Of all the memories from our first Cycle Greater Yellowstone, one is most vivid: More than a hundred breathless bicyclists atop Wyoming’s Dead Indian Pass, gazing in awe at a sea of jagged, stark rock and pine stretching to the eastern flank of Yellowstone National Park.
For a cyclist just navigating a winding, grinding 6-7 percent grade for six miles, two thoughts immediately come to mind at 8,060 feet when looking down at Sunlight Basin and then over the top to the distant Absaroka Range.
1. I … gasp … just … wheeze … did … cough … that!
2. This is one of the most spectacular vistas on the planet!
For most of the 700 cyclists partaking in GYC’s first Cycle Greater Yellowstone, this strategically placed lunch stop was the apex moment.
Some sat with their sandwiches, their weary legs dangling over the cliff, and stared as they ate in silence. Others stood in front of the two Nez Perce sculptures, hoisting their bicycles over their heads in triumph while friends snapped photos.
A man from the East Coast approached with his hand outstretched.
“I’ve ridden more than 50,000 miles, across the United States and Europe,” he said, “and this is the most beautiful route I’ve ever been on.”
Day 5 of the seven-day tour began at Pilot Creek, a glorified gravel pit carved out of the Shoshone National Forest along U.S. Highway 212 for snowmobilers to park their trailers in winter. The previous night, I had shared my envy over their good fortune in being able to pedal from the base of the iconic Pilot and Index peaks along the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River, into Sunlight Basin, and then … here.
Many were already abuzz over seeing a grizzly bear not 40 yards from the highway; it might’ve been the largest bicycle bear jam ever in Greater Yellowstone. Others were awestruck by the broad granite shoulders of the Beartooth Mountains, always in view to the left.
Now, as they peered over the railing, it was all crystallized — the reason for Cycle Greater Yellowstone, the talk the previous night about the values of the Absaroka-Beartooth Front, the magnificence of an integral piece of one of the last great largely intact ecosystems on the planet.
Each leg of Cycle Greater Yellowstone was themed to relate to a relevant GYC program. At Pilot Creek, I talked about the Absaroka-Beartooth Front and the greatest challenge to its integrity — oil and gas drilling.
It isn’t that we’re opposed to drilling, I emphasized, but that we keep in mind three simple concepts: Identify places too special for other values to drill, drill at a pace the landscape and communities can handle, and do it right.
Here was concept No. 1, in bright, vivid, awe-inspiring browns, greens, blues and whites. Not even smoke from distant fires could put a damper on this moment.
Ordinarily, cyclists grab their lunch, mill around for a short while, refill water bottles and recharge internal batteries for the next part of the journey, in this case the adrenalin-rushing descent into the Bighorn Basin toward Cody.
Not here, atop Dead Indian Pass (the origin of the name remains a mystery, though it likely relates to the Nez Perce tribe’s flight from the cavalry through the region in 1877).
Many simply sat, taking in the view. They didn’t want to leave.
Yes, it had required some … gasp … intense effort … wheeze … just to get … cough … to this rarified place, but it was more than that.
It was the uncommon wildness and beauty of a place none will soon forget.