Monthly Archives: July 2015

Festival Season

Several years back, I spent a considerable amount of time fascinated with the question; What makes someone an “interesting person”?  I guess it was just the time we were living in (around 2010- but it’s still true now).  People had become exponentially more distracted by social media over the past half a decade.  Every job posting had 200 applications.  To get by in the world suddenly seemed to require the ability to get people’s attention.  It suddenly did not feel like enough to just simply be competent and friendly.  The most precious resource had suddenly become attention, and the amount of time one had to make an impression on people was ever shrinking.

So I took stock of the people in my life, the people I saw, the people I knew, and even people I had just heard about.  I knew that there were some people I found interesting for some reason.  I really tried to determine why that was.  What was it about some people that made their names come up in conversation more frequently?  I went through this quandary in my head about the delicate balance between being “too normal” and not having anything distinct about yourself and being “too weird” and not being able to relate to people.

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In true extrovert fashion, I did not really figure out what it was about until I started asking other people about it.  I asked my friends what people they found interesting and why.  And, I realized what is true for me, as well as everybody else on this planet.  Some people find me interesting, and some people don’t, the same way I find some people interesting and others not.  I even realized that there are people in my life that I had not necessarily found interesting, but could see how they could be interesting to other, different kinds of people.  I actually thought about those people that write those celebrity fashion blogs and report live from award shows.  I seriously still can’t think of anything I care less about than who wins the Oscars.  But, some people love it, and a lot of people love those blogs.

Nobody bores every single person they meet.  Also, nobody captivates everyone they meet.  But, some people do manage to find a way to relate to a larger proportion of the population than others.  We all know that one person that is always talking about the same things, and doing the same things.  And, when we get together with them we know it is going to be the same old same old.

Maybe all they do is work…

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Or maybe they’ve got some cause they just won’t ever shut up about….

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Or, they just really only have one interest.  When that happens, well, you can only relate to people who happen to share that interest.  When one cultivates a variety of interests, they are able to relate to a greater subset of the population.  Not only are more people going to find them interesting, but they are going to find a way to show genuine interest in the lives of more people.

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So, while I love to travel, I realize that it is not for everybody.  The average American works 47 hours a week.  And the average commute is approaching half an hour each way.  Many spend much more than that standard five hours a week in their cars as it is.  So, I completely understand why, for many people, the idea of hoping in a car Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, spending several hours in it, and doing the same on Sunday, just simply does not sound appealing.  I will always find the allure of new places, different experiences, and different cultures worth the effort, but many want to find activities closer to home.

This does not mean they are not interesting people, and this does not mean that I cannot find them interesting.  Last weekend, right here in Denver, I was able to attend three festivals; all within 4 miles of home.

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At the Denver Brew Festival, with over 50 different participating breweries, and unlimited drinks for $35, one is pretty much guaranteed to be trying beer they have yet to try before.

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At the Underground Music Showcase, countless people get exposed to bands, and even musical stylings that they have never been exposed to before.

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And, it is hard to top a free concert downtown with Aloe Blacc and Capital Cities!

But one does not need to even go to crazy festivals to be interesting and open to new experiences.  At the end of the weekend, I came to the realization that everything I had done this weekend, everything that seemed new and exciting, is something that I can really do whenever I want.  And, I live in a medium-sized city, not New York.

If I want to try a new kind of beer, I can go to a microbrewery I have not been to.  I think there is a new one opening up every weekend somewhere in Metro Denver.

Most cities have some sort of a local music scene, with local bands playing at a bar for a $5 or $10 cover.  In fact, I have had some amazing nights out going to some of these shows!

And, nothing is stopping us from changing the radio station, finding a new channel on Pandora, or asking those around us to expose us to new music that is already out there.

Every day is the opportunity to experience something new.  Taking advantage of more of these opportunities is no guarantee that the next time you meet an attractive stranger, a fun potential friend with an active social circle, or that person with the job opportunity of a lifetime, that that particular person will find you interesting.  But, it does make the odds much more favorable.

A Weekend in Texas

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In my last post, I describe my experiences visiting the City of Austin, Texas.  Some people describe Austin as being “not really Texas”.  And, while that may be a simplification, or exaggeration of the experience there, the general point is that the experience of being in Austin is different than the the experience of being in any other part of Texas.  So, while I spent some time in Austin last weekend, I also got the opportunity to experience other places in Texas, and actually get immersed into the culture here.

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One of the first places I went to, just 20 miles or so outside of Austin, was the Salt Lick, for some high quality Texas barbecue.  I was surprised to see such a large establishment.  I had gone to BBQ in places like Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the past, and those experiences usually involved smaller, more side-of-the road type establishments.  I had come to, in my head, assume that was the standard BBQ experience, but the Salt Lick is pretty gigantic.  And, the first thing I saw when I entered the restaurant was a gigantic barbecue pit.  The last time I had seen so much meat in one place was at the World’s Largest Brat Festival in Wisconsin.

Texas style barbecue, of course, includes brisket.  In order to experience the full range of barbecue experience, I ordered a combination plate that included brisket, ribs, and sausage.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the restaurant asks their patrons if they want their brisket “lean”, or “moist”.  Not being a fan of fatty meats, I chose “lean”, and really enjoyed the entire meal.

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In fact, I kind of felt like I spent the entire weekend eating brisket!  The other establishments I went to, like the Salt Lick, were sizable establishments.  Coopers, in New Braunfels, was big enough to accommodate a group of 16 people without really having to adjust anything from their normal operating experience.

