Tuesday September 9, 2014, 56 miles (91 km) – Total so far: 5,135 miles (8,265 km)
The earth has moved. And moved again. It has pushed and shoved. It has pulled and fallen away. It has sat still and stable while basins filled up with sediments which came tumbling down the peaks and high points under the constant pressure of wind and water. The compression and movement of the earth has created an absolute spectacle of deformation. Rocks bend and curve along anticlinal ridges. Blocks of earth tilt at impossible angles, sometimes fully overturned. Domes rise up like scabby pimples with sloughing slabs of rock disguised beneath a skin of sage and grass. It’s like the earth was creating a small showcase of its power and geologic variety.
It’s not what you’d expect from a basin, really. But the complexity of the anticlines, synclines and domes within the Hanna Basin is just that – an outstanding array of folds and wildly deformed rock. Much of it can’t be seen at road level. Its translation to cycling just comes as a whole bunch of climbing and descending with little elevation gain. But a view from the air is strikingly beautiful and gives you an appreciation for all of the spinning and coasting to be found in a ride between Medicine Bow and Walcott Junction.
Our ride through the Hanna Basin today will be a wet and cold one. It has rained off and on through the night. A few rumbles of thunder around midnight indicated atmospheric instability in the mix of cold and warm air. But by the time we wake, it is just cold, and the frontal boundary has passed. The wind is from the WSW and it has mostly dried the tent since the last shower. I’m lucky to hear the first couple pings of tiny raindrops on the tent just as I’ve finished packing up all the gear inside. I quickly get the panniers to the picnic shelter, unstake the tent, and carry it over to the shelter to dismantle it. By the time the rain begins again, everything is packed up, Verne and Kermit are tucked away, rain covers are on and I’m decked out in raingear. I stop to eat a bunch of food, even though I don’t like eating this early. But after this many miles on the road, I know myself and know that I don’t tend to stop to eat when it’s wet. Let’s get the calories in now.
The clouds are dark and low. They don’t appear to move. Only the lower slopes of the distant mountains can be seen. Clouds cloak the upper slopes and peaks. We move beneath the clouds through a mist of grit and road spray. The first 10 miles or so the ride is mostly flat, as we follow the rail line west. It sits down in the protection of a small creek valley. The road traverses sediments a couple hundred feet higher. Eventually, the road and rail meet in the depression and travel west together. Soon, I can see a tiny road ahead climbing the side of a long, tall ridge that stretches far to the south. Oh no, we don’t have to go up there, do we? Please tell me that is a county road. But the map suggests otherwise. The pavement does, too. The railroad curves away following the creek along the edge of the ridge. Scars through the sagebrush suggest Old 30 went that way, too. But we are forced up and over the lower slopes of the rocky ridge. This is Simpson’s Ridge, an anticline that separates the Hanna Basin from the smaller Carbon Basin we just travelled through.
We drop into Hanna Basin. It is one of the smallest basins in Wyoming but has some of the greatest structural complexity. It is also very deep. The Precambrian rock at the bottom is 30,000 feet below sea level. The tiny towns of Hanna and Elmo can be seen ahead to the right. They cling to the gentle slopes of sage and grass. They look like miserable places to live, but at one time, they were booming coal mining towns supplying coal for the Union Pacific engines. Coal mining subsided after UP switched to diesel engines and coal mines began producing in the Powder River Basin, but there is still some activity and enough residents to produce a few cars passing me on the road.
The rain comes and goes, though the pavement never dries before the next shower soaks us again. The wind is cold, and mostly in my face. At least the climbing keeps me warm. I can see the road climb a long hill ahead of us among the rounded slopes of sage. Another ridge in the distance is choked by puffy white clouds at the base and grey stratus at the top. I crest this ridge and can see the road drop and then climb again. Far in the distance to the south, tiny little trucks and cars head down I-80 and climb to the next ridge, too.
Climb, descend, rain, dry, rinse, repeat. That’s the ride for the first 37 miles. In some strange way, though, I enjoy it. Oh, I don’t enjoy being cold, clammy and wet. I particularly don’t enjoy wet feet, but I enjoy the cloud-covered views. I try to imagine how high the ridges really reach up into the clouds. I imagine the gentle slopes of sage rolling on beyond the cloud in hunched up hills to an absent horizon. I try to think about what I’m riding through would look like from above. I revel in the ridges and deformities that I can see from the road, especially as we close in on Walcott Junction.
The gas station at Walcott Junction on I-80 has not seen any improvements since it was built when the interstate came through in the late 1960s. The buildings are slowly decaying in the constant wind, the baking sun, the freezing winters and the occasional rainy day. The café is closed and the convenience store is about as sad as the grumpy man who runs it. There are signs everywhere created with black spray paint and no graphic design which tell you not to park here, not to U-turn there, that restrooms are not public and that no cash is kept on the premises. It would not be an easy life out here; innocent actions of the general public seem to be just about as annoying to this man as actions with more sinister intent.
After a quick fuel break, we head south for 20 miles to Saratoga. We’ve climbed out of the Hanna Basin to find ourselves in the Saratoga Valley. It parallels the main crest of the Medicine Bow Range which is hidden in torturous wisps and puffy expansions of dark and light cloud. We’ve left behind the rainy, grey overcast to ride into clouds of greater variety and menace. One downpour lasts for about six miles and gets me absolutely soaked. Shortly after, the clouds part temporarily and I think the sun might force its way through. But it doesn’t. Dark clouds regather, then move across the road quite quickly.
The rain lets up as we close in on Saratoga. I know there is a camping area a couple miles north of town. I’ve got enough food and water for tonight and tomorrow, so the plan is to just stop at the campground and try to get set up before it rains again. Even though I’m totally soaked, the tent is mostly dry, and I’m sure once I get out of my wet clothes and into the sleeping bag, I can get warm and stay warm. If the tent was soaked, I would probably just wimp out and find a motel in town.
I find the turn-off to the lake campground and pedal up the sludgy, rough road. It is best to just to stick to the very edge and hope there are no thorns. The road is so soft at the entry that I almost sink in up to my rims. I grab a fee envelope and then carry the bike down the hill to a spot that looks like it won’t flood and might get a little protection from a small tree. I quickly whack up the tent, shake everything off the best I can, and then throw it all in the tent. I peel off my wet clothes hunched over in the tiny vestibule, dry myself with my little towel, then pull on dry clothes. Oh my goodness, those warm, dry wool socks are almost heaven!
I slip into the sleeping bag, pull in Verne and Kermit, curl up in a ball and commence the process of re-warming. The process involves a long, sweet nap while the rain pours down again. The rain continues off and on for most of the night. Cracks of thunder close by herald heavier downpours which are interspersed with just enough clearing for the frogs to boldly climb out of the mud to croak a chorus. Rain shuts them up each time. And so goes another terrific day on the road.