Wednesday, August 17, 2016

National Pet a Bison Day

Rawlins, Wyoming to West Yellowstone, Montana (4,065-4,395 miles)

The wind against my face and helmet is so loud I don't hear the high-pitched whine of the rattlesnake
Find the rattlesnake before he finds you.
—the warning of an impending strike if I get too close—and I blithely cycle northwest toward Dubois, the town where I intend to spend the night. The snake has the perfect camouflage for the bad lands and he merges with the sand and the sage, with the light brown of the high desert. I catch a sinuous blur out of the corner of my eye, and it takes a second to realize I came within an inch of poisonous fangs sinking into my right foot. Cycling in sandals takes on a whole new meaning, and I belatedly jerk the bike away from the edge of the road. I brake to a stop and examine my foot, wanting to make sure there is no broken skin, no pinpricks, nothing that will send me into the highway trying to flag down a
motorist.

Yep.

Clean miss.

I stay astride the bike and roll it backward, study the snake. It coils and uncoils, as though it can't make up its mind to defend or retreat, and finally, almost grudgingly, crawls away from the highway into the desert. I also have conflicting emotions.

For one, I'm angry . . . I was minding my own business, cycling along, lost in my thoughts,
enjoying the wildness and loneliness of the stark landscape—then whammo—a snake tries to bite me. I look around for something to hurl in the snake's direction . . . think about throwing a water bottle . . . but no . . . that won't work because how will I get it back?

Something I read a long time ago comes into my head.

The anger you feel toward the rattlesnake is your fear reflected back toward you.

Nope.

Doesn't apply.
I'm pissed because the snake tried to bite me, not because I'm afraid of it. I settle for flicking a sliver of a pebble and striking him on his thick body. The pebble bounces off and lies motionless in the sand.

"That's right," I say. "You'll think twice before you do that again."

The snake gives me a going-away rattle and merges into the desert. Underneath my anger is the bubble of amusement. Nothing like an encounter with a deadly reptile to liven up my journey.

I pedal down the road, a little farther away from the edge than usual, move back over when a car coming up behind me veers in my direction. A teenager has her head out the window, someone bunching her hair behind her neck, and her face has the anguished look of someone about to vomit.

Car sickness.

We lock gazes—she has tortured brown eyes—and I can tell she's holding on for a while longer, doing her best not to spill her guts on the cyclist alongside the road. She brings a hand to her
mouth and her torso jerks. I glide behind the car, cross the road, travel the other shoulder. Poor girl. At least in my family the driver had the decency to stop the car and let me stagger outside and vomit in private.
*
I enter Yellowstone with fear in my heart, cycling on a narrow, shoulderless road, watching in my mirror streams of vehicles closing the distance. My worst nightmare is a vehicle squeezing between me and oncoming traffic while surging along at 45 miles per hour, so I quickly develop a strategy to stay alive. If there is oncoming traffic, I ride the center of the lane and make it impossible for a vehicle to pass from
behind. Once the vehicle slows to my speed, I move to the right and let it come through. I also use this technique to stop vehicles coming up from behind and passing me at high speeds on blind curves, knowing what will happen if the driver is committed to the pass and a vehicle appears in the other lane. The driver will move to his right, toward me, creating a dangerous situation.

So, using my bike's location on the road, I take control of the traffic behind me. Cycling this way is stressful, and I don't like it. However, I'd rather come off as a jerk than dead, so I keep at it until I turn into Colter Bay and get a hiker/biker campsite for the night. I put in 70 miles today, through some gorgeous scenery, and I sleep the sleep of the thoroughly exhausted.

In the morning, on my way out of the campground, I stop and say hello to one of the guys checking in new campers.

"So," I say, "I hear it's National Pet a Bison Day."

He pushes his glasses up his nose, doesn't crack a smile. "You trying to be a jokester or something."

Sheeze.

The guy has no sense of humor, that or he hates his job. Or maybe my humor is a little dark, a little in poor taste. I think about explaining why the joke is a joke, how I know—shoot, how the whole world knows about the stupid tourists who routinely get gored because they fail to treat bison like wild, unpredictable animals.

I stop at the camp store for a cup of coffee, try out the same joke on the clerk. He grins and laughs at me. Okay, that settles it. Campground Checker Outer Guy needs a new life.

After 40 miles of stressful cycling, traffic drives me into another campground, where I get my second hiker/biker site of my trip. I'm unusually tired and spend the afternoon and evening sleeping, wake up to darkness and a silent campground. I yawn and close my eyes, lie still for a moment, and that's when I smell it.

The scent of a male bear is thick in the air—a fetid odor—and my heartbeat goes up to about 3,000 beats per minute. Past grizzly attacks flash through my mind: the girl a grizzly killed in her sleeping bag in Glacier National Park; the hiker the grizzly killed on the CDT the year I hiked that trail, eating everything but his feet in his boots; the cyclist who was recently killed while mountain biking in the Tetons—

A twig snaps.

The bear is very close, very very close, and I do a mental rundown on the precautions I took earlier in the day. My food, soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, anything that might remotely interest a bear, all of it is inside the metal box up close to the road. Nope, nothing in here is edible . . . except me.

There is a bathroom adjacent to my site, a block building about fifty feet away, and I think about unzipping my tent, crawling out, and running in that direction. Or perhaps walking? Whistling while I walk? Does the bathroom door even lock? I cringe at the image of myself bracing against an unlocked door while a 500 pound monster slams it from the outside.
I clutch my pepper spray and think about calling out that there's a bear in the campground, decide to stay with the status quo, which is silent and dark. Also smelly. He's closer now, and I hear him snuffling something. Me? Is he snuffling me?

"Maybe it's a black bear," I whisper under my breath.

If I knew for certain it wasn't a grizzly, I'd get out of my tent and run the darn thing off. . . . But . . . and that's a big BUT, there are two bear species in Yellowstone, one of which has a reputation for dining on hikers and cyclists. The snuffling stops and I think I hear the bear pad away, which is impossible because I'm in an evergreen forest and needles cover the ground. Nope, still here. I smell him. I want to turn on my phone and see what time it is, for some weird reason, nix that idea because the phone will make noise if I hit the on button.

Stay with the status quo.

No noise.

Darkness.

No movement inside this tent.

I huddle in my sleeping bag, counting the seconds that turn into minutes, am almost at my breaking point when I realize the smell has gone away.

Whew.

I get to live another day.

*
On another note, Ride between the Stars is in the news again!