As Laney mentioned, the relief started in South Dakota–little erosive features puncturing smooth seas of grain like volcanic islands. Ahead of us pheasants careened out of roadside ponds that would have been impossible in most of the Midwest, where the roads run straight and cornstalks crowd right up against the pavement. In Iowa especially, you got the sense that without fresh asphalt armor applied at regular intervals, robust spears of corn would march straight across the dotted yellow line and on to the the other side, trampling highways just as easily as they had trees and native grasses years before.
Westward in South Dakota, little unplanted islands stood taller and finally rebelled en masse as The Black Hills, and I finally realized that what had been so discouraging about Iowa and similar states wasn’t so much the wind, or the monotony, but the complete human subjugation of the landscape. An old oak surviving in an Iowa state park serves the same purpose as an Indian hauled across the Atlantic and stuffed, stockinged and cravated, into a London drawing room to serve tea: a curio of a destroyed ecology.
We don’t always lament the result of a conflict between agriculture and environment. That the Machu Pichu terraces are much photographed, for example, testifies to the frequent beauty of forced compromise. Architecture profits from the same tensions; its sculptural qualities elevated by straddling an inconvenience in the landscape or posing against tall trees and dark mountains.
But against the advance of modern agriculture, the only geographic defense the plains could muster was, in places, a slight ripple–not enough to force any concessions. The effect is one of careless domination–a cheap corn carpet rolled out over a hardwood floor. Wide houses amble out from the city centers, plopping down in the open whenever they get to squinting distance from their neighbors. And why not? There will always be a place just a bit further off for the animals to run and birds to nest, and so the empty space is forced to retreat continually over the horizon.
I don’t intend this as a commentary on people’s intentions or the necessity of any of it, just as a general lament of the effects. Thankfully, Wyoming is stuffed with unsubtle reminders that the docile patchwork layer we’ve created for ourselves bobs precariously on a roiling magma caldron. Despite appearances in the Midwest, it’s good to remember that the Earth is just barely tolerating us.
On the first day of July, we rode north out of Spearfish toward Belle Fourche, then headed west through the Wyoming installment of the Black Hills, which actually take a reddish turn once you leave South Dakota. Clay bands wrap around their base and brighten the banks alongside the rivers, more reminiscent of the Southwest than the pine and granite background around Rapid City. Around midday we passed the point where Gen. Custer gleefully shot his first Grizzly, a species that was hunted to extinction in the area within 5 years of his little triumph.
The good folks of the NPS have inexhaustible energy for the creation and placement of signs illustrating the wonderful ways the earth gives birth to rocks. Early on I dutifully read all descriptions, for instance, of how a pile of ancient sea-creatures had transmogrified into the chalky layer before me, but quickly succumbed to a kind of guilty indifference. In efforts to sooth my outraged inner compulsive-reader, I adopted the same intent stare into the distance one uses on campus to avoid useless conversations with former classmates. Oh, did we miss a sign?
In the afternoon we spotted Devil’s Tower over the distant hills, looking like a single tooth snaggling the jaw of the Earth, and I appreciated it for being such a straight-forward geological feature–it doesn’t require much imagination or sign study to envision a giant subterranean cavern filling with liquid rock, then cooling and being exposed by erosion. I get it… volcano skeleton! Apparently a couple guys first climbed it in the 19th century with 300 foot wooden ladders, which is obviously insane, but I look forward to a return trip with rock-climbing gear.
The ride to get to the campground at the tower’s base was really toasty, so we took a dip in the river and waited for things to cool off before riding to the base to give the tower a closer look in the moonlight.
We rode out of Devil’s Tower the next morning and quickly overtook another cyclist towing a trailer with a dog inside. While this is obviously an absurd way to travel (realizing I occupy a very small space in which to talk here), it’s also surprisingly popular. I do understand its initial appeal, but five minutes of thought seem sufficient to expose this arrangement as a really bad idea. The dude seemed pretty sorrowful about finding himself in the middle of South Dakota towing a dog, and the dog even more so, since she kept up an impressively continuous howl from the confines of her trailer. Laney and I tried to give them both some company, but the amount of time we were prepared to ride our bikes really slowly for the pleasure of listening to a dog make a lot of noise proved very short indeed. I suspect dude was actually glad to see us go because he got to put his headphones back on.
