Now we are into the heart of the story. This passage comes from day three of the tour...
For those of you keeping up with this story, I have built a table of contents where every link to the story will be posted. This table of contents will be updated as new sections of the story are posted here on FanNation...
The storm clouds which had drove us to an early camp the day before had failed to drop any appreciable precipitation on our tents through the night. My notebook lay open at the side of my head as I peeked out of my sleeping bag. Its pages sat college-ruled, wholly devoid of ink or pencil, fallow dreams of producing a diary of the tour crumbling under the fatigue of the day’s journey. We had spent less than eight hours and around forty miles each day on the road, but my body was already groaning under the strain of pulling so much weight over the undulating terrain of the various western offshoots of the Rockies. Another day loomed ahead on the horizon.
I poked my head out of the tent door, peering from the vestibule at the sky outside. Zeke and Wiley sat asleep directly in front of my door in another tent. My eyes burned as the first rays of gray light pierced my retinas and started forming the day’s mental scenes. This was the first night I had ever spent camping out on tour. I had backpacked with only what fit over my shoulders, I had been out camping with whatever got packed in the car, but I had never hauled my gear miles and miles to set it up on the ground before. We were still less than a hundred miles into this trip, one delay after another setting us back. The days were getting shorter and more overcast, the threat of snow ever-present in our minds. We needed to get further southward as fast as possible before we were stranded. If we were to keep up this camping, we would need to get hard miles behind us and get down into the high-desert plateau. But hey, I said to myself -- no ranchers had shot us for camping out this dusty swath of unfenced property, so something must be looking out for us so far.
The two-hundred-plus miles left in Wyoming loomed in the back of my mind as I started dressing. Sliding into a pair of fresh shorts, I stepped outside to get a better view of the day ahead. After a short survey of the map and the road before me, I turned toward the task of getting something in my stomach. Fuel would be at a premium for the road which stretched upward out of the valley. As I smeared peanut butter over a bagel and grabbed a banana, I surveyed the clouds overhead. For as lucky as we had been the previous day in avoiding rain, the probability remained high of getting soaked as we continued on our path.
The post-dawn grumblings of stirring slumber arose from Zeke’s tent. Wiley began to shift and stretch, startled from his own canine dreams by the noise I was creating outside. I fired up a small alcohol burner and put a pot of water on top. Soon coffee would be brewing in the small French press travel mug. On a tour, any coffee is a bonus, but for us the coffee had become far more than just another shot of caffeine to our systems. Zeke and I had stumbled upon a great way to boost our calorie content -- hot cocoa powder and a generous helping of protein powder made for a satisfying protein mocha to help bolster our flagging reserves. After scooping some grounds into the mug, I poured the now-boiling water over the grounds and replaced the lid.
The nutty aroma of dark-roasted beans wafted instantly up to my nostrils, piquing my craving for a jolt of java. The steaming water now infused with the invigorating grounds, I pressed the plunger down on the French press and divided the coffee between two mugs. Several spoonfuls of cocoa and protein later, I was taking my first awakening sips of the cloudy brew. Meanwhile, a stiff breeze had picked up and was slowly clearing the valley of its cloud cover. The sun slowly emerged to warm the ground with its thin high-altitude rays. Zeke emerged with the dog from his tent, still rubbing the detritus of sleep from his eyes as he pulled a fleece hat over his curly-haired head. We were both starting to sport prodigious beards after a summer of daily shaving, the post-season backlash against resort dress-code policies.
I had been fighting these dress-code policies since before I was even of a legal age to begin working. My mother had always harbored some delusions that I ought to be her Ivy League poster child, with a well-coiffed hairdo and a fresh-faced demeanor. I was, in her eyes, representing not merely myself but also both my family and the resort where I lived. As her attitudes became more radical, my natural adolescent revulsion to her oppressive opinions led me to seek longer and bushier hairstyles and to turn inward toward the resort’s counterculture in resentment to being assumed to represent anyone but myself. My appearance began to emulate all those musicians I was idolizing -- I was a pre-teen masquerading as Jerry Garcia.
I suppose some would call this my inevitable backlash against my upbringing. Yet, even as my home life crumbled under the weight of my parents’ deteriorating marriage and my father’s penchant for pairing weeks on end of sobriety with hell-bent bouts of excessive drinking, I saw my personal path as distinct from everything that was happening all around. I was withdrawing into myself even as my eyes were opened to ever-expanding social opportunities.