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Whenever I was not eating barbecue food, I was eating Mexican food, which is plentiful in Texas due to it’s close proximity to, as well as history of being a part of, Mexico.  I visited several Mexican food establishments while in Texas, including a place many of us that live elsewhere should become familiar with: Torchy’s Tacos.  Later this year, they will expand beyond the borders of Texas, opening up a location in Denver, Colorado.  They may very well expand to some other areas as well.

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This area is often referred to as “Texas Hill Country”, as, well, unlike most of the Great Plains, it is kind of hilly.  Parts of it sort of remind me of the “Driftless Area” of Southwestern Wisconsin, with rolling hills one to several hundred feet tall.  Although, the geological history these regions is quite different.

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Here I attended a wedding, and took part in another local custom, floating the river.  At the wedding, the main thing I noticed about the culture here in Texas was the affinity for line dancing.  I had expected the country music line dancing.  But, what shocked me was how often people would just naturally form a line while dancing to other songs.  When YMCA, and Gangnam Style, came on, people here just naturally formed themselves into a line as if it were second nature.

In Texas, if is quite common for people to go on “floating”, or “tubing” trips.  It is basically an outdoorsy activity that is far more relaxing than the ones I usually take part in here in Colorado.  It mostly just involves laying in a tube, and gently floating down a river.  Many people here own their own tubes to float in, and bring floatable coolers, where they pack beer.  I have heard it is quite common for people to get quite intoxicated while taking part in a float trip.

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Texas hill country also contains a lot of natural features, some of which have become common family-type tourist destinations.  A few miles west of New Braunfels is a place called Natural Bridge Caverns, which, just as the name advertises, is a Natural Bridge above ground with a cavern below ground.

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Every time I visit a place like this, I always come away with mixed views regarding the commercialization of these natural features.  One one hand, I look at staircases, buildings, and all of these artificial looking features being present, and wonder if we are losing out on some of the experience.  But, I also see that having paved roads to get here, walkways through the area, and other comfort related conveniences opens up the experience of viewing these places to many people who otherwise would not have been able to see them.

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It was in San Antonio, however, where I learned about the history of Texas.  Downtown San Antonio kind of has an odd combination of historical significance.  On one end of downtown is The Alamo.  Originally a “mission“, the place later became a military post in the war for independence from Mexico, and now a museum, which is also considered a Shrine of Texas Liberty.  This place very much celebrates the people of Texas separating from Mexico, and, of course, later joining the United States.

On the other end of downtown is a place called Historic Market Square, a place that celebrates Mexican cultural heritage.  In the plaza, I saw T-Shirts for sale that exuded Mexican pride.  In fact, with authentic Mexican food and cultural items for sale everywhere, I almost felt like I could have actually been in Mexico.

It just makes me wonder.  Is this a City that is in conflict with itself?  How do those of Mexican decent here in San Antonio feel about Texas history?

The area between the Alamo and Historic Market Square was also kind of confusing.  On the surface, the city looked kind of dreary.  I kind of felt like I was in a bad part of Chicago, or any other big city that has a significant amount of blight.  But, underneath the surface was San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which is quite lively.

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In fact, San Antonio kind of pioneered the idea of riverwalks.  And, it appears other cities are trying to copy them.

After reading about Texas history, I kind of had a better understanding of the place.  Specifically, at the Alamo, they describe a struggle in Mexican politics.  On one side there was a group of people that strongly supported a Federalist type system of government based on a constitution that was modeled after the United States.  Under this system, some powers were devolved to the states, of which Texas (or Tejas) was one.  On the other side, was a group of centralizers that wanted more control in the hands of the central government in Mexico City.  Texans strongly supported the former over the latter, and when the latter won power, they felt their way of life threatened.  The successful defense of Texas, establishment of the Lone Star Republic, and later admission to a country whose values more closely resembled their own is viewed as a triumph.

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It is without a doubt that many Texans today see a lot of parallels (whether or not they are correct) to today’s political struggles in the United States.  Having this history, one in which many people in the state take pride, definitely explains why succession talk would be much more prevalent here than it would be in other states who strongly oppose some aspects of how our Federal government is operating.

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There was always some concern over whether I would fit in here in Texas.  Anyone that talks to me can clearly hear my Long Island accent.  I do not try to hide it.  Some people who have lived in Texas  told me that it would also be obvious that I am an outsider by the manner in which I conduct myself, and the types of topics I discuss on a regular basis.

But, I took a “leap of faith” of sorts, and just decided to be myself when interacting with people here.  And, I was actually received quite warmly here, by people who probably have a significantly different lifestyle and set of values than my own.  Everyone was friendly to me, and they were even receptive to the kinds of conversation topics I tend to engage people in.

As I thought through the acceptance I experienced here, as well as the history, the current succession talk and anger, I came to an important realization.  Maybe we are not nearly as divided as people make us out to be.  Maybe it is really only the most vocal (and angry) among us that display this division.  After all, if 1.4 Million people can live in a city which celebrates both it’s Mexican heritage and it’s struggle for independence from Mexico, maybe we can find a way to celebrate what makes everyone unique.

Lone Star Capital

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It is with some amount of hesitation that I visited Austin, Texas.  Compared to other cities in the same region, of similar size, and with similar recent economic fortune, it gets talked about a lot in certain circles.  I am quite cautious about simply parroting what is said and done by others.  I am not a complete hipster.  I do take part in some things that are very popular.  But, I just want to make sure that whatever I choose to do, particularly with my own time, I do for my own reasons.  It is for that reason I never read the Harry Potter books, or watched certain mega-popular television shows.

