Avoiding the interstate: Casper to Douglas
Sunday July 7, 2013, 68 miles (109 km) – Total so far: 2,670 miles (4,298 km)
Throughout Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, strangers often asked me if I carried a gun. Interestingly, Wyoming folks never ask me this. I assume it’s because they assume that I do. Well, this morning I could have used a gun. Not for personal protection of course, but just to humanely put a pronghorn out of its misery.
I negotiate the side streets of Casper to make my way east when, just on the edge of town, just before the Haliburton transport yard on the Yellowstone Highway, I see a pronghorn that has been hit by a car. Its rear legs are splayed at unmentionable angles, its hindquarters are a bloody mess. He’s been there for a little bit because the bright blood has started to congeal on the pavement. Poor bugger. The front half of him looks just fine, though. Then, he raises his head to look at me, lying there helplessly, unable to move. Aahh, man, his sad eyes are as heart-wrenching as the prairie dog looking back at his squished mate near Cokeville.
I feel so awful. There is nothing I can do. He’s too heavy for me to drag by myself, I’ve got nothing to bash his head with (and that seems inhumane), he’d probably fight me anyway. I don’t have a phone number, or way to look one up, for the highway department. It’s so early, about 5.30 am, there is very little traffic. I just have to ride on and hope someone with strong arms, a gun and compassion comes along soon. Oh man, I feel sick to my stomach for hours.
The old highway follows the North Platte River valley eastward. The freeway climbs up and away into the hills and disappears. I’ve got a nice shoulder to ride on; there is little traffic anyway.
I reach Glenrock and stop at the parking area for “The Rock in the Glen”, a landmark where early explorers camped and emigrants carved their names. Glenrock has several other monuments and interpretive trail markers for Oregon Trail sites. There are even some swales in the downtown park. But the town has grown up right along the trail, so it’s hard to imagine it during the emigration period. The town itself doesn’t appear to have much recent investment except for a vacant-looking ‘business park’ on Hwy 95, but the downtown core has been given a facelift and there are several places to eat and shop. The nearby mine company town of Rolling Hills probably produces some demand.
I don’t need anything, though, so I turn around and head back to Hwy 95. I cross the river and immediately begin a steep climb. I don’t feel like riding the interstate today, and there are no continuous frontage roads for it, so this is the other alternative. I like the idea of riding on lesser traveled roads in open terrain, too.
The steep climb, and the ones that follow, are a stark contrast to the fairly flat riding along the river valley of this morning. This topography is interesting, however. We are riding up into vegetated sand dunes most likely formed between 12,000 to 19,000 years ago after the retreat of the Pinedale Glaciers. The dune field stretches from here back to Shoshoni.
When we reach the top of Monkey Hill, it is apparent that the wind farm is huge. The ones we are riding through are just the tip – they stretch north as far as we can see. Interestingly, and in sharp contrast, we can also see Dave Johnston Power Plant in the distance, down near Glenrock. It was one of the first coal-fired steam electric plants in the western U.S., beginning operation in 1958. It is now one of the worst polluters, apparently. The mining town of Rolling Hills is associated with this power plant – the workers from that town strip-mine the massive deposits near the town.
If wind and coal aren’t enough to satisfy your energy needs, Hwy 95 hooks into Hwy 93 which runs north into a major oil and gas field area. Most of the traffic I see on these two roads are tankers.
I thoroughly enjoy the silence and broad views. We’re at the very southern tip of the Powder River Basin again. The character here is totally different to where we rode through on I90 earlier in June. Here the land feels low and flat instead of the feel of high, broken country we experienced further north. It is interesting to think about distance and remoteness, too. Hwy 93 parallels the Bozeman Trail. It cuts through the basin and travels through Buffalo – where we saw it back in May.
A couple hours later we reach the North Platte River once again. Just to the north of the river is an interpretive sign for the Hog Ranch – once the most notorious gambling saloon in the territory. Soldiers from Ft Fetterman on the other side of the river would wade through the high currents to gamble, drink and ‘meet’ the girls. I love that the saloon continued after the closing of Ft Fetterman to service the cattle boom and was only closed once the two owners shot and killed each other!
