Saturday, 30 May 2015

Snowy Mountain Passes and Tire Issues

Location: Okanogan, WA 98840, USA
The rest day at the Bacon Bike Hostel was well taken and it was fantastic to just chill out just the two of us for the day. The morning after we got up early to get some miles under our belt before the first of five mountain passes in four days. Unsurprisingly as we were now in the notoriously wet state of Washington we loaded the bikes in the rain and headed out to join the Adventure Cycling Association's Northern Tier route which follows Highway 20 all the way west to the ocean.  Since the trip began we have had very few wet days and you can forget how miserable it can get. Low visibility, invisible water filled pot holes and tidal waves of road spray from passing trucks all added to low moral and frustration. It feels important to add that even though we are from equally wet England, Sophie and I have very little wet weather gear. We have waterproof jackets and socks, and Sophie has some waterproof "Chilly Grips" (fleece lined, outdoor rubberised farming gloves) but my gloves are not even water-resistant and seem to just get drenched and chilly pretty quickly. We had been forewarned that the first pass (Sherman Pass) was the worst of the climbs but looking online it wasn't as bad as some of the other summits we'd climbed so when the junction came to turn onto the scenic byway we were fairly confident if a little waterlogged.

The climbing on Sherman pass was not the problem with the day. The issue was two fold. Firstly the dense forest and low lying cloud meant that there was no stunning vista to distract you from the pedalling so all your mental energy was focussed on the mile markers and time. So all I thought about what how far we had come and how far was still to go. How fast we were travelling and what time that meant we were planning on getting to the top; this slows the world right down and quite soon I found myself focusing on every turn of the crank arm. The second issue was my so called waterproof and breathable jacket. It was failing spectacularly on both fronts resulting in my body and arms being dripping wet and cold. As we climbed and the rain turned to sleet then snow my body temperature was dropping and head to toe I was drenched. At the summit sign the visibility was down to about 30-40 feet and the standard achievement photo was forgotten as we hurriedly prepared for the long downhill to Republic. 

From bitter experience we knew that as bad as the climbing was the downhill would be worse. The normal joy of screaming down the hill at speeds of 35mph is replaced with screaming obscenities as the cold fingers become numb and quickly agonising. And the long, sweeping descent from Sherman Pass was no different to the retreat on Boulder Mountain back in Utah, however this time there was no definite safe haven to warm up in and the descent was so much longer. As we rolled closer into town a bald eagle swooped low over us and followed the road for a brief distance meaning we could get fantastic views of the amazing bird. My sentimental mind took this as a sign that it'll be alright and that we were doing well and keep following the road; the cold can do funny things to one's mind. We arrived with our Warm Showers host after not too long and were welcomed with a lovely warm house and home cooked fish and chips.

DiAnne was a great host and looked after us when we arrived. The food was brilliant and her stories of cycling and her holidays were great. We left with dry clothes feeling rejuvenated and ready for our second climb, over Wacaunda Pass, towards the ocean. The weather for the climb wasn't brilliant but nowhere near as bad as the previous day and the scenery was much more inviting so it wasn't too long before we reached the top and were enjoying the downhill towards Tonasket.  We stopped at this little town for lunch and headed off towards Omak to stock up on supplies for the next few days as our food bag was running low.  Our routine for shopping is that Sophie does the shopping while I guard the bikes.  I think we both think the other person has the better task but we only have the one card which is Sophie's, so she gets to look at all the pretty things and walk around the aisles talking to all the wonderful people while I'm stuck outside dealing with whatever the weather can throw at me.  However, during this ordeal in Omak a guy came over and started talking about cycle touring and our trip, he was in a bit of a rush to buy a few things for his lunch but it was nice all the same to interact with somebody.  The next thing I knew he was back out the shop and presented me with a host of things to eat; then he ran off to what ever he was up to.  Soph came out a little later and we headed off to our destination of Okanogan.

We arrived with Heather, from Warm Showers, just before she was heading out for dinner with friends and we had a brief chat about the birds in the area, about her job and how to use the hot tub. Oh yeh, that's right, Heather had a hot tub and while she was out we had a nice long soak resting our tired legs and enjoying all the amazing wildlife.  The next morning we rose early and started getting ready for the next mountain pass.  While loading Sophie's bike I noticed Sophie had a flat; no worries, a quick change was all that was needed.  Loading my bike I noticed a gash in my tire wall; bigger problem.  We don't carry any spare tires and had no way of fixing it so we needed to buy a new one.  A rushed journey to the local bike shop proved fruitless.  How were we going to sort this?  A quick message conversation with Heather resulted in finding a better shop in the next town over plus the offer of a place today stay and a lift there from a work colleague.  Winning.  The stress of it all meant that we needed a nice long soak in the hot tub; all's well that ends well.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Finisterre Gear Review

We have a few bits of clothing from Finisterre with us on our tour and we love them. We just wanted to write a quick review of their stuff. To begin with Finisterre are a cold water surfing company based in Cornwall, England. Although we aren't cold water surfing we think that clothes that can survive in those harsh environments can look after us on our trip.

