Saturday September 6, 2014, 130 miles (209 km) – Total so far: 4,973 miles (8,003 km)
Sometimes on tour you regret the things you were not able to do, or the places you missed, or the scenery that disappeared underneath a blanket of rain. On last year’s tour, one of my biggest regrets was not being able to do a day ride down the Wind River Canyon and back from Thermopolis. I came down with the flu in a big way, and I spent the day I’d planned on riding the Wind River Canyon not doing much but feeling fairly miserable. So when I figured out that I was going to ride down through Wyoming this year, I immediately decided Wind River Canyon had to be on the route. Today we get to right a regret.
The Wind River Canyon carves a course straight through the Owl Creek Mountains. The road through the canyon passes through one of the most complete sequences of sedimentary rock in the state. I’ve used the internet to draw up a stratigraphic column showing all of the rock formations, their age and time period. I put this in my handlebar bag on top of the state map for quick reference.
The early morning sun striking the bright red Chugwater Formation makes the rock almost glow in fluorescence as we roll out of Thermopolis and down to the start of the canyon. It is a fantastic start to what will be a fantastic day. Soon, our speed from the downhill slows and meets the resistance of the wind which starts to gain strength as soon as we reach the Wedding of the Waters. This location was created when it was discovered that one river had two names. On the south side of the mountains, the river was known as the Wind River. On the north side of the mountains, the river was known as the Big Horn. So now, the river retains its two different names in the two different locations, and some clever folks at some level of government created a little park that now marks where the name changes.
The thick sandstones of the Tensleep Formation escort us into the canyon. This formation has excellent cross-bedding to gaze at. It is also the formation we stood upon at the summit of Dead Indian Pass a couple days ago. Now, we round the corner into the canyon and disappear into its extremely narrow and deep cleft. The wind greets us with a ferocity I hadn’t quite expected. It is quite a tough push into it. But there is plenty of time to rest and recharge because I keep stopping to look up and try to pick out the different rock formations. It would be more fun later in the day when the sun shone on the walls and the colours were more differentiated. But I make do!
Each curve in the canyon brings a new vista of rock formations, as older and older rock crops out. In some places, the canyon is so narrow, there is little room for anything but the road, the river and the rail line. It is simply spectacular. Toward the end of the canyon, the road and the rail, on opposite sides of the river, both drive straight through the dark and chunky Precambrian rock in a series of three tunnels. The tunnels are fairly short but have no shoulder. You’d have to be a little more careful about timing later in the day when the traffic was heavier. Lots of trucks use this route.
Down toward the end of the canyon, I’m also excited to look for the contact between the Cambrian Flathead sandstones on top of the Precambrian rock. The contact is the “Great Unconformity” we saw back at the Sunlight Gorge Bridge. 2.2 billion years of history are missing here! Then, just past the tunnels we can see the Boysen fault which thrusts up the dark Precambrian rock adjacent to lighter Paleozoic sandstones. Gorgeous!
I pedal on into the wind along the eastern edge of the reservoir. There are some hills to climb that are slide blocks from the top of the anticline, and then there is a long gentle descent into the basin toward Shoshoni. The Wyoming drivers continue to put the Montana drivers to shame. Even though I’ve got a big shoulder, and I’m riding in the right-hand side of it, most of the vehicles still pull out further to give me more room. They don’t need to. If they didn’t move over at all, there would still be a couple of metres between them and me. Why Montanan drivers can’t move over at all when there is no shoulder at all, but long sight lines like this, is beyond me. Thanks, Wyoming drivers. It’s a pleasure to be back riding here again.
Shoshoni has managed to plant some trees over the years, and this swath of scraggly green alerts you to the town’s location many miles out. Most of the homes on the way into town are just as scraggly as the vegetation. But things are happening in town today! It appears that the way sports are done out in the remote parts of Wyoming is that pretty much the whole school gets on the bus and travels to a distant town on a Saturday. Regardless of what sport you play in that season, your game will be scheduled on the same day with every other sport of that season. I suppose if you play more than one sport, you would have to take several changes of clothes! The high school is a busy, busy place today. The out-of-town team today has come all the way from Greybull.