Additionally, I know a lot of people who care way more deeply about certain hot-button social issues than I do.  So, when I hear people talk about Austin instead of San Antonio, Houston, or Dallas, cities in Texas that are also rapidly growing, I can’t help but feel a bit skeptical.  I want to visit a place because it is interesting, not because it has people with certain viewpoints on things that others think is important.

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What I saw in Austin, Texas, though was that the place is interesting on its own merits.  As soon as I landed at the airport, I saw sculptures of guitars displaying Austin’s pivotal live music scene.

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The river that runs through the center of town, oddly enough also called the Colorado River (I am accustomed to thinking of the Colorado river as running from Rocky Mountain National Park, through the Grand Canyon and down to Mexico), is a center for all kinds of interesting outdoor activity.  Numerous kayaks, stand up paddleboards, and these water bicycle things that I haven’t before seen, could be found on the river at any time of day I rolled past it.  Additionally, it is on the Congress Ave. Bridge over this river that one of the largest bat colonies live.  Every evening, sometime around dusk, the colony of bats swarms outside for some reason.  People line up on this bridge before sundown to watch every day!

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The nightlife there is also quite amazing.  There are several areas of town that have bars, restaurants, and plenty of youthful, vibrant activity.  It felt like everywhere I went, even at times like 10 in the morning, I would hear some kind of live music coming from some direction.

There is certainly no shortage of things to do for fun people.  My evening in Austin ended at one of the best dancing bars I have ever been to, a place called Barbarella, which was recommended to me by a co-worker.  It is the kind of bar I wish I had in my hometown, a place where a lot of people are dancing, but without the high prices and pretention of some of the clubs one will find in major cities.  This bar had a large dance floor, which was periodically infused with fog from a fog machine, some interesting lighting, and affordable drinks.  And, on the night that I was there, they were playing nothing but 80s music.  It was the kind of crowd where a lot of people were just letting loose and seeing where the night takes them.  With the number of college students and recent grads in the area, I could not help but fixate on the high likelihood that at least one person there on the dance floor was “hooking up” with someone to the exact same (80s) song that their own parents first “hooked up” to without even knowing it!

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All over town were reminders of youth, and all things youthful.  Of course, there is the campus.  Last weekend, while I was there, a new student visit weekend was taking place.  So, the streets were filled with people, young and energetic, excited about the new chapter of their lives they were preparing to start.  Remembering it, there is nothing like this first time you go out on your own, something every 17 or 18 year old wearing those maroon t-shirts were preparing for in less than two months.  I could feel the excitement as people explored, formed new bonds, took pictures displaying the Longhorn signal, and just looked forward to what is to come.

Also, while at one of the live music clubs, I accidentally (as in I did not plan this) wandered into a room where one of the scenes in the movie Boyhood had taken place.  The movie, released last year, follows the life of a boy growing up from age 6 to age 18, when he goes off to college.  I particularly related to the main character in this movie, as he grew up and developed his own set of thoughts and values.  In one scene he goes on a rant about how people use facebook that seriously could have matched word for word something I had said a few years earlier!  All this served as a reminder of how magical that part of life really is.  The hope, the promise, and the excitement of making yourself into what you are to become is one that really cannot be matched.

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Oddly enough, in Austin, I may have found a place that shares my values, including the very values that made me hesitant to visit the place in the first place.  This poster particularly resonated with me.  I just wish I could have gotten a better picture of it.  It’s hard to get a picture of a lit up sign like this in Texas, in the sun, in the middle of the day.

The phrase “Stop Being Livestock” is definitely a play on the University’s team name; The Longhorns.  But it definitely also depicted how I, and many of us, feel sometimes in the working world.  I mean, every large organization has a department called “Human Resources”.  Just thinking about that phrase gives me goose bumps sometimes.  That person, sitting in the cubical farm, is a “resource”.  Maximizing that resources’ output sounds a lot like fattening up a cow, or getting as many eggs from a chicken as possible.

Around town I heard plenty of intellectual discussions like this one.  Some locals described Austin as having an uber-sized commitment to individuality.  It appeared as if this commitment was genuine, based on everything I had seen around town.

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From the intellectual nature of discussions, to the outdoor activities people engage in, as well as all of the bike lanes I saw all over town, it felt like a place that shared my values.  I would definitely be more likely to find people that understand me here than in many other places.  It is just ironic that these were the values that made me more hesitant to come to Austin in the first place.

July 2015 Bicycle Journey Day 3: Yellowstone’s Grant Village to Jackson, Wyoming

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What a difference a day makes!  After the most exhausting bicycling day of my life, day 3 seemed like a breeze.  Everything seemed different, even in subtle ways.  Whereas on day 2 I felt like I had to struggle, even on the flatter portions of the ride, certain segments of this day seemed to breeze by.  It was almost as if there was some kind of invisible force that had been holding me back on the previous day, but now was helping me along.

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We left the Grant Village campground having done none of the activities that are typically associated with camping (other than putting up and tearing down a tent).  We did not set up a fire.  We did not cook anything.  We did not even spend a significant amount of time at the campsite other than sleeping. The next morning, we got some breakfast, and headed South, towards Grand Teton National Park.

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The day started with a climb, albeit a very small one, and one that event felt easier than a similar sized climb would have felt the previous day.  Only four miles into the ride, we crossed the Continental Divide, and immediately started headed downhill.  The next eight miles flew by as we reached our last major stop in Yellowstone National Park; Lewis Falls.

