2016 May. Cycling the U.S.A. Nat. Parks

I’ve always wanted to visit some of the iconic National Parks of the U.S.A. My childhood television painted pictures of squeaky clean children walking in pristine mountains with wild animals and big rivers, log cabins and snow. I was wide-eyed. I still am.
Previous cycling has taken me along the West coast, the East coast and part way across Canada so it was time to test myself in the Rocky Mountains. I planned my route starting in Yellowstone National Park but of course forgot completely about the rugged mountains I had watched covered in snow on the television. It snowed again last weekend, great. It’s supposed to be Spring.

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My proposed route as far as Flagstaff courtesy of Strava cycling maps.

I got excited by the distances I could cover, the places I could visit. I plan to try to get to Tucson Arizona, only because it’s again a name from those gun slinging Westerns of my childhood. I pass the Grand Canyon on the way and a number of other National parks like Bryce and Zion.
I started my training in January still nursing a sore foot from Belize at the start of December, it didn’t hurt to ride, I convinced myself of that. Its taken months of physio to get it right. I thought my training was sufficient, 800 klms per month for four months. I am doing roughly 2500 klms in four weeks. I should be right. I hope.
I have two real issues and neither are bears or biting, stinging things. Winnebago’s, those oversized caravan/campers driven for the first time by neck swivelling tourists. ‘What was that bump Martha ?” “Just a cyclist” I hear them say. The second is the climbing I must do and the fact I am carrying my own tent and camping equipment (16 kgs.) due to the distances between towns.
I just have to believe, I have plenty of klms in my legs and am healthy. I thought about taking the opportunity on this trip to campaign for the Presidency, hell the opposition looks extremely beatable but I just don’t think I’m weird enough. Besides I have been told to avoid discussing their election and to reduce my swearing. It’s ok for them to all carry a gun but swear, hell no.
I’m off on Sunday morning, yes Mothers Day in Australia (sorry Mum) and return for the Queens Birthday long weekend. I’ve attached a photo of my route, my worldly possessions for the trip and my vehicle minus the motor, oh yeah, that’ll be me…. I have a dynamo on the front hub to supply lighting and power to my electronic gear, GPS, phone, iPad, camera etc.
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All my gear laid out on the table. A very small amount of everything….but not much.
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The vehicle minus its engine. That would be me…bike and bags weigh a total of 35 kgs.

No 1.

Flight…tick, customs ? Go to jail, go directly to jail, do not collect $200. I held my temporary visa used last in December firmly in my hand. The blank face at the desk asks me why I went to Iran ? Why not ? I answered. What did you do there, what did you see ? I knew he wouldn’t like an answer like the magnificent mosques, he didn’t look the type. I blurted “sand.” I knew my answer was wrong straight away, I didn’t wait for the buzzer, stand there. I stood like a naughty school boy and yes, not for the first time. His supervisor took me to an Office. The door read CBP Admissibility Review Area. I read it twice, frowned and followed him in. The wait started for me and a predominately Mexican clientele. We slouched, we paced, we scratched and we mumbled to ourselves. When called, people began to blurt out bizarre stories then change them just as quickly, all the time their legs jerking nervously under the desk. Finally I’m interviewed. The rules changed in January, my visa is no longer valid, the U.S.A is now clearly no friend of Iran and it seems I’m frowned on too. To his credit the guy can see I was unaware of the change but it still takes four hours. I get to be finger printed and photographed and observe a young Columbian being manhandled into a secure area and told he would be flying back there real soon, in fact the next flight. He gave them a potty mouthful. So instead of a lazy five hours eating sandwiches and drinking terrible airport coffee I had to run to my connection bound for Salt Lake City.

A bus to West Yellowstone with my bike in the back is stress free. The bus is full of mothers all returning to small town America. Yesterday was Mothers Day. Well that was my guess, you wouldn’t go to Salt Lake City for anything really. Too clean, too many Mormons. I got out of the bus in Yellowstone, in shorts and thought gee its cold and that’s when it started snowing, I kid you not. People smirked as I walked towards my hotel. I dropped my bike bag and went out for dinner. By the time I came out there was thick snow on the cars.

