To Independence Rock on the 4th of July: Lander to Independence Rock (county land parking area)
Thursday July 4, 2013, 103 miles (165 km) – Total so far: 2,551 miles (4,106 km)
The origin of the name “Independence Rock” is contested. Like many historical places, there are several stories about how this site got its name. Some say Captain Bonneville named it in 1832 to reflect that the rock stands out on its own from the rest of the Granite Mountains. Another story says that it was named by General Ashley who camped here on the fourth of July in 1825. Or it may have been named a year earlier on the fourth of July by a mountain man who capsized his boat near the rock. Choose your story.
There are two things that are certain, however.
First, this was a major landmark on the Oregon Trail, and trail lore stated that you needed to make it to this rock by July 4 to complete the journey west before early blizzards set in.
Second, visiting Independence Rock on the 4th of July is not in my plans when I wake up this morning at 4.45 am, because I really don’t have much of a plan. My only plans are this: ride to Sweetwater Station rest area and fill up 5 litres of water bottles there since I’m not sure if the cafe in Jeffrey City will be open on the public holiday. Jeffrey City is about 65 miles – there are some camping options there. I should be able to fill water from a tap at the gas station at Muddy Gap – even if it is not open at about mile 80. Beyond that, look for public land amongst the private for camping.
And so, with the day so firmly planned, I set off into the cool, clear dawn with blinkie light flashing.
The road winds through various anticlines (upside down U-shaped uplifts) in what is a pretty gentle and undulating terrain. We’re skirting the very bottom edge of the Wind River Basin here. So much of Wyoming is about basins – it’s where the rivers flow or don’t flow; it’s where the oil and gas are found; it’s where the major towns cling to basin edges. I’ve ridden through the Powder River Basin, the Big Horn Basin, the Green River Basin, and now, the very edge of the Wind River.
Then, the climb to Beaver Rim commences. The road is under construction and all down to slippery yet sticky, clay-ish, dirt. This climb winds up through a nearly complete section of sedimentary rocks from the Tertiary period (2 to 65 million years ago). In all of these formations, the colours are muted. Drab grays, greens, yellows and white all seem to run together, making it hard for me to pick out the differences in layers and time. The view from the top of the escarpment stretches far to the north and west – way out into the basin and all the way to the snow-capped Wind River Range.
I load up with about 5 litres of water at the Sweetwater Station rest area, just in case I have trouble sourcing it later in the day. Then I commence my ride through the Granite Mountains. I’ve been looking forward to this section. This area is unlike most of the rest of the state. Here, the landscape looks much like it would have in the Miocene (approx 5-24 million years ago). While most of the rest of the state was uplifted and eroded in the past 2 million years, this whole area was dropped down and little erosion occurred. I’m riding across all the Miocene sedimentary fill that has been uplifted and eroded away elsewhere. The hills to the north of the road are actually the tops of mountains, nearly covered by these sediments.
As I ride into a strengthening headwind across this long valley of sagebrush flats, I keep thinking, ‘wow, this is what Wyoming would have looked like 5 million years ago!’. The pink-ish and craggy granite hills really do look like rocks poking their head up out of a blanket of sediment, or like half-buried rocks in a sandbox. Very cool!
I also try to envision the strings of wagon trains making their way through the hills and along the river following the Oregon Trail. I’m simultaneously looking at the landscape of the 1850s and 1860s and the landscape of 5 million years ago. We are time travelling today!
Jeffrey City looks like the set of a zombie movie. A couple of 1970s houses occupy the end of a street in a neighbourhood of laid-out roads and streetlights, but no other homes. Weeds grow long and wild next to 1980s buildings. Other buildings and gas stations lie empty, broken and falling down. It lies testament to a boom and bust economy dependent on natural resources. Don’t count it out, though, it could rise again. There’s still considerable uranium and jade in this area and who knows what market forces will do.
The cafe looks open, so I ride down to see if I can score some drinks. I grab 2 cans of lemonade. And then I get the heck out of there. A more depressing place and town I can not imagine.
I drink the lemonade at Split Rock while I eat a peanut butter tortilla and try to imagine myself here 5 million years ago, or back in the Oregon Trail days when there would have been many parties camped below.
