Range Roaming – Wyoming 2013 – Day 42

My first time… on an interstate: Sundance to Gillette

Sunday May 26, 2013, 63 miles (101 km) – Total so far: 1,606 miles (2,585 km)

Since the Sand Hills of Nebraska, people have been warning me not to ride through the southern Powder River Basin. According to these folks, I will get run off the road by gas trucks, or I’ll be run over by drunk drivers since there is nothing to do down there but drink when not working, or I’ll be taken advantage of by men on drugs who will see a solo female cyclist as prey.

People express these fears to me for just about everywhere I want to ride, so I don’t usually pay too much attention to such concerns. However, these sorts of concerns have been expressed to me by three guys whose opinions I respect and take seriously: ex-oilfield workers who have worked there.

In their opinion, I will be able to see plenty of oil and gas equipment/fields, as well as a major coal mine, just by taking I-90 to Gillette. That will be safer, they say. The coal seam gas workers, apparently, are pretty single-minded and won’t accommodate me on the road. All three of these guys suggest I skip my planned route through Upton, Wright and Kaycee. So, after much consideration, this is what I do.

Avoiding interstate riding seems like an obvious choice. And later in the trip, when I end up on I-25 and I-80 for short stretches, I can say that avoiding those when possible is a good idea. But I-90? Well, it wasn’t bad at all. It had the smoothest and widest shoulder, and the least debris, of any road I took in Wyoming. I didn’t feel the traffic was travelling all that much faster than any other highway. In fact, I felt safer on the interstate than I did on some of the highways.

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I-90 is not bad between Sundance and Gillette. The shoulder is wide and clean. There isn’t anymore traffic than other highways I’ve ridden and not much of it is truck traffic. The Wyoming bike map indicates that there is 3X more truck traffic on I-80. Traffic increases closer to Gillette, but I would not hesitate to ride the interstate between Sundance and Buffalo again if needed.

I set off with a little trepidation. I’ve never ridden an interstate before so don’t know what to expect. Within 10 minutes, though, I’ve settled down. It’s like riding any other road.

The sky is a deep, clear blue. A few high and wispy clouds loll about. Little cumulus clouds hang together in bunches here and there. The 10 mph wind is mostly behind me. The temperature is pleasant. Aaahhh… it’s a nice day to go for a ride.

Between Sundance and Moorcroft, I’m riding through sediments deposited in the Mesozoic Era. I pass through Jurassic sandstones soon after leaving Sundance. I then traverse many miles of Cretaceous claystones, sandstones and shales. All of these Cretaceous rocks were deposited in a shallow, marine seaway that connected the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico between 144 to 66 million years ago.

The black shales are readily apparent on the side of the interstate near the exit for Keyhole Reservoir. It is soft and crumbly. Stand close enough and it smells oily.

I stop for lunch in Moorcroft at a Subway. Everyone else seems to have had the same idea. The line is long enough that I hear the story of about 50 years of the 65-year-old woman’s life who is standing in line behind me. Thank goodness, it is actually quite interesting. What I love most about her, though, is that she thinks it’s just the greatest thing that I’m doing a solo bike tour of Wyoming. She never once indicates that she thinks I should be afraid of anything or anyone. Good on her – I don’t get such thoughts from her demographic very often.

I just hop back on the interstate after lunch, so I never actually go into town. Because of this, I miss the frontage road that parallels the interstate to Rozet. However, there appears to be plenty of traffic over there and no shoulder, so I’m just as happy on the interstate.

Upon leaving Moorcroft, I enter the Powder River Basin. This means I also enter the coal and oil fields. Along the interstate, old tanks, pipes and other metal debris lay in junk yards in several places. At times, near Rozet, I can see plumes of dust rising in the air on the far side of hills and ridges. You can even see coal cropping out in the rocks in places.

Of course, if these things weren’t visible in the landscape, I think it would all appear just drab and dry. The Basin has been filled in with sediments since its formation, and those sediments don’t provide much relief or colour to the land. The landscape feels vast and expansive, but perhaps not all that interesting.

On the way into Gillette, I pass by the big coal mine the oilfield workers had told me about. It lies on both side of the interstate, the extensive coal beds exposed to the north.

Beyond this there are several hills to climb, and the traffic is pretty heavy. I have to be cautious, and really keep an eye on the traffic, as I pass by the freeway entries and exits. My tailwind is gone and the clouds have been building into quite impressive storms over the last 10 miles. The gusty winds swirl about, a crosswind one moment, a headwind the next. There is one big black cloud just to the southeast that I’m keeping my eye on. It looks to be moving away from me, but it is still concerning. In fact, I abandon the idea of riding through Gillette on city streets, sticking to the freeway instead, just so I can get to shelter sooner.

I’ve been warned that Gillette seems okay on the surface but is a really rough town. The ex-oilfield guys, two of whom had lived here, tell me that Gillette has the trashiest people of all the mining towns. They warn me that two of the RV parks are quite run down, full of permanent residents and not worth the money. They warn me the other RV park has owners who are untrustworthy crooks, and it would be best if I had somebody watch my things if I go to the shower block, because things go missing there quite often. They suggest I stay in a motel – “those RV parks aren’t meant for nice ladies like you” – and watch my back in this town.

So I end up at a Days Inn that isn’t all that nice. The front desk staff are great – the cleanliness of the common areas and rooms less so. This interstate exit on the south side of town has everything you might need, though, so it is convenient.

When I walk over to the supermarket to get salad fixings for dinner, I watch the lightning fork down from black clouds off to the north. The storms I saw developing as I rode into town have turned severe. They end up doing a bunch of hail damage to rural areas northeast of here. Later in the night, it storms and hails here in Gillette, so I’m happy to have a bit more over my head than tent fabric. Nerd Em is going to move on tomorrow – exploring the social context of a town founded and still dependent on the energy industry just doesn’t have much appeal to me at this point, so I’m going to head on west looking at the rocks (which contain all that energy) instead.

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