Fear and loathing in the Great Divide Basin

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We were somewhere south of Atlantic City, in the middle of the desert, when the frustration began to take hold. I remember saying something like “we need to go faster, I need to get out of here”. In places like this I have only one plan, get in the middle of this shit and get the hell out as fast as possible. I’d wish for a glass of cold Moscow Mule in my hand, with one of those tiny paper umbrellas that they put in your drink in places where the sun doesn’t shine, and a pair of monkeys dancing in front of me providing entertainment in the desolate, god forgotten land. It’s bad country. How did we get ourselves into this? It all started quite innocent.

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A hot day in Montana, we’re just about to climb the Huckleberry Pass. As we roll past a family gathering fruit in the forest we stop for a short chat. A bearded man with a trucker hat offers some of their freshly picked Huckleberries, we never had those before. Asked about our journey we tell the story of how we came from Poland to North America, “Poland? My wife’s Russian” he replies immediately. Neighbors! Finally, I think to myself, someone how shares a similar Slavic background, set of imaginary rules on how to approach life. She’s deep in the forest and we have to get moving otherwise the night might catch us in the middle of our ride. We decide to roll without getting to know her. Feet start stomping and our wheels are slowly forced into motion, climbing the steep on the gravel. It’s not long before the family catches up with us in their pickup trucks. As they roll past us the truck stops and we get to meet Lucy, a Russian citizen turned American. “Are you guys going to Butte by any chance?” she asks. Well, yes we do. “If you guys want you can stay with us for a night”. Butte is still a couple days away and we will surely need some time off from the saddles. A warm shower and a washing machine slowly emerge in our dusty heads. Never say now to an American offering huckleberries and a Russian woman. We exchange contacts and agree to meet in their hometown.

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Fast-forward a couple of days we find ourselves arriving in Butte. We have a soda at the first gas station, a bunch of drunks roam the area asking for change and cigarettes. Not waiting to sponsor their decline we ask the clerk for directions to the library and get the hell out of there to contact Lucy and Matt. In hindsight, we couldn’t bump into better people to stay with, for a few days we join their family sharing stories, Moscow Mules and long chats with their daughter Saska, who for a five-year-old is quite the discussion partner. Saska started traveling at the age of six months, joining their parents on a Central America tour, she’s a clear example that travel will broaden one’s horizons. Instead of staying with them for one night we stay for three days and even after this time we feel heavy-hearted leaving Butte. The trails will not cycle themselves and we need to start moving south escaping Montana’s winter that’s surely inbound. Hugs are not enough to thank them for their hospitality, but at this very moment of our lives, it’s all we got to offer. As a farewell gift, Matt offers to give us a ride out of Butte to Wise River area saving us a day of riding in the dry area around Butte.

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Once back on the GDMBR, we take the paved road leaving Wise River towards Crystal Park. It never stops to amaze us how the landscape changes for almost-desert to lush pine forests once we gain enough elevation. Drop down a thousand meters down and you can easily find yourself on barren lands where sage seems to be the only plants thriving. Riding down from Crystal Park we pass Polaris which seems to be nothing more than a point on the map with some buildings thrown in and a post office and head towards Bannack State Park where we camp for the night.

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To our surprise, we met our friend camping in the very same spot. It’s Koen, a Dutch cyclist whom we met the first time in Sparwood, Canada. We’ve been bumping into each other on and off, usually at places where there’s food. It’s become somewhat of a tradition to the point where we were expecting Koen to arrive 30 minutes later at every fast food joint or market en route. Koen is cycling to raise awareness and funds for Multiple Sclerosis research. It’s the first time we get to cycle together in all those weeks on the trail. We catch up with him after visiting the Bannack historical town – a silent witness the America’s history. Gold rush, mining, gunslingers and bootlegged liquor take up most of the town’s short history. Now it’s just a few wooden building standing in the middle of nowhere, well conserved by the dry climate.

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Koen’s company is very welcome, especially since we have a birthday party planned in the next few days. We celebrate my birthday in the middle of nowhere, several miles outside of Lima. Earlier in the city, we bought some fancy American bourbon and Koen sneaks into his panniers two bottles of Merlot wine. What a treat! Celebrating birthdays on the trail has been my favorite way of partying ever since doing so with Nick and Lael back in Poland.

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We join forces for a couple of days riding the last bits of Montana together, hoping to find Jos and Magda along the way. Cyclists riding northbound give us important intel on their whereabouts, but their stories have in thing in common. “Dutch couple? They were in a hurry.” – they all say. Seems we are at least a day and a half of riding behind them, but we know exactly where to find them. Back in Butte, where we have last seen each other we agreed to rendezvous somewhere in Yellowstone National Park. In Idaho, we have to part with Koen as he wants to meet with his nephew. We agree to meet somewhere with food, 30 minutes waiting time. As Koen stays at the Macks Inn campground we pump our tires to 2.5bar for the road to the park.