We both have their woollen socks (Sophie has the "Last Long Original Socks" and I wear the "Last Long Ribbed Socks") - these little things are the best! When it's cold we wear them riding, they keep our toes warm in bed when we're camping and it's below zero, and they are our go to option when off the bikes and just walking around in our light weight Crocs. Despite the fact that mine must be over 2 years old they are near enough perfect (if a little grubby). Well done Finisterre, these socks are awesome!
Putting on the Last Long Original Woollen Socks
I have one of their cotton polo shirts, maybe it was called the Harlyn? This is now maybe 18 months to 2 years old and is one of my favourite T-shirts (hence being away with us) and is still in perfect nick. Again - awesome!
Wearing the Harlyn organic cotton polo shirt
We both have their merino wool Eddy base layers, these are our go to tops when we need something more than just a cycling jersey or T-shirt. Our only minor criticism here is that we'd prefer them to be slightly longer in the body, but again these are built for surfing and not cycling so we shouldn't complain. Still it's a great bit of kit and has helped save us from freezing on a couple of snowy mountain passes! Not sure how we would have coped in Utah or Washington without them.
Keeping the chill off in the desert with the Eddy Merino Base Layer
I also have the Nimbus synthetic down jacket that I asked for as a 30th birthday/leaving pressie from all my family. I love the jacket! It's brilliant, it looks great, it's warm, it is surprisingly water resistant, it packs up small and I wrap it around a stuff sack full of clothes to use it as a super-duper pillow. It is awesome after a long day in the saddle to throw on while putting up the tent and getting the camp set up. It seems to keep me the right temperature - when it's cold it seems really warm and toastie, but if its not so chilly I don't overheat and get uncomfortable.  A nice touch is the soft lining in the pockets and around the neck that is a welcome luxury at the end of the day. I went for the hooded version (there is the Cirrus that comes without the hood) and I'm really glad I did for those cold desert nights gazing at the stars or the biting, frosty mornings getting the porridge ready for breakfast.  Although it's not waterproof it's water resistance keeps rain beading off it to stop it getting damp.  This is my first insulated jacket so I can't really do a comparison but I can't seem to find any flaws with the jacket after 3 months of wearing.   
Keeping warm in the forest in the Nimbus Jacket
All of the above have survived being rolled up and stuffed into dry bags day after day after day.  Some times all (barring the Nimbus jacket) have been wet for days and just packed away and still, once washed and dried out, the clothes keep their shape and carry on keeping us warm (I keep the Nimbus from rain because even though it is water resistant to a point, I personally don't want to have my evening luxury clothing all wet, that would result in a massive disappointment after a long ride).  We've even had to resort to putting the wool socks and base layers into big tumble driers to get them dry on numerous occasions with no ill affect to the garments.  The durability of these items are fantastic and we are both so glad we decided to bring these items away.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Planning on a Century Ride

Location: Colville, WA 99114, USA
Leaving Coeur D'Alene on a Monday morning we were sat in pretty rough traffic for a while, but soon enough we were onto the quieter roads heading north.  There is a Bike Hostel in Colville, WA, that we had decided to make our destination for the night.  It was 107 miles away.  This was just about the furthest we would have rode in a day and the other times we'd done similar distances we'd done it by accident.  This might sound funny, but psychologically the last few miles are always the worst, hence why when we don't have a destination we can push on bit further.  Setting out to do 107 miles you don't have the luxury of that, you're focussed on the end point and this tends to shift perspective on the whole ride.  Still, we were up for it.  We'd be crossing into Washington, our last state, and we were going to have a lazy rest day at the hostel, watching The Wire and not doing much else.  We made it to Newport/Old Town on the Idaho-Washington border by around noon, but there was no state sign welcoming us to our eighth and final state.  Pretty gutted we continued on towards a random point we'd decided to have lunch at.  The border was about 45 miles from Rachel and Donnie's and we wanted to make it to at least roughly halfway for lunch.

We pulled over to check the map and this is when we realised the route I had checked on googlemaps was actually taking us on a load of forest service roads over the hills.  Not good.  We couldn't even find them on the Pocket Earth maps on Tom's phone.  If we stayed on the road it would add another 20 miles on, way too far for us to ride in a day.  We found another road on the paper state map that went up past a ski area and managed to find this on phone too.  We weren't sure what the road would be like, but it was our best shot as it only added 2-3 miles making the total ride just shy of 110 miles.  We stopped for lunch.  I was feeling pretty pissed off with myself for missing the fact google had sent us on some crazy tracks when I was planning the route.  It started raining.  Off course it did, this is Washington and we'd been warned about the rain.  Raincoats on we finished our lunch and got going again.  At the junction for us to turn up towards the ski area and Chewelah beyond I asked a driver coming from that way what the road was like.  Steep but paved.  This was excellent news, we could cope with that.  I just didn't want us up a mountain, in the rain, pushing our bikes through mud on some rough track.

The climb was fine, not so steep, but pretty long and the worst part was that as we were travelling slowly we were at the whims of the swarms of mosquitoes.  It's the first time we'd encountered them on the trip and they were so aggravating.  Luckily before too long we'd climbed high enough that they were no longer a problem.  We passed the sign for the ski area and knew we must be nearing the summit.  At the top we put on extra layers for the descent and started bombing our way down to Chewelah.  I think this might have been my favourite downhill of the trip, its definitely up there anyway.  Hardly any traffic, not freezing cold, not too steep, nice sweeping corners.  The Goldilocks of downhills.  We made it in to Chewelah just before 6pm, with just over 20 miles still to go we knew we'd be cutting it fine to arrive before dark.

