Day 99: Grant Village Campground to Gallatin National Forest - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 20, 2011

Day 99: Grant Village Campground to Gallatin National Forest

The wind blows strong enough to bend the top of the tent and makes the cold morning seem even colder. I say goodbye to the idea of an early start and shove my body deeper into the sleeping bag, pull the zipper all the way to the top, wrap the upper flap tightly around my head and face, turn over, and decide not to get out until the sun hits the rain fly and the natural furnace gets going.

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The highway splits just past Grant Village, with one road heading to the northeast and my route running to the northwest. It helps divide the traffic and soon I pick up a tiny shoulder where there wasn't one before—but half of a shitload of cars and motorhomes passing close is still a lot to deal with. I tell myself that I'm not riding through the woods, but a suburb where all of the houses and schools and mini-malls have turned to trees. It helps put me in the right state of mind to deal with the madness that's always rushing by.

A factually accurate statement.
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Every 15 cars or so I notice a Washington State license plate. Each one adds a little more fuel to the thoughts of home that are starting to burn inside.

Everyone's tired after almost 5,000 miles of riding.
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Rolling along one of the only flat sections of the morning I spot a loaded touring bike headed my way. I stop and introduce myself to Mickey, an older woman from the Netherlands who started in Seattle and is riding on to Pueblo before making a sharp turn and continuing to San Francisco. She's quiet, unassuming, and speaks with a thick Dutch accent—and turns out to be the most accomplished touring bike rider I've ever met.

At one point in our conversation I mention the TransAm.

"Yah, I've ridden daht," she says. "Back een 1976, zee original, frahm Vahginia to Oregon. Ahnd zen I vas bahk again for ze twenty-fifs annivahsary celebration een Missoula."

She's also traveled across Eurasia.

"Eet vas ahfter I beat cancah. I rode frahm Amstahdam to Vladivostok."

She tells me that she hasn't felt well for the past few days—something related to the stomach—which leads her to reveal that she once contracted malaria while cycling the length of Africa. When I talk about the TransAm, Glacier National Park, and the Great Divide route I always get some variation on the same response: "Oh yah, I've done daht." She's even crossed Australia—twice. Once from north to south and once from east to west.

"So how many miles do you figure you've ridden in your life?" I ask. "A hundred-thousand?"

She thinks on it a moment.

"Mmm ... probably sree."

Three! As in 300,000 miles of bike riding! I'm blown away, completely speechless.

We talk by the side of the busy Yellowstone road for 15 minutes, about the three times she's visited the park, about amazing ice cream a few days away in Virginia City, and about the great people from the Netherlands that I've met on this trip. I also give Mickey the chance to vent her frustrations about riding through the mess of Yellowstone while feeling sick and tired and weak.

"Oh, sank you so much far leestening," she says with a smile and a laugh before we each clip back in and head our opposite directions. "Eets lahk a veight off my mind. I feel bettah ahready!"

Somehow I feel better too, knowing that even one of the most battle-tested touring bikers in the world, a skilled solo traveler, can still use an open ear and a friendly smile every now and then.

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I make the turn toward Old Faithful and regret it right away. The road soon leads me to a concentrated mess of cars and people and restaurants and gift shops. I see steaming pots nearby and also spot the plume from Old Faithful itself in the distance, but I can't find the desire to go take a look at either of them. I've seen the pictures 50 times in cycle-touring journals alone, and I could watch a hundred more videos on YouTube. The crowded scene is a helpful reminder of what I already knew: that I need to get out of Yellowstone and back to small towns, to weird bars, to lonely highways, and to campsites where I've never hear the sound of mariachi music as I try to fall asleep.

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My time near Old Faithful does reveal one amazing thing: Pringles. I've been alive in America for 28-plus years and not once before had I enjoyed their deep-fried, crispy, greasy, carefully-stacked-in-a-can goodness. They're going to challenge honey buns and Snickers bars for the top spot in my bags.

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A few miles up the road an SUV pulls out from a parking area along the side of the highway just ahead of me and slowly accelerates toward 45 miles per hour. The huge, bright red Dodge Ram truck with the giant aftermarket exhaust coming up from behind can't handle being held up for eight seconds. It's totally unacceptable. I hear a downshift, the roar of a turbo-diesel engine, and see the truck fly out into the other lane to go around. A thousand feet ahead the driver of a dark green Volkswagen hits the brakes in between screaming out something profane and crapping himself, which gives the truck just enough space to complete the pass and move back into his lane. A few different variables and the outcome could have been so much worse.

Ten seconds later I see brake lights. The driver of the Dodge slows down to turn off and go see a bunch of steaming holes in the ground along with 300 other people.

I'm sure there's a good time of the year to experience Yellowstone, but holy shit is this not that time.

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During the afternoon I learn a great trick: stop and take pictures of something—of anything, really—and watch the cars and trucks slow down and sometimes pull completely off the road in front or behind me. Everyone's in a rush, but there's no way in hell they'll miss the chance to snap a photo of an elk or a moose or something else suitably wild.

The best part of the park comes at the end, as the road winds down through a valley along the banks of the slow-moving Madison River and past dozens of fly fishermen. Dead and living trees both climb the walls of the hillsides until the grade turns too steep—then they give way to nearly vertical faces of rock that stand rough and jagged with what looks like a thousand teeth and claw marks. I can't figure out if I'm in love with the scenery or the fact that I'm about to say goodbye to Yellowstone.

Modest Montana.
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I cross into Montana, out of the park, and into the town of West Yellowstone, a place that clings to the edge of the park like a hemorrhoid. All of the buildings are done up with siding that resembles either logs or slightly uneven planks, but no matter how nostalgic they look on the outside, nothing can cover up the fact that the two main streets are long lines of restaurants, gift shops, candy stores, gas stations, and motels. And I can't complain one bit. I dive headfirst into the welcoming arms of hot pizza, wireless Internet, and a strong cell phone signal, and forget all about the craziness of the past few days.

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I pass up cheap camping in town for the lure of cheaper camping farther north. What I find instead is the most expensive Forest Service campground in the country. Determined not to pay for a patch of dirt for eight hours while surrounded on all sides by public land I keep riding. Soon I shoot off the highway onto a gravel back road, but don't find a good, hidden spot within a few minutes so I turn around. Just before I reach pavement again I hit a deep bump that causes a staple already embedded in the tread of the rear tire to poke through the tube. With the sun close to setting it's bad timing, but I can't get too down. It's my first puncture flat in more than 5,000 miles.

On two round tires I roll another mile north, ride a quarter-mile down a side road, and then push the bike back into an open patch of grass and scrubby plants among widely spaced pine trees. I throw all of my food and bathroom gear into my bear-proof canister, toss it under a tree near the road, and hope that it does its job.

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The air cools quickly after the sun drops below the horizon. I leave the rain fly off and stare up into the big, dark blue Montana sky as insects make tweeting noises all around and cars speed by every couple of minutes on the nearby highway. The trees stand still and I try to point my mind in any direction other than bear.

Today's ride: 61 miles (98 km)
Total: 5,026 miles (8,089 km)

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