October 29th, 2010 – Exploring Yellowstone Park (Part 1)

I woke up to the sun warming up my tent.  It was around 32F, but that was still a good 20 degrees higher than what it got down to during the night with a low of 8F.  I unzipped the door and got out of the tent.  Everything was covered with a thin layer of frost.

I lit the camp stove and grabbed my cooking pot to fill it up with water.  Unfortunately, the water canteen that I had strapped on the back of the bike with about a gallon of water was frozen solid, which made it a bit difficult to get it out.  I took the plastic canteen and smashed it against the campsite table until the big block of ice became a bunch of smaller pieces that i could get out through the spout.  I don’t think I have ever had the “pleasure” of boiling ice before.

With breakfast out of the way, I packed up camp and loaded everything onto the bike.  I put the key into the ignition, turned it clockwise, hit the engine start and… nothing.  “Fantastic” – I think to myself.  Just to recap – I am in a Yellowstone campground, which is of a relatively good size and I have chosen, for security reasons, to use the furthest camp spot from the entrance.  Pushing the bike out to the road is not an option since it is all up hill and the bike weighs a ton.  The only remaining option was to hike out to the road, signal for a car to stop, hope they have jumper cables and that they would be willing to go into a closed off area of the park – this could take a while.

I hiked out to the road and started signaling.  I probably looked pretty silly – imagine someone who looks like they are hitchhiking, in a national forest about twenty miles from the closest entrance and to top it all off, wearing what must have looked like a space suit.  With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to get a car to stop within ten minutes.

Jim and Carolyn, a retired couple traveling through Yellowstone driving what looked like a very rugged all-terrain vehicle, pulled over to the side of the road.  I asked them if they would be willing to help and would be ok with driving their car inside a closed campground.  To my surprise, they agreed.  If an image of a spaceman hitchhiking did not amuse you, this one will.  Imagine that same spaceman lightly jogging a quarter mile, while an all-terrain vehicle is slowly following him.  The day had barely begun, but the adventure was already in full swing.

We finally made it to the bike and I quickly took the front seat off to reveal the bike’s battery.  We hooked up the jumpers to my beemer and it started right up!  Before continuing on our respective journeys, we chatted a bit and Jim kindly offered for me to stay with them in South Carolina, when I pass through.  I vehemently thanked the couple and once again we were both on our way into the park.

My first stop was to see some of the smaller geysers and boiling mud pits. The weather was really playing in my favor and the lighting was perfect, which allowed me to capture some great shots of Yellowstone.  While chatting with one of the local rangers, he told me: “This is the best day of the year here in Yellowstone – the mountains are covered in snow and it is a very clear and sunny day – a rare combination.”  As I returned to my bike after seeing the geysers, I was alarmed to find my bike had been burglarized!  My flashlight, anti-fog fluid container and small waterproof camera were scattered all over the grou… Wait a second, why didn’t the thiefs take a $300 camera?  Upon closer inspection I realized that the only thing that was missing was a power bar I had in my tank bag – hungry hikers or a bear with some opposable thumbs that can operate a zipper perhaps?  I also noticed some claw marks on the top of my tank bag and the final clue – a large bird excrement on the top of my handlebars.  At this point it was clear to me who the culprit was – one very smart crow must have smelled the food inside my tank bag, decided that she needed it more than I did and proceeded to open up the tankbag.  I gathered up my belongings off the ground and was quickly back on the road and on my way to see Big Faithful.

Half way to Big Faithful I came around a corner to find about 20 cars stopped in the roadway.  After sitting there for a minute I decided to get around them to see what the problem was and if a motorcycle could squeeze by where a car couldn’t.  To my surprise I found that the problem was caused by a herd of buffalos that decided to take their afternoon nap on the warm asphalt.  Waiting for the buffalos to move was potentially a very time consuming proposition so I decided instead to ride my bike in between the buffalos, slalom style.  Before taking off, I handed the camera to the driver at the front of the line so that in case things go awry, at least I would have video of the whole thing.

I shifted into first and started on the approach path.  As I neared the first group of buffalos, they looked up at me curiously – they were obviously not used to such an odd looking motor vehicle. As I went by, a couple of buffalos stood up quickly and backed up, which spiked my adrenaline levels at the anticipation of a charging buffalo.  Before I knew it, it was over and I was through.  I parked the bike on the side of the road and looked back at the pathway that I had cleared.   The cars that did not want to risk going through the herd, were now moving along slowly through the “buffalo roadblock.”  The gentleman with my camera pulled over and handed the camera to me with some parting words – “You are either braver or crazier than I am.  Either way, I hope you have good insurance.”

Finally I made it to Big Faithful.  As I walked up to it, I noticed that photographers were folding up their tripods and putting their cameras away.  I asked one of the photographers about the geyser and he informed me that I just missed it and the next eruption will be in a little over an hour.  Time for plan B – eat some food and come back later to photograph the most famous geyser in all of the US.  Unfortunately this plan also had a problem – “the only restaurant in the area is closed for the season,” one of the photographers informed me.  She introduced herself as Barb and invited me to have some lunch with her and her husband, Lloyd.

As wonderful as the food was, the conversation was even better.  I found out that Barb and Lloyd traveled to Yellowstone from Wisconsin and they had some great luck finding wildlife to take pictures of.  (Pictures below are courtesy of Barbara)

They also invited me to stay the night with them when I pass through Wisconsin, which was a very welcome alternative to sleeping in the tent, especially considering that Wisconsin was promising to be one of the coldest states of the trip. We said our goodbyes and I headed back to Big Faithful to take some shots of the large and faithful geyser.

