Canyon Village, Wy - Jackson, Wy: 119 miles. Total: 2614 miles
From the beautiful and restful solitude of my room buried in sheets and under a thick blanket I hear a car door being shut forcefully outside. I raise my eyes to the blinds on the window and I see the dark blue daylight shining through them. It is 6.45 and yesterday at this time I was already out there on the bike, climbing the Beartooth Highway.
Come on, you need to get out of Yellowstone, get up man. I know it is cold outside, I don't need to step out to find out, I can see it from the dew on the cars and on the grass. The Lodge sits at 8000ft so of course it is cold. Last night I enjoyed the most amazing starry sky that America has to offer. On my walk back to my room from the cafeteria I looked up in total amazement. The Milky Way cut the sky like a splash of gray paint on a black canvass and around it, hundreds of shiny dots all over the black immensity. I did my best to stay away from large groups, Japanese, Europeans, Americans; Yellowstone sells big. The whole place 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. The lady at the northeast entrance that checked me into the park had a fake smile and blurted something about the road, I am sure she has no idea about the history of Yellowstone. Does she know what she is protecting? There's no feeling of community, no sense of history, and no shared purpose beyond selling over-priced rooms, low-grade chicken and turkey and french fries. The small-town soul I love is nowhere to be found. It's mostly like a giant tourist machine which must make money at all costs and the tourists come because let's face it...it is a freaking awesome place. But it does come at a price. Literally!!
Quick, let's get dressed and ride up to the gas station to drink a hot chocolate. The Lodge does not offer breakfast and I won't go for the super expensive food in the village cafeteria. I check out and my eyes fall on the TV screen behind the desk, 43f. Good luck. I deliberately burn my mouth drinking the hot chocolate and it does me good, for about 5 minutes that is. As soon as I defy the morning air I know what I am dealing with. I wear everything I have, two jerseys and the rain cover. Some layers I am wearing, probably warm enough for a chilly Ohio morning. I ride south and the road stays flat, I was expecting a drop but nothing doing. After barely one mile I lose sensation in my feet, completely. My hands go right after, I try to place them near the handlebar bag to use it as protection. Yeah, right. It does nothing to shield my dead hands from the thousands of knives that stab my skin as I cycle through the air. My eyes are watery, my nose is running like I am a 5 year old and the tip of the nose is frozen solid, if an object is thrown against it I am pretty sure that the nose would break in a hundred shards. What now? I'm entering a heavy, thick fog, what is this? The world around me disappears behind this mist and I can barely make out some silhouettes here and there and all I see is the white line to the side of the road, stay close to it. I have no choice, there is no shoulder in Yellowstone and the whole freaking Park is the least bike-friendly place in the whole universe (after Peoria of course). It is surreal, where am I? The land is flat and treeless, tundra, a few creeks that give off a sulfuric smell...of course! I am riding in the big caldera of the park. This is a large round area where fractures and cracks on the earth crust are the results of million of years of volcanic activity. The whole place is a volcano. Yellowstone is a massive underground reservoir of magma and the caldera is the cap to it all. Volcanic fumes, fog, the spooky line of a tree or a bush or a buffalo and the fog which obscures everything. Cars, I can only hear them and as they approach I stick my left arm out and start waving it like I am trying to get rid of a snake in my armpit. This is insane, it is freezing, my teeth are clinking, my toes are beyond sore and my fingers cannot move. To break I use the whole hand because the fingers won't bend. The fog thickens and I have no choice but to stop because this is too dangerous. Try to think, the real danger comes from cars, they can't see you. What do we do man? I look around trying to find a solution and I turn my face to my right and I see a white shadow stealthy moving across a field of fog. What is that? Wait, no, it can't be! A wolf! I take out my camera with my useless hand and I try to immortalize the moment. In