A COLD morning fog hung like a rug over the ghost town of Bannack as we packed up camp, chugged down some coffee and prepared to tackle day two of our ride through Montana.
From our frosty site the gravel track eased onto a smooth bitumen road framed by green pastures that flowed to a ring of hills which in turn stitched neatly into a distant mountain range.
The temperature gauge struggled to pass eight degrees as we veered onto route 41 and by time we’d reached the tiny hamlet of Twin Bridges, Madison County it had scarcely reached 10.
Twin Bridges was home to a big water tank, a pretty tired looking main street and one bloody nice park with a free bike camp (boasting hot water a loo and even a table and chairs!).
We were expecting the place to be packed to the rafters with bikers attempting the Trans America cross country ride but instead it was just us and a few spiders.
The wind howled through the village that night and the temperature again plummeted. Summer in Montana was like a game of elemental Russian Roulette and it seemed the chamber had fired off a bloody premature winter.
Rather than face the elements we set up the tent inside the cabin and enjoyed a relatively posh sleep with four walls and even an indoor loo. We were getting soft.
The bike cabin was so cozy we stayed another night and so spent the day wandering through the village and sipping bitter coffee at the local cafe which had the obligatory wall of fame featuring locals with sunburned necks posing next to dead animals.
For the most part, long distance cycling is an exercise in mental toughness and there are some days you have it, and some you really bloody don’t. The next day I got on my bike only to realise I’d literally rather be anywhere else in the world than pushing the pedals on my steel donkey. My legs felt like lead, my arse felt as though it was sitting on a thorn bush and everything hurt.
The sun beat down and every mile gained felt like a gold medal achievement.
The day ended with a hot, steep climb and then a hair-raisingly fast descent where I clocked a new speed record – 80km per hour – into the quaint town of Ennis.
At 11am the next day we finally hauled our bikes out of the mountain-framed village and on the long, straight road to West Yellowstone.
A brutal headwind forced us into a crawl and by midday it had ramped up to over 40 miles per hour. by 2pm we’d scarcely made it 20km and according to the weather forecast the wind speed would increase every hour.
A campsite lay ahead and I swung my bike off the road.
“This is stupid – I say we call it a day and get up at 4am tomorrow before the winds kick in,” I shouted.
Scott didn’t put up a fight.
Later that evening a local told us the winds on that road were notorious and just a day earlier they’d howled so fiercely the campsite’s large American flag had snapped.
At 5.30am the next morning we rolled back onto the highway and managed to smash out a fast 50km before the winds cranked to gale force.
By early evening we’d reached a small state campsite just a couple of miles from West Yellowstone and we quickly threw up our tent and scoffed down an enormous bowl of spaghetti before falling asleep to the sound of rain.
According to the brochures Yellowstone is famous for being America’s oldest national park and for containing about half of the world’s natural geysers. What the brochures won’t tell you is just how wild the weather is in this 3,472 square mile park. It can snow in the middle of summer, hail torrents several times a day and give you hypothermia and sunburn in the space of a few hours.
And so amidst a downpour that would make a Scotsman run for cover we pedalled into soggy, touristy and over-priced West Yellowstone. As we sucked down a coffee at the McDonalds and people watched the horde of tourists the rain continued to pour and the temperature scarcely topped five degrees celsius.
In a moment of weakness I desperately began to search for cheap hotels in the vicinity but quickly threw my phone down in disgust. The most flea-bitten and rundown room in the town started at a sweat-inducing $199 USD a night. In any other city that would get me a posh suite at the Hilton with a buffet breakfast!
Feeling wet, cold and cranky we pedalled out of town and straight for the park itself. Just 20km in lay the Madison Junction campground which offered hiker biker sites for $9 USD per person (pretty reasonable all things considered).
The roads inside the park were narrow and a heavy stream of traffic flowed each way causing us to sweat, duck and weave several times in the hour it took us to reach camp. While strict speed limits are in place throughout the park the tourists drove like idiots. Desperate to spot wildlife while driving an indecently sized RV they veered all over the road like drunk imbeciles. To say most weren’t paying attention was an understatement.
It was a bad omen. But just how bad, we would soon find out.
In a bid to see most of Yellowstone’s enormous awesomeness we’d decided to use the first campsite as a base and make day trips by bike from there. The next morning the rain eased and the sun showed her beautiful face and while it was still cold enough to wear our goretex rain jackets and pants we set off for the famous Old Faithful geyser feeling optimistic. After just seven kilometres the traffic slowed to almost a stop but we were able to continue cycling up the shoulder past the many RVs, SUVs and cars full of families.
Scott had scarcely pulled ahead of me when it happened.
A passenger flung his door open narrowly missing Scott but catching me front on, causing me to superman dive over the bike and into the gravel.
I hit the ground hard and struggled to sit up – the wind knocked out of me and my body screaming.
