The Real Moose Heaven: Bikepacking the GDMBR
Spencer Dillon and his riding partner Sam spent nearly two months pedaling from Canada to Mexico along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, slowly taking in the vast and diverse landscapes as miles ticked by. Read on for some thoughts about looking beyond the typical highlights and finding meaning in the empty spaces along the route…
Words and photos by Spencer Dillon
It surprised me that a Wagnerian opera wasn’t playing behind Sam and me that first day. As trite as it might sound, I wrestled with the grandiosity, the undertaking, the whatever. The first of our 56 days was just a day. It wasn’t a 24-hour celebration of the 2,750 miles and 35 Continental Divide crossings in front of us. It was just the first of many days spent riding bikes together. The smoke sealed us into the forest, shrinking our world from the jagged peaks around us to the trail in front of us. The fact that we were embarking on an adventure to complete a long-treasured dream hadn’t quite sunk in. Riding my good ol’ box truck of a bike, there was no operatic accompaniment to remind me that I was doing something of import. Just the crunch of dirt. It was too bad that all of our pictures turned out hazy.
The smoke didn’t begin to clear until we crossed the border into America (go figure), and we didn’t really get out of the haze until well into Wyoming, past the Tetons and Yellowstone. Oddly, this was also when we stopped seeing bumper-to-bumper Cruise America RVs and national parks. Barring Cora (pop. 1, post office), there isn’t much between Moran, WY (pop. 1, post office, school) and Pinedale, WY (pop. 1, pizza buffet screening COPS, hardware store/bike shop, grocery store).
The Wind River Range, our eastern guardrail down to Pinedale, holds 20 of the 21 tallest peaks in Wyoming, but no roads go far enough in to merit printing postcards of the car-window views. There was little to suggest the climbers’ paradise of soaring granite that lay behind the western flank. Sure, there was clearly some snow and rock up there, but hardly enough to convince Sam it was the alpine wonderland I had sold it as.
The sun had set on our hidden, distant peaks, and we lay in the tent, heads protruding, admiring the indigo sky. I kept my contacts in long after it faded to black. Our silence, hard-won since crossing US 191, dissolved with the alien scream of an elk. Maybe it was a funeral dirge for the hunter’s kill. The lake was still, save for a few floating birds – pool toys on the glass. The trees around us, bereft of foliage, huddled over our tent. The darkness grew, and a fat slice of moon hung off one of these wooden skeletons. The stars began to glow, and their luminescence wouldn’t be upstaged by this “moon” business. Strewn through the trees, they twinkled obtrusively. The smear of the Milky Way was painted on this childhood bedroom ceiling. Suns and distant galaxies overpowered the spindly trees above my head. No wind howled, no leaves rustled, no insects vibrated, and no birds peeped.
We lay in a long moment of observational stillness, of quietude, as the moon faintly reflected on the pond. The crisp air added to the feeling. Looking up at those points of light, I remembered, as I do once in a while, that I am a speck clinging to a pale blue dot hurtling through the darkness of space. When I recollect this, the projectile identity of the earth, I cling to the ground, and the sky becomes vividly three dimensional.
The ride into Pinedale was another day spent craning our necks in search of any of those 20 peaks. The Adventure Cycling Association maps we used for the Divide included a handful of helpful notes along the route, such as: “pass magnificent juniper on left,” “follow volcanic ramp to the sky,” and “watch for ostrich next two miles.” Encountering these tidbits, Sam reminded me of a mutual friend who had given us maps for a river trip in Ontario, full of annotations. There was a big island on the map, circled and underlined: “Moose Heaven!!” We both inspected the spot in question. It was an island overflowing with conifer, but no moose. Moose Heaven takes many forms, depending on how the ink is spilled on the map. Nowhere can become somewhere with a pen and a dollop of enthusiasm.
