Alright, friends. Fetch a warm drink, pull up a chair, and settle in for the story of How Wyoming Almost Broke Us. This is a long one. Here we go.
Beau has said a couple of times on this trip that it feels like we do three things: Bike, Body, and Blog. We're either riding, or we're recovering (eating/drinking/sleeping), or we're writing it all down right here. Up till now, we've taken some pride in keeping fairly up-to-date with the writing — but this last stretch of days threw us into new physical and spiritual territory. It's been wild; it's been pretty brutal; and it's been all we can do to achieve the Bike and Body parts of the equation. Now, we return to the Blog... So, let's go back 7 days. A full week. Where were we?
We were waking up on the morning of Day 57 in a motel in Walden, Colorado. The Wyoming border wasn't far away, and we were ready for it. Even though the motel had a sign in its office highlighting just how freakin' cold this area gets, we felt bundled up and ready to ride. (Beau even got an honest-to-goodness GOOD mocha at a little cafe on the way out of town. He's constantly on the hunt and constantly disappointed, so it felt like a positive start.)
For a while, we coasted and climbed through the long, rolling, sage-brush covered plains, taking in the epic expanses and feeling all right. Nearing the Wyoming border, we saw stretches of land along the north side of the highway that had been pre-burned in order to prevent the spread of wild fires. This is the road that had been closed days ago, potentially thwarting our journey north (the road forking northeast was still closed). Now it was opened and scorched, making the landscape look even more surreal and moon-desert-like.
Then, Wyoming! YEE-HAAAA!
Wyoming (as we were to confirm throughout the next several hundred miles) has a lot invested in its Old West image. The cowboy-on-bucking-bronco icon is all over the place; the towns often look like the set of Deadwood, vaguely updated for the 21st century; and bars are frequently called saloons. There are also vast stretches of nothing but yellow fields — biking these expanses, Beau says, must feel like swimming across open ocean. You leave land and go for a while. And then you pause, you float there a moment, and you look around: there's no land in sight. It's so wide open that you almost start to freak out, but you can't freak out. You have to just keep pushing on until you see land again. And while we're out here, the islands of towns are so far apart, there are times when it can feel downright overwhelming. Only space, and craggy shadows of mountains in the distance, and cows, horses, and the occasional antelope.
Oh. And wind. Always, Wind.
Now. We'd been warned about the winds in Kansas. They rattled us, for sure, but we made it through. No one really mentioned the winds in Wyoming — but we are here to tell you, they are merciless. These are spirit-breaking winds, body-battering winds, winds that whip the snot right out of your nose before it has a chance to stream down your face. (They blow your nose for you.) These winds turn you into a Beckett character: minuscule, absurd, hopeless, cosmically beaten. You can't go on. You go on.
The winds picked up almost as soon as we crossed the state line. For a long time, we soldiered on. Surely they'd calm down eventually, right? But they didn't. They don't. We're climbing long, slow rises and pushing against these howling forces that move your tires over on the road. At some point, with no town in sight for a long while, we collapse on the road side and put some food in our faces. The wind beats at our backs while we eat, ripples our clothes, trues to steal anything that isn't weighted down. We finish and go on.
We're still 8 or 9 miles outside of a little town called Encampment (and another 17 or so after that to our destination, Saratoga) when I start to crack. We've been heading north-ish, and now we've turned west again. What has been a gnarly crosswind has become a brutal headwind that's keeping us slogging along at 5 or 6 miles per hour. I feel panicked and a little insane. I start to cry. I pull over and cry for a while. Beau stands with me and says I can do it. And of course there's nothing either of us can do except do it. Not quite done crying, I get back on the bike. Immediately hit in the face by a series of gusts, I scream into them as loud as a I can. Twice. The universe is indifferent. Beau tells me later that I startled some horses.
Encampment is downhill from us, but we're still in our lowest gear and pedaling hard. Down hill. (?!) When we finally make it, we sit on a bench outside the Bear Trap Cafe & Bar, just holding hands and breathing hard. We're stupefied.
We manage to get it together eventually and go inside and feed and water ourselves. The thought of another 17 miles to Saratoga is daunting, but there are free hot springs there, and it looks like the wind might let up a little bit with the sunset. So we gird our loins, turn on our flashing lights, and set out again. Thankfully, we're heading north again, and are a little protected by a ridge to the west: so, as we'd hardly dared to hope, the wind's assault is lessened somewhat, and we're able to marvel at the sunset as we push towards Saratoga.
We make it in around 7. It's dark, we're beat, and we head straight for the Hobo Hot Springs. It's kind of an amazing place. Free, open 24 hours, and fed from natural mineral springs that are anywhere from 101 to 120 degrees. We shimmy our way into bathing suits in the cold and then let ourselves simmer for a while. It's hot. It's nice.
