It was my first time on a motorcycle since spending a year on the road with my two wheeled friend, so I was excited to twist the throttle one last time before winter. I also had a sweet ride under my bum, the likes of which I had never ridden before—a KTM 690 enduro.
The plan was a good one–drive north through Grand Teton National Park, further north through Yellowstone, then soak in the boiling river outside of Gardner, a place where a 120 degree thermal seep joins the Yellowstone river, making for a surreal experience.
Most of the time it takes a lot longer to tour Yellowstone, but conditions were favorable for an expedited excursion given October’s diminished visitor numbers, our powerful motorcycles, and our willingness to bypass most of the popular stops for our chance to take a dip in a scalding hot western river up in big sky country.
The view of the Tetons from the valley floor never get old, and this crisp October morning was no different. Seven thousand feet up, like a giant stone dagger stuck in the ground, rose the grand Teton, with its sister peaks extending north and south like gods of the old west.
Our day got off to a nice start when we veered off the primary park road for the oft-neglected Bar C Ranch road, a dirt double track that winds through the prairie to the west bank of the Snake River, joining up with the main road further north. It was my first opportunity to give my bike the gas, and I went full rally raid down the rocky track. Within seconds I was gone, nothing but dust in my buddy’s throat, me somewhere up ahead going light speed.
You see, I had spent a year riding a heavily laden Kawasaki KLR 650 all over the world, a reliable work horse, but not know for its snappy throttle or nimble prowess. The KTM, however, was a different beast. I quickly found the sweet spot towards the upper end of third gear on the 690 cc engine, taking every little bump and undulation no less than 30 ft, giving a little back break to slide around corners, snapping the throttle again as soon as things straightened out. As most riders know, it’s easy to get caught up in this euphoria, hypnotized by the power and response of the throttle, compelled to hold on to the feeling of being a Dakar front runner for as long as possible.
One second I was pumping every little tranny for more speed, and the next I was hurdling into the sagebrush praying I wouldn’t go ass over tea kettle from some unseen object. A moment before I had realized the road ended in an abrupt cliff, only to drop 400 ft to the rocky shore of the Snake River below. The river had evidently eroded away at the bank, carrying the embankment that held the road I was riding somewhere down stream in a flow of sediment. Crisis averted, but a close call none the less.
Upon near completion of our detour we snuck up on a massive heard of elk. I found myself closer than I had ever been to these majestic creatures. A couple enormous bucks stood out, the mystical curves of their massive antlers piercing the sky. We had stumbled upon their annual migration to winter foraging grounds, standing in awe of their proximity.
Through the Rockefeller Corridor we rode to the South Entrance of Yellowstone. It was October 27 and the park wasn’t getting many visitors then, so we had the roads all to ourselves. In fact, in just a few days the gates would be closed for winter. To say we took advantage of the empty roads would be an understatement. It wasn’t long before we were redlining our bikes in their highest gear, Yellowstone’s forested mountains, lakes, streams, and thermal pools nothing but an impressionistic blur as we focused on the twists and turns with laser focus.
After a quick dip on the Yellowstone River by Alum Creek we went full gas towards the stately park headquarters at Mammoth, only interrupted once by an elderly bison having a tough go of crossing the street. “Wolf food,” I thought.
Just outside the park boundary lies the boiling river, where hot water heated by underground thermal activity enters the Gardner River. There you can lounge in spa like water in the middle of a beautiful western river. It was a Saturday and lots of families and students from nearby Livingstone and Bozeman were there enjoying the gorgeous fall weather. It felt good to get off the bikes and relax in such a unique and incredible place.
After filling up on huge platters of pulled pork at a classic western BBQ joint we beat it south. We took a different way home, crossing the continental divide and passing Old Faithfull geyser on the way. The continental divide at Craig Pass was only a few hundred feet higher than roads we had been on earlier, but that slight difference and its shady nature meant that the road was covered in ice and snow, elements we hadn’t expected to encounter. Before I was able to get Jesse’s attention, warning him to slow down, he was off his motorcycle, bike and man spinning like a two tops to a slow halt. I quickly parked my bike and ran over to help him. Injury averted, we ran to the downed motorcycle, knowing unsuspecting drivers could be, would be, coming around the corner at any moment. The problem was, the ice made it impossible for us to get any traction, so we had to slide the bike to a bare patch before being able to pick it up. It was a comical scene, although we were lucky not to cause a dangerous pile up as we messed around like a couple knuckle heads in the middle of the road trying to get the bike upright.
