This post, written one year after day 59, is drawn from the daily journal I kept, and is written as if it just happened.
July 17-July 20
Newcastle, WY >>> Casper, WY
I know I described South Dakota as vast, but it’s got nothing, absolutely nothing, on Wyoming. In South Dakota, watching a water tower slowly get closer over the course of five miles was “crazy”. On our first day in WY, after some easy low grade hills of grassland/shrubland with zero shade, we crested at our high point. Twenty miles away there were large plateaus (buttes?); 20 miles later we were weaving between them. I assume the massive landmarks are the reason Wyoming’s landscapes appear larger – in SD there was very little to give depth to the endless cornfields and pastures.
I think the immense feel of the state is also created by the dispersed population. In SD, towns were consistently 20-50 miles apart. Here in WY, they are 50-80 miles apart with nothing – not even a gas station or a shade tree – in between. It’s hot, and it’s dry, and I’m loving it. I feel great when I sweat like crazy, cruising down an open road. As long as I don’t cross the fine line between feeling bad-ass and feeling nauseous from the heat, WY is going to be a fun state to bike in.
During that first full day in WY, we rode through Thunder Basin National Grasslands – home of the largest strip coal mine in North America and the longest trains I’ve ever seen – all brimming with coal. One train had 139 cars, another 135, and there were 3 more trains of similar size whose cars I didn’t count. As we’re in coal/oil country now, it is apparent that most of the folks we meet no longer see our trip as intriguing or amazing, but rather odd or down right stupid. This is expressed with glances and by laying on car/truck horns. Fortunately every road has a giant four foot shoulder, so the fact that this state has the worst/least courteous drivers yet, hasn’t really mattered. We just stay to the side. FYI, National Forests, Grasslands, etc aren’t protected lands. They’re just owned and managed by the federal government. Only National Parks, Lakeshores, and Monuments are protected.
Carl is struggling here – he is on the wrong side of the bad-ass/heat nauseous line. Something is out of whack. He has no appetite, and at the end of the day he needs to sit in air conditioning for hours before he feels OK again. Both are quite worrisome. We’ve been making sure his symptoms don’t cross into the realm of heat stroke – so far it seems like he’s boarding on the less serious, but unpleasant, heat exhaustion. We’re just hoping he doesn’t take a bad turn in the middle of the shadeless sagebrush 30 miles from the nearest A/C.
The first night Carl wanted a cold hotel room to himself, so Rachel and I joined the other three at the campsite they secured. There is only one word to describe this campground. Grim. The other residents were working in the strip mine – everything about the town was temporary. The high solid fence gave it a prison-like feel, the site was covered in rocks and glass and shards of metal and barbed wire. I’m amazed the bottom of my tent remains intact. A mangy dog trotted around, investigating the newcomers, the bathrooms were locked…it was weird. I think it would have been fine had the 15+mph winds died down. At 1:30 AM they were still blowing strong – my fly was flapping violently as the stones we were sleeping on were too large to secure a stake, but too small to hold anything down. Fine grit was blowing up under the fly, through the mesh and into my closed eyes. No one slept.
After a restless four hours of “sleep”, I awoke to Rachel informing me it was 5:15AM – we had agreed on a 6AM start time with Carl. Abby, Mike, and Craig had left even earlier. I began dusting the fine layer of grit off everything in my tent and packing up. We were supposed to make it 90+ miles to Casper, but, shortly after we departed, Rachel and I both knew Carl wasn’t going to make it that far. Our average moving speed was 10mph and it got slower as the day went on. He was pouring water on his head while I was still wearing my fleece. I just put music on, stayed behind Carl (we didn’t want to lose him) and zoned as we rolled passed dry creek beds, vast expanses, and hazy, very distant views of our first snowcapped mountains. Like SD, WY is gorgeous in a completely alien way. Had I just planned a trip of the top 10 places I wanted to visit in the US, I would have skipped this and missed out on so much!
