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

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Birth of Quad-zilla (and latest photos)

There comes a time in every young man or woman's life when something happens that changes the world irrevocably for them. The air they breath smells cleaner, the glowing light of a sunset seems brighter and the colours of a rainbow seem richer than ever before. From that moment on it seems they can achieve anything if they set their mind to it. A new world of possibility stretches off into the distance ahead of them. Holly experienced this moment around a week ago lying in a motel somewhere in Northern Utah (ahem, it's not that kind of website I'm afraid)

“Shit!”, exclaimed Hol at about 6am.

I was woken from an unusually warm slumber as we had decided to take a break from camping in sub zero temperatures. My eyes adjusted to the gloom. It seemed important as Hol was sat bolt upright in bed, wide eyed and mouth agape.

“Have you felt my legs?” she continues. I lie their confused.

“They're MASSIVE... No seriously Nick, wake up.... They're absolutely MASSIVE!”. I fumbled around and gave them a tentative squeeze, and I must confess, long gone were any remnants of long bus trips and lying on beaches and in it's place there was this compact, ginger highly tuned cycling dynamo. I had been pleased that we were getting fitter and fitter and eating up the mountains with seeming ease, but it became clear that behind my back over the last 1,400 miles Hol had undergone a miraculous transformation from vino sipping, crisp munching, burger terrorizing hedonist to a finely honed turbo on the back of the bike. The realisation was so sudden that she insisted on running up and down in the car park marveling that the aforementioned legs and ass refused to wobble at all. It was an emotional time for both of us.

Since that revelation we have continued tearing up the miles. Pre departure we had been given some simple warnings from a buddy Smithy who had cycled from East to West coasts a while back. “Beware the south. Beware the Dogs. Beware Utah. Do not fear the mountains” Hol had only just escaped the dogs, we didn't need convincing about the South and had conquered the highest passes of the trip. This left Utah. As we crossed the state line after having a great time in Colorado, the road immediately changed to broken asphalt and gravel and there was a 40mph headwind. Smithy seemed to be an astute prophet. However, Utah was spectacular even if the roads were crap, buying beer was a mission and people didn't seem to like outsiders. Amongst other things we rolled down the epic canyon of the Colorado River to Moab where the opening scenes of Mission Impossible 2 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed, we did our biggest day yet at 115 miles and broke a new speed record of 48.9mph leaving Hol a little jumpy and the (bike) rims steaming.

We have also found the people of Utah to be an odd mix. There was the UPS delivery guy in Green River who asked us our route and told us, “You damn crazy to ride that road. That's the most dangerous road in America. Full of craaaazy people who don't know how to drive. You'll be lucky to make it alive”. A touch dramatic, lightened only slightly by his ironic farewell of “Have a nice day”. As it was we cruised along with only a puncture and a bit of sunburn for our troubles.Then there was our new best friend KP from Red Rock cycles in Vernal. We took Carlos in who was rattling and groaning with the wheels about to collapse from too many mountains descents and crap roads. We got the bike a full service, new pedals for Hol, new tubes, new chain oil, gears checked, straightened wheels and new cables amongst many other things and he wouldn't accept a cent from us. He was so excited about the trip he just wished us well and best of luck. Incredible kindness.

We are now in Wyoming and have enjoyed shorter rides as we take it easy to meet my Dad for 4 days off in Jackson. We seem to be dodging bad weather with horror stories always being relayed from our stop 3 days ahead. Blizzards, storms, hot hail amongst other things. But so far we have had calm sunny days in Wyoming as the Teton mountains close in on us from both sides. That said camping has become a real test. We are up on the plains at 7,000ft and average temperature at night is 1 or 2 degrees below. As the 'comfort range' of the mega-compact sleeping bags is from 8 to 20 degrees it means wearing all we can in bed and zipping the bags up so just a nose is poking out. Twinned with a diet of canned chili, fig rolls and prunes I now shiver whenever we see a cookery book of Utah's speciality; the Dutch Oven.

In summary all is well and we can't wait for a few days off. Levels of fitness are climbing ever higher, levels of maturity are stooping ever lower. This was thrown into sharp relief when touring the Mountain Man museum in Pinedale today. It's hard not to snigger at the opening panel that says 'for hundreds of years... the hatters of the civilised world had raised a cry for beaver'. When they are then referred to as 'little hairy dollars' or there is a sign pointing to an authentic 'beaver muff' in the clothing section it's hard not to chortle. Hope all is well back in England. Reading The Hobbit is making us both long for proper ales and green rolling hills. Send our love to the shire.

Photos of the last 4 states are here for anyone who wants to catch a look as well:

Texas and New Mexico
Colorado and Utah