Category Archives: Wyoming

Wyoming’s Wind River Mountain Range: A Quiet Place to View the Eclipse

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Every region has its high-profile destinations, as well as some lesser known, but often just as magnificent places. When people think of Wyoming, they often think of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, home of some of North America’s most unique and picturesque landscapes. The Wind River Mountains, roughly an hour east of Jackson Hole Ski Resort and the Grand Tetons is one of those places.

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The jagged peaks of the Wind River Range are somewhat reminiscent of the Grand Tetons. They include Wyoming’s highest peak, and are considered an ideal setting for a true primitive outdoor experience. In fact, the National Outdoor Leadership School, where people of all ages learn about survival in the outdoors, has its headquarters in Lander, WY, and conducts many of its programs in the Wind River Mountains.

It also happened to be in the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse. For an event that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the state of Wyoming, the lesser known but still amazing Wind River Mountains represented the ideal place to view the solar eclipse without encountering large crowds.

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My group started our journey at the New Fork Lakes Campground roughly 48 hours prior to the eclipse. We spent most of Saturday afternoon climbing through a forest of mostly dead trees, wildflowers, and the occasional raspberry.

After stopping for the evening at one of the only quazi-flat areas we could find along the trail.

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Hiking several hours Sunday morning.

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Where we would periodically traverse alpine lakes of all sizes.

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We finally got a glimpse of the higher peaks that make up the heart of the Wind River Range.

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This was one of about a dozen “false summits” along the trail. By this, I mean places where the trail ahead appears to be reaching its apex, or a flat area, only to reveal significantly more climbing around the next corner.

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Sometimes there is a lot more climbing.

Whether hiking, backpacking, or cycling, false summits can be frustrating. Some people find themselves quite discouraged when they believe that the challenging component of an experience is over, only to find out that far more challenge lay ahead, with no known ending.

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It is also true of many of our personal challenges in life. A trail like this, with many false summits, can, in a way, be a metaphor for life. At times, it feels as if life is one false summit after another. Hopeful people in less than ideal situations will often see reason to believe better days are ahead only to have the struggle re-emerge, or the emergence of a new source of stress.

However, if hikes like this, sweat, frustration, and deceptive false summits and all, demonstrate anything, it is that climbing the mountain, both literally and metaphorically, is often worth it.

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After the morning haze finally burned off, we spent the day Sunday in an area the was simply magnificent.

The manner in which the shadows of the clouds shifted along the panoramic horizon was often breathtaking to watch.

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We got to enjoy ourselves in lakes that belong to nobody.

The campground we stayed at was great vantage point to watch, the sunset.

As well as the sunrise.

On a day when many were fighting crowds, and struggling with numerous hours of traffic to get a view of this eclipse, we were on top of Doubletop mountain, at roughly 11,000 feet in elevation, enjoying the eclipse with plenty of space.

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The eclipse itself, like the breathtaking jagged peaks of the Wind River Range was beautiful beyond words.

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The event lasted a total of nearly three hours, most of it with the sun only partially blocked by the moon.

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The previous four eclipse photos were taken by Jim Budde who got better photos of the event.

A little bit before “totality”, it began to noticeably feel cooler, even though it did not seem too much darker than usual.

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Right before totality, the darkness becomes noticeable.

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Totality is kind of like a two-minute-long strange dusk-like period. It does not feel like nighttime. In a way it feels like that time of the evening roughly twenty minutes after sunset, with the day that had just occurred gradually descending away to the west, enough residual light to make out surrounding objects, and the promise of the night ahead beginning to enter the collective consciousness.

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Only, everything is, like, sideways, rotated or something.

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While there was plenty of time to goof off, swim, watch the eclipse, it still was a physically challenging experience, as is any trip involving carrying heavy backpacks up steep hills.

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Backpacking is work too. There are chores to be done; setting up tents, starting fires, cooking, pumping water, etc.

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That which is more challenging, requires more effort, or taking some kind of risk is almost always more rewarding than that which is easy. This backpacking trip, the beauty of the Wind River Mountains, the experience of viewing the eclipse, such a rare event, in all its glory, served as a reminder to me of something I have always known but can at time lose sight of. Human beings, by our nature, were meant to “work” in some capacity. Sitting around and playing all day, or having everything done for us will naturally lead to a life that is empty. Working hard and receiving a reward of some kind after that hard work is complete, whether that be backpacking to see something beautiful or starting a business that impacts the world positively, leads to fulfillment.

