Lactic acid burns for each foot raised. Un-cyclical steps stretch muscles un-tweaked, adjusting feet to match multifaceted rock. I’m hiking upwards. A force within me, stronger than the song singing that is me, compels a trek toward this peak, like the ants that naturally climb up the walls of my tent shell. Their silhouettes erratically ascending, undeterred in their mission regardless of my flicks lending them unnatural flight. A certain rock is poised atop in bold grandeur, and I’m pulled toward it, a hook attached within reeling me skyward. I am the fish asking, “what the hell is water?” The inflorescence marking my path is stark in size to the mountains abounding, but equally stark is their fluorescent essence glowing even midday. All flowers seizing life at these heights declare their resiliency in bewildering brightness.
The breadth of my lungs gasps to grasp enough of the thin air. I hoist myself onto this lofty rock perch, sporadically caked in a green, black, and orange crust. Bighorn Peak exhales a gentle breeze from the west, to my right, coaxing the hair on my arms to dance and the teal sleeves of my shirt into supple ripples. Slowly, I inhale to full-chest expansion, sauntering sight seized, slowed to stop, gazing down upon the Big Horn forest’s pine-needle tree tops. As a stray cloud relieves sun’s rays, I drop my eye lids. Middle Clear Creak meanders with celerity below, rushing and gurgling around rocks and trees fallen to inert calmness. My mind is transported back to Michigan shorelines by the swift sounds of the bustling water. Coasts are creased with waves of farewell and the trusted embrace of welcoming home.
“…I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
I laid my own to beat,
And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.
For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I; in sound I speak…”
-Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven
Before I departed on this journey, a dear friend emboldened me to “live up to yourself.” This encouragement has certainly been an introspective delving and dwelling which doesn’t come easy. Even so, our closest companions in life will always maintain angles that reveal aspects of ourselves that we may be unwillingly and unremittingly blind to. May they have the courage to point them out. It is a journey in itself, certainly, to stay true to ourselves, “dealing out that being indoors each one dwells…”
“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came…”
-Gerard Manly Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire
Catching up where we left off, I was camped on the peripheral mountainside outside Sundance, and intended to depart early for the Key Hole Reservoir. My destination was directly due-west, and according to my shoulder-shrugging map reading, shouldn’t tax endurance toward fatigue. After thoroughly enjoying hot breakfast with Mike and Laurie, I ambled back to my camp with a coffee pep perking my steps and began packing up. By this point, I can do it with my eyes closed. My gear now gravitates to its proper place in the panniers near naturally. Tent deconstructs and packs in a manner of minutes. Panniers attach to racks easier than a sliding a backpack onto shoulders. Items stowed and in their upright positions, sunscreen and shammy-lube applied, a little morning booty-popping beat undulating in the ears (Pretty Lights), and I’m off.
That is, unless God and Devil intervene. Paul, the campground host, is making his morning rounds and I send him an upward head-nod greeting. Paul’s hair is as long as the creases in his skin, carved by years in the army. A pack of red Marlboro cigarettes protrudes from some illegible pocket in his shirt, and the eagerness of a single smoke to detach for its lit destiny matches Paul’s initial intrigue in the details of my journey. He smiles and relates, undeterred in his duties. Though Paul has anchored himself down as campground host, the allure of a vagabond lifestyle continues to grip the steering wheel of his retro motor home.
When inquired about my route, I mentioned Key Hole Reservoir. “You know Devil’s Tower is just north of here, right?” he asked. “Yeah, I know, but it’s a bit out of my way” I countered. Without a breath of hesitation, Paul says, “Well hey, I don’t know how you feel about taking rides on this bicycle trip, but I’d be happy to give you and your gear a lift up to see Devil’s Tower, and then you’ll have about the same distance to ride from there to Key Hole anyways.” Paul left the offer open-ended and continued on around the camp loop toward Mike and Laurie, checking registrations and greeting visitors. I mulled it over briefly, then wandered down to his site and took him up on the offer. My friends in Spearfish had talked with recollecting amazement of their recent journey there, so I felt prodded by fate to venture that direction.
