Now we are into the heart of the story. This passage is set back in Jackson Hole, as we push off on the first leg of the tour...
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I knew this stretch of road unlike any other. Countless frigid mornings had been spent, curled over an ineffective excuse for a heater and hugging a mug of coffee, taking this very route on the ninety-minute bus ride into school. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and over the years I had become less and less enamored with the sheer distance of travel which was necessitated simply to live life. An innocuous trip to the grocery store was always an expedition; frivolities like being transported to and from organized youth sports were out of the question for children living at the north of the valley.
It was this route which marked the first leg of our journey. I was pedaling away from childhood, toward some goal I had not yet come to formulate fully. Memories surged as we covered the five miles toward Moran Junction before hitting the highway proper. These first few miles had been pedaled endless times -- there was the turn toward Jackson Lake Dam and lazy days fishing and Signal Mountain beyond; another mile down, and there's the path toward Cattlemen's Crossing, where high-mountain summer afternoons were cooled down with a leap off the old wooden bridge into the rushing headwaters of the Snake River as it flowed from Jackson Lake toward Idaho.
We pass the spot on the edge of the bridge over Pacific Creek where, driving back home on that perpetual route when I was ten years old with the rest of my family, we made crushing contact with a moose, the roads too icy to stop in time. On the other side of the bridge was the point where I spun my first car off the side of the road in the snow, scaring my sister in the process as we headed on the long slog to school one morning. I couldn't get the past out of my head.
Another curve along the river and we popped out of the park gates at Moran, taking our right turn toward Jackson. My head was reeling. I had been on this road so many times; we had traveled the trail many an evening after another maddening work shift during this summer. But never had I seen it at the pace of a bicycle in broad daylight. I was confronting demons I didn't even know existed. I was here to beat this oft-trodden path into submission for a change. My life was not to be dictated by this path anymore... this time, it was my turn to dictate to this route what it could do for me.
Zeke looked back from his lead spot on the road. He stuck his left arm straight out to the side, signaling his turn before ducking into a thicket of willows. Wiley bolted from his carriage, rustling through the grasses as we leaned our bicycles up against a post. There was an upturned log set like a bench, and I took up position to the right of Zeke with a water bottle in one hand and an energy gel in the other. I squirted the gooey berry concoction in one gulp, washing it down with some of the fluid from the bottle. Zeke had a green jade pipe in his hand and was loading it as I refueled.
He passed the pipe to me along with a black lighter. I sparked the end, igniting the low-grade bud and inhalling deeply. Zeke, I guess, had sensed perfectly my anxieties as we rode through the closest thing I had to home. I needed to relax, to take the miles for what they were -- merely the first leg of a marathon voyage, not an all-consuming trek through my personal history. There would be plenty of time for delving deeper into my psyche. If I couldn't even focus on the first ten miles of the voyage, how would I ever get through hundreds of miles?
The bowl finished, idly puffed as we rested on the log, we loaded Wiley back up into his buggy and turned back southward toward Jackson. Familiar sights kept flooding past -- Cunningham Cabin, Triangle X Ranch, Deadman's Bar and the S-curves up toward Antelope Flats. We emerged onto the flats, Blacktail Butte rising before us from the middle of the valley floor. To our right the Teton range angled sharply on the opposite side of the Snake River, casting shadows over the valley as the sun started curving behind their peaks.
We dropped in elevation, a subtle downgrade carrying us deeper into the bowl. Soon Blacktail Butte, rising several thousand feet overhead, was directly to our right. We came upon the junction toward Moose and took a right. Pulling down the first right off the side road, we skirted the highway a quarter-mile closer to the river, headed to see Thomas at Dornans.
He was a cook with whom both Zeke and I had worked in previous summers. He had been busted by the Park Service while working at Jackson Lake Lodge and was summarily terminated from his contractual obligations to the company. He was canned. Thomas was now working at Dornan's slinging pizzas by day and narcotics at night. Our stores were depleted, the last shipment a half-pound which had come up from Colorado nearly two months prior. We crossed our fingers that Thomas would be at home and, more importantly, would be stocked with some quantity he would be willing to sell.
