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.