Cycling Washington 20: scenic and sweaty

My arrival in Idaho was bumpy. We needed a safety pin and tweezers to extract the puncture-causing wire from my tyre. It’s times like that I feel grateful to have a doctor on hand. It was a quick ride to Bonners Ferry, and a lovely one the next morning to Sandpoint, via an ice cream and the valley of a chase in the real Falcon and Snowman story.

Sandpoint, Idaho

Just when Idaho seemed delightful (we had met nice people, scenic riverside cycling, etc) it went nuts. In the last 10 miles before the border we saw all of these. Yes, bottom left is a public toilet. They should really get in touch with the Albanian football stadium we visited to share good practice.

It is was exciting to get to Washington – our last new state before the ocean. Maybe this made Jo a little giddy. She went into a supermarket to get some ice cream and bought a three pint tub. Apparently it was cheaper than one pint. We ate it sat outside the cloud Forest Service Ranger Station in Newport. I’m relieved to admit that we didn’t quite manage it all but ate enough to make us feel unwell for the rest of that day’s ride. Jo hasn’t been trusted to buy ice cream since.

The next day was very hot. We opted for fizzy pop instead of ice cream and stopped for some chips at almost the top of the big hill. Our target was a wonderful bike hostel we had heard about. It was so sensational we decided to have a rest day. Good news – big downhill to the town to get food for the rest day. Bad news – long uphill in very hot weather with food to get back. I had a wobbly pedal though, so we made the trip, got pedals and a lot of food. We had some tough riding ahead.

Who doesn’t want to take a super side trip? (It was our route anyway. No detours this near the end).

The next day was even hotter. It turned out eastern Washington was having a heat wave, perfectly timed for our biggest climbing days since Colorado. Between us and the coast were five passes as state highway 20 winds through the North Cascades. Two of the days had more than 1500m of elevation gain.

Between the passes were scorchingly hot valleys. I don’t think I have ever sweated so much as during those few days. To exacerbate the heat/sweat/thirst problem Washington turned into a sort of squashed up Wyoming. Suddenly there were funny coloured rocks, no trees and it smelled of the sagebrush. The only differences were the closeness of the hills and the fact that we could always see at least one house.


We didn’t get out of Wymashington until we began the Washington Pass climb. The others had been a bit hard but this one was a real toughie. It was much steeper and had a dramatic switch back that resembled Sunwapta on the Icefields parkway. Fortunately it was much cooler and a real bonus was a friendly SAG wagon crew at the top who shared some of the snacks their road cyclists didn’t need.

The scenery was wonderful on the way down and we had a great night camping by Diablo Lake. We were aiming for Sedro-Woolley for our last night before hitting the ocean but had a great deal of trouble remembering this name. We struggled with it so much we decided to ride straight through Sedgely Woollen to Burlington. On Sunday July 31st, 102 days since leaving Boston we were only 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Thanks for this sweaty section to: Bob & Diane, Steve, Meg, Robyn & Adele, DiAnne & Boyd, Larry & Lynette, Shelley & Barry, the SAG team, the water for cyclists providers.

Bear Glacier Hill Road

It is often said that we have weird place names in the UK (Cold Christmas?). As we have got further West there seems to be a generic template for road names. Montana has got this totally sewn up. To create your own you just need the following… 1. A status adjective. Examples include: Lost, Tall, Dead, Hidden, Blue or Montana favourite, Big. 2. A relevant noun. E.g. Horse, Pine, Fir, Lake, Creek, Church, Bear, Market. 3. Place or geographical feature: Mountain, Hill, Forest, Pass, Valley, Ranch, anything unused from the list in 2. So you end up with something like: Lost Horse Creek Road. This makes directions very confusing. Imagine you are tired from the headwinds (yes, we still have those), probably hungry and definitely a bit sweaty. Someone is explaining that you take Tall Pine Ranch Road up to Hidden Creek Hill Trail then take the left fork at Big Fork or was it maybe Big Arm, or Big Sky?

Cattle Mountain Road. Probably. Just like Montana should look.

