Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Having bulls in Colorado and Wyoming

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte was one of the books we had to read for my GCSE English exam. My friend Isabel and I used to revise together and do practise timed questions. We were proper geeks - who did well as a result so don't ever knock it. Questions about Mr Rochester revolved around the same point. He was talked about for whole chapters before he ever appeared. It has been the same about the Rockies. We have been told:

They are easier to ride than the Appalachians.
There will be snow up there.
They will be spectacular.
You can see them for miles on the horizon.
There are bears and mountain lions.
This time time of year bears are looking for food to get fat ready to hibernate.

So our truth about the Rockies.

Firstly there are Rocky Mountain oysters. Last night we joined two Denver bikers for a few beers and burger. Don and Mark were just beginning a week's motor cycle trip and were clearly the kind of people who liked chatting and meeting new folk. Don, though we will call him, 'The Don' had a smiley face and Santa like beard, not unlike Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses. After a few shandies he asked me and James whether we had tried Rocky Mountain oysters.

'I've never had oysters' I declared.

The Don ordered us some. They arrived looking as deep fried as everything else in the States. What a shame to do that to oysters I thought to myself and womdered if they were from some of the tiny lakes we'd seen earlier in the day. Mark had been outside on a phone call so had missed the first lot of appetisers.

'Mark should have the first one' I said, which he did.

James and I tucked in. The Don held back until the plate was clean and he could hold back no further.

'You know what Rocky Mountain Oysters really are?' he asked us.

They are in fact bull calf testicles. Another new, chewy salty experience. Thanks guys.

To get to the Rockies we had to cycle 100 miles in a day from Stirling across desolate prairie. There was a sign saying 'no gas for 60 miles'. We needed water and found a small church with sign of life. There was a guy working inside testing for the remnants of aspestos. He said we couldn't come in, but the water would be fine.

The plains were dry and hot. The first homesteaders of the West found the 640 acres of land granted was not enough to viably farm - though they tried. At first farms were limited to areas near rivers or where there was foraging for cattle. However by the late 1800s dry farming was established. By 1920, a combination of poor farming practises and drought brought an end to this kind of farming. The so called Dust Bowl of the 1920s blew all the top soil away. There were dust clouds up to 20,000 feet carried as far as the Atlantic ocean. Compounded by the Great Depression huge areas of this land were bought by President Roosevelt to return to grass land. Nature 1 - American colonists -zero.

Across the prairie was Fort Collins where we had arranged a bed for the night. Dan and Sid were both keen touring cyclists, so much so that they had cycled across the States on a tandem for their honey moon. Their passion meant they had a huge amount of empathy for our need for food, rest and directions. Dan cycled out to meet us 20 miles out of town as dusk was falling giving the all important boost. And when we arrived at their beautiful home, a delicious meal of herb crusted chicken with walnut and feta salad was waiting.

Fort Collins is a beautiful place. Literally at the foot of the Rockies. Wherever you look there are the blue shadows of the mountains reminding you of your insignificance. Fort Collins is another college town. It is about biking like no other town we have been to. It is also about beer. The New Belgian Brewing company is a cooperative in town which has events like bike in movies and adds to the buzz around biking in the town. It's about a tipping point - or more aptly, a revolution.Once enough people are biking, the roads become safer, it's sociable and ultimately it becomes uncool to drive your car, or UV. So America is a little way from that yet as is the UK but we are getting there.

We enjoyed finding biking kindred spirits and a decent night's sleep.

We spent the morning sorting in Fort Collins -preparing for the cold which everyone has warned us is coming. I bought a sleeping bag liner,thermals, more gloves to replace the ones I'd accidentally posted to Hawaii and Lycra 'legs' - like toeless stockings and water proof snugly shoe covers. Ooo the glamour.

We met our first Brit too. Mercedes, who we asked for directions. Her husband was at Colorado at university studying animals that spread disease to humans. More scary animal thoughts.

And finally then, the mountains. James and I agreed that our day following the beautiful river up to Cameron Pass at over 10,000feet was the 'best bike ride ever'. Stunning scenery, a gradual climb, sunny - we spent most of the day saying 'wow' and feeling immensely lucky to be doing this.

