Salt River Pass – the easy way: Afton to Cokeville
Sunday June 23, 2013, 53 miles (85 km) – Total so far: 2,225 miles (3,581 km)
I am on the road early enough to see the transition between dark and dawn today. Dark blues and purples rest above the ridge to the west, slowly growing lighter, purples going dark pink. The huge and bright Super moon is on its way to the horizon, slipping southwest as the sky continues to brighten. In the foreground, commercial-size irrigation sprinklers spritz and sputz their way back and forth over crops of lucerne.
I’ve often thought that the slow turn of night into day is like a change in pH. In my head, litmus paper subjected to the solution of atmosphere in the hours before dawn emerges as a base, reflecting the calm of those deep, dark, purple and blue skies. As darkness yields to dawn, the sky turns pink, then yellow, then bright and clear, reflecting an atmosphere that becomes more bubbly, more active and more acidic, as the humans awaken and begin their day.
Oh, humans, we are such a diurnal species, so dependent on light and sight. I enjoy these early mornings when it’s just me, the crew and the bike. I feel whole in the quiet. I feel alive in the chill of a day not yet warmed by the sun. This has been a good morning for it, too. I only see one car in the first hour I’m pedaling south.
The light headwind that has been annoying me all the way down the valley disappears as I curve up into the hills of Salt River Pass. The cyclists yesterday assured me that the climb from this side is only about 3 miles long and only has two short sections of seven percent grade. The average grade for the whole distance is supposed to be about 5 percent.
Without a full load on the bike, I feel rather zippy. Hehehe… well, I never feel fast, but this is zippy for me. Much of the initial climbing is through grassy, rounded hills, the pine trees relegated to gullies and and depressions on the gentle slopes. As we climb higher, the pine trees fill in, taking over whole slopes. The mountains here are mere hills, rounded and low, against a backdrop of taller mountains to the east.
At the top of the pass, I pause long enough for a picture and to put on my warmie jacket. There was frost on the ground when I left this morning, and it’s not warmed up much since.
The downhill is long and fast for most of the way. I keep my speed above 30 mph for 2.5 miles without even pedaling. The downhill is also freezing cold. It’s cold enough it’s almost painful. My fingers don’t work much and the top of my head feels like it’s gone pointed, it is so cold. Brrrr…..
But it’s also incredibly fun, especially with just about zero traffic on the road. The road winds down through bright red outcrops of siltstones and shales. These were deposited during the Jurassic. In places, white dustings of salt intermingle in the reds. Yellow wildflowers dot the hills where grasses dominate. Pines and spruce run up drainages and spread across ridges in other places. Steep descent signs show up intermittently, just as a grade becomes shallower, ensuring us that the fun is not quite over.
By the time the road passes a campground and runs along a straight section south, paralleling a frost-bitten creek, I’m so cold I think my teeth are actually chattering. Most everything is definitely numb. I cannot feel my fingers or toes or thighs or… well, can I feel anything? Not much.
The fun downhill lasts for more than 10 miles. At the bottom, I pass some buildings housing some sort of business, and then find myself at the Idaho sign. I stand here in the sun for about 10 minutes to warm up. Brrrr…..
We ride in Idaho for three miles, before turning south again. The road actually follows the state border for a bit before heading back into Wyoming – just barely. This section of road parallels the east limb of the Sublette anticline. Limestones and sandstones up high on the hills have been eroded into interesting spires and other forms. To our west lies a wide valley of green irrigated grasses and olive-coloured sagebrush, backed by more low hills.
I call this section of road “Prairie dog alley”. I have never seen a series of prairie dog colonies stretch for this distance before. For nearly the entire 13 miles of this road, the little rodents are standing at alert on the side of the road. The rustling of grasses along the roadside as I ride by is nearly constant. I have never seen such a large concentration of these critters. It is a horizontal metropolis of prairie dogs.
The prairie dog population thins out at our junction with Hwy 30, but there are still quite a few scurrying across the road or peeking their heads up out of holes in the distance. The crew and I watch many near misses between car tires and prairie dog bodies, and see much evidence of those who haven’t made it. For about 5 miles, I keep saying things like, “Oh! Ah! Eeeeh!”, as I watch the little critters dashing between vehicles and across the road. The biggest trauma comes when I see one prairie dog perched on the edge of the pavement peering back at his companion who has not made it. It is a very fresh squishing, and the sad eyes on the surviving prairie dog’s face, as he looked back at the other one, makes me feel a bit devastated for the poor fellow. I say, “Go on, mate, it’s over. She’s gone.”
My mom meets me in Cokeville, driving up just as I’m reading the interpretive sign north of town. We end up heading into Idaho to visit some Oregon Trail sites. I had been hoping to meet my friend Dan in Cokeville, but work and relationship issues have him totally tied up in Park City. What a shame – I haven’t seen him since 2000. We hung out and rode bikes together nightly back in college, but it’s just not to be this time. He says he’ll ring if he is going to be able to come. Sadly, the phone never rings and I find out later that he worked 12-14 hour days all weekend before flying up to Canada to see his girlfriend on the Monday. Out here on the road, all the chaos and responsibility of a ‘normal’ life are far, far away.