Sheridan Community Land Trust

The Sheridan Community Land Trust is a newborn with important friends. “Three years ago we did a community assessment and discovered strong support for protecting the treasures we have here,” says board member Judy Slack. The mayor of Sheridan (Dave Kinskey) and a Sheridan County Commissioner (Terry Cram) lead an effort to set up a community land trust and gave it start-up money from city and county budget lines that support non-profits. The group has 12 board members, a part-time executive director, and volunteers who work on four committees. It also has a broader focus than most conservation-oriented land trusts. The four working groups cover open space, recreation, and wildlife; affordable housing; agricultural easements; and historic preservation.

We met Judy and Chuck Bentzen, a member of the open space group, at the Land Trust’s first easement, a nine-acre stretch of the Little Goose River just south of town. Protecting river corridors is likely to be a major focus. Roger Wilson, a board member who is active on the land protection side, says that the group is particularly interested in protecting the Tongue River from Sheridan north. Seven private owners control this stretch of the river. Wilson is talking with them and with people at the state and federal levels, as well as the Nature Conservancy.

The Sheridan Land Trust is also allied with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, which is a major player out here. Ranchers who don’t want their spreads carved up into second home sites are lining up to donate agricultural easements, says Bo Bowman, who coordinates the donations. The Stock Growers Association is a big, influential group of landowners. Some of them are quite wealthy, and most of them are rock-ribbed small government conservatives. But this isn’t a partisan issue, says Slack. People who love the big, open landscapes of Wyoming have all kinds of political views. Since land trusts are nonprofit organizations that make voluntary agreements with private landowners, at arm’s length from the government, they can talk to small-government folks comfortably. And anyone who has valuable land can save quite a bit on their local property taxes and get a big federal tax credit by donating an easement.  This is especially helpful if the donor hates to pay taxes.

It will take a lot of money and clout to do something like this, and Wyoming has both. The Padlock Ranch (where we met the Governor’s conservation tour) has donated large agricultural easements to the Stock Growers Association, and the Nature Conservancy owns similarly large easements on ranch property in the eastern slope of the Bighorns. Sally Morton of the Conservancy’s Wyoming office sits on the Sheridan Land Trust’s board. “The big groups are working on big projects,” says Slack. “Our group is focused only on Sheridan County, so we are going to take the neighborhood-level things they can’t do.”

Slack is active in the historic preservation group, which is trying to negotiate the first easements in the state of Wyoming that protects the exteriors of historic buildings, trails, archaeological sites, and other historic resources. “The local lawyers have never seen a preservation easement before,” she says. “But there is a need for it. Ranches that donate agricultural easements often have landmark stone barns and houses that are essential to the character of the place, and this is the way to protect them.”

As a community land trust, the Sheridan group also aims to set up affordable housing in a community where rising home prices are forcing working-class people into marginal living situations. “We will own the land, the Sheridan Housing Action Committee will build the houses, and the homeowners will take out long-term leases with us,” says Slack.

It sounded to us as if the Sheridan Land Trust is actually three or four groups under one not-for-profit umbrella. The group is mostly in the planning and idea stage, and there are going to be some rough spots when the differing agendas of preservation, affordable housing, and open space protection advocates meet on the Board of Directors. But Sheridan needs all three things badly. Sprawl and gentrification are ramping up with the energy boom, and the group will be challenged to choose which opportunities to follow. Slack says the group hopes to secure one or two easements a year for the time being, while it develops membership and fund-raising. That would cover the tip of a very large iceberg. The elements are in place for very rapid growth, if the group can handle it.

Through Wyoming, Sept. 2 to 12

We entered Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park from the Montana border on Route 89. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, September 2-4, we stayed in Canyon Village (in clean 1970s economy motel rooms that they call “Pioneer Cabins” for some silly reason) and saw the Park. On Friday we rode out of the Park on US route 14/16/20, crossed the Abrasoka Mountains, and continued down the Shoshone River Canyon to a Forest Service campground called Wapiti. On Day 26 we continued just 30 miles to Cody.

