2. Idaho/Montana Bicycling Across The USA

Day 18: Canyon Ferry Lake & Townsend, MT

We woke up before dawn, packed the camper, and Sara rolled out with us at 8:30 am. Our campsite was three miles down a dirt road, and I had broken a spoke the last time I rode on a washboard surface. I didn’t want to risk it again. Our riding partner for the next eight days would be Jim’s younger brother Paul, a consultant who lives with his wife and three of their four children in Atlanta. Paul had been training hard on his new Schwinn Peloton racing bike, but he still seemed anxious, having never done this before. “It’s like having a summer job outdoors,” I told him. “You get up early and work hard until mid-afternoon. At the end of the day you’re tired and you need a shower. You sleep well and you want to go to bed as soon as it’s dark.”

During the shipping Paul’s bike developed a mechanical problem we couldn’t fix, so he and Sara drove into Helena while Jim and I started out. We rode 16 miles, first south then east, to Canyon Ferry Dam, another wad of concrete 225 feet high and1,000 feet long that holds back two million acre-feet of the Missouri River. This was near the headwaters of the Missouri, where Meriweather Lewis and his band of soldiers met up with William Clark in the summer of 1805. Lewis’s journal says that progress up the Missouri was hard – the Corps of Exploration averaged only about 18 miles a day on this stretch – and that a 16-mile canyon with sheer walls 1,200 feet high made it impossible to camp until after nightfall. The canyon was drowned 53 years ago by the dam Jim and I were crossing. Another dam just downstream had created the artificial lake where we stayed last night.

The question that always pops up in my mind when I see these dams is whether or not they are really necessary. On this ride, I’ve come to understand that this is the wrong question. Fifty-year-old people in Helena have never known a time when there wasn’t a dam, and Helena depends on its water and power. It’s sad to think that the beautiful wild river Lewis and Clark saw is gone forever, along with most of the salmon population and countless other species. But there is an endless list of sad thoughts you can have about things that are over and done with, and if you go that route all you’ve done is wallow in self-pity. The important question is how well we are doing with the West we have created.  We should focus on saving the natural places that escaped the dam-builders, dismantling the dams that are not needed, and restoring the landscapes that can be restored.

It didn’t look like Helena had made up its mind yet on this question. The ride to the dam was through rolling hills with lots of farms and pasture, and there were also lots of scattershot housing developments with trees less than two years old. A lot of the open land had Realtor signs on it, either “For Sale” or some developer’s come-on. It was sad to see Helena going the route of low-density sprawl that started in Los Angeles and reached its smoggy apotheosis in Denver. On the other hand, there is a land trust here, and there is an open space bond issue on the ballot. Whether it passes will depend on who works harder (Editing note:  the bond issue passed, barely).

We rode across the dam and gawked at the electrical station at its base. Then we continued south on state route 284, climbing and dropping in a series of steep hills that were small but tough. About 20 miles into the ride Sara passed us with Paul and his bike, now fixed. Shortly after he joined us, the road straightened out and flattened. It was 30 miles to Townsend. The Belt Mountains rose to the east; we will cross them tomorrow. To the west, across the big flat lake, were the Elkhorn Mountains of the Helena National Forest.

This is a big, open landscape that looks a little bit like a central California valley, although the mountains are more heavily forested. Huge wheat and alfalfa farms sprawled away on either side of us, mile after mile. Unfortunately, the wind kicked up from the south and blew directly in our faces at 10 to 20 miles an hour. We formed a peolton and struggled through it, but we were drained when we pulled into Townsend.  Jim later said that this was the hardest day of the trip for him.  One reason was that h had a slow leak in his front tire, which wasn’t apparent until it showed up flat the next morning.

We set up camp at the community park in the center of town. A friendly woman at the local Chamber of Commerce gave us a key to the bathroom, and we got electricity from a power pole. They didn’t charge us anything. When the schools let out, three little girls rode by the park on their Huffy bikes with 12-inch wheels. One of them had streamers on her handlebars. Go girls, go!

Jim, Sara, and Paul went to the Mint casino for mid-afternoon milkshakes. I went to the Community Library, which was also full of after-school children since it is attached to the public school complex. I could see high school football practice out the window. One of the sweet regrets of this trip was seeing so many places like Townsend, which seem vital and interesting and full of stories, but having only an hour or so to be part of them before it was time for the next thing. I guess I have to come back.

3. Wyoming Bicycling Across The USA Land Stewards

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.