The uncertain passenger got out of his car, but Scott, after making sure I was alright launched at him with a torrent of abuse.
“You fu@king idiot! Why the hell didn’t you look!?” He demanded.
Faced with an irate Australian and his bloodied up partner he jumped straight on the defensive and insisted it had been my fault, that I should have been paying attention, and in fact shouldn’t have been cycling at all.
It was the kind of Trump-esque logic to make you cringe before changing channels but instead of arguing back I bellowed at Scott to back off told Captain Idiot of the Car Brigade to do the same and slowly began washing the gravel out of my bloodied up palms and knee.
The ride back to the campsite was painful. My palms were seizing up which made braking hard, my knee was in agony and my head was ringing.
I’d hit my head, shoulder and knee hard causing my helmet to get pretty banged up and my goretex jacket and pants to get shredded.
At times like those it was hard not to look at the irony of the situation. After all, we’d survived war torn countries, the rough and dangerous roads of Central Asia and the traffic-laden chaos of Vietnam but it was a moronic tourist in a US national park that brought me to my knees.
Still – it could have worse. My helmet had done its job, the extra layers of clothing had stopped extensive road rash and while my knee was throbbing I was able to still hobble around.
Over the next few days we forked out hundreds to get a rental car (both to see Yellowstone and then get out of the park itself) a campsite that cost a heart breaking $55 USD a night and finally a bus ticket to get the bloody hell out of there.
A friend of a friend (Kendra and her family from Salt Lake City, Utah) had kindly agreed to put us up and while we were loathe to skip a huge section of Wyoming the thought of waiting out an injury in a park that made Manhattan look like a backpacker paradise was grim.
So we booked two seats to the capital of the country’s reddest, most Mormon-filled state and within the space of eight hours we’d swapped freezing cold for the kind of blistering heat that makes you feel as though you’ve stuck your head in an oven.
As the bus pulled into the sprawling metropolis I browsed Wikipedia to get an overview of the city and indeed the state. It seemed Utah had never had a non male, white, Republican Mormon Senator (in it’s entire history) and as a result the separation of church and state was yet to happen.
Thankfully Salt Lake was a fabulous progressive bubble within the state and after just a couple of days it was clear Kendra was the unofficial mayor of the place.
She knew absolutely everyone and introduced us to a phenomenal group of people before hooking us up with two house sitting gigs and a host of social activities with the city’s most fabulous. Within a couple of weeks we were kicking back, seeing outdoor documentaries, sipping beers at a local brewery and perusing the farmers markets.
While it was clear Salt Lake was just like every other big city (fine dining, food trucks, homeless sleeping in parks and a thriving arts scene) there was an elephant sized point of difference that hulked in the corner of the room, inevitably seeping its way into the conversation.
These well-dressed, ultra conservative oddly smiling Christians made the Great Salt Lake their home back in 1847 (after being kicked out of everywhere else) and 250 years later Utah remains their hub. They’re no longer allowed to practice polygamy but they still practice some good old fashioned anti LGBTQ dogma which has in turn resulted in the state boasting the highest number of youth suicides in the entire country.
We sipped beers with gay men who had only just left the church, talked to countless locals who had grown up Mormon and escaped as adults and even chatted to a local sexual health professor who told us disturbing tales of young couples so desperate to be intimate (but terrified to break the church’s rule of no pre marital sex and risk being cast out) that they’d come up with a ridiculous concept called “floating” which consisted of the act of coitus without actually moving at all (so you know, technically you’re still a virgin).
With so much juicy gossip at our fingertips the days went by quickly in Salt Lake and we were treated to a weekend trip to the quintessential American cabin (near the Uintas Mountains) honest to god Jewish bagel breakfasts, mountain biking near Park City and even Pie and Beer Day (a far more fun spin off of the Mormon Pioneer Day).
Soon the days had trickled into weeks but before my knee could return to a normal size a new hurdle billowed into our path.
It was reaching roughly the same temperature as the sun’s surface and biking (according to our new friends) would be nothing short of madness.
In Moab (our next destination) temps were consistently reaching as high as 48 degrees celsius every day and scarcely dropping at night.
People (Kendra warned) were literally dying.
In the end it was a no brainer. With somewhere to stay for free, a fabulous new community to hang out with and Jewish bagels on tap we decided to wait out the heat wave and hit the road in mid August when the mercury had somewhat calmed down.
After six food and friend filled weeks it was finally time to dust off the panniers, tune up the bikes and get the hell out of dodge. We’d decided to head down the six towards Moab but wildfires had forced us to change our route (yet again) and so we prepared to beeline instead for Park City and then take the quieter roads to Duchesne before veering back on track.
With nothing but sage bushes, mountains, deserts and a hell of a lot of free BLM wild camping ahead we couldn’t have been more excited. The desert adventure awaited.