The road was gently undulating and we were going at a good pace considering we'd been riding for so long, turning off the highway we started climbing and winding our way through country roads up into the hills.  This was a tiring end to the day.  But the end didn't arrive.  That last 6 or 7 miles seemed to go on forever, and always climbing.  As the sun sank behind the hills we finally reached our destination. The Bacon Bike Hostel is a free place to stay, built by Shelley and Barry Bacon to help cycle tourers.  They're not cycle tourers themselves, they're just incredibly nice, generous people.  It has four rooms which can each sleep up to four people, two bathrooms and a communal kitchen/diner/living room.  Did I mention it's free?  This was our first foray back on to a well-travelled bike route since we left the West Coast, but since we were so early in the season we were the only ones staying so we had the place to ourselves.  We collapsed into bed feeling exhausted but pleased with ourselves.  We'd come a long way since those early days of running out of daylight after only doing 45 miles.

Unfortunately we'd planned our food badly and needed to go into Colville the next day or spend the day hungry.  It was only 6 miles so after a lazy morning we got on the bikes and headed for the grocery store.  We knew it was all downhill to town but jeez it was steep!  We quickly started to regret our decision, the ride back was going to be hell. We should have just holed up and not eaten.  We went wild in the supermarket buying pork chops, potatoes and veg since we had the luxury of a cooker and the ability to cook more than one thing at once.  Our salvation came in the form of Shelley offering us a lift, with our bikes, back up to the hostel.  We headed over to the little community café she volunteers at and enjoyed a soup and sandwich for lunch.  We had fun chatting to the other workers and customers and were even given a delicious vegan chocolate truffle.  Back at the hostel we made a feast for dinner and settled down for a binge session of The Wire.  Tomorrow we had to climb Sherman Pass, the first of five passes to get us to the coast and supposedly the worst of them, so we got an early-ish night so we could get a good start the following day.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Long Days, Fun Nights and Tough Mornings!

Location: Coeur d'Alene, ID, USA
Leaving Missoula we knew our route back to the ocean but for the first few nights we had no plans on where to stay.  We were just going to rock up in to towns and ask the locals and hoped that they would know some good places to camp.  This was a bit scary because we were definitely in bear country so we'd have to make sure we followed all the rules for camping in the backcountry with bears.  Don't eat where you sleep and hang the food and other smelly stuff up a tree.  We had the know how so we were hoping to try out our skills along the way.  The first stop was a book shop in Alberton to get me a new book. Greg at the Adventure Cycling Association had told us about the shop, it was on the way so thought we should check it out. We found the Montana Valley Book Store so I headed inside to check out the books.  The woman in the store pointed me to the right section and I dove into the massive selection; meanwhile the shop owner went outside to talk to Sophie.  Keren, the shop owner, had cycled around the UK and Europe and had visited the Netherlands where her father had been shot down during the war and captured by the Germans.  She then met the man that was part of the Resistance who had tried to find him but had only found his Mae West life jacket.  Keren then went on to give me the book I was looking at and some food for the road.

We carried on bouncing between the Interstate and frontage roads heading North West towards Idaho.  At one point we ended up in the forest up a dirt track and after not much climbing I started to feel really faint.  I ended up needing to get off the bike and lie down in the dirt for a few minutes to sort myself out.  At this point we decided we should find a place to camp.  We looked around for a wild campsite but the trees were really thick and there were loads of beer cans and we were nervous about bears so we headed on down to St. Regis to ask if they knew a better place to camp.  Our first port of call was the visitor's centre but it was already closed for the night.  We next headed to the gas station and they told us about a free campground in the forest.  When asked about the bear they replied with "Yeh there are bears, best to take a gun."  Without a gun, but with our bear spray we headed into the forest to find a place to sleep.  The campground was deserted so we picked a place to camp and went to a separate area to cook and eat.  We found a place to hang all the potential bear bait and were set for the night.  As twilight was setting in we decided to make one last trip to the restroom.  On getting out of the tent, without my glasses, I looked up to see a big black shape with, what looked like, a lighter muzzle.  Without bear spray, whistle or glasses I calmly asked Sophie for my glasses.  As the fuzziness cleared I was staring straight at a log.  After a laugh and a giggle about the scary, bear shaped log we got ready for bed.

In the morning we were aiming to get on to the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes; it's a 72 mile old railway line that is completely paved.  We hoped to hop on that, follow it until we got tired and camp by the side of it.  We found one end of the trail in Mullan and had a look at the information boards about the trail.  Unfortunately, we found that although the rail trail was open for public use we were not allowed off the track because all along it was private land.  There were campsites a little off the route but the only one that was on it was at Harrison.  Harrison was pretty far so we decided to just head off and see what would happen.  After a good morning we decided to push on to Harrison.  We loaded up on supplies, found out the General Election results and headed off down to Harrison.  The Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes was an absolutely amazing  experience.  The scenery was amazing, we saw our first moose and the trail was in great condition for riding.  With all this and the wind at our backs we had a fantastic ride down to Harrison.  After setting up the tent and cooking some food we decided to head to the local bar, The Gateway Grill, for a drink to celebrate.  It'd been a great day so we felt like we deserved it; it is only one drink what is the worst that could happen.