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I feel like I got a fairly exhaustive tour of Yellowstone’s waterfalls.  And, while I had seen several waterfalls while in Yellowstone, each one was different in characteristics.  Undine Falls, which I saw yesterday, was skinny and tall.  Lewis Falls is much wider, with a smaller drop.  It is shaped much more like Niagara.  At this point in my journey, 12 miles in, I was energized!  I felt almost as if I could have handled anything on that day.  In fact, I am 100% sure that I had more energy at that point in the day than I would have had I been resting over the last several days.  There is just something about getting through a really rough day of riding, and then riding downhill.

Until this trip, most of my riding had consisted of day trips.  Before moving to Colorado, those trips were pretty much about how many miles I traveled, as Illinois is flat.  Since then, I have begun to tackle some climbs.  In each of these rides, there is a similar theme, I go up, and then I go down.  There is a climb, and it is followed by a “reward”, a chance to go fast.  This almost felt like a way more stretched out version of this.  I spent an entire day pretty much climbing.  The previous day was my climb, and this day of primarily descending was my reward.  Therefore, the feeling of guilt that usually passes over me when I descend without having climbed first did not manifest.  The whole time I knew that I had earned this day of rapid riding through the exhaustion I had endured on the prior day.

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By the time we left Yellowstone National Park, we had already descended a significant amount.  That descent was interrupted by the days only climb, in the 6 mile space that separates Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.  This is a strange place.  Although you are technically in neither National Park, signs posted along the road remind motorists that National Park speed limits and enforcement are still in effect.  Also, there is no official entrance into Grand Teton National Park from the north, at least not along US-89.  It is pretty much assumed that all motorists (and I guess cyclists too) had already paid to get into Yellowstone and do not need to pay again.

After climbing for a little bit, there is a rapid descent towards Lake Jackson, and the heart of the Grand Tetons.

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This lake is gigantic, and one of the defining features of the National Park.  And, as one travels farther, into the heart of the Park, one can sometimes get some of the most stunning views of the Tetons from the other side of the lake.

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The Grand Tetons are the most photographed location in Wyoming.  The primary reason they are so photogenic is that this particular mountain range not only has a prominence (how much higher in elevation the peaks are from the area around them) of over 7,000 feet, but there are no foothills to obstruct one’s view of the mountains.

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There really is nothing like experiencing the Tetons, at a nice comfortable pace of 15-20 miles per hour, from the seat of a bicycle, up and down some gentile rolling hills, as the afternoon progresses. As was the case in Yellowstone, I decided not to push myself and hurry through the park.  Only this time, on a day that had been mostly downhill, it felt way more comfortable.  I wasn’t climbing up a major pass, putting my legs through all of that exhaustion.  I was just gliding kinda.

The final part of the trip into Jackson took me on a bike trail, where I encountered the last wildlife of my journey, a coyote.

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In the end, I once again rode over 80 mies on the final day of my journey.  However, the last part of the ride felt quite a bit different for me on day 3 as it had on day 2.  At some point, I came to the realization that on my final day’s ride, it wasn’t the energy I had left in my legs that was limiting the number of miles I felt like I could do, it was other intangibles.  It was how my butt felt about getting back on the seat.  It was how many times my right fingers had been used to shift gears, as well as the amount of weight I had placed on my forearms in general over the course of many hours on the seat.  In this case, I wonder if the strategy of biking a bit faster, but taking more frequent stops to get up and off the seat may be a better strategy for handling these long distance rides.

The last five miles of my ride, on the trail, headed into Jackson were counted off by little markers in the trail; white lines labelled 5.0, 4.5, 4.0 and so on, counting off the distance from Jackson at the end of the trail.  These markers countered down, pretty much, the end of my trip.  So while I was excited to make it all the way into Jackson, and really anxious to take a shower and have a coca-cola, it still felt bittersweet to me, knowing that this bicycle trip that I had been anticipating for so long was quickly coming to an end.

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Two days earlier, at Chico Hot Springs, I had refrained from eating chicken wings, as I was unsure if the choice would negatively impact my bike ride the next day.  Now, with no more bike riding ahead of me, it was time to finally fulfill that craving.  So, after showering and changing, we went to a place called Local, right in downtown Jackson, and, yes, I had my wings.  Oh, and they were amazing.  One thing I learned the first time I attempted bike travel, ten years ago, was that wings always taste better on a bike journey.

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That evening, we stayed at the Anvil Motel downtown, and watched the 4th of July firework show.  As I watched the fireworks light up the night sky, I thought to myself about how I had celebrated our Nation’s independence by traveling through some of the most beautiful places in the country.  I cannot think of a better way to honor The United States of America than that.

The only regret I really had was that the haziness of the day had seriously impacted the images I had taken of the Grand Tetons.  This regret was remedied, as we spent another day in Jackson before headed home, and got to see some more sights, including different images of the Tetons, under different weather conditions, both Sunday and Monday, as well as the iconic images that one encounters in the famous Mormon Row settlement to the east of the National Park.

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By completing this journey, I feel like I have entered a whole new league when it comes to bike riding, and bike travel.  Before this trip, I could only speculate as to what rides I would one day love to take on.  I could only respond to people’s own bicycle travel stories with statements such as “wow, that seems incredible”, or “good job”.  I was not truly belonging to the group.  Now, with this trip behind me, I have finally earned the right to consider myself a bike traveler.  I have earned the right to actually chime in with my own anecdotes, about biking long distances, road conditions, places to go, pannier setup, and all sorts of other topics bicycle tourists typically discuss.  I have reached the pros- sort of.

