05 September 2017

ORATB Part I - 85 Miles, 24 Hours

I’m a sucker for loops. The symmetry, the lack of twice-crossed ground, pleases my soul.

Around the Block is a good road ride, not too hard and a nice way to bang out a century across state lines—Teton Valley, Jackson, Hoback, Alpine, Swan Valley, and back to Teton Valley. I rode it a couple years ago with a tall guy that liked to time trial. Real fast.

I’ve been obsessing over the idea of an “Off Road Around the Block” for exactly a year. On my first bikepacking trip with the Smithhammers we were casting around for a route idea and the thought occurred to me, but with a little research I realized it was too long and committing for us at the time.

I didn’t let go of the idea though. I bought the map and debated different route ideas. The dark spot on the map was Alpine to Hoback. Steep, tall peaks with dramatic drainages hedge the Snake River and its canyon, and while I trawled the Internet and begged friends for beta on the Greys River drainage, it remained the large and unnerving question mark on the route. Here be dragons. 

But I had my bikepacking set-up dialed and I had Cy as my a stalwart companion and I decided in May to shoot for Labor Day, when the flooded creeks and mosquitoes of early summer had subsided and I had that extra day of leeway to chase this fantasy.

We left from Victor at 5 p.m. on Friday and pedaled towards Pole Canyon, then onto the powerline cut. This slow push exposed the overarching theme of the trip—everything is harder than you expect it to be. No free lunch.

At the top of Pine Creek Pass we cruised dirt until North Rainey Creek, which was a long, fearful descent through head-high claustrophobic vegetation down a boulder-cluttered creek bed at dusk. We called every iteration of “hey bear” as we picked our ways and pushed and slogged down the canyon. We saw the moon rise over Rainey and met sunset on smooth gravel.

Rather than camp, we decided to mash big gears down into the valley, out of national forest and into farm land. We donned lights for the highway, resupplied with beer at the Swan Valley gas station, and death-gripped the handlebars on Highway 26 until we were safely across the Snake and on gravel again.

The next day was all gravel, nicely graded roads that wended along the Snake and the Palisade Reservoir in the Caribou range. The big climb over Jensen Pass was hot, so hot, the second theme of the trip—noon until 4 is the time of unbearable, intense sun and heat.

It was clearly autumn, not because many of the trees had turned, but because the vegetation was scorched by the same sun that was roasting us.

We made it back down to McCoy Creek Road, where everyone was driving back and forth with trailers loaded down with motorized toys or horses. Cy threw a front flip off a bridge into the reservoir with an audience of slack-jawed teenagers.

The road out of the Caribous was long and dusty with pointless climbs. We could see the beacon of Melvin Brewery’s big white building on a spit of land across the reservoir. We finally made it there and discovered they were serving street tacos as well as heady brews. We made little islands of gear on the deck and hoped no one minded our smell of untended body odor, salt, and dirt.

Fueled by several Mexican lagers, we remounted and pedaled drowsily with some groaning through Alpine and along the Greys River. Uncharted territory. I was optimistic because I had been underestimating the difficulty of the familiar sections, so here was a zone I couldn’t make assumptions about. The road was smooth and the river rushed aquamarine below us.

We cut up onto the Little Greys Road, found the next trail on the route, and made camp, but not before reclining in the shade until our afternoon fevers passed.

A man in jeans slowly rode his dirt bike past us…stopped. I shifted in discomfort, wearing only a sports bra and shorts, but he just wanted to make conversation. Sounds like he might’ve scared himself a bit, going up trails he used to hunt on when he was young, technical trails without the appropriate gear or a buddy. Maybe he wanted a little assurance that there were people out here in the sticks that would listen to him and appreciate that he hadn’t hurt himself.

He marveled at our starting point and said kind words. After fetching his truck he came back, and we sighed, but he just wanted to offer us Gatorades and Bud Lite. Yes please. You wonder sometimes, why are we so divided in this country when so many people are so generous in one-on-one situations? 

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