Yellowstone & Grand Teton Cycle Tour, September 2014. Day 1
The problem with me is I pack too much. I think I’m travelling light but the difference between my thoughts and reality is a gaping void. Matters were made worse by the need to prepare for all eventualities – Yellowstone in September can be warm, dry and calm, or freezing cold, or wet and windy, and as I can’t stand the cold or the wet, a lot of thermals and waterproofs had to go in the panniers as well as everything else.
This was to be no lightweight bike tour. No bus or van following us around to carry luggage, pick up stragglers, repair our bikes and generally pamper us. We were carrying everything we’d need for three weeks on the bike, in panniers and a bar bag – tools, spare inner tubes and gear cables, clothes, spare shoes, toiletries, phone chargers, and in my case camera, books, and all sorts of other paraphernalia. The bike weighed 13.3 kg, and my panniers 18.1 kg; with me on board it came to a total of 102.0 kg (I’ll let you do the maths).
For air travel, the bike goes in a big bag which has a bit of padding, but not enough, so I help protect it further by stuffing a large sheet of cardboard along one side and a very photogenic, lightweight ‘Honeywell’ For Sale sign along the other. The wheels have to be removed and stowed in the same bag separately (with the spindles removed), then the handlebars removed and turned at 90°, the pedals removed, and the rear derailleur unbolted and tie-wrapped inside the frame. I put spacers in the forks to stop them being crushed, wrap the pedals and spindles in bubble-wrap, put some more cardboard over the chainring to protect it, and use about 20 plastic tie-wraps to keep everything in place. The whole thing then feels like it weighs a ton, and that’s without luggage!
United Airlines allow you one main item of hand luggage and one other small carry-on item, so with two main panniers, a bar bag and another small bag to go on top of the pannier rack, I knew I was going to have to do some fancy talking at check-in or pay something for excess baggage as a minimum. United’s conditions actually state that bikes are classed as ‘sporting equipment’ and therefore subject to a $200 surcharge in each direction. So I’d have to keep fingers crossed and just wait and see.
Tour Leader Richard Dugdale had done all the hard work of route-planning, booking accommodation and travel arrangements, but there was still plenty of research for me to do, including preparation of a set of route notes for each day which I circulated to the other riders – I didn’t want to leave anything to chance and end up whizzing past an interesting feature somewhere.
And so, after much checking of check-lists, making sure everything at home was up to date and able to be left for three weeks, biting of fingernails and general fretting, Saturday 6 September arrived and with it an early 4.15 am start. Once in the taxi to the airport if anything had been forgotten it was too late! At Manchester Airport’s check-in hall we met up with all but two of the group – Andy, Tony & Deborah (our only married couple travelling together), Shirley, Joy, Helen, Tony and Madeleine. Kathryn, from San Diego, and Jeff from Sydney would meet us at Jackson Hole. Checking-in with bikes is a cumbersome affair (although three of the group had small-wheeled bikes which fit in a bespoke suitcase which makes matters a lot easier). Sure enough, I had to pay for the extra pannier to go into the hold - $100 or £60, but at least none of us had to pay the $200 ‘Sporting Goods’ charge. A gentleman from American Security asked us various questions, including whether our mobile phones were charged up (he took our word for it without trying them). Our luggage was checked in, we were given three boarding passes each (Manchester to Newark, then Chicago and finally Jackson Hole, Wyoming).
I expected a bigger plane. It was an Airbus 320, with a single centre aisle and three seats each side, but apart from a TV screen in the back of the seat in front, and perhaps an inch more legroom, it really wasn’t much different to a short-haul plane used by EasyJet or Ryanair, and this was for a 7-hour flight. During the journey of course, you have to turn your watch back five hours, so it seems as though you arrive only two hours after you set off. It’s a long two hours! What is there to do, apart from read a book, chat a bit, watch a film (I couldn’t find one I liked!), snooze? But the time does pass, and eventually we could see the Manhattan skyline out of the window and then we had touched down at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.
We had to check our luggage before it was reloaded – for security purposes I guess, but at least it’s reassuring so see it there. I needed a trolley for the bike which cost $6! I asked if that included a returnable deposit and received a negative response. Still, at least it meant that after changing a $10-dollar bill in the machine I got to see dollar coins for the first and only time whilst in the States. Next came Homeland Security, which was nothing like as bad as some had made out: we were fingerprinted and had a photo taken of one eyeball, but nothing to worry about: in fact the official was quite friendly and seemed genuinely interested in our forthcoming cycle tour.
After a couple of hours wait, we eventually boarded the plane for Chicago, after being informed by the boarding gate staff that luggage size-restrictions would be rigidly enforce and then noting with some amusement that they barely gave any items of luggage even a first glance, never mind a second, and nothing remotely bothered any of the measuring devices! Almost as soon as we started taxiing, the plane stopped again, and then the captain, who sounded just like Elvis, reported that we not only had an engine fault, but that there would be no take-offs until further notice due to impending lightning. We started to worry about missing our connection from Chicago to Jackson Hole. Then the captain reported that the engine problem was resolved, and 45 minutes later, the weather improved and we were cleared for take-off. Not only that, but we would have a good following wind and arrive in plenty of time for our onward connection.
We flew over Lake Ontario, which looked like a sea, and the south end of Lake Michigan, then over some pretty posh-looking suburbs before landing at Chicago O’Hare Airport. My watch now read 4.00 pm, though it was 10.00 pm back home, and we still had another 3-hour flight to go. Across a very smart concourse with constantly changing coloured lights towards our final boarding gate, but before that it was time to eat, and I was faced with the inevitable barrage of choices in the cafe: what kind of bread, what kind of cheese, salad, mayonnaise, fries? I just wanted a cheese sandwich!
The final flight to Jackson Hole was nowhere near full (thankfully) and as I’d already been awake for 20 hours I dozed most of the way, but woke as we began our descent and enjoyed views of plenty of mountains including the Tetons, noticing that some had a dusting of fresh snow while others had patches of snow that looked like they’d been there since last winter at least. The thing that I remember most from taxiing at Jackson Hole was the number of private jets – not surprising perhaps, when you consider that the town has the highest per-capita income in the USA. Jeff from Sydney, hadn't been there long and was waiting for us. Luggage was collected, loaded on to a waiting coach with the bikes, and after a short ride we arrived at the wonderfully named Rawhide Motel in Jackson town, where we quickly unloaded and looked at the room – no TV, but a coffee machine, two double beds, en suite. Kathryn from San Diego had arrived earlier in the day and was waiting for us - no one had met her before so there were quick introductions all round.
It was 9.00 pm (4.00 am at home) – almost 24 hours after I’d got up. So there was only one thing for it – head out for a beer and something to eat! The Snake River Brewery was nearby, complete with eatery and microbrewery, and four of us gave it a try. First lesson on American beer: it’s not bad, but lager is not pale but more of an amber colour; if you want something light in colour you ask for a pale beer, because a light beer has little or no alcohol; and an IPA will be strong. Easy really. Regular fries or sweet potato fries? I tried the sweet potato – very nice too.
Finally to bed, where I slept well until 3.00 am, when, presumably because it was getting to mid-morning at home, I woke up and found it hard to get back to sleep. I thought jet-lag was supposed to be on the return journey, though it makes more sense to be this way around.
I will get around to the cycle tour itself soon, but before that we had a ‘rest-day’ on Sunday, to recuperate from the long flight, put the bikes back together, and have a good look around the town of Jackson. So more later...