And, because of this experience, Montana and Wyoming now have a special place in my heart, something that someone born on Long Island, New York would never have expected.  I almost feel like Teddy Roosevelt this weekend, New Yorker in attitude and mannerisms through and through, but lover of the West, lover of America’s beauty and lover of the National Parks.

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As I rode home Monday, July 6th, it suddenly occurred to me how little I missed my regular life.  I think I missed some of the people and some of the socializing.  But I really didn’t miss the kind of stuff that many would assume.  I had yet to watch a single minute of television, and had yet to use the internet for anything other than looking up the weather and writing a blog entry on this site.  I certainly had not looked at the news or anything.  I definitely did not miss either TV or the internet at all.  As of the time of writing this blog, July 9th, my TV total for the month of July still does not exceed one single hour.  And, the odd thing is, I also knew that if I needed to get back on that bike again and ride more distance, I was more than capable of it.  Maybe that is the way I truly know I have reached a whole new level with regards to bicycling.

July 2015 Bicycle Journey Day 2: Chico Hot Springs to Yellowstone’s Grant Villiage

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I was 43 miles into a 100 mile bike ride.  I had already climbed over 1,000 feet from my starting location.  I knew I had over 2,000 more vertical feet to climb before I would reach the high point of my day.  The road mercilessly took a turn downhill.  This was vertical height I had already worked hard to climb.  I knew that somewhere down the road, I would once again have to climb this several hundred vertical feet that I was now descending.  I sped up and continued down the road, already exhausted, knowing that I still had more than half my day left to go, both in terms of milage as well as vertical climb.

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That was when I found myself going over a bridge, over the Gardner River.  The views in all four directions, including downward were spectacular.  Not only was I viewing all of the scenery in all directions, I was smelling it.  I was feeling the air around me.  It was at this moment that I realized that, despite how exhausted I already was, and despite how agonizing the steep hills I had in front of me were going to be, that all of this was worth it.  The effort of pedaling harder than I had ever pedaled before, and enduring hours of pure pain was worth it to experience what I was experiencing on that day.

Miles 44 and 45 would take forever, as I climbed up and out of the river valley and onto the Blacktail Deer Plateau in the Northern part of Yellowstone National Park.  Knowing that I still had so much painful climbing left to go, once again “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt” by Maroon 5, a song that I had heard many times this year, and, like most Maroon 5 songs, catches in one’s head quite easily, popped into my head as I pondered the pain that I was enduring, as well as the pain that would come.

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That morning, I woke up in Paradise Valley with a strange feeling.  I was half worn out from my first day of cycling, but also felt ready to go.  It is a feeling that people who cycle long distances probably experience quite frequently, but it was a feeling that I had not truly experienced before.  Sure, I had undertaken multi-day tasks before, but never one like this, where in my head I knew I was about to tap into pretty much everything I have, physically, but I also knew that it would make for one of the most exciting days I’ve ever had.

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On the way out of Paradise Valley, we encountered the only other cyclist we would encounter that day, an Austrian gentleman headed for the Grand Canyon.  He was traveling fully self-contained, with all of his camping gear attached to his bike, and therefore taking it slower.

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After turning back onto US-89 South towards Gardiner, we entered an area known as Yankee Jim Canyon. It is here where we started to see some rafters.  Over the next few miles, we would wonder who was this “Yankee Jim” that this canyon was named after.

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Unfortunately, even the signage along the highway, the signage that eluded to both history and Yankee Jim, did not tell me anything about who Yankee Jim was.  After the trip, I did a full web search.  Nothing.  I still have no idea who was this man they call Yankee Jim. Maybe if I ever go to a Montana History Museum of some kind I’ll find out, but to this day, it remains a mystery.

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Luckily, several miles up the road, as we approached Gardiner, there was a distraction.  We encountered a place called Devil’s Slide, a uniquely shaped exposed area of red sedimentary rock that appears to lend itself to stupid, and potentially dangerous adolescent ideas.  I am quite thankful that nobody turned it into a cheesy touristy site.  There are enough overpriced alpine slides elsewhere in the West.

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We stopped for Ice Cream just before noon in Gardiner, Montana, and stepped out into much hotter air as we entered Yellowstone National Park.

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Back when I lived in Chicago, I never understood why advertisements for Montana tourism would feature images of Yellowstone National Park, which is primarily in Wyoming, with the phrase “Gateway to Yellowstone”.  But, apparently, this was the original entrance to the National Park, and, when the park first opened up, the only way to get in.  This structure right here, that I found myself riding under, was the first entrance ever created to the first National Park established.

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And I knew the climb was coming, the first climb of the day, which would eventually take me past the 45th Parallel, into the State of Wyoming, and up to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I was now roughly 1000 feet higher than Gardiner.

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But, it wasn’t just the climbs that made the ride exhausting.  It was all of the other rolling hills I was not 100% expecting.

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There are very few flat parts of Yellowstone National Park, and even the area between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Falls, which starts and ends at a similar elevation had many hills of different sizes.  It was around there that I decided that I was in no hurry to get to the campsite.  After all, I was in Yellowstone National Park, and in a part of the park I did not get to see the last time I visited.  I was gonna see some stuff.

After having to climb back up out of the Gardiner River Valley, I took a look at the Undine Falls.

