The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The big and small of Spring

2000 miles done and dusted, we have finally left the desert behind us and its time to head West.

Since arriving in Wyoming and traveling up into Montana, the last 2 weeks have been filled with awesome mountains, alarmingly close wildlife encounters and incredibly generous hosting. On arriving in Jackson excitement was high. A highly anticipated destination being home of the Grand Teton Mountain Range (French for The Big Boob), gateway to Yellowstone and where we planned to have 5 days off the bike with our first Tuppen visitor. On arrival we were welcomed in by Dick and Nancy; a friend's aunt and uncle who had offered us a place to stay. From the photo of us on the tandem on their fridge to the string of gifts on our departure, this couple offered us all the warmth and comfort of a real home we miss so much on the road. Being proud long time residents and genuine cowboy and cowgirl, they gave us an expert tour of town and the surrounding mountains. We were fed intriguing tales of days in the wilderness, whilst being quietly in awe at how well Dick could pull off a big buckled belt, cowboy boots, tight denims and tooth pick. Hanging out with strangers and feeling completely at home is now one of my favourite pastimes.

It then felt even more like home when Nick's dad rocked up in Jackson for 4 days of big feeds, good booze, lots of chinwagging and a bit of wilderness trekking. It was a perfect break with clear skies and warm sun, but to top it off we came within 5m of a wild Grizzly crossing a road on the first day, saw a second one on a hillside in the middle of nowhere on the second and had a guest Moose to dinner on the third. It was a humbling experience, but the downside was Nick could no longer calm my nerves about camping by saying 'bears are so rare we will never see one'.

Over the course of the four days iced lakes thawed, snowy trails became trekable, aspens came out turning the hillsides bright green and wildlife frolicked in the plains after a long cold winter. Spring sprung right in front of our eyes and we soaked up every minute of it. From Jackson we cycled into Yellowstone where we found our way blocked by some terrifyingly huge bison a couple of times, saw another bear, went from 6 feet of snow to hot grassy plains to geyser fields, all in one day's ride. From there its been mountains and valleys, green, rainy, head winds, tail winds, snow and sun all the way up to Missoula.

But despite such joys, it is suddenly strange being in the largest town we've been for about 5 weeks. The city girl in me has been crying out for civilization as we crawl from small town to small town. Unfortunately Missoula hasn't really lived up to expectations, being the largest city in Montana it seems to be full of awkward youths looking for a high life that just doesn't really exist out here. There are bling covered teenagers playing loud music, cars racing each other down the roads, hippies walking around with no shoes, drunks on corners and other weird goings on. We now rather miss the friendly feeling of the 100 population settlements out in the mountains and it is making us focus on the finish line.

Suddenly the challenge is starting to take its toll. With fitness levels peaking, Carlos in working order and knees seeming to hold up, physically the remaining 700 miles feel like a done deal (touch wood). So with that challenge softening the mental strain sets in. We've seen so much on our way up already the brain becomes a bit saturated. We've been through deserts, canyons, along rivers, through gorges, in blizzards, in forest, through national parks over mountain peaks. It feels like we've seen it all and so now its tempting just to get our heads down and bash out long days to get there. But we've got to hold back and soak up the last 700 miles. We both know how much we will miss the bike and the physical challenge once we have stopped. When you are pedaling it feels great and when you find a good camping spot you look back on the day with a big grin. But if you stop pedaling and you aren't in quite the right place the evening can be a dark place. There's only so much tinned chilli and rice one can take. And we still haven't learned that going for a walk around deserted small towns probably won't result in finding a pub full of friends.

Nonetheless, the hugeness of this country does not cease to amaze and fascinate me. Every mile we go a little closer we get to understanding what makes this part of America tick and why it is so different to us. This nation has got everything. They can do whatever they want and see every variety of landscape on their home turf. Holidays are short and so weekend or evening leisure time is everything. Since everyone has so much space toys are plentiful – boats, quadbikes, motorbikes, mountain bikes, kayaks, RVs, junk to tinker with, tools for making more stuff etc. There's not a whole lot of incentive to get on a plane and see the world, something that I now completely understand. In fact its a bit odd that we spend so much time trying to escape England when we could just settle in and soak up everything its got to offer. Maybe easier said from afar, or maybe everyone else is and we're the big hypocrites.

Gas guzzling is another issue that horrified me to begin with but I've now sussed out. There is no public transport in small town America, distances are huge and there's more than likely to be snow in your way for some of the year. Cars are definitely excessive but comparing it to suburban 4 wheel driving in the UK is a long stretch. The American psyche revolves around freedom and no one wants to be told they 'can't'. Hence no one wears helmets on motorbikes, gas is guzzled, plastic is plentiful and anyone can buy themselves a gun (all of which still make me flinch). But this is just the culture out here, its not as if America wants to destroy the world. In fact most want to preserve it (especially the hunters, which took me a while to understand) and are very proud of their beautiful land and wildlife. That openness that we often mock for being fake or weird (or definitely would do in London) is genuine friendliness and its great! We have felt welcomed in everywhere, are always helped out if stuck and everyone wants to go out of their way to make our time here a bit better. That is everyone except the donut munching, gun swagging Texan that nearly refused me entry to the US.

Speaking of which, that leaves me with only two real problems in this society. Firstly, perhaps the one reason that America has gained such a bad rep in recent years. In a worryingly large number of small towns in America the only news channel you can receive is Fox News. 24 hours of scare mongering and sensationalist reporting of half facts, if facts at all. I will not linger on it for fear of a rant not suitable for this blog. Secondly, a fast food culture has led to a huge number of people wanting and expecting life to be as easy as possible. Because there is endless space companies have provided just that. You can get your dinner, do your banking, grab a coffee, get gas, collect your mail, get groceries etc whilst barely leaving your car. In short, if you're lazy and gullible then you are doomed to die obese and terrified of the rest of the world.

So only about 700 miles to go until we hit Vancouver. Plenty more mountain passes and by all accounts a lot more rain. We are grateful for the Montana Standard's attempt at portraying a varied weather pattern but we have just about managed to read between the lines:

Today: 63/40 - A chance of afternoon thunderstorms
Tuesday: 66/37 - Spotty storms after the noon hour
Wednesday: 71/38 - A slim chance of a thunderstorm
Thursday: 70/40 - A stray afternoon storm possible
Friday: 72/41 - Isolated afternoon thunderstorms


x said...

Missoula is NOT the biggest city in Montana, Billings is, by a long shot.

Holly and Tups said...

Apologies... I meant to say 2nd biggest. I am massively dsyxleic so often get such things wrong.