Despite these navigational challenges we had a wonderful two weeks in Montana. Like so much of the USA it is very good at being exactly like Montana should be. Our first day’s ride was alongside a lake formed after an earthquake (naming guidelines: geological incident + geographical feature = Quake Lake). The sky was blue, the trees and mountains tall and the rivers populated with fly fisherman. We kept a close eye out for Robert Redford. For the first time in ages, the wind was helpful. When we turned north it blew us to Ennis, where we camped in the backyard of a whiskey distillery and had a picnic dinner outside the public library. Living the dream.

Before the earthquake, these trees used to be a forest alongside a river.

The next day we had some really good apple pie. Even better, it was at a cool old bakery in a gold rush ghost town. These two days of tourist attractions and information signs were really welcome after all the emptiness we had ridden through. Sadly the helpful weather didn’t last. Despite assurances (/lies) from west-to-east cyclists that they had loads of headwinds it wasn’t at our backs again and there was the odd thunderstorm to hide from. This gave us plenty of chance for ice cream sampling while sheltering outside supermarkets. Huckleberry became the new fave. Who knew it was even a real fruit.

Welcome to the Wild West. Gold rush towns Virginia City and Nevada City.

We rode over a load of really big windy hills (Tall Windy Hill Road) and questioned our sanity and life choices. It was hot and the air really drying. Much like Wyoming. If you are a cycling keen bean and would like to recreate this sensation in the comfort of your own home you could try this. Ride your turbo trainer really hard on a high resistance next to a radiator whilst a few friends point their hair dryers at your face, set to high. Alternatively you can use your imagination… Say you were a grown up and drank a lot of dry white wine, maybe whilst at university when life was less sensible, then fell asleep without drinking any water, and then when you woke up the next morning you put your head in a fan oven, that would feel like cycling uphill into the wind in the western USA.

Chief Jo taking a break from the hills. Our final divide crossing.

We took a rest day in tiny Wisdom, watched Wimbledon and the Euro Final, and wondered if you had to live in Wisdom before you could move to nearby Wise. For a whole day we sat on a sofa, or a chair, looked outside and the rain, and ate. It was amazing. A few days later we made it to Missoula, home of the Adventure Cycling Association. We were excited about this because long distance cyclists get an ice cream and their bikes weighed. Jo was especially looking forward to it as she was convinced that her bike was heavier. In actual fact it turned out that we are packing geniuses, Jo 94lb, mine 96lb. As we had just been to the supermarket and food goes on my bike we are probably about even most days. This weight didn’t include any water, so for the metrically minded the bikes and kit total at least 45kg each. As I mentioned, questioning sanity and life choices.

Clockwise from bottom left: 1. Bike weighing, a delicate operation. 2. Carrying the essentials in the bar bag. Actually a bar. 3. Our mugshot at the ACA. 4. We met a man from Rothley, Leics outside who took this one. It’s a small world in cycling.

It was a few days ride to Glacier National Park. On the way we took in the Smoke Jumpers Visitor Centre and had an excellent tour. These firefighters wear kit that weighs about the same as our bikes and parachute into forest fire areas. Very impressive indeed. The awesome staff also rescued Jo’s tea flask and posted it to us in Republic, Washington. Amazing. We treated ourselves to some new gear cables and bike chains in Polson. Rock and roll. The route went along Flathead Lake where there was great swimming and even better in-season cherries for sale by the side of the road.

Clockwise from bottom left: 1. Jo got some cookies as big as her face as a gift at the farmers market in Big Fork. 2&3. Real smoke jumper training jump prep. 4. Fake smoke jumper Jo. 5. Still hilly around here.

Lakes instead of showers continued in the National Park, but we didn’t mind because it was probably the best place we have been in the USA. Incredible scenery, waterfalls, wildlife, lakes. We decided to have a few ‘rest days.’ The big attraction for cyclists at Glacier is the ‘Going to the Sun’ Road. To get up to Logan Pass at about 2000m the scenic road is hacked out of the side of the mountains. As it was a rest day, we left the bags at the campground and took the shuttle bus to the top with our bikes. We rode down the East side, turned around, rode back up to the top and then down the West side to the camp ground, stopping to walk around a lake on the way. We found the perfect sports recovery drink – a Huckleberry beer (of course). You didn’t think it was an actual rest day?

The next day we went for a hilly walk (hike in American) to loads of waterfalls. It was beautiful. On the third day we were tired, so we decided to do 2 shorter walks and a shorter bike ride. On the first walk we saw a grizzly bear and cub in the absolute best situation. We were at a safe distance, there were loads of people around and we could have outrun at least 75% of them. It was amazing. The cub gambolled around whilst mum sedately crossed the person-boardwalk. Glacier rocked.

