Monday, September 19, 2011

Arco, Idaho

Friends: A fabulous Monday morning riding a high desert plain framed by the Tetons to the east and a trio of volcanic buttes to the west through the heart of Idaho. No wind and the flat has had me effortlessly gliding along at sixteen miles per hour.

Though it was only 49 degrees at eight a.m. when I broke camp from behind an FAA tower, ten degrees warmer than yesterday, I didn't need my tights or warm gloves as I did yesterday. Within an hour I shed my wind-breaker and vest and not much later traded my long sleeve Garmin jersey for the short sleeve version. I continue to wear them with great pride, especially after Christian Vande Velde's sterling performance at last month's week-long Colorado race finishing a close second to Levi Leiphimer besting five of the top ten finishers in this year's Tour de France, including the first three--Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers.

I began my day in the middle of a 67-mile townless stretch between Idaho Springs and Arco. With 50,000 people, Idaho Springs was the largest town by far I had passed through in a week since Grand Junction. It is on the Snake River. I was hoping it was enough of a metropolis for its library to be open on Sunday, but it wasn't. It was a fine recently built facility, replacing its Carnegie, a couple of blocks away along the railroad tracks, the only Carnegie I have come across in 750 miles. The old library is now part of a museum, the old brick building contrasting sharply with the glass-paneled addition.

The only dots of civilization between Arco and Idaho Springs were a few nuclear research operations. There are fifty nuclear reactors in the vicinity, the largest concentration in the world, though they are below ground and not to be seen.

Pedaling along, glorying in the vast, wide-open spaces minimally marred by man, I could rejoice in my bicycle once again for allowing me to be a man in the world while not being of it. Two comments from the Telluride Film Festival by noteworthy figures echoing such sentiments continue to resonate with me.

Tilda Swinton commented in her courthouse conversation that she is happiest when she is tending to her garden. The day before, Olivia Harrison, George Harrison's wife of thirty years, said the same was true of George. She said he was always delighted when someone came by their property in Hawaii and would mistake him as the gardener, asking if this was the home of the former Beatle. They affirm the wisdom of the sages that the quiet, simple life is the most satisfying. Lucky is the one who is not consumed by materialistic urges.

Though bike touring isn't gardening, it does allow one a similar closeness to the land, especially if one is wild-camping, and frees one of those acquisitive materialistic urges that corrupt and bankrupt the soul. Appreciating the landscape and the scent of the air and the direction of the wind dominate my thought, not wanting to possess any of them.

In years past after the Telluride Film Festival I have biked across southern Utah and Nevada on my way to visit friends in northern California following the Pony Express Trail. This year taking a more northerly route, I picked up the Oregon Trail for a couple of days in Kemmerer, Wyoming, where J.C. Penny was founded in 1902. The original store is still in business. Just a block away is the modest home of Mr. Penny, not much different from Andy Griffith's childhood home in North Carolina that my travels took me past last April. The traveler never knows what novelty of historical significance one might stumble upon.

After a couple days on the Oregon Trail I veered off on the Lander Cut-Off over the 7,610 foot high Salt River Pass established in 1857 heading north to Jackson and central Idaho. Tens of thousands of settlers took this alternative until the trans-continental railroad was completed in 1869.

Shortly after I departed the Oregon Trail in Geneva on the Idaho-Wyoming border I began seeing discarded bicycle water bottles along the road as if I were following the Tour de France, though the bottles were mostly of Utah bicycle shops rather than of teams. The husband-wife proprietors of a motel-general store along the way explained that 2,500 bicyclists had ridden this route the previous Saturday on the 29th annual one-day 208-mile ride from Logan, Utah to Jackson Hole, the same day as the 18.2 mile Imogene Pass run over the second highest road in North America to Telluride that I had stuck around to see.

Before I had reached the summit of the Salt River Pass I had collected over a dozen bottles and was at my capacity. Ten of the large size bottles fit neatly standing upright in the wire mesh handlebar basket I had found along the road several days ago as if in anticipation of this bounty. Yonder Vittles would surely applaud the site of this water bottle reserve sitting perched atop my sleeping bag and tent behind my seat, as if I were Ian Hibbel setting out for a crossing of the Sahara.

It is a fine collection from various Utah bike shops and assorted companies including a colorful Trek bottle with bands of pastel greens and top that perfectly matches my bike as well as a thermal bottle and a couple of bottles with pro-biking slogans. I've dispersed several of them already to cyclists I've met along the way. The rest I can donate to Free Cycles in Missoula, a bike co-op similar to Working Bikes in Chicago.

The proprietors of the general store warned me that after the pass I would descend into a valley populated by millionaires who had been driven out of Jackson by the new crop of billionaires. I was purposefully bypassing Jackson to avoid that blight of trophy houses, not knowing there was a new crop here. The run-in to Afton, with 2,000 residents the largest town along the stretch to Jackson, was a forest of for sale signs.

I spoke with a 64-year old cyclist from Salt Lake City, 230 miles away, who had a second home in the area. He said property values had plummeted in the past couple of years. It used to be you couldn't buy a piece of property in the vicinity for less than $700,000. Now you can find things for $200,000. He said he was all set to retire, but his half million dollar home in Salt Lake was only worth $300,00 now, so he was going to work for another year or two.

"At least I have a good job," he said. "I'd like to take a long tour on my bike like you're doing, but my wife won't let me. The best I can do is go out for an afternoon ride."

Later, George

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