least one case, seeing what we missed last summer.  When we crested the Continental Divide outside of Butte this year, we had a clear view of awesome Fleecer Mountain and the valley below.  Last year, it was shrouded in smoke from nearby forest fires.


Mary in the foreground, Tetons in the background.

We looked forward to zooming up the steep hills this year, hills that exhausted us last year, and we have not been disappointed in that regard.  Riding a motorcycle is not without challenges, however.  Butt numbness, chief among them.   Every half hour or so, we have to stop and get the blood circulating again.  We also miss the thrill of exertion.  It may sound funny, but there was a kind of exhilaration to conquering the physical challenges on a bicycle – challenges we don’t have on the motorcycle.   When we pass bicyclists, I feel a pang of envy.

Even though we are motorcyclists on this trip, our hearts lie with the pedalers.  When we see a pedaler loaded down with panniers, we stop and talk to them.  We’ve probably encountered about twenty so far.  Most of them are European: Dutch, French, English, Norwegian, Belgian.  There are a few Americans.  We were probably most impressed by a seventeen-year-old American boy who is riding the Divide (alone) on his summer vacation before returning for his senior year in Austin, Texas.  I can’t imagine doing that when I was seventeen.

Jan Petter, world traveler

Today, we stopped to talk to this guy.  He’s Norwegian and he’s ridden from the tip of South America to Grand Teton Park.  He’s on his way to Calgary.  After that, he thinks he’ll go to Asia!

Tomorrow, we head out across Wyoming’s Great Basin.  It took us three days on bicycles but we’re hoping to do it in one on the Beamer.  Then it’s on to Colorado at which point we’ll probably turn north via Utah and Nevada to home.

P1030532.JPGTEAM CARLSEN

One could be forgiven for thinking our ride was a succession of sunny days and triumphal ascents to mountain passes. Sunny days and triumphal ascents make for better photos than rainy days and snafus along the trail. But on at least one occasion, our ride almost ended far short of its intended destination.

And while I’m clarifying what was going through our heads as we made our way south, let me take another stab at explaining what long distance bicycling is all about to me.

I have often attempted to impart to the reader a sense of what it is like to do a lengthy bicycle trek; what induces me to forego the comforts of home for the challenges and uncertainties of life on the road. But it occurs to me as I think back over the Great Divide Mountain Bike Ride that I have neglected to mention a key component of what makes these trips meaningful.

Perhaps the best way to explain what I’m getting at is to take the reader back to August 31, 2015 when Mary and I had pitched our little green tent among giant motorhomes and fifth-wheel trailers in a campground along Interstate 15 in Lima, Montana. It was barely noon but we needed a rest. That morning we had ridden out of the Beaverhead Mountains after two grueling days during which the headwinds had grown ever stronger and the hills steeper while our reserves of energy had seemed to drain from us like sand moving through an hourglass.

The adversity of the previous days had affected Mary’s mood to the point where she spoke only when spoken to and then with as few words as possible. I knew what was up and I made several attempts to engage her in a dialogue about how the ride was going but the most I could get from her was

“This ride is not what I expected.”

I tried to neutralize her dark mood by reminding her of some of the good times we had had on previous rides. I tried talking about some of the scenic places that lay ahead. I commended her for the grit she had shown so far on this ride but she wasn’t buying any of it. She remained sullen and distant. It wasn’t long before she retreated to her air mattress in the tent and began playing solitaire on her iPod.

Realizing that lifting Mary out of her funk was beyond my limited capability, I left her to her game of solitaire and took a walk through town. Lima didn’t offer much in the way of tourist attractions but I was able to decide on a course of action for the future during the walk. I was keenly aware that we both had to be on board for this ride to work.

When I returned to camp, Mary was still in the tent playing solitaire. I crawled in and lay down beside her. I said:

“I know you’re thinking about quitting. Look, you’re not having any fun and when you’re down, you’re no fun to be around anyway. If you want to quit, quit. But if you quit, I’m going to quit too. I wanted this trip to be something we do together. I’m not interested in doing it by myself. You say the word and we’ll hitch a ride out of here.”