To my disappointment, Big Faithful was neither very big nor faithful.  We spent about fifteen minutes after the “scheduled” eruption, waiting in anticipation.  The woman next to me kept saying “Ohhh, it’s about to blow!” every thirty seconds, shortly followed by a disappointed sigh. When it finally erupted, it was not nearly as impressive as I had anticipated.  My disappointment must have been very apparent, as an older man leaned over and said to me – “It used to reach five times as high back in the day.”

I spent the rest of the day riding through Yellowstone and enjoying some of the best nature views I had ever seen.  The waterfalls, creeks, canyons, lakes and wildlife in Yellowstone are absolutely stunning.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting this incredible park, I highly recommend that you do so, both in the winter and the summer months.

As I exited Yellowstone through the southern entrance, I entered an equally fascinating and, as I soon found out, adventure-filled park – Grand Teton National park.

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October 28th, 2010 – Follow the Yellowstone road

I wake up and realize it’s a bit later than when I planned to wake up.  Kamilla is already up and has whipped up some breakfast.  I stumble out of the room and before I can say a word, she sticks a hot cup of coffee in my hand – what a friend.  We sit down to enjoy some breakfast and chat.

After breakfast I quickly pack up my things.  As I am finishing up, Palina shows up to wish me a safe trip.  We say our goodbyes and I am once again back on the road with a goal to get to Yellowstone by the day’s end.

As I make my way out of Boise, I have to stop at a gas station to fill up my tank.  I pull in, take my helmet off and start fueling up.  A gentleman approaches me and asks me about my bike and the trip.  He tells me that he is traveling in his Lotus Elise and points to a yellow sports car parked by the mini-mart.  The Lotus owner also told me that in Idaho, state police can’t ticket you for anything over ten miles over the speed limit, but he prefers to keep it at twenty fiver over because he has a radar detector.  I smile and think back to my experiences with the law earlier, but don’t mention anything about it, nodding my head in understanding. I finish filling up the bike and get on my way.

I pull onto the freeway for the last twenty mile stretch, before I have to take an exit to continue the journey on two lane highways.  Five miles before my exit I spot a police trooper on the side of the road with someone pulled over.  As I near the two cars, I see that it’s the already familiar to me yellow sports car – hopefully he had time to slow down just a bit before getting clocked, because twenty five over is a hefty ticket in Idaho.

On the road to Yellowstone, I found a few fun dirt roads that ran parallel to my route.  For the most part I really enjoyed riding them, even the parts that had small ice patches leftover from the past night.  I also found a really cool tank that I just had to take a picture with.  As my good friend Andre pointed out, I look more like tank driver than a motorcyclist in that picture.  On one of the dirt roads I also found some really cool looking rocks, including one that looked just like a human skull if you looked at it from the right angle.

As I made my way closer to Yellowstone I decided to take a side road to visit large reservoir and have some lunch.  When I got to the boat launch at the Mormon reservoir, I was surprised to find out that it did not reach the water.  In fact, the closest water was about 100 feet from the launch ramp.  As I rode down the ramp, it became obvious that for a good portion of the year the boat launch does indeed serve it’s intended purpose.  As I slowly neared the bottom of the ramp, the GPS already showing me that I am swimming in the reservoir, I thought to myself – “how cool would it be to launch a motorcycle off a boat launch ramp, onto what is usually the floor of a reservoir?”  I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

As my front tire left the concrete ramp and transitioned to the muddy and very slippery ground, I realized that perhaps I have been too quick in my decision to go “amphibious” on my motorcycle.  The front tire slid and before I knew it I was standing over my motorcycle which was laying on its side.  And so began the tedious task of taking all the luggage off the motorcycle, lifting it up and remounting the gear.  After fifteen minutes the bike was up and ready to go, but still on a very slippery surface.  I very carefully rode it out to the water to take some pictures.  As I dismounted, I noticed how soft the ground really was – there was a half inch layer of mud on my tires!

As I was taking some pictures, a red truck appeared in the distance.  It slowly made it’s way down the boat ramp and onto the muddy reservoir floor.  It drove out slowly to where I was standing and stopped.  A Hispanic man got out of the car and started unpacking fishing gear.  As he was getting ready to cast his line, I struck up a conversation with him.  He introduced himself as Jose and went on to tell me about the big fish he was after.  He also took one look at my bike and said smiling – “This is not a good place for a bike, no good at all.”

I finished my lunch, said goodbye to Jose and got ready to go.  Again, slowly made my way back to the ramp and here I realized I had a serious problem on my hands.  The ground is soft and slippery and there is quite a steep slope leading up to the ramp.  The best approach to the ramp would have me riding up a pretty steep slope, with sharp drop-offs on both sides (so I can’t put my feet down) and at the very end there is a concrete curb to get onto the ramp.  I realized that this would be an all or nothing deal – either I get it 100% right or I don’t, in which case the bike and I would be stuck in the mud and I would have no way to get it out without outside help.  I took a good five minutes going over the plan in my head, mounted up the bike and proceeded through the mud.  I went in with a little extra speed to make sure that I have enough speed up the hill and as I hit the very soft mud I lost all feel for the front tire and realized I was no longer in control of the motorcycle. As I slid through the mud without any control of direction, I tried to keep the front tire as straight and the gas on for the imminent impact with the curb.  It was over in just a couple of seconds as I hit the curb and regained traction.  As I realized that I was safely back on concrete and the bike was somehow still upright, I let out a victorious scream inside my helmet – success never felt better.

Puckett family

Puckett family magic bus

The next hundred miles were mostly uneventful, as I entered the Craters of the Moon National Preserve.  What a cool little park!  I have never seen such interesting lava rock formations.  I took about two hours to explore the park – the caves, craters and inferno cones were awe inspiring to look at.  I also found some really cool looking rocks.  As I was exploring the Indian cave, I met the Puckett family – they are a traveling family of magicians.  As they say: “a family that does magic together, stays together.”  As I exited Craters of the Moon Park, I noticed that there were campsites available, but against my better judgment, I decided to press on into Wyoming, into Yellowstone National Park.