The main street is short. The list of open businesses is shorter. The gas station on the corner has a constant flow of people going in and out. I get a personal-size pizza, drinks for the road and a choc milk for now. Calories in, I head down to the rest area to use the toilet before the long stretch ahead. As I’m walking out, an older woman comes over to me and starts to ask all about the bike. Her son, who is probably in his early 50s, walks out of the toilets and joins us. We go over the standard six all over again. They are heading back home to Denver after a couple weeks of camping and fishing. They are originally from Casper, and the guy did a 1,000 mile bike tour in his teens to earn a badge in Boy Scouts. His mom trailed along but didn’t provide assistance. The guy thinks touring merit badges in Wyoming should not have the same distance requirements of other states because the wind makes every ride seem twice as long.
The wind is not making the ride twice as long today. Nor is it making it twice as quick. The topography through here is supposed to create a funnel of strong, prevailing westerlies. They’ve been strong enough for the past 19,000 years to redistribute sand and silt in small dunes all the way from Shoshoni to Casper. But today, the winds are largely absent. Sometimes we have a tailwind. Sometimes we have a headwind. But most of the time, it is a crosswind. And all of the time it is incredibly light. You could hardly get it to curl the edge of a limp flag on a pole.
It is just a beautiful day to go for a ride. The wind is blasting through Wind River Canyon. Yet, out here on the eastern edge of the Wind River Basin, it is nothing more than the gentle sigh of a season about to end. The angle of the sun at noon now places it ¾ of the way up the horizon. The sun no longer glares overhead at mid-day. Indirectly, this is responsible for the perfect temperatures today, too. It’s not too hot; it’s not too cool. Yes, it is a perfect day for a ride.
So that is what I do. I just ride and ride and ride. For hours and hours and hours. For 80 miles the landscape is the wide open range for which Wyoming is so famous. You can gaze for miles and miles to horizons so distant they seem to recede further and further away the longer you look and the longer you ride toward them. You can peer far into the distance and almost see the curve of the earth. All the while, I just pedal and pedal. There is a gentle incline as we climb out of the basin to the Casper Arch – a broad uplift formed 60 million-years-ago that connects the Bighorn Mountains to the Laramie Mountains as a low spot among rockier peaks.
We ride and ride and climb and climb. The traffic is fairly light, especially for being the main east-west thoroughfare in the centre of the state. I’ve got a shoulder and absolutely no cares in the world. It’s just me, the crew, the bike, the big dome of blue above, and the long ribbon of pavement ahead and behind. There is nothing out here except time and distance.
We start to run into a few steeper hills as we get closer to Waltman, as we climb past the Tertiary-aged flanks of the uplift. We are almost out of the Wind River Basin now. About 77 miles into the day, we stop at the rest area at Waltman. There is a bike rack here. I suspect the six spaces aren’t in high demand, so I just lean my bike across all of them. Then I head over to a picnic table to eat and watch the parade of people come and go. Then I refill all of my water bottles and Camelbak. The original thought was to just head up a side-road and dry camp somewhere tonight, so I fill up the water supplies accordingly.
We finish the rest of the climb to the day’s high point on the Casper Arch near Hell’s Half Acre. This erosional spectacle looks abandoned – with absolutely no cars, no people and a closed gate. Not long after this, we begin our gentle descent down to the Powder River Basin. Oh, there are a few climbs in there. Some of the climbs are steeper than you might expect, because you are actually just climbing sand dunes rather than deep structural features. However, the general trend is down.
Somewhere around mile 85 I decide that we should just ride on into Casper. You know, it’s only another 45 miles. We can do that, no worries. Where the heck did that thought come from? I am not any sort of superwoman! But somehow I get it in my head that it would be a great day to break my personal distance record. I’ve done 122 miles before, but 40 of those miles were wind-assisted, the terrain was very gentle, and there was no elevation to consider. Today’s ride will have had a lot more climbing at moderate elevation and no wind assistance, just a headwind the first 32 miles. Plus, I’m not seeing lots of side roads with good camping options, and much of the land is private instead of public. So let’s go!
