Gobsmacked by beauty: Cody to Painter Outpost
Friday June 7, 2013, 58 miles (94 km) – Total so far: 1,952 miles (3,142 km)
The “Roadside Geology of Yellowstone Country” states:
“Wyoming 296 is called the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, and it is widely considered to pass through one of the most scenic areas in Wyoming…. The view from the top of Dead Indian Hill is widely considered by geoscientists to be one of the great geologic panaramas in the West. In the vernacular of ornithologists, the geology of the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway is an important entry into any geological ‘life list’.”
Upon reading that two years ago, my route into Yellowstone was confirmed. I absolutely had to ride this road. Who knew if I’d be physically capable of it – I had to do it. Of all the miles plotted on this tour, these 46 are the ones I’ve most anticipated for the past two years. I’ve spent many evenings envisioning the landscape, the climbs, the views, the geology and the cultural history.
And now here we are. Ready to ride. Drugged up and a bit sluggish this morning… but ready to go add to the geologic life list.
I’m heading away from the RV Park at first light. Good riddance. The chaos, bad driving, bazillion RVs, and the over-run RV park, have all left me ready to escape this tourist town.
The first 15 miles gently climb through sagebrush plains up to Skull Creek Summit. In the quiet of morning, it is just me, Verne, Kermit and my thoughts. Standing out from the sagebrush plains, like a geological siren calling to the nerds, is Heart Mountain. How I have been looking forward to seeing this mountain!
The top of this mountain is made up of a chunk of 350 million-year-old Madison and other limestones that slid here during the Heart Mountain Detachment debris avalanche around 50 million years ago. This is just my first of many glimpses today of avalanche debris blocks!
The Heart Mountain Detachment has long fascinated and confused geologists. The slide mechanism is still debated. The geologists do agree that a huge slab of Paleozoic limestone (350 million-years-old and older) and Eocene-age volcanic rock broke away from a point just inside Yellowstone National Park near Cooke City, Montana. The debris avalanche catastrophically slid southeast toward Cody where the avalanche debris now rest on top of Eocene-age rocks that made up the land surface at the time of the slide.
Scientists believe the slide was triggered by the collapse of one or more volcanoes in the region about 50 million years ago. The slide is estimated to have moved at a rate between 282-760 miles per hour. However, how the slide moved and the speed at which it moved is the part still being debated. The original slab of rock is thought to have been about 500 square miles, but then broke into a number of blocks. 500 square miles! Large blocks of the slide now cover 1300 square miles – some blocks having slid more than 50 miles. Wow – it is nearly unfathomable! I cannot wait to see all the slide blocks today!
After Skull Creek Summit, there are a couple miles of fast descent. Enjoy it – there are 13 miles of hard climbing to do soon. The Beartooth Plateau rises up as massive flat-topped block of earth, commanding the view to the north as I fly downhill. The turn-off for the Chief Joseph Highway requires some braking to make the 90-degree turn. We leave behind most of the traffic at the turn.
The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway takes in part of the route Chief Joseph used in an attempt to flee from the U.S. Cavalry into Canada in 1877. Some Nez Pearce members had killed some whites in retaliation for the murders of their own people. Fearing that this would lead to further retaliation and resettlement, Chief Joseph led his people from Idaho, through Yellowstone and along this route along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River into Montana. After five months, 1300 miles and 13 battles, Chief Joseph finally surrendered, stating the famous words, “Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
So besides the fascinating geology, there will be lots of somber things to think about as we traverse this rugged, remote and gorgeous country today.
The climbing starts gently; the stunning views begin immediately. There are 13 miles to climb with only one short downhill at about mile 11.5, but I don’t know this at the time. I just know I’m climbing, the sun is out, the wind is light, and the views are outstanding.
As I round a big curve, the climbing gets harder and the switchbacks come into view. Here we come! Slowly, very slowly. As we climb toward the switchbacks we are paralleling the bright red Chugwater formation. It is composed of sandstones and siltstones deposited in a tidal mud flat about 200 million years ago.
Into the switchbacks we go. This is tough. But the traffic is light. The same 3 side-dump trucks hauling road asphalts keep doing their runs up and down the hill. They must have passed and re-passed me 5 times already. They are starting to wave each time. I know I’m going to run into roadworks somewhere, I just don’t know where yet.
I climb and climb and climb. Slowly. The views are outstanding. After the switchbacks the road curves up into forest… and climbs some more. I run into new pavement that has been lined. Then I run into new pavement that hasn’t been lined. Then I reach a canyon where the wind is funneling through. Man, this is tough.
Up ahead a quarter mile or so, I can see a flagger. I am pretty exhausted at this point (I’m about 10 miles into the 13 miles of climbing). I tell myself, “We just have to make it to the flagger. That’s it. Then we’ll get a ride through the construction with the pilot truck. The site supervisor of the construction at Thermopolis said they’re required by law to take cyclists through. We just have to get to the flagger.”
