So who’s bored with COVID-19?
COVID-19 is ever present and ever important but is also getting really really dull! In the first week of Level 4 lockdown I was constantly listening to the radio updates, by week 2 I was definitely in for the 1pm Ardern & Bloomfield Show but not quite as fixated, during week 3 sometime I started forgetting to check the daily case load and death updates, and now in week 4 I would rather go for a bike ride (though I would also rather go for a bike ride on a different route than the two I have locally available). In the interests of thinking about things other than the pandemic, follow on for a semi-relevant cycle touring episode.
Chris had kidney stones and they weren’t doing anything for his temperament. So I decided that it would be more fun to take four weeks to cycle 3000km from Banff, British Colombia to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. The trip ended up being in the class of Type 2 fun; that’s the sort of fun that you look back on and say “Wasn’t that a great trip?”. For clarification purposes, Type 3 fun is not actually fun at all, ever. For the first two weeks of cycling, temperatures were in the mid 30 deg C range and the sky was permanently clouded over with smoke from forest fires. It was a particularly bad autumn for forest fires; significant forest areas in British Columbia were closed just after I passed through and the fires chased me through Montana. In central Montana I found myself camping close to people at a campground so that I could beg to drive away with them in their car – the fires at that point were only 3 miles away and all the houses were poised to evacuate at short notice.
After two weeks of fires and heat, there was a massive change in the weather as I crossed a corner of Idaho and it started to snow. This picture was taken of me just before I soaked my iPhone in my swimming pool of a pocket and murdered it. For the rest of the ride it snowed every 2 or 3 days and was cold and grey in between for much of the time. The worst thing about the snow was that it made everything wet and turned a lot of the soil to mud. By the time I made it to the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming, it seemed like the whole landscape had turned to mud.
The Great Divide Basin is a very strange part of Wyoming out of which there is no drainage; it is high prairies where the rivers run inwards and nowhere, because it mostly doesn’t rain. The normal challenge cyclists face there is wind and heat, because it is 70km between water resupplies. Wind and heat were not part of my problem, however the lack of resupply was an issue as it meant I didn’t have spare water to wash anything down, particularly my bike.
A day came that was fit to challenge a saint, or a hardened bikepacker. 70km which comprised mostly yellow mud. Yellow mud was a change from the red mud of the previous day, but not in a particularly good way. I slipped and slithered along. Cycling was not even a remote possibility, walking was barely possible. My bike wheels would clog up until they refused to rotate from weight and the breadth of mud jamming in the forks. I would apply my spoon, move forward a little and then repeat the process. I was reduced to stopping every 100m or so to scrape mud off my tyres . I tried pushing my bike in the sage brush to the edge of the 4WD road, but the sage brush bushes were spread so far apart that it made very little difference. I am not prone to quitting on anything, but if a vehicle had come along I would have asked for a ride. However, there was not a vehicle, or person, in sight.
In the middle of the afternoon the clouds started massing overhead, forecasting a thunderstorm. Great, just great. I am out in the middle of nowhere on my own pushing a mud clogged bike which is the only metal conductor around, and now there is going to be thunder and lightning. I continued pushing until the wind, sleet and lightning signalled it was absolutely time for a retreat, then I hurried to put up my tent. My day then deteriorated further as I discovered that my light and spacious Hilleberg, with top ratings on all the review websites, had (for the second time in its life) acquired a porous floor. Anything on the floor was going to get wet. I balanced my sleeping bag and clothes on top of my mat to keep them away from the floor and cooked a pasta dinner in the vestibule, looking out gloomily at the sleet and rain. Then I settled down to sleep in close alignment with my mat.
I woke at 6am and could barely believe my luck. The sun was rising in a clear sky and everything was frozen solid because it was -6 deg C. This was great, my spirits soared, I would be able to cycle across the frozen mud and escape the Great Divide Basin. It was a grand plan, foiled only by my lack of attention to detail the previous evening. The picture above shows my campsite and bike. The site looks a lot less dire than my description and I was quite annoyed when I took it how reasonable everything appeared. The point to note, however, is that my bike is covered with mud.
The one piece of bike maintenance I had been religiously undertaking, every single other evening, was cleaning my chain before going to bed. The bad weather had made me pretty loathe to venture out so I gave myself a break. Bad move! -6 deg C meant that my bike was covered with frozen mud, with the chain completely encased and frozen solid to lots of other parts of the structure. I didn’t dare use my precious water, so I chipped away with my pocket knife, for the next 4 hours. The sun rose and my bike gradually thawed, as did all the mud around me. So, by the time my bike was free, it was back to limping through the mud for me.
I ended up taking a shortcut (only 30km instead of 70km) out of the Great Divide Basin to the highway because another whole day of mud was more than I could bear in concept or actuality. This involved a few kilometres where I couldn’t push my bike through the mud, or even carry it loaded, because the mud made it too heavy. So I took all the bags off, carried them separately, walked back and picked up the bike, carried it to the bags…I progressed about 1km/hr through that section!
However, all’s well that ends well – the end of this long shortcut led me to Jeffrey City, population approximately 58 and home of the Monk King Bird Pottery. Byron is a vodka-swigging alcoholic who likes cyclists, and won the ‘Cookie Lady Cyclist Hospitality Prize’ in 2017 (I kid you not). This resulted in him having several hundred cookies and he gave me four different types to try, as well as offering me a semi-renovated bus in which to spend the night. I ended up having dinner with Byron and some other interesting Jeffrey City inhabitants (who mostly seemed to be men), as they watched a hungry cycle tourist eat the biggest meal available in the Split Rock Cafe – two large pork chops, a bowl of coleslaw and a double helping of fries (I did struggle through those last few fries).
There is some sort of moral in my story – if you struggle through the mud, you will emerge at an alcoholic’s pottery and get to eat lots of cookies. I am trying to imagine the prize awaiting us at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic – it had better be a pretty damn fine cookie!