by Heather J. Rose
How do you write a short post about a 1500 mile journey that took place almost two years ago? Looking through old photos and focusing on one or two moments that capture the essence of solo travel was key. In summer of 2018 I was fortunate to be one of the early pioneers of the Wild West Route (WWR) developed by Bikepacking Roots. I rode the northern half of the route from Eureka, MT to Park City, UT (segments 1-5); I rode with the first portion friends and segments 4 & 5 alone. Experiencing the beauty of a new place, and especially the shared experience of communing in camp with friends, is always rewarding; however, I have also done a lot of solo bikepacking and thrive in this environment.
The section of the WWR from Hailey, ID to Park City, UT is in many ways a transition between the northern mountains of Montana and Idaho and the Wasatch Range of Utah. Pedaling away from Hailey, alone for the first time in two weeks, everything shifted. Not only was I transitioning to the flow of solo travel, but the landscape shifted immediately to open plains and chaparral -- suddenly I had to be acutely aware of my water levels and resupply points. Additionally, I had to give the hot mid-day sun the proper respect and shift my riding patterns accordingly as I spent the next several days riding across the exposed Snake River Plain of southern Idaho.
It occurs to me that I am recalling the challenges and pleasures of the WWR during a time of transition for all of us. We are all trying to adapt to being quarantined in our homes (for those fortunate enough to have a home), and local communities, as the Covid-19 virus ravages the world and we do our part in reducing its spread. We are transitioning between what our world looked like before the Covid-19 outbreak and what it may look like after, with many of us hoping that we can leverage this tragedy into a more kind and just world. Personally, I had to cut a bikepacking trip in Oceana short to get home before international flights were reduced to nonexistent and more borders closed. What started out as a transition between a fulltime career and some yet to be discovered version of my life has now transitioned into an exploration of stasis. Transitions abound.
Long bike rides, such as the Wild West Route, are tools by which we learn more about ourselves. Riding the long, often hot, and exposed sections of the route between Hailey and Park City will help you explore your personal boundaries. How close are you willing to cut your water supply to save a few pounds? Are you willing to gamble on the unconfirmed stream on the map? Are you willing to set up your tent in an exposed location miles from anywhere with no hiding from the sun, wind, nor a passing pickup truck? Or do you hold out for a campground with the security of others, hopefully a family, nearby? These are all questions you have to ask yourself in this transitional zone of the WWR, especially as a female traveling solo. During these segments of the WWR (4 and 5) resources are much scarcer with water and towns farther apart. Often during the long summer days, I would start pedaling extremely early to beat the heat, carrying four or more liters of water and make large pushes from town to town because I did not relish the thought of spending the afternoon sitting in my tent in the middle of a field of chaparral with no shade.
For example, from Arco, ID to Blackfoot, ID you are riding through open country on remote dirt roads in the Snake River Plain with only the Big Southern Butte off in the distance for company (with an optional side trip to the top of the butte!). While the 63 miles between these towns may not be a huge distance to cover in one day, with temperatures regularly pushing well into the 90s that week in July, the section was intimidating. I was pedaling away from the KOA in Arco by sunrise and made it to a hotel in Blackfoot by early afternoon. Inside with AC was the only chance for respite from the punishing sun; however, in cooler weather camping alone on the plain with the Big Southern Butte in the distance and coyotes singing that high lonesome song would be an exquisite treat.
Leaving Blackfoot the next day I planned to camp at one of the designated campsites in my route notes, but they came too early in the day to stop, so I pushed on, planning to camp on one of the patches of BLM land ahead. However, as morning turned to afternoon, and afternoon to early evening, all patches of public land were heavily trampled by cows and covered in cow pies. Let’s just say I’ve had a bad experience with setting up my tent in a location that cows claimed as their own and none of these sites were calling my name; instead I pushed through the endless rollers and wind, finishing a 90 mile day in Soda Springs, ID just before the last restaurant closed. For the duration of the trip I only spent three nights in a hotel and two of the three were in this more exposed transitional zone to get respite from the heat.
After Soda Springs the route climbs into the Preuss Mountains. After passing through a huge mining area and being chased down the backside of the mountain by a sheepdog I started to look for water and a place to rest my head for the night. After cresting several more ridgelines with nothing but cows and dry chaparral I found nirvana! A sudden, and inexplicable, piece of alpine heaven surrounded by dry grazing land on all sides! I set up my tent next to Preuss Creek, surrounded by protective brush (safety from the eyes of folks passing by), pine trees, and a log to sit on – everything I could ever ask for in a campsite! As I headed toward Bear Lake the following day I skirted along the edge of the high plains of Wyoming, with views forever and a sky so big that Montana may have to give up its motto. At the gas station in Laketown I bought what were possibly the most expensive bag of instant mashed potatoes in existence and headed over to the state park campground for the night, but unfortunately the campground was full! This is where being a solo traveler comes in handy; there is always space for you. I started cruising the group sites for a friendly face and some open space; it didn’t take me long to spot the right bearded man with an open smile. This man turned out to be a fellow dirt bag down from Alaska and he was camping with his extended Mormon family for a reunion. He told me to go ahead and set up my tent in the back corner and he would go explain to his father. The family welcomed me to their huge dinner and that night this vegetarian ate the best sloppy joes of her life! While being a solo female traveler does introduce some risk, or at least perceptions of increased risk, the payoff is that people are incredibly open, kind, and protective of you on the road.
Coming off four months of solo international bike touring and being locked into one (relatively) urban place for an unknown number of months is quite the challenge of its own, but as someone who has trouble staying in one place I am trying to take advantage of this forced opportunity with daily Spanish and banjolele practice and, of course, fantasizing about where I will ride as soon as it is safe again. I don’t know about you, but I think the Orogenesis route tracing the western edge of North America, currently being developed by Bikepacking Roots, is calling my name. Let’s keep working together to protect our public lands so that we can continue to enjoy these explorations of self and place. Now please excuse me while I go tend to my sourdough starter!
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