On Day 27 we continued on 14/16/20 to Greybull and then on route 14 to Shell, at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. On Day 28 (Monday) we climbed and descended the Bighorns, which might have been the most beautiful and challenging day of the trip. The top of the Bighorns, Granite Pass, is slightly over 9,000 feet, for a vertical gain and loss of almost 5,000 feet that day. We stayed at the Connor Battlefield park and campsite int he town of Ranchester. On Day 29 we met the governor while he was leading a conservation field trip outside of Ranchester. Then we continued through Sheridan, where we did some household chores, replaced the rear wheel of my bike, and interviewed people from the local land trust. We continued 27 more miles on U.S. 14 to Ucross. On day 30 we rode 80 miles on US 14 to Gilette. On day 31 we contiued east on 14 to Moorcroft and then north on State Routes 10 and 24 to Devil’s Tower. On Day 32 we continued on routes 24, 111, and a frontage road near I-90 until we crossed the (unmarked) South Dakota state line. We ended that day in Spearfish.

Days 22-26: Resting in Yellowstone, on to Cody

Day 22: Into Yellowstone
I rode out of Chico Hot Springs around 11:30 am on Tuesday September 2. I was a new man, thanks to the stress recovery program I call “five S” – sleep, soak, supper, Swedish massage, and someone you love who loves you back. Chico gave Tania and I all the tools we needed, and at the highest quality. Don’t miss this place. She and I agreed to meet at the Yellowstone gate in Gardner, about 30 miles south, in two hours.

The rain had stopped and low clouds had broken up; in the cold sunshine, we could finally see Emigrant Peak. I followed River Road through Paradise Valley until it joined Route 89 and started up Yankee Jim Canyon, with the Yellowstone River rushing over rocks just below the highway. About 20 miles into the ride, I saw an historic marker. It said that the other side of the canyon had a remnant of the original wagon road built by James “Yankee Jim” George in the 1860s. This road became the first Yellowstone Highway and was used by early automobile tourists who bravely set out in their Model Ts. They drove to the park at bicycle speeds from the eastern terminus of the highway at St. Paul, or the western end at Seattle.

In the mid-1920s the Yellowstone Highway was incorporated into US Route 20, and the present route was blasted out of the opposite wall of the canyon. Tania’s graduate thesis is on early tourist accommodations along US Route 20. I decided she had to see this, so I turned around and met her coming up the canyon in her car. Together we drove up a dirt road on the west side of the canyon.

Yankee Jim operated a profitable toll road for miners and early Yellowstone visitors. He was also a famous Western drinker and teller of tall tales, thanks in part to Rudyard Kipling, who wrote about a visit with him in 1890. Jim fought the Northern Pacific Railroad’s plans to build a rail line up the canyon until they agreed to improve his road, and a one-mile section of this roadbed survives. It is about eight feet wide, paved with granite boulders from the river, and has a long rock wall on an upgrade. The most thrilling discoveries for a scholar of the era known as “Tin Can Tourism” were remnants of two advertisements painted on rocks. We squinted until we saw “Souvenirs at Moore’s, Gardiner” and “Grotto Café, Gardiner.” I tried to imagine someone from my great-grandparent’s generation put-putting along this road eighty-five years ago. It was probably similar in some ways to the trip I’m doing. There are a lot of unknowns, you’re at the mercy of the weather, you’re carrying your own food and water, and doing your own repairs. Cars whined along the other side of the canyon at 70 mph. Before long we joined them, and not long after that we were in Yellowstone Park.

The massage therapist at Chico told me not to miss Boiling River, just inside the northern entrance to the park. The river is the outflow from Mammoth Hot Springs, and people have build rock dams at the point where this stream of hot water enters the cold water of the Gardner River. The current is swift, and the transition from too-hot to too-cold water can be made by moving laterally just a foot or two. But if you get a spot that’s just right, it’s a great place. Next we visited Mammoth Hot Springs, and we gawked and clicked away at our cameras just like all the Asian and German tourists on the boardwalk with us. We continued on and saw a bison, as well as a elk cow prancing with a young male while an older male bugled his outrage from across the road. Then we arrived at Canyon Village, rejoined Jim, Sara and Paul, cooked a meal on the tailgate of Jim’s pickup, and settled into a good motel bed for $70, albeit with thin walls.

Day 23: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Morning came up misty and cool. It was a good time to do laundry and look around Canyon Village. The laundromat was excellent, but there was no Internet connection available anywhere. I was done by noon and the skies were clearing up, so we took a loop hike that included a long section of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. We parked in a lot near the Upper Falls and walked across the road & to the south, on a trail leading to Clear Lake. Almost immediately Tania found a large dump site strewn with broken crockery, probably from the old Canyon Lodge. We spent maybe a half-hour looking through the dump like amateur archaeologists, excitedly pointing out maker’s marks and speculating on the purposes of he old bits of metal we uncovered. This may be unusual behavior for tourists, but it made us happy. And if any rangers are reading, we didn’t take anything.