South of Pinedale, the Wind River Range slowly sinks into the hills, and the pine shrink into sage brush. From there to Rawlins is probably the driest, flattest, emptiest section of the Great Divide. It’s a yawning emptiness, only occasionally worth barbed wire and rarely worth “No Trespassing” signs. We had passed the Tetons, Banff National Park, the Massive Range, the Canadian Rockies, Glacier National Park, the Mission Range, the Swan Range and Hungry Hill (several times), but we hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. The big, scenic, famous terrain wouldn’t let us ride in peace. There was always something (and a few RVs).
We didn’t encounter any traffic on Big Sandy Elkhorn Road, southeast of Pinedale. Dusty hills don’t have the same magnetism as the Tetons, so there were fewer Cruise America self-propelled boxcars. It’s the kind of road that allows you to forget about the combustion engine for a brief moment, to hear nothing from man and only see the dirt around you, to let out the breath you have been holding. Riding abreast, spread across the road, we were briefly beyond the fear of traffic.
Among all this ruminating, we sat on a glacial erratic and ate knock-off Oreos. A handful of two-tracks radiated from our perch toward the horizon. Everything around us was a dusty shade of grey and brown. Mostly it was sage, systematically distributed across the gently undulant terrain. The sun shone, and our improbably large and oddly placed rock ruled over this little emptiness. We could not see the extent of this nothingness, and our little two-tracks dipped off in the shimmering distance. Taking all this in, I wondered if my cookies were vegan. Oreos are, beguilingly, made without animal products. As I mulled the economics of food systems, I also remembered that I had thrown up a pound of half-chewed Big Boy brand bacon on the road a few hours before. Maybe whether my VALU TIME VANiLLA COoKIES were vegan was a secondary concern.
Among the dust, we irrefutably had our first taste of nothing. We had arrived at the immensity of the West, where the timber and stone fall away to reveal the land behind the curtain. Sagebrush as far as the eye could suppose. Far-off mesas and the gentle curl of hill after hill under the glaring, azure sky, a few clouds drifting high up. The enormity and its desolation absorbed us wholly. Maybe the Americas before us didn’t look at all like this, but this at least let me imagine it.
Soon again, as ever, we were floating, listening to the tick of drivetrains and the crunch of dirt. The hills held such a sameness that it was pointless to care where we were or where we were going. Their irregular monotony lulled me into a wordless, meditative flow. Nothing beyond the sage and the slowly set sun behind us. The greys and browns grew more vibrant, the hills just the same. The remnants of the Winds to our north caught the red of the evening on one flank and miles-long shadows on the other. It was, as sunsets usually are, a slow-motion ballet of the most vivid colors in nature, and then it was dark. Eating VALU TIME MaCaRONi & CHeeSe, the world slowly faded to black around us, and we were swallowed into it.
In all of this, there are occasionally people. Atlantic City, WY (no relation) was crystallized in 1867 around gold deposits; 50 odd people have stuck it out into the new millenium. It is now a “census-designated place,” so it’s neither strictly “Atlantic” nor a “City.” Though it is only accessible by gravel roads, the Atlantic City we saw was not dead. A party of sorts at Wild Bill’s Custom Knives and Bed & Breakfast waved us on as we rode by. The mercantile was pouring beers. A young man in camo at the bar told us the Great Basin – what we were about to cross – was the windiest place in America. Even nestled in a small gulch, every flag in town was cracking and frayed. The broken trophy truck in front of the bar had a “Hillary For Prison” bumper sticker, peeling at the edges from the sand and sun and wind. The West is a place of obstinate perseverance in the face of change.
To the southeast, no water leaves the Great Basin. The Continental Divide splits, and everything that drains into the plain between the hills evaporates there. Atlantic City abuts the Basin. Whatever criticism the Census Bureau might level against Atlantic City as a metropolitan area, it looks crowded compared to the Basin. Apart from a few cows and several hundred inexplicable miles of barbed wire, it’s empty.
