Monday September 8, 2014, 94 miles (151 km) – Total so far: 5,079 miles (8,174 km)
It’s that time of day when all of the vehicles still have their headlights on, but the drivers heading east are blinded by the low angle of the sun. The steady stream of commuters heading into Casper all have their car’s sun visors down but still squint into the glare. I wish those low angle sun rays landing on my back could reach out and give me a push, because the westerly wind is a formidable force this morning as I head out of town. I slowly climb up the long hill that heads over the end of the anticline. I look at some of the nice homes built on the side of the hill and wonder if they ever get a calm day – they are built right where the wind funnels through.
Once over the hill, the wind dissipates and the day comes good. We follow the river through the bright reds of the Chugwater Formation and into the shadow of the anticline. The colours of the vegetation and the surrounding rock walls bleed out and turn grey as we travel through the bulky shadow. Then we pop back out into the sun, round a long corner and find ourselves on the outer reaches of the Laramie Mountains. Not far down the road, we turn left to follow the arc of the mountains south. Highway 487 is new to the crew and me, so our smiles widen.
The road is wide, and the shoulder is ridiculously wide for a road where only a car or two passes me every 10 minutes or so. If Wyoming can do it, I’m sure other states can, too. The road travels along the valley of Stinking Creek. To our right, the little creek is sometimes close and sometimes far away. It meanders down the valley in no rush or hurry. When you are the only source of moisture in miles, the vegetation and the fauna come to you. Indeed, the sinuous line of green is the only source of vibrancy in the lower landscape. You must look up onto the long ridges above the road to find other shades of darker green. Pine trees populate the ridges’ upper slopes. The trees trickle out downslope and give way to big sage.
The wind is back. It’s not too bad just yet, but it is winding up like a pitcher about to throw on a full count with three runners on base in the ninth inning. It’s a crosswind, though, so it is not demoralizing like a headwind. All along the road, the ridges reach down to the west from the main range behind. These high, rocky spurs are substantial enough to have names on the map. They provide topographical relief in a landscape of low hills and sparse sage vegetation. The rocks underlying the valley are Cretaceous shales of the Steele Formation – more drab, muted colours deposited underneath an extensive, shallow seaway about 70 million-years-ago.
We are just cruising along today. I think a lot about how much bicycling has always been part of my life in one way or another. I think about riding up and down the block on cold, blustery January days when I was a kid and just couldn’t get enough of being outside. I think about the angst and energy expended in my early BMX days, all of the rides with the guys in college that pushed me to develop bike handling skills, and all of the touring miles that this decade has seen.
Through the long, beautiful, silent miles we pedal up Stinking Creek this morning, I also think about how I’ve grown in confidence since my first long tour in 2010. Back then, I was afraid my asthma would hinder climbing passes, so I used my mom as SAG that year in Colorado. Then, last year, I rode 20 passes solo and fully-loaded all over Colorado and Wyoming. This year, I took it further and attempted a pass that last year I thought might be too hard (Beartooth). In 2010, a day with no services for 70 miles was a bit intimidating. Now, those days are my favourite ride sections, and I hope to seek out more of them in the future. Today there is a rest area with water, shade and toilets at mile 49 but nothing else between endpoints on today’s 94-mile ride. I love days like this! And I hope I can continue to push my boundaries on future rides.
Further south, low, flat-ish ridges feature eroded cliffs of the Oligocene White River and Eocene Wind River Formations. The bright white walls are layers of ash from volcanic eruptions further west 55 to 25 million years ago. As we roll into the rest area underneath more of those cliff exposures, I think about all of the other places where I’ve seen rocks of similar age in the past couple years. I also think about how the rock I’m standing on was deposited in the Cretaceous. Between me and the rocks in the cliff was the end of the dinosaurs, the end of the major period of mountain-building for the present-day Rockies, the eruptions that caused the Heart Mountain Detachment further north, and the beginnings of the mammals that would dominate the Miocene and Pliocene.
The wind is nasty enough that I cannot see fighting it all day on the ‘backroad’. Hwy 77 branches off from the main highway just a mile or two north of here. The original plan had been to come down, fill up all of my water bottles, then head back to 77 and ride down that for a bit until I found some public land I liked to camp for the night. However, rain is forecast for this evening and all of tomorrow. And the wind is whipping hard enough that none of that seems like it will be too pleasant. So I wimp out and decide I’ll just refill all of my water bottles and stick to the main road. If I see some public land along the way attractive for camping on the wide expanses of the basin, I’ll go for that. If not, I’ll just ride on into Medicine Bow.
