Day 98: Colter Bay Campground to Grant Village Campground - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 19, 2011

Day 98: Colter Bay Campground to Grant Village Campground

The crisp, clean, fresh mountain air is offset by the strong smell of human crap as I ride past the RV dump station on my way out of the campground and toward the road that will take me north to Yellowstone National Park.

Thankfully the Tetons have not gone to shit in the last two days. If anything they appear more grand and dramatic in the light of the early morning when their harsh edges cast deeper shadows. I ride mostly in a tunnel of pine trees, shaded from the sun, with the rippled surface of Jackson Lake coming in and out of view off to my left. It's still early enough that I pass a small pond and see hundreds of wavy strands of steam slowly rising off the cold surface.

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A beautiful and fast descent takes me down into a wide valley and across the Snake River, past a herd of elk that clomp through a thin stand of trees less than a hundred yards from the road. It's a great moment in a morning full of great moments, all of which help remind me that bike riding can still be rewarding and enjoyable after more than three months on the road.

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The route becomes more of a battle after I enter Yellowstone. The shoulder goes away, the road starts winding up, and traffic turns thick. But the rushing green-white rivers are amazing. So are the quieter streams, the soft-looking green marsh land that surrounds them, and the tiny white caps that crash harmlessly against the uneven and rocky shores of Lewis Lake. Unfortunately the rest of the landscape can't come close to the beauty and perfection that Grand Teton showed was possible. The hills around me are covered with bald patches and scraggly trees that look like light gray-colored toothpicks—maybe from fire, maybe from insects, maybe both. Often I ride in narrow gaps between groups of short trees that reveal only the road ahead. It's a small reward for dealing with the endless rush of cars and motorcycles, of travel trailers and motorhomes, of people who drive by with a camera hanging out the passenger-side window of their vehicle before frantically stopping to snap a picture of a waterfall along with a hundred other tourists. Almost all of the cars give me enough space, but that can't disguise the fact that there are a thousand of them.

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On the lookout for bear molesters.
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The college-aged girl in the registration office is named Anna. She's from Pennsylvania. I know this because all of the seasonal park employees have to wear a name tag that provides these two important pieces of information. Because I'm the first bicycle rider to arrive for the day, I have my choice of hiker-biker campsites. When she explains that site 426 is the farthest away from everything and the most wide open I can't take it fast enough. The roads in Yellowstone might be crazy, but at least I'll be able to catch a nap in a place that seems a bit rustic.

At it turns out, the roar I hear when I pull up to the site isn't the wind, but the sound of traffic rushing past on the main highway a thousand feet away.

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I grab lunch at a cafe that buzzes with people, and soon I wish that I could be somewhere else. One of the defining features of Yellowstone is that it's entirely a seasonal tourist attraction. All of the employees are hired on contract and come from literally all corners of the globe. (My lunch order is taken by a guy from China, handed to me by a girl from Taiwan, and the empty plate taken away by a guy from Macedonia.) There's no feeling of community, no sense of history, and no shared purpose beyond selling low-grade chicken strips and french fries without working too hard. The small-town soul I love is nowhere to be found. It's mostly like a giant suburb dropped into the top-left corner of Wyoming at 7,700 feet.

As I look out the huge dining room windows, past the screaming children, the tired and frustrated parents, and the facial expressions that can't hide boredom, I see a huge lake backed by thousands of acres of untouched wilderness. All I can think about is how different and wonderful the place would be if I ditched my Randonee for a mountain bike and took to the dirt and gravel instead of the pavement for a week.

An hour later I glance out the window and notice huge masses of gray looming tall and menacing in the sky, headed directly for the campsite where my tent and most of my gear sit exposed, without the protection of a rain fly. I pack up in less than 60 seconds, unlock the bike as fast as I can, throw on the single pannier, and then bolt. I hustle back toward the campground like a man possessed, at speeds I never knew my tank of a bike was capable of. When I reach the site five minutes later I jump off the bike while it's still moving and then lean it up against a picnic table as big, fat, cold rain drops fall and start to soak everything I own.

Except they don't. When I walk up a small rise and around the corner I see my tent—with the rain fly on and all of its corners and sides perfectly staked. I stand confused for a few moments before I realize that someone must have seen the tent, also seen the thunderstorm coming, and decided to help out a stranger. I smile widely for a couple of seconds at the sheer kindness of it all until I realize that a torrent is about to let loose, and then I dive inside a tent that doesn't have a drop of water in it.

When the rain passes I crawl back outside and try to track down my rain fly angel. A minute later she comes walking my way. Her name is Louise, and she and Kerstin are from Australia. They set out from Seattle six weeks ago, bound for Boston but taking their time getting there. Together they form a powerful ray of sunshine, talking with big smiles and great enthusiasm about the amazing animals and scenery they've seen in Yellowstone, the friendliness of the people they've met throughout rural America, and how the roads in this country make traveling by bicycle a joy. I feel better about my own trip simply by osmosis. As we talk, an elk with a postcard-worthy rack of antlers munches on grass and flowers in an open space a hundred feet away, totally unimpressed by all of the travelers and their giant tents, propane barbecues, giant campfires, stacks of brightly colored coolers, and brigades of uncomfortable folding chairs.

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A second thunderstorm interrupts our conversation and I duck back inside. It's such a satisfying feeling to be tucked inside a tent, warm and dry, as rain and wind and thunder and lightning unleash the fury on the world outside.

Kerstin and Louise.
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I run into Louise and Kerstin at the cafe near the campground a few hours later. We spend an hour talking about the differences between America and Australia, and the stereotypes that Australians apply to Americans. They explain that Americans are seen as fat, loud, competitive, unaware of countries other than the United States, fond of driving big cars, and having a sense of humor that values the obvious over the subtle. Yet they both feel like the America they've experienced in the last few weeks flies in the face of many of those stereotypes. I think they're both right and wrong. Even though the last three months have revealed the thoughtful, generous, helpful, more complex side of this country, I can't deny that there are large numbers of selfish, insensitive, sheltered, always-in-a-rush people who give the stereotype legs. A quick look around any parking lot in a National Park shows as much.

The industrial-strength washing machines of Yellowstone are beautiful this time of year.
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I return to the tent as night falls. Two bike riding couples laugh in the tents closest to mine, while the group of at least a dozen people across the road talks, yells, laughs, whistles, listens to Spanish-language soft rock music on a radio, and calls out "Car!" every time a car drives up the path. I crawl into my sleeping bag and think about my escape from Yellowstone tomorrow and how I'll break off from the TransAm a day or two afterward. I look forward to both.

Today's ride: 46 miles (74 km)
Total: 4,965 miles (7,990 km)

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