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. 

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