Further along on the hike, we saw a bald eagle and then, incredibly, an adult male gray wolf running along the opposite shore of Clear Lake. Wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and are doing well; there was no doubt that this was a wolf, with his long snout and muscular haunches, although he was too far away to photograph. Then things got even better: we came upon a big bubbling mud pot, then several of them, and then a whole field of them. Then, without any warning, we reached the rim of the canyon. So much has been written about this place that I won’t attempt to describe it any further, but if you haven’t seen it, you should.

We walked to Artist’s Point and took the 32nd-billionth photo of it, and standing there I remembered my Uncle Vincent and the last time I had been here. I was 15 and had not traveled much outside of my home in a small town in south Florida, and had never seen the West. Vincent was a kind great-uncle, never married, who had recently bought a new Winnebago and was eager to use it. He offered to take my older brother and I on a vacation, and given our personalities at the time, I think my parents would have been eager to agree to the plan.

Vincent loved to drive and take pictures, but he was not a hiker. We drove long days, and I remember mostly reading Atlas Shrugged in the back of the camper and brooding about how bad everything was and how no one understood me. Then we pulled into Yellowstone and Vincent parked at Artist’s Point, and we got out and I was dumbstruck. I wanted to walk into that vast wild landscape and never come out, and that feeling has never left me completely. Standing there thirty-four years later, I wanted to thank him – but of course he has been dead for 20 years. So thanks, Vince, if you’re logging in from the Great Beyond.

We capped off this incredible hike by hiking down Uncle Tom’s Trail, which uses about 300 steel-mesh stairs to get to a point near the bottom of the Lower Falls. Then we went back to the room to rest, because at 8,000 feet you get tired pretty fast. Then we went to the dining room of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel for dinner, to thank Jim and Sara for inviting me to do the trip. I had prime rib of bison.

I believe that if you want a species to thrive, and it’s edible, you should eat it. This helps create a market for the species and ensures that people will keep lots of them around so they’ll have a robust gene pool. There are lots of other reasons for environmentally concerned people to eat bison, besides the fact that it is delicious and much better for you than beef. You can get bison at Wegmans and many other supermarkets. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always write the Yellowstone Foundation a big check.

Day 24: Hot Stuff
Yellowstone’s “Grand Tour” road is how most visitors see the park, and since we didn’t bring backpacks and had only a day left, that’s what we did. We drove to the Mud Volcano site and saw some more amazing bubbling stuff, and then went back to the Hotel to inspect the tile work in the main fireplace (we discovered that it was made by Batchelder of Los Angeles in 1923). Next we stopped at Yellowstone’s Natural Bridge and hiked there for a few hours, seeing marmots aplenty. Then it was on to the Old Faithful geyser basin with its many wonders, and also the many wonderful 19th century names that people gave to them, and also the incredible log architecture of the Old Faithful Inn. Then it was back to Canyon Lodge, where Paul took us all out for a fine meal.

Day 25: Riding The Park
Our wonderful break was over, and it was time to ride. We were up at 7am, and Tania left for her plane at 8am. We were ready to ride by 8:30am, but there was fog and it was cold – maybe 45 degrees. We waited at the visitor’s center for an hour until the fog started to lift, and off we went. The mist was lifting and we rode past a herd of buffalo in a frosted field, then south along the Yellowstone River. It was way too cold to be comfortable, but also way too beautiful to believe.

We turned onto the East Entrance Road and rode along Yellowstone Lake, and before too long we saw hot springs and fumaroles rising on its shores. “Early park visitors reported that the nearness of hot and cold water simplified their camping problems,” reports the Wyoming edition of the WPA Guide. “A fish pulled from the lake near the cone could be dangled in the pool and cooked before it was removed from the line.”