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The final struggle of this trip is one that I can sometimes have a harder time dealing with than others- cold. Dry weather is convenient because it means no rain. However, it also commonly means large daily temperature swings. Each day, the temperature probably reached or exceeded 70F (21C), warm for physical exertion such as carrying a heavy pack uphill. Each morning was chilly, with Tuesday morning being the coldest – frost covered the ground.

The final day’s hike, and descent back to civilization went by surprisingly fast. With an early start, and few stops, we were back into civilization before noon, ready to return to “regular life”, and tackle the challenges that lay ahead, including whatever metaphorical “false summits” we would encounter next.

A Tornado Outbreak in Wyoming

Wyoming is not exactly “tornado alley”. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the entire state averages only 12 tornadoes per year. Kansas, by comparison, receives eight times as many tornadoes each year despite being 15% smaller in area. Although a tornado in Southeastern Wyoming played a pivotal role in the VORTEX 2 project, Wyoming generally tends to be too dry for severe thunderstorms.

June 13th’s chase came up somewhat suddenly for me, based on a notification I had received about this outlook after being out of town, and not focused on the weather, the prior weekend. For some reason, before I even looked at anything else, weather models, discussions, etc., I had a feeling something major was going to happen.

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This day somehow felt different, right from the start.

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By 2 P.M., storm chasers were all over the roads, and at places like this Love’s Truck Stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, watching the storms begin to form and trying to determine the best course of action.

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The decision we all were faced with was which set of storms to follow. The storms forming to the North were in the area previously outlined by the Storm Prediction Center as having the highest risk for the day, and in an area with great low-level rotation. But the storms to the South looked more impressive on RADAR.

Often, we need to continue to re-realize that the best course of action is to follow our instincts, and to follow them without hesitation or self-doubt. That is what I did, opting for the storms to the North.

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It did’t feel like a typical day in Wyoming. Storm chasers everywhere. Highway signs were alerting motorists to the potential for tornadoes and large hail. Moisture could be smelled in the air. With a moderate breeze from the East South East, the atmosphere felt less like Wyoming and more like a typical chase day in “tornado alley”

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When I  caught up with the storms in Wheatland, Wyoming, hail larger than I had ever seen had already fallen. One of the good things about following a storm from behind is the ability to see hail after it has already fallen, as opposed to trying to avoid hail out of concern for safety and vehicular damage.

I stayed in Wheatland as long as possible, knowing the storm would head Northeast and I would have to leave Interstate 25. One of the disadvantages to chasing in Wyoming, as opposed to “tornado alley”, is the sparseness of the road network.

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So I sat there for roughly 20 minutes. Looking at the storm, it felt like something was going to happen. All the necessary conditions were there, and the appearance and movement of the storm felt reminiscent of other situations which had spawned tornadoes.

I took a chance, using roads I had never traveled before, hoping the roads I was following would remain paved so I could follow the storm North and East.

There was a half hour time period where I had become quite frightened. I could feel the adrenaline rush through my body as the clouds circled around in a threatening manner less than half a mile in front of me. I lacked the confidence that the road would remain paved, or that I would have a reliable “out plan” if a tornado were to form this close.

 

After lucking out with around 10 miles of pavement, I suddenly found myself driving over wet dirt, and, at 20-30 miles per hour, gradually falling behind.

Luckily, I once again found pavement, drove by some of the natural features that makes Wyoming a more interesting place to drive through than most of “tornado alley”, and once again encountered large hail that I felt the need to stop and pick up.

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Almost an hour later, and significantly farther north along highway 85, I finally caught up to the storm, just as it had dropped it’s first, and brief, tornado. And, this time, I was a comfortable distance from the thing! Unfortunately, this tornado would lift off the ground in only a few minutes.

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Not too long after, I received notification that other chasers, following the storms that had formed farther South, had seen a much more impressive tornado, closer up, and had gotten better photos (the above is not my photo).

It was a strange day. Not only because Wyoming is not the typical place to see tornadoes. It also felt strange, as I had managed to do something impressive, yet still had reason to feel like a failure.

