The next day, late in the afternoon, I crossed the continental divide for approximately the sixth time on the trip. (The Divide is the “backbone” of North America, that separates westward-flowing streams from eastward-flowing waters.) I rode past a sign that announced, “Togwotee Pass, 9,658 feet,” and felt suddenly close to the national parks ahead. The road rolled down and up gently for the next seven miles, and after each rise I looked in vain for my first sight of the Tetons. I was pedaling through flower-strewn meadows, mountains on one side and forest on the other. The sun went in and out of the clouds, and it was cold when it disappeared.
Finally, I rode up one last ridge, pine trees standing like sentries at the roadside. The sun came out as I emerged from the trees, and I practically fell off my bike. Only 50 miles away, the Grand Teton mountain range rose abruptly out of Jackson Hole, enormous, delicate spires silhouetted against the sky. I had never seen anything like that view outside of a picture.
The cyclists-only campsite, where Charles and I spent the night, overlooked the mountains; it was a joint project of the Adventure Cycling Association and the National Forest Service, with pit toilets, bear-boxes, picnic tables and no water. The lack of water, however, was more than made up for by that view. As I lay in my tent, writing in my journal, I could see ten feet out my door to the edge of a cliff. The ground dropped away after that, and away across the valley were the mountains, rising straight up out of the valley, waiting. The air was cool, and drops of rain were pattering on my tent. Calmness pervaded my soul.
And then I told Charles that tomorrow I wanted to go on by myself. I wouldn't really be alone, anyway—National Parks always seemed like safe and friendly places, and I would never be far from lots of people. Also, if I was traveling with someone in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, I needed to be able to share the experience in ways I could not do with Charles. Riding with him had been good for what it was—company when the landscape seemed large enough to swallow a solo cyclist up forever—but we hadn't gotten to know each other the way the Turtle Squad had. On one of the first days we'd ridden together, Charles alluded to his experiences in Vietnam. “I’ve never been the same since,” he said, in a rare moment of openness. “I’m closed now. Nothing can get to me.” That was about the only time we had talked about anything other than road conditions, weather, bicycles, and food.
We said goodbye early the next morning. Neither of us knew what to say. “Well... Goodbye!” Charles finally said.
“Goodbye,” I returned. “Have a good trip.” That was it. There was a crunch of gravel, and Charles pulled out onto the road and zipped quietly down the hill. And I was alone.
I savored the morning. The rain had continued on and off all night, but by eight the mist was rising, the drizzle had subsided, and I was ready to ride. I was packing when I looked over my shoulder and caught my breath. A rainbow! It hung suspended over the now-visible Tetons, brightly glowing in the enshrouding mist. The band of colors grew brighter as I looked, and now the bottom of the rainbow reached the tops of the mountains. It stretched longer and higher and brighter like an ethereal, otherworldly painting on the canvas of the gray sky. When it had reached its climax, the rainbow faded slowly into the mist to made way for the sun poking through the clouds.
Then I zipped down the mountain into the cold, gray morning, and into Jackson Hole. Everything was quiet. Hardly any cars passed me, and I listened to the silence. Alone felt good.
"Welcome to Grand Teton National Park!" The ranger smiled, and handed me a little receipt.
"Thanks!" I said, smiling back. "I can't believe I rode my bike here!"
The Tetons are different from many other mountain ranges because they have no foothills. Grand Teton rises straight up to 13,770 feet, more than a mile above the valley floor. The other eleven peaks are also more than 12,000 feet, and about a dozen mountain glaciers “live” in the mountain range. All morning, I meandered across the flat valley, reading geological and historical wayside markers and stopping every few minutes to gape at the view.
Back in Pueblo, I'd sent ahead a food package to myself, c/o General Delivery, Jackson, Wyoming. I hadn’t realized back then that Jackson was so far off the route—and that the town would be full of tourists and extremely noisy. I stayed at The Bunkhouse Hostel, which was in the basement of a hotel downtown. The hostel had one living room and one enormous, windowless, co-ed dorm room, in which some guests appeared to live permanently.
I was unpacking when a man came in behind me. “Whoa!” he said. “…I turn around and there’s a gorgeous woman just standing there! Where’d you come from, baby?”
“None of your business,” I said, unable to think of a snappy comeback, and I turned around coldly. If voices could freeze things, he would have been a standing ice cube.
“Fuck, you try to give someone a compliment and she bites your head off!”
I didn’t want to spend the rest of the evening in the basement after that, so I got tickets at the local theatre. “Annie Get Your Gun” wouldn't have been my first choice under normal circumstances, but tonight it was the only choice. So I settled into the plush seats of the theater and enjoyed my night on the town.
There were no more incidents in the hostel that night, and I was glad to be there, sleazy as it was, as a terrific storm raged outside.
The next morning, I rode back to Jenny Lake campground in Grand Teton National Park, and the serenity was a relief after the chaos of Jackson. By twilight, three other cyclists had pulled into the hiker/biker area.
