My goodness that was ungraceful, but we did it!: Buffalo to Tensleep
Saturday June 1, 2013, 65 miles (104 km) – Total so far: 1,740 miles (2,800 km)
It is dawn. The temperature hovers right around 32F. The winds have blown themselves out. The clouds have pushed themselves on. It is quiet on the streets of Buffalo as I head out under the bright blue sky in cold and calm conditions.
I climb the gentle grade out of Buffalo through more of the Eocene Wasatch formation (what we rode through in the Powder River Basin), stopping after the first steep-ish hill and before I head into the canyon. The combination of cold, dry air and exercise can really aggravate my asthma, so I use my inhaler as a precaution before I start into the climb.
I go over the plan for the day: stop when you need to; use the inhaler anytime your chest is tight before things go wheezy; go slow – don’t use up all your energy at the start so you can pace yourself over 35 miles; fill up with water and buy drinks at the resort around mile 18; eat there if you are hungry and they are serving meals; stop and call it a day at any point if the road conditions or personal physical condition deteriorates; stop to take in the geology; have fun – you are one lucky chick to be out here.
And then off we go into the canyon. One of the bad things about sitting at the base of the pass for three days is that I’ve had time to psych myself out about the climb. The older owner of the RV park has told me that every cyclist he’s ever seen come through his RV park that has come over the pass ‘look like dead-tired dogs with their tongues hanging out’ – even the fit, young guys in their 20s. He also says the first five miles into the canyon from this direction are a killer because it is an unrelenting grade of 7 percent for all five miles.
So, perhaps I’m a little cautious in this climb. I stop every 1/2 mile to rest and let my breathing settle down – I don’t want to start wheezing this early in the day. The climb up through this canyon takes us over the Piney Creek thrust fault. There are signs along the road naming the rock formations and showing their ages. When you see the signs for the limestones and dolomites, you are climbing the wall of the fault. Cool stuff. Thinking about these processes will distract you from the burn in your legs 🙂
The Bighorn Range began rising about 60 million years ago, continuing for several million years. The basins on either side began to sag. This compression created thrust faults, like the Piney Creek fault, on the east and west sides of the range. Interestingly, the Big Horns are divided into three structural blocks. The northern and southern segments were thrust west. The central portion, where we are riding, was thrust east. And that eastward thrust is why we have this initial climb to test our legs.
Before we know it, we’ve crested the first climb. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the RV park owner made it out to be. Now, if only he had told me how torturous the next 15 miles were going to be….
Shortly after finishing the climb out of the canyon, the road dives down, immediately wiping out several hundred feet of earned elevation. Damn! Then it climbs steeply back uphill. This is not so bad, I tell myself….
Until it continues to do this for the next 15 miles. The climbs and descents are steep. They aren’t all that long, but they just keep going and going and going. There must be, at a conservative estimate, 16 million creeks draining off the spine of the range. It feels like you have to climb in and out of every single drainage. So when Highway 16 turns mostly north-south after the canyon climb, the climb-descend-curse process begins. The RV park guy said nothing about this, and this is the part of the day that nearly does me in.
At the top of one steep climb, wheezy and wishing I had spied an escalator somewhere, I stop next to an outcrop of Precambrian gneiss that is signposted at 3 billion years old. This is incredibly amazing. The earth is only 4.7 billion years old. The oldest known rocks are 4 billion years old.
Gneiss is a metamorphic rock – meaning that pre-existing rock was transformed into this rock through extreme temperatures and pressure. This rock is 3 billion years old; the pre-existing rock that was transformed is even older. My geology book says that the pre-existing rock was probably sedimentary layers of sandstone and shale that were deposited around 3.5 billion years ago. They were then most likely metamorphosed during an ancient mountain-building episode.
These Precambrian basement rocks are the oldest in the western United States; little is known about their origin but probably represent micro-continents that gathered together in the Precambrian to form the central block of the North American continent. Wow, wow, wow – get your head around that! What a privilege to ride along next to such ancient rocks.
Around mile 16, I stop in at the South Fork Lodge to refill my Camelbak and buy a Gatorade. The college-age girls running the counter are out here for the summer and are incredibly interested in my ride. The girl from my home-state of Indiana thinks it would be an awesome thing to do one day. I run with her excitement. I talk up cycle touring, telling her how much fun it is and how you can do it on your own, with a group or even in a big group as a fully-supported ride. She is full of questions, and I can tell she is the type of chick who loves adventure. Very cool. I hope seeing a solo, female cycling tourist inspires her to get out there and find lots of fun and adventure. In the future, I’d love for the general public to see solo women out travelling on their own as ‘normal’!