Most storm chasing is not like it is portrayed in the movies, with people getting close to storms all the time and getting in trouble. Most days, chasers do not see one. Seeing a tornado one day out of five is a very good track record for storm chasers.

Going out on a chase and seeing a tornado of any kind is impressive. Yet, to be truly happy with my accomplishment, I had to accept the fact that there was something better out there- something I did miss out on. This is a struggle we all face, in common life situations such as jobs, relationships, events, houses, etc. We often know we have done well, but always have this idea of something that is even better out there. Knowing this can make us indecisive, which will often leave us with nothing. In the age of text messaging and social media, evidence of such options has become extremely abundant, and quite hard to escape.

In a connected world, in order to be happy with ourselves, we need to find a way to both believe in ourselves, but also be accepting of the fact that someone else, somewhere out there, has done better. For that will always be the case, and we now have instant access to that knowledge. We cannot let knowledge of someone else’s more impressive accomplishments dampen our enthusiasm for our own. Otherwise, we will likely never be content.

Cycling from Denver to Cheyenne

IMG_6854On the evening of July 3rd, having just finished an exhausting six-day bike ride, including four days of cycling over one hundred miles, my body felt a bit relieved.  I was actually ready to rest, ready to sit in front of a computer again!  Clay, however, told me that I was going to wake up the next morning, realize I was not biking 100+ miles and not know what to do with myself.

The truth ended up being somewhere in the middle.  I could not have pictured cycling at all the next day.  This was literally how I felt.

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The next day, I biked six miles, to and from Union Station from my home.  And, I was perfectly fine with that.

However, I did eventually get antsy, despite two other, closer to home adventures.  By Tuesday July 19th, I posted this picture on Instagram, stating I was bored and wishing to get on my bike and explore again!

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I ride the new RTD A-Line train, which connects downtown Denver with Denver International Airport, roughly three days a week for a gig I am currently working at the airport.  At Central Park Station, one of six intermediate stops between downtown and the airport, this curious piece of potentially symbolic artwork sits atop a pillar.

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Whenever I am on the train, and not trying to sleep for efficiency sake, I see it, and sincerely wonder what its purpose is.  It seems to depict a person running to catch the next train, but headless.  But why headless?  Could it actually be a satire on the futility of the rat race?  Could the artist who created the sculpture have had an alterior motive?  Could he or she have created this sculpture with the secret hope that a few commuters each day would look at this sculpture and be prompted to ask; what am I doing and why am I doing it?  Is this the life I wanted?  Is this the natural state of human condition?  Etc.?

I, however, had other plans, actually for the next Friday, and, they once again involved my 2012 Bianchi Cyclocross bicycle.  The Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo was starting, and, I was going to ride my bike there!

The prior evening, I spent the night in Broomfield, after a softball game in Boulder.  So, even before this next 100+ mile bike ride, I was already spending some significant time on my bike again.  Knowing it was going to be hot, we got an early start.  I actually wish we had gotten an earlier start.

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A lot of people hear about my bike adventures and immediately sounds perplexed…

Is there a trail there?

Are there safe roads to bike on there?

There’s a lot of trucks on that road.

I would never ride my bike on those roads, you could get killed.

Etc.…

There is some risk, no denying it.  When I was a child, one of my favorite bands, the Offspring, told me “Back up your rules.  Back up your jive.  I’m sick of not living just to stay alive.”  More recently, Drake told me, “Everybody dies, but not everybody lives.”  The truth is that there is the possibility of death doing nearly everything.  People die on the slopes.  People die rafting.  But, people also die commuting to work.  And, due to the health risk factors such as cardiovascular disease and such, sitting around watching television can be deadly!

That being said, I still considered risk when choosing a route, and am still willing to go a few extra miles to reduce my risk.  I am just not willing to miss out on opportunities altogether out of fear.

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The first part of the ride was pleasant, 95th St. from Broomfield to Longmont is a road I knew had bicycle accommodations in the form of bike lanes or wide enough shoulders.

Longmont was a little bit tougher to navigate.  Like many towns, their bike route network was designed primarily with travel within the town in mind.  I stared at their bike map for a good half an hour to figure out the best route through town, but it ended up being a fun route.

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I particularly enjoyed all the sculptures along the Saint Vrain Greenway!