As I made my way to the border of Idaho and Wyoming, it quickly got dark and soon it was very cold.  As I neared the entrance to Yellowstone, the ambient temperature gage continued to flash “32F” at me, as it had been for the last fifteen minutes.  I rode up to the entrance, but nobody was at the booth.  I grabbed a map and noted the closest open campsite – 23 miles from the west entrance.  As I rode into the park, I was greeted by numerous flashing “Buffalo Xing” and “Deer Xing” signs, as well as a 35MPH speed limit sign.  Since the temperature has now dipped below 32F and I was riding through thick fog, I decided to ride at a leisurely 25MPH; hitting a buffalo is the last thing I wanted to do.

An hour later, as I neared the campsite, my feet and hands were frozen, I was hungry and there was ice on the road.  At this point the temperature has dropped to 24F and I was happy to be so close to the campsite.  As I took the turn to the campsite, I was surprised to find that the entrance to the campsite was closed with a sign on the gate “closed for the season.”  The next campsite was at least 20 miles away and since this one was supposed to be open, there were no guarantees that the next one wouldn’t be closed as well.  I decided to ride around the gate and stay at the campsite regardless – as far as I was concerned, it was dangerous to ride any further and I had a pretty solid reason for staying at the campsite if a ranger happened to find me before morning.

I set up camp on the frozen ground and struggled to boil some water in the freezing temperature.  Along all the regular food I cook throughout my trip, I also carry with me some of the Mountain House brand camp food.  Since it’s quite a bit pricier, I save them for emergencies and this night seemed as good as any to use one up.  It was probably due to the fact that I was very cold and tired, but that hot meal was one of the most satisfying of my life.

By the time I finished with dinner, the temperature had dropped to 16F.  It would continue to drop throughout the night to a low of 8F, but even at 16F it was so cold, my face would freeze outside of the sleeping bag.  I had to curl up completely inside of the sleeping bag and tie off the neck straps to leave a very small window for fresh air.  This night would go down as the coldest night I have ever camped out in.

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October 27th, 2010 – On the road to Boise, ID – Part 2

I woke up a bit late, around 9am – I blame the comfortable bed and the warmth provided by the fireplace that was on all night.  Bar none, the best sleep I have gotten in the last few days.  I jump into the shower and get dressed before heading out to the main lobby area.  A continental breakfast, which included waffles, is waiting for me.  I sit down with a waffle and a cup of hot coffee by the window and take in the beautiful winter scenery – what a great way to start the day.

Belinda walks in and asks me how I slept.  She also informs me that on the way to take their kids to school this morning, her husband saw three cars in the ditch on a ten mile stretch of road, at around 8am in the morning.  In short, it would be best for me to wait until the sun has had the chance to melt away the ice on the roads.  Not a problem, I think to myself, since I only have about a one hundred mile day in front of me I can wait a few hours to make sure that it’s safe to go through the canyon.

I finish breakfast and head to my room to pack up.  As I am loading my bike, Belinda and her husband drive up to me in their truck and tell me that they are going out to town to run some errands.  I thank them one last time for their hospitality and we say our goodbyes.

It’s now eleven in the morning and with everything loaded onto the bike and with the snow has visibly started melting away; I am finally ready to head out.  I mount the bike and carefully proceed onto highway 55, paying particular attention to the traction levels as my tires come up to temperature.

About five miles down HWY55 I spot a familiar truck heading in the opposite direction – it’s Belinda and her Husband on their way back from town.  We wave to one another one last time, as we briefly eye contact.

As I head down the two-lane, twisty canyon highway, I can’t help but to be in awe of the beauty of Idaho on that particular morning – the turns following the contours of the river, the sun and the mountain ridges reflecting off the water and the clouds of steam coming off the hot springs.  By this time the temperature has risen well into the high 40s and I was more at ease about ice on the roads, but still very cautious in the shades, where the temperature difference could preserve the ice that formed overnight.  Since I had a relatively short distance to ride to Idaho and the whole day to do it, I took plenty of opportunities to stop and take pictures of and take in the beauty of my surroundings.

I arrived in Boise, Idaho and was greeted by my good friend Kamilla.  I also made a new friend, Polina.  The two roommates are currently working to complete their MBA at Boise State University.  This was by far the warmest and well planned welcome along my journey – they even made a welcome poster that read “We welcome the hero of long distance motorcycle riding!” (that ‘s my poor attempt to translate it from Russian)  I also have to make a special note about the absolutely delicious Borsht and Stew that the girls cooked up – there is nothing better than a bowl of comfort food after a cold day of riding in the mountains.

From left to right: Polina, Me and Kamilla.

After I finished telling them the stories of the last few days, we headed out to check out downtown Boise and get some of the famous Idaho potatoes.  Unfortunately, the place that has the best potatoes was no longer serving food at this late hour, so we had to settle for some appetizers, sans potatoes, at another local restaurant; I guess I will just have to add Boise to the long list of must-come-back-to places, to try some of those potatoes the locals keep raving about.

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October 26th, 2010 – On the road to Boise, ID – Part 1

In the morning, Jeff and I head to the local coffee shop for some breakfast sandwiches.  The coffee is great, (even by Seattle standards) the breakfast sandwiches are fantastic and the conversation is the best part of all.  After breakfast we take a quick picture together and head back home.

Once back at the house, I quickly gear up.  At this point in the day the weather has warmed up quite a bit, but it started snowing.  Thankfully it’s the wet type of snow and the roads seem to be free of ice.  I thank Jeff one more time for his hospitality and get on my way.