Summertime in the national park meant the conclusion of the school year and the arrival of seven-hundred college kids to staff the resort during its operational season. These kids arrive from across the nation and the world, bringing all forms of illicit pharmacology to the tiny enclave in the Tetons. I remember wandering down Dorm Street, on my way home from a hike up Lunchtree Hill, when I was but twelve years old. Several employees, a couple of guys and a pixie of a lady, stood outside the rear entrance to dorm five unwinding after their housekeeping shift. I had seen them all around in the past month of the season, either in the employee cafeterias or around the resort and employee areas. Saying hello, I lit a Camel and began a conversation. They were all staring at a copy of The Doniac Schvice and talking about the recently-released dates for the upcoming Phish tour, debating which days could be taken off work to make the pilgrimage to see Trey and Mike and Fishman and Page live on stage.
We walked into the dorm, my eyes taking a moment to adjust to the dimming light. Everyone continued down the hallway until we arrived at room eight. One of the guys opened the door to reveal mounds of fetid clothing stacked in a pile in the corner and several unkempt beds. Everyone piled in, the ubiquitous posters of Bob Marley and Pink Floyd adorning the walls around us. My education in the stimulus of the counterculture was about to commence.
The lady grabbed a still-damp towel off the back of a chair and stuffed it up against the gap at the bottom of the door. The inhabitant of the room went to a box on his table, opening the hinged lid to reveal a brimming jar of tight green buds and a long narrow glass pipe. He retrieved the items and proceeded to pack the bowl. Putting the jar back in its box, he retrieved a lighter and brought the mouthpiece to his lips. Igniting the bowl, he inhaled deeply and held the smoke in his lungs. Passing the pipe to his left, he leaned back in his chair and blew through a cardboard toilet-paper tube with fabric softener sheets attached to the end with a rubber band and packed throughout. The room quickly smelled like clean laundry, masking the pungent aroma of the narcotic smoke as the pipe continued around the circle. First the other guy, then the lady, hit the pipe before it ended up in my hands.
I had been smoking cigarettes at this point for nearly a year, my lungs starting to leather themselves from the acrid smoke pouring in on a daily basis. Emulating the others, I brought the pipe to my lips with my left hand, keeping my thumb over the hole on the side. With my right hand, I flicked a Bic and set the bowl’s contents ablaze. Smoke filled the chamber of the pipe, coursing down my epiglottis and searing every bronchial cell with its intoxication. I released my thumb from the hole, the smoke charging down my gullet and into my lungs. I held it in as long as I possibly could, my lungs burning and my eyes narrowing as the intoxicant took hold of my brainstem.
The popular misconception is that marijuana rarely gets a person stoned the first time it is consumed. Perhaps this is more a function of fear or of improper consumption, because my initial experience was an instant euphoria swelling from my skull to my toes. I passed the pipe on to my left and grabbed the tube. Blowing my own Snuggle-scented air into the mix, I recognized immediately in the moment that I had stumbled upon something phenomenally powerful. New outlets of perception were opening, neurons firing on all cylinders.
It was funny to get an adolescent messed up -- or so thought all these college kids with whom I was rapidly coming into constant consort. Drugs started flowing freely in my direction. Gram after gram of ganja ended up gratis in my pockets. I tucked tab after tab of acid away even as I ate still more in front of them all. Yet even as this newfound social networking grew and pulled me from my reclusive nature I still remained only one foot into the culture. I much preferred taking my squirreled-away substances and running off at night into the woods. Drop a tab of acid, eat a handful of psilocybin mushrooms, or just smoke a spliff and wander through the hills so familiar since childhood. I was using every resource I knew to bend my mind as I ran further into seclusion, fighting every parental insistence that I become something other than how I viewed myself.
And now, here I stood on a desolate patch of land far south of that resort, reveling in my resemblance to Grizzly Adams. Small droplets of coffee clung to my moustache as I consumed my morning brew, wiping away the remnants from my beard with a dusty hand. The bicycles remained locked up against a rickety wooden ranch fence as I began to clear my tent of its baggage. I grabbed my stuff sack and began cramming my sleeping bag inside; then, everything empty from the interior I began to break down the tent. First the rain cover and vestibule came down, exposing the tent’s innards to the wind through its vents and windows. Next the few stakes hastily tapped in last night were plucked from the earth and piled next to the poles from the vestibule. Finally the crossing poles for the tent itself were removed, and the entire assembly was rolled up and placed in its bag.