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One thing people miss when they drive along I-25 between Denver and Fort Collins is how many lakes there are in the area.  On the interstate, there are none.  On this route between Longmont and Fort Collins, through Berthoud and Loveland, we actually saw a lot of lakes.

I’d been pondering riding my bike from Denver to Cheyenne for years, even going as far as thinking about some of the details, such as what time of year to go and what route to take.  As soon as I started thinking about routing, there was one segment I knew I was going to do, the combination of Taft Avenue and Shields St. through Loveland and Fort Collins, roughly half a mile west of highway 287.  This straight shot through both towns has a bike lane the entire way, and made navigating through Loveland and Fort Collins was easier than navigating through Longmont.

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This is where I started to feel the heat, which was right around 10:30 or 11:00.  The temperature probably hit 90 sometime while we were in Fort Collins, making me regret having not left even earlier than we did (we departed at about quarter to 7 in the morning).

Also, the wind had a slight easterly component that day.  This made the next two segments of the ride, first from Fort Collins to Wellington, where we stopped for lunch around noon, and then from Wellington to Nunn to reach U.S. highway 85, quite possibly the most challenging segments of the ride.  I had this nagging feeling about entering Weld County.  I do not know why, I just felt as if something bicycle unfriendly would happen to me in this county specifically.  It was mainly just a premonition that bore out to be true, just not in the way I had anticipated.

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Upon entering Weld County, the road we were following switched to newly paved blacktop, while the temperatures had climbed probably into the mid-90s.  This lead to the closest thing to heat exhaustion we would experience during the ride.

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By the time we reached Nunn, we were desperate to get out of the heat for a few minutes and get some water.  Unfortunately, despite the fact that Nunn has a water tower that says “Watch Nunn grow”, I’m 100% sure that my calf muscles were growing faster than Nunn that day.  The only place we could find to fill up our water bottles was the police station/town hall, and the only reason that option was available to us is because we were riding on a weekday (Friday).

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We followed U.S. 85 for the last 30 miles of the ride.  We ended up having to wait out a mid-afternoon thunderstorm near the Colorado-Wyoming border, at the only building within a 10-mile radius.

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The storm was, however, neat, and I felt as if I were storm chasing on my bicycle (even though in real life that would have been a disaster).

We arrived in Cheyenne during rush hour, which was a little nerve racking as this is the only part of the ride where the shoulder on U.S highway 85 disappears, the last couple of miles before entering town.

After 109 miles of riding, we were there, Cheyenne Frontier Days, miraculously with enough energy left to party, parade, and rodeo!

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.

A Bizarre Memorial Day Weekend in Wyoming

IMG_3445It is hard for me to really describe a place like Glendo Reservoir in East Central Wyoming.  It feels like this place is a complete contradiction of itself.    It is in Wyoming, a mountainous State with the second highest mean elevation in the country, at 6700 feet.  Yet, this reservoir sits at a paltry 4635 feet, lower than many of the larger cities of the Rocky Mountain region.  Unlike many of the other popular destinations in Wyoming, no mountains can be seen from here.

In fact, like many lakes here in the West, this particular lake is a Reservoir, meaning it is manmade and does not naturally exist.  Glendo’s average annual precipitation is roughly 14 inches per year, which is about what one can expect anywhere on the high plains just East of the Rocky Mountains.  Lakes like this one, and the even higher profile Lake McConaughy in Western Nebraska, exist only because of hydrological dams created in the 20th Century.  To anyone not thinking about the creation of these dams and the reason for them, lakes like these appear completely out of place for a section of the country that is quite dry.  The pioneers who followed the famed Oregon Trail during the westward expansion period of the 19th Century followed this very river westward through what is now Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming.  They would have seen none of these manmade lakes that now serve as popular weekend destinations for boating and fishing enthusiasts with few other places in the region to go.

In a way, this place does not even feel like it is in Wyoming at all.  When most of us think of Wyoming, or any other Rocky Mountain State, we think of destinations that are either in the mountains, or within view of the mountains.  Most Americans understand that there is much flatter terrain in the Eastern portions of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming.  However, these places are dry grasslands with abundant cattle ranches and oil fields, not the kind of place one would think to bring a boat, jet skis, kayaks, and fishing poles.