I start thinking about where I should camp tonight. I’ve done about 72 miles. I have a map with public land mapped on it, so it should be reasonably easy to find some sagebrush gaps somewhere.
And then it hits me. It’s the 4th of July, it’s only about 1 pm, Independence Rock is 30 miles away. Let’s try to get there! How cool would that be to say you camped near Independence Rock on the 4th of July!
With the day’s goal now made and lightning and thunder in the distance growing closer, I ride hard against the headwind-turning-crosswind the 8 miles to Muddy Gap. Luckily for me, it is mostly downhill.
The store attendant at Muddy Gap is incredibly friendly though shy. I ask him if the storm is coming this way. “Yep”. So I think maybe I’ll stay here and wait it out. I drink yet more soft drink (it is around 90F today) and then realize that the wind coming off that storm is a terrific tailwind. Safety be damned, let’s ride that wind!
So off we go – flying with the wind. The storm gives us about 10 miles of fast riding before it moves off, and we run into the crosswind out of another storm to the northwest. Still, we are clicking down the miles.
We stop at the Martin Handcart entrance and the BLM overlook of Devils Gate to think about the past and attempt to imagine this when thousands of people poured down the trail each year.
And then we are pushing hard the last 5 miles or so to get to Independence Rock before an approaching storm. I’m all endorphins and happiness. I’m going to do a century ride on Independence Day to get to Independence Rock! I am SO glad I did not stay for the parade and BBQ in Lander. This has turned into an awesome day!
The grin can’t be wiped off my face when I arrive. I’ve still got no firm idea of where I’m going to camp tonight, but we’ve made it. I wander around the rock in the spitting rain, getting chased away from a group of name inscriptions by the warning rattle of a snake. I try to take myself back to the time and imagine all of the emigrants camped at the base, celebrating that they’d made it here by this date. I imagine them scrambling up the rock and looking out over the terrain they’d already traversed and looking westward to the journey ahead. It is easy to imagine this history in a landscape that is much the same now as it was then.
The storms come and pour rain off-and-on for the remainder of the late afternoon and early evening. I take up temporary residence in a picnic shelter out of the rain. I ponder the rock, the history, and the social and political context that fostered manifest destiny and the migration of so many individuals.
The storms are not moving off as dusk approaches. That means I’m not moving very far either. From my pre-trip research, I remember that there is a county road to the east of the rock. It looked like I’d be able to head down this dirt road and find some public land to camp on. I’m not going to stay overnight at a rest area, so this is really the only option.
So between storms, I leave the rest area and ride down the highway a few hundred yards to the county road turn-off. I ride down the dirt road a hundred or so feet to a parking area and gate. The only problem is that I’m not strong enough to lift the gate and release the barbed wire holding it in place. Crap. So I do what you do. I decide I’ll just camp in the county parking area instead. It’s not as far off the highway as I’d like, but it is not in the forward view of any drivers, so I think it will be fine. There are restrictions on open fires, but nothing that says I can’t camp here. So I get the tent set up and hop in before the next storm arrives.
I lie there thinking about the significance of this. There is a famous photo of Independence Rock taken by W.H. Jackson for the Hayden Geological Survey in 1870. It is even in my geology book. And I am camped in the frame of that picture. I am camped where thousands of people camped and partied on this very day over the course of many years. Wow, that is just so cool!
So I’d like to say that, as dusk turned to night, I could hear the creak of wagon wheels, the merry laughter of celebration, the words and thoughts and feelings of emigrants whispered to me on the wind. But I don’t. It is just still and quiet between thunderstorms. Nature is giving me a show of fireworks, but the solitude and quiet here at Independence Rock on July 4, 2013 is quite different I’m sure to the atmosphere here during the days of heavy trail traffic.
After midnight, I do hear the oxen bellowing to me, though. It wakes me from my sleep. But no, it’s not oxen, it’s a herd of cattle right outside my tent. The bellowing is LOUD. They are not happy buggers out there. I can hear them snort and chew grass. I can hear them stamping the ground. And then, I can feel them pushing against the tent. I bang the tent sides and they jump away. They continue bellowing and exhaling loudly for 30 or so minutes. Go away, cattle! Some of us are trying to sleep! Eventually, the bellowing quiets down and I fall asleep to the sound of cattle farts, cud chewing and large bodies leaning against a barbed wire fence.