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My Presidential campaign started immediately.

My start was delayed a day, the road South was not due to reopen till Friday morning. I used my time wisely eating jumbo sized breakfasts, moving quickly to keep warm and visiting the National Park in a bus. I saw plenty of animals, eagles, bison, elk, deer, bighorn sheep with real attitude and three grizzly bears. They were all busy getting back to normal fighting weight after winter.

P1030701The meanest sheep I’ve ever seen. Bighorn sheep have a stare that burns through you.

One grizzly bear had settled along the river waiting for bison who had broken through the ice in winter to resurface. It’s was like leaving fatty boomba next to an open fridge. He didn’t care how many humans photographed him. Great day.

P1030666This Grizzly had eaten 2 bison in a week. Big appetite even by American standards.

Rode out to see Ol’ Faithful on Thursday, chance to give my legs a trial and avoid hanging around the iconic tourist spectacle when I start my ride. It goes “off” every hour and a half. A timer in the restaurant counts it down, too funny, they measure nature ? I ride back to West Yellowstone for my last night but have to use the oncoming cars as a shield when I spot a couple of bison trotting up the white line. Oh the locals were wetting themselves, their windows wound up tight, air-con pumping, cameras clicking.

P1030752Ol’ Faithful. Yellowstone National Park.

Friday morning, I woke before the alarm, nervous about my day, much hill climbing and 170 kms to my accommodation near Moran. I started riding at 6.30am, the temperature on my Garmin speedo was -3c. Four layers of clothes but I was still shaking as I rode seventy kms up hill, finally over the Divide and many hours of blissful freewheeling when my legs were begging for a reprieve. My mood was as up and down as the road ahead, I’ll never get there before dark was the morning thoughts to new-found enthusiasm in the afternoon as I whistled down hills at warp speed. I finally arrived at Moran at 5pm with a broad grin plastered across my dial but dog tired. A shower and three beers with an enthusiastic group at the bar before I vacuumed a large meal into my ravenous body. I was asleep at nine pm. I barely noticed it wasn’t yet dark outside.

P1030784The road out of Moran, the snow-capped mountains my constant companion.

The riding is magnificent, the long snow-capped mountains of Wyoming followed me all day today. Snake river gurgling with melted snow between me and the mountains. At one point a frisky deer ran towards the road, I stopped, it stopped, looked both ways and crossed, freaky weird. Into Jackson Hole, a well-known ski town an easy day but on looking at tomorrow I should have realised Hole ? Yep I’ve got to climb out of the “hole” for most of the morning. I think to myself, every day South means a little more warmth, but now the hills are keeping my legs just toasty.

IMG_5097All for a good cause, a cannon shoot for charity ? Fancy, no pets allowed ?? Gun raffle ?

So I walk into a motel restaurant/bar. One stool left, next to a monster outlaw bikie with a shaved head, neck tattoos and his moll. Best I take a table I thinks, maybe he’ll be offended having watched me walk the whole bar, I sit on the last stool. I try to order a wheat beer, the old barmaid looks perplexed, he butts in, give him a “blue moon”, he’s Australian they all drink heavy beer. We get talking, he lives winter in L.A summer in South Dakota on a ranch rearing bison. They kill them on the ranch with an inspector present, all legit. I throw in a question, do you cryovac the meat ! “Sure we do” he replies “use the same machine for transporting our drugs, the customs dogs can’t pick up the smell.” He didn’t bat an eye. We eat, he tells his story, I tell mine, he’s drinking 3-4 beers to each of mine, true. I call for my bill, the barmaid turns, “it’s already paid” she says. “Bit of Southern hospitality” he says and crunches my hand. I leave shaking my head but more my hand.

P1030796Its lonesome out on the Wyoming prairie, cowboys and a cowgirl chewing the fat.