a instant the wolf is swallowed by the mist and it is over. It is too cold and I get back on the bike. I keep pushing on with extreme caution, I ride almost 15 miles in this eerie and weird atmosphere which I will never forget. It is as if noise produced by the bike echoes through the fog and travels back to me reminding me that I am alone in the world. The ride is the most surreal experience I have had with the bike. The fog doesn't lift but I make it out. Alive. At Fishing Village I treat myself to another hot chocolate, I can't even pay for it because I cannot unzip the bag to get the money. I ask the lady at the counter to do it for me. I am smiling but I want to cry. The hot drink helps me a little and I wait a few minutes and the fog gradually lifts and my fingers begin to move again. I keep tapping them against the breaks and it works. From freezing to wet though, as I approach Yellowstone Lake it begins to rain. Shit! Can I catch a break?! That's enough problems for today please. Nope, no one answers my prayer and it rains heavily and as per script I get soaked. After a few miles I spot a rangers house in the middle of the forest and I stop outside to take shelter under the roof. That might save my belongings but my feet have already made the transition from frozen to wet, I don't know which is worse. My feet and socks are soaked and it ain't even 10 am. This is going to be one of those days; it's going to be a long, cold day I suspect. Luckily, in a few minutes, the rain clouds move east and a beautiful patch of blue sky opens right above me. I keep going but by now the road is mad with traffic. These suckers were snuggled up in the warmth of their beds when I was fighting the cold and the fog and now, after they have taken their sweet ass time, they feel they own the road. I should have the road for myself and they should wait for me to finish my ride. I laugh at my ridiculous thoughts and plod along. The cold, the fog, the rain and now a shitload of cars and motorhomes passing close is a lot to deal with. I don't know how to put myself in the right state of mind to deal with the traffic. Cautious, upset, aloof, tense. Yellowstone is not a place for bicycles, that's for sure. Everyone is in a rush, most of the cars seem to hurry to an imaginary place where...what? They give out free chicken strips? Free rooms? or a Free buffalo steaks? Riding in Yellowstone is as much about self-preservation as it is about enjoying the scenery. When I reach the South Entrance I breathe a sigh of relief. I made it out alive through a place that buzzes with tourists from all over the world that have no understanding or culture or patience for cyclists. And the roads here are not for cyclists. The world here is not for cyclists. I have a feeling I will not return to Yellowstone on a bike. I am really happy to leave the Park. Dead and living trees climb the walls of the hillsides 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 am excited because I know what's coming next. I am sporting a stupid smile and I can't figure out if I'm in love with the scenery or the fact that I have just said goodbye to Yellowstone and its hordes of hurried tourists. No sooner do I leave Yellowstone that I see a sign which heralds another peach of a place: the Tetons. I soon realize the difference between the two parks. The traffic in Teton is still heavy but way more relaxed than Yellowstone and to my delight, the road offers a large and smooth shoulder. This is gonna be a good afternoon I am thinking. I need it. My feet are still wet and I can feel the wrinkle skin sliding in my wet socks. The sky is still menacing to my west and moody clouds offer a dramatic if scary sight right above the mountain line. As I ride past the entrance sign to the Park I am thinking that these last five days have been incredible, the things I have seen, the things I have felt...just unbelievable. And Grand Teton is equal to its predecessors, it lives up to the hype. Wow. I crest a hill and to my right I see jugged peaks, most of them shrouded in clouds. But the wind has picked up since leaving the Caldera at Yellowstone and it helps blowing those clouds away from the tops. There they are the rocky steep peaks of the Tetons. Spectacular. I have a headwind but I don't mind, the sight of the peaks beats any suffering. No heartache can win against the beauty before me. As I ride fast toward the Tetons all I can think, and I am pretty sure I say this aloud, is "God, this world is fucking beautiful!"