Jerry, fiftyish, was riding from Kalispell, Montana, to Salt Lake City, Utah. “You know, we’ve heard about you,” he said, after I told him my name. “We met some Dutch guy, a friend of yours, and he told us about these three people he rode with—one of 'em being you.”
“Roel!” I exclaimed. “Yeah, I rode with him through Missouri—gosh, that seems like a long time ago… Where are you three headed?”
“I take a bike trip each summer,” Jerry explained, “and I always get friends to come with me. Al here is my uncle; he’s 71 years old this trip, and he usually comes at least a couple hundred miles with me every summer. We’ve been riding together for years now. He joined me in Missoula, and he’s flying out of Jackson in two days. Greg drove up here, left his car in Jackson, and met us in Madison Junction in Yellowstone—it was a shlep, let me tell you, but worth the planning. Greg’s my son, by the way. He’s also flying home in two days. Then, two friends of mine are flying into Jackson and they'll ride the rest of the way with me.”
“It’s nice that you get so many people to ride with you,” I said. "You're so organized!" We were seated around the picnic table, and Jerry was making supper while Greg and Al set up the tents.
“Yes, it really is nice to be with friends. I like traveling like this, and it's been especially fun with Greg these last two weeks. And for a 71-year-old, Al really does well.”
“I'll say.” I looked over at Al, a gray-haired but sprightly man, hammering in a tent stake. “I can’t even imagine my grandparents doing anything like this.”
At that moment, Al straightened up. “Oy vay, my back,” he moaned. “I think that's enough of that!” He walked over to the picnic table and sat down.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “my back acts up now and then. Jerry here, he tells me not to do stuff like put up the tent, but I do it anyway.”
“He doesn’t listen to me,” said Jerry.
“That’s right, I don’t listen to him. If I want to hammer in a tent stake, I’m going to hammer in a tent stake.” Uncle and nephew surveyed one another lovingly.
“Hey, Sarabeth!” Jerry exclaimed. “I just remembered another time we heard about you. We met this couple—Lili and Jack—maybe a week ago, and they told us about a vegetarian seventeen-year-old riding to summer camp!”
“Really!” I laughed at my new and unique title.
“They were nice people, too—we chatted for a while. And then Lili said something to Al about having a cousin in Chicago, and we sort of laughed when Al asked his name—the population of Chicago not being exactly small. Lili said ‘Fabian Necheles.’ And do you know, Uncle Al and Fabian are old friends and live a block apart!”
“Hey dad, where’s the water jug?” Greg had finished the tents and came over to the table. “Oh, hello!” he said, spotting me. “I’m Greg, in case Dad didn’t introduce me.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’m Sarabeth.” Greg was 20, big and smiling, with a long reddish-brown beard. He was an astrophysics student at a university in Utah.
“The water jug's in the car, Greg,” said his father. “Dinner’s gonna be ready soon, so hurry up! Also, it’s supposed to rain, so we need to get everything packed up.”
“The car?” I asked.
“Yes—don't tell the rangers! I know you're not supposed to have a car when you're camping here. But see, two weeks ago, Greg left his car in Jackson when he flew in. He hitch-hiked into town this afternoon to pick it up. And it sure is nice, having all the luxuries of car-camping at our fingertips!”
We sat and talked around the picnic table until it was too dark to see anything.
On a sunny afternoon at Jenny Lake, as I relaxed in the shadow of the mountains, I heard a voice behind me.
“Hello!” It was a cheerful voice, but it surprised me because I hadn’t seen anyone a second before. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that the speaker was an elf, and had materialized out of the trees. But elves don’t have backpacks, I said to myself as I rounded a clump of pines. And, they aren’t usually bald.
“Hello!” I returned. A small, jaunty man was sitting on a bear-box next to his pack.
Each of us stared at the other, and said practically simultaneously, “Gosh, you’re carrying a lot of stuff!” We both laughed.
“I think you’re carrying more on that bike than I'm carrying in this backpack,” said the man, squinting into the sun at my bike. He pulled out a baseball cap from one of the many pockets in his backpack, and put it on. “Although, it has felt heavy for the last few days.”
“Are you on a long trip?”
“Oh no. I wish I was. I get a week’s vacation, and for years it’s been my dream to come and hike here. I work in Chicago, and I flew into Jackson last week. And actually, I’m flying out this afternoon at two—I’m trying not to remember that, though. You know how sometimes you think, 'If only I could forget about something, it won't happen'? Right now, I'm trying to forget about going home. I don’t wanna go back to Chicago today!” He grinned like a little boy. “Where're you headed?”
“I’m riding my bike across the country,” I said. “Today, I rode from Jackson.”
“Wow!” The man leaned forward on the bear-box. “You’re riding your bike across the country?? That’s just incredible.” He stared at me with a funny half-smile, half open-mouthed gape. “I’ve heard of trips like that—people like that—but wow! You’re really doing it!” He looked at my bike again. “Can I shake your hand?” he asked seriously.
“Sure!” We shook hands just as seriously, before we burst out laughing.
