Leaning Into The Learning Curve, Part 3
By Nolan Davis
The plan, for the next morning, was to travel north through the scenic Bitterroot Mountains and visit a friend in Missoula so she could show me her favorite places in Montana. But the Bitterroots and Montana were now blanketed in snow. It snowed for two more days. It was not even winter yet. This freak fall storm they were calling "Winter Storm Atlas" was cramping my plans. The good side to this was that I got to live in the day-to-day life of one of my very best friends. So, change of plans. Once the roads were clear, I saddled up and headed for Tetonia, Idaho. It was going to be a short trip so I stopped by a natural hot springs in Craters of the Moon National Park. I was lucky enough to have the hot springs to myself. This entire area has a fascinating geologic history.
After the relaxing dip I rode to the quaint town of Tetonia, population 265, which is nestled on the snowy side of the Grand Tetons. The family I am visiting (my friends Luke and Claire and their lovely daughter) represents 1.1% of the people here. We had dinner with some of their family and friends because I was fortunate enough to arrive on their wedding anniversary. They let me stay in their yurt that they keep in their yard. My experience with yurts is that it is hard to control the temperature. They are either ferociously hot from the wood burning stove or bitterly cold, once the fire dies out. That night I fell asleep sweating and woke up shivering.
The following morning Luke informed me that it had been snowing in the passes and that snow was forecasted for Tetonia. Great. Atlas was again haunting me. Luke and Claire pull up the live road cams for the two passes that I need to cross and they are covered in snow. And the forecast is snow, snow, and more snow. The way I understood it, to get out of this winter wonderland of Tetonia, you have to cross a mountain pass to the North, South, East, or head West- the way I came and jump South into Utah. That would add several more days to this trip and cause me to miss my planned stops to see friends along the way. My friend offered to load up the bike in his work truck and drive me over the passes. I had three options: Wait and see what the weather does, head back west and then south through Utah or take the "pass assist." Realizing I only had one real choice, Luke and I loaded up the bike in the back of his utility truck. We loaded it backwards because we had no idea where or how we would unload it. It seemed like it would be easier riding it off the ramps rather than backing it off. I took the windshield off to prevent any damage to it while it was riding backwards in the back of the truck. The "pass assist" would also get me closer to Denver, where I would get a new front tire without putting more miles on the worn out tire. So the whole family and myself climbed in the truck for a family outing.
We crossed over Teton Pass. There was snow on the shoulders of the road. It was 32 degrees and the road was wet. There would be the possibility of ice on the road, but the pass was probably passable. We drove through Jackson Hole, the Elk Refuge and then through the Togwotee Pass. This pass is about 30 miles long! The road was wet and the temperature dropped below freezing so ice on the road was likely. On the way down the pass we saw a touring bike headed for the pass from Dubois, Wyoming. It crossed my mind that maybe I could have safely made it over the passes on the bike. While we stopped for lunch in Dubois, we saw the biker had turned around and was back in town. That gave me some feeling of validation of taking the "pass assist." I also enjoyed the truck ride with friends and seeing Jackson, a herd of elk, the Grand Tetons and the World's largest fiberglass Jackalope.
On the other side of the mountains, in the high desert of Wyoming, I finally found dry roads and good weather. The hazard for the day looked like it would be antelope. I saw countless antelope in the brush and next to the road. At a gas stop, the attendant warned me that a motorcyclist had hit an antelope earlier that day and it did not end well for either party.
There is an exciting canyon road just south of Thermopolis, Wyoming with high cliff walls on each side that has a gorgeous river that divides a train track and the curvy road. The canyon is so narrow that there are several tunnels for the road and the train track. I actually rode it a few times because it was so much fun. I planned to stay one night in Thermopolis with my friend, Sabrina and her new fiancé. The next day there was 60+mph winds across Wyoming. This was not safe to ride in. I decided to wait for the winds to die down. So while I was "waiting for weather" in Thermopolis, I was told that "If the wind in Wyoming ever stopped blowing, people would fall down." Apparently wind is normal for Wyoming, but there was a warning on the news of a High Wind Alert that might last for a three days. I spent the day in town and went to the “largest mineral spring in the world”, hence the name of the town. Then I went to the dinosaur museum and saw some amazing fossils.
