The Cerebral Vortex

I found a cache of my old cycling and backpacking maps today as I went through various boxes of stuff from our recent reorganization and rearrangement of our house. Sharpie markings of various colors blot out trails already traveled; notations in the markings indicate numerous places of interest, alternate routes, and a host more things lost in the miasma of time. I open one, then another, looking with fond memories upon the hundreds of miles covered under my own power. I look with satisfaction at the map I bought back in May 2004 of Grand Teton National Park, thinking of that first summer when I rediscovered the hiking routes of my youth and a long-dormant love for the bicycle. Here is something thought up in reminiscence... perhaps part of a first chapter of a book about the bicycle tour which Zeke and I embarked on at the end of the resort season?


I pedaled around various bicycles in my youth -- that first blue bicycle with the chain guard and the sleek white trim from which the training wheels were plucked, various Huffys replaced after I obliterated the cheap metal or outgrew them, the first mountain bike I bought with my first paycheck at fourteen. There were long summer days when the kids of all the year-round staffers on the resort -- Sam, Amy and Katie, Michael and Chris, various others coming and going with the new hirings and departures for greener pastures -- would ride a couple miles along U.S. Highway 89 to the Snake River. After bombing the hill south of Jackson Lake Lodge, we would race past the turn toward Jackson Lake Dam and instead take the next right toward Oxbow Bend and Cattlemen's Crossing. There was a 19th-century wooden bridge spanning the river... and we spent many a summer day of our childhoods cooling off from the high-altitude heat by jumping off that bridge at just the right point. The water, glacially cold, would take your breath away as the first shocks of contact and submersion seized overheated muscles...


There were other days when we would go back behind the dormitories for the seasonal employees and lug our mountain bikes up Lunchtree Hill. Named because it was one of John D. Rockefeller's (the man who originally owned the resort and most of the land which eventually became Grand Teton National Park) favorite picnic spots when visiting Wyoming, the hill was a favorite sledding haunt in the winter as well as a crazy way to risk limb breakage on our flimsy bicycles in the summer. Fist- and skull-sized rocks rattled every bone in my body as we barreled down the singletrack. Flinging pebbles chipped paint away from the frame. Several bicycles died on that hill only to be replaced with another equally-cheap ride; my childhood consisted of quantity, not quality, when it came to transportation...


At fourteen, I started working as a dishwasher and a housekeeper on the resort. My first paycheck went immediately into what I perceived to be a higher-quality mountain bike... until, about a year later, the front derailleur snapped and, in my utter ignorance of all things mechanical, I set down the bike to rust. Besides... I was buying a bigger set of wheels. The leaves of autumn saw me nearing my sixteenth birthday, and I couldn't be bothered to ride a bicycle as I spent all my time learning the nuances of manual shifting in my 1986 Toyota Celica. Lunchtree Hill had by then evolved into a spot to partake in illicit substances with the college kids in the summer; Cattlemen's Bridge had been washed out by a high river, never to be repaired or replaced; and all my activities centered around the town of Jackson, thirty-seven miles south. I forgot about how it felt to pedal...


Though as I discovered on that first long ride back in May 2004, I never really HAD learned how it felt to pedal. Short slogs from point A to point B seemed effortless in my youth, and indeed they were. I never had put any real motivation into spinning the pedals for the sheer joy of the exercise itself. The bicycle had merely been a vessel to transport my not-yet-driving self from here to there and back. It was only when I was introduced to Zeke that I really began to see the bicycle as a recreative tool in and of itself, rather than merely the means of transportation to get to a recreational activity.


It was late May, the week after Mother's Day which had seen my mom put into the hospital after driving one of the resort's landscaping golf carts off the trail and down the slope of Lunchtree Hill, and I was getting to know Zeke for the first time. I was fresh out of restaurant management courses and going into my first managerial job as a sous-chef on the sister resort of the place where I grew up... and it became readily apparent to me pretty damn quick that I knew a lot more about managing a kitchen than this guy who would supposedly be my boss. He had parked in the employee RV lot on the resort, just up from the dormitories where I would be staying for the summer. As you entered his rig, a thirty-one-foot Bounder RV Zeke lovingly referred to as his Sag Wagon (the van for stragglers in a bike race or tour), two things became instantly apparent:

  1. That fifty-pound ball of blue fury coming at you is VERY protective of his home... and
  2. This guy lives and breathes for the four bicycles sitting immediately behind the Blue Heeler standing guard and growling at you.

It was inevitable that Zeke and I would come to spend a lot of time together that summer. The dog, Wiley, would even come around to like me to the point where I was the only other human being allowed in that RV without Zeke present. My eventual wife was nearly nine-hundred miles away in Oregon, taking summer courses in Portland to work toward finishing her Bachelor's Degree at Lewis and Clark College. Zeke was a loner, a cycling-crazed drifter who lived for the taste of the wind and the dust from the asphalt below, listening to the hum of the wheels as they rotate into the great beyond. We were both destined, by the positions we had taken and the contracts we had signed, to be spending countless long hours toiling together in the kitchen. Since we would have little time to build any social life with the other employees -- and few would deign to befriend those who would be their boss, anyway -- a mutual diversion outside of work would help to keep us from killing one another. And so my journey and education into the world of Lycra and long rides had commenced...


