First Sight of Mountains

I’ve made decent progress in the last two days, progressing across Wyoming’s arid plains through buttes, canyons, ranches and sagebrush country. I’ll be in this state for longer than most – I believe I was in Michigan for around two weeks, and Wyoming will be the first to even come close to challenging that, through I doubt it will beat the record. 

Unlike Michigan, though, the scenery is getting more and more exciting. Giant buttes rise above the ranges, antelope run ahead of me for miles, crisscrossing the highway looking for a gap in the endless fences, and iconic flat-topped mesas even appear, their profiles evoking images of cowboy country from afar. Of course, any notions of freely ranging across the landscape (even if I had a mountain bike) are pinched by the reality of absolutely everything  being fenced in, presumably as private range land. I think you’ve got to go still further west (and south) to find much in the way of unrestricted wandering. But I long ago decided this trip would be on pavement, and in any case my only mountain bike is currently in Sde Boker awaiting a buyer, so it’s a moot point. 

More importantly, a climb over a small pass brought me within view of the Rocky Mountains today. The Bighorn range, to be precise. It is separated from the main mountain chain by more wide basins, connected by just a thin thread of the lower Owl Creek and Bridger ranges, which I’ll be cutting across on the scenic route to Jackson Hole. If I’d been taking the classic TransAmerica Trail across Kansas into Colorado, I’d have hit the Rocky Mountain front some distance to the east; Wyoming is more spaced out and doesn’t present the main body of the mountains quite so soon. But I think my route is superior to the TransAm in a lot of ways. I skipped the endless up and down the steep hills of the Appalachians, and the even more notorious Ozarks. My route across the plains took me through fairly scenic Iowa and northern Nebraska, then South Dakota’s iconic hills, so that I haven’t had a truly boring day of riding since Illinois. Kansas is not known for such variety. 

I’ll connect with the TransAm next week, south of the Owl Creeks, and ride it into Grand Teton and Yellowstone. If I make it in time, I’ll have w place to stash my bike in Jackson courtesy of a total stranger (fellow bike tourist) who I met about 20 miles out of Philly. Then I can rent a backpack and go into the Tetons for a night or two. After winding at a leisurely pace through Yellowstone, I’ll part ways with the TransAm (hopefully having enjoyed the company of temporary riding companions, as the route will probably be relatively packed with cross-country bikers) and weave across Idaho’s basins and mountains – taking in at least one climb which after seeing on Google Maps, I uttered some choice remarks – toward my next destination, Boise, where I’ll be able to see some far flung relatives. That climb is on 21 just south of Lowman, ID. Take a look on Google Earth or Maps with the topography layer on. Hopefully I’ll be ready. 

Anyway. First sight of the Rockies, very exciting. The jagged blue profile and iridescent snowfields just peeked above the nearer hills at first, then rose into full, wide profile after the next bend in the road. There’s no view like it, until you get even closer. My first real western climb awaits on US 16 out of Buffalo; I’ll camp on top before coasting down as a morning wake-up ride. 

Tomorrow I’ll be treated to mountain views all day. This is what bike touring across America is actually about. Michigan has lakes and Iowa has nice people, but nobody sets out for the West Coast with visions of friendly cornfields dancing in their head. It’s the snowy mountains that wait beyond that you’re really looking for. It still baffles me that people, particularly those for whom such a ride is the trip of s lifetime rather than one tour of many, actually choose to ride west to east. I can’t imagine what a slog the crowded, steep-billed east would be after leaving the best of the continent far behind. 

I also wonder how many of those poor souls were led into eastbound purgatory by the pernicious myth – I’ve concluded that’s what it is – that the wind always blows from the west. I haven’t kept actual stats from my jotted notes, but I can pretty confidently say that the wind has come from every compass point in about equal proportion over the course of my ride, and very confidently say that for every day with a nasty headwind (like two days ago) there’s been at least one with a solid tailwind ( like yesterday) and plenty like today where the wind is behind me for a time even if it’s perpendicular later. If only the propagators of this urban legend knew how many fellow cyclists they were leading into poorly-informed decisions!

Leaving the pine forests for sagebrush plains and buttes – or at least land that defaults to sagebrush when not used for cattle grazing. 

Easy to pretend you’re a cowboy loping along the trail on the kind of horse that doesn’t eat via your own stomach. 

Wave goodbye to the Black Hills. 

Into the industrial wasteland along the I-90 corridor into Gillette. There I got a spot at a mediocre campgrlund (still way cheaper than a motel) and found a brew pub. Very tasty beer; not so great pizza. Can’t win ’em all. 

I like flat-topped hills. 

Round ones are cool too. 

How does that song go? Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play? Plenty of both jumping around here. 

Not pictured: the other sign which includes the elevation and the population – 2. The only lunch stop for 35 miles either way. 

Oddly, Spotted Horse as a town does not appear on Google maps, while “Wildcat,” which does not exist, does. 

Home on the range. 

Land ho!

Later, storms floated between me and the peaks. Hopefully none of those when I climb the pass. 

Some sunlight after a gray day. Near here I chased an antelope for a mile or two. 

Clearmont. I swung open the saloon doors. The piano music stopped and you could hear the dust settle as the biggest, surliest fellow in the place glared at me and growled, “I don’t much like the look of your face. You best move on or fill your hand.” Little did he know I made a name for myself as the quickest draw east of Cobb’s Creek, and before he knew it the whiskey bottles on the shelves behind him were exploding and he had to scramble over the bar for cover. Unfortunately the local sheriff didn’t take too kindly to this, having made it his mission to run all the bushwhackers and blackguards out of Sheridan County. That’s how I ended up spending tonight in the historic Clearmont jail. 

Nah, actually I rolled in and chatted with some biker brothers from Iowa, then ran into the mayor who got me set up to camp behind the town store. The old west just ain’t what it used to be. Still, beats being tarred and feathered. 


5 thoughts on “First Sight of Mountains”

  1. “the best of the continent” — now you’re in the west, Julian, and you’re right, it is the best of the continent.


  2. So what’s your route from Jackson Hole to Lowman? Not sure how you’re going to avoid some steep climbs (and descents) if you don’t go via the Snake River plain. I approve by the way of your choice to avoid the Snake River plain – it can be really hot and dry here as you noted earlier.


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