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Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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Jackson Hole, 2002


It was the first week in October and I was hoping to make a motorcycle trip from my home in the Denver area, up to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A high school buddy, Howie Reynolds, had retired about a month earlier. He and his wife, Sandy, had purchased a 5th-wheel trailer and set out on their first retirement trip. Two weeks into the trip, they would be traveling through Yellowstone National Park from north to south, heading towards a three day stay in Jackson Hole. I had recently located Howie and we were in touch, but we hadn’t seen each other in forty-three years! I had lived in Colorado for over thirty years, but had never seen the Tetons. It was almost embarrassing, much like living in New York and never visiting the Statue of Liberty. Catching up with Howie sounded like a great trip with a great purpose. I really wanted to do it.


For the uninitiated, Jackson Hole is an area, not a town, as many people believe. The world famous Teton mountain range surrounds Jackson Lake and the town of Jackson, on three sides, forming the “hole”. Jackson Lake is on the north end and the town sits in the middle. Jackson Hole is an upscale resort destination boasting world class outdoor recreation for both winter and summer sports. A more magnificent mountain range would be difficult to find. It is very rugged, and very beautiful.


The only question mark about an October motorcycle trip to Jackson Hole, is the weather. You never know if you will find summer, winter, or something in between. The weather had to cooperate and, as I told Howie, it was a 50-50 shot at best. Mind you, the motorcycle enthusiast in me figured that if I’m going to travel 1100 miles, I might as well make the ride be part of the fun, right? The riders will understand.


I’ve lived near the mountains long enough to know that there’s no point in checking the weather more than just a few days ahead. You simply have no idea what it’s going to be like until you get that close. Not only that, big mountain snow storms happen while Denver is basking in mild and sunny weather. All I knew for sure was that the mountains were having snow storms during the week preceding my departure. The central Colorado Rockies got a big snowfall, just three days beforehand. Loveland Pass had white-out conditions and 10” on the ground and that was only one of the storms reported. Most of the hills got some snow and the ski areas all started making snow, signaling their belief that snow could be retained going forward.


Natural snow doesn't stay long on our roads, but riding a motorcycle isn’t like driving a car. There are always additional concerns to be considered. At this time of year, daytime temperatures and traffic are enough to clear the road surfaces, but nights are typically below freezing. All it takes to have your motorcycle go down, is to come around some bend and find yesterday's snow melt running across the road, frozen by the overnight temperatures. I had to be prepared to cancel this trip, or turn back part way, if the conditions didn't look good.


The plan was to leave very early Friday morning. It’s about 540 miles to Jackson, heading generally in a north-westerly direction. I would ride it in one day. I could stay out of the hills and away from traditionally harsh winter driving areas only for the first hundred miles or so. From there on, virtually all of the route is known to be difficult in winter. The forecast said that Friday would be an in-between day with some showers, but starting a clearing trend for the rest of the weekend. No new precipitation after Friday. What to do? How "in-between" was it going to be? I knew that Jackson Hole is always colder. I needed to arrive before the warmest part of the day gave way to sundown. I figured if I could leave home at six A.M., the sun would have a chance to warm the route in front of me as I progressed through potentially colder areas. The drive home might be more problematic but going at least, I should be okay. It was north to Fort Collins, then turn northwest on highway 287. From the turn on, I needed the sun.


Good plan. Bad luck. Thursday night a friend called to tell me that it was snowing from Fort Collins, north. Ugh. The weather map didn’t even show it, but there it was. I hate being cold. Six A.M. came and I made an executive level decision – to delay leaving until eight. That way, I wouldn’t have to be on 287 until about nine-thirty, hopefully time enough for the roads to clear off. That turned out to be the best decision I made.


I dressed for the worst. High-tech long johns, flannel-lined pants, turtle neck shirt, all covered by my waterproof motorcycle gear with its winter liners installed. Ski gloves, full-face helmet, and cycle boots covered the extremities. My bike, a BMW R1100RT has the ability to re-direct some engine heat to the cockpit area. I turned it on. It helped. I attached a small thermometer to the instrument panel to give me some warning at least, if the temperatures dropped to the freezing mark. Off I went.


