Location: Yellowstone (Lewis Lake Campground)
Having slept in the open, I slept better last night than on many other nights. The air was always fresh and the sky clear. The temperatures dropped to near freezing, and I cinched my mummy bag tight around my face so just my nose and mouth were exposed. I stayed warm through the night in my thirty-five degree bag, but my lips are chapped. Brian and I ate breakfast and packed in a hurry. We were eager to get out into the park and see more wildlife. Our new friend, Duchy, still slept in his little tent when we left.
Duchy showed at the campsite yesterday evening around seven o’clock. The sun was getting low in the sky, but there was still plenty of light to bike when he arrived. When I first saw him, the first thing that struck me was his cycling jersey. It was crimson and white and it had a giant S for Stanford on the front. The Cardinal logo stretched from the top of the S to the bottom. The next thing that struck me was his accent. He introduced himself with a smile and a handshake, saying his name was Sjoerd. I heard his name as a mix of the words short and sword, Schword. He’s a jovial guy, and he’s the same age as Brian and me. He had recently completed his Master’s degree in geophysics in the Netherlands and is enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Stanford. He’s on a summer vacation for a few weeks, and he’s cycling from West Yellowstone as far south as he can before returning to school. He is an experienced bicycle tourist, but this is his first tour in the US.
Last night, Duchy came with us to listen to the park ranger discuss bears and safety around bears. A tangent was started by the audience about Old Faithful, and Duchy gave the ranger a run for his money when it came to explaining geysers and seismic activity. In short, the presentation on bears was entertaining and informative, but I’d heard it all before on my trip to Alaska. I was surprised by how much I remembered from that trip so many years ago.
Brian and I left this morning as Duchy was getting out of his small one-man tent. He crawled out with a groan and he pulled his suspenders over his shoulders, causing his belly to stick way out. We figured we would see him at Old Faithful, so we said only a brief goodbye.
Brian and I saw more wildlife today. Shortly after leaving Madison Campground, we came upon slowed traffic. A bison walked north in the left lane of the paved road, so he was walking against our direction. The people in cars slowed to take pictures and gawk, and I fumbled for my camera as I tried to avoid driving off the road. I was really nervous to see the animal so close, especially after learning last night that buffalo can reach weights exceeding a ton and can sprint at thirty miles per hour. Several tourists have been gored by bison, each because he crept too close for a better picture. Brian stopped on the shoulder because the bison turned towards him. I had no intention of stopping, and I squeezed around Brian and took cover behind a small silver Honda as it passed the beast. I kept the car between me and the bison, so I didn’t get to snap the photo but I avoided a possible goring. I was grinning like a fool after passing, thankful the encounter was close but uneventful.
Before reaching Old Faithful, we decided to leave the busy road and take a packed gravel bike path that wound several miles through open fields, woods, and hot springs. The pedaling was more difficult in the sandy gravel, but a break from the constant traffic was nice. We saw another buffalo, but still we’ve seen no bears.
Old Faithful was a zoo. We most certainly are here at a time of low tourism because the parking lot was only half full, but people were still everywhere. Brian and I bypassed all the cars and lots and rode right to the boardwalk at the geyser, where we tied up our bikes and took a seat. We waited half an hour or so for the eruption, and as we waited the crowd around Old Faithful grew. The benches were full, so people were standing, and then people crawled to the front of the benches to sit on the floor and hang their feet off the boardwalk. The geyser blew steam. It churned and bubbled and the Oos and Ahs from the crowd were comical. It was as though the people were watching a caged animal, anticipating it to lash out suddenly and violently. The geyser teased and teased as it splashed and turned water over in its boiling cauldron, and both Brian and my arms were getting tired from holding up our cameras. With a sudden burst, the geyser erupted, shooting water over a hundred feet into the air and sending a large plume of steam to the leeward side of Geyser Hill. The most spectacular eruption lasted a minute, and then it diminished over the next three. We got the pictures and video we wanted, so we departed with the mass of people towards the visitor center, where we had chained our bikes.
Duchy rode up just minutes after the eruption. He missed it. As an earth sciences guru, he said last night that he would wait night and day to see Old Faithful erupt. We asked Duchy to join us for lunch, and then we decided that we would stay to watch Old Faithful erupt again. I thought Duchy would be able to offer considerable insight into what was going on, considering his achievements in geophysics at such a young age.
We ate lunch in the shade of small pine trees, sitting on the trunks of other trees that had fallen. As we listened to Duchy talk about the makeup of the Earth, subduction of plates, and the causes of geysers, a young park ranger informed us that Castle Geyser was erupting, which occurs only every fourteen hours or so. We retrieved our bikes and rode down the path to see it. The geyser lasted substantially longer than Old Faithful, around twenty five minutes or so. We got our pictures and then returned to the boardwalk where we took our seats to wait for the next eruption of the geyser. As before, it churned and teased and then sent water and steam towering into the sky. When the geyser blew, so did Duchy. He shot up out of his seat and snapped two dozen pictures in a minute. The geyser died down and Duchy was gone in an instant, ready to make miles since the going had been slow for him.
Brian and I ate some more snacks, filled up with water, mailed postcards, and left. We began our second climb up to the continental divide today, and then we made our third and then fourth. On the fourth climb, we caught up to Duchy, who was really struggling to get up the mountain. He is in poor shape, but he rides his bike most places at home. He says that he snacks a lot at home, and he has the habit of studying until four o’clock in the morning and sleeping until noon. He isn’t yet acclimated to the altitude, so he says he is like a fish out of water, gasping for air. He had taken a rest at least eight times on that one mountain, and he certainly looked worse for the wear. Of course, he carried a tremendous amount of stuff. He had bright red panniers, front and back, a handlebar bag and big red dry bag that he tied to the rear rack. He carried six bottles of spring water in one pack as an emergency water reserve should he ever need it. He carried pasta sauce in glass jars, an assortment of glass bottled spices, and piles of cans of fish, sardines, and tuna. The thought of the weight of the gear alone exhausted me.
Duchy followed us to the top of the hill and we took a group photo at the continental divide sign. Afterwards, we rode down the mountain to West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, an area with shores full of hot springs, geysers, and steamy potholes. Again, Duchy’s expertise meant we had a guide to explain to us the geological and seismic things going on around us. He also put into perspective one of Barrett’s fears, the impending eruption of the super-volcano which is Yellowstone National Park. Duchy assures that just because the volcano is thirty thousand years overdue to erupt, that centuries on a geological timescale are next to nothing.
We’ve come tonight to Lewis Lake campground, about forty-four miles from where we began this morning. We biked more like fifty-five, stopping to see the features of the park, and once stopping to pick up a six pack of beer to help Duchy recuperate after a long day. We cooled the beer in water from the well and shared them over a pasta dinner. I’m sleeping in the open again tonight because the sky is clear and stars are out. The stars are out like I’ve never before seen. I suspect tonight to be as peaceful as last. Tomorrow it’s back to work. We took our time through Yellowstone. I would have regretted it if we hadn’t. Tomorrow, we ride to the base of our climb into the Grand Tetons.