The howls faded into the distance with the help of a headwind that was strengthening as we rode south. The extra work was bad enough, but soon things started to take on a campfire smell. The highway had led us straight into a thick column of smoke emanating from an inferno somewhere in South Dakota. We tied bandanas over our faces–a bandit fashion that hadn’t been in vogue on the trip since they were spraying pesticides along the highway in California. The bandana filtration system, though fashionable, makes it really hard to ride up hills–like artificially gaining 10,000 ft of elevation. We struggled through it, only to be rewarded with even stronger headwinds when we finally escaped the smoke outside Moorcroft, WY. After lunch the temperature climbed up toward the triple digits, but the wind was now only attacking from the side. We finally ticked off a bunch of miles and quickly overtook our 2nd and 3rd bikers of the day, an older couple headed to Gillette, where we’d also planned on stopping for the night. We dawdled with them the last ten miles into town, chatting, until they peeled off, exhausted, toward the first campground they saw.
Laney and I pulled into a park and considered the weather. Starting just outside of Gillette, we had 100 miles of desolate riding until Buffalo, WY with scant services along the way. We did know there was a bar 35 miles north where you could get water, and sometimes camp if you were lucky. If we rode on, the iPhone predicted we would have a tailwind for the next few hours; if we waited, we’d contend with a strong headwind the next morning. We’d already ridden over 65 miles, but we grabbed some snacks and decided to go for it–it’d pass quickly with the tailwind… which of course failed to materialize. For three hours we slogged up and down hills in hot, stagnant air. But as the map promised, when we passed the last natural gas plant the high desert emptied out completely and we rode the last 20 miles to the Spotted Horse Bar in incredible stillness among hills brushed with pink from the setting sun.
Despite the peacefulness, we were happy to tether the bikes in front of the Spotted Horse, which is mostly a collection of used tires, dilapidated trailers and a large trash pit to burn anything that might sully the scene. I’d developed a raging saddle sore and had to ride the last 15 miles standing; and while a beautiful landscape does have many soothing properties, after a certain point it ceases functioning as a salve, and we limped into the bar in search of something stronger.
After settling on Bud Light as the lesser of available evils, I commenced drinking as many as I could before Laney insisted on sleeping. At first, the conversation mostly concerned the subtleties of hay-bailing and the vagaries of water rights, so not much was interrupting my efforts to recruit a phalanx of empty cans to defend my little piece of the bar. Then talk turned to politics, which is when we should have left to set up the tent. A fat hay farmer quickly executed the redneck triple axle: praising guns, hating gays, and referring to the President as a nigger. With the “r” and everything. The rest of the bar awarded him high marks. I almost lost my shit, but confined myself to letting the owner know that I thought it was a pretty embarrassing collection of assholes he let drink in his place. Showing better judgement, Laney dragged me out before I could have further discussions with the upstanding denizens of Spotted Horse. To cap it all off, the water there was contaminated, so we rationed what we had and planned to fill up somewhere further down the road the next morning. We spent the night tucked in between trailers on a patch of grass with another biker who’d arrived earlier but had the good sense to take to his tent before the light of the full moon started turning people into monsters.
We hopped on the road early the next morning to avoid any further socializing and to get a jump on the inevitable afternoon wind. A slight but steady incline slowed our pace for the first hour or so, but when we finally crested the ridge we were treated to the sight of the mighty Bighorn Mountains frosting the distant horizon. After the entire eastern part of the country it was such an unfamiliar but welcome landmark to be leaning toward. The terrain flattened out on the approach to Buffalo and our legs quickened at the prospect of feeling the exhilarating strain of the mountains once again.
We cruised into Buffalo, WY just after noon and treated ourselves to what was unfortunately, but surely, the worst milkshake of the entire trip. Undaunted, we pedaled over to the enormous and free public pool to escape another afternoon of temperatures in the high 90s.