Curled up in the fetal position with my head out the tent vomiting on the floor, I started to wonder where it all went wrong.  I remember going into the bar and ordering a drink.  We were introduced to the owner, Rex and the bar lady, Darcy.  Rex had just bought the bar and this was the start of the season, he was in high spirits and bought the bar a round of shots.  I don't think it was the first shot that was the downfall but it was the other free beers and shots that was the trouble.  We met some of the locals and had country dance lessons.  I think there was some tap dancing involved but then things go fuzzy.  All I know is that we had a great time in the bar with Rex, Darcy and the locals but the next day it hurt.  I struggled all morning but we only had a short trip to Coeur d'Alene so we set off just after lunch on a beautiful day to follow the lake up to the city.

After riding for 15 miles Sophie and I needed to sleep for two hours.  When we woke up on the benches next to the lake Sophie was feeling better but I was worse.  There was no way I would be able to make it the next 30 miles to the city.  With no other options we phoned the Warm Showers host we had planned on staying with to apologise and Sophie explained the situation.  Rachel said no problems, do we want her to come and get us?  Yes please, that would be AMAZING!!!! After getting to the rendezvous I collapsed in a heap and waited for our savior to arrive. When Rachel turned up we loaded up the truck and I focused on breathing while Sophie and Rachel chatted back to the house.  When we arrived I needed to crash for a while and disappeared into the spare room to sleep it off.  When I awoke Donnie, Rachel's boyfriend, had arrived home and I was feeling much better.

Donnie and Rachel were amazing in so many ways.  They had rented bikes for a day, had enjoyed riding around so decided to buy bikes and do the Pacific Coast Bike Route from Canada to Mexico. We couldn't believe it.  We had spent years researching and planning and they had just bought bikes and went.  Donnie then decided to do a triathlon so went and got himself swimming lessons.  The guy couldn't swim and thought he'd do a triathlon - awesome!! Donnie was now training to do a 50 miles Ultra Marathon.  These guys were brilliant!  Sophie and I had a really good evening with them and then they invited us to stay another day.  Not feeling 100% we decided to have a rest day and check out the city.

Coeur d'Alene is an amazing city.  It has a cool downtown and is right by the lake side.  When we were there the sun was blazing and the lake was buzzing with people.  We had wraps and watched the world go by along the lake front.  It was an unscheduled stop in our journey but I am so glad we met Rex and Darcy in the bar and because of that we got to spend more time with Rachel and Donnie, and check out the city and the lake.  It's fun how things work out.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Hill Dread

I have this thing that I have termed 'Hill Dread'. I don't remember exactly when it started, but I remember suffering from it acutely on our first multi-day mini-tour from Sheffield to Devon when I found out about Porlock Hill. For days beforehand I was consumed with a gnawing anxiety about facing this hill and as the final day of our tour approached, the day we would ride up this hill, waves of panic would sweep over me and I would picture all the ways things would go wrong on the hill. Notice the use of the word would, not could. It's totally irrational. My rational, normal self knows this, but it doesn't help. My irrational, fear-filled mind pictures the hill looming ahead and me running out of puff, unable to pedal any longer, but incapable of unclipping my foot from my pedal and toppling sideways, this is when it gets gruesome. Depending on the terrain I have imagined falling into the road and being hit by traffic, smashing my head on rocks or fences by the side of the road, falling off a cliff and/or at the very least falling into a soft hedge but landing in nettles/dog poo/thorns. I am so sure that one of these scenarios will inevitably happen that I will unclip my right foot at the first sign of any steepness on a hill as a precaution so I'm able to put my foot down when I run out of steam.

It's somewhat ironic that being unclipped makes hill climbing less efficient and so increases the likelihood that I will have to stop or get off, but it's a price I'm willing to pay to not stove my head in on a rock or fall in the path of a truck.  I think that cycling up hills in a constant state of fear and anxiety also sadly uses up a load of energy I'd be better off spending on propelling myself up the hill, but alas once the Hill Dread had set in nothing could cure it, I just had to put my head down, grit my teeth and make it to the top.

But here's the thing, at some point over the last couple of months my Hill Dread has abated. I no longer unclip at the first sign of a steep grade, knowing we have to climb a mountain pass no longer fills me with panicky worry for days beforehand and I'm not choosing routes based on avoiding hills. Fitness is definitely part of what's made it better. Whereas at first when climbing all, and I do mean ALL, of my energy went on keeping the bike moving forward and trying to control my terror which meant both hands on handlebars & eyes entirely focussed on the two meters of Tarmac in front of my wheel; I'm now able to look up, I smile at passing cars, I check out the scenery, I can eat sweets out my handlebar bag and blow my nose, and I don't feel like my lungs might spontaneously combust at any moment.

My confidence in my cycling ability has also grown, probably helped along with improved fitness, but also by the realisation that I can do this.  It may be hard work, it may take a long time, but I can keep rotating my pedals and eventually I will make it because, like the biker we met in California said: 'I am so tough!'  I'm semi-kidding, but I'm also kind of serious.  This trip has made me realise I am capable of enduring quite a lot of physical exertion, as long as I don't have to be fast.  I seem to be able to find reserves at the end of a long day, stay positive in the face of a head wind and keep pedalling when we've already been in the saddle for 10 hours and it feels really good to be able to rely on yourself to get you where you need to go. We've come a long way since those first few days of getting beat up by Old La Honda. I don't know how many mountain passes we've conquered, but I'm most proud of getting over my Hill Dread as it feels like we can take on anything now.

