Monday, September 8th was all superlatives. We rode to the highest altitude of the trip (9,000 ft.), climbed more than any other day (about 5,000 ft.), had the longest descent (also 5,000 ft.), and finished our last Western mountain range. We entered the Great Plains with a bang. We even slept on an Indian battlefield.
We got good weather for it, too. It was sunny, after several days of miserable sprinkling rain. Until mid-morning we puttered around the campsite, drying stuff out. The Shell Campground was for sale, by the way. It is a good business in a beautiful place. The current owner, Dan Tau, is an awfully nice guy who says he is just too busy with other things.
When we pulled onto the road around 10:30 the temperature was in the low 50s. We stopped at Dirty Annie’s Country Store for Gatorade. At the cash register was a large tray full of dinosaur bones, petrified wood, fossils, agates, and other wonders. The lady said they were all from right around here. I wanted to ask her if she was Annie, but I thought she might have heard that one before. Then we started climbing
Within a few miles, I had put the Bighorns on my short list for Best U.S. Park That Is Not A National Park. Shell Canyon’s sheer walls are more than a thousand feet high, and you move through geologic formations that get older as you climb – the bottom rocks are Pennsylvanian sediment, and near the top is pre-Cambrian granite. I know this because Wyoming’s transportation department thoughtfully calls out each strata with its own road sign. Shell Creek crashes through the middle of it all, and by the time you start a series of switchbacks that take you out of the canyon you’re ready to stop and spend the day just poking around. But you must keep climbing.
After several thousand feet of climbing, with the peaks looming higher at every turn, I came across what looked like a large clear-cut in the pine forest, right in the middle of the scenery. I thought it was maybe the dumbest public timber sale in history until a plaque informed me that the Western Spruce Budworm had denuded the hillside. Budworm larvae attack drought-weakened pine and fir trees, and since the West has been in a long drought, they’ve done a lot of damage. Dead trees were removed from this hillside, the plaque explained, to reduce fire risk. Several people told us that the rains we’ve been complaining about are actually a blessing, the first wet year the West has had in a decade.
The mountains stretched out. We got above the trees and into open range, with horses and cows and sheep, as well as hawks, grouse, and the first prairie dogs of the trip. And still we climbed. Near the top, after four hours of solid up, the first snow of the season dotted the north slopes of the highway. Jim paused (he climbs faster than I do) and left behind an Energy Bar Snowman for me. He clearly had not lost his sense of humor. I was deep in the Grim Determination phase of bicycle touring by the time I saw this, but it made me laugh out loud.
By the time we reached Granite Pass, we both had had a thorough butt-kicking. We posed for pictures with Al Craig’s hat, and then put on every article of clothing we had because it was COLD. It was also ten miles to the outpost of Burgess Junction – blessedly downhill or level, mostly. The high country of Wyoming is the setting for the story Brokeback Mountain, and I don’t know if the movie was filmed here, but it looked like it was.
This country seems to attract men who have personal issues they need to work through. When we got to Burgess Junction and ate delicious bowls of beef stew at the Bear Lodge, each table had a flyer for a book about Danny Longwell, a Wyoming man who spent the winter of 1997-98 in the Bighorns, in a canvas tent, with just two dogs for company. On September 8, it was 45 degrees with snow on the ground. What must February be like, and why would anyone choose to go through that in a canvas tent?
Mary Jo Mosher, author of One Man Against The Mountain, explained. “This story isn’t just about a man’s struggle to survive a brutal Walker Prairie winter in a canvas tent. It is also about Danny Longwell’s struggles within himself; his feelings about his overly strict father; his feelings about death; his lack of self-confidence; and his battles with loneliness.” Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, the anguished cowboys in Brokeback, have got nothing on this guy. Freezing your butt off in the Bighorns is unconventional therapy, but it must have worked. The flyer announced that Danny Longwell would attend the book-signing and answer questions.
After a few more miles of high-level beauty, we crested the ridge and started down. The Bighorns are not part of the Rocky Mountains. They are out in the middle of Wyoming, all by themselves. Still, the view of the plains you get from the top looking east rivals the view from Pike’s Peak or anywhere else on the Front Range. We picked up speed, banked into turns, watched for rocks and oncoming cars, braked when things got too fast, and kept going down, down, down for 45 minutes without pedaling more than a few times. Near the bottom, I pulled next to Jim and he screamed, “this is way too much fun!” I felt like a ten-year-old Cub Scout in the soap box derby.
We finally coasted into the town of Dayton. It was about 20 degrees warmer than it had been up top, but there wasn’t any good place to stay, so we forced ourselves through another five miles to another great campsite located by our intrepid scout, Sara. It was The Connor Battlefield Park and State Historic Site in Ranchester. On August 29, 1865, at the Battle of Tongue River, general Patrick Edward Connor and 200 federal troops attempted to destroy the Arapaho village of Chief Black Bear. An aging Jim Bridger signed on as Connor’s advisor. The objective was to secure routes to the gold fields of Montana, which Bridger had done so much to publicize. This was one of the battles the Indians actually won, and Connor was fired for getting routed. But when word of the defeat got back east, Congress paid for a fort and even more troops who crushed the tribe after several more years of strife.
