Cycling in America, pt.1

I’m currently in Pinedale, Wyoming. Yesterday was a beautiful day on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a cycling route I’ve been following on and off for the past few weeks.

It goes all the way from Banff in Alberta to Antelope Wells on the border with Mexico. I’m just following parts of it, because to do all of it I’d need a more mountain-ready bike with less weight. But more about that later.

Yesterday, I was flowing along nicely over Union Pass, a 9,200ft pass that crosses the continental divide over some stunning Alpine scenery.

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Beautiful views from halfway down Union Pass. Note the rocky road!

The road was gravely and rocky, which was slowing me down a bit, but the views made up for it. By evening I was descending as planned towards Pinedale taking in the views of the Wind River mountain range ahead of me, when suddenly I heard a snap from the back of my bike and I skipped to a stop. My rack, which holds all of my luggage, had snapped both forks. Pretty bad news when I still have 6 days or so on my route, across the Wyoming basin and through the Colorado rockies.

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One snapped rack stem…

I managed to bungee-cord the rack to my seatpost and struggled on to Pinedale, a small town in the middle of Wyoming. This morning I’ve found a cheap rack in a hardware store here, attached it, and hopefully (fingers crossed) it will hold for the rest of the journey. I’m not overly confident about it though, so decided to take the day off to allow other cyclists catch up and I can ride with them tomorrow through the desert.

Which gives me time to write a blog post! I’ll run through how the trip has gone so far:

I began after a couple of days in Tacoma, Washington, where I learned how to build a bike down at the community bike shop with Travis, Noah and Nate.

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Travis with the completed bike

Then it was on to the North Cascades National Park, where Angela, a friend from my time in Korea, is studying at the North Cascades Institute. It’s a beautiful region with high lofty peaks, loads of bears, marmots, mountain goats and birdlife. We spent a day hiking up to a glacier with Chris (another friend from Ulsan) and Becky, Angela’s friend.

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Up on the shoulder of the mountain, looking South

The next day I began my cycle proper, with an extremely tough 110kms over Washington Pass. Most of the day consisted of climbing up steep roads. I spend 60kms in total climbing. I was exhausted at the top, and much appreciated the pizza and beer in Mazama at the bottom of the pass.

From there it was two days through the Winthrop and Okanogan valleys, lovely hot dry valleys where the snowmelt from the Rockies allows for intense irrigation and a very successful fruit and wine farming industry.

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Flat, hot roads through the Okanogan Valley

Over the next few days I passed through rural Washington State. People were very friendly. I stopped off in the town of Republic, where I had beers with the local Democratic party organiser, and a few local woodcutters, who were definitely not Democratic. I was stopped by the side of the road by a friendly volunteer fire station who were having a barbeque and plied me with food and drink. And I camped by the Pond d’Oreille river where a ‘military’ family (father and son had both worked in the army and had interesting opinions) offered me dinner and some fish they had caught that day.

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Republic Brewing Company, a brewery in an old fire station

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A friendly fire station by the Pond d’Oreille river. Over 70% of fire stations here are voluntary, and they have to deal with massive forest fires every year

A day later I was in Sandpoint, Idaho, where I spent a relaxing two days with Lindsey and Jacob, friends from my time in Taebaek. Lindsey runs an outdoor shop in town but it was the weekend so we took their boat out on the lake and went for dinner in a village across the bay.

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Trying to drive a boat in Sandpoint

My next destination was Glacier National Park, but to get there I had to cycle through some beautiful mountainous roads through Idaho and Northern Montana. I really enjoyed the little towns of Libby and Eureka, and met some friendly people in their local Breakfast joints.

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Lake Koocanusa, a huge reservoir that stretches North to the Canadian border

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Eureka, Northern Montana

To get from Eureka to Glacier National Park I had to first crest the Whitefish Divide, a high pass over a very bumpy forestry track. It was a tough day, made all the tougher by experiencing my first technical on my bike when a big rock kicked up by my front wheel smashed my rear derailleur into the spokes of my back wheel. Dejected by the side of the road, I attempted to knock the derailleur back into shape. Lucky a nice older couple gave me a lift ten miles down the road to Polebridge, my destination for the night. The North Fork Hostel is a biker’s haven, run by a touring cyclist from Germany and populated that night by no less than 23 cyclists. So with their help I got it sorted!