I meant every word of it. During my walk I had realized that the most important component of a good ride, at least for me, is the sharing of the experience. All those refreshing sensations on early morning bike rides, the exhilaration of racing antelope across the prairie, the satisfaction of a cool drink on a hot day – those things are good in their own right but they are much, much better when they are shared with someone special. Mary was that special person for me. Think about it: What if you got straight “A”s on your report card but had no parents to show it to? What if you heard a really funny joke but the only friend who shared your sense of humor had moved away? We humans are social animals and even loners like me derive great satisfaction from sharing our experiences with certain other people.

The autumn after I graduated from college I took a trip by myself from California to New England. I had a vintage Ford Econoline van, a few hundred bucks, and a hankering to see the fall color so I drove to Vermont. It wasn’t a bad trip. The maple and oak trees were lovely but I remember thinking

“I’d sure like to share this with someone. What I need is a wife.”

It took me a few years and a few awkward intervening relationships but I met and married Mary in 1981 and have never looked back. She’s the one person of whose company I never tire. She’s the repository of all my hair-brained schemes. She’s the person I most want to tell about my day and she’s the person I was determined to ride the Great Divide with. If she was going to quit the ride, well, it just wouldn’t be the same without her.

Mary didn’t immediately respond to my declaration. In fact, she slept on it. But when morning came, she was ready to resume the ride. I’d like to say that was the last time Mary ever got discouraged. It wasn’t. There were a few episodes of grumbling toward the end in New Mexico but all through Wyoming and Colorado she rode strong and we rode as a team. We both enjoyed that part of the trip immensely. The smiles you see in those photos are genuine. Reflecting back over those seven weeks during which we rode the entire length of the Rocky Mountains I realize that she is right there in every scene and that, for me, is the best part of our Great Divide Mountain Bike Ride.

THE END

P1030587.JPGTHE ANSWER TO AN AGE-OLD QUESTION

Now that our ride of the Great Divide is over, the grizzly bear issue can be addressed in retrospect. Chelan Traveler readers might remember that in the months leading up to our departure date Mary and I had differing opinions on how to deal with the possibility that we might be torn to shreds by an enraged grizzly bear. The Montana section of the trail, in particular, is said to be grizzly country.

From my perspective, death or injury by grizzly attack is somewhat less likely than death by lightning strike. That is to say, I considered it one of those unfortunate but unlikely events that is best ignored.

Mary took a more pro-active approach. I think it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that she was obsessed with the danger posed by grizzlies. She Googled far and wide, reading about grisly grizzly attacks. She purchased industrial-size bear spray canisters for each of us. She purchased bear bells and scent-proof bear bags. She seriously considered buying a large caliber pistol until she learned that they cost as much as a 2-carat diamond ring and weigh as much as a sledge hammer.

All through Montana and until we broke free of the forest and onto the Wyoming prairie, she was scrupulous about hanging all our food and toiletries high in trees far from our tent.

So how many actual grizzlies did we encounter in the seven weeks we were riding the trail? Not a single one. One day just north of Grand Teton when Mary rode ahead while I was packing my coat in my pannier, she rounded a bend in the road and saw a black bear and its cub. Far from being a predator of humans, that bear scurried off into the woods at the sight of her.

But if you are thinking that my purpose in writing this story is to poke fun at Mary, think again. Just because we never saw the grizzlies doesn’t mean they weren’t there. In fact, we know they were there – lots of ’em.

And how do we know? Poo – that’s how. Piles and piles of grizzly poo, all through Montana and Idaho. And how do we know it was grizzly poo? Because grizzlies like to eat berries and these piles were always full of berry seeds. And how do we know the poo piles weren’t made by a black bear? Because they were huge! I’m talking the size of a jack-o-lantern. A run-of-the-mill pile would have filled a gallon jug. The biggest would have half-filled a wheel barrow.

One of Mary’s favorite stories from this trip is about the night we camped at Coopers Lake, about a week into our ride. Mary let down her guard and didn’t hang our food because there were no bear boxes in the campground so she figured there wasn’t any bear danger. Otherwise, the Forest Service would have provided bear boxes – right? Well, when we rode out of the campground in the morning, perhaps a mile down the road alongside a berry patch, there must have been five large poo piles in the road. Mary about left one of her own when she saw that.

