Jackson, Wy - Arco, Id: 159 miles. Total: 2773 miles
I cannot wait to leave this scuzzy Jackson motel. It is early morning and still dark outside but I am itching to get out of here. The sight of a long line of restaurants and touristic attractions puts me off. 7 am is a good time to get going. The cold air hits me instantly; I was too optimistic wearing only the short sleeves. I put on my rain jacket and I take road 22 west. Through the mist, nowhere as thick as in Yellowstone, I reach Wilson and from then on it is a slow grid up the 6-mile climb to the Teton Pass of 8432 ft. It is the steepest climb I have ever taken on, I shift in my lowest gear and use it the whole way. I never stop until I reach the pass of this 10% grade murder of a climb. I work incredibly hard, my hands turn from frozen to lukewarm to unbearably hot, my breath turns heavy and the view turns spectacular. I reach the top and I am engulfed by a feel of total elation. The top of the mountain is the place where all dreams arrive and all the dreams begin. You’ve reached the plateau, the point of dominance, the place where sight finds its best field of vision; the world is below, far and distant, small, almost insignificant, moving aimlessly below, like little ants that cannot hurt unless they also go through the same pain it takes to reach the summit. I think that’s why the first thing you want to do when you reach the top of the mountain is to be quiet. The top is a black and white experience, it reveals the world inside and out, and there is not escape, no shelter, no denial. If you don’t want to be there you don't need to get down, you just don't start the climb, it is a quite simple proposition actually. Standing on the top of the mountain is the very moment of absorption of the fatigue and the sacrifices that one had to endure on the way up; and that is always, without expectation, a solitary experience. As I am lost in thought admiring the scenery around me I notice the beauty of the mountain, the wonder of both small and big things, the clarity of the lines of the slopes, the peaks, the rocks, the world in perfect symmetry, or so it seems, with the surrounding scenery.
I love the climb up the pass, love seeing the cars zipping by not knowing what I know, not feeling what I feel. I enjoy the intense breeze which stabs my skin like a thousand knives and shakes me violently without asking questions. I stare at the road behind, which I can hardly see now but I can picture it twisting around the hill switchback after switchback.
As I prepare for the descent I realize I haven't sweated much due to the cold air, which is good because that means that on the way down I won't be as cold. But I am cold. The decent hurls me down the mountain at a blazing pace. I fear for my life, a pebble, a wet patch, a piece of paper, a leaf, anything that chance throws on my path can end my life. I would fall head first off the slope with a bicycle attached to my feet, not a pleasant ending. I tap the brakes here and there in an effort to control pace and bicycle, a man of 60 kgs down a mountain at 40 mph on a piece of carbon and two rubber wheels can be a deadly combination. I feel the wind crashing on my skin, hitting me head on as I attempt to look left and right. No way I am looking at the scenery, I know it is awesome but I am busy at the moment. With the corner of my eyes I can see the green overgrowth on the mountain sides. The road takes me down for miles into a valley and then another and gradually away from the Teton Mountains range. I see the Idaho sign from afar and take the customary picture. As I descend the temperature picks up and from rocky steep mountain walls I am surrounded by a thick forest, which covers the hills everywhere I look. The road follows Snake river until it reaches a large valley where wheat fields dominate, how long has it been since I have seen those? From there I climb another 3 miles to another pass of 6500ft but nothing as strenous as the the early morning one and the descend shoots me all the way down to Swan Valley. From there I ride the 30 miles to Idaho Falls in record time. I take advantage of an unprecedented tailwind and totally psyched by the progress that I am making I reach the city at 1.30pm with already 90 miles in the bag. The day is going incredibly well. I stop at a gas station just outside town and check the tires. They don't need air and the chain looks immaculate. No way I am stopping. Tricky though. I have a rough 65mile ride to Arco and there is nothing in between. I don't think about it twice, I am feeling great and the wind is blowing from the south east so if I am lucky I catch another tailwind for a while. I take a quick spin around the historic downtown and I am surprised at how tiny it is. Which makes me realize that Idaho Falls grows from the edges on account of lots of different types of informal business. The greater urban area, which takes me a good 30 minute to navigate would certainly suggest that Mexicans are the main group here.
I take road 26 out of Idaho Falls and something is not quite right. The wind has turned or what? Didn't someone get the memo? Probably not because I have a headwind now and the farther I leave the urban structures behind the stronger the sucker blows. Yep, it is a headwind and in a few miles there is nothing but the road which stretches before me like a line drawn from my feet to the horizon. It flickers in the hot sun and the haze makes the place look like a damn desert. The land changes dramatically, the moment I leave Idaho falls I realize I am riding through a dry desert and the road is as exposed as it can be. I grind out 3 miles, then 5, then 7. It is getting harder and I am toying with the idea that I should go back and take it easy in Idaho Falls. But my mind doesn't seem to be made up. What should I do? The wind is kicking me back furiously and at 2.30 pm with 60 miles ahead this could be a situation. Let's keep going. I put my head down and I ride inside a 4 foot shoulder which is not as smooth as I would like but I'll take it. The many pebbles make the bike jump and my whole body vibrate with sudden uncomfortable jerks; when no cars are in sight I veer into the lane and stay there until I hear the next approaching vehicle.
