Sunday, June 20, 2021

Day 4 & 5 - Catching Up & Falling Down

Although I'm not on a schedule, I seem to be waking up, packing up, and heading out pretty much the same time every day.  I've been on the road by 9:00am consistently.  Whatever.  There will be schedules to meet and other riders' itineraries when I get to Lake Tahoe.

I pulled out of Lost Creek National Forest and headed back down the mountain northward to the bustling city of Encampment, Wyoming.  I was greeted at the edge of town by a local police officer.  Ok, the local police officer.  He informed me that the city's annual Woodcutter's Day parade was about to commence and I could wait there with him, or ride over to an intersection that would give me a perfect view of the festivities.  The old in a hurry Shrug would have gotten agitated by the delay, but not on this day.  A local hometown parade would be delightfully quaint.  It totally measured up.  From the Grand Marshalls, to the antique tractors, the local theater company, the "floats" throwing candy to the kids, and the beautiful horses, it was the quintessential representation of Americana.  The entire parade lasted about twenty minutes.  Honestly, they could have easily just parked all the participants in the street and let the crowd walk by on each side.  Hester, Pearl, and the old guy in black drew a considerable crowd as  I was the only person there that nobody knew.  There was a pile of candy at my feet that none of the kids dared grab.  Finally, a little diaper-butt girl wandered over to me and very slowly reached down feeling around for the candy, never taking her eyes off of me.  The other nearby kids were watching, so I waited till she scooped most of it up to step back.  Only then did the other kids come over to scavenge for the remainders.  As I was suiting up, the officer drove up and thanked me for my patience.  I thanked him for the invitation and headed out of town.

I topped off Hester's tank at the next gas station and settled in for what would be a long day of flat terrain in high winds.  I was thankful it was cool in the morning.  It had rained recently and although the road surface was dry, I could smell the moist air as I rode.  Then the sun came out...twith a vengeance.  I was one of those days where you ride at a 15-degree angle leaning into the wind and pushing against the handlebars to maintain your lane.  Bikers know this well.  It's certainly not anyone's favorite part of any trip, but it's to be expected when you ride thousands of miles.  I had Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" blasting in my helmet to keep me company.

Casper, Wyoming was to be my next gas stop.  I did the math on the distance, the remaining fuel, and even carried the one.  I suppose I shouldn't have divided by zero.  Casper was still twenty miles away and I was running on fumes.  I knew I had my spare gallon of gas and I wasn't worried, but I knew I would come up short.  And come up short I did...about five miles short.  I rode much faster than I had been over the previous days and failed to account for the wind.  At times, I felt like I was pulling a parachute.  So, for the second time on this trip, I found myself on the side of the road pouring emergency gas into Hester's tank.

I rolled into Red Lodge, Montana around 5:00 and found a campsite.  In another example of serendipity, the couple camped nearest me had just moved to Texas from San Jose and she worked for IBM.  He quickly added that they were not bringing California to Texas.  We sat for a few hours discussing guns, politics, motorcycles, and dogs before I finally bailed to catch up on this blog and to check in at home.  I slept like a log and once again, awakened at 7:00am on the nose.
Sunday, June 20. 
I broke camp, said goodbye to my new fellow Texans and began riding south back through the town of Red Lodge and made my way to the beginning of the iconic Beartooth Highway.  If you're a biker and you haven't ridden the Beartooth, you're not a biker.  If you have, you understand.  If you haven't you'll understand when you do. It's that good.  This was my second trip there, but I rode it from the opposite direction after finishing Chief Joseph Highway ten years ago when I returned from Alaska.  Yea, I made sure Hester was topped off before I left.  There isn't much room for error up there and honestly, adding fuel on the side of the road is impossible when the road has no side.

I ascended to the peak at 11,000 feet and pulled over to rest my hands and to take in the scenery.  It's the summer solstice and yet in several spots, there are still twenty-foot snow walls on each side of the road.  In fact, the pass only recently opened after being cleared by Montana road crews.  At the top, I parked next to five guys on Harleys with New York plates.  They saw my Texas flag and expressed how much they hated the Dallas Cowboys. I told them I did too, but that I despised the entire NFL, adding that If I wanted to see a bunch of overbuilt, self-entitled drama queens in tights, I'd watch wrestling.  We had a good laugh (I suspect me more than them) and I managed to slip out before them and started my descent.  I noticed a sigh that read "Leaving Montana".  Where the hell was I; space?  I never saw a Welcome to Wyoming sign (or welcome to outer space, for that matter). but I assume the road tracks in and out of Wyoming.

At the bottom of the pass, I found myself at the front of a line of vehicles waiting to roll out of a construction area where only one direction of traffic at a time could flow.  I was staring at my GPS trying to find my bearings when I heard what sounded like Harleys approaching.  I looked up to see two good friends from Kentucky who are also meandering their way to Shark Week.  They had just finished the Chief Joseph run and were about to ride Beartooth in the opposite direction I had just done.  There were no tearful hugs or high fives; just a wave and an acknowledgement that we would see each other soon in Lake Tahoe.