It's especially nice because we're not sleeping indoors tonight. St. Barnabas Episcopal Church usually hosts cyclists, but their doors are closed because of COVID (interesting that only now, in Wyoming, are we starting to find that to be the case with the churches), and so we're allowed to camp in the yard. It's full of frozen, startlingly large animal poops (moose??), and while I set up the tent, Beau runs to a local laundromat before it closes and puts all our biking clothes in the dryer. When you don't have time for clean, warm and dry is the next best thing.
The wind rips at our tent all night long, and we lie there in a bit of a stupor. The forecast doesn't show the winds letting up. What do we do? How far can we make it against these bone-rattling gusts? I'm not a person who has an easy time acknowledging when there simply isn't an answer to something — but there is none right now. This isn't something we have the power to fix or control. We sleep a little. We wake and break camp. I walk to the post office across the street and drop off a bunch of letters I've been carrying around for Vote Forward's Big Send campaign. We find a place to get some breakfast and try to think things through. It's Day 58.
We're planning to take a rest day in Rawlins, which is only a little over 40 miles away, and we decide there's nothing we can do but brave the trek. The first half of the ride is manageable — again, we're moving north with a bit of a ridgeline on our left. The wind is there, but it's not killing us. Yet. We've got "our stories" in — Beau is finding out what will happen between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone, and I'm listening to Mr. William Guppy uncover clues as to Esther Summerson's parentage. We're hanging on.
Also, there's a storm hanging over the mountains to our east, and the skies are wild.
Then we reach I-80. The respite—such as it was—is over. We've got to turn 1) directly west into the wind for the remaining 20 miles, and 2) right onto the f***in' interstate. This is official route, too! Ugh. Not grateful to the TransAm designers at this point. This highway is big and ugly and full of semi-trucks. At the gas station where we break before getting onto I-80, people blink and pity us. We are crazy to them. Maybe we are just crazy.
The 20 miles to Rawlins is brutal. It probably takes 3.5 hours, maybe a little more. Blinking signs on the highway warn of "25-35 mph winds with gusts of up to 60 mph." We're grinding. Mindless and sore and runny-nosed. There's not much else to be said. The winds are All.
We take a final break right outside Sinclair, WY — which is a super unsettling place. It looks like a town on the map, but really it's an enormous gasworks with some shreds of civilization around it for the people who work there. It looms on the horizon like something out of Mad Max. You realize why all the gas stations have been Sinclairs recently and then you realize that the "town" and the Company are one. The Sinclair green dinosaur starts to feel less cute. This corridor of Wyoming reveals itself as what it is: fossil fuels on one side, train tracks on the other, and a highway in the middle. This isn't a place. It's a machine that ships things to other places. And that pumps the smaller machines that do the shipping full of fuel. What a world we've made.
When we arrive at the Holiday Inn Express in Rawlins, we are, once again, drained to the dregs. As we pull off of I-80 we see another big blinking road sign warning that the interstate is currently "closed to light high-profile vehicles." In other words, if you're a big, empty semi-truck, you might just blow over. We find out later from several folks that the stretch of I-80 between Laramie and Rawlins is known for constant crashes, wind-related and otherwise. This is what we've been riding through. Jesus. We hide in the hotel and listen to the wind battering the windows. It sounds like we're living beside a train track where the train is always running. What a place. We're grateful for a rest day, though, and we spend the rest of the afternoon and all of Day 59 doing a cultivated, needful kind of nothing. Well, not quite nothing. We blog some. We talk to loved ones. We take a (ridiculously windy) walk over to the grocery store and buy ourselves the ingredients to make guacamole. But we also take epsom salt baths and binge GBBS. Maybe the wind will calm down tomorrow...
Day 60. Monday, October 19. Judgement Day. We're trying to make it to Jeffrey City, a small town with a bike hostel that's about halfway between Rawlins and Lander. What else is between Rawlins and Lander? Plains. Bluffs. Sky. Wind. Because has the wind calmed down? Oh, my sweet summer child, of course not. We know it's going to be another rough day, so we bundle up and put our headphones in. We look each other in the eyes and try to steel ourselves. We set out.
And it's too much. It's hard to admit. It's painful to remember. But physically, emotionally, it's just not doable. We're hardly 8 miles down the road before I break. We both do (though, to my shame, I'm tearier about it than Beau). We pull over and put the bikes down. We sit down and lean on each other and try to think. Our thoughts are awful. Is this the end? Are we completely beaten? After so many miles and plenty of obstacles, it feels like we've hit a horrible, insurmountable wall. The Wyoming wind has knocked us down flat and we're not sure we can get up.
We sit there for maybe 20 minutes, wind howling, heads pounding. Should we go back to Rawlins? Try to rent a car? We actually look up rental cars, but there are none. What do we do?
And then. A small miracle. They call them trail angels, and when they appear, they really do feel like something divine. A pick-up truck pulls over. A window rolls down. And that's how we meet Don.
The short story is this: Don is an incredibly generous human being who's just dropped off his sons in Rawlins for work and is heading back home to Lander. He offers to take us the whole way. 120 miles. Lander is where we're headed. It's also where the winds let up. Though it breaks our hearts in a way to "give up" on a whole 120 miles, the choice is clear. We say yes. We ride with good, kind Don. And before we know it, we're in Lander.