Jim really wanted to see a grizzly bear. He stopped at clearings and scanned the horizon in vain. He had seen an eagle and thought he might have seen a wolf, but he really wanted to bag a griz, at least visually. We started up through the Abrasoka Mountains toward Sylvan Pass, a rise of only 900 feet made much more difficult by the elevation and the biting cold. The pass, at 8,500 feet, is a particularly nasty piece of highway. It is totally barren of plants, a massive ditch of gravel and boulders between two high cliffs, and it screams “avalanche” even when there’s no snow there. They used to close this pass in the winter, but the word is that businessman in Cody, Wyoming called up an old friend of theirs, Dick Cheney, who ordered that the pass be kept open in the winter no matter what so the tourists would keep coming. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, it’s just another reason to hate the guy.

The downhill run from Sylvan Pass was perhaps the longest of the trip, and to me was the most pleasant of them all so far. We only have one more mountain pass to go before the plains begin, and this downhill run was – no lie – 30 miles long. It began with a sharp descent through high peaks (that’s Grizzly Peak, el. 10,400, behind Jim and I). Shortly after we left the park, Jim finally got his wish and hugged a (wooden) grizzly bear at the Pahaska Teepe café and motel. Then the road sloped into a more gradual downhill next to the beautiful Shoshone River. We rode past tall brown cliffs pocked with caves where Shoshone Indians had lived, through the Shoshone National Forest, which is the oldest in the U.S., and it just kept getting warmer as we went lower. There was a tailwind, too. The roadside was undeveloped except for the odd dude ranch, and it was also extraordinarily beautiful in a John Ford Western movie kind of way. We pulled into a US Forest Service campground near Wapiti, having done 65 miles, and the river’s rushing sound kept me sound asleep all night long.

Day 26: Cody
We set off around 8:30 on Saturday morning with 30 miles to go until Cody, where we would stay the night. Paul’s plane was set to leave from Cody at noon on Sunday. The ride was fast and we were in Cody by 10:30 am. I had ordered a new rear wheel at the local bike shop, but it hadn’t arrived yet. After some wrangling, I had it shipped ahead to Sheridan, where it will be installed on Tuesday. We spent the rest of the day looking around, and I caught up on all the e-mail and blog business that had accumulated in the five days I was offline.

In the afternoon we visited the bar of the Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill and named for his daughter. The bar was given to him by Queen Victoria, one of his many fans. This guy was perhaps the most brilliant promoter the U.S. has ever seen. The town named after him appears to have a thriving economy more or less completely based on his image and reputation.

Jim, Paul, and Sara went out for a farewell dinner while I stayed behind to finish this up. Tomorrow we say goodbye to Paul and head east through high flat country to the base of the Bighorn Mountains. Monday we climb to the top, and Tuesday we go down. Then it’s on to the Great Plains.

Day 27: Cody to Shell, WY

Rain set up during the night and continued until well past daybreak. It was cold, in the mid-40s, as we slogged through the routine of packing up wet tents and gear. Traffic was whizzing by next to us on the  puddled pavement.  Nobody was having a good time; it felt like a job. Jim and I said goodbye to Paul. He proved an excellent travel companion and went way out of his comfort zone to ride with us. I especially enjoyed the moments when I rode behind Jim and Paul and watched them talking as they churned through the incredible Western scenery. Now THAT was a family reunion.

We pulled out at 9:30 am and rode through the deserted streets of Cody. It was Sunday, and we had 70 miles to our destination, the hamlet of Shell at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. When we got past the commercial strip, the high prairie of the Bighorn Basin opened up on all sides. It was vast, treeless, cut through with arroyos, and marked by low hills in the distance. It felt like our first day on the Great Plains.

Riding a bicycle through a landscape like this is like being on a sailboat. You’re moving at about the same speed, you’re paying close attention to the wind and the surface, and the scenery changes slowly, slowly. Another unfortunate similarity to the ocean was the light rain, which wasn’t enough to soak through our protective gear but was cold and annoying.

After a while the rain slacked off and we climbed to Eagle Pass, a low gap that seemed unremarkable except for the historic marker and the American flag flying nearby. An interpretive plaque explained that someone named Wiley had a dream of diverting water from the Shoshone River to this landscape to grow sugar beets around the turn of the 20th Century. He made some progress, and you can see the remnants of a ditch he dug, but the panic of 1907 bankrupted him. I thought of Southern California before Mulholland dug his ditch.  It probably looked a bit like this.

