Day 8: Squirrel Creek Ranch and Over Union Pass

Day 8 came early as Robert, Ryan and I shuffled around our cabin sometime around 4 a.m.. There was almost a comical amount of grunting, groaning and coughing going on as we tried to get our things together for another day on the bike. Nate shared the cabin with us as well, but he was smart and rolled over for a bit more sleep. Ryan and I walked back up to the restaurant/bar where there was to be coffee. The drunk man from the night before was still there, drinking coffee, and only slightly less intoxicated. We got our coffee and actively ignored him as we headed back outside.

I grabbed my bike and headed off on the paved road. Again, I began my morning routine of sitting, standing, gritting my teeth, and loosening up my knees for about the first hour. As always, I was finally able to settle in and enjoy the beautiful sunrise in the Targhee National Forest, riding and eating pop tarts. I had around 30 miles of beautiful, bear dense roads to get to Flagg Ranch, Wyoming, for what I hoped would be a real breakfast.

The morning was cool, almost cold, and the sun sent beams of light between the evergreens. You could see every particle of dust and mist in the rays and it almost made looking ahead hazy. In the haze I saw a big dog…wait no…is that a bear? Yep that’s a bear. That’s a big guy. I put on the brakes and came to a stop. About 40-50 yards away on the road was a big burly black bear. The other bears I had seen were just scrawny little pipsqueaks, but this guy was the real deal. An absolute unit of muscle and paws.

“Hey Bear!” I shouted. It turned its head slowly, took a couple of sniffs, and sauntered slowly back into the woods. I took my hands off the bear spray and rode by shouting loudly. I felt relieved and also more confident that these bears wanted nothing to do with people. A little shout was enough to get even the big ones to move out of the way. Yellowstone wasn’t too far away and I knew I was in the thick of them. A few minutes later, some fisherman drove past without stopping and said, “I hope you have bear spray, we got grizzlies up here!”

Despite the ominous warning from the fishermen, I really didn’t feel any fear. If a bear was going to attack me, it would have to do so with me singing along to bluegrass music, eating pop tarts, and riding my bike in the sunshine. I guess I didn’t think a bear would be so rude as to interrupt that. Maybe it was a false sense of security, but bears must not be Greensky Bluegrass fans, because there were no more run-ins.

As I rode through the forest, I began to see more and more campers and then I spotted the glorious sign for “The Headwaters at Flagg Ranch”. I had made it to Wyoming and breakfast was near. Yes!

I rolled into Flagg Ranch riding around cabins and trying to locate the Restaurant and Convenience store. I was surprised at how big of an operation the whole thing was. I expected a singular cabin. There were 20 or 30 cabins with a huge main cabin with a nice restaurant and convenience store. It was a luxurious home base for Yellowstone visitors. My only thought was I hope they have French Toast.

I walked into the store section and picked up all the on the bike foods I would need for a full day of riding. On my way out, Ryan and Robert assured me that the restaurant served a breakfast buffet–With French Toast.

“Table for one, please.”

The morning riding had been beautiful, but apparently I thought this was better, because this is the only picture from that morning…

I left Flagg Ranch as satisfied as I’d been the whole race.

I rode the paved and heavily trafficked John D. Rockefeller Memorial Highway. It was busy with tourists in camper vans and roadside pull-offs for pictures. Yellowstone was on one side and the Grand Tetons to the other.

I remember feeling a bit sorry that these roadside pulloffs might be the extent of what many people see of these incredible areas. There was so much more out there, and I felt really thankful for the ability to ride through the remote and rugged parts.

It was odd that between the traffic, the tourists, and the designated roadside pull-offs for picture taking, I felt an even greater appreciation for the remote wilderness. I was eager to get back in it.

When I was in remote and lonely areas, I would often long for the next town and hot meal. Then, when I was there, I just wanted back into the remote and the lonely. I felt bad for always wanting to be somewhere else. I recall scolding myself to be in the present and enjoy each moment.

Finally, the paved road turned onto gravel again, and my focus turned to picking the best line on the road, instead. I rode into the afternoon and up some steep climbs for about another 40 miles until the road rejoined the pavement at the Togwotee Mountain Lodge. I saw Ryan and Robert at the restaurant, but decided I would push past them. They always rode faster, so I knew they’d catch up. I chugged a Mountain Dew at the gas station nearby, instead. I was excited to try and see how far up Togwotee Pass I could get before they caught up. Feeling like a racer again, I pushed hard up the paved Togwotee Pass Highway and reached the top quickly. It looked to be a huge, paved descent ahead, and I began flying down. But then I saw a dirt road off to the left and became quite skeptical. Sure enough, my GPS showed I was off route. I was stupid to think the descent wouldn’t be that easy.

I backtracked a few hundred yards uphill and turned onto Brooks Lake road. It was a dirt road and it still had patches of snow and mud. Instead of going 35mph downhill on the paved road, I was hiking over snow patches, riding a bit of dirt, and getting off to hike through more. You could see on the GPS that this road less travelled eventually came out on the same highway. It was just a long slow detour–for fun.

