Here's the next installment in the series... now off work, free to think about the bicycles, the tour is nearing... now I am getting into the heart of the story as defined both by the tour and my quest to discover the meaning of this transition in my life...
You can read the other installments at these links:
Zeke and I were standing on the lawn in front of Staff House 8, the place I had called home for better or worse for the greater part of my life, looking at our gear for the last of many times before pushing off down the road. As the bikes leaned up against the porch which had taken abuse over the years from various baseballs and footballs and soccer balls, and had seen all those long-vanished bicycles of my youth parked inside its enclosure, I looked around for a moment. Zeke's Bounder was parked along the side of the house, right in the midst of the diamond of trees which had constituted a natural baseball field on the hot summer days of my youth. Across the street was the small shack where I had taken so many loads of recycling throughout the years -- and broken various windows with errant foul balls battered backward. The neighborhood playground for the children of the year-round employees was just beyond that shack, a shadow of its glory years when there was a whole neighborhood of kids: a rusting old swingset with chipping fiberglass along its poles; the sandbox, a new one to replace the rotting wooden enclosure of yesteryear, on the same spot where a multitude of castles and volcanoes had been constructed; the newer swingset and play structure, already crumbling under the weight of a decade of winters, where I learned how to effectively jump over things off a swing. Looking down the block southward in the direction of the resort, I could see the flagpoles rising up just outside the swimming pool. A light breeze kept the flags aflutter, setting the landmark to which so many summer mornings were spent pedaling the quarter-mile to get to swim team practice. The October sky hovered clear, a few clouds wisping through the stratosphere. The sun illuminated the last of the yellowed leaves on the aspens. A season had ended and a new one was about to begin.
I wondered internally just what I was really leaving behind. That playground, essentially abandoned of the joy of youth, served as a microcosm for my entire feelings regarding this place I had called home for so long. The place, so vibrant and alive in my childhood, had slipped into its own long winter of dormancy and had begun to show signs of its necrotic demise. The crowd had largely changed as people moved away from this secluded outpost in the Wyoming wilderness and Vail had started to staff the place with their own loyalists. The place was experiencing a shift from its family-oriented focus into a mere money-making operation. My time spent during my final summer largely altered my entire understanding of the resort. Where the years working for the company in my teens had failed to make me recognize that the soul of the operation was draining away before my eyes, managing at Colter Bay had succeeded. The place was spiraling into a tailspin, its concessionaire status for the park in jeopardy as its long-term option came up for renewal. I had to get out while the getting was still good.
The preceding days to this moment had been spent living a transient and ascetic life where the bicycle was the sole focus of Zeke's life as much as it was in my own. We set out in the Bounder after turning in our keys, heading south into Jackson to load up on the last of our provisions before the trip. The food consumed by a cyclist while on a tour can hardly be called food in most instances. We were two chefs, surfing the local Albertsons for Clif Bars and energy gels and yohimbe pills and protein powder. Several large bags of beef jerky, a couple boxes of fruit leather and Fig Newton bars, and a canister of hot cocoa powder were added to the shopping cart. We wandered the aisles, getting yogurt cranberries and granola and banana chips from the bulk bins as the stockboys replenished the shelves in anticipation of midnight's closing. Our cart mounded high, Zeke and I reached the checkout minutes from last call. The checker wearily scanned our items and packed the contents into plastic sacks. I handed the clerk the requisite cash and, after taking my change, Zeke and I hefted the bags back out to the Bounder waiting in the parking lot. We hastily tossed the groceries in the back under the custom-built workbench and loaded ourselves into the front. Pulling out from the supermarket parking lot, we drove west toward Wilson to park for the evening in a vacant parking lot reserved for ski overflow parking for Teton Village in the winter.
I called up one of our former cooks, now working in Jackson at a newly-opened restaurant, to procure some illicit substances to round out our stash in advance of the tour. Erick and Aaron arrived several hours later with a quarter-ounce of the sagebrush-scented ganja so reminiscent of the sessions on Lunchtree Hill in my adolescence. They also came with several grams of amphetamines, long a dirty secret among cyclists both professional and amateur. We packed Zeke's jade pipe, passing and smoking with these two guys who simply hadn't had the motivation to give a damn in our kitchen. We spent the long night, spun on our cornucopia of dueling intoxicants, packing and repacking our gear. Zeke and I weighed and reweighed each piece of gear, building an inventory of just what constituted all the poundage we would be hefting under no power but our own. Wiley sat in the captain's chair at the front of the RV, staring forlornly as yet another night of sleep was wasted on frantic hallucinatory preparations.