Well the days haven’t got any warmer but the huge vistas and wide open spaces have mesmerised me. That is when I haven’t been distracted by my teeth chattering. The first week has seen me riding in temperatures from -3c to 14c generally with four layers of clothes, a beanie, a throat muffle and a pair of winter booties. I’ve ridden the full length of Wyoming, sleeping with one eye open for fear of frisky cowboys ( as in  Breakback Mountain.)  I am now in Utah hoping to see a dinosaur, hell, they do go on about them here. And not one alive to prove it, actually I blame Steven Spielberg.

P1030852Plenty of concrete dinosaurs in Utah but not one alive and probably just as well.

So here I am in Vernal, Utah with a simple plan, head South, see some amazing scenery and meet some weird and wonderful people, shouldn’t be hard. My record is more of the weird than the wonderful. I should have got that gun.

 

It took a few days to notice, my city eyes accustomed to so much happening around the periphery that they dull, choose to ignore the detail, too much going on. With big vistas and slow movement on the bike many things I barely noticed at first became bigger, sharper and more readily noticed. The wide open spaces of Wyoming and now the vast emptiness of the Utah hills has honed my eyes razor-sharp. “I see cavalry on yonder hill chief Sitting Bull, lets surprise them and give them a haircut.” Sorry my childhood television resurfacing. I’ve ridden through a number of Native Indian settlements and have now started wheeling through the stamping ground of Butch Cassidy, in fact he held up the bank near Price. Jesse James hung out here or should I say hid from the law out there too. Today they are public heroes with old style photos sitting front and centre in every diner. I can understand that, most of the diners either rob you or try to kill you with their food served with little care, but great speed.

IMG_5108Fried chicken, the coating so tough a sledgehammer couldn’t reveal its inners.

I’ve been travelling down highway 191 for days without paying much attention. Today a guy told me that it goes from Canada to New Mexico, but stop before you get there he said with a wry grin. It’s a quiet road except for the oil tankers who wander the countryside milking the wells then carry it on to refineries in Salt Lake City and others. Those bobbing heads, like steel birds pecking the ground, 24/7 sucking black oil out of the ground and filling storage tanks till the trucks can come and drain them. Again, the Beverley Hillbillies come to mind, TV fodder after school. Otherwise there’s been barely a soul for days. Many towns just wither and die on the basis of whether the world price of oil makes it worth extracting. People simply get up and move on, but for most Americans they simply go where the work is, it appears a far more transient population than in Australia. I think it starts with many moving for their college years, leaving home early. We stay if we can, bumping into old girlfriends right up to the time we are dribbling and in a Zimmer frame.

P1030837The old log cabins slowly sinking back into the ground.

After a couple of days of serious wind, serious enough to do me in. Yes, I got off the bike on day two, unclipped the pannier bags and started hitchhiking. Two solid days of relentless strong Southerlies had me saying (to myself, see, talking to myself ! ) this is no longer fun nor will it ever be, get me outa here. I put my finger out, the trucks, the families, the big trucks simply left me standing in a flurry of dust and exhaust? I stood there for half an hour being buffeted by the wind, my eyes narrowed and I put the bags back on the bike, stuff you all I thought, I’ll ride it and prove you all wrong. I hung my head over the handlebars and kept slogging it out till eventually I was on a bike path and the world was realigned and my fury was over. Oh, and I ran out of water against that wind, I stood on the side of the road my upturned drink bottle for all to see. A woman driver returned, wound down the window and offered me this purple cup of radioactive sports drink, I took it and truly appreciated her generosity. So yes, it’s not all laughs and free beer. I’m just so glad I hadn’t badgered anyone else to join me in this fun fest !

P1030847Two days of 80 km/hr winds had me struggling to stay upright, crushed my spirit.

So, I have now taken the rejuvenating waters of Moab or should I say the fresh air and positive attitude of this adrenaline city. Like Queenstown in New Zealand it is overflowing with ways to kill or at a minimum, maim you. White water, dune buggies as threatening as anything out of Mad Max, sky diving, canyoning, rock climbing. There are no end of ways to finish yourself off or be guaranteed to leave the local hospital sucking on a straw. I visited the Arches National Park here, no they weren’t life threatening, but they were truly magnificent.