At this point, I had no connectivity and was riding blind, trying to rely on my memory and using the paper route cards I had prepared for just this situation.  Still, I got it wrong and before I knew it, I was rolling up to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  I had not planned on riding Yellowstone this year, but there I was and they weren't requiring reservations like many other National Parks these days.  Better yet, as a veteran, I got in free.  So, I decided to make the most of it and ride the loop south to Canyon Village up to Mammoth Springs and then make my exit at the north gate.  This would put me back on track for my ride towards Lolo Pass.

One reason I didn't want to ride Yellowstone again is the traffic.  It's one lane each direction and the park is literally crawling with rental campers driven by tourists who drive as if the largest vehicle they've ever owned is a Prius.

Another reason is the wildlife.  I know the wildlife is the essence of Yellowstone, but beyond chipmunks, deer, and buffalo, there really isn't much more to see and I can see deer and buffalo in Texas.  The wildlife has the right-of-way at Yellowstone and it's common to come up on a line of vehicles sitting - engines off - waiting for a procession of buffalo to get off the road.  If you're lucky, they quickly cross, perpendicular to the road.  But more often than not, they meander along, repeatedly stepping off and back on the road and all you can do is sit like you're in a Walmart parking lot waiting for some clueless shopper with two kids on leashes and a cell phone screwed to her ear babbling while taking the absolute longest path to cross in front of your car while you're trying to park.  But I digress.

I found myself in just such a line today.  Only this time, it wasn't a woman with kids on a leash.  It was a herd of mama buffals and their calves and they were taking a considerately short path across the road.  The new not-in-a-hurry Shrug sat patiently watching the procession. People were getting out of their cars with cameras and that was making me nervous.  I would rather blast by a clueless driver blindly texting.  At least they're predictable.  These behemoths were anything but.  I was sitting with my motor off listening to "Ronin" by Sturgill Simpson when the noise outside my helmet exceeded the noise within.  One of the calves had separated from its mother and wandered behind my trailer.  I watched in my mirror as the people in the car behind me opened their doors and started recording.  One second, I'm marveling at the fact that baby buffalo look like regular calves (without the big hairy head) and the next, I'm on the ground pinned under Hester on my left side.  According to the driver behind me, the calve's mama freaked out and took the shortcut to get to it...and I was the shortcut.  I was literally seeing the world sideways as more buffalo slowly walk by me.  When I couldn't free myself, I just curled up as close to Hester as I could and hoped I wouldn't get trampled.  Simson's "Ronin" instrumental faded into "Remember to breathe" and the lyrics "just lay back, let it happen, and remember to breathe" suddenly had a whole new level of profundity to me.  Yes, this is the kind of shit that goes through my mind as I'm pinned under an 800 pound motorcycle next to a herd of 1,500 pound buffalo.  Most peoples' lives flash before their eyes.  Lyrics flashed before mine.  Again I digress.

I laid there for what seemed like a lifetime and nobody helped me.  Actually in retrospect, they did the right thing and waited out the herd before gathering to help me out from under and up to me feet.  I was grateful and humbled at the outpouring of sincere concern.  A driver said he caught it on video and I gave him my email address.  I hope to hear from him. One little boy in a Thundercats shirt remarked that he though the buffalo was going to eat me.  My son LOVED the Thundercats cartoon as a kid and I wondered for a second if my life was flashing before me, albeit a bit late. Honestly, I doubt the beast even really noticed me and it just plowed into me to get to its baby.  I was fortunate that it hit me on the right side or I would have been pinned under my exhaust.  Other than a bruised ego, I was not hurt.  My left saddle bag is toast and will have to be replaced.  Duct tape will hold it together until I can replace it.  I know I'll have to repeat the story a thousand times at Shark Week.  While unpacking at my campsite near Bearmouth, Montana, I noticed a big blob of dried buffalo snot on my seat.  Yes, I verified it was not my own shit.  As it turns out, if a visitor has an "encounter" with the wildlife in Yellowstone, there are forms to be filled out.  How the Ranger got to me so quickly in all that traffic was beyond me, but I had barely ridden a mile from the scene when he pulled me over to investigate.  I told my side o the story and joked that it was my word versus the buffalo's.  It s funny to me; not so much for the Ranger.  Fortunately, the guy with the video camera rolled up, recognized Hester, and showed the video to the Ranger.  Then the Ranger laughed.  I finally got yo see what happened.  I was looking to my left when I was knocked over and never saw it coming.  That was probably for the best, otherwise that dried snot might have been a shit stain after all.
All things considered, it was a great day.  I had Father's Day greetings from home and friends and am staring at majestic trees and hills as I type this.  Lolo Pass in Montana and Idaho tomorrow.