That first time back in the saddle, my first in six or seven years, was an assassin on my every sense. It had been years since I had even taken one of those short jaunts down to the bridge or bombed a hill; I had never felt anything like this before, long miles brought upon myself for the sake of those miles themselves. My lungs, stained already with the smoke and detritus of many a cigarette and other illicit substances, felt as though a yokozuna sat on my chest and bounced with every pedal stroke. I was immediately rethinking my commitment to this ghastly endeavor, this frivolous riding of bicycles, as the road continued northward. I had agreed to go out on this maiden voyage for an eleven-mile journey out to the northen boundary of Grand Teton National Park. What I had forgotten as I made this commitment was that every mile, every pedal stroke I forced out of my body northward, I would have to subsequently force out again on the southern return.


Zeke had begun conceptualizing a Frankenstein of a touring bike to create for me out of the disparate parts strewn about the Bounder. But, seeing as how that was only a vision at that point, I was riding along and clinging precariously with improper footwear to the clip-in pedals on Zeke's custom-built Independent Fabrication touring bike. In borrowed shorts and a borrowed jersey and straddling a too-small borrowed bike, I was truly the greenhorn emerging on wobbly legs from his cave to learn something new. Here I was, utterly oblivious to what I was really doing save going forward -- I hadn't even yet realized that the bicycle I was riding cost more than every other automobile I had ever owned COMBINED. Under Zeke's power, this bicycle had recently undertaken a two-week tour around Alaska immediately before coming to Wyoming and being subjected to the inept machinations of a rube. Zeke rode alongside me, giving me pointers in how to most efficiently pedal, how to read traffic in the tiny rear-view mirror attached to the stem of my glasses, the rules of the road...


We were less than three miles into the trip, just passing the entrance to Leek's Marina, and I was already feeling dead to the world. A few quick mental calculations had me realizing that I was only ONE-SEVENTH into this trip. Worse, we were still riding on the flattest section of the route -- we had not yet turned skyward. Zeke, seeing my weariness, guided us safely into a viewpoint at Sargents Bay. I pulled the Clif Bar tucked into the back pocket of the tight-fitting jersey while simultaneously fumbling with the zipper up the front in a futile struggle for more air. We sat and watched several boats on  Jackson Lake, a slight breeze rippling the otherwise-glassine water ever so minutely. Zeke continued to flood my brain with information about what I was doing right and wrong on the bicycle as I digested and sucked at a water bottle.


We remounted the bicycles, pausing for an automobile going southward before crossing into the northbound lane and continuing the quest for the boundary line. We were now past the halfway point to the boundary and the road had started its incline. I mashed at the pedals and fumbled with the shifters at the end of the drop bars. I knocked the chain off its rings several times by cross-chaining the gears, cursing as I came to a sudden stop and had to replace it on its moorings. Zeke continued to dance up the road, riding ahead and returning several times as though to taunt me with his superior fitness. The incline continued to be jacked steeper and steeper; I began to lose hold of Zeke's wheel, drifting further behind with every turn of the cranks. As the incline persisted, so too did I in the same gear, afraid of cross-chaining the gears again and losing what little momentum I was maintaining as my force rapidly dissipated on the pedals. Zeke drifted back alongside me and finally -- nine miles into the ride -- gave me some instruction as to how to effectively work the gearing on this bike.


Now in a lower gear and spinning my legs around faster than before, the top of the hill was nearing. I started to make out the large entrance sign for Grand Teton National Park denoting our goal. The sun was drifting steadily downward in the curvature of the sky toward the Teton range, bracing to tuck itself in behind Mount Moran for its evening repose. I continued to fumble up the hill as Zeke waited ahead in the wayside at the park entrance. The last few kilometers made me feel my quadriceps and hamstrings in a way I had never knew could be felt. Finally reaching the crest, I reached Zeke and the wayside. Sapped of every modicum of strength, I dismounted from the bike and rested it against the park entrance sign. I felt the dual sensation of utter exhaustion and pure adrenaline coursing through my veins.


After another Clif Bar, Zeke reminded me that we had completed but half of the journey. Like a mountaineer on a quest for a summit, it wasn't the ascent which posed the greatest problem but the descent and the return trip homeward. Reluctantly realizing that I had only one avenue to get myself home, I reluctantly remounted the bicycle. But something had changed. That incline which had broken my spirit only moments before had now opened up roller-coaster style for me in a rush. The miles began to melt away one after another as we dropped steadily in elevation. Soon nearing Sargents Bay again, the fatigue and the delirium faded away as I transcended into a new state... something akin to nirvana, perhaps. Home was getting ever closer, yet now it was not the destination that was giving me hope. Now the journey itself was the stimulus and the impetus for my travels.


After that, Zeke's job in turning me around to the joys of pedal power was effortless. I had been infected with the bug. We began building my Frankenstein in earnest off the remnants of a 1983 Panasonic Touring Deluxe frame, all Reynolds 531 steel tubing and no nonsense. Our eventual goal? A tour through Wyoming, Utah and Nevada through the month of October. This tour became our entire reason for sticking out a hellish summer in charge of a resort kitchen in a far-flung outpost. The summer would prove to be my education; the tour my final exam...



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