I'm wasn’t familiar with 287 but it turned out to be one of those two-lane back-country roads which passes through desolate open country. There are rolling hills and turns to be sure, but a lot of it is flat-out fast. I could really move. I WANTED to really move through there too! It was VERY COLD, and the wind was blowing hard across my path. The “Fort Collins” storm had included this area and the ground was snow covered. Had I been there two hours earlier, it would have been icy for sure.


And the wind . . . impressive. Nothing short of biting. At time like these, I always find myself envisioning the settlers who came to this area nearly two centuries ago, long before Polartec Fleece, Gore-Tex, and insulated boots. These were some hearty folks alright. No cell-phones to call for help either. You wonder how they were able to adapt and survive?


I crossed into Wyoming and finally could see the interstate highway (I-80) off in the distance. One more bridge to cross and I'd be off the back road and onto what I hoped would be a traffic-cleared road. My hands were numb enough that pulling in the clutch to shift was a chore. It must be what arthritis feels like. My finger joints were somewhat painful and the strength in my hands was markedly diminished. One more bridge and safer conditions I hoped. Suddenly, the bike was "loose". Yikes, the bridge had ice on it! Keep it straight up! Don't overreact! Don't brake! Good thing that bridge was only thirty yards across. I was over it and still upright. I’ll take it. It's one of those two second events that feels like thirty seconds.


I was looking at about two-hundred miles on I-80 now, due west to Rock Springs. I-80 is a seventy-five mph divided interstate where everyone seems to be doing more than that. Lots of trucks on the road to blow you around too. I-80 would prove to be perfectly clear and safe, but I didn't know that yet. Up ahead, I saw very black clouds running as far as I could see both left and right and coming all the way down to the horizon. They looked, by my amateur assessment, like a snowstorm in full swing. God knows, it was cold enough to snow. There was already five inches of snow on the ground on both sides of the highway and . . . the wind. Well, this was Wyoming wasn’t it? Of course, the wind. It's a given. I rolled a few fast miles and my apprehension deepened. I was low on fuel now, and chilled to the bone. A sign told me that the town of Elk Mountain was coming up. Break time - decision time too.


Elk Mountain turned out to be a one-building affair with a dirt entry drive, a couple of gas pumps and little else. I gassed up alright, but I wasn’t moving well as I tried hard not to drop the bike while maneuvering it away from the pumps. I went in to pay, but mostly to warm up. Yup, I got a friendly, "Howdy, partner." coming through the door. "A little cold out there today?", I was asked. Saw no need to answer that one. I got a cup of hot coffee and some of those mini-donuts. This was going to be lunch since I was about 90% certain I was turning around when I was ready to leave. A local rancher liked my bike and struck up a conversation. He was a hunter too and we talked about that and the area for a while. The time passed easily. I was starting to feel human again. As we spoke, I found myself preparing him to see me make my u-turn. I mentioned that those clouds up ahead must be a snow storm in progress. He didn't agree. Said it was just a front passing through. He repeated that about three more times as we continued to speak. Okay, but I was turning around nonetheless. I thanked him for the company and headed out the door, to my next surprise. It was starting to rain now.


Well, that’s no big deal. My gear is waterproof. All of it. At least it wasn't snowing. My thermometer said it was thirty-eight degrees. Balmy. I really did feel better after warming up and all. I pointed the bike towards the highway. A left meant heading home. No lie - I have no idea why I went right, but I did. Good decision number two. I rode in the rain for about the next hundred miles. The temperature was slowly rising so the fear of encountering any more ice gradually disappeared. The clouds never went away but they did get higher and less threatening. Rawlins came and went and all thoughts of turning back were gone. I was past the half-way point and life was good.


At Rock Springs, I filled up, ate a burger, and turned north on highway 191. It was raining again, but lightly. Another guy, who wanted to talk with me about my bike, told me that he had just driven down from Jackson and that it was snowing between Jackson and Pinedale. That would be the northern-most eighty miles I would have to negotiate, but I had a different mindset now. I had come too far to turn back and, the bad weather had vanished as I continued on. I was off again.