Lots and lots of rain. Stopped while trucks clear out part of the mountain that washed away onto the road.

As I head down the road with new energy I realize I am going to need it – the visibility is poor, it’s cold out and worst of all, the weakest point of my gear, my boots, are already getting wet just thirty minutes into the ride.  Apparently Frank Thomas, the company that makes my boots, has a skewed definition of ‘waterproof.’  I realize that I am not going to make it much further on my trip without remedying this problem.

After two hours of riding in the wet snow and the rain, I spot an REI as I ride through one of the towns.  I decide to pay them a visit and see if there is anything they can do for me.  I go inside and for the first time people are not looking at me like I am crazy.  Instead, employees and customers alike are looking at me with understanding; whether the person has done or longs for the same type of adventure, he or she is of the same mindset and understand what drives me.   I ask one of the employees for help and he instantly shoots back with an answer.  He takes me back to the mountaineering department to grab some Smart Wool socks and some waterproofing spray.  I have to say that as pricy as the socks were, ($23/pair) they are totally worth it for the comfort they provide – very warm, thick and at the same time supper breathable, which keeps your feet dry.  The silicone spray helped a bit but as I would later find out, the boots are still not even close to waterproof.

I am back on the road and although my boots continue to be the weakest point of the gear, my feet are far drier and warmer than they were prior.  Just in time too as I head over Lolo pass to get back into Idaho.  As I approach the summit, I reach a mandatory chain checkpoint.  If you have never been to one, it’s a checkpoint at which people without all-wheel-drive vehicles mount chains and some, as I found out, have a policeman checking that all cars have chains on.  The only exception is people with all-wheel-drive vehicles with snow tires.

I have no chains and of course my motorcycle is not all-wheel-drive and my tires are far from snow tires.  As I approach the checkpoint, I know that turning around is going to cost me valuable time, because I will have to backtrack and then take the long way around.  The policeman signals for me to pull over to the side and I comply.  I dismount and take my gloves and helmet off.
“Good day,” the officer says, “are you aware of the conditions on the mountain?”

“Yes, sir” I reply.

“Well then, you understand that I can’t let any rear-wheel-drive cars pass without chains?”

“I understand sir, but I am not driving a car and I am pretty sure you can’t mount chains on a motorcycle,” I shoot back.  As I later found out, chains for motorcycles do exist, but at the time I was oblivious to that fact.

The officer excused himself as he talked to someone on the radio.  He came back a few minutes later and told me that if I can show him that my tires are all-season tires he would let me pass.  Thankfully the Michelin Annakee tires I had on actually have a sun and cloud with rain picture on the sidewall.  I showed it to the officer and he seemed to be satisfied with that.

“Alright, you may pass, but keep your speed down over the pass; I don’t want to have to come up there to get you.”

I nodded in agreement, put my helmet and gloves on and was on my way up the pass.  Sure enough, about a half a mile up the hill the conditions were not ideal.  In some spots, two feet of snow lined the side of the road.  I made sure to keep the speeds down and to keep on the gas through the turns to ensure that the majority of the weight was transferred to the rear tire, to keep the front tire from slipping.  Although the rear tire was spinning up through roughly thirty percent of the corners, I always felt in control and never felt I was in any significant danger of laying the bike down.  Eventually I made it to the peak of Lolo pass – half the battle was done.   Now came the hard part – the decent from the peak.

As I started my ride down, I knew that there was a real possibility of hitting ice on a steep downhill and not being able to slow down the bike.  For this reason, I made slow progress, making sure to keep my speeds way down and my eyes open.  Although I have never ridden in such icy conditions, I used to frequent “True Grit” rides, as we called them back in California.  These were rides in the rainy fall and winter conditions that really taught the rider how to handle his or her machine at the limit of traction, or as was the case sometimes, when traction was completely absent.  Local fast guy and mentor Gary J would lead the rides and I have to say that all those lessons he taught me, came back to me on that day.  Thank you Gary!  I made it down the hill without incident.

I was now over the pass and past the hardest part of the ride for that day.  As I descended further into the forest, I came upon a hot springs trail and some local guys told me about another hot spring that is close to the road, about ten miles down.  This was great news, since taking a break in a hot spring sounded great, but I did not have the time to do a full on hike.  I headed down the road and found the parking lot that the locals described, but unfortunately, I never did find that spring.  Instead, I took a small break for lunch and kept riding.

“Son, ya gotta slow ‘er down.”

As I rolled through the beautiful turns of the twisty road, I was enjoying the sun and the beautiful views of the forest, the river and the white columns of steam created by the hot springs deep in the mountains.  I rounded another corner and as I exit it, I notice that the last of the three cars approaching me, is a highway patrolman.  I have been going at no faster than five miles per hour over the limit, so I don’t think much of it.  I glance down at the speedometer and GPS as a matter of habit and confirm that I am indeed cruising at sixty miles per hour in a fifty five zone.  I roll off the gas to drop my speed to the posted limit, again as a force of habit.  As soon as I pass the Idaho Highway Patrol car, I see him turn on his lights and do an aggressive u-turn.  “He can’t be coming for me, must have gotten a call in that direction,” I think to myself, as I take a turn-off to let him pass.  I pull over and to my surprise the IDHP SUV pulls in behind me.  I dismount and take my helmet off as the officer approaches me.

“Son, do you know how fast you were going?”

“I believe I was doing the speed limit, sir.”

“I clocked you going almost 70,” he replies.