“Now,” he said, “do you mind if I ask how you get so much time off from work—or school—or whatever you do?” I explained that I didn’t go to school and that my work had been of the odd-jobs sort for the last few years. He didn’t push for details.
“…And so,” I finished, “now’s the time in my life when I have the freedom to go, so I decided to do it.”
“You know, you should write about this.” He was intense now, still smiling but in a different way. “You’ve gotta be one of those people who changes the world. God, you should see how people think back in Chicago! I took just this one week off to go backpacking, and people couldn’t deal with it. ‘But it’s dangerous.’ ‘But, you could get hurt.’ Someone actually said, ‘But why?’ How do I answer that one? You only know why if you’ve been in the woods and smelled the trees and felt the life out there. Not everyone has—and that’s what's messed up. This week I realized how important it is to be alone, outside. When I flew in last week, I was burnt out and tired—today, I feel like I'm high on nature or something. After a while, out in the World, you don't even realize how it gets to you. People don't know how it affects them to be locked in an office all day.”
“I think they feel guilty, too,” I said.
“How do you mean?” He was really listening, the funny smile on his lips and his chin propped on his hand. The pine trees whispered gently above us, and somewhere above them Teewinot Mountain loomed 12,325 feet in the air.
“I don't think most people follow their dreams, or do what’s really good for them. There's like an unwritten law that everyone has to get a Good Job, and money gets to be like this God. I mean, some people get angry at me—really upset—when they find out about my trip. They act like I don’t deserve it or something, or haven’t suffered in the Real World for long enough. Sometimes the comments do make me wonder, too. 'Gosh,' I think, 'I really haven’t suffered in my life—why should I get to do this?'
"But then I think, 'That's totally convoluted. Life is meant to be enjoyed!' I mean, we only get one chance. Why should anyone feel guilty about having fun? I don't think I'm hurting anyone by riding my bike."
We were both sitting opposite each other on bear boxes now, and for a few minutes we were silent, thinking.
“I wanna change how I think about things when I get back to Chicago,” the man said presently. “I don’t want to get on that airplane and start worrying about deadlines again, not taking time to breathe and admire things. I lose my sense of wonder back at home. God! Imagine if everyone in the country went out for a week of backpacking—or biking—even once a year. Imagine if people got to experience nature, really feel it, not just see it on television or in books. It would change our collective mindset, really and truly it would. I wish I could get some of my colleagues out here, give them a back pack for a week and see what happened...” He trailed off.
“You are so lucky to be doing this.” He was intense again, in my face. “You are *so lucky* to have that inside you already, your appreciation for things. You’ve got so much that I wish I had, and still don't have... By the way—” he looked at me, “how old are you, anyway?”
“Seventeen!” He slapped his leg, laughing uproariously. “Are you kidding me?” He stopped laughing. “You are seventeen, aren’t you. That’s incredible. When you said you weren’t in school or at work I figured you were taking a year off from college or something. But wait a sec—if you’re seventeen, how'd you get out of high school?”
I told him that I didn't go to school.
“Whoa!" he said. "That's pretty amazing. You never went to school…" He stopped for a minute, trying to wrap his head around it. "Well, if I knew my kids would turn out like you, I’d homeschool 'em too—if I ever have any. I’ve never heard of homeschoolers besides those crazy fundamentalists. You're not like that, are you? Actually, don't answer that—I know you aren't, and I don't want to know if you are. You must have incredible parents.”
We'd been talking for an hour when the man suddenly looked at his watch. “Oops! I almost made my wish come true about forgetting my plane. I have this feeling though, that even if I forget it, it'll still fly away without me and I'll regret it later. Or maybe I wouldn’t.” He smiled quizzically. “By the way—my name's Clif.”
I smiled. “I’m Sarabeth.”
“Well, Sarabeth, it’s nice to meet you.” We shook hands formally. “Here’s my card, Sarabeth—write to me after your trip, tell me how it goes, what you’ve learned.”
“Okay—and here’s my address, too.” I scribbled it on a piece of paper. “Have a good flight home!”
“Well yeah, I’ll try. I doubt I can, but I’ll try. Goodbye!”
“Goodbye!” I blinked, and he was gone. If I hadn’t known better, I would've sworn that he disappeared into the trees the same way he had appeared to materialize out of them before.
Serendipitous encounters with people like Clif excluded games and pretenses. During the five months of my journey, I met people—by the side of the road, in campgrounds, in a food co-op—and knew that I'd probably never see them again after we said goodbye. We knew that Now was the only chance to connect, and that bluffing or hiding the parts of ourselves that made us Sarabeth or Clif or Roel was out of the question. You can't be intimate with someone when you're trying to hold a façade on your shoulders.
It was those chance encounters, when I was plunged into a new experience and I didn't even realize it until I was elbow deep, that caused the whole trip to make sense. It was those times when I realized that I was learning not only tangible things like camping skills and handling my finances, but something more—like I was comprehending something tremendous. Like I had a glimpse of understanding the sheer awesome-ness of being alive.