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The North Fork Hostel, on the border of Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park lies in the extreme North of the US, bordering Canada and cresting at the Rocky Mountain ridge. A road goes through the park called the Going-To-The-Sun-Road, and I took it over the most spectacular scenery of the trip so far. My destination that day was Waterton Lakes National Park, over the border in Canada, where I met up with Payam, another friend from the Korean teaching days, and his friend Harry. We spent a day barbequeing, drinking beer and driving to some viewpoints in the park. The perfect rest day.

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Panorama of the Going-To-The-Sun-Road

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You can see the line of the road as it follows the contours up the mountain

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With Payam at Waterton Lake

From Waterton, I headed back over the Going-To-The-Sun-Road, spent two days heading South to Lincoln, Montana through areas where forest fires raged and ‘fire camps’ had been set up where people from all over the Northwest arrived and camped out to help with the fire-quelling efforts (apparently this is quite lucrative).

In Lincoln, I met up with a group of Great Divide bikers who were heading on the same route as me. I met them in the morning at a breakfast diner. I have been burning around 6,000 calories a day cycling, and without American style breakfasts (sausages, eggs, hash browns, coffee, pancakes, toast etc.) I don’t know how I’d get through a lot of these days. I could easily have two dinners and still feel hungry. Anyway, we met in a breakfast diner, a place where long distance cyclists spend a lot of their mornings!

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Breakfast diner in Lincoln, Montana

We cycled together over a pretty steep pass, by chance passing the cabin where the Unabomber lived in the 80s and 90s, and finished our day in a beautiful cabin in fields overlooking a lush valley. Ten bicyclists, One cabin, Two llamas.

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Cycling that day included a fair bit of pushing!

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John and Barbara’s Biker Cabin (spot the Llama)

The cabin was free for us to camp at. The Great Divide route passes through some very remote areas and quite a few local people have opened up their gardens, cabins and sometimes even their homes to passing cyclists. Pickup trucks passing sometimes offer water or advice on the route, and people a generally very friendly.

After a few hard days on the road, I was tiring and needed a rest day. I stopped in Butte, known as ‘The Richest Hill on Earth’, which was at one time the copper capital of the world. Those days have passed, the population has dropped from 130,000 to 30,000, and now it’s quite a surreal place to visit. Half the town is abandoned and huge mine shafts and tailing piles dominate the landscape. I arrived when the Eval Kneival show was in town, so it was quite busy, with plenty of motorbike tricks and bikers drinking on the streets.

From Butte, the final leg of my trip is a 10/11 day trip across Southern Montana, Wyoming and Colorado to Denver, where I’ll finish up. I spent the first two days passing through drier but no less spectacular scenery which gives Montana its nickname ‘Big Sky Country’, camping in the ghost town of Bannock one night (it was the first capital of Montana but when the gold ran out, so did the people. This happens quite frequently in this part of the world).

Throughout my journey, I’ve been amazed at the amount of open spaces in the US. The reason for this is a lot of America is Public Land, owned by the state, where people are not allowed to build or develop. Much of it is forested in the Northwest, but a lot is just wilderness. In Montana alone, there is 144,000km2 of public land. In comparison, the entire area of Ireland is 84,000km2.

Leaving Montana reluctantly behind, I headed into Wyoming, and into the Yellowstone National Park. There, I didn’t manage to see any animals, but lots of tourists. It’s jammed at this time of year, with tailbacks of cars and huge crowds at the main geyser sites. Still, it was nice to see.

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Panorama of a trail I followed off road in Yellowstone

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Morning Glory Pool. The colours are created by the gasses escaping from deep within the pool and the bacteria that live in it

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I’ve noticed that a lot of tourists don’t even look at what they are taking a photo of. This is Old Faithful, one of the largest geysers in the world.

Since Yellowstone, I’ve followed a lovely route through the Bridger-Teton national forest (one of the biggest in the world) into Wyoming proper, where I am now after a 10 hour cycle yesterday, 3 of those spent with a broken luggage rack.

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Togwotee Pass, one of the passes I came over to get here

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Finally, a lone Grizzly Bear spotted on top of the Togwotee Pass. He was just munching away on some grass, not bothered by me at all

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The Pinnacles, a mountain range that has dominated my view over the past two days

So there you have it, a very rushed and not-too-detailed recap of the trip so far. I have around another week on the bike to Denver (if I get there with this new rack!) where I’ll meet up with Gareth and Aubrey for a few days and from there I’ll be on the trains to Chicago and New York.

Now I’m off for a burger. Back on the road tomorrow to Atlantic City, a city (village) nowhere near the Atlantic.

 

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