At this point I am completely baffled.  Most people, who know me well, know that on an average day I am a compulsive speeder, always going roughly 10 over the limit. (that’s what growing up in California does to you)  On this trip, however, I decided that I would subscribe to my grandfather’s logic – “He who goes slower, goes farther,” he would always say; since leaving Seattle, I went no faster than five miles over the limit the whole trip…

The officer asks me for my license and registration and returns to his vehicle.  As I stand there, I can’t believe that after four years of no tickets, I am getting a ticket for a speed that I wasn’t even doing…  The small glimmer of hope, that I would just get a warning, is gone, as the officer approaches with a yellow piece of paper.  He tells me that it’s for 69mph in a 55mph zone and asks me to sign.  I sign and he tells me – “Son, ya gotta slow ‘er down.”  As the officer turns around, and walks back to his vehicle, I realize that I might as well get something out of this…

“Sir, would you mind if I took a picture of my bike with your car in the background?”  I ask.

“Like for a scrapbook or something?” he replies.

“Sure, like a digital scrapbook.”

“I guess that would be alright.”

“Oh, and could you turn on the emergency lights?” -  I ask, having lost all sense of modesty.

“Sure” – he replies with a grin.

He gets in the car and the lights come on.  I take a few pictures and feel a bit better – at least I got a cool shot, even if it cost me $86…

Since I lost so much time getting pulled over, it is now getting dark and I am still about a hundred miles from Boise, where my friends Kamilla and Polina are waiting for me.  Riding through the canyon, the temperature quickly drops as it completely gets dark; soon my temperature gage is showing 2 degrees below freezing.  Rain becomes snow and with it, visibility becomes very poor, so I am forced to slow down to a crawl.  I take a turn onto highway 55 and pass the Bear Creek Lodge resort. I decide to stop and ask if the conditions are likely to get much worse as I continue on highway 55.

I enter the main lobby and find the hotel manager and a few guests in the back, by the fireplace.  They look at me quizzically, as I ask them about conditions further down in the canyon.  Belinda, the manager of the place, tells me that I would be crazy to go on.  I insist that I have to get to Boise tonight.  In retrospect, I must have been completely off my rocker that night – visibility was almost non-existent, the roads were very twisty with sharp turns, the temperature was dropping rapidly and ice was almost guaranteed and there was the ever present chance of striking a deer.  Belinda suggested that I at least sit by the fireplace and warm up before continuing on.  I agree, take my jacket off and sit down by the fire.

A few minutes later Belinda came back and insisted that I stay the night.  Without going into details, I finally agreed and I am very happy I did.  If it wasn’t for Belinda, the trip could have very well ended that night, with me in the hospital or worse.  I thanked Belinda for her hospitality and headed to my room.  Unloaded the bike, laid out my wet clothes in front of the fireplace (yes, the room had a fireplace) and quickly fell asleep in a bed that, after a long hard day on the road, felt like the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in.

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October 25th, 2010 – Exploring Glacier National Park

I wake up around eight in the morning. The bar does not open until ten, so there isn’t a restroom I can use. Fortunately we are smack dab in the middle of a forest, so all I have to do is cross the two-lane highway and I am off private property and free to go about my business. I get out of the tent and notice the thin layer of frost that is covering my tent and my bike cover – it was a very cold night. There are three exits out of the backyard. The first leads into the bar, which is obviously closed so that is not an option. The second is the large gate that I rode the motorcycle through, but it’s so heavy and cumbersome that it is not ideal for getting in and out. The third leads to the deck of the bar, where the owners host a beer garden on weekends.

I go through the third door, make a few steps and realize that I am standing about a foot away from a huge Rottweiler. He was calmly guarding the bar by sleeping at the entrance door when I stumbled upon him. To give you an idea of how close I was standing to him – he was looking straight up at me. He didn’t seem particularly angry at me, but every ten seconds or so he would lift his upper lip to reveal his teeth – no growl, as if to show me that he doesn’t plan to rip me to shreds, but he very well could. As I stood there, I pondered my options: I could run for the door that I just came through, but I didn’t think I would make it in time to close it behind me. I could reach for my knife to defend myself, but dogs can usually sense threats like that and the whole situation could end very poorly for both of us. After standing there for what seemed like an eternity, I decided to back away slowly and plan B was to make a run for it into the woods if the dog charges. I was betting on the fact that guard dogs are usually interested in protecting their property and will not venture too far away. I start backing up as the dog is staring me down. I make it safely off the deck and proceed to the woods, happy to have had such a successful outcome in a situation that had potential to go very wrong. Lesson learned – pay extra attention to your surroundings when you are half asleep in an unknown area.

I return to the camp site, pack up camp and load everything on the bike. The night before I spoke to some locals and they told me that there is a diner up the road that servers the best pancakes in all of Montana. I head that way and arrive at the Glacier diner. I walk in and sit in a booth. The locals (mostly hunters) take notice of me, as one would later explain – “you don’t usually see motorcyclists here this time of year. You are one crazy SOB, son.” I order the “Hungry Hiker” special with an order of the famous pancakes and chat with some of the locals about hunting and tell them about my trip. The pancake (only one, but it was huge) was indeed delicious, but what pushed it over the top was the fresh huckleberry jam. If you are in Montana, treat yourself to some.

After breakfast I head into Glacier national park. First stop – visitors center to find out what is closed, open and most importantly, where can I go to find bears. I find a ranger and he tells me that there is no way to cross the park since the road is closed and it stays that way for the majority of the year. As far as bears, he briefs me on the proper safety procedures and recommends that I go on a 2 mile hike to Avalanche Lake. (48.659352,-113.794255) The ranger also suggests that I should visit the small town of Polebridge, on the edge of the park. “The road there is pretty knarly,” he tells me “but there is a bakery there, in which they bake on a wooden stove and people from all over the world come here just to visit that bakery.” Knarly roads, small towns and wood-stove-bakery-made pastries?! Sounds like my kind of adventure!
I head up the road to the trailhead for Avalanche Lake. The weather is pretty gloomy, but it’s not raining. I find the trailhead and gear up for the hike. Due to the limited capacity of my saddle bags, I have to take my backpack with the camera and other electronic equipment with me. That, plus the gear that I am wearing, which weighs a ton (jacket alone is 11 pounds) makes for a very loaded up hike. Good thing it’s only 2.5 miles each way!