I spend some time fuelling up and drinking as much water as my stomach will hold, before I refill my water bottles. I hunker down in the shade and out of the wind behind the maintenance building. I’m feeling so fantastic today. This is just the type of riding I love – out there in the middle of nowhere with few people around and interesting, but subtle, geology. I need more days like this on future tours – I had way too little of it in Montana this year. After we left the Plains, it just seemed like there were people everywhere all the time.
Not long after we leave the rest area and begin a climb up Hunt Creek to the top of those strikingly white layers of volcanic ashes, I hit the 5,000 mile-mark. Yippee! I don’t ride for the miles, but this is the furthest I’ve ridden, so it is cause for a photo or two. I use the gorilla pod thingie to grip my camera to a reflector post to get a couple shots. I laugh at myself – my pony tail is indicating a left turn in the hefty wind!
After we climb over the rim, we emerge onto a high flat ridge with absolutely massive views down over the basin. The Laramie Range rises far to the east. The bulk of Laramie Peak is distinctive. I love that I’ve now seen that landmark from both sides of the range. To the right, the Shirley Mountains poke above the rich grasslands of the mixed grass prairie. Fantastic!
I go cruising along this high ridge, continually buffeted by a wind that is as pushy as a drunk man down the end of the bar who is a bit more confident about his machismo than he should be. I love the feeling of being high in the landscape with the views just flowing out before me as the road begins to drop down.
Off to the left, the road to the old uranium mine and mill takes off around a hill. Uranium deposits can be found in the Eocene Wind River formation about 300 feet below the surface. The uranium here was discovered in 1955. Production began in 1960 and was both underground and open-pit. The funky, out-of-place heaps of earth and hill off to our left attest to that. It is estimated they moved 22 million cubic feet of earth to get at the uranium deposits. They began milling the ore on-site in the 1970s. Between 1971 and 1992, when the mine closed, it was estimated to have produced 28 million pounds of uranium yellow cake. Even after its closure, the mine still received and disposed of byproduct from other mines. Then, late last year, Ur-Energy, a uranium mining company with other interests in Wyoming, bought the mine in anticipation of uranium prices rising in 2016 when Japan restarts its nuclear reactors. There is still an estimated 10 million pounds of low grade ore to go digging for beneath the surface.
It creeps me out, of course – some things I think should just be left in the ground. A risks and benefits analysis, in my mind, leaves uranium untouched. But my mind is not motivated by greed. Still, it is part of the landscape, and that is what I’m out here to see. The rich mixed grass prairie excites me much more, though.
As I head down off the high rim and ridge, the road gently rises and falls. All along the road, huge snow fences are set perpendicular to that blasting wind. They are not built in a continuous line, but in long rows that extend for some distance and then stop. Set some feet back from the first fence, another fence starts. After that one ends, another one starts a few feet forward of the last. I don’t know if I’ve seen a more extensive set of snow fences – they continue for at least 40 miles.
The most hilarious aspect of this part of the ride is crossing the draws – drainages that form shallow v-shaped dips which cross the road. Whenever I hit one of these dips, the wind funnelling through pushes me incredibly hard toward the road. I begin to anticipate the blast and start to lean into it just as the downslope begins. It gets so ridiculous – both the wind and the number of draws – that I’m laughing out loud after about the fifth one. I have to lean so far into the wind through the dips that I feel like I’m riding through a corner at speed rather than trying just to stay upright going forward. I would love to have seen myself from behind. It had to have been somewhat funny, because I notice the passenger in an on-coming car lean forward and take a photo of the poor touring cyclist on the other side of the road!
After the horizontal blasting coming down off the ridge, the road turns west and we fight into the wind toward the Freezeout Mountains. Finally, we reach the junction with Hwy 77 close to the slopes of smooth, sculpted ridges. Sometimes these types of landforms make me think of a kid in a sandbox who has scooped up all the sand from the centre of the box (the basin) and piled it along the edges, then ran the back side of the shovel along some of the mounds.
The road winds along the edge of the hills through white outcrops of the Frontier sandstones. I love it. Days like this make me feel like I was put on earth to ride a bike. I could just do this forever and ever. Every other part of my identity shifts to dark recesses and my heart explodes with the joy of being a cyclist. It is just me, the crew, the bike and the road. Nothing else matters but the revolutions of the pedal. None of my personal baggage from the past, or the things I hope to build in the future, matter. I am just Em. And I ride.
