After a late start getting my stitches out and sorting out a few bike needs, I set off towards Wisdom, Wyoming. I wanted to make it over the Chief Joseph Pass with an elevation of 7241 ft before nightfall. The morning took me through mountain valleys, and the bit of easier terrain before the climbing started again was very welcome.
The Chief Joseph Pass separates Lemhi County, Idaho, and Beaverhead County, Montana, up the Bitterroot Mountains. Following the Montana State Highway 43, the road took me up never ending switchbacks, and the heat was back. I put Buzzfeed’s internet explorer podcast on and learnt all about the Mystery of Michael Jackson & Sonic… as I slowly made my way along the continental divide of the Rocky Mountains. I hadn’t seen anyone for hours and about 2/3s of the way up the climb a van came up behind me, and the guy seemed rather shocked to see me half way up the mountain. He rolled down the window and yelled: “Did you cycle up here??” I looked around, shrugged, and replied: “it seems so!” He drove off and a few minutes later I could see him turning around. He pulled back up along side me… “Here, put your bike in the back… I’ll drive you up.”
While I recognise people like this guy are just being nice, these kinds of offers are the worst. My heart rate had been up at 170 (my max is 190) for the last 45 minutes of the climb… everything hurts and then someone comes along in a magical chariot offering to end the pain, and you have to say no. It took some convincing on my part, to get the guy to believe that I was okay, would make it to the top, and did not need any help. He finally sped up and left me to get back to finding out just how MJ ended up writing the music for Sonic 3.
One of the only good things about spending half the day climbing up mountain passes is you will eventually need to descend. In this part of the US, the roads are so long and straight, you can often see for miles and miles ahead of you. So there was something quite magical about smashing it down these passes, on a fully loaded bike daring yourself to let go, and fly a little faster.
I would become fixated on watching the mile totals quickly rushing up, after hours of only clocking a few miles. It provided a sense of relief knowing I was making up the time.
Chief Joseph Pass was one of the most magical descents for me on the whole ride. There was something special about coming down the mountain into the valley with pastures as far as the eye could see, framed by the snowcapped Rocky Mountains.
It felt as though I had entered another time, a return to the wild west.
As the road finally flattened back out, I stopped for a moment in the middle of the highway, moved by how spectacular it all was. A few minutes later, I realised I was being swarmed by 1000s of flesh-eating insects. The sun was setting and with dusk, the insects had come out of hiding. I quickly got moving again, swat the bugs away in a chaotic frenzy, swerving all over the road. It wasn’t until I was riding at about 18 miles per hour that they no longer were able to land on me.
The valley extended out in front of me, yet there was no sign of any towns. I was hungry after all the climbing and had been hoping I was close to the town of Wisdom. I slowed down to pull my phone out and check my maps and as soon as I did I heard barking. Out of nowhere, 3 dogs appeared running full speed towards me. I shoved my phone back in my pocket and rode like hell. I passed by a ranch gate and the dog’s owner must have seen what was going on and rushed out on an ATV to call the dogs off. I didn’t slow down to see what happened next. Adrenaline running high, I pushed on into town, hungrier than ever.
Wisdom, population 98, was a tiny ranch town in the middle of the mountain valley. On the edge of town, I saw a sign for a bed and breakfast so went in to enquire about a room. The woman who ran the place was in her garage dissolving the flesh off the skull of a deer she had shot, in order to mount.
I was exhausted so followed her into the house to get keys for a room in the guest house. Inside there were bears, moose and all kinds of other wildlife stuffed and mounted to walls. I was definitely out of my comfort zone.
I wandered down the one street in the town to try and pick ups some food and supplies. Much to my alarm, all the shops were closed and would not be open in the morning. I went into the town bar to try and get some food. Above the bar, a sign read “We shoot vegetarians.” This probably wasn’t the place to announce I’m vegan. I looked over the menu and ordered a veggie and ham pizza without the ham or cheese. I think they may have been onto me.