P1030905Arches National Park

I went on a tour, all Americans, all various States. Ten of us, we sat out in the Park as the sun dropped waiting for that ahh ! moment, the last gasp of the day. It was stoney quiet out there, I broke the silence, “So I’m new here but I see a real opportunity to direct your country into the future,” a few look up. “I’m talking the big job, slipping in behind Mr Obama.” They are all in the palm of my hand and why wouldn’t they. “I’ve seen some weaknesses in the current candidates,” some of my audience start marking the red dirt with their shoes. I won’t campaign, I don’t see the need. I tell them the story of Steven Bradbury, the Australian Speed skater who coming last simply waited for the others to crash, gliding through the last corner pile up for gold. This is my plan, they don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Not another word is spoken, they are embarrassed, this once mighty country doesn’t know what to do. The Chinese are licking their lips, they’ll build the wall down South, they’ve got history of building walls. The Americans can see the Great Wall every time they take a rocket into outer space. Oh, the sunset was overcast but the Park is the real deal and truly spectacular, and big like the food portions here.

IMG_5092Ok.I haven’t spent much on my Presidential campaign but its building slowly, burp !

I plod on, cars zoom past doing 65 miles an hour, that’s my total average day although a few have been longer. I get to stay in all the backwaters, the places now forgotten, the crusty old motels and the diner limping along hoping people will want some old-time Americana. Towns with names like Vernal,Hanksville and Panguitch I would have been foolish to expect anything special or truly tasty. I really needed good quality fuel to run my engine not just massive quantity. I rarely find it. At the end of each three to four days of riding I suddenly realise the landscape has progressively changed. Different rock formations, wide open prairies or fast flowing rivers it changes but not as fast as it does cocooned in a car. I’m happy to see the gradual change at my speed.

These small towns have the luxury of at least one crazy, out there, lucky not to be locked up resident and so far I’ve met them all. I’ve watched no television but I’ve met some people who talked to me and all I saw was the test pattern in their eyes. Take the guy at Hanksville, yes the name was sure to attract one. He booked me into my dingy room mid afternoon saying he was a musician but would book me in and I was his thirtieth customer. Anyone counting customers rings alarm bells, anyone who does a high-five when the Visa card works is worth a raised eyebrow but then again he gave me the room for twenty less than quoted. So we bonded. I had my dinner and thought nothing more, I was pooped and ready for bed, then the electric organ started up. His stammer as motel manager was gone instead a soft voice crackled out into the night air. He sang and played for two hours I think,. Fact is, I fell asleep part the way through his performance. I don’t know if anyone ventured out to his small platform with ten chairs aligned in two rows but I did chuckle the next morning as I glanced at his stage before wobbling on down the road.

Yes I’ve come to see the beautiful National Parks but it’s the people I keep coming into contact with that make me cry and smile…. Oh I wish I’d bought a gun ! I cut West from here towards Bryce and Zion National Parks and then further South to The Grand Canyon. My legs are still strong, my mind is questionable.

P1030933Don’t think they are big fans of Hillary around here ? The concrete truck ????

P1030942Are you looking at me ? Go, get out of here this is my grass find your own.

P1030950Did you ask are the mornings cold ? Check out the icicles… Brrr. Ride Jeff ride.

P1030928Oil, it drives everything out here and when the price drops, they walk away.

No.3.

