Monday, September 26, 2011

This Isn't the Blog You're Looking For

No, seriously. I'm moving this blog over to our shared blog. It only makes sense, really.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"I'll take 'Poor Planning' for 500 please, Alex."

I mostly refrain from using sports metaphors, especially in education discourse. That said, a former principal came up with one of the best analogies I've ever heard. "Teaching is like baseball," he said, "because on any given day you might be mediocre or even awful, so you have to measure your success by looking at the whole season." Which is another way of saying that even the good teachers sometimes aren't.

Now, today wasn't that bad. But it certainly could have been better.

Last night was rough. I had a metric ton of grading and was zinged by a cold to boot, and subsequently I didn't do enough planning for today. Oh sure, I had a general idea of what I wanted to accomplish in each class, but none of these ideas really gelled until I got to school this morning. And after five years of teaching, I know better than to try to plan in the morning. One must plan well in advance, because if one walks into the classroom without a plan, Very Bad Things will happen. Teenagers can smell a lack of planning from three periods away.

Now, let's be clear. I'm exaggerating. But I talked way too much today, a sure sign of poor planning, and I even cracked very stupid jokes which, if you don't know me or my sense of humor, could be mistaken for stupid and uninformed jokes. Luckily, my students get me and forgive my stupidity. Usually.

And so tonight I'm reviewing the unit plan and next week's activities, and I'm regaining that sense of control. Unfortunately, my ability to write cogently has apparently left the building with Elvis, so this-here post is getting cut short.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Day 5: Burgess Junction to Basin

We’d slept well that night, snuggled deep into our bags, and when I woke up at 5 the world felt more subdued than usual. It was as if we’d agreed that we wouldn’t be in a hurry today. Other cyclists were certainly up and moving, but I didn’t get a sense of urgency. I only had to reach for the tent flap to understand why.

Instead of the pliable fabric I was used to, the tent was stiff from frost. I now understood why I’d wound up curled fetal in the sleeping bag, lumpy ground and sore back be damned. I stepped outside, into a world of ice and breath clouds. It wasn’t a winter wonderland – the ground wasn’t caked with ice, for goodness sake – but our camp chairs, my street shoes, and our bags had a layer of frost straight from October’s windshield.

I’d been toying with the idea of making this my last day. Our overnight stay in Basin would be a mere 30 miles from Worland, and although the last night of the Tour apparently has some fun traditions, we were both ready to return to Lander. I therefore wanted to take it easy this morning – no huge rush to get on the bike; no huge rush to set up camp after the ride. Just complete the ride and call it a Tour.

It’s only a month later, and I can’t remember breakfast from that morning. I know I didn’t get on the bike until somewhere around 7, far later than previous days. It was a very chilly ride, even with my riding jacket. Today’s route took us from Burgess Junction to Granite Pass and then plunging down Shell Canyon. We’d emerge on the west side of the Big Horn Mountains, pedaling through Greybull and then turning south to Basin. 50 miles? 60? It didn’t matter; it was the last ride and I was going to enjoy it.

Burgess Junction to Granite Pass is only 10 miles or so, climbing somewhere around 800 feet. Not a big deal. It feels like you’re going west when you’re on this road, but in fact you’re shooting almost due south. The climbs here are nothing more than high country rollers: enough to make you work, sometimes even stand on the pedals, but not enough to make you question your sanity.

By the time I’d reached Granite Pass, after nearly an hour on the bike, I was sweating in the jacket and getting a bit sore in the shoulders. Kathryn had passed me a few miles back and was waiting at the pass. However, Granite Pass is weird. Heading south, there’s no road sign indicating you’re at the pass, you just crest a hill and then blaze down. Kathryn apparently learned this the hard way. There is a road sign on the other side of the road, though, so when I stopped to have Kathryn take my picture, I had it taken from the “wrong” side.

Kathryn took my jacket and graciously hung around to take pictures of other cyclists. I noticed that others weren’t shedding their outer layer, and although I knew the ride would get cold, I welcomed it.

Descending Shell Canyon was one of the highlights of the entire Tour. I’d become more comfortable on downhills by this point and opened it up, pedaling hard in top gear on straightaways, tucking on the turns. A cyclist in front of me kept a great pace and I tried to keep up with him.

The cold wind numbed my shoulders. It felt great. This stretch, no more than a few miles from Granite Pass to the day’s first rest area, made me appreciate everything about the Tour, not to mention cycling.

More descending after the first rest area, and many of us stopped at Shell Falls. Remarkable. And terrifying, if you’re afraid of heights like I am.