Turns out, Paul is quite the tour guide. We rode to the top of the peak I dreaded ascending the night prior, climbed the fire tower, and rode two-track trails through rugged national forest, and I just listened to Paul talk. He lamented that large tracts of the National Forest had been recently seized by a private corporation for the sub-surface mineral rights, and is convinced when it’s all said, stripped, and done, a new lake will fill the land-ravaged area. Near this area, a hefty portion of land is for sale at 1.7 million. Paul also has some entrepreneurial vision, and is convinced that when that lake comes (if it comes), whoever owns that land will have invested in their own gold mine. He’s looking for co-investors if anyone has a cool million lying around.
Later that night, at Key Hole Reservoir, I camped atop some cliffs on the inside of the large C-shaped recreational lake. Sister Moon turned her face toward mine, and reflected magnificently off the lake. Stars scattered the black above while a chilling calmness seized the imperceptible darkness of the water below. In my solitude on those palisades, I stopped searching in the darkness and was found.
“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.”
-Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
I locked a ghost up in Key Hole Reservoir, burned a splashing black hole in the white sheen. For all my searching, it finally sank in that perhaps my deeper need was to seek ways in which to be found. My night camping on the cliffs above Key Hole Reservoir will remain with me on into eternity, I’m certain of that.
“When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”
-Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
Alright, we have a lot of land to cover still and this is getting lengthy. How about a short interlude! If you need a break, open up a new tab on your browser, go to YouTube, and search “Pretty Lights Country Roads remix”. The video shows a picture taken from the center white lines of a road. Enjoy that one, it’s a little taste of the soundtrack that has audibly painted the landscape of my trek. Let’s just make this easier for everyone – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAXz2z4giws
And we’re back! Hopefully you enjoyed the track that traces the trail of my disc trucker. Have I ever mentioned my absolute adoration and avidity around amusing and ambling alliteration? Words are fun to play with, which is another way of saying, yeah, I’m a nerd.
At this point, one of my closest friends drove up from Colorado to camp and hike with me in Yellowstone National Park and the Tetons. This is the same friend that hiked the Appalachian Trail last year and, in an earlier entry, I mentioned vicariously learning the lesson to “say yes” through him on the trail. Enter Cam Navis. He found me biking through a tiny Wyoming town and we appropriately greeted each other with mountain grinning grizzly bear hugs. Joy emanated from the reunion like the bedazzling glow from the high-mountain flowers that I just can’t wrap my head around.
For six days, Cam and I hiked, camped, shared stories, listened to the intellectual intrigue of David Foster Wallace on audio (I’m hooked, thanks Cam), threw Frisbees, built fires, drank beers, swung maddeningly at onslaughts of mosquitos, explored a deserted Mormon town, hiked a segment of the Continental Divide trail, stumbled upon an actual grizzly bear during a hike up Elephant Back in Yellowstone, saw elk and bison, hitchhiked, and ended up in Jackson, Wyoming.
Jackson ushered Cam back to Boulder and put me face-to-face with the imposing aura of the Tetons, their teeth foaming with snow caps, biting down on the pass that asserted an awe-full contemplation as rigid as its commanding countenance.
“The sea’s only gifts are harsh blows, and occasionally the chance to feel strong. Now I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that that’s the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing the blind deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.”
Out of Jackson, it’s a steady ascent toward the base of the pass – nothing like inclines to warm the legs up. About the time you reach the land’s deliberate attempt to turn you back, crack your confidence, convince you that it’s okay to take the long way around, there’s a turn off for the Old Pass Road. The city of Jackson has closed off this Old Pass Road to motorized vehicles, and maintains it for recreational purposes. Unsurprisingly, no one else was chomping at the bit to bite back and bike up the pass. One old-timer drove up to the start of the pass as I was perusing an informative sign on hiking trails in the area, delaying the inevitable. He smiled and shook his head, both of us thoroughly convinced that, yep, I’m crazy.