We rode on, the sky lightened up, and the temperature climbed to the high 50s. There was a tailwind of perhaps 10 mph, and it helped us get up to 18 or 20 miles an hour on the flat ground. Jim rode over a jagged piece of metal that sliced clear through his tire and tube, and he did the rest of the day “bareback”, with a bit of the new tube sticking out  of the old, damaged tire.  After a while w rounded a curve and suddenly there was a vast field of sugar beets – maybe some of Mr. Wiley’s water did get through. We rode through Emblem (pop. 10), a collection of ranch houses and barns for the people and equipment that work the beet fields. Then the water ran out and we were back on the plains. Sage in the rain smells wonderful; we were surrounded by this smell.

After about 50 miles we came to the outskirts of Greybull, looking forwad to lunch and hot coffee at the Uptown Diner, where Sara waited for us. Jim was about a quarter-mile ahead of me and had gone around a curve. When I went around the curve, I saw an emergency vehicle parked in the middle of the road with its lights on. I thought for a minute that something had happened to Jim, but then I saw the tip of his orange flag and exhaled. I approached the wreck, with traffic stopped on both sides, but couldn’t see any damaged cars. It wasn’t until I got past the flashing lights that I saw a man, maybe 30, lying in the middle of the road. He was wearing black leather and had a black kerchief around his head. His motorcycle was splayed in the ditch on the right-hand side. Ambulance people bent over him, but he was clearly dead – eyes staring, head blue, and a pool of blood spreading away from his smashed skull. He had hit a deer. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Only 20 states require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. Most of these are in the Northeast, the Deep South, and the west coast. Wyoming and Montana are among the 19 states that do not require adults (aged 18 and older) to wear a helmet. I thought about the guy’s mother, or maybe his wife and kids. If he had had a helmet on, he might be in the hospital now, but he wouldn’t be dead. He wouldn’t have cut a permanent hole into the hearts of all the people who loved him.

I know that living in a free country means giving people the right to pursue stupid, self-destructive behavior. Still, it isn’t an easy concept to live with.

We rode into Greybull and met Sara, then ate while a stream of emergency vehicles screamed past the diner, all on their way to process the remains. The food was warm and good, and 45 minutes later we left to ride the last 15 miles to Shell. As we climbed out of the river valley we could see the Bighorn Mountains in the distance. A rainstorm had pushed up against them and was playing itself out. We rode past the Shell Valley School building, built in 1903 out of Bighorn stone and still used an art gallery and community center. It rained for the last four miles, and I would have been quite crabby had Sara not preceded us. She had set up the camper and prepared tasty food and drink. The Shell RV Park was cozy and clean. It also had a great view of a cornfield with mountains in the distance.

Shell has been around since 1886, and it has a lot of community presence for a place with a full-time population of 50. It has a church, a store (being renovated), a bar and café, a community center, and tidy log homes, some of which are quite old and beautiful. As darkness fell the sky cleared and the high peaks emerged. Jim and Sara, who know the Bighorns already, talked excitedly about how beautiful they were. It was all going to be new to me.

We went to bed shortly after dark. Crickets and other night insects sang along the banks of the deep irrigation ditch next to my tent. Someone’s hound bayed far away but didn’t sound too serious about it. The stars were out, deep into the sky, and the air was delicious.

Days 28 & 29: Bighorn Mountains to Ucross, WY

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 (bcbicycles@bresnan.net) 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.

Days 30-31: Ucross to Devil's Tower

On Wednesday the 10th we went from the top of Wyoming to the bottom. We started in a pristine valley, continued through a transition from sage flats to grasslands, and ended in a coal and gas boomtown. We woke up as guests at a former retreat for energy company CEOs, and we went to bed in a campground where most of our neighbors were newcomers seeking entry-level jobs in the fields owned by those CEOs.

The retreat is called The Ranch at Ucross, and it is the only place where travelers can legally pull over in the 110 miles of U.S. 14 between Sheridan and Gillette. Finding it was a lucky break. It was a wonderful place, but also a little strange. It began as a cattle-and-hay operation in 1901. German stonemasons built the main ranch house in 1912 by hauling limestone down from the nearby hills. The place generated its own electricity from carbide batteries until the late1940s. The view of Clear Creek from our rooms is probably the same now as it was then. At night it gives you the absolute stillness of an area that is 27 miles from the nearest town, the clear air of high altitude, and the sounds of birds and animals packed into a desert stream corridor.

