The real climbing comes after the pass: South Pass to Lander
Tuesday July 2, 2013, 44 miles (71 km) – Total so far: 2,449 miles (3,941 km)
I peek my head out of the tent. It is 4.45 am. First light illuminates the sky, though the land here still lies in pale shadows. All is grey and olive green down here. It is cool and crisp. The light scent of sagebrush fills the air.
And the wind? Well, it is already bending back the tips of the grass. My dearest Wyoming, I’m falling in love with you, but your constant wind is nearly as annoying as the constant high heat of summer back in Oz. Seriously, it is 4.45 am! Can’t you please just give me until 8am before you start about your business?
Never mind, it’s totally my choice to be here. And I really have been enjoying this state so far. So let’s get this tent packed and get back on the road.
My campsite gives me the chance to stop and fill water bottles and freshen up at the rest area first thing. Very nice! Then we begin our climb over the end of the Wind River Range.
We climb from the low hills of sagebrush into higher hills of craggy granite and trees. Some of the trees advance down the gullies into the sagebrush below. Long sections of snow fence stretch along a north-south alignment paralleling the road. Green grass edges out sagebrush in the lee of the fences where moisture from lingering snowbanks creates just slightly better growing conditions.
We pass by the interpretive sign for the Lander cut-off, an option for emigrants that bypassed the drier and lower route through the Green River basin. Construction of this early ‘road’ was funded by the government and was completed in a remarkably short period of time. We saw the other end of it back at the southern end of the Star Valley near Smoot. Further on, we pass the turn-off for South Pass City and Atlantic City, former mining boom towns that still have a few residents, as well as a state historic site that interprets the mining history.
The road continues its climb upward. It feels more remote here than it really is. I’m passed by numerous National Outdoor Leadership School buses transporting students to outdoor field sessions – some of the people in the buses wave and smile. Eventually the road appears to reach its crest. There is a large parking/brake check area at the dirt turn-off that accesses the mountain range and provides a back way into Lander. I had contemplated riding this road but have been warned by several people in different places that it’s probably a bit rough and would have too many big rocks to be very fun on a standard touring bike with 35mm tires. So I give it a miss and go screaming down the hill past the very recent and attention-getting scars of a large iron-ore mine. The U.S. Steel Corporation strip-mined the 3 billion-year-old Precambrian rocks from 1962 to 1983.
The deposition time-span of the rocks from here to Lander is vast and impressive. I have a lot of fun trying to pick out the contacts between formations. It’s a game of picking out differences in rock colour, texture, type of rock and the type of vegetation that grows on that type of rock. Last night I used my geology book to memorize the sequence of formations (their names, ages and appearances) so I could try to pick them out as I rode today. Yeah, I know… it’s nerdy… but it’s better than just thinking about what I want to eat when I get to Lander.
There are two more climbs after the iron-ore mine before we reach an overview of the downhill fun we are about to commence. We can see the road curving down and around the hills for several miles ahead. Oh, yippee! It is a just reward for all of the climbing yesterday and today (south-bound riders never get such a reward!).
Down, down we go. I do think Verne’s goofy grin gets even bigger on these fun and fast descents. His little head vibrates like crazy up there in that handlebar bag, but I’m sure his little turtle brain is in overdrive with all of the speed we gather on the downhills.
We do stop for a picture and a look at Red Canyon. Afternoon would be a better time for a picture, however. This canyon features the bright red Triassic Chugwater formation which we’ve come across all over Wyoming. It is the softer and looser rock. It is covered by the harder and more resistant sandstones of the Jurassic Nugget formation. The road curves right through these pink and orange rocks. I’m doing speeds not normally associated with Nerd Em, so I don’t have a chance to stop and look more closely at the fine examples of cross-bedding in this rock. If you were riding the other way though, it would be fun to do when you rested on this long uphill.
Down and down we cruise. It’s all downhill to the Little Popo Agie River. The ridges through here are quite spectacular. In some places in Wyoming, the terms and descriptions of the sometimes-dry, introductory geology textbooks just spring to life in the rock forms and structures you ride through. This is one such place. My brain is full and my heart is singing by the time we climb out of the river and up to the junction with US 287.
Just after the 287 junction, we pass into the Dallas Dome oilfield. You can actually smell the hydrocarbons in the air this morning. This is the site of the first commercial oil well in Wyoming. It was drilled in 1884.
From here, the ride into Lander follows a gently undulating valley. It looks and feels considerably more fertile, green and hospitable than anything we’ve ridden through since the Star Valley over in Afton. I also see four east-bound touring cyclists. Yep, must be on the Trans-Am again! They wave and one guy gives me a big arm-pump.
I climb up the final hills into Lander and eventually find the city park, a supermarket and the info centre. The man at the info centre says I’ve gotten here just in time, because there are a tremendous amount of activities going on for the 4th of July. It makes me think, ‘gosh, when was the last time I celebrated that holiday! In fact, when was the last time I was in the US on the 4th of July’? Ah, 2010, I was here, but I’ve got absolutely no idea where I was or what I did. Before that, I think it would have been 2001. Am I allowed to celebrate the 4th if I’ve chosen to be an ex-pat in a country that is still a constitutional monarchy and honours the queen as head-of-state?