2. Idaho/Montana Bicycling Across The USA

Days 19 & 20: Belt Mountains to Livingston

On Saturday of Labor Day Weekend we woke up in the city park in Townsend and were rolling by 8am. It was Paul’s first full day on the trip, and it would turn out to be the longest day on a bike he’d ever had. We rolled through the sleeping town, up a small hill, and back onto the plateau. The early morning wind was lighter, but still there. In an hour or so we started up Deep Creek Canyon to cross the Belt Mountains.

Deep Creek turned out to be a perfect travel companion. Stream corridors in arid environments can be magical places, with an explosive diversity of plant life, small fish wiggling in the pools, lots of bird songs, and the promise of animal sightings at dawn and dusk. Water evaporates quickly here so there are also a lot more smells – they reminded me of eucalyptus, wet earth, sweet alder, and sage. But the best thing Deep Creek gave us was a gradual climb. We went up 2,200 feet in 16 miles and barely knew we were climbing.

About halfway through we saw a big-ass Montana pickup pulled over on the left side of the road, and a regular-looking guy filling his water bottle from a pipe spring stuck in the road bank. We needed a fill-up too, so I asked him if the water was good. “A lot of people been drinking this, and none of them are dead yet,” he said. Then his wife leaned over from the passenger side and said, “He gets a quart every time we go over the pass.” Then their dog barked. Good enough.

The Belt Mountains have grazing allotments, so there were several broke-down pastures with horse ramps and a cow every so often. Near the top the trees thinned out and we could see long distances; at the top, elevation 6,200, was a slope that still had some snow. The pass had no name because it wasn’t really a pass. We left the National Forest and continued across a plateau that, incredibly, had some realtor signs and a couple of second homes that obviously had not seen many winters up here. It was over 20 miles to the nearest convenience store. The houses had long driveways; a few even had lawns. When historians write about the Era of Cheap Oil, they will marvel that houses like these ever existed.

The plateau buckled and we had a wonderful swooping downhill run through open pasture with 30-mile view to the north and south. It was privately owned range land with a good solid fence — maybe Ted Turner’s? – and it took us into the huge, treeless Smith River Valley. We turned to the south on U.S. Route 89 with the day’s mileage counter at 30 miles. It was 35 more miles to the next town, Wilsall. We did not know what we’d find there and hoped for water, showers, electricity, and Internet.

The wind was immediate and hard. It came from west to east and so was usually a crosswind, and it quickly intensified as the day heated up. It felt like a 10 mph wind at its constant minimum, but there were gusts of 40 mph or higher that pushed the bike sideways. Any slight change in direction had a big effect. When the road bore east it was more like a tailwind, to the west it became a headwind. But the biggest effect was the constant noise and grit, which quickly fried our brains. It became clear to me, after about 20 miles of this, why the heroes in Westerns don’t talk much and squint all the time. Spend the day outdoors in a dry wind and it’s hard to put two words together.

We rode through a hamlet called Ringling. Yes, it is named for the Ringling Brothers, who once owned most of the valley as an investment. Square mile upon square mile here was planted with dry-land wheat that was ripening and rolling in the wind. At the side of a small cluster of plain, blasted buildings was a handsome church built in 1914, with a new roof and windows. It wasn’t being used for anything but storage, but obviously someone still cared about it.

High mountain peaks were in the distance to the east and west . The western ranges were the Bridger and Absaroka Mountains, which are at the northern end of Yellowstone. To the east were the Crazy Mountains (more about them below). The straightaways were so long and the wind so constant that I began playing mental games to cope. First I tried to figure out how many roadside reflectors there were between mile markers (it varied). Then I daydreamed about various things. Then I broke a rear tire spoke, Paul got a slow leak in his rear tire, and the wind picked up. With eight miles to go we pumped up Paul’s tire, disconnected my rear brake, and pushed on, slightly more tense – always alert for a rock on the edge of the pavement, or for the rear rider’s call of “car back.” Thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic. How could there be? There wasn’t much of anything.

Around 4pm we limped into Wilsall, having done 67 miles, or 17 more than Paul had ever done before. At the edge of town, overlooking the Shields River, was a statue of a mountain man that the town’s first-grade class had named “Thunder Jack.” The river was named by William Clark when he passed through here in 1806 on his way to check out Yellowstone. Jim Bridger lead settlers through here in the 1860s, and lots of hard-bit fellers did all kinds of things up in the hills while they looked for beaver pelts. Their exploits have become our folk heritage, although they were all without a doubt made crazy as loons by the loneliness and the wind.