I set off on the hike, camera in hand in case I am lucky enough to meet any bears. In the first half a mile I realize how much weight I am actually carrying, but reluctant to give up I continue on. As I walk through the forest, I keep my eyes open and make sure I am making a lot of noise so as to not sneak up on a black bear. If you didn’t know, the first rule of bear encounters is not to sneak up on them, since that’s really the only time they will attack you. I get through the 2.5 miles and arrive at the lake. What a view! The lake is surrounded by a tall mountain range, which is covered in snow. I have never been to the Alps, but I am pretty sure that view is as close as you can get without buying a transcontinental plane ticket. I take some pictures and get everything back together to head back. No bears so far, but I am hopeful.

I start hiking back and all of a sudden it starts hailing. Really large pieces of hail are coming down on me and it is far from a pleasant experience. Since hail doesn’t usually last a long time, I find cover under a tree and wait it out. Ten minutes later the hail stops and I resume my hike back. As I near the parking lot, I realize that I will not get to see a bear on this hike. Oh well, there are plenty of opportunities coming up in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks, I think to myself.

As I reach my bike, I realize that it has started raining and I have worked up an appetite. Before proceeding on to Polebridge I take a break and have some lunch – nothing fancy just a couple of sandwiches with hot tea and sugar. The hot tea is the best pick-me-up in the middle of a gloomy day. I finish lunch and proceed to the famous bakery in Polebridge.

After roughly sixty miles of paved road riding through Glacier Park, I come upon a dirt road. My GPS is telling me that it’s another fifteen miles to Polebridge. For a dirt road, it was actually pretty good quality. On the straightaways I was able to go up to sixty miles an hour and about thirty in the turns. The only problem was that it was cold and wet. The dust was replaced by dirt and by the time I got to Polebridge, you would think my bike and me took a dirt bath.

I park the bike in front of the bakery and am instantly greeted by two golden retrievers. They remind me of Sebastian, a golden retriever that was dear to me and is unfortunately no longer with us, as of a couple of days before this was written. I stumble into the bakery and am greeted by a guy in his thirties. I tell him that I have heard a lot about this place and ask if it’s true that they use a wooden stove to bake the pastries. He smiles and nods. I ask if it’s alright to hang some of my stuff in front of the fireplace. (also wood-burning) He nods with a smile, as if to say – “Of course! No need to ask.”

I put my stuff down and hang up some of my wet clothes in front of the fireplace. I buy a huckleberry bear claw pastry and fill up a mug with coffee before sitting down in front of my computer to blog a bit while my clothes warmed up. I am not a huge fan of store-bought bear claws, but this… this was something completely different. It was the perfect combination of sweet and doughy goodness, all of it complemented with a hot cup of coffee. All I can say is, if you are ever near Polebridge, Montana, you owe yourself a visit to this place.

Before I am done fully appreciating the moment of bliss that was bestowed upon me after that cold and wet ride over, I smell something odd. It doesn’t smell good, almost like a burning… My socks! Without thinking, I put them on top of the metal fireplace and they started to burn within minutes. I ran over to the fireplace and swiftly removed the melting remains, but it was too late and the damage was done. Two pairs of my warm socks were toast – literally. I apologize to the bakery owner for stinking up the place and make a mental note to buy more winter socks when I get a chance.

Before taking off, I ask the owners and one of the town residents to take a picture with me. I gear up and am soon back on the road that I came into Polebridge on. The only difference is that I have to go further south on this road than I did previously, which would mean higher elevations at a later time in the day. As I climb the hill, it is slowly getting darker and my ambient temperature gage has been dropping consistently for the last ten minutes and is already showing 36F. I continue on and soon the temperature is down to thirty degrees and I am starting to feel that the bike is moving around more and more. At a hunting check point (where they check that hunters are only taking out animals which they have licenses to kill) I pull over and ask one of the guys how far before I reach pavement. He tells me that I only have two miles to go and from there it should be paved the rest of the way. I remount and continue on at a snail pace of twenty miles per hour, slipping and sliding the whole two miles. Finally, I reach pavement and sigh in relief in my helmet.

From there I take the highway about one hundred miles to a national forest. My usual procedure up to that point was to try and end up in national forests, in which I would try to find a place to camp. Up until that point I have been successful at doing just that, but not on that night… I reached this national forest and realized that the road is lined with lakeside properties and there was no place for me to set up my tent. If you have ever been to Lake Tahoe, you would be hard pressed to tell the two places apart. By dark and with it comes the danger of deer. I see them on the side of the road as I try to find a place to camp and realize that if I don’t find something soon, this day could end very poorly.

As I pass another house, I notice that the garage is open and there is a guy inside working away on what looks like an ATV or small tractor. I stop and walk up to him to ask about local campgrounds. A minute into the conversation and I am surprised to find out that he is actually from Spokane, Washington. He explains that he is an anesthesiologist by day and that this is his town home where he takes care of a cherry orchard, to get away from it all. Before long, Jeff offers me a room to spend the night. I couldn’t be happier, since I have been camping for the last three days. We head inside and chat for about thirty minutes before I start dosing off. A shower and a soft bed in a nice warm house provided me with the much needed rest for the adventure that was surely to come as I head over Lolo pass, back into Idaho.