Further south, turbines from a wind farm spring up, cluttering the long view to the mountains thrust up along the edge of the Hanna Basin. It is industrial and loud and ruins the aesthetic. The more I ride in the West, the more I don’t like wind farms.
There are more hills to climb on the outskirts of the Freezeout Mountains – perhaps my favourite name ever for a mountain range. After several climbs that push me back into easy gears, I get a fantastic view down to Medicine Bow and the bright reds in an anticline down below. I can see the road fall and climb to get there. The anticline is a fairly famous one called the Flat Top Anticline. It was thrust northward on a fault line and curves a bit like an elbow almost fully extended. The road travels through different ages of rock which you can pick out in the road cuts as different colours and textures. In the middle, the bulky grey Tensleep sandstone is bookended on both sides by the bright reds of the Triassic Goose Egg and Chugwater Formations.
Six miles later and we’re pulling into the sad little town of Medicine Bow. We first see the ball fields which, humorously, look like they’ve been sent out to left field to languish as weedy and overgrown diamonds. Maybe they don’t look so forlorn in baseball season. Then we pass five or six blocks of dirt roads that form the residential area of town. Off to the right a new senior centre and health care clinic are the only signs of investment since about 1965. Out on the highway, a motel advertises nightly and weekly rates. Then we ride past a collection of buildings in all states of dilapidation. The bar may still be open, but the building is in danger of being overtaken by vegetation which has already claimed several other nearby businesses and rotting carcasses of camper trailers.
I ride all the way to the other end of town – it is not far – to the gas station. Next door is a liquor store. The gas station has a convenience store. I go in to buy some choc milk and am immediately confronted with a wall of cigarette smoke emanating from two older gentlemen with cowboy hats sitting at a table by the window. I hold my breath and look for milk as quickly as possible. I garner several dirty looks and contemplate just setting the milk down and not buying anything at all. I manage the cash exchange and return outside only needing to have taken one breath inside. Never mind the smoking laws out here in bum-f*#k.
I head down to the Virginian Hotel – a huge three-story hotel opened in 1911 to service cowboys, railroad crews and the tourists expected to come when Highway 30 came through in 1913. When I walk in to the dark and musty room, it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. The woman at the register is helping a man, so I look around the old place. It doesn’t really look renovated – it just sorta looks like history has dribbled down the years and pooled into the present. A guy sitting at a nearby table has food that looks like it came from a school cafeteria. Then I see the waitress touching her face and pulling back her hair before picking up a bowl of soup to deliver to a guy at the bar. Um, definitely not going to eat here. But I do want to ask about the motel rooms down the road because I couldn’t get a hold of Nigel last night. Plus it is supposed to rain tonight and all of tomorrow – so at least starting the day dry sounds attractive.
The woman at the register has the State Fisheries guy sign for his room then directs him down the road to the motel. When I ask about a motel room she says, “Well, they are $75. You might want to go have a look upstairs first.”
I reply, “No, I was interested in a motel room down the road.”
She says, “Those rooms aren’t available. Those rooms are for crew members. You can go have a look upstairs if you want a room.”
Fire roils up from my belly. She just doesn’t want to rent me a motel room – she has them available. If I’m desperate enough, she is prepared to rip me off for a tiny room up two flights of stairs with a shared bath down the hall for $75. On their website, these rooms are advertised for $35 and motel rooms are also advertised. We are off-season, and it is not a weekend. Plus, I’ve stayed in other motels that were built for Union Pacific Crew, and they rent out spare rooms to the public. Besides, the sign outside the motel down the road even advertises this. They have a total of 32 motel rooms, and I am 100 percent certain that they will not all be filled by crew and public service workers tonight.
I say, “The sign down the street says there are nightly rates available.”
She says flatly, looking at me with at totally featureless expression, “The rooms upstairs are $75 and that is what I’m offering.”
I’m pretty angry inside, but I just say, “No thanks. I wouldn’t want to give my money to people who discriminate against cyclists and have such shabby business practices.”
Then I walk out, mount the bike and ride down through the rough, dirt streets past small, sad houses back to the city park. The woman in the house across the street comes to the front screen door when she sees me sit down at a picnic table. She waves. I wave back. She may be the only friendly person out of the 324 that inhabit Medicine Bow. It makes me feel a teeny bit better about camping in the park of a creepy little town with locals who could easily visit you in the night and make you disappear.
I dig down in my bag and pull out a feast of food. As the clouds roll in and the sky grows dark, I set up the tent and reflect on what a tremendous day it has been. With the exception of the unfriendly locals in town at the end of the day, I would do this day over anytime. It will be one that I repeat in my head for many years to come.