Sara found us a mom-and-pop motel and RV park where we could pitch our camp and get a hot shower. A friendly guy named John was renting a room there. He explained that the mountains are called Crazy because of an early settler family – mom, dad, and a child. Hostile Indians killed the man and child while mom was out, and when she returned she discovered their bodies. She became grimly efficient at hunting down and killing any Indians she found, said John, and the Indians were so afraid of her that they called her domain the Crazy Woman Mountains. It’s a great story. Who cares if it’s true?

There was also a café serving good food, and after bike repairs and grime removal we strolled over. The joint was jumping, the beer was cold, the fresh Walleye and steaks delicious – although, to be honest, pieces of wet cardboard covered with ketchup would probably have tasted good to me, too. The manager of the café was a fellow named Greg. “Wilsall is a strange place, but I love it here because you don’t ever have to wait at a traffic light,” he said. “There’s great skiing at Bridger, 20 minutes away, and the people are fantastic.” He also allowed that there’s a rail bed, abandoned four years ago, running all the way from Livingston to Ringling. “Wouldn’t that make a great rail trail?”, he said.

Greg is originally from New Jersey. Maybe five years from now, Wilsall will look different. I hope they keep the old grain elevator.

Day 20: Wilsall to Livingston
After ten hours of sleep we rolled south starting at 9am, before the wind got going. It was a great 25-mile ride into Livingston. John and Greg had both told us how to avoid city traffic, and on the side road north of town we got our first glimpse of the Yellowstone River, which we’ll follow over the next few days into the Park. I did a ten-minute interview with Tracey Craig on the “Nonesuch” program on WVBR-FM, a station in Ithaca. Then I broke another damn rear spoke. Clearly, professional attention was needed. I disconnected the rear brake again and we made it to Livingston, where we found that the one bike shop in town was closed. Sara cheerfully volunteered to drive me 25 miles into Bozeman, where I connected with a knowledgeable mechanic named Joby at Owenhouse Ace Hardware and Sports. Paul and I have begun calling Sara “Sacajawea.” Like the woman who guided Lewis and CLark, she saves the expedition over and over again and doesn’t get enough credit for working so hard.

Joby immediately saw that the stock spokes that came with my bike were not up to the strain. He fixed and trued the wheel, but said that a permanent fix would only be possible by buying a new, stronger rear wheel. We devised a plan to call ahead and have the wheel delivered to a shop in Cody, Wyoming. I will pick them up next week when we pass through.

My visit to Bozeman felt kind of like being the High Plains Drifter, except I have a bike instead of a horse and a credit card instead of a gun. Meanwhile, Jim and Paul continued the day’s ride, down the west face of the Absarokas to a RV park near Chico Hot Springs.

I waited at a painfully hip coffee shop in Bozeman that is full of Montana State University students. Tania’s plane landed at 4:30 pm. She pickd me and the bike up and drove us to Chico for two nights, and then to Yellowstone National Park for three nights. Four days of rest, hot springs, and a reunion with my wonderful wife. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

2. Idaho/Montana Bicycling Across The USA Jim's posts

Jim on Day 21: Unexpected Tea

While Brad went off with Sara to Bozeman to have his bike looked at, and to later hitch up with Tania, Paul and I biked from Livingston to Emigrant on the east side of the Yellowstone River and up against the Absaroka Range. It was a RARE sunny afternoon and we soaked it up with a wind to our back for the first hour. The wind later did a 180º and we had to beat a path into it. I made a note to tell Paul’s concerned wife, Annette, that there was no traffic.

We had great close up views of the Absarokas. It was an ideal valley setting with the mountains on one edge and the Yellowstone River on the other. In fact we saw many ideal settings for residential development in Montana. Apparently so did the developers.

We saw many entry gates to potential subdivisions. Some were elaborate with fighting bronze elks, ponds, and gate houses to keep wanderers like us out. What was missing was houses. We saw only one house being built in more than a dozen empty subdivisions. I did envy their access to large rocks, logs, and loads of “housing boom” money.

Our stay that night after a 60+ mile ride was in a very upscale RV Park along the Yellowstone River that did not allow tents. However, they thought the bike trip so novel they allowed brother Paul to set up his tent under the pull out of the camper.