Climbing the Teton Pass was a true lesson in breaking down one massive objective into small goals. The sun was unrelenting that day, exposing those majestic mountains in their entire humbling splendor. I tasked myself with reaching shaded checkpoints, one at a time, squeezing streams of water down my throat in earnest hydration while it simultaneously poured out my pores. My determination did not waver. I parried off any signs of a sinking, despondent disposition by directing my sight out across the land where I had only earlier that day been. The progress I made propelled me further. Just make it to the next turn, the next switchback, beneath that pine tree’s rejuvenating shade.
Two and a half hours and nine switchbacks later from the base of the pass, I permeated the 8,000 foot ceiling and the peak of my pass that piqued my exhausted inclination to reach was in sight. I could see people standing around, gazing across the distance. My legs burned for repose. I ignored their plea, I was so close. As I reached the pull off for drivers, and for the first time all day the grace of gravity actually pulled my bike forward, I stopped, unclicked my shoes and while I stood straddling my bike, I threw my hands in the air and screamed in victorious exaltation. My celebratory proclamation reverberated off the pass’s sides and came echoing back down on me. Several folks admiring the view held fists up in congratulatory solidarity, offered words of praise, and one woman even handed me a mini bible. I sat down on a rock and strained my eyes to see the miniature Jackson nestled in the foothills below, miles away, where I had pushed off that morning. I reveled in that victory for a while before gliding down the backside of the pass into Idaho (at one point approaching speeds of 50mph) into Victor where I stayed in the home of a fellow touring cyclist.
“And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.”
-Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
The majority of my route through Idaho was high-plains desert. I don’t recommend it for any touring cyclist, unless you just want to punish yourself. I’ll take mountain passes over the desert drags all day long. I pedaled out of Idaho Falls at 4:30am to beat the heat and reach Arco because there was absolutely NOTHING in the 70-mile stretch between the two towns except big Idaho buttes and a military nuclear facility that was impenetrable (on the map it looked like a town so I figured I could fill water there, but fences and guards prevented that intention. Luckily a kind border guard did fill my water bottles for me though).
One of the fortunate aspects of desert riding, especially in my case, is that there is nothing to distract you from riding. I cranked across the abysmally dry heat of Idaho in six riding days. My ride into Mountain Home coincided with a passing heat wave that spurred regional temperatures to as high as 118 degrees. I had about 10 miles of downhill into Mountain Home (with a stiff head wind though which required constant cranking, refusing me the relief of gliding on the wings of gravity) and as I dropped into the city, it felt like I descended into Dante’s Inferno.
One night in Mountain Home pushed me north to Boise where I gratefully spent two nights with a friend of a friend’s family and settled into sleep as deep as a deceased governor. What a treat it was to have escaped the desert and discovered what felt like the epicenter of relatable culture in Idaho. I celebrated the 4th of July there by exercising my arm in a round of disc golf, overcoming a double-cautiousness toward water and heights by jumping off a bridge into the Boise River, and watching fireworks from atop Camel Back Hill. It was a colorful panorama of surrounding communities’ night-shattering festivities.
Out of Boise, I biked onward, eager to sleep that night beyond the border of Oregon. Around lunch time, I stopped in a random town, purchased some fruit, and cycled to a local park to sit in the shade and savor my favorite snack: an apple with crunchy peanut butter. As I drowned my pallet in this delectable combination of flavors, textures, and moisture, two kids approached me and asked if I was the guy biking from Michigan. I was perplexed they had heard of me, and probably looked like a man not to be trusted with apple-juice and peanut butter trying to avoid their digestive fate by grabbing a last hold in my beard. I smiled wide and said, “Yep! How did you know?” It turns out they had passed me on the way into town, and at this point their mother came over and sat down and we all began chatting.