The longer story is this: Don is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Now he lives with his wife and family on the Wind River Reservation, which begins outside of Lander and encompasses 2.2 million acres (we'll be riding through it before long). Don's wife is from the Arapaho Nation and is the first Native woman in the Wyoming House of Representatives. She represents Fremont County as a Democrat and fights for grassroots organizing and Native rights. She sounds amazing. ("When people ask what a Lakota is doing over here in Wyoming," says Don, chuckling, "I tell people she road over to South Dakota and threw me across her horse and kidnapped me and brought me home.")
Don is a natural storyteller and has something of the calm, missionary spirit about him. He wants to write a book about Native history, revealing all the horrible omissions, revisions, and white European framings of the narrative that most of us grew up with in our textbooks. "I don't want to blame, or be angry," he says, thoughtfully, "I just want to tell the story. I'm a survivor of the American Holocaust. And it's ongoing." Case in point: Native Americans on reservations can't vote in federal elections without a driver's license. Many don't have one and they're hard to obtain. What they do have are tribal ID cards: "They say our percentage of tribal blood, and our Prisoner of War numbers, like we're animals," Don says. Not only are these cards frightening in terms of their likeness to, say, the yellow stars of Dachau or Auschwitz — they also, despite containing all the necessary ID information, don't entitle you to a vote. So this is what Don wants to write about. And so much more. His family is huge and full of history. His uncle is Billy Mills; his wife's great-grandfather is Old Man Sage. He used to be an avid runner himself and has organized massive, hundreds-of-mile-long runs-for-a-cause around Wyoming and eastern Idaho for young people from the Wind River Reservation. He tells us about his kids, his friendship with the country singer Gary Allan, his time in the Marines ("It was fine for me. But I tell kids not to do it unless there's really nothing else for them to do. If all you want is someone to tell you what to do, okay then. They'll give you that. But I tell them, go to college"). He shows us the notebook where he's jotting down thoughts for the book. He tells us about the conversations he's had with some of the bigoted, aggressive people who live near the Reservation ("I don't argue with them, but I don't let them think that's how the world is. I say the truth. They always leave the conversation first") and about the people with AK-47s who stood across from the Black Lives Matter protest that he attended in Lander ("The police weren't over there watching them. They were on our side of the street, where it was peaceful, policing us. Why?"). He's an extraordinary human being, and as we fly through the changing landscape—huge, craggy, red buttes taking the place of the plains outside the truck windows—any regret we might feel at "giving up" on this stretch of miles is tempered with deep gratitude. For this person, his generosity, his stories. We're receiving a great gift, and we can't adequately repay it. We can only receive it as gracefully as possible and, whenever life offers an opportunity, pass it along.
We ask Don if we can buy him lunch in Lander. He recommends a lovely, surprisingly hipster-y cafe called The Rise ("My son is trying to get me to eat more healthy, so we always get smoothies here") — and we get him his smoothie. Small thanks, but heartfelt. When we finally make our farewells and he drives away, we're left on Lander's main street... It looks like a town with personality and heart and some conscience, too. And there's no wind. And we have a pair of Warm Showers hosts waiting for us. There is—as there always is—an immense amount to be thankful for.
This long story's already long, but it wouldn't be complete without an ode to Mike and Dannine, the wonderful Warm Showers folks who took us in that night. Pulling up to their fantastic house—with its rainbow flag in the front garden, its hammock and tree house, its bike shed and project-garage adorned with shovel sculptures—felt like inhaling lungfuls of fresh air. Mike is a carpenter and a mountain-biking superfan, and Dannine paints and teaches yoga and runs a progressive design shop on Lander's main street. This trip has been a long, unfolding lesson in humans of all kinds — but/and, it did our souls good to stay with some folks who are fighting the good fight, who are enthusiastic and hopeful and whom we could talk with (and did, late into the night!) about everything from politics to cycling to books and theater.
Without Don, without Mike and Dannine, perhaps we really would have broken. Perhaps we'd be somewhere else right now, sadly looking for ways to get back home. But because of the kindness of good humans, we're not. We're here. The winds bent us low, and we may have missed some mileage, but this trip isn't over yet. We go on.
Good riding, friends.
Day 57: Walden, CO to Saratoga, WY*, 68.4 miles, 2375 feet of climbing, 1 state line, several startled horses, a hot springs finale.
*Colorado round-up to come in the next post! Hang tight, stats fans.
Day 58: Saratoga to Rawlins, WY, 41.2 miles, 1150 feet of climbing, debilitating winds, rehabilitating Dickens.
Day 59: Rest. 0 miles. Much Great British Baking Show.
Day 60: Rawlins to Lander, WY, 125 miles (only 7 on bikes, 118 in Don's truck). 1 wind-induced breakdown, 1 extraordinary rescue, 3 wonderful humans. Some despair, some hope, some beer, some rest. Some (many) more miles to come...