I reach the flagger-lady. I stop next to her. I feel like collapsing. She says, “That wind is pretty rough, isn’t it? I’m trying to figure out where I can eat my lunch that will be out of the wind.”
I reply, “Yes, but I didn’t have much wind til I got in this canyon. How far ahead is the road construction (I can’t see it from here)?”
To my great disappointment, she says, “They’re working about 2 miles ahead on the last mile to the pass. You’ll see them before you get to them. They’re working on this side of the road. You can go ahead if you like.”
What? What? I’m not getting a ride with the pilot truck? I tell her, “Oh, okay. But I can’t go another inch right at the moment. I’ve got to rest for a few minutes.”
She laughs and talks to me for a few minutes before I can muster the strength to go on. At least I know I’ve only got three more miles.
I work my way up the soft, new pavement. Eventually there is a short downhill. From here I can see some blocks from the Heart Mountain Detachment. I fly down and then start climbing the final bits to the pass. A bunch of road workers are sitting on equipment on the other side of the road, watching me crawl my way up at 4.7 mph. Once I get to them, I say, “Gosh, I’m on vacation and I’m working harder than you guys!” Two of them laugh, one gives me a thumbs up and says, “You’re almost there, girl”, and the others look at me with stony faces.
And then, we summit. And my jaw drops. It is one of the grandest views I’ve ever seen in my life. It is 270 degrees of tall, snow-capped mountain peaks, and deep valleys stretching into the distance before disappearing around forested ridges and slopes. This view rivals anything in Colorado. Or Alaska. I am speechless. I am amazed. I am gob-smacked. I was never expecting anything like this.
I read the interpretive signs. I spend time looking out at the Heart Mountain Detachment blocks. I think about the cultural history and try to take myself back in time to 1877, imagining the desperation and determination of the Nez Perce as they travelled this rugged and gorgeous country.
The pilot car has deposited a group of cars heading my direction. I let them all get their photos and take their bathroom breaks. Once they have all left the viewpoint, I know I’ve got 15 minutes until the next batch of cars. I’ve got 15 minutes to take the lane and pretend I’m Casey Stoner (Aussie moto-GP champ) as I zoom down seven miles of switchbacks. Yippee! I lean the bike into the corners as the wind whips the tears back from my eyes. This is so much fun!
After the descent, I still have nearly 30 miles of climbing and descending to do before the day is done. Some of the climbs are quite steep. After the pass, I’ve also picked up a 10 mph headwind from the northwest. This is such a tough day, but the traffic is so light, the beauty so grand, and the geology so fascinating that I love it beyond words.
We inch our way up the climbs. We follow the road as it curves around the hills and into drainages, all the while following the main valley containing the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. This valley lies at the base of the Clarks Fork Fault associated with the uplift of the Beartooth Plateau.
I stop many times to look at examples of the Heart Mountain Detachment. I just can’t get my head around the size and speed of this event and all the evidence left behind. I feel so fortunate to be able to do this ride, craning my neck around to see all of the geology as I take it all in at cyclist speed with no windshield or rooftop to spoil my views.
This area feels so remote, so wild, so rugged. All the rain, all the cold, all the snow and wind back in Illinois and Iowa are all worth it today. This is payback on an absolutely inspiring scale. Everywhere I look is a picture perfect view of high mountains of either the Absarokas or the Beartooth Plateau rising up behind pieces of the Heart Mountain Detachment.
The Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone courses through metamorphic rock over 3 billion-years-old. We pass over the highest bridge in Wyoming. We pedal underneath the Pilgrim Formation, formed along the wave zone of a beach around 500 million years ago. In its rocks is evidence of one of Earth’s mass extinction events – this one killed off most of the Earth’s shallow marine organisms.
I am so impressed. And so exhausted! By the end of the day, I’m having trouble appreciating all this beauty and all this geology. My body is just done.
Finally, the crew and I crawl into Painter Outpost on the banks of the Clarks Fork. The woman doesn’t want to give me a site. They rarely have tent campers. They just saw a grizzly bear yesterday. (Only a few years ago, several people in tents were attacked and one person killed by a grizzly on Soda Creek about 15 miles from here). I ask if she has a cabin I could rent instead. No, both of them are booked out. I don’t think I can move another inch. Perhaps she can see the exhaustion in my eyes because she finally relents. She says I can store all my stuff in the bathroom.
I meet the motorcyclists who are renting one of the cabins. They are two older guys on a long trip. They offer me the top bunk. They wouldn’t want to camp in a tent with grizzlies around. I decline, but after I get a shower and a meal in the attached restaurant, I set up the tent and leave nothing in it but my sleeping pad, sleeping bag and my warmie jacket for a pillow. Everything else, including Verne and Kermit, go in the bathroom for the night.
I climb in the bag fully-clothed, pull pad and bag into the very centre of the tent and curl up away from the tent fabric. It is still light outside but I’m exhausted. I worry about death-by-grizzly…. for approximately 30 seconds. Then I’m dead asleep. Until morning.