Highway 191 was very wide open and the mid-day temperatures had improved. I switched to lighter gloves. The clouds were making for some really pretty scenes as they hugged the peaks in the distance. The rain had quit and I was hauling. The only time I had to slow down was when I was passing through the few little towns that dot the route. I was seeing antelope along the way but fortunately, there were fences along the road between me and the animals. (Antelope will not jump a fence, even though they easily can.) Whoops. There's one on my side of the fence. He must have crawled under (that’s what they will sometimes do), but where's his brother? I slowed down, just in case. Pinedale came and went. Still no snow. I got some rain for a while, but still, no problem.


Up ahead, I saw a pickup off on the side of the road. Two guys were standing there and one had binoculars up to his eyes. I had just entered the Jackson Hole area. A quick glance to my right and I saw a bull moose. He was jet black and carrying a big rack. This is the first bull moose I had ever seen in the wild and he was just meandering up the side of this steep hill, not hidden in any way by the relatively short sagebrush. He could not have cared about us at all. The king of all he surveyed and feeling no threat from any one or any thing. Quite magnificent.


The route now reminded me of a prior ride I had taken through the Black Hills. Sweeping turns through beautiful country. The trees were yellow and gold, often contrasted by the deep greens of the firs and pines. The rivers seemed to present one post-card view after another as I leaned the bike around each bend. Over a rise, the panorama that is the Tetons appeared in all its glory. Snow covered peaks accentuated the sharpness they are famous for. They were everywhere you looked now, and truly spectacular. I was almost there and I pressed on for the destination. It would be four-thirty when I arrived in Jackson, the ideal timing to have missed the weather hazards. My motel appeared on the right and I didn't even have a chance to get lost trying to find it! No fun there. I got the last ground floor room. Living right I guess.


Now to find my buddy. Didn’t know if I’d even recognize Howie these days, and I’d never even met Sandy. I drove the four blocks to their RV campground but found them not at the trailer. I left a note and returned to my room to clean up and relax a bit. The phone rang and they came by to pick me up. Old times came flooding back. It had been forty-three years since we last saw each other but it was like no time has passed at all. We had stories and things to tell each other, but we were not needing to get acquainted. We were already acquainted. We were just catching up a bit. He’d been to war and survived. We’d all been divorced, had our ups and downs with relationships, but were happy. I just adored his wife, Sandy. She was a real sweetheart and easy to get to know. It got late and we agreed to meet for breakfast.


The next day, it rained off and on all day. Perfect. The town of Jackson has covered wood sidewalks, and we had so many things to talk about. We spent the day walking around the town, shopping and gabbing as we went. There were lots of laughs as we stumbled upon coincidences in our lives. I’m telling you, these are the moments which are precious in life. These are the payback moments when your past struggles seem insignificant but your memories, priceless. Sharing these moments with the best of friends, you confirm that all your fondest recollections of that friendship were real after all. It is very gratifying. Very gratifying.


Sandy prepared a lovely home-cooked meal that evening. Another bottle of wine disappeared as we listened and laughed with each other. The two dogs eventually stopped barking at me (the stranger) and were now sleeping off the great demands of guarding their owners against the threat of my presence. Time passed too quickly to suit me. I would drive by the next morning, just to wave goodbye, but this visit was much too short. At least I know now that it won’t be our last meeting. Of that, I am quite sure.


It was now Sunday morning and I had the weather channel on in my room. What happened to the two clear days we were supposed to have? It was still a little overcast, but at least the rain had stopped. The clouds were higher now and the mountain tops could be seen from the town. The temperature was a balmy thirty-two degrees! The ice had to be scraped off of the saddle of the bike. Once again, I decided to wait for eight. Couldn’t help but wonder about the roads, but they did appear dry. On the road again . . . (sing it, Willie).


