Breaking Out 2021: US-89 and other great roads

As we broke camp on Saturday, the 3rd of July, the air around Mammoth Camp in Yellowstone National Park was cool, though the cloudless sky promised severe sunburn to those who forgot their sunscreen. We rode to the commercial center around the Visitor Center. There, we saw the homeless guy we met last night hitchhiking home to Santa Barbara.

By now, it was clear that my biking buddy and I were not going to be able to maintain the same pace all day. The gradients, the altitude, the wind and the heat had vastly different impacts on us individually. We encountered enough pockets of cell service to maintain phone contact during the day.

Cheryl started out while I was eating breakfast and chatting with Sam Moseley of Atlanta. He organizes bicycle tours for group of a dozen men during the year. However, this time he was taking his granddaughters on a camping trip. Seeing how happy and excited the girls and their grandfather were brightened my own spirits.

Madison Camp lay midway along the west side of Yellowstone. I had an uneventful trip there, which is a good thing because some of the RV drivers clearly were not qualified to operate machines that big. My experience convinces me that owners of the larger RV’s should be required to earn Commercial Driver’s Licenses before venturing on the road with something the size of a long-haul passenger bus, often towing a large SUV. Maybe not a full CDL, but at least pass the driving portion of it to earn an endorsement for “large vehicle” on the regular driver’s permit.

I met Cheryl at Madison Camp, a pleasant campground in a thick pine wood. She had met a group tour from the Adventure Cycling Association, who were setting up in a group campsite. Cheryl had taken the ACA group leader course, and this was the first ACA tour to cross our paths in all our years of cycle touring. After dinner, we stopped by for some socializing.

Yellowstone was proving to be a madhouse, with all campsites reserved months ahead, and the roads choked with traffic. If it were not for the first-come, first-camp “biker-hiker” tent areas set aside for low-impact campers we would not have been able to ride this tour.

Independence Day dawned sunny with comfortable temperatures all day. We made the easy ride to the Old Faithful Inn in two hours and hung out. COVID protocols had affected all the operations at the most popular area of the Park, including closing all indoor dining and shuttering one of the hotels. The Obsidian Dining Room at the Snow Lodge was the only restaurant with a proper menu, and that was only by takeout. I ordered bison short ribs, something I had promised Cheryl for her birthday. We enjoyed dinner on the mezzanine of the Old Faithful Inn.

Monday could not have offered a greater contrast to the weather on Sunday: rainy all day and only 15°C (55°F). We walked past geysers and other thermal features for five hours, lunching on sandwiches from the convenience store.

We booked an extra day by moving across the parking lot to the Snow Lodge, where we had a lovely cabin for less money than the terrible room at the Old Faithful Inn.

Tuesday, we crossed the Continental Divide three times riding to Lewis Lake via Grant Village. Naturally, we were separated, but caught up with each other before the last climb over the Divide. Lewis Lake was the last campground at the south end of Yellowstone.

Supper in our campsite was a pleasant change from the madness in the facilities at Old Faithful. Jim Cochrane, with whom we had played leapfrog over the last few days, brightened the evening with intelligent and interesting conversation. After a sunny and pleasant day, we enjoyed a stunning, starry night sky.

We were up at six on Wednesday morning. The blazing descent to Flagg Ranch readied me for a hearty sit-down breakfast. Cheryl chose to ride on to Colter Bay in the Grand Teton National Park. A snafu in the kitchen fed me two breakfasts for the price of one. No problem burning it up in these mountains.

It was interesting to note that Flagg Ranch was fully staffed and not having a problem handling the tourists. Most of the staff had been laid off by Xanterra (the concessionaire in Yellowstone National Park) the summer before and seemed very happy with their new employers. I would see that problem again throughout the country, as I came across businesses in the hospitality industry who were too quick to lay off staff when forced to close, and too slow to realize that they needed to be hiring before the tourists flocked to their doors.

I blew downhill on the Rockefeller Parkway at 64.6 km/hr and met up with Cheryl at Colter Bay. We had dinner (pizza) in the restaurant and shared it with Jim Cochrane.

The Grand Tetons are as beautiful a sight as any set of mountains in the world. The brilliant blue western sky forms the top of a frame, while the lakes that reflect the peaks form the bottom. And the view looks like that for 180° as you stand facing west at Colter Bay or Jenny Lake.

Thursday felt very cold until the sun cleared the trees. We were able to ride quickly in the cool air. The Hike and Bike area at Jenny Lake filled up quickly after we checked in in midafternoon. Joe, the seasonal ranger from Alabama, was running the camp office, and provided us a dose of good humor and a warm welcome along with our instructions.

Two Spanish couples crashed the campground by carrying their stuff in from the car parking lot.

We met Jim again, so enjoyed good company.

On Friday, Cheryl ratted out the campground crashers to Joe on our way out. The bike path to Jackson from Jenny Lake is one of the great pleasures of cycle touring.