We were too exhausted to be bothered by the ghosts. Lulled by the rushing of the Tongue River and the whistles of passing trains, we conked out shortly after dark.
Day 29: We Meet The Governor
We slept late and dawdled around again on Tuesday the 9th because I had an appointment with Back Country Bicycles in Sheridan, 15 miles down the road. They were going to install a new back wheel on my bike, but UPS wasn’t going to deliver the thing until around noon. We rolled out of the campsite around 10 am and headed south, unsure of how to get to Sheridan without riding on Interstate 90. We started on a paved frontage road that was near the railroad tracks. Every half hour or so an enormous coal train, perhaps half a mile long, would rumble past. Coal and natural gas are the main engine of Wyoming’s economy, and the size of these trains dwarfs anything you would see back east. They have four engines in front, three in back, and sometimes one or two in the middle. They are so long that often the front end is going downhill while the back end is going uphill. John McPhee wrote a great essay about driving these rigs for The New Yorker a few years ago. By the end of the piece, you realized that he was really talking about the lengths we will go to in order to have ample supplies of electricity.
At the precise point where the frontage road turned into a dirt road and we tried to decide how to proceed, three buses and a caravan of cars exited the interstate and tiptoed onto the dirt road. Everybody parked in the tall weeds. One of the cars looked like a police car. We couldn’t resist, so we rode up to the caravan. A straggler told us that every year the Governor of Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal (D), hosts a “conservation day” where he tours natural resources projects and listens to people talk about them. We had stumbled onto this year’s tour.
We were allowed to join a crowd of about 75 elected officials, civil servants, and journalists who looked at a state-of-the-art weir on the Tongue River that had been built by the Padlock Ranch. An official from the Natural Resources Conservation Service explained that the weir, in the shape of a flying V headed upstream, allowed fish through and caused much less bacteria build-up than does an old-fashioned straight-line dam. With this design innovation, the Ranch gets the impoundment it needs for irrigation, and the river gets healthier. It will take years to convert all the weirs in Wyoming, but they’re working on it.
Later the group visited large easements on the front of the Bighorns that have been negotiated by the Nature Conservancy and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Bo Bowman of the Growers Association said that a lot of ranchers are eager to put easements on their land; they don’t like sprawl and ranchettes any more than the tree-huggers do.
We met Governor Freudenthal as he was getting back on the bus. He listened politely as we explained that we were riding across the country to raise money for a Land Trust. I complimented him on the wide highway shoulders we found in Wyoming, quite a contrast to the wretched roads of Montana, and he replied, “Yes, we do that, and we have a speed limit too.” Jim said that most Wyoming residents swung politely into the far lane when they passed us. The governor nodded his approval, then said, “We’re pretty nice, but there are still a couple of wing nuts out there. You fellas be careful.”
We tried to avoid the Interstate by going onto a paved road, but it turned into a dirt road. Just as we were getting ready to turn around I noticed a water tower with the word “ACME” painted on it. We rode closer and saw that the tower stood next to an abandoned factory. I explained to Jim that this must have been the factory that produced all the materials Wile E. Coyote used to try to get the Road Runner, and that we had stumbled onto our second find of the day, since this was an important site in Cartoon History. He didn’t say anything, just turned around and headed back to the Interstate.
We only had to ride on I-90 for a mile or two before we found another two-lane road that took us into Sheridan. Jeff Stine and Al Mason of Back Country Bicycles (firstname.lastname@example.org) spent an hour on my Bianchi and installed a stout new 36-spoke touring rim on the rear wheel, as well as a new chain and rear “cassette” (the thing with all the gears). The bike feels great now, and they showed admirable skill and good humor. They have two nice shop dogs, too. Thanks, guys!
After we met with volunteers from the Sheridan Community Land Trust (see separate post), we left town around 4pm with 27 miles to go to our destination. There are no towns or campgrounds in the 115 miles of U.S Route 14 between Sheridan and Gillette, and no public land either, but there is one ranch at a crossroads called Ucross. We reserved rooms there, hoping they’d be nice, and headed out.
After a 500-foot climb up Jim Creek Hill, we headed through the Piney Creek Valley. Redtail hawks were hunting in the lengthening sunlight. We rode past huge ranches with proud old stone barns and homes, big cottonwood trees, and high cirrus clouds building back toward Sheridan. We saw the first rattlesnake of the trip sunning himself on the road. The light got more golden, the scenery more beautiful, the highway smoother and flatter. At mile 27 we turned into The Ranch At Ucross, which exceeded our expectations. After a wonderful meal (with real china!) in the dining room and several hours of blogging, we slept (in real beds!) soundly.