We try to avoid these RV Parks. They make us look and feel like poor country mice with our pop up camper. They do, however, have wireless internet connections and great showers to help offset the $30-$40 cost. It started raining that night (again). We had to take down and stow wet gear (again). This is not our favorite chore. It makes us lust for a “real RV”.

The next day Brad and Tania were still soaking at Chico Hot Springs. Paul and I donned wet gear and took to the road in a 42º drizzle, but we did have a good tail wind from the north. A drizzle is survivable on a bike at 15-20 mph. It does help keep the feet clean.

The clouds ahead seemed to indicate that more than a drizzle was in the future. Right again: we ran into a downpour that pooled water on the road and soaked us to the bone, especially when the occasional car passed us. Paul’s bike developed a wobble and soon a flat rear tire. We dashed back a quarter-mile to a US Forest Service Campground, where he tried to find shelter behind a “vault toilet” (aka “outhouse” or “pit toilet”). It did not occur to use to seek shelter inside, where the odor would actually have been less intense than it was standing next to the vent pipe on the back of the structure. We didn’t know it then, but we were acting confused and hypothermia was setting in.

Out of nowhere a young woman appeared and walked into the toilet.
What was she thinking when she saw two men hiding behind the toilet tearing into their bike bags for tools? Such composure she had. We did not. Pedaling had kept us minimally warm in that cold rain, but as soon as we stopped the cold sunk in. A minute later a voice asked, “Would you like some tea? Earl Gray or Black?” Out of the rain appeared Jared Moore from Bozeman with a mug of hot water and a choice of teabags. We learned that he was from Blue Earth, Minnesota. Paul and I were born and raised in Jackson, Minnesota. I played sports against Blue Earth. What a small world, and what a good soul Jared was.

In spite of being soaked and cold, we were hoping to ride to the gates of Yellowstone, but in my panic to get us back on the road we made a simple error and the new rear tire went flat within 100 feet of the fancy outhouse. What might that error have been? Contact me for the answer.

Sara came to our rescue and we rode through the gates of Yellowstone near Mammoth Hot Springs. I made a mental note to look up Jared’s dad when we rode through Blue Earth.

2. Idaho/Montana Bicycling Across The USA

Day 21: Chico Hot Springs

The Corps split on Labor Day. Jim and Paul rode bravely through a cold rain to the gates of Yellowstone. I held back and spent a rest day at Chico Hot Springs. Tania and I saluted Jim and Paul’s bravery by raising cold cans of Olympia while soaking in the 105 degree water.

Chico Hot Springs is in the Yellowstone River Valley at the base of Mount Emigrant (elevation 10,900 ft). The Montana WPA Guide relates a legend that the explorer Jim Bridger spent the winter of 1844-45 here, uneasily co-existing with Crow Indians. Gold was discovered in Emigrant Gulch in 1862. In 1864, a team of settlers arrived, and according to the Guide “their attention was drawn to a lone pine with 18 to 20 elk horns around its base, so strongly embedded that they could not be removed. In December of that year Jim Bridger and one of the settlers met at a primitive hotel near Bozeman. When, during the swapping of stories, the ring of elk horns was mentioned, Bridger asserted that he had placed them there 25 years before.”

Miners built crude vats to bathe and wash their clothes in the hot springs. In 1876, one of them tapped the 112-degree water and ran it under a greenhouse so he could grow vegetables. Percie and Bill Knowles built the original hotel in 1900; Teddy Roosevelt and Charlie Russell were among the guests ferried in by car from the train station at Emigrant. In 1910, Percie and her son Radbourne re-opened the hotel as a sanitorium under the direction of Dr. George Townsend. By the 1940s the Hot Springs was more of a dude ranch and gambling hall.

The present owners have restored the 1900s-style architecture and Craftsman furnishings, and what we saw is a beautiful example of an early 20th century health resort. It’s affordable; a room with shared bath can be had for as little as $49. The restaurant is not cheap but it’s sophisticated, friendly, and has an excellent chef. You can get a massage and ride a horse if you want to, but all we wanted to do was lie around. I will make the ride tomorrow, hopefully after this storm blows through, and Tania will chase me in her rental car; we will all meet at Canyon on Tuesday afternoon.

3. Wyoming Bicycling Across The USA

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.

3. Wyoming Bicycling Across The USA

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.

3. Wyoming Bicycling Across The USA

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.

3. Wyoming Bicycling Across The USA

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 ( 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.

3. Wyoming Bicycling Across The USA

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.