After waking up after the delirious dreams of a few hours' stunted sleep on that first free evening, Zeke and I choked down a couple of bananas and energy bars and each bumped a long line of the fine white powder from the glassine satchel procured the previous evening. We puffed on the pipe as we started unloading our bicycles and the trailer from the rig. This unseasonably-warm October day was to serve as our shakedown day before the tour commenced proper, and our focus was directed on the road cutting westward up the southern end of the Tetons. This was to be my first climb with a full self-supported tour's worth of weight... we even had the trailer loaded up behind with Wiley and all his food and water, just so that I could experience the full hell that is climbing a ten-percent grade for miles and miles with the hundred-pound albatross of self-sufficiency along for cruel "support". Every bag I would be embarking with in a few short day's time was here in this warm-up exercise, from the panniers with clothing and a week's worth of food to the sleeping bag and tent mounted on the rear rack and the cameras mounted in their dry sach on the front rack and the frame bag holding bike tools for immediate access. Zeke and I donned shorts and jerseys, loading the pockets with more fuel for the ride ahead. We filled our water bottles to the brim and tightened the straps on our gloves and our shoes. The first waves of the drugs set in as we clicked into the pedals, centering my focus on the ribbon of pavement winding ever upward ahead in the distance.
The road started flat enough, affording the opportunity for the slightest of warming up. All around were houses and open land. I recognized several friends' houses, wondering what they might think were they to see me spinning by at that moment. We rolled through Wilson and quickly came upon the incline as we passed the post office. The agony begins immediately and never dissipates when climbing Teton Pass, and with enough weight for an interstate tour affixed to my frame the suffering was exponentially increased. I was immediately gasping for more oxygen to pass into my lungs, every fiber of the organ tissue crying out for release. The pedals started turning slower and slower. The crisis was growing to a head -- I was quickly running out of lower gears into which I could shift for some semblance of solace. I wobbled unsteadily, standing from time to time on the pedals in a futile struggle to get more power through the cranks and into the drivetrain. We were a quarter-mile into the climb and already I was flagging.
Teton Pass is no small beast, mind you. Rising 2300 feet from the valley floor in Wilson to its summit height of 8431 feet in only 4.7 miles, I had come up and down this road on many a foray into Idaho as a kid. Our nearest shopping center (besides the boutique shops of Jackson) was in Idaho Falls, a three-hour drive over this pass from our home on the resort. We would take that drive several times a year: to visit my uncle and his family in Blackfoot; to buy school supplies at the end of each summer; to see the optometrist as my eyesight worsened. We would travel over the pass several times each summer with the swim team for meets in Idaho Falls, at Heise Hot Springs and at various other spots throughout the state which had a team in the regional summer swim league. We would often see cyclists slogging their way up the unforgiving slope, our car groaning up the gradient as we passed the weary athletes. I remember thinking them foolhardy to be spending their time in such a manner when I was younger; as I took my own first voyage up Teton Pass on a bicycle, I came to understand that I was one-hundred percent correct on this childhood assertion.
Zeke, unencumbered with the weight I was enduring -- after all, he had done this touring thing extensively before and had a grasp of what he was getting himself into -- and dancing lightly on his pedals, went ahead and coasted into a turnout by the runaway truck ramp. One foot after another, revolution after excruciating revolution, I fought to reach the turnout. I tried to shift into my Megarange, the gear specifically purchased for moments like these, when my chain slipped off the cassette and into the back tire. What little momentum I had was immediately arrested as spokes caught the chain. Startled and shaky, I dismounted and pulled the chain back onto the cogs. I adjusted the derailleur back into second gear and pushed the bike the remaining fifty feet to the turnout. Wiley panted in the trailer behind, oblivious to my suffering, as we reached Zeke. He grinned back at me, the oppressive sun glaring off his sunglasses and baking my bare legs and arms. Rivulets of sweat flowed in a torrent down my face and into my jersey. For all my growing confidence built in a summer of regular riding, I was quickly reevaluating my self-conception of my own strength. I was physically suffering, certainly, but the greater part of this assault on my notions came mentally. If I couldn't make it up this five-mile pass, how was I going to make it several hundred miles across multiple states?