The Ranch at Ucross also gives you a lot of older people. It has a contract with a tour bus company that delivers 85 percent of its guests, who are well-to-do retirees on their way from Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone. We arrived in the afternoon and saw men in their 80s riding horses, elderly women strolling on the driveway, and a man who might have been 90 getting happily sloshed on the front porch of the ranch house.

The Ranch was sold to the Apache Oil Corporation of Houston in the early 1970s and operated as a corporate retreat until it became a lodge in 1995. Apache is a relatively small oil company, which means it has a market capitalization of only $35 billion (Exxon Mobil’s market cap is $390 billion). The company bought another ranch next door for their top dogs after they sold the first one, and they also bought the old Pratt and Ferris ranch complex further down the road. We dawdled around, watching the antelope in the fields and the fish in the creek, and didn’t get on our bikes until 11am. Then we got off them again for an hour at the Ucross Foundation’s art gallery and office just down the road.

Apache Oil renovated the 1882 Pratt and Ferris ranch, which everyone calls Big Red, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The company set up the Ucross Foundation to manage its 22,000 acres and the buildings. They donated a conservation easement on half of the land to the Nature Conservancy, and they made the ranch buildings into a retreat for artists. Residence manager Ruth Salvatore gave us a tour, which included a great show of landscapes by Joellyn Duesberry. A lot of good books have been written here, too. It’s a high-end, well-managed place.

Shortly after we left the Foundation, we noticed a road sign that said Gillette (our destination) was 80 miles away. We had thought it was 70. There was a crosswind, and it was after noon when we pulled into Clearmont, a tiny town with a lot of day workers from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad riding around in white fleet pickup trucks. We noticed that the woman tending the counter at the town’s one convenience store was the same woman who had been waiting tables at the Ranch the night before. She has two kids and says she works 12-hour days. The jobs pay $8 an hour. We were already a long way from Ucross.

As we rode east through big open landscapes, still battling the crosswind, we were passed by an endless stream of big pickup trucks loaded with tools, tanks, and dogs. Most of them are heading to or from Sheridan or Gillette after working on coal-bed methane gas rigs, said Vickie Abbott, who manages the Ranch. Abbott used to teach in public schools. She says that the energy boom is putting pressure on the grade schools to expand, but it is also keeping a lot of young Wyoming men from going to college. “They can start at $22 an hour, so they don’t think they need to go on,” she said. Field workers don’t acquire skills they can use in other industries, so when they are laid off, they are stuck. Injuries and drug abuse are also rampant among energy roughnecks, and Abbott also worries about the effect all this drilling is having on groundwater. “Ranchers have seen their cattle dying because the drilling pollutes their springs,” she says. “Water is everything out here.”

We rode past a big rail-bed rebuilding operation, with different machines for digging out old wooden ties, replacing them, driving spikes, and welding. It went on for miles. Coal trains are heavy. We also passed several buildings with big fans on them, which were probably booster stations for a natural gas pipeline. Then we crossed the Powder River, and shortly after that we climbed out of a small valley and the sage went away and we rode through fields covered with grass. Poof: we were in a different climate zone.

After about 40 miles we came to the bar at Spotted Horse (pop. 2). It had been several hours since we’d seen anything with a water spigot, so we went in. A cowboy and a methane worker were drinking at the bar. They and the bartender were all looking at different copies of “Playboy.” One sign on the dirty wall said, “drink till she’s cute.” Another said, “we don’t call 911.” We had to buy our water, but the guys were friendly enough. I bet they don’t see guys wearing black tights very often. “Eighty miles you’re goin’?,” said the cowboy. “When I’m on my horse for 40 miles, that is one long day. Better get on.”

Ah, but we had a secret weapon. After Spotted Horse we turned south, the crosswind became a stiff tailwind, and we started cruising at well above 20 mph. Rain was moving in and pushing us toward Sara and the camper. We were racing it. The white trucks were also racing home, and as the sky grew darker we pulled on reflective gear and hugged the shoulder. Near Gilette we passed the enormous Eagle Butte strip mine, which was lit up in the gloom. It went on for miles. We passed tire stores selling tires that were 20 feet in diameter. We passed a billboard that said, “worried about your water? Call Culligan!” The road was cracked and strewn with debris. The buildings were squat and ugly. Then it was welcome to Gillette; welcome to the boomtown.

