American Bike Project: Into the Rocky Mountains
National Geographic Travel photographer Tyler Metcalfe recently quit his job and sold off his possessions to embark on an epic solo adventure of cross-country cycling that has dealt him many ups and downs.
I am in the top floor of a café in small town Dubois, Wyoming, and a forest fire rages outside. The sky is a hazy red, blanketing the town with an ominous feel, and lines of fire trucks roll through the town’s main road, cycling in new firefighters all day long to continue the exhausting fight. In the distance, helicopters float through the air, dumping water onto burn areas. I feel a bit of nervous excitement, for tomorrow we had planned on biking past the edge of those flames. It seems as if I have hopped from the boiling pot and into the fire.
In this case, the boiling pot was Oklahoma, where I spent 50 long days recovering from an accident earlier in my cross-country bike trip. Not only was Oklahoma literally hot (the humidity in the region often sends the heat index into the low 100s), but it was also a frustratingly stagnant situation that I wanted out of immediately. I was injured, unable to bike, and anxious to continue my journey across America. Before the wreck, I had experienced 34 days of complete freedom on my bike, but was now stuck hobbling around my parents’ house as I slowly recovered.
In time, I found myself making plans to get back on the TransAmerica bike route, and as I took action to get back on route, my life went from zero to 100.
I met up with my friend Adam (who will be riding the rest of the TransAmerica route with me) in Colorado Springs, and on our first day of riding we climbed to nearly 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) in elevation. Much of Oklahoma sits at a meager 700 feet (213 meters) above sea level, and after 50 days of near inactivity, my body was feeling the effects of high altitude. A few days later we met a few friends at Colorado’s scenic Kite Lake Campground and spent three days camping at 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) and climbing a handful of 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) mountains. On our first summit day, I stood on top of Mount Democrat and took in the full 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape. I had done it. I was back on route, extremely grateful for the ability to continue a lifestyle of adventure.
Though this was a rather intense entry back into the world of bicycle touring, I still believe that this type of travel is accessible to anyone. On our third day of riding, while hiding from the midday heat in a small-town café, we met a couple in their 70s from New Zealand who were on their second bike tour across the U.S. Their first tour took them down the West Coast, through Washington, Oregon, and California, and now they were tackling the TransAmerica bike route from Yorktown, Virginia, to Astoria, Oregon. Though the couple was not planning on hiking any mountains during their tour, 4,228 miles (6,804 kilometers) of riding across the country is no small feat, and they were pedaling the entire thing. I was inspired. A few weeks later, we ran into a family of four (including two children) who were riding the Continental Divide trail. Each summer the family dedicates a few weeks to riding a new section of the trail, with the hopes of eventually having crossed every portion of the route. In a country where family RV trips are common during summer, it was eye-opening to see a family choose an alternate option for travel.
One reason bike touring can be so accessible is that one can pick and choose their type of adventure. In Colorado, for example, one bicycle tourist might choose to spend three days off the route climbing 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) mountains, while another might opt instead to dedicate time to exploring the city life in Breckenridge, Frisco, and Silverthorne. These three cities offer a wealth of low-cost lodging options in the summer (as this is the region’s off-season), restaurants, and outdoor recreation, and all three can be explored via a scenic bike path that connects the cities. We passed through the area in a single morning, but I could see that the possibilities here are far-reaching and offer cyclists a unique array of options. Bike touring doesn’t have to be an extreme means of travel—it can be a viable option for exploring a region at a slow pace.
After moving through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the route took us north and into the heart of Wyoming. Here, the landscape changed from rugged mountains and steep descents to rolling flatlands and endless roads. It was here that I felt the rhythm of bike touring come to life once again. Each morning we woke up early with the goal of biking as far as possible in order to reach our next major point of interest: Grand Teton National Park. However, we didn’t let this mind-set prevent us from taking in the local gems of the area, namely the small towns and the unfailingly interesting people who reside in them.
One such place happened to be Saratoga, Wyoming. Until embarking on this bike tour I had only vaguely heard about the place. At only 1,600 residents, the town is relatively small, but contains amenities such as a small airstrip, multiple hot springs, and a golf course. According to locals, Saratoga is a place where famous people come to escape. One local recounted a run-in with actor Johnny Depp at the city’s Mineral Hot Springs.
“At first, I didn’t know if it was him,” said the local. “After staring at him for a few minutes, Johnny looked straight at me, nodded, and mouthed the words ‘It’s me.’ I then watched him drop two cans of soup into a hot spring, wait for a few minutes, pull the cans out, and eat the soup.”
Though I was slightly skeptical about the local’s run-in with the actual Johnny Depp, he was right about one thing: The hot springs were unbearably hot. In the heat of the day, one pool’s temperature was over 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41.6 degrees Celsius). We still welcomed the opportunity to soak our sore muscles in the water for an hour.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The following day we continued to move north, and eventually we made our way to Dubois, Wyoming. Here we ran into a group of 29 young cyclists who were also riding across the country. Their mission? To build homes. They were participating in a group ride with Bike & Build, an organization that raises money to help build affordable housing in communities across America. Each group of riders stops in a city and spends a day assisting with building homes. They also work to raise awareness for their cause and spend time interacting with the communities. Our paths merged at a local church in Dubois, where 31 cyclists and four Continental Divide hikers crammed into the church’s community space for the night. We spent the evening eating together and sharing stories, and again I was inspired by a group of people using cross-country cycling for a unique cause.
The next morning we woke to find the town covered in smoke. A fire to the west of town (which was fittingly situated on a mountain called Lava Mountain) was growing and burning only a few miles from our route. I worried that we wouldn’t be able to bike through the area, and that we would either be stuck in small-town Wyoming indefinitely or have to take a long alternate route around the fire in order to get into Grand Teton National Park. I wasn’t eager to take such a detour, which would add nearly a hundred miles to our journey. After talking to a few locals, though, we learned that the highway out of town was still open and we would be able to bike through.
In the last few months I have learned that speculation and worry will only get you so far. While it is smart to weigh options and consider the possibilities when it comes to travel, I have found it helpful to let go of all concerns until I am forced to make a decision. This mind-set makes for a fluid, enjoyable travel experience that allows me to invest energy into problems only when they arise and not beforehand.
The next morning we continued our journey and biked past the fire without an issue. The first handful of miles was covered in haze, but we were a safe distance from the fire. We passed pillars of smoke burning in the distance, but by midday the fire was behind us. Ahead of us lay a long downhill ride into Grand Teton National Park, a green, welcoming paradise. We sped down the hill and spoke excitedly about the adventures to come.