Montana had more great scenery for us before we left, but no more showers. We camped at Dickie Lake, hung out with some other cool teachers and swum in the lake for our wash. The next day was hot, windy and very pretty alongside Koocanusa Lake. There wasn’t much drinking water or shade and it was hard keeping cool. We had an essential dip in the afternoon to de-sweat. A kind Canadian family saw our heat induced fatigue and gave us some ice pops.

Montana’s parting shot was our first puncture (‘flat’) of the US. After 4000 miles we weren’t too upset.

Thanks to: The friendly Utah family in West Yellowstone, the vendors of the Big Fork Farmers’ Market, Tim & Carrie, Rachel & Kurt, AnnaMarie & Tom, Mike the mechanic, Suzanne & Pam for introducing us to Skipbo.

Why, why, Wyoming (is it so windy)

Wyoming has a few claims to fame. It was the first state to allow women to vote; it is the least populated state; it is the home of the first designated National Park in the USA (Yellowstone); it has no pro sports teams; and it has the largest collection of American firearms in the country (museum in Cody). Quite a mixed bag. Yellowstone was on our radar; the gun museum was not. There’s a couple more things to add to the cyclists “highlights” list: it’s the home of the most persistent mosquitos yet, and it’s bloody windy.

It took us six days to ride to Grand Tetons National Park on the very Western edge of the state, and the landscape changed little across this time. It is rocky. It goes up and down a bit. There’s not much in the way of towns, people, even animals. Just rocks. It’s hot and there is no shade. But it is pretty cool. More vast, open spaces. The small towns look as you expect Western towns too – lots of wood buildings and hunting supplies.

Our first stop was Saratoga where there are some hot springs right next to a cold river, so it’s fun to go from the very hot to the very cold, although us British wimps couldn’t take either for very long. Day two was a short hop to Rawlins, the last town with shops for over 100 miles, where we hid from a huge storm in the city museum, camped in our first RV park and watched the EU referendum votes come in and the pound tumble in front of our eyes. Not a great evening.

From Rawlins it is 130 miles to Lander with only Jeffrey City (population 58) in between. As we were now on the Trans America bike route, the most popular way to cross the USA by bike, a lot of cyclists need to stop in Jeffrey City. The church has opened its doors to passing cyclists and the only bar in town fuels them up. For us riding West, the wind picked up 20 miles from ‘town’ and did its best to stop us getting there. It was so strong at times that it stopped us dead, and we were pedalling as hard as possible for 5mph. The last 10 miles took two hours and we collapsed into the bar in front of two pitchers of iced water and ordered an all day breakfast. All of the other cyclists in ‘town’ had been riding in the opposite direction so had arrived ages earlier, were showered and refreshed and regaling stories of being blown by the wind and not having to pedal for the last 20 miles. It was a bizarre scene in the bar: a row of men in cowboy hats who could probably be found there at the same time every day, and cyclists. It’s probably the only place in the West where cowboy hats sit so harmoniously alongside lycra.

We also realised in Jeffrey City why we were so tired. We had been getting up at 5-something and leaving before 7am for a while, and experiences with the afternoon wind picking up made us want to get going even earlier. There were 7 other cyclists staying at the church that night. The first went to bed at 6.30pm and by 7.45pm we were the only ones still up. The next morning we were the first people to leave. Anyone who knows either of us is aware that early starts are not our thing, but the weather is pushing us earlier and earlier. It hadn’t crossed our minds to go to bed early to compensate. Well it had, but early to me is 10pm. We left Jeffrey City to a headwind at 6am and vowed to get more sleep.