And so I ride and I ride. It’s a perfect day for it. Pedal, pedal, coast. Pedal, pedal, pedal. The miles tick down and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so endorphined and alive. About 20 miles out from Casper, 110 miles into the day, the endorphins fight a battle with fatigue. I’m starting to lose pedal force, so I’m glad the general trend is downhill. There is a storm developing behind us, though, that does provide some extra incentive to keep it moving. I sing out Iggy Pop’s song “The Passenger” – only with the altered lyrics one of my college friends made up for our nightly street sessions back in the days when life was just work hard, study hard, play hard and party hard. Today we are just playing hard!
So, for miles 110 to 115, I sing out loud with the punk spirit of Iggy Pop, the energy and enthusiasm of my old college friends, and all of the joy of a long but perfect day on the bike. The original lyrics are Iggy Pop’s, the altered lyrics are from my friend Matt Knight. Sing along with the La La La chorus!
“I am a night rider, and I ride and I ride.
I ride through the city’s backsides
I see the stars come out of the sky
Yeah, the bright and hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight
I am a night rider
I stay outta sight
I look through my eyes so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
I see the bright and hollow sky
Over the city’s ripped black skies
And everything looks good tonight
Singing la la la la la.. lala la la, la la la la.. lala la la etc
Get onto yer bike
We’ll be the night riders
We’ll ride through the city tonight
We’ll see the city’s ripped black skies
We’ll see the bright and hollow sky
We’ll see the stars that shine so bright
Stars made for us tonight
Oh, the night rider
How, how he rides
Oh, the night rider
He rides and he rides
He looks through his worldview
What does he see?
He sees the sign and hollow sky
He sees the stars come out tonight
He sees the city’s ripped black skies
He sees the winding ocean drive
And everything was made for you and me
All of it was made for you and me
‘Cause it just belongs to you and me
So let’s take a ride and see what’s mine
Singing la la la la.. lala la la [x3]
Oh the night rider
He rides and he rides
He sees things from the under side
He looks through his darker side
He sees the things that he knows are his
He sees the bright and hollow sky
He sees the city sleep at night
He sees the stars are out tonight
And all of it is yours and mine
And all of it is yours and mine
So let’s ride and ride and ride and ride
Oh, oh, Singing la la la la lalalala.”
We roll into the industrial outskirts of Casper where every piece of equipment one might ever possibly need to remove minerals or energy from the earth lays along the road in the yards of businesses with names like Haliburton. It is a Saturday evening, but this side of town is deserted. It is almost post-apocalyptic. I find the road I need and finish the day at 6.05 pm at the crappy RV park in town.
Office hours ended at 6pm, so I have to press on the intercom button. This RV park is full of permanent residents and is a pretty creepy place. But the woman who limps over from her RV to unlock the office and register me is very nice. (She is the assistant manager; apparently, the manager is not nice at all.) She can’t believe I rode all the way here from Thermopolis today. She gives me a discount rate, and when I ask her if she could add in the cost of a can of soft drink from the fridge behind the desk, she asks what kind I want. I request a crème soda and she just goes to the fridge, pulls one out and hands it to me. “No charge,” she says. She also gives me a site way off on its own in the picnic area, because she doesn’t think a single gal should be down with some of the more permanent clientele. She says I can pitch under one of the picnic shelters or on the grass nearby. This means I will have a very quiet, dark night. Just perfect. It’s a perfect end to a perfect day.
I’m proud of my new distance record, because I feel like earned every mile. There was no wind assistance, I had a pretty strong headwind the first 32 miles, and I had a net elevation gain for the day. It went something like this: Thermopolis, 4326 feet; Shoshoni, 4820 feet; Moneta 5428 feet; Waltman, 6020 feet; road high point, 6285 feet; Natrona, 5610 feet; Casper, 5123 feet. We rode for 11 hours with a rolling ride time of 9.42. Our average speed was 13.3 mph. I could have kept pedalling if I’d needed to, but now that I’ve stopped, I don’t think I could go another foot. The day started out perfect, ended perfect, and was pretty perfect everywhere in between. I am so grateful for the chance to be out here on the road. I do wish I could just ride and ride.