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.

1 comment:

  1. I connect with the gravel, scree, pebbles and rocks metaphors. If biking helps you throw some of that garbage away, it's definitely worth it.