I was pretty tentative through Pinedale. Reflections on the road surface all looked like potential ice patches, and were avoided. Of course, this distraction made me drive like I had forgotten everything I’d ever learned about riding. I bobbled here and there in the turns until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Talk to yourself, Jeff. You know how to do this so get with it! It helped, and I settled down again. These ARE really nice roads and the ride got to be fun again. In too short a time, I was out of “the Hole” and into the open country. Triple digit straight running now. Only an antelope could be a problem, so I scanned the shoulders continually. Two hundred miles were only interrupted by a couple of photo stops.


I rolled back into Rock Springs. I had checked to see what tread I had left before leaving home, and again, as I left this morning. It appeared that my pre-trip estimate of having enough rubber to make the 1100 miles, with some to spare, was right on. So, what was this? I was three hundred miles from home and seeing the wear bars? What happened? Don’t know for sure but the spirited riding couldn’t have helped. I decided I’d have to switch into “tire wear prevention” style for now. From now on, no hard acceleration and no using the rear brake. Off again.


Jump ahead one-hundred-fifty miles now, and I’m at a rest stop on I-80. The rear tire has worn past the wear bars and now showed a smooth, unbroken wear strip around the circumference of the tire. It was only about a quarter inch wide so far, so . . . maybe? I called my friend Gary Bever on my cell phone. He was enjoying a weekend at the family cabin and my route would pass within about 40 miles from there, and along his way home too. Gary’s a rider and understands about motorcycle tires, how quickly the tread can disappear and how little tire you have left when that happens. I explained the situation and he went on alert, ready to take my call if I need to be “rescued”. For the next one-hundred-fifty miles, I drove as conservatively as possible, stopping periodically to check what was left of the rear tire. It turned out that for all the worry, I did make it home without seeing canvas on the tire. It was nice to have a friend at the ready though. Much better than just wondering if your tire will blowout along some desolate stretch with no one knowing to go look for you out there.


This trip was a great adventure in every way. Seeing my old friend Howie again turned out to be all I had hoped it would be, and more. An adrenalin rush or two confirmed I was still alive and still participating in life. I had encountered cold, wet, indecision, even fear, and conquered it all. But more than that, to have had this all in this setting, from the back of a great bike, with all your senses so in touch with the surroundings . . . the Tetons, the wildlife, the picture perfect rivers, the colors everywhere, the clouds, even the vast expanses of prairie . . . . I am thankful every day for my all-time best decision made years ago, to move out here.


I do love this country.


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What a great story Jeff. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. The Tetons and the Jackson Hole area are one of the most beautiful spots in the USA. It must have been great seeing it all from your RT.

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I concur the Tetons are great, and this is a great country to live and ride in.


Taking a long ride to visit an old friend, is one of lifes most simple, but rewarding things, and something 99% of us would love to do. But, life gets in the way, and we always have excuses on why we can't do it. Glad to see, you put all that stuff on hold and took care of something important.

Edited by Guy

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Great write up, Jeff.


I think we might have been there the weekend before you. We stayed in a cabin in Lake Village in Yellowstone Saturday night (9/28). Sunday morning, we were taking pictures of the early sun on the Tetons. We considered heading down to Rocky Mountain NP on the same route you took north, but decided against it and went out the NE Yellowstone entrance instead. Anyway, on the way back north from Jackson, we stopped at the National Elk Refuge and took pictures of the geese and ducks. Just a bit further north, we stopped the truck (gold colored Dodge Ram with a cap on the back) at one of the refuge gates and took some pictures of the bull moose, probably the same one you saw. It was quite a ways away. Even with a 400mm, it only came out as a dark spot unless you zoom the image a lot.


I posted some pictures of our trip here. The Jackson Hole pictures are at the beginning. Maybe they will stir your memory as you did mine. Thanks for sharing.

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Thanks for a great write-up, Jeff. I passed through the park on the way back from Gunnison, after re-hooking up with Steve and Karen Knapp in Jackson. It was my first visit to one of my favorite places in almost 20 years. I used to camp at Jackson Lake and still remember the feeling of waking up on a brisk morning and gazing at the Cathedral Range. Had a blast doing the whitewater raft trips on the Snake too. What a gorgeous place.

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Very Beatiful Scenery. We rode through there last Thursday trying to find our way home from Torrey. I must have taken a 100 pictures.

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