Jackson was the same interesting town we remembered from three years ago, but much more crowded. Cheryl wanted to mail some stuff home, so I rode to Fitzgerald’s Bike Shop at the edge of town and waited for her.

We found accommodation at the Snake River Cabins, south of Jackson. We were assigned a cozy corner by the dog park, which the employees called “the best site in the park.” They were right. Watching the Snake River race by in full flood, we dined on steelhead trout, salad, organic carrots, washed down with Modelo beer.

By now, the haze from the Northern California fires had become a constant in the sky. This time, the smoke did not affect our breathing as it did in 2018.

Saturday, the 10th, we tried to reach Alton, Wyoming, but we didn’t make it. We had still not adjusted to having very cold mornings on such hot days. We pulled into the Flat Creek RV Park in Thayne. The owners let us use their lawn-covered back yard instead of the exposed, sandy site by the road, the last one left. Very comfortable.

We bought our groceries at Broulim’s in Alpine, which was a new chain for us. On a par with Whole Foods and Wegman’s back East, but smaller. With less than a dozen stores in Idaho and Utah, the family chain is expanding very slowly and carefully.

Sunday morning, I shivered as we broke camp. The smoke held off the sun, so I wore a long-sleeved jersey until noon.

Cheryl took off twenty minutes ahead of me. Alton was closed up tight as I rode through. I was looking for an open store so hard that I did not look up to see the largest elkhorn arch in the world. Cheryl did not miss it and also went into the Maverick gas station that I thought was closed.

I stopped at the Sinclair Travel Center south of town for a wrap for lunch. The lady working the place alone explained that many stores could not open for a lack of staff.

Cheryl must have passed the Sinclair station while I was inside, because I caught up with her in Idaho, ten km from the KOA where we spent the night.

Riding US 89 to the Idaho border, I leapfrogged a pair of Wyoming Highway Patrol holding a turkey shoot on speeders. They would back each other up until they were sure that the situation would not turn violent, then the backup trooper would speed off to nab the next scofflaw.

The fourth time I passed them, they were huddled by one of the cruisers. I stopped, which caused the driver to roll down his window.

“Thank you for your service,” I said. “I feel a lot safer out here with you two doing this!”

“You betcha!” the driver said with a thumbs up. Their grins were as wide as the Grand Canyon.

That felt good.

The heat was strong even for me by the time I crossed into Idaho. A nice family from New York stopped across the road outside Geneva to let me know that Cheryl was only a mile ahead. The last seven-percent gradient to the Montpelier KOA pushed me at 66.4 kph. I love that!

Lesson learned: in Mormon territory, shop for Sunday on Saturday. Reconstituted lasagna from Mountain House saved the day that evening. One of the few times I would pull a backpacker meal from my pannier.

On Monday morning we rode into Utah. It was not so cold at first, and it warmed up earlier too. Looking at the news, we worried about the heat levels ahead. After stocking up at Broulim’s (the last one we would see this trip), we rode to Bear Lake. Cheryl tried to hitchhike when we hit the first stretch with no shoulder, but rode on when the sheriff stopped.

Bear Lake State Park turned out to be six dispersed properties around the Utah half of the lake. The campground was at Rendezvous Beach at the south end of the lake.

The Bear Lake KOA in Garden City was right next to Mike’s Market, a large supermarket. The KOA was one of the nicer ones, but dust from the long-term parking lot was a problem in the tent area until the sun went down.

On the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway, we pedalled the sixteen kilometres to the summit overlooking Bear Lake. I ran out of air at 7400 ft (2256 m) and walked the last 400 m. After recovering while I took some pictures, I blew down the western side all the way into Logan.

Cheryl got us a tent site at Hyram Beach State Park, which we remembered from 2018. It was as pleasant as we recalled. The couple next door to our site have spent the last 40 summers at this park, and they remembered us from 2018.

Wednesday, we suffered from outdated information and bad leads. We planned to camp at Fort Buenaventura State Park in Ogden. We got separated again, and I arrived at Fort Buenaventura alone. It was clearly a city park for day use, and a championship disc golf venue. (that’s golf played with Frisbees®. I’ve never tried it). The caretaker informed me that Fort Buenaventura State Park was turned over to the City of Ogden three years earlier. Only group camping is allowed (at $125/night). The various agencies of the state and city still had the old information on their various websites.

When Cheryl and I finally established communications, she met me at Farr’s Ice Cream, which is a destination in its own right. We booked into the Courtyard. I did not sleep well but napped enough.

On the 15th of July, we rolled into Salt Lake City.

This week had featured beautiful weather, and excellent bike paths between Ogden and Salt Lake City. We rode long and hard, revelling in the lack of motor traffic and the generally excellent asphalt surface under our tyres. The Great Salt Lake shimmered in the heat to our right, but we could not see much of the highways to our left, except when they went over the path.

North Temple Avenue offered us bike lanes from the Jordan River Bikeway into downtown Salt Lake City. Our Warmshowers host apparently forgot we were coming. We made the best of it, deploying our air mattresses and sleeping bags on the living room floor.