IMG_3425 IMG_3427Camping at Glendo Reservoir is already a bizarre experience.  Making the experience even more bizarre was the bizarre weather.  May had already been quite wet, with rainfall totals prior to Memorial Day Weekend more than double the monthly average for nearly all of Colorado, as well as the Southern half of Wyoming.  As a result, Glendo Reservoir was roughly 94% full prior to the weekend.  All over the lake, images like these were common, with trees that typically stand on dry land temporarily underwater.  The air was far more humid, and the skies were far more cloudy than is typically the case in Eastern Wyoming.

IMG_3428 IMG_3438The cool, damp overcast weather reminded me of the Midwest as a whole, as the entire region is prone to be damp and cloudy at times.  The size of the lake, however, reminded me specifically of Wisconsin, where I would frequently spend weekends on lakes roughly this size.  Bringing boats up to the lake on summer weekends is a major part of the culture there.  And, the sand dunes and trails that surrounded the lake reminded me of some of the dunes I would typically encounter on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Indiana and Michigan.  At times, it felt impossible to even remember that I was actually in Wyoming, and not in the Midwest.

After a fairly cold night of camping, we were able to have some fun on Saturday.  After a damp, foggy start, the skies gradually cleared throughout the morning hours, and temperatures reached comfortable levels.  During this time period, we were able to do some hiking on the sandy trails around the lake, hang out at the beach (another concept that seems foreign to the state of Wyoming), and even do some kayaking.  The water was quite cold, as the Lake is fed from the North Platte River whose origins are pretty high in elevation.

The rain did not start up again until 4 P.M., which was later than some forecasts had indicated.  Unfortunately, however, once the rain started, it came down quite heavy.  In fact, it actually ended up cutting the trip short, as, well, camping in the rain can be a less than enjoyable experience at times.  However, it was not the rainfall that pounded us in the afternoon and early evening hours that made me decide to leave Glendo behind on Saturday.  It was the expectation that the rain would continue throughout most of the day on Sunday that pushed me to leave, as enduring the evening of cold, wet weather huddled inside a tent would not produce a reward.  Those who decided to press on with the trip and stay at the campground confirmed that the rain was still falling Sunday morning.

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I could be disappointed in only getting one day at the lake this weekend.  But, unfortunately, that is part of the reality of taking part in outdoor activities as a whole.  People can make all the plans they want, but, in the end, Mother Nature really does not give a shit about whatever plans have been made.  The Earth, the sun, the air, and wildlife move about in a manner that we cannot truly control.  The best thing we can do is be prepared for it, both in the sense of remaining safe in adverse conditions, and in a way that allows us to use our most precious resource of all, our time, in a more optimal manner.

Thus, I decided to head back to Denver (home), where prospects for Monday, the final day of Memorial Day weekend, appeared better.  The decision proved to be the right one, as Monday morning was pleasant, and it did not rain until after 4 P.M.  I was able to get a solid bike ride in well before the onset of rain.

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Life is full of unexpected experiences.  Nobody expects it to rain nearly every day in this part of the country, creating lakes where they typically don’t exist.  I did not expect to encounter a lake in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Wyoming or Western Nebraska.  And, people are often surprised that some of the people they meet like certain food, or genres of music that do not match their upbringing.  But, these anomalous experiences do happen, and happen quite frequently.  When we make expectations in life, we need to account for, and prepare for, uncertainty.

The Future of Transportation

This weekend, I got a glimpse into the future in an unexpected place … Wyoming.  Not to say that I have any kind of preconceived notion that Wyoming is backwards in any sort of way.  It is just that in mainstream American culture, people tend to look elsewhere for glimpses of the future.  More frequently, people will look to the latest gadgets being developed in Silicon Valley, the newest fashion designs coming out of New York, or even a new dance craze coming out of a place like Miami before they look into anything going on in a more remote area of the country.

However, my experience in Wyoming this past weekend felt oddly futuristic, albeit in a more subtle way.  As a travel lover, I pay close attention to all issues related to transportation and how we get around.  We are a mobile country full of people (such as myself) who love to be in motion.  And, regardless of what changes, I sincerely hope we (as a nation) never lose that zest for life and exploration that draws us out of our homes, and out of our day to day lives, to new places, experiences, and adventures.