Onward we go. Miles 18 to 25 really do me in. I’m wheezy; my throat is sore; it’s cold; the clouds are coming in. I have to draw on all of my reserves. And then some. This is really tough for me. I make it up some of the hills by repeating the mantra, “See the beauty. Strength through pain.” I just keep saying it over and over as I spin the pedals and slog forward. I try to look around and absorb all of the beauty of the scenic byway, but a lot of the time I’m just focused on the road right ahead of me, head down, legs pumping. This may be the hardest climb I’ve ever done.
In these miles, I have to stop and walk up parts of the steep hills. I just don’t have enough gears or enough oomph to get up them. I do a 1/4 mile here or there on foot. Sometimes I’m walking as fast as I’d been riding. I end up walking about 2.75 miles in total. It’s the only uphill I have to walk on the entire ride – but I don’t care at this point. No, it’s not graceful, but it is progressing us toward our goal.
Finally, somewhere around mile 25, after the turn-off to Crazy Woman Canyon, the road blessedly turns westward again. We begin to climb gradually and steadily – no more of this up-down crap. My mood brightens, but I still feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. Still, I climb slowly and steadily.
At mile 29, I pull off the road and sit down on a rock. I force in food. I think, “Oh Em, most everyone would think it’s awesome to be able to eat huge quantities of Cheez-its, fruit, S’mores pop-tarts and Triscuits and still lose weight. You are living every chicks dream.” But it’s still hard to get the calories in. It’s only in the upper 30s F, and I’m just not ever hungry when I’m cold. The crackers are scratchy on the sore throat, too.
Enough rest. Let’s get back out there and get this done.
From mile 32 to the pass at mile 35, the clouds gather and darken. But I just look at them and think… absolutely nothing. I’m pretty far gone at this point. I feel weak. The only thing that drags my body up that hill and keeps my feet pushing those pedals (I don’t walk any of this) is some inner something that keeps saying, “C’mon, Em, just a little further. The top has got to be coming soon. C’mon Em, you can DO THIS.”
And eventually we do it. The clouds are menacing. The air temperature is a brisk 38 F degrees. I have never been so exhausted and so relieved.
I’m anxious to get off the pass and down into some better weather and warmth. But I do pause to look at the rock outcrop on the north side of the pass. 3.5 billion-year-old sedimentary rocks metamorphosed into 3 billion-year-old rocks. I am a whopping 37-years-old. Wow! I am so, so privileged to be doing this ride. Sure, it just felt like it took me 3.5 billion years to get up here….
The downhill is not all downhill. There are plenty of short climbs between the pass and Meadowlark Lake Resort. But every mile I ride the sun gets stronger and the temperature warms. The thick snow that coats the tree branches drips off and onto the snow below. In places it almost sounds like rain. The run-off creates stripes across the road between dry segments. I whizz through them, creating a noise that sounds like “Shliiiip. Buuzzz. Shliiip. Buuzz.”
At the top of Tensleep Canyon, I strip down. Off goes the warmie jacket, gloves and tights. It is pleasantly warm. I talk to a few people at an overlook – one woman thinks Verne and Kermit are the cutest critters ever. Oh goodness, don’t stroke their heads, they’ll get big egos!
And then off we go. The road descends down the upper canyon through a series of switchbacks. As we descend the cliffs we head down through yellow sandstones of the Tensleep formation, then grey limestones of the Mississipian Madison formation and white Ordovician dolomites. In the 20 minutes we take to zip down to the bottom of the canyon we traverse about 250 million years of deposition!
Yippee! The downhill is fun. There is just enough headwind to keep my speed in check so I don’t even need to use brakes on the way down. I get my knee out for balance on the corners, lean in the bike, and the 35 miles of torture on the other side are just a distant memory. The BMXer inside me says, “More, please!”.
The bottom of the canyon levels out, red rocks of the Permian Goose Egg formation escorting us out into the basin and to the town of Tensleep. I contemplate camping on public land along the river, but I am really tired and think a shower and a hot meal are in order. So I ride on into town. The campground there is pretty basic, but it does have wifi and hot showers. The tent area has lush, green grass – all this for $18. Dinner is procured at a tavern in town with animal heads and bodies all over the walls. It feels like a funeral parlour to me, but the chicken fried steak most definitely fills the enormous gap that is my stomach. Good night – we’ve gotten over the first pass of the ride!