Again, I did not sleep well, with a discomfort in my lower right back that I could not stretch out. A pressure on my right kidney added a new symptom. After vomiting twice, I dozed off with the help of two aspirin.

It was an exhausted way to start the day. We took the bus the Red Butte Garden, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes gardening. I was too weak to walk around, so I waited while Cheryl walked the tour. When we returned to our host’s flat, I took a nap, while she walked to the Gourmandise and other shops. Our host stopped by briefly before I fell asleep.

Sleep is what I needed. When Cheryl returned, we packed up and rode to our next hosts. Robert and Rebecca had a lovely flat on the west side. After a lovely evening with them, I slept like a log.

My illness convinced us not to try to cross the desert north of the Grand Canyon on our bicycles. The heat and sun were simply too dangerous.

Saturday, we walked with our hosts to the Farmer’s Market in the morning. After bidding them adieu, we rode to Hertz, where we spent two hours and came out with an enormous cargo van instead of the Ford Transit we reserved. It had a scrape on the side, three chips in the windshield and no washer fluid. Still, it should get us safely through the desert in the heat. I was still feeling occasional pressure on my kidney, but no other ill effects of the heat event in Salt Lake City.

On the way out of town, we stopped at Costco for an Instacrate and supplies, and I bought a new phone.

Cheryl had ridden through Cedar City when she crossed the USA in 2013. With our late start getting the van and other stops, we opted to drive down Interstate 15 on the other side of the mountains from US 89. We booked into the Motel Six.

The next morning, we took the scenic Highway 14 and Highway 13 to Cedar Breaks then Panquitch. Cedar Breaks National Park provided some of the best pictures with less interference from crowds. We rejoined US 89 at Panquitch and drove to Bryce Canyon National Park. On Scenic Highway 12, we saw that the bike path from Thunderhead Trailhead now runs through the Red Canyon all the way into Bryce Canyon National Park. Nice.

We spent two nights at Ruby’s Inn just outside Bryce Canyon National Park. The dogs at our assigned site worried Cheryl, so the manager gave us Group site 10, when was free the rest of the week. There was a girls’ church camp in Group Site 9. The young campers were noisy, funny, and very sloppy at the same time.

We took the shuttle to the end of Bryce Canyon and walked back. Heavy rain flooded our site, but we made the best of it, walking carefully around the worst of the mud.

As before, I was impressed by how well the Ruby’s Inn operation ran. The motel section was three times as big as in 2018 and is now a Best Western franchise. The campground still outperforms the National Park Service and costs about the same.

Reports of crowds and vandalism and draconian measures at Zion National Park made us question the need to go there again. Wednesday, we decided to take advantage of having a motor vehicle. We drove east.

The interagency Visitor Center for Escalante in Cannonville was closed. We pressed on, using Google Maps to find the Kodachrome Basin State Park. Immediately, I recognized it from the Western movies of my youth.

The information panels at the start of the Panorama Trail explained the etymology of the Basin’s strange name: discovered by a National Geographic survey team in 1947, the basin had its name blessed by the Eastman Corporation when the latter gave permission to the NGS to use the trademark. The Bureau of Land Management controlled the park through its Hollywood career, until the state of Utah acquired it in 1994.

We hiked the three-mile Panorama Trail, taking stunning photographs, and pausing often to admire the sun-drenched vistas. Cheryl noted the small cacti sprouting among the dead grasses. Were we seeing evidence of climate change?

After Kodachrome, we drove to Utah’s Petrified Forest State Park (not to be confused with the Petrified Forest National Park in New Mexico). The petrified forest part was interesting, but not worth a special trip. On the other hand, the campground by the Rio Hollow Reservoir in the same park was nice. Exposed, but well-equipped. The picnic tables boasted metal roofs that sheltered the tables from the sun as well as the monsoon rains. We set up against the cliff wall, which proved to be a mistake. Late afternoon winds blew dust into the tent. It rained after we tucked in.

At 02:45, I awoke, unable to return to sleep even after urinating. The pressure on my right kidney had reappeared, and the sore left toe was worse. At 04:00, I left the tent and sat in the truck, chilled but not in pain.

Cheryl came out of the tent as I was fixing coffee at 07:00. After breakfast, we shook the dust from the tent and our sleeping bags as best we could, but we would need a laundromat to get most of it.

We took US 12 to the Escalante Visitor Center and hiked the lower trail to the Calf Creek Falls, a six-mile round trip. The petroglyphs at station 8 were particularly interesting. The falls themselves looked like a small paradise hidden from the desert above them: trees, springs, and pleasant surroundings.

Threatened by severe weather in the late afternoon, we checked into the Rim Rock Hotel in Torrey, Utah. Its restaurant was a gourmet destination, and the view of the Capitol Reef was stunning. The meal and the big bed did much to restore my battered body.

More adventures in some of the most amazing places on Earth lay ahead. Come back in two weeks as we see sights that we would have missed had we stayed on US-89.

Until then,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

JT

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