The word on the road was that Bryce National Park would be busy, Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start to Summer. I rode early, there was a steep climb into the Bryce Canyon made all the better when I found a bike path that meandered well away from the constant drone of the traffic. “Get there early” they said “you’ll get yourself a nice campsite” but when I arrived every site had a “booked” note attached, I started to get flustered. I stopped a girl but she only spoke Chinese and then I called out to a guy leaning down over a fire. He turned, a beanie pulled down over his head and one eye all screwed up. “Do you know where to find a tent site, they all seem taken ?” He looked at me and said “you can have a corner of my site for nothing.” “The names Patch, ‘cept I’m not wearing it this morning”

P1040005Patch

I wheeled my bike over and looked at the spot he’d offered it seemed fine and there was a picnic table, a plus as I have not dragged a chair all these miles. I began setting up camp and as I unrolled my tent he started to tell me his story. The more me spoke the slower I erected my tent, I was having second thoughts about him. He offered me coffee, figured I didn’t need the cigarettes he was pulling on and kept talking……a lot.

“I lost the eye through a gunshot, friendly fire” he said. I was a blackout drinker, drank till I collapsed. “I evidently shot myself in the eye and out through the top of my skull”, taking off his cap to show me a mangled lump. “It also gave me a paralysed right arm, a brain thing” he said lifting his withered arm. “They were sure I would die at the hospital but a few weeks later I woke, they were amazed.” It was then I realised it was a sign from God. Oh no I thought, here I was thinking this guy was wicked and it turns out he is going to bore me to death with his new-found zest for God. So over the next 12 hours he told me stories of selling drugs, running a book at his fire station, having the swat team surround his house when he let of his gun and his soon to be ex-wife rang them and other bad arse stories. His mind was sharp but every so often it would fail him and he’d get frustrated. I had to tell him to stop with the God bit, I respect your belief but keep it to yourself and he did that. The pain in his face showed occasionally, he had been on the wagon for eight years, I think he knows it will be the end if he has one drink.

P1030988Bryce National Park

Patch gave me a good reason to do a long hike. I met a young girl, Mollie at the bus stop, they use buses in the park to avoid heavy traffic and she showed me a good hike to do. The Navajo trail and then on to the Queens Garden. I followed her from the bus, she was going to hike 8 miles, I chose a shorter route. Then I looked up, the campground had given no indication of the Canyon nearby, it was spellbindingly beautiful and massive. I stood mesmerised she marched purposefully on. I started my decent to the valley floor, slipping on step five my camera swinging wildly and my hands taking all the impact. Great I thought as I stood dusting the talcum powder dust from everywhere and picking grit out of my palms. A woman nearby said loud enough for me to hear, “well seeing that has done me in, I’m going back to the car.” I ignored her and watched the ground, it was steep you could tell by the huffing and puffing of those returning. At the bottom there was solitude and I walked admiring the trees that had somehow found enough water and nourishment to grow, and grow they did searching for light amongst the huge sandy thrusts.

P1030986Trees fighting for light deep down in Bryce Canyon.

While everyone else drives from Bryce to Zion in a few hours it took me two days and more small town America. Not sure if that’s good or bad. Actually I stayed in a lovely little town at Mt Carmel Junction. Headed into Zion N.P. nestled deep down in a Canyon. I huffed and puffed all the way to the entrance before I was told by the ranger to find a lift to get through the narrow tunnel that puts you in the Park. My lift was an inventor who after driving me through the park sat me (no, locked me) in a viewing area telling me of inventions that he’d lost the patent over his lifetime, then he let me out. Zion is spectacular a word that seems too small for these gigantic vista and freakish shows of nature. I whistled down the steep hairpin bends and into the valley floor with rock formations dwarfing me.

The valley was as busy as Chadstone the day before Christmas with everyone wearing outdoor gear and a somewhat forced, semi gleeful grins. You could hardly move and as beautiful as it was there was no serenity. I pushed about and after serious questioning, decided to climb the massive hill back out. I felt like I was in the Tour de France, people hanging out of cars photographing this idiot that couldn’t afford a car and was actually riding a bike up these hairpins. It only made me more determined. A nice guy gave me a lift through the tunnel to get back out but best of all was his mate in a car behind that picked up my pannier bag that fell of the trailer half way through the tunnel.

P1040031Steep descent into Zion N.P but a much slower climb back out.

P1040018The Checkerboard Mesa at Zion N.P.   Like the hide of an elephant.