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JUST BECAUSE WE DIDN’T SEE THEM DOESN’T MEAN THEY WEREN’T THERE

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As I continue to sift through the memories of our ride, I realize that some memorable events never made it into print. Among those events:

Showdown at Little Sandy Crossing. Coming out of Pinedale, Wyoming we were more or less traveling with the Maiwalds again. After pausing for a day in Helena, we caught up to them in Pinedale. We rarely actually rode as a foursome but Mary and I usually met up with them several times during the day and we all camped together in the evenings. Their pace was a little faster than ours whereas we usually got an earlier start than they did.

The day’s ride had been less than remarkable. We had paused to read a roadside placard describing John C. Fremont’s expedition through the area for the U.S. Army during the 1840s and another detailing the Lander Cutoff to the emigrant trails that saved sixty miles – nearly a week’s progress in an oxen-drawn covered wagon. We couldn’t help but notice that this route to the southwest of the Wind River Range had only marginally improved since 1840. The 21st-century version of the Fremont’s trail is just a dirt road that winds its way among boulder-strewn hills.

Our guide book indicated that there would be an undeveloped campground at the bridge crossing the Little Sandy Creek, which, at approximately fifty miles from Pinedale, we deemed to be a respectable day’s ride. Mary and I were in the lead that afternoon so we arrived at the crossing ahead of the Maiwalds.

Little Sandy Creek is well named. At less than a foot deep and leap-able from one sandy bank to the other in a single bound, it was, nonetheless, a welcome sight on that arid plain. The next water source was a full thirty miles down the road. Upstream in the shade of some cottonwood trees a grouping of weathered travel trailers next to a corral monopolized the left bank. Downstream on the near side of the creek, several vehicles, a trailer or two, and an assortment of poorly constructed teepees claimed the flat ground. This left a small grove on the far side of the creek as the only unclaimed land and although we had to scramble down a rather steep bank to get there, we presumed it to be the undeveloped campground on our map and the one referred to in our guidebook.

We pitched our tent among the trees and I attached the pennant from the B.O.B to the bridge railing as a marker for the Maiwalds so that they’d know where to find us. Our campsite in the grove was a rather cozy little affair that provided much appreciated shelter from the ever-present prairie wind. Shortly after we pitched our tent, the Maiwalds rode up and joined us.

Despite the evidence of habitation at the crossing, up to that point we had seen no other people there. Margo and I were crossing the bridge, on our way to scout out our surroundings, when we noticed a line of perhaps ten horseback riders coming down a trail from the east. Leading the group was a man decked out in full western regalia, including a holstered six shooter. As the rest of his party headed for the nearby corral, he dismounted and led his horse over to us.

After a short exchange of greetings in which he learned that we were riding the Great Divide and we learned that he operated some sort of horse riding operation for city slickers, he proceeded to inform us that we were camping on state of Wyoming land and that he had permission to camp there and we did not. His tone was not belligerent but it left no doubt that he considered himself to be speaking with a certain authority and that he expected us to leave.

Margo and I protested that our maps and book, publications of the respectable Adventure Cycling Association, clearly indicated that Little Sandy Crossing is a designated campsite. We further added that being the only water source and campsite within thirty miles, breaking camp would be no little inconvenience. Our protestations elicited no sympathy from the man.

We returned to camp to discuss this development with Michiel and Mary. Margo seemed unsettled by the man’s eviction notice and was seriously considering moving on. Mary, uncharacteristically, was defiant. I made the point that

“What’s he going to do – call the police? We’re far from any town. Even if he’s correct about us needing permission to camp, I can’t believe the authorities are going to drive out here and throw us off the land.”

Of course, there was the matter of the six shooter on his hip. He could be some kind of kook who would shoot us over this disagreement but that seemed rather far-fetched even for a worrywart like Mary so we quickly agreed that we would simply ignore his warning. After all, from his camp he couldn’t see ours without walking over the bridge and it wasn’t like we were bothering his privacy either.

And, in fact, that was the end of our confrontation. We slept soundly through the night and hit the road early the next morning without ever seeing the man again.

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Sifting through my memories of our ride, I realize that some worthy events, for one reason or another, never made it into print. Among those events:

The Lunatic at Walmart. This one I never actually witnessed. Mary told me about it.

