Chapter 26 - Wyoming: "Like No Place On Earth"
I met Kyla Wetherell in 1996 at Not Back To School Camp, a camp in Oregon for homeschooled teenagers. Kyla was my advisor at Camp. Even before that, I'd read an essay of hers in a book called Real Lives, where she'd written about her own bike tour. At 16, Kyla had been an honor student—and editor of the school newspaper—when she left high school in the middle of eleventh grade. She proceeded to take her bicycle to South America alone, where she traveled around and worked for a year. I read her story in Real Lives several dozen times.
I think that people are inspired when they are open to inspiration; in the summer of 1996, I was open to it, and I turned Kyla into my heroine. "Kyla did it," I would say to myself when I got overwhelmed by my trip plans. "It must have been hard for Kyla, too," I would think, as I pedaled up a steep pass. Thinking about her alone in Colombia and Ecuador renewed my certainty that I could meet my own challenge.
Although I knew Kyla's trip hadn't been all fun and games, I wanted to emulate her strength. She barely knew how important her notes of encouragement were before I left; all the way across the country, I carried a letter that she'd sent, wishing me luck. While I rode through Wyoming, I thought of Kyla a lot. I wondered what she had really been thinking when she rode through South America alone.
On July 3, Charles and I left at seven o'clock—but we didn’t beat the winds, which went from strong to stronger. Eight miles from Walden I passed through the town of Cowdrey, population 20, and beyond that there was no sign of human habitation for about 42 miles. No stores, no houses, no people—nothing but the wild landscape, mountains looming on all sides. At mile 22, in the middle of the emptiness, stood the state sign riddled with bullet holes: “Wyoming: Like No Place on Earth.”
After several snaps of camera shutters, we rode into the seventh state on the TransAm trail. The only immediate difference between Colorado and Wyoming was that the latter sported five-foot wide shoulders on its basically traffic-free roads. Wyoming had 500,000 residents, most of whom lived in Cheyenne (“The City”). Whenever a car came past, I’d think, There goes a significant percentage of the population! The prairie-dogs were numerous, though, and they wiggled their noses at me before darting down their holes as I passed.
I passed two eastbound riders around ten-thirty, but they didn’t stop. Not that I really blamed them—they had an awesome tailwind. The wind was relentlessly strong, and I gritted my teeth and tried to forget about it.
To my amazement, though, I'd pedaled fifty miles by 12:30—and I had the whole afternoon to shower, relax, and enjoy the mosquito-free confines of my tent. The shadows danced on the gray nylon of my cocoon, and I lay and watched them for a long time. Somewhere today in the middle of sage-brush and prairie dogs, my odometer had registered 3,000 miles.
It was a sizzling-hot afternoon when Charles and I rode into Rawlins on Independence Day. It was an industrial, sprawling city, strip malls lining the highways, and there were numerous budget motels with garish billboards. The main attraction of the motels, according to the signs, was that they were “air-conditioned.”
We stayed in an RV park with no air-conditioning (or even any shade), but I found some semblance of coolness in the small gift shop that sold postcards. I spent a long time picking out cards, heat wafting through the windows. The card I got for my family had a picture of a telephone pole that was labeled “Wyoming State Tree.” A cowboy and his horse were holding onto the pole for dear life, and a little bubble said “Wind... What Wind?”
I paid the woman behind the counter, who sat fanning her face with a newspaper.
"What's it like to run a campground?" I asked her. Maybe I could buy some more time before heading out into the dismally hot, open expanse that was the tenting area. And why would you want to run one here? I wanted to ask, but didn't.
The woman told me that seven years ago, she and her husband decided that they wanted to buy a campground. They sold their house in Washington state, got rid of most of their possessions, got into their RV and drove away. "We tooled around for six months," the woman said, "all around the Pacific Northwest. Saw some beautiful places, we did!" She and her husband went real estate shopping in Oregon, explored Utah, and thought about buying a place in Idaho.