It is a numbing, worrying emptiness. The kind of place where you would not be found. The kind of place that will never be suburban. We left Atlantic City, sloshing with water, and rode along barbed wire until the sun set. We settled among the cow shit, tossing the homemade frisbees out of our way. We slept along the Sweetgrass River just outside the Basin. It was shallow enough to necessitate push-up bathing, but a stark difference from the plains encircling it. The sun set the horizon on fire again. It shimmered with the unnerving proximity of open plains, large and close. Atlantic City felt near, but the road ahead was 120 miles of scorched blankness.
The winds in the Basin, as promised, were show-stopping. Travel in the afternoon into the wind – our only direction – exceeded our enthusiasm for cycling, so we rode at night. Staying awake in this noiseless dreamscape was a greater challenge than pedaling my box truck, surrounded by inky blackness. I saw the delicately textured clay and sand fly nauseatingly by under my dome of light. Sam was gone from my world, a single point of brightness 200 yards back. I struggled not to be afraid of the darkness. Maddeningly boring when you can see it, the empty vegetation was unchanged, but its endless, planar flatness is unnerving when you can’t see it.
The stars were legion. They carpeted the sky, dense and radiant, but also scattered to the now-apparent visible lip of the earth. The spread of galaxy stretched through the twinkling, coloring the stars with a delicate red-blue pastel. Each speck is a locus for rocks such as ours, a thousand thousand in sight, millions more beyond my weak eyes. The abundance of stars sketched the atmosphere above me; I saw the curvature of my planet above me, and the stars scratched the horizon. Our rock is one of many. I was staring into the infinite blackness of space. We are an invisible gravitational wobble near a mediocre star in someone else’s night sky. From this perspective, gravity seemed more an unresolved question than a law. This whole business is held together through some kind of paradoxical collective belief, careening through space at 70,000 miles an hour. Our liquid core, encased in a thin crust, pulls us toward it. The moon grabs at the things not tied down. I looked at the stars, but I didn’t. I was looking at myself. Just another geocentrist, absorbed enough in my own rock to ignore the others.
The briefest glow began to taint the eastern horizon, but before long the sky above it wasn’t fooling anyone. It turned electric, frenetic red, the fires of a molten hell. The universe was immediately dismissed, but mine was repopulated with cows lounging in the sage. I had not felt my body this morning, but as the sun rose I again needed to feed and shit and rest. Before long we returned to living on our flat earth, concerned with wind speed, traffic, and topography.
The trail ends at the New Mexican border with Mexico, at the lonesome, unremarkable Antelope Wells border station. Even rolling up to the fence, our end and the apogee of nowhere somewheres, I kind of expected some soundtrack, some congratulatory reminder that we were finishing something epic, something larger than ourselves. Same as Banff. “This is supposed to be…” I wanted a reminder that I was having fun, that this was something worth remembering. That border station was just a border station, but I’ve seen so many pictures of it, so many wild-eyed racers and happy, fulfilled people standing in front of that sign. There we were, waiting to take our picture. I struggled to summon the requisite gravitas and joy for the situation. It was raining and cold and over quickly. In the car, flying back along the road we had pedaled, it was over. Making it to Mexico didn’t count for much.
This trip – our desire to see, consume, and conquer the Divide – was captivating because the landscape felt so uninterested in us. We can unroll our barbed wire, graze our cattle, and build our roads, but the hills and brush are unfeeling. This place is too vast and unfriendly for hairless apes to conquer it. These places are beautiful in their weird, pointless, inhospitable way. They present no compelling case for human exploitation. Maybe this is their majestic beauty. Mallory said of Everest, when asked why he threw himself at it relentlessly, “Because it’s there.” These places cannot be there. They do not cast shadows over the valleys. We cannot summit blankness. These places mean nothing beyond their borders, elicit nothing in our imaginations, yet within them all else disappears totally. Nothing is conceivable here beyond the sagebrush.
About Spencer Dillon
Spencer is a multi-disciplined masochist by training, riding bikes climbing, and skiing uphill. He loves observing and being a part of the fringe, which is why he has a medieval history degree. When the going gets weird… Find more of his writing online at typeii.fun.