Since we’d made such good time that morning, we thought we might as well get a jump on what promised to be some strenuous climbing over the pass. After restocking groceries and waiting as long as we could for a late afternoon break in the heat, we gave up, peeled off our shirts and started the climb amidst the omnipresent haze of distant wildfires. We planned to put in about 17 miles of climbing to make it easier on ourselves the next day. We payed our dues that night though, pouring sweat and struggling up to the campground. I don’t know if it was the heat, or the the novelty of a sustained climb, but those last five miles were some of the hardest riding of the trip for me. We collapsed into the last available campsite and it promptly started raining as we scrambled to get the tent up. It cleared a little later that night and we took a slow walk around the campground, appreciating the smells, sounds and shadows of evergreens, steep canyon walls, and fast, clear water.
The ride to the summit the next morning felt a lot easier. First we knocked out a series of ups and downs–the seven sisters–then began the long sustained climb to the top of Cloud Pass. Gaining altitude, we were able to appreciate the vestiges of the famed Bighorn wildflowers. Severe snow-covered rock faces monitored our progress from a distance.
Despite some stiff wind at the top we managed the 30 miles in around four hours and entertained ourselves taking photos amidst huge swaths of lupin at the summit. The photo-op in front of the summit sign was occupied by a continuous line of RV travelers who’d also conquered the mountain, I suppose, in their own way.
After a quick side-of-the-road lunch we started the charge down Tensleep Canyon. Despite a small hiccup of about 3 miles of road construction that left us with nothing but severely rutted dirt at a 7% grade, the decent was spectacular. The terrain is completely different than the eastern side of the mountain, with enormous rock ramparts lining the sides of the canyon and occasional immense buttresses that force the road to redirect around sweeping hairpin turns. Halfway down, Tensleep creek makes an appearance hundreds of feet below among the cottonwoods, and we followed its icy surge east toward the town of Tensleep and the plateaus of the Bighorn Basin.
Haze ruined all the pictures of Tensleep Canyon
After the necessary ice cream in Tensleep, WY, we decide to call it a day, and grabbed a campsite in an RV park next to the fairgrounds, teeming with people in town for the annual 4th of July rodeo. Tensleep itself seems a town divided–between cowboys and rock climbers. We hit the cowboy bar that night, and the rock climber’s cafe the next morning. The bar was a bar, but Laney and I both had a moment of supreme enjoyment polishing off breakfast burritos at the cafe the next morning. I remember a distinctly pleasurable feeling of eating the first food in a long time that felt like it had any care put into it, but also a strong urge to be back home enjoying food cooked by friends.
We opted against sticking around for the 4th of July rodeo, though it did look like some patriotism was about to go down on Main St., Tensleep. The ride out of town was mostly flat with endless irrigated hayfields gleaming slightly unnaturally under brick-colored river bluffs. We stopped for lunch in the inexplicably deserted town of Basin, WY. It was a fairly good-sized place, but there was absolutely no one on the street, we figured maybe they were all at the rodeo. We ate scones and leftover pizza underneath an enormous birch-like tree while church bells somewhere in the distance serenaded the empty streets with John Philip Souza tunes.
We hit our stopping point of Burlington in the late afternoon and set up in the city park a safe distance from a massive cottonwood–they grow em big out there in the Bighorn Basin. Different groups of children passed through the park, spending a little time in the playground before moving on. None of them paid us any attention, and we concluded they must be used to tents and bikes popping up inexplicably in their park. The local dogs didn’t seem to mind us either.
Laney and I both figured we wouldn’t be getting much of a fireworks show (Burlington, pop. 143) and felt a little disappointment as we crawled into our tent. But the residents of Burlington rallied in a serious way as darkness fell, attacking local trashbins with fireworks, sending off endless streams of rockets skyward, and finally, as it got even later, venturing out into the park to detonate more ordinance, sometimes only 10 feet from our tent. We drifted off to sleep assuming the last round was in our honor.
High comedy the next morning from the proprietress of the local convenience store as we shop for groceries. Seconds after we walk in–unprompted: “Um… we don’t really have anything, uh, healthy here.” It’s okay lady, we’re just here for your muffins and peanut butter.
