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Cycling the US - A series in 5 parts about a trip from Boston to San Francisco

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Cycling USA: The White Giant

Travelling across America on bike: from the hot, dusty plains of South Dakota to the snow-covered mountain region of Wyoming. On the Indian shortcuts off the American tourist routes you will come across tracks of buffalo and mountain sheep. We would have gladly done away with the invasion of locusts though!

Pass over the Bighorn-Mountains in the USA
Picture by T. Micke

"Rocky Mountains", sounds so harmless, hilly even. When you mention the "Rocky Mountains" you think to yourself: If the Americans had proper mountains, then they would say so and call them proper. We in Austria, for example, have the Gro▀glockner. A proper mountain. I had told myself that since the time back home when I traced my finger over this chain of hills to California using a ruler, and since then simply named them the easy-going "Rockys". Unfortunately, they happened to now be looming on the horizon, authoritatively and not particularly easy-going. Snow lay on their peaks, which we were unfortunately clearly able to recognise without binoculars.

What blocked our view of California was, according to the map, an unnamed prequel to to the "Rockys" in the chain of "Bighorn-Mountains", whose highest peak lies at 4130 metres, the height of the pass at 2986 metres. Our "White Journey" could to all intents and purposes be compared to Austrias largest mountain, the Gro▀glockner.

Over the next five hours we exerted all of the energy that we had left after the previous weeks, and used every single one of the 21 gears. We came to a level-headed conclusion: on the lowest gear the cumbersome wheels were easier to ride than to push. It is also no big deal to claim that we covered all of the around 2000 metres of the climb from the valley to the pass in the saddle.

At the top there was evidence of much construction to come. The road is to be widened and was more like a bumpy desert slope than a roadway. Moreover, it was impossible to find frost-free accommodation for the night in these surroundings (we had a festive snowball-fight at the highest point of our journey).

The next town was called Lovell and was another 70 kilometres or so away. If the next fortunate incident not occurred, we would probably never have arrived there on that day: On the last slope up to the 3000 metre high pass, a four-by-four suddenly braked sharply next to me.

Occupants: Five young summer job construction workers on the way home to Lovell. "Do you by any chance need somewhere to stay for the night?" cried the driver from an open window. I couldn't manage more than a nod of the head and a harried smile. One of the passengers passed me a sheet with an address out of the moving vehicle and the five of them roared off.

The prospect of seeing our own unshaven, exhausted faces at the end of the day sped us up enormously. Three hours later at 80 km/h, with around 2000 metres of climb behind us, having almost knocked down two rare "Big Horn" sheep and in the end having been "plunged" into a downpour, we reached Lovell after another 174 kilometres. They welcomed us like old friends...

174 kilometres and a 4000 metre climb – this day became the crowning leg of our trip. Sometimes we had agonised over much shorter distances, unforgettably on the day when we had stopped after 76 kilometres (a section of 100 km had been planned), because I had actually fallen momentarily asleep three times (whilst on the bike!) and in doing so almost hit an HGV.

A very different ordeal lurked in the town of Wyoming: in sections the streets were littered with thousands of grasshoppers. Even with the animal-loving habit of cycling around caterpillars and beetles, there was no escape there: mouth closed, collar up, eyes on the horizon and keep going! Even today I cannot eat popcorn because of the similarity of the horrid noise it makesů

"All of this is our country!" explained "Little Buffalo" shakily and with cantilevered movements. "Our fathers and forefathers were born here. White man killed them, took the survivors prisoner and locked them up in enclosures."

"Little Buffalo" had stumbled with a Whisky banner out of a bar on the edge of an Indian reserve in Idaho, when we wanted to escape the 40 degrees of the midday heat in the shade of the building. And at first what he said sounded to us like a monologue out of a Western.

"Little Buffalo" told us of the unsubstantial life in the reserve and of his friends who had trekked to the white town and thus in his eyes had sold their Indian identity. His tribe had as good as died out. The tragic fate of a whole people sat there next to us with reddened eyes and a heavy tongue, and we found not a single word of consolation.

For this the Indian discovered in us bikers like-minded people, who had learnt to evaluate the beauty of America "with the eyes of animals", and merrily full of wine he gave me a quarter as a keepsake that had fallen out of his boot as he scratched his heel during our chat.

Somehow "Little Buffalo" left behind a striking strong impression on us. When I close my eyes I can still see his sad eyes before me.

< Read part 5 of this series: San Francisco and the fine lady in the mist

© A report by Tobias Micke (02-10-96) – Contact