Day 30, Part 2: Sweetwater Station

Find-the-trail
There is a trail here. Look for the different-colored grass tracks and the post near the top of the hill.

I apologize, but I seem to be getting a half-to a full-day behind on my blog posts. This post is no exception. It’s going to bring me up to my arrival at the Willie’s Handcart Center in Sweetwater Station, WY, also known as Sixth Crossing of the Sweetwater River. (There were nine crossings in all). In other words, up to about noon today. A lot has happened since then, but I have been going all day and have not had time to distill it to a cogent narrative.

Also, I am off WiFi, and may not have any connectivity even by cell tomorrow night. I hope to catch back up in Farson (Friday?), but that might not be possible, and it could be early next week before I catch up at all. In other words, things might be spotty for a few more days. Please bear with me.

As for this morning, I really only have two things to say.

First, I misspoke when I said I had no real memory of Keith and Ann, my hosts here at Willie’s Handcart Center. I remember their tandem. I know, lame. But it’s like when your kids are in grade school and you know all the other adults as so-and-so’s mom or dad, but not the mom or dad’s names. Same with cyclists. I can recognize someone at a glance by their bike far more easily than if they’re without it.

So, Keith and Ann. They rode the white Da Vinci tandem. Why does that stick out? Because Da Vinci tandems allow the captain (rider in front) and the stoker (rider in back) to pedal at different cadences. All other tandems lock the front and back chainring together so both riders pedal at the same speed. There are pluses and minuses to both systems, which I don’t care to go into. I just wanted to say that when Keith reminded me that they rode the Da Vinci, I instantly recognized the bike, and to a much lesser degree, the people attached to it. Like the parents of a kid in your kid’s fourth-grade class.

Also, he recognized my tandem because the other riders in the group nicknamed it the Backward Tandem. For two reasons. First, the panniers (bags to carry extra clothes, parts, food, etc) were on the front of the bike; most bikes carry them on the back. Second, because the gear shifters were on the back set of handlebars (for the stoker); on every tandem in the world other than a Rick Jorgensen Tango tandem, the shifters are on the front handlebars.

There is third reason to call the bike backward, I suppose. All bikes with a rigid frame (i.e., no suspension), have a down tube. That is the tube that starts at the front of the bike (on the head tube, where the forks attach) and run at a downward angle to the bottom bracket (where the pedal crank is). The Backward Tandem also had an Uptube, something no other bike (except a few short-lived imitators) has. It goes at an upward angle from the bottom bracket to the top of the seat stays (where your seat attaches).

Why am I going into this detail? Because it’s kind of interesting, I think.

My good friend Rick—remember Rick? He drove his Tesla all the way to Wyoming to bring me a new wheel only to get within two hundred miles and have to turn around—who designed and built this tandem, designs his bikes around lateral stability. When you have a bike as long as a tandem, and have two people on it, the frame can flex from side to side. Rick’s Uptube design is all about eliminating that flexibility, which makes for a much more stable ride. If you’ve ever ridden a tandem, then get on a Tango you can feel the difference instantly. It’s amazing.

Also, Rick is all about how best to carry weight on a bike. Weight that is high and in back (where most people carry it) wiggles the bike around. Think of a ten pound dog being wagged by a thirty-pound tail. The most stable place to put that weight low and forward. So, the baggage, usually on back, is carried low on either side of the front wheels, which looks backward to most riders at first glance.

But the thing that really freaks people out, especially experienced tandem riders, is giving the shifters to the stoker. That’s tantamount to heresy. For many tandem captains, the instructions to their stoker is akin to Sit Down, Shut up, and Pedal, stated more or less kindly depending on their disposition. All the stoker does is pedal and brace for bumps, because all the control happens in front: Steering, braking, and shifting. In a situation like that, it is easy for the captain to more or less neglect the needs of the stoker. This is one reason tandems are often referred to as “divorceicycles.”

Putting the shifters in the hands of the stoker forces the captain to—gasp—communicate with the stoker. A captain who wants to go up a gear has to ask the stoker to shift. If the cadence doesn’t work for the stoker, they need to warn the captain that they plan to shift. It facilitates dialogue between the two riders, which affects the entire dynamic of this two-person team.

Another thing Rick does is to teach and demonstrate to both riders that in reality, the stoker steers the bike. That is, by dint of their position, a stoker can more efficiently and more gracefully turn the tandem just by shifting their weight. Conversely, a stoker who is not engaged in steering the bike, is oblivious, for instance, of how their weight affects how the bike handles, can make the ride uncomfortable. But if the stoker is tuned into the steering thing, and the captain lets go of some control, the bike flows better into and out of turns. The bike follows the road with a graceful ease.

I rode a tandem with Kazu quite a bit when he was in grade school. He didn’t have the shifters (different bike), but knowing he could steer from the back was a revelation. He loved riding that bike knowing he was in control.