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Unfortunately, I did not feel I had the energy to add a mile of hiking (round trip) to my day, and see the Wraith Falls.

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But, I stopped several other times to enjoy the scenery along the Blacktail Deer Plateau, and even got a chance to see a blue-billed duck through some bincoulars.

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In the middle of the afternoon, I reached one of Yellowstone’s more breathtaking, but underrated features, Tower Fall.

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It was here I took a more lengthy break, as I knew ahead of me I had a climb tougher than any climb I had ever undertaken in my life.  After that exhausting 30 mile stretch from Gardiner, up into the park and then over the plateau and all of the rolling hills, I would climb over 2000 feet, to the highest point of any road in Yellowstone; Dunraven Pass.  But, it was here that I also realized that not only was I more than halfway through my trip overall (63 miles into today with 61 miles behind me yesterday), but I was now at a higher elevation than where I would end the trip (Jackson, Wyoming is at 6200 feet).  In every sense of the phrase, I was more than halfway there.

The climb, 12 miles and almost 2600 feet in elevation gain, took me nearly two hours.  It was exhausting, and intense.  I pretty much had to stop every mile.  Somewhere roughly halfway up the pass, I started to see some beautiful alpine flowers; yellow and purple.

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But, signage told me that the presence of these wonderful flowers also signified that I was in Grizzly Bear territory.

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So, it should not have been too much of a surprise to me that when I finally got to the top of the pass,  after two long hours of huffing and puffing, I saw my first Grizzly Bear!

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Just as I had realized 31 miles (and almost 3000 feet of net climbing) ago, when I was going over that breathtaking bridge over the Gardner River, all of the riding, all of the sweat, and all of the pain did have its reward.  To be honest, it would have been more than worth all of the physical exertion without even seeing the bear.  But, seriously, there was nothing like encountering this animal, so beautiful, so majestic, yet so dangerous and overwhelming, in the manner in which I did; from my bike, out in the open, yet at the top of a pass, knowing that if I needed to outrun it, I could by pedaling as hard as I could on the next downhill stretch.

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By then, after hanging out with the bear for a little while, it was nearly 7 P.M.  I had neither the energy, nor the remaining daylight to take the walk down to Yellowstone’s iconic Lower Falls.  Luckily I saw those last time I was here, so I was glad to have taken the time to see the other waterfalls in the park.

The last real feature I visited that evening was Yellowstone’s Mud Volcano area.

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There I stood, with the water bottle I had filled up something like 6 times that day, and I came to the realization of just how geothermal Yellowstone Park is.  Like many of the geysers in the park, this “mud volcano” smelled like sulfur.  In fact, it smelled kind of yucky.  And, while I had spent most of the day looking at waterfalls, scenic river valleys, and finally those yellow and purple flowers, it is these types of features that make Yellowstone National Park unique.  We do have waterfalls, canyons, river valleys and the like all over the west, including within an hour or so of home.  All of these geothermal features … I cannot think of where else to see them!  It almost felt like this park was built on sulfur.

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After seeing an elk on the side of the road, near Yellowstone Lake, I reached the campground at Grant Village.

It had been, without a doubt, the toughest day of riding I had ever undertaken.  Going into this trip, I knew it would be, so I was prepared.  But, I was still pretty much without any residual energy at the end of the day.  In fact, I was kind of acting like I was drunk.  I guess my body had gone through an experience that some would consider “traumatic”, given how far I pushed myself.  But, for me, it is how you grow as an individual, and it is how you gain confidence.  I know that soon I will have to return to “regular life”.  In “regular life”, there is competition, there is conflict, and there are things that are just plain hard.  But, they become easier for those of us that are confident in ourselves.  Accomplishments like these simply serve as a reminder to ourselves that we are awesome.  In fact, I would love to market a bumper sticker that simply says “Smile, you are you, and you are awesome.”  Or, something like that.  There is probably a better, and catchier way to phrase that.  But the point remains that experiences like these do remind us that we are often capable of more than we believe, and are told, that we are.

July 2015 Bicycle Journey Day 1: Bozeman to Chico Hot Springs

There is no feeling like actually beginning something you had set out to do.  Lots of people talk about what they would like to do, or think about what they will someday do.  And, sure, anticipation is fun.  But it certainly does not compare to that feeling you get when you actually start something major.  For years I had been thinking about traveling long distances by bicycle.  The idea of traveling a significant distance under my own power had always thrilled me.  So, I read stories of others who had traveled by bicycle.  I looked at bicycle travel routes, particularly from the Adventure Cycling Association.  I bought the necessary equipment.  I trained.  And, finally, I planned an actual trip.  Well, I decided to join my friend’s cross-country bike ride for a three day segment, from Bozeman, Montana to Jackson, Wyoming.

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When I met up with my friend in Bozeman along his journey, Thursday, July 2nd finally became “Day 1”.  They say that the journey of 1000 miles begins with one step.  In my case, it begins with one pedal stroke.  And, when I started to pedal, headed East out of town, I finally had a “Day 1” of my own.  I was finally doing it.  I was traveling by bike.  What was once just an idea, something on a bucket list, had matured, first into detailed plans, and than into action!

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The fact that I was finally on a bicycle journey of my own felt ever more real when I left town.  After all, many people bike around town all the time.  I had biked around town quite a bit earlier in the day- roughly 10 miles total.  And, none of that really felt like I was actually on my way.  It was when i departed from town that I truly achieved that “Day 1” feeling.

