07 September 2017

ORATB Part II - Here Be Dragons

The question mark.

Trail Creek was the motorized trail that I landed on in my Internet foraging. We started while the sun was at a gentle height and we mostly pushed up steep, loose, narrow trail for over an hour. As we gained elevation we could see some of the mighty peaks south of us in the Salt River range.

At the summit we chugged the other Gatorade and looked north into the non-motorized corridor that dropped to the Snake. We started following an eroded whisper of a trail that soon disappeared into a faint filigree of elk trails crisscrossing wide sagebrush meadows. Here I made the dire error of not consulting the map again and I chased a drainage that I thought was Pine Creek, but was at least two bowls removed from our objective. We gave up on finding trail and dropped precipitously. Every time we wearied of being raked by sagebrush, we ran into spring-fed nettle patches or hairy stretches of dense deadfall. And repeat. For 2,500 feet of descending.

Scratched, tired, disgruntled, we sat above the Snake and watched rafts full of tourists mosey by. Cy said we could hitch a ride across the river. I thought he was joking. Instead we picked our way over the treacherous rubble and snags on the east bank. I gasped and cried with the exertion of lifting my heavy bike and trusting clipless shoes on slabs of river rock.

After one too many sessions of my choked tears, Cy again suggested thumbing a ride from a raft and I acquiesced, seeing the purity of my route slip from my fingers but also seeing that it had taken 45 minutes to travel 100 yards of river bank.

A raft immediately picked us up and ferried us to the west bank. The women paddled fiercely against the current and the guys handed our cumbersome bikes up to us on shore. 

Blazing up the highway, I watched the east bank and started to realize how dangerously foolish my time estimates had been. All the drainages leading to the Snake were brutally steep and even after the bank mellowed, the riverside trail shown on the map did not appear. It looked like many miles of hard-to-navigate, marshy up-and-down. I was achingly disappointed, but also relieved to bail on the Alpine to Hoback leg of the route.

We rolled into Hoback Junction, set up all our gear on a picnic table and hid from the afternoon sun, buying lots of food to satisfy weird cravings and drinking boozy sloshies.

After 4 p.m. we emerged rejuvenated and booked it back along the Snake to Fall Creek Road, which we climbed and descended forever as the sun sank lower and became more of a pleasant companion and less of a tyrannical overlord. We pedaled up Mosquito Creek Road until we found a flat campsite next to the water. The moon was fat and bright.

Smoke rolled in thick the next morning and tinted the sun salmon. Our toes were cold and our phones were dead as we started climbing.

I saw many signs of wildlife through the trip, fresh scat and matted grass and dried hoof prints in the mud, but only saw one deer golden in morning light and a moose that ushered her calf into the pines and watched me as I passed. There were more signs of grazers: cow shit, fetid wallows, and the lawn mower effect of a herd of sheep passing over a ridge.

The Internet said it was only five miles, but the climb from Mosquito Creek to Mail Cabin felt interminable. It was very nice trail at first, meandering along the creek bank, but after the many false summits of Mosquito Pass, the trail degraded and steepened. I felt every match I had burned in the last three days, both in climbing and pushing my bike. I also really wanted to meet the Smithhammers at Mail Cabin but my overly optimistic timeline was getting away from me. I was slow, cranky, and thirsty, and the normally exquisite views into the Palisade range were obscured and watered down by the haze.

But we made it to the Mail Cabin intersection. While we had missed Bruce and Kat, a sit-down lunch of jerky and chips righted my mood. I was ready to face Mikesell, the best-established trail we’d ridden the whole trip.

While it’s a technical descent, I was so happy to be in familiar territory that I didn’t mind rallying such a fun downhill on a fully-loaded rigid bike.

We finished with massive grins and pedaled slowly back on Old Jackson Highway. Our friends greeted us at Grand Teton Brewing with cheers, beers, and string cheese.

No grievous injuries, no trip-ending mechanicals, no petty fights, and my stupid, arduous, beautiful route came mostly to fruition.

150 miles. Three nights. Three mountain ranges. Two breweries. 10% paved road. 60% gravel. 30% of some of the gnarliest singletrack you’ll find.

Would I recommend this route? No. Obviously not. It’s a little foolish and very demanding for a short time frame. But I’m already thinking about other ways to link together the newly illuminated spaces on my mental map.

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