So, what does any of this have to do with the Pony Express? Nothing. Just saying Keith and I had that bike/person recognition thing going. It was something I thought a lot about while I rode the twenty miles from Jeffrey City to Sweetwater Station this morning to meet him and Ann.

Which brings us to the second thing I wanted to say.

Halfway into my ride this morning, the Route, once again, to my initial reluctance, left a perfectly good eight-foot paved shoulder of a highway to go try to follow the emigrant trail more closely. So, okay, I turn off, have to open and close a gate, and there is a reasonably easy-to-follow two-lane track in the dirt. Why not.

But about a quarter-mile down this decent off-road road, the route turns right. I passed the turn, got an “off-course” noise on my nav computer (iPhone), and turned back to find it.

I had missed the trail because there was no trail there.

After a few minutes of searching, I could discern the telltale trail sign marked by slightly different-colored grass growing in two tracks and running up a small hill. At the top of this hill was a concrete post cleverly designed to be invisible against ground cover. I have been seeing these posts for days: they mark the emigrant trail. So, yes, there was a very faint trail here. Would it be this hard to follow for the next ten miles? Would it get worse? Better? Was it sandy? Wet? did it possibly cross a locked gate?

These are the thoughts that ran through my mind while I stared at this barely-existent trail and shook my head and did what I have done so many times on this trip. Curse Jan.

Yes, Jan, if your ears burn, that’s me. Why in the blankety-blank did she map the route on this blankety-blank trail when there’s a blankety-blank highway right blankety-blank here? Words to that effect anyway.

Then I did what I usually do: I start on the trail saying I’ll give it a quarter mile and if it’s too hard at that point, I’ll turn around.

But it wasn’t too hard. It never is. I can always find it even through the grass. And it leads to these views that so few people must get to enjoy. And it’s hard and slow and I sweat like a pig and my ride time is doubled but more often than not, I have a better ride for it.

Yesterday, at Martin’s Cove Historical Site, Elder Hill (with all the ancestors in the handcart migration) was talking about how people who came across in the mid-1800s had grit. He turned to me and said that taking on a ride like I am, I have grit, too. To which I corrected him. No, I am just stubborn, that’s all.

As I ride these backroads that are ridiculously small, narrow, difficult, uncertain, and just all around sketchy, I think about Jan Bennett out here scouting the route over the past few years, finding these trails and testing them and mapping them. Now there’s a woman with grit. 

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Cool stuff with the backward tandem! All I knew about tandems before reading this are what they are. (lily)

  2. Anonymous

    Happy July 1! Sounds like you have so much to think about while putting on those miles. I now know more about tandems than I ever knew (or needed to know…..). Glad to hear you are still tracking along and doing well.

    Happy Trails,
    Stu

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      Well, bear in mind that that’s one viewpoint on tandems, which I happen to agree with. Not everyone feels the same way. In other words, 10 cyclists, 10 opinions.

  3. Lisa (MTTN)

    There’s stubborn without grit, but grit needs stubborn. You have both. (And yes, I’m leaving “both” intentionally vague.)

  4. Anonymous

    Also–I just confirmed a work trip to Jackson Wy on Sept 13-15th. I’m driving up from SB before this. If you’re on route in UT or NV during this I’ll be happy to add days to my trip before/after to meet up. I can ferry supplies, ride a little and/or, w/ permission from Lisa, put you out of your misery.

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      If all goes as planned, and I start in SLC 9/1,I should be leaving Carson City about then to start the California portion of the trip. But I am way too slow for you, esp with my gear trailer

      1. K

        I’ll check in early Sept and if it works out I’ll try to intercept you on my way out to Park City on the 12th. I don’t have anything going the days on/before the 12th then so I’m happy to drive the reverse route in NV if there’s predictable sections on pavement/camping/motel if I can time it right. At the very least I can supply u w/ water, ice cold gatorade and real food that doesn’t have an indefinite expiration date.

        1. Scott Alumbaugh

          That’d be awesome. I’ll get in touch. Thanks!

  5. Kurtis

    Very insightful on tandems. I had always imagined the stoker was motivated by a better view of the captian’s stern as well as the best place to hide when the orders get stern. More useful insight on things/activities to never ever consider adding to my bucket list.

  6. Anonymous

    Re: rear steering. Many tandems of the late 1890s were capable of being steered from the stoker or captain position. Very commonly seen on the “men’s/women’s frames where the woman was typically in front. And, yes, the reason for the dual steering was to give the man control. An example can be seen at the US Bicycling Hall of Fame. However, dual steering was often seen on men’s/men’s bikes as well.

  7. Anonymous

    Love it. Being in the exact places must be a trip and a half.

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      I think it’s just kind of incredible that you’re still able to.

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