Unfortunately the highest pass we've climbed so far was Cedar Mountain (9898ft I think) but there was no elevation or summit sign at the top.  The steepest we climbed was over Teton Pass (10%), but that also was lacking a summit sign.  But hey ho, we know we've done it and that's the main thing!

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Missoula or Zoo Town (as it is affectionately known)

Location: Missoula, MT, USA
After our bonus rest day at Patrick & Hayley's we made our way to Missoula. It was a fairly flat, uneventful day of riding, though lots of it was bike path which was great. This petered out about 10 miles south of Missoula & this last stretch into town was busy & not much fun.  Missoula is the home of the Adventure  Cycling Association and as we were arriving on Sunday we'd arranged to stay two nights with our host so we could check out the city & visit the ACA offices as we'd heard that as passing cycle tourers we'd be treated to free cold drinks and ice cream if we called in. Plus we'd heard Missoula was a cool town so a little urban fun sounded good.

Our host Bruce lives in a big old house in an area with lots of nice big old houses, some of them emblazoned with Kappa Alpha Epsilon or such like, but Bruce is no frat boy. There a bunch of people who share the house with Bruce & his son & on top of that they open it up to cycle tourers in a very laid back, hospitable way. There were another couple of cycle tourers there when we arrived, Izaha and Amy, who'd come from Portland and we're heading to Texas, but had decided maybe they'd like to stay in town instead.

We spent the first night there drinking beers in the garden, chatting with Izaha and Amy, and meeting a few of the housemates. We walked into town the following morning, treated ourselves to breakfast at this great little cafe and headed for the ACA offices. After introducing ourselves to Beth on the reception we were offered drinks and ice cream and set about planning the next leg of our route using their maps and computer. An older gentleman came and started talking to us, ended up giving us a tour about the whole offices and telling us some of the history of the place. Him and his wife were some of the first people to cycle from Alaska to Argentina and had set up the ACA. Greg has a project to photograph portraits of the long-term cycle tourers that come by to document it as a form of travel for future generations to look back on. Anyone who comes by the offices gets their polaroid taken, but if you're on a 'big trip' then Greg will take your portrait with an old fashioned SLR with real film in it. Apparently we qualified for that so he asked if we'd come back with our fully laden bikes. Sure thing we said and agreed we'd come back the next day fully laden.

We spent the next few hours mooching about town before heading to the secondhand gear shop to get Tom some new shorts. A guy in the store suggested a place for us to eat, The Dino Cafe, where locals go and they serve awesome creole food. Tom had the fried catfish po-boy and I went for the 'Gumbolaya' (jambalaya covered with gumbo) - both were delicious. On the way home we stopped on the bridge and watched the surfers and kayakers trying to ride the perpetual wave in the Clark River and then stopped by Big Dipper ice cream and got ourselves a sundae. Also delicious. It felt really good to spend some time alone together, wandering about, enjoying a city. Made us miss Sheffield.

The next morning Tom did a mega clean on the bikes and I got stuff packed up, wrote and looked at routes. Despite all our map gazing at the ACA the day before we were still undecided. In the afternoon we pedalled down to the Adventure Cycling offices to get our pictures taken, write our stories and get our bikes weighed. We both underestimated the weight, and we weren't even carrying water or our full food quota. Tom was very relieved that his bike was heavier as he has been accusing me of trying to sneak more weight on to my bike. We asked Greg what route he'd take to get to the Olympic Peninsula and he said up to Sandpoint then join the Northern Tier route. Sold. Decision made.

We left the ACA and cycled out of town to Big Sky Brewery. Mindy and Dan had told us about a friend who works there and we'd sampled some of their beers with Patrick and Haley, plus they give you four 4oz glasses of beer for free. It was a few miles out of town, against a headwind, in fairly busy traffic, but it was worth it. We had a lot of fun chatting with Sue (Mindy's friend) and Mel (the other barmaid who knew the owners of the yummy bakery in Salmon) and they even gave us a couple of extra glasses for free. If you go to Missoula you should totally visit Big Sky Brewery. We left, a little tipsy, and headed for another bar in town we were recommended for a burger. The Missoula Club doesn't have a kitchen, instead the barman will cook your burger on a hot plate behind the bar. It was damn good; satiated we headed back to Bruce's. We very rarely splurge like this, most the time we don't drink beer and we eat rice and lentils, but it was the first time we'd been in a city for ages and better still a city we could walk/cycle about so a little splashing out seemed in order.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

There are only Two Gods of the Mountain

Location: Salmon, ID 83467, USA
The road from Leadore to Salmon was slightly downhill and pretty straight.  Mainly because of this I cannot really remember much about the route at all.  The wind was at our backs and we covered the mileage quickly and without any moments to write home about, literally.  We cycled through the 45th Parallel which was a sign by the road which was probably the highlight of the morning.  Coming into Salmon we noticed a swarm of bees above our heads but because of riding through a swarm of bees on Route 66 this again hardly bares a mention.  But this is the funny thing.  The days that are good weather, favourable winds with easy mileage are hardly noteworthy; it's a shame because they are the kind of days you wish for for hours, if not days, when things are hard but when you have them they just fade from your memory.