We camped at about 8,000 feet on the basin on the other side of the mountain. An entirely different landscape. Flat thin trees and bitter cold in the night. At least my nose, the only part out of my sleeping bag suggested that. We heard a pack of coyotes pass through the campground in the night. In the morning my rinsed cycling gear were frozen solid.

Yesterday we continued along this high basin of Jackson - 3 people per square mile. The town of Walden is known as the moose viewing capital of Colorado. It's where people come to hunt and fish. The winters are hard and the first settlers often found it too hard. The landscape was like an African savannah and then huge grasslands. We crossed into Wyoming, cattle country but are still at over 7000 feet. You cannot but be interested in geography being here.

We met an Australian waitress, Steph in Walden working as part of a volunteer programme in this secluded town. She was interested in our cycling as she had just bought a car to drive across to Florida. She asked me about the training I had done - not much. She said she had been thinking of cycling the states next summer and had talked to male cyclists but wondered of she'd be fit enough. Ten minutes later she came back. Meeting me had convinced her that if I could, she could. We agreed to post her our maps.

At the campsite we stayed at in Riverside, Wyoming the ladies restrooms were labelled 'Cowgirls'. I asked the owner, were there really cowgirls? He told me that when people settled out west and set up ranches there was lots to be done, male or female. So when men were building shelters or at war, someone had to take care of the cattle. I wondered more about women in the west and after some research was surprised that yes there were real cowgirls and also surprised to find that Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote. 1869, over 50 years before the vote was granted across the States. Not only that but when Wyoming joined the union it insisted that universal suffrage was maintained. Some think this was a way of encouraging settlement of the west whilst others think it suggests a genuine progressivism.

So, the mountains so far. Like everything, understanding them too simplistically means you don't understand them. I think have a lot more to learn about them and I am learning to listen to people who know them and their risks and those who are heading back south for the winter. Bicycle travel brings you much closer to nature - the wind, the weather and the wildlife.

And there are no oysters in the Rocky mountains though having balls, or more inclusively courage is something that has never been in short supply in these parts.

And it is on that note that we duck out of the mountains and opt for the desert. It's getting too cold in the mountains for this cowgirl.

This post is in memory of Graham Roblin, my great uncle who died on Friday. A teacher, a singer, a golfer, a soldier as well as being a wonderful husband to my late Aunty Thelma and dad to Gareth and grandad to Daniel. An inspiring man who brought happiness and humour to every situation.


  1. Hey Mari. This is such an amazing adventure - wow! Good on you! Funny you opened this blog with Jane Eyre. Remember that was the book they were studying in Sudan and we wondered how it could have any relevance to the lives of displaced people living in IDP camps. Apparently it did, they said. You are amazing! Stay well chum, Sally x

    1. Thanks Sally. Might be asking you about your Vietnam cycle when we get there... Mari x

  2. Having just met you in Vernal at the local beer & burgers aka the Dinosaur Brewhaus and being impressed by your endeavour to cycle across America we would just like to wish you all the best and may the wind be at your back and the sun in your face; eat your heart out Lance Armstrong. Cowboy & Troy

  3. Thanks boys. I think I was the last person the girl at the bar served before she walked out on the job and the bar had to close! Hope it wasn't something I said. Mari

  4. Hello Mari and James. I missed saying goodbye and safe travels Monday the 10th when you left Riverside Wyoming headed to Saratoga. I saw the photo from the Hobo pool at the hot springs in Saratoga so I know you made it that far.

    Don and I had a wonderful evening at the bar Sunday evening sharing beer, burgers, Rocky Mountain Oysters and a lively conversation with you and James. Wish we had more time to continue that.

    I started motorcycle touring some years ago to ride the quiet, scenic two lane highways with their sensual curves made for a motorcycle. Now after many miles on those highways I'm drawn to the ride in anticipation of the next chance meeting with some other interesting member(s) of the human race. The highway is just a fun way to get to those meetings.

    Can’t wait to read your new posts and see more photos of the places you’ve been and the people you meet crossing this country and the world.

    So travel safe with the wind at your back and a smile on your face. And when your spirits are challenged and you’re missing home and friends know that you and James have much to share with others you’re going to meet around the world.
    Let that be the ‘boost’ to keep you peddling on towards England and home.

    Cheers, Mark