We had just visited the Walmart in Salida, Colorado. I rode out of the parking lot ahead of Mary to check out a motel. According to Mary, when she took her place (on her bicycle) in a line of cars waiting at the stoplight, she heard the irate voice of a woman yelling something from a car in line behind her.

At first, Mary didn’t realize the epithets, emanating from a small SUV, were directed at her but when she heard

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, A F*CK*NG CAR?” it dawned on her that she was the object of the woman’s ire.

Mary was nonplussed. After all, by patiently waiting in line, she was conducting herself in the accepted and recommended fashion for a bicycle at a stoplight. She certainly wasn’t inconveniencing any of the cars since no one was moving. Considering that the situation would hopefully be resolved any second once the light turned green and because she had no idea how to respond to such ranting, she patiently stood where she was. This was in no way good enough for the woman in the SUV who continued her tirade with ever more obscene language.

Once the light changed and the line of waiting vehicles, including Mary on her bicycle, moved onto the highway, the SUV with the irate woman, all but frothing at the mouth and wildly gesticulating by this time, passed her and sped on down the road, as if to demonstrate the “proper” speed for vehicles on the public roads.

Although this woman was an extreme example, she illustrates an attitude that is out there – namely that bicycles have no right to be on the road. Any bicycle tourist who rides the highways is sure to encounter this kind of intolerance. The most common form it takes is the speeding car that passes within inches of the bicyclist who is riding as close as he is able to the far right of the pavement.

My answer to these chauvinists is my pennant on a pole which demonstrates to the would-be harasser the minimum distance he should allow between his vehicle and the innocent bicycle rider. (We didn’t employ the pole much on this trip because we rarely rode on busy highways.) This simple device has the added benefit, should a vehicle come in contact with the fiberglass pole, of leaving said vehicle with a souvenir of the encounter – a paint-marring line along the side of his car. Several offending cars now carry this “Mark of Lief.”

P1030483.JPGTHE PENNANT ON A POLE

South Pass. Miles and miles from any identifiable concentration of human habitation lies a passage through which passed many thousands of Conestoga wagons on their way to Oregon and California – South Pass.

Bicyclists and pioneers on the Oregon Trail have in common an acute awareness of steep inclines since gravity presents such a very real impediment to both. The typical mountain pass, with its steep approach, is a sure attention getter to both groups. But unlike most mountain passes, South Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide in the vastness of the Wyoming prarie, is almost unrecognizable as a pass. Approaching South Pass from the east or the west, one could be forgiven for not even recognizing it as a pass, so gentle is the rise of the land thereabout.

This gentle grade is the reason the pioneer wagon trains chose to cross the Rocky Mountains at South Pass rather than assaulting the forbiddingly steep slopes of the Rockies north or south of there.

The pioneer saga has intrigued me at least since my youth when one of my favorite TV shows was Wagon Train. I well remember too a daydream of mine from my tender years in which I starred as a boy who rode his pony alongside the family’s covered wagon on our way to a new life in Oregon. How splendid it would be, I imagined, to explore new landscapes each day on my trusty pony, Blaze.

So it was with considerable anticipation that I scanned the horizon on the morning of September 9, 2015, knowing that I would soon ride my bicycle (alas, no pony) through the fabled South Pass. Rather than culminating in a particular memorable moment, however, as such occasions should, the ride through South Pass was a rather diffuse experience due to the gentle lay of the land. I scanned the nearly flat, sage-covered landscape looking for traces of where the pioneers had passed. There were several areas marked with signage that purported to be remnants of wagon tracks but even these had been marred by irreverent motorized vehicles.

I was determined, however, not to let this occasion pass without some personal observance of its significance. I stood there, straddling my bicycle, imagining what it must have been like for those pioneers – what hardships they had endured, what dreams they had about the fabled rich farmlands of California or Oregon. Did they too feel the tug of “the unknown just around the bend?” I suspect that adventurers, pioneers, nomads, and bicycle tourists alike share that character trait.

At that point in our journey, I still had many yet-to-be-explored discoveries awaiting me and South Pass, now that I had seen it, was no longer among them. Ever eager to visit new places, I put my feet to the pedals in answer to the beckoning call of the unexplored destinations further down the road.

P1030490.JPGMARY RIDES THE WYOMING PRARIE NEAR SOUTH PASS

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Upon reaching Mexico, we could have turned our bikes around and ridden home – HA! No way that was going to happen. So how to get home?