In Salmon we had a break, got ourselves a snack from the bakery and we were sat outside eating, when a guy walks up and introduces himself as Dan.  He had just moved to the area and had cycled toured in Italy. After a brief chat he invited us to pitch up in his yard.  We um-ed and arh-ed because we had been warned about a long, hideous climb to get into Montana and wanted to get further north before camping but decided that it might be nice to hang out and talk to Dan and partner Mindy.  We wanted to hear more about his job, he works for the Salmon Heli-Rappelers (he is helicoptered into forest fires to put them out, how cool is that?!) and about his trip to Italy (which he went on because of a suggestion on the back of a Clif Bar).  After a snooze in their yard we met Mindy and had a beer with them both and were introduced to their massive dog, Archer.  Sophie and I had a great evening with Dan and Mindy just chewing the fat about pretty much everything and had loads in common.  They also had a very similar experience of the bar in Leadore and had left at pretty much the same speed as us.

After going to bed late we were pretty sluggish in the morning but needed to get a move on since there was this foreboding climb.  Depending on whom you talked to it sounded longer than Cedar Mountain and steeper than Teton Pass so we wanted to get going.  Stopping for a toilet break at the bottom of the climb we found out that we were in fact on the Pan American highway as it made it's way from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina.  We both thought that at some point in Central or South America we'd probably hook up with it but never really considered it in the U.S. or Canada because of our random, bouncing around route.  With photos of road signs taken we started the worrying climb towards the state line.

Sophie and I have rules to climbing, (until now) unwritten and untalked about rules but (I assume) we both  try to follow them.  We can both climb at our own pace, we can stop when we want, we are supportive and we don't impede the other person's climbing technique.  It's sometimes hard, but it's fair.  I like to climb.  There are always exceptions to this, like when I'm really tired, or ill.  Or when it is really windy or I'm cold.  If I'm in a bad mood then climbing is tough and at the end of the day when I just want to "get there" it starts to get to me.  In these cases I don't like climbing, but this climb did not fall into any of these categories so all was good. As we neared what looked like a summit, Sophie called out "Look.  It doesn't look too far to the top!". This broke the rule about impeding climbing technique.  I don't like searching for the summit, there are so many false summits that it is demoralizing when you hit them and you see the road winding evermore skyward.  So I had to reply "Don't worship fake summits like false idols.  There are only two gods of the mountain; left calf and right calf!"  This made us both laugh and we carried on to the top; which was the actual summit.  When we got there we looked back and saw the sign for the grade at a pitiful 5% (no where near as steep as Teton's 10%).

The downhill was fun and we were stopped by a car that turned out to be our Warm Showers host for the night.  They gave us directions and we carried on down towards Darby.  The mountains were covered in burnt trees but the headwind meant we focused on that more than the scenery.  But after swearing my way through the valley we arrived with Haley and were greeted with beer and a smile.  After chilling out and showering we found out that it was Haley's birthday and that we were having a barbecue with friends and family.  Haley's husband, Patrick, was away with the reserves for the weekend but she suggested that if we stayed an extra night and had a rest day we'd get to meet Patrick, we could have a few more beers, and mead, and that she would drive us to some hot springs.  In the time it took to open the bottles for mead tasting we had decided that we deserved a rest day and it'd be great to meet Patrick and get a soak in some naturally occurring hot water.

In the morning Sophie and I were introduced to the critter collection.  Brin, Haley and Patrick's daughter, had a love of tiny rabbits and would often ask "can I get a baby bunny?" which resulted in Brin carrying around one of the rabbits, while stroking and petting it.  After being cooked fantastic biscuits and gravy by the duo that was Haley and her mum we helped move some sheet metal and proceeded up the mountain to the hot springs.  There was some uncertainty if we could make it all the way up because of snow, but we tried all the same.  We wound our way up dirt roads into the mountains and forest, most of which had been destroyed in a massive forest fire.  As we neared the summit the snow alongside the road got deeper and deeper but the dirt track was clear so we managed to get to the springs.  A hot spring is an amazing thing and Haley, Brin, Sophie and I enjoyed the water for a long time.

After a daring dash into the cold river water and a warm plunge in the pools we dried off, had some food and had a brief introduction to the guns.  Sophie and I shot a rifle and a handgun under the close supervision of our minder.  The two cans we found lying around and used as target practice were shot full of lead (I think we shot maybe 15 rounds and had 3 hits, our next profession is definitely assassin).  Heading back down towards home for the evening we stopped and had a brief snowball fight at a junction and tried, and repeatedly failed to hit the sign with snow balls.

We got home and enjoyed the chicken that had been crock potting throughout the day. When Patrick arrived home we chatted about his weekend, hunting and guns whilst eating a glutinous amount of ice cream and fresh cookie sandwiches. The rest of the evening was taken up with Mario Kart and Duck Dynasty. In the morning we missed Haley because of heading off to work early but Patrick made us some venison that he had shot (with a bow) and butchered himself for breakfast. It was delicious and gave us the energy to cycle on up to Missoula.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Trapped in the Wind

Location: Leadore, ID 83464, USA
We left Sugar City and called in at the supermarket in Rexburg for supplies.  The previous day we had called in at a Ranger Station to get an Idaho map and they had suggested a route up through Salmon, but warned that it was ‘the loneliest highway’ so to carry all the food and water we needed.  They’d said we’d have no bear issues out there, our only problem would be the wind.  So fully stocked up we aimed for a random spot we thought was about 70 miles away, in the middle of BLM land where we knew we could camp.