A lot of these small towns don’t get too many tourists. Especially women cycling on their own. So walking into a bar in full lycra usually gets a few looks. People would always pull up a seat and want to find out more about how you had ended up in their town. Wisdom was no different. I told them how far I was planning on cycling the next day, and they were clearly baffled. I ate my pizza and ordered a second for the next day.
The next morning I got up before the sun rose over the Mountains. The air still thick with midges, biting any exposed flesh they could find. I ate my second pizzas for breakfast and set off. The town of Jackson was 18 miles ahead and planned to stop there and stock up on food for the rest of the day.
As I rode through the valley, my only companions were ranchers herding cows to new pastures. I would cycle up keeping my distance from the horses to avoid spooking them.
About half an hour into my ride, I noticed a hawk flying overhead. He kept swooping down as though to get a closer look. Suddenly he landed no more than a few feet in front of me. I slammed on my brakes to avoid him. As I did he took off again, flying overhead. This strange dance between us took place for maybe 20 minutes. He kept flying up above me only to land a few feet ahead in my path. Eventually, I got off my bike and rummage around the bottom of my frame bag to see if I had anything I could feed him. A super squished date was about it. I gently tossed it towards him. He shot me a quizzical look as though to say what the hell is this, and chose to ignore my snack. After about 10 minutes of staring each other down, I decided I needed to get moving. Had he not had some pretty scary claws, I would have seriously considered trying to bring along with me. As I peddled off, he remained sitting on the side of the road.
The town of Jackson appeared in the distance. Population 87, and made up of no more than a handful of buildings along the highway. There was a hostel in town with a number of bike tourists sitting out front. They waved me over as I rode up, so stopped to say hello and enquire about supplies. Nothing in the town was open, which was bad news for me as it meant it was going to be a long day without much food…. And I had given my last date to that ungrateful hawk.
Out of the hostel walked Martin Walker. He had resolved his mechanical issues shortly after I passed through Council and had caught back up putting some long days in the saddle. He took off while I was in the hostel. When I came out I discovered he had left his Oakleys on the table. I chucked them in my jersey pocket and gave chase. Not long after the winds picked up, storm clouds forming above the mountains. The sky quickly turning as dark as night, looming behind me.
There is something terrifying and humbling about having a storm like that on your tail and giving it everything you’ve got to try and outrun it. 80 miles later I arrived in a bigger town, just as the skies opened up, and signs from various shops blowing down the main road.
I caught sight of Martin’s bike outside a pita pit. I rode over to join him inside and return his glasses. I ended up spending about 2 hours in the pita pit, waiting out the worst of the storm and devouring 3 large pitas.
When I got going again, the rain and the hail had stopped, but the winds were making their presence known.
Somewhere around Twin Bridge, I had a breaking moment. I literally just started screaming at the skies, begging for some sort of relief from the constant headwinds. For days it was a constant fight, even when descending it felt like I was moving backwards. I was exhausted and planned to stop that day when I reached Virginia City. Along the route, there were signs of the region’s rich gold mining history.
By this point, I was listening to the critically-acclaimed podcast Lore, all about true life scary stories. Each episode examines a new dark tale from history in a style similar to a campfire experience. Looking back now, for someone with a slightly overactive imagination, this may not have been the best thing to listen to while passing through former gold rush towns.
As I arrived in Virginia City, I was greeted by the most haunted looking house I’ve ever seen. I rode further into the town, to find it the ghost town of Virginia City, which was restored in the 1950s. Most of the city is now owned by the state government and is a National Historic Landmark operated as an open-air museum. The buildings are all in their original condition with Old West period… it was deserted and kind of terrifying.
I decided to push on towards Ennis. Michael dropped me on a climb, and that would be the last time I saw him until a few months later back in London. That night I stayed on the outskirts of town, excited to reach Yellowstone park the next day.
To be continued….