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That feeling soon got complicated with another first, bicycling along an interstate highway.  At the REI, I found out that the route I had originally intended on taking was not paved, leaving no other choice but to basically follow I-90 from Bozeman to Livingston; roughly 25 miles.  Unfortunately, there is a five mile stretch where I-90 does not have a frontage road.  This actually occurs quite frequently in the West, particularly in canyons.  In many cases, there are no other roads in which to use to get from one town to another.  And, for this reason, many Western states, unlike their Eastern counterparts, permit bicycling on Interstates.

The fact that it was completely legal for me to cycle down I-90 did not make it any less scary.  In some sections, the shoulder width was not nearly as wide as they are on typical interstates.  It felt like a mere 6 feet of distance separated the edge of the right lane and the guard rails, all on a road with a speed limit of 75!  Needless to say, when we were able to exit the highway, I was relieved.

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A couple of miles later, I had reached the top of what is referred to as Bozeman Pass, and completed the first climb of my trip.  I did not take this climb too seriously.  I stayed in my big gear the entire way up.  For part of it, I was more concerned with 80 mile per hour traffic.  But, when I looked down at what I had just climbed, after reading one of the many Lewis and Clark related information boards along this route, I realized that I had actually climbed a significant amount.

On the other side of the pass, I rapidly descended into Livingston, a town we would not spend too much time in.

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We pretty much just took a bathroom break, filled up on water, and headed out, southbound, towards Yellowstone, or at least that is what pretty much all of the signs for Highway 89 south say as one heads out of town.

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This road follows the Yellowstone River into an area known as Paradise Valley.  This particular area was stunning to travel through.  Paradise Valley is a wide river valley surrounded by mountain ranges on both sides.  When one travels through this valley, particularly when they cross the Yellowstone and follow the less traveled MT-540/ East River Road, they cannot help but truly feel the solitude that this region offers.

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One will often see a lone building, a lone animal, a lone boat on the river, and even a lone cyclist making the journey through the region.  It is almost as if every single person, and every single animal came here to experience the solitude that is oh so elusive in their daily lives.

There were a lot of small climbs on East River Road, as the road periodically climbs up to an overlook of the river, only to descend back down towards the level of the river.  It was also an overall gradual ascent, as we were headed upriver in the direction of Yellowstone National Park.  I felt somewhat exhausted on this part of the ride despite the fact that I would only ride 61 miles on the day (and I had fresh legs).  I wondered if I had burned myself out going over Bozeman Pass.  Should I have taken it slower up that hill?  I knew I had a really challenging day of riding ahead of me.  Was I not pacing myself properly?

As the journey continued, and I approached the end of the day, I realized that I was not properly fueled.  I had eaten a moderate lunch, as I had recently been trying to avoid unnecessary weight gain, which would have made this journey tougher.  I had also not taken my water needs too seriously, not stopping for water too terribly frequently, as I was energized, excited about finally starting my journey, and my mind was filled with anticipation.

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When I arrived at Chico Hot Springs resort, I grabbed some of the beef jerky I had with me, and drank a good amount of water.  I felt much better for it, and came to the realization that, on bike journeys, you need to take care of your body.  On a bike trip, your body is your engine, not your bike.  I’d always thought of the bike as being the vehicle that we use to get places when traveling by bike.  I went to great lengths to ensure that my bike was properly prepared for this journey.  On this day, I learned that our bodies, and particularly our need to be properly fueled and hydrated, probably need to be taken just as seriously.

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After some time in the pool, we ate dinner at the resort.  It was a bar/pub type of place.  Upon being seated, the smell of chicken wings overwhelmed me, as they were being served to someone.  I cannot even being to tell you how good that smelled to me after all that cycling today.  Still, I restrained myself.  This is a bicycle trip.  It is not about the food.

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I was fortunate enough to spend the evening in a nice cabin, where I would get plenty of rest for the next day, a day when I would take precautions to make sure I am properly fueled and hydrated, but a day where I would also take on the challenge of cycling in Yellowstone National Park.

Bozeman, Montana; Where My Journey Begins

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“I had always known that we had the best downtown in all of Montana.  And then last year, we were voted the best downtown in all of Montana.”  At least that is how Bozeman was described to me by one of the locals, while giving me lunch recommendations.  He eventually told me that every place downtown was good, and to only avoid chain restaurants.

The first person I interacted with in Bozeman was the cab driver that drove me from the airport to the REI, where my bicycle had been shipped to, reassembled, and was waiting for me.  He described Bozeman as a “town full of expert skiers”.  With all of the other observations I had made while in town, and with the other interactions I had with people from Montana, it feels to me as if Bozeman is like a smaller and more extreme version of Denver or Boulder.  The cab driver indicated that the town almost shuts down on powder days, as everyone is headed to the mountains.  And, the people coming in and out of the bike shops appeared to be people that could ride a fair number of miles in challenging conditions.

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Bozeman is only 50-some miles from Big Sky, one of the most famous ski resorts in the country.  Locals, however, appeared more proud of their local ski resort, Bridger Bowl, only 16 miles from town, as indicated by this sign.  It was also described to me as “the only non-profit ski resort in the Country”.

However, my mind was not on skiing at the time.  My mind was on bicycling, as this was the beginning of a 3-day bicycle journey that would take me through some of the country’s most amazing natural features.  And, it would be the most challenging ride I have ever attempted.

After picking up my bike, as well as all of the necessary supplies I needed for my trip at the REI, I rode the first 1.3 miles of my journey, to the Bozeman Inn, where I would spend the evening.