Instead of being content with our incredible ride and near miss, the day had one more surprise for us. As two incorrigible thrill seekers, my partner and I couldn’t resist the temptation to take an alternative route home. But instead of a well trodden route of equal distance, we decided to ride a little known dirt road that traverses the northern Tetons called Grassy Lakes Road. The sun was setting and neither of us had a very good idea of what to expect, but we knew that it had the potential to be epic and that our lights were adequate.
What we didn’t know was that we would face conditions far worse than earlier in the day on Craig Pass, only this time it would be in the freezing cold night time on neglected dirt roads covered in ice and snow. What could go wrong?
The road started out impeccable, but quickly started to gain elevation and conditions got increasingly dicey. Eventually we encountered a significant amount of snow and ice and Jesse, on his big KTM 1290, was having trouble keeping the rubber side down. Riding on his tail, it was like watching a bull rider getting tossed from his mount over and over again. I eventually started to feel bad and asked him to switch bikes, the 690 being a much better ride for these conditions, but by no means perfect.
Immediately I could feel something was off. The bike would not track straight and I had to hold the bars at a significant angle to keep the bike going where I wanted. I was either in denial or unable to think clearly after our long day and the current situation, but it wasn’t until I had been tossed from the saddle that I realized we had a flat front tire.
It was about 10 PM and 25 degrees, dropping fast. We had been riding since 8 AM. The It’s no exaggeration to say we were in the middle of one of the vastest wilderness areas in the Americas, on a neglected dirt road covered in snow late at night at the end of October. But it was okay, because we had come prepared, or so we thought.
After initially feeling optimistic, knowing we had the right tools for the job, it slowly dawned on us that maybe this wasn’t going to be such an easy problem to solve. First off, our tire irons were about as cheap and low quality as anything you can imagine. It seemed unconscionable that a company would even sell such tools, knowing that some knuckleheads might actually rely on them, like a Tharanos blood analyzer. I half expected to see a disclaimer similar to the ones on cheap carabiners for peoples’ keys: “under no circumstances should this be used for actual climbing. Doing so will result in certain injury, possibly death.” And since the temperature was below freezing, the rubber on our Heidenou K60, already known for being a stout tire, was about as firm as cement.
Despite breaking one of the tire irons in half, we managed to change the tube after about two and half of the most frustrating and numbingly cold hours imaginable.
“Lets get that air compressor out and get the f*** out of here” I said.
“It’s not on this bike, check yours.”
“Not here either.”
In our mad dash to get everything ready in the morning ( after all, it wasn’t riding season), we had left the air compressor lying somewhere no help to us now. So our only option became riding out on a flat front tire. It was okay, as I was willing to do just about anything to get closer to my warm bed. At this point it was about 1:00 AM and Halloween parties back in town, still 2 hours away, were reaching their messy end. At first we could only ride at about 25 mph, given the roads were still covered in snow and ice. But with the worst behind us, we decided to push what seemed a reasonable speed for a un-beaded flat front tire.
We were making progress, but the cold threatened to derail our plans once more. Having run out of food and water long before, and lingering in sub-freezing temperatures, my body was losing all ability to stay warm. I once ended up in the back of an ambulance, blue head-to-toe, after a sailing mishap, and spent my childhood ski racing in the chilly after dark hours of New England’s White Mountains, but this was cold like I had never experienced. I was shaking and incapable of speaking as we pulled into the gas station in Victor, ID with our final hurdle of the day looming right in front of us—8,400’ Teton Pass. It was 2 AM.
If it weren’t for the faring and heated grips on Jesse’s 1290, which I insisted on riding, I don’t think I would have made it. Eventually the bars, throttle, and break would have been out of my control, but somehow we made it.
Pulling into Jesse’s garage, the flat front tire slipped off the rim. You can’t make this stuff up.
By 8 AM the next day Jesse had already run an experiment on a couple spare motorcycle tires. Leaving one tire outside and another inside, he attempted to put both onto an empty rim. Unsurprisingly he confirmed it had been the cold that had thwarted our laborious and painstaking attempt the night before.
I had spent the last year on a journey that took me 50,000 miles all over the world, yet in that time I only had a handful of flats that I was able to have fixed at tire shop for a next to nothing. In addition, my longest day in the saddle had been close to 16 hours. Never did I think a quick ride in my backyard on a far nicer bike than I used to rip around the world would lead to the first flat I had to change myself, or the longest day spent on a motorcycle up to that point, but it goes to show that any day can be an all-time adventure as long as you choose your friends wisely, are willing to break with conventional wisdom about what is a good idea, and just go for it.