In addition to oursevles, we had two bicycles and a B.O.B. trailer and all the gear we toted on them. Even if we could have purchased tickets on a bus or train out of Columbus (which we couldn’t – too small) we had no way of getting our stuff home.

We did have the U-Haul which was racking up expenses every day we kept it and every mile we drove it.

We drove to Albuquerque that afternoon with the intention of renting a car and turning in the U-Haul. No towns in southern New Mexico that we had checked had one-way cars to rent.

What we encountered at Albuquerque was the unfortunate coincidence of the big Albuquerque Balloon Festival that week. All the car rental agencies were low on cars because of all the visitors and prices were sky high. We did get a reasonable quote from Enterprise over the internet but when we got to the airport, they had mysteriously doubled the price to $1000 dollars. The other agencies either had no cars or wanted $1400 and up.

We next considered flying. The problem was the bicycles. We had to find someone to package and ship them. None of the bike stores wanted to touch that. So locating boxes, disassembling the bikes, paying for shipping, turning in the van, getting back to the airport – it was too much. We swallowed our pride and rented a car from the double-crossing Enterprise.

But we had a secret plan. The $1000 cost was based on a four-day drive to Wenatchee. What if we could drive it in less time?

We drove to Grants where we had rented the U-Haul. We had to wait until the next morning to turn it in because the agency didn’t open until 9 AM. When we arrived at the U-Haul agency, however, we found a note taped to the door saying the business would be closed for the next four days! We had waited overnight for nothing!

We left a voicemail and the keys and took off for home. How the U-Haul rental costs will finalize we don’t know. But after racking up considerable motel bills in the final days of the trip, Mary was in a rare cost-cutting mood. Our problem was that we would be starting for home on Friday morning and the Wenatchee Enterprise office closed on noon Saturday. We had a little over 24 hours to make it home – otherwise we couldn’t turn in the car until Monday morning – at a cost of over $1000 plus hotel expenses.

Mary agreed to a Lief-style solution: we would make a marathon run for home. No hotel stops. Just drive like maniacs and catch a few winks in the car.

Our rental car was a Ford Focus – a mid-size sedan. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the car averaged 33 mpg for the whole trip with the cruise control set at 70 MPH. Our total gas bill for the 1300-mile trip was less than $100.

We cruised into Wenatchee at 9:30 Saturday morning, raced up to Rachel’s to unload our bikes and gear and raced back down to Enterprise. Total cost for the two days we had the car: $530. We figured we saved about $700 with our little marathon when you consider the hotel costs too.

Now that we’re home and sleeping in our own bed and our brains have had a day to get over all the turmoil of the ride’s closing days, I’m trying to put together a rational perspective on the last two months. When viewed from the rather myopic viewpoint of a few days, what do I think of the experience?

It was certainly a great challenge. Every day was a new challenge. We were challenged by weather and gravity and wind. We were challenged by our own psychological resources.

But was it the great experience I expected? A great challenge successfully completed can easily become a fond memory in retrospect but how does it seem when you’re in the middle of it? I published a picture of us and the Maiwald’s at the top of Indiana Pass raising our fists in a victory salute but elation was not the predominant emotion during the climb. It was more like “When is this going to end?” It was a lot of aching muscles.

Honesty also compels me to admit that there is a limit to one’s ability to appreciate beautiful scenery. We saw a lot of brilliant fall foliage in Colorado but after a few days, once the novelty wears off, it is scarcely noticed anymore.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned is not to expect the senses to be able to absorb unlimited titillation. Seven weeks of non-stop riding might be a little too long.

The other perspective, the predominant one for me, is the notion that life is a collection of experiences, the nature of which is determined by how they are perceived by the individual. A scene in Colorado or a Snickers bar on the trail can be wonderful or mundane – it’s all in the mind of the beholder. The kind of experiences we had on this trail were undoubtedly intense – not uniformly pleasurable or miserable. Look at it this way: there are countless seven-week periods of my life which have faded from memory completely; I have nothing left of them. The last seven weeks will provide a treasure trove of memories from which I will be able to retrieve gems for many years to come.

P1030543.JPGA RETRIEVABLE GEM