While many novels and films set in the future immediately focus on some kind of major technological breakthrough that ultimately changes the way we live, the changes we actually observe are typically more gradual.  And, while many people are anticipating electric, driver-less cars coming out of Silicon Valley, over the last fifteen years, we have achieved some less high-profile, but still significant changes, such as the proliferation of hybrid cars, incremental efficiency improvements, a general increase in interest in bicycle commuting, and a few new rail lines in some cities.  Once again, nothing monumental, but the results of these changes, and how they impact our lives is easy to spot.

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These gradual changes were on display this weekend when I, for the first time ever, got to drive on an 80 mile per hour road.  Prior to today, the highest speed limit I had ever observed had been 75.  In fact, it was just last year that speed limits on interstate highways in many parts of Wyoming increased to 80 miles per hour.  Higher speed limits can at least partially be attributed to vehicles becoming both safer and more fuel efficient, as historically these two concerns have prompted many to feel uncomfortable about high speed driving.

When I see the 80 mile per hour speed limit on Interstate 25, I see the future.  Growing up in the Midwest, I rarely got to drive on roads with speed limits in excess of 65 miles per hour.  I would commonly go 80, but doing so undoubtedly meant the risk of a speeding ticket.  The same speed here is not only legal, but almost necessary to keep up with the speed of traffic.  Over the years, a significant number of states have decided to allow higher speeds on their interstate highways.

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This is not the only transportation trend I observed in Wyoming this weekend.  In Wyoming’s largest city, Cheyenne, it is hard not to notice a newly built Greenway system, designed to accommodate the increasing interest in cycling, and the increased use of cycling as a form of transportation.

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And, while there are many places (such as Denver, where I live) that have built trail systems like this many years ago, Cheyenne is still ahead of the game.  As more people bicycle to get places, I expect to see many more trail systems like this one pop up in smaller to mid sized cities across the country.

Cheyenne is also ahead of the game when it comes to new and innovative road design.  On the south side of town, a diverging diamond intersection has been built to handle the large volumes of traffic that occurs when a highway has multiple popular rest stops (truck stops) at one exit.

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This particular design is best suited for intersections like this one, where most of the traffic is either turning left or right (in this case entering or exiting the highway).  A majority of U.S. States have yet to successfully implement a diverging diamond interchange.  Yet, people who live in or travel through this area have seen a significant reduction in congestion at this interchange.

When I see the future of transpiration here in Wyoming, I see a bright one, and also a realistic one.  I am not waiting for some pie-in-the-sky innovation that should suddenly fix all of our problems.  But, I see incremental improvements, as there is one commonality in all of these developments, the desire to accommodate people.  While speed limits are increasing on highways across the country, they are not increasing everywhere.  In fact, last year New York City actually decreased its speed limits on surface streets.  At first these trends appear to contradict one another, but both are actually helping accommodate more people.  Maintaining slower speed limits on surface streets in town is seen as accommodating to pedestrians and cyclists.  We are moving towards a world where drivers can drive a fast but comfortable speed and arrive at their destination quicker using limited access highways, meanwhile pedestrians and cyclists feel increasingly comfortable choosing not to drive places as they travel on Greenway-ype trails, and/or surface streets where their safety is at only minimal risk.

Accommodation of different types of people, who live different types of lives, is important beyond just methods of transportation.  If we are going to live within a diverse nation like this one, let alone a global society, we must learn to live with those who chose to do things differently than us, and not let these differences lead to violent conflict.  Although some people would probably never look to a place like Wyoming for clues as to how the future will unfold, I am quite proud to be the kind of person who can see value anywhere.  And that, despite the current political situation in our country, I can go to a place like Wyoming, but also to a place like New York, and enjoy the local culture.  It is not that I do not have strong opinions opinions about anything, it is just that I refuse to view everything through the lens of the current red-state blue-state divide that so many people focus on.  Those who view all places, ideas, and even people through this lens place unnecessary limitations upon themselves.  Recently, at a bar, an acquaintance of mine actually suggested that political affiliations are a strong consideration for potential one night stands.  Needless to say my respect for this individual evaporated that evening.

If we can find ways to accommodate one another, such as maintaining both high-speed interstates and safe places to walk and bike, we no longer need to fight with those who do things differently than us.  The more we do so in all areas of our lives, the better we will be equipped to handle the diverse world that we have, and the more opportunities for meaningful experiences we will be able to take advantage of.