Small towns came and went, the wind kept blowing in our faces, and gradually we edged further towards Grand Tetons. The wind affected everything those last couple of days. It hits your mood, enjoyment, how far you get, whether you can enjoy the scenery or not, the skin on your lips… And the noise drives you crazy. Imagine standing right next to someone blow drying their hair. FOR THE WHOLE DAY. When it drops, it feels like you get your hearing back. In the morning, when the wind is not so bad, the mosquitos chase you down and find the small millimetre of skin that has been missed with bug spray. Favourite places: eyebrows, edge of t-shirt line, ankles, ears, temples. They even went through lycra. You end up being stuck with the choice of a headwind or mosquitos – it’s like choosing between drowning or being burned alive. Ok, not really, but it’s a tough choice. Our last big day to Dubois was the toughest yet, the wind blew for the whole uphill ride and we just had to put our heads down and work against it as hard as possible. The scenery was great but it was hard to enjoy it. Worn down and worn out we took a day off to rest in Dubois – it’s the most isolated town in the lower USA (80 miles in any direction to the next town) so it was the perfect day to do nothing except watch England get knocked out of the Euros.

From Dubois we would be in grizzly bear country, and the warnings increased as we got closer to the Tetons. It’s a bit unnerving to be on a bike and hear that a grizzly likes hanging out at the top of the pass that you will be pedalling over very slowly. But we didn’t see him. Or any of his friends. Which was nice. The Teton range welcomed us for the ride down to the park and we found a great campsite by Jackson Lake to stay for a few days, which turned into a week. We are lucky to be on the kind of trip where if we find somewhere nice, and wake up wanting to stay an extra day, we can do that. Six times in a row if we like. This was the nicest place we had been so far and we spent the week sleeping, swimming in the lake, sleeping, eating down our food supplies, sleeping, and sitting. A great way to recover from the six days fighting the wind.

We were also lucky that some friends we had met back in Colorado were also in the Tetons, and offered to drive us around for a couple of days to see some different sights. Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are very much set up for the car driver – there’s no public transport or shuttle buses so if you don’t have a car you have no way of getting around. Justin and Shauna and the Tacoma drove us to a hike to a glacial lake with a 3000ft elevation gain, and the following day we got to explore Yellowstone by car, visiting places we wouldn’t have been able to see by bike. Yellowstone National Park is famous for geothermal activity and geysers but there is also an impressive canyon and huge waterfalls, and loads of bison that just hang out by the road.

July 4th was spent doing very little – no fireworks in the national park but we did join our American neighbours for s’mores by the fire. Finally we left the Tetons and rode through Yellowstone, fighting narrow roads and holidaymakers with their large vehicles. Americans love to tow. The most impressive (or frightening) we saw was a truck towing a trailer (caravan to the Brits) towing a boat. Maybe they left their motorbike at home. The Montana state line is just inside the park so for once we had a subdued welcome to a new state. Goodbye Wyoming, it’s been (mostly) a pleasure!

Thanks to Karim and Darcy; Lindsey; John & Julie; the church folk of Jeffrey City and Dubois; Justin, Shauna and the Tacoma (again); and all our campsite buddies in the Tetons.

Colorado turns epic

Epic: (inf) Particularly remarkable or impressive.
On our first day in mountainous Colorado a thunderstorm trapped us at the garden of the gods visitor centre. As we sat watching the rain hit the giant rocks a couple starting chatting to us about our upcoming route. We said we would be going on Trail Ridge Road. “Epic” she said. “You’ll be counting down every quarter mile but it’s epic.” On our rafting trip our guide was excellent, enthusiastic and knew a lot more stuff about epic things in Colorado. Up until now the scenery of our ride had probably been more of the long poem or book type of epic. Now it was big and in your face epic; mountains, snow, fast rivers, canyons, lakes. 

A few days rest at 8400ft probably helped us adjust to the altitude, but our first day back riding was a real toughie. Stubbornly, we wanted to go back to the exact place we had been picked up from on the edge of Denver so we had an unbroken line of cycling. The real downside was that this was in almost the opposite direction to where we needed to go. We went back anyway and had a brutally hot afternoon on the c470 bike route. Handily we had some homemade birthday cake to cheer things up (thanks Lesli) and later met a cyclist who offered us a bed for the night and recommended a beer garden. As it was my birthday, we decided to stop after 50 miles in Golden. We read some historic information, had a leg ice bath in the very cold river and tried out the local brews. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better we had a scenic drive (in a car – and not just any car…) and Chinese food. An epic birthday.

We had stopped before the big climb – the next morning was a real beast. Golden Gate Canyon went up and up, with some of the steepest grades in the west. It was very scenic and we took plenty of stops to enjoy the views. They got even better when we finally reached the top and joined the ‘Peak to Peak Highway.’ Clue in the name, things didn’t get flat anytime soon. It was beautiful riding, forests, snowy mountains, icy streams. We had a fabulous descent into Estes Park the following day but found it hard to really enjoy losing so much height knowing that our next day riding would take us over 12000ft. 