After a while it is clear that the afternoon will be nothing like the morning. Morning is history. Mountains are history. I am now riding through some serious desert environment with a wind that is taking every joy out of my ride. I sport some dry, treeless mountains to my right and way up ahead, must be at least 50 miles but I can make out through the haze the lines of higher hills. The road rises steadily and with the headwind, it is like riding on a 6% grade. I barely manage to ride around 12 mph and it takes all my attention to keep the bike straight. This is gonna take some figuring out but I will make it. I have to. My mouth and lips are constantly dry and with 65 miles in the open desert with no services and only three water bottles I need to think this through. I decide that I will take a good sip every 7 miles and if I am averaging 11mph I should be in Arco before 8pm, that is with the last sunlight. Cars and large RVs zip by on the highway a few inches from me completely ignoring my plight. The wind is so strong that I am beginning to contemplate different quitting scenarios. But no, I stick to my plan, one more mile, just one more. Don't think 50 miles to go, think 1 mile to go, and then one more, and one more. Try that. I cannot even hear my thoughts the wind is blowing so hard dry bushes roll across the highway, the gusts slow me down to barely a crawl. The road is relentless, goes up and seems to be going up all the time, not a break anywhere, not a slight descent where I could just let my legs relax for a few seconds. Headwind and a gradual but steady uphill. I gear way way down and just push into it. It's a huge effort, and it's still hot as heck but that does not bother too much. I can't remember the last time biking was so difficult.
The only structure in the middle of this dry desert is a small group of low buildings well fenced and far from the highway. With the corner of my eyes I catch the building of the Idaho National Labs, which is the place where they build experimental nuclear reactors. In my unchained inner ramblings I am thinking: this is a perfect place where you enter a dusty creaky old building where a hidden elevator will shuttle you to the center of the earth to superlabs where hordes of spectacled scientists know things that mere mortals will never know. There are "no trespassing" signs all along the road, and strange complexes of buildings crop up far distant in the desert.
I am thinking what the hell I am doing here? I was in the mountains a few hours ago climbing passes with a swagger and now in the sizzling heat of a desert with inchorent thoughts driving me on there is nothing but a headwind. My lips hurt, I am so thirsty that all I can think about is cold drinks of all kinds, even the ones that I don't like, that I would never drink, right now I would pay 100 dollars for a cold bottle. The headwind is pushing me over the edge and I'm completely exhausted and spent and I still have so many miles to get to Arco. It is the toughest challenge of the whole trip. I am down to my last half water bottle and I have no idea how to save that because I am dying to drink it right now. I am crawling at 12, 11, 10 miles per hour. The sun begins to drop to the west and it will soon be setting, the wind sucks every ounce of strength out of my muscles and coherency out of my brain. My knees hurt, my left foot hurts, my right triceps hurts, I have no more saliva in my mouth. I should stop and hitch a ride? But even that seems impossible to do, the few vehicles that fly by seem to belong to a different world, one that does not concern itself with mine, who's got time for this insane man riding his bicycle in the desert? I'm practically delirious I am gonna start screaming soon. I am about to drink the last drop of water when I see a tiny dot to my left. What is it? a UFO? Let's check it out. After what it feels like one hour I can make out a building. The structure stands in the middle of nowhere but a clean American flag flapping crazily on top of it suggests that it is an official place and it is open, maybe? I get to it in what it feels like another hour and I realize it is a rest area; inside the building there is a water fountain. I run to it letting my bike fall in the middle of the wind-swept, empty parking lot and I drink so much water that I could fill a water tub. I am so grateful to whoever put that thing in the middle of desert that I could just offer myself to him/her/them, anything to express my gratitude. I rest a few minutes before I draw on all my energy to ride the last 15 miles to Arco. I plow ahead into a fierce headwind that never for one second has stopped blowing against my small body and my light bicycle. My mouth goes dry again but I have plenty of water now. All I can do is make sure that I ride in the narrow shoulder and just witness an incredible desert sunset right in front of me. It takes me almost two hours to go those 15 miles and at 7.50 PM with 158.5 miles on the odometer I spot the 'Entering Arco' sign and emit a yell that must have woken up all the desert foxes around. I see a motel right across the street and I can barely talk to the nice guy who gives me a room for 39 dollars. He asks me where I am from and I blurt out a DCesque sound. He says: Seattle? I just nod before I let on that I am basically speaking incoherently, and all I want to do is to sprawl out on his desk. In the shower of my tiny room I gather my thoughts and I begin to regain strength and a smile forms across my face. 159 miles, two shorts of my record (2010 in Kansas, flat and windless day it was back then!) but with this headwind it counts like 200 miles. The nice guy who will never know where I am from tells me that the town diner is really good. And he is right. Arco is probably the best small town that I have stayed at. It is not even a small town, it is a desert outpost. Has a nice little city park where a submarine and other nuclear-related weapons are on display, two motels and one diner, which serves a really good hamburger. How they call it? The Atomic burger! I eat two of them.
I am in the middle of the desert and the two roads out of here cross more desolation and wind-swept arid landscape. But I am so happy that I have survived today that what tomorrow will bring is a problem of tomorrow.