We pulled into the Greentree Crazy Woman Campground just before the rain hit, exhausted and grateful once again to Sara for finding and setting up shelter. After dinner, when the rain paused, I went to the washhouse/laundry/tv/game room to use the wireless internet connection. A deeply tanned man and a 16-year-old boy were there, folding laundry. “We got here from Indiana a few days ago,” he said. “Things weren’t going so good back there, and I have an ex-wife who won’t leave me alone. So we loaded our dogs and horses in the trailer and took off. Today I got a job – which is good, because things were looking pretty desperate.” They slept in their diesel pickup truck that night, turning the engine on every few hours to run the heater. The place emptied out early in the morning, with all the guys heading out to drink from the dirty river of coal and gas money.

The men’s bathroom was heavily used and kind of creepy, but Sara said the women’s room was spotless and empty. Everything we saw looked cheap and temporary. I lay in my sleeping bag and thought about the guy’s smiling kid. Back in Ucross, they were probably serving after-dinner drinks to the artists and enjoying the sunset.The guy’s kid probably dropped out of school to follow his dad. Now he just has to wait a year or two until he can get one of those field jobs, where they pay plenty and it’s easy to get meth and weed . That kid is hanging by a thread.

Day 32: Gillette to Devil’s Tower
The forecast was for cloudy skies clearing toward sunset. Our destination was Devil’s Tower, a 1,200-foot stone plug that rises above the Belle Fourche River. If you’ve seen the movie “Close Encounters o the Third Kind,” you’ve seen it. We started off at 9am in light rain. At the outskirts of town we passed another strip mine with a large coal-fired power plant right next to it. Another 100 megawatt plant was recently approved for a site just east of here. It expensive to move coal to power plants, so many power plants are being built next to the coal. We didn’t smell anything coming out of the smoke stacks, and we do use electricity, but as I rode past the stacks I still had the following thought: this is the technology we have to replace if we’re going to survive.

Further out of town we rode past the Donkey Creek Rail Yard, where coal and freight trains wait for their turns to shoot down the main line. We rode past coal trains that seemed almost a mile long. They were just starting east from the yard, and we raced them as they picked up speed. After 25 miles we were in Moorcroft and hungry, so we stopped at Donna’s Diner for lunch. The food was good and the place was packed. They hadn’t seen a lot of men wearing back tights either, but they looked away politely as we walked in and out.

We paid for our pancakes and chicken dumping soup and went outside. Just as we started pulling on our helmets, a friendly-looking man walked up and asked where we were going. When we told him, he said it made him feel good to see people doing big things like that. When we sad that our destination today was Devil’s Tower, he smiled and said, “My son and I climbed that about 30 years ago, with ropes. I tried to climb it with my brother several times before. The first guy who ever climbed it put a wooden ladder there to get up the last 150 feet or so. Parts the ladder are still there. My brother and I almost made it.” I asked him what is on top of Devil’s Tower. “Sagebrush,” he replied.

Bill Hughes, 87, has lived in Moorcroft all his life, except for World War II when he was a flight engineer on B-17 and B-29 bombers. He has been the mayor; he has also managed the local department store and started the local bank. “If you stay in a town this small long enough, you do everything,” he says. Bill says he also built the first trail around the base of Devil’s Tower when he was a boy scout in 1935. The Civilian Conservation Corps came in a few years later and built a prettier trail, but his troop cleared the path.

We rode north through grasslands, and after we crossed the Belle Fourche River the landscape changed again. Here were pine trees and stone outcrops and hills several hundred feet high. We had entered the Black Hills. “I’m getting closer to home,” said Jim, who was raised in south central Minnesota. “The river valleys there look kind of like this.”

It was still cloudy and threatening but it didn’t rain. The Tower loomed every so often, and then it dominated the landscape as we got within a few miles of it. We pulled into the Devil’s Tower KOA Kampground, which is unfortunately about three miles from the base of the tower and right at the Forest Service entrance station. I went to the Devil’s Laundromat and took a Devil’s Shower. Then Sara and Jim made a diabolically tasty meal and wouldn’t let me clean up – they never do. “Go write your blog,” they said. Outside the sky had cleared and a huge moon had risen to the east, illuminating the tower. We’ll visit it in the morning.

Day 32: Devil's Tower to Spearfish, SD

Here are a few things you might not know about Devil’s Tower. First, it is a site of major spiritual significance to several Plains Indian tribes. Native Americans regularly come to the Tower and tie prayer cloths on the trees around it. You’re not supposed to touch them.