In Edgerton, the town between Wright and Casper, the cafe was permanently closed, and the motel was for sale. We went another half mile to Midwest to sit in the gas station, get food, and figure out our next move. Carl couldn’t continue. He was overheating, sick, and could barley keep his head up. We took turns providing chilled bandannas for him to press against his head. He needed A/C so camping wasn’t an option. We were trying to figure out how to get a ride to Casper when then manager told us the motel in Edgerton wasn’t for sale, we just had to call the number. I’m not clear on what the number was, but Rachel rode back, figured it out, and procured the room with the best functioning A/C.
After a full cool down session with the A/C blasting, cold cloths and ice, Carl was feeling better, and we spent the rest of the evening in relatively high spirits. The other 3 didn’t make it to Casper either. They stopped 4 miles short in Bar Nunn. They couldn’t make it the last 4 miles – that’s how bad the heat and wind were.
I’d been texting status updates to the others throughout the day – letting them know we weren’t going to make it, etc. My group texts weren’t getting through to one person, and I received a very rude message that evening. I didn’t respond – I know they likely had the hardest day of the trip so far – no one slept the night before, and the day was hot, windy and long – and things can be said that are not intended at that level of exhaustion. However, as it was from the same individual who was giving me grief/causing problems back in Wisconsin, I also knew I’d have to address it the next day. As I had learned several weeks ago, neither ignoring nor appeasing the complaints help – there will just be something else tomorrow and something new the day after. Clearly riding apart in South Dakota put the mounting grievances on hold, but the floodgates appeared to be opening again. I figured I’d have a private conversation in person the next day – after a good night’s sleep, and some food.
The following morning (yesterday) Rachel discovered a new way of waking me up – stepping on my air mattress and laughing as I fly up in the air and wake in a panic. I must admit it is both humorous and effective. I’ve never gotten my butt out of bed so fast. We left The Teapot Motor Lodge just as the sun was rising. The name of the motel tipped Carl off to look for the location of Teapot Dome – some government/oil scandal from the 20’s that I’d never heard of. It was 14 miles south of us and our 3,000 mile mark!
Just as we turned onto the service drive running along I-25, a camper van crested the hill in front of us. I thought, man, that looks just like Uncle Jimmy’s van – odd because his is unique – some sort of custom converted van (not a Westfalia). As it got closer I was thinking, that really looks just like it, is that Uncle Jimmy?!
He had been driving back to California and called my mom to find out where we were. He just happened to be about 20 miles north of us, so he came looking. He actually stayed with the others in Bar Nunn the day before when we were hoping for a ride! If only he’d come up to Midwest, he could have rescued Carl for a second time! Although we didn’t take him up on a ride that day, we were delighted to dump all our bags in the van. Perfect timing too as wicked crosswinds were sweeping across I-25.
The others were all passed out at the Bar Nunn KOA when we pulled in. We visited with Uncle Jimmy for a while over lunch, then he took Carl into town to find a hotel and continued on his way. Carl wanted to take an extra day off in Casper to see if staying cool and resting for a full 24 hours would help. Plus there was supposed to be a 10-20 mph headwind the following day and only a 5-10 mph wind the day after. Rachel and I waited for the others to wake up, find out what they wanted to do, and make a game plan.
Eventually they emerged from their dark cool cabin. We were chatting about our mishaps of the previous day – Abby said there was tumble weed flying across the road at eye level while riding down the service road. Everyone seemed in high spirits and well rested, but it felt like one person kept trying to goad me into an argument. I kept ignoring it as I didn’t want to have that conversation quite yet – and not in front of everyone else. Eventually the rude message from the day before was brought up directly, so I just calmly explained that I was willing to let it go since I knew it had been an incredibly rough 24 hours, but that I wouldn’t tolerate being spoken to like that again. I wasn’t looking for much – just some acknowledgement that a line had been crossed. Instead, unsurprisingly, the response was, “I’ll talk to you any way I want”. So I just said, “then we’re done”. Whatever was going on wasn’t going to get better. There wasn’t anything more to say, but we talked in circles for a while longer – I think I was still hoping it was all just a misunderstanding and an apology would come soon. Once, “I’ll talk to you any way I want” was repeated for a third time, I conceded to myself that we really were done, and Rachel and I left. There’s a line between letting things roll and being a doormat. I am not a doormat.