The morning’s ride was mostly through farmland and the roads flat and straight.  There was a few small towns along the way and we stopped for lunch in one and refilled all our water.  The farmland soon gave way to desert sagebrush and we turned north on to highway 28 to begin the lonely stretch up to Salmon 120 miles away.  Cycling in terrain like this is tough, you’re pedalling all the time as it’s mostly flat, but you don’t get a sense of getting anywhere as all the surroundings are the same.  Luckily it was a quiet road so we could ride next to each other and talk.  Looking ahead the road stretched away in a mind-bogglingly straight line up a slight incline and we could make out a junction way up ahead.   So we made bets on how far away we thought the junction was; I said 13 miles, Tom went for 19.  Time went by and it just didn’t seem to get any closer.  We tried to time cars making the journey, they took a long time.  I narrowly won the bet.

We were getting close to the distance we wanted to cover so we started keeping an eye out for possible camp spots.  There was nothing but sagebrush and hills off in the distance.  We pushed on.  We knew there was a creek which ran close to the road a little way on and thought this would be a good bet as we could then refill our waters using our water filter.  We spied some willow and other little trees up ahead and guessed this was where the creek ran.  There was some machinery parked on the far side of the creek and a track which led to the left which we chose to head down.  There was a bit of a parking-cum-horse corral type area, but the creek was behind a barbed wire fence.  We snuck through the fence to climb up the bank of the creek to see if we could spot anything better.  On the other side of the creek there appeared to be an open area with easy access to the water.  Bingo!  We’d found our campsite for the night.  We rode back down the track and back up past the machinery.  We liked our spot and decided to put the GoPro on time-lapse to capture us setting up camp.  We did our warm down stretches and started to get the tent set up.  It had been a cold night the night before and the tent was damp from condensation so we decided to just put up the inner for the time being to give it time to dry out while we made dinner.  We pegged it down, though the ground was very poor, but didn’t put our stuff in as the ground sheet was a little damp too.

I got on with making rice and rasam for our dinner and Tom got the bikes sorted and was checking the camera was working.  All of a sudden a huge gust of wind picked up the tent, ripping out and scattering the pegs, and tumbled the tent towards the barbed wire fence, somersaulted it over the fence and carried it along, like a tumbleweed, towards the trees lining the creek.  I screamed to get Tom’s attention and followed it as quickly as I could, negotiating my way under the barbed wire and chasing our beloved tent down.  Tom was quickly at my side and we managed to catch hold of the tent and with some effort wrestle it against the wind back to our spot.  The wind had not died down and we fought to get the fly sheet on and get all our stuff in the tent to weigh it down before retrieving our far-flung pegs.  We ate dinner by the creek and talked of ‘what ifs’ and how lucky we were that we’d not lost the tent and that the only damage it had incurred was a small rip near the door in the ground sheet.

We decided to lay the bikes down for the night and covered them with the tarp as usual before heading to bed.  I got woken up just after midnight as the wind seemed to be increasing, but soon fell back to sleep.  Then at 3:30am someone cranked the wind up to 11 and it hammered us hard.  Tom and I lay, arms outstretched, bracing the end of the tent against the attack for over an hour and a half.  At one point I sat up to get our shoes in from the porch as we worried about losing them and the wind got under the tent and made a good effort to lift us up.  I was scared.  I honestly worried that we may get picked up and thrown about.  I watched, fearfully, as the wind raged around us, battering the tent, sand blasting it, yanking it from side-to-side and the poles and material fought to keep their form.  I wondered if we’d missed warnings of tornados or hurricanes in the area.  We were miles from anywhere, no one knew where we were and I had no idea what we would do if we lost the tent.  The wind finally eased enough for us to feel we could safely stop holding the tent up and try to get some more sleep.

We snoozed later than usual and then ate a cold breakfast in the tent while deciding what to do.  The wind was still pretty blustery, but when we finally ventured out it wasn’t too awful and amazingly we hadn’t lost the tarp on the bikes.  We packed everything up, quite an ordeal in the wind, and got on the road around 11am.  After about an hour of tough riding in the wind we came across Lone Pine which consists of a café/shop and a motel.  We decided to treat ourselves to a drink, maybe a pastry and a break from the wind.  The Rangers had joked about Lone Pine, but it went over our heads at the time.  We get it now.  We walked into a dimly lit room, TV blaring in one corner and an elderly lady sat in a comfy chair in front of it reading the paper.  She informed us that they were in the process of ‘deep cleaning the place’ and were ‘low on stock’.  Oh that’s ok we said we’d just like a drink and a break from the wind really.  Tom inquired if she had any soda, ‘oh no, that machine is broken’ she replied.  I could see she had a pot of coffee on so I asked if we could have coffee.  ‘Sure,’ she said and got up to get us sorted out.  ‘Oh no I’ll have to see if I can find you some sugar’, I replied we didn’t take sugar, but did she have any milk?  ‘Oh no, we don’t got no milk’, she said.  OK, well black is good.  We took the coffees outside (it would have been weird to just sit in her living room with her!) and chuckled in hindsight at the Rangers joke.