We got to Devil’s Tower at 8am, before it was inundated by busloads of tourists, and walked around the base for a half hour. You might know that the Tower is a world class site for “crack” climbers, who shimmy up cracks in rock faces with the help of ropes and steel chocks. The second thing you might not know is that the Indians don’t like this activity. We counted ten people in four parties on the rock face, and several more were on their way to the base when we got back to the car. Look closely at the center of the close-up photo of the rock face and you can see two of them. A Sioux medicine man is quoted in the visitor’s center as saying, “When people climb on this sacred butte and hammer metal objects into it, the tower is defiled . . . It is like they pounded something into our bodies.” A climber is quoted next to the medicine man, saying something like, “We touch the monolith and measure it by our sweat.” I think the Indians should win this one. They were here first. But the National Parks Service merely asks climbers to stay off the rock during the month of June, and most do.

The third thing you might not know about Devil’s Tower is that it’s crumbling. It is a big hunk of granite, a volcanic intrusion that was originally several hundred feet below the earth’s surface. It emerged as the Belle Fourche River eroded the soft stone nearby, and the six-sided columns that run up its face are cracks that formed as the stone was exposed. The base of the Tower is surrounded by big boulder fields, and although geologists estimate that no big columns have fallen in the last 10,000 years, they are sloughing off. In several hundred thousand years they might be calling it Devil’s Pinkie.

Many buses and big RV’s were in the parking lot when we returned from our hike, including a load of kids from Great River Middle School in St. Paul. This is one of the only public Montessori schools in the country, explained a teacher, and part of their curriculum is taking kids on a three-week camping trip to Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the Black Hills. The kids stay in tents and have homework assignments every night. They were great kids. They cooed and made excited sounds when we told them about the bike trip. Jim and Sara, who spent their careers counseling young people, were enthralled.

We rode out of the campground around 10:30 am with 65 miles to go to Spearfish, a town about 10 miles east of the South Dakota line. The Black Hills really are black when viewed at a distance, and we rode up and down buttes and through lush green valleys. It was a day of low clouds, and they acted like an acoustic damper; everything was quiet and still. One section of State Route 24 had had its asphalt cracks painstakingly repaired with lines of tar that seemed to wiggle and squirm as you rode over them.

We went through Hulett, a compact village that has its own school, newspaper, medical clinic, and football field; and Alva, a hamlet that didn’t seem to have anything going for it except for seven adorable kittens living under the post office. Then we rode through a section of Black Hills National Forest that was even more stately and verdant than the cattle ranches had been. We paused for a fine lunch in Aladdin (pop. 15) at Cindy B’s Café, which was hopping. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and they chatted easily with us. It was very pleasant, and it took a while. Cindy B. made me a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that had about a pound of incredibly tasty home-cured ham in it. It isn’t wise to eat a heavy meal before exercising and I felt like I had Silly Putty in my guts all afternoon, but it was worth it.

We rode south on state route 111 and then east on a frontage road that ran parallel to Interstate 90. On this road was the Vore Buffalo Jump, which was closed for the season. It is a sinkhole that was used by Plains Indians as a convenient way of killing lots of buffalo at once, in the days before they acquired horses. Several tribes would get together in the fall and collaborate. Scouts gently herded buffalo into a run that was bordered by natural and man-made barriers; sometimes an Indian wearing a calf skin imitated a wounded calf to get the herd to move closer. At a moment carefully chosen by the most skilled scout, everyone screamed and made the herd stampede, so that dozens or hundreds of them fell into the sinkhole. Arrows and spears quickly dispatched the buffalo that weren’t killed by the fall. Then the Indians did a mass skinning and butchering so they would have food, warmth, and all the other things buffalo provided them over the long winter. The sinkhole is now a 40 or 50-foot deep midden pile of buffalo bones, spear points, and other valuable Plains Indian artifacts. It is managed by a not-for-profit that hopes to build a big center on the site. I’d like to come back and see the dig.

There was no welcome sign when we crossed the state line, which is a minor disadvantage of following low-traffic routes. However, we did notice rain clouds to the south. The rain started with about ten miles to go, and by the time we got to the campground we were soaked. It continued until we went to bed. The weather forecast had been for a 20 percent chance of rain. Jim says that with the luck we’re having, this means that it will rain 20 percent of the time. Tomorrow we head deeper into the Black Hills.