After crossing the North Platte yet again, we ride up the hill to Ft Fetterman. To my dismay, all of the buildings, and the restrooms, are closed due to budget cutbacks (in a state in a mining boom?). I pick a building corner and designate it the women’s room. After this I sit in the shade of the museum porch, eat my PB tortilla, and read the literature to acquaint myself with the history.
The fort was built in 1867 on the Bozeman Trail to Montana. The Plains Indians were actively attacking travellers on the Trail because this trespass on the Indians’ buffalo hunting grounds violated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. In 1866, the government invited the Plains Indians to negotiate a treaty allowing use of the Bozeman Trail. However, at the same time, a colonel arrived with 700 men and instructions to construct three forts (Reno, Phil Kerney and Smith) on the trail. The prior use and the instructions for fort construction enraged Chief Red Cloud, resulting in Red Cloud’s War. Raids and battles increased, and later in the year, Capt. W.J. Fetterman was killed, along with all 80 of his men, near Ft Phil Kearney. (I read about this history at the museum in Buffalo where there are exhibits and dioramas detailing the Wagon Box Fight and the Fetterman Fight, among others).
In March 1868, US President Grant ordered the forts north of the Platte River be abandoned. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 closed the Bozeman Trail and the forts north of the river were abandoned. This same treaty gave the Sioux the Black Hills and all of the Powder River Country (where the Bozeman Trail was located).
Because Ft Fetterman was on the south side of the river, it was not included in the treaty. Therefore, it became a strategic supply and military launching point for battles with the Indians through the 1870s. By 1876, however, the Plains Indians had been ‘defeated’ and ‘ceded’ the Black Hills and other territories to the US (we investigated this sad story at Ft Robinson back in May). The Bozeman Trail reopened and Ft Fetterman was closed in 1882. Oh yes, the number of instances in which the US Government acted so dishonorably continues to amaze and shame me.
After our history lesson, Verne, Kermit and I head into Douglas. We meet recumbent rider, and cycle tourist, Anton at McDonalds. He is a true extrovert, and so happy to finally see another touring cyclist, that he reminds me of an overexcited puppy. He won’t eat at McDonalds – he’s just stealing wifi, but he says he’ll go in with me to chat. I get my usual iced tea and parfait and we get to talking. I immediately like this guy. He’s on his way to San Diego after quitting his job as manager of Greenpeace’s D.C. office. He is trying to plot the quickest route, with the least hills, to the west coast. He plots out his daily course using Google maps each morning. We talk about a wide range of subjects – he’s a very clever and intriguing individual. And we discover that we both hate our Schwalbe Marathon tires, even though we both run them at high pressure. We feel it’s taboo to speak badly about them, so we both feel vindicated that another tourer hates them, also. We chat for a couple of hours before he heads off to spoil himself with a motel night at the Super 8, and I head down to see the train cars at the old depot.
The volunteer at the museum is a super nice guy, too. If only all of my interactions could be so positive and meaningful. He tells me all about the town and all about the efforts to restore the train cars. He’s proud of the town and wants me to get the most out of my time here.
After I tour the cars (thoroughly impressed by the attention to detail and the sheer number of cars you can tour through), he starts talking to me about Australia. He wants to make sure he remembers everything correctly from his visit there some years ago with Lions or APEX or some other service organisation. Then he wants to know all about the touring bike. He says he sees several cyclists come through each year, but he’s always been curious about what the bike is like, what gear cyclists’ carry, etc.
So I show him what I carry in each bag, and tell him how other cyclists might be different in what they carry. We talk about weight and waterproofness and tents. This is soooo much more fun than just answering ‘the standard six’. He tells me about some of the backpacking trips he did in his younger years and the types of tents they used. What fun it was to talk this man!
The day sure turned around after seeing, and being able to do nothing for, the injured pronghorn. I didn’t have any expectations for this day, and it’s turned out very good.