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October 24th, 2010 – The road to Glacier park

I wake up around ten in the morning, a bit late because I was so mentally tired after the deer fiasco the night before.  I get out of the tent and start the stove to boil some water.  While the water is boiling, (takes a while because it’s so cold) I decided to explore the surroundings.   I find a bunch of mushrooms, some edible, and decide to pick some to make for dinner the next night. I also find the reason for the “loud running water” sound I heard the night before and the reason for why everything was so wet – I was camped about a hundred feet from a waterfall.

I return to camp and the water is boiling.  I make myself some hot tea and oatmeal.  With breakfast out of the way, I start packing up all my gear and loading it on the bike.  Half an hour later the bike is loaded up and I am ready to go.  There is only one problem – the way I parked the bike the night before, so as to be more hidden, made it very difficult to get the bike out.   The big Beemer was stuck between a hill to the rear (there is no pushing this beast up the hill) and a fire pit to the left.  Backing out the bike the way I drove it in is not an option.  I mount the bike determined to turn it around.  After ten minutes of back and forth, abusing my clutch and a ton of effort, I make some progress but the bike is still not turned around.  One more try and suddenly, my left foot slips on the wet ground and down she goes…

Now I am standing before a fully loaded, heavy as can get, bike.  Before taking off on this trip I did practice picking up the bike on the lawn and was somewhat successful.  The reason I say somewhat is because it is possible to pick up this bike, but it will take everything you have and then some to pick it up.  On top of that, you have to unload the bike because all the gear makes it very top heavy and significantly more difficult (read: nearly impossible) to pick it up.  I start the arduous task of unloading the bike.  With everything off the bike I grab onto the left handlebar and lift with all my strength.  Finally, the bike is upright and I get lucky because in the process of dropping and lifting it back up, the bike cleared the fire pit and the bike is now pointing downhill.  I carefully ride it out to the road and load up all the gear – I am finally ready to get on the road!

My ride through Montana is uneventful and I am soon about 20 miles from Glacier National park.  I take a side road that is supposed to lead me to the local dam.  It’s a great little road – very twisty with great pavement.   I stop at the dam to take some pictures.  Since the weather is gloomy, there is only one woman at the dam.   She introduces herself to me as Savannah and would later go on to tell me that her brother was also named after a geographical location. (the actual name escapes me)  According to Savannah, her mother literally threw darts at a map to pick out names.

For Savannah, coming out to the dam on the twisty road is a daily ritual, because that is usually the only way her two year old son would fall asleep.  I see that she is grasping a scratch-off lottery ticket in her left.

“Any luck?” I inquire.

“Don’t know.” she replies, “I always get one before coming up here and then scratch it off right before I head home,” implying that the view of the dam, the windy road and a small glimmer of hope of a more prosperous life, if she get lucky, is what she really comes here for.

I wish her luck and inquire about my camping options in Glacier park.  She looks at me as if I am a crazy for camping out in such cold temperatures and tells me that “[she] doesn’t want to read about another tourist being eaten by bears.”  She tells me that I should head to the local bar, “Packer’s roost,” and ask for the owner; he should be able to tell me about lodging options around these parts.  Before we say our goodbyes, she asks if she can take a picture of me with her phone.

I am back on the bike and off to the local bar that Savannah mentioned.  I get there and it is one of those trucker bars that most of us see on the side of the highway but don’t ever go inside.  (or at least I don’t)  I go inside and ask the lady at the counter for the owner.  Turns out that she is his wife and she informs me, in an unhappy voice, that he is no longer available today.  I tell her about Savannah and ask about local camp sites.  She responds that going into the park is a bad idea due to bears and poor weather.  Instead, she tells me that I am more than welcome to set up my tent in the backyard of the bar.  The only other person that lives back there is Tom, the bar swamper, (the guy who cleans the bar) and he is a friendly fellow. “Camping at a trucker bar, well this will be a first,” I think to myself. I thank her for the offer and agree.

With the help of one of the bar patrons I get the gate to the backyard opened and ride my bike in.  With the tent set up, I go inside to have some clam chowder at the bar.  Afterwards, I take some pictures of the bar and meet up with the swamper, Tom.  He lives in a tiny trailer in the backyard of the bar, which he tells me is an upgrade from living in his truck for a number of years.  I also note that he has a roughly forty inch LCD tv in his trailer which is taking up about a third of the trailer, lengthwise.  It reminds me of my roommate Ryan and his ridiculously large (60”) TV in the relatively small living room.  As far as the proportions go, I think Tom has Ryan beat, as he has to sit about two feet away from his TV.

After a long day I crawl into my sleeping bag and fall asleep to the smell and noise of the local bar.

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10/23/2010 – From Washington State to Montana

I wake up around five in the morning, which is very unusual for me under normal circumstances.  It’s very cold out and I spend some time in the warm sleeping bag, devising a plan on how to get into warm clothes and out of the sleeping bag.  Unfortunately as I soon found out, my motorcycle jacket and pants were ice cold and were very unpleasant to wear for the first 2 minutes while they warmed up.  Lesson learned – keep them warm by putting them between the Thermorest and sleeping bag.

I finally stumble out of the tent and do the usual morning duties, which weren’t particularly pleasant (did I mention it was really really cold out?)  Now to try and get the stove going…  After fiddling with it for 5 minutes I realize that there is no gas in the fuel canister, because I syphoned off so little the night before and used it all up.  Thinking back to the horrors of trying to syphon gas from an almost empty gas tank, I decide to skip breakfast and head into the nearest town to find myself a local diner.