Ryan caught up as I was pushing through a bit of snow and we pushed and rode together for a bit until we started the beautiful descent down Brooks Lake Road. I didn’t stop to take a picture, but I started to realize why the route would take this detour. The view and fun downhill were truly worth the effort.

Ryan and I flew down the descent and rolled into Lava Mountain Lodge where I ate pizza and Ryan ordered some soup. We both drank fountain sodas at alarming rate. The waiter just told us to help ourself to refill them. Rob Goldie rolled in and sat down next to us, too. We all had our notes scattered about and discussing Union Pass that was looming next on the route. We knew it was a big one and we knew we’d be taking it in the dark. We also knew if we took it at night we could put a good distance between ourselves and the other riders behind us, since they would most likely stop for the night at the lodge. I felt a burn of excitement because it felt like a strategic mission. It was a race and we were all about to make moves.

I wrapped half of my pizza in tin foil, put it in my frame bag and took off before Ryan and Robert. I knew they’d eventually catch up. It was somewhere around 7 p.m. when I started up a smooth gravel climb that signaled the beginning of Union Pass. It was a nice, quiet evening of riding. I was feeling strong.

Somewhere near the top, Ryan caught up and we descended down.

Mentally, I was relieved at how easy the pass was. Until the road turned upward. Way upward. I went back to the fearful respect I had earlier. In reality, that climb and descent I had done was just a little warm up for the real Union Pass.

Ryan and I rode and pushed our bikes up some ridiculously steep and rocky inclines, second only to “The Wall” back in Canada. It was slow going for a couple of hours. The darkness began to set in as we got towards the “top” of the pass.

Robert caught up to us at this point.

Out of breath, slightly terrified, and in a thick English accent he said, “Did you guys know there are lots of Grizzlies around? Some lady stopped me and said this is no laughing matter! I think it’s best we stick together.”

For some reason, what Robert said made me laugh. His warnings were true and it shouldn’t have been funny, but that’s just how my exhausted brain reacted. I did agree with him, however, and I think Ryan did, too.

The terrain flattened out and we rode the top of the pass as the last bit of twilight faded into total darkness. We were at over 10,000′ elevation and it was getting cold. Really cold. We though we’d be descending soon, but the top of Union Pass seemed to roll on forever. After an hour or so we finally began to descend. It was muddy at times with huge puddles of water covering the road. We tried to ride through each pond sized puddle, but eventually, we all had an unplanned dismount that submerged our feet in the freezing cold water.

The temperatures were approaching freezing, our feet were soaked, it was pitch black except for our bike lights, and we were in a Grizzly infested woods with no known shelter for over 50 miles. We also had more descending to do. It would be hours of more riding in these conditions. Things were getting real.

We stopped to eat a snack and put on all of our layers. Looking at our notes, we decided that there was a restaurant/bar about 25 miles away. It would be after midnight by the time we got there, but maybe they would be open late since it was a Friday. If it wasn’t, at least we could lay our bivies against the building to provide a little shelter from the cold air.

We rode hard for over an hour which kept my core temperature up, but my feet we absolutely frozen. So were Rob’s and so were Ryan’s. I don’t remember why, but around midnight we stopped for a few seconds to regroup. There was a light off in the distance. Ryan was pretty sure it was the restaurant/bar we were talking about. We decided we had to find some sort of shelter and this might well be our only hope. We chased the light for close to an hour, until finally we made it to the source. It was a lodge with a bar, but it was a closed lodge with a closed bar. Robert knocked on the door and actually walked inside the dark, unlocked foyer. No one was there. We straddled our bikes and looked at each other in ultimate disappointment. At the bottom of the Lodge’s gravel driveway was the edge of the National Forest. It had a picnic area. It had two pit toilets. We accepted that this was our reality.

We slowly rode back down to them as we came to terms with sleeping in another toilet. We were all too wet and the weather was easily at or below freezing. The decision to not sleep outside was easy. Robert and I shared one pit toilet and Ryan took the other. Ryan was going to get up much earlier so we gave him the private accommodations.

It was around 2 a.m., and Rob and I planned to sleep for four hours. My bivy was laid out with the foot of it just inches from the toilet. Rob laid his bivy next to me with his head at my feet and my head at his. It was interesting to say the least. Two grown men from different countries, who barely knew each other, sharing the floor of a National Forest pit toilet, trying to ward off hypothermia.

…When’s the last time you tried something new?

Rob dozed off shivering and snoring. It sounded like an animal growling every time he exhaled. I curled up in the fetal position and fell asleep, too, awakened multiple times by Rob’s growling shivers. At least I was warm under my quilt.

This was certainly not your local charity Gran Fondo. The Tour Divide was upping its ridiculousness level to new standards, but we were doing literally whatever it took to keep pushing forward, freezing temps and pit toilets be damned.

Day 8: 158 miles and 10,200′ elevation gain. Nearly 21 hours of riding.

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