More descending, and now car traffic was picking up. You could hang with them on the turns but the polite thing to do was get out of the way on straightaways. Between the altitude and rising sun, it was warming up.

Descending out of exposed cliff faces and into vegetation and tree canopies. The river on your right, and if you weren’t so preoccupied with not getting smoked by cars, you’d stop to scope out fishing holes.

And now we were out of the canyon, one moment gliding through pleasant shade, the next moment cranking away in Wyoming high desert heat. This was a long stretch, mostly because of the heat but also the scenery. Somewhere on a gentle downhill in here my CO2 pump fell out of its straps, forcing me to stop, pedal back up the hill a ways, and figure it out. Roadkill. Rough shoulders. Passing some, getting passed by others. Just keep pedaling.

I can’t remember where it occurred (it may have been in the town of Shell), but on this last day, three kids stood by the road and cheered us on. They weren’t selling lemonade or looking at us like we were freaks – they were cheering us on. They literally jumped up and down, clapping, as you rode by. You’ve heard the phrase “I can live two weeks on a compliment?” This was better. It was easily my favorite off-the-bike moment of the Tour.

That gave me enough fuel for rest area two. Kathryn was waiting, and I debated just calling it good right then and there. We hadn’t reached Greybull yet, but we were close. A few more miles, a left turn to the south, and an eight mile burn to Basin. Kathryn pointed out that I only had 10 miles or so left of the Tour. With that, I got on the bike.

I followed a small group into Greybull. They stopped for lunch, and as I swung left at the main intersection, I realized it was over. All of that work, those cold rides in April, the early mornings out on Baldwin Creek / Squaw Creek loop, the sweat and snot on the Sinks Canyon asphalt, the innumerable explanations to family and friends about just what exactly this Tour thing was – done. Eight miles and it was over.

It wasn’t sprinting exactly, but it was the strongest I’ve ever pedaled on level ground. Some part of me just wanted to prove that I belonged on a bike, that despite all my insecurities and paranoia about getting passed, that I knew in my heart it didn’t matter.

So for this last eight miles, I went like hell. I sliced through the wind and heat. I stood on the pedals because I could, not because I needed to. I clicked into my top gear, found a cadence, and flew.

My bike computer had been acting up for the past two days, occasionally freezing or indicating I’d traveled all of two miles after three hours on the bike. So, I don’t know what my average speed was for those last eight miles between Greybull and Basin. Certainly in the upper teens. Possibly, though I doubt it was this awesome, over 20.

I rolled into Basin, took a right on one of the main streets, and found Kathryn parked by the high school. She snapped a picture, we loaded up the RAV, and headed for home. No fanfare, no dramatic goodbyes to other cyclists – mostly because I suspect I’ll see them again.


It’s a month to the day since I rolled into Basin. Would I do the Tour again? Depends on the route and family schedule, but the short answer is yes. I came back to Lander as trim and fit as I’ve been in a long, long time. Coworkers noticed; former students noticed; close friends congratulated me. And then for weeks I did nothing but bake bread and learn other family baked-goods recipes. The weight’s creeping back up and the flab is getting worse daily. I can quite literally feel my leg muscles atrophying.

I’ve been on a few rides, about once a week, but the fever is dying down. In fact, riding almost seems like a chore. I desperately want to fall back in love with cycling, but a part of me, that sniveling, petulant, lazy part of me that kept me depressed for years, keeps finding excuses to stay off the bike. I was going to ride this morning but made coffee and surfed instead. Oh, sure, that meant getting this post written, but a moment ago I snapped at Kathryn when in fact I was upset at the dog.

We all carry around suitcases of emotional gravel and scree; someone says something hurtful and we put that pebble in our pack. We haul bricks of insecurity in there, too, and some of us have rocks we don’t even remember. The only way to lighten the load is to dissolve the rocks, and the only liquid that does that is sweat. A few times there, on the climb between rest area two and Powder River Pass; on the last broiling five miles descending into Buffalo; on the Story and Granite Pass downhills; in the camp chairs at Dayton, soaking in the view with Kathryn; a few times there, my luggage was well and truly lost. Can’t say I missed it.

I see now the moral imperative in getting on the bike. We can get as poetic or emotional as we want, but the fact remains that cycling changed me for the better, or at least offered a glimpse of what could be. I spend an awful lot of time chewing on myself. Cycling channels that crap into something useful.

And with that, I’m going for a ride.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Day 4: Dayton to Burgess Junction

We’d arrived in Dayton fairly late, and after bickering a little (okay, I was being not particularly helpful crabby) we finally set up camp on a ridge between the road and the school. Our tent faced west, toward the mountain, and it was a gorgeous evening.