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We arrive in Yellowstone via the western gate and head straight for Madison – the nearest campground. Joining us is Max from San Francisco who’s riding States west to east on his road bike. Not following any designated route he’s ecstatic to meet some other cyclist on his otherwise lonesome trip. We ride into the park keeping a close eye on the wildfire burning just outside of the park, one of three fires happening in the area around us. Once at the campground we are led by the ranger to the designated hiker-biker site and guess who’s there sitting at the table?

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Magda, Eefje, Jos and Jakob, who’ve been quite busy waiting for us since yesterday, cluttering their table with beer and wine bottles. Without phones or regular access to e-mail we always manage to meet, old-school style. Jakob and Eefje are on their last stop before heading back to Holland and so we celebrate our last meeting with drinks and food.

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Yellowstone is like a better version of Iceland. It has all the thermal features without insane headwinds, cold and wet weather and most importantly it has forests and plenty of wildlife. On our way through the park, we see deer, share the river with a moose, watch herds of bisons in the valley and a lone coyote dashing through the meadows. The tourist traffic might be the most intense that we’ve experienced and at times we have to get off the shoulder-less road to let the kilometer-long strings of cars that build up behind us. The drivers in the States are mostly very careful around cyclist’s and instead of performing risky maneuvers will choose the coast behind us until a foolproof opportunity arises for taking over. Of course, there’s the black sheep now and the and to those my middle fingers salutes. We get out on Yellowstone via the southern gate, riding straight into the Grand Tetons National Park stopping in Colter Bay Village for resupply. Thirty minutes into our shopping spree Koen arrives just as predicted. His slower pace means that after exchanging hugs and coffee we part ways and the four of us heads towards Togwotee pass while Koen stays behind doing shopping.

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Just before reaching the top of the pass all hell breaks loose, rain and thunder so close we get goose bumps while riding the exposed road. For the worst of the storm, I and Saska find cover in one of the parking toilets, which has been our modus operandi during inclement weather. Once the cloud cover starts getting thick and dark we always check our map for the nearest campground on the trailhead, knowing that it would provide us with a safe house, even if doesn’t smell of roses it’s better that being out in the open. In the meantime, Magda and Jos made their way to the Togwotee Lodge enjoying free coffee and WiFi access. With temperatures dropping in the evening quickly we decide to share a small bunkhouse on the other side of the pass. After all this evening was special for Jos and Magda as they were celebrating their wedding anniversary, this called for some beers and delicious food.

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Before heading out to Wyoming we heard news from northbound of a wildfire on the Union Pass road that could potentially block our route, luckily before we got near the pass the fire was extinguished and the trail was open for travel. Climbing the gravel up the hills we witnessed the remnants of nature’s fury, smoke still rising from the ground. The top of Union Pass might be one of the most beautiful sections of trail with pronghorns roaming the plateau in vast numbers and fresh bear scat littering our trail. Open views on the Rockies surrounding us. It all seems to slowly fade out into oblivion once we descent towards Pinedale where our friends scheduled a resting day and our ways are meant to part yet another time.

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As we venture further into Eastern Wyoming the incoming desert land of the Great Divide Basin sneaks more and more features of its dry and bleak landscapes; one by one the trees disappear and rivers fade into dried out creeks, even the towns seem to shrink into what seems humanity’s last stand. Atlantic City, a futile attempt at claiming man’s right to exist in every little corner of the Earth, a farce of a town. “Live’s a bitch, don’t elect one.” says a billboard at the entrance the to city, population 37. We aim straight at the local mercantile, which seems the only commercial place around here apart from the gun shop. Inside a man is sitting at the bar sipping Maker’s Mark from a sweating tumbler glass, jeans shirt tucked away behind his gun holster. I ask him what he thinks of the upcoming election. His sunburnt wrinkles slowly contract, betraying a confused smile hiding behind his beard. “The election? Well…” he sighs, “I’m scared…” he replied turning around to face his second glass of whisky.

There’s no easy way the pedal one’s way out of this basin. Two monkeys dancing on the world’s biggest stage, why isn’t anyone entertained?

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2 thoughts on “Fear and loathing in the Great Divide Basin

  1. Great photos! Good to see you are meeting up with lots of good people, enjoying good food and drink, and enjoying America. You are welcome back to visit us in Montana or Berlin any time. Jackie and Scott

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    1. Thanks! We are now in Mexico and we really enjoy our first days behind the US border. I hope the impending European winter is not giving you too much of a hard time in Berlin and you get some nice time riding your bikes in preparation for the coast to coast trip. We’ll definitely want to catch up with you once we get to Berlin!

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