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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Idaho From Top to Bottom

Idaho was always a wildcard in my book; I just didn't know what to expect. There aren't really any feature destinations like national parks yet there are dozens of well known motorcycling routes that criss-cross the state and the region is full of winding rivers and deep forests. Our route back to Irwin, ID (where my girlfriend had left her car) gave us three full days to explore Idaho all the way from the Canadian border to where its southern edge hits Utah.

The ride south from West Glacier, MT took us past the long and scenic Flathead Lake. The air smells like apples and there are roadside stands selling sweet cherries by the pound every quarter mile or so (some of the best I've ever had). The air wasn't warm but we were well bundled up so it actually felt quite refreshing.


Glacier National Park

The morning after our hellish ride through the gale dawned cloudy and cold but mercifully without rain. Our fears of having to cancel our trip through Glacier National Park weren't realized and we thankfully rode north through the tough scrubland that we hadn't been able to see the prior evening.

Glacier National Park straddles the border between the US and Canada, crossing the Rocky Mountains and encompassing over 1,000,000 acres of land. It is a maze of backcountry trails through the mountains and is home to a healthy population of grizzly bears, black bears, lynx, wolverines, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and all manner of other interesting large mammals (some which you'd like to see and others that you'd rather avoid). We entered with high hopes.

Despite some major and obvious differences, the Going to the Sun road through Glacier Park reminded me a lot of the Pacific Coast Highway in California. It ascends to dizzying heights above the valleys below and crawls along narrow ridges that quickly drop off for thousands of feet. The views are breathtaking and rapid-fire. It is a beautiful sight to behold. There are even old-style red buses that still give tours.


The Road to Glacier

The ride up to Glacier National Park included the most dangerous situation I've ever ridden through. It started uneventfully enough, though, with miles upon miles of gentle yellow hills dotted with erratic boulders and tough teal shrubs. A dusty sort of hay smell was generally dominant but for a mile or two, the air was softened with the smells of wild lavender.

At one point, descended from a low mountain pass and came upon a picturesque but entirely unexpected canyon:


Yellowstone National Park

After a poor night's sleep in a freezing teepee in West Yellowstone and a misadventure with some hydrogen peroxide, we set out to find a better experience in the park itself. We got as far as the parking lot before the next bit of poor luck hit -- the frigid night had killed the bike battery and we had to wait for a jump start off of a staff member's truck. By that point, though, the sun was well out and, beneath blue skies, we pushed into the park at last.

We retraced some of our route from the previous evening, heading more or less straight for Old Faithful. It was good to actually get a chance to see the landscape in the daytime. We passed beautiful river views, meadows, and gentle forested hills until their beauty was difficult not to take for granted. My girlfriend seemed to tire of the many photo-op stops before I did:


The Tetons

A very busy day began with a chilly morning wakeup in the teepee. We combined possessions, loaded up the bike, and set out for Jackson, WY on rt 33. What a great ride! It as full of long and twisting climbs into the mountain passes, reaching over 8000' before descending again to the valley of Jackson.

Jackson, WY is a beautiful town that looks like it's just waiting for the winter snows. The buildings are typically made from thick logs with good strong roofs that look about as awkward as wearing a wool sweater in July. We grabbed lunch at a cafe with a view of the mountains that ringed the valley... only they weren't there.

The air was, according to the locals, as hazy as they'd seen it in years. The horizon just sort of melted into a soupy gray where you could just barely make out the rise of the land. Smoke from the Idaho wildfires had filtered into the basin to the point where you had to blink a lot to dispel a gentle stinging sensation of the eyes that sort of hovered at the edge of consciousness.


Wyoming At Last

After the better part of a week spent cruising around Rapid, I was itching to head west again. I've never seen the Rocky Mountains before and one of my major trip goals is to spend a lot of time exploring them from Utah up through Idaho. So I was pretty excited when I finally saddled up and set out towards Wyoming on rt 16.

First I had about 70 miles to cover through the Black Hills, which was more or less familiar territory at this point. What I didn't expect as I rolled towards the "Forever West" state were the acres upon acres of desolate hilltops ravaged by the Jasper Fire of 2000. One carelessly dropped match had torched 83,500 acres of forest and left the hills as wide open expanses of gentle grass dotted with the matchstick trunks of trees that refused to burn to the ground. It was an eerie sight after being among the dense ponderosa pines of the previous 50 miles.


Black Hills Riding: The Needles Highway

I saw the Black Hills for the first time when I came to visit my girlfriend's family this past March during a record-setting heat wave. The snow had melted but the lakes were still frozen and there was no one at all on the road when we drove up to Sylvan Lake for pleasant summer-like hike. The Needles Highway, which begins at Sylvan (6000' elevation), was still blocked off for the season (standard procedure during winters that don't hit 80 degrees up there).

Other than the temperature, my second visit couldn't have been more different. The snow was melted and the contemplative quiet of the hills was broken by the roar of a thousand motorcycles crawling around the 15mph curves towards the famous Needles Highway. I took my place among them, eager to see the prize I'd been unable to claim my first time around.


Sturgis 2012 - Sell Me Some Cool

Sturgis is the largest motorcycle rally in the US and it lasts for more than a week. For days and weeks before it even begins, the roads over 300 miles away are clogged with bikes and trailers and RVs. I've seen a Sturgis 2012 shirt on north of 80% of the other bikers I've met since I left South Dakota. It's like prom for bikers.

We rode out to the town of Sturgis, SD to see what all the commotion was about. After a crush of heavy traffic on the way in, we were able to park along the main drag downtown amidst the roars of 100 motorcycles and the smells of fried food and rampant consumerism. Every shop on the strip is packed full of branded merchandise. One member of our party broke her flip-flop and was dismayed to find the only options for replacement cost over $40.


The Badlands

It's been a long time since I could accurately remember how old I am. I celebrated another of those increasingly meaningless milestones in good Rapid City fashion, starting with a local brunch and a trip to the Jenny Gulch on Lake Pactola in the Black Hills. It's a spot where local teenagers go to show their total disregard for personal safety by drinking and jumping off the cliffs. I may be getting old, but I don't turn down a good challenge and it was a fun time all around. The black hills are absolutely gorgeous and it was great to get out in the sun and on the water for a day.

I had noticed on the way in from Sioux Falls to Rapid City, just at the left edge of sight, that the land took a turn for the strange. It looked like the plains just kind of disintegrated at the jagged edge of the horizon into some great unknown. My girlfriend had told me about the Badlands and I was dying to check them out. I finally got my wish the day after my birthday when we rode 70 miles out of Rapid in the morning to the small town of Wall, SD where route 240, the Badlands Loop, began.


The Winding, Windy Journey From Minneapolis to Rapid City

The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul are in some ways like midwestern versions of Boston -- fairly well populated but still retaining some of that small-town charm. It's an area that got its start due to the early economic potential of the Mississippi River, grew strongly during the Industrial Revolution, and struggled to redefine itself as a modern city in the late 20th century.

We started our half day in town with a slow riverboat tour down the Mississippi to learn a bit about the history of the area and to take in the local scenery. The experience was high on leisure but a bit light on history. We did see the cave where Pierre Pigs-eye Parrant, the bootlegger forefather of St Paul, set up the operation which eventually evolved into the first settlement. We paddled down to where Fort Snelling sits high atop a bluff before turning around.