This summer three dads, and four of our teenage kids bicycled across the United States from Seattle to Maine to learn more about ourselves, our world, and what’s possible when we allow for growth and renewal. Here is another learning excerpt from the journey.
This day did not turn out as any of us expected. Surprising strength came from deep in the group.
In Idaho, Lolo Pass over the Bitterroot mountains was hard. Back in the Cascades Chinook Pass was hard. Beartooth was even harder, but they were all do-able. They were all rideable. With patience, persistence, and a good food supply, we simply had to grind it out.
Route 14 alternate, up to the Bighorn Plateau was something else altogether. It nearly broke us. 14a from Lovell, Wyoming, which sits down in the valley, to Burgess Junction at the top of the plateau was originally a wagon track notched into the side of the mountain in about 1880. The State of Wyoming decided to immortalize it by paving it in the 1960s. It feels like a goat trail.
Before we left Lovell we ran into some locals who listened to our plan, and starting shaking their heads. “You don’t understand. The signs say 10% grade because it’s Wyoming Department of Transportation ordinance that no road pitch in the state exceed 10%, but the truth is that pass is mostly 14%. Probably fifteen miles of it. Brakes fail all the time. People go over the side regularly.”
The kids were calling bullshit on the whole plan. Hobbit is an optimistic guy, but even he was skeptical. Erich yammered on about the importance of cadence, aerobic thresholds, gear ratios, hydration strategies, electrolyte depletion, conscious breathing to attenuate (he likes that word, look it up) the effects of high altitude, and mental tenacity. It’s all useful information, but good lord, he could drive you nuts with that stuff.
Side note: Erich has also been prattling on about his bike for weeks. A custom-made Jones bike that looks like a zombie at the prom. If you ask – or even if you don’t – he will give you a tour of this aberration that has a strange truss fork, wrap-around H-handlebars, fat-ass tires, White Industries hubs (who cares), and apparently, an endless supply of gears. Whenever anyone runs out of gears on these climbs, he will happily announce we still has 3 or 4 more gears to go. After one such announcement, probably up Skalkalo Pass, I commented that if he always has gears to spare, he over budgeted on gears.
He has such an affinity for his bike, the boys have taken to calling his bike the Bitchin Jones. As in, “That road is no problem for the Bitchin Jones.” Or “Whoa, don’t park so close to the Bitchin Jones.”
It took about ten miles just to get to the base of the climb. The day was hot, and after the first couple pitches up the mountain, we were getting short on water. We pulled over, squinted up at the switchbacks, and chatted about the road.
Both Owen and Annie declared outright they couldn’t do it. It was just too steep, too long. At that point I thought a rah-rah pep talk from me would just piss people off. I pedaled up the road and hoped the group would follow.
I climbed up a quarter mile, pressing the pedal strokes over one by one, the only rest coming at the micro-second when you’ve pushed one pedal down, pause, then it’s time to push the other over. It was painstakingly slow. I stopped, turned around, and saw no one following. I looked up the road and saw nothing but up. Those passing by said it went up for at least another ten miles at this grade.
That was it. I had my hand on the white flag, my finger on the trigger of the SOS flare gun. I looked at the watch, ready to declare time of death on 14a, the moment we conceded. We had to call it. There was just no way we could all endure this, no way we could pull 75 pound bikes up these grades for another couple hours.
I rolled back down the quarter mile to the group, crushing the brake levers into the handlebars to arrest my speed. I found Erich and the boys down in a gully laughing and splashing in a mountain stream. Erich had pulled out his water filter and was replenishing everyone’s water bottles with cold, clean water.
We all dunked our heads in the cool stream. Owen announced, “We are absolutely riding over this mountain. There is no way a 10 mile climb is going to make me turn around and ride 150 extra miles about this hunk of rock. I’m telling you, we are doing this.” Owen was adamant. It was inspiring.
Hobbit pulled me aside and said, “Look Hunter, I seriously do not know if I can climb this thing, but if Owen is doing this, I will try.” Annie barked at her Dad, “Jon, I cannot climb this.” She calls her Dad Jon, especially when she’s annoyed at him. Hobbit walked over to her and said, “Buddy, I don’t know if I can either, but let’s try.”
And so we tried. In the end, Annie led the way for hours over that climb. Steady and sure, Annie climbed on ahead of everyone for hours. We took the climb in pitches. A pitch was “to the next turn” or “to the end of that bridge.” A pitch was probably about a half mile at a time. Near the top, with another pitch or so left, we pulled over and all lay on the warm pavement absorbing the afternoon sun.
A woman in a Suburban full of kids drove by staring out the window. As she passed, she clearly mouthed the words “Oh my god” at the sight of seven cyclists near the top sprawled out like cats in the afternoon sun.
Just as we topped out, Hobbit flagged down a big truck with a camper. A lovely couple hopped out, introduced themselves, handed us a round of bottled waters, and a bag of elk jerky they made themselves. We started to chat about the camping options, and he said, “Just turn left here. Half a mile down is High Country Lodge. They’re serving dinner. They have showers, bunkhouses and cold beer.”
It was true, and we never would have known about it if not for that kind couple.
All photos courtesy of Hobbit, at least all of the good ones.