Wednesday, August 25, 2010


The moon was coming up full and rich to my left over the immense Yellowstone valleys and crags. I’d left Old Faithful just before dusk, thinking that it shouldn’t be too a long ride out of the Park down into Jackson Hole.

I was wrong.
I woke up sharply in the Billings Montana Motel 6. Something was wrong… I was panting deeply.
What the…. Then I remembered that I was no longer on the flat plains and I was hungry for oxygen at 5000 feet.

I ate a crappy breakfast at some horrible chain joint called Cracker Barrel, more corporate sleaze, having a fetid room up front selling all manner of Pot-Pour-ee, nauseating candles and tourist gimcracks. Paid up fast and got out...Out onto the highway, Rte 90 again, and what a difference from the brutal heat of the day before. It was about 60 degrees and windy. Clear bright day;an far-open horizon and flat-bottomed, snow-white Western clouds. I stopped quickly and pulled out some warmer gear.  I pointed it down Route 212 towards Yellowstone. The wind was gusting fiercely and I had to ride close to the shoulder so that I wasn’t blown suddenly into the oncoming lane of traffic.

It was a long ride over to the park… maybe two hours at 70mph. The distances can be vast out here…and those little paper lines on a map don’t always give much idea of scale.

It was getting colder. I ran through tiny mountain towns and got a hot lunch in some wooden café in Red Lodge. Smoked brisket sandwich, baked beans, hot coffee. Not cuisine but warming. Before I pulled out I saw a custom motorcycle shop just across the street and long-sleeve white t-shirts hanging in the window..something I’ve wanted, to protect me from the sun on the hotter rides. I ended up buying that shirt and a pair oif deerskin gloves, (cheap at $20), and the chick behind the counter was helpful.
“You’d better be careful up there,” she warned about Yellowstone. “The weather changes fast and furiously, and buffalo look at small black vehicles and think they’re competition for the females.”
Who thought about Yellowstone Park as being “up there”?

..but, Up we Go.
It took almost another hour before I finally reached a Lincoln-log blockhouse where some Smokey-the-Bear ranger dude demanded $20 entrance fee from me. He wasn’t very friendly…don’t know why.

Up and Up… the roads were beautiful for a bike, swooping back and forth. Traffic was light and it wasn’t a problem getting past. There aren’t many police out West, compared to the East Coast, so you can usually do what you will.
The scenery, of course, was getting grander by the minute. Huge, craggy mountains looming ahead. The road became increasingly twisty, real hairpins now, and the elevation became extreme…I crested the pass at 10,000 feet. It was cold…maybe upper 30’s, and what a difference from a day before when I almost baked under that relentless 110-degree furnace in eastern Dakota.

Then it started to snow.
Not heavily, thankfully, but it certainly was snow falling around me, little swirling white flakey things, and you’re waaay away from civilization Up There. I stopped a few times to take photos or change gear and just getting off the bike and back was a major chore… huffing and puffing heavily from a pure lack of O2. The scale of the vistas was huge and incredible above the treeline.

Eventually I crested the passes and started winding down the other side. Fantastically swoopy roads, crisp and twisty and freshly paved… the reason why I chose a sport bike to do this trip on to begin with, (other than it's the only bike I've got). The ride reminded me a lot of the Alps... going through various mountain scenes and vast river valleys… too much to list here (once again I need to flee this Motel before the maid knocks). I’ll have to send some photos another time.. I have plenty. But like all scenery photos, you have to understand that they can’t possibly do justice to such wide-angled vistas.

Herds of buffalo lounging by the roadside... brown eagles over the sharp-cliffed mountains, soaring straight upwards for thousands of feet. Lodge-pole and Ponderosa pines like toothpicks on the immense cliff edges, contrasting against the brilliant, dark-blue sky.

[No time here for this jabber, the maid is next door]
[now re-continued in the PM. This gets difficult.. I’m lagging on this blog ... not much time]
Ah, Yeah… so the whole Yellowstone thing is grand… a lot like the Adirondack park…but three of four times larger, in size, height, and scale. Incredible expanses of natural beauty. I got off to walk across a short meadow towards a photogenic cliff and I found myself sinking dangerously into bubbling sulfur marsh…it could have easily been Quick-mud... and I was far enough away from the road that no one would haveevery found me or heard my yelling if I became stuck. The meadow looked so solid and innocent... Could have been a bad move. I sank in quickly.
 Now I doubt that I’ll ever get all the sulfur out of those boots.