The hay fields faded to scrubland as we rode toward Cody, but I was still scanning the landscape intently in hopes of catching a glimpse of the wild mustang herds that roam those parts. Luck was with us and I managed to snap this picture. The iPhone lacks a telephoto lens, but those ant-like objects in the distance are indeed horses.
We hit Cody, WY–the eastern gateway to Yellowstone NP late morning. I made a beeline to the bike shop on an urgent mission to pick up a new pair of cycling shorts and avert another potentially devastating saddle-sore incident. We saw about 6-7 other touring cyclists in Cody and chances looked high for us having buddies in the hiker-biker sites when we got to Yellowstone. After the errands, we hitched ourselves to a welcome tailwind and started up toward the Shoshone National Forest. A short way up the canyon we rode through the epic and slightly terrifying tunnel just before Buffalo Bill Reservoir, which is probably a full half-mile long.
We were flying up the canyon, but it started smelling a lot like rain, so we made a quick stop at the grizzly info station to check our milage to the campground and met a couple cyclists who told us it was just ahead. We decided to call it a day, setting up camp and eating dinner very fastidiously, super conscious of actually being in REAL bear country for the first time on the trip.
The night was uneventful, and we rolled out early to finish the climb into Yellowstone. _____, one of the cyclists we met the night before reeled us in about a mile up the highway. She was headed up the canyon on her morning ride and offered to let us sit on her wheel for a bit, which we thankfully did for the next 15 miles until she turned back. We continued working our way up the pass as the grade steepened and the turns came sharper and more frequently. We left the red banks of the Shoshone in the canyon bottom far below, rolling through thickening forest as pattering waterfalls tickled the road and the tops of snowy treeless peaks stood up in the distance. Every so often you could catch a glimpse of the old road further below, a thin dirt ribbon twisting endlessly back on itself as it labored upward. I was impressed by the reckless optimism it would have taken to point a Model T up that trail toward the park and hope for the best.
We finally cleared the top of the pass and enjoyed a spectacular decent to Yellowstone Lake through stands of blackened lodgepole pine sparkling with wildflowers and a bright matting of green young trees, the Tetons just visible as a toothy distant mass to the south.
This is getting rather long already, so I won’t do a blow-by-blow account of all our time in Yellowstone, as it’s probably one of the places we traveled where the resulting pictures are most able to speak for themselves. Our general path through the park was through the East Entrance south to Grant –> north through Old Faithful to Norris –> east over to the Yellowstone Canyon –> up the North Loop to the Mammoth Geyser Basin.
Of all the things I could possibly say about Yellowstone, it seems fairest to start with the fact that it’s incredibly beautiful in traditional and also extremely bizarre ways. Cars and RVs are everywhere though, and the traffic and crowds really do make for a disturbing experience sometimes. Humans and animals interact unnaturally–each way too comfortable with the other, constantly invading each other’s space, with the vibe bordering on petting zoo. In Yellowstone, every animal is elevated to photo-worthy status, and it’s not uncommon to see a crowd of 20 camera wielding humans creeping as close as possible to an entirely indifferent family of mule deer, which exist in such numbers everywhere in the country that hardly a day went by when we didn’t see 2-3 dead on the side of the road.
On the plus side, no one goes to see anything they can’t drive to, and people are rarely up early. So even on a summer weekend, we were about to take hikes along the canyon where we didn’t pass a single soul, even though there were hundreds parked just a half-mile away at an overlook. And if you get to geyser basins early enough, you can enjoy the simmering landscape in the cold morning air without someone standing in front of you to take pictures. So while the average American way of camping and sightseeing comes off as pretty lazy and lamentable, it does leave the even slightly intrepid traveler with many opportunities for beauty and solitude.
Yellowstone is also very accommodating to cyclists as you’re guaranteed a campsite for $5 regardless of how full they are, and we had the nice change of camping with other touring cyclists 3 of the 4 nights we spent in the park. Scenery highlights were the West Thumb Geyser Basin, the Norris Geyser Basin, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Mammoth Hot Springs is a must, but it’s also unavoidably a madhouse.