The next day brought more violent winds of the same magnitude, so the three of us floated the river and went fly-fishing. The day after the wind was 35mph with 50mph gusts. Semi trucks will flip over in 50mph gusts. And once again, snow was in the forecast for the following day. But the prediction this time was lots and lots of snow. Now waiting for weather would have likely meant waiting for spring. My only window was to brave the 50mph gusts across the barren Wyoming high desert. I told my friends that I would see them at their wedding and I hit the road.
Once out of the canyon and out onto the plain, the wind was blowing strongly from the South. For a couple hours I was heading into the wind and it wasn't bad, just turbulent. Then when my route headed Easterly, the crosswind was threatening. I had to maintain a constant lean into the prevailing wind to keep an intended course. The first few gusts that hit me straightened my lean and blew me over the centerline into the oncoming lane before I could lean harder to correct and maintain control and my position in the correct lane. Luckily, there was not a lot of traffic. Maybe this was because of the weather or maybe this was just because it was Wyoming. The traffic I did see was mostly semi trucks. I quickly migrated to riding to the far right of my lane. This way when a gust blasted me I could recover and not cross the centerline. With every gust that hit me, I would use the entire width of the lane. I quickly learned to anticipate the next gust by using two methods that I apply to sailing. When sailing you can see a gust coming to you by looking at the fine ripples on the water, even if there are waves. You can also predict how wind will behave around islands by the shape of the landmass, the proximity of other islands and the prevailing wind. In the desert, I often saw a gust coming my way by observing sand flying and the heads of the grain or grasses lying down. As my trajectory collided with the invisible gust, I would anticipate it and lean into it. This method allowed me not to be all over the road as much. I could also predict stronger winds based on the topography of the land. It would be stronger in valleys and turbulent on overpasses and underpasses. It took so much concentration and reaction to avoid wrecking that I was not even worried about my front tire.
The other danger I faced was riding in proximity to the semi trucks. Not only was I concerned about a gust pushing me into one head on; the wind turbulence these rigs created was intensified by the existing windstorm. Surprisingly, the oncoming rigs were easier to handle than the ones going in the same direction as I was. All were driving slower than the speed limit. The faster a vehicle travels, the less surface area of the tire is on pavement. By driving slower, semi trucks have more surface area of rubber on the road so the risk of tipping over in a wind gust is reduced. So when passing a rig in these conditions you are dealing with the turbulent wind wash off the rear of the rig while you are leaning into the prevailing wind and looking for signs of a gust. When in the oncoming lane to pass, the rig acts as a wind shield and you have to upright the bike quickly to avoid riding directly into and under the trailer. This maneuver only took me once to remember because the first time put my bike dangerously close to the side of the trailer. So now in the wind shadow of the truck, I position the bike in the middle of the lane, a safe distance from the rig. As I approach the front of the cab you encounter wind wash and once out of the wind shadow the prevailing wind hits the bike. I expected this, so I started my lean in the turbulence. It went pretty smoothly. I had a technique and I was getting comfortable with it. But the fifth truck I passed, I encountered trouble. I was coming up on the front of the cab and I was in the middle of the lane. I anticipated the prevailing wind and started my lean as I got ahead of the truck. As soon as I was ahead of the truck I was smacked by a 50mph gust and I did not have an entire lane to maneuver in. It blew me across the white line and onto the rumble strips. I leaned hard and maintained control and my position on the road and passed the truck. That was insane. So not only was the semi acting as a wind shield, it was also a visual shield and prevented me from seeing telltale signs of a gust coming. I quickly adapted my technique. From that point on, as I passed a truck I would transition out of the wind shadow in the middle of the lane and start my lean earlier and head for the corner of the cab's bumper as I encountered the wind. This way if I was hit by a gust, I could keep the bike on the road when it swept me the width of the lane. The downside to this technique was that I was intentionally getting very close to the cab so I could anticipate a possible gust. Thankfully this technique worked predictably well across Wyoming.