The best night of the trip: Rock Springs to South Pass (BLM land)
Monday July 1, 2013, 79 miles (128 km) – Total so far: 2,404 miles (3,870 km)
You could throw out most of the crayons in a Crayola 64-count box if you were colouring in a picture of this landscape. Just save all the shades of brown and pale and deep green. You’ll definitely want copper, burnt sienna, desert sand, bittersweet, tan and mahogany. Fuschia or lemon? Not so much.
The colours here are all gentle and subtle. The conditions for life are not. The high desert does not feel welcoming. The sun blazes down, making you squint. The dry heat sucks all the moisture out of you and everything you are riding through. The wind flings grit against your calves and cheekbones in an abrasive assault that brings the textbook term ‘wind erosion’ to life. The wind even makes your peanut butter sandwich seem like it’s been spread with ‘crunchy’ instead of ‘smooth’, if you stop for a snack on the roadside.
This is a landscape that says, “Love me or leave me”. Judging by the number of habitation sites I see today, most people have chosen the latter option. Though thousands and thousands of emigrants and others have passed through this landscape, very few have chosen to stay.
However, for all the hot sun, wind and dryness I encounter today, I still love this landscape. The history is extensive and the landscape is expansive. It feels like there is no such thing as boundaries out here. And I’ve never liked boundaries.
The more I ride around Wyoming, the more I love the landscape. It is not an easy landscape – in almost every way, it challenges you. It forces you to see beauty in subtle colours and harsh conditions. It forces you to redefine ‘foreground’, ‘middle ground’ and ‘background’. It forces you to think on a scale that is vast and long. If you can’t think in millions and billions, it’ll be hard for you to ‘get’ this place. If you aren’t comfortable with distance and space and silence, you probably won’t feel secure here. But I love it. I love feeling challenged; I love redefining previous truths; I love expanding my view of beauty; I love the feeling of being just a tad bit insecure. This is how you grow as a human, and I know I’m growing through all the energy, humility and awe that I feel.
Today is one of those days where all of that comes together. I end the day dead-tired but also feeling so, so full and alive.
In the morning, we ride up White Mountain, a long ridge to the northwest of Rock Springs. Once up this ridge, the views go on forever. Sagebrush plains and low, rounded hills fill the foreground and middle-ground. Mountains way off in the distance form a background off in the haze.
The road climbs and falls, climbs and falls, all the way to Eden. There is not much to Eden, though I think you could procure liquids and a place to camp here if you were desperate. There is a park with shade and porta-potties if you need a rest.
Farson delivers a bit more. It sits at a cross-roads. And pretty much everyone seems to stop. There is a gas station, a motel, a bunch of trailers, a new community centre/fire station and a mercantile. The mercantile is famous for huge servings of ice cream. I opt to get a large sub sandwich which is quite cheap for the huge serving of meat, cheese and condiments piled on there. The toilet is a welcome asset, too.
I also use this stop to fill up my Camelback, plus an extra litre of water. I also buy two 1-litre bottles of gatorade. I’m hoping I can make it all the way to the rest area on the other side of South Pass today. There is water there. But if I can’t, I want to make sure I’ve got enough water for today, tonight and morning tomorrow. Even this amount of fluids seems like it could be cutting it close if it gets much hotter today. It is always a balance between the weight and hydration. I hope I’m striking the best balance. I often ride with an extra litre of water on-board, but two extra litres of fluid on top of that makes the bike feel heavy to me.
The road to South Pass gently climbs for most of the distance. There are some nice descents along the way to break up the gentle climbing. Each descent is followed by a steeper climb, but this makes the road less monotonous.
The clouds feel very close today. They are skimming along as cute little cumulus puffs. They dot the sky in all directions. As the day wears on, they gather together and grow dark bases. They also bunch up along the Wind River Range which commands all the attention on the north side of the road.
Here and there, out in the sage brush, road markers protrude from the soil, pointing out the trace of the Oregon Trail. As I ride, I try to imagine all of the strings of wagon trains throwing up dust and all of the people walking along this wide basin. At this point, they will have just passed over South Pass. What would they have been thinking and feeling?
The wind has been gathering strength since we left Farson. 50 miles into the day and it’s a blowin’ a gale. Right into my face. By the time we cross into Sublette County, it’s a tough push to make forward progress. I’m riding well today, but this is a constant and strong resistance that fosters a fast fatigue. Somewhere along the way, the nice shoulder has gone shit, too.
Eventually, we make it to the BLM South Pass overlook. You can see all the green grass growing in a depression in the distance. This is Pacific Springs – an important source of water for emigrants on the Oregon Trail. Just to the right of the springs are the Oregon Buttes, obviously an important landmark on the Oregon Trail since South Pass lies just below. I stand there, trying to imagine the thousands of people who crossed the valley below. I try to put myself in their well-worn shoes. I laugh to myself when I think, “well, if they were feeling incredibly fatigued, I certainly know how they felt!”
For awhile, I use one of the concrete interpretive sign blocks to hide from the wind. I need to gather some strength to get up the last bit to the pass. I’ve got enough liquids I can camp for the night, but the rest area seems so close now….
Late afternoon and we roll into the rest area with not much left in physical reserve. The wind whips the flags straight out. It gives me a visual indicator of what I’ve been riding into for the last four hours or so. I take up temporary residence in one of the picnic shelters, partially protected by the wind. I eat, I drink, I bird bath myself in the restrooms. I spend an hour or so here just getting my senses back together – they’ve been blown willy-nilly by the wind.
Finally, I decide I should just head back up the highway to where I’d seen a BLM road head off toward Oregon Buttes. Surely we can find a spot to pitch the tent in the sagebrush.
So we fly back up the hill we just came down, assisted by the wind now. We head southeast down the BLM road for a mile or so until we come across a two-track path heading sorta downhill. I like the thought of being able to get out of the wind a bit. We eventually find a spot at a track junction that has enough room to get the tent between sagebrush bushes.
The tent gets pitched – tied off to bushes on one side. I crawl in, just thankful to be out of that roaring wind. It flaps and flops the tent noisily, but putting in the earbuds and listening to the iPod takes care of that. I lie there for awhile, just totally spent.
Then, Verne, Kermit and I sit outside on the track and watch the sun go down. It’s just us, the wind and the sagebrush. Off to the southeast we can see the tops of the Oregon Buttes. To the west, the Wind River Range presents a formidable hulk of uplifted rock. To the northeast, the hills of sagebrush fill the entire view. I cannot think of a more perfect place to be tonight. I love this. I loved this day. I love being out on the road. My heart is full, my soul is happy. This is the best night of the entire trip. Goodnight, world, and thank you. I have never been more happy to be alive.