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Having my bike shipped to the REI and assembled there worked out quite well for me.  The price to assemble the bike from the box is $40, and they pretty much made sure that nothing was wrong with the bike, which is something I really wanted for a bicycle journey that would take me through long stretches without bike shops.  They even checked the spokes, trued the wheel, and made sure everything else was working.  And, when they realized they still had my tire lock key, someone from the shop brought it to me downtown.

It would be nearly 10:00 P.M. before the sun went down that evening.  I had already checked into the motel, but was looking for some information about the town, maybe a bike map, or even a restaurant guide for the time I would be in Bozeman.  Instead, there was just a bar and grill located adjacent to the motel.  “Lights” by Ellie Goulding was playing quite loudly where people were drinking inside.  It was a clear reminder of what evenings were like on a normal night during my “normal life”.  So, I had the instinct to go inside, drink a little, enjoy the music, and try to meet some locals.  But, I knew better.  I was on the verge of something special.  It would be a challenging ride, and I needed my energy.

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I loaded up my bike with all of my supplies packed nicely into the panniers I had carried with me on the flight into Bozeman the previous evening.  I looked around me and saw mountains in all directions, reminding me that, yes, I was in for some challenging climbs in the coming days.

Spending the morning, and mid-day, in Bozeman gave me some time to mentally prepare for the challenge I knew I had ahead of me.  I decided to check out the attraction I had heard about the most; The Museum of the Rockies.

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This museum has somewhat of an interesting local take on geological, biological, and natural history.  Like the Field Museum in Chicago, it has an exhibit that displays how life evolved over time, starting with the single celled organisms that dominated the earth for Billions of years prior to the Cambrian explosion, through the time of the Dinosaurs and beyond in chronological order.

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This museum’s exhibit was way more dinosaur centric than the other life over time exhibits I’ve been to.  Their main attraction is the “Montana T-Rex”, the biggest T-Rex to be discovered inside the State of Montana.

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The museum is quite locally focused.  The exhibits on geological history contain a lot of information specific to the geographical area around Bozeman.  Most of the dinosaur exhibits are displayed along with a map of Montana which show where the bones were dug up.

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Seeing some of these specific exhibits actually changed the way I look at scenery.  Exhibits like this one, about the Beartooth Mountains, don’t just show how pretty they are, but show what rock formations can be seen, and how and when they developed.  The geological history behind all of these processes, from plate tectonics to atmospheric composition changes, and even processes involving air pressure changes and erosion all help explain why everything we observe is the color and shape that it currently is.  And, ultimately, for people who study natural history, all of these rock formations that we observe provided clues to Earth’s past, and helped these scientists discover what we now know.

I’ve looked at a lot of mountains, and a lot of natural scenery over the past few years.  It occurs to me that the scenery that we observe means something different to everybody.  Some people focus on the aesthetic nature of what they see, a beautiful mountain, a beautiful lake, a scenic overlook.  Others focus on the adventure.  Wow, this mountain would be great to climb, or this river would be crazy to kayak in.  But, still others are trying to deduce how this scenic view in front of them came to be.  They are the ones that see red rocks and see the process of rusting, which occurred over the course of 2 billion years, as early photosynthetic life gradually increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere, lead to the chemical reactions that made some rocks red, so long as they have had significant above ground exposure.  They are the ones that look at the rocks and see as story, a progression of events.

I almost felt bad, walking around the museum in my bicycle clothes, looking kind of like a bad-ass, talking to people about my bike trip, when the truth is, that I had only biked 7 miles so far, from the REI, to my hotel, and then to the museum.  It was the guy at the ticket window that had told me that Bozeman’s downtown was the best one in Montana.  He informed me that the museum and downtown were the two places to really see in Bozeman, so I decided to ride my bike downtown, get some lunch, and wait for my friend to join me.

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I was impressed by the downtown, particularly the bike parking.  After eating lunch at a Co-op (the kind of place that looks like a grocery store but sells fresh made lunch food to workers in downtown areas), I had some time to kill.  I was excited, getting kind of anxious, and my mind was active!  Maybe it was the 10 miles I had already ridden, enough to get my blood moving.  Maybe it was knowing what was to come.  Or, maybe it was the downtown, the vibrancy, and the unique-ness.

From book stores, to local shops, everywhere I went seemed to put me into an active process of deep thought.  For example, I saw a book.  It was titled “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are incompatible.”  I thought to myself how ironic it is.  People become attracted to either Science or Religion, but usually do so due to the positive aspects of it; science and it’s intellectual curiosity, religion and the hope and purpose that it brings.  Yet, so many people, after choosing to love one or the other, spend more time focusing on the negative aspects of the other one, as opposed to the positive things that brought them to love either science or religion.

Just like that book, everything I saw brought me to some weird intellectual thought pattern.  I should go back to Bozeman sometime under different circumstances, and see if this is just the way the town works.  Is there something about the energy of this town that makes people just think in unique ways?

Many Montanans refer to Bozeman as “Boze-Angeles”.  In this part of the country, I am guessing this is not meant as a compliment.  That evening, after riding to Chico Hot Springs (more on that in my next post), a woman from Butte, MT would describe Bozeman as “pretentious”, and the place in Montana where one is most likely to be judged.  And, although I did not necessarily feel judged, I definitely sensed the pride here, consistent with what the cab driver, and others told me.  Still, I enjoyed the feeling of being adventurous, intellectual, and on the verge of a major adventure that would also be a major challenge, a major accomplishment, and open me up in a whole new way.