Then, they arrived in Rawlins, Wyoming and they decided that this RV Park in industrial USA was for them. "We knew immediately," the woman told me. She sat behind her counter with a far-away look in her eyes, and I followed her gaze out the window toward the strip malls, trying to understand her affection.
Still, it was fascinating to see how people lived in different places. Life in Rawlins seemed so different from life in the Appalachians, from life in the Ozarks or the Great Plains of Kansas. But there were similarities between people all over, connecting threads that bound together all the people I’d met. We were all struggling and laughing and crying and living, everyone trying to live the best life they knew how.
That night, Charles and I watched fireworks explode above the fairgrounds down in the city. For a half-hour, the sky was full of color. And then all was black, and I slept while the evening turned cool.
Over the past few months, cyclists had warned me about the wind in Wyoming. I'd heard a story about seven guys from William and Mary college who'd been hit with winds so strong that they had to turn back to Rawlins and stay an extra night until the gale calmed down. The next morning, they'd pedaled out of town at four a.m. to beat the wind.
Charles and I left Rawlins early too, before it could get windier than it had already been during the night.
For thirty-two miles, there was sagebrush and the everlasting wind-swept plateau. Different parts of the plateaus and hills had names, and according to my maps, I crossed the “Separation Flats” and “The Great Divide Basin." Sometime around noon, I passed the “Shamrock Hills,” way on the horizon to the left. But mostly the land looked the same, incredibly open and amazingly huge. I passed a building at mile thirty-two. "Grandma’s Café" stood rickety and weathered just inside the city limits of Lamont, pop. 3.
In the afternoon the terrain changed, and cliffs rose abruptly from the sagebrush and sparseness. Even though there were few cars to be seen, the road had numerous turnoffs and historical markers.
The TransAm Trail intersects the Oregon Trail and the Pony Express Route near Split Rock. Split Rock, I soon learned from the roadside markers, was a well-known landmark for early white settlers. They could see the landmark for a day of travel as they approached from the east, and it remained in view for another two days when they passed by and proceeded west. I tried to imagine the empty landscape as it had been between 1812 and 1869, when the Oregon trail was the main route taken by the estimated 350,000 immigrants heading West.
Unfortunately, my roadside history lessons were cut short each time I stopped—there were too many mosquitoes to daydream for longer than a few seconds. I tried not to blame the bloodsuckers—after all, what’s a mosquito to eat *except cyclists* when it lives out in the middle of Wyoming?
Jeffrey City, my home for the night, supposedly had a population of 3,000 at some point during the last century. This afternoon it was a veritable ghost town. A few closed-down storefronts lined the road, and some decrepit tract housing stood next to two saloons. The Lion’s Club Park consisted of a huge pavilion with waist-high grass surrounding it. I doubted that the Lion's Club existed any more. And I wondered how two bars could stay in business right next to each other in a town that you could miss if you blinked. From where did they draw their clientele? I guessed that that’s the way it is with bars—they can exist and prosper in the strangest places.
That night, I wrote in my journal:
Right now I'm safe in my tent, which is on top of a picnic table since the grass is so high. Outside, there are millions upon millions of mosquitoes. I set up camp, made dinner, shoved my gear into the tent, and got inside myself in an amazingly short period of time. I think I probably set some kind of record...and if I have to go to the bathroom tonight, I’m holding it in.
Jeffrey City didn’t offer much of an incentive to stay longer than necessary, and by seven o’clock the next day, Charles and I were pedaling into the sun-streaked golden morning. We met an east-bound cyclist at mile twenty who warned us to "start preparing now" for Idaho. “The mountains are killer,” he told us. “I’ve never ridden anything so steep and long in my life.”
*Well then, I guess that I won't try to ride a hundred miles a day like you do!* I thought, but I didn't say anything because his mind was already made up. Some people seemed to think that Adventuring required lots of Suffering. I did not.