After getting a quick lesson in bike tube repair from the ridiculously cool and nice guys from the Pedal House, I joined Kathryn at the tent and we sat in camp chairs, soaking in the view. I couldn’t help gazing at the diagonal scar running up the mountain, the highway. We’d be climbing that thing tomorrow. As so often happens on the Tour, bedtime came early.

A few seconds (actually 3 hours) after I closed my eyes, the tent fluttered a bit as the wind picked up. Rain pattered. The wind grew stronger, and the tent popped and shook. Now, outdoor sounds are magnified in a tent for some reason, so what feels like a hurricane is actually a strong breeze. Kathryn had very wisely staked down the tent, and with our weight there was no chance of actually getting blown away.

But it sure felt and sounded like we might blow away. At one point, I got out to secure some straps that were slapping around in the storm, and that’s when I noticed an oddity: there was a large, empty tent next to ours. Holding it in place was a big pile of . . . our gear.


Either the tent had tumbled our way and somehow gobbled our stuff and then flipped over, or more likely, the tent blew away and rather than try to haul it back to from whence it came and then stake it in, the tent rescuers just grabbed the nearest heavy stuff they could find . . . namely, our camp chairs and our heavy luggage bags.

Another example of Tour Etiquette: in a crisis, it’s okay to borrow someone else’s gear, even if they don’t give you permission. At least, I think that’s Tour Etiquette. Regardless, I’m just glad we could help even if we were asleep at the time.

The storm finally blew through, and Kathryn and I got back to sleep. At five, I found a portapotty and the breakfast line and hit the road.

Once again, we had a few miles of gradual climbing before the real effort began. Something was easier this time, though. I was still down in lower gears, cranking quickly and moving slowly, but the anxiety about climbing a mountain was gone. The obvious answer is that because I’d climbed Ten Sleep Canyon two days before, I knew I could pedal up this mountain.

Soon we were climbing the switchbacks. These are unusual in my book, since they sit near the base of the mountain, unlike other switchbacks that sit near the top of mountains. Again, not as hard as I thought they’d be. I was even making good time here, passing quite a few folks.

Cranking away. One turn after another.

On one of the longer stretches, a cyclist came up next to me. We’d been pedaling for an hour or so but car traffic was still incredibly light; you could ride two abreast and have a nice conversation, which is far better than having a conversation with someone on your back tire. I mean, for all you know, that voice back there is not another cyclist but your subconscious because you have finally, once and for all, gone crazy.

So it was nice to talk to someone I could see. This guy was on a very nice bike and decked out in high-end cycling clothes. I can’t remember his name – in fact, I’m not sure he ever told me – but we were talking about how healthy cycling is when he mentioned he’d lost close to a hundred pounds since he first started cycling three years ago. What?!

“I used to weigh over 300,” he said. I surreptitiously glanced at him. Average build, not slim, but beneath all of it, solid. Endless-hours-on-a-bike solid.

“One day my doctor said I had to change,” he continued, “and something finally clicked for me. I went out and bought a bike at Wal-Mart and also started eating healthier. I lost something like 20 pounds in two months, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Incredible, I tell you. It’s incredible what cycling does for you. As I said before, I never had any true epiphanies on the Tour, but I have come to focus on what matters: a supportive spouse, a healthy lifestyle, kindness towards oneself and others, and an abiding and profound appreciation for shade and water.

We rounded a bend and there, tucked into a nook in the very scar I’d been eyeballing last night, was our first rest area. It felt good, as always, but I was eager to keep going.

More pedaling. Several hundred yards past the rest area we rode into the black cloud of death-smell. Another cyclist was passing me at this point. “Mmmmmmmmm,” I said as we rode past a particularly gruesome deer carcass, “breakfast.” Heh. I crack myself up.

He looked at me, puzzled, and kept pedaling. Well, at least someone thinks I’m funny, even if it’s just me.

I stopped at Sand Turn because Kathryn and I had agreed to meet either at the rest area or at the Turn, but she wasn’t there. More pedaling. I should mention here that this highway is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been on in my life. Just for the record.

More pedaling, up near what I thought was the top of the mountain. These are old rocks up here, people, and to occupy my time I thought about how many billions of years it took for these rocks to become part of western South Dakota’s topsoil. How many cubic feet of grit is blown from these mountains into South Dakota in a year? Not much. Not much.