We struggled for a while with the gearing, unable to get the rear derailleur to shift cleanly into the high-tooth cog. I would be forced to take on the long road ahead without my secret weapon. Cars passed by now and then, oblivious to my struggle and probably wondering all the same thoughts I did as a child in the backseat as our car passed by other cyclists. I took a long pull from my water bottle, still catching my breath. Recognizing the internalized debate raging inside me, Zeke counseled patience. We looked up the road ahead, evaluating potential stopping points so as to break up the ride into more manageable sections. Resigned to the difficulties ahead, I remounted the bicycle and we pushed off up the road.
The going didn't get easier, but the mental blocks started to lift. The easiest means from point A to point B is to put one foot in front of the other. I focused on the cadence of my pedaling, trying to maintain a consistent spin of the cranks as we inched along up the mountain highway. The waysides offered moments of rest when the legs could no longer keep a rhythm; each restart reawakened the sensation of suffering as momentum was rebuilt from scratch. At times I could do no more, dismounting and walking for a distance while towing the bike along. The first few times I dismounted and hiked, I felt as though I was failing as a touring cyclist; after several more strolls, and Zeke's thoughts on the matter, I came to realize that the greater part of the journey was in the traveling itself, the sheer unadulterated freedom of knowing that you can get yourself between points by any means necessary. Walking is not failing; sitting in resignation is the only failure possible on a bike tour.
I thought about this more, my thoughts drifting far away from the mountain pass and dulling the ache coursing through my body as I continued ahead. Our society, as I was beginning to finally admit to myself, is too often predicated on instant gratification -- the automobile racing up the winding pass in search of the destination. Cycling was serving to ground my philosophies in something far more tangible for me. There is no shame in walking to a different beat in life, to stepping out of the automobile and shedding the shackles of what our societal norms dictate are most important. These are decisions that humans are capable of making as individuals. The problem, as I struck me, was that the decision can also be made in the opposite direction. Hell, that's the march of progress, as its fans like to say. But are we really achieving progress as more and more of these natural spaces like the one up which I was struggling disappear to the blasting caps of the strip-miners and the chainsaws of conglomerated lumber?
I snapped out of my thoughts, the sun's downward trajectory in the daytime sky casting long glares down the mountainside. This, I was coming to realize, is the speed at which humans are meant to travel. As the world becomes simultaneously interwoven and fractious, the only certainty each of us can count on in life is ourselves. I could no more depend on my little home in the national park remaining the same resort I remembered as a child than I could accurately predict the coming future. Riding closer and closer to the summit, now less than a mile from the pinnacle, I was beginning for the first time to really trust my decisions. I was coming, after a long season of self-doubt in Lucifer's kitchen, to recognize that I indeed did have the means with which to make my life better independent of all the institutions and interpersonal connections I had come to hold as sacrosanct. The road levels off in the last third of a mile to the summit of the pass. Zeke and I, wary of the rapidly-setting sun, punched the pedals harder as the gradient decreased. Five hours after setting out only five miles below, we had finally reached the summation of our efforts.
We stepped out of the pedals and leaned our bicycles up against the sign welcoming people to Jackson Hole. The panorama of both Wilson and Jackson opened up to us. Zeke unchained Wiley from his chariot. Grabbing our water bottles and a couple of Clif Bars, we wandered out from the wayside to sit on a couple of boulders. We surveyed the route we had just come up as we refueled and rested, knowing that the downhill would hold its own particular challenges even if it did last but a fraction of the time spent climbing. The water bottles by this point held little more than air, and the dense hunk of sweetened soy and oats was digesting in the pool of liquid sitting in my stomach.
Zeke pulled out of the wayside first, flying away in a tight tuck and deftly picking his way around the curves. I watched for a moment, looked back at Wiley, and started down myself. The acceleration was swift and breathtaking. I was passing cars on the right, a few feet separating me from a thousand-foot dropoff, as the speedometer mounted to my handlebars just kept rising. Sixty... seventy... eighty kilometers an hour and no slowing down in sight. Everything went by in a dizzying blur, rocks and trees blending with the slowly-darkening blue of the sky and the lean rays of the setting sun in a cacophony of images. The speedometer topped out at a hundred-ten, the bike remaining steady through each hairpin turn as Wiley and I felt the wind whip around us. People in the cars stared, mouths agape, as we flashed past their windows. Soon we were racing past the runaway truck ramp where I had questioned my abilities those few short hours before with hardly a glance back. The last few turns were rounded, we dropped down the last decline, and I began to apply the brakes as we reentered Wilson. Zeke was waiting ahead in the small shopping center, having made it down quickly enough to have entered and exited the small bike shop in town. I coasted into the parking lot, dumbfounded that I had just made it through the wall to emerge victorious. Everything was conspiring to make sense and become manageable.