Unbeknownst to me, I was informed that I had made an egregious error out of Boise by not visiting the University’s blue turf football field. Now, I admit I don’t watch a ton of football here. U of M and MSU grab my attention sporadically, but, no, I had no idea you guys housed the smurf turf! Adam, the younger of the siblings, walked over to Jaime, his mom, and whispered something in her ear. She laughed and said, “Adam wants to show you the field. What do you say? We can throw your stuff in the back of the truck, we’ll drive back into Boise to see it, and then I’ll make up for your lost distance.”
“You know what?” I replied, “I learned a valuable lesson back in Iowa to ‘say yes’ so, yeah, I’d love to!” It was quite an adventure for both parties, and I left their company feeling very encouraged in my direction in life, and again feeling like I’d been hanging out with family I’d known for years. When we went our separate ways, I had one of the worst head winds whipping me in the face and I had to settle down in the tiny town of Brogan, Oregon where a proportionately sized camp ground hosted myself and one other rented RV for the night.
The next morning the sound of a nearby bathroom door opening and closing woke me up. I lifted my head and saw a woman walk out and around the corner. I laid my head back down, and as I did, I heard her come back around the corner and offer in pure Australian accent, “Hey, would you like some coffee and toast?” I’ll let you guess my reply.
Greetings, good morning, and a true pleasure to meet you! Geoff and Jan, retired teachers from Australia, made the journey across the pond for a wedding in Vancouver and decided to take a few weeks to travel around as well. We hit it off immediately, sharing stories and asking questions about our contrasting cultures. It was impossible to ignore the wind that swept my momentum the night prior, and an idea sprouted: “Say, Ben, how would you like to throw your stuff in here and we can give you a lift at least out of the desert?” I’ll let you guess my reply.
“Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately phrased, I learn that it was in order to study Sociology that I became a tramp. This is nice and very thoughtful of the biographers, but it is inaccurate. I became a tramp-well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because-well, just because it was easier to than not to.”
-Jack London, The Road
What would you expect of a sociologist in situations such as this? I love the company, Jan and Geoff’s absolutely scintillated with brilliance like those mountain flowers I just can’t get enough of. It’s become very clear to me that as much as this adventure has been about the biking, just as well it’s been about the people I’ve met. I rode with my Aussie mates out of the dreadful desert that I thought I’d magically escaped by stepping over the state line, as if geography observes our man-made borders.
I camped with Geoff and Jan that night, and they laughed at my American boy-scout imperative and initiative to build a fire. With a roaring fire, we enjoyed beers and learned much from each other. Two of the most important lessons I learned: 1. If something is corrupt or unruly, BAN IT! 2. My new favorite campfire treat: A banana sliced down the middle with chocolate inserted then set in hot coals for a few minutes to melt the chocolate, then enjoyed with a spoon. Easier, cheaper, and healthier than Smores!
The next day we parted ways with smiles, wishing each other well. I was off again, bicycling but now through the lush green forests and rugged mountainous terrain of Oregon that I’ve come quickly to love. The next major pass was on my radar, though compared to the Teton Pass it was laughable. I camped that night near the top of the pass on Lava Lake, where I was astounded by the warmth of this lake at over 5,000 feet. They aptly named this body of water. The following morning I set out and rolled down one of the most memorable 20-mile segments of my trip. The McKenzie Pass, on the western side, descends over 3,000 feet and winds through the national forest with constant collaging backdrops of the Cascade Mountains. I laughed, sang, and shouted with joy every single mile. Then, to cap off the ecstasy, during the final few miles a large rented RV driving toward me started honking obnoxiously. “NO WAY!” I shouted and turned around, reeling backward. Indeed. By happenstance, my Aussie friends were headed up the pass and we chatted and laughed at the absurd chances. Perhaps I’ll see them again on the coast.
I cycled hard and far the rest of the day, making it 85 miles to Eugene where I am now, resting and enjoying the company and shelter at my cousin’s apartment. Therese moved out here a couple years ago and it’s been delightful catching up and hanging out. Tomorrow, I intend to pedal the 70 plus miles that separates me from my coastal culmination. Cheers until then!