Feeling somewhat revived, we got back on the bikes and continued north.  The wind had died down a little and we were getting over the drama of the previous night.  We’d decided that if we could just make it to Leadore that was enough for today and we’d push on to just past Salmon the following day.  We had a long, gentle climb up to Gilmore Pass and the wind had eased enough that the downhill wasn’t a fight.  The hills were closing in a little, but it was mostly just sage brush still and we were pretty nervous about camping anywhere too open in case we were subject to another windy battering.  We rolled into Leadore, past an RV park and found the library.  After a little while of looking at maps and researching possible campsites we decided to enquire at the RV park.  At $10 a night it was as cheap as any other fee charging campgrounds so we pitched the tent.  It was attached to a motel and the owner let us use the showers in one of the motel rooms.  The seven year old son of the lady looking after the RV park comes and introduces himself as Garrett and joins us doing our stretches.  He is a real livewire and reminds me of a character they may have had in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.

We felt we deserved a treat after the ordeal we’d been through so we headed to the local bar for a beer and maybe a burger.  It was fairly dark inside and we got the full ‘you’re not from round here’ stare as we entered.  Undeterred we ordered two Bud and sat at the bar.  We asked if they were serving food but were told that no they were not.  Sat, feeling uncomfortable, at the bar we look around at the myriad of humorous stickers they have on the walls and talk quietly amongst ourselves.  That’s when I noticed the crucified, zombified, semi-corpse of the President they have hung above the bar with ‘FUCK YOU OBAMA’ written across his forehead.  I squeezed Tom’s hand, we finished our beers and left.  Not the treat we were after.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Guns, Arguments and Mountains

Location: Jackson, WY, USA

We met Dave in The Stagecoach Bar, where for nearly every Sunday evening for over 40 years the Stagecoach Band plays, its a bit of an institution in Wilson and they've even had Bob Dylan up on stage with them.  It was happy hour and we indulged in a few beers and listened to the band and watched the old timers dance, chatting away to Dave and his neighbour Pete.  Dave informed us he'd pot-roasted some elk which we were welcome to share back at his house and so having heard three or four songs, we got some beers to take back and got a lift up to Dave's with Pete.

We made the most delicious elk burritos, drank beer and talked.  The conversation between Dave and I headed towards the political and our differing opinions on Islam.  We're both feisty people and enjoyed our little altercation, but there was no hard feelings and there was no risk of us losing our bed for the night.  Dave then showed Tom his impressive gun collection, including something from WWII era which Tom was particularly taken with.  I held a Magnum, felt like Clint Eastwood.  And we discovered that although I am right-handed I am left eye dominant so anything rifle-y that requires looking through a scope is tricky for me.  Guess I'll just stick to the Magnums.  All in all it was just a really fun evening hanging out with Dave and Pete and despite getting a bit tipsy we still managed a pretty early night ready for our ride around Grand Tetons National Park the next day.

It was a beautiful sunny morning and we headed into Jackson to meet up with our Warm Showers host for that night and drop off our stuff in his truck so we could ride unloaded around the park.  We timed it pretty much perfectly and met Ross outside the bike shop where he works, bought a load of bagels for breakfast and lunch and headed for the park.  There is a great bike path that runs all the way into the park from Jackson and at this time of year they open the roads in the park to non-motorised vehicles but not to cars so once we were in the park proper we had the run of the roads too, along with dozens of other cyclists.  The Grand Tetons are big, jagged, imposing peaks and they are often shrouded in cloud, but we were lucky and as the morning passed they revealed themselves.

Although the roads were clear there was still a lot of snow on the ground so we couldn't do much exploring on foot, but with all the signs about saying 'bears frequent this area, be bear aware' we didn't really fancy straying too far from the roads anyway and we were on high alert.  We sat on a log in the car park for lunch and got a shock when a bird landed a couple of feet away and tried to muscle in on sharing our food.  I informed the bird it was illegal for us to feed it, but it wasn't convinced.

We rode back to Jackson, calling in at the National Museum of Wildlife Art on the way, and then headed off to Ross's for the evening.  We had DIY sushi rolls (a great way to eat sushi!) and talked with Ross, Sam, Cameron and Kirsty about their tours around Europe and South East Asia.  The next day we had to climb Teton Pass which we had been warned about by numerous people.  Its just shy of 8500ft, about 2500ft of gain and we'd been told it was a steep grade.  They weren't joking.  The majority of the climb is at 10% with a few short sections where its an 'easy' 8%.  We were passed by three other cyclists out on day rides up the hill and back down and a totally hardcore lady running up it, who all offered encouragement.  It was slow going, but we made it to the top without having to get off and push.  I felt this was a real achievement and really proved that our fitness is improving.

We enjoyed a long fast descent into Idaho and admired the view of the 'back' of the Tetons as we passed into farmland and enjoyed another great bike path between the towns of Victor and Driggs.  We had no destination in mind as the Warm Showers host we'd contacted in St Anthony had turned us down so after about 80 miles we rolled into Sugar City (population 1377 so 'city' is pretty aspirational) and started asking around for a place to pitch the tent.  The lady in the gas station was of little help, but we'd spotted a guy mowing the park so thought he might be a good bet to ask.  As we pushed the bikes towards him he was joined by another lady and on asking if they knew anywhere to camp was told that the city didn't welcome people camping in the parks.  This was not looking good.  But then the guy asked if we'd camp in someone's yard, well sure we answered, we just don't know anyone.  He then kindly offered up his yard, introduced himself as Glen and gave us directions to his place.

While we were doing stretches in his yard the lady from the park showed up with a food parcel including fresh strawberries, crackers, cookies and other goodies and introduced herself as Whitney.  Glen then invited us in for dinner and showers and we got to meet his family who invited us to join them for breakfast.  We went to bed well fed and once again amazed at the hospitality of strangers.