The second rest area sat in a bend just below Steamboat Point. Approaching it, I realized I had a slight problem. I was cramping up.

Okay, just get there. Drink some water, eat some food, relax.

I remember someone, a Tour veteran I’m sure, singing as she passed me here. I think I sang along to take my mind of the cramping.

Regardless, this rest area felt much, much better than the first one. In fact, this may have been the second-best rest area of the whole Tour, behind the second rest area at Meadowlark Lake two days before. I slugged down fruit, water, and Gatorade. I stretched out my legs, making small talk with the others, immensely proud of what I’d just done. I thought, incorrectly, that we were close to the top.

That’s one of the worst possible mental mistakes you can make. No one ever said this to me, but if I ever offer advice to rookie cyclists, I’m going to tell them: never, ever tell yourself that you’re near the top unless you can see the top. By saying crap like, “Okay, this has got to be the last climb before the summit,” you’re just setting yourself up for heartbreak.

Rather, the cyclist should find a mental happy place where pedaling becomes as natural as breathing and pain is nature’s reminder that one is alive. Just enjoy the ride. Come to a Zen-like peace with the agony, the bugs, the sweat in the eyes, and the bloated deer carcasses. Surrender to the suck.

And so the stretch between Steamboat Point and Burgess Junction turned out to be the hardest leg of the entire Tour for some reason. I put myself in the wrong frame of mind and paid dearly for it. Even the hair-on-fire descent wasn’t all that enjoyable. There were a few lakes and creeks up here that looked eminently fishable, but mostly I was getting pouty. I’d done what I’d come here to do. I just wanted to get to camp and get off the bike. These turns and small climbs were getting old. Very old. Hey look, more trees! And another climbing turn into trees! Greeeaaaaaaaat.

In fact, at the last turn to the southeast, with Burgess Junction a mere two miles away or so, I got downright ornery. The grade wasn’t terrible but I was in my lowest gear. Other cyclists blazed by me, slicing through the wind while I clawed and scraped through it. I was angry. I darn near got off the bike.

But I didn’t. I just kept pedaling, calling myself crude names as a last resort of motivation. How silly would I feel, SAGing in the last mile? Silly. Very silly. That, and ashamed.

Kathryn had set up camp at the lodge where we were all staying, and because I could fill many pages with the descriptions about life at this lodge, I’ll just say this: if you’re ever in Wyoming, don’t miss Bear Lodge on state highway 14.

This afternoon and evening’s activities included a dip in the indoor hot tub and pool, watching other people fish in the small pond, drinking beer in the bar, catching a nap on the deck, reading in the shade, getting a massage, and snuggling into our bags on what would be the coldest night of the Tour by a very long way. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Day 3 – Buffalo to Dayton

AKA, Harry Potter and the Cyclist’s Soreness

Another morning in the tent, listening to zippers zipping and grass swishing. Breakfast was in the school, so we all trekked up the hill and queued up. As at dinner (which I forgot to describe yesterday), BHS students served. They were remarkably cheerful for ambulatory teens at 5:30 in the morning.

That morning marked my first true repair: my back tire went flat in the night. Luckily, in the course of training, I’d spent enough time (and money, God knows) at the local bike shop to learn a thing or two about fixing flats. In this case it was nothing more than using a CO2 pump for the first time.

Once aired up, I hit the road. The day’s route was a mix of high plains interstate, old back country highways, and traffic-heavy maneuverin’ at the halfway point in Sheridan.

My body felt creaky. The ride through Buffalo, north to the I-80 onramp, felt like pedaling against the universe’s will. Once on the interstate, though, the ride improved – WYDOT is pretty awesome about maintaining shoulders and we had a broad, relatively smooth shoulder for several miles. We eventually exited at Piney Creek and angled back toward Story, hitting the first rest area of the day.

College representation makes up a large percentage of cycling jerseys. The first two jerseys I bought, for example, were from the universities of Illinois and Wyoming. And I’m compelled to add that I wore that Wyoming jersey with this weird blend of pride and authority on Day 2. You know, some insecure part of me probably wanted to show off; “I’m from Wyoming, I belong here, blah blah blah.” Sheesh, we’re such children, aren’t we? What would Socrates think of this behavior?

And so at our first rest area, I noticed an older gentleman in a Wisconsin jersey. I’d seen a few Michigan jerseys on the previous days but never got around to making pals. I say, my good man, I see you’re supporting a university from the Big Ten Conference. Might I induce you to discuss how awesome we all are?

What I really said was: “On, Wisconsin!” Nothing like sucking up to start a conversation.