Estes Park was a fun place to have a (tourist watching/ice cream eating) rest day. It was great to see some areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that we wouldn’t see on our ride through it, including an extremely cold dip in a waterfall that was probably snow about two minutes previously. Thanks to our host Annie for taking us on a tour.

Yep that was the road we came up… looking down from about halfway up the climb

We made an early start for the big climb. Trail Ridge Road goes right through Rocky Mountain NP, and is the highest paved road in the lower 48 states. We left early and took our time over the climb, enjoying the views and plenty of snacks. It was a steady grade, the hardest thing was the Fathers’ Day traffic squeezing past us. We didn’t appreciate the fake summit and little descent before the true top. The last few hundred feet of ascent made us a little light headed and we were excited to find a sofa with a view for our lunch stop at the visitor centre. 

The descent really was epic this time. Twisty but not too tricky, lots of snow and stunning scenery. Tired, the next day we did half a day riding, and spent the afternoon playing in Granby Lake at an awesome campground. I’m sure you were expecting this, but being epic Colorado the sun set beautifully over the water. 

One more big pass got us well on the way to Wyoming. We crossed the Continental Divide for the second time and watched the landscape change back to rolling plains as we rode to Walden, our last Colorado town. Our time in Colorado had come full circle as we were back to empty vistas and camping in a small town park. Walden was right out of the Wild West, though had an excellent public library. It also had something bigger, better, more epic. The mosquitos were in clouds, persistently seeking thinner areas of clothing to bite through. Just like the Spanish computer game, if the mosquitos didn’t get you, the sprinklers probably would – the park had an extensive network. 
Colorado bade us farewell the next morning with another steadily graded climb. An epic fortnight. 

Thanks to Sue and Lesli (again), Justin, Shauna and the Tacoma, Rick and Ryan in Nederland, Annie, and Connor and Maggie.

Riding and reading

You sometimes find things where you are least expecting to. In the last few weeks we have been in many small out-of-the-way towns, just big enough for a gas station, grocery store, town park and maybe a school. Most of these have something else in common. They have amazing public libraries. Differing ages and sizes of buildings, but all well-presented, with local information, water fountains, wifi, toilets. A cyclists’ haven on a hot day. Even better and more importantly than that the libraries seem to be well-used by people other than sweaty cyclists reading short stories and Wyoming geography books. There are extended opening hours so people can go in the evening after work or school. There are displays of work and pictures by local school children. At the moment it is school holidays here, and all of the libraries offer extensive summer reading programmes. It has been great to see kids racing to the library on their bikes and going in to join in story time and other activities.

I hope I will never be too old for story time. It is lovely to listen to a story being read. After a day of cycling we nearly always have story time in the tent before sleep. Sometimes we read together, sometimes one person reads aloud. This is the best, as when it is your turn to be the listener you can shut your eyes. (Our eyes often want to shut at the moment, but we try to keep them open when cycling). Shorter stories work best, as it can take us a long time to finish a full-length novel reading for only a few minutes a night. We have only just finished JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which we started just west of St Louis, Missouri. A rainstorm helped us out as we spent over an hour in a wildlife shelter without a creature in sight the other day. It is an excellent read for more grown up readers not on a cycle trip.

A bonus of reading together is that we can chat about the books during the day when we’re cycling. Book clubs seem to be very popular in North America so that people can do just that. A group of friends get together, choose a book, go away and read it, then meet again for an evening to discuss it. We were lucky enough to attend a friend’s book club evening in Ontario. We hadn’t read the book but had a fab time (and not just because of the lovely cheese).

Anyway, the point of this post is to suggest that we all make a bit more time for reading books. I have been caught up reading (political) news from home and recent events have made me feel sad. We try to make sure there’s time for a short section of story at the end of every day to enjoy and get ready for sleep, sometimes fiction, sometimes a true story.

In this post you can find our top recommendations, (some of them are even free). I’ll try to update these as we read more.

It would also be great to hear your suggestions for our next reads. For our younger blog followers there’s a summer reading challenge. (There are plenty of rainy days in the UK for you to find some time).