The tent and sleeping bag were then crammed into the river bag to stay dry in case of rain, and I went to unlock the bikes and begin loading the panniers and bags onto the racks. I looked southward upon Wertz Draw and Bondurant beyond, pulling out the keys as well as a thin pouch of energy gel from the right pocket on the back of my jersey. I stuck the key into the lock with my right hand as I held the gel with my left, tearing the package open with my teeth. The raspberry slime slid quickly down my gullet with barely a taste. Zeke was performing his own camp breakdown, and the bicycles were soon laden with all the detritus of touring and ready to push off. We downed the last dregs of our protein-laden coffee sludge and rinsed the cups with a squirt of the water bottle before replacing them in the bag. I adjusted the strap on my helmet and checked the view in my mirror. Everything set, we headed back down the dusty ranch road toward the general store and the highway.
A mile down the rocky road usually reserved for pickups hauling hay and ranch supplies, Zeke and I arrived with Wiley at the highway. We turned left, riding straight past the general store and southward into Bondurant. First viewed by the Astor party on its cross-continental voyage of 1811, this part of the world is a largely forgotten nook of the United States mostly populated by cattle and sagebrush. Named for B.F. Bondurant, a rancher who moved to Hoback Canyon in 1900 and later built the town’s post office and a store for the people settling in the area, the town sits at 6588 feet and rests on the edge of the Gros Ventre National Wilderness Area. Only a few hundred residents dot the community, leaving the majority of the space either unoccupied or inhabited solely by walking flanks of beef. A few turns in the highway and we were soon through Bondurant and starting the day’s ride proper.
The road began almost instantaneously to rise as we exited the town’s borders, the gradient consistently increasing as if a giant sat on the other side and hefted a massive jack to push us ever closer to the clouds. This was U.S. Highway 189/191, the Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway, and the view was certainly scenic as Zeke and I rounded Robinson Butte and ascended further over the valley. Here was the inevitable stumble over another mountain, my lungs searing yet again. I inwardly rued the day I smoked my first cigarette as each breath of the thinning air brought little relief and a lot of burning. We were soon at the 7000-foot mark, among the last blooms of wildflowers in the post-summer sun. The trailer was dragging like an anchor behind me, causing each pedal stroke to rattle every muscle and joint in my legs. I saw a turnout up ahead as another hundred feet of elevation gain melted away behind us.
We had been on the road for less than ten miles, but it was time for Zeke to start toting his own dog up these hills. Even with the ingenious rigging system, which allowed for Wiley to assist in towing the load up mountains by stepping out and running alongside to the right of the bike, I couldn't take this anymore. Water tumbled down my head as my helmet fell to the ground and the bottle from the cage on the seat tube released its cooling stream. I took a long pull from the bottle. The water burned as it went earthward toward my stomach. We still had another thousand feet of climbing ahead of us; there wasn't enough time to catch a soothing breath before the trailer was switched between the bicycles and Zeke led us out of the turnout and back on the ascent.
Soon after we returned to the struggle a guy came upon us, riding a vintage Pinarello road bike and moving lightly up the climb with only a small pack on his back. He slowed his pace to talk with us as we all clawed toward the heavens. He was making a day trip back home to Pinedale from Jackson, he said, and this was the shakedown ride for this bicycle he had only recently purchased. He was in Teton County for a concert and to visit friends, spending his weekend on a small bike tour and a bender. He had to be back to Pinedale to start work that evening. Seeing we were moving slower, the mass of gear required for self-supported long-distance touring weighing us down far more than the change of clothes in his pack from the simple cross-county jaunt, he soon said his farewell and ramped up the pace. The red Pinarello soon faded in the distance, blending with the trees and the odd automobile far ahead on the climb. We continued our exertion silently, thinking only of getting one foot over the other.
The vista splayed below us went largely unnoticed. Now and then, in the rare moment looking up from the odometer and the strip of pavement ahead, I would catch a flash of red or yellow or purple, wildflowers still scattered among the dominant green of thick sagebrush plants. Bondurant was soon a distant blip, no bigger than it appeared on our map. The road switched back on itself several times in a vain effort to release the grade a little. We were now over 7500 feet, the summit and ranger station nearing as we gained a second wind for the final five-hundred feet of climbing. A car whizzed by, its tailpipe spitting exhaust at us as it passed. I coughed a little on the acrid emissions, spitting over the guardrail and into the abyss below. Zeke stood on his pedals, the trailer swaying slightly as he fumbled for a few more watts of power. Wiley looked back toward me, seemingly smiling the whole time as he got a free ride up the mountain. I could tell he was fatigued, having pulled for the first several miles of the climb before he could offer no more.
We rounded the last few bends, now at 8000 feet and climbing the last hump before arriving on the plateau. The sun was starting to heat the high-mountain lands, unseasonable October warmth which would be more welcome were we not already overheated from the exhausting effort expended on the incline. The road began to level -- another climb was in the books and I had survived yet again. The visitor center for the Gros Ventre National Wilderness Area neared. Zeke and I coasted lightly, unwinding our taut muscles by spinning lightly on the pedals and allowing gravity to work in our favor for a while. Up ahead, several fairly large dogs bolted out of the gate to what I assumed was the ranger's house. They sat, eagerly watching and waiting as we rode slowly up toward them. As we passed, the dogs gave chase. I punched the pedals, no longer looking forward to relaxation but merely thinking about not sustaining an attack and crash.
Most people never think a dog could be such an impediment on the trail. All my experiences with dogs had been benevolent in nature. We had grown up in Wyoming with a dog for as long as I could remember. The first, Cinder, was a black puppy we had for only a short while when I was about six years old before realizing I was not yet ready to tackle such responsibility. After that, several years passed before we adopted Duke, a Pomeranian/toy poodle runt who thought himself the Lothario of the block. Star came shortly after, a pure-white mutt of a dog who exuded joy. Adelaide, a pure-bred Chesapeake Bay retriever, lasted for a short while with the family after we purchased her from family friends. But this runt of the litter never had a fighting chance, passing away after only seven months after struggling her whole life with a rotated stomach and, due to that fact, poor digestion. Maggie was an old maid before we ever adopted her, a mangy terrier who smelled as though she were rotting from within even as she sweetly rubbed against your hand. My sister even went so far, after I had moved out of the house to Oregon for the first time, to purchase two Chihuahuas. The tiny barking cats looked absurd shivering in the bleak Wyoming winter.
Every dog had its uniqueness, a singular personality with which I could connect. I had thought of them as a friend, an occasional nuisance, but never as something deadly. Even my friend Stuart's bull mastiff, who clamped down on my young fleshy hand as it fell onto him from the couch where my eight-year-old self slept over one night, failed to persuade me that a dog could be so dangerous. Besides, when barreling forward on a tour, over three-hundred pounds between man and bike and gear coursing ahead at fifteen, twenty miles an hour, a dog seems infinitesimal in the scheme of things. Man's best friend truly seemed like nothing but a friend to me; I failed to take into account, as I had these warm sentimental thoughts, how many times a friend had betrayed me.
But Zeke, having already sustained injuries in a previous tour from a canine-instigated crash, knew better and had prepared me to think vigilantly should such an instance arise. Now I was getting a first-hand look at why Zeke had been so adamant about this. He had even gone to such lengths that he carried a three-foot-long stretch of PVC pipe, tucked in easy reach on his rear rack. He reached for this pipe now, swinging wildly through the air with his left hand to menace the menacing dogs. We rode like this for another quarter mile, Zeke flailing behind him and me hollering in a booming voice as we continued pressing further ahead. I looked over my shoulder to see the dogs start wandering back toward home. Zeke pulled alongside and we kept up the pace until we had put the ranger station another mile behind. We stopped at a turnout, fields all around us laying fallow after the harvest and being prepared for the winter as we dismounted.
My mind raced, still surging adrenaline from the preceding moments, as I bit down on a Clif Bar and drank more water. I pulled the spigot of my Camelbak out from its mooring in one of the bags and refilled the empty bottle. Replacing the replenished bottle back in its cage, I joined Zeke in taking a long look at the map. He handed me a bag of yogurt cranberries, popping them in his mouth one at a time from the handful in his glove. I took a handful for myself and replaced them in the food pannier. Sunbeams illuminated the map from its early-afternoon perch and left the softly undulating terrain around us gilded in their light. It appeared as thought the road would be flat for most of the rest of the day. If we could get past Daniel and anywhere near Big Piney before nightfall there would be a chance of some elevation gain, but for the moment nothing but smooth roads and relaxed grades lay immediately ahead.