But Wisconsin didn’t say anything more than, “Right.” And that was it. He and his chums just stared at me for a few seconds. Feeling as awkward as I’d ever felt on the Tour so far, I exited stage left and pedaled out some embarrassment.

A mile or so down the road, Wisconsin passed me with very little conversation. Several minutes later, one of his friends passed me. “Are you an Illini?” he asked. We struck up a conversation, and as it turned out, he’d gone to Minnesota. “You shouldn’t have said anything to my friend,” he said. “We’ve learned not to encourage him with that ‘On Wisconsin’ stuff.” Okay, well, that explains it.

On to Story, and the morning was turning well and truly painful. Check Google Maps and you’ll see that Story is tucked into the tail of an east/west hitch in the otherwise north/south Big Horn Mountains. This hitch is visible from the Garber’s place – in fact, it’s one of the dominant features in our wedding pictures. Cycling here felt like a homecoming of sorts, and some family had hoped to meet up with me at rest area two, between Sheridan and Big Horn.

The highway just north of Story turned into a huge downhill. Roy had told me that once we made it to Story the rest would be mostly down hill, but I hadn’t envisioned this plunge. Having gained a little confidence from lots of downhill practice the previous day, I opened it up. The fastest speed I saw on my bike computer was 45mph, but that was just the fastest speed I saw. I didn’t exactly have time to check the computer that often during the descent.

Although I was in familiar territory here, I wasn’t enjoying the ride once it leveled out. In fact, I was in a lot of pain. Frankly, I wanted to see Harry Potter. And was that one of my notorious headaches I felt coming on?

That sealed it. Somewhere around the Meade Creek intersection I decided that if Kathryn really was at rest area two, and I had little reason to doubt she would be, I’d call it a day. It’d be nice to spend the day with her, and I could use a break. I’d lived through the previous day, pedaled my sorry butt from Ten Sleep to Buffalo, and had the second most important goal of the entire Tour tomorrow.

Would there be shame in not pedaling from Sheridan to Dayton? No. Not one little bit. I wouldn’t miss that stretch at all. And frankly, I wanted to see Harry Potter.

Here was “The Junction,” an intersection with a gas station and convenience store just north of Big Horn. At holidays, this is where we buy our wine. A right turn. A few miles of pedaling with what was most assuredly becoming one of my notorious headaches. And I wanted to see Harry Potter.

Kathryn and Nancy were waiting for me at rest area two. Dismounting the bike, standing there in the heat, I’ve never been as sure of anything in my life: I was done riding for the day. My stepbrother Chad showed up too, and it was really nice just talking to the three of them. Chad headed back to work, we took off my front tire and put the bike in Nancy’s car, and headed to the Garber homestead.

I took some ibuprofen and passed out on the Garber couch. This wasn’t mere sleep.

The headache woke me up a few hours later, and I spent the next few hours in and out of consciousness, watching yard improvement shows and contending with the armed gnomes inside my head. Harry Potter was at 4:00, and if I wanted to see it, I’d need to overcome the headache. Time for the big guns. Why hello, Maxalt.

To Harry Potter!

And can I just say that, given the trainwreck that was the Half Blood Prince movie, it would have been easy to screw up Harry’s death scene. They didn’t. This movie took a few liberties but nothing as odious as the flaming fiery firesome attack on the Burrow in flames. And somewhere around Hogsmeade I realized my headache was gone.

We drove up to Dayton, waltzed into the dinner line with five minutes and plenty of food remaining, and set up camp. All told, a lovely evening. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Day 2: Ten Sleep to Buffalo (Part 2: The Descent)

Other cyclists weren’t celebrating to quite the same extent as me. Sure, they’d stop for pictures next to the Powder River Pass sign, or they’d just get off the bike and soak in the view, but they weren’t as emotional about it. If anything they were nonchalant. Yeah, well, good for you. You’re used to this after years on bikes. I’ve been cycling since April.

Eventually it was time to head down. I crossed the rest of the sizable parking area, took in the larger panorama for a moment, and pedaled hard for ten strokes at the crest.

When you tell people you’re cycling over a mountain pass, they tend to marvel at how tough the uphill portion will be and then invariably say something like, “But wow, going down will be fun!” And truthfully, before I cycled regularly I thought that all downhill bicycle riding was easy. You weren’t working; you were on an amusement ride. You just pointed the bike and coasted in glee.

And so a note here about downhills.