Thirty minutes later I am packed up and ready to go.  I mount the bike as the sun is coming up to light up the road.  Since I missed my turn the day before, I had to backtrack 5 miles to get on the right path.  Once I do, I realize that the reason I missed the road to begin with was because it is a dirt road used mostly by hunters. “Cool!” I think to myself – my first major off-roading experience on the BMW.  I head down the road and encounter a lot of hunters – most of them looking at me quizzically, either because they don’t expect to see a motorcycle on this road or perhaps because I have a camera mounted atop my helmet which makes me look rather odd.  As I climb in elevation, there is quite a bit of fog and the temperature starts dropping rapidly.  Soon, my ambient temperature gage on the bike is showing 36F and blinking a snow flake at me, letting me know that it is getting close to freezing.  A few more miles and the gage is showing 32F and there is a thin layer of snow on the road.  I keep going and make it to the end of the 30 mile stretch of dirt road with a few small slides but no incident.

I arrive in the town of Conconully, which is mostly a hunter town, that is to say that almost all local businesses cater to hunters.  I ask a local woman which place in town serves the best breakfast and she directs me to a small bar/diner.  I go inside and order eggs benedict and coffee.  Other people in the diner keep looking over at my table and it’s not long before one of the hunters approaches me and asks me about my bike and where I am headed.  I ask him to join me for breakfast and we strike up a conversation.  I found out a lot of interesting hunting facts from Tom, a retired middle-school teacher who enjoys an occasional bout of hunting.

With breakfast done, we say our goodbyes and I am back on the bike on my way to Idaho. On the way, I encounter another fun fire road and make it to Idaho without incident.

From here, I keep riding east to Montana.  My plan was to make it to Glacier National park that day, but by the time I made it to Montana it got dark.  Normally I would have just kept riding, but the deer in Montana are absolutely vicious.  After coming within 2 feet of hitting one and only being able to slow down from 60 to 30mph I decide that it’s time to find a camp spot as soon as possible.  I continue on at a leisurely 40mph due to the deer and the creepy reflective crosses on the side of the road.  Montana puts a cross for every fatality on the side of the road to remind motorists to be careful – worked on me.

I find a camp site and it is absolutely deserted.  I have my concerns about bears, but I am also worried about encounters with people, so I decide to not leave my bike in the camp parking space, but rather ride it into the campsite, next to the tent and behind some trees so I am a bit more hidden from the outside world.

The procedure for setting up camp and cooking food is getting a lot more natural at this point and I am done much quicker than the previous night.  I finish dinner and fall asleep.

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10/22/10 – The First Steps

Finally all the preparations are finished and I am ready to head out.  I wake up fairly early in the morning.  It’s a nice day for this time of year in Seattle – a bit cloudy but no rain.

One more run through the check-list of gear – everything seems to be accounted for.  I finish loading the final bits of gear onto the bike and roll it out of the garage.

I mount the GPS and load the first route that will take me through Northern Washington, Idaho and Montana to Glacier National park.  I look back at the house and it is finally sinking in – I am going away for a long time.   It’s an exciting and apprehensive feeling all in one.  I can’t help but think of the scale of this trip, but I just tell myself to take it one step at a time.  I mount the bike, put it into first and slowly let the clutch out – the first step is made.

I head North, towards Canada.  The original plan was to visit Banff National park, but I decided against it due to weather and time constraints.  Now the plan was to head directly to Glacier National Park in Montana, following the mountain highways in the Northern part of Washington, Idaho and Montana.  As most of my good friends know, I absolutely despise major freeways and thus, this trip will consist almost entirely of smaller, windy mountain roads with a smidgen of fire roads and off-roading thrown in to keep things interesting.

After 4 hours on the road I decide to take a road that runs parallel to my route but is indicated by my GPS to be a more twisty and less traveled road.  It also happens to run along the river, which I hope will provide me with great views.  About 10 miles into the road, I come upon a dead end – the road has been washed away by the heavy rain and there is no path to get around.

I decide to break for lunch and to take some photographs.  After lunch, I backtrack 10 miles to my original route and I am once again making positive progress to the east.

Along the way I stop to take pictures of a restored old train.  This train was instrumental in building the local dam and was later used to transport personnel and tourists to Skagit until 1954, when it was retired.

I also got a few pictures of the dam.  Apparently, driving on this dam was not allowed.  Unbeknownst to me, I rode through a gate that was opened by an employee, who works at the dam, just seconds earlier and the gate did not have time to close.  I was promptly escorted out by security, but I did manage to get these shots first.

I also encountered an interesting collection of tree stumps peeking out of the water.

Since this was my first day and a lot of the equipment has not been tested, I decided to find camp earlier in the day to give myself plenty of time while it’s still light out.  After successfully missing a turn and putting myself 5 miles off the correct path, I made camp near some hunters, who were camping out in their trailers.  This was my first encounter with the local hunters and I would continue to see them all the way to Montana, since the season on elk and other game is currently open

The tent went up no problem; sleeping bag and Thermorest also not a problem.  Now came time to make dinner for the first time.  First step – light up the stove – it’s the kind that burns any type of fuel, including 92 octane pump gas that is in my motorcycle.  I purposely did not fill up the fuel stove canister thinking that I can just syphon off the gas I needed with the syphon pump I packed.  Unfortunately, I didn’t gas up the bike and only had about 3 out of the 8 gallons left in the tank.  This made it very difficult to syphon out any gas at all.  After struggling with it for 20 minutes, it got dark.  Now I couldn’t even see what I was doing and to add to my misery, I found the first necessary piece of gear that was missing – a headlamp.  I was using regular flashlight, which would have worked great if I had 3 hands.  After fiddling with the syphon pump for another 15 minutes I finally filled up my small canister about ¼ of the way, but not without first getting some gas into my eye first.

Hooked up the can to the stove and lit it with the awesome 5-minute burning matches I got from my good friends, the Tyomkins. (Thanks guys!)  From there everything went off without a hitch and I was sitting in the tent eating pasta and small cheese-filled sausages 20 minutes later.  It was only eight o’clock, but I was so beat after my first day on the road, that I instantly fell asleep.

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