As we rode the five miles to Casper, the calm I felt during the whole scene eroded away, and I was left shaking with anger. Fortunately Rachel and I stumbled on a rip in the space/time continuum which created a portal to Hawaii!! We spent a week relaxing on the beach drinking daiquiris and frozen margaritas. Rachel did some scuba-diving while I snorkeled (I’m not scuba-certified). We both did some surfing – Rachel’s a pro! I think I would have been better at it, but I was too distracted by the thought of a shark chomping me and the board. I kept checking the water instead of focusing on getting the speed/balance I needed to catch the waves.
Though we spent a week in Hawaii, once we slipped back through the space/time continuum only a 1/2 hour had passed since we’d left Wyoming! Incredible! Our only memento was the colorful lays which we wove around our handlebars. We were laughing all the way to the hotel – the week in Hawaii really took the edge off. Carl was confused when he opened the hotel door and spotted our colorful new accessories. He didn’t think it was possible but couldn’t find any holes in our story. I think he’s sad now that he missed out.
Later in the afternoon Carl and I headed to the bike shop to do some routine maintenance and pick up my new tires. I started the trip with Continental Contacts – they are amazing!! 3,000+ miles and no flats! I don’t think I have to switch them out now, but I don’t want to need a new pair in the mountains and not be able to find them. I sent the old pair home to use later. It was a really productive afternoon.
Today, while we took an extra day off in Casper, the other three had continued to Highland. I was angry about the events of yesterday, but relieved I’d no long have to interact with one person – it’s exhausting trying to anticipate and negate future complaints. However, I was surprised the other two followed – it felt like a bit of a slap in the face. I was still hopeful that everything would right itself in a few days when we caught up.
However, out of nowhere, they have decided to leave the route to avoid riding in Yellowstone and take a shortcut to Missoula. I am gutted. This was the real low point. The “shortcut” they’ve chosen will cut off a measly 60 miles max and will take them on a route that, of course, I looked into over a year ago and rejected mainly due to traffic volume and lack of shoulder. It seems like the two following this plan have been manipulated – it seems like their homesickness, fatigue, and concern about traffic in Yellowstone have been capitalized on, and they’ve been promised a faster way home. We’ve encountered less than 50 miles of unpleasant road (out of 3,000+ miles). That doesn’t happen out of luck, that happens with careful planning. I’m crushed that this seems to be taken for granted and, after witnessing what happened yesterday, the other two are still leaving. There was no point in trying to reason with anyone – they had made up their minds – I just sent an email cautioning them about the roads in their future and wished them safe travels. I feel utterly defeated. In the planning stages, I anticipated there may be interest in cutting off a week or two worth of miles, so I created three routes leaving Missoula – the route we’re taking and two shortcuts. I was prepared to part ways, just not so abruptly and on such a sour note.
Hindsight Notes: If you don’t have a chance to ride extensively with your fellow riders, do phone/skype interviews.
It seems impossible to capture how emotional these four days were – as well as the days following. The events in Casper left a cloud over the trip. It didn’t ruin it, but a shadow definitely lingered. It wasn’t until around February (6 months after the finish) that Casper wasn’t the first thing I thought of when asked about the ride. It was one of those things that, out of nowhere, would sneak up and punch me in the gut.
This event is another reason I’m writing the blog a year later. I wouldn’t have included any of this if we were still riding. The problem is, since so many blogs are written while on tour, the really rough patches pertaining to riding partners are never seen or discussed. Sometimes a bit of tension here or there makes its way to the surface, but nothing more serious than what would be expected after spending day after day with the same people in an exhausting situation. Blogs give the illusion that no other group has ever been this screwed up, which is really isolating. I finally fell asleep in Casper after texting a guy who did a cross country ride a few years ago. His blog was, of course, full of only happy stories. I asked him how the group of strangers he rode with really was. He said he wanted to strangle one of his riding partners almost every day. While this is unfortunate for him, it made me feel instantly and immensely better – it wasn’t just our group.
Don’t be sad or mad at anyone – this has a happy ending, it just seemed to take forever to get there. The two I was disappointed with at this point just wanted to be done and needed to do what was best for them. As I’ve been touting over and over again, on tour, you have to ride your own ride. They were riding their ride.
It is not lost on me that the lowest point of the tour occurred in Casper – the southern (lowest) most latitude of our trip.