From Zion to The Grand Canyon is five days of riding over 100 klm/ day through ever drier conditions, yeah, a desert. Again it was the chance meetings that stand out. A guy I wished I’d photographed, silver-grey hair, a dry creek-bed complexion and a drawl so slow I wanted to finish his sentences. He had come to the desert when they were filling the Glen Canyon dam. The late seventies. He’d fallen in love with the desert, got himself some horses and lived a frugal life wandering about looking for water. “He knew where to find it, don’t worry” he said giving me the wink. I’m thinking, there’s a bloody great dam just down the road mate ? The conversation died, I asked him if he still had horses ? “Just one” he said, “she’s 31 years old, barely any teeth” he said opening his own mouth and running his tongue over his bare gums. My eyes welled up, I’m sure I grinned, I started to shake like jelly, oh the image of a toothless horse. “We may not get through another year” he said talking more to himself than me. He meant it. I got back on my bike thinking this is why I travel, to see a guy do a charade of a toothless horse.

P1040061.JPGGlen Canyon Dam, but all I could think of was “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy”, oh, I was thinking Glen Campbell circa 1975

By the time I got to The Grand Canyon I was knackered, it is 94 kms and all uphill. I was a lather of sweat when I arrived and took my first look down into the biggest bloody hole on the planet. You can’t really photograph its enormity, you do it an injustice trying to describe it. The first people to find it must have thought they had found the entrance to the bowels of the earth. A mile down on the valley floor flows the mighty Colorado river, a mere thin line from above. I camped at the hiker/biker sites, showered then tried to hide from the 43c Celsius or 109 degree Farenheit heatwave………….               …

P1040082The Grand Canyon, it’s a bloody great big hole whichever way you look at it.

P1040093Hiker / biker campsite in The Grand Canyon.

I rose at 4.30am the following morning to pack. escape the heat and be gone before sunrise, a German cyclist had the same idea, we pushed off in different directions, he towards San Fransisco, me South To Flagstaff. I was feeling buoyant, today’s 130 kms and a grand total of 2400 kms in just over three weeks. I would bus it from Flagstaff to Tucson the scorching temperatures now too unbearable to ride.

I rode into Flagstaff late Saturday after many water stops and temporary escapes from the harsh heat. The final 30 kms was perfect riding, a shoulder of smooth bitumen and few cars, undulating hills covered in Ponderosa pines with the heat releasing a beautiful scent. A nearby mountain had somehow managed to keep its coat of winter snow, that vision playing with my head through sweaty eyes. How could that be, when its so stinking just over here ?

I slumped into my room in Flagstaff, stood for an eternity under the shower letting the water ease the stiffness from my shoulders. Went into the old town and sat on a stool in Southside tavern. Ordered one beer then another got talking, ate some fish tacos and found myself with others walking between breweries. An 11pm burger delivered to my bicycle by a girl wearing roller skates at a drive-in burger joint confirmed I was drunk. Went back Sunday evening for some live Blues music in a sweaty small room out the back of the bar. Heaven, Southern blues classics being teased from a slide guitar and two wailing harmonicas mimicking the train whistles of early America to finish off the night. Woohoo.

IMG_5157Good Ol’ Southern Blues. Wailing harmonic mimic the freight trains that pass by Flagstaff every day.

I had achieved everything I’d planned, seen many of the Parks I had heard and read of in childhood. They are as good as I had ever imagined, especially Yellowstone in Spring and full of wildlife. Overall I met a diverse range of the locals, asked too many questions about their political candidates, asked too many questions about their health system and unfathomable gun laws.

I started one morning when it was a shivering -3c and it was a stinking hot 43c on my final day, what a diverse range of conditions I had cycled through. I still believe my bicycle trips give me the best connection with other travellers and locals. You are less intimidating than a group or a car, people are curious and stepped up to me more than me to them. It gives you faith in mankind considering all the bad press we can read, all the horror news on the television. Get out there meet some normal people and meet some of the others as well…..