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.

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