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.