The Park is extremely civilized and caters to bikers. At one point along the John Rockefeller Jr. Parkway I spot a large electronic sign in big orange flashy letters, I ride toward it with my head down resigning to another patch of road construction and instead as the letters come into focus I read: Yield to Bicycles! Am I dreaming? Who put it there? Is it for me? I take a picture of this historic sign, which I have never seen before in my life! I know it is for me. There no cyclists around, I am the only one. Of course it isn't for me but I want to believe it is and feeling like Truman in the Truman Show where the whole world facilitates all of my moves, I realize how happy I am I am here on my bicycle. Adrenaline picks up and nothing can put a damper on my damp body. As I coast down the hill to the Jackson Lake Dam the wind picks up even more but it offers a clear sweeping view of the Tetons. I need a frontal view though. So I hurry back on the bike and ride another five miles and I coast around a bend and see one of the most amazing sights in America: the Grand Teton mountain range. It runs in a straight line across the western horizon, pointy and jagged, covered with snow here and there, and looking bluish and menacing through the early afternoon haze. I immediately stop dead in my tracks by the side of the road with my mouth agape like I have just been told that I will have spend the whole night with Marion Cottilard. The Badlands were mysterious, the Black Hills a special treat, the Beartooth a personal victory and Yellowstone a gradual fascination but this is love at first sight, the kind that takes your breath away. Headwind pummels me as I ride to the west and stare in awe at the mountains ahead and the tall green grass that lines the valley floor and waves straight at me in the breeze. The Tetons stand so perfectly placed and framed that it's almost like they aren't real—it's as if they're a giant background created on a computer and projected on an impossibly huge screen that hangs down from the sky. They are absolutely and completely remarkable and I can't look away. I am stunned. Another moment that will linger in my memory forever.
My ride slows down from now on because I can't help but stop at will to take pictures and just stare in awe at the magnificent wall of rock that rises vertically to my right. With dramatic rocky peaks standing to the west above everything, less than 500 yards from me it's phenomenal riding all the way to Jackson. Despite some more rain and the constant headwind, I am oblivious to all these hurdles as the beautiful, unique, dramatic world around me shows me without mistake that I am loved.
Jackson is a very clean and tourist-friendly town, it must be I suppose, it caters for all the tourists of both Teton and Yellowstone. It is welcoming but it is also incredibly fake. All of the buildings are done up with siding that resembles either logs or slightly uneven planks a la alpine style to remind tourists that...what? We are in the mountains?? Dah! But no matter how nostalgic and real they are trying so hard to look on the outside, nothing can cover up the fact that the main street is a long line of overpriced hotels, restaurants, gift shops, candy stores, gas stations. I ride though downtown and at the west side of town I spot a bike shop where I let the guys clean my chain, which was really dirty after days in the mountains and after the rain today. Perfectly in line with the moneymaking philosophy of this region the guy takes the bike for half hour and charges me 24 dollars for cleaning and lubing my chain. Crazy! I have stopped at ten bike shops at least so far on my ride and nobody has ever charged me for the same service. I make sure that they are given this piece of information which I am sure won't change their way of doing business but at least the chain is clean and the tires are well inflated.
The air cools quickly after the sun drops below the horizon, the beautiful hills that tower over the highway remind me that I am still in a land of incredible natural beauty. Who cares about Jackson, who cares about fake. But I need this reminder because the motel I am staying at is by far the worse place I have stayed on the ride. And at 99 bucks is a total rip-off but then again it fits in with the tourist traps that Jackson Hole and Yellowstone are. The wifi signal is too weak for me to upload the pictures so I walk across the busy highway and spend two hours at Mc Donalds, two Big Macs and two large fries fill my stomach before it is time for me to head back to the depressing room. But nothing has been depressing about my ride so far. I am still mystified by it all. With or without Marion Cotillard, I love my life.
Tomorrow I expect more tough climbing on highway 22 and then a long descent on 31 and highway 26 into a sizable town: Idaho falls. Depending on when I get there I might stay or I might decide to take on the wide wilderness of Idaho. Who's gonna stop me?