Luck would have it that Thomas was home... but he, too, was feeling the crunch of demands outweighing supply. We were able to get a quarter-ounce out of him, small solace and a modicum of pain relief for the long miles ahead. We stepped out of his house after a few minutes of business, leaning against the exterior wall as the sun cast its final fleeting rays across the rocky soil. Thomas wished us safe passage on the road, and we flicked on our headlamps and rear flashers before turning back toward Jackson.
The shifting of the light made the memories fade. I started shivering slightly, the alpine air coming off the glaciers and chilling my exposed arms and legs. The airport passed by to our right, and then lights flickered here and there as civilization neared. The golf course where my father and I had flubbed so many shots over the preceding summers came and went; the turn toward an old girlfriend's house flew past as well. Soon the National Elk Refuge spanned out below us as we dropped past the fish hatchery and into the final stretch drive toward the town of Jackson itself.
Ninety-eight percent of the lands in Teton County are public lands. Grand Teton National Park occupies the bulk of that expanse; Bridger-Teton National Forest covers most of the remainder. Bureau of Land Management lands skirt the sections of the Snake River where the national park boundaries drop away. The National Elk Refuge houses thousands of the ruminants every winter. So much land is invested into preserving the wildness of the space, the unique ecosystem which incorporates so many species of flora and faunt for the world to visit.
The paradox of this mountain community is that it is wholly dependent on tourism to fuel its economy... but the sheer lack of private lands for housing have caused a real-estate price escalation that, instead of finding ways to provide sensible housing for as many employees as possible, sees billionaires coming in to buy the houses of millionaires only to bulldoze a multi-million dollar house and erect and even bigger building in its place. Land is king here -- if you own it, your investment is better than any precious metal or jewel.
This trip felt like the funerary march for my time here in this region of Wyoming. I will probably never be in any financial shape to procure my dream plot anywhere in this valley. I have severed my ties with any long-term employment reality in this economy. As we pull into the convenience store at Flat Creek to take a break and put on warmer clothes, I start to understand the finality of what I have really set out to accomplish. This isn't merely a benign trip through the state of my childhood, a test of my physical abilities. It would be physically hard, certainly, but this was a test to see if I could bear to get these spaces out of my system. My time had passed; it was time to fly from my nest and migrate into the greater world.
Neither of us wished to move. Getting warm finally after we had ridden through the chilling dusk, the bicycles started to feel like a cumbersome burden. Between the bags and the bike, I was pushing an extra hundred pounds. Unsure of where we would eventually set up camp for the evening, we nonetheless set out into the heart of town with the goal of getting to the other side and toward Hoback Canyon.
I led us down side roads, avoiding the late-season traffic on Cache and Broadway. We settled into the bike route through town, riding along Snow King Avenue and past the library where so many evenings had been spent researching after school. We caught back up with the creek headed through town, catching the bike path by the post office and cruising in solitude for several miles. The trail ended soon, popping us out through a tunnel under the highway out of town and back up toward a trail running alongside. Wiley hunkered down in his trailer, keeping warm as well as he could as the temperature dropped further. The high school passed to our right, and soon we were running on the trail through the southern subdivisions spanning out in every crevice of available private land.
We started climbing again out of the valley, past the last bar on the southern edge of town, when a Subaru flashed its lights behind us. The car pulled down a road just as we reached it, cutting us off in the process. A lady, probably in her late twenties, rolled down the passenger-side window. A mutt popped his head out as the glass glided downward. A cyclist herself, the woman asked if we had a place to stay for the evening. We responded to the negative, and were soon following her tail lights through a labyrinthine chain of streets toward a simple two-story house.
The lady invited us to spend the evening on the living room floor of the house she shared with her long-time boyfriend. She continued apologizing for not having more to offer, but this carpeted expanse would provide a far better evening of sleep than any patch of ground could. Zeke and I accepted gratefully, pulling our bicycles into a garage piled high -- several bikes of their own, a mountain of climbing gear and another of backpacking gear, a couple of kayaks and a canoe. We thanked the lady again, pulling out sleeping bags and settling in soon after arriving. There would be no fumbling with tent poles in the dark tonight.