I wander around the park in an S-pattern, hoping to get out and south before it gets too late. I kept stopping at the many "paint-pots" and geyser viewpoints...bubbling sulfuric mud and boiling cobalt water.

Unfortunately, the SCALE of the place is so big that I got lost in Time & Space, and eventually, at Old Faithful, I started to heading towards the South Entrance. The geyser was scheduled to go off in another 20 minutes…but the sun was setting quickly, HIGH in the mountains at 9000 feet; and I figured I can always see it later on Youtube,

This is when it got really cold. A brilliant, full moon rose over the valleys to my left, and it was mind-bendingly beautiful. Really, really full and rich…

….but also really really dangerous, as you had these tiny roads to run down, forrest to either side, and all sorts of Fauna like THIS crazy thing wandering around near the road..

Colder… and colder. I wasn’t ready for this level of temperature drop. Twenty-four hours before I had been in such a hot place that I really became worried about heat stroke issues; now I was into a full-tilt hypothermia situation.

After the sun was essentially down, I finally reached just thed edge of the park. A wooden sign pointed south and said, “Jackson Hole- 77 miles”.
Seventy-seven MILES???
That’s three-quarters of the way to Albany from where I live… and this was to be on highly twisting and treacherous one-lane forest roads, night-time black, with Wildlife abundantly carousing. The two things I had in my favor were the Love of Jesus and a perfectly full moon. Oh, and heated handgrips, that I’d just installed before this trip… but they didn’t do much.
This was one scary ride. I headed onward and onward, slowly leaving huge Yellowstone, working my shivering way down through the passes into the next formidable obstacle: Grand Tetons National Park. By then it was well after nine o’clock, and there's no one on the road; just some demented New York motorcyclist peering vainly into the freezing mists for any threatening sign of Animal Movement that could spell instant tragedy at 75 mph. Meanwhile, that fat marshmallow moon shone fiercely against the craggy faces of the Tetons, just across the river. It was picture-postcard beautiful, except for the potentially deadly conditions.

I’ve been frightened before on long motorcycle trips. There was the freaky rainstorm west of Kansas City in 1998 where I prayed for my life as fat lightning bolts crashed onto the flat desert around me. Or the time I got lost in downtoen Oklahoma City, and the Brothers there were in no way shy to express an interest in my motorcycle. But this was a new chapter; after two solid hours of riding in blowing 38-degree weather, with no signs of Human Settlement for 77 miles, I was getting scared. There was nothing left to do but forge on. I was concerned about the level of shivering wracking my body, and the effects that shivering might have on my arrythmic heart-beat condition. Ga-BLURP. It was truly bad out there; three, 75 mph, ice-cubed hours through some tiny forest lane that I’ll never forget.
Finally… finally I saw the lights of Jackson approaching in the long distance ahead. I was shivering badly as I pulled shakily into a Shell station, where I stumbled over to the coffee machine. The pretty blonde Russian girl behind the counter took pity on me and gave me the coffee for free. Her boyfriend/whatever came out of the back room and directed me over the mountain into Idaho, where a hotel room waited in Diggs. I’d done the right thing and paid online for this room… I could only imagine what it would have been like if the NO VACANCY signs had gone up outside of Yellowstone, as often happens in the summer. I found a pair of cheap, white, knitted gloves in the store for $1.99 to put inside my gloves; bit of a miracle, and wrapped a bandana across my face bandito-style for the one hour ride over the mountains to Driggs. These two things helped a lot, as did the knowledge that within aan hour I’d be safe and sound in a plastic Super 8 Motel.
Driggs was a tiny cross-roads town, and it had all gone to sleep before I arrived. All except the Lonely Wolf Bar, it seems, which turned out to be just my medicine. The bartender was a cheerful University of Pennsylvania graduate who told me tales of driving the immense journey from PA to ID in a matter of two days of insane torture. The people in the bar where Idaho Hip… the music was cool and I bought shots for the crazy two local chicks who came in to rip the place up. The bartender came outside with me to Imbibe, and he clued me in on the basic happenings of eastern Idaho. A fine evening, and how absolutely bizarre it feels to be locked into a three-hour, potentially deadly situation then suddenly be snug and comfortable in a partying place where people are laughing gaily about mundane issues like their phone bills. In the end I spent $38 for a close interaction with the Idaho Species… then headed back up the road to my motel and crashed-out heavily.

Shit, here's another bloody maid bustling outside my door....

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a harrowing tale and makes me appreciate the happy cat sleeping and thinking about licking my arm as I type this. -- I'm slowly catching up on (with?) your journey and glad you are blogging it!

    Tom K.