By Jay Hudson — My riding buddy Mike Woolman, and I stood on the sidewalk making the last adjustments to our panniers and multi-day stuff. Mike wanted a challenge to find if he could make the trip. I had self doubts. We had just filled our bellies at the Old Town Café there at the tourist town of West Yellowstone, Montana. We topped off the water bottles, secured the commissary bag of “GORP” (good old resin’s and peanuts) checked the tires pressure and blessed each other for the long haul ahead. Our panniers were full of stuff designed to make a bandit feel cheated. We were fit, confident and prepared to ride through buffalo herds, out peddle chasing bears, stare down wolves and stand in the spray of erupting geysers. Our wives were left wondering if they would get a phone call in the middle of the night from a gravelly voiced sheriff. The sun was up and the wind was down leaving us anxious to “mount up!” as my old Sgt. used to yell. Mike is a medical doctor which added to my confidence. If an old shaggy haired griz came out of the woods I was ready to take the lead even if it did mean I had to break wind.
This trip was not going to be the same as the time in 1947 with my family. Then you could hand roll down the car window and hand feed the black bears. Years ago, I was in the emergency room and the blackboard had statistics on how many people had been thrown into the air by buffalo or elk. They came from the east and the park was nothing less than a petting zoo. Back then you could get up close and personal with Old Faithfull geyser (Icelandic word) but crowd control now means standing way back.
We cleared the park entrance booth and soon we were riding next to the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone is the last undammed river in the lower 48. An old friend once canoed the Yellowstone, then down the Missouri and then rowed down the Mississippi.
What I was about to do seemed like a short trip. Now we were in the “wilderness”. We were there because President U.S. Grant had a vision and created the park in 1872. He knew the developers were coming and the speculators were ready to mine, cut, wash, make money and walk away. And then I saw a buffalo grazing across the river. I imagined I was truly in the wilderness. Then I realized the truth. We had trees, running water, wild animals and asphalt. We were burning daylight and had to cross a mountain range to get to a public camp site on Yellowstone Lake. There would be more wild animals, and we pedaled on.
This section of road tested our quads. There were no downhills until we mastered the summit and freewheeled to Yellowstone Lake and West Thumb/Grant Village. After setting up the tent we took a long hot shower, which was probably the best I ever had. I asked Mike how many calories we had spent only going 81 miles. My riding shorts weren’t falling off but I was feeling thinner. Mike estimated we had burned off about 7-8,000. We stocked up food at the store for dinner and breakfast with a couple of chocolate bars; just because.
After eating dinner, we ate the breakfast supplies. We had to go back to the store and stock up again for breakfast. Sometime in the dark of night we heard rustling sounds. Peeking out of the tent, we saw a black bear trying to get to our food stocks that we had hung on a branch higher than the bear could reach. The bear gave up and looked for food not so well protected.
We saddled up and started day two of crossing Yellowstone going south on a very narrow Highway 191. A bus passed me on a long downhill and was so close I could have reached out to leave my initials. That gave me the gillywamps! Leaving the park, the road to the Tetons was safer and seeing these majestic mountains named after women’s breasts, worked my imagination. Jackson, Wyoming was calling!
I took Mike into the Silver Dollar Saloon to show him the saddles that lined the bar and told him of the sarsaparilla I sipped sitting on a saddle in 1948. Jackson has changed and lingering brought only tourist shopping around the town square with its weathered arch made from hundreds of cast off dried elk antlers. It was time to leave the updated rustic feel of Jackson, and head for Star Valley and the best cheese factory in the Intermountain West.
The road was good and the free cheese samples gave us renewed energy. The road now became a challenge. Highway 89 on a loaded bicycle is a long, long uphill drudge. When we reached the pass, we still had daylight and we decided to continue the long downhill on the way to Bear Lake. The downhill cooled us off. I felt like we had out run the bears. We passed a campground but decided to roll on, hoping there would be a modern day Pony Express station where we could bath in the horse trough.
When we came to the junction of Highway 89 and 30 there were no facilities, no nothing! We calculated we had covered 105 miles of hard riding. I was disappointed we had no altimeter to prove our prowess in hill climbing. There was another small mountain range between us and Bear Lake so we decided to camp for the night. The land was well covered with barbwire fencing but there was a small bridge covering a dry creek. It would be our haven for the night.
As we set up a pukka camp bats surrounded us. They didn’t bother us as we cooked and they provided a bit of amusement. The sand under the bridge was a soft base for our sleeping bags and it didn’t take long to fall asleep. We slept well and accepted the occasional car traffic above us. In the morning we said goodbye to the sleeping bats and rode off toward Garden City on Bear Lake. We rode past Paris, Idaho and wondered why the name and hit the flat road going south. We had a lot of light when we rode into Garden City and we went straight for a berry milkshake.
Garden City became my Waterloo. I knew, I just knew I was too tired to make the climb from the lake over another mountain range and on to Ogden. Mike gave me that doctor’s look of sympathy while I looked for a phone to call my wife to come fetch me. Mike left me in the dust, conquered the next mountain and continued to Ogden. He had tested himself and owns bragging rights. I have my photographs for proof I almost made it. I blame my failure on the 15 years I had on Mike.