In some respects they require more effort than climbing. No, you’re not necessarily pedaling as hard or as consistently, but the amount of focus shifts dramatically. Instead of giving yourself an ongoing pep talk or managing the balance between pain and self-pity, instead of coming to Zen-like peace with 10 foot stretches, instead of trying to take your mind off the ride, you’re consumed by the ride. You’re confronted by a wave of hazards on big downhills – at speed, reaction times drop to nothing, and on 700 X 25 tires, darn near anything can take you down. Puddles, rabbit carcasses, stiff winds from passing vehicles, stiff winds from Montana, and wee pebbles all become deadly.

And then there’s the specter of equipment failure. Imagine a tire blowing at 40 mph. Imagine taking a corner too wide and into the scree. Imagine sliding into a guardrail or delineator post. Imagine putting the bike over, still clipped in, leaving an epidermis trail hundreds of feet long. Imagine the worst, and I promise you it can happen on a downhill.

So you’re taxed, physically and intellectually. Yes, you’re cooled off and ain’t no bug alive can land on you doing 40, but the fear and focus are acute. Oh, and did I mention the new spectrum of pain? Yeah. Downhills hurt your neck and wrists a lot.

That said, you’re going really fast, and going really fast is fun. No melodramatic litany of perils can change that.

The downhill run (“. . . from Papeete. . . “ No, no, no. Not here, Stephen Stills, although that song was on an endless loop for portions of this ride) to the first rest area was a zippy affair. I have a mirror clipped to my helmet, allowing me to monitor traffic, so I rode in the smoothest parts of the road I could, checking the mirror every few seconds. But not for long. Dancing, prancing Moses, don’t take your eyes off the road for more than a half second.

I didn’t hang out at the next rest area for more than a few minutes, and on the pullout I was clumped together with a few other cyclists. Mostly I passed people for the next mile or so, but some wackjobs whizzed by me – and I was in my top gear, cranking hard when the conditions allowed. At the end of another healthy stretch of downhill, we bottomed out and began a climb.

We knew these were coming. Anyone who’d studied the route or traveled this road knew that the descent was actually a series of downhills interrupted by climbs. Some Tour vets referred to them as “rollers,” which in any other circumstance means small series of hills – you know, four or five strokes and you’re at the top.

But if this was a roller, it was a roller for the gods. “Roller, my butt,” another cyclist said a few hundred feet into the first one, “this is another $&$^* climb!”

Indeed. The first uphill on this section was at least a mile long. Or maybe it just felt like it. I’m having trouble remembering how many, in what order, and how steep each climb was. But I do remember a particular stretch where I almost just up and quit. I’ve no idea how long we’d been pedaling by this point, but it was before the series of small, steep hills near the final descent into Buffalo. Those of you familiar with the road might recall a long, straight portion of road that descends heading west, making for a long pull when you’re heading east like we were.

It was somewhere several hundred yards from the top of this sucker that the heat and pain and exhaustion really piled up. I’d been pedaling with a stich in my side for miles by then. Other cyclists passed me frequently, but one guy stayed on my back tire for a long time, eventually pulled next to me and looked over. I must have looked like I was in bad shape, probably because I was in bad shape.

“You okay?” he asked. I either grunted or gasped.

“You’re doing fine, man,” he said. “Just keep going.” With that, he pulled ahead and into a blissful future of downhills, rest areas, and air-conditioned lunch in Buffalo.

It’ll be a miracle if I live to see any of that. I’m about to die here, people. Screw this whole stupid Tour.

You know that line in Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” about crying out in anger and shame? Yeah. I literally cried out a few times before I finally reached the breaking point. I pulled off at a dirt road, barely able to clip out of the pedals. I put my hands on my knees and almost puked. I poured water over my head, then drank, then poured some more. If I did quit here, the SAG (support) vehicle would eventually find me and I could get a lift to the next rest area. There would be minimal shame in SAGing, but it would mean forfeiture of bragging rights about pedaling from Ten Sleep to Buffalo. So there would be shame nonetheless. And so I got back on the $*#&@ bike.

Finally – allelu, allelu! – we reached the top of that hill and coped with the resulting downhill, along with others. Eventually a long downhill rounded a corner and there was rest area four. From there, we looked down to our last series of climbs, smaller climbs, familiar and friendly terrain.

If I'd overcome my earlier hissy fit and didn’t quit, there was no way I was going to quit now. A few small climbs and it was time for the final descent into Buffalo. 

From the 80s, maybe even mid-70s, in the mountains to a scorcher in Buffalo. It had been four and a half hours to the top and two hours down. The final stretch out of a canyon and into Buffalo took us through some road construction and other menaces, but mostly I remember the sheer joy of seeing Kathryn sitting outside a cafĂ©. She recommended a berry smoothie of some sort, so I went inside and ordered the smoothie and a can of root beer. I downed the root beer in one toss, hands-down the best soda of my life. 

Kathryn and I weren’t impressed with Buffalo High School’s accommodations. Campers were relegated to the soccer field, which isn’t a big deal, but it was 200 yards from the school and thus showers and food. I showered as Kathryn, trooper-like, set up camp in oppressive heat. Hanging out in a broiler wasn’t our idea of a good time, so we drove back into town and found a decent spot for lunch. We hung out in town for a bit, killing time.

Kathryn’s folks were near Buffalo on business and stopped by. Sitting there on the soccer field, we passed time chatting in what turned into an utterly gorgeous evening. I called my dad, who was so excited about me accomplishing this ride that he lost the ability to speak coherently for a bit. My stepmom, too, was excited and proud. Back at the tent, my in-laws said they were impressed.

“You gotta be tough to do that ride,” Roy said. I’ll take that, thank you very much. Roy knows from tough.

Off to the Occidental Hotel for a nightcap. The bartender was a little grumpy about being out of food – thanks to the Tour – but he was nice enough when we told him we just wanted drinks. I drank water and listened, in some sort of bliss, to Kathryn and her parents chat over beers. The night couldn’t have ended more perfectly. Sitting in a comfy chair, finally rehydrated, I started to fade.

I remember walking across the street to the car, but I don’t remember anything after that at all.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Day 2 – Ten Sleep to Buffalo (Part 1: The Climb)

Once again, at 5:00 sharp, we heard tent zippers and swishing grass as people woke up and headed for the porta-potties. Breakfast was served at the park again, so Kathryn walked with me over there. I didn’t finish my breakfast burrito, fearing too much food would make me puke somewhere on the ride.

I was one of the first 25 cyclists or so to leave that morning. The first two miles were easy, low-grade foothill affairs, past mansions sitting on or near great fishing on the Ten Sleep River. This stretch of road always makes me wish I were rich.

I made small talk with another early starter. A mile or so before the climb really began, we came up on a cattle drive. Cows were being herded up the road the same direction we were riding, and we really didn’t know what to do.

A lot of us eat cows regularly. When they’re not showing up in cellophane, they’re showing up in commercials, usually portrayed as pastoral creatures of the plains. And really, cows are fairly stupid animals. Put yourself in the middle of a herd of cows, however, and suddenly one appreciates just how big they are. On pavement, you can feel one cow’s stride from several feet away. A mama cow and her calf shake the earth. A freaking herd of cattle gives you a whole new perspective on the dangers of cowboy life. And riding into a herd of cattle on a bicycle brought visions of very nasty cyclist / cow interactions.

Weaving past a few cow stragglers, we approached a cowboy mounted on his horse. Not wanting to upset either the cows or the cowboys, whose livelihood we were interrupting here, I asked if it was alright if I passed on the left. He nodded, and I zipped into the gravel, preferring to risk going ass over teakettle rather than slipping in a cow pie and getting trampled. Speaking of, the cow pies were fresh out of nature’s oven. Another mounted cowboy would call to us, as we finally pulled ahead of the herd, “Don’t forget to wash your legs tonight!” Yeah. No kidding.

And then it was time to climb.

Within a few hundred yards we were on a 6 or 7% grade, and I downshifted to my last ring very early in what was to become a very long day. The first few miles of uphill, through Ten Sleep Canyon, were certainly difficult, but it was the kind of difficulty I’d learned to deal with in my training rides. Uphill rides are grinds, man, and all you can do is keep pedaling, drink water, and take breaks if you need them.

My cowherd partner was a big, tall dude from Jackson (a remarkable number of cyclists are tall, by the way) who blazed ahead as soon as we were past the cows. I was more or less alone, occasionally passing someone but usually getting passed.

I made more small talk with a few other cyclists on this stretch, but mostly we were all focused on the climb. We all knew it was going to be an exhausting day, so those of us who’d seen the canyon before just put our heads down and pedaled. In that respect it was easy to pick out the non-Wyomingite cyclists: they were the ones stopping to take pictures.

After about seven miles and 2,500 feet of elevation comes a single set of switchbacks (so, two sharp corners). Above this is a large parking area, and this was our first break. In training, I’d used imaging to help me feel what this climb would be like – “Okay, I’ve climbed 2,000 feet, and this is about where the first rest area will be in Ten Sleep Canyon” etc., etc., etc.

Arriving at this first rest area was therefore something of a milestone. I’d envisioned it many times, thinking about how cool it would be, and here I was . . . rolling up to it.

I drank some Gatorade, ate some fruit and cookies, and took in the view. I allowed myself to gawk – Wyomingite or not, Ten Sleep Canyon is truly something – and even to congratulate myself. I let myself take an extra five minutes, and then I was back on the bike.

And here the ride started to get painful. It was getting hot for one thing, but it was the climbing, the endless uphill slugging, the false promises of bends that might reveal a lesser grade or a flat stretch or even a brief downhill but never do, the sheer crawling, that wore thin. I took a few breaks in this part. I’d pour water over my head and drink a little, and would soon be descended upon by hordes of mosquitos and horseflies. My head and neck were a grimy mixture of sweat and DEET. I’m guessing I smelled pretty bad.

This section, between rest areas one and two, continued on, and on, and on. I passed at least one cyclist who was walking her bike. Another rode with me for a while, asked if I knew whether we had a downhill anytime soon, and I said I thought we did in another mile or so. This cyclist fell off my pace before I could apologize for being wrong.

Five miles an hour. Eight miles an hour if you stand on the pedals to alleviate sit bone pain. And that’s how fast you travel for ten miles to the next rest area.

I remember a downhill by Meadowlark Lake, thinking that after this big right turn we’d see our rest area. I also remember the downhill not being all that rewarding – I just wanted off the bike, not a downhill.

More climbing for a few hundred yards before I saw, there at the bend, rest area two. And if I wasn’t mistaken, that was our RAV4 parked among the vehicles. Hallelujah.

I got off the bike and laid down in the shade of our car. Kathryn asked me about some stuff, but frankly, I don’t remember our conversation. This may very well be the closest I’ve ever been to “bonking,” a cycling term for “running out of energy and collapsing.” Having cooled off a little, I stood up and drank some water. Kathryn snapped a picture of me, and we headed off to the food table.

I couldn’t stop eating bananas and peach slices. I literally could not stop eating.

Eventually I refilled my water bottles, drank some water and Gatorade and more water, and did some quick math. We were eight miles and 1500 feet of elevation from Powder River Pass, the highest point of today’s ride, the highest peak of the Tour, and the single most important goal of mine since I’d signed up for the Tour. I could miss some rides if I had to, I could be the last cyclist to make it, but by God, I would pedal my bike all the way to the top. That was the goal. Make it to the top.

The first half mile out of rest area two was easily 8% grade. Nothing like reality to check your motivation level.

Near the top of this stretch another cyclist cranked by me. I may have met her before or maybe it was just Tour etiquette – you know, vets are supposed to encourage rookies, etc. – but as we reached the top of this hill she looked over at me and said, “Nice work.” Alrighty. Thank you.

More climbing. The bugs were getting particularly bad. Endless pain.

But at altitude! At some point in here I realized we were at about 8,000 feet above sea level, and the Big Horn Mountains are particularly gorgeous. I didn’t have some dramatic epiphany or anything, but I did suddenly appreciate where I was and what I was doing.

Closer. Powder River Pass was closer. An older cyclist asked me if this next hill was it, and I assured him it wasn’t. I didn’t need a bike computer to tell me we were still three miles away or so, and having made this drive several times, I knew that those three miles wouldn’t be terrible. They wouldn’t be easy, but they wouldn’t be terrible.

Swatting at bugs. Bugs up the nose. Bugs in the mouth, sometimes spit out, sometimes swallowed. Sweat. More bugs. More pedaling.

One mile to go. I could see the pass, a big left turn at 9,600 feet or so. Head down. Just pedal, Paul. Just pedal the stupid bike.

The final climb, a steep one, gently turning left. Our car is up there. Okay, seven delineator posts and you’re there. Six. Pedal. Three. One. Here’s the parking lot. Wow, dude, you’re going to make it. You’re there. You did it.

I pulled up next to Kathryn at Powder River Pass, put my head down gasping for breath, and to be perfectly honest, I almost cried. It was a weird feeling. Exhaustion? Yes, that, but also . . . reward. Some blend of triumph, pride, and nausea. And let’s not forget agony.

We spent a lot of time up there. Kathryn took some great pics, and apparently she volunteered to take pictures of other riders as well. Very surreal, standing by that sign. I’d been training since mid-March, bought the road bike on April 1, and had been envisioning that moment at least once a day, during rides or not. I’d done it. I’d freaking